Radio Coyote

When the owners of a radio station hire the A-Team to save them from a hostile takeover, Face finds himself deep undercover and working to gain the trust of the enemy.

Rated: PG13

Words: 49,000

Chapter 1

Face walked into a dark warehouse. He carried a guitar case in one hand and a violin case in the other and took them to where two high stools and an amplifier stood under a pair of spotlights.


“I know you’re showbiz to the core, Hannibal, but what the hell?” he said. “Are we auditioning potential clients now?”


“Got to be sure they are who they say they are,” Hannibal said, stepping out of the shadows. “Don’t forget those two ringers Decker sent in last month. They came much too close to fooling us.”


“Oh, I won’t forget them,” Face said, wearing a dreamy expression, as he opened the guitar case and plugged the instrument into the amplifier. “Not Christina anyway. Those legs…”


“She outranked you,” Hannibal pointed out.


“I’ve always taken my orders like a man.” Face checked his watch. “But these folks came via Amy. She said Al Massey knows them.”


“No, she said he knew the wife’s father. I’m not taking chances.”


Their radios crackled and BA’s voice came through. “They’re here.”


“Send ’em in,” Hannibal said.


Amy and Murdock appeared with a nervous-looking man and woman, both in their early forties. They were holding hands and staying close to each other. Hannibal had already seen them several times – not that they knew that.


“What’s going on?” Amy said, clearly taken aback by the strange set-up. Murdock grinned.


“Just a little sound check,” Hannibal said. He smiled to himself. After all the auditions he’d been to in his acting career, it felt rather good to be on this side of the equation. “You come over here, Amy. Murdock, cover the door. Mr and Mrs Cooper, if you are who you say you are, I think you know what to do.”


The couple looked at each other and shrugged. They went to the stools and Mrs Cooper lifted the violin from its case. Mr Cooper picked up the guitar.


“That’s on loan,” Face said, “so handle with care, please.”


“Of course.” Mr Cooper sat on the high stool and started fiddling with the tuning pegs, his other hand strumming chords as he tuned the instrument. Mrs Cooper did the same with the violin. A good show so far, Hannibal thought. But anyone could pick up a guitar or violin and pretend to tune it.


“Hannibal, this is silly,” Amy said. “Aren’t you convinced yet?”


“Scott Cooper,” Hannibal said, making the potential clients look up. “Former session musician. Eleanor Cooper. Played with a number of orchestras and chamber music groups. For the last ten years you’ve been running a small radio station in southern Arizona, which a man named Laidler is now trying to take away from you.”


“That’s right,” Scott said. “We told Mr Lee at the laundry all about it. He’s a friend of yours?”


“You could call him our booking agent,” Hannibal said and felt sure he could actually hear Face roll his eyes. “Now, I just need to be one hundred percent sure that you are who you appear to be. Play.”


The Coopers looked at each other, then Scott smiled at Hannibal. “Any requests?”


“‘Money for Nothing’!” Murdock called from his position by the door.


Hannibal waved a hand. “No, none of that modern rubbish. Can you play ‘House of the Rising Sun’?” When Amy and Face turned to look at him, he shrugged. “What? I like it.”


“I didn’t say anything,” Face said.


“I could hear him not saying anything from over here,” Murdock said.


“The Animals’ version?” Scott said. “I think we can manage that. Ellie? You ready?”


“Hang on.” She pushed her long brown hair back and tucked the violin under her chin. “Okay, you lead, I’ll follow.” Scott played a couple of chords and adjusted the volume on the amp.


“When you’re ready,” Hannibal said, folding his arms. He wasn’t expecting a concert, just something to prove they weren’t fakes. Tension knotted his stomach, because if they were fake, then about now, the moment their ringers were about to be exposed, is when Decker’s men would kick the door down and the team would have to put Plan B into effect.


The tension whooshed out of him as Scott played the familiar opening bars of ‘House of the Rising Sun’. The cavernous space and concrete walls and floor of the warehouse made the sound echo, and Hannibal saw Scott grimace, clearly unhappy with the acoustics. Eleanor’s violin joined in, the instrument taking what would have been the vocalist’s part.


He let them play for a moment, then said, “Okay, that’s fine.” Scott and Eleanor didn’t seem to hear him. “Uh, thanks,” he said, louder as they continued. “Thanks, that’s enough now…” He raised a hand. “If you could just… stop…”


They stuttered to a halt. “Sorry,” Scott said. He glanced at his wife. “That was nice, Ellie. We should work that one up.”


“I was enjoying that,” Amy said, sounding peeved.


“Buzzkill,” Hannibal heard from near the door.


“Sorry,” Hannibal said. “That was great. But we can’t hang around in one place too long. Okay, you check out. Now convince me that you need our help.”


“It’s like you said,” Scott said. “Tom Laidler is trying to buy our radio station and he doesn’t want to take no for an answer.”


“Why does he want it?” Hannibal asked. According to Amy’s research, the small AM station was just a family-run business. Its audience didn’t even extend outside of the valley in which it sat.


“His son – well, step-son – became a volunteer disk jockey for us. But we had to fire him. And apparently he’s persuaded his father to buy the station so he can fire us in revenge.”


“You had to fire him from a volunteer DJ slot on a barely profitable family-run station?” Face said.


“Ah, yeah, you can imagine how bad he’d have to be,” Scott said with a sheepish grin. “Don’t get me wrong – I love the station. But we’re not exactly turning away top DJs looking for work.”


“He swore,” Eleanor said. “He actually swore on air! I thought Dad was going to have a stroke!” She folded her arms, scowling. “We had to fire him. He was a bad example to Josh.”


Josh was their son, Hannibal recalled from the background check. ‘Dad’ was her father, and they needed to discuss him.


“Yeah, about your father… Warrant Officer Mitchell.”


“You’re worried about that? But he’s been retired from the Navy since 1960!” Eleanor protested.


“Still…”


“Colonel Smith,” she said, “my father does have some reservations about hiring you. But the station is his life. I mean that. He’ll be in his grave before he lets anyone take it from him. It’s not about money for him, it’s… well, it’s long story.”


Talking of money… “Face, can they pay our fee?”


“They’re good for it. Got some savings and an insurance policy to cash in if they have to. But I don’t foresee our expenses running too high on this.”


“If it helps, you can stay at our house,” Scott said. “We’ve got room. Old musician buddies of ours are always coming to stay. In fact if people ask, you could say that’s who you are.”


“Okay,” Hannibal said. “Speaking of money, I’m assuming this Laidler has plenty of it. And that he’s got local law enforcement in his pocket.”


“I’m afraid so,” Scott said. “He owns the largest farm in the valley, so he employs a lot of people, especially at harvest time. It’s hard to get anyone to go against him. People don’t want him to take over the station, but they’re afraid to stand up and say it. If he took his business away from local suppliers and stores, they’d be in trouble.”


“We need allies,” Eleanor said, “so Dad got in touch with Al Massey,”


“Mr Mitchell knew Al back in the early seventies,” Amy said, when Hannibal prompted her with a glance. “He was using his station to campaign against toxic waste the mines at the north end of the valley were dumping in the river.”


“The mine owners tried to shut him up,” Eleanor said. “But Dad… he’s not one for shutting up.”


“It sounds to me like your little station, and Mr Mitchell, both punch above their weight,” Hannibal said. “Okay, go home. We’ll meet you there in a couple of days. Face.” He put out his hand and Face placed a cigar in it. “Mr and Mrs Cooper, you’ve hired…” he stopped and changed that. “You’ve booked the A-Team.”


~~~


“What the heck was going on in there?” BA asked as they drove through the LA streets in the van. Amy had taken the Coopers back to their motel. “What was that music?”


“That was ‘House of the Rising Sun’,” Murdock said. BA growled his annoyance.


“I know that. So? Are we taking the case?”


“Yeah. They’re nice people,” Hannibal said. “You’ll like them. And a radio station, BA. All that electronics gear. You’ll be in hog heaven.”


“Who you calling a hog?”


“So what’s the name of our band?” Murdock said.


“What?” BA said. “What band?”


“Mr Cooper said that if any of the locals ask, we should say that we’re old musician friends of theirs. So we must be a band right?”


“Good point, Captain,” Hannibal said.


“It ain’t a good point,” BA said. “It’s stupid.”


“Hey, if we’re going to have a cover we need to know the details! Write this down, Face,” Murdock said, seeing Face already had his notepad out. “You obviously have to be lead singer.”


“I didn’t realise you liked my voice so much.”


“Ah, I was thinking the best looking guy in the band is usually the lead singer – even if he can’t really sing.”


“Which you can’t,” Hannibal said.


Face took a second to decide if Murdock had complimented or insulted him. One from column A and one from column B. Hannibal on the other hand had definitely insulted him.


“I’ll be bass guitar,” Hannibal said.


“I wanted to be that!” Murdock protested. “The smart girls go for the bassist.”


“Shouldn’t I be keyboards?” Face asked, writing on his notepad. Not a list of roles in their band, but rather a shopping list of items he needed to procure before they left for the job. “After all I can actually play the piano.”


“It’s all synthesisers these days,” Murdock said, shaking his head. “We’re going to be proper rock and roll. Not that electronic nonsense. You don’t want to be fiddling with buttons and knobs.”


“I’ve always enjoyed fiddling with buttons,” Face said. “And zippers and hooks and snaps and…”


“What’s Amy’s job?” Hannibal asked.


“She’s the hot backup singer. You know, the chick who nobody really knows why she’s on stage, but they don’t want her to leave.”


“I can’t wait to tell her,” Hannibal said grinning. “She’ll be thrilled to hear that she’s an imaginary backup singer.”


“I’m getting a picture of her imaginary stage costume now,” Face said. “Murdock, you need those details?”


“Maybe later. So, that leaves…”


“No,” BA said, voice sharp.


“No, what?”


“No, I ain’t the drummer.”


“What’s wrong with being the drummer?” Murdock asked. “You’ve got drummer written all over you.”


“Are you calling me dumb?”


“What?”


“Drummers are always the dumb guy in the band.”


“Uh, BA,” Face said, “the band isn’t actually, you know, real.”


“I know that. And I still ain’t being the dumb drummer of your imaginary band.”


“Who says drummers are dumb?” Murdock asked. “Remember that guy Lassiter from the mess? He was a drummer, and he could speak four languages!”


“Yeah, I remember him swearing in all four of ’em that time he bet you fifty bucks that he could eat a beer bottle.”


“Aw, c’mon, BA,” Murdock said. “You’d love being a drummer. Beating the hell outta things is your specialty.” BA only growled in reply. Murdock nodded at Face and mouthed “drummer”.


“So, do we have a recording contract?” Face asked.


“Of course we have!” Murdock said. Hannibal nodded too. Of course, Face thought, Hannibal would insist their imaginary band had a recording contract. It was a matter of pride.


“In fact,” Murdock said, “we’re currently working on our second album and we’ve come to visit our dear old friends in their remote country home to get some peace and inspiration.”


“The second album is always difficult,” Hannibal said. “How well did our first one do?”


“Not bad. Charted at number sixteen and we released two singles.”


“Right,” BA said. “If you don’t all shut the heck up with this band stuff I’m gonna pound you all flat. Face, this your stop?”


“Yeah, thanks, BA. My car’s right around the corner.” Face gathered up the guitar and violin case.


“You don’t want to come get some dinner with us?” Hannibal said.


“Sorry, gotta get the guitar back before Keith wakes up and realises it’s missing.” He slid open the side door. “See you tomorrow.”


“Keith?” Hannibal called as Face climbed out.


“Nobody you’ve met.”

Chapter 2

The team had intended to arrive at the Cooper’s home late in the evening. Instead they ended up taking a long detour when the road turned out to be crawling with police after some big accident. Discretion being the better part of both valour and not getting caught, they took a long side trip into the hills.


After driving in shifts through the night they reached the small town of Valentine Crossing just after seven-thirty in the morning. The radio station’s antenna helped guide them to their final destination, a small, boxy concrete building with a flat roof standing next to a three-storey house. The team climbed wearily from the van, stretching and yawning, as Hannibal knocked at the door of the house. A moment later Eleanor Cooper opened it.


“Oh, you’re here! Did you drive all night? You must be exhausted. Come in. We’re having breakfast.”


They followed her into the house, dumping their bags in the hall.


“We’re all set up for you,” Eleanor said. “We only have one guest bedroom, so I thought Amy could have that. The rest of you will have to sleep on cots in the attic. I hope that’s okay.”


“Sounds fine,” Hannibal said. Eleanor looked relieved and hurried into the kitchen.


“You know,” Face said. “I think part of our band cover should be that the lead singer and the backup singer are mar… uh, I mean, a couple.”


“Nice try, Face,” Hannibal said. “But it will do you good to rough it for a change. All those luxury apartments are making you soft.”


“Soft!” Face protested. “I am not soft. Just because I’d prefer a nice cozy guest room instead of the Anne Frank suite.”


“Soft,” Hannibal said again, and led them into the kitchen.


In the kitchen Eleanor was making them breakfast. Murdock and Amy went to help her out, while the rest of the team went to the big kitchen table, where an old man and a teenage boy sat. Staring at them in awe in the case of the boy, but eyes narrowed with wariness in the case of the old man.


“Mr Mitchell,” Hannibal said, offering his hand. “Colonel John Smith.” Arthur Mitchell rose and shook Hannibal’s hand, then BA’s and Face’s too. The boy – introduced by Arthur as Josh – did the same, grinning broadly.


“Hi,” he said. “Wow! You’re really them.”


“Accept no substitutes,” Murdock said.


Arthur gestured at the team to sit, but still didn’t smile at them.


“I’m not a man to mince words, Colonel Smith,” he said. “If things weren’t as they are I’d be calling the military police right now.”


“I understand that, Mr Mitchell,” Hannibal said. “But I’d appreciate the benefit of the doubt from you. We’re here to help. The rest is… a long story.”


Arthur looked at him for a moment longer and then nodded once. “Perhaps we’ll have a chance to discuss it. Josh, stop staring and eat your breakfast.”


“Where’s Scott?” Hannibal asked


“Next door,” Arthur said, “doing the morning show.” He glanced at the large wall clock and then at the radio playing quietly on a shelf. “He just started the triple play, Ellie.”


“So, what’s your first move, Mr Smith… Colonel… sir?” Josh asked.


“Just ‘Hannibal’ is fine, kid. I want to know more about Laidler. Just how rich is he?” He put the question out there to the room, and Eleanor answered.


“He can afford to buy the station, if that’s what you mean.” She poured a mug of coffee and set it on the kitchen counter beside the back door.


“Easily though?” Hannibal followed up, as Eleanor came to the table. She put a Danish pastry on a plate and put that beside the cup of coffee. “Is he so rich he could lose a million bucks and not notice?”


“Oh, no, nothing like that,” she said as Scott stepped in the back door. He picked up the coffee and Danish, clearly used to finding them there. Hannibal smiled at the well-rehearsed ballet of coffee mugs and pastries that took advantage of the time offered by the triple-play of three songs with no chat in-between.


“I saw you arriving,” Scott said, nodding a greeting to the team.


“Hi, Scott,” Hannibal said, and went on with his questioning. “So, Laidler’s not rich enough to buy the station on a whim, just because his son asks him to?”


“Not even his own son,” Josh said. “Cody’s his stepson.”


“Which makes it even stranger,” Face said. “After all, would you buy Josh here a radio station just because he asked? Even if you had the money?”


“They won’t even buy me a car,” Josh muttered.


“So there’s got to be more behind this,” Hannibal said. “The thing with his kid is just a smoke screen. He has another agenda.”


“He lives with the kid,” Face said, “so must know what he’s like. Maybe Laidler guessed that Cody would mess up, get fired, and want revenge. So he lets that happen and then if anyone asks Laidler why he wants to buy the station, he’s got an answer ready.”


“That would mean he’s been planning this even before Cody got his job at the station,” Josh said. “And it was three months before Mom and Dad even let him on the air and he said… that word he said.”


“Just don’t try the same, my lad,” Scott said.


Josh snorted. “Like I’d dare. It’s okay for Cody; he didn’t have his mom in the production booth.”


“I can see where that would cramp your style,” Murdock said, bringing food to the table and sitting down.


BA’s giggle startled those not used to it, making them stare and he cleared his throat and spoke sternly. “Well, you pay attention to your mom.”


“Um, yes, sir.”


“Oh, Josh is a good boy,” Eleanor said. “He’s no trouble. Not like Cody.”


Josh gave a sigh that conveyed despair at the uncool nature of parents. Scott refilled his coffee mug.


“Gotta go cue the news,” he said to the team. “See you later.”


The door closed behind him and shortly afterwards the song on the radio ended in a fade and Scott announced the news. It gave Hannibal a feeling of disconnection as the voice of a man who’d stood here only a moment ago now came from the radio.


“The station’s schedule is our schedule,” Arthur said, making Hannibal glance back from looking at the radio to see Arthur looking at him, perhaps guessing his thoughts.


“Do you all synchronise your watches?” Murdock asked, grinning.


“Of course,” Josh said. “Every morning at seven.”


“How do you intend to proceed, Colonel?” Arthur asked.


“Some fact-finding to start. If Laidler has another agenda he won’t give up just because we scare off any muscle he sends over. We need to find out why he really wants the station.”


“How will you do that?” Josh asked, sounding excited, perhaps anticipating a commando raid in the dead of night and the application of truth drugs.


“Amy, check out Laidler’s financial dealings. Follow the money,” Hannibal said. Josh looked unimpressed. “And then I thought we’d bug his phone.”


Josh brightened at once. Arthur on the other hand looked less impressed.


“Bug his phone?”


“Everyone is pretty isolated out here. Laidler must do most of his business by phone. Is the phone system in the valley good?”


“It’s excellent,” Arthur said, firmly.


“Dad saw to that,” Eleanor said. “He has friends at the phone company.”


“And they wouldn’t like anyone messing with the system,” Arthur said. “Neither would I.”


“We could do a radio tap, instead of a direct line tap,” BA said. “Less chance of him finding it that way. But I’d need to set up a relay to get the signal back here, ‘less you want us sitting in the van outside the guy’s house all day.”


“Okay, start putting something together, BA. Mr Mitchell, I understand you were a communications specialist in the Navy. Your expertise would be much appreciated.”


“Wire tapping,” Arthur said, still dubious. “This was a mistake, hiring you.”


“Our methods are direct,” Hannibal said. “I don’t apologise for that. But you’ve tried all the alternatives.”


“You agreed, Dad,” Eleanor said. “Like he says, we’ve tried everything else. If we’re going to save the station…”


Arthur sighed. “The station. Yes. Of course.”


Not just the station, Hannibal thought. The station was a means to an end for Arthur, just as Hannibal suspected it was for Laidler. What that end was, Hannibal didn’t know yet, but he’d find out.


“Okay,” he said. “BA, start working on the bug and the relay and make sure we can receive back here. Amy, start tracking the money.”


“Need a hand?” Face offered Amy.


“Oh, no, Face,” Hannibal said and gave Face a big smile, as if about to bestow a great favour on him. “You’re going to get access to Laidler’s phone.”


“Great,” Face said, voice dripping with more sarcasm than the pancakes on the table did with maple syrup. “It’s been a month since I stuck my head in the lion’s mouth. I’m getting complacent, I’ve stopped jumping at sudden noises.”


“Soon have your nerves right on edge again,” Hannibal said. He turned to Arthur. “Mr Mitchell, you said you have friends at the phone company. Do you think they could loan us a couple of uniforms?” He grinned at BA. “One in extra-large.”


~~~


Face and BA headed out to the Laidler farm right after lunch. BA drove. Face sat with his window open and as they approached their destination, started tapping his hand against the door. After a few minutes of that, BA looked at the radio then at Face. Face’s tapping didn’t match the beat of the song. Did he have something on his mind, BA wondered? He didn’t want Face off his game when they were about to go into enemy territory.


“Faceman, either you lost your sense of rhythm or something’s chewing on your nerves.”


Face stopped his off-beat tapping and rolled up the window. “Just thinking about Arthur. He doesn’t want us here.”


“Proud man who don’t like to admit he needs help. We seen that plenty.”


“True.”


“He ain’t gonna sic Decker on us,” BA said.


“You seem very sure about that.”


“I was with him all morning, putting the bug and the relay together. He was fine with me. Maybe he just don’t like officers. I can understand that.”


Face snorted. “Yeah. Okay, I’ll trust your sergeant’s instinct, BA. So he helped you out then?”


“Yeah, sure, he helped me. Yeah.” Kind of an understatement. BA should have been taking notes.


“Left you in the dust, huh?” Face said, grinning.


“Hey, I ain’t a radio specialist.” BA tried not to sound too defensive, knowing that would only make Face grin wider. “I’d like to see him soup up an engine like I can.”


“Hey, you just learn what you can from the guy. Never know when we’ll need it.”


BA nodded. In their years on the run he’d learnt that every time he came across a man who knew more than he did, he should learn everything he could from him. The others did the same – they owed it to the team. BA did fine with electronics, bugs especially, but like he said, he wasn’t a specialist.


“Here’s the turn off to Laidler’s,” Face said. “Pull in over there.” He pointed to a telephone pole and BA stopped beside it. Face grabbed some binoculars from the glove compartment and trained them on the house, about a mile away. Nothing obscured the view – the valley floor here was flat and almost treeless.


“What do you see?” BA asked.


“A couple of workers. A few cars. Nice shiny Caddy, that I’ll bet is Laidler’s. So I guess he’s at home.” He lowered the binoculars. “I’d rather wait for him to go out.”


BA nodded his agreement. He turned off the engine, took two cans of soda from under his seat and passed one to Face. They settled down to wait.


~~~


Hannibal poured himself a coffee from the pot in the radio station’s small reception area. The mugs were printed with the station’s call sign and name: Radio Coyote, and a picture, a silhouette of a howling coyote outlined against the moon. Murdock would definitely want to take one home as a souvenir.


Eleanor had just given Hannibal and Murdock a tour and now Murdock was in the workshop, helping Arthur get set up to receive the signal from the bug Face and BA should be planting any time now. Scott had driven off on some errands and Amy was in the house, following the money.


Eleanor came into the room, carrying a tabby cat and Hannibal poured another coffee and handed it to her. She put the cat down and it jumped onto the windowsill to look out at the small patch of grass at the front of the station. A small flagpole stood there; right after breakfast Hannibal had seen Arthur, Josh with him, raise and salute the Stars and Stripes.


“You broadcast in Spanish too?” he said, nodding at the speakers on the wall which were playing Latin music. The DJ was talking between the songs in a mix of English and Spanish.


“There’s a lot of workers up from Mexico in the valley these days,” she explained. “Either working on farms, or in the mines up at the north end. That’s Miguel on the air right now. He’s lived here for longer than most of them – nearly twenty years – but he’s still got roots back home.”


Hannibal strolled to the window and watched the same view as the cat for a while. Kids and dogs wandered past. A couple of cars drove by. Josh was taking shots at a basketball hoop fixed to the wall of the house. Long summer days of hoops and sunshine. Some things hadn’t changed since Hannibal was a boy.


“Why Radio Coyote?” Hannibal said when Eleanor joined him by the window. He held up his mug.


“I named it that back when Dad started it. I said it was like a coyote howling in the wilderness.”


“How do you pay for it? I doubt you can charge much for your ads. I understand that it’s not about profit for you, but you have to pay your bills.”


“Fund-raising events mainly,” she said. “We hold a dance once a month at the roadhouse at the north end of town. It doesn’t cost much to stage. The hall comes free and we provide the live music ourselves. We get the cover charge and the roadhouse gets its busiest night of the month and the profits from drinks. We run raffles, bingo. It works out good for everyone. I hope you…”


A car pulled onto the driveway in front of the station and Eleanor broke off and ran to the door.


“Josh! Come inside!” The basketball bounced past the window as Josh abandoned it and ran into the station. Two big men got out of the car.


“Laidler’s men?” Hannibal said. Eleanor nodded.


“Josh,” he said, taking out his gloves and putting them on, “wanna step into the workshop and ask Murdock to join me at his earliest convenience? Thanks.” He smirked as the boy stared, then ran.


Hannibal went outside to meet the enemy.

Chapter 3

Face elbowed BA, who had gone to sleep an hour ago. The Cadillac he’d noted earlier was coming down the road from the farm. “Laidler’s heading out. Let’s move.”


To avoid looking as if they were just lurking about suspiciously, they got out and BA started climbing the phone pole while Face stood at the bottom with a clipboard, his phone company baseball cap pulled low. BA had on a cap too, and they both wore coveralls with the phone company name on the back.


If Laidler looked at them he’d just see a couple of repairmen. Both kept their backs to him and in a minute, heard the car turn onto the main road and drive off northwards.


“You gonna install the relay while you’re up there?” Face called up to BA.


“Naw, man, this one’s too far from the house. Gotta put it on a closer one. Don’t want to take a chance it won’t pick up the signal.”


The small radio transmitter BA had created to plant in Laidler’s phone didn’t have the power to reach all the way back to town, nearly fifteen miles away, so BA had to install a relay to pick up the transmission and boost it. They’d be able to pick it up on a receiver back at the radio station.


BA came down and they drove up the house. The yard was deserted now, none of the workers Face had seen earlier anywhere in sight. Parking near the last telephone pole before the house, BA climbed it and Face stood at the base, trying to look as if they were meant to be there.


Face knew that was half the battle when you had to walk in somewhere you weren’t meant to be, Face knew. You had to stride in with total confidence, as if you owned the place. Nobody questioned you when you did that. Of course, Face had never tested this theory at, say, Fort Knox…


“We being watched,” BA said, and Face saw what he meant – a figure at an upstairs window of the house. Whoever it was didn’t watch for long. In a second the figure turned away and pulled a drape across the window.


Face kept an eye on the house as BA finished up, but there was no more movement. After a few minutes work BA came down and picked up his toolbox. Leaving the van there, they walked across the yard. As they got closer to the house, rock music that had been faint before grew louder. Too loud.


“The kid,” Face said, thumbing the door-chime.


“Ain’t no call for that racket.”


“You know what they say, BA – if it’s too loud, you’re too old.”


“Who you calling old?”


The volume of the music increased as a middle-aged blonde woman opened the door.


“Mrs Laidler?” Face said, raising his voice over the music. “Good afternoon, ma’am. We’re from the phone company, out here doing some maintenance and we need to check your line.” He gave a full-wattage smile and she returned it, blushing under her make-up.


“Oh, come in,” she said, raising her voice too, and stepped back to let them come inside. She wavered a bit at the sight of BA filling the doorway, but Face treated her to another smile and she rallied.


“Have you been getting any interference on the line, ma’am?” he asked. The music was coming from upstairs. Cody Laidler must have been the figure at the window.


“What’s that?” she said.


Face sighed. He couldn’t weave his magic shouting like this. That’s why he always preferred to take a date to a quiet little restaurant rather than a noisy nightclub. A man could feel like a fool yelling sweet nothings over a pounding beat.


“Any chance we can lose the music?” he said. “We need to be able to hear the line.”


“I’m so sorry – wait a moment.” She hurried away, climbing the stairs.


“Go to work,” Face snapped at BA, using this to their advantage at once. BA almost pounced on the phone that stood on a spindly-legged hall table.


“What if they’ve got a couple of extensions?” Face said. “Hopefully less ugly,” he added with a withering look at the white, retro-style phone, trimmed with gilt.


“I got that covered.” BA held up a small box with several tiny devices. He removed the base of the phone with a small screwdriver and started installing one of them. “You just gotta talk her into letting us check all of ’em.”


The music stopped and they heard voices, Mrs Laidler’s, wheedling, and a male voice arguing. The music turned up again louder than before.


BA glared up the stairs. “That kid needs a lesson in manners.”


“That kid needs six months of basic.”


The volume of the music dropped and they heard Mrs Laidler saying thank you. BA snorted and went back to work. A door slammed, cutting off the noise even more.


“Brat,” Face muttered. He turned the smile back on as Mrs Laidler came back downstairs. “Kids, eh?”


“My son loves his music. He’s got an artistic temperament.”


“He must make you very proud. Ma’am, my colleague here has checked this handset, but do you have any other extensions?”


“You need to check all the extensions to check the line?”


“Interference,” BA muttered.


“Ah, yes, uh, multiple extensions can set up what we call a reciprocating feedback… loop, causing interference.” He ignored BA’s small snort at the string of nonsense. “But that’s all very technical.”


“Well there’s another in the master bedroom. That’s the only one upstairs. My son used to have one in his room, but my husband took it out. Said he was using it too much. And down here there’s one in the kitchen and, of course, in my husband’s office.”


Face smiled at that last one. “Of course.”


~~~


Murdock ran out of the station, his initially serious expression turning into a grin as he joined Hannibal on the driveway. Two standard issue heavies approached from their car, looking wary.


“Hi,” Hannibal said, arms folded. “Did you boys wanna make a request?”


“Huh?”


“You know, have us play you a song?”


“Maybe a romantic ditty for your sweetheart?” Murdock suggested. He looked at the second guy. “I’m sure he’d be touched.”


The provocation was wasted, as the two men seemed too slow on the uptake to catch Murdock’s meaning. They ignored it.


“We wanna see Cooper. We got a new offer from Mr Laidler.”


“Let me guess,” Hannibal said. “‘Sell or sleep with the fishes’?”


“Huh?”


“Never mind. Mr Cooper is out. Why don’t you hand that offer over to me?”


“And who the hell are you?”


“Just friends of the family.”


The thugs smirked. Perhaps they’d met some of the Cooper’s musician friends before and assumed that’s who Hannibal and Murdock were. Hannibal didn’t bother to tell them they’d made a mistake. That would soon become very clear to them.


“You gonna give the message to Cooper?” one of the heavies asked.


“No, I thought I’m wad it up into a ball and toss it in the trash.” Hannibal looked at Murdock. “Sound good to you?”


“It’s what I’d do.”


“Great. Thanks for your support.”


“Oh, you’re welcome. Any time.”


“What the hell are you guys talking about?” The spokesman of the thugs demanded, face darkening, impatience and confusion mixed on it. “Just who the hell are you?”


“He’s bass and I’m lead,” Murdock said.


“Shame the percussion section isn’t here to do a solo on your heads – they look flat enough.” Hannibal raised his hand. “Don’t say ‘huh?’ again – I’d be embarrassed for you.”


“You’re musicians?”


“I like to think of us as artistes,” Hannibal said. “Shall we give these boys a recital? Would you bring me my axe, please, Murdock?”


“Why certainly.” Murdock ran into the station. The thugs tensed, but relaxed when he came back carrying a guitar case.


“Oh, yeah,” one said. “Your axe. That’s cute.”


“I think so,” Hannibal said. Murdock put the case on the ground, and Hannibal crouched down to open it, then stood up again, holding a large axe.


He let them stare for a full five seconds before he hefted the axe onto his shoulder and began to walk. They began to run. Away. They ran for their car and leapt into it, but Hannibal didn’t chase them. Reaching the front of the car, he swung his axe and buried it in the radiator.


Steam sprayed violently from it. The hood shot open and flapped against the windshield and the men jumped from the car, gaping at Hannibal. Though he did nothing more than simply adjust his grip on the axe handle, they turned tail and ran, leaving their car steaming on the driveway. The hood crashed back down.


“Yep,” Hannibal said, looking at the mess with some pride. “I really am an artiste.”


Murdock strolled up, hands in his pockets. “You slew the great beast with one mighty blow. I should write a song about it. An epic piece that all the bards in the land will sing.”


“You go ahead and do that. Hey, Josh,” he called, as the family emerged from the station and Amy appeared from the house. “Come and steer this thing while we push it out of the drive.”


~~~


“Safe’s behind here,” Face said, lifting the corner of a picture and peeking behind it. “Maybe I should…”


“No.” BA, busy at Laidler’s desk planting the bug, didn’t look up when Face frowned at him.


“Take me two minutes.”


“Hannibal didn’t tell us to break into no safe.”


“Hannibal likes it when we show initiative.”


“Hannibal don’t like it when we waste time.”


“There could be something in there that will bust this whole thing wide open.”


“And maybe there isn’t. But maybe Laidler spots someone been snooping around, sweeps the place and finds the bug.” BA started screwing the base plate back onto the phone. “Like I said, Hannibal don’t like it when we waste time.”


Face sighed, let go of the frame reluctantly and stepped away, still eyeing the picture, fingers twitching to spin that dial.


“He wouldn’t know I’d been in there.”


“For all you know he’s got a closed circuit TV camera inside it.”


“You have a heck of an imagination, BA.”


BA shrugged. “It’s what I would do.” He finished screwing the phone back together and put it on the desk.


Face had already tried all the desk drawers and filing cabinets in the room. None were locked and none contained anything interesting, just what looked like legitimate records for his business. Which probably meant anything more… interesting was in the safe. But BA had a good point. Best to leave it.


After all, Face had never had Hannibal’s luck with improvising.

Chapter 4

With the bugs planted, the feed from the various extensions in the Laidler’s house was soon coming through loud and clear in Arthur’s workshop. Face joined Hannibal to take a shift monitoring it after dinner.


The Laidlers used the phone a lot, especially Cody and Mrs Laidler, talking to their friends. When one of those calls came through, Hannibal turned the volume low. Face didn’t object. That stuff wasn’t their business. The wife and kid weren’t going to give them anything useful.


“Interesting what you said about Laidler taking the phone out of the kid’s room,” Hannibal said. Cody had just finished a call to a school friend after his step-father yelled at him in the background to get off the line.


“You’re thinking that if he can afford to buy Cody his own radio station, why would he worry about paying the kid’s phone bills?”


“Right. It’s definitely just an excuse. A convenient lie. I’m certain of that.”


“So how do we… oh, hang on,” Face said, listening to the feed. “Turn it up. That’s Laidler’s office phone.”


“How’d you know that?”


“It was the only push button one.”


“It’s me.” Laidler’s voice came on the line as Hannibal turned up the volume. Nearly nine in the evening was a little late for business calls. At least of the legitimate sort.


“Are you on schedule?” Laidler asked.


“Yeah.” Another male voice answered him. “Got a couple more things to pick up and we’ll be on the road by midnight.”


“Okay. But don’t take the usual route. I had some trouble here today – couple of wackos at the radio station. It might be nothing, but I don’t wanna take any chances.”


“I gotta cross at the usual place.”


“Sure,” Laidler said, “but after that, get on the road that takes you past Lancer. Take you another couple of hours, that’s all.”


“That road’s kinda narrow for the truck.”


Face and Hannibal exchanged a glance. Truck? Oh, they liked trucks. Trucks had all kinds of interesting things in them.


“Just go slow.”


“Okay, boss. See you later.” The other man hung up. They heard the click as Laidler did the same. Hannibal stood up.


“Face, go get the others. And ask the clients for directions to Lancer.”


“I’ll bet it’s near the border,” Face said. “The guy with the truck said he had to cross in the usual place. Crossing the border with a truck full of what, I wonder?”


“Only one way to find out.”


Face sighed, foreseeing another lion’s to stick his head in. “And how do we stop it to get a look inside? If you think I’m thumbing a ride with a bunch of smugglers…”


“Of course not, Face. You’re cute, but they’re not going to stop for you. On the other hand…”


~~~


“I hate this plan, Hannibal,” Amy said.


They were on a narrow and pitch black road north of the town of Lancer. Amy stood beside the Cooper’s borrowed pickup truck, shivering in just a blouse and skirt. The team were much warmer, all dressed in black combats, their faces darkened with camouflage paint.


Lancer had been a one-horse town if ever Face had seen one, but it was the Fourth of July in Las Vegas compared to the desolation and darkness out here. The pickup’s headlights made a bubble of light in an ocean of ink.


The van was hidden deep in shadow off the side of the road and the Cooper’s pickup blocked the road, one tire badly shredded. Between that and Amy’s damsel in distress act, Laidler’s truck would have no choice but to stop. And even smugglers would surely help a stranded lady change a tire.


“Amy, BA and I will have a bead on them the whole time,” Hannibal said in his most reassuring tone. “Any of them lays a hand on you, he’s mincemeat.”


“We should dress her as a nun,” Murdock said, looking up from checking the clip for his handgun.


“What you talking about?” BA muttered.


“Well, no man who doesn’t want to go to hell is gonna try anything with a nun.”


“Great idea, Murdock,” Face said. “Think I have time to drive to LA, pick up a nun’s habit at an all night costume shop and get back here before they arrive?”


“There’s no need to be sarcastic about it,” Murdock said, sounding offended. “I just thought there might be one in the van. I mean the stuff I find in there sometimes…”


“There ain’t no nun’s habits in my van,” BA insisted. “It ain’t no costume shop.”


“I hear an engine,” Amy said. She looked nervously at Hannibal. “Is it definitely too late to get that habit?”


Face and Murdock took cover in the bushes beside the road. The sound of the approaching engine grew louder and they soon saw the glow of headlights.


“I’ll give you the signal when you’re clear,” Hannibal said over the radio. He and BA had also vanished from view, leaving Amy standing alone with the pickup


Headlights swept around a bend in the road and the truck came into view. Face and Murdock both ducked lower on instinct as the light passed over them. The truck stopped just ahead of where they lay, its rear doors positively begging Face to come break into them.


Murdock whispered into Face’s ear. “Showtime.”


“Wait for the signal.”


They waited. A man climbed out of the truck’s cab and another man joined him from the other side, walking towards Amy’s car.


“Hi,” one of them called. “You having some trouble there, miss?”


Three clicks came through in the receiver in Face’s ear. The all clear and go signal. Nobody left in the cab to hear Face and Murdock searching the back of the truck. Staying low, they ran to the back of the truck. Murdock took up a guard position, weapon drawn, while Face started to work on the padlock securing the doors. Had to work fast. If those guys came back… He heard distant voices, and hoped Amy was charming them into changing her tire, rather than just pushing the pickup out of their way.


Done! The padlock opened and Face grabbed Murdock’s arm to pull him into position. Murdock took the handle of one door, Face the other. Drawing his gun, Face signalled a countdown on his fingers – three, two, one – before they pulled open the doors.


No shots or people came flying out at them. Face switched on his small flashlight for a quick sweep of the interior. No people. Just boxes, crates and sacks. He gave a nod to Murdock and they climbed inside. Murdock at once started searching for a good place to stick the tracker. Meanwhile, Face checked the cargo. He opened a crate and directed his flashlight inside.


“What the hell?” he breathed.


“What is it?” Murdock asked quietly. “Drugs? Guns?”


“Pineapples,” Face said.


“Hand grenades?” Murdock turned from securing the bug in a dark corner.


“No.” Face held up a large can to show Murdock its label. It was in Spanish, but had a picture of the contents. “Pineapples.”


Murdock stared at the can of fruit, then shook his head. “Okay, look underneath. The guns or drugs are probably hidden under them.”


A few minutes searching and Face found only more cans underneath the canned pineapple. “Find anything, Murdock?”


“Several sacks of rice and potatoes,” Murdock said, coming close to him, still staying quiet. “And all labelled in Spanish.” He opened another crate. “Oh, hold everything. This is more like it.” His flashlights showed some white powder scattered around on top of some boxes inside the crate.


“Something’s leaking,” Murdock said. “Let’s see what particular kind of magical fairy dust our friends are bringing in.”


“Oh, don’t do that,” Face said, as Murdock dipped a finger in the powder, sniffed it, then licked it gingerly. He pulled a disgusted face and spat it out.


“What is it?” Face asked. “Heroin?”


“No. I think it’s Tide.”


“What?” Face pulled one the boxes from the crate. It was red with bold lettering on it, along with a picture of an glowing white shirt.


“Laundry detergent?”


“This is nuts,” Murdock said. “Or, no, the nuts were back there. Come on, there’s got to be something in here worth smuggling.” He opened another crate.


How much longer did they have? Face wondered, replacing the box of detergent and closing the lid of the crate. Hannibal would signal them when it was time to get out.


“Bingo!” Murdock said. “I knew we were… well, I think we’re, but…”


This crate was filled with boxes of ammunition. Oh, much more promising. And yet as he checked it out, Face found himself as baffled at Murdock.


“This is weird,” Face muttered. “Just weird.”


“Retreat,” Hannibal’s voice sounded in their earpieces and they at once closed the crate and hustled for the doors. Face refastened the padlock and dove into cover after Murdock just as the doors to the cab slammed. The engine started and the truck moved off past the pickup. It picked up speed and disappeared into the darkness.


Face and Murdock ran to the pickup as Amy got out and Hannibal and BA emerged from the darkness.


“You okay, Amy?” Murdock said. “Did they bother you?”


“Oh they were sweet guys,” she said, grinning in the moment of relief now the danger had passed. “What did you find?”


“Tell us in the van,” Hannibal said, “or that tracker will be out of range.”


“Yeah,” BA said. “Signal’s coming in good now, but can’t let them get too far ahead.”


“What about the pickup?” Amy waved at it.


“We’ll come back for it,” Hannibal said.


In a moment they were heading north, following the beeping of the receiver. Not that there were many places for that truck ahead of them to go, with few roads in this remote area.


“So, what did you find in the truck?” Hannibal said, turning back to look at Face and Murdock.


“Food,” Face said.


“Food?”


Murdock took a can of Spam from his pocket and gave it to Hannibal. “Food.”


“Murdock, you stole that?” Face said.


“I’m hungry,” Murdock said, then turned back to Hannibal. “There was laundry detergent too. Oh and I saw a big box of toilet rolls.” He took the can of Spam back from Hannibal, pulled the key off and started to open it.


“Everything was labelled in Spanish,” Face said. “They must have bought it in Mexico and brought it over the border.”


“Why would Laidler smuggle food over the border?” Amy said.


“And there was ammunition,” Face said. Hannibal’s head snapped up at that.


“Just ammunition? No weapons?”


“Just ammunition. But the strange thing is, it wasn’t anything worth smuggling. Nothing illegal, just various types of standard rifle and handgun ammunition. Nothing you couldn’t easily buy here.”


Hannibal got a thoughtful look on his face chewing on his cigar. Murdock took out his pen knife and sliced off a piece of Spam. He offered it to Face.


“Are you kidding me?” Face said. “I’ve eaten quite enough Spam in my life, thanks.


Murdock shrugged and ate the slice himself.


“Hannibal, what does it mean?” Amy said. “Why would Laidler smuggle things over the border if he could just buy them here?”


“Because he doesn’t want anyone to know he’s buying this stuff in bulk, however innocuous it all is. Supplies means people.”


“And ammunition means armed people,” Murdock said.


“So what you’re saying is,” Face said, “that we’re following this truck,” he waved a hand out of the windshield, “to the secret lair of Laidler’s heavily armed private army?”


“Will you guys shut up,” BA said, sounding disgruntled. “I need one of you to watch the tracker. I can’t check that and drive at the same time.”


“Sorry, BA,” Hannibal said, turning his seat back to the front. “I’ll monitor the tracker. Amy, see if you can figure out where we are on the map.”


“Okay.” She began to unfold the map.


“I should have stolen some ketchup,” Murdock said, still eating. “I gotta have ketchup with Spam.”


“Ah,” Face said, “did anyone hear me when I mentioned the ‘heavily armed private army’ part?”

Chapter 5

After nearly an hour of driving slowly on winding country roads, the truck ahead stopped. Staying well back from it, Hannibal took Face and Murdock and left BA and Amy with the van, ready in case they needed a fast extraction.


There was only one direction the truck could have gone. A heavily rutted dirt road ran through thick woodland, sloping downhill. The team moved through the trees following it for half a mile, eventually seeing a dim light that grew stronger as they descended.


The dirt road ended at a ten-foot-high double gate made of wood and wire. A wire mesh fence stretched away into the darkness on either side of the gate. Laidler’s truck was inside, parked beside a wooden building and men were unloading boxes from the back. The lights from the truck and the building illuminated only a small area of the compound, frustrating Hannibal. He could make out vague shapes of other buildings, but the darkness of this moonless night hid the details and – critically – the size of the rest of it.


“Face,” Hannibal said, scowling at the dimly lit scene ahead. “Make a note to get hold of some of those night vision binoculars.”


“Sure,” Face said. “I’ll just stroll onto a military base and pocket some.”


“Make sure they’re stamped ‘Property Colonel R Decker’,” Hannibal said, ignoring the sarcastic tone.


The people in the compound closed the truck and went inside. The lights went out.


“So, what now?” Murdock asked. “Sneak in for some recon?”


Hannibal bit his lip as he watched the barely visible compound. They could get in, but what then? Wander around in the dark, with no idea about the layout and no clue about how many men were in there? They could be outnumbered twenty to one, or more, by men who just had a fresh delivery of ammunition.


The next moment, the decision was made for them when a man walked by just inside the fence, using a flashlight, and carrying a rifle. An Alsatian dog walked at his side. The team froze as the flashlight beam swept through the bushes. Hannibal was more worried about the dog, but they were downwind of it and neither the dog nor the man showed any sign of noticing the hidden men. They walked on and Hannibal heard the other two let their breath out in sighs of relief.


“Just a suggestion,” Face whispered, “let’s get the hell out of here.”


Hannibal nodded. They melted away into the trees and moved back towards the van.


“We’re not going home yet,” Hannibal said, when they were far enough from the compound to speak normally. “We need to see what’s going on down there.”


“So what’s the plan?” Murdock asked.


“Get the van well hidden and check the place out again at dawn.” He glanced at his watch. “Which is in about six hours.” He looked at Face and grinned. “I bet you fifty bucks you can’t talk BA into taking first watch.”


He liked to give his men these little challenges.


~~~


Hannibal woke up when BA shook his shoulder.


“Report,” he snapped on instinct, then took in his surroundings. In the van. Front seat. Murdock and Amy slept in the seats in the back, though Murdock was stirring at the sound of voices. The sun was well up. “Where’s Face?”


“Nosing around. Told him not to go far. We had some activity out there a while back.”


“Okay.” Movement caught his eye and made him reach for his handgun, but it was only Face emerging from the trees, carrying his rifle. He scanned the area and only approached to the van when BA signalled him.


“I saw several groups come down the road to the compound in Jeeps,” he reported, through Hannibal’s open window. “All armed with automatic rifles.”


“Did you get close to the compound?”


“Not yet.”


“Then let’s go check it out. Murdock,” he said, intending to wake him, but turning he saw Murdock already watching him, awake and alert. “Stay here with the van. Be ready to come grab us if we call.”


“Right, Colonel.” He passed rifles to Hannibal and BA before climbing into the driver’s seat as they left the van. As Hannibal closed the door he heard Amy’s voice asking what was going on.


They cautiously retraced their route of the night before, until Hannibal stopped them a short distance from the fence.


“We need to get a better view than the one from the ground.” He looked at an especially tall tree nearby and smiled at Face. “Up you go.”


Face looked at the tree. “This is because I won that fifty bucks, isn’t it?” He shook his head and slung his rifle on his back, probably only the need for quiet keeping him from fully expressing his opinion of Hannibal’s order. Hannibal handed him the binoculars and set off into the trees.


“Careful, man,” BA said to Face and followed Hannibal into the trees.


~~~


Face climbed the tree, muttering all the way up about twigs poking him and the blisters he was going to have and the fact that if a hostile showed up he was literally treed like a cat and a sitting target.


But he kept climbing until he got as high as he could, where the branches were still sturdy enough to hold him. The trees on the slope leading down to the fence spread out below him and beyond that, nicely concealed from the rest of the world by those trees, was the compound they’d only glimpsed dimly the night before. Face sighed and raised his radio.


“Come in, Colonel.”


“Go ahead, Face.”


“Any chance we can get hold of reinforcements?”


Hannibal paused. “Big?”


“Big. Barracks for at least fifty men.” It could be more than that; depended if they were using cots or bunk beds. “I count ten Jeeps as well as the truck from last night. I see plenty of men around. Wearing fatigues, carrying weapons. There’s a flagpole outside one hut.”


“What’s it flying?”


“The Stars and Stripes.”


“What else do you see?”


Face raised the binoculars and gave it another sweep. He saw a man come out of a building carrying a sandwich and a tin mug of coffee. Another building had a TV aerial.


“They’ve got a mess hall, maybe even a rec room. A few other smaller buildings.” Electrical wires fanned out from one hut, attached to all of the larger buildings. “A generator shack. A septic tank.” The ground around the huts was bare earth, packed hard by many feet. The roofs of the huts were tarred to keep the rain off. The whole place had an air of permanence. “These guys are dug in.”


“Make a sketch of the layout. We’re approaching the fence. Radio silence until I call you back.”


“Roger. Be careful,” Face said. He dug in a pocket for a small notepad and pencil and began to draw a plan of the compound.


~~~


“Got another Jeep coming in,” BA said.


They managed to get even lower to the ground as the vehicle passed barely twenty feet from them and drove through the open gate. A few men jumped out of it when it stopped. One man didn’t jump, he was dragged. His hands were bound behind his back.


A prisoner.


The men from the Jeep dragged the prisoner off. He protested loudly enough that Hannibal and BA heard his words.


“Spanish,” BA quietly. “Mexican? Border’s pretty close.”


Hannibal nodded. Could be. He didn’t like this picture at all. Well-organised paramilitaries with an armed compound in the woods, going out at night and coming back at dawn with prisoners, possibly Mexicans. The prisoner vanished from Hannibal and BA’s sight behind some buildings. Hannibal signalled to BA and they moved back from the fence through the undergrowth until they were far enough away to stand.


“I bet he’s not their only prisoner,” BA said, as they headed back to where they’d left Face.


“I bet you’re right.” Hannibal spoke into his radio. “Face, did you see where they took that prisoner?”


“Yeah, I’ve made a note of it,” Face responded. “You know, we could just call in the Feds right now. They’d love this.”


“Not yet,” Hannibal said. “We need to figure out what Laidler’s involvement is first. If we act too fast the Feds might not be able to connect him with it. ”


“They got prisoners,” BA said.


“I know,” Hannibal said. “We’ll get them, BA. But we need more intel first.”


“What’s the plan?” Face asked over the radio.


“We go back to base and get some sleep, then we get back here after dark. I want to know where these guys go at night.”

Chapter 6

The team was back, without Amy, wearing black clothes, their faces darkened with camo paint. They’d all slept most of the day in preparation for another long night. The van was concealed in trees off the side of the road, near to the turn onto the dirt road that led down to the compound, the team waiting for the Jeeps to appear so they could follow.


“Radio check,” Hannibal said, as he passed out the walkie talkies, making sure Murdock, who’d be sticking with the van, could pick up their signals.


Murdock had grouched about being the man in the van, but Face understood Hannibal’s reasoning. They needed someone to stay with the van, in case they needed a fast pickup, but also, those paramilitaries probably didn’t just drive around all night. When they got out of the Jeeps and the team had to get close on foot while remaining unseen, well, Murdock just wasn’t as good at that as the rest of them.


“Here they come,” BA said, as the Jeeps emerged from the path and turned southbound on the road. Once they got far enough ahead, the team followed, staying well back. They followed the glow of the headlights as the Jeeps led them onto narrow isolated roads that didn’t even show up on their map.


“Think they’re going to cross the border?” Face said. “We can’t be more than ten miles from it now.”


“Maybe. But it’s not the place Laidler’s truck crossed if they… wait. Is that one of the Jeeps?”


It was, parked well off the road, right by the tree line of the dense woods the road cut through. Nobody was in the Jeep.


“I see lights in the woods,” Murdock said. “Flashlights?”


“Stop by the Jeep, Murdock,” Hannibal said. “They’re on foot, but only one squad. The rest must have continued on. Okay, we’ll have to split up, same as them. BA, you take this group. You see those flashlights?”


“I see ’em,” BA said.


“Then go and see what they’re up to. But remember – this is recon only. Observe but don’t engage.”


BA only grunted in reply, hefted his rifle and jumped out of the side door of the van. He vanished into the trees.


“Next group’s yours, Face,” Hannibal said as the van moved on.


“There were more than three Jeeps,” Murdock said. “You sure you don’t want me to follow one squad?”


“No. I won’t risk leaving the van unguarded,” Hannibal said. “We’re a long way from anywhere out here. We don’t have to follow all the groups to get an idea of what they are up to.”


They found the next Jeep a couple of miles further on. Dark and deserted, almost concealed by some bushes, but Hannibal spotted it and told Murdock to pull over. Face made sure he had everything he needed, then grabbed his rifle and was out of the door as soon as the van stopped. He ran straight into the woods and took cover in the undergrowth, where he lay still while the rustle of the vegetation he’d disturbed died away.


He listened. The sound of the van faded. The breeze stirred leaves and grass, making them rustle and swish softly. Animal noises punctuated the rustling and ahead, downhill from his position he heard people moving through the forest, sometimes speaking. Only the stillness of the night let him hear the voices and they were fading fast. Face needed to catch up and get the group in sight.


He stood and, looking in the direction the voices came from, saw flickering lights. Flashlights, seen through the dense trees. That would help. Face moved, insinuating himself through the undergrowth and around the trees. He wasn’t quite silent, but wore soft-soled shoes instead of boots tonight, muffling his footsteps. He wasn’t quite invisible, but he’d prepared his rifle and other equipment by rubbing camouflage paint on any shiny surfaces. The tiniest thing like that could give you away. A glint of moonlight on metal that the enemy sees out of the corner of his eye.


Nothing was going to give Face away tonight. Like Hannibal said – this is recon. Observe. Do not engage. Face had no intention of engaging, especially when he got close enough to his prey to count six of them, spread out in a line and looking pretty damn professional. At least… five of them did.


One man was different. He wasn’t blundering through the undergrowth or anything, but Face spotted right away that he wasn’t a soldier. He couldn’t pin down how he knew it; it had become an instinct long ago. But whatever it was, he knew the man was different from the others. Which immediately made him interesting. Why was he different? Why was he there?


Very close to the men now, Face moved slowly and with maximum caution. As the clouds drifted away from the face of the moon the men clicked off their flashlights. Face stopped, letting them move further ahead, wary in case the bright moonlight gave him away.


When he began to follow them again he became aware of a new sound. Water. They were moving downhill towards the same river that ran from the mountains in the north, meandered through the valley and on south, over the border.


Were they going to cross? Face didn’t remember seeing a footbridge or ford on the map, and there was no road, so no reason to build a crossing. But what if they had a boat? Face definitely hadn’t planned on taking a swim tonight and doubted he could keep pace with a rowing boat, never mind something with an engine.


But there was no sign of a boat when they reached the river. Instead they began to walk south along the bank, strung out in a line. The man on rearguard looked like he knew what he was doing, so Face moved up the slope a short distance and sped up, moving parallel to their line, until he spotted the odd man out again.


He matched their pace, staying opposite the odd man. The men ahead and behind him were closer than they should be. Protecting him? Why? Why is he important? Some kind of specialist? The team had done a few babysitting missions like that in their time. But this man didn’t look like that either. More confident. What else then? Was Face looking at the boss?


He looked more closely when the moonlight gave him the chance. Tall guy; looked in pretty good training. Mid-thirties, light brown hair. And wearing combat gear. The other men were all more casual and individual about their outfits, but this one looked ready for a parade ground.


Yet he still looked like an amateur. In fact the perfection of his clothes pointed that up. Looks like me my first day in Vietnam, Face thought, with a small smile. But if he was an amateur, how could he be in charge of guys who looked as if they had at least some military training?


Okay, stop jumping to conclusions, Face thought, reminding himself that he could be totally wrong. But in his job he had to size people up fast. And not just individuals, but groups. He’d learned to watch their dynamics and assess who played what role. And this man’s role…


A commotion started up ahead – yells and splashes – interrupting his train of thought. He dropped to one knee, raising his rifle, but realised a second later that he wasn’t the cause of the commotion. The line of men started to run. Face restrained the urge to dash along with them and waited until the last man had passed his position before he followed.


He caught up quickly and found a couple of them hauling a man from the river. Had one of the group fallen in? No, a quick count and all six of the patrol were accounted for. The man from the river was someone new.


Two of the men dragged him by his arms, and any idea that they were rescuing him was quickly dispelled by the way they flung him to the ground, one putting a foot on his back.


The man on the ground tried to raise his hands, surrender – only sensible, given the six gun-toting men around him, Face thought. He spoke in Spanish, too fast for Face to understand more than a word here and there.


Was he a Mexican, Face wondered? Maybe sneaked over the border, following the river, swimming part of the way. Starts heading up north through the valley and then he runs into these guys. Maybe he’d jumped back into the river to escape.


Another man grabbed a bag from the prisoner. He sliced it open with a hunting knife and dumped the contents on the ground. One of the others poked through the clothes and other possessions from the bag, tossing the few belongings aside, not finding anything to interest him.


The odd man out had been standing to the side, watching the scene, but now he stepped up. He looked down at the prisoner, who spoke with desperation in his voice, perhaps hoping he’d found the boss, or a friend.


Definitely not a friend. The men standing over the prisoner dragged him up into a kneeling position. Water and mud dripped from his clothes.


The odd man drew a pistol.


Shit! Face bit down a gasp. He’s not. He’s not, is he?


He pressed the barrel of the pistol to the prisoner’s temple.


I could get him in the shoulder, Face thought, raising his rifle. Don’t engage, Hannibal had said, but he wouldn’t expect Face to stand by and watch a man murdered. His rifle sight drifted to the odd man’s chest. Better chance of hitting him, especially in the dark. He hadn’t killed anyone in a long time. Hoped he’d never have to again. But to save a life…


And then what? If the others didn’t scatter, if they came after Face, he’d be forced to run. He couldn’t take on five of them. But if he ran, he’d be leaving that civilian to their mercy, something he doubted they had a large surplus of.


Decide now – otherwise a helpless man is dead.


Or was he?


The man with the gun looked frozen in place, his stare intense as he looked down at the prisoner. Face was still sighted on him, but something made him start to ease his finger off the trigger.


He’s not going to fire. It’s not a game. He’s not just scaring the guy. He wants to fire. He just can’t. Face had seen it in the war – men in their first battle who found out they couldn’t kill. They’d had the best training in the world, were the toughest sons of bitches you could hope never to meet. Yet they just couldn’t do it.


“Hey, Colonel,” one of the other men said. “We’re supposed to take them back alive.”


The voice startled Face, and it took him a second to realise who the man was speaking to. The odd man was a colonel? Yeah, and Face was a general and Hannibal was Army Chief of Staff.


“Colonel? I said…”


The ‘colonel’ stepped back abruptly, dropping his hand to his side and Face sucked in a relieved breath. That nearly got very messy. Okay, what now? For a few seconds, the supposed colonel looked distracted, then pulled himself together.


“Two of you take him back to the Jeep. The rest of us will continue the patrol. Let’s split up now.”


Two men dragged the prisoner away and the others exchanged a few words, checked their radios and moved out, splitting up.


Face stuck with the ‘colonel’.


He was easy to track, but as Face studied him more closely he began to refine his impression of the man. Though he couldn’t move silently and invisibly through the woods as Face could, still he seemed comfortable enough there. He didn’t trip over roots or get slapped by low hanging branches. He didn’t react to the screeching cries of birds and animals. More worryingly he handled his pistol and rifle very comfortably indeed.


Face tracked him for several hours, without incident apart from the ‘colonel’ stopping to sit on a fallen tree for ten minutes, where he drank water from a canteen and ate a candy bar taken from one of his many pockets. Face watched, thinking about breakfast. As dawn approached, the ‘colonel’ took out a walkie talkie and ordered the men to rendezvous back at the Jeep.


Face followed them back to their Jeep, found some bushes to hide in and waited until the Jeep left. Peeking out, he saw his unknowing companion of the previous few hours riding shotgun in the front passenger seat. Goodnight, ‘Colonel’. For now. He had the feeling he’d be seeing that man again. And at some point the man might see him.


He radioed in that he was ready for pickup and twenty minutes later the van showed up, cruising slowly along the road, Murdock watching out for him. Face climbed in, and settled in the back, ignoring Murdock’s questions, too tired to chat and not wanting to have to repeat himself.


Hannibal and BA were just as weary when the van collected them. It wasn’t the walking and the night air, Face knew. It was the tension that wore you out – every sense and nerve on a knife edge for hours. Agreeing to exchange reports back at the Coopers’ after a couple of pots of coffee, they snoozed in their seats, frustrating Murdock, who grumbled as he drove back to town.


Amy and Eleanor were in the kitchen when the team arrived. Arthur was over in the radio station, Scott and Josh still in bed, so the team got the first sitting for breakfast. They ate silently, intent on the food until they finally relaxed in their chairs with sighs and lingered over coffee. Eleanor wrote “bread” on a shopping list stuck to the fridge after she took away the plate that had held a whole loaf and now held only crumbs.


“Okay,” Hannibal said, as he poured his third cup of coffee. “Let’s have your reports.”


BA and Hannibal gave similar accounts to what Face had seen, the men patrolling through the woods. Face’s own report was the most interesting, not only because of the prisoner, but because of the ‘colonel’.


“Maybe he’s the leader of the whole thing,” Face said.


“Could be,” Hannibal said. “The squad I followed had a leader, but they were all pretty informal with him. Much more so than you say your guys were with the colonel.”


“I’m sure he’s not really a colonel,” Face said. “He doesn’t look like he has military training. He handled his weapons pretty well and wasn’t a total amateur out there in the woods. But he’s no soldier.”


“So where does Laidler come into all of this?” Murdock said.


“He must be the money man,” Hannibal said.


“But why?” Face said. “What’s he getting out of it?”


“What about the prisoners?” Murdock said. “You said they were supposed to take them back alive. Maybe Laidler’s using them as labour on his farm.”


“Oh, I can’t see that,” Eleanor said from over by the sink, where she was washing dishes.


“Why’s that?” Hannibal asked.


“He doesn’t use immigrant labour on his farm. Lots of the other farms do – some have even been busted for using illegals.”


“But Laidler wasn’t one of those?”


“No, exactly the opposite. He’s always saying it’s wrong that his competitors are undercutting wages by bringing in immigrant workers. Says they’re choosing profits over employing Americans.” She shrugged. “Heck, he’s been in the studio having a debate about it. A lot of people agreed with him. More coffee?” She freshened their cups.


“So that makes even less sense,” Amy said.


“Could he be intercepting illegals who might otherwise end up working for his competitors?” Murdock suggested, but sounded doubtful.


“An armed camp and a small army is a hell of an expensive way to do that,” Hannibal said. “If he’s trying to protect his profit margin that’s not an efficient way to do it.” He drank the rest of his coffee in a couple of quick gulps. “Okay. This is what we know. These guys are acting as some kind of unofficial border patrol, picking up illegal immigrants and holding them. Someone must be paying for the camp and the supplies. We know Laidler is involved, but exactly how…” He grimaced in frustration. “We’re at a distance – that’s the problem. There’s fine detail here we’re not close enough to see.”


“We need to get inside the compound,” Face said.


“It’s too big,” BA said. “We don’t even know where to find whatever’s gonna help us.”


“Recon?” Murdock said. “We could go in while they’re out on patrol. Poke around a bit.”


“They don’t take the dogs with them on border patrol,” Face said. “They don’t leave the place unguarded when they go out.”


“You have a better suggestion?” Hannibal asked.


Face shrugged and affected a most casual tone. “I was thinking of getting the ‘colonel’ to invite me over for dinner.”


“You want to go undercover?” Hannibal said, sounding surprised.


“Face, that’s crazy!” Amy protested. “If your cover is blown they might kill you!”


“Just another day at the office,” Face said, enjoying the look of admiration that came from Eleanor at least. The others just looked amazed, which was a little insulting. “Is there more coffee?”


“Face,” Murdock said, “it sounds like you’re volunteering. And your rule from the day I met you was ‘never volunteer’. Even if they tell you the mission is to drink champagne and make love to beautiful women.”


“Yes, okay,” Face said, the casual tone giving way to a sarcastic one. “Make a note of the time and day this miracle occurred. I’m actually volunteering.”


“He’s right, it’s the only way we’re going to find out what we need,” Hannibal said.


“But if his cover is blown…” Amy started.


“Don’t worry,” Face said, putting on his best reassuring smile. “This is just a con. And I haven’t had a really juicy long con to work for weeks. I’m getting… hungry.”


They still gave him surprised looks, but Face was determined. He wanted in there. And it wasn’t about Laidler and figuring out what his involvement might be. It was about the ‘colonel’. Face had known plenty of guys who talked a lot of bull about their military experience and they were usually easily exposed. But talking crap in a bar to show off was a long way from what was going on at that camp. Did the other men actually think he was a colonel? Was he as much of a conman as Face? Face was less interested in exposure as he was in just figuring out the set-up in there.


Who the hell was the ‘colonel’ and what was his agenda?

Chapter 7

Later that day Face woke on his cot in the attic and thought, “Me and my big mouth.”


He sat up and stretched, trying to get the kinks out of his back from sleeping on the cot. It was a pretty good one as cots go. It had a decent mattress, and the whole attic had been converted into a comfortable living space. Still, it didn’t compare to that nice guestroom Amy had on the floor below.


Standing up, he mused that one day he’d write his autobiography and name it ‘Me and My Big Mouth’. He was famed for his ability to talk his way out of trouble, but people forgot to mention that he’d usually talked his way into it to start with. Just like he had now.


His curiosity might be piqued by the fake colonel, and he wanted to do his best for the clients, but volunteering? When did that become a good idea? As a man with a lot of experience with women should know – what seemed like a good idea in the dark often looked a lot worse in the daylight.


Too late to change his mind now though. The sun was already setting and they’d be heading out again in a few hours. Maybe the idea would seem better when the darkness came again.


Twenty minutes later, showered and dressed but not shaved, he was rummaging through the team’s rucksacks in the van, examining each one critically. Deciding Hannibal’s was currently the most battered looking of all of them, but still not quite battered enough, he emptied the pack and climbed out of the van. Lining it up carefully, he laid the flattened pack on the ground behind the back nearside tire and climbed into the driver’s seat. Reverse. Forward, reverse again. Then forward once more for luck.


When he got out of the van, he saw Murdock watching him from the door. Hands in pockets, Murdock strolled over as Face picked up the rucksack and examined it.


“Isn’t that Hannibal’s pack?” Murdock asked.


“Yep.”


“You know, if you’re annoyed with him about something, you should just say so.”


“If I was annoyed with him I wouldn’t have taken his stuff out first. I need a pack that looks like it’s spent some time in the woods.”


“Is this for your undercover gig?”


“No, Murdock, the lived-in look is all the rage for luggage in LA this season.” Murdock responded to the sarcasm with a smirk. Face took hold of the fastener of one of the rucksack’s pockets and ripped it off.


“Come on, admit it – you are annoyed with him.”


“No more than usual.” Rummaging in a crate of general useful stuff in the van, Face found a ball of string. He cut a piece off, scrubbed it in the dirt with his foot then used it to tie the pocket closed. “How about instead of making wisecracks you help me out? I want all the most used looking stuff.” The pair of them started to rummage through the other packs, and the storage boxes, comparing the state of hunting knives, pistols, and other essentials for living in the woods.


“So, have you come up with a fake name yet?” Murdock asked. “And if you have, can I suggest an alternative?”


“You haven’t even heard it yet and you want to suggest an alternative?”


“Yes, because, let’s be frank – your judgement when it comes to choosing names is a little suspect.”


“Hey, I chose Templeton Peck.”


“So you see, we agree. Anyway, I was thinking something like Jase. Because it sounds similar to Face. So you’ll react to it if someone calls you that if you’re not already paying attention to them.”


Face nodded. He was familiar with the problem that arose when using a fake name – sometimes you forgot that’s who you were. Face was so used to working with aliases that he didn’t fall into the trap too often, but minimising risk was a good idea.


“Okay, Jase. That’s fine. Last name?”


“No last name.”


“What? I can’t have just one name. I’m not Madonna.”


Murdock grinned then shook himself. “Sorry, weird mental image. I don’t mean you don’t have a last name, I mean don’t give one. That will make you more mysterious.”


“And make them less likely to trust me. I’ll consider it,” he said, checking the stuff he’d put together now for his pack. It all looked suitably old and weathered. And talking of old and weathered…


“Murdock, could I borrow your jacket for this job?”


Murdock froze and stared at him. “My jacket?”


“Yeah, it’s just the right look I’m going for.”


“You mean this jacket I’m wearing now?”


“You have others?”


“Let me just be clear here. You’re asking to borrow this jacket?” He ran his hands over the cracked leather of his flying jacket.


“It’s perfect.”


“It’s… my jacket…”


“You can wear one of mine while I’m away,” Face suggested, in a tone that implied only a fool would fail to seize this rare opportunity.


“I just watched you run Hannibal’s pack over with the van, and now you’re asking to borrow my jacket. This jacket.”


“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m not going to run it over. I think that ship has sailed. Anyway, the look I’m going for is survivalist, not bum.”


“Are you saving up your persuasive charm for later? Because you’re not helping your case right now.”


“Come on, Murdock. I’ll take good care of it.”


“That’s what you told Amy about her Le Car.”


“Which you were driving.”


“True,” Murdock conceded. An agony of indecision was written across his face, before he finally took the jacket off and held it out. When Face reached for it, Murdock pulled it back. “Just… okay, Face, you’re pretty much my best friend, right? We’ve saved each other’s lives too many times to count. You’ve always been there for me, through the best and worst of times.”


“Yeah, yeah. Is this leading to me getting the jacket or not?”


“I’m just saying, given all of that, let me make it very clear to you that if you lose or ruin this jacket, I will have to kill you.”


“Understood. So I can have it? Great. Wait – take any of your weird stuff out of the pockets first.”


Murdock rummaged in the pockets, removing a few items, then handed the jacket to Face at last.


“Take care of her.”


“She’s a she?” Face said, pausing as he slipped the jacket on.


“Um, no,” Murdock said, backtracking. “Figure of speech.”


“Right… She have a name?”


“Of course not,” Murdock said, not meeting Face’s eye.


Face adjusted the collar in one of the van’s wing mirrors. “You know, I think it looks better on me.”


~~~


They left before dark, repeating their actions of the previous night, except this time only Face was going to go out stalking. Making a note of the licence plate of the Jeep that the ‘colonel’ was travelling in, they followed until they found it parked off the side of the road. BA pulled over and Face started to gather his gear. He checked his pockets, and pulled out his walkie talkie.


“Hang on to this,” he said, handing it to Murdock.


“What are you doing?” Hannibal said, frowning. “You’re not going out there with no radio contact.”


“What if I’m searched?” Face said. “If I’m supposed to be living out here alone, why would I need a walkie? To chat with the bears?”


“And what if you get in trouble?” Hannibal said.


“I’ll be fine. We’ll rendezvous half a mile south of here when I’m done.”


“No,” Hannibal said. “I don’t want you out of contact like that.”


“We should have given him a tracker,” BA said. “Maybe we should wait until tomorrow night.”


“Oh, hang on,” Murdock said. He knelt behind Face’s seat and started rummaging through some boxes.


“BA’s right,” Hannibal said. “If you don’t have a radio then you should have a tracker. In fact, I’m not sure this is such a hot plan after all.”


“You think I can’t handle it?” Face said, his voice mild, but with a hard edge to it.


“I didn’t say that.”


“Here!” Murdock reappeared from behind the seats and slapped a bright orange plastic pistol into Face’s hand. “You get in trouble, fire one of those babies off and we’ll come find you.”


“Flare gun?” Face said. He thought about it and nodded. “Yeah, I think I can pull that off. Reasonable piece of emergency equipment for a guy to carry in the wilds.”


“Even a survivalist?” Hannibal said.


“I can pull it off,” Face repeated. He pushed the flare gun into his pack, burying it deep, until it was near the bottom. “Okay, I’d better get moving if I’m going to have any chance of catching up with my guy.”


Hannibal still frowned and Face wondered if that was what he looked like himself when they were about to put one of Hannibal’s plans into action. The boot was on the other foot now. He gave Hannibal a reassuring smile as he opened the side door.


“Don’t worry, Hannibal, I know I’m not as lucky as you. I won’t take unnecessary risks.”


“Good.”


“Just necessary ones.”


“Face…” But Face was gone, out of the door and into the woods.


~~~


Face made his way through the woods, heading downhill towards the river, and the words “me and my big mouth” chased around in his head again. Oh yeah, great idea, I don’t need a walkie-talkie, or any silly tracker. I’m the Faceman. What the hell was he trying to prove?


Or who was he trying to prove something to? Well, it had gotten under his skin, Hannibal suddenly having doubts like that. When it was his idea for Face to put himself in mortal peril schmoozing some murderous gangster, then Face’s perfectly reasonable qualms were dismissed. But when it was Face’s own idea – oh, then he got worried.


Of course, Face’s plans… No, he dismissed that thought. He wasn’t always entirely confident about his own plans, but this wasn’t a plan. This was a con.


After another twenty minutes, he’d caught up to the group he was following and was relieved to see his quarry with them. Now he just had to get the ‘colonel’ on his own. He followed them for another hour, without incident, before they split up again.


Time to start the con. Face followed the colonel until he was well away from his men, then got ahead of him. He moved fast as he did that and took less care than usual, not worrying about the trail he was leaving this time. When he reached a likely looking tree, he concealed his pack in a bush and climbed up into the lower branches of the tree. In the moonlight he was probably visible from the ground, but most people didn’t look up.


The colonel didn’t look up. He appeared a few minutes later looking at the ground and the undergrowth. Had he picked up the trail Face hadn’t tried to conceal? He started walking past Face’s tree.


Face dropped.


He hit the man’s back, knocking them both to the ground, and there was a brief struggle before Face got the guy pinned, looking down into his furious face.


“Oh it’s you,” Face said.


He’d debated about how much to change his voice, maybe use an accent. But that could get very tiring over a long con and you always risked giving yourself away with a slip. So he’d kept it almost the same, with a hint of a rough edge, the hoarseness of someone no longer used to using his voice much.


The ‘oh, it’s you’ took the colonel by surprise, as Face expected. His fury changed to bafflement.


“What? Do I know you?”


Face didn’t answer as he got off the man, who sat up and reached around for his dropped weapons.


“Sorry about that,” Face said. “Thought you were one of the spics.” He made no attempt to stop the man picking up his pistol and scrambling up, pointing it at Face.


“Who are you?” he demanded, staring. “How do you know me?”


“Been watching you and your boys,” Face said, showing no concern about the gun.


“And what do you think you’ve seen?”


Face chuckled. “Bunch of fellas hunting coyotes.” He held out his hand to the man still pointing a gun at him. “Doing some good work.” He smiled. It took nearly ten seconds, even with the Smile at full power, but at last the colonel transferred the pistol to his left hand and warily took Face’s hand for a shake.


“Name’s Jase,” Face said.


“Erik,” he said, transferring the pistol back to his right hand. No last name either. Well, weren’t they a pair?


“Nice to finally meet you, Erik.” He stepped over and hauled his pack out of its hiding place, making sure his new friend got a good look at it. The pack of a serious woodsman, not some weekend hiker.


Erik looked suspicious again. “How long have you been watching?”


“Spotted your patrols a few nights. And I took a look at your base.”


Erik raised the pistol, which he’d started to lower. “You’ve been into the compound?”


“Not into it,” Face said, shaking his head. “That’d be trespassing. And I’d hate to get myself mauled by your dogs.” Funny how putting just the right spin on what was more or less the truth could work as well as anything made up. “Just took a look from outside. Impressive setup.”


“Yeah… But what are you doing out here?”


Face shrugged. “Prefer to hunt at night. Man’s gotta eat.”


Erik looked baffled again. “Are you saying you live out here? Where? I haven’t seen a cabin or anything.”


“I like my privacy. Well, you’ve got work to do. Guess I won’t hold you up any longer.” Still ignoring the pistol pointing at least vaguely in his direction, he turned and made sure Erik got a good view of the painting on the back of the jacket before he hid it under his pack.


“Wait,” Erik called and Face smiled. It wasn’t a ‘wait, where do you think you’re going when I’ve got a gun on you?’. It was a ‘wait, talk to me’. Face would be happy to oblige. He put on the impatient look of a man being dragged away from important business and turned back. Erik was no longer pointing the pistol.


“You’re a war vet?” Erik said.


“How’d you tell?” Face asked, a suspicious look of his own painted on his face.


“Your jacket,” Erik said, gesturing with his free hand.


“Oh.” Face laughed. “Forget that cat’s there sometimes. Yeah, I saw some action.”


He didn’t add the question Erik would expect: You? That struck a nerve. Erik looked embarrassed for a second at being so easily read, but then he met Face’s eyes again. That look in his eyes, the longing. Face knew it well. He’d seen it in the schoolyard and at the orphanage – in the eyes of other kids who wanted handsome and popular Alvin to be their friend, to talk to them, or even just smile at them.


Face had him. He adjusted the straps of his pack and started to walk away.


“Wait, Jase.” Face stopped and looked back at him, saw the desperation there as Erik tried to think of something to say to make ‘Jase’ stay. “Why do you live out here?”


“Might have noticed we didn’t get a hero’s welcome when we came home.” Face allowed a lot of bitterness into his voice. It wasn’t such a stretch. “Figured after a while that it was time for some peace and quiet.”


“But living out here alone? That’s kind of extreme.”


“Yeah, well, I saw some pretty extreme shit over there.”


“Can I ask what your rank was?”


“Left all that behind a long time ago.”


“Oh. I understand.”


He didn’t, but Face refrained from pointing that out, once again his silence telling Erik that Face could see right through him. He took out a pair of gloves, pulled them on, again looking ready to depart. Erik watched him with that mix of suspicion and longing. Come on, Face thought. Come on. I’m about to walk away and you’ll never see me again unless you say it.


“You should come by the compound,” Erik said.


Face hid his delight and instead he frowned, drawing away, invited pursuit.


“I’m not one for crowds.”


“I understand that,” Erik said quickly. “But just come for a meal at least. It would be an honour to have a war hero like you visit with us.”


Oh, so now he was a hero, not just a vet. This one was a romantic. Face could certainly use that. Part of him wanted to accept the invitation right away, but too much eagerness would be a giveaway. For now he had to play coy.


“I’ll think about it,” he said and before Erik could say anything else he turned and walked into the trees. Quickly engulfed by the darkness, he concealed himself in the undergrowth and watched Erik look for him for a while, before he left.


Face made sure he was long gone before breaking cover and climbing the slope back to the road. He found the van at the rendezvous point and climbed aboard, returning Murdock and BA’s relieved smiles.


“Report,” Hannibal snapped.


“Is the jacket okay?” Murdock asked, trying to examine it before Face could even take it off.


“The jacket’s fine,” Face said, fending him off. “Is there any coffee left?” He accepted a cup from Murdock. It wasn’t very hot any more, but he needed the caffeine. All this roaming about at night had started wearing thin.


“I made contact,” he reported, softening Hannibal’s impatient look. “The colonel’s name is Erik.”


“Last name?”


“Didn’t get it yet,” Face said, taking off the jacket and handing it to Murdock.


Hannibal clicked his tongue and Face bristled. “Hey, a long con needs to be taken slow. What did you expect for the first contact? That I’d come back engaged to him?” He rubbed his eyes. “I got ‘Erik’ and more importantly I got an invitation to go and have a meal with them at the compound.”


“You got an invite inside already?” Murdock said, looking up from examining the jacket carefully for any new damage. “That’s great! See, BA, you owe me five bucks.”


“Quiet, fool.”


“Nice to know you guys take an interest,” Face said.


“Why didn’t you go along right away?” Hannibal said. “Breakfast is a meal.”


“I’m playing hard to get,” Face said, stretching, then snuggling into his seat. “Come on, let’s get home. I’m hungry.”


The van sped through the night on the now familiar route to town. Face dozed in his seat until Hannibal’s voice woke him.


“I was just thinking; if you’re going to show up at the compound as a guest, you should take along a gift.”


Face nodded. Good idea. He had a few sweetener gifts stashed in the van for emergencies – on the rare occasions when the Smile alone didn’t cut it. But they were no use here. Where would ‘Jase’ get a bottle of single malt? At a convenience store run by squirrels? No, he needed something that fitted his persona. He smiled. He’d thought of just the thing.

Chapter 8

BA came out of the Cooper’s house after breakfast to find Eleanor and Josh loading empty baskets into the family’s pickup truck.


“BA,” Hannibal called to him from where he stood by the van. “You’re going for a ride with Eleanor and Josh today.”


“Where they going?” BA asked, joining him.


“Some errands around the valley. I want you along.”


“Riding shotgun, huh?”


“Yeah,” Hannibal said, “just in case any of Laidler’s people are out looking for trouble. It’ll give you a chance to do some general recon too, take in the lay of the land.”


BA didn’t object. Face would be heading to the compound later and he was sick of driving to that place. A change of scenery would be nice.


“Right. You gonna drop Face off?”


“Yeah.”


“Take care of my van. Some of those roads are pretty rough. Don’t bust my suspension.”


“I’ll tell him you wished him luck,” Hannibal said. He slapped BA on the shoulder and went back into the house. Seeing Eleanor and Josh still fussing around the pickup truck, BA walked toward the radio station. Murdock stood in the doorway, drinking a mug of coffee. He’d be on guard duty later when Hannibal was dropping off Face and he looked far too relaxed about that in BA’s opinion.


“Wake up, fool,” he said. “You can handle guard duty on your own?”


“Sure. If all else fails, there’s a pretty sturdy door into the station. Hold off a hoard of zombies for a week.”


“Hannibal will only be gone for a couple of hours.”


“As long as the zombies don’t get him.”


BA didn’t dignify this nonsense with a response, just stomped over to the pickup.


“Hannibal wants me to come with you today,” he told Eleanor. “Just in case of trouble.”


“Oh, okay. I hope there won’t be any, but of course, you’re welcome to come. Josh, go grab some more cans of soda.” She smiled at BA. “It can get hot out there. Thirsty work.”


“I done plenty of that in my time,” BA said as Josh ran into the house. He reappeared a couple of minutes later and sat in the middle seat. BA sat by the door, ready for action.


With Murdock waving them off, Eleanor drove out of the driveway and took a left. “Josh, put a tape in.”


“Do I get to choose?” he said, grabbing a case of cassette tapes from under the seat.


“Sure,” she said, “the day you’re driving. Do you mind some classical music, Mr Baracus?”


“Fine by me,” he said. He’d be too busy watching the passing landscape to notice anyway. With an exaggerated sigh, Josh put in the tape. The pickup filled with violin music as it sped north out of town.


~~~


Murdock kind of liked guard duty, since it basically meant hanging out in the reception area of the radio station and drinking coffee while listening to the music and watching nothing happen outside. And dancing.


The cat, Ludwig, kept him company for most of the day, snoozing on the sun-warmed windowsill. During the noon newsbreak Murdock took a break from dancing and sat down by the window, waking Ludwig. He sat up, looking at Murdock expectantly.


“Hi,” Murdock said. He watched outside for a while. Nothing continued to happen. “Soooo…” Murdock said, “you’re a cat then?” Ludwig licked a paw and washed his ears, as if confirming this was in fact the case. “And how’s that working out for you?” The cat curled up again, his back exposed to the afternoon sun and went back to sleep. “Great. Great. That’s great.” Murdock looked at his empty coffee mug. Time for a refill.


The news finished and Murdock was about to start dancing again when Face and Hannibal came out of the house, Face carrying his pack and Murdock’s flying jacket. Murdock hurried outside.


“You going already?”


“Yeah,” Face said, stowing the pack and jacket in the van. “I have a little job to do before I get there.”


“Job?” Murdock asked, looking at Hannibal, who just shrugged.


“Don’t ask me. He’s being mysterious.”


“Have you got the gift you were going to bring?” Murdock asked.


Face shook his head. “No. That’s what the little job is. See you later, Murdock.”


“Okay. Face, take care –”


“Of the jacket. Yeah, yeah.”


“I was going to say ‘of yourself’,” Murdock said, offended.


“Sorry,” Face said, looking ashamed. “Um, I will, thanks.”


“Oh and come back with the jacket or on it.” He put on a fierce scowl.


“Um, that doesn’t quite make sense, Murdock.”


“Sorry. I’ve had a lot of coffee today.”


“Right… Maybe time to switch to tea. Scott’s in the studio?” Murdock nodded. “Right. Amy’s in the house, getting some story background from Arthur. See you later.”


Face climbed into the van, and waved as it drove away. Murdock went back into the station and took up the guard.


~~~


BA soon found out what Eleanor meant by thirsty work. They visited a number of farms and isolated houses around the valley, several of them the homes of elderly couples or a widow or widower. While she chatted to them, or bought some produce, she would volunteer Josh to do any little jobs they had around that needed a young man’s strong back. BA could hardly let the kid do all the work. Besides it gave him a chance to nose around.


Josh would roll his eyes when his mother said something on the lines of “oh, Josh should be able to fix that right up for you.” But he didn’t complain, just went and found tools and did the job.


BA liked that. He liked Eleanor too, liked what he could see she was doing here. The apparent reasons for the visits were just excuses – she could buy produce in the stores in town. She was doing what the station did, making contact. Building the community. It reminded him of his own mother back when he was a kid, sending him around to elderly neighbours to do little chores and jobs they couldn’t manage. “It’s no trouble. Bosco is so good at fixing things.” He’d grumbled of course; he’d rather be working on his bike or later, his car. But he’d understood it was important to Mama.


“All done?” Eleanor said as BA and Josh came back from putting away tools after mending a henhouse. She handed them each a soda from a cooler and they drank those before climbing back into the truck to head out on their next errand.


As they turned back onto the road another pickup was coming towards them, heading into town. It slowed and BA tensed. Trouble?


“You know them?” BA said when Eleanor braked.


“It’s just Mabel,” she said. “Professor Jones. She’s an archaeologist.”


Both vehicles stopped and Eleanor and Mabel wound down their windows. Mabel was a woman in her fifties with short grey hair and the deepest tan BA had seen in a long time. She smiled at them, but the young man sitting next to her gave BA a surprised and then interested look.


“Hello, Mabel,” Eleanor said. “How’s the dig going?”


“Oh, very well, some great finds. We’re just heading into town to fetch supplies. Hello Josh,” she said waving to him. “And…”


“Oh, this is Bosco, an old friend of Scott’s. He’s staying for a few days.”


“Hello,” Mabel said, and BA nodded politely in response. The young guy was still watching him. Could he have recognised BA? A few more minutes of chat and the women said their goodbyes and moved on.


“She works here most summers,” Eleanor said. “Comes up with a team of grad students and excavates Native American sites in the valley. She does an on-air chat about her finds after they shut down the dig for the summer. All that history of the valley is fascinating.”


“If you enjoy talking about pottery and animal bones for a couple of hours,” Josh muttered, and then put on an innocent look when his mother glared at him. “Sorry, Mom. When they dig up an electric guitar, let me know.”


“There are more important things in life than music,” she said.


“Really? Name three.”


~~~


Face walked up to the gates of Erik’s compound, carrying a deer on his back. Not a very big deer, just a young buck. He hadn’t been able to bring himself to shoot the full-grown doe the buck had been nosing around. Sorry, pal, he’d thought as he pulled the trigger, but you should never let a woman distract you. If only he’d taken that advice more often himself.


“Colonel!” one of the men guarding the gate shouted when Face stopped and just looked at him. Erik appeared from a building a moment later, his initial stare turning to a smile at the sight of Face at the gate.


“Let him in,” he called, hurrying over. The guards opened the gates and Face strode through. He stopped in front of his host, slid the buck off his shoulder and dropped it at Erik’s feet.


“I brought dinner.” He was as laconic as he could be while smelling to high heaven of dead male deer. He’d field dressed it already, needing to establish his credentials as a woodsman to the rest of the men now, not only Erik. And spent every minute of that time cursing his own damn brilliant ideas.


Erik grinned. “Thanks. It’s great to see you, Jase. Welcome.”


He held out his hand and Face shook it, seeing Erik wince only slightly at the dried blood on it.


The men gathered around the deer carcass, and one yelled for someone named Luis. “Get your butt over here and get this thing into the kitchen!”


“You know, it should be hung for a few days,” Face said.


“I doubt they can wait that long,” Erik said, glancing around at his men. They didn’t look hungry as in underfed, but some fresh meat probably wasn’t on the menu out here very often. Going hunting themselves would risk bringing attention.


“Here, Luis,” a man said, looking over Face’s shoulder. “Get this thing moved.”


Luis was a big guy, nearly the size of BA, but only a boy. Face pegged him at no older than seventeen. He wore frayed and stained clothes and Face knew at once that he must be an illegal these guys had captured and were using as labour. But the main thing Face noticed, pushing the boy’s size and ragged clothing into a poor second place, was the dog collar around his neck.


Someone around here thought he had a real hilarious sense of humour. Face decided he’d like to find out who and work on his funny bone for a while.


Not wanting to appear too interested, he looked away from Luis, but watched out of the corner of his eye as the boy tossed the deer over his shoulder. He did that a lot easier than Face had. Might as well have been picking up a cat.


“Okay,” Erik called to his men. “Back to work, guys. Be a few hours before dinner.” They dispersed, most losing interest in Face, eager to get back to some crucial loafing and drinking, no doubt. Others moved away but kept an eye on him.


“Let me give you a tour,” Erik said, gesturing around. “I’d like to hear what you think of our setup.”


“Think I could wash up first?” Face held up his dirty hands.


“Of course, follow me.”


Face followed his host. Behind him, the men closed the gates. He was in.


~~~


BA and Josh sat in the bed of the pickup, enjoying the late afternoon breeze, heading south back to Valentine’s Crossing. They’d just finishing the last call of the day, chopping some wood for an old lady, while Eleanor chatted with her over coffee. BA was starting to feel like part of the entourage of a duchess.


The Coopers weren’t royalty in the town though. They weren’t the money people. But the radio station gave them an influence that the richer folks might envy. Was that what Laidler was after? More influence? More power? It always came down to power.


“Are you thinking about Lieutenant Peck?” Josh said, startling BA from his thoughts.


“What?”


“I wondered if you were worried about him.”


“Don’t worry none about Face; he’ll be fine.”


“Only, well, he doesn’t seem all that tough. I mean in comparison to you.”


BA chuckled. Not many people did seem tough in comparison to him. “Face is tougher than he looks.” He finished the can of soda he held, crushed it and tossed the empty can back in the cooler. “Being tough ain’t just about being the big, strong guy who can beat everybody up. Look at your folks and your granddad. They’re tough.”


“They are?” Josh looked dubious, making BA smile. “I can’t see my dad fighting anyone with his guitar.”


“They’re tough because they ain’t gonna let Laidler just take that radio station away from them without a fight. Being tough is about standing up and fighting for what’s important to you.”


“But you – the team – you’re the ones doing the fighting.”


“Think of us as reinforcements,” BA said. “Even if you’re tough it’s always smart to bring in reinforcements when you’re outnumbered and outgunned.”


The pickup braked. A car was parked across the road blocking their path. Drainage ditches on either side of the road kept Eleanor from driving around. She stopped as two men got out of the car and approached the pickup. BA jumped down.


“They’re Laidler’s men,” Eleanor told him through her window.


“Stay here,” BA said, when Josh jumped down. “Get in the cab and take care of your momma.” The boy hesitated, but then obeyed, climbing in beside her. “Lock the doors,” BA said to Eleanor. “If they start waving guns around, drive outta here.”


“But I can’t leave you behind!”


“Don’t you worry ’bout me.”


The men had stopped when they saw BA get down. Yeah, BA thought as he walked towards them, you’re real tough guys, ready to scare a defenceless woman and a kid. Not so tough now BA Baracus is here.


“You need a hand to get the car outta the way?” BA said, giving them one chance to display some intelligence and avoid what would come next otherwise.


“Who the hell are you?” one of the men asked, both of them staring at BA.


“I’m the man telling you to move the car outta the way, before I roll it in the ditch.” For a second he thought they were going to be smart and back down. Nobody had to know. They could agree to tell the boss they’d just missed her on the road. But he was giving them too much credit.


“You ain’t going through,” one said. “Better take the other road. Only about a thirty mile diversion.” The other one sniggered. Yeah, real tough guys.


But not as tough as BA. He didn’t wait to find out if they were armed. He just struck without warning. Combination punches, right, left, just like in the gym. The man who took the left stayed upright longer than his buddy, but an uppercut took him down. Hard jaw. A quick frisk of the groaning men stretched out on the road revealed no easily found guns.


BA ran to their car, finding the driver’s door unlocked. He released the parking brake and pushed. It took a big shove to start, but then the car rolled easily to the side of the road. The back end reared up when the front wheels fell into the ditch. This put the team two up as far as cars went.


The men were struggling up. BA ran back to the pickup and jumped into the cab on the driver’s side, making Eleanor scramble into the middle. He gunned the engine and the pickup accelerated past the men and their ditched car. As they pulled away from the men, who were shaking their fists after the truck, BA grinned at Josh.


“Of course, sometimes being tough is about being the big, strong guy who can beat everybody up.”

Chapter 9

Face spent the rest of the day with Erik, taking a guided tour of the compound. Recon was so much easier with someone to show you around. And having the enemy explain its strength, skill and readiness was like a soldier’s eve-of-battle dream come true. Since it would look strange for him to make notes, he had to commit it all to memory. While he was doing that, a few well-chosen nuggets of advice kept Erik happy. He did write them down.


Erik showed him inside almost every building on the site, except one that Face saw Luis go in and out of a few times, often carrying water. It looked big enough to hold maybe twenty men in relative comfort, but who knew how many prisoners they could cram in there? On the other hand, holding a large number of prisoners was dangerous and the wooden building only had a couple of guards. Cautious of appearing too curious, Face just accepted a waved hand and the information that it was “another barracks”.


He’d find out more on a second visit, but first he had to secure an invitation to come back. To help with that, he made sure to throw in a mutter now and again that a few words of advice from him weren’t enough to get these men into fighting shape. If that didn’t provoke an invite to come back and stay for a while, then his name wasn’t Templeton Peck. He thought about that for a second and made his mutters more frequent.


The gruff, hardened soldier act worked through the tour, but Face softened it at dinner – the dinner he’d provided the meat for. He had a beer, and carefully shuffled the bottles to make it look like he’d had a few more. As he chatted, he threw in some anecdotes about the war. Usually telling stories of things Hannibal or BA had done rather than boasting of his own exploits and triumphs.


“You weren’t a pilot then?” one of the men asked. Face froze. “Only ever saw zoomies wearing jackets like that,” the man went on, the casual tone of his voice contradicting the suspicious look in his eyes.


“It was a gift,” Face said. That didn’t help too much. The man didn’t look convinced a pilot would give up a jacket like that, still looked at him with narrowed eyes. Face made sure to burn the face into his memory. Watch this one. He’s not going to take Jase on face value.


Erik seemed to though. “It belonged to a comrade-in-arms?” he asked.


He seriously just said “comrade in arms”? Face saw a few men around the long table turn away to hide smiles.


“Yeah. Best flyer I knew over there. Crazy as a mongoose. But I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for him. Picked up my unit under fire and we didn’t know till we landed that he’d caught some lead. His co-pilot was dead. He just flew us back while he slowly bled to death. Left this jacket to me.”


The men were silent for a moment, then one raised his beer bottle in a toast. Everyone followed his example and they all drank to Face’s dead pilot friend. Face decided not to mention later to Murdock that he’d killed him for the sake of a good story. He might take it the wrong way.


Erik still had an awed look on his face as the men started chatting again after the toast. He’s one of the kind who wishes he’d been out there, Face thought, and wondered why he hadn’t. He couldn’t be more than a year or two younger than Face, if that, so he was the right age. If he was this gung-ho when he was younger he wouldn’t have waited to be drafted; he’d have been a volunteer. Maybe he’d changed. Or there was some other reason. They’d find out – if Face got hold of one vital piece of information.


Erik gave him a cigar after dinner and they left the men while they walked outside. The evening was darkening into night now, the stars coming out.


“Thanks for the dinner,” Face said after they’d strolled for a while with their cigars, walking slowly to the gate. “Great to see the place, but I’d better get on my way.”


He didn’t have it yet. He was about to leave, and he didn’t have it yet. That vital jigsaw piece. And he didn’t yet have an invitation to come back either.


“Erik,” he said, turning to him and offering his hand.”My name’s Jason Carlson. I don’t tell many men that. It’s another thing I left behind along with my rank. But you’re a comrade in arms, right? We think the same way.”


“Erik Trikken,” Erik said, shaking Face’s hand.


Okay, one down. Got the full name. The invitation would come soon, but Face was still playing hard to get. Appear too eager and someone would start thinking he was a Fed. So he just gave Erik a casual salute and grabbed his gear that sat near the gate, waiting for him.


“Good luck with your work, Erik Trikken.”


Face strode out of the gate into the darkness. When he got far enough away, he stopped and started to set up a booby trap.


~~~


Hannibal stood outside the studio, listening to the late evening broadcast – a call-in show. A young man was talking to Arthur about his upcoming wedding and the two men laughed as Arthur related an anecdote about his own wedding, a long time ago. Seeing Hannibal, Arthur waved at him to come in.


“Let me stop you there for a second, Bill,” Arthur said to the caller as Hannibal took a seat. “We’re just going to break for the ten o’clock news then come back to you.” Arthur’s hands worked the console without looking, flying solo with nobody in the production booth. He started up the news feed right on time as the studio clock switched over to ten. Hannibal sat on the other side of the console and put on a set of headphones as Arthur started speaking to Bill again. They went on chatting about the wedding as the clock ticked towards five past ten, when the news bulletin would end.


“Your mom excited for the big day?” Arthur asked, as Hannibal glanced at the clock to see they were fast approaching 10:05.


“Oh, man, between her, my sister, Rita and Rita’s mom… I think us guys should just let the ladies organise the whole thing and tell us when to turn up and what to wear!”


At that, Hannibal and Arthur smiled at each other, though Hannibal had little experience of weddings.


“It’s such a big thing, the wedding,” Bill said, his voice becoming hesitant. “It kinda piles all these expectations on you.”


“Getting married is a big thing, Bill. Gotta expect people to make a big fuss about it.” Arthur’s hands moved over the console again as the news broadcast ended.


“I know,” Bill said, his voice somehow smaller now than before. “I just get worried sometimes, about whether I even know how to be a good husband and then, I guess, one day, a good father. Even get… scared about that one.”


“Son, we all felt that way. Nobody knows how to do that stuff. You have to learn by doing.”


“Well, I hope I can figure it out. Because Rita, she deserves it.”


Hannibal stirred uncomfortably in his chair, catching Arthur’s eye. Wasn’t this too personal to go out over the air?


“She does. But you’ve always done right by your folks, son. I know you’ll do right by Rita and your new family. And you know you can always call here. There’s always someone to listen.”


“I know. Thanks, Arthur. I guess I should go hit the sack now.”


“You do that, son. Sleep well.” Arthur cut the call off.


Just as he was about to question the ethics of getting so personal on air, Hannibal realised that Bill’s call had been replaced in his headphones by music, already partway through a song.


“You didn’t put Bill’s call back on the air after the news, did you?” Hannibal said.


“No,” Arthur confirmed. “I know when a man is talking to the whole valley and when he’s only talking to me. Even if he doesn’t know that.”


Hannibal nodded. Arthur heard the end of the song coming up, announced a double-play, and invited listeners to call in, to talk about whatever they wanted. He cued the music and looked at Hannibal.


“You have a comment, Colonel?”


“You do a lot of call-in shows.”


“Yes.”


“That’s not because they’re cheap, is it? It’s the same reason your daughter goes out calling on people.” BA had given him a full report about his trip around the valley with Eleanor. “And why you have the monthly dances. They aren’t just about fundraising.”


Arthur studied Hannibal for a moment and then said quietly, “I started this station back in the sixties, in my garage. Something happened here back then. Something you won’t easily get anyone to talk about. Anyone old enough to remember it, that is. Most of the young people have never heard about it at all.”


Hannibal waited as Arthur sipped a glass of water at his elbow, before he went on.


“Family called Wells used to run a ranch, about thirty miles out of town. Don Wells had been in Korea. Army, like you. Came home and married, settled down on his ranch. One night, back in ’64, people saw a glow over the Wells’ place. By morning everyone in the valley could see the smoke. Sheriff found the ranch burnt to the ground. Every building. And he found Don, his wife and their two kids.”


He paused and again Hannibal waited.


“Coroner had to confirm it, they were all so badly burnt. But they’d all been shot to death, by Don. He killed himself last of all. It wasn’t just the family either. He shot all the livestock, the horses, even the dogs and cats. Every living thing on the property.”


A chill, like a skeleton’s finger running down his spine, made goose bumps rise on Hannibal’s skin.


“Nobody knows what went on there, what drove him to it. But I started to wonder if things would have been different if he’d had someone to talk to. If he’d had a phone line and someone always there to listen, Don, or his wife, could have got help, long before it came to that.”


“So you started this station.”


“Radio’s what I know how to do. I decided that’s how I could help make sure something like that didn’t happen again. That, and working with the phone company to get everyone connected. People have to talk. You keep it all inside and eventually it destroys you.”


Hannibal nodded. He knew that was true.


“That’s why we have to win this fight, Mr Smith. Maybe I haven’t been as welcoming as I should have been to you and your team, afraid you didn’t understand the stakes here. I’m sorry for that.”


On an impulse, Hannibal held his hand out to Arthur, who leaned over the desk to shake it. “I understand the stakes now. And we’ll win this fight, Arthur. For your station and your valley. I promise that.”


~~~


Face doubled back on his own trail and, a couple hours after he’d left the compound, Erik appeared, following the same trail. Face hadn’t tried to conceal it, wanting to see if the man would follow him. But he hadn’t made it too easy either. So the fact he could follow it at night told Face that Erik wasn’t a phony at everything.


Face watched him follow the trail right into the trip wire Face had set. Nothing too drastic happened; the trap simply dumped a bag of forest floor debris over Erik.


He yelled and rolled away, drawing his pistol and shaking off the debris. There hadn’t been anything heavy in the canvas bag Face had balanced on a branch, just a lot of leaves and twigs and other litter. But it made its point. He gave Erik a moment to settle down, and stepped into view, affecting an amused smile.


“What the hell was that?” Erik demanded, glaring at him.


“Just a little prank,” Face said. “You wanted to see where I hang my hat, didn’t you?”


Erik stood up, lowering his pistol. He stopped glaring and looked chagrined. “I was curious,” he admitted.


“Sorry, friend. Like I said, I like my privacy.”


“How did you know I was following you? Could you hear me?”


“Hear you, see you, smell you.” He chuckled at the insulted expression. “Try cutting garlic out of your diet.”


“I’ve heard that the Vietcong could smell the American soldiers in the jungle. Is that true?”


“Heard the same.” Face shrugged. “I never let one of them live long enough to tell me.”


“Have you killed a lot of men?”


“If you were a soldier you’d know not to ask that.” Face’s tone of reproach wasn’t faked and he saw Erik bristle at it, rising to the tone of the reprimand.


“Well, I guess I’m not a soldier the way you are. But…” He stopped, calming himself and spoke more quietly. “What do you think of my men? As soldiers?”


“As soldiers they make good border patrol guards.”


“But you wouldn’t… go into battle with them.”


Battle? Just what battle did he have in mind? “Picking up stray wetbacks doesn’t exactly require crack troops, Erik.”


“Don’t think that’s the limit of my ambitions.”


Face didn’t answer, left the silence there, hoping Erik would fill it with an explanation of those ambitions of his. After a moment, Erik went on.


“You could help me. Come and work with us for a while. Help me make those men into a more effective fighting force.”


What Face wanted to say was, ‘What time’s breakfast and is there room service?’ But he reined in his enthusiasm and spoke in a noncommittal tone.


“What’s in it for me?”


“I can get my backer to pay you a consultancy fee.”


His backer had to be Laidler, and once inside, with the run of the place and all the time in the world to make Erik tell him everything, Face would get that name out of him. That name and everything else. Give Face a day and Erik would be wondering where ‘Jase’ had been all his life.


Restraining his natural instinct to start negotiating the fee, Face stayed in character. “I can’t eat money,” he said.


“I’m sure we can come to some arrangement. You look like you could use some new equipment. And some of the Mexicans we’ve picked up are still at the compound – including women. You can have your choice.”


Face fought back the disgusted look trying to make its way onto his face and smirked instead. A man stuck out here alone could be expected to show some interest in such an offer – assuming he was a total bastard.


“I could use some cash, I guess,” Face said, looking thoughtful. “Okay, Erik, I’ll be back. Get your men ready to do some real work.” He turned away, took a couple of steps and looked back over his shoulder, enjoying the dramatic effect as Erik froze in the action of brushing away some dirt still on his shoulder from Face’s trap. “The next time won’t be a prank. Understood?” He didn’t wait for an answer, just strode into the forest.


Once out of sight he hid and watched Erik’s next move. He surprised Face by carefully examining the mechanics of the booby trap before he turned and headed back towards his compound. Face let him go, and began to hike back to the rendezvous point where the van would come for him in the morning.

Chapter 10

Face sat in the van drinking hot coffee from a Thermos. BA, charged with bringing him back to town, scowled at him.


“You sure you ain’t gonna come back now? You got the phoney colonel’s name.”


“He’s not a phoney,” Face said. “He’s not a colonel, but he’s not quite a phoney either, not in the sense you mean.”


BA snorted. He’d met lots of guys who called themselves colonel and even general and were no such thing. A phoney was a phoney.


“Anyway, I don’t have the connection to Laidler yet,” Face added.


“Hannibal ain’t gonna like it. He told me to come get you. If I go back without you, I’m the one who gets the flak.”


“I’ll make it up to you.” Face gave him an especially brilliant smile – a futile gesture; BA had been immune to the smile for years.


“Maybe I’ll just toss you in the back and drive outta here.”


“You know,” Face said, with a sly look, “if you’re scared of Hannibal, just say so.”


“Don’t try and play me, man. I ain’t no harp.”


“Just highly strung,” Face said, and then quickly went on as BA glared at him. “I don’t want to do half a job. There’s something big going on here and I have to figure out what.” He sipped coffee again, looking out of the window at the grey morning light. “They’ve got prisoners there. Women. Maybe even kids.”


“You saw kids?” BA glanced into the back of the van. They had weapons. Could he and Face mount a rescue right now? Frustrated at the absurdity of that idea he thumped his hand on the steering wheel.


“I didn’t see any little kids. But there was a young guy there. A big guy, but still a kid.”


“Okay, Face. I’ll tell Hannibal you’re going back in. And if he don’t like it he knows what he can do with it.”


“Thanks, BA. Hey, if he gives you too much crap you could tell him I overpowered you.”


“Yeah, right. So, you got anything else about the phoney colonel I can pass on? You sure about the spelling of that name?”


“No, but I’m sure Amy can try some variations.” Face glanced at the notebook he’d handed over. BA was asking for feelings not facts. “He’s an amateur, but not a fool. He knows what he’s doing out in the woods, but no more than say an Eagle Scout, or an experienced hiker – not a soldier.”


“Can he fight?”


“Hand to hand?” Face shrugged. “Maybe taken some martial arts classes. But he can handle guns. That’s the one thing I’d say he’d match plenty of soldiers on.”


“Watch your back then.”


“I always do.” Face screwed the top back on the Thermos. “Thanks for the coffee. I’ll take the breakfast to go.” He picked up the paper-wrapped package and grabbed a duffel of extra clothes. “Give me two days, then come back here at the same time.”


“I still don’t like it,” BA said. “You want a tracker? I’ve got some in the back.”


Face hesitated, but shook his head. “Too risky. If it’s found it’ll blow my cover. Don’t worry. You know me – I know how to get out when trouble’s coming.”


“Tell that to the Army.”


~~~


“Jase!”


Erik beamed and offered his hand as Face arrived at the camp right in time for lunch. He’d taken a long slow walk back, knowing he shouldn’t seem too keen and also needing to prepare himself mentally. Become Jase again, for much longer this time.


“I wasn’t expecting you so soon.”


“I think a damn bear went through my place yesterday, so I figured I’d come take you up on your offer.” He shook Erik’s hand.


“Well, that’s great. The sooner the better.”


Luis was nearby and Erik called to him to come take Face’s bag and pack. Face almost said he’d carry them himself, but decided he didn’t want to start rocking the boat too soon. He gave up the bag with a gruff “thanks”, but hung onto the pack, which had his weapons in it. The ones he wasn’t wearing about his person anyway.


While Luis followed with the bag, Erik led Face to one of the barracks. Face couldn’t help glancing back at the boy now and again. That damn dog collar was preying on his mind. His fingers itched with the urge to pick that padlock and get the sick thing off the kid. Luis didn’t seem perturbed about it, even though it had left red marks on his neck. In fact, he wore a placid and contented half-smile. He carried no bruises that Face could see, but it was hard to imagine that the men here could cow him without some physical punishment.


“Come and have something to eat,” Erik said, after they found Face a spare cot and left his gear there. “Then we’ll talk about how you can help me here.”


“Still eating that deer I brought you?”


They were – venison sandwiches, with freshly made bread.


“Man, you even have English mustard,” Face said, smearing some in his sandwich. “Who the hell’s paying for all this anyway?” He hoped it sounded like a natural question. A guarded, though not suspicious expression appeared on Erik’s face.


“I paid for some of the initial setup, along with a backer. He’s still paying our overhead.”


“Right.” He clearly wasn’t going to explain who the backer was and Face suspected any more specific enquiries would be greeted with suspicion – at least by the other men, if not by Erik. “Patriotic-minded fella with money. The country needs more like that.”


“Yes,” Erik agreed. “And more like us.”


~~~


“What do you mean, he’s staying?” Hannibal glared at BA. “I told you to go get him. Do you need clarification, Sergeant?”


BA bristled at the tone. “What was I supposed to do? Knock him out? Maybe shoulda. Payback for all the planes.”


“Okay,” Hannibal said, taking a breath to calm down. It wasn’t BA’s fault. What the hell was Face playing at? Initiative was one thing; Hannibal had always encouraged initiative in his officers and men – as long as they used their initiative to carry out his orders. Still simmering, he turned and stomped back into the house, finding Murdock and Amy in the kitchen.


“We’ve got a name,” Hannibal said. He opened the notebook BA had handed him. It held plenty of information, but Hannibal would have a long wait for answers to any follow-up questions. “The guy in charge at the compound is named Erik Trikken. Amy, over to you on that. Get me a full report on him. Fast.”


“Right,” she said. “Do you have his age? A rough idea where he’s from?”


Hannibal flipped to a description of the man in question and gave it to her. “Fast.” He said again. “Ask the Coopers if they’ve heard of him, in case he’s local.”


“Where is Face?” Murdock asked.


“He stayed behind.”


“He what?”


“Ask BA. He’s the one who came back without him.”


“It can’t be good for him to stay there out of contact for this long,” Amy said, looking alarmed.


“The longer he stays the shorter the odds on his cover story springing a leak,” Murdock said, scepticism written all over his face. “And then he’ll be springing a leak.”


“I know. He says he’s going to report back in two days.” Hannibal folded his arms. “This time, I’ll be there to meet him and if I say he comes back, he comes back.”


~~~


Bingo!


A Cadillac drove into the compound that afternoon; Face had to hide a grin as Laidler stepped out of it and strode over to Erik. Face recognised the man from photographs and he recognised the car from seeing it leaving thr ranch when he’d been there planting the phone bug. A teenage boy got out of the passenger seat. Face guessed he was Cody Laidler, who’d stayed in his room the whole time Face and BA had been at the ranch. Damn good thing, too or Face would be high-tailing it for the horizon now, before the kid said something like, “Don’t I know you?”


But Cody showed no signs of recognition, so Face forgot him and watched Laidler instead. Erik shook the man’s hand, but didn’t smile at him. Face would have liked to get closer to overhear what they said to each other, but he didn’t want Laidler to notice him. They hadn’t met, so Laidler wouldn’t recognise him, but he would realise Face was a stranger. So when Laidler and Erik suddenly headed in his direction he had a moment of worry before they passed by, heading for the prisoner’s barracks.


The same truck that the team had followed from the border stood outside that building. Erik summoned several more men to reinforce the guards already on the doors and they began to bring out the prisoners and load them into the truck.


So, Laidler was taking them out of here. Where to? To work in his fields? That didn’t fit with what Eleanor Cooper had told them about Laidler’s attitude toward foreign workers. It didn’t fit with Erik either. How much did Erik know about where his prisoners went after they left here? Did he assume they were going back to Mexico? Were they?


A crash and a mocking laugh made Face turn from watching the prisoner transfer. Luis lay sprawled on the ground, a load of clean laundry he’d been carrying scattered in the dirt. Cody Laidler stood over him.


“Stupid ox,” Cody said, smirking. “Tripped over my foot. You’d better apologise.”


Face’s eyes narrowed. Cody would never dare try that outside of here, but with the much bigger boy unable to fight back, the little weasel was taking full advantage. Getting to his knees, Luis started gathering the now dirty laundry into a big basket.


“I’m sorry, Mr Cody,” he said.


“It’s ‘sir’! You call me ‘sir’, you big dumb spic.” Cody drew his foot back for a kick, but was stopped in his tracks when Face materialised at his side and grabbed his ear.


They’d taught Face all kinds of holds in Special Forces training, but this one came straight from the orphanage. He’d learned by being on the wrong end of it when the Sisters caught him getting up to no good.


As he got older it had become a matter of pride not to yell when one of the Sisters grabbed him that way. But Cody had no such pride, his howls attracting the attention of everyone in the vicinity, making Erik’s men roar with laughter. Face’s back was to Erik and Laidler, which bothered him, but he’d reacted on instinct and had to follow through now that everyone was looking at him.


“Why don’t you go wait in your dad’s car?” he said, in a mild tone – actually threatening a teenage kid was beneath him. “That way you won’t trip anyone else up.” He let go and the boy staggered away, rubbing his ear, gaping at Face.


“Who the hell are you?” Cody demanded. “You can’t talk to me like that! Do you know who I am?”


“Unoriginal,” Face said.


“What? Dad!”


Face glanced back to see Erik and Laidler coming to see what all the commotion was. Okay, act cool. He crouched down and started helping Luis heap the laundry back into the basket.


“Dad! This guy attacked me!” Cody wailed, pointing at Face.


“Quit bellyaching, boy,” Laidler said and turned away from Cody to look down at Face. His expression changed to suspicion. “Who the hell are you, anyway?”


“This is Jase Carlson,” Erik said. “He’s staying for a few days.”


“This isn’t a damn resort,” Laidler said. “I asked who the hell you are, mister.”


“He’s a war vet,” Erik said, as Laidler glared at Face. “I brought him in as a consultant, to do some training.”


“And when were you going to tell me this?” Laidler demanded.


“I’m in command of this base. I don’t report to you on operational matters.”


Laidler gave Erik a strange look and shook his head. “He could be anybody. He could be a cop. Or a fed.”


Face snorted, sounding both mocking and amused, as if the idea was patently ludicrous. That made Laidler glare at him again, before he grabbed Erik’s arm and pulled him away.


“Let’s have a private talk, shall we? Cody, wait in the car.”


“But –”


“Now!”


Laidler and Erik strode off. The men who’d been hanging around enjoying the show drifted off slowly, not willing to rush while there was the prospect of any more entertainment. Cody slouched away to the car.


The truck was closed up now, ready to go, taking the prisoners away. No, not quite all of the prisoners. A heavy sigh from Luis drew Face’s attention as they stood up, carrying the laundry basket between them.


“All dirty again,” Luis said, glumly.


“Never mind, kid,” Face said. “I’ll help you wash them.”


Luis brightened up. “Really, Mr Jase? You’ll help me?”


He would. Because Luis didn’t seem like the sharpest knife in the drawer, but careful questioning should extract useful information from him, without inducing the suspicion that a less innocent man would feel.


Also, the laundry area just happened to be right behind the building Erik and Laidler had gone into.

Chapter 11

While Luis filled the big wash tubs with water, Face wandered over to the building that was Erik’s command centre. Pretending to be just lounging he leaned against the wall right by a window. The voices inside were muffled, but he caught most of the conversation.


“I know you’re keeping them there!” That was Erik, his voice raised. “Why? Why so many?”


“I told you that before,” Laidler said. “It’s better to take them back in large groups. We don’t have to risk crossing the border as often.”


“You’ve had some of them there for months!”


“How do you know that?”


“I know. What about the drugs?”


Face’s ears pricked up. Drugs, eh? Now they were getting to the heart of the matter.


“What drugs? What are you talking about?”


“You’re bringing drugs over the border.” Erik’s voice rose. “Don’t try to deny it!”


“I swear, you really are paranoid. Who told you that? A voice in your head?” Laidler had a sneer in his voice.


“Drugs, Tom! They destroy lives. Young kids, like Cody! I won’t let you -”


“You won’t let me what? If you want to go on feeding your men and gassing up your Jeeps, then you’ll stay out of things that don’t concern you.”


There was silence for a moment and Face listened for anyything that would tell him they’d resorted to fists, but heard none. Eventually, Erik spoke again.


“Okay. But if I find out…” He stopped. “Have you made any progress on the radio station?”


“I think the Coopers have hired some gunslingers. I want to borrow a squad of your boys to run them off. My guys aren’t up to it.”


Face froze. Damn.


“Maybe a dozen of them,” Laidler went on. “Couple dozen even. To make sure.”


Damn, damn, damn. Not that these paramilitary clowns were a match for any of the team individually. But that many of them, well-armed… Face had to get a warning to the team. Should he get the hell out now while the going was good? He’d gotten what he came for – tied Laidler to Trikken’s operation. But there were still questions. Where was Laidler holding the prisoners? What about those drugs?


“When do you want them?” Erik asked.


“Thought I’d take some back with me now.”


Face sighed and started to work out the fastest route to the nearest phone.


“No,” Erik said. “Not today. I’ve got operations planned for the next three nights. I can’t spare the men.”


That’s the way, Erik! Face thought. Stick to your guns. Don’t let him take your men. That would at least give Face a couple of days to get a warning to the team. More silence, then Laidler spoke.


“After that then. Just remember – the sooner we get rid of those outsiders, the sooner we get the station. Okay, I’d better get out of here. You want to come out and have a chat with Cody before I go? He only comes out here to see you.”


“You should send him to stay with us for a few weeks,” Erik said. “It would do him good.” Face agreed with that opinion entirely. The voices faded and Face’s little intel-gathering session was over.


He left his position and went to help Luis with the laundry. As he worked, he watched Laidler get into his car and drive out following the truck full of prisoners.


Luis was watched the truck too. Did he wish he was going with them? Face wondered. Were they heading to a better or worse fate than his life of servitude and humiliation? Face glanced again at that damn dog collar. The thing preyed on his mind. He’d seen the same kind of games played on helpless prisoners before and he had to fight the urge to get his picks out right now.


“Do you know where they’re taking the people in the truck?” Face asked.


“Somewhere called the warehouse,” Luis said, surprising Face, who’d been expecting a negative answer. “I hear the other men talking,” he went on. “They forget I’m there. Or they forget I can speak American. I learned from the TV and my mother.”


“Is your mother still back in Mexico?” Face sank a washboard into the tub of soapy water and began scrubbing. Luis did the same on the other side.


“She died,” Luis said. “She was sick for a long time and then they sent for the priest.” He stopped, tears shining in his eyes.


“I’m sorry,” Face said. “So you decided to come to America?”


“My brother left home two years ago to go to Los Angeles to play football. I thought I would go and find him. So I paid a man some money to get me there. But he left me and then Mr Erik’s men found me.”


“Do the men hurt you?”


“Some of them hit me sometimes. But Mr Erik makes them stop. Like you did with Mr Cody.” He gave Face such a big smile that Face couldn’t help smiling back at the artless expression.


“I don’t like bullies,” Face said. His instincts told him to encourage Luis to stand up and strike back at anyone who tormented him. But Luis would pay if he tried that. Even if Erik disapproved of the men bullying the kid for fun, he’d have to punish him if he rebelled. So Face kept his mouth shut. It was okay anyway. Within a few days, this place would be history, Luis would be free and Face would help him track down his brother. With his contacts it would be easy.


Instinct told him someone was watching him, and he looked up to see Erik looking in this direction. Was he surprised to see ‘Jase’ doing a menial job? Or was he impressed to see him helping out with lowly, but essential work?


Face would find out later. He definitely needed to have a little chat with Erik after what he’d observed today. Clearly he and Laidler had differences. Face would be delighted to deepen and encourage those differences into outright conflict.


~~~


“Hannibal?” Amy came outside as dusk fell over the valley. Hannibal, lurking in some shadows, stepped out and smiled at the startled look on her face.


“I didn’t see you,” she said.


“Good. I thought I was getting rusty.”


“Right. Ah, I got the information back about Erik Trikken. We’re checking it out now. There’s coffee,” she added, hugging herself in the rapidly chilling night air.


He didn’t need an inducement to go see what she’d found out, but a cup of coffee would be welcome. He followed Amy inside.


“What have we got?” he asked Murdock and BA, who were pouring over Amy’s notes at the kitchen table. “We find anything useful about this guy?”


“Yeah,” BA said. “He’s a nut.”


“As a perfectly harmless and entirely respectable nut myself, I object to that,” Murdock said, sounding miffed. “Well, officially harmless and respectable anyway.”


“Quit babbling, fool. This is serious.”


“Are you going to get Face out now?” Amy said. “I think you should.”


“I’d like to actually hear what you found out first,” Hannibal said, getting coffee and sitting down.


“Okay,” Amy said.”Erik Trikken, aged thirty-seven. Lived in Tulsa most of his life.”


“But he didn’t want to,” Murdock said. “He kept trying to join the Army. During the war, too.”


Amy nodded. “Not just the Army. The Navy, the Air Force, the Marine Corps. But none of them would take him.”


“’cause he’s a nut,” BA put in.


“Basically,” Amy confirmed. “He was rejected from all of them for being ‘psychologically unsuitable’.”


“And if you’re too nuts to join the Marines…” Murdock said.


“He also tried to join the National Guard, the US Border Patrol and the police. Same thing.”


“It doesn’t say if he tried to join the Boy Scouts,” Murdock said. “But it wouldn’t surprise me.”


“Boy Scouts don’t carry guns,” Hannibal said.


BA snorted. “You didn’t grow up in my neighbourhood.”


“You think that’s it?” Amy asked Hannibal. “He likes guns?”


“If a guy tries to join every armed and uniformed service there is, a person has to wonder if he’s maybe a little too fond of guns and uniforms. What about his family background? Military family?”


“Definitely not,” Amy said, reading from her notebook. “His parents were immigrants from Norway. His father started with one hardware store and ended up with a chain of them all across the state. Five years ago, Erik inherited the business and sold it within six months. After that he pretty much drops off the map. No paper trail since then.”


“He ever been in jail?” Hannibal asked. “Or the nuthouse?”


“Neither as far as I can find, but Zack is still looking, in case there’s anything else. So are you going to get Face out?”


“Yeah, Hannibal,” Murdock said. “Mr Trikky may not have been in the nuthouse, but I wouldn’t bet on him winning Mr Sanity 1985 either.”


“BA?” Hannibal said, looking to him. He didn’t tend worry as much as Murdock or Amy. “What do you think?”


BA hesitated, then said, “We should at least have a plan for busting him out ready. Case we need it.”


They should have that anyway, Hannibal thought, but Face staying at the compound had taken him by surprise and he hadn’t given an extraction plan enough thought yet. Time to settle down with the notes and maps Face had given BA that morning and figure it out.


“Let’s not go charging in half-cocked,” Hannibal said. “If he doesn’t show up for the rendezvous as planned, we’ll go in and get him. Could be he’ll be ready to come out by then anyway.”


“But –” Amy began.


Hannibal cut her off. “Stay cool, Kid. Face can handle himself.”


~~~


Face joined Erik on patrol that night. After a few hours Face stopped them in a small clearing near the river.


“Time to eat,” he said.


Erik glanced at his watch. Face hadn’t looked at his watch. He didn’t even have it on, keeping up the appearance of a man who had no regard for society’s norms. He was hungry, so it was time to eat.


They sat on a fallen tree trunk and unwrapped the bread, cheese and cold meat they carried. Just a snack to keep them going. They’d get a hearty breakfast in the morning after a long night of dispensing vigilante justice.


They ate in silence. Erik had been thoughtful all day, since Laidler left, and Face decided he’d given it long enough.


“That guy who came today. He’s your backer?”


“Yes.”


“How’s he get the money for that?”


Erik winced, didn’t reply right away. Perhaps thinking about the drugs he’d mentioned. Perhaps wondering about where those people ended up after Laidler took them away.


“He’s rich,” he said after a while and shut up again, chewing his bread with a morose expression.


“I didn’t like to see him ordering you around.”


Erik didn’t like it either, going by the way his face flushed. He lowered his head, not meeting Face’s eyes.


“I don’t have a lot of choice.”


“Where’d he take those Mexicans?”


Erik didn’t look up. “He’s supposed to be taking them back across the border.”


“Supposed to be?”


“He… might be doing something else. I don’t know.” He shook his head, looked at Face. “He used to have the same principles as me, when we started this. But he’s changed. He’s more interested in money now.”


Face nodded and went on eating silently for a while. Don’t push. Don’t interrogate him. We’re just having a conversation here. When he finished eating he took out his thermos and poured coffee.


“It’s society,” he said. “Living back there in – hah – civilization. It corrupts a man.”


Erik took out his own thermos and a couple of apples, one of which he handed to Face.


“Yes. Yes, you’re right. Out here, a man can be purer in his thinking. He can be a better man. Physically and mentally.”


Face bit his apple. “Found that in the war.” He spoke with his mouth full. “On base, life was all distractions. Army red tape bullshit. Drinking. Women. Wasted too much time thinking about all that crap. But once I got out in the jungle, I could focus and think straight again.” He took another bite of his apple. “If it wasn’t for wanting to eat a good cheeseburger now and again I’d have stayed there!” He laughed, but Erik didn’t. He had the awestruck look on his face again.


“Jase, if I had twenty men like you…”


“What?” Face said, grinning. “You’d march on the governor’s mansion and take over the state?”


Erik chuckled, but shook his head. “Being the man at the top isn’t always the best way to get things done. Do you know why military coups are so often led by colonels rather than generals? Because they can still make things happen. Generals are practically politicians already anyway.”


Face chuckled, picturing Hannibal leading a military coup. He could probably manage a medium-sized third world country. His first act as leader would be to distribute free cigars.


“I never thought of that, Erik, but it’s an interesting point. I knew a few colonels in the war. Gigantic egos, of course. But you’re right, they were guys who got things done on the ground.”


“Do you think I have a gigantic ego?” Erik asked and Face cursed himself for forgetting Erik called himself Colonel.


“No,” Face said. “In fact it seems to me you could use a bit more confidence in yourself. The men would respond to that.” Yeah. Maybe they would stop snickering behind his back.


“I want to be that kind of man. Like you. But… I think I need to prove myself first.”


“Prove yourself how?”


Erik shifted his position on the log and looked towards the river, the water gurgling quietly, moonlight turning its surface into flickering silver.


“I’ve never killed a man.”


Face didn’t answer for a while, not liking this turn in the conversation. But he pulled himself together and spoke with a sincerity that wasn’t faked.


“Killing people is overrated as a pastime.”


“But how can I call myself a soldier unless I’ve killed a man?” Erik asked, looking back at Face.


“You’ve had plenty of people in your hands that nobody would ever miss. What keeps you from doing one of them?” His words tasted like bile in his mouth, but it’s what Jase would ask.


Face knew the answer already. He’d watched Erik not shoot that prisoner and knew he couldn’t kill. It’s just who he was. A normal person might consider that a good quality. But Erik…


“I’ve thought about that,” Erik said. “But that would make me a murderer, not a soldier. I need a worthy opponent, not a victim. An equal I can prove myself against.”


Face’s hand strayed towards his rifle on the log beside him. “Is that why you brought me out here, Erik? To prove yourself?”


“What?” Erik stared, horrified. “No! Oh, God, Jase, no, of course not!”


Face breathed a sigh of relief, but covered it quickly, not wanting to let Erik see anything he could interpret as fear. Erik wanted Jase’s respect and approval, not his fear.


“I like the way you think.” Face rose, picking up his rifle. “Let’s get back to work.”


~~~


“Hannibal!” Amy shook Hannibal’s shoulder, making him wake up very reluctantly. He still wanted a couple more hours sleep, even on this cot that felt like it had had one too many roadies using it in the past.


“What?” he muttered, turning over, thinking there had better be coffee close by. There didn’t seem to be any coffee, annoyingly. Just Amy, crouched by the cot. But her anxious expression served the same function as a jolt of java.


“What’s wrong?”


“I just got some more information on Trikken,” she said. “Did you come up with an extraction plan yet?”


“What’s the information?”


“You know how Face and BA went to Laidler’s house to plant the bug? And Face talked to Mrs Laidler?”


“Yeah, what about it?”


“Mrs Laidler is Erik Trikken’s sister.”

Chapter 12

The compound had two rows of wash basins set up on a long bench. Luis was pouring hot water into them as Face and Erik drove through the gates and parked the jeep.


Face hurried over to the bench, tugging his shirt off over his head as he walked. A big chunk of bright yellow, evil smelling soap by the basin was all he had to wash with. Not his usual brand by a long way, but he didn’t care, because right now he just wanted to wash up, grab some breakfast and then sleep. Erik used the basin opposite him and Face felt the man’s gaze sweep over his bare torso. He forced himself not to react.


Probably looking for scars. Face had a few, most faded to near invisibility now. They could be useful with women; he had a dozen tales of heroism and daring to explain their acquisition. Tigers, crocodiles, rescuing babies from burning orphanages. The usual.


He glanced at Erik, making the man look away, as if conscious of being caught looking. Let him look. Scars only solidified Face’s cover. Not that it needed more; he had Erik eating out of his hand now. He rinsed off the last of the soap and started to dry himself with a thin, scratchy towel.


He’d get the rest of the details tonight, he felt sure. Erik was ready to tell him everything about those other, bigger ambitions he’d only hinted at before. Then Face would make an excuse, slip away and meet up with the team at dawn. Back to civilisation. Hot showers, fluffy towels and soap that didn’t strip a layer of your skin off. The morning breeze on his damp skin made him shiver and he rubbed himself dry faster with his towel, before dragging a clean shirt from his pack. He put that on, gave Erik a friendly smile and headed to the mess for breakfast.


~~~


“Are you going to go get Face out now?” Amy asked. She handed Hannibal a cup of coffee as he walked into the kitchen fifteen minutes after she woke him, his hair still damp from the shower. Murdock and BA sat at the table, neither looking happy to be awake at six-thirty.


“The three of us can’t mount a raid in daylight,” BA said. “Know what happened last time we tried that.”


“Yeah, but at least Face’s intel won’t send us to the kitchen,” Hannibal pointed out. He sipped the coffee. “We don’t have to launch a raid. We just have to get a signal to Face to tell him to abort and get out.”


“He doesn’t have his walkie-talkie, remember,” Murdock said.


“So how are you going to give him a signal?” Amy asked. “Send up a flare?”


“Well we could do that,” Hannibal said. “If Murdock hadn’t given Face our only flare gun.”


“I’m sure we got a spare in the van,” BA said.


“No, that was the spare,” Hannibal said. “Remember Murdock dropped one in a river about a month ago. We didn’t get around to replacing it yet.”


“I’m sure somewhere in this town we can find another flare gun!” Murdock said, voice rising, flaring up himself at being blamed for this particular equipment shortage.


Hannibal scowled. Murdock wasn’t to blame. This was Face’s own damn fault. Going off and staying there on his own initiative meant they’d never arranged a signal to tell him to get out. Even if they found another flare gun, would Face realise it was them and what the signal meant? Or would it just bring Trikken and all his guys out? Though luring them out into the woods could allow the team to make contact with Face. Or let him slip away – assuming he realised he was supposed to.


“We could wait until they go out on patrol again,” BA said. “Try to make contact with Face then.”


Hannibal nodded. “Yeah. We don’t have to panic and go blundering in half-cocked. Even if his cover is blown they won’t just kill him on the spot; they’ll try to find out who he is. They’ll probably think he’s a cop or a federal agent.”


“Maybe not,” BA said. “Mrs Laidler saw me, too.”


“Yeah,” Murdock said. “If she makes the connection and they realise Face is one of us and if they know we’re the A-Team…”


“That’s a lot of ‘ifs’,” Hannibal said.


“But it’s possible,” BA insisted


Hannibal couldn’t deny that it was. “Possible, yes, but how likely is it that Laidler would take his wife out there? And she’s the only one who would recognise him. BA, you said the kid didn’t see the two of you when you were at the house.”


“He stayed in his room the whole time. I don’t think he saw us.”


“You betting Face’s life on an ‘I don’t think’, Colonel?” Murdock asked quietly.


“Face took that bet himself when he went in there,” Hannibal said. He sipped his coffee and the others watched him with expectant faces, waiting for the plan. He put the coffee mug down. “Okay, we can’t get to Face until he comes out by himself. So we have to come at this from the other direction. Mrs Laidler is the danger. If she sees Face, she can give him away. If she doesn’t see him, he’s in no more danger than he has been the whole time.”


“So what do we do?” Murdock said, eyebrows raised. “Kidnap Mrs Laidler and keep her locked in the basement until after the rendezvous tomorrow?”


“No, we follow her,” Hannibal said, not appreciating Murdock’s sarcastic tone. “Or rather, you follow her. Take Amy to help you stay awake,” he added, seeing how tired Murdock looked. None of them got enough sleep on missions. “Make sure Mrs Laidler doesn’t go anywhere near the compound. If she does, then we go in. After that, it’s up to Face to get himself out.” He finished the last swallow of his coffee and stood up. “After all, he’s the one who insisted on staying in.”


~~~


Face stepped out of the hut where he’d been sleeping, stretching and squinting into the bright afternoon sun. The compound was quiet, most of the men sleeping. A few snoozed in the sun with beer bottles beside them. Luis was busy with a broom. Poor kid did all the damn work around here. He caught Face’s eye and gave him a big smile and a wave. Since Face helped him with the laundry he’d become his new best friend.


Face waved back to him and strolled over to grab himself some water. As he drank that, he heard Erik calling him. Erik stood by a pickup truck, a couple of his men climbing into the back. Oh, hello, Face thought. Going on a trip? He wandered over, trying not to appear too eager, but already wanting in on the trip. If it went somewhere he could make a phone call, he could warn the team about Laidler’s planned attack on the station.


Erik smiled at him. “I’m going for a drive. You said you like a burger now and again – want to come get one?”


Well that was easy. Things were going his way today. “Sure. Count me in.”


~~~


Murdock and Amy sat a half-mile up the road from the entrance to the Laidler’s ranch, in the Amy’s car, and watched the house. A few men worked in the yard, but there’d been no sign of the lady of the house.


“Maybe she’ll stay home all day,” Amy said. “Valentine’s Crossing isn’t exactly jammed with designer boutiques and she sounds like a woman with expensive tastes.”


Murdock hoped Mrs Laidler did stay home. Following her in the car in open country like this, they’d be seen a mile away. And if she had bodyguards…


“We should have listened to her phone calls,” he said. “She might not know anything about what her husband is up to, but she might have mentioned her brother.” He shook his head at the irony of respecting the woman’s privacy and having it bite them in the ass. “Being the good guys might be good karma, but in this life it can give you a few rake in the face moments.”


“It’s always harder doing the right thing,” Amy said, then yawned. Murdock caught it and did the same, then elbowed her.


“You’re supposed to be keeping me awake.”


“You’ve got the radio,” she said, turning it up. It was tuned to Radio Coyote, where Scott and Josh bantered good naturedly about the songs they were playing, music from the sixties and seventies from Scott versus Josh’s more up-to-the-minute picks.


Murdock listened for a few minutes, before declaring, “When we get back I’m going to have to give that boy a piece of my mind about the proper appreciation of Peter Frampton.” Amy’s only response was a small snore.


Let her sleep? Murdock wondered, smiling at her peaceful expression. She’d been up to all hours doing her research. Or should he wake her up to talk to him before he joined her in dreamland? Hannibal wouldn’t be impressed if Mrs Laidler drove past the pair of them snoring by the side of the road.


He’d was wondering if she had a camera in the car, so he could take a picture if Amy started to drool, when he saw a female figure come out of the front door of the ranch house. He grabbed the binoculars. Maybe it was just the maid. No. He recognised Mrs Laidler from the picture he’d checked before they came to stake her out.


Even better, a couple of husky men followed her to a blue station wagon that waited at the front of the house. Bodyguards. His men’s previous encounters with the team must have made Laidler nervous. According to the Coopers, Mrs Laidler didn’t usually travel around with bodyguards.


One of the men took the driver’s seat; the other held open the back door for Mrs Laidler, before getting into the front passenger seat. Murdock put down his binoculars and started the car.


Amy jerked awake. “I’m not asleep…” She shook herself. “What’s going on?”


At that moment, Scott announced the next track was to be The Beatle’s “Magical Mystery Tour”. Murdock grinned.


“What he said.”


~~~


Erik’s pickup truck flew along the road, him and Face in the front, the other two men setting in the bed of the truck. They were breaking the speed limit and making Face nervous about highway patrols. He’d hate to be recognised and have to make a run for it out here on the flat valley floor. With little cover to be had, it was the kind of terrain where a man could be spotted a long way off. Not the friendliest territory for a fugitive.


Erik himself seemed in high spirits. They had the radio turned up loud and tuned to Radio Coyote, Erik scoffing at the “modern rubbish” Josh picked. Though Face actually enjoyed some of the modern rubbish, he agreed with Erik, to keep him happy. If he was happy he wasn’t thinking about proving himself by killing someone.


The wind through the open window blew Face’s hair into chaos, but that fit with Jase’s unpolished image. So did leaning his arm on the frame and banging his hand on the door in time to the music.


When The Beatles “Magical Mystery Tour” came on the radio, Face laughed.


“That’s what we’re on, a Magical Mystery Tour. Well, I am.”


“No big mystery,” Erik said. “Just going to a diner to meet someone.”


Laidler? Face wondered. That could be interesting, though he didn’t know why Erik would bring Jase along in that case. But never mind that, because a diner would have a payphone. The trick would be getting to use it without arousing suspicion. If anyone asked he’d say he was talking to his mother. Nobody could question a man’s right to talk to his poor, aged mother.


“Anyone interesting?” Face asked, keeping his tone casual.


“My sister.”


“You have a sister? She just visiting or does she live around here?”


“She lives around here,” Erik said. “I try to see her every couple of weeks.”


“Family is important,” Face said. “You know, while we’re there, maybe I should call my mom. She worries about me.” Nice set up. Man, he was on fire today. Now he’d be able to call right in plain sight without a qualm.


“Where does your mom live?”


“Florida,” Face said. “Moved down there about ten years ago.”


“What about your dad?”


“He passed on about that time.”


“I’m sorry.” His genuine sympathy gave Face a flash of guilt for the lies that flowed so easily from him. He covered that with a shrug and then smiled at Erik.


They passed a sign for a rest stop in twenty miles. Face had seen it on maps of the area. It was on the road up from the border.


“That where we’re going?” he asked Erik, gesturing at the sign.


“Yes.”


Face turned up the radio and settled more comfortably into his seat.


When they reached the rest stop, Face checked the parking lot carefully for police vehicles. In his experience cops and the only source of hot coffee for miles around usually went together. A few cars were parked, as well as a couple of trucks and four motorcycles, but none of them had police markings on them. Breathing a little easier, Face followed Erik and his two men inside.


They took a booth and Face made a small error in letting himself be hemmed in by the guy sitting next to him. Damn, he needed to pay more attention. That was a basic mistake. He could get out if he needed to, but getting past the man would use up what could be crucial seconds.


Maybe he’d go make that phone call to his “mom” soon. Or go to the bathroom. The natural thing on coming back would be to take the outside seat.


“Are we going to order, or wait until your sister arrives?” Face asked, checking the menu. Say ‘wait’, he thought. Then he’d say ‘in that case I’ll go make that call first.’


“Go ahead and order,” Erik said, shaking his head. “Margaret’s always late.”


Margaret. The name rang an alarm in Face’s mind. Where had he heard that recently?


“I hope you’re not setting me up with your sister,” he said, chuckling. “Wait – what am I saying? I haven’t had a date in a year!”


Erik laughed too. “Afraid not, Jase. She’s already married.”


“The best ones are always taken.”


“Oh, she’s here. On time for a change,” Erik said, looking out of the window. Face saw a blue station wagon parked right outside. Erik turned back to Face. “You met her husband back at the compound actually. My backer, Tom. He’s my brother-in-law.”


Face froze in his seat. Margaret Laidler. Oh shit!


The door to the diner opened and Mrs Laidler walked in.

Chapter 13

“Maybe she has a secret lover,” Murdock said, as he and Amy followed Mrs Laidler’s car into the isolated rest stop.


“She’d hardly bring a couple of her husband’s men to a secret rendezvous,” Amy said.


One of her guards opened the back door for her and she got out and approached the diner. The two men didn’t follow her, but stayed beside the car, lighting cigarettes. Murdock parked beside four big touring motorcycles, well away from the station wagon.


“Do you think she’s here to meet with her brother?” Amy asked.


Murdock nodded. “I doubt the food is good enough to make her drive all the way out here, to a spot that just happens to be on the way to her brother’s secret lair in the woods.”


“Do you think Face is in there?”


“I can’t think why Trikken would bring him along,” Murdock said. “On the other hand, Face is there to gather intel. I’m sure he’d want to know who Trikken was meeting.” He reached into the glove box and took out a pistol. “And Face can always talk his way into a ride.


“You’re going in?” Amy asked, looking at the pistol.


“If Face is in there, then he’s about to need backup.” Before she had the chance to say she was coming too, added, “You’re the getaway driver. Slide over after I get out and keep this baby hot. We’re gonna need a fast departure.”


“I will. Good luck, Murdock.”


The door to the diner burst open.


~~~


Maybe she wouldn’t recognise him, Face thought as Margaret Laidler – nee Trikken as he now knew – approached the table, smiling at Erik. Context is everything. She didn’t expect to see him here and this ruffian Jase bore little resemblance to the handsome and charming fellow from the phone company.


Maybe he should try not smiling. Erik might wonder why he was so unfriendly, but better that than flash his most memorable asset. But he was screwed and he knew it. Start making an escape plan right the hell now, he thought. Front door or out through the kitchen? What if Erik and his men start shooting? He glanced around at the other patrons. There were a few men sitting by themselves. Four big guys in leather. Oh God, a family with a couple of kids.


She was close now, and looking right at Face. A frown furrowed her brow. Confusion? Recognition?


“Hey,” Face said to Erik, hoping to at least get out of the booth so he had a better chance to run. “Why don’t I go make that call now, while you catch up with your sister?”


Maybe saying ‘call’ was the mistake. Maybe it made her think of phones. But whatever triggered it, he saw it on her face. She recognised him.


“Erik, what’s he doing here?”


Face didn’t wait to hear more. He drove his elbow into the gut of the man at his side, shoving him out of the booth. He fell, doubled up and groaning, Face climbing over him before he even hit the linoleum. Mrs Laidler screamed as Face ran at her. But he didn’t want to attack her, just get past her and head for the door.


He didn’t even make it as far as her, never mind the door. A hand belonging to the man he’d shoved out of the booth grabbed at his ankle, tripping him. Face sprawled full length on the linoleum, slid and crashed hard into the bolted down stools by the counter. Before he could shake off the pain of the impact and scramble up, men were piling on top of him.


“Call the cops!” a woman yelled. Then people screamed. Face couldn’t see it, but would bet someone had just drawn a gun. The bell over the door jangled madly as patrons and staff ran for their lives.


“What the hell’s going on?” Erik demanded.


He’d be the one waving the gun around. He sounded like he was still back by the booth. His two soldiers were the ones holding Face down. Two men would have been no problem – if he’d still been on his feet. But with someone kneeling on his legs he had no leverage and no chance of getting up.


Two burly men – more of the ranch hand/henchman type than Erik’s soldiers – came pounding into the diner, yelling for Mrs Laidler.


“Help us!” one of Erik’s men shouted and they hesitated for only a second, before joining in subduing Face, who cursed. Even on his feet, he’d have trouble with four guys.


“Margaret! What’s going on?” Erik yelled. “You know him?”


“He came to the ranch,” she said in a shaky voice. “He said he was from the phone company. Him and another man. They checked all the phones.”


“I don’t know what she’s talking about!” Face yelled. “I never saw her before in my life!” Too late now. Making a run for it undermined that declaration.


What happened next depended on how smart Erik was. Would he waste time trying to straighten this out in the next five minutes? Or would he get Face out of here before the cops showed up? He’d have all the time he liked to ask questions then. On balance, Face was hoping for the cops.


“What -” Erik began, but a gunshot from outside interrupted him. Another one followed it quickly. One of the men who’d came with Mrs Laidler ran to the window.


“A guy just shot out our tires!”


~~~


Murdock shot out the two front tires of the station wagon and looked around the parking lot. He’d taken out one getaway vehicle, but there were a dozen cars and trucks dotted around and he had no idea which one belonged to Trikken.


Since he had neither the time nor the ammo to shoot out the tires of every likely vehicle, he instead ran for the diner, sending the people who’d run out of it scattering in a panic. But before Murdock could reach the door it crashed open and a struggling group emerged. One man in front, gun drawn, fending everyone off. After him came three men dragging Face, who struggled hard but ineffectually against them. Mrs Laidler followed with a man who had a protective arm around her and a pistol in his other hand. That must be her brother.


The man leading the way saw Murdock, saw the gun and fired, sending Murdock diving into cover behind a car. The smart thing to do now would be to stay down and let them go. They outnumbered and outgunned him. But if Murdock had been a man for choosing the smart option he wouldn’t be on the A-Team.


Barely believing he was dumb enough to try, he popped up to lean his arms across the hood of the car, pointing his pistol. Stupid for sure. But he had to try, because he didn’t want this to be the last time he saw Face alive.


“Let him go!” he demanded. Just to make a point, he fired a shot over their heads. It smashed the unlit neon sign of the diner, scattering glass down on the heads of the group.


More screams came from behind Murdock. The group dragging Face did stop for a second and Murdock thought maybe, by some miracle, he actually had the drop on them. Then a heavy weight slammed him against the car, driving the breath from his lungs.


“Drop the gun, buddy!” a gruff voice demanded


The smells of leather and tobacco filled his nostrils as he panted for breath. What the hell? Where did the reinforcements come from? He drove his elbow back hard and the man behind him grunted with pain and started to fall away. But even as that weight was released, two more men loomed on either side, grabbing his arms. One slammed Murdock’s hand against the car and jarred the pistol from his grip.


Trikken’s group ran for a pickup truck, not waiting for the guys attacking Murdock. They weren’t reinforcements, he realised, as he saw their leather and heavy boots, they were the owners of those motorcycles he’d parked next to.


Of all the times to run into a bunch of crime-fighting bikers!


“Let me go!” Murdock gasped out, still breathless. “I’m not the bad guy!”


Trikken and his sister got into the front of the truck. The others manhandled Face into the bed and the truck’s tires spun, flinging up gravel as it accelerated away. The last of the well-meaning bikers scooped up Murdock’s gun and held it on him, with enough confidence to make Murdock believe he knew how to use it. Nevertheless, as the truck carrying Face away retreated down the road, Murdock made a last effort to escape the men holding him.


“Knock it off!” the man with the gun said. “We’re making a citizen’s arrest!”


~~~


Ducked down low in the driver’s seat of her car, Amy stared at Face, then Murdock and back to Face again. Face was being dragged into a pickup truck. Murdock was being attacked by four huge bikers, and one of them had his gun! Staying low, she gripped the steering wheel hard, trying to decide what to do. Go after Face? What could she do single-handed and unarmed?


She wouldn’t be single handed if she had Murdock. As the pickup truck with Face in it roared out of the lot, the bikers dragged Murdock to his feet. They weren’t Trikken’s people, she realised. Just guys stopping off for a break and a meal and doing their civic duty by apprehending a madman running around shooting at people.


Damn them!


She had to get Murdock. Even if the two of them couldn’t rescue Face, she had to get Murdock before the cops arrived and hauled him off to fingerprint him. Because then Decker would show up and…


Dammit! Amy sat up straight and slammed her foot down on the gas. The car roared forward, Amy steering with one hand, while the other pressed down hard on the horn. She added a yell to the general racket, and the battle cry made her adrenaline surge as the car bore down on the bikers. Surprised by this new attack, they staggered back, stumbling as they tried to maintain their hold on Murdock. Amy saw Murdock turn into a flurry of fists, elbows and feet as he kicked and punched and struggled like a demon until he tore free of the men holding him.


He was yelling, too. Amy saw his mouth open, but couldn’t hear the sound. Then she was right there level with him, hitting the brakes. She crushed her hand against the horn as she lurched forward into the steering wheel. Murdock ran and rolled over the hood of the car, landed on his feet on the other side, and dived into the passenger seat.


“Go!”


Amy needed no prompting. Terrified of stalling, she hit the gas again and the car surged forward. It took her a few seconds to orient herself. Where was the exit? Behind her. Never mind. She made her own exit, bumping over grass, dodging picnic tables. One slewed around as she clipped its corner and she winced as she imagined that dent added to the one Murdock had made rolling over her hood.


“Left, left, left!” Murdock shouted as the wheels touched blacktop again. Amy dragged the wheel around. The pickup truck was still in sight ahead of them and she started to pile on the speed trying to catch up.


“I can’t believe I got citizens-arrested by bikers!” Murdock panted as he spoke, still sprawled in the passenger seat, recovering his breath. “Since when did bikers get so civic minded? They’ll be helping old ladies cross the road and rescuing kittens from trees next! What happened to proper bikers?”


“I think the team put them all in jail. Do you have your gun?”


Murdock sat up straight, losing his annoyed look. Now he looked grim instead.


“No. No time to get it back from our heroes in leather.”


“Then why am I still chasing the truck?” She knew why. Because Face was in there. But even if they caught up, his kidnappers had several guns to their none.


“Um… adrenaline rush,” Murdock said. “Seemed like the right thing. Okay, slow down. We know where they’re taking him, after all.”


She thought she heard him mutter ‘I hope’ under his breath.


Amy slowed the car, but continued on the same road. “Where do I go? The town is back the way we came and we can’t go back past the rest stop without running into the cops.”


“Keep going this way. We need two things now. A way to let us circle back, and a payphone. I need to tell Hannibal Face’s cover is blown and that I couldn’t rescue him.” He winced. “He can’t actually kill me over the phone, can he?”

Chapter 14

“Colonel!”


Josh’s voice brought Hannibal running downstairs.


“Sir, it’s Mr Murdock,” Josh said. “On the phone. He said it’s urgent.” Hannibal ran past the boy and into the kitchen and scooped the phone up from the counter.


“Murdock? What’s happening?”


“They got Face,” Murdock said. “Mrs Laidler drove out to a diner and met her brother, and I guess Face had come with him. They dragged him off. We tried to stop them, but… too many of them. I’m sorry.”


“Are you and Amy okay?”


“We’re fine.”


“How long ago?”


“Nearly three hours. It’s taken us that long to find a payphone. We’re stuck on back roads, dodging the cops. What are your orders, Colonel?”


“They took him back to the compound?”


“They drove off in that direction, that’s all I know.”


Hannibal sighed and thought for a moment, leaning on the counter, looking at his own distorted reflection in the chrome sides of the toaster. It reflected movement behind him and he glanced around to see Arthur come into the room, talking quietly with Josh.


“Air support,” Hannibal said, half to himself, half to Murdock. “That’s the only way we can gain any advantage against that compound.”


“Thought that myself,” Murdock said. “I see a small airfield on our map, up at the north end of the valley. Want me to head up there and see what I can snaffle?”


“Yes. Go now.” Hannibal glanced back at Josh and Arthur again. “I’ll make sure there’s a ride waiting. And send Amy back here after you arrive. Don’t let her talk you into taking her along.”


“As if I would! Roger and out.” Murdock hung up.


Hannibal turned. “Arthur, Murdock is heading to an airfield at the north end of the valley. You know it?”


“Of course.”


“You know who runs it?”


“A man named Preston. I know him well.”


“Then I want you call him and tell him to have the fastest and most manoeuvrable chopper he has available fuelled up and ready to go.”


“What’s happened?” Josh asked.


“Face’s cover has been blown,” Hannibal said. “We need to go and get him out. That will be much easier with air support.” He gave the worried boy a reassuring smile. “Don’t worry. We’ll have him home for breakfast.” He hoped he wasn’t giving the boy false hope.


“Colonel,” Arthur said, “I don’t know if Jim Preston will give you a chopper just because I ask him. In fact, especially not because I ask him.”


“He doesn’t like you?”


“He likes me fine. It’s the mining companies who don’t. I cost them a lot of money back in the seventies when I campaigned to make them stop dumping waste in the river. And I think they own the only helicopters Preston has on his field. If they heard he helped me out they might take their business elsewhere.”


“I see,” Hannibal said. “Josh, would you please go and tell BA I need him? He’s in the station with your mom right now. ”


Josh look nervously at his grandfather, who nodded. He left the kitchen at a run, into the twilight that was darkening rapidly to night now.


“You said you know Mr Preston well,” Hannibal said. “And I’m very sure that’s true. Just as I’m sure that what you know includes things he wouldn’t want aired in public.”


“What?”


“You know what I’m talking about. Everyone has dirty laundry somewhere.”


“Are you suggesting I blackmail him?”


“Yes. That’s exactly what I’m suggesting. You’ve got all this knowledge, all this power. Now’s the time to use it.”


“Power?” Arthur said. “No, that’s not what this is about. I want to bond this community, not rule it.”


“What you want isn’t always the way things are. I don’t care if most of the time you pretend that’s not the case. But right now, I need you to use that power. Make the call.”


Arthur glared, but then stood up and moved past Hannibal to the phone. Hannibal left the kitchen, stepping out into the backyard to give Arthur some privacy. A man didn’t need an audience while he was violating his principles.


The clinking of gold told Hannibal BA was coming even before he rounded the corner of the house, Josh at his heels.


“They got Face?” BA said. “What are we waitin’ for? ”


~~~


Murdock was going to kill him for this, Face thought, spotting a tear in the flying jacket. He’d promised on pain of death that nothing bad would happen to it, so naturally it had. Where the hell Murdock had sprung from Face didn’t know, but he was still alive when Face last saw him. So unless Face could convince him that a ricochet from one of his own shots tore the jacket, Murdock was definitely going to kill him.


Assuming Face got out of here alive.


He’d been lying in a small, bare room in Erik’s headquarters since they arrived about an hour ago. His hands were still bound behind his back, and worryingly numb. His head ached from a last desperate attempt at escape as they drove into the forested area. Seeing all that cover to hide in, he’d made a break for it, but the four men had subdued him and he’d banged his head hard on the floor of the truck.


Raised voices came from the other side of the door, including the higher tones of Mrs Laidler’s. Was this the first time she’d ever been out here? How much did she know about what her husband and brother were up to and what did she think of it? If she was shocked, maybe Face could use that to make an ally of her. But the door muffled the voices enough so he couldn’t make out the words. Could be they were arguing about where to bury his body.


While Face wracked his brains trying to decide on the best way to avoid being buried at all, the door opened and Erik walked in with two of his men behind him. The men looked grim and ready to do whatever had to be done, but Erik was pale and sweating, a look close to bewilderment in his eyes. He couldn’t fathom this turn of events. Face scrambled to his feet, awkwardly, unable to use his bound hands.


“Who are you?” Erik asked, voice hoarse and tense. “Are you a cop? A federal agent?”


Suppose Face said he was? Would that mean instant death? Or would they be too afraid of the consequences to kill him?


“I’m FBI,” Face said, making his voice harsher than before, putting more authority into it. “And if you kill me, the bureau won’t rest until they find you.”


Erik stared at him, then shook his head. “No, you’re lying. You gave that up too easily.”


“What’s the point in lying anymore? My cover is blown, so why would I lie?”


“What were you doing at my sister’s house?”


“Looking for evidence against Laidler, of course.”


One of the men at Erik’s back stepped forward. “Let us handle this, boss. We’ll get the truth out of him.”