Trackless Journeys

Newly escaped from Fort Bragg, the team vanishes into the wilderness to wait for their trail to go cold. Murdock lies out of reach in the VA, his mind devastated by war. Can the team formed in conflict hold together in peacetime? On this hard and dangerous journey Hannibal must learn to lead his men without the authority of the army behind him. Murdock struggles on his own journey to escape the wilderness inside him.

Rated: PG13

Words: 69,000

“The future is not some place we are going to, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found, but made, and the activity of making them, changes both the maker and the destination.”

John Schaar

Part 1

Chapter 1

Ray Brenner stepped off the bus and it pulled away, revealing a diner on the opposite side of the street. He didn’t make an immediate move towards the diner, but paused on the edge of the sidewalk, apparently only waiting for a safe moment to cross the street. But, his eyes were not on the moving cars; they searched for any that might have pulled in when Ray got off the bus. People caught his attention too, the street around them fading to a blur as he focused in turn on each man and woman in sight. Had anyone gotten off the bus but not left?


No, he decided after a moment, it looked clear. Safe to cross the street, safe to walk into the diner. At the counter, he ordered a sandwich and a soda and took a booth, right by the window, as he’d been instructed. That made him smile. Typical. Bravado, perhaps. But practical too. Those outside could see in, but Ray could see out too, and keep watch. A quiet booth in the back could turn into a trap.


A glance around told him where the escape routes were. A second door stood at the opposite end from the one he’d come in, both of those equipped with a jangling bell. Kitchen door lay behind the counter. Another marked Private probably led to an office. It could have a fire exit through there, or windows at least. The bathrooms – almost certainly a dead-end.


He didn’t look for those exits for his own sake, but for the man who slid into the booth opposite him, startling him. He’d seen this man come in a moment ago, looked him over and dismissed him. The man he’d come to meet would be in disguise of course, Ray knew that, but when you knew someone well enough you could spot him by the way he walked, by his posture. At least, he thought you could. Seems he’d been wrong.


“Hannibal, you are too damn good at that.”


Hannibal grinned and Ray marveled at the fact his face was disguised only by a moustache and glasses and yet Ray still hadn’t spotted him. The body shape and the posture were different though. Padding, Ray supposed, and enough of a slouch to take off a couple of inches of height.


“You should be an actor, Colonel.”


“Well, I am looking for a new job right now.”


The waitress came over then with Ray’s order and Hannibal ordered a cup of coffee.


“Is the moustache real?” Ray asked, curious. The last time he’d visited them in Fort Bragg, almost two months ago, Hannibal had been his usual clean shaven self.


“Depends what you mean by real.” The old sparkle danced in his eyes. “It physically exists. It’s currently attached to my face. How much more real does it need to be?”


“You sound like Murdock.”


The sparkle faded. “Have you seen him?”


“No visitors allowed yet. They said maybe next week. I’ll try to get back up to LA then, if I can get a pass.”


“Right.” Hannibal took an envelope from his pocket and passed it to Ray. It had no name written on it. By the feel of it, there must be several sheets of paper inside. “This is for Murdock, when they let you in to see him. It’s to tell him what we’re doing. ”


“Doing?” Ray asked and then they waited a moment as the waitress brought over Hannibal’s coffee. Hannibal spooned a couple of sugars into the coffee and sipped it.


“That’s why I asked you to meet me. You’ve been a good friend, Ray. Always stuck by us.”


“You guys are getting railroaded.” Ray had done what he could for his friends. Visited them, supported them, written to everyone he could think of who might be able to help. But he received few replies, and none those were encouraging.


Of course, he didn’t know what really happened with the robbery; he’d left the team by then. But he trusted the guys. If they said they robbed the bank under orders, that’s what they’d done. After all, Hannibal had never cared about money for himself. Ray doubted he even had a savings account. What would he do with a million dollars? Retire? The idea made Ray smile. The day of Hannibal Smith’s “retirement” would involve a shovel, not a gold watch.


If he had no doubts about the robbery, he did have some about the escape. He thought they should have stayed until their trial ended. Now, things could be worse for them, if Lynch caught them. He knew how determined the brass was to get the team back. The escape made the Army look pretty dumb. You’d think they’d know how to contain guys who had skills the Army itself taught them. Of course, Hannibal and the team had picked up a few extra skills.


But, it wasn’t Ray’s job to question Hannibal’s choice. He felt sure Face would have that covered.


“Have you heard anything new lately?” Hannibal asked. “About Lynch?”


Ray nodded. He had friends in the Pentagon who kept him up to date on developments. And when he could, he kept Hannibal up to date.


“He’s still head of the team assigned to catching you guys. They’ve posted a temporary replacement for him at Bragg, so they must think Lynch will be working on your case for a while.” He grinned. “Let’s hope it’s a long while.”


“If this works out, then it should be. A long, long while. We’re going to vanish, Ray. Off the map. LA is too hot for us. Any city is. I thought we could vanish into the crowd, but it didn’t work that way.” He sighed, then grimaced and put his cup down, making a small rattle as it touched the saucer. “Tough to vanish while hanging with two guys who look like a bouncer and a male model.”


Ray almost laughed, but Hannibal didn’t seem in the mood. “When you say you’re going off the map, what do you mean? Are you leaving the country?”


Hannibal’s head snapped up, his face wearing a fierce scowl. “No!” He didn’t shout the word, but the vehemence behind it made Ray move back just a fraction of an inch. “We won’t leave the country.”


“I guess it could be hard to get back in.”


“Yeah,” Hannibal shrugged. “Yeah, there’s that.”


So, that wasn’t the reason, Ray knew. He thought he understood. Hannibal had always been a patriot. Sometimes the younger men had looked uncomfortable or even laughed, behind his back, at the old-fashioned patriotic things the colonel said. But Ray knew they were sincere beliefs. No, Hannibal wouldn’t desert his country.


“We’re just going out, you know, into the wilds,” Hannibal explained. “We’ve got the training for it. They don’t call us guys ‘snake eaters’ for nothing, do they?”


Ray winced at certain memories from his training. Thanks for that reminder, Colonel.


“We can camp out,” Hannibal went on. “Live off the land. Hunt. Fish.”


“Face must be looking forward to it.”


Hannibal laughed, at the dry tone in Ray’s voice. “Do him good.”


“So, where are you going?”


“Ah, well, I’m not actually going to tell you that.”


“Colonel, if you think you can’t trust me, because I’m still in the Army, you’re wrong. You know after what we all went through together, that my loyalty -”


“I know,” Hannibal held up a hand to cut him off. “You’ve shown me that, by the fact you didn’t slap a pair of cuffs on me the minute I walked in here. But I’ve already compromised you enough.”


“Then why tell me about your plans at all?”


“Because anything could happen to us out there. If we fall into a ravine and nobody ever sees us again, at least someone will know that we didn’t run off to South America.”


“Okay, I understand.” Ray tapped the envelope on the table. “And this explains all that to Murdock?”


“Yeah. I wasn’t so sure about that, but Face insisted. Said it has to help him to know we’re okay.” He sighed. “Frankly, I’ve had a hell of a time keeping Face from trying to sneak into the VA to visit Murdock.”


“That would be a bad idea,” Ray said at once. “I know for a fact Lynch has the place watched.”


“I know, that’s what I tell Face.” Hannibal shrugged. “So the sooner we’re out of LA the better.”


“So how long do you plan to stay out of sight?”


“As long as it takes for our trail to go cold. For the newspapers to lose interest, so we don’t have everybody in the country trying to spot us. And maybe Lynch’s search will be scaled back by then.”


“He’s spending a hell of a lot of money,” Ray said, nodding. “The Army won’t let him do that indefinitely. You’re right – if he doesn’t catch you soon, they’ll cut his budget.”


Hannibal grinned at that thought, and then sobered again. “We’ll have to touch civilisation sometimes. When we do, I’ll post letters to you. You can forward them on to Murdock, to BA’s mom. I guess that’s gonna give you some clue where we are, but there’s not much I can do about that.”


“That sounds risky. There’s always a chance that Lynch could get suspicious of me, intercept my mail.”


“I know, so I’ve paid for a post office box, here in LA. Six months upfront.” He handed Ray a key and a piece of paper, with the address and box number. He didn’t look happy about it, Ray thought, and wondered if Face and BA had forced him into a compromise.


Ray tucked the key and papers away in his pocket. All very cloak and dagger. His life had taken a strange turn, one that could see him lose his career and probably his liberty if caught. But he did it despite that and knew why. Not reasons he liked to think about much, but he knew why.


Hannibal glanced at his watch. “I’d better go. Got some shopping to do.”


“I’ll bet.”


“How’s Trish, by the way? You persuaded her to marry you yet?”


“Still working on it.”


“Good.” Hannibal smiled, some of the sparkle coming back. “I never let quitters in my unit.” He finished the last of his coffee in a gulp and then held his hand out. Ray shook it.


“Good luck, Colonel. To all of you. Don’t fall in any ravines.”


“Thanks, Ray. When I come back, I want a wedding invitation waiting for me.” With a wink, he slid out of the booth and walked out of the diner, once again unrecognisable when Ray couldn’t see his face. Ray watched him go, and then picked up the envelope for Murdock.


Murdock. Kind of an anomaly, that guy. Not part of the unit officially, yet part of the team. For reasons beyond his piloting skills. Hard to imagine the team out there without Murdock, but according to the phone call from a friend with contacts at the VA, Murdock would be bouncing off the walls there for years to come.


Thinking of that now, of his planned visit to the VA, he felt sick. He liked Murdock and wanted to see him, but the thought of seeing him like that… Not many things could scare Ray Brenner, career soldier, decorated war vet, Special Forces. Yet the prospect of that visit did.


But, he’d promised Hannibal that he’d give Murdock the letters. And once Ray Brenner gave his word he’d do something, count it as done.

Chapter 2

Hannibal walked into the motel room where he, BA, and Face had slept the past two nights. Damn, he thought, the place looked like Christmas morning in tornado country. Heaps of brand new camping and hiking gear lay around on the beds and floor. The boxes, bags and wrappers it all came in took up the rest of the floor space. BA sat on one bed, examining a camping stove with a critical eye. Face lay on his stomach on the other bed, head resting on his crossed arms.


Hannibal grinned at BA. “When I said ‘get everything’ I meant everything on the list, not everything in the whole store.”


BA shrugged, not smiling back. “Looks like more than there is. We get it packed you’ll wonder where it all went.”


Face still hadn’t moved. Sleeping? Through Hannibal coming in and talking to BA? Unlikely.


“Shopping tire you out, Lieutenant?”


No answer. Hannibal opened his mouth to speak again, but caught a look in BA’s eye, and a small shake of his head. A clear signal, one they’d exchanged in the war when traversing hostile and booby-trapped terrain. Don’t take another step in that direction.


So Hannibal began inspecting the gear instead, starting with the three modern, lightweight backpacks. One blue, one yellow, one green, and the nearly florescent colours made him wince, thinking the enemy could see you a mile away with one of these on your back. But in this case the bright colours were their own kind of camouflage. Just like normal hikers. Normal hikers wanted to be highly visible in case of trouble. Normal hikers worried more about falling and getting trapped some place than they did about enemy snipers.


Hannibal inspected the packs carefully. He’d told Face and BA not to skimp, whatever the expense. They’d have to live out of these for months. Different models he noticed as he checked each one. Good. Not too regimented. It could strike someone as odd if all their gear matched. And odd meant memorable.


A fat roll of cloth and light metal poles beside each pack made him look at BA, questioningly.


“A tent each? We decided one big one is warmer.”


“Yeah, well me and Face decided that one tent is like one motor home, and we already decided against the motor home.”


Hannibal grimaced. Why the hell had he even thought for one second that a motor home would be a good idea? They’d have killed each other before the end of the first week.


“We have a tent each means we get some privacy,” BA said. “Ain’t had any of that in a long time.”


No indeed. Hannibal had been in the Army for so long that at times he forgot the whole concept of privacy. And Face, with the orphanage and all, couldn’t ever have known any. He glanced at Face, who still hadn’t moved or spoken. He wasn’t asleep though; his body was too tense for that.


Okay, Hannibal thought, I can wait. I can wait all night if he wants to play it that way. He turned back to the equipment, making sure they had everything they needed. Only had a couple of days now to get anything still missing. Then he wanted them on the trail. BA was still playing with the little stove, though he must have learned all its secrets by now.


“Let’s clear up this mess.” Hannibal waved a hand at the wrappers and bags. “And get these babies packed.”


BA got off the bed and started clearing up. Face didn’t move. Hannibal decided that actually, no – he couldn’t wait all night, however Face wanted to play it.


“And, Face, you can quit pretending you’re asleep and get your ass off that bed to come help us.”


BA’s tensed. Hannibal expected Face to shoot up to his feet, the scowl he’d worn so often the last few days burning up his features. But instead he sat up slowly, moving at a very particular pace that Hannibal recognised. Just slow enough to annoy the officer, without actually being insubordinate. He rubbed his eyes as if he really had been asleep.


“You gave Ray the letters?” Face asked.


“Yes. He’ll get them to Murdock as soon as he can.”


Hannibal stood up with the blue backpack and propped it on the bed, opened all the zips and pockets.


“You taking that one?” BA asked. When Hannibal nodded, BA turned to Face. “You care which one you have?”


Face shrugged, not looking at the packs, hands clasped, leaning forward, elbows on knees. BA dumped the yellow pack on the bed beside Face and took the green one for himself.


“Has Ray seen Murdock?” BA said.


“No, he’s not allowed any visitors right now.”


“Oh isn’t he?” Face looked up, with a determined expression replacing the scowl.


“That includes you, Face. Ray says Lynch has men watching the VA.”


“Like they’d catch me,” Face sneered.


“They don’t have to catch you. They only have to see you once to confirm the connection with Murdock. And then they’ll double the surveillance.”


“Look I could just –”


“Face.” Hannibal turned to him, his impatience coming out in his voice. “We’ve talked about this already.”


Face stood, his voice rising. “Well now we’re talking about it again.”


“We are not taking about it again. I’ve made my decision and you have your orders.” His glare pierced Face and after a long moment, Face backed off a step. BA handed him a pile of folded clothes, and Face took them with a small nod of thanks, and put them into his pack. They all worked in silence for a while, until Face spoke again.


“What if we took Murdock out of there? Took him with us?”


Now Hannibal stared at Face as if he should be in the room next to Murdock. Face had spent the last few days trying to persuade Hannibal to let him go see Murdock, but Hannibal had stood firm. Face had also been the reason they’d chosen the destination for the journey into the wilds. It was as far from LA as Hannibal could persuade him to go. But this?


“Face, he’s in a hospital, not jail. He’s there because he’s ill.”


“We could take care of him,” Face insisted, still not looking at Hannibal, rearranging the items already in his pack.


“Yeah,” BA said, and Hannibal wondered if they’d discussed this while they were shopping. “We always took care of each other. Don’t need no hospital for that.”


“Murdock does. He needs medication.”


Face snorted. “Yeah, sure. I’ve heard about the pills they give psych patients. They make them worse.”


“I heard that too,” BA said.


“Guys…” Hannibal hesitated, trying to figure out how to make them see sense. “If he had… cancer or something –”


“Don’t even say stuff like that!” BA snapped, little difference between his scowl and Face’s now.


“I’m still talking here. I meant, if he had a physical illness you wouldn’t dream of suggesting this. You’d want him where they can help him.”


“But it’s not a physical illness, is it?” Face stuffed more items into his pack, shoving them in hard as if they’d personally insulted him. “It’s some made up shrink mumbo-jumbo. How is that even real?”


“There’s nothing ‘made up’ about hallucinations.” Hannibal almost smiled. That didn’t come out right. But he sobered again. “We can’t help him. We’re not doctors.”


“We’re his friends.” Face spoke more quietly now. “Like BA said, we help each other. We all went through the same thing.”


“Yeah, and look how great we all turned out.”


Face gave Hannibal an unpleasant look for that remark, but turned back to his packing. Several moments of silence passed as they all folded and packed, until Face spoke again, in a soft voice.


“What if they give him electro shock?”


That froze Hannibal in place, a flashlight in one hand, packs of spare batteries in the other. The sounds of BA’s packing stopped too and he knelt unmoving on the floor beside his gear, his back to the other two.


“He couldn’t take that,” Face went on. “Might as well be torturing him all over again.”


Shaking himself, Hannibal put the flashlight and batteries into a side pocket of his pack. “It’s hardly the same thing. We don’t know that they’d even treat him with that. This is the VA after all. They understand this stuff. They know what guys like Murdock have been through. They won’t just decide ‘hey today let’s try out ECT on this guy’.”


BA snorted his opinion of that, and resumed his own packing. Face didn’t answer at all. Hannibal resisted the urge to sigh. He thought they’d worked through all these questions already, but Face wouldn’t let go. Hannibal should have anticipated this last minute resistance.


“Guys,” Hannibal said. They both stopped packing and looked back at him. “I’m as worried about Murdock as you are. But he’s in the place he needs to be right now. I know it hurts to think that we can’t help him, but we can’t. I’m sure we could bust him out of the VA, it’s not exactly high security. But to take him with us would be, well, frankly, it would be cruel. He needs medication and professional care. Fresh air, prayers and group hugs aren’t gonna cut it this time.”


BA nodded and after a moment Face did too, though looked away from Hannibal as he did so.


“Okay.” Hannibal said. “Finish packing. Face has to catch his bus at midnight.”

Chapter 3

Face felt like a kid leaving for college as Hannibal watched him get on the bus. He couldn’t help wondering why Hannibal hadn’t just sent him to the bus station in a cab, as he’d originally planned. Instead he’d driven Face and now stood waiting for the bus to leave the station. Did he just want to wave Face off? The thought made Face snort. No. He wanted to make sure Face left, and on the right bus.


Well, Face didn’t feel like chewing that over right now. With a journey of over twelve hours ahead of him, Face wanted nothing more than to just go to sleep and wake up in Reno. To that end, he folded his arms, snuggling into himself, and tried to ignore the crying baby across the aisle. His folded up jacket cushioned his head as he leaned it against the window.


Sleep did not come easily. He would doze for a while and then jerk awake and watch the road outside the bus stream by, turning from city streets to freeway and eventually interstate. Once they were on the latter, Face hoped he’d have a better chance of sleeping. No turns. No stops. Just open road for hundreds of miles ahead.


Neither the sounds from the other passengers, or the engine noise and vibration bothered Face, a man who could sleep in a helicopter. The guy in the seat next to him was a big man, his shirt buttons stretched dangerously over his belly, but he slept silently, so he didn’t bother Face either. His fingers twitched in his sleep, making Face smile. Dreaming he’s at the craps table already.


An occasional giggle from the two teen-aged girls a few rows back certainly didn’t bother him. He’d given them a grin and a wink when he took his seat, though quickly ducked down when a man in the seat behind the girls scowled at him. By all means, let’s not upset anyone’s dad, he thought.


No, the only voices that kept him awake were inside his head. All those doubts and fears that preyed on him as he looked into the future and saw only uncertainty. Sighing, he turned from looking at the dark, endless road and stared up at the ceiling. Most of the bus was in darkness, but a few lights, set into the ceiling, illuminated the aisle.


A fly buzzed around one light and Face watched it fly back and forth, round and round, bouncing off the plastic cover over the light, flying away and then coming back for another try. When it flew into the beam of the light it changed from a black speck to a floating drop of gold. The light turned it from mundane to beautiful, but if it got close enough, the heat from the bulb would fry it. That didn’t stop it from exhausting itself trying over and over to get closer.


Another giggle from those girls made him glance away, and smile and wonder if they were talking about him. The smile grew wider. Of course they were. For all the good it did him, with their dad on the bus and an appointment with Hannibal and BA at the other end of the ride.


What if I didn’t meet them?


That whispered question silenced all the other voices for a moment. Not meet them. Not meet them. The repetition made the idea solidify. He saw himself in Reno not meeting Hannibal and BA. Saw himself getting off this bus, picking up his backpack and not going to their rendezvous.


And doing what? Going where? Back to LA? To Murdock? Why go anywhere? Stay in Reno. Face felt certain he could make a living in Reno, around the casinos. Or if Reno wasn’t a big enough playing field there was always another bus, down to Vegas. Or right across country, Atlantic City.


How long would the people who ran those towns allow him to work for himself though? They’d notice him if he did well enough and either offer him work or a one way ticket out of town – in the trunk of a car. Neither option appealed.


No. Crazy idea. Anyway, did he really think Hannibal wouldn’t come looking for him? Which definitely made Reno too small. Vegas too. Possibly the entire country.


Face gasped suddenly and actually jumped in his seat as a new thought struck him. His seatmate muttered and stirred when Face accidentally nudged him, but he didn’t wake up.


What if this is a test?


It could be. What if Hannibal wanted to see if Face and BA would meet him or if they would take the opportunity to run out on the team? A test of loyalty. Face scowled and his cheeks flushed, fists balled for a moment, before he took a breath and calmed down. Stop that, you’re getting mad at Hannibal for something you have no evidence he’s done. Just your own damn imagination running riot.


With a long sigh he relaxed against the back of the seat again. A new sound started up from a few rows away, soft rhythmic clicks that he recognised at once as knitting needles. That didn’t distract him, in fact it soothed him. He’d often fallen asleep to that sound as a child. Some of the sisters at the orphanage seemed to knit twenty four hours a day. Sweaters and socks. Endless socks. And when those wore out, they unraveled the wool they could salvage and knitted something new. Well, something else. Very few things back then had been ‘new’.


He’d almost dozed off to the lullaby of the clicking needles when his eyes opened wide again.


What if it’s not a test, but rather an opportunity? A chance for Face or BA to leave without having to actually confront the others and say it. Just not arrive and the others would know, would understand. Or, what if it isn’t an opportunity for Face and BA but for Hannibal himself? To give him the chance to dump them?


Face shook his head. No, that couldn’t be true. Hannibal wouldn’t do that to them. Although Face had been the one most insistent on staying together, he felt sure Hannibal wanted that too. Or at least felt sure his feeling of responsibility for Face and BA would make him stick with them.


Unless… Face gasped again. Unless he dumped us, cut us loose and made some kind of deal with the military. To give himself up and leave Face and BA free.


Face began to wonder if Hannibal’s mind worked this way all of the time, running several steps ahead of the game. And he also began to wonder if lack of sleep had driven him crazy. All these scenarios, and probably in a few hours he’d be sitting in the bar in Reno Hannibal had told them to meet in. Where he could tell the two of them about all the possibilities he had thought of and they could all have a laugh about it.


On the other hand, he’d probably keep them to himself.


Right, he decided, I really do need to sleep, before I decide Hannibal is in fact luring us to Reno to sell us into slavery. His mind felt clearer now. Perhaps he’d emptied it of all the worries. Or most of them. One last one remained that he’d never shake off.


Murdock. If he’d just managed to get in to see him once, that would have helped. But Ray would be allowed to see him soon. Ray was a good guy; he’d make sure they were taking care of Murdock properly, he’d complain if they weren’t.


With that small crumb of comfort and the clicking of those knitting needles to soothe him, Face finally closed his eyes and drifted to sleep.


~o~


BA didn’t feel much at home in bars, but where else could a guy hang out for several hours without arousing suspicion? He’d already brought attention by drinking Coca-Cola instead of beer. BA refused to compromise on that point. He was an athlete. His body was a temple. Liquor was only the half of it; beer made you fat. A little complaining to the bartender about “pills” and “doctors orders” just about took care of that, though the bartender looked amazed that anyone would want to hang out in this place if they weren’t drinking.


With his backpack under the table, he sat and waited for the others. He’d taken a train, changing a couple of times, but made it before Face on his bus. Hannibal was coming by rented car. They’d all agreed traveling separately would be the best idea, but it left BA’s nerves stretched, fearing what could happen to the others while they were out of sight of each other.


Face and Hannibal could take care of themselves, but even so, BA worried. BA himself might sometimes attract trouble, but those two, they went looking for it. Hannibal couldn’t keep his nose out of other people’s business. Face couldn’t keep his mouth shut, plus he let other body parts overrule his brain at the sight of a girl.


If wouldn’t surprise BA if either of them failed to show up here because they’d found trouble on the way, even without Lynch and his MPs being involved. BA might have doubts about Hannibal’s plan, but he supposed that at least it would keep them away from other people most of the time. Yeah, he smiled at himself. All we have to worry about are bears, cougars, coyotes and snakes.


He turned to the newspaper he had open on his table and went back to reading about a basketball game. Speaking of bears, they’d better finish this little walking tour before the football season started. It was bad enough that he’d miss the pre-season games. If Hannibal expected BA to miss out on getting the Bears’ regular season results, well, he could think again


The door opened a moment later and Face walked in, which made BA at least half relax. Okay, so Face made it, just Hannibal to go.


With the big yellow pack on his back and wearing battered jeans and a T-shirt Face looked very much like a student. Well, a grad student, maybe. In fact he attracted a couple of speculative looks from guys in the bar, probably thinking they didn’t get his sort in here. And maybe wondering if there was any chance of taking him out to the back alley and stealing every penny he had. They’d get a surprise if they tried. When Face joined BA the speculative looks stopped. Nobody jumped a guy who had a friend that looked like BA.


“Hey,” Face said, shoving his pack under the table with BA’s, bumping BA’s legs and provoking a muttered threat. “Sorry. You been here long?”


“Hour or so. You just got in?”


“Yeah, came right over. Get you anything from the bar?”


BA shook his head and watched Face get himself a beer and come back to the table with a bottle and a glass.


“Man, I swear, I never sweated this much in the jungle,” Face complained, pouring the cold beer into the tilted glass. “I hope we can find a hotel with decent air conditioning tonight.” He drank at least half of the glass of beer in one go and sighed. “I needed that. That bus ride… I promise you I am never getting on a bus again.” He looked around. “This place is a dive. I thought Hannibal said it was classy.”


BA just sat and half listened to Face rattling on. Can’t keep his mouth shut. Right. BA had learned to tune most of it out long ago. Kind of like with the fool. He gabbed on about nothing for hours. Put the two of them together and they could drive a man crazy listening to them. So he stopped listening to most of it, hoping he caught the important parts as they flashed by.


Back in Fort Bragg, he’d wondered if Face would talk as much without Murdock there. Seemed he just doubled the output to compensate. Compensate, yeah, that was the word. Maybe he figured if he talked enough he wouldn’t notice Murdock’s side of the conversation was missing.


“No sign of Hannibal yet?” Face said. Repeating, BA realised. The first time he asked the question it flew past with the rest of the jibber jabber. Dumb question anyway.


“You see him hidin’ under the table?”


“Right.” Face traced a finger through the condensation on his glass.


He’s working up to something, BA knew. Face rarely came right out and said what he had on his mind. No, he had to dance with it for a while first.


“BA, what if he doesn’t show up?”


BA joined the dance. “Why wouldn’t he show up?”


“Oh, I dunno. Whatever.” Face shrugged, still not looking at BA.


“I guess we’d go look for him,” BA said.


“Yeah. He could have run into some kind of trouble. The military could have picked him up or something.”


“Yeah.”


“We’d go look for him. Same if you didn’t show up. Or me. You’d come looking for me.”


“Yeah. We’d check the sorority houses and girls’ schools first.”


Face laughed and the moment of tension seemed to pass. But BA suspected Face hadn’t actually said what he had on his mind. As usual he hid it behind the smile, pretending nothing was bothering him. But BA knew different. Detective work needed as usual to get to the bottom of it.


Asking about Hannibal not showing up? Of course BA had been thinking about the same thing. He could run into trouble, even got picked up by the cops or the military. But BA didn’t think that was what worried Face. He wasn’t asking what if Hannibal couldn’t join them – he meant what if Hannibal chose not to. Well BA didn’t know whether to laugh or growl about that. Hannibal wouldn’t run out on them. They were a team. Face kept talking about that very thing, back when they decided to skip out of Fort Bragg.


BA knew Face had some kind of thing about people running out on him. Pretty tight-lipped about his past, but Murdock had got him drunk and talking a few times back in ‘Nam. They had at least got out of him that some girl left him, right before he joined the Army. And that he’d been in orphanages as a kid, dumped there, which still made BA mad every time he thought about it.


Kept it under wraps real tight, that fear of people walking out on him, but BA had figured it out. Even in Fort Bragg Face hadn’t seemed too unhappy, as long as he was with Hannibal and BA. Only when they heard about Murdock’s section eight did he start to get antsy.


But, Face was a fool too, BA thought, scowling at the fool in question, who now sat sipping his beer and reading BA’s paper. Scared of people running out on him, but he pushed them away if they got close. Some people thought they were close, like the girls he’d chased so much. But, like a non-stick pan, Face just washed them off. Teflon coated soul. He’d only shown the real one in the camp, when that coating got stripped away. BA often woke in the cage to find Face beside him, asleep and yet clinging with a death grip to BA’s hand, or clothing.


Contradictory guy. BA wished people could just be up front. Face danced around, played games with everybody, spinning lines, running scams, and usually hiding the best part of himself. Why was he afraid of people seeing that?


Now he’d got himself all knotted up with some dumb idea that Hannibal wouldn’t meet them. Dumb. This whole trip was Hannibal’s idea. They’d bought all this equipment. If it was all a plot to split them up, it sure was an expensive one.


The door opened and Hannibal walked in. BA looked quickly from him to Face very fast and saw Face sigh with relief. But, by the time the door slammed closed behind Hannibal, that expression had changed to the cockiest of grins.


“What kept you?”

Chapter 4

The hotel did indeed have the good air conditioning that Face hoped for. But, after taking a shower, he found he had no desire to stay there and enjoy it.


With only a towel wrapped around his waist, the cool evening air playing over his skin, he stood by the open window. The sound of the people and cars on the street floated up to him. He knew most of them would be heading for the bars, clubs and casinos. Reno might not be Vegas, but Face could certainly have a good time out there.


Tomorrow they’d set off to the back of beyond, to sleep on the ground with the bugs and snakes, and cook their food over a camp stove. Face would like a little something to distract himself from that prospect. A little luxury, a few of the pleasures of the flesh, some female company. That last was definitely on his mind. Tonight would be the last chance for months. Hell, it had already been months. Since before the robbery even. And since then… well Fort Bragg had been all about avoiding sex. He put the brakes on thinking about that. He’d been successful at Bragg. Don’t think any further back.


The breeze blew the scent of cooking through the window. It could be a fine restaurant or a street vendor selling hot dogs, Face couldn’t tell. But he wanted to go find out.


Of course, Hannibal had ordered Face and BA to get some rest, ready for an early start tomorrow. Well Hannibal could sleep. BA could sleep. Face was getting out there and making the most of this last night.


He took a clean pair of jeans and a white polo shirt from the wardrobe. He wouldn’t get into any VIP lounges or the exclusive clubs dressed like this, he knew, but he didn’t have the money for that anyway. Not a problem. The ordinary casinos didn’t care much what you looked like, as long as you gambled. Face might gamble a little tonight, but his real object was to find a sure thing.


Once dressed, he ran a comb through his hair, which he wished would grow faster. It was still short enough to be military looking. The way some people felt about the war meant that could bring trouble. Which he could handle fine, but trouble meant attention, the one thing they really weren’t meant to be attracting. He looked in the mirror at the hair he’d just combed neatly into place and then ran his fingers through it, ruffling it enough to get rid of the “ready for inspection, sir!” look. Perfect.


Look out Reno. Here comes the Faceman.


But first he had to get out of the hotel. BA’s room lay between Face’s and the elevators. Though they’d all checked in separately, with false names of course, Face and BA had still found they had rooms on the same floor. Hannibal had a room a couple of floors above, so that should be safe. Even the colonel didn’t have hearing that good.


Face closed his door quietly, and set off along the hallway, his feet making no sound on the carpeted floor. BA’s room lay on his left, near the elevators and he gave the door a narrow look as he passed, kept watch it closely as he waited for the elevator.


The ping announced the elevator’s arrival, making Face wince. Still watching BA’s door, he stepped into the elevator, vaguely aware of someone else already in it. As the doors closed he turned to look at his fellow elevator passenger.


Hannibal.


“Going someplace, Lieutenant?”


Face gaped into Hannibal’s glare and tried to come up with answers. The small hotel had a bar and a couple of lounges – he could say he was going to sit in one of them. By himself, without so much as a newspaper to read? Dinner? They’d already had it. And he wouldn’t have bothered borrowing an iron and pressing a shirt just to go someplace in the hotel and…


Hannibal wore a freshly ironed shirt too, and slacks that looked like they’d been in his room’s trouser press for a while. Face smiled.


“Going the same place as you, Colonel.”


“Oh really?”


“Yeah, back to my room… In a while.”


Hannibal went on glaring, but Face knew this was a standoff. He gave Hannibal a lazy smile.


“Hot night.”


“Let’s hope,” Hannibal said. The elevator reached the lobby and the two men stepped out. Hannibal looked at Face for a moment then shrugged. “Be back no later than two.”


“Is that when I turn into a pumpkin?”


“No, Lieutenant, that’s when you turn into an enlisted man.”


Face laughed. Hannibal still made threats like that, even though he had no power to carry them out any more. Better to take notice though, just in case the Army straightened this mess out one day, and Hannibal applied all the punishments at once.


“It’s a deal, Colonel.”


“Right.” Hannibal turned away, but looked back once. “Just… don’t draw attention.”


“I won’t,” Face promised. Well, not of the wrong sort. The right sort on the other hand…


~o~


“Dear Mama


“I might not be able to send you another letter for a few weeks, but I want you to know that I’m okay. I’m safe. Colonel’s got a plan as usual and I can’t explain it, just in case this letter ends up in the wrong hands. But trust me, I’m okay.


“I know you’re still trying to understand why we escaped from jail, even though we’re innocent, but I can’t tell you much about that either. We had our reasons and they were good ones and I’ll tell you one day. It may seem like a crazy thing to do, but I think it was the right one. I hope I’ll be home one day soon to tell you all about it. Face is always saying this thing is sure to get straightened out and we’ll be okay. Not sure if he’s right, but I guess I have to hope he is.


“You remember me telling you about Captain Murdock in my other letters? He’s kinda sick right now. They got him living in the VA hospital at Westwood in LA and could be he’ll be there for a long time. I think he’d like it if you send him a postcard or something sometimes. I don’t think any of his folks are still living, and I know you, Mama, you send more birthday and Christmas cards than anyone I ever met, so one more on the list won’t make much difference. I know I sometimes called Murdock all kinds of names in my letters and said how much he made me mad, but he’s okay really. I think Face would like it as well, if you wrote to Murdock.


“I’m sending you this letter kind of a roundabout way, but Hannibal says we gotta be careful about how we write to people, since the Army could intercept your mail. I don’t even know if that’s allowed, but that probably wouldn’t stop them the way they got it in for us.


“Well, I’d better finish this and get some rest, since we’re starting early in the morning. Try not to worry about me too much, Mama. I know that’s like telling the sun not to shine, but you got my word I’ll be okay. One thing the Army teaches a man is how to take care of himself and his buddies. So I’ll be watching out for the guys and they’ll be watching out for me.


“Take care of yourself, Mama.


“All my love


Bosco”


BA read the letter over, and sighed. He wished he could say more, be more honest with her, but he didn’t dare risk giving too much away. He’d learned to be guarded back in the war. The Army censors read your letters home and blacked out anything you shouldn’t have said, like security, operational stuff. He didn’t argue with that, it had to be done. But it made him feel shy about expressing his feelings too much, knowing some stranger would read it.


Now he was a fugitive, he feared they would intercept all his mother’s mail to check in case he wrote and revealed something he shouldn’t. So he had to be cautious both with the information and the sentiments.


To try to keep Military Intelligence from getting their slimy paws on his letter he wouldn’t send it directly to his mother, but instead to an old friend of hers. Trusting anyone was risky of course – heck there were family members he suspected would turn him over to the Army for the reward. But the woman he addressed the envelope to, Mrs Petrowski, had been a neighbour back when BA was just a kid. That winter after Mrs Petrowski’s husband died, and her little girl got really sick, Mrs Baracus had helped her in a hundred small ways. Ways that added up, and paid off now, by ensuring a loyalty that BA had only come close to in the Army.


The Army couldn’t monitor the mail of all of his mother’s friends and family. He had to risk it. He had to at least give her a hint that the team were about to vanish off the face of the Earth. Just so she knew it was deliberate and that they were safe. She’d worry about him anyway, he knew that. But he didn’t want to make it harder for her.


He propped the letter on his nightstand behind the clock and saw it was past ten already. That letter had taken him longer than planned, the guarded words not coming easily to him. Time to get some sleep.


A few minutes later he turned out the light and lay down. For a moment he just closed his eyes and tried to make sleep come quickly. Then it hit him – this would be the last time he’d sleep in a bed for weeks to come. Even Fort Bragg had made him soft, made him take a mattress and sheets for granted. For a while he’d forgotten that a bed was a luxury a soldier dreams about, and doesn’t get to have for long periods of time.


So he gave himself a moment to really enjoy it. The crisp cotton of freshly laundered hotel sheets and pillow case. The soft mattress. The warmth. Just the sheer size of the darn thing, which meant he could turn over without suddenly feeling a draught in tricky places.


Reveling in the small luxury of the bed, he fell asleep.

Chapter 5

“How come you look so tired?” BA asked Face as they travelled down in the elevator, both carrying their backpacks now. Face gave a sheepish smile, hoping he didn’t look too guilty.


“Didn’t get much sleep last night.”


BA scowled and made a small disgusted grunt. The elevator doors slid open at the lobby and they spotted Hannibal sitting on a couch.


“We supposed to be heading out into the wilderness today and you nearly sleepwalking.” BA scowled at Face. “What’s the colonel gonna say about that?”


They reached Hannibal who tried to say “morning” but had to speak through his hand as he covered a huge yawn. BA snorted and stomped off towards reception to check out.


~o~


Waiting in line on the railway platform stretched Face’s nerves. Always aware of being more conspicuous as a group, they split up at the station. But Face felt sure they were still conspicuous enough as individuals. All of them looked so nervous and shifty he felt sure a cop or MP would home in on them in a second. They could teach sore thumbs about standing out. Backs a little straighter than most. Carried their heavy packs more easily than most hikers. They might as well be wearing their uniforms.


If the MPs did show up, the only escape route was down the tracks. Face considered it. Drop the pack or not? It slowed him down, but without it he had only the clothes on his back and the contents of his pockets. Anyway, escaping onto the tracks and into a train yard didn’t appeal to him. Far too many chances to get an unexpected locomotive in the back.


That’s if he got that far and they didn’t just shoot him anyway.


The train arrived and that made him sigh in relief, at least for the end of the long wait on the platform. Face found a seat near the door at the end of a quiet, non-smoking car. The window seat beside him was empty, but he stayed in the aisle seat. He memorised the position of the emergency brake with the red sign beside it warning of the fine for “improper use”. He’d risk that fine if a bevy of MPs showed up.


The train set off and the movement at once started to lull Face into a doze. Despite the whole pot of coffee he’d drunk at breakfast that morning, his nearly sleepless night had started to catch up with him. No, he told himself, as he snapped out of a doze, head nodding. Have to stay on the alert. Damn, whose damned stupid idea was it to go out last night, anyway? Not mine, his brain answered, the one who wanted to do that is lower down. A tiny smile touched Face’s lips.


It had been worth it. She had been… worth it. Thinking about her, long blond hair, expensive scent and an all-over tan, he started to doze again.


Someone pushing his arm woke him again, as they stopped by his seat, leaning across in front of him to look out of the window. Hannibal. Face knew he was probably about to get a blistering scowl for sleeping when he should be keeping a lookout, so as Hannibal turned to him, he closed his eyes again, and made the sign of the cross.


“Amen.” He opened his eyes and nodded to Hannibal. “Colonel,” he said quietly. Hannibal shook his head.


“That trick would work better on me if I hadn’t taught it to you in the first place, Lieutenant. Take a walk, keep your eyes open. Get some coffee.” Face nodded, keeping a serious look on his face, until Hannibal grinned.


“Tally ho,” Hannibal said and left, walking on up toward the front of the train. Face stretched in his seat and got up too, and headed toward the rear, in search of coffee.


~o~


Once they reached Winnemucca they did their last shopping, some fresh food for the first few days. That done, they ate a lunch of burgers and soda at a picnic table in a small park. No more of that kind of food for a while, Hannibal thought.


“Okay,” Hannibal said, as he sipped his soda after demolishing the burger. “This is it. Last chance to change your minds.”


Face and BA glanced at each other.


“Change our minds?” Face said. “At this point you’d, um, accept that?”


Hannibal shrugged. “Wouldn’t have a lot of choice, would I? I can’t force either of you to come.”


They looked at each other again and Hannibal got the feeling they’d talked about a lot of things – just the two of them. Yet they were both here now, ready to follow him.


“Guys,” he said, putting down the soda and looking at them, wearing his most serious expression. They’d already gone over this a dozen times of course, but Hannibal needed to remind them, in case of any last minute nerves or cold feet. “I know both of you still have worries about this, but I really believe this is the best thing for us to do. Right now the whole country is looking out for a group matching our description. So we either stop being a group, or we get out of sight. You’ve already told me you want to stick together.”


They both nodded – yes, they wanted to stick together. Face nodded pretty vehemently in fact.


“Okay, so we’re going to do this, but I have to believe that we’re all in this one hundred and ten percent. Once we’re out there we’re relying on each other, and everybody has to pull his weight. We have to take care of each other. We may not have anybody shooting at us…” He winced. “I hope. But there are dangers, you know that. Dangerous animals, getting injured, getting sick.” When they looked glum again he smiled. “But, guys, this is my element we’re going into. I promise, I’ll get you back out of it safe and well.”


They all had survival training of course, could live off the land for extended periods. But their training had been jungle based. Anyway there was a difference between just surviving and living well, staying healthy. Life out there could be good. Hannibal knew the two city boys probably found that hard to believe, but he’d teach them different.


“Okay, let’s go,” he said. “We’ll take it easy for the first couple of days, get our feet hardened up again. But you both look pretty fit to me, so after that we push on into the mountains. Really vanish.”


Face and BA got up, groaning and making a big show of lifting their packs onto their shoulders, but Hannibal knew grandstanding when he saw it. Both looked sleek and strong. With little else to do all day in Fort Bragg but exercise they were all as fit as they’d ever been. They were strong enough for the challenge that lay ahead, and Hannibal could teach them what they still needed to learn.


Deep in his mind a persistent voice told him that splitting up was an even better plan than this. But Face and BA didn’t want to split up, and he couldn’t leave them if they wanted to stay together. They were his responsibility. He felt that more strongly for these guys than he’d felt for any other unit he’d been part of, or even commanded.


Though Face might be the one who talked about it most, it still broke Hannibal’s heart that the team had a missing man. But the voice that didn’t lie said Murdock was in the best place he could be right now. Alone, a treacherous whisper added. Hannibal tried to avoid hearing the last part.


“Ready?” Hannibal asked as Face and BA finally stopped fussing with their packs. They nodded.


“Then let’s head for the hills.”


~o~


Ray only decided on an impulse to call the VA before he left Los Angeles, expecting to be told the same thing again – no visitors. But to his surprise the nurse he spoke to said that the doctors had decided Murdock could now have brief visits from friends. In fact they hoped it would help, would make him respond.


Respond? That made Ray nervous. He’d seen guys in the field hospitals back in Vietnam who weren’t “responding”. Not because of injuries. Just guys who’d gone somewhere else.


“Do you know Captain Murdock well?” The nurse asked, leading him to Murdock’s room.


“Yeah,” Ray said. “Flew together lots of time.” Thanks to Hannibal, who kept requesting Murdock for their missions. Nobody really understood why, except those guys who’d traveled in the choppers Murdock flew. It wasn’t just a question of being brave – lots of those pilots were brave, would fly in to pick up the grunts whatever was flying back at them. And it wasn’t just a question of being good, though Murdock just might be the best pilot Ray had flown with. Murdock just had something extra that appealed to the Colonel. An edge. Hannibal liked people with that extra sharp edge.


The nurse took him to a room and unlocked the door. Ray felt a little sick. He had too many friends who lived behind doors that locked only from the outside. Not just the team either. Sometimes he counted his blessings that he’d made it through the war nearly unscathed, in body and mind. He carried a few scars, he had a nightmare sometimes, but he coped. Too many of the others didn’t – couldn’t – adjust to coming home.


The nurse led him into a dim room. Decent sized, but so sterile. Not just in the hospital sense, but there was also no sign of any personal belongings lying around. Murdock lay on the bed. A small lamp inset into the wall above him cast his face in deep shadow. Ray approached the bed while the nurse closed the door behind him. But when he glanced back, he saw her watching through the observation hatch in the door.


Damn, Ray thought. He couldn’t hand Hannibal’s letter over in front of the nurse. What if she passed it on to Colonel Lynch? Still, maybe he could manage to slip it across unseen. Murdock would realise he had to keep it hidden.


He’d thought Murdock must be asleep, but when he got close enough Ray saw the half open eyes, caught a gleam of reflection in them. Careful not to loom over Murdock, Ray stood by the bed.


“Hey, Murdock, how you doing, man?” Murdock didn’t answer, gave no sign that he’d even heard. Ray frowned and looked back at the nurse again. “Is he drugged?”


“He’s only lightly sedated at the moment,” she said.


So Murdock wasn’t drugged into not responding, Ray thought, looking back at him. He lay totally still, and yet not relaxed, Ray could tell. His body was tense. Thin too. He’d always been scrawny, despite eating like he had a tapeworm. Now he looked gaunt.


“Aren’t you feeding him?” Ray asked the nurse, his voice harsher than it should have been. “He’s skinny as a rake.”


“He was underweight when he was admitted. We’re trying to bring his weight up, but it’s difficult to get him to eat.” She didn’t rise to the note of accusation in Ray’s voice and he felt ashamed of it.


“All that institutional food, eh, buddy?” Ray spoke to Murdock again. “Maybe next time I come I’ll bring you something you like. Any requests?”


Still no answer. Ray sighed and pulled up a chair to sit down by the bed. The letter in his breast pocket crackled as he sat down and he wondered again how he could pass it across unseen. He’d have to try to shield the movement with his body. But the white envelope would be hard to conceal. As he sat, Murdock’s head turned and now his eyes were wide open and looking at Ray. They had no hint of recognition in them.


“Hey, bud.” Ray smiled, though with a hint of nervousness behind it. “How’s it going?”


“They’re in the walls.”


Ray frowned at the strange pronouncement.


“What’s in the walls, Murdock?”


“I hear them at night. I hear them now. You hear them?”


“This place got mice then?”


Murdock didn’t answer. He spoke, but it wasn’t an answer.


“See them sometimes. Ooze right through the wall. See them pointing. Hands.”


Involuntarily Ray glanced up. No ghostly hands protruded from the wall of course. Ray looked back at Murdock, who had turned away again, lay with his eyes closed now. His lips moved, a soft whisper that Ray could just make out; realised it was Vietnamese. He winced as he listened and hoped like hell that the nurse didn’t understand the language, because in among a lot of rambling, Ray heard things, operational info, protocols, that weren’t meant for the ears of anyone outside the Army.


Ray touched his chest. I’m sorry, Hannibal, he thought. I have to break my promise. He’d said he’d give the letter to Murdock, but now he knew he couldn’t. Murdock wouldn’t understand he had to conceal it. He might not even understand who is was from. Did he even remember his friends? He’d given no sign so far that he knew Ray, or could even hear him. He wasn’t ready for the letter, not yet.


He didn’t even dare tell Murdock about Hannibal’s plan. Couldn’t even whisper it. If Murdock said anything, let it slip… Ray couldn’t take that chance. Not just for the sake of Hannibal, Face and BA, but Murdock too. If Murdock came to understand later that he’d inadvertently betrayed information that could help the Army close in on the team, well what the hell would that do to him?


“Time’s up, sir,” the nurse said, opening the door. “The doctors will only allow short visits for now.”


“Right.” Ray stood up. Carefully, slowly, he rested a hand on Murdock’s, felt the tension in it, the stiffness of the fingers. Again he got no response, but spoke anyway. “Take care of yourself, Murdock. Eat something. And don’t worry about the walls. I don’t hear anything in there. I’ll get back and see you again as soon as I can.”


Murdock just went on whispering secrets as Ray reluctantly turned away from him and left the room. The nurse locked the door and Ray felt that twist of sickness again. In his pocket the letter he should have given to Murdock felt heavy. Like it would burden him until he handed it over.


Without another word to the nurse he hurried away and out of the hospital, longing for the fresh air away from the stink of disinfectant. He walked out of the hospital grounds, the letter heavy as a rock in his pocket.


Murdock had gone somewhere else. Ray could only wait for him to find his way back.

Part 2

Chapter 6

“Dear Murdock,


“So it’s been a week now, and to be honest, it’s actually been fun a lot of the time. Like the camping trips I took a couple of times when I was a kid, before they threw me out of the scout troop for organising that candy for badges thing. The weather is great. We’re figuring out these tents we bought. They have all kinds of fancy modern things about them that we never had in the Army. For some reason this seems to make them more likely to fall over.”


~o~


“Get me outta here!”


BA’s yell woke Face with a start and he scrambled to the door flap of his tent, still tangled up in his sleeping bag. A sliver of dawn light showed over the mountains and between that and the lantern Hannibal had beside him on watch, Face could see a struggling mass of canvas where BA had erected his tent.


Hannibal tried to drag the collapsed tent off BA, but was hampered both by BA’s thrashing about and his own hysterical laughter.


“Get me outta this or I’ll knock you both into the next county!”


Face struggled out of his sleeping bag, and stumbled towards the tent, doubled up with laughter.


~o~


“I think he was very unreasonable about it all. It wasn’t my fault that I tripped and fell on top of the whole mess. He didn’t have to chase me with that tent pole after he got out.


“Still, at least that was good exercise! Believe me, we’re getting plenty of that. Hannibal said he’d be easy on us the first few days. Hah! I think he has a different definition of the word easy than the rest of us.”


~o~


“Are you two going to sit there all day?”


Face and BA, lounging on the grass, leaning on their packs, looked at each other, then gave Hannibal synchronised scowls.


“We only sat down ten minutes ago,” Face said. “My feet haven’t even stopped giving off steam yet.”


“City boys,” Hannibal muttered. “Come on, guys, we’ve got at least four hours of daylight left.”


“Where’s a solar eclipse when you need it?”


BA made a rumbling sound that Face took as full agreement. Ignoring Hannibal’s impatient look, BA settled back on his pack, hands linked across his stomach and closed his eyes.


“Wake me up in half an hour – or if Colonel Lynch is close enough ta shoot us, whichever comes first.”


Face took BA’s lead. “Wake me up in half an hour – or if any naked women show up.” He settled down. Before he closed his eyes he saw Hannibal shake his head and then move away to patrol the perimeter and watch out for any sign of Colonel Lynch or naked women.


~o~


“It’s strange at night. Different than back in ‘Nam. The sounds of the animals are different. I was on watch a couple of nights ago and some coyotes started howling and then more and more of them joined in. They must have been all around us. Not close I mean, but in every direction. That sound…”


~o~


Such a lonely sound. Yet, so many of them, all connecting without seeing each other. A community of sound. Face felt as if his skin was going to crawl right off the back of his neck. Each new howl made him look in that direction with a gasp, as if he expected to see the animals right there. But they were probably miles away, and unaware of the humans hearing their chorus.


On the other hand, the howls might be saying, “three of them, all very tasty looking. At least two of them still young and tender,” and arranging a plan of attack. He gripped his rifle tighter.


BA poked his head out of his tent. “Man that’s spooky.” He shook his head, wide eyed. “How long do you think they’ll go on for?”


“You’re asking me?”


BA grimaced. Hannibal didn’t emerge from his tent. Apparently the howling didn’t bother him, possibly didn’t even wake him. BA stayed half in and half out of the tent for a while, then he retreated back inside. Face shivered and poked the fire a bit, for the heat and to see those flames leap into the air.


All set for a lonely watch, he looked up surprised when BA came out of his tent and sat down next to Face. Maybe he misjudged the distance a little; they ended up sitting with their upper arms pressed together.


“Ain’t sleeping with that racket.” He handed Face a candy bar. “Thought you could use the company.”


“Thanks, BA.” Face didn’t move away. BA didn’t speak. They just ate their candy bars.


“Coyotes ain’t even the worst of it,” BA said when he finished the chocolate and tossed the wrapper into the fire. It danced on hot air above the flames for a second, then twisted and fell into them, consumed in an instant. “There’s mountain lions when we get higher.”


“And bears.”


“I never saw a bear, before. ‘cept in the zoo back in Chicago.”


“Me neither.”


“I expect the colonel has.” BA nodded at Hannibal’s tent.


“I expect he used to wrestle them when he was a small boy,” Face said, with a grin.


BA snorted. “That’s a stupid thing to say. You know the colonel was never a boy. The Army grew him in some kinda vat.”


Face laughed. Admittedly it was hard to imagine Hannibal as a child. Had he ever been too young to smoke? Inconceivable.


“He’ll take care of things out here,” BA said more quietly. “Knows what he’s doing.”


“Yeah.” Hannibal would lead them into the wilderness and lead them back out. Face believed that. He did. “And hell, bears? Big deal. As long as they don’t have rifles, then we’ve had worse, right?”


“Yeah.” They sat in silence for a while. The coyote howls died away. Face didn’t know if he was glad about that or not. At least when they’re making noise you know where they are.


“How do you think Murdock is doing?” BA asked.


Face turned to looked at him, but BA just kept on staring into the fire.


“I wish I knew, BA. I know it couldn’t work, but hell, I still wish he was here with us.”


~o~


“I kind of wish you were here with us, Murdock. I think you’d be having a great time. You’d probably have named each of those howling coyotes. And if we hear them again you’d recognise them! I miss you, buddy. I really do wish you were along for the ride.”


~o~


Face sited the rifle on his target. Steady, ready, wait for it. For a second before he pulled the trigger he felt glad that this time Murdock wasn’t here. A squeeze and the rabbit in his sights fell instantly dead. Face grabbed his bag and walked quickly to where his latest kill lay.


If Murdock was here he’d probably start some kind of Rabbit Lib movement and walk around with a placard that read “Faceman Unfair to Bunnies”. He did crazy stuff like that all the time. He’d staged a sit in when the mess changed the type of coffee they served. Made Face wonder how anyone had been able to tell when he’d gone ‘officially’ crazy.


Well, hell, it probably meant they hadn’t been able to tell, not until it was too late. Just Murdock being Murdock. If Face and the team had been there, they’d have known. They’d have seen something wrong. Something different.


He found the dead rabbit and put it into the canvas bag with the other two. That would do, enough for a rabbit stew that would do for dinner tonight and lunch tomorrow. He headed back to camp.


~o~


The three tents were up already, although the sun had barely started to set by the time Face walked back into camp. They always tried to get the tents up before dark. They could erect them in the dark at a pinch, but it would probably result in a repeat of BA’s unfortunate earlier incident.


BA lay stretched in front of his tent, legs crossed at the ankles, head against his rolled up sleeping bag. Hannibal sat with the largest of their cooking pots beside him, peeling vegetables and dropping them into the pot. Those must be nearly the last of their ‘civilised’ vegetables, Face thought. Going to be real hunter-gatherers soon, living totally off the land.


“I hope you’ve got something for my stew pot, Lieutenant,” Hannibal said as Face walked back into camp, rifle resting on his shoulder. Face dropped the bag beside Hannibal.


“Three plump specimens for you, Colonel.”


Hannibal examined the rabbits and nodded with approval. “Nice shooting, Face. There’s a fresh pot of coffee there.”


Face found the coffeepot and poured himself a cup. BA hadn’t stirred. Must be asleep, Face thought. He’d taken the watch last night and needed his rest.


“Can you skin them for me?” Hannibal asked. Face shook his head at once. He could, but damned if he wanted to.


“Hey, I did my job. Let someone else get his hands dirty.”


Hannibal glanced at the snoozing BA and apparently thought better of that quickly. “Face…”


“Division of labour, Colonel. I shoot ’em, you skin ’em…”


“I eat ’em.” They both turned to BA, who watched with half closed eyes. “I don’t care who skins ’em,” he said. “Long as you get that stew ready for dinnertime.”


Hannibal looked at Face again and Face gave a long-suffering sigh and reached for his knife. He did need to practice this. He had survival training of course and had skinned and eaten various unappetising creatures in the past. But just because he’d done it didn’t mean he had to like it.


Hannibal spoke up while he went on peeling and chopping vegetables. “I was checking the map. We should pass a small town tomorrow. I think I’ll pop in and pick up a few things. We won’t have another chance for weeks after that.”


“Okay,” Face said. “Are you going to mail a letter to Ray? I’ve got one nearly ready to go to Murdock.”


“Sure,” Hannibal said. He glanced at BA, then back to Face. “I’ll go into town on my own. You two camp out and wait for me. In fact I was going to say I think either you or I should be the ones who do all of the shopping at any towns and farms we come across.”


BA opened his eyes. “Why you two?”


“BA, these are small rural towns. They probably don’t see many black people.”


“Yeah? Well maybe it’s time they did.”


“Too risky, Sergeant. You’re a little too memorable.” Hannibal grinned. “They’d talk about for years to come.”


Face had to agree. It wasn’t just about colour. BA was big and had earned his nickname. People would remember him. Especially if he got into some kind of trouble. He smiled. BA? Trouble? Surely not.


“What about him?” BA nodded over to Face. “Don’t he stand out?”


“What do you mean?” Hannibal said, looking puzzled.


“Well, you know… I mean he’s…” BA stopped, looking awkward, which amazed Face. He didn’t think he’d ever seen BA look nervous or hesitant. It lasted only a second, before a furious scowl covered it up. “The women would remember him!”


Face chuckled at that. Oh my, the drawbacks of being irresistible.


“Ah!” Hannibal smiled, getting it, too. “Okay, you have a point, BA. I’ll handle any shopping and interaction with the locals.”


The locals, Face noticed. As if they were in some foreign country. Is that how Hannibal felt? Of course, he’d been overseas for so much of his career, perhaps home could feel like a foreign sort of place. Face could understand that. Though he’d felt at home back in LA, out here the terrain felt more alien than Vietnam ever had.


~o~


After dinner they lay around the camp, as the air cooled and the sky went indigo and then black. The stars came out, scattered thick on the darkness. Face and Hannibal had cigars, the smoke curling up in the still air.


No wind stirred the trees, but the passage of bats ruffled the leaves. The bats disturbed Face only mildly compared to the coyotes. A colony of bats had taken up residence in the attic of the orphanage once and hearing them scuffling and flapping had kept Face awake at nights. How the heck he was going to get to his stash of Playboys now the attic was off limits to the kids? After all, he had customers waiting.


Nature, he remembered thinking, should stay out in the countryside where it belonged. He would stay in LA and in, return, all the animals should stay outside. Well except the dogs and cats. Oh and that pair of lovebirds Sister Catherine kept in her room. That couldn’t be right, could it? A woman under a vow of chastity owning love birds?


“Hey, Face, you asleep?” BA called.


“Mmm?” Face brought his attention back to the present. “No, just thinking.”


“No need for that,” Hannibal said. “Division of labour, Lieutenant.” Face couldn’t see if he was grinning, but it sounded like it. “I do the thinking around here.”


“And I do all the work.” BA sounded grouchy.


“And I shoot stuff and look good?”


Now Hannibal laughed. “Well the first part.” He went on chuckling when Face skimmed a tin plate at him, hoping to whack him a good one. Hannibal caught the plate out of the air and whizzed it right back at Face, who ducked as it flew past him and bounced off a tent.


“Knock it off,” BA said. “That’s all good fun, till someone loses an eye.”


Face stared at BA. “You, uh, picked that saying up from your mother, huh?”


“You telling me she was wrong?”


“Not at all!” Face protested, warning bells sounding. “Good saying!”


“Yeah,” Hannibal agreed. “You know where I come from we have a saying.”


“Never eat anything bigger than your own head?” Face suggested and BA giggled.


“Fine,” Hannibal said, sounding miffed. “If you don’t want to know.”


“Oh tell us, please,” Face said.


BA joined in at once. “Yeah, tell us, Colonel.”


“Nope, the moment is gone.” Hannibal was surely smirking now, Face thought. He could hear that smirk. “Right, I’m going to bed. Face, your watch tonight.”


Face groaned. He’d already grown weary of the night watches, and knew BA had too. Neither thought they really needed them. Perhaps later, when the chance of Lynch being anywhere in the vicinity grew more remote they could persuade the colonel to have some mercy.


As BA and Hannibal crawled into their tents, Face took a folded sheet of paper from one pocket, and a pen from another.


“I need to finish this letter now. Hannibal is going to mail it tomorrow. One day, soon I hope, you can show me this letter, to remind me of the week I thought was actually fun.


“Stay strong, Murdock, we’re all thinking of you.”

Chapter 7

Doing the shopping had its perks. Hannibal took the opportunity to duck into a bar for a beer. Only one. It would be the last chance. After this, the direction they took meant the towns were few and far between, and small enough to be more curious about strangers than he would be comfortable with.


A few people glanced at him when he went in, but quickly turned back to their newspapers or conversations. Hannibal took a table near the door, ordered a beer and opened the newspaper he’d bought.


Page four. That’s where he found the only mention of the team, and no photographs. The small story mentioned a few unconfirmed sightings, mostly in places they’d never visited. Not as a team anyway. Phoenix? Hannibal had been there on leave once as a captain. Those memories made him smile. A couple of sightings had been reported in LA apparently, which stopped him smiling. But none of them were sightings of the team heading out of LA in the direction of Nevada, so that wasn’t too bad.


The Army had no official comment on any of the sightings of course, but the paper did print the phone number of Colonel Lynch’s office. So they still had Lynch on the case? You’d think by now the Army would have figured out that goof couldn’t catch a cold, let alone the A-Team.


He glanced over at the door as two young men came in. Oh, hell, he thought. Maybe Lynch can’t catch me, but these two? They had military written all over them, from the crew-cuts and scrubbed faces to the shine on their boots. Though their clothes were casual they were also well pressed and spotlessly clean.


The way they checked the place out was a clue, too, exactly the same way Hannibal had when he came in. One glance had told him how many people were in the room, where the exits were, where there was cover. After a while it became instinctive.


You also spotted quickly who was a potential threat, so Hannibal concentrated hard on looking like any old working stiff, dropping in for a beer before he took the shopping home to the little missus. I’m just a guy. Not in any way a battle-hardened, experienced soldier. Ignore me. They seemed to do just that, giving him a quick glance as they passed, but no more.


MPs? If Lynch had somehow tracked him down, he might put a couple of his boys in civilian clothes and send them inside to check out the lay of the land. But when he glanced at them, for a half a second, no longer, he noticed the bottom edge of a tattoo, just showing from under the short sleeve of one of the men. USMC.


Marines. So not Lynch’s men, which made Hannibal relax at least a little. Yet they didn’t look “at home” either, so not locals. Probably just a couple of guys passing through, same as Hannibal. But just because they weren’t MPs didn’t mean he wouldn’t be in trouble if they did recognise him. Best to stay inconspicuous, finish his beer and get the hell out of Dodge. Besides, he’d never live it down if he got captured by a couple of Marines.


Although he had his back to them, he could see a reflection of the Marines in a mirror on the wall. They took their beers to a table and sat down. They didn’t look at Hannibal, still gave no sign that they recognised him.


Turn a page, he thought, been on the same one for too long. For a few minutes, he pretended to read, while casting quick glances into the mirror to keep an eye on the Marines.


Seemed out he wasn’t the only one watching them. Hannibal had reached the sports section, when he heard some catcalls in slurred voices.


Hannibal took a longer look, via the mirror. A six pack of idiots in the corner of the bar had started shouting at the Marines. Obvious civilians to Hannibal’s eye, mostly young. He pegged them right away as the sort who thought they had something to prove by stirring trouble with soldiers. Seen that a hundred times with BA. Though BA did deserve his nickname, he didn’t actually cause as much trouble as people imagined. He just attracted it. Usually from men who took his being bigger and stronger than them as a personal affront. Or a challenge.


The idiots started to throw pretzels and chips and one of the Marines stood up. At once the whole table of idiots did the same. The guy behind the bar started shouting that he’d call the sheriff if everybody didn’t sit down right now. A waitress, standing at a table near Hannibal looked scared and other patrons glanced around nervously.


Every instinct told Hannibal to go and back up the Marines. Yeah, okay, Marines, but still, military, maybe vets, getting crap from a bunch of civilian jerks who don’t know a damn thing. Hannibal knew he should go and stand with them.


But he couldn’t. If this turned into a fight, and he knew it would, as the shouts went on and the other Marine stood, then the sheriff would show up and Hannibal couldn’t risk that kind of attention. He couldn’t afford to be a witness, never mind a participant. Moving fast, he grabbed his bag of groceries and headed to the door. On the way he snapped at the waitress and the table of people she stood beside.


“Better get outside now.”


He strode on past them and out into the sunshine. Footsteps behind him a moment later told him the waitress and her patrons had followed his advice. Hannibal didn’t look back, kept walking fast. He heard the sound of glass smashing. For a second, only a second, his step faltered. But then he kept on walking. Because two other military men – his men – waited for him outside town. They were the ones he had to think about now. Those Marines could handle themselves. They didn’t need him.


Face and BA needed him.


~o~


Hannibal stomped along the road, in a deep funk, as if he had a personal rain cloud over his head, despite the bright sunshine. He’d reached the outskirts of the town now, the houses more widely spaced.


As he passed one house, a fierce barking started up from behind the fence enclosing a large garden. Curious, he looked over the fence, expecting to see an Alsatian or Doberman. But the dog that barked up at him was quite small, a bit smaller than the collie it resembled, but mixed with plenty of terrier. Hannibal grinned at it, the feisty little dog lifting his gloom. It stopped barking and gave him a wary look.


“Well, you punch above your weight, don’t you, fella?”


“Is he bothering you?” Hannibal looked up to see a middle-aged woman coming around the side of the house, carrying a basket full of cut flowers.


“I think I’m bothering him,” Hannibal said, “just by walking past.”


She grimaced and came over, taking off a pair of gardening gloves. The dog started wagging its long-haired tail.


“He barks at anything. I don’t know how my father stood it.”


Hannibal gave her a questioning look, reaching over the fence to pat the dog’s head. He should go on, he thought, shouldn’t talk to this woman long enough for her to remember him too well. But after days with only Face and BA to talk to, he couldn’t resist even a brief conversation with somebody new.


“Dad lived outside of town though,” the woman said. “And he had a hen house.”


“Kept the foxes out, did you, boy?” Hannibal scratched the dog’s head.


“We had to bring him here after my father died last month.”


“I’m sorry,” Hannibal said. He looked down at the animal, its tail wagging fast now, enjoying the attention. It looked quite young and healthy, its black and brown fur glossy and smooth. A quick touch told him its nose was nice and cold.


“He’s a good guard dog then?”


“Too good.”


Hannibal thought about the cash he had in his pocket. And seeing that annoyed look on her face, he wondered if he would even need to pay her.


“What’s his name?”


~o~


“Someone’s comin’.”


Face groaned when BA shook him awake from his snooze in the sun.


“I’m only waking up if it’s the Army.”


“Git up.” BA handed Face a rifle. Face sighed. He’s slept fitfully most of the day, BA had noticed. The air too warm to stay in his tent, but the sun too bright to let him sleep properly outside. They couldn’t keep up the night watches much longer. Face climbed to his feet and stood with BA, waiting for the person they could hear approaching through the trees.


A moment later, their tension vanished to be replaced by astonishment. Hannibal emerged from the trees, but what astonished them was the dog that walked at his side. He had it on a leash, but let go of that to let the dog run up to Face and BA.


“What the hell is this?” Face asked as Hannibal walked up to them.


“It’s a dog,” Hannibal said. “Don’t be scared, Face, I know you’ve seen dogs before.”


“What’s it doing here?” BA lowered his rifle as the dog sniffed around his feet. A moment later it ran over to Face and gave him the same treatment. Face bent down and stroked its head.


“I bought it,” Hannibal said, looking very pleased with himself. “Well, I think I bought a few cans of dog food really. The dog came free with them.”


“Supermarkets are coming out with some strange promotions these days,” Face said.


Hannibal laughed. “Yeah. Look, he’s a guard dog. Or well, more like a burglar alarm. So I thought we could use that. Means we don’t have to sit up on watch during the night. He’ll warn us about animals too and keep raccoons away from our food.”


“Isn’t there a chance he’ll attract cougars?” Face asked.


“Maybe, but at least he’ll let us know when they’re coming.”


The dog started exploring the campsite while Hannibal unloaded the groceries from his pack. BA was still dubious and Face looked like he felt the same.


“Ain’t it just another mouth to feed?” BA said. “He can’t live on rabbit bones.”


“So Face can shoot a few more rabbits. Maybe a deer.”


“I’m not shooting a deer!” Face snapped the words, spinning to scowl at Hannibal.


Hannibal frowned up at Face, clearly not liking that flat refusal. Face had his ‘if you don’t like it you know what you can do’ expression on.


“I’ll shoot every rabbit in Nevada for you, Colonel, but if you want any deer shot, you can do it yourself.”


“And I ain’t carrying no deer,” BA said. “How much do you think that little dog can eat anyway? Would take us days to eat a whole deer. So unless you got a freezer in your pack, or you gonna make enough jerky to go into the jerky business…”


He stopped talking because nobody was listening to him. Face and Hannibal held each other’s gazes steadily. The dog came back to BA and he hunkered down to scratch it behind the ears. Pretty cute little guy, he supposed. And if it meant no more night watches, that could only be good.


“What’s his name, anyway?”


~o~


“Dear Murdock,


“It could be a while before I get a chance to send this letter to you. I’ll just keep on adding to it until we stop some place to mail it. I have to tell you about what happened today though. We got a new addition to the team. Don’t worry, buddy, he can’t replace you, though his breath smells pretty much the same! Yeah, we got a dog! Cute little fella. Very friendly. So, anyway, I hope one day you’ll get to meet Billy.”

Part 3

Chapter 8

They were off the trail now. A week on the easier terrain, getting acclimated, making sure they were at peak fitness, before climbing into the hills.


“You know it’s five days since we saw another person,” Face called, from his rearguard position. “And a week since we saw a woman,” he added, in a dark tone.


“Get used to it,” Hannibal said. “The fewer people we see the better. The fewer people to remember us.”


“Yeah, yeah.” Face had heard this mantra too many times already. But even he couldn’t find too much to complain about at the moment. The terrain was rough, but hardly arduous enough to bother them. The sky was blue, the vegetation lush. Billy scampered ahead exploring and running back periodically for a pat on the head. Okay, the sun was pretty hot, but Face had a hat on, so couldn’t even complain Hannibal was causing him to bake his brain.


Up front on point, BA did have a grievance though and called back over his shoulder. “Ain’t it time we stopped for lunch?”


“It’s not even noon yet,” Hannibal said.


“Yeah, and we was up at dawn, ’cause of that raccoon.”


“That was a bear,” Face said. “I saw it.”


Billy had woken them with furious barking, and they’d run from their tents to find something vanishing into the darkness with the dog chasing it off. When Billy came back to the camp a moment later, Face could swear the dog had a smug smile.


“It was not a bear,” Hannibal said, “We’re not in bear territory yet.”


“What do you mean, yet?” BA said, scowling back at him.


Hannibal manoeuvred around a rock, while Billy scrambled over the top of it and ran on to BA, who took something from his pocket and passed it down to the dog. Face grinned. Good thing Billy was getting lots of exercise, or he’d be fat as a pig, with all the treats he got from the big guy.


“Okay, guys, Hannibal said. “Let’s have another riddle.” Face and BA groaned in unison.


“Nothing about tigers or guys who can only tell lies,” BA said.


“Nope, no tigers. Right, you boys listening?”


“Yes, Dad.” They chorused it and grinned. Hannibal ignored that.


“There’s a farmer, going to market. He has a bag of grain, a chicken and a fox.”


“A fox?” Face frowned, and moved to catch up to Hannibal and walk side by side.


“Yeah, a fox. Now…”


“What’s a farmer doing with a fox? Wouldn’t he just shoot a fox? Why is he taking it to market?”


Hannibal glared at him. “Okay, then it’s a dog. Yeah, I think that’s right. It’s a dog.”


BA dropped back to walk on Hannibal’s other side. “He’s going to market with one chicken?”


“What?”


“One chicken? That’s not going to earn him very much. Wouldn’t he have lots of chickens?”


“Good point, BA.” Face nodded and hid a grin at the annoyed expression on Hannibal’s face.


“It doesn’t matter. If you insist, he’s coming home from market and he bought a chicken.”


“And some grain,” BA said.


“And some grain.”


“And a dog,” Face put in.


“No, he didn’t, he already had the dog. Look it doesn’t matter!”


Face smiled to himself again. A couple of days ago, Hannibal had started with coming up with riddles and puzzles to keep them occupied. And Face and BA were making sure he regretted it, while getting the maximum possible entertainment out of it themselves.


“I dunno though,” BA said. “He went all the way to the market and just bought the one chicken? Why not buy a bunch?”


“Yeah, sounds suspicious to me,” Face said, nodding. “I think he stole the chicken.”


“Yeah,” BA agreed. “He could have used the grain to lay down a trail to lure it.”


“Guys!” Hannibal looked at them, an almost pleading expression in his eyes. “Look, you’re not cops trying to break down his story! Knock it off and let me get to the riddle part!”


“You mean there’s more?” Face said, innocently. Hannibal glared at him.


“Yes, there’s more. And by the way, you’re doing it again. Both of you.”


“Doing what?” Face asked.


“Marching! Walking in step anyway.”


Face and BA both faltered, looking down at their feet. They couldn’t break the habit. Left right left right, all together.


“We might as well have our uniforms on.” Hannibal said. “Anybody who saw us would peg us as soldiers on sight. Loosen up, just…. stroll.”


“Stroll,” Face said. They walked on in silence for a while, Face and BA concentrating hard on their feet and each other’s feet. After a moment Face spoke.


“Great, now I’ve forgotten how to walk.” So strange. Trying to concentrate on something instinctive made it almost impossible to do.


“Don’t think about it,” Hannibal said, “Just let go and stroll. Now, can I go on with the riddle?”


“Can we stop for lunch yet?” BA asked.


“After you solve the riddle. Right. This man, farmer, thief, whatever, he has a chicken, a dog and a sack of grain. How he obtained them is outside the scope of this investigation.” He glared to emphasise that last point. “Now he comes to a river and the only way to cross is by rowing over in a boat. But he can’t fit the chicken the dog and the grain into the boat.”


“Small boat.” Face looked up from his boots, trying to let “strolling” come naturally.


“Yes, Face,” Hannibal sounded determined not to let them sidetrack him again. “It’s a very small boat. He can only carry one of the items at a time.”


“Can you call an animal an item?” Face mused.


“Shut up. He has to make more than one trip. But he has a problem – if he rows over with the dog and leaves the chicken and the grain together, the chicken will eat the grain. But if he takes the grain and leaves the dog and chicken, the dog will kill the chicken.”


“How big is this chicken?” Face asked, frowning.


“What does that matter?”


“Well it would have to either be a very big chicken or a very small bag of grain for him to worry about the chicken eating all of it. Can’t he just accept a losing a little of the grain?”


“No he can’t!”


“Sorry,” Face said, not sorry at all. He caught BA’s eye and winked. Going very well so far. By the time they were done Hannibal wouldn’t know what day of the week it was. Come to think of it, what day of the week was it?


“Couldn’t the dog just swim over?” BA asked. “Dogs can swim good, look how much he enjoyed himself in that river the other day.” He nodded at Billy, scouting ahead of them.


Catch us a rabbit, little guy, Face thought, starting to feel as hungry as BA. The dog was a pretty good rabbit catcher. And an excellent rabbit retriever after the team shot them.


“Look, guys, it’s a riddle!” Hannibal said, exasperated. “It’s not a hard-hitting documentary. It’s a logic problem – will you stop trying to apply the real world to it?”


“Couldn’t the chicken just fly over?” Face said, actually starting to think about the puzzle now.


“Chickens can’t fly!” BA said and snorted with laughter.


“Of course chickens can fly!” Face protested. “They’re birds aren’t they?”


“So are penguins!”


“Hannibal!” Face appealed to arbitration from the expert.


“Technically, yeah, chickens can fly,” Hannibal said. Face smiled smugly.


“Then how come the ones on farms don’t just fly away?” BA demanded, scowling at Face.


“Because they can fly, but not very well, or very far. And why fly away from some place where you’re being fed regularly and have a nice warm bed to sleep in?” They went silent for a moment and Face and BA exchanged a glance.


“Yeah, be nuts to do something like that,” BA muttered.


“Okay then.” Hannibal looked at them. “What’s the answer? How is he going to get all three across the river without the dog eating the chicken, or the chicken eating the grain?”


“Well…” Face frowned in concentration. “He could take the chicken, ’cause the dog won’t eat the grain, then he comes back and brings across… No, wait, then he’d have to leave the dog or the grain with the chicken while he made the last pickup.”


“He could leave the grain behind,” BA said. “Abandon it, I mean. Can always buy more grain, but if he loses the chicken, no more eggs. Or if he leaves the dog… well, whatever his dog does, guards the farm or kill rats, he’d lose more in the end. Yeah. I’d leave the grain. Is that the answer?”


“No, BA,” Hannibal said. “Or, I guess it’s one answer, if it was a question about something else. But for this riddle, he needs to get them all across the river.” Face knew he meant if it was about sacrifice – what you’re willing to lose now to prevent worse loss later.


“Can we stop for lunch?” Face asked. “All this talk about chicken and grain is making me really hungry.”


Hannibal showed some mercy then. He stopped and glanced around, nodding, approving this as a stopping off point. “Okay, but I want the answer from you guys after we eat.”


~o~


“Dear Murdock


“I’ll just start this letter while we stop for some lunch. I hope the food in the VA is okay. Hospital food – how good can it be? But after Army food, I guess it’s a gourmet feast.


“Hannibal has BA and me going crazy with riddles and enigmas and guessing games. I think he thinks he has to keep us occupied or we’ll wander off or something.


“You’d probably get the answers to them quicker than us. Your mind works the same way as Hannibal’s. Then again your answer to getting the dog and the chicken and the grain over the river is probably “hire a chopper”.


“Okay, food’s on.”


~o~


Murdock ate his lunch in his room. He preferred that, where he could eat without having to keep a watch out for anyone coming to try and take it from him.


Old habits. One bite for him, one for the handkerchief he had open on his lap. They couldn’t see that from the door. Safe.


One bite for him. One for the handkerchief. Then once he finished – lick the plate, don’t waste a morsel – wrap up the handkerchief and put it in his pocket while the staff came and took away the lunch tray. Smile at them, nice smile. They don’t suspect a thing.


He climbed into bed, sheet up over his head so they couldn’t see him, and reached under his pillow to pull out the roll of toilet paper he’d liberated from the bathroom. Retrieving the handkerchief from his pocket, he opened it and laid it flat.


Then he took squares of toilet paper and made small parcels of each scrap of food. Bread and vegetables. Lick the gravy off them, so it doesn’t soak through. Good, nice and neat. He wrapped the small parcels back in the handkerchief.


Cautious, listening first, then pulling the sheet down to look, checking the door again. Still closed. Nobody looking in the hatch. A shadow crossed it when someone passed outside. Voices. Laughter sometimes. Sometimes a yell or even a scream. Though the screams came more often at night.


Murdock slid off the bed and ducked underneath it. A hospital bed was a miraculous contraption, and it had a lot of nooks and crannies underneath, ready to bite the fingers of the unwary. But also ready to conceal tiny paper-wrapped parcels.


He secreted a few of them. He’d be able to reach them without even getting off the bed. Smart plan. But a smart plan not to put all the eggs in one basket either. He slid under the bed and out the other side and scooted across the floor to sit against the wall by the door. A chest of drawers stood beside him and he slid open a bottom drawer, put in a food scrap, began to work his way up the cabinet. Not every drawer, too obvious. And not every other drawer. Try to be random, no pattern.


“What are you doing?” Face asked, crouching beside him. The only other man awake in their cage.


“Filling the larder,” Murdock said, glancing around to check for guards. He showed Face the little parcels wrapped in leaves. Face nodded. Understood of course – they’d done this often enough. He almost ate the scrap with his eyes, Murdock thought. The whole meal they just had was barely half what a grown man would call a light snack, but despite that they still they had to think about what would happen if they got nothing at all tomorrow, or the day after that, or the day after that.


“Keep watch,” Murdock said. Concealing food like this was against the camp’s rules of course. That rulebook must be a hell of a weighty tome. Though maybe it was a three ring binder, so they could add in more pages when they made up some new rule. All punishment, of course, applied retroactively.


Face watched the guards as Murdock hid the scraps, inside and outside the cage. Never more then half an arm’s length away. Easily grabbed.


While he slid one parcel between a couple of rocks, he hoped he’d wrapped the thick leaves tight enough to keep the bugs off. Not nice to find it full of… things when you unwrapped it later. Sometimes you ate it anyway. Told yourself that at least it gave you some protein.


Face kept glancing away from the guards and watching him. Couldn’t blame him. Food. Hard to concentrate on anything else. Impossible. All the times he’d ever been hungry before this meant nothing. Hell, they were pleasant memories. Coming home from school as a teenager, taller every day, Grandma used to complain, and always hungry however much lunch he ate. Or the times he went out exploring all day and came home hungry enough to eat a horse.


So different. Hunger that you knew would soon be satisfied with a big, delicious meal wasn’t hardship, more a kind of exquisite anticipation. Not like this mind-destroying, desolate emptiness.


Face turned back to watching the guards, while Murdock hid the rest of the scraps. Wardrobe, yes, that works, in the pockets of clothes. A piece on top. He wanted some tape. Taping packets to the undersides of furniture would work.


“Murdock,” Face said, from where he stood spying out of the hatch, the light outlining the jutting bones of his emaciated frame. He was fading away. Clothes hung loose where he’d once filled them out in nurse-pleasing ways.


He was fading away. Murdock could see the door and the hatch through his now translucent form. Before he vanished altogether, he spoke. A whisper. More a breeze than a voice.


“A storm’s building.”


~o~


Face lay in his tent, the door flap tied open and doodling on the back of his letter to Murdock. Dog. Chicken. Grain. Boat. Man. River.


“He has to take the chicken across first, right?” he called out across the campsite.


“Maybe,” Hannibal called back.


The three tents were up, forming a small triangle. They’d had a fire, but sudden rain had seen to that and the team decided to make camp early that day. Now they all lay in their tents, a gloomy mood pervading the site. Hannibal had a cigar, it’s smoke drifting out of the tent flap. BA had his head down on his forearms, maybe asleep, Face couldn’t tell. Billy didn’t seem to mind the rain much. He’d definitely swim across the river in this damn puzzle, Face thought. And back again.


Back again. Face stared at the paper. Back again. He started to draw long arrows across the paper and muttered to himself. Then he grinned.


“I’ve got it!”


Face’s yell made BA look up, and rest his chin on his arms. The cloud of smoke cleared from Hannibal’s tent flap as he took out the cigar.


“Let’s have it,” Hannibal said.


“Okay. Farmer takes the chicken across first, leaving the dog with the grain. He rows back over and picks up the dog.”


“That ain’t gonna work,” BA said.


“Ah ha, yes it does,” Face said, crowing a bit. “Because he drops the dog off, then brings the chicken back when he rows back to get the grain. He leaves the chicken there and takes the grain over the river. He leaves the grain with the dog and then finally rows back and picks up the chicken.”


Hannibal grinned. “You’re excused washing up duty for two nights, Face.”


“Wait, you never said he could bring stuff back,” BA protested.


“I never said he couldn’t. Why wouldn’t he be able to?”


BA grumbled without any actual words, glaring at Face, who tried to control his smug expression. No sense in provoking BA enough to make him come out into the rain and knock Face’s tent over. Erecting a tent in the rain didn’t come high on Face’s Fun Things To Do list.


“How about another one?” Hannibal asked, and went on before they could protest. “Okay, a king had three daughters.”


“I like this one better already,” Face said. “Are they — Holy crap!”


Lightning flashed across the sky. The thunderclap that followed instantly made all of then flinch and duck down even flatter on the ground. Billy started to bark furiously. The rain grew heavier. If it had been a million dripping faucets before, now the faucets were opened up all the way. Face pulled his head further back into the tent.


“Cloudburst,” Hannibal called above the noise of the rain. “Common enough around here.”


“Oh man, that was louder’n that shell that nearly…” BA stopped and shuddered.


Face knew the shell he meant. He didn’t want to think about that one any more than BA did. But missiles came to mind though as a small, hairy one headed straight at him. Spooked by the thunder, and the rain finally more than he could stand, Billy hurtled for the shelter of Face’s tent.


“No, wait!” Face tried to field Billy, but the dog shot past him and inside. And then it did what all wet dogs do when they get somewhere dry.


“No!” Face howled as Billy shook the water from his coat, flinging it on every inch of Face’s tent, belongings and person.


Outside he could hear Hannibal and BA roaring with laughter, for which, he decided, they’d pay heavily later. For now though he had a wet dog to deal with. Face grabbed a towel and Billy and wrapped the towel around the squirming dog. Just lovely, drying off a dog with his own personal bath towel. If he got fleas he was blaming Hannibal.


“Keep still!” Face pleaded as Billy struggled to get away from the brisk rubdown, doubtless thinking another good shake would deal with the wet fur just fine. “Keep still!” But Billy shot out of the towel, escaped Face’s arms, and rammed into the pole at the front flap.


The tent collapsed.


Man and dog howled in perfect harmony.


~o~


“Billy is sulking and won’t come near my tent. Some nerve, since he was the one who knocked the tent over! He’s sleeping in BA’s tonight, because it’s still raining out there, though. Not as heavy as that cloudburst earlier.


“Now that was a sight to see. It’s like the ocean fell out of the sky. If it’s still raining tomorrow I’d prefer to stay here for another night, but Hannibal likes to keep us moving, not staying in one spot too long. I don’t know what his beef is. Who’s going to spot us here in the middle of nowhere? Maybe he’s worried about spy satellites.”


~o~


Are they watching? Murdock slid out of bed on the side away from the door. Nobody looking through the hatch, but they could have other ways. Hidden cameras. Or the people in the wall – maybe they reported in?


Got to take the chance. He’d been out of his room that afternoon for a session with the doctor. After that they’d even taken him outside for a walk in the fresh air, which had been nice, the sun on his face, breeze in his hair. But he hated to leave the room unguarded. Anybody could go poking around.


Crouching under the bed, he checked the food parcels one by one, in each of the places he’d concealed them. Now he worried about his memory. How reliable was it? Squirrels came to his thoughts. They hid away nuts for the winter and then found them months later, didn’t they? He must be smarter than a squirrel.


Did they really remember though? Maybe they came out of hibernating and looked around and thought “that’s a good place to hide nuts. If I was hiding nuts, I’d hide one there. Well whaddya know – there’s a nut here.”


Murdock’s fingers touched a wrapped parcel inside a slot in the bed frame.


“Are they all still there?” BA asked him.


“I think so.”


“Don’t think, man, you gotta know.”


“I know, I know.” Hard to concentrate when you’re hungry. Strange though. He wasn’t hungry. Why not? He’d been hungry for so long and now he wasn’t. Not hurting either. Almost like he wasn’t in the camp any more.


“You’re not in the camp, you dummy.”


“Then why am I saving scraps of food?”


“Cos you nuts.”


“Oh.”


“Go to bed.”


Murdock obeyed, climbing back into bed, under BA’s stern glare. Ah, yes. Now he remembered. They’d come in a little while ago and given him a pill to help him sleep. BA started to fade, just as Face had. Gaunt and grey already, just as he had been in the camp, now he became translucent and his final word drifted softly across as Murdock began to fall into the darkness.


“Fool.”

Chapter 9

When the sun rose the next morning, the ground steamed. Face packed up his gear, still damp after his tent collapse, got into dry clothes and they set out.


“We’ll try to find someplace to really catch the sun this afternoon,” Hannibal said, after listening to Face’s extended complaints about how he was going to die from wearing wet clothes and sleeping in a wet sleeping bag in a wet tent. “Then we can hang everything out to dry.”


“If we’re lucky,” Face said, eyeing some clouds on the horizon. The sky was blue again now, but those clouds hinted at more of the same rain they’d gotten yesterday. The heat of the day could break into a thunderstorm and make it unsafe for them to be in the open. Right now Face would pay anything for a roof over his head and a dry, cosy bed.


They trudged on. Even Billy seemed gloomy and just walked at Hannibal’s heels without the usual running ahead to explore. But as the sun climbed higher, they started to feel drier and happier. Hannibal even suggested another riddle but was shouted down.


“Okay, forget the riddle. How about a few rounds of Row, Row, Row Your Boat?”


“We get any more rain we’ll need a boat,” BA said. “And I ain’t no singer.”


“You boys just aren’t getting into the spirit of this at all,” Hannibal said, frowning at them.


“Hey, check it out,” BA said, finding a welcome distraction. “There’s a house over there.”


The house nestled on the lower slopes of the side of the small valley they were entering now. Hannibal stopped and took out his binoculars.


“Looks like a small farm,” he said, then directed his binoculars at the valley floor. ” Maybe best we keep well away from it, get across the river quick.”


“Is there a bridge?” Face asked, not wanting to get soaked again.


“Can’t see one. But the farmhouse is this side of the river and there’s a road on the other, so there must be a crossing… Oh, hang on, I see…”


He went quiet and Face followed the direction he was looking. Hard to make out through the mist still pooling on the valley floor, but as the breeze blew and tore the mist, he saw a truck and someone moving around beside the river.


“What’s going on?” BA asked, ready to grab the binoculars, going by the impatient scowl on his face. But he didn’t have time. Hannibal shoved the binoculars down the front of his jacket.


“I think someone’s in trouble. Let’s move.” He hurried off, finding a way down to the valley floor. BA and Face stared at each other and then rushed to follow him. The wet grass, treacherous under their feet, almost sent Face hurtling into Hannibal.


“Ah, Hannibal, is this a good idea?” Face said. “Aren’t we supposed to be avoiding contact with anyone?”


“I don’t think that’s an option here.”


Moments later they reached the valley floor and started to run. Face groaned as his heavy pack bumped him and the straps chafed his shoulders, but he and BA followed Hannibal. The colonel still had a fix on where he was heading, despite the pockets of mist drifting across the ground. As they ran a sound grew louder and louder. Roaring water.


They ran through a bank of mist and emerged to find a pickup truck, on a rough road that sloped down towards the river. The river roared, flooded from the extra rain, Face guessed, deeper and faster – and probably – colder than usual.


An old woman, small and skinny, stood on the bank, yelling at a cow standing in the middle of the river. The water only came up to the cow’s knees, leaving Face baffled for a moment, until he realised it must be standing on a ford.


Billy started to bark and the woman turned around, startled at the sight of three strange men and a dog emerging from the mist. She held a rope in her hands, tied into a lasso and she’d clearly tried to throw the loop over the cow’s head and failed at least once. The rope dripped.


“Looks like you could use some help, ma’am,” Hannibal said.


“I – I… yes. Yes, I could.” She stuttered, still amazed at their miraculous appearance, but pulled herself together and waved at the cow. “Silly thing tried to cross the ford, then got scared because of the floodwater. Now she won’t move. She’s my best animal. If she falls…”


“We’ll get her,” BA said.


Face briefly pictured BA striding out to the middle of the ford, slinging the beast over his shoulder and strolling back. But that was a fantasy. They were all going to get wet.


“Rope,” Hannibal said. Face dropped his pack and extracted the rope. It had been used mostly as a washing line so far. Time for some real work.


“Face, I’m sorry,” Hannibal said. “You’ll have to take the rope out. We need the heavier men backing you up in case you lose your footing.”


Face nodded. Another time he might have objected, made at least a token complaint. But the old lady had such a stricken expression on her face, it didn’t seem appropriate.


“Put Billy in the truck,” Face said as he tied the rope around his waist. “If I do fall he might jump in after me. He won’t stand a chance in there.”


BA scooped up the dog and shoved him in the cab of the truck. Furious, muffled barking made Billy’s feelings about this development very clear. In a moment all three men were roped together and Face took the looped end of the old lady’s lasso rope.


“Let’s go,” Face said. Might as well get on and get it over with.


“Oh, please be careful…. Ah… I’m sorry…your name…”


“Alvin,” Face said. Easiest alias to use was your own name, they’d all figured, and “Alvin” had never featured in any of the newspaper articles about the team that he’d read. He waved a hand at the other two. “John and Dan.” John Smith was safe enough. Bosco had featured in the newspapers, so he was Dan. Never mind about surnames. Plenty of time for formal introductions later.


“I’m Dinah.”


“Okay, I’m gonna go get your cow now, Dinah.” Face squared his shoulders and stepped into the river. The freezing rush of the water over the ford felt like iced splinters of glass shredding his jeans and boots and socks and skin. The strength of the current tried to take his legs from under him and he only barely stayed on his feet.


The things he did to show off in front of women.


~o~


BA worried about the wet ground under his feet. Between the two of them, he and Hannibal could keep Face from being carried away too far if he fell, but could he stay upright himself? So he had his eye on a rock, a big round boulder, which lay only a few feet from him. Maybe rolled there to mark the location of the ford. He’d brace against that if he slipped.


Moving slowly, edging along, Face reached the cow, which had started to moo now, wail almost, calling for help. Stupid thing stood less chance of falling than any of them, BA thought, with four legs instead of two. Face dropped the lasso over its head, and tightened the slipknot.


Hannibal and Dinah both yelled their congratulations and then all three people on the bank started to heave on the rope. The cow wailed some more and despite the rope pulling on its neck, it refused to move. Face tried to help, pulling on it, slapping its shoulder, but it wasn’t going anywhere.


“Try pushing it from behind!” Hannibal yelled over the noise of the roaring water and the hollering cow.


“No, Colonel!” BA protested. “It’ll kick him!”


Too late, Face edged around the cow, hanging onto it to anchor himself. He put his shoulder to her rump and pushed. Perhaps this startled the animal, but it certainly got a reaction, and then everything seemed to happen at once.


The cow moved, seeming to leap forward. Face had been leaning on it and he yelled as he lost his balance. BA didn’t wait for an order. The cow was already climbing up the bank, safe and certainly unlikely to go near the water again, so BA dropped that line and grabbed the one roping him to Hannibal and Face.


Face’s slip made him fall right off the ford. And the sudden jerk as the water whipped him away, tightening the rope, pulled Hannibal into the river right after him. He kept his feet for a few seconds, then stumbled and fell too. BA slid, his hands dragging on the rope. The old lady grabbed BA’s arm, trying to help anchor him, but her weight wouldn’t help.


BA had his plan. He let the tug from Face and Hannibal being pulled by the water drag him to crash up against the rock he’d scoped out earlier. The impact left him gasping for a second, and the pull of the river, along with the weight of the men, tried to drag him around the rock and into the water. But he resisted. He got his feet in front of him, lay back, almost flat, feet braced against the boulder and held, teeth gritted, sweat pouring off him.


“Come on,” he appealed to Hannibal and Face, though he knew they couldn’t hear him. Perhaps he was appealing to God then. Somebody, anybody. “Get out of the water.”


~o~


Face’s head went under the chilly water when he slipped off the ford. But he bobbed back up a second later, gasping and spitting out the water he’d gulped in his panic. The current swept him along fast, until he was stopped by a strong jerk on his waist as the rope caught him. Get your feet down, he ordered himself. I might not even be out of my depth. Feet down, before…


And then the current grabbed him again, and he heard Hannibal yell. He’d fallen in too. Oh god, we’re all going to go in, all going to drown. The panic clawed at him, tried to break his control, but he felt the jerk around his waist again as the rope brought him up short the second time. The water rushed around him, trying to drag him with it. But BA had him. Not going anywhere.


Now, the bank. So cold. Got to get out before the cold sapped all his strength, he knew. He tried to see Hannibal, but had too much water slapping in his face. Never mind, he couldn’t help Hannibal now, had to help himself first before he could help anyone else.


The water flowed too fast to let him get his feet down and he yelled with frustration. He might drown in a river that wasn’t as deep as he was tall.


Then he heard someone yelling his name. Not Face, but “Alvin! Alvin!” A woman. Before he had time to start thinking that his mother was calling him home to the Lord, he saw the old lady, Dinah, on the bank.


“Grab the rope!” It flew out to him and he caught it in the air before the water could snatch it away. But what the hell was she thinking? She couldn’t haul him out.


But her truck could. She ran from the bank and he heard the roar of the engine over the roar of the water and at once started to move towards the bank. The bank with a lot of rocks artfully concealed beneath the water that battered him but good as the truck dragged him over them. But at last he got his feet under him, and dragged himself out of the water and onto the bank, where he flopped down on his stomach, gasping and still spitting water.


“Get the rope to John!”


What? The voice came after a second and he raised his head to see her shouting from the cab of the truck. Billy was going nuts in there beside her, jumping around on the passenger seat.


John… Hannibal! He was still in the water. And Face was still roped to him. Where was BA? Staggering up to his feet he saw BA, braced behind a rock, securing the rope.


A second later Face spotted Hannibal in the water, near the bank now. He ran, carrying the end of the rope and threw it to Hannibal. Hannibal missed it the first time and Face pulled it back in and threw it again. Hannibal caught it this time, and as soon as he had a good grip on it, Face waved to Dinah to back up the truck. It started to reverse slowly, pulling Hannibal towards the bank.


In a moment he was close enough for Face to reach out and grab his hand, pull him up, away from the water. The river gave him up slowly, but at last he was on his feet and the two of them staggered a few feet up the bank, before collapsing into a tangled heap.


~o~


Dinah opened the door of the truck. The dog ran across her knees to jump out. It ran first to the big fellow, Dan, and she followed, to find Dan lying on his back, panting, the dog licking his face.


“I’m okay,” he gasped out. “Okay. Check the other two.”


She left him and hurried along the bank. After a moment the dog overtook her and started sniffing around the other two men, also on their backs, panting and moving weakly.


As Dinah stood over them, the one called John looked up at her and gave a weak smile.


“How’s the cow?”


The cow, the stupid beast that it was, had gone back to happily grazing on the lush grass of the valley floor, as if none of this had ever happened. Dinah hoped she had plenty of provisions in the larder. These boys looked like they could eat plenty and they’d certainly earned a bed for the night.

Chapter 10

Dinah’s truck drove up to the farmhouse, the team and their gear in the bed, and Billy riding in style up front. She parked right by the door. As they jumped out of the truck, Hannibal worried about who else might be in the house. But Dinah didn’t call out to anyone when she opened the door and then came back to help them bring their things inside.


As they walked in, Hannibal guessed she was alone here. Or at least no sign of a male presence in the house, no man’s coat hanging up in the hallway. When she led them upstairs and pointed out the bathroom, a glance told him there was no shaving gear in there.


“Here’s the guest room.” She showed them into a tidy, un-lived in room, with a high double bed. “Put the heater on and I’ll bring you some towels. You need to get out of those wet clothes at once.”


While she hurried off for the towels, they dropped their packs and started to fish out fresh clothes. Hannibal frowned when he saw Face wince as he bent over.


“You okay?”


Face straightened up again, rubbing his chest through his wet shirt. “Got kind of banged up getting out of the river.”


“Let’s see. Better check your ribs.”


Face took his shirt off and grimaced at the scrapes he found there. Blood welled up in a few of them as the shirt stopped soaking it up.


“First aid kit, BA,” Hannibal ordered.


BA dropped the mud-soaked shirt he’d just peeled off, and took the first aid kit from a side pocket of his pack. He handed that to Hannibal who sat on the bed with Face and started taking out dressings. When a knock sounded at the door, Hannibal called out.


“We’re decent, come on in.”


Dinah poked her head around the door and blushed at the sight of Face and BA’s bare chests.


“Here’s the towels. I’m going to set a fire in the parlour, and get something hot on the stove to warm you up. Come down when you’re ready. Bring your clothes and I’ll get them in the wash.”


“Thanks, ma’am,” BA said, taking the towels from her. She vanished again and BA brought the towels to Face and Hannibal. He put one over Face’s shoulders at once, while Hannibal taped dressings to his chest. “Hurry up, man,” BA said. “We all gotta get into dry clothes ‘fore we get sick.”


Hannibal nodded and checked Face’s ribs as quickly as he could, feeling the flesh goose pimple under his hands. Face started to shiver.


“I don’t think you’ve broken any. What you think?”


“I can breath okay,” Face said. “Look, I gotta get out of these wet jeans.”


Hannibal let him go, and Face moved closer to the electric heater and stripped off the rest of his wet clothes. The three men dried off and dressed in dry clothes from their packs.


“Where’d Billy go?” Face asked.


“Must be downstairs.” Hannibal gathered up the wet clothes. “Come on, let’s go join him. BA, turn the heater off.”


Downstairs, Dinah took the wet things to wash and ordered the three of them into the parlour, where they found a pot of hot coffee waiting. Billy had already found the fire and was curled on the hearth as if he’d come home.


“You act like it was the middle of winter,” BA said, as Face and Hannibal clustered around the fire.


“Summer or not, that water was damn cold,” Face said, “You weren’t in it!”


BA had soaked up plenty of it though, Hannibal had seen that from the back of his clothes, which had been wet, muddy and grass stained. Dinah was washing them, which meant staying for hours. And that would bring them to nightfall, and she wouldn’t turn them out into the darkness.


Was it a good idea to stay? So far she’d shown no signs of recognising them, too busy helping them get dry and warmed up.


Dinah came in carrying a tray with three steaming bowls and a plate of bread.


They all jumped up when she came in, but Face quickly sat down, that grimace on his face again. Don’t let those ribs be broken, Hannibal thought. We can tape him up, but if they are broken then he should rest and that means stopping and we don’t dare.


Or did they? This house was isolated, miles from anywhere. How many visitors could Dinah have? Maybe she’d be happy to let them stay a few days. They could do a few jobs around the place to earn their keep. There was always something to be done, Hannibal knew, even on a tiny farm like this.


“It’s only from a can,” Dinah said, distributing the bowls of soup. “But it should warm you through.”


Once they were settled with their soup and bread, Dinah said, “I’ll let you rest. There’s some blankets over there in that chest. If you need them.” She pointed at an oak chest by the wall, with a few magazine lying on the top. “I’m going to wash your clothes now, but just come and shout for me if you need anything.”


They didn’t need the blankets; in fact the room grew too hot. Hannibal banked the fire, but even so in a short while, Face, BA and Billy were all fast asleep. Hannibal didn’t sleep, stayed awake and on guard. Strolling around the room, he checked out photographs on the wall, including a wedding photo of Dinah and her husband. The husband wore an Army uniform; Hannibal recognised it as WWII. No kids, only them a couple.


Not prying, but curious, he glanced at the magazines on the chest, and found address labels on them. Coleman. Some were addressed to Dinah Coleman, but some still came in the name Leonard Coleman. Hannibal stopped nosing around and sat down with one of the magazines, a farming journal. In a few minutes he too was fast asleep.


~o~


Dinah woke them with dinner, and the insistence that they must stay the night. Only token protests came from the team, all of them happy to have the chance to sleep in a real bed again. Or at least two of them would get a real bed.


“The bed in the guest room is big enough for two of you. And I have a cot in the attic.”


The team looked at each other over their roast chicken dinners. Now who was going to be stuck with the cot?


“Alvin,” Hannibal said, the name coming more naturally to him now. “I guess you get the bed, being the most banged up. So, Dan, it’s between you and me who gets to keep him company.”


“Wishbone,” Face said, grinning, as he added more butter to his mashed potatoes.


“Good idea.” Dinah delicately extracted the wishbone from the nearly stripped chicken and Hannibal and BA each took an end. BA glared across the table at Hannibal, who grinned back at him.


“Now!” Face said. They pulled the wishbone and BA grinned as he came away with the largest piece.


“Best of three?” Hannibal said.


“We only got the one chicken.”


“Don’t worry, John,” Dinah said. “The cot isn’t too bad. And I have lots of spare blankets I can add to the mattress.”


“Thanks,” Hannibal said. “I’m quite used to a cot.” Oops, possibly not a good idea to say that. But, she didn’t seem to notice the slight giveaway there and didn’t question him further.


~o~


After dinner, Hannibal sent Face right to bed and BA said he’d go now too, to avoid disturbing Face getting in later. But Hannibal was ready to stay up a while longer and went into the parlour with Dinah. She rummaged in a small cabinet and turned around with a dusty bottle.


“Single malt,” she said. “Leonard wasn’t much of a drinker, but he liked a dram at night sometimes. Can I interest you in a swallow or two, John?”


She certainly could. Hannibal wasn’t much of a drinker either, but he’d always make an exception for a fine whiskey. Dinah poured a couple of fingers each into two tumblers, and handed one to Hannibal.


They took the armchairs by the fire and she sat and watched him as he sipped the whiskey, making him wonder he was occupying her husband’s chair. That thought made him glance up at the photos on the wall, wondering about the couple and their home so far from civilization.


“This place seems very remote, Dinah. I’m not sure how you manage to make much profit out of a farm right out here.”


“Oh, there’s a few houses around, they come by and buy from me. But it’s not really a business. My late husband, Leonard, he just wanted to live someplace quiet, and be as self-reliant as possible. We moved out here almost as soon as he came home after the war.”


“I see.”


“I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to manage the farm by myself,” Dinah said. “It’s a lot of work for a woman alone.” She sighed. “But we were here together for so long.”


For a moment Hannibal, who’d bought a dog because he liked the way it barked at him, imagined buying this farm. With what, he wasn’t certain. But he imagined the team living out here, off the map, off Lynch’s radar. And he had to smile at the picture of Face and BA as his farmhands. No, can’t quite see that. Still, he let the crazy idea play out in his head for a while, then shook it away.


“Where did your husband serve in the war? The Pacific or Europe?”


“Europe. He hardly ever talked about it. After he came home he was different.” She looked into the fire for a while, sipped from her glass a couple of times before she went on, her voice quieter. “I only found out at his funeral, from a man he’d served with, that he’d been with the forces that liberated one of the concentration camps. Dachau.”


Hannibal started to understand Leonard’s longing for isolation. Sometimes you saw too much evil, and all you could do was try and find a safe place away from it all. Not just for yourself, but for the one you loved. A place far from the world and its evil, where nothing could hurt them.


He’d brought his men out here for the same reason. Prison would destroy them. At least this gave them a kind of freedom. But it wasn’t a long-term answer, he knew that. That’s why he still had mad notions, like buying this farm, because right now, any idea was worth considering.


“Well,” Dinah put down her whiskey glass. “We should get that cot out of the attic for you.” She rose and Hannibal did too, as she came over to take his glass. For a moment she rested a hand on his arm. “I’m sorry if I brought up bad memories, talking about the war. You didn’t fight in that one, but you fought in another. You and your friends.”


Damn. “How can you tell?”


“There’s a look you all have. Leonard had it too. Scars in your eyes.”


She left and Hannibal waited a moment, knowing she’d take the glasses to the kitchen before heading for the attic. A glance at the clock told him it was after nine. Dinah probably went to bed about now to rise at dawn.


So the team had to be gone before dawn.

Chapter 11

BA and Face moved slowly when Hannibal shook them awake in the morning. Billy was sleeping downstairs and Hannibal was glad, as it would be harder to make him stay quiet. They’d pick him up on the way out.


“What the hell time is it?” Face whispered. “It’s still dark.”


“I know. I want us gone before Dinah wakes.”


“What? Why?” Face rubbed his bare chest and hissed in a breath. In the dim light of a lamp Hannibal could see a lot of dark bruising. Face could probably do with another couple of nights in a real bed while he healed, but Hannibal couldn’t risk it.


“You heard what she said about other people coming to buy things from the farm. Any of them could show up at any time. Maybe Dinah hasn’t spotted who we are, but one of them could.”


“That’s a pretty remote chance,” Face said, climbing out of bed, nevertheless.


“And it’s one I’m not prepared to take.”


“So why we gotta sneak out in the dark?” BA scowled as he started to dress. “Ain’t very good manners.”


“Because this way she won’t see which way we go.”


“Oh, come on,” Face said. “Dinah’s not going to turn us in.”


Hannibal frowned in response to that. And how many people had thought the same of their neighbours, friends, even relatives, and been wrong? No. They couldn’t risk it. Anyone could betray them. Anyone.


“Get your gear packed and keep quiet.”


When they still glared at him, he spoke again, still quiet. “I know it’s tempting to stay here, especially after the battering we got in that river. But I promise we’ll find somewhere to lie up and recover for a couple of days.”


They gave in and set about quietly packing their kit before descending the stairs. Billy, lying in front of the cold hearth, looked up and whined when Hannibal came into the room to get him. Perhaps even he found it too early. But after a huge yawn, he trotted over to Hannibal, tail wagging. Hannibal put a hand over the dog’s muzzle for a moment, wishing he could make Billy understand the need for quiet. One bark and there’d be a lot of awkward explaining to do.


Face and BA left the house with the dog, while Hannibal went into the kitchen, where he left a note and a little money on the table. The money was for the bread, cheese and cold chicken he took with him. The note was thanks, for the hospitality. But they had a long way to go he explained and had to leave early.


~o~


Doctor O’Brien hurried to the locked ward as fast as his creaking knees would allow. Funny, all those years you spent not thinking about your knees. Then the arthritis struck and it became hard to think of anything else.


When the elevator doors opened, it was like snapping on a TV in the middle of an action scene. Screams and yelling came from Captain Murdock’s room. O’Brien had found it hard to believe when he got the page. He’d had a session with Murdock only a couple of hours ago and he’d been quite calm. There was no record of violence in his medical history.


Yet now his room was full of orderlies, holding Murdock down, so the on-call doctor could sedate him. O’Brien kept out of the melee. He’d done his share over the years and now classed himself as too old and too close to retirement to jump into these situations. His wife had expressly forbidden him from being hit with any more chairs.


But he listened to Murdock’s yells, even as they weakened, as the sedative took effect. Hard to make out of course, incoherent. Screaming out accusations of theft of some kind. “Took them…” “How could you?” And a word, no, a name, he recalled from the sessions and the notes. “Face”, a friend in the war. But now Murdock screamed threats to kill Face. What had Face taken? How could he take anything? Face was Templeton Peck, a fugitive and nowhere near the VA hospital.


Slowly the screams weakened and quieted, into wordless, heaving, gasps as Murdock slipped into unconsciousness. The orderlies lifted him onto the bed and the nurses took over, making him comfortable. When the orderlies retreated, O’Brien went into the room where the head nurse remained.


“What happened?”


Dishevelled, but calm, quite used to this kind of thing, the nurse shook her head.


“He started up out of the blue, Doctor. He was fine after coming back from his session with you. But then he started moving around a lot in his room. I looked in a few times. He seemed to be searching for something.”


“Searching?”


“Yes. In the drawers and under the bed. Then he started to become agitated. Started yelling about thieves. When he began pulling the drawers out I asked him to stop, but he lost control, grew more agitated and I had to call the orderlies.”


“Of course.” O’Brien looked at Murdock sleeping peacefully now. He’d rearrange his schedule and make Murdock the first session in the morning. A couple of junior nurses were tidying up and O’Brien saw one of them pick up something small and white from the floor.


“Could you I have that, please,” he said. The young nurse handed it to him and he examined the object, a tiny paper parcel. Inside it he found a crust of bread, that had gone hard and had green spots starting to bloom on it. The head nurse wrinkled her nose in disgust.


“Oh, another of those,” she said. “I thought the cleaning staff had found them all. He must have more hidden.”


“He’s hidden these around his room?”


“All over, yes. Even hidden in the bed frame.”


And he probably has more in places they haven’t found yet, O’Brien thought. But Murdock knew exactly how many there are, and where they are hidden. So he knew some were missing, and accused his friend of taking them. That friend had been in a POW camp with Murdock, according to his files.


It started to make sense now. This wasn’t new to O’Brien, though it had been several years since he saw a patient who exhibited this behaviour.


“Nurse, tell the cleaning staff, if they find any more of these, they must leave them untouched.”


“Doctor,” she protested. “I keep a clean ward and that is unsanitary.”


“Those are my orders.”


She didn’t like it, but nodded her assent. “Yes, Doctor, I’ll pass that on to the cleaning supervisor.”


O’Brien re-wrapped the bread crust. The nurses had finished picking up Murdock’s belongings and replaced the drawers in the cabinet, so O’Brien took the small parcel and placed it in one of those drawers. Before he left the room, he looked down at the sleeping man again.


They still had a lot of work to do.

Part 4

Chapter 12

Whatever weather system had brought that cloudburst stuck around and it rained on Face, Hannibal and BA all morning, making them gloomy. The grim mood extended to the dog and Billy again trudged along at the heels of each of the men in turn.


They ate lunch almost entirely in silence. Hannibal knew Face and BA resented being taken from that nice, soft bed before dawn. Both had probably been looking forward to a hearty, home-cooked breakfast. Perhaps they hoped to stay around the farm for a couple of days, eating some more home-cooked meals, with lots of fresh bread and butter, cream and cheese. But instead, their jerk of a colonel had led them out into the rain to climb a damn mountain. Good thing they didn’t have any frag grenades around here – officers had been killed for less back in the war. Hannibal smiled at his crazy thoughts.


After they finished eating, Hannibal gave them some time to rest, remembering their early start. He patrolled for a while, though not sure what he guarded them from out here. Billy accompanied him and he patted the dog’s head, thankful that at least Billy couldn’t complain.


Not that Face and BA were complaining, which worried Hannibal much more. That silence… When he thought he’d given them long enough, he went back to where they sat, covered by a makeshift shelter made from a groundsheet. They stopped talking when Hannibal approached.


“Let’s go.”


“When we making camp?” BA asked.


“It’s barely noon. We can cover a lot of ground before dark.”


“We started while it was still dark. Face is hurtin’.”


Face did look a little pale, despite the tan he’d gained the last few weeks.


“Can you go on, Lieutenant?”


“Of course I can go on.” Face stood up at once.


He must be fine then, Hannibal thought. Face wasn’t shy about complaining, had a reputation for it, in fact. If he wasn’t complaining, it couldn’t be that bad. Which made him wonder about BA’s concern, getting protective like that. Was it just concern for Face, or a way to express some resentment at Hannibal?


They did need to find a good site though. Not only for the night, but maybe a couple of days, as he’d promised them back at Dinah’s. Let those bruises and that resentment fade.


“We’ll walk for a couple more hours,” Hannibal said, “and then make camp.” And then he had a personal mission.


As it turned out, they only lasted around an hour, before Billy’s frantic barking and BA’s yell made Hannibal spin around from his position on point.


Behind him, a few yards back down the hill, Face had dropped to his hands and knees, head hanging down. BA was already kneeling at his side. Fast as he dared, the grass still slippery from the rain, Hannibal ran back to them and dropped to his knees.


“He’s gotta rest, man,” BA growled.


“I’m okay,” Face panted, “Just need… catch my breath…” Sweat dripped from his forehead, and darkened his hair.


“Let me get your pack off.” Hannibal reached under Face and unbuckled the sternum strap, then got the pack off one arm at a time. It felt suspiciously light, he noticed at once. A quick glance told him BA’s pack bulged.


Dammit, why weren’t they talking to him? They were talking to each other, but not telling Hannibal if they were finding it hard. He could have taken some of Face’s things in his pack, while Face recovered from that battering in the river. But no, BA had taken all the extra burden himself, every additional pound he carried giving him an extra twist of resentment against Hannibal. This had to stop.


He looked around. The place was no good to camp, the ground too steep and uneven. Random rocks poked up through the grass.


“You two stay here and rest. I’m going to scout ahead and find us a good site, I’ll come back for you soon.”


“Yeah.” Face nodded, sitting back on his heels now, managing a wan smile, an embarrassed expression. “I just need a quick rest. I’ll be ready when you get back.”


BA unfolded a ground sheet to give them somewhere dry to sit. “Don’t make it too far away,” he said to Hannibal.


“I won’t.” Hannibal stood up. “Come on, Billy, you’re with me.” He smiled at the other two as Billy stopped shoving his head under Face’s hand, and trotted to Hannibal’s heel. “Well, I need a point man. Back soon. Stay alert.”


He climbed, glancing back a couple of time to see Face and BA settling down to rest. Stay alert, he thought, narrowing his eyes a moment and considering shouting down to remind them of that once more. But he saw BA settle his rifle in his arms. On guard. Good.


Hannibal moved on. As he climbed, he spotted a few game birds and rabbits and considered shooting some dinner. But he feared the shots would give the tense pair back down the trail the wrong idea, bring them rushing up here ready for trouble.


It took about twenty minutes to reach the top of the rise, and he stood on the high ridge looking down into another valley. A small, fast-running creek ran through the valley floor, foaming over the rocks. But the beauties of nature were not what made Hannibal smile.


Perfect, just perfect.


~o~


Face was panting and sweaty by the time they reached the ridge. Hannibal walked ahead and kept offering his hand to help Face around any tricky bits. BA stayed close behind, ready to grab him if he stumbled. Even the dog walked close to Face’s heels. Between the three of them, they made Face feel like a baby chick with three mother hens.


The looks BA and Hannibal kept giving each other didn’t help. Like they were proving something every time they helped Face out. What the hell they wanted to prove Face didn’t care to speculate, mind filled wall to wall with the ache from his ribs, despite the painkiller he’d swallowed. That damn cow. Should have let it drown. Probably insured anyway. But no, we had to rescue it. What are we, the A-Team or the Roaming Livestock Rescue Team?


At last he stepped onto the top of the ridge, at Hannibal’s side. BA arrived behind him a moment later and they all gazed down into the valley.


A town lay before them. Or what had once been a town, but was now only ruins dotted around the lower slopes of the valley. Some were just stubs of walls. Others still had high walls, but no roof. A lot of stone and wood lay at the bottom of the slope, or on the valley floor, some of it grown over with grass.


There must have been more houses once, probably made with un-tarred wood, which had long since rotted away. Even the stone ones would lose their mortar over time, dissolved and washed away by a hundred winters. After that they’d stand for a few seasons, until a storm or flood toppled the loosened stones and scattered the remains on the slopes and valley floor, like battlefield bones.


“A ghost town,” Hannibal said. “Nevada is full of them.” They’d seen some sites already on their journey, though most had been less intact than this one. “I found a house that seems pretty solid and most of the roof is still there. I think we could hole up there for a couple of days.”


“I don’t suppose it has hot and cold running water,” Face asked.


Hannibal shook his head, grinning. “It’s got a well and it still has water in it. So we can at least fill up our canteens without going down to the river every time.”


“Okay, make me a reservation and have my bags brought to the room.” Face sat down on a rock and slipped his pack off. He wanted a rest before he made the trip down the slope. Finding his canteen, he took a long drink from it. Hannibal and BA drank too, and BA found the shallow bowl that hung from Hannibal’s pack, and filled it with water for Billy.


For a moment there was little noise except the sound of the dog lapping and the songs of birds high in the sky. Blue sky now, the clouds burning off in the sunshine. The grass looked greener than any they’d seen so far on their journey, thanks to the rain. A shift in the wind brought the sound of the gurgling river far below floating up to them and stirred the few trees.


“Beautiful country.” Hannibal spoke quietly.


Face and BA nodded, gazing out at the view. The dead town, on its way to being consumed back into the earth, was the only sign of man’s hand on the landscape. The sky looked so big out here, Face thought. Not peeking between buildings, like in the city.


Only out here had he started to understand the things Murdock said about the sky. Deep blue, or black and starlit, or pink and orange painted sunsets and sunrises, Face understood now why Murdock called the sky a place. Not a ceiling for the earth, a flat, painted thing, but a whole other place to live in, high over their heads.


Murdock. His letter in progress had been soaked in that river, the ink faded, the paper wrinkled. He’d start another one. Murdock would enjoy hearing about the cow, whenever he actually got the letter. Face could write it today and it might be a month before Murdock read it. If he ever did.


For all Face knew, Murdock could be out of the VA. Maybe they cured him, maybe he wasn’t as bad as people had said. People exaggerated. A wry smile crossed his face. Yeah, well, he did plenty of that himself. The smile died though as he imagined Murdock right here with them. Really a team again. Someone to talk the moon down with. Someone who he wouldn’t turn to and find they’d fallen asleep an hour ago, like Hannibal and BA.


He glanced down when Billy laid his head on Face’s lap, wearing a mournful expression and obviously looking for a scratch on the head and any small treats Face might be carrying in his pockets. Face could do the scratch, but a search of his pockets turned up no treats.


“Sorry, boy. Wait till we make camp.”


His words stirred Hannibal and BA from their contemplation of the landscape.


“Ready to go?” Hannibal asked, stowing his canteen and standing up, settling his pack into position.


“You know, good hotels send a limo,” Face said, reality coming back, along with the pain, as he put his lightened pack on.


“You want me to take that?” BA asked.


“Nah, you’ll only want a tip.” Face kept the grimace off his face. The bruises and scrapes were all in the front. His back was okay. He could manage a short walk at least.


Hannibal took Billy’s collar and leash out of his pocket, to Face’s surprise. The dog normally ran free.


“This is an old mining town,” Hannibal explained, when he saw Face’s questioning look. “I saw plenty of old workings and shafts when I was exploring. I don’t want him running off and getting stuck in one. Same goes for you two. Stay on the path and follow me.”

Chapter 13

They took it slow, checking where they stepped for fear of any collapsed mine shafts and even once in the town they tried to stay on the large flat stones that were all that remained of paths.


Hannibal led the way to a large building, three stories high and the tallest still standing. Its slate roof was mostly intact. Maybe whoever owned this house owned most of the town, Face speculated. First class all the way for the A-Team. He rolled his eyes at that thought as they walked through the doorway, its door long gone. Inside, wooden pillars that had supported the upper floors still stood, the tops stubby and uneven. But the upper floors themselves now lay scattered all over the ground below, in a mess of broken and worm-eaten beams and floorboards.


“Let’s clear some of this debris,” Hannibal said, looking around their temporary home.


They were in a large room that ran across the whole front of the house. A couple of empty doorways led to rooms at the back of the house. Face dropped his pack, grateful to be rid of it. His curiosity overrode his pain and exhaustion and he went to look into those back rooms beyond the doorways. One was as empty at this one. Sunlight streamed through a glassless window, beaming on a floor where plants had started to push their way up through the floorboards. Whatever kind of room it had been before, now it had become a garden.


The other door led to a kitchen, which still held a big metal sink and a pot bellied stove. The door hung off the stove and Face saw a small bird emerge from the interior and fly out of the window. More worm-eaten wood lay around in here, as it did in the other rooms, more remains of the upper floors. At least they’d have plenty of firewood. Face looked at the sink again. It didn’t look rusted out, so they might be able to fill it with enough hot water to have a decent wash, once someone cleared out the debris.


Someone else, not him.


“Sit down, Face.” Hannibal pointed out an area of floor with less debris, where he’d laid out a couple of the sleeping bags. Face obeyed and with a sigh, lay back, looking up at the high roof. He hoped the beams holding it were sound. Perhaps they’d escaped the worms.


“This place isn’t going to fall in on us, is it?”


BA studied the roof for a moment. “Looks sound to me.”


“What do you know about buildings?” Face said.


“I know machines. A house is just another type of machine. Same principle.”


“So what you’re saying is,” Hannibal said, smiling, “is that a house is a machine for living in?”


“Yeah. That’s what I just said.” BA scowled a ‘try to keep up’ look at Hannibal.


“Profound, sergeant, profound. Now,” he handed BA the pot they used to boil water and dragged the rope from his pack. “Go get us some water and start a fire. If I don’t get a cup of coffee soon I may have to kill someone.”


BA left with the pot and the rope, coming back a few minutes later to gather up some wood for the fire. Hannibal put on his gloves and started clearing away some of the debris piling it in up on one side of the room. Face got the coffee pot ready, wanting to be at least a little useful. Not allowed to do anything strenuous without a glare from Hannibal, he took notepaper from his pack and started a new letter to Murdock. Soon bored with following Hannibal, Billy came and sat beside Face. Face had gotten as far as describing Dinah’s truck hauling him out of the water, when Hannibal spoke.


“Face, you got anything on your mind?”


Face looked up. “Well, tall blondes, champagne, warm beds, hot showers…”


“Face.” A warning tone now. Don’t snow me. Hannibal stopped working and stood watching Face.


“You thinking of anything specific, Colonel?”


“Anything that’s bothering you, that’s all. I need to know -”


“Sorry I didn’t tell you I was hurting before. I didn’t think it was that bad, but once we started walking, it got worse. Then it just kind of hit me. A couple of days rest and I’ll be fine.” As far as snowing went, that was a pretty big drift.


Hannibal still watched him. “But you’d rather have been resting back at the farmhouse.”


Face shrugged. “Too dangerous, Hannibal, you were right about that. Can’t risk it. ”


Hannibal looked serious. “Yeah. Because just one sighting of us, that undoes the whole thing. We’re not just hiding here, with Lynch on our tail, like we were before. It’s got to be more than that. We’ve vanished. We have to stay vanished. Invisible.” He looked around at the ruined house. “Ghosts.”


Face didn’t reply. Just nodded, understanding. Dinah’s home – and home-cooking – was a temptation for sure. How easy it would have been to stay there two, three days, even a week. But that could have lead them to disaster. Temptation. Take the easy path and go straight to hell. Hell with grey, concrete walls. No soft beds there. Never really sleeping. Or resist the temptation, take the stony path that led out here, sleeping under the night sky on sweet smelling grass, eating freshly caught rabbit. No choice really.


“Happy to be a ghost for now, Hannibal.”


Hannibal smiled, resumed clearing debris, while Face wrote on.


“Writing to Murdock again?”


“Yeah. Telling him the whole heroic cow-rescuing tale.” He wrote more, paused and watched Hannibal working for a while. BA came in, found the coffeepot and left again. “How much longer, Hannibal? How long do we have to stay out here?”


“At least another month. Preferably two.”


“Then what?”


Hannibal stopped moving the wood, seemed to stiffen. They’d barely talked about what they did later. Face wasn’t sure if that meant Hannibal didn’t know, or he knew, but didn’t want to say. Hannibal relaxed after a couple of seconds and started stacking wood again.


“We figure that out then.”


“After we go back to LA?”


Again Hannibal paused. Just for a second. “Yeah. Yeah. After we go back.”


“Hannibal…”


“Get some rest, Face.”


~o~


Murdock sat in the VA psych ward’s dining room, eating dinner and listening to one of his fellow patients. The man was describing, in great detail, the huge conspiracy he had uncovered, which had led to him being incarcerated here. ‘They’ wanted to discredit him and keep him quiet, but one day, he swore, he’d expose them. They couldn’t hide forever.


Murdock nodded along, though he’d lost track, and couldn’t recall if this guy was the one who thought the giant lizard people ran the world, or if this was the Illuminati guy. Or maybe the guy who thought the Nazis still ran things from a secret base in South America. There seemed to be a lot of people running the world secretly these days. You’d think they’d get in each other’s way.


He slipped a piece of bread onto the handkerchief on his lap, making sure nobody saw him.


Still, they’d all be pushed aside when the space aliens landed. Ted, the Air Force guy, said that would be any day now. He’d seen them in the sky loads of time. Murdock sighed. He’d have liked to talk about flying with Ted, but all he ever wanted to talk about was the imminent alien invasion.


Why do I attract the crazies? Murdock wondered. Well, the real crazies that is, since it’s all kind of relative in here. He sliced a piece of cauliflower in half and ate one piece and let the other drop onto the handkerchief. The real nuts, the ones with heads full of elaborate delusions, the tinfoil hat brigade, all seemed to pal up to him.


Because he was new, he supposed. Someone new to spread the word to. Someone who hadn’t heard them tell the same story so often he’d threaten to stab them in the eye with a pencil if they say one word, just one more word about lizards, Nazis or aliens.


Oh, this one was talking about the Freemasons. That must give Murdock the whole set now. He shook his head, sighing, wanting to be alone with his thoughts. They hadn’t allowed him that today. They’d insisted on a session with the doc, about the little scene last night.


He felt so bad about that. Imagine accusing Face of stealing the food! How ridiculous. Of course it had to have been one of the others, or one of the guards had found them.


“Don’t be so sure,” Hannibal said, sitting down opposite him, smoking a cigar. They’d tell him to stop that. No smoking in the dining room. “In these conditions anybody would screw over anybody else.”


“Not the team,” Murdock said. “We’re a team. Stick together.”


“What you talking about, Murdock?” The Freemason guy stared at him. “Who you talking to?” He looked in Hannibal’s direction. “There’s nobody there.”


“Charming.” Hannibal looked offended and put his cigar out in a marked manner, before walking out of the dining room. Strange, you’d think the staff would notice the rifle he carried.


“Well, you, um, take care of yourself, man.” His talkative neighbour gave Murdock an odd look, shoved his chair back and left the table. He left his tray behind and Murdock grinned. Leftovers. Damn fool. Well, more for me.


The nurses had weighed Murdock earlier. What the hell was that about? Doctor’s orders they said. But they seemed happy with the result.


Murdock carefully bundled his collected scraps and slipped the handkerchief into his pocket. Then he picked up his tray and went for seconds.

Chapter 14

Hannibal glanced over when he saw Face stirring.


“Morning, Lieutenant.”


“Morning?” Face said. “Wasn’t it…?”


“Afternoon, yes. You slept all evening and night.”


“Oh. Sorry about that.” Face struggled to sit up, then flopped back down with a groan. He watched Hannibal for a moment, then asked, “What are you doing?”


“Laundry.” Hannibal was carrying wet pants and shirts, which he’d washed in the big sink in the kitchen after he cleaned it out. “Just going to hang them up. Come and get some food.”


“Okay.”


He frowned at Face’s unenthusiastic answer. You’d think he’d be hungry – he missed dinner after all. Still looked pale. Well he’d feel better with some food and water in him. Hannibal went outside where BA was kneeling over the fire, stirring the pot. The scent of rabbit stew wafted over. All too familiar now.


“Face is up. Scramble him up a couple of those eggs I found, keep him going till lunchtime.”


BA grumbled about it, but found the frying pan and the eggs. Hannibal took the wet clothes to the rope they’d stretched between the house and a tree. Pants and shirts swayed in the breeze, slow dancing, and Hannibal hung out the latest batch, holding the clothespins in his mouth. His mother used to do that, he remembered. The guys had laughed at him for bringing a pack of clothespins. They weren’t laughing now.


No they weren’t. When he went back to the fire, he found Face there, pushing his eggs around the plate listlessly. BA scowled at him, offended by this poor reception to his cooking.


“Eat em, man. I didn’t make ’em for you to play with.”


“Sorry, BA.” Face took a couple of forkfuls and then grimaced. “I’m sorry, I’m just not hungry.” Before BA could protest he put the plate down on the ground and Billy, waiting beside him for scraps, at once tucked into the unexpected bounty.


“Aw, man,” BA groaned.


“Sorry.”


Hannibal strode over to Face then and put a hand on his forehead, which felt hot and damp. Face pushed his hand away.


“You’ve got a fever, Face. Get back inside and let me check those scrapes on your chest.”


Face didn’t protest, just dragged himself up and trudged back into the house, where he flopped back down on his sleeping bag.


“Unbutton your shirt.” Hannibal ordered while he brought the first aid kit and fresh dressings.


For a change Face lay quietly while Hannibal checked the scrapes and changed the dressings. No wisecracks, or complaints, which worried Hannibal. None of the scrapes looked infected though. Maybe he just had a cold or flu. The thermometer only showed a couple of degrees above normal. Enough to make him miserable, not enough to be dangerous.


“Right, you know the drill, kid. Rest, water and Tylenol.”


“Here.” BA, who had silently followed Hannibal inside, handed over Face’s canteen and cup. Hannibal made Face drink a full cup before he let him settle down in his sleeping bag again. Billy at once snuggled up against Face, who scratched his head.


“Gonna keep me company, boy?”


That animal sensitivity amazed Hannibal sometimes. The dog knew on instinct if any of them felt ill or depressed, and offered himself as comfort. He had a better bedside manner than either Hannibal or BA.


When Face settled and fell into a doze, Hannibal and BA moved away from him.


“He gonna be okay?” BA looked at Face, a worried look that he wiped off when he turned to Hannibal.


“The fever isn’t very high. I’ll monitor it.”


“And if it gets higher?”


He wasn’t just asking about now, Hannibal realised. This was the first time any of them had been hurt or sick out here, beyond bumps and scratches. What if it was something serious this time or later? That’s what BA wanted to know.


“If he needs a doctor? Then we take him to the nearest town. If they don’t have a doctor someone there can get us to one.” He hated the thought of how long that could take, but what the hell could he do about it?


“What if he’s too sick to be moved?”


Again Hannibal knew he wasn’t just talking about now. He wanted to know the policy, just in case Hannibal was the one too sick or injured to give orders. They should have talked about this earlier, Hannibal knew. He’d been an optimist, hoped they’d never have to. Okay, well, time to make a policy statement.


“If any of us is seriously ill, or has a life threatening injury, then this ends. We head straight to the nearest town on the map. We get medical help. If we have to, we call the Army. The fastest way to evac someone out here is by chopper.”


He wouldn’t watch his men die. He’d done that too many times in Korea and Vietnam, when medical help was far out of reach. He wouldn’t do it here. They could always try to escape again later. Staying alive came first. BA nodded, looking happier now it was clear. He went back to his cooking pot and stirred it again.


“We should get some food into him. My mama used to say, ‘starve a cold and feed a fever.'”


“It’s the other way around,” Hannibal said, glancing back into the dimness of their temporary home at Face, curled up now. “Feed a cold and starve a fever.”


Ignoring BA’s arguments Hannibal looked down at the thermometer in his hand. A delicate glass tube. A drop of mercury. And if that mercury moved just a tiny distance on from where it should be, this journey might end. Their freedom might end. This small thing could do what Lynch and his squad had failed to do.


He might as well be holding a grenade.


~o~


Face heard their voices, and could see Hannibal outlined in the door, the sunlight from outside hurting his eyes. They were arguing about something, but Face’s ears felt stuffed with cotton wool, everything muffled. Something about sparkling gold freeing an earwig. Or something. Or maybe he really did need to get some sleep.


Sleep was about the only feasible idea right now. Billy’s small, warm body against his made him relax, made him feel safe. He’d always wanted a dog when he was a boy. Every boy wanted a dog, didn’t they? The kids at the orphanage had begged the sisters to let them have a dog. But dogs were dirty and smelly, apparently. So no dog.


God, where was his mind? Have to stay here. In the present. In danger. They needed to be ready to move on again as soon as possible. Face needed to get his strength back.


Why me? Why did it have to be me that got sick? Now they’ll never let me live it down for slowing us down.


For a moment, he missed Murdock more than ever. Murdock insisted on reading to him if he was ill. From his comic books usually, which gave a great incentive to get well. Murdock. Should pray for him. But not now.


Sleep now.


~o~


Timing. Secret of good anything. Murdock’s was all off. Bad day in his head. All noisy and crowded in there. And that’s the day Ray came. Embarrassing, having him see me like this, Murdock thought. Twitching and talking garbage. Want to stop, better to say nothing, but the garbage just comes out. Murdock lay curled up, wanted to uncurl, but he couldn’t do that. They’d see.


“So, you talk to the doctor a lot?”


“Every day,” Murdock said.


“And what else? They give you drugs?”


Sweet guy, Ray. Wants to know they’re treating me good. Wants to know if they’re frying my synapses like they do to some of the nuts in here.


“Drugs. Yeah.” Murdock held up his arm and shook it. “Hear the rattle?” Stupid, stupid.


“What about that group therapy? You doing that?”


“Doc said I’m not ready. Wanted to go. Offered to bring chips and dip.” Garbage, garbage, garbage.


Ray laughed, nervous, sounding unsure.


“Yeah. Well, you have to give it time, buddy.”


Time. He’d given up time. Like giving up cigarettes. No clocks. Keep the blinds down and no day or night. What use was time for him? There’d been a clock in here, but after a couple of nights listening to it slicing the seconds off his life, he’d ripped it off the wall and shown it the business end of his foot.


No more clocks for Murdock.


Ray looked around with a frown, sniffing. “Does something stink in here? Smells rotten. They clean this place properly?”


“Bleach.”


“Ah, okay. Look.” He glanced at his watch, then an agonised look crossed his face. He put a hand on his breast pocket, then took it away again, shaking his head. “Murdock, I can’t stay long.”


Something I’m supposed to ask before he goes, Murdock thought. Oh yes.


“The team? They’re still free?”


“Yeah.” Ray glanced back at the open door then leaned closer to Murdock. “I can’t tell you any details, but they’re safe. You don’t have to worry about them. You concentrate on yourself, buddy.”


“Where are they?” Murdock kept his voice low, dulled, even though he wanted to grab Ray and shake him and demand the answers.


“Sorry, Murdock. Need to know only.”


Of course. Can’t trust me. They don’t dare trust a man who babbles so much garbage. He looked into Ray’s eyes, read concern there, but also reassurance. He believes they’re okay. He knows they’re okay. Well, Murdock believed in Ray. Ray was solid. Hannibal used to say that.


Maybe he had them hidden in his basement. On base. Yeah, that’s gonna work. Kind of thing Hannibal would try though. Hannibal would hide in Lynch’s basement. Check your basement, Colonel. Oh, too late, they moved. Now they’re hiding under the bed. He giggled.


He kept on giggling long after Ray left. Now they’re in the pantry. Now they’re in the attic. Where will they be next?

Chapter 15

Hannibal, Face and BA sat around a lantern inside the ruined house and ate their dinner. Feeling a lot better for a couple of day’s rest, Face made up for the meals he’d missed with the amount of food he was putting away tonight.


After dinner, they stacked up the dishes to deal with in the morning and lay back against their packs. Face and Hannibal smoked cigars, BA just watching them lazily. Billy sat at the open doorway, doing his job as guard dog. They had all of their gear and food inside, keeping it safe from anything wandering in the night.


Dusk turned gradually to darkness as they lounged there. Although warm again after the rainy spell the wind rose tonight and made eerie sounds blowing through the long-deserted town. Holes in walls caught the breeze, making it whistle and groan.


“You know, I like having a roof over our head.” Face cast a glance out of the door. “But can we get out of here soon? This place is… um, spooky.”


“Soon as you feel strong enough,” Hannibal said. The town didn’t feel spooky to him. Just empty and dead. All dried out. Now back in the war, when they’d walked into a village and found it empty: that had been what he’d call spooky. Meals still on tables, half-done laundry. As if something had snatched the inhabitants away in the middle of their lives. Of course they’d only fled until the soldiers passed through.


“Tell you what’s spooky,” BA said. “Basement of our apartment building when I was a kid. Bunch of us kids would go down there, exploring.” He smiled and shook his head. “Seemed huge. Bet it ain’t nothing really.”


“We had a basement too,” Face said.


He often said “we”, Hannibal noticed, as if he meant a family when he meant the orphanage. Odd that. Like he’s embarrassed. Never understood why.


“Now that was huge,” Face went on. “They stored all kinds of junk down there. The janitor kept chasing us out, but we kept going back. There was supposed to be ghost down there. A sister who’d jumped from the roof because she loved a priest.”


“Who comes up with these things?” Hannibal asked, snorting at the idea.


“They said she fell right into the coal chute. And now her ghost wanders the basement, her habit all covered in coal dust, looking for a way out.”


Hannibal rolled his eyes. “Anything else?” He could imagine that orphanage kids over the years had added extra details to the story of the ghostly nun.


“Yeah. They say the orphanage still used the coal she landed on, so it was all stained with her blood. And when it was burnt in the furnace that bound her soul to the building.”


Give it another twenty years, Hannibal thought, and the kids will be telling each other her body went in the furnace. Hannibal picked up the cigar that he’d put out for a while, trying to make it last. As he tried to get a flame on his lighter, sheltering it from a draught with his hand, he froze.


Billy was staring out of the doorway and growling. That was unusual. Normally he barked; that’s what Hannibal had bought him for, his bark. But now he was making a low rumble, deep in his chest. They all turned to look at him as he stood up slowly, his fur puffing up.


Hannibal unfroze after a moment, and spoke.


“There’s something outside.”


He rose, picking up his rifle. Billy still stood in the doorway, growling, but showed no sign of going outside. Whatever was out there, the dog was afraid of it. He’d happily bark at and chase off raccoons, or foxes, so this sudden fear made Hannibal think it could be a coyote or mountain lion, or even a bear.


Or it could be something else instead. Someone else. He moved towards the door.


“I’d better go check it out. Put the light out.”


BA obeyed the order at once, the tone of Hannibal’s voice an old, familiar snap. Billy whined, and Hannibal felt the dog brush past his legs, coming back inside the house. Seeking comfort with his pack. Hannibal was the top dog of this pack, so he had to take the lead now.


“Wait a second, Hannibal,” Face’s voice came out of the darkness as Hannibal stood, letting his vision adjust. “You sure that’s a good idea?”


“I have to check it out. It could be an animal, or the other hand, it could be the MPs.”


“That’s what I mean. If it is the MPs and you go out there carrying a rifle, they’ll shoot you.”


“What would you suggest, Face?” They had a good position to hold off an assault here, Hannibal thought. Only two points of entry. On the other hand if a soldier, even Lynch himself, appeared in that doorway right this second, could Hannibal really shoot him?


Which left the option of surrender. Hard to contemplate, but better than dying in some kind of Butch and Sundance-like blaze of glory. Still, he had to go and see what was out there and he couldn’t go without his rifle, just in case it actually was a bear or cougar. If it were the MPs, then okay, he’d come quietly. Only sensible course, though it would be hard to let his men see him put up his hands.


“You two stay in here. That’s an order.”


No more arguments. He headed out. The moon gave enough light to see his way once his eyes adjusted and he left his flashlight in his pocket. Embers from their cooking fire glowed red inside a ring of stones and the coffeepot, forgotten, lay on its side beside the stones.


A small pit they’d made to bury garbage lay uncovered; the crude lid, a piece of old wood, was pushed aside. Raccoons could have done that easily enough. Some scraps of food lay around the pit. Yes, raccoons. Or something bigger. Hannibal stood and listened for movement, for anything snuffling and especially for anything growling. He sniffed, for any rank or musky smell. Nothing but their garbage pit and the lingering scents of their dinner.


The wind ruffled his hair, reminding him he needed a trim. Longest it had been in years, except in the prison camp. They didn’t exactly provide a barber. He shook that memory away. Clouds blew fast across the sky, hiding then revealing the moon, and he cursed that, as the shadows around him moved.


He walked a short distance from the house, staying on the path. The moving shadows made him feel surrounded, as if dozens of people flitted about him. Not silent either. Laughing and whispering. He told himself the laughing was the distant noise of the river, and the whispering was wind through ruins. Nothing but wind and water.


As he caught movements, that might have been shadows and might not, a new thought came to him. Had they really been alone here. Not just tonight, but since they arrived. They’d found the ruined town a good place to stay. Supposing they weren’t the first? Supposing someone actually lived here?


No, if someone had, they’d surely choose the most intact house, just as the team had. Hannibal had explored pretty thoroughly when he first found the town and seen no sign of anyone living in any of the ruins. Of course there could be old mine shafts still large enough to make a cave someone could live in.


He squinted at a patch of darkness beside a wall. Quite a high wall, over ten feet high at least. Something was moving in that shadow. He edged closer to it.


“Is someone there?” Damn, voice should be a little bit deeper than that. This place must be getting to him. “Show yourself,” he demanded in a more manly tone.


Who would actually live out here in a ghost town? A hermit? Or someone like them, different reasons perhaps, but someone who wanted to get away from society. He’d heard of veterans who’d done that. Who’d given up on the world. His thoughts briefly went back to Dinah, and her Leonard. Leonard who’d seen Dachau and given up on the world.


“Look, if there’s someone there, come on out. I’m friendly.”


He reached the patch of darkness by the wall and found a bush, growing right up the side of the stones and waving in the breeze. Good one, Smith. Talking to a bush.


Right, his imagination had gone into overtime and had him chasing shadows. There was nothing out here. The dog must have been barking at shadows too, or at something real that had run off now.


He turned back toward the house. Enough of this nonsense. Time to –


A splintering crack sounded under his boot and the ground disappeared under him. He fell, dropping his rifle, but only his right leg slipped away into nothingness under him. Dropping flat, he grabbed onto tufts of grass expecting to plunge down a mineshaft any moment. The shattered wood that must have covered the top of the shaft, rattled down into the earth below.


After a couple of seconds his breathing slowed, though his heart still hammered in his ears. An airshaft. His leg bumped against the sides of it. Just an airshaft, maybe a foot across at most. But he took no chances. He inched his leg out slowly and crawled away from the hole. He found his rifle, and slowly climbed to his feet.


A shape loomed out of the darkness – no, two of them. Face and BA.


“Are you okay?” Face said. “We heard you yell.”


He didn’t even remember yelling as he fell. Maybe they meant him yelling for the imaginary ghost town resident to come out.


“I’m fine. Just put my foot in an airshaft.”


BA looked around. “You find anything out here?”


“Nothing. Billy not with you?”


“He wouldn’t come out,” Face said. “Smart animal. Let’s get back before we all fall down a hole.”


Hannibal looked back over his shoulder. It had just been a bush. Nothing more. He could see it still moving in the wind. Could a bush watch you? Because sure as hell someone was watching him right now.

Chapter 16

They went back to keeping watch themselves and not relying on Billy. Just for that nervous windy night. Just in case there really was something, someone, out there. The dog sat close to the man on watch, slept lightly and woke at every movement. But he didn’t growl any more.


The morning made them smile at their paranoia. So easy to smile in the sunshine. Smile and laugh and make a lot of noise, clattering pans and tin mugs and plates as they had breakfast. After breakfast BA took care of clean-up while Hannibal, who’d taken the last watch, snoozed for a bit. Face, cooped up for too long in the ruin, said he wanted to stretch his legs. In reality, he just wanted to make sure he’d be able to restart the hike okay. He had to be, because another night in this place would just about finish him off.


So he took Billy for a walk, using the leash to keep him close and on the path. The two of them walked down to the valley floor, picking their way carefully around fallen stones and ancient wooden beams to the gurgling stream. He found a sun-warmed rock to sit on and enjoyed the sound of the water playing over the rocky streambed, and the warmth of the sun on his face. Bluebirds flitted. He’d heard them warbling at dawn for the last few days and Hannibal had identified the song for him, but said they only sang at sunrise. As he watched, a pair of them flew back and forth from one of the ruined houses on the hill. Must have a nest somewhere in the shelter of what remained of its walls.


This was almost an idyll, a paradise. Yet all Face wanted right now was a busy LA street, under the haze of smog. It would be rush hour now. People heading to work, cardboard cups of coffee in hand. Or sitting in traffic yelling at the other drivers. In the distance perhaps the wail of a siren telling of someone having an even worse start to the day than you.


I’m over this, Face thought suddenly. This road to nowhere. I’m done. He’d thought he could do it as long as Hannibal wanted them to, but he couldn’t. He found it too weird out here, too alien. Too open for one thing. Face felt so exposed out here in the wide open spaces. A man could vanish in a city, with a million places to hide. Out here, they could see you coming a mile away. It had been a good idea, he’d admit that. But they couldn’t stay out here forever. Now he had to persuade Hannibal of that.


Something else called him back to LA, too. Not knowing how Murdock was had started to gnaw away at his mind, like termites had gotten in there. The team rarely talked about Murdock now. Or at least they rarely talked about his current situation. Hannibal changed the subject if it arose. Doesn’t want me dwelling on it. Doesn’t want me demanding to go back to LA to stop the gnawing.


For now he had only one way to connect, and he took out the pad of paper he’d tucked into his shirt before he left the house. It felt warm from his body heat. He retrieved a pen he’d tucked behind his ear and wrote the time and date at the top of paper, before continuing the letter.


I wish you could see this place. You’d get a kick out of it. I wish I could draw, so I could draw you a picture of it.

Face had tried to take a couple of art electives in college. Not that he had a big interest in art, but apparently they had life classes, with nude models. When the first model turned out to be an elderly man who looked like he hadn’t eaten a square meal in twenty years, Face switched to another course. Life never lived up to the promises it made.


We should have brought a camera too. I’m kicking myself on that one. I know we can’t carry extra weight, but one of those new pocket Instamatics hardly weighs a thing. Anyway, I just wish you could see it. We got all worked up last night thinking about ghosts and that kind of thing, and I thought about some of the ghost stories you used to tell back in our hooch, trying to scare me.


A movement at his side made him glance down to see Billy sitting up, watching something intently. No growling or barking; he just seemed to have noticed something. Face looked that in that direction but couldn’t see anything. Maybe a small animal or a bird somewhere in the bushes had caught the dog’s eye.


A glance at his watch told Face an hour had passed since he left the camp. He was enjoying a little rare solitude, but decided he had better get back. There’d be things to do, and he should help out. Didn’t want Hannibal mad at him. Not when Face had to start working on him, to persuade him it was time to go home.


He looked down at his writing pad again, and wrote a last few words.


Signing off for now, continue later. Maybe see you sooner than later.


He scowled and thought about counting chickens and other cliché warnings. He crossed out the last part.


Billy seemed eager to leave now, sniffing around at the full extent of his leash, so Face put away the paper, tucked the pen back behind his ear and set off. He let the dog lead the way, as long as it stayed on the path and headed in generally the right direction, with a few diversions. One of the diversions took them to a place that started the hairs on Face’s neck standing up again.


The town’s graveyard. A few stumps of headstones, the lettering all but faded away by the wind and rain, names and ages eroded to vague indents. Only the rich folk would have had stones, he guessed. The rest would have had wooden crosses, and they were long since gone, leaving no marker for the grave, except sometimes a tight ring of stones the cross must have been planted between.


Life in a place like this must have been short and hard. If the mining didn’t kill you, the water would, unless you lived on beer. Well, plenty of men probably had. And for a long time there’d been no rule of law. Only the law of the gun. It must have been like living in a war zone. The same kind of death rate. Face longed even more for his city.


As he started to leave the bone yard, a movement caught his eye, making him turn back. Billy was once again staring intently at something, but Face saw nothing when he looked around. Bushes stirred by the breeze, perhaps?


Shivering, he turned back to head out. If any part of this place was going to be haunted, it would be here. Not that he believed in ghosts, but he’d not believe in them a lot harder back with Hannibal and BA. Billy stayed close beside him as he walked, tail down, a whine escaping him now and again.


When he arrived back at the camp he found the three packs all ready to go, the fire doused, and the garbage pit filled in.


“So I guess we’re moving on,” he said to Hannibal, who was filling their canteens with water brought up from the well and boiled.


“Can’t stay in one place too long. Besides…” Hannibal grinned. “I told BA what I think this house used to be and he got pretty riled and insisted we had to go.”


“Used to be?”


“Yeah, I worked it out while I was on watch last night. I don’t think it was just the house of someone who struck it rich. Why waste the money on a big house out here? Save it to take to Frisco and build a palace there. So I don’t think it was a private house.”


“What then? The saloon?”


“Not right up here, no. The saloon would be down in the cheapest part of town. No sense in making men walk too far to get a drink. On the other hand there’s something men will walk quite a long way for.”


“Oh!” Face got it and grinned. “No wonder BA is ticked.” He picked up his backpack and took the canteen Hannibal handed him.


“We’re not spending another night here,” BA said, emerging from the house. “If we got everything then let’s get moving.”


“Don’t worry, BA,” Hannibal said, handing them their canteens of water. “I promise, we won’t tell your mother you just spent a week living in a brothel.”

Part 5

Chapter 17

After their enforced rest, Hannibal let them take it easy for a few days. They found a real trail, much easier going than the rough off-trail ground they’d travelled for most of their trip. It was still pretty remote as trails went, and a challenging one, so they met few people, exactly as Hannibal wanted it. He let the team say hi, with polite nods, to any other hikers they met on the trail, since that appeared normal. Being too unfriendly would make them memorable. On the other hand, they couldn’t afford to be too friendly either, let people get too good a look at their faces.


After a week on the trail they stopped for lunch one day in a meadow, its lush sweet grass, scattered with flowers. But to Hannibal’s annoyance, they weren’t the only ones who liked the look of the spot.


~o~


Face sat up and paid attention as a party of young people appeared from up the trail. They settled on the grass and started unpacking their lunch. He took notice for a couple of reasons. One, watching for trouble, and two, because there were girls among the party. Actually, he admitted to himself, reason one and reason two should probably be reversed.


Okay, not exactly the types of girls he usually went for. Students, he guessed, and the girls looked more interested in the practical than the glamorous, wearing jeans or shorts and chunky hiking boots. Most wore straw or boonie hats against the sun. Still… girls. He couldn’t really do anything, of course. But he could enjoy the view.


Perhaps they noticed him looking, as one gave him a wave, just a friendly, one hiker to another kind of wave. But Face returned it with a big grin.


“Face,” Hannibal said. “Time to start clearing up.”


Face muttered to himself before he turned to help in the clean-up. Hannibal would probably want to go rushing on after they finished. But BA proved a lifesaver. After cleaning away the lunchtime things he stretched out, hands behind his head.


“Gonna take a nap,” he announced. “Didn’t sleep much last night, with those damn coyotes howling. And him joining in.” He scowled at Billy, who just sat wagging his tail, oblivious.


“I wanted to get moving again,” Hannibal said. “We’re burning daylight.”


“I got some spare daylight in my pocket,” BA said. “Let you have it later if you need it. Now, I’m gonna sleep.”


He got the last word. Hannibal frowned at BA, who already had his eyes closed. But then he shrugged and settled down too.


Face lay down on his stomach and rested his chin on his crossed forearms. He wasn’t watching the other group as such. Just happened to be looking in that direction. Anyway, one of the team should stay on watch. After a few minutes he started to drift off, the scent of flowers soothing him, the distant voices, lulling him. Soon he too fell into a doze.


~o~


Murdock woke from his post-lunch nap and muttered, annoyed. Sleeping again. In the middle of the day, like an old man. Last time Ray came, Murdock had been giggling like a fool. But they’d changed his meds since then. Now he’d probably just sleep the entire visit.


Thing was; the damn stuff worked, in some ways. Didn’t see quite so much. Could close his eyes without seeing all that stuff projected on the back of his eyelids. But the other thing was; he closed his eyes for a minute and opened them again two hours later.


Life went by too fast that way, sleeping through it. Breakfast cut to lunch cut to dinner, like nothing happened in between. What’s the use of a clear mind if it’s sleeping the whole time? Sleep. It sucked away so much time. That thought made him bitter, because he’d always loved to sleep when he was a kid. He liked the part before sleep, where you let your mind wander. He liked the dreams. At least when they’d been good ones, before the war. And he loved waking up, brain still half in dreamland, thoughts unrestrained, not censored by his waking mind.


But the war had ruined all of that. Too many of the images in that not-asleep, not-awake time came from the war now. Faces of soon-to-die men, grinning their defiance of their fate. Choppers Murdock had flown and loved, now mangled heaps on the jungle floor. He sweated the most over that last one. Long way out and no ride home and miles to go before I sleep.


Not so many miles. Eyes heavy again already. Should get up, go read or play a chess game. But people wandered off if you fell asleep in the middle of a game.


He’d have to tell O’Brien about how sleepy the pills made him. Didn’t want to. Wanted the clearer mind they gave him, but O’Brien would be tipped off. Damn traitorous nurses would report that Murdock seemed to be aiming at the world amateur sleeping record. O’Brien would ask why. Can’t lie to the doc. Not much point to that.


Tell the truth. But what if they took the sleepy pills away and put him back on the babbling fool pills? Couldn’t take that.


Time for a nap.


~o~


The football coming to rest at his side woke Face. He smiled and grabbed the ball. One of the players came running over to collect it, calling “sorry”, but Face couldn’t resist. He stood up and threw the ball back to the group. Out of practice, but the old skills were still there. The ball arced beautifully through the air, spinning like a bullet and the guys jumped to catch it. The one who’d been running over to retrieve the ball, an athletic looking black kid, watched it sail over his head and then turned to Face with a grin.


“Good arm. You play?”


“In college. Football scholarship.”


“Me too. Wanna come and help me show these Poindexters how to play?”


Face didn’t need to be asked twice. He caught up to the young guy as they both set off to where the others were playing.


“Name’s Grant.” The man held his hand out for a quick shake as they hurried along. “You a quarterback?”


“Al. Yeah, quarterback.” A movement behind him made him turn to see Billy had followed. “Get out of here,” Face said, shooing the dog off. He expected Billy to turn and go back to Hannibal and BA, but instead the dog ran over to where the four girls in the group were sitting on a blanket and they started petting him and feeding him treats. Face grinned. That dog could teach me a thing or two, he thought. Then he and Grant reached the rest of the boys and the game was on.


Face hadn’t enjoyed himself so much in weeks. Like high school, like college. The girls cheered them on and, once they learnt his name, started up a chant.


“Alvin, Alvin, he’s our man, if he can’t do it no one can!”


Sadly, they hadn’t brought any cheerleader outfits. But still, Face gave them a smile and a wave as he ran across the grass. He almost flew, covering the ground effortlessly with the ball in his arms, heading for the arbitrary line between two packs, where he’d make a touchdown.


Then he ran into a wall.


When he bounced off and fell on his back, he looked up to find the wall was actually BA, who grinned down at him.


“These boys look like they could use some help with their defence.”


Face grinned back up at him. So not just like high school and college, but like ‘Nam too. Scratch games of football at the base. Only wusses asked for helmets and pads.


“Hi,” Grant said, running up. “Another player, huh?”


“My friend Dan,” Face said. BA reached down to Face, who took his hand and let BA pull him up. “Thinks no quarterback can get past him.”


“Oh yeah?” Grant gave a cheeky grin. “We’ll see about that.”


They saw about that for another half-hour. Face spent plenty of that time being tackled by BA, but he still earned cheers from the girls on the blanket. Hannibal was awake, he noticed at one point, watching the game.


Finally, hot, sweaty, bruised and grinning, the players all trooped back over to the student party’s gear and flopped onto the grass.


“Beer?” Grant offered Face and BA.


“Hell, yes!” Face gasped.


“Soda,” BA said. Grant came back with them a moment later, handing BA a Coke bottle. Face practically inhaled the beer before he could take notice of anything else.


“So, where’d you play in college?” Grant asked Face.


“Ohio State,” Face lied. He’d been there for games, and since a couple of the kids wore UCLA shirts, he figured they weren’t from Ohio.


“Right. What about you, Dan? You play in college too?”


“Yeah,” BA said. “Same place.” A lie, like Face’s. Face knew that had been BA’s ambition, but said some creep had torn up his application form and pretty much stolen the scholarship from him. Like to meet that guy one day and kick some ass.


“Cool. You guys got any advice for me then?”


Advice? Yeah, Face had plenty of good advice for a young man starting out. Don’t run off and join the Army when a girl drop-kicks your heart. Don’t volunteer for Special Forces training. And especially – and this is important – don’t rob any banks. Well that might be too specific.


“Stay in school and study hard,” Face said, channelling the spirit of Father Magill into his voice. Should have taken that advice himself. Grant just laughed.


“Will do, man.”


“Hi.” One of the girls came over, smiling shyly and carrying a couple of bags of chips. “You guys coming over? We’ve got chips.”


“Luring me with food, good move,” Face said, making her giggle. She hurried off and Face started to get up, along with the other two.


“Hey, I think your dad’s coming over,” Grant said, taking Face’s arm, just as Face headed towards the girls.


“My…” Face heard BA choking on his Coke. He glanced around to see Hannibal heading for them and suppressed a grin. Dad. Good idea though. Natural group that way – dad, son and friend.


“Oh yeah, my dad.” He shot a warning glance at BA, who looked close to giving way to a fit of his incongruous giggles. How’d a guy that size have a laugh like that? Not that anyone ever teased him about it of course.


Hannibal strode up to three of them and nodded to Grant. “Hi.” He turned to Face and BA. “You two…”


“Hi, Dad,” Face said and saw Hannibal blink in surprise, but then recover. “Have a good nap?”


Hannibal frowned a bit. “Yeah. And it’s later than I thought. We’d better get going.”


“Hang out if you like,” Grant said. “We’re staying for the night now. Stick around and have dinner with us.”


“Sorry,” Hannibal said, cutting Face off when he started to speak, to accept the invitation. “We have to go. Got an itinerary to stick to. Let’s go, son.” He looked around for Billy and whistled to him. The dog ran over and Hannibal spoke again, to Grant. “Nice to meet you.” Then he turned away and headed back for their gear, Billy at his heels.


Face shrugged. “Sorry. The old man likes his schedule. Guess we’d better go. Been great to meet you guys.”


“You too.” Grant took the empty beer and coke bottles from them. “Safe trip.”


Face and BA trailed slowly after Hannibal, reluctant to leave the friendly group. Glancing at BA, Face wondered if he was picturing an evening around the campfire with the gang there too. Maybe. New faces. And the girls of course. Hard to just walk away from.


Hannibal had already packed their gear. The three backpacks sat on the ground, all done up and ready to lift.


“We ain’t got no itinerary,” BA muttered as they arrived. Muttered just loud enough for Hannibal to hear. “Coulda hung out for the night.”


“For you two to make an even stronger impression?” Hannibal said. “No. Get your packs on, before Face ends up engaged to one of the girls.”


“Funny, Dad.”


“What the hell was that ‘dad’ stuff about?”


“He just assumed. Seemed easiest to go along. You’d prefer some other kind of relationship?”


BA giggled again, though Face wasn’t being funny. Hannibal wore an impatient look now, eager to move out. Face and BA should hurry and get their packs on and get ready to go. Should. Face knelt by his pack, checking the fastenings, adjusting the straps, and taking his sweet time doing it. BA glanced at Hannibal, who had his own pack on, then back at Face and started doing his own pack inspection. Hannibal frowned at their excessive checking.


“They’re not parachutes. Will you move it?”


“We coulda hung out,” BA insisted, apparently not ready to let that go. “They just college kids, not cops. Probably wouldn’t know who we are if we told ’em. More interested in studying, drinking and necking. Right, college boy?” He winked at Face, who nodded, smiling.


“That pretty much sums up my college days, yes.”


“Oh, yeah,” Hannibal said, voice cynical. “Because college students never took any interest in the war, did they?”


That silenced Face and BA and they finally got their packs on. Not a happy thought; that the friendliness could have turned to hostility if the group knew they were war vets. Not even knowing they were fugitives just vets, could be enough to provoke that response. Hannibal was right, Face conceded to himself. He looked at BA and nodded.


“Let’s go.”

Chapter 18

Face gave the order, Hannibal thought, that tiny exchange still replaying in his mind. BA waited for him to give the order to move out. What the hell is going on with those two?


Well, right now, a discussion about football was going on, the two of them tossing banter back and forth across the fire. Rams versus Bears, offence versus defence. They talked about games they played at high school, at college, and during the war. Crazy games, Hannibal remembered.


“Remember that Thanksgiving game against those Marines – I think we put more men in the hospital that day than the VC did.” Face laughed at the memory. “Remember that touchdown Murdock made?”


“Remember it?” BA said. “He only made it into the end zone because I threw him there. Crazy man never could play a decent football game.”


“You’re just bitter because you could never catch him to tackle him.”


BA harrumphed. “I caught him plenty, but I swear that fool musta greased himself up before every game. Like trying to hang onto a cat that don’t wanna be held.”


Face positively roared with laughter at that image. “I think he’s more of baseball man,” he said, sobering after a moment.


“He certainly memorised a lot of the statistics,” Hannibal said.


“Yeah,” Face said. “Knows more about batting averages than he does about flying.”


“He told me he played basketball in school,” BA said. “But told me that was just ’cause he was tall.”


“Yeah,” Face nodded. “But baseball is his game.”


He sat for a while, staring into the fire, a far-off look in his eyes that worried Hannibal.


“We gonna get some sleep?” Hannibal said. The other two didn’t answer.


“Think he’s still in the hospital?” Face asked, voice quiet.


“Nah,” BA said. “Probably fixed him and he’s out and flying jumbo jets to Aruba.” He smiled at Face, who looked up at him and smiled back, weakly.


“I hope you’re right.”


“If I’m not right yet, I will be one day.”


Face nodded and gazed into the fire again. Damn, Hannibal thought. That’s gotta stop. The more he dwells on that, the harder this is going to get. Need a distraction, something to take his mind off Murdock, and off random parties of pretty girls we might run into. Okay, tomorrow, we’re off this trail and back into the wilderness. They didn’t have an itinerary, but they did have an agenda. A simple one.


To disappear.


Face stirred, sitting up straight and finishing the cup of coffee he’d been sipping.


“Yeah, Hannibal’s right. Time for some rest.”


BA nodded and the two of them turned and headed into their tents. Hannibal took a few minutes longer, dealing with the fire, checking the campsite over and giving the dog a goodnight ear-scratch.


All the while thinking about how, once again, BA waited for Face’s order.


~o~


They had to wake Murdock up to take the damn sleepy pill, which just ticked him off even more.


“Why do these things have to be the size of a golf ball?” he asked the nurse.


“It’s not so big,” she said, looking at the pill in the little plastic cup. “Please, Mr Murdock, I have other patients to get to.” She held out the pill and a glass of water to him.


“A man could choke,” Murdock muttered. “Look at it. Bigger than a pool ball. No, a baseball. A softball.”


“Captain Murdock, please.”


Murdock knocked it off. Not her fault. Just a youngster, new to the hospital, and the head nurse would give her grief if she took too long on the medication rounds. He took the plastic cup and tipped the pill into his mouth, then chased it with the water.


Man, the thing was huge and felt so dry, like it stuck to his gullet, reluctant to go down. He gagged and then his hand flew to his throat.


“Murdock,” the nurse said. “That’s not funny.”


Too damn right, honey. Wrong pipe, wrong pipe, dammit! He squeaked; the only sound that came out when he tried to say “help”.


The nurse’s eyes went huge, when she realised he wasn’t screwing around. She yelled for help, in a louder voice than he’d expect from a little thing like her, then ran behind him, and wrapped her arms around him. Something he thought he’d quite enjoy if he weren’t struggling for breath. She pulled back hard, trying to dislodge the pill, but it didn’t budge. Black spots now, despite her efforts. Sparkles. Not good. Not good. Damn, this is dumb. Survived a war. Lost count of the crashes I walked away from. Then I die choking on my crazy pills? That’s the craziest thing I ever did. And no chance to top it.


Through the buzzing in his ears, Murdock heard voices. Someone a lot stronger than that little nurse grabbed him from behind, just before he fell to his knees and their locked hands pulled back into his body.


The pill shot out and bounced off the wall, before landing on the floor, all sticky and wet. Murdock groaned and flopped onto his back as the orderly lowered him onto the bed.


For a few minutes his head spun, sending the nurses gathered around him into a swirling dance. They checked him over and he heard words like “incident report”. Closing his eyes helped against the dizziness.


“Captain Murdock,” he heard a nurse say after a moment, and opened his eyes to look at her. “We’ll give you a shot instead of a pill tonight, and see what we can do tomorrow.”


Murdock just nodded, and a few moments later, he felt the familiar prick in his arm. Injected instead of ingested, the thing hit him in seconds. Oblivion.


~o~


Hannibal led Face and BA away from the established trails and deeper into the wilderness. They climbed, seeking the higher ground. Ground that was home to big-horned goats and mountain lions, so he ordered them to keep a sharp eye out. Trees gave them cover for a while, but thinned out the higher they climbed.


“There better be something good on the other side of this mountain,” BA said. “Like a lost city, full of gold and diamonds.”


“And beautiful women looking for men to help them repopulate,” Face added. BA chuckled. Hannibal had no idea what might lie on the other side. There could be a secret military base for all he knew. But according to the map there should just be a whole lot of nothing, which suited his plans.


On the third day after the football game, they crested a ridge to look down into a roughly circular lowland, several miles across, thickly wooded and ringed by steep hills.


“It looks like a crater,” BA said.


“Probably is,” Face said. “Some huge meteorite, I guess.”


Perfect, Hannibal thought, just perfect. Plenty of cover, hemmed in on all sides, and a nice little lake, shining like a mirror in the sunlight. Best of all, no sign of human habitation. They could stay here for a while.


“Lunch.” Hannibal dropped his pack and started unpacking food. BA and Face took that order with no hesitation and were soon eating cold leftovers from last night’s dinner and looking into the crater.


Only considerate to let them finish eating first, Hannibal thought, so he waited until they were done, their plates in a stack on the grass, before he turned to them.


“I’ve been thinking that we need to burn off some steam.”


“And walking for eight hours a day doesn’t do that?” Face asked.


“Not enough. I’m not just talking physical stress here.”


Neither spoke, but he felt sure they knew what he meant.


“We also need to get in some practice at our old skills.”


“We gonna launch a commando raid on a herd of deer?” Face asked and BA laughed.


“I’m thinking escape and evasion. In the position we’re in now, we could do with brushing up on that. Even if Lynch were to track us down out here, that doesn’t mean we have to be caught.” He waved a hand at the crater floor. “And this looks like just the right spot to practice in. Plenty of cover, varied terrain. The ideal playground.”


“I wonder how good a bloodhound he is?” Face said of Billy, who lay on his side in the grass, sleeping in the hot sun,


“We should try it,” Hannibal said. “Lynch could easily show up with tracking dogs. We have to learn how to make them lose the trail. Good idea.” He grinned at the two of them. “Get a damn good dinner inside you tonight, guys. You’ll need that energy tomorrow.”


~o~


“So, do you want to tell me about the choking incident?” O’Brien asked Murdock.


Murdock shrugged, carefully casual.


“No big deal. Went down the wrong pipe. One of the orderlies gave me ze old ‘eimlich manoeuvre… And they all lived happily ever after.”


O’Brien didn’t react to the nonsense. Kept his face straight and his gaze fixed on Murdock. “Do you often have trouble taking pills?”


“Maybe you guys could crush them up, mix them with butter and spread it on my hands. That’s the way my grandmother got the dogs to take their medicine.”


“Very clever.”


“Country folks are full of little tricks like that. Of course, when she tried it on me, I just washed my hands.” He grinned.


“You’re not a dog, Murdock. And those pills aren’t especially big.”


“The nurse isn’t in trouble is she?” Murdock said, tuning around on the couch to look at the doctor behind him. “It wasn’t her fault, and she reacted really quickly. She shouldn’t be in trouble. It was just an accident.”


O’Brien raised his eyebrows at that. “An accident?” He smiled. “You know, there’s something Freud said.”


“Other than ‘tell me about your relationship with your mother’?”


“Other than that, yes. He said ‘there are no accidents.'”


“Clearly that man never encountered a stray roller skate on a dark staircase.”


“That’s not an accident. Someone left the roller skate there.”


“You’re not suggesting the nurse wanted me to choke, are you?” Murdock sat up, body tensed up. “It wasn’t her fault!”


“No, I’m not suggesting that at all. Most so-called accidents are caused by someone’s actions, even if unintentional. A driver going too fast, a child tossing their roller-skates around. No malicious intent, yet someone ends up hurt. People dismiss it as carelessness.”


“She wasn’t careless!”


“I’m not talking about the nurse.”


That silenced Murdock for a while. But O’Brien waited him out. Murdock cracked first.


“I wasn’t careless either.”


“Murdock, an educated man like you knows about the unconscious. Knows that intention doesn’t always have to conscious.”


Murdock frowned and thought about that for a while. Yes, he knew about the unconscious. But this was just crazy talk.


“Why would I want to choke?”


“I don’t know. But we have the rest of this session to find out.”

Chapter 19

Today it was Hannibal’s turn to “escape and evade” across a piece of ground where Face and BA were waiting in ambush.


They’d been doing this for a week now, getting in plenty of exercise too and even some sparring. Skills need to be practised and they’d all started to become rusty. They’d had to leave out target practice, worried that might bring attention. But they shared the rabbit hunting between the three of them, so that Hannibal and BA at least got a reminder of where the triggers were on their rifles.