Ship of Fools

The team thought they’d broken free of Project Zephyr. But Stockwell has other ideas.

Rated: PG13

Words: 42,400

Chapter 1

“This is a joke, right?” Face held up a square of white card as the front door opened.


“Nope, it’s a dinner invitation,” Hannibal said, leading Face into the living room. “Hey, guys,” he called out. “Guess what Face got in the mail?”


Murdock and BA, sitting at a table, held up identical white cards.


“Yeah, one of those.”


“You know this means he has all of our addresses,” Face said, taking off his jacket and hanging it on the back of a chair. Hannibal put a glass and a beer bottle beside him when he sat down.


“We’re not exactly in hiding.” Murdock passed Face the basket of potato chips, but Face waved it away and picked up the deck of cards from the middle of the table.


“We’re not exactly in the telephone book either.”


“Face,” Murdock said, “did anybody ever tell you that you’re one suspicious guy?”


“I am not!” Face protested, looking up from examining the cards, making sure they weren’t marked. “But come on! You think Stockwell wants us to come round to dinner so he can try out his great new lasagne recipe on us? He has to have an ulterior motive.”


“That guy never had a motive that weren’t ulterior,” BA muttered.


“Right,” Hannibal said, taking his seat. “We playing cards then?”


Face started dealing, but glared at Hannibal. “Is cards all you can think about when Stockwell is trying to lure us to his house with who knows what plans for us?”


“It’s a dinner, Face,” Hannibal said. “And anyway, I’m curious.”


“And of course satisfying your curiosity never got us into trouble before.”


“There might be women there,” Murdock said, making Face shut up and think for a moment. But only for a moment.


“Yeah, paid by the hour like the ones at Langley.”


That caused an awkward pause. They didn’t like to talk about that. Stockwell had used more than the promise of pardons to keep them from wandering off. Hannibal broke the thick silence.


“Well, I’m going.”


“Me too,” Murdock said. “I never turn down free food.”


BA just shrugged. He didn’t usually turn down free food either. But still, his expression said, Stockwell…


Despite himself, Face would admit to some curiosity about what Stockwell wanted. They hadn’t seen the man in over a year, since they destroyed the last of the samples and set him and themselves free of Project Zephyr. Stockwell had shown no interest in socialising with the team. Face smiled as he imagined Stockwell joining them at this weekly poker night.


Hell, no. Who’d want to play poker against that face?


“Okay.” Face conceded at last. “But there’d better be some women there.”


~~~~


There were no women there. In fact, the A-Team were the only guests.


Stockwell let them in himself, when they arrived at his home in BA’s new van.


“Gentlemen, good to see you all again. Please come in.”


They stepped inside cautiously. Stockwell hadn’t changed much since they’d last seen him, Hannibal thought. He’d regained some weight, but not enough. With his white hair and sallow skin, he still had a cadaverous look.


“Come through here, and let me get you all some drinks. Sergeant, I assume you’re the designated driver.”


“Ain’t I always?” BA said as Stockwell led them through the hall to a spacious living room. Gauzy curtains fluttered in the evening breeze through the open French windows.


“I thought we’d eat outside,” Stockwell said, “since it’s a fine night. I’ve started the barbecue. Can I interest any of you gentlemen in a cocktail?”


Hannibal asked for a Bloody Mary and Stockwell went to the kitchen to find tomato juice. When the door closed behind him, Hannibal nodded at the team.


“Anybody see anything weird?”


“Well, he’s wearing brown loafers,” Face said. “That’s pretty damn weird.”


“I mean anything suspicious.”


Shrugs greeted the question. Nothing obvious. The house seemed normal. Almost too normal, intriguing Hannibal. He’d expected something bigger, packed with genuine antiques, and expensive artworks. This house was nice, but not huge and the furniture and paintings were reproduction. Standard for a retired general, he’d say. Part of Stockwell’s cover, perhaps, so even now nobody would suspect he’s been anyone but the General Stockwell you’d find in public records. Had the more secret part of his career genuinely given him no extra pay-off? Maybe he really was the dedicated American patriot he once claimed to be. The work had been its own reward.


No. Hannibal’s train of thought braked sharply. The power had been the reward.


Stockwell came back with Hannibal’s drink, and now wearing an apron. He led them outside to a terrace, with a brick barbecue grill, heat shimmering above its metal hood. Stockwell opened a cooler and started taking out steaks.


“BA I believe you like yours well done. Face medium rare, Murdock rare and Hannibal…”


“Show it the grill to scare it, and then bring it over,” Murdock called, grinning.


“Indeed.” Stockwell tossed the steaks onto the hot grill one by one, where they sizzled and their aroma filled the evening air. “Help yourselves to food and drinks.” Stockwell waved at a table set for five and they took their seats. Murdock pulled a napkin off a basket of bread and handed it around.


“Did we ever eat steak with him before?” Face asked, leaning close so Stockwell couldn’t hear him.


“Don’t think so.” Hannibal shrugged. “So somewhere there’s a file on us that says how we like our steaks. Frankly, if someone wants to waste their time with that nonsense, let ’em.”


“Don’t like people knowing so much about me,” BA said. “Ain’t none of the government’s business how I like my steak.”


“Yeah,” Face said. “And he’s acting too friendly. It’s making me jumpy.”


Hannibal glanced over. Stockwell was being a little too friendly. Of course, they no longer worked for him, and maybe retirement had mellowed the guy out a bit. Still…


“He’s trying to put us at ease,” Murdock said. He smirked. “Must have read about that in a book.”


“Well it’s having the opposite effect on me.” Face’s gaze darted to Stockwell, watchful, almost nervous.


“He wants something,” BA said. The others waited a second to see if he’d elaborate on the assertion, but BA didn’t go on. Of course not, Hannibal thought. How do you explain an instinct?


Well, if he did want something, they’d get to it soon enough. Meanwhile, steak, cold beer, a gentle, warm breeze and Stockwell waiting on them. Whatever he was up to, having him wait on them made it worthwhile.


~~~~


Of course, it didn’t last. When it grew dark and cool, they moved back inside and Stockwell lost the apron and the smile and stood in front of the fireplace. The team, on couches facing him, glanced at each other. Suddenly, this felt unpleasantly familiar.


“Okay, Hunt,” Hannibal said. He’d been using the name all evening at Stockwell’s invitation. Another twenty years and maybe he would manage to say it without a carefully honed mocking edge to the word. “Nice dinner, and great to catch up on the good old times – the suicide missions and all. But let’s get on to why we’re really here, huh?”


“Very well. Of course, you’re right. Although it’s certainly very… interesting to spend time with you all again, I did ask you here for a specific purpose.”


“Can I just interrupt a second?” Face leaned forward. “We’re all armed. I just thought I would mention that. You know, in case it might factor into your plans.” He sat back. “Carry on.”


Oh, there was the old Stockwell they knew and loved, Hannibal thought, in the irritated look he shot Face.


“Your paranoia is unwarranted, Lieutenant. I have no ill intentions towards you. And I’m alone here. I could hardly threaten you.” He paused. “I brought you here as members of Project Zephyr.”


A collective groan broke from the team, followed by a protest from Face. “We destroyed that crap! Don’t tell us you thought of a last sample you forgot to mention before.”


“We ain’t part of Project Zephyr no more,” BA said. “We’re supposed to be free. All of us.”


“Well, not quite,” Stockwell said. “The samples are gone of course. But there is always a chance of knowledge about Zephyr escaping my control.”


“We’re not helping you with any cover up,” Murdock said, scowling.


“I don’t simply mean the knowledge of the existence of the project,” Stockwell said. “I mean the knowledge of how to recreate the Zephyr virus.”


That shut them up. After a moment Hannibal spoke. “Philip Shriver implied that all the material about how to make it had been eliminated.”


“And he implied that the people who knew how to make it had been eliminated too,” Face said.


“Yeah, he said that was standard procedure.” BA’s disgusted expression told them all what he thought about standard procedure.


“What Philip told you is true.” Stockwell looked at the floor for a moment, then back at them. “I’ve had to do things I’m not proud of, as part of my work. But they had to be done for the sake of national security. For the greater good. I was ordered to destroy everything about Zephyr expect for those final samples. I carried out my orders to the letter.”


“And that included killing people?” Hannibal asked. “Our own people?”


“Yes.”


A long silence filled the room. Hannibal spoke eventually.


“So what’s changed?”


“I may be retired,” Stockwell said, “but I am managing to, well, keep my ear to the ground. I’ve learned that some information about how to engineer the virus may have been hidden by one of the scientists involved, before his death. And that someone may know where that information is.”


“And you want us to go get this someone,” Hannibal said. Not even a guess. “If you think we’re going to go fetch someone for you to torture or murder -”


“I don’t intend them any harm, I give you my word on that. I know exactly where to find them, but I need your help to extract them from their… situation.”


“He’s being vague again,” Face said. “It’s just like the old days.”


“Yeah, I think I’m having a flashback,” Murdock muttered. BA just grunted.


“I can’t be any more specific until you confirm that you’ll take the mission,” Stockwell said.


“That’s how Shriver got us,” Face looked at Hannibal. “Remember? Made us want to know what it’s all about, but we can only find out if we sign up. Somehow, I’m just not as curious as I used to be.”


“And is your patriotism as weak as your curiosity, Lieutenant?” Stockwell asked.


Face scowled at the provocation, but he regained control and plastered on a fake smile. A mocking smile.


“No, I’m all fired up to help the country that branded me a war criminal and a murderer and tried to execute me.”


The bitterness in his tone earned him surprised looks from BA and Murdock and a frown from Hannibal.


“The government and the country aren’t the same thing,” Hannibal said. “We’ve talked about that before, Face.”


“And it’s not only a question of the United States,” Stockwell said. “If this information got into the wrong hands, and someone managed to successfully engineer and release the virus -”


“Yeah, doomsday scenario, apocalypse and all that, we know,” Murdock said. He stopped suddenly and frowned. “Damn, it sounds like something from a comic book. But it’s what we’re actually talking about.”


“Yes, Captain,” Stockwell said, his voice quiet. “That’s exactly what we’re talking about.” It had grown dark in the room now, the only light from a couple of wall lamps behind Stockwell, casting his gaunt face in deep shadow. Only thing he’s missing is the scythe, Hannibal thought. Otherwise, he’s got the part down to a T.


“So why us?” Hannibal asked, his voice loud in the hushed room. “And don’t say, because we already know about Zephyr. If all you need is to extract a target and bring him to you, then whoever does that doesn’t need to know why they’re doing it. And I know we’re good, but we’re… well there are younger, sharper, squads out there.”


“True,” Stockwell said, annoying Hannibal slightly. He could at least have disagreed about the ‘sharper’ part. “But I truly am retired now, Colonel. I have no Ables at my command or teams of agents. I can call in some favours from friends still in the intelligence community, but there’s only so far I can go without revealing why I need the help. Without revealing Zephyr.”


“So what you’re saying,” Hannibal said, smirking, “is that we’re the only ones you can trust.”


Stockwell grimaced, and couldn’t even bring himself to say more than, “Correct.”


“I knew it.” Hannibal grinned. “I said that, hell, back after you’d been shot. I figured that we might be the only people within your organisation you could actually trust.”


“Believe me, that’s not a position I relish.” He looked around at them. “I need your help. You understand the stakes involved. Will you do it?”


The team looked at each other. Face shook his head just a little. Such a tiny gesture Stockwell might not even have caught it. BA wore a deep scowl that told Hannibal exactly what he thought of the idea. Only Murdock looked at least open to persuasion. He shrugged when Hannibal looked at him.


“We’ll have to think about it for a couple of days,” Hannibal said, and got a scowl from Face now too. However, neither he nor BA spoke. They wouldn’t argue about it in front of Stockwell.


“Wait, Hannibal,” Murdock said. “He’s gonna have to say it. I’m not even going to think about it until he asks us properly.”


“What you talking about, fool?” BA said. “He’s asked us, what more do you want?”


“You know what he wants, don’t you, Hunt?” Hannibal grinned, ignoring the baffled looks from BA and Face. He knew what Murdock was getting at and, going by that scowl on his face, so did Stockwell.


“Is that really necessary?” Stockwell asked haughtily.


“He’s gotta ask us properly,” Murdock insisted again.


Stockwell muttered something and shook his head, perhaps already regretting his choice to bring the team in. But he rallied and looked up, giving Murdock a glare, before turning to look at Hannibal. He spoke.


“I would like to hire the A-Team.”

Chapter 2

“I still think it’s a mistake.”


Two hours of argument hadn’t convinced Face otherwise. BA and Murdock had retired to the sofa an hour ago and, though they still chimed in with their opinions, in the end it had come down to Face and Hannibal.


Face against Hannibal.


The two of them stood, facing each other, in Hannibal’s den. Not yelling, just… discussing it. Repeatedly.


“Getting involved with Stockwell was a mistake the first time,” Face went on. “And it would be a mistake this time.”


“We got our pardons in the end. Just like he promised,” Hannibal reminded him, but Face shook his head.


“And Philip Shriver handed them to us. Not Stockwell. And who knows who arranged them. But it wasn’t Stockwell.”


“Face is right,” BA said. “We don’t owe that guy nothing.”


“We made a commitment,” Hannibal said. “And not to Stockwell, to Shriver. We bought in to Zephyr, and we knew there was no get-out clause.”


“We destroyed it though,” Murdock said. “That was meant to be the get-out clause.”


“Well, it looks like we didn’t destroy it enough.” Hannibal frowned at Face. “We start a job; we finish it, however long it takes. It’s a matter of honour.”


He stomped over to a table with a humidor on it and took out a fresh cigar. For a moment, he stood glaring over at a locked cabinet on the wall. Face knew that was his gun cabinet where, among his own weapons, he kept Philip Shriver’s Glock 17. Hannibal didn’t use it. He just kept it.


Shriver died while under Hannibal’s command, and Face knew from the war what that meant. Any promise made to that man would be honoured. Was he wasting his time even arguing with Hannibal about it? Maybe, but that was his job. He owed it to BA and Murdock.


“Look,” Murdock said, sitting forward. “We keep talking about Stockwell, but this isn’t about what we owe him. It isn’t even about what we owe Philip. We know what the stakes are here. I don’t see that we have a choice.”


“You heard what Stockwell said,” Hannibal said. “We’re the only ones he can trust to pull this off.”


Face snorted at that. “You’re letting him do it to you again. Flatter your ego. He’s recruiting us for the exact same reason he did last time.”


“And that is?”


“Because we’re expendable.” He hesitated for a moment, in the face of Hannibal’s furious glare, but rallied and continued. “He didn’t recruit us back then because we were the best.”


“He said…”


“He said a lot of things to butter us up and get us where he wanted us. Is your ego so big that you still think we were the best unit Stockwell could recruit? Yeah, we had our… unique approach. But you think there weren’t younger teams? We were already slowing down even then.”


Hannibal didn’t answer, just looked narrowly at Face. Murdock was looking down at the floor now, his shoulders tense.


“He manipulated us back then and he’s doing it again now. Making us think we’re the only ones he trusts to help him save the damn world! But, the truth is, we’re all he can get. And still expendable. Not because we’re convicted murderers any more, but because we’re just has-beens.”


BA spoke, jumping in quick, addressing Face, but looking at Hannibal.


“Maybe you said enough to make your point, Faceman.”


“Have I, Hannibal?”


“If you have more to say, don’t let me stop you.”


Face hesitated. That wasn’t a friendly invitation. But shutting up had never been his strong suit.


“Didn’t you ever wonder why he never told us about the other teams he had stashed around the place? Like those Marines you said the two of you found living at Langley. It’s because he wanted us to think we were special.”


“We are special,” Murdock protested at once.


“You always been special,” BA snapped at him. “Quiet. Face ain’t done.”


“Ain’t done digging,” Murdock muttered. Face glanced at him and grimaced. Had he gone too far? Hannibal still wore a deep scowl. But after a moment, it cleared and he just looked determined.


“I’m doing it. We made a commitment to Shriver.” Face wondered if Hannibal had heard a word of anything Face had said. Had he ever listened? Murdock stood up and stood beside Hannibal. His action made his choice clear without him saying anything.


“BA?” Hannibal asked.


BA looked at Face and shrugged. “We can’t let those two fools go without us. Get themselves killed.”


Face nodded and sighed. BA had a point. Face had to be there to tether Hannibal back down to earth. BA and Murdock needed him there for that.


“Okay,” Face said. “But I’m not committing to anything until I know exactly what’s involved. And if I don’t like it, Stockwell can whistle for it. He can’t force us to do anything.”


“He never did force us,” Murdock said. “Not really. Heck, I volunteered! Unpaid.” He shook his head. “Which I guess gives you a definitive ‘yes’ to the question of whether I was still crazy when they let me out of the VA.”


~~~~


“So it seems you’re curious after all, Lieutenant.”


“I’m here, Stockwell.” Face met smug with scowl, as he followed Stockwell into the living room, the first of the team to arrive. “How about we forget the wisecracks?”


“Can I take your coat?”


“I think I’ll keep it in sight.” That smirk again. How he’d love to wipe it right off.


“So, what you lack in curiosity you make up for in paranoia.”


“Well, after working for you, I can say I learned paranoia from the best.”


“I think I was paying you a compliment, Lieutenant.”


Face stared for a moment, and then shook himself. “Yeah, well, you can see why I’d be confused.”


Face wanted to laugh when they walked into the living room and Stockwell went back to setting up a slide projector. A screen stood against the wall. A long way from the state of the art electronics of the old days. Oh, how the mighty are fallen.


Silence stretched between the two of them, while Stockwell loaded his slides and Face watched him warily. Face’s small talk skills were no use here. What could he make chitchat with this man about? The weather? Right now, he’d swear Stockwell was trying to hold back his contempt for Face and his methods. Just like the old days.


“You don’t think much of me, do you, Stockwell?”


“What makes you say that?” Stockwell looked up from his slides, surprised.


“I happen to be very good at reading people. Goes with the job.”


“I’m sure.” There it was, in his eyes, the contempt for Face and his ‘job’. But then he shrugged and smiled. “Actually, though I can’t claim to have much affection for any of you, you demonstrated to me that you’re the most intelligent of the group.”


“What?” Of all the things Stockwell might have said to him, that came further down the list of likely possibilities than ‘I secretly have a crush on you.’ He recovered from his amazement and put a mocking tone back into his voice. “How did I demonstrate that then?”


“You’re the only one who tried to leave.”


The doorbell rang then and Stockwell walked out of the room, giving Face a nod to excuse himself. Face stared after him. He knows about that? Well of course he does. Just assume he knows everything. Safest way. Had Frankie – or whatever his name really was – reported it to him? Frankie hadn’t been working for either Hannibal or Stockwell in the end, despite what both of them thought, so who knew what he did and didn’t tell Stockwell? Whatever suited his own agenda.


Stockwell showed Murdock in and then went off to the kitchen, saying he’d make some coffee. Murdock, wearing a T-Shirt with Maxwell Smart on it, made a beeline for the slide projector.


“Should I mix ’em all up?” He asked, running his fingers around the carousel, making the slides clatter and click.


“God, no!” Face said. “This evening is going to be long enough!”


“Spoilsport.” Murdock turned a couple of the slides upside down anyway, and then flicked the projector on and the brilliant light hit the screen. A moment later a vaguely rabbit-like shape appeared in the light.


“Murdock, we’re here on serious business. And if that’s supposed to be a rabbit it’s a pretty deformed looking one.”


“How about a bird instead?” The shadow changed to that of a fist with the middle finger raised and Face rolled his eyes and sighed.


“Murdock.”


Hannibal and BA showed up in a few minutes and Stockwell served them all coffee and got straight down to business. Any sign of the more relaxed man who’d made them steaks a few days ago was gone.


“Gentlemen,” Stockwell said, turning off the lights and walking to his projector. “The person I need you to extract is a Dr Katherine Miller.” He brought up the first slide. It showed a dark haired and not bad-looking woman in her mid-thirties, wearing a white lab coat. Cropped from a larger picture, Face guessed, noting more white lab coats beside and behind her.


“Nice,” he said, because it was expected. However, he knew from her hair and the style of the collar of the blouse that the picture was an old one.


“I’m afraid that picture was taken about twenty-five years ago, Lieutenant. Here is the most recent one.”


Somewhat blurry, and she had short and almost entirely grey hair and spectacles. The same woman, but now aged at least sixty.


“So, what’s the deal?” Hannibal said. “Was she part of the Zephyr team?”


“Can’t have been,” Face said. “She’s still alive.” He thought he saw Stockwell wince in the light from the projector. Touché.


“No. She was a government scientist and a professor at M.I.T. She’s a specialist in encrypted radio communications.”


“She was a government scientist and professor.” Face noticed the important word in that sentence. “And now?”


“Dr Miller was involved in many top secret projects. However, about fifteen years ago she suffered a mental breakdown.”


“And your sort really don’t like crazy people knowing your top secret crap, do you?” Murdock said.


“She would have been a target for the enemy, or she could have spoken to the wrong people.”


“So you locked her up some place,” Face said. He heard a discontented mutter from BA somewhere in the darkness.


“Not me personally,” Stockwell said. “But yes, she was sent to a secure facility for treatment.”


“And I suppose she’s still there,” Hannibal said.


“Yes.”


“And is she still crazy?” Murdock asked.


“I… don’t know.” Face heard the hesitation in Stockwell’s voice.


“The place has a one way door, huh?” he said.


“I’m afraid so. It’s a matter of national security.”


“Yeah, ain’t it always?” Hannibal had a tone in his voice almost as bitter as the taste in Face’s mouth. They knew what it felt like to be caught up in the machinery for the sake of the greater good. “So why do you need her? You said this was about someone having information about how to engineer Zephyr. She have that? You said she wasn’t part of the project.”


“She wasn’t. But her husband was.” The next slide popped up. Another lab coat, worn by a man with a neat row of pens in his top pocket, glasses and a bad haircut. A good smile though, a kind looking man, aged about forty.


“Dr Lewis Miller. Geneticist, and member of the original Project Zephyr team.”


“You think he told his wife about the project?” Hannibal asked.


“The Zephyr scientists were forbidden from telling even their family members anything about their work. However, the information I have is that Lewis Miller may have hidden some notes about the project, and that his wife knows where they are. I don’t -”


“Widow.” Face said.


“What?” Stockwell said, thrown off track for a moment by the interruption.


“You said wife. You mean widow, don’t you?”


“Yes,” Stockwell said, quietly. “He died in a plane crash.”


“With the rest of the team of scientists?”


“Yes.”


“And it wasn’t an accident?” Face wasn’t letting it go.


“It would be naïve of me to expect you to believe otherwise.”


Face shifted uncomfortably in his chair, and heard shuffling from the rest of the room too. They’d all known when they were working for him what kind of stakes Stockwell played for. They’d met a few men like him in the war. Men who played by different rules.


“So, how you gonna get the old lady to tell you where the information is?” BA asked. “If you gonna hurt her, then you know what you can do with your mission.”


“I’m going to offer her freedom. You’re going to get her out and I’m going to let her stay out. If she leads me to the notes.”


“What?” Face said. “Are we supposed to believe you’re quite happy for her to wander around loose, talking to whoever she likes about her top secret work?” Was Stockwell playing one National Security risk against another?


“Remember I said it was fifteen years ago that she was committed. Her knowledge is so far out of date now that it’s useless. At least as a saleable commodity.”


“Okay, where is she?” Hannibal said. “And you’d better have good intel and equipment for us before we hit the place.”


“I’m afraid it’s not quite as straightforward as ‘hitting’ it.”


“Imagine our surprise.” Face sighed. Knew it. Just knew it.


The projector clacked again and a new picture came up, of a cruise liner at sea. There was silence for a moment, filled only by the whirring of the projector’s fan. Murdock spoke first.


“You’d better be about to tell us that this is the fabulous fourteen-night Caribbean cruise we’re going to win for completing this mission successfully.”


“This is the secure facility I mentioned earlier,” Stockwell said. The projector clicked around, showing more views of the ship. “The SS Meirion.”


“Are you serious?” Face said. “A cruise ship?”


“It was a cruise ship. Technically, according to the records of the fake company registered in Italy, that’s what it still is. But it’s actually something else now.”


“Let me guess,” Hannibal said. “An asylum.”


A floating asylum. It seemed like a good idea, actually, Face thought. At least it did if your mind worked in a particular way.


“It never puts into port,” Stockwell explained. “All supplies, personnel and patients arrive by boat or helicopter.” As he spoke, Stockwell clicked through more views of the ship. Some of them must be old, from when it actually operated as a cruise liner. The pictures showed happy vacationers wearing clothes from thirty years ago, in rooms decorated with flags and streamers. Face would bet that carnival atmosphere was long gone.


“So let’s get this straight,” Murdock said. “This thing cruises around the world, jam-packed full of crazy people who know really juicy secrets?” He shook his head. “Man, it’s a good thing the CIA never told me anything cool or I’d be playing shuffle-board right this minute.”


“Okay, how are we playing this?” Hannibal asked. “How much security is aboard?”


“The crew complement is around six hundred and at least half of them are security.”


“Three hundred? That would make it seventy five to one.” Even Hannibal sounded somewhat intimidated by those odds. “That’s… a lot of security.”


“Remember that not all of the patients are back room operatives like Dr Miller. There are also many former field agents.”


“Oh, crazy people who are trained to kill.” Face shook his head. “Even better.”


“Hey, I was a crazy person trained to kill,” Murdock protested.


“Yeah, and you got a lot more days out to blow off steam than these people.” Face looked at Stockwell. “So the security is tight.”


“And you think we can’t handle it?” Hannibal sounded disgruntled at the lack of faith, either from Face or Stockwell, Face didn’t know.


“Well you said it yourself, Colonel,” Stockwell said, “that you’re neither as young nor as sharp as you once were.”


“I don’t think that’s exactly what I said. But okay, if we’re not going to launch a commando raid, what are we doing?”


“Undercover!” Murdock said at once. “That’s it, isn’t it? You’re going to get us on board as new patients!”


“Exactly right, Captain.”


“Exactly wrong,” BA said. “I’m not pretending to be no nut.”


“Aw, it’s a cinch, BA,” Murdock said, grinning. “I managed it for years.”


“What? You weren’t pretending -”


“Guys,” Hannibal said, silencing them. “Stockwell, you actually think that can work?”


“With the cover identities I’ve created for each of you, I’m sure it can.”


Cover identities he already had worked out of course, Face thought. So arrogant that he knew they’d take the job. So sure of himself. So sure he could put them exactly where he wanted them. Exactly where he wanted…


“Wait just a tiny minute here,” Face said. “Now call me paranoid, but do you think we’re complete dummies or something?”


The other looked at him, and Stockwell raised his eyebrows. “Excuse me, Lieutenant? I don’t know what you mean.”


“If this ship is what you claim it to be, what’s to stop you leaving us on there to rot once you’ve got Miller. If Miller even exists and this whole thing isn’t a trick!”


“That’s a good point,” BA said.


Stockwell sighed in exasperation. Murdock looked very thoughtful and Hannibal scowled, at Face.


“He’d be the dummy if he tried that. He knows we’d get off there and come find him.”


“He just got done explaining escape is impossible,” Face reminded Hannibal. Hannibal started to laugh.


“Oh yeah, because we’ve never heard that one before.”


“Dammit, Hannibal, you’re as arrogant as he is. You damn well deserve each other!”


“Lieutenant,” Stockwell said, stepping away from the projector for a moment, close to Hannibal, perhaps to restrain him. “I know you’ve never trusted me. Frankly, I consider that more evidence of what I mentioned earlier.”


The others looked at Face, not understanding. He didn’t explain, just scowled back at Stockwell.


“None off us trusts you, General.”


“Then you’re all wrong. I once gave you my word. Did I ever break it? Did I ever actively plot against you?”


“You got us put on trial for our lives and almost executed!”


“That was before I gave you my word.”


“Oh, well, that’s okay then. What the heck was I worried about?” Face said, in a mock nonchalant tone.


“Besides,” Stockwell said. “What do you actually think I have to fear from you?”


There was silence for a moment.


“Us kicking your ass?” Murdock suggested.


Stockwell gave a thin smile. “A threat I’d be a fool not to take seriously. And since double-crossing you would only make that more likely, while gaining me nothing, I’d be an even bigger fool to try.”


“It gains you our silence,” Face said. “We know about your organisation. We know about Zephyr. And we know quite a few reporters.”


“And what’s your evidence of Zephyr? Or my organisation?”


They were silent again.


“You have a lot of unsubstantiated stories, that would be dismissed as groundless, and coming from men with a long-standing grudge against the government. Men whose fame is fading, and who would like some attention and money.”


All the silence before was nothing compared to the depth of the one that followed Stockwell’s statement. Eventually Murdock spoke up.


“Well, I think I’ll just step outside and shoot myself now.”


Face looked at Hannibal, the lines in the Colonel’s face deeply etched in the brilliant light shining from the projector. Stockwell was right. He had nothing to fear from them. He never had. He was in control back then. He was in control now.


“So, our only real weapon against you is revenge?” Face said.


“Exactly. And I have no intention of provoking that.”


Face sighed and shook his head. “Okay, go on. Let’s hear the rest of it.”


“You’ll only have to pull it off for a few days,” Stockwell said, stepping back to the projector, his tone brisk and business-like again as if the recent conversation had never happened. “Once you’re aboard, you will locate Dr Miller, and contact me. I’ll pick all of you up before anyone realises what’s happening. I believe that’s exactly the kind of scenario you’re good at.”


“What do you mean, locate her?” Face asked. He didn’t like the sound of that. It sounded like something that could turn into a great big nightmare.


“The ship has extensive accommodation decks, to house the patients and I don’t know which cabin she lives in. You will have to find her.”


“Just how many patients are there on board?” Hannibal asked.


“Currently, one thousand, three hundred and forty seven.”


“And we have to pick out one woman from all of them?” Face groaned. He knew it. Great big nightmare.


“Well, the ratio of men to women is actually about three to one, according to the last information I had,” Stockwell said. “So really you only have to pick her out of a few hundred women.”


“Only a few hundred. Great.” Hannibal sighed. “I think we should take another look at the commando raid idea.”


“No.” Stockwell’s tone brooked no argument, though that had never stopped the team in the past. “There have been attempts to attack the Meirion in the past. Sometimes from simple pirates, some to try to take the ship, or extract particular targets.”


“And?” Hannibal said.


“They all failed. I appreciate your talents, gentlemen. However, if you attempt a raid, you will die. We need to employ your subtle side.”


“We have a subtle side?” Murdock looked surprised.


“Well of course.” Stockwell turned off the slide projector and switched on the light. “You learned it from me.”


Yeah, we learned some stuff from you, Stockwell, Face thought. Subtlety isn’t even the half of it. They’d learned to accept sick stuff like this as normal. As the way the world worked behind the scenes.


Still… he thought about a small island and a crazed dictator. Three men to rescue and a boat to blow up, and the team had done it, of course. But they’d done more. They’d rescued the whole damn country. He glanced at Hannibal. Could he have something similar up his sleeve here?


With no more objections raised, Stockwell handed them the folders with their cover identities. Face discovered he was Ryan Ashton, CIA agent.


Hannibal looked up from his folder. “At least I keep my rank.”


“Yes, Colonel Reese,” Stockwell said. “I thought that would please you.”


“Hey, call me Jack.” Hannibal waved a hand. “We crazy people from Military Intelligence are very informal.”


“What about you, BA?” Face asked.


“I’m still Army too, Military Intelligence. Warrant Officer Travis Hayes,” BA said. He scowled. “Why can’t I be a sergeant?”


“I don’t like mine.” Murdock looked up from his folder.


“What’s the problem, Murdock?” Hannibal asked.


“Well for one thing the name. Larry McKenzie. Larry? Screw that. For another, I already have a secret cover identity.”


“Oh no,” Face said, seeing what was coming and determined to head it off. “Don’t you dare!”


“Surely, Logan Ross…”


“No!” Face and BA chorused. Hannibal grinned.


“Absolutely not!” Face went on. “Don’t even do that voice again, Murdock, or I’ll finish what I started in the strangling department.”


“But, Face -”


“I mean it!” Face would not go through that again. He’d already been edgy back then, nerves like bowstrings. Murdock’s behaviour as Logan Ross had sent him right to the brink of losing control. Then shoved him over it hard.


“Actually, I’m afraid that Logan Ross died some time ago.” Stockwell kept an absolutely straight face as he spoke. Murdock’s mouth fell open. “Heroically, of course, in the line of duty. He tried to bat away a grenade with a cricket bat, to prevent the assassination of the British ambassador to India.”


“And he… he…” Murdock whispered.


“He was out leg before wicket, I believe they call it.”


BA started to giggle. Face caught Hannibal’s eye and had to quickly look away again, to keep from cracking up.


“Why didn’t anybody tell me?” Murdock asked, still staring at Stockwell.


“Fool,” BA muttered. “Man never existed and you ain’t him.”


“I… I need a moment alone,” Murdock said, voice shaky and walked out of the French windows into the garden.


Face grinned and nodded to Stockwell, feeling almost kindly disposed to him.


“Thanks, General.”


Stockwell frowned though, losing the deadpan-yet-secretly-amused look he’d worn a moment ago. He turned to Hannibal.


“Colonel. Captain Murdock… is he…?”


“Don’t worry,” Hannibal said, relighting his cold cigar. “He’s just getting into character as a crazy man.”


BA snorted. “Fool ain’t never been out of character.”

Chapter 3

“How do you think Stockwell organised all this?” Face asked Hannibal. The four of them stood on a dock, waiting for Stockwell and the boat that would take them to the SS Meirion. “He claims he’s not on the inside any more.”


“He has friends who are,” Hannibal said.


“He doesn’t have friends!” Murdock laughed. “He has people he’s got something on, or who owe him favours.”


“True,” Hannibal nodded. He looked around in the darkness. “He’d better show up soon. Has us to come to New Zealand under our own steam and then leaves us waiting on a dock in the middle of the night.”


“Maybe it’s all part of his plan,” Murdock said. “Lure us here and steal our passports so we can’t ever go home and bother him again.”


Hannibal laughed. “Yeah, the United States ain’t big enough for the both of us.”


“I thought that from the start.” Face stomped up and down the dock. Not just for warmth, but trying to work out the worries that still lingered. It’s a mistake. It’s Stockwell. Stockwell always means trouble and death. Always. The man’s poison.


BA was apparently in no better mood than Face. He sat on a mooring piling and sipped hot chocolate. When he saw Face stamping around, he filled another cup from a Thermos and held it out to him. Grateful, Face took it and stood beside him, away from Hannibal and Murdock.


Despite a week to get used to the idea, every instinct still told Face that they shouldn’t do this. He’d worked as hard as the others, studying all the information about the ship and his cover ID – if he had to do the job, he’d do it right – but he still hadn’t started to come around to the idea. It was for National Security of course. It could even save the whole world, if that Zephyr information really was floating around some place. None of that made it right. He sighed.


“Faceman,” BA said quietly. “You hate this as much as I do?”


“Yeah, BA. I do.”


“We could tell ’em where to stick it. Even Hannibal can’t force us to do nothing any more. And Stockwell sure can’t.”


“I know, but I think Hannibal and Murdock would go anyway. And you know how those two are without us.”


BA snorted. “Yeah, they’ll fit in with all the crazies without having to act.”


“Anyway.” Face smiled, cheering up by a tiny amount at least. “Who knows? Hannibal…. maybe he just might have a different plan in mind than Stockwell’s.”


“Yeah,” BA agreed, with his own small smile. “He always did.”


~~~~


“Good luck.” Stockwell raised his hand as the boat cast off, leaving him behind on the dock. He couldn’t come along, he said. The transfer had to be as official as possible. He’d pulled in many favours to set it up, and they couldn’t risk any slip-ups.


Hannibal grinned and waved back, earning dirty looks from Face and BA. Murdock waved too, except – Hannibal laughed – it was a one-finger salute. So long, sucker.


When Stockwell, the dock and eventually the lights of the coast vanished into the darkness, the team went below decks, into the yacht’s small living area. In the room set aside for them they sat around a table, suddenly tense and quiet. Hannibal thought about ordering them to get some sleep, but he knew that would be no more than an order to lie down and close their eyes.


To pass the hours it would take to get to the Meirion, they tested each other on their cover identities and fake symptoms. They went over the layout of the cruise ship again. The yacht crew – Hannibal guessed they were Navy guys, thought they wore civvies – knocked on the door sometimes and offered them food or coffee. The team ate with the sailors and exchanged some friendly banter, but the crew never asked about the team’s mission. Clearly they were far too well trained in the ‘need to know’ concept for that.


Dawn over the sea found the yacht approaching a distant ship, resting at anchor. On deck, Hannibal checked it out through binoculars. If he didn’t know better, he’d think it was a perfectly ordinary liner. The Italian flag, to go with its cover registration, fluttered over it, snapping in the breeze.


Having four new patients arrive together wouldn’t be unusual, Stockwell explained. Sending several patients to the ship at once, rather than one at a time, was standard procedure, Stockwell had explained. This minimised the number of trips back and forth that the wrong people might notice. So, part of the team’s cover was that they’d spent time together in another secret facility, until the group came to the Meirion en masse. And that meant they had an excuse to hang out together on board without arousing suspicion. Stockwell covered all the angles, Hannibal thought. Can’t fault the man for attention to detail.


“Okay, let’s do it,” Hannibal said and the crew members came forward carrying life jackets and safety harnesses. The team put them on with no objections, knowing what was coming.


The calm sea allowed the yacht to pull up right alongside the Meirion and the side of the huge ship towering above them cast the yacht in shadow. A hatch was open in the side and, after a good twenty minutes of grappling and shouting between crewmen on both sides, the two vessels lined up close together.


Despite their life jackets and safety harnesses, none of the team looked keen on the jump from the yacht into the hatch. They could slip or just miss the hatch altogether as the yacht rose and fell on the waves. Though the safety line would keep them out of the water, they’d bash right into the hull of the ship or the yacht. Or worse, be crushed between the two.


BA wore a look that suggested his objection to the helicopter boarding option might have been too hasty. Murdock and Face were glaring at Hannibal as if this was all his fault. Hannibal didn’t mind the dirty looks. Their surly and even hostile attitudes fitted their covers. Men told they were going to a special facility for further treatment would be getting mighty suspicious about now.


“Supposing I don’t wanna jump?” BA demanded of the yacht’s sailors, loud enough for the waiting men at the hatch to hear as well. “Supposing none of us wants to jump. You gonna pick us up and throw us?” The sailors played their parts, looking ready to do just that.


“Just jump,” Hannibal growled at BA. “We don’t have a lot of choice here.”


“He can come last!” A sailor from the Meirion called over, probably hoping he’d have gone off on his lunch break by the time it was BA’s turn.


Hannibal took the lead. A sailor secured a line to the back of his harness, and he stood at the edge of the deck, a rail folded back to open a space. The timing had to be just right. Watch the gap, and watch the height. You want to be jumping down, not up. Men waited at the hatch, ready to catch him. Hannibal took a few steps back, then ran and jumped.


He landed, feet stumbling on the deck, the sailors catching him, keeping him upright, pulling him away from the open hatch. Voices assured him he was fine, they had him and in a moment he stood still, feeling secure. A man quickly uncoupled the rope from his harness and tossed it back over to the yacht, ready for the next man.


Steady on his feet again, Hannibal looked around the compartment he found himself in. A lieutenant supervised the men at the hatch, but kept glancing back at Hannibal, with a wary expression. As well as the sailors manning the hatch and bringing the men across, several others stood around on the periphery. They wore sailor uniforms, with the insignia the fake cruise line.


Hannibal had always thought sailor suits were kind of funny looking. Sort of jolly. He’d had one as a small boy, and had considered himself the bee’s knees in it. Until the first time another boy saw him wearing it, anyway.


These sailors in their jolly uniforms had rifles.


Murdock came over next, and stumbling to his knees. Hannibal started forward, but the armed sailors stepped up to block his way. Seeing Murdock back on his feet right away, Hannibal didn’t protest further, just backed off. In a moment, Murdock joined Hannibal.


“Nice landing,” Hannibal said.


“Hey, any landing you walk away from…” Murdock said and shrugged.


Face joined them a couple of minutes later, complaining loudly all the way, which may or may not have been in character as ‘Ryan Ashton’. Hannibal couldn’t say. But Face could probably list fifty things he’d rather be doing instead of this, and he wouldn’t be shy about mentioning that.


BA came last and almost scattered the sailors waiting to catch him like so many bowling pins. One did end up on his behind, and BA held out his hand to help him back to his feet.


“I think you nearly swamped the ship,” Murdock said, when BA came over to them. “Sure I felt a distinct lurch.”


BA just glared, apparently not ready to talk again yet. Some thumps from the hatch made Hannibal look over to see the team’s luggage, four identical suitcases, landing on the deck. Sailors surrounded the team suddenly, but only to take off the safety harnesses and life jackets. A moment later, they’d tossed those back over to the yacht and closed up the hatch. The yacht would be manoeuvring away already, Hannibal knew. As the bulkhead hatch clanged shut, cutting off the sunlight from outside, the team exchanged glances.


Now they were on their own.


The officer in charge came over and smiled at them, holding out his hand.


“Lieutenant Gary Blaine.” He only got a handshake from Murdock. The others gave him hostile looks.


“What the hell is this place?” Hannibal demanded, playing his role now.


“It’s a treatment facility.” Blaine gave them another smile, but this time it rang very false. “I know it’s somewhat unusual. But I promise you’ll receive an explanation soon. After you settle in. Now if you follow me, I’ll show you to your cabins.”


“This is nuts,” BA muttered, as they followed Blaine out of the compartment. The sailors with rifles followed them. “I never heard of no clinic on a ship before. What’s going on?”


“Aw, it’s not so bad,” Murdock said. “Like a cruise! Better than that damn clinic. Was I getting tired of that place!”


Blaine guided them up a companionway and brought them out into a passenger area of the ship. It had carpeting and painted walls. A little grubbier than you’d find on an actual cruise ship, but clean enough.


“These are the accommodation areas,” he explained. “You should find your cabins quite comfortable. All of them have private bathroom facilities. We’ll bring you your luggage soon.”


“After you’ve searched it?” Face said.


“Sorry, that is standard procedure, yes. After that, we try to give all of our passengers as much privacy as possible.” He glanced back at them, smiling the fake smile again. The junior officers must draw lots for who got this crappy duty, Hannibal thought. Greeting the new arrivals without letting it slip that they’d never leave here. No wonder the guy was sweating right through his white shirt.


“Cut the bullshit, Lieutenant,” Hannibal snapped. “This is some kind of god-damn floating jail, isn’t it?”


BA and Face muttered their agreement. Blaine shook his head.


“No, sir, this isn’t a jail. It’s a hospital.”


That silenced everyone for a moment. Eventually Face spoke.


“I’m better. I know, that incident… what happened in Bulgaria… that was bad, but I’m over it.”


“I… don’t know anything about your individual cases,” Blaine said. “I’m not on the medical staff. But we have excellent doctors here. You’ll get the best possible care. Ah, these are your cabins. We’ve given you four beside each other.” He waved a hand at the doors, two on each side of the corridor. “I’m told you spent several months together in the other facility, so you might find it easier to settle in with familiar faces around you.”


“Great! Hear that guys? We’re neighbours!” Murdock enthused. He opened the nearest door and peeked into the room.


“You’ll find full information about the ship in there,” Blaine said. “The areas you can and can’t go, for your own safety. Where the mess deck is. Where your lifeboat stations are.” He snapped his fingers and made a note on his paper. “Boat drill. I’d better organise one. When new passengers board that’s -”


“Standard procedure,” Hannibal said. “Yeah.” He’d had enough of acting now; he wanted to talk to the guys, and wanted Blaine out of there. “Okay, okay.” He put a resigned tone in his voice. The others picked up on his cue. Face gave a big sigh and slumped his shoulders. Even BA lost the scowl. “Okay,” Hannibal said to Blaine, voice tired and defeated, as if he hadn’t the strength left to deal with this crazy situation. “Look we’re all tired and we didn’t get any breakfast. Can you have some food sent along for us?”


“Of course. I’ll organise that right away. I know you have a lot of questions, but they’ll be answered soon, I promise.” He gave them a sympathetic look and Hannibal liked him for a moment. Guy just wanted to do his job.


The team chose a door each and went into their cabins. Hannibal checked his out quickly, a combined bedroom and sitting room, with basic furniture and a small bathroom. Like a tiny one room apartment. All clean and dust free, unlived in and waiting for someone to take up residence. It had no window, as they were inside cabins. Probably temporary cabins for new arrivals, he thought. They’d get permanent ones later.


Of course, the team weren’t planning to stick around that long.


Hannibal wondered how one got a cabin up on the boat deck. Did it go by who was the craziest, or previously highest in rank? Probably down to who’d been here longest and… dead man’s shoes, of course. Since he didn’t have his luggage to unpack yet, he picked up the leather folder that lay on a table. It was almost like the information pack for a real cruise liner. Except the part about the psychiatric staff.


He poked his head out of the door and found a sailor stationed a few yards up the corridor. He didn’t have a rifle, but did carry a sidearm.


“Can I help you, sir?”


“Just going to have a chat with my friends,” Hannibal said.


He knocked on each door and a moment later, they all piled into Hannibal’s cabin. He glanced back over his shoulder as he closed the door, wondering if that sailor out there could hear them.


Still cautious, he steered them into the tiny bathroom. Murdock stood inside the shower to get a bit of elbow room. Unwrapped packets of soap and full bottles of shampoo stood on shelves and racks. Even a toothbrush still in its pack. Hannibal figured patients just requested things from stock. Imagine, never again going to a store. Never again cooking your own meals, or washing your own clothes. It was seductive and horrible at the same time.


“Well?” Hannibal said. “We all okay?”


“They’ll be double-checking our IDs now,” Face said. “In five minutes they could bust down that door and finish this before it starts.”


“Don’t worry,” Hannibal said. “Stockwell has got it covered. If there’s one thing he’s good at, it’s details.”


“I just thought of something he can’t have covered,” Murdock said. “What if we run into someone we know?”


That would put a crimp in their plans. But they’d all changed their appearances to look less like the infamous A-Team. New haircuts. Any distinctive clothes left behind. Hannibal had even resolved to go without cigars for the duration to take away another identifying characteristic. And of course, they were all getting older. No longer the men who had featured in Amy Allen’s news stories at the height of their fame.


“I guess we send the abort signal, if that happens,” Hannibal said. They just had to get into the radio room to send it, but he knew they could manage that. “For now, the plan is a go. Locating Miller’s cabin is the first priority.”


He stifled a sudden yawn and glanced at his watch. They’d all been up all night, he recalled. So, sleep became the first priority, he decided. They’d almost certainly end up doing a lot of sneaking about at night.


“Security will watch us closely at first,” he said. “Us being the new guys. So we take a couple of days to let them get used to us, while we get the lay of the land.”


“Lay of the land?” Murdock laughed. “Oh, boy, is that the wrong turn of phrase!”

Chapter 4

After the team’s first breakfast on the ship, two security men stopped them and brought Face to the ship’s medical deck, for his first session with the doctor. This area must have been some of the most expensive cabins once, Face thought. Only the lido deck and sun deck lay above it.


The security men left him alone in the doctor’s consulting room. As he watched them go, he wondered about hidden cameras. Would the doctors let security violate confidentiality like that? Of course that assumed these doctors had the usual professional ethics. Given the set-up here, that was questionable.


The room had looked like a normal psychiatrist’s office, no longer resembling a cruise ship cabin. Comfortable chairs, though no classic shrink’s couch. The walls were painted in soothing tones and decorated with pictures of idyllic pastoral scenes. All very neutral and impersonal. One difference he noticed though. No diplomas on the wall, like in most doctor’s offices. Of course these doctors didn’t have to sell themselves to the patients here. They couldn’t lose their business to the shrink down the road.


“Mr Ashton?”


Face turned from the window at the sound of a woman’s voice behind him. A middle-aged, dark-haired woman in a white doctor’s coat had come in to the room.


“Yeah?” He put on an impatient scowl. The doctor offered her hand to him for a shake. He took it, but with some hesitation, keeping up his wary act.


“I’m Doctor Anne Galvez,” she said. “I’m Chief Medical Officer here. Please, sit down.”


She took a seat. Face didn’t yet, stayed standing, glaring down at her, but she showed no signs of feeling intimidated by that. Why should she? She was sitting in the chair with the panic button built into it. Face had found that less than a minute after they left him alone.


“So, you’re in charge, huh? Good. Maybe I can finally get some answers.”


“Of course. What are your questions?”


“Hah!” He made his laugh harsh. “That’s a switch. I’ve had nothing but questions from you shrinks for months, and now you’re ready to give me answers. I’ll believe that when I see it.”


She didn’t respond to that, just waited for him. Face made her wait nearly thirty seconds, still glaring down at her. She looked back at him with a steady gaze and he saw she wouldn’t crack first. Too experienced at this game. So he gave a small sigh and sat down on the couch.


A small table stood beside the arm of the couch, with a box of Kleenex on it. Face wondered if he could act well enough to pretend to cry. Maybe he’d leave such advanced techniques to Hannibal. He’d already discovered that the small table was bolted to the floor. The same went for most of the other furniture in the room, anything that you could otherwise pick up and throw. Were all the consulting rooms like that, he wondered, or did they use this one especially for the first session, for breaking the news?


“What’s going on here?” Face asked. “They tell me they’re moving me to a new facility, to continue my treatment.” He shrugged. “Didn’t mind too much, got tired of that other place. Then they fly us to New Zealand and sail us out here! Now I’m fine with the idea of a cruise at government expense. But seriously, what the hell?”


“Yes, you are here to continue your treatment. But you need to understand one thing straight away. This is permanent. You can never leave.”


Face stared at her. How long should he stare? How long would a man stare on hearing that? He tried to remember how long he’d stared after hearing the guilty verdict at their court martial. This whole scene called for method acting. Called for a man who knew what it felt like to be caught in the machinery. After a moment he spoke, and put disbelief in his voice.


“Sorry, can you run that by me again?” Don’t be angry too quickly, he thought. This is so outrageous he should take a moment to understand it, before the anger came.


“Mr Ashton,” she said. “You’re an experienced intelligence agent according to your files. You’ve done invaluable work for your country. But you also carry many secrets that would be of use to our enemies. In your condition, you’re too vulnerable for us to risk your capture, or that you’ll do something dangerous. For the sake of national security, you have to live here for the rest of your life.”


Face saw some tension in Galvez’s face and pose. She was ready if he blew up now. But again he made her wait.


“Do you understand what I’m saying, Mr Ashton?” She pressed him. “Do you understand that you will never leave this vessel? We can help make your life here as pleasant and fulfilling as we can. But that’s all we can do. Even if you recover, we can’t set you free.”


Face stood and saw her tense up again, but he didn’t approach her. He started to pace the room.


“How can you do this? I’ve got rights!” He nearly spat the word ‘rights’. His rights had never done him any good in the past.


“You’re still subject to orders, and you’ve been assigned to this ship for long-term medical treatment.”


Oh, well, that was a new one. Nobody had tried that one on him before. Maybe Lynch or Decker should have tried sending the team a transfer order assigning them to Fort Bragg.


“There’s such a thing as illegal orders, lady. Speaking of legal, I want to talk to my lawyer. Have him check this out. No way you’re allowed to keep me here!”


“You can’t contact anyone, I’m afraid.”


“What? You saying I’m incommunicado too? That’s bullshit! You can’t do that to people.”


“You’re an experienced and well-connected CIA agent. Tell me, had you ever heard of the Meirion before you arrived here yesterday?”


Face grimaced. “Okay, I get your point. But I’m not saying that you’re not able to do it, because obviously, you are. I mean that it’s wrong. All these people, hundreds of them, all stuck here? That’s wrong!” He took a shaky breath as he felt heat rising to his face. Get a hold of yourself, he thought. Acting. Remember. Just acting. Would a CIA agent be so morally outraged? Those guys were pragmatists. Stockwell for one. Method acting, he ordered himself. Be Ashton, not Peck.


“Some of the patients have been here for many years,” Galvez said. “Most come to accept it. They understand that they’ve had to sacrifice their liberty to protect their country. You’ve risked that yourself many times, risking capture by the enemy. Believe me, this will be a far more pleasant captivity than that.”


“You actually think you can keep me here? You think I can’t get the hell off this thing if I want to?” He couldn’t wait to do it now. Show these bastards. Nobody was putting him in a cage again. Had enough.


“Trying to escape would only be a waste of time. I advise you to accept what’s happened. It’s strange, I know. But once you acclimate to it, you can become a happy member of our community.” She smiled. “Some of our patients consider it an early retirement.”


Face snorted. “I wasn’t looking to retire yet. And when I did I was planning to spend most of my time in Vegas.”


“Oh, in that case, you should find the casino of interest. Though you might find it hard to get near any of the tables, past the cryptologists and mathematicians counting cards and testing their systems on each other.”


“You have a casino? What the hell do people wager? Cigarettes?” Just like jail. Just like Fort Bragg. Face paced faster now, shaking his head. What would it feel like if this was for real? Not having to actsurprised? If you really were going to be stuck here? Better or worse than being told you were to be executed?


His hands clenched into fists involuntarily. He saw Galvez’s hand rest lightly beside that panic button, disguised as a decorative leather button. She needn’t have worried; Face wasn’t going to attack her. Though right now, something heavy to throw at the window would be nice. He took a breath, trying to get back on track. On with the game. Didn’t feel like a game. Felt like playing for keeps.


“No, this is some kind of trick. This can’t be for real.”


“I know it will take a few days for you to process this news, but we’ll work through those days with you. Once you’ve accepted it, you can continue the excellent progress you’ve made so far with your treatment.”


Face laughed harshly. “What the hell is the point of treatment if I’m never getting out of here?”


“Just because you can’t leave, there’s no reason you can’t be relatively happy and healthy.”


He snorted at that notion and wondered if they put anything in the water to keep the residents happy and placid. No, probably not. Many of them would be on other drugs. Not good to mix the effects.


“We’ll continue your current prescription for now.” Galvez wrote a note. “If need be later we’ll adjust the dose.”


“Damn pills.” Not that he’d be taking any pills. Murdock had taught them all the fine art of not taking pills.


“I think that’s all for today,” she said, with a glance at her watch. “Take your time to think through what I’ve told you and we’ll talk again tomorrow.”


And that was that. The door opened and a white-coated orderly appeared to escort him out. Galvez already had her head down, writing notes.


“Doctor,” Face said, stopping at the door and making her look up. He wanted to ask her how she slept at night, but tried to calm the anger churning his guts and say something less confrontational. “Youknow this is wrong, don’t you?” Okay, so not that much less confrontational. And not CIA enough, not amoral enough. Why couldn’t his cover ID have been Army, like Hannibal’s and BA’s? Army officers were allowed to have morals.


Did he see guilt in the doctor’s eyes? Perhaps she hadn’t quite managed to ball up every little bit of that guilt and hide it in the dark corners.


“I know that it’s necessary.”


She admitted nothing else.


~~~~


“I’m glad this is just for a few days,” Face said, making BA look up from his food. “Because there’s no way I could get used to eating dinner this early every day.”


They’d been apart most of the day, having their sessions with the doctor, and only met up again all together at dinner, just after six-thirty. The dinner service had been running since five, BA remembered from the meal times in his information pack.


“Some of ’em’s kind of old,” BA said, looking around the room before turning back to the team. “Old people always want to eat dinner early.”


“And they’ve got loads of neat activities to do all evening,” Murdock said, mock enthusiastically. “I’m thinking of signing up for the basket weaving.”


BA looked around again. Some of the other patients glanced over at the team, because they were new faces, he supposed. A few smiled, but others were more wary. Suspicious people by nature, he supposed. Or by training and experience. In the field too long to ever really trust anyone again.


“You guys managing to avoid the pills?” Hannibal asked and they all nodded. “Keep it that way. I don’t need any of you incapacitated. BA, keep a lid on your temper. You start tossing guys around and they’ll pump you full of stuff that will make you nostalgic about all the crap we’ve shot you with in the past.”


“I ain’t stupid, man.”


It had been hard to keep the lid on today, in his session with that Galvez doctor. He had to react strongly, like a man would to that kind of news and that wasn’t so hard, since he had plenty of experience of reacting to unfair treatment. On the other hand, if he got too aggressive, security would have dog-piled him in a second. So he’d tried angry resignation. Like this was just the latest of a long line of kicks in the teeth.


“When do we put this thing into motion?” Face said. “I really don’t want to stay here any longer than we have to.”


“Tomorrow night.” Hannibal nodded at one of the security guards standing by the wall nearby. “If they’ve gotten bored with watching us too closely.”


“That soon?” Murdock said.


“Like I said – ‘if’. But don’t let what Stockwell told you put you off. These guys are lazy and complacent. Their job is too easy. They’ve gotten lazy.”


BA nodded, agreeing with that. He knew all about guard duty, since the team specialised in getting past guards. Guard duty made even a conscientious man lazy and incompetent through sheer boredom. Back at the camps they’d passed messages or gotten bread from Lin in plain sight of some of the guards. The trick was keeping them bored. Do anything too interesting and they wake up and take notice.


So the team continued their meal quietly, trying to appear as boring as possible. Though Murdock had thought tomorrow night was ‘soon’, BA wondered why they were waiting that long. They could start tonight. Get into the ship’s records and find out where Miller’s cabin was, grab her, signal Stockwell and be gone by dawn. That’s what they were good at. Maybe Face was right though, maybe Hannibal had his reasons for wanting to stay a couple of days and find things out. Maybe forget Stockwell’s plan and follow one of his own.


Part of BA hoped he would. All these people. All trapped here. Can’t be right. He looked around again. The room had started to empty out, only a few people left, sitting with coffee, or desserts, finishing up slowly. No rush. The catering staff were clearing up the tables and the serving line.


Murdock saw BA looking around, and did the same, then froze suddenly, and his gaze became intense. BA followed it and saw a group of people sitting at a table, a man and two women. And one of the women…


“It’s her,” BA said softly. Murdock looked back at him and nodded. To Face and Hannibal’s credit, BA thought, neither of them turned around and stared when BA spoke. Katherine Miller sat chatting and drinking coffee, showing no sign of noticing BA and Murdock looking at her.


“If you’re sure, stop looking at her now,” Hannibal ordered and Murdock and BA looked back to their companions.


“I’m sure,” Murdock said. “It’s her. She’s thinner than in the photo Stockwell showed us. But it’s her.”


“Thinner?” Hannibal frowned. “How thin? Like… sick?”


Murdock shrugged. “Couldn’t say.”


“You think she’s sick?” Face said, glancing over his shoulder.


“It would explain the urgency,” Hannibal said. “Maybe Stockwell needs to get hold of her before it’s too late.”


“Okay, well, never mind that for now,” Face said. “We have to use this chance. One of us could follow her. If she goes back to her cabin, then we don’t need to risk breaking into the records office.”


Hannibal nodded and grinned. “Got any suggestions for which one of us that should be, Face?”


Face winced at his accidental volunteering and sighed. “Yeah, yeah. Maybe I can at least get a cup of coffee first. She doesn’t look like she’s in any hurry to leave.”


He stood up to go to the coffee urns, and then gasped and looked up at the sound of a klaxon. The rest of the team did the same, but the few patients remaining, along with the catering staff and security guards, just looked annoyed.


The klaxon stilled after a moment and a voice came over the PA.


“Now hear this. Lifeboat drill. All hands report to lifeboat stations. Lifeboat drill.”


“Damn,” Hannibal muttered.


A security man standing nearby came to the team at once. “Follow me. I’ll show you the way to your lifeboat.”


The team got plenty of glares on the way to the boats. This was their fault, BA knew, remembering Blaine saying it was standard procedure to hold a drill when new arrivals joined the ship.


“Great, now everyone hates us for ruining their evening,” Face muttered. As they joined the crowds of people in the hallways, Murdock, taller than most people, craned his neck to keep Miller in sight. But when the crowd reached the boat deck it split into several groups and Murdock shook his head, looking annoyed.


Lost her.


Of course. BA could have told him it wouldn’t be that easy.


~~~~


Kate Miller returned to her cabin after the drill. She could have gone back to the dining room, but her coffee would be cold. She’d been thinking of grabbing a second helping of dessert before they cleared it all away, but she had a few snacks on hand in here.


She’d known there would be a lifeboat drill with the new arrivals, of course, but would still like to have a few words with the person who thought it funny to run the drill while it was still technically dinnertime. Oh well, it could be worse. She’d lost count of the times she’d shivered in her nightdress at her lifeboat station.


When Kate entered the cabin, a canary in a cage that hung from the ceiling began to chirp and hop from one perch to the other.


“Hungry, Sammy?” She took a box of birdseed from a drawer. Getting low, she thought, rattling the box. Was it worth requisitioning a new box?


She filled the plastic seed holder and the bird at once hopped onto it and began eating. Kate ignored the mess made by the seed husks that rained from the cage onto the carpet below. Not her problem. The cleaner would vacuum it up.


“Good boy, Sammy. Such a pretty boy,” she cooed at the oblivious creature as it went on eating. Kate sighed. Might as well talk to the wall. Or to one of her fellow patients. Some of them had become as vacuous as the bird, minds filled with worthless trivia and the minutiae of their lives here. Look at Emma Sampson, with whom she’d shared dinner tonight. The woman once killed a Gestapo officer with a crochet hook. Now she spent her days making doilies and gossiping about the younger officers and medics. Such a waste.


Leaving the bird to its supper, Kate pottered around the room, tidying up the books and papers that lay scattered on her desk. She gathered up about a dozen pens and pencils and put them back into their pot. Better. Well, good enough. Should she read for a while? Or should she just go to bed? Her mind went to the new arrivals aboard and she smiled. When would they make their move? A good idea to get plenty of rest before they did. She’d need all her strength soon. No, it was still early. An hour of reading first, she decided. And some chamomile tea.


She’d made the tea and put some cookies on a plate when a knock sounded at her door. Kate raised an eyebrow. Already? They did have a reputation as fast workers. But it was probably just a friend inviting her to a bridge game, or to play chess. It was neither of the speculated parties. Instead Kate opened the door to find a young officer standing there. He smiled politely.


“May I come in, ma’am?”


“What can I do for you, Lieutenant…” She read his name tag. “Blaine?” She knew his face of course, knew every face on this damn boat. She stepped back to allow him to enter. He hesitated on the threshold for a moment, then stepped inside and closed the door behind him. Kate stared at the door and knew at once that she’d made a mistake.


She didn’t ask any silly questions, just waited for him to make his next move. He drew a small pistol and didn’t quite point it at her, more to the side, almost an embarrassed gesture.


“I’m very sorry about this, ma’am. I have to ask you to come with me.”

Chapter 5

The team lingered over their breakfasts in the morning, staying there from the start of breakfast service right to the end. Kate did not appear.


“Maybe she’s not a breakfast person,” Face said as they left the mess after the staff finally chased them out to start their clean up. “Lots of women are funny about breakfast.”


“You’d know,” Hannibal said, making Face look smug. “You could be right. Or she felt like sleeping late that morning. Or she had breakfast in her cabin. Or she isn’t feeling good. Could be a hundred reasons. Okay, so we’ll split up.” He lowered his voice. “Check this ship from bow to stern. Not just to find her; we need to know our way around too. Don’t draw too much attention, but hey – we’re new, we’re exploring, perfectly natural.”


As they started to split up and move out Hannibal said, “Guys. The one who spots her first gets to sleep in tomorrow.” He grinned. Face and BA just snorted and Murdock laughed. Like they ever got to sleep in.


Hannibal headed for the recreation areas. He wandered through a couple of lounges, full of comfortable chairs where people sat around chatting, reading, snoozing – like folks on a vacation. A group of older women sat on sofas arranged in a square with a coffee table in the middle, all knitting, or doing needlework. The coffee table was a riot of brightly coloured balls and skeins of yarn and thread.


He gave them a charming smile as he passed, and said, “Good morning, ladies”, provoking some interested looks and smiles in return. Kate Miller wasn’t among the group.


Another room had a several tables with groups mostly playing cards, but a few playing board games. One especially intense looking group sat around a Monopoly board. Hannibal wondered how many years that game had been running. He made a circuit of that room quickly, since most of the players were men.


A TV lounge next, with an episode of The Love Boat playing on the screens, which made him chuckle. Probably all videotapes, he thought, and wondered how much of what went on in the outside world that these people were allowed to hear about.


He strolled back out into the main lounge and noticed some small tables set up along the windows. Some people sat at them with a coffee and a book, or writing, but he noticed one middle-aged man sitting alone with a chess set in front of him, glancing at his watch and looking annoyed.


Kate Miller was a pretty advanced chess player, Hannibal recalled from her file. If she still played and this guy was a serious player too, then maybe he knew her. When Hannibal strolled closer he saw that the table had a timing clock on it. Yeah, probably a serious player then.


Hannibal strolled up to the window, gazing out at the ocean. He glanced to the right when the man at the table sighed, looking at his watch again.


“You been stood up?”


The man looked up at him and grimaced.


“People are entirely unreliable. Ten o’clock means exactly ten o’clock. How hard is that to grasp?”


Hannibal glanced at the wall clock. Almost ten past the hour now.


“I don’t suppose you know how to play?” the man said, looking hopeful.


“Yeah, I know.” He looked at his watch, for effect. “Don’t know if I’ve got time though.” Then he shrugged. “Aw, hell. What else have we got around here but time?” He sat down opposite the pleased looking man.


“Jack Reese,” Hannibal said, offering his hand. “Military Intelligence.”


“Ron Baxter.” The man shook Hannibal’s hand. “CIA.”


“Nice to meet you, Ron.”


Baxter turned the board so the white pieces were on Hannibal’s side. “Since you’re new here, please, be my guest.”


“Thanks.” Hannibal wouldn’t turn down any advantage. He needed to make this game last. Diving straight in with questions about Miller might raise suspicions. He studied his pieces carefully, deciding his opening move, before moving a pawn and tapping the timing clock.


“So, you a good player?” Hannibal asked. Baxter made his move only a second after Hannibal’s and tapped the clock.


“I’m a Grand Master. I used to work the international chess circuit for the CIA. Keeping tabs on the Russians, looking out for potential defectors.”


Hannibal’s hope that he could make the game last died as fast as it was born. He smiled at Baxter.


“Best of three?”


~~~~


Kate looked up when the hatch opened and Blaine came in carrying a cardboard box, setting it on the table in front of her. The table and chair and a narrow cot she’d slept on last night were the only furnishings in the compartment. She recognised the chair from poolside. It had an armrest missing. The table came from the rec rooms and had a severe wobble. Blaine must have borrowed them from the repair shop. She had no idea where he’d scrounged the cot from.


“Lunch, ma’am,” he said, as polite as he’d been from the beginning. He didn’t bother to draw his gun. What could an old woman do against a strong young man like him? “Sorry, it’s only sandwiches and fruit. I’ll try to bring something hot for dinner.”


“Did you get to my cabin? Did you check on Sammy?” She’d asked him to do that when he brought her breakfast earlier.


“I… haven’t had a chance yet.” He smiled at her, reassuringly. “I’m sure your canary is fine, ma’am.”


“You promised you’d check on him. He should have his water changed and food filled up. Will you check him this afternoon?”


Blaine sighed, but Kate had no sympathy. If anything happened to that bird…


“I’ll try to check on him soon. Perhaps you’d like me to bring him down here to keep you company?”


“No.” She could smell oil and all sorts of gas and chemicals in the air down here near the engine rooms. Poor Sammy would keel over at once. “Just check on him.”


She hadn’t asked Blaine about why he’d brought her here. It seemed obvious to her that he’d been ordered to put her on ice. He hadn’t interrogated her, or asked her anything other than what she wanted to eat and if she was warm enough. He may not even know himself why she had to be taken and locked up in a compartment deep in the bowels of the ship. He’d been told to and he’d followed orders.


And now he was waiting. For further orders? Or reinforcements?


It couldn’t be a coincidence that he grabbed her right after the arrival of the A-Team. Did that mean heknew about them though? He may not. Again, just following orders, waiting for the next one.


Well, whether he knew or not, somebody did. So they must be sending someone, either to stop the team taking Kate off the Meirion or to take her first. Kate could only hope the team would find her before Blaine’s reinforcements arrived. She’d heard the A-Team was good. She hoped they were still good enough.


~~~~


To establish his cover, Hannibal had been talking with barely feigned bitterness about the iniquitous government that had sent him here. Baxter nodded sympathetically. He knew who’d made the decision to send ‘Jack’ here.


“It’s the computers, you see,” Baxter said.


“Computers?”


“They run the whole thing now.”


“I see,” Hannibal said, slowly.


“The treat humans like pieces on a board.”


This guy lost a few too many chess games to a computer, Hannibal thought. Baxter talked for a while about the secret artificial intelligence that ran the world now. Perfected from a chess-playing computer, he said. That’s why it viewed the whole world as a chess board.


“Right…” Hannibal needed to change the subject. It was lunchtime already and he still hadn’t asked about Kate Miller. “Hey, you know, yesterday I thought I saw someone I knew. A woman.”


Baxter didn’t look up, busy studying the board. Hannibal’s chess prowess was so far below Baxter’s that it actually confused the expert. Hannibal had started to move pieces almost at random, knowing Baxter would assume he had a game plan and waste time trying to figure it out. In the two hours they’d played Hannibal had lost five games. Against this guy, he considered that pretty good going.


“I think it was her anyway,” Hannibal went on. “But hell, it was thirty years ago. She was a pretty hot chess player actually. Well, she was pretty hot all around back then. Older than me, but…”


Baxter did look up now. “Women can’t play chess,” he said. “Well, not to the same level as us. Their brains don’t focus in the proper way.”


“Yeah?” Hannibal decided to avoid getting into that debate. “Well, anyway, if it was her and she still plays chess, maybe you know her.”


“Name?”


“Miller. Dr Katherine Miller.”


Baxter nodded. “Yes. A fair player, despite the disadvantage of her sex.”


“You – um – happen to know her cabin number?” Hannibal kept his voice as casual as he could. Don’t draw attention, don’t want the answer too much.


“No. Sorry.”


Hannibal covered most of his disappointment. “Shame. I could have paid a call. Chatted about old times. She had quite a thing for me. Wonder if she’s still carrying that torch.”


Baxter stared at him, then shook his head. “Good God, man, pray that she’s not.”


“Huh?”


“A somewhat… single-minded lady, I’ll give her that. More so than most women are capable of. Or men for that matter. Checkmate.”


~~~~


When the team reconvened at dinner, they all had negative reports and it was time to go to plan B. They went back to the cabins with a security man following.


“I’ll grab the cards,” Face said, as the rest of the team headed into Hannibal’s cabin. He came back out of his cabin a few moments later and headed into Hannibal’s. The guard was still in the corridor.


“Our guard dog still out there?” Hannibal asked.


“Large as life,” Face confirmed, handing Hannibal the cards.


“Okay, in that case, we’ve got a couple of hours to kill.” He sat at the table and started shuffling the cards. “Stud or Hold ’em?”


A couple of hours passed while they played cards and talked about what they’d found in their exploration of the ship. You never knew what little detail might come in handy later. At last, Hannibal checked his watch and nodded at Face and Murdock.


“Time.”


“Right.” Murdock faked a yawn. “My goodness, I’m tired. I think it’s time for bed, don’t you, Face?”


“Just go do your thing,” BA said. “Don’t be acting for us.”


Face and Murdock left Hannibal’s cabin, pausing in the doorway to say goodnight. Murdock gave another yawn for the benefit of the security guard.


“I’m gonna hit the sack,” he said to Face. “All this sea air. Think I’m gonna sleep better here than I ever have in my life.”


“I know what you mean.” Face stretched and then opened his cabin door. “I’m ready to turn in too. See you in the morning, Larry.”


“Goodnight, Ryan,” Murdock said, and vanished into his cabin. Face glanced at the guard, nodded a goodnight to him, and went inside.


An hour, Hannibal had said. Around midnight, he and BA would do their act. Face quickly changed into darker clothes, turned off the light and sat on the bed to wait.


The darkness started him yawning and he realised he really was tired. Murdock was right about the sea air. An hour gave him time for a nap, so he set an alarm on his watch for ten to midnight. The watch alarm was quiet, it would wake most people; but Face slept lightly. He lay down and closed his eyes.


The beeping of the alarm woke him and he sat up, alert and listening. All quiet outside. He took a peek out of his door’s peephole, but could only see Hannibal’s cabin door across the corridor.


He took his bathrobe from the hook on the wardrobe door and slipped it on over his clothes. His hair was already messed up, authentic bed-head. He’d have to look out of his door in a few minutes, to see if the guard was still there. If he was, then Face had better look like a man just roused from his bed.


The sound of raised voices took him quickly back to the peephole. The voices were muffled for a moment, then Hannibal’s door opened and they grew loud as BA and Hannibal spilled out into the corridor.


“I ain’t taking this!” BA shouted. “I wanna see the captain!”


“It’s midnight!” Hannibal said. “You think they’re gonna let you see the captain at midnight?”


“He’ll see me if I gotta drag him outta his bunk by the scruff of his neck.”


“Will you be quiet!” Hannibal snapped, too loud himself. “You’ll wake up Ryan and Larry.” He lowered his voice and took BA’s arm. “Come on, let’s go and discuss it somewhere you can yell without waking up half the ship.”


“I’m gonna see the captain!” BA stomped off heading away from the guard’s position. Hannibal shook his head, looking exasperated, and hurried after him calling for him to wait. Their voices faded as they moved off.


The show was out of Face’s view now. A second later, a man passed Face’s door, following Hannibal and BA. He crossed too fast for Face to be sure it was the guard, so he still had a knot of tension in his gut when he opened his door. He peered out, a sleepy and grumpy expression painted on, ready to demand they all shut the hell up.


The corridor was empty. The guard had followed BA and Hannibal, believing “Ryan” and “Larry” were safely asleep in their cabins. Relieved, he slipped off the bathrobe, smoothed down his hair and left the cabin. A soft tap on Murdock’s door brought Murdock out at once, wearing dark clothes like Face.


“You got your bag of tricks?” Murdock asked.


“Always,” Face said, his hand resting briefly on his pocket and the black velvet fold that held his lock picks. They’d come aboard in an artfully concealed pocket in his suitcase, and were the first thing he’d checked for when he got the case back. Murdock gestured ‘after you’ at Face and they headed out.


They made most of the trip outside, slipping through the shadows on the deck. There were still people around inside – night owls, late night card players, or midnight movie enthusiasts. Better to stay out of their way.


In the dark, the deck was almost deserted. Security patrols of course, and a few people walking in pairs, enjoying the starlight. Couples, Face supposed, and tried to imagine pursuing a romance on the Meirion. Fine as long as it worked out. But imagine having a bad break-up and being stuck here forever with your ex. That would make the boat feel awfully small.


Face and Murdock stuck to the shadows as much as possible, which wasn’t hard as there was a lot of cover on deck. Ships had many nooks and crannies and Face had made a note of them during his earlier search of the ship in daylight. They took full advantage of them.


They lurked in the cover of some stacked deckchairs as two security men walked by, not even glancing at a man and woman by the rail who were wrapped in each other’s arms.


“Maybe we should snuggle,” Murdock whispered.


“What?” Face said, startled.


“They seem to pretty much ignore the love-birds,” Murdock said, and Face saw the flash of his teeth in the dark as he grinned.


“There’s only so far I’ll go for a mission.”


The patrol was far enough away, and the lovers at the rail preoccupied, so Face beckoned Murdock to follow and they headed out again. He glanced at his watch when they approached the point they’d have to head back inside. Well after midnight now. Their destination should be deserted.


“Here,” Face said, when they found the door. It was locked and marked ‘No admittance’, but that never applied to Face. He defeated the simple lock in about twenty seconds and left the door unlocked after they slipped inside, ready for a quick exit.


“Face,” Murdock whispered. He nodded up the corridor. From around the corner a light glowed and they distantly heard a typewriter. “Someone’s catching up on some late night paperwork.”


Probably the duty officer standing watch, Face thought. And they had to pass that way to get to the records office.


From the amount of light visible the office door must be open. Reaching the corner Face glanced around and confirmed that. He wondered if the occupant could see out into the corridor from the desk? Could Face and Murdock flit by fast enough that they’d be gone before whoever was in there registered the movement?


He was still pondering when the sound of the typewriter stopped. Face froze. A moment later an officer came out of the room, carrying a coffee mug and walked into a small galley that lay opposite. They heard him rummaging about and Face pictured him setting up the coffee machine, looking for the filters, finding a clean spoon, washing up his mug… all with his back to the door.


“Go,” Face said. They moved up the corridor passing the galley door, fast. The officer did have his back to the door, looking in the fridge. A second later they were around the corner and breathing easier.


Face oriented himself, picturing the plans in his head. He took out the flashlight so conveniently provided in each cabin. For emergencies of course, not for sneaking around breaking into the ship’s offices.


The second door on the left was marked ‘Purser’s Office’, a reminder of the Meirion’s past as a normal cruise ship. Face took out his picks again.


They found a large room inside, holding three desks with electric typewriters bolted to them. Leaving the light off and Murdock keeping watch at the door, Face moved to the filing cabinets that lined the walls. Using his flashlight to check the labels on the front of the drawers, he stopped when he found the one marked Ma Mi. It was locked, but he quickly picked it and began to rifle through the folders inside.


These were admin records only, according to Stockwell’s info; cabin designations, background information. All the medical records were elsewhere. The team didn’t need – or want – access to those.


The files slid easily along the runners set into the side, the drawer not very full. Each folder had a picture on the front of it, which Face was grateful for. Easier to look at faces than read the names by the beam of his small flashlight. He happened to have a good eye for faces. The faces flashed past as he flicked through, men and women, all ages. Some photographs were a little old and faded, some more recent.


Wait.


He stopped and flicked back one file. He’s gone right past it – a man’s face, not a woman’s, so he’d dismissed it. Until something in his brain hit the alarm. He picked the file up and shone his flashlight beam onto the picture.


“Well I’ll be damned…”


“You find it?” Murdock called softly from the door.


“Not yet,” Face said. Well look at that. On the front of the file, under ‘Current Status’, a couple of lines were crossed out and under them, hand-written, one word.


Escaped.


“Face, what are you doing? Updating the ‘crazy chicks’ section of your little black book? Move it, will ya?”


Face ignored Murdock and opened the file. Committed here nearly seven years ago and escaped two years after that. So much for ‘escape is impossible’. Stockwell was full of bull as usual. Believed ‘at large’, the file said. These people needed to do some updating. Perhaps he could help. He smirked. He could cross out ‘Escaped’, change it to ‘Deceased’ and drop it into an in-tray on one of the desks.


Movement at his elbow and Murdock appeared, a scowl on his face. “Will you move it before someone comes?” He looked at the small round porthole window. “If you think I’m squeezing my ass through there…”


Wordlessly, Face closed the folder and handed it to Murdock, then continued through the drawer, looking for Kate Miller’s file. Murdock, baffled, looked at the front of the folder and gasped.


“Frankie?”

Chapter 6

“Frankie?”


Hannibal and BA stared, their breakfasts momentarily forgotten.


“Frankie,” Face said. “I did once say that maybe he was just totally insane.”


“Frankie.” Hannibal shook his head, amazed. “Well, I’ll be damned.”


“Well, not really ‘Frankie’ of course,” Face went on. “He wasn’t called Frankie Santana; we knew that. According to the file his name was Jose Medina and he was CIA. He ended up committed here after some kind of incident involving a rebel band in Columbia. There weren’t a lot of details. And the rest of his history seemed just as murky. Kind of makes me wonder about some of the stuff he told us about his past.”


“Not that Project Loyola crap,” Murdock said. Face just shrugged.


“Okay,” Hannibal said, after a moment’s thought. “That’s interesting, and ties up that loose end, but that’s not why we’re here. I know…” He raised a hand, when they started to protest. “I want to know more too, but we can’t let ourselves be distracted. There’ll be time later to see what else we can find out, but for now we have to stay focused. Did you find the information on Miller?”


“Yep,” Murdock said. “We got her cabin number.”


“Anything else in her file?” Hannibal asked. “Anything that contradicts what Stockwell told us?”


Face shook his head. “Looked consistent to me. Maybe this time he actually told us everything.”


“Maybe,” Hannibal said. “Maybe.” He glanced at the clock. “Let’s get this thing done fast.”


They left the mess deck and found her cabin. A tap on the door brought no response from inside. While BA stood guard, Face got the door open and Hannibal, Face and Murdock slipped inside.


The drapes were pulled, so Murdock flicked on the light. Movement made all of them jump when the light came on, but it wasn’t Kate Miller, just a canary in a cage. Disturbed by their entrance, the bird hopped around, chirping. Murdock went over to the cage.


“Hey, Tweetie. What’s up?”


“Search,” Hannibal ordered and they began a systematic sweep of the cabin. It was larger than the ones the team were living in, again making Hannibal think those were temporary cabins for new arrivals. Even so the three men got in each other’s way as they moved around.


No sign of a struggle, Hannibal judged. The room was messy, books overflowing the shelves and papers and notebooks stacked high on the desk. But only messy, not trashed. He glanced over the papers and a couple of notebooks, but none of it meant anything to him. All arcane wiring diagrams and equations.


“Hey, look at this.”


Hannibal and Face turned to Murdock, who stood beside the bed. He pointed at the small nightstand, which held a mug and a small plate of cookies.


“The cup’s full of cold tea and the cookies are stale,” Murdock said.


“Like they’ve been there overnight?” Hannibal said, glancing at the closed drapes, strong sunlight showing through them. The bed didn’t look slept in either.


“At least,” Murdock said, sniffing one of the cookies.


“Maybe she is sick,” Face said. “One of us could get into the medical centre and see if she’s in there.”


“I wonder how long it takes before someone is missed around here,” Hannibal said.


“Probably when they don’t show up for appointments with the shrinks,” Face said. He’d resumed searching, checking the desk now. Finding a locked drawer he took his picks out again.


Hannibal looked from the nightstand to the birdcage. The canary seemed perky enough. Its water bowl was full and clean. It had more than enough seed to eat. A box of birdseed stood on the desk.


“Huh,” Face said, breaking Hannibal’s train of thought. Face was looking down into the drawer he’d unlocked, baffled. “It’s empty. Why lock an empty drawer?”


“You sure?” Hannibal joined him and Face felt around inside the drawer, searching for hidden compartments.


“Nothing… No, hang on.” He shook his head. “Not in the drawer, underneath the top. The drawer just hides it.”


“What is it?”


“Sliding panel.”


Hannibal heard the small sound, wood sliding against wood.


“Not sticking,” Face said, working blind. “Either greased, or used often enough to be worn smooth.” He bent down to look inside. “Can’t see, but…” He smiled suddenly. “There. A small lever.”


Murdock joined Hannibal and Face looked up at them both.


“So do I pull it?”


“How can you not?” Hannibal said.


“Okay, but if it’s the self-destruct system, I’m blaming you two.”


Face pulled the lever and immediately movement made all three of them back away from the desk, but they stepped up to it again, when they saw a small section of the wall in front of them had dropped open on hinges, exposing a dark space. Two small metal handles were just visible.


Hannibal pulled gently on the handles and a board slid forward across the desk. It held a collection of electronic parts, all exposed, no case to hide the mass of wires, circuit boards and speakers. A couple of batteries were wired into it, chunky black cubes, sitting near the edge of the board.


“What is it?” Face asked, his voice low.


“It’s a radio,” Hannibal said. “It has to be. That’s her field. She built herself a radio.”


“To transmit or receive?” Murdock said.


“Well, I doubt she’d have a secret radio just to listen to The Voice of America. Face, go take BA’s position and send him in here.”


Face hurried off and BA came in. He took in the room with a glance and his eyes widened at the sight of the strange device on the desk.


“BA, what do you make of this?”


“Man, this is made of anything and everything,” BA said, giving it a close inspection. “How’d she get hold of this stuff?”


“We’ll figure that out when we have time. Opinion. Is it a radio?”


BA examined it in more detail, nodding now and again and making soft exclamations. After a couple of minutes he nodded at Hannibal.


“Yeah, it’s definitely a radio. Short wave.”


“Short wave?” Hannibal said. “So you’re saying that she could have contact with the shore?”


“With this she could talk to any place in the world.”


“What the hell is going on here?” Murdock said quietly.


“I don’t know, but I don’t like it,” Hannibal said. “Maybe she built this because radios are her thing. But maybe she’s talking to someone ashore. Could be someone on our side, or it could be the enemy, or it could be some radio ham in Cleveland.” He grinned suddenly. “At least we won’t have to break into the radio room to contact Stockwell.”


“That’s true,” Murdock said, looking pleased. “We gonna contact him now?”


“We’re supposed to secure Miller first,” BA said.


“That was before she disappeared and we found this.” Hannibal waved a hand at the radio set. “The plan is not exactly running smoothly now, is it?”


BA shrugged. “Up to you, man. I got the frequency. You wanna call now?”


Hannibal felt suddenly reluctant. Call Stockwell and ask for further orders? Pretty lame. Okay, things were going differently than anticipated, but no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. Adapting to changing circumstances was what Hannibal did best. Adapting and still getting the job done.


“No,” he said. “First we do what we came to do. Find Miller.”


“What if she’s already off the ship?” Murdock asked. “Maybe she called herself a cab.”


“Nah, there’d have been some kind of alarm,” BA said. Since Hannibal wasn’t going to use the radio he slid it back into its hiding place. Murdock closed the panel that hid it and it clicked into place.


Hannibal walked around the cabin, getting back on the train of thought Face had interrupted earlier. Reading glasses on the night stand along with that mug of cold tea and the stale cookies. A photograph stood there too, of a man he recognised from Stockwell’s briefing as her late husband. And then there was the bird. He stood by the cage and watched the canary for a moment. The clean water, the full seed box.


“She went somewhere in a hurry and she didn’t go willingly,” Hannibal said. BA and Murdock went quiet, watching him. “If she’s not sick on the hospital deck, then someone is holding her somewhere. For at least one night, maybe two,”


“They gotta have secure facilities some place on the ship,” BA said. “You know, like a brig.”


“What could an old lady like that do to get tossed in the brig?” Murdock asked.


“You mean aside from building a radio to have secret contact with the shore?” Hannibal asked.


“Um, oh yeah.” Murdock grinned sheepishly. “But they don’t know about that, do they? Or they’d be all over this place.”


“So why’d someone grab her?” BA asked.


“What if Stockwell isn’t the only one who thinks Miller knows where her husband’s notes are?” Hannibal said.


“That’s bad, Hannibal,” Murdock said. “They could be hurting her right now to get that information from her. How long can an old woman like that hold out?”


“We gotta find her now!” BA said.


“Plan, Hannibal?” Murdock asked.


“Plan. BA, you’re going with me to search below decks. Face will check the medical centre, in case Miller’s in there. Murdock, you’re going to wait here. When Face is done in the medical centre he can come down here and stay with you.”


“Wait here, why?” Murdock asked.


Hannibal picked up the box of birdseed from the desk.


“Because someone has been in here to feed this bird.”


~~~~


Murdock lurked in Kate’s cabin, staying on his feet most of the time, fearing he’d go right to sleep if he lay on the bed. Over the years with the team he’d lost so much sleep that he took any chance he got to pay back some of that sleep debt. He tried to keep himself alert by reading, but most of her books were technical, and well beyond him, despite the radio knowledge he had from his flight training. So mostly he walked around, talking to the canary, calling it Tweetie Pie and wishing he knew its real name.


Face came back just short of an hour later.


“Anything?” Murdock asked, closing the door behind him.


“No sign of her.”


“What scam did you use to get in there?”


“Who needs a scam? I just told them I was seasick. They gave me an injection.”


Murdock nodded. Face had always been a bad sailor. “I thought you looked less green.”


“I do feel -”


The sound of a key in the door cut him off.


Neither man spoke. Face gestured at Murdock get behind the door, while he concealed himself around the side of the wardrobe near the door.


Murdock switched off the light just before the door opened. Face, peeking around the wardrobe, knew right away that it wasn’t Kate. He could only see a dark figure outlined against the light from the corridor, but it was clearly a man, not a woman. The man stepped inside, closed the door behind him and turned on the light. The canary began to squawk.


“Okay, okay,” the man called, testily. “I’m here, aren’t I? Do you want more food already, you greedy little -”


He got no further. Face flung the wardrobe door open, slamming it into the man’s face. He didn’t even cry out, just fell backwards into Murdock’s arms. As Murdock laid the man down, Face dropped to his knees and checked to make sure he was really out. He appeared to be, with a big red mark in the centre of his forehead and blood leaking from his nose.


Face frowned and looked up at Murdock, who had the same look of recognition on his face.


“This is the guy who gave us the welcome wagon when we arrived,” Murdock said. He looked down at the name badge on the officer’s shirt. Face didn’t have to look at that. He remembered.


“Blaine. His name’s Blaine.”

Chapter 7

“So, Face, why’d we knock out Mr Blaine?” Murdock asked. He held up his hands when Face frowned at him. “I ask merely for information. I’m sure you’ve got your reasons.”


“I didn’t know who was coming in,” Face said, going through Blaine’s pockets.


“And you’ve adopted a ‘knock ’em out first, ask questions later’ policy? Wow, you must be hard on door to door salesmen and Jehovah’s Witnesses.”


“We couldn’t let anyone see us in here, could we?”


Murdock shrugged. “So why do you think he’s here? What’s he up to?”


Face smiled grimly and held up a small Beretta pistol he’d found in Blaine’s pocket.


“Nothing good. The officers on here don’t routinely carry sidearms.”


Murdock took the gun. “Aw, a Bobcat. Haven’t seen one of these in years. Cute, if kind of girly.”


“Cute, girly and very easy to conceal. Give it back to him.”


“What?”


“If we take it, he’ll know we’re on to him.”


“Getting an unexpected wardrobe door to the face could be construed as a clue there too, Face.”


Face took the gun from Murdock and slipped it back in Blaine’s pocket. “Let’s keep him guessing at least.”


“Not just him,” Murdock muttered. “I suppose this means we’re not going to wake him up and ask where Miller is?”


Face shook his head. “No. Assuming he’s got her stashed some place, it’ll be quicker to let him lead us to her than to try to make him talk.”


“Think Hannibal will agree to that?”


“You see Hannibal anywhere in this room?”


“No, but… hang on, Face, if we start following him, we have to stick to him until he leads us to her. How are Hannibal and BA going to find us?”


“You go find them. I’ll follow Blaine and I’ll…” He looked around, and then hurried over and opened a drawer underneath the sink. After a moment’s rummaging he came out with a lip pencil.


“That’s not your colour,” Murdock said.


“Just follow my breadcrumb trail.”


A groan from the downed Blaine made them look at him then head for the door as he began to stir. They hid around the nearest corner, watching the door to Miller’s cabin.


“Go, Murdock. Find Hannibal and BA. I’m betting the first thing he’ll do is head for the infirmary for patching up.”


“Okay. Be careful. Don’t forget. He’s armed.”


~~~~


Blaine sat up, groaning and holding his painful and bloodied nose. His head pounded. What the hell just happened? He remembered walking in here, coming to check on that damn bird again and then… his head exploded?


Someone else had been in here. How many guesses did he need to figure out whom? A thought made him gasp and reach for his pocket. His Beretta was still there.


“What the hell?” He checked it, hands slippery with the blood from his nose. Still loaded. They left him his gun? Why would they do that? Maybe they just hit him and left? No way. They were professionals. They must have searched him.


So why hadn’t they been here when he woke up? Maybe there’d only been one of them in here and he didn’t think he could handle Blaine alone. He almost laughed at himself for that idea. Yeah right. They’re Green Berets. Which meant that any one of them could certainly handle Blaine alone. Or wouldn’t actually admit it if he couldn’t.


Though dizzy, he managed to stand up, steadying himself against the wall. Had to contact his people. Or should he move Miller? Just in case. No. They might be watching. And he couldn’t walk around covered in blood like this. Draw too much attention. He staggered out of the cabin into the deserted corridor, his head spinning. Walking felt about the same as it did during a force 10 gale.


Infirmary. Yes. Gotta get fixed up. Think straighter then. He’d say he slipped and bashed his face on something. That would work. Then he’d go call his people.


~~~~


Face watched Blaine stagger off up the corridor. Silently, he slipped around the corner and followed. As he passed Kate’s cabin door he drew a small arrow on the wall with the lip pencil, pointing in the direction Blaine had gone.


As Face expected, Blaine did go to the infirmary first. After about a half-hour, Blaine and a doctor came out into the reception area. Face was lurking near enough to hear them talking. His fellow lieutenant now sported a big white Band-Aid on his nose. Though his face was clean now, dried blood stained his white shirt.


“You get to your cabin and rest, Lieutenant,” the doctor said. “Take these painkillers when you get there. They’ll put you out for a few hours. I’ll call the Duty Officer and tell him about your accident.”


Accident, Face thought. Yeah, he accidentally smashed his face into an oncoming wardrobe door. That lie spoke volumes. An innocent man would have reported the attack.


Blaine left the infirmary and Face began to follow him, hanging back, keeping out of sight. Blaine looked over his shoulder a few times, with a nervous expression, but was probably still too dazed to take more than such a basic precaution against being followed. Other officers stopped Blaine twice on the way, obviously curious, but Blaine got rid of them quickly, saying he needed to go lie down, doctor’s orders. He spun them a line about slipping on some oil and mashing his face into a wall. A carefully rehearsed tale, barely varying by a word each time he told it.


It got harder to follow when they reached officer country and Face had to hang back, using the cover of alcoves and even a janitor’s closet. He lost sight of


Blaine, but all the doors had nameplates and he quickly found Blaine’s quarters.


Now what? The door wasn’t thin enough to hear anything through it and he couldn’t hang out in the corridor for long. Someone could walk out of a cabin at any moment and challenge his right to be here.


Well, there might be a way. He tapped softly on the door next to Blaine’s, ready to run if someone actually answered. Nobody did, so he took out his lock picks again and broke in. In the dim interior, he spotted what he’d hoped to find – a small air vent high up in the wall between this cabin and Blaine’s.


Face stood on the bunk and pressed his ear to the vent. Yes… there it was. Blaine’s voice. And another voice. A woman’s. Kate Miller? No, he didn’t think so. He didn’t think the owner of the voice was even in the room. Kate wasn’t the only one around here with their own personal radio station. He had to strain to hear it, but Face could just follow the conversation.


“…discuss the details later?” Blaine said. “You need to move up the schedule. I need pick-up ASAP.”


“You can hardly expect us to approach in daylight.” The woman’s voice again, distorted by distance and interference.


“So I have to wait all damn day? What if they pick me up? Try to make me talk?”


“Then I expect you to remain silent. Pick-up boat will be there at twenty-two-thirty hours.”


“And what am I supposed to do until then?”


“What you’re trained to do. Hold your nerve.”


Blaine cut the connection and groaned. Face almost felt sorry for the guy. After a second he heard him moving about and the sound of the faucet running, filling a glass. Another moment and then the creak of the bedsprings. Sounded like Blaine had taken his painkillers and was going to sleep off his headache until zero hour. Rhythmic snores confirmed that a few minutes later. Time for Face to go see if the others had followed his trail.


He found them lurking near the only entrance to the block of officers’ quarters. Unless he used a fire exit, Blaine would have to come out this way when he left.


“We should go pick him up,” BA said, after Face finished his report of what he’d heard. “Make him talk.”


“No, we shouldn’t,” Face said.


“You got a different idea in mind, Face?” Hannibal asked. “Is that why you didn’t hang onto him in Miller’s cabin?”


“What are we really going to do if we pick him up?” Face asked. “How exactly do you plan to make him talk? He’s not some jumped-up street thug; he’s an agent. One of your bluffs isn’t going to work.”


Hannibal looked at him searchingly. They had training in extracting information of course. They hadn’t used it in a long time. Not the… serious methods.


“Face thinks we should follow him and let him lead us to Miller,” Murdock said.


“Quicker all around,” Face said, smiling ingratiatingly, at Hannibal, who was still looking at him without speaking.


“Then we pick him up?” BA asked.


“Maybe not,” Face said. “Like I said his people are coming to get him and Dr Miller.” He looked back at Hannibal again. “Don’t you want to know who those people are?”


“Pretty sure he’ll tell who he works for eventually,” Murdock said, looking puzzled.


“Eventually, huh? You mean after Stockwell has him tortured?”


The others went quiet at Face’s words, Murdock looking down, BA scowling even deeper than usual. Hannibal still just watched Face, silent.


“Let’s not forget who we’re working for here,” Face said. “Any of you think that Stockwell wouldn’t do that? Are any of you ready to hand Blaine over for that to happen?”


“If he’s an enemy agent -” Murdock began, but Face cut him off.


“I’m the one who listened in on his radio call. He spoke English. Not Russian, or Chinese – English. So I think we need to see exactly who comes to pick him up. Because there’s more going on here than meets the eye.”


“Always is when Stockwell’s involved,” Murdock muttered, getting a growl of agreement from BA. Face turned to look at Hannibal again, to meet that searching gaze.


“Face,” Hannibal said, “if Stockwell picks up all of us up – us, Miller, Blaine and Blaine’s backup, well, he’s -”


“Outnumbered?” Face said. Hannibal frowned. Not in a disapproving way, more… thoughtful. “Look,” Face went on. “I don’t know exactly what we should do. But just tell me that we’re not going to do this… his way.”


Hannibal’s serious, thoughtful look suddenly dissolved into a grin. “No, Face, we’re not. After all, he always loved it when we improvised. Okay, let’s go call Stockwell and tell him to show up at twenty-two-forty hours.”


“What?” Murdock said. “Face said Blaine’s boat is coming at twenty-two-thirty.”


Hannibal grinned again. “Yes it is. Which gives us ten minutes to… improvise.”

Chapter 8

Kate glared at Blaine when he came to collect her, pointing his Beretta at her.


“Am I supposed to be afraid of your little popgun, young man? If your boss was going to be happy with a corpse I’d be dead already.”


He’d feared that even with his gun he’d have trouble keeping her quiet while he moved her topside. She could just start yelling for security.


“Ma’am if you co-operate, I won’t hurt you. But if you force me to I will knock you out and carry you.” He didn’t want to do that. Aside from the whole bashing an old lady on the head aspect of it, carrying her would attract just as much attention as her yelling. And also leave him with no free hands if the A-Team confronted him.


He’d kept a close watch for them on his way below decks, but had seen no sign. Maybe they weren’t even here for Miller. Maybe his boss had jumped to a wrong conclusion about their presence. Even she made mistakes. Oh, wake up and smell the coffee, Gary, he told himself. Like it’s all just a big coincidence that they’re here.


“And I want my bird,” Kate said, folding her arms. “Wherever you’re taking me, I want to take Sammy.”


Blaine rolled his eyes. That damn bird. The woman was obsessed. But then he smiled. It gave him an idea for a way around the problem of keeping her quiet.


“Okay. If you come quietly and cooperate, then we’ll stop off for the bird and you can bring it with you.” The pick-up team wouldn’t like that of course, but that squad of bastards would complain about anything.


Kate glared at him again, but then nodded. “All right, I’ll do as I’m told. As long as we fetch Sammy.”


~~~~


The team had followed Blaine to the compartment and resumed following when he came out again with her in tow. They didn’t follow en-masse of course. Hannibal set Face to trail Blaine, since he was the best at making himself invisible, despite Murdock’s previous attempt to take that title. The rest of them followed Face.


Stopping off at her cabin to collect the birdcage was a surprise and Face had to wave at them to back off while he waited. But they were quickly moving again as Blaine led Miller up and outside onto the boat deck.


Hannibal checked his watch. Close to the rendezvous time now. Moonlight glinted off the sea and gave just enough light to see Face and catch up to him. He pointed and they saw Blaine and Kate between a couple of the lifeboats, Blaine hanging onto her arm, and looking over the rail. When he waved to someone below, Hannibal grinned.


“Showtime.”


Blaine reached into one of the lifeboats, and pulled out a coiled rope. He tossed one end over the side and a moment later started hauling on it. In a few seconds, he was dragging up the top of a rope ladder. After securing that, he took Kate’s arm, pulling her away from the rail. He cast nervous looks around as he waited.


Watching for us, Hannibal thought. Well we’re right here, pal. But timing was everything. No sense in springing the trap until it’s full. He smiled grimly when a black clad man appeared at the top of the rope ladder and climbed over the rail. A ski mask covered his face. Kate shrank back from the menacing figure, but he ignored her. He turned and signalled back down over the side, then spoke to Blaine.


“Any trouble?” He spoke in English. An American.


“No. They must have lost track of me.”


The other man snorted a bit. “Always said they were overrated. We’ll make a harness and lower her into the dinghy. What the hell is that?” He pointed at the birdcage, wrapped in a cover to protect the canary from the chilly night air.


“It’s a canary. If you let her take it, she’ll co-operate,” Blaine said. “Don’t argue,” he added quickly, before the man went on. “The canary is non-negotiable.”


“Shit, I hate this job.”


Three more men appeared, one by one up the rope ladder. Two big, muscular ones and a shorter, skinnier man.


“I call that guy,” Face muttered quietly. Hannibal grinned. He’d take the first man of course. Murdock could have Blaine, and BA would take on the big boys.


Kate was looking around, a scared expression on her face. Was she looking for rescue? She only had to start yelling for security. Everybody was being very sneaky and sticking to the shadows, but if anyone looked right at them, they’d be spotted. So if she wasn’t looking for security…


She’s looking for us.


Hannibal knew it in an instant. In the same instant that he signalled the team forward, too late to wonder about her knowledge. When they burst from cover he didn’t see fear in Kate’s eyes. He saw recognition and relief. Have to wonder about it later. He lost sight of her as he piled into the first man who’d boarded, now interested only in one thing. Get that ski mask off. They were Americans, that was clear. Now he just needed to get a face. He grabbed at the mask, but the man blocked his arm and punched him in the gut, making him stagger back. Good punch and moves fast too. Definite top class pro.


Well, Hannibal might be getting old, but he was experienced. He was also bigger than his chosen dancing partner of the night, and used all of that to his advantage. Going in close, he swept the man’s legs out from under him, sending him crashing to the deck and falling down after him to pin him.


Like a wrestler trying to reveal the face of a finally defeated masked opponent, Hannibal made another grab at the man’s head. But this opponent wasn’t defeated yet. His knee came up hard into Hannibal’s back, making him yell and fall off. Hannibal hit the deck on his shoulder and the man came at him, fist raised. Hannibal caught the fist in his right hand. It felt like catching a well-struck baseball, the hand clad in a leather glove slamming into his palm. He swung with his left and caught his opponent on the side of the head, dropping the man into a heap on the deck.


Taking a shaky breath, Hannibal glanced around, checking on the others. BA was fighting the short, skinny guy and having some trouble by the look of it, the target of a whirlwind of fierce blows. Face and Murdock had one each of the two big men and were just about holding their own. Whoever these guys were, they were good. Blaine was on the deck, holding his jaw.


No sign of Kate. Had she run to alert security? No, he didn’t think so.


Because she was looking for us.


Movement made Hannibal turn back and pound his fist into the face of his opponent, who’d started rising, coming up swinging. The swinging arm flopped and Hannibal grabbed the ski mask, and pulled it off.


“What the hell?”


The dark skinned face scowling fiercely up at him was one he’d last seen over the barrel of a pistol. A pistol pointed at him in the secret bunker under the Langley house, where he’d returned with Stockwell, to find… us, he remembered thinking. The Marine Corps version of us.


“Major Randall?”


“Dumb move, Smith,” Randall said. “Didn’t Stockwell teach you anything about ‘need to know’?”


“Okay! Everybody, freeze!”


It wasn’t security, but another man who’d climbed up the rope ladder. He held a silenced pistol, pointing at the fighting group. The combatants froze expect Randall, who jumped to his feet, leaving Hannibal kneeling on the deck.


“Not you, jackasses,” he snapped at his own men. “Find the woman!”


The two big men started looking around. The skinny man, apparently no worse the wear for his fight with BA, started making a quick rope harness. Floodlights started coming on all over the ship. Men yelled in the distance. The team stood held at bay by the man with the gun at the top of the ladder.


“Hey,” The man at the top of the ladder said. “I hear an engine. Is it our support boat?”


Randall looked over the side. “No. It’s -” The alarm bursting into life cut him off. “Shit! Okay, mission aborted. Let’s go! Kowalski, go. B1, B2, leave it, forget her.” His men ran to the rail. Randall dragged Blaine to his feet. “Move it, Navy, or I’ll toss you over the side.”


Face caught Hannibal’s eye as the Marines started to retreat over the side, but Hannibal shook his head. He knew who they were and they didn’t get what they came for. Stockwell was here. Hell, the team even had a nice convenient rope ladder to climb down. As long as ship’s security didn’t crash the party before then, and as long as Kate hadn’t run off too far, then they were golden.


Randall took the position at the top of the rope ladder, as the last of his men climbed down, then followed them, still covering the team, but not looking very worried about them.


“So long, Smith. Nice meeting you again.” Then he was gone.


“Find Miller,” Hannibal snapped at his team and ran to the rail to see the Marines and Blaine all crammed into a rubber dinghy. They must have paddled here, but now they revved up an outboard and roared away into the darkness.


The noise of that motor was drowned out by the sound of another, much larger one. Stockwell’s boat, coming alongside. Security would be making a beeline for this position now, so Hannibal was glad to turn back from the rail and see Kate, birdcage still firmly in her hand, walking between Murdock and BA.


“Hannibal, you knew those guys, didn’t you?” Face said. “Who the hell were they?”


“Tell you later,” Hannibal said. “No time now.” He turned to Kate. “Dr Miller, there’s no time to explain anything right now. But we’re not going to hurt you.” She nodded back at him, looking scared, but again, something in her eyes told him she knew him, expected him. Lights below told him Stockwell’s boat was alongside. He looked down to see sailors grab and steady the end of the rope ladder.


“I’ll get Dr Miller down first,” Hannibal said, climbing over the rail onto the ladder. “Try to wait until we’re off the ladder before you follow.” She’d be scared enough on the rope ladder, without the guys climbing down above her, shaking it around.


“Sammy,” Kate said, “I won’t go without him.” She held up the cage.


Damn bird was probably dead from fright or cold by now, Hannibal thought, but they had no time to argue, and he didn’t want her fighting him on the ladder.


“Face, deal with the bird.”


Face grabbed the rope Blaine had used and took the birdcage from Kate. As soon as she let that go Murdock and BA helped her onto the ladder. Hannibal started to climb down with her, staying so close that he was reaching around her to grasp the rungs. If she slipped off the ladder, it would be into his arms and not the water.


As they climbed, Kate kept a careful eye on the birdcage. Face lowered it slowly, trying to keep it from bashing on the hull. She sighed with relief when a baffled sailor below caught it.


“Just a few more rungs, Doc,” Hannibal said. “Almost there.”


“I’m okay…” she stopped and gasped when the lights from Stockwell’s boat went out.


“It’s okay,” Hannibal said. “They just don’t want security to see us. Keep going.” The ladder shook violently as they continued, and Hannibal glanced up to see a dark shape climbing over the rail. The guys were heading down, which meant security was close now. A few seconds later, his feet touched the deck, Kate a step behind him.


Stockwell stepped forward into the moonlight, and made a gesture to one of his men, who took Kate’s arm and pulled her away from Hannibal. Hannibal tried to grab her, knowing he was powerless without her in his control. But he missed her arm and then he saw the gun in Stockwell’s hand, glinting in the moonlight.


“Get back on the ladder, Colonel.”

Chapter 9

“Oh, you have got to be kidding,” Hannibal said.


“What are you doing?” Kate struggled with the man holding her.


“Take her below,” Stockwell ordered.


“No!” Kate yelled, lunging away from the sailor. But another one grabbed her arm and the two of them lifted her off her feet and took her below. Her yells faded as a door closed behind them.


“What about your precious word, Stockwell? That you said you never broke.”


“I never did,” Stockwell said.


“Until now.”


“I never did.” Stockwell repeated it. Hannibal frowned at him, at the steady gaze. He started to speak again, but Stockwell gestured with the gun. “Back on the ladder now.”


Hannibal glanced up. BA and Murdock were on the ladder, Face must still be up on deck, Hannibal couldn’t see him. Floodlights shone up on deck now. Security had arrived. Stockwell wasn’t the only one with a gun, Hannibal noticed – several sailors stood around with rifles. Some pointed them up at BA and Murdock.


“Supposing I don’t climb the ladder?”


“I don’t have time for games, Colonel. Start climbing or go overboard. I hope the Meirion will pick you up in time. There are sharks in these waters.”


“There sure are.”


How had he gotten it so wrong? He’d believed Stockwell’s word still held. So rarely given, but it used to mean something. Perhaps his apparent frailty since they rescued him from North Korea had deluded Hannibal. Made him forget what this man could do. Perhaps the grief he’d seen in Stockwell for Philip had made him think Stockwell actually had a soul.


Okay. If he stayed here, they’d toss him overboard. If the others came storming down that ladder to rescue him, Stockwell’s men would shoot them. Stay alive. Fight another day. He put a hand on the rope ladder, but turned to Stockwell one last time before he started to climb.


“Be seeing you, Stockwell.” He meant it as a promise.


Hannibal climbed the ladder.


Above him, BA and Murdock climbed back over the rail. Figures appeared at the rail with guns, and bullets zipped past Hannibal in both directions. He ignored them. They weren’t meant for him.


Hannibal climbed.


The rope ladder swung and twisted now, no longer held secure at the bottom as Stockwell’s boat roared away. His shoulders and back burned with the effort. His hands were going to be blistered. But he barely noticed any of that. His rage powered him upwards, as if he weighed nothing. Climb. Then surrender. For now. Stay alive. And then – find Stockwell.


He reached the top of the rope ladder. Last time he’d climbed onto a boat this way, he’d found a dead man waiting for him. Not this time. He found the rest of the team pinned in the lights, hands on heads, surrounded by rifle-toting security men, far too heavily outnumbered to even think of fighting. Two security men grabbed Hannibal and dragged him roughly over the rail, making him stagger when his feet touched the deck.


The stagger brought him close to a man he’d seen around, but hadn’t been introduced to. Hannibal grinned at the man with the four gold stripes on his sleeve.


“Hello, Captain. My name’s Colonel John Smith. We’re the A-Team.” When the Captain raised his eyebrows, Hannibal nodded in sympathy with his bafflement. “I’m afraid, this is going to be a very long story.”


~~~~


Stockwell paused outside the door of the room where his men had imprisoned Kate. The man guarding the door didn’t look at him, just kept his eyes straight ahead. Through the thin wooden door, Stockwell heard Kate’s voice, talking to that bird she’d brought with her.


“Poor, Sammy. It’s okay now. Safe and warm again. Poor little boy.”


Stockwell opened the door and stepped inside. He found Kate sitting at a table, fussing over the birdcage. She jumped to her feet when he walked in, her face twisted with rage.


“You treacherous, double-crossing, son of a bitch!”


“Treacherous and double-crossing seems rather redundant.”


“You can’t leave those men there!”


“That’s none of your concern.”


“What? You sent them for me, and you say it’s not my concern that you’ve dumped them in that floating mad house?”


“Doctor, I have to ask you about your radio.”


Her anger turned to shock then and she sat down. “How do you know about that?”


“Colonel Smith and his men found it in your cabin.”


“Colonel Smith?” she said, frowning. Of course, she’d been on the Meirion a long time. Though the patients there had some heavily filtered access to news from the outside world, the A-Team story must have passed her by.


“Smith and his men are the ones who rescued you.” He had no inclination to explain further. It didn’t matter. “The radio,” he said again. “Who were you in contact with?” He wasn’t certain that mattered either. There was only one piece of information he wanted from her – the location of her husband’s notes about Zephyr.


“Never mind about the radio!” Her anger returned. “What about those men? You can’t leave them there!”


“The radio. Who were you in contact with?”


“Nobody! Nobody you’d care about. Just radio hams around the world.”


“Really? You couldn’t find another hobby?”


“I never got the hang of crocheting.”


The radio didn’t matter, he decided. As long as she hadn’t been talking to anyone about Zephyr, he didn’t care. He forestalled another demand to get the team off the ship by speaking first.


“Kate, the reason I’ve taken you off the Meirion is that I need you to take me to some information that your late husband concealed.”


“What? What information?”


“Please don’t try to deny it. I know he concealed information about a project he was working on, and I believe you know where it is. All I want you to do is take me there.”


“And for that, you’ve condemned four sane men to an asylum for the rest of their lives?”


He didn’t answer, just watched her. She turned away and tapped on the bars of the birdcage. The canary fluffed up its feathers against the chill.


“I remember you from back then, Hunt Stockwell. There was something about you that told me you’d go all the way to the top.” She studied him for a while. “You look like shit, did you know that? You’re younger than me but you look ten years older.”


Stockwell knew that. His hair was all white now and he couldn’t regain enough weight to make his doctor happy. The torture he’d suffered as a prisoner had destroyed his physical health, but it was a matter of pride to him that his mind remained as clear as ever.


“How strong a pill do you have to take to sleep at night?”


Stockwell winced. He did take a pill, not that he would tell her and not that it was for guilt. Seeing she was getting no reaction from him, she turned back to the birdcage.


“Lewis did tell me about some notes he’d hidden,” she said. “He never told me what the project was about. He never told me anything he wasn’t allowed to tell me. But I remember that something about that particular project disturbed him.”


Stockwell remembered that too. Several of the Zephyr team had harboured misgivings. They’d been flying to Washington in a chartered plane to talk to a politician when the accident happened. A necessary evil. At least Kate didn’t know Stockwell had ordered the so-called accident. That would end any hope he had of cooperation from her.


“Do you know where the notes are?”


“Yes, I know where they are. What do you do now? Torture me to make me tell you?”


“I’m sure that isn’t necessary. You served your country loyally, Kate. Those notes are classified material that I must secure to keep them out of enemy hands. It’s your duty to tell me.”


She snorted. “My duty? To my country that locked me up in an asylum and threw away the key?”


“You were ill.” Stockwell kept his voice matter of fact. “You needed protection. You needed to be somewhere safe, where nobody could take advantage of your illness.”


“I got better,” she said, softly. “You know that? It took a few years, but I recovered. And then I was a sane person in an asylum. Can you imagine what that’s like?”


Recalling the times he’d visited the Langley house while the A-Team lived there, Stockwell thought he had an inkling.


“I’m sorry you went through that. But it’s over now. If you lead me to your husband’s information, I’ll set you free. You’ll never have to go back to the Meirion.”


A small smile played around Kate’s mouth. A devious expression came into her eyes. Stockwell resisted smiling. Was she going to suggest it herself? That suited him fine.


“I’ll take you to the notes. But I have one condition.”


“Go on,” he said, pretending he didn’t know what she was going to say.


“In exchange, you get those men off the Meirion.”


Stockwell scowled, and very nicely done, he congratulated himself. A thoroughly convincing scowl instead of the smirk trying to wrestle its way onto his face.


“I don’t have the authority to do that.”


“Then you’d better figure something out. Because that’s the only way I’ll cooperate.”


He scowled more and she met his glare defiantly. After what he judged to be the right amount of time, he sighed and shook his head, feigning impatience with her stubbornness.


“Very well. If that’s your price, I’ll find a way to pay it. I have certain favours I can call in.”


“Good. Then you’re going to have to take me back home. Boston. And no, I can’t just tell you where it is. I have to be there to get it. You’ll understand why when we get there.”


Stockwell sighed and nodded, with faked resignation. But deep inside he was entirely satisfied. As Smith would say, he felt an enormous amount of gratification when a scheme reached a successful conclusion.


Or words to that effect anyway.

Chapter 10

“Guys, it’s going to be okay,” Hannibal said.


“Okay?” Face stopped pacing the holding cell and stood in front of Hannibal. “We’re in the brig of a ship which people aren’t allowed to leave – ever. What part of that is okay to you?”


Hannibal held up his ink stained hands. “They’ve taken our prints. Once they confirm who we really are they have to listen to us.”


“I can’t stay here, Hannibal,” Murdock said. He sat on the bench beside Hannibal, rubbing his inky fingers on his pants, cleaning the fingers but making a hell of a mess of the pants. “Was okay for a few days. For a job. Like back when I got to be Frank for a day. I could deal. But not for good. I’m done with that. Can’t go back.”


“We ain’t staying, fool,” BA said, from Hannibal’s other side, his tone milder than his words. “We’ll be off here ‘fore you know it.”


Face started pacing again. “Have you forgotten who we’re dealing with here? This is Stockwell. He pays attention to detail. When he fakes an ID it holds up. Hah! His own ID is probably fake.”


“We’re getting out of here,” Hannibal said. He had to keep saying it. He had to make sure they believed it.


“What is it with you and Stockwell, anyway?” Face demanded. “What’s this blind spot you have with him that you think he can be trusted? We should never have gotten involved with him in the beginning.”


“I seem to remember you agreeing,” Hannibal said.


“I agreed to go to Spain and end that hijacking. That’s the last part of it I did voluntarily, and you know it.”


Hannibal knew it. Face had never trusted Stockwell. But Hannibal had, in a weird sort of way. Once he’d got them in his organisation he’d been a man of his word. Men like that had to be. If he said he’d do something, he’d better make it happen or someone might think he couldn’t.


Reputation. Hannibal understood all about that. The team’s reputation had been as useful to them as their actual skills. You go into a fight with that reputation going ahead of you, throwing the first punch, you’re already close to victory. Stockwell valued reputation just as highly as the team.


But Hannibal had forgotten something. Stockwell was retired. He didn’t need the reputation any more. He just needed to get this job done, and he’d burn whatever bridges it took to do that. He’d burned a bridge to leave the team here, thinking he’d stranded them. But there was another perspective. Stockwell had broken his word and that meant they no longer had any obligation to him. That meant…


Sudden movement made him jump, but it was only BA. He stood up suddenly, grabbed Face’s arms to stop him pacing and pushed him to sit down. Face started to surge back up to his feet, scowling and Hannibal got ready to intervene. But then Face just slumped back onto the bench and BA sat beside him.


“We’re screwed here,” Face said. “Stockwell is poison. Why do we keep going back to him?”


“Because we made promises,” Hannibal said. “And so did he. But he’s broken his. Don’t you guys see what that means?” Apparently not – they just looked back at him blankly. Hannibal grinned. “It means we’re free.”


A moment of silence followed, then BA looked up at the bars of the cell.


“You got a funny idea of free.”


Hannibal just made a dismissive gesture at the bars. A minor problem.


“Look at you!” Face snorted. “You’re sitting there thinking you’ve got Stockwell right where you want him, aren’t you?”


“Well, I wouldn’t go that far,” Hannibal said. “But give me a couple of hours… Now quit worrying. We’ll get out of here. They’re checking our IDs now and fingerprints don’t lie.”


~~~~


“So they aren’t the A-Team?” Captain Tate said.


“No, sir,” one of his officers said. “The IDs they boarded with check out.”


“Including fingerprints?”


“Yes. Their prints are in the military and CIA databases just as they should be. And they don’t match the prints on record for the members of the A-Team.”


“And Blaine?”


“His ID checks out too, sir. He’s Navy.”


Navy and what else? Who else was he working for? Tate looked around the table at his other senior officers and several of the ship’s psychiatrists, including Galvez. He tried to recall TV footage, several years back now, of the A-Team’s trial, tried to remember their faces. Were those the men in his brig now?


“We need recent, high-quality photographs of them,” he said to the officer who’d checked the IDs. “Organise it.”


“But, sir, the prints…”


“Could be faked.” He could hardly command this ship and not keep his mind open to that possibility. “Now what about this General Stockwell they claim to work for?”


“He’s former CIA and used to be a major player in intelligence circles,” the officer reported. “But he retired several years ago.”


“Weren’t they all being held together, before they were brought here?” Galvez said. It was a statement, not than a question. She looked impatient with the debate about their identities. Of course, if they actually were the A-Team that wouldn’t be nearly as interesting for her and her people.


“Yes, ma’am.” One of the other doctors confirmed it, checking in a folder. “They arrived at the temporary facility one by one over several months, until they were stabilised and ready to be transferred here. They spent four months there as a group.”


“Could they have been brainwashed?” one of the younger doctors said, eliciting some smiles and eye-rolling. He pressed on though. “Made to believe they were the A-Team and thus should do this mission to snatch Miller from the boat?”


“Not everything is about brainwashing, Roger,” one of the other doctors said, and there were some titters.


“Gentlemen, ladies,” Galvez said to her people. “Think horses, not zebras, please.”


“Horses?” Tate said, baffled at that one.


“Just an expression, Earnest,” Galvez explained. “Something we’re taught in medical school. When you hear hoof beats, think horses not zebras. That is think of the most common scenario first. Brainwashing would be a zebra in this case.”


“And what’s the horse?” Tate asked.


“Well, what if they sincerely believe they are the A-Team? Not because anyone has told them that’s who they are, but because they’ve come to believe it themselves. All of them.” She looked speculatively at her staff, who looked back at her dubiously. One spoke up nervously.


“With respect, Doctor, I think we’re still in zebra country.”


“Folie à deux?” said Roger, the young doctor with the penchant for brainwashing. “That’s… very rare.”


“And I won’t even be able to publish.” She sighed. “A pity. And it’s folie à quatre in this case.”


“Folie what?” Tate said, making her turn back to him.


“Shared psychotic disorder,” she explained. “Two or more persons share a common delusion. Two people are the commonest presentation, but it can occur in small groups too, especially in isolated situations. These men were already delusional, kept isolated from the world for months, with only each other’s company most of the time. They could have influenced each other’s delusions, until they reached the point that they actually believe themselves to be members of the A-Team.” She looked ready to rub her hands with anticipation, relishing the work ahead. “It’s going to be very interesting working with these men. Of course it will take a very long time to break through the shared delusion. But we have that time.”


Yes. They had the rest of the men’s lives.


~~~~


Captain Tate stepped up to the bars at the front of the cell. He had Dr Galvez with him.


“That can’t be good,” Face muttered, looking at the doctor. Hannibal glanced at him, then stood up and walked to the front of the cell.


“Well?”


“Colonel Reese,” Tate began.


“Oh, that really can’t be good,” Face moaned from behind Hannibal.


“Smith,” Hannibal said, before Tate went on. “My name is John Smith.” The doctor was watching him keenly, with an expression of academic fascination. He didn’t need Face to say it this time. That really can’t be good.


“Your name is Colonel Jack Reese. Your fingerprints confirm that fact.” Tate nodded to the other three, even as BA and Murdock exploded off their benches and rushed to the bars on either side of Hannibal. “All of your fingerprints confirm your identities.”


“That’s impossible!” Murdock shouted. “Even Stockwell couldn’t fix that! No way!”


“This is a set up!” BA grabbed the bars, shook them in frustration. His rage didn’t frighten either Tate or Galvez. Not with the experience they had on this ship.


“Captain, we are the A-Team,” Hannibal said, an oasis of calm between his raging teammates. “Look again. Look deeper. Get some recent pictures.” He grimaced at the fact they’d all gone some way to alter their appearances before coming aboard. That had been Stockwell’s suggestion. Of course. Tate looked dubious, but he ran a secret, ocean-going asylum, home to hundreds of ex-intelligence agents. He might be at least receptive to the idea of a conspiracy.


“I’ve already requested pictures. I’m still making enquiries.”


“Captain, will I have time to talk to them soon?” Galvez asked. “I want to make a start on such a rare case.”


“Rare case?” Face said. “I hate to keep repeating myself, but that can’t be good.”


“Yes, Doctor,” Tate said. “I expect you to give me an opinion on whether they are simply lying about being the A-Team, or if they really believe it.”


“Well, I’m not talking to anyone right now,” Face snapped. “We’ve been up all night. I want coffee, breakfast and a place to sleep.”


“That can be arranged,” Tate said.


“We’ll start tomorrow,” Galvez said. “After you’ve had a chance to rest.” She had an air of great anticipation. Looking forward to talking to four crazy men. “I would like to talk to them as a group, Captain. Observe their interaction.”


“Of course, Doctor.” Tate and Galvez walked away from the cell and out of the brig.


“Can I clarify something?” Face said. “When I said, ‘this can’t be good’, what I mean is, ‘we are entirely screwed’.”


“What did he mean, ‘really believe it?” BA asked. “They think we’re not the A-Team, but that we think we are?” BA said. “That’s nuts!”


“It’s not impossible,” Murdock said. “It can happen on a large scale, you know, like with crazy religious cults.”


“Mass hysteria?” Hannibal said.


“Yeah,” Murdock said, frowning, trying to remember. “Something like that. There’s a name for it I think.” He shook his head and shrugged. “Can’t remember.”


“You know,” Face said, “I almost prefer that to the alternative. Because if they decide we really are the A-Team, I doubt we’ll be patients here much longer.”


“And that’s bad, why?” BA asked. “Sooner we get off here the better.”


“Because the nut house beats the big house any day,” Face said, sobering them all. “What, you think they’ll just let us go? We know too much now. What if they think we’re working for the other side? We’ve got enough reasons to be pissed at the government.”


“We’d never sell out our country!” BA protested. “Government and country ain’t the same thing.” He looked at Hannibal. “You taught me that,” he said quietly.


Hannibal nodded and smiled.


“Now what?” Face demanded. “What are you grinning about now?”


“Well, look at it this way, guys. If they refuse to believe we are the A-Team, you know what that means?”


“I’m done with your pop quizzes today,” Face snapped.


“It means they’re underestimating us.”

Chapter 11

Stockwell spoke quietly to one of his men, but the sound woke Kate and she sat up in her seat.


“Are we descending?” She looked around the plane.


“Just for a refuelling stop,” Stockwell told her. “Perhaps you’d care to tell me where we’re going after we arrive in Boston.”


“Perhaps I’d care not to.” She adjusted the cover over the birdcage, which was strapped into the seat beside her. “I hope it’s not too cold there. Poor Sammy’s had enough cold.”


“You can leave the bird here on the plane while we go to… wherever,” Stockwell said. Personally, he’d prefer to open the door and drop the cage out over the ocean.


“Are you serious?” Kate said, staring at him. “You think I’d leave him in the hands of your men, so you can use him to control me?”


Stockwell felt a pounding start up behind his eyes. “Doctor, are you actually suggesting I would use your canary as a hostage?”


“I wouldn’t put it past you.” She put a protective hand on top of the birdcage and glared at Stockwell.


I used to deal with serious people, he thought. People with serious power, serious information. Now I’m dealing with a mad old woman and her canary. How the mighty are fallen, Hunt Stockwell.


He never thought he’d feel nostalgic for the old days with the A-Team on his payroll. Even they hadn’t been this big a pain to deal with, and only one of them was certifiable.


Or at least only one of them had actually been certified.


~~~~


The team slept most of the day. Hannibal needed a clear mind to get a plan going and sleeping on it often helped. Sometimes he woke with a plan fully formed.


Not this time. They woke in the evening for dinner and sat on their cots eating it. They should all be working together cooking up an escape plan, but the man stationed in the brig, easily able to overhear what the men in the cell said, cramped their style. Captain Tate was no fool. Even if he didn’t believe they were the A-Team, their cover identities were all those of men who could make short work of an escape if left unsupervised to come up with a plan.


Having slept all day they were still awake at one in the morning, when the plan literally came to them.


A klaxon started whooping. The fire alarm, Hannibal recognised at once. A voice came over the PA, ordering crew to fire stations and patients to lifeboat stations. Could it be a drill? Hannibal doubted it, after all the excitement last night.


The lights went out.


Not only the lights, but the klaxon also faded and died. The hum of the air conditioner silenced, a sound barely noticed until it was gone. Above the door a red emergency light glowed letting Hannibal see the now thoroughly alarmed expression on the security man’s face as he ran to the intercom.


The team were all on their feet now, ignoring the security man’s repeated “Bridge? Come in!”


“Be ready to move,” Hannibal told them. “Because whatever this is, I’ll bet it’s about us.”


The guard gave up on the unresponsive intercom, grabbed his rifle and opened the door. He stepped out and there was a sudden crashing sound, and then a lot of thumping and yelling.


While the thumping and yelling were still going on, a man ran into the brig and up to the bars of the cell. Hannibal immediately recognised his erstwhile chess opponent, Baxter. Baxter, who thought computers ran the world. He could think what he liked – he was unlocking the cell, that’s what counted.


“What’s happening?” Hannibal demanded as the team piled out of the cell. “Did you do all this?”


“With some help,” Baxter said. As if on cue, two men dragged the security guard into the brig and dumped him in the cell.


“Didn’t kill him, did she?” Baxter asked, locking the cell. The men shook their heads. “Emma,” he called out of the door. “Keep watch, hon, we’ll be right out.”


“Right.”


“I don’t know if you’re Smith or Reese,” Baxter said, turning back to Hannibal, “but I don’t care. Here’s the deal. You get off this ship and blow this thing wide open. Take it to the newspapers, the TV stations, anything. But tell the world about it.”


“How do you even know about the possibility of me being Smith?” Hannibal said.


“Please, Colonel, this ship is full of people who are experts at hearing what they aren’t supposed to hear, and going where they aren’t supposed to go.” He glanced at the two other men. “Go get it, and let’s get them moving.” They scurried out and Baxter turned back to Hannibal. “We have a deal, Colonel?” He held out his hand. Hannibal took it.


“We have a deal, Mr Baxter,” Hannibal said.


The other men came back in with “it”, a boxy shape, wrapped in oilcloth.


“It’s Miller’s radio,” Baxter said. “I found it this afternoon when I decided to investigate her cabin. Jeff and Henry here extracted it. You’ll need it.”


One of them held it out towards the team and Hannibal nodded to BA, who took the parcel. Hannibal was starting to guess where they were going now, and he didn’t like it much.


“It must have taken her ten years to build that thing,” Baxter said. “Stealing parts every couple of months. I have to admit, she has the kind of crazy that lets her stick at something.”


“Let’s go!” The woman’s voice came from outside. “Before someone comes to check on this place!”


“Okay, A-Team, or whoever you are, follow me.”


In the corridor, they found a plump woman, dressed all in black. She was at least as old as Kate, or older.


“They should have coats,” she said, frowning at the team. “They could get cold.”


“They’ve got some blankets. Okay, Emma, Jeff, Henry. Thanks. Now get the heck out of here. I’ll take them now. Clive and Frank should be waiting for us.” The other three nodded and rushed off, while Baxter and the team set off in the opposite direction.


“I’ve got a route worked out,” Baxter said. “Might seem roundabout, but it’s the best way to avoid anyone else. Most people will be heading to the boats.”


“We’re heading for a boat too, aren’t we?” Hannibal asked.


“Only way off a ship. I couldn’t arrange a helicopter.” He glanced back at them and grinned, a wicked expression in the red light. “Well, not on short notice.” Hannibal grinned back at him and heard Face mutter something about the Jazz being contagious.


The team and Baxter pounded along corridors and up and down stairways. They heard voices, even ran past other people in corridors. But nobody pursued them, all far too busy. In the distance officers yelled orders through megaphones.


At last, they reached the stern of the ship, via a long and winding route. Back here Hannibal could hear and feel the engines still running. Which meant the power loss must be caused by sabotage somewhere in the wiring systems. He doubted such a widespread power loss could have been created by damage in just one spot. This was a coordinated team effort.


He laughed, unable to stop himself thinking of one of his favourite movies. Despite hurrying, he found the breath to hum the theme of The Great Escape.


“You can knock that off right now,” Face said.


“Just for luck?”


“Most of them didn’t make it.”


Hannibal knocked it off.


They came out onto the boat deck, the chilly night air making Hannibal glad Baxter and his co-conspirators had apparently put blankets in the boat.


“This way,” Baxter said, leading them through the darkness. How the hell did he see, Hannibal wondered, as he just managed to keep the man in sight. Someone grabbed the back of his shirt – he didn’t look around to see who. Good idea. He reached for Baxter and grabbed a handful of shirt himself.


“Slow down,” he ordered. “We don’t know this place as well as you.” Perhaps Baxter moved so sure-footed through the dark from memory, but the team didn’t have that memory and a moment later, the inevitable happened. A curse from Murdock, then a crash followed by a yell from BA and another crash. Dammit. The hand gripping Hannibal’s shirt let go and he heard Face being all Army back there, getting them on their feet.


“Come on, come on!” Baxter snapped. “You should be in the damn boat already!”


“Move it, guys,” Hannibal ordered. The three of them stumbled out of the darkness and Baxter took off again. This time they all managed to stay on their feet and soon arrived at a boat station. The boat was already swung out over the water, ready to be lowered by two men waiting by it.


“Everything’s in there,” Baxter said. “Including oars.”


“Oars?” Face muttered. “Oh great.”


“There’s a compass and maps too,” Baxter said, ignoring Face’s mutter. “Head northeast and you’ll reach the shipping lanes. Put as much distance between you and the ship as you can. By the time they realise you’re gone you should be too far away to spot.”


“What about the ship’s radar?” Murdock said.


“With a small boat like this they’ll get plenty of traces that could be you. Whales, even dense shoals of fish. Chances of them picking you up on their radar are slim, though the further away you are, the better.” He said that meaningfully, and Hannibal could just make out a glare in the moonlight.


“All aboard,” Hannibal said to the team. While Baxter’s two allies steadied it, Murdock, Face and BA climbed into the boat. Hannibal turned back to Baxter one last time.


“Don’t thank me, Colonel,” Baxter said, raising a hand. “Just keep your promise. Now get out of here.”


Hannibal joined the others in the boat and it began to descend even before he sat down, jerking on rusty pulleys. The hull of the ship rose up past them as they sank into the darkness. A soft light appeared suddenly. Face had found an electric lantern and they used the light to get the oars and themselves arranged. Ready. Waiting.


They’d use the light only to read the compass and get the boat pointing in the right direction, Hannibal decided. Then they’d just row, as fast as they could, heading blindly over the water, into the darkness, away from the Meirion. Heading northeast, but mostly heading away. Distance gave them time.


Then they’d use the radio. He didn’t much care who came to pick them up. As long as it wasn’t the Meirion then they could be counted as home and dry.


A small splash told him they’d hit the water, and a couple of seconds later the boat stopped swinging, bobbing instead. Without needing an order, Face and Murdock went fore and aft to unhook the boat from the cables.


The manoeuvring took a few minutes and a lot of swearing – none of them were experienced oarsmen. Hannibal studied the compass carefully to be sure they were pointing in the right direction. Satisfied, he turned off the lantern.


“Okay, guys, let’s get some blisters.”


“Wait,” Murdock said. “Don’t we need a big sweaty man with a drum?”


“Damn,” Face muttered. “Why didn’t I pack my drum?”


They started to row.


Rowing on the ocean was a particular skill and none of the team had it. This led to more than a little growling and swearing as waves slopped them, or an oar blade trying to find the water found the air instead when the boat rose on the swell. At least twice that sent the man pulling on that oar off his seat and onto his back. More swearing.


The boat wasn’t too heavy, to Hannibal’s relief, smaller than some of the other lifeboats he’d seen on the ship. It would hold perhaps ten people. Even so, his back and shoulders soon burned with the unaccustomed exercise and his hands grew raw with blisters.


But that was nothing compared to the tension of rowing into the inky blackness. With his back to the direction they were heading, his mind went to frightening places. He’d leave it to Murdock to worry about sea monsters and giant squid. Hannibal feared who else might be out here, lurking silently.


The lanterns and flashlights aboard the Meirion bobbed and floated like fireflies in the darkness as the dark shape of the ship grew smaller.


“I think they’re evacuating,” Murdock said. “I see small boats in the water.”


“They’d have to,” Hannibal said. “They can’t take a chance on it being a real fire. Once they realise it’s a false alarm it’s going to take a long time to get everyone back aboard. Won’t manage it before dawn, I’d lay money on that.”


“And they can’t come after us while they’re still rounding up the boats,” Face said.


“Which gives us more time to put some distance between them and us. Come on, pull harder!”


“You ‘eard the Cap’n, yer lazy swabs!” Murdock said. “Row! Or ye’ll walk the plank! Yarr.”


“Oh great,” Face said. “I was hoping you were going to start doing that. Really I was. Can things get any worse?”


BA spoke then. He hadn’t said much so far, just pulled hard on his oar, with little complaint. Hannibal expected him to yell at Murdock to shut up, but instead he spoke in a quiet voice.


“Hannibal, when I tripped over Murdock, I dropped the radio.”


Hannibal went very cold, trying to remember if BA had been carrying the radio when he climbed into the boat. “You lost it?”


“No!” BA sounded irritated. “But it hit the deck with a heck of a crash.”


There didn’t seem to be much to say to that, not until they could check it out. It either worked or it didn’t.


The team rowed on into the darkness.

Chapter 12

“You know that rowing machine I bought?” Murdock said. “When I get home I’m going to strap it with dynamite and blow it into a million pieces.”


“It’s not rowing machines I’m going to be blowing to bits when we get home,” Face muttered.


Hannibal nodded. Only thoughts of what he planned to do to Stockwell when they caught up to him had sustained him through the long night. Delightful visions of the unspeakable pain and suffering he would heap on the man were a bright vision in the darkness. But the night was over at last. The rising sun spilled its light across an ocean empty in every direction. No sign of the Meirion or any other vessel.


“We need to eat,” BA said. They’d stopped once in the night for food, and had drunk a lot of water while they sweated over their oars like galley slaves, but they were all hungry again. BA handed around the food from a box in the prow of the boat and they ate slowly, despite their keen hunger, too tired to do otherwise.


Hannibal fought to keep his mind from being sucked down into despair, dragged there by the pain and exhaustion. More than once overnight he’d questioned the wisdom of this plan – a plan cooked up by people who were smart but, a little voice reminded him, certified insane. If he’d been the one to plan this he’d have included more supplies, for one thing.


But they did have a radio.


Which might not be working.


BA hadn’t had a chance to check it yet, in the darkness, and still too close to the Meirion to risk transmitting. Though if Miller’s radio was broken, they did have a last resort. During the night, while taking a quick inventory, they’d discovered that the boat had an emergency locator beacon. If activated, it would lead the Meirion right to them. But that was better than dying. They weren’t going to die out here. They were not.


“BA,” Hannibal said, when they’d all finished eating, “let’s try the radio.”


BA just nodded, too weary to speak. He crouched in the bottom of the boat and slid the radio carefully out of its cover. A part rolled out and BA had to slap a hand over it, to keep it from rolling off the bench and into the puddle of water in the bottom of the boat.


Face groaned. Hannibal didn’t need him to point out that that really could not be good. Murdock didn’t make a sound and, glancing at him, Hannibal saw he’d fallen asleep, slumped on his seat. The sight cheered him up. The Army had taught them to sleep anywhere and he knew men who could indeed sleep standing up. They were Army, he reminded himself. They were trained to survive whatever it took.


Of course, right now, it might be better if they were Navy, but it was too late to do anything about that.


He turned back to find BA trying to figure out where the loose part fitted. Face watched him, but his eyelids were drooping too.


“Face, get some rest,” Hannibal ordered. “We’re going to have to set watches, so get some sleep now.” Face fell asleep before Hannibal finished speaking. “Well, BA?”


That got him a scowl in response. “Gimme time, man. Don’t look too bad, but gimme time. Ain’t no miracle worker.” He bent over the radio again, working quietly. Despite Hannibal’s tension, he quickly joined Face and Murdock in exhausted oblivion.


~~~~


“Okay,” Kate said to Stockwell. “Make the call to your ‘friend’ at the CIA.”


They stood beside the car that had been waiting on the tarmac at Logan International airport. The plane had taxied away for refuelling. Kate stood right beside the car, Stockwell noticed, hanging onto it. She’d wobbled as she stepped off the plane and he realised she wasn’t used to solid ground after so long at sea. She was adapted to walking on a moving deck and the unmoving ground almost made her stumble.


“Phone,” Stockwell said to the driver, who handed him the cell phone through the window. Kate stared at the device in fascination.


“Oh, the new Motorola.” She sounded like a child who wanted to play with a new toy. “Perhaps I’ll get one of those, now I’m back.”


“They’re rather expensive.” Who would she call anyway? He listened to the phone ring. His contact back at the CIA was waiting for this call and these instructions. Everything was going just as planned.


A moment later a tense voice answered with a simple “Hello?”


“It’s Stockwell. I’ve arrived with Miller. Send the message to Tate to confirm the A-Team’s identities and authorise their release.”


“Stockwell, listen, there’s a big problem.”


Stockwell didn’t dare permit any reaction to show on his face. Not with Kate standing there watching him. If he didn’t want to be reduced to threatening her canary, she couldn’t know anything about any problem.


“Stockwell? Are you there?”


“I’m sorry. Bad reception. So, you’ll confirm when Tate gets the message?”


“What? Look, that’s what I’m trying to tell you. Tate can’t let them go – they’ve already escaped. They got away in one of the lifeboats.”


“Very good. Call me on this number when you have the confirmation.”


“But -”


Stockwell ended the call and thrust the phone into his pocket, taking the opportunity to wipe sweat from his palm as he took his hand back out. Don’t let her see that… Turning a stern expression on Kate, he said, “That order can be rescinded at any time, Doctor.”


She looked at him closely, searching his face for lies or the smallest sign of deception. Hold your nerve, Hunt, he thought. Get the information and then fix everything. Put it all back the way it started out. He’d bring the A-Team home, as he’d promised Kate and as he’d intended from the start. Of course, they’d be angry about his stranding them, but he’d explain why he’d done it. Their escape complicated things though. If, by some miracle, they actually got away and made their way home… Stockwell began to sweat.


“We’re going to take a cab,” Kate said. She glared at Stockwell’s car and took her hand off it. “I don’t trust anything you supply. Probably gas me and knock me out as soon as I get you the information.”


“Doctor, I’m retired,” Stockwell said, with a sigh, wondering if they watched a lot of spy movies on the Meirion. Probably; so they could laugh and point out all the mistakes.


“I don’t care. We’re getting a cab.” She picked up her birdcage. “And since I don’t have any money, you’re paying.”


Kate gave the cab driver a destination written on a scrap of paper, so Stockwell didn’t know where they were going until they arrived. He was glad when they did, since Kate quickly got over her nervousness of being in the taxi and of the traffic all around them and spent the whole journey taking in the sights of her old home. She exclaimed at landmarks still there or missing and talked at length about the Red Sox. It was like bringing a country bumpkin cousin to the big city for the first time.


But they arrived eventually and he paid off the cab driver. He helped Kate from the taxi, and kept hold of her arm to help her stay on her feet, but she pulled away and stepped up to the entrance of what Stockwell recognised as one of Boston’s oldest banks. It had a frock-coated doorman, and though he gave them a polite tip of his hat as he opened the door, he gave them an odd look too.


They were an odd couple. Stockwell, thin and cadaverous, and wearing an expensive, dark suit that only accentuated that. Kate dressed in rumpled clothes, sensible shoes, thick-rimmed cheap glasses and carrying a birdcage. She cut an eccentric figure. Perhaps people would think she was his batty old aunt.


The interior of the bank had more marble than most cathedrals Stockwell had visited. Kate led him to a desk with a sign hanging over it.


Safe Deposit Boxes.


Stockwell smiled. So close now, so close.


“You have the key?” he asked.


“Don’t ask silly questions,” she said, pulling a chain from around her neck, with a locket and a small key hanging from it.


“After all this time?”


“I never gave up hope. Besides, my best jewellery is in there too.”


After some paperwork, confirmation of Kate’s identity and some restrained amazement at her return so long after her last visit, they were seated in the viewing room, and a bank official brought in the box.


He placed it on a table where Kate and Stockwell sat facing each other, the birdcage on the floor beside Kate’s chair. Stockwell eyed the box, wanting to grab it. So close… But he retained his control and waited for the bank official to leave, telling them to relock the box and leave it when they were done.


Kate took the chain from around her neck and slid the key off. She looked at the key for a moment and then placed it in the lock.


“My husband paid up twenty-five years in advance on this box.” She looked up at Stockwell. “In case anything happened to him, he said.” She turned the key.


Stockwell ignored the barb in that last remark. “He always was a man who planned ahead, I remember.”


“Yes,” Kate said, her voice quiet. She lifted the lid, almost hiding her face. “One of the many things we had in common.” Stockwell heard an odd sound as she took something from the box. A metal on metal sound.


She closed the box and Stockwell stared at what she held in her hand. No files, notebooks or papers.


A gun.

Chapter 13

He’d been played.


Stockwell stared down the barrel of the pistol Kate pointed at him and knew what it meant. From aboard the ship, using that radio she built, she’d set this whole thing up by what he could only call remote control.


“You have a gun in a shoulder holster,” she said. “Take it out carefully, using your fingertips, and slide it over here.”


Stockwell did as she ordered. She put her hand on his gun without taking her gaze from him and pulled it to her side of the table.


“There isn’t any information, is there?” he asked.


“Of course not. I planted a message in the intelligence chatter, knowing the word Zephyr would raise a flag and the message would land on your desk eventually.”


“And I’d send someone to get you off the Meirion, and you’d lead me here.”


She smiled. “Quite a neat plan, I thought.”


“Yes, a very neat plan. There’s only one thing wrong with it. I’m not the one who put you on that ship. So your revenge is… misdirected.”


Her face changed from smug to furious in an instant.


“This isn’t about me, you bastard! You killed my husband!”


Ah. He made no attempt to answer or deny her allegation – that would only make her angrier. So she did know. All of those people she’d been living with on the Meirion. People with secrets. Someone must have let something slip. Exactly the reason they sent people there of course, so the only people they could reveal information to were fellow permanent residents, who could do nothing about it.


Sitting in a bank in Boston held at gunpoint by a no-longer permanent resident, Stockwell began to see some flaws in that theory.


“Lewis was the finest man I ever knew,” she said, her voice hoarse. “The cleverest, the kindest… The best… and you killed him. After his death, I took a bottle of pills and I closed my eyes and hoped we’d be together forever. But I opened my eyes in hell, not heaven.”


“I wouldn’t call the Meirion hell.”


“You’ve never lived there. For a couple of years, it didn’t matter. None of it mattered. I wanted to die anyway.”


“The authorities had to put you beyond the reach of anyone who could take advantage of your breakdown. You needed protection.”


“I had a breakdown because the authorities – you – murdered the man I loved! Am I supposed to be grateful that they put me on the SS Bedlam for my protection because of a breakdown they – you – caused?”


“Did Lewis…” He trailed off as she took the safety catch off the gun.


“You will not use his name as if you were his friend.”


“I’m sorry. Did Doctor Miller tell you anything about Zephyr?” He had to focus. What did she know? She knew the name of the project. What else?


“I told you before – he never told me anything he wasn’t allowed to talk about. I know it must be some kind of bio-weapon – genetics was his field. But I know nothing about it, and I don’t care, Stockwell. All I care about is making you pay for killing a man whose boots you are not worthy to lick.”


This had taken her years to plan and execute, a decade at least. Which meant he wouldn’t be able to simply talk her out of it. But did she really intend to shoot him, right here in a bank? With a gun with no silencer on it? Did she think she could just walk out? Did she even care about escape? If she’d spent so long focused on this act of revenge would anything else matter to her? Capture, prison – meaningless.


What now? The table was too wide for him to lunge for the gun without being shot. He could start to yell for help, but by the time it came, he’d have a bullet in his head. He had to play for time.


“Of course, you almost screwed up my plan,” Kate said. “Double-crossing the A-Team. I can’t believe I didn’t anticipate that you’d pull a stunt like that.”


The A-Team… He had to use them somehow. She cared enough about them being stuck on the ship that she’d “forced” him, so she thought, to give the order to free them.


“But now you’ve given the order to -”


“They’ve escaped,” Stockwell cut her off, knowing what she was working up to now – finishing her mission. She stared and he took the opportunity to press on. “They got off the Meirion in one of the lifeboats.”


“I don’t believe you.”


“Can you take that chance? They’re at sea, somewhere in the Pacific in a small boat. If someone doesn’t pick them up, they’ll certainly die.”


A look of anguish and frustration crossed her face and he knew he had her. She wouldn’t let those men simply die. She’d done well, an excellent plan, one that he still had many questions about – he was never too old to learn. But in the end, she was an amateur, lacking the professional ruthlessness that would allow her to pursue her goal at all costs.


“I can organise a search and rescue operation. If you let me live.” She didn’t answer, still wearing that anguished look. “It’s your choice. I suggest you decide quickly.” He paused, then spoke softly. “What’s more important, Kate? Your need for revenge, or the lives of four innocent men?”


~~~~


Stifling! Hannibal woke with something smothering him and the air too hot to breathe. He struggled with the suffocating mass covering him. A second later it was whipped away and he realised it was a blanket. BA frowned down at him.


“You okay?” BA asked.


Hannibal groaned, unable to speak, throat too raw. The sun beat down from the cloudless sky, splitting his head with light. BA pressed something into his hands. Water bottle. He drank, easing his throat. Only then could he speak.


“What time is it?” he croaked.


“Lunchtime,” BA said.


“It’s always lunchtime with you. How’s the radio?”


“I think it’s transmitting.”


“You think?”


“Yeah, I think. I’m sending an SOS every fifteen minutes. No answer yet.”


Hannibal didn’t press. BA knew his business. He looked around the boat to see Face and Murdock lying sleeping in what looked like horribly uncomfortable positions. They had blankets over their heads too, protecting them from the sun. BA had found a big square of white cloth from somewhere, probably the first aid kit, and made himself a headdress.


“We should have brought hats,” Hannibal said.


“We shoulda brought a lot of things,” BA said, in a dark tone. “I checked the food and water. We’d better be picked up inside of two days, three at the outside, or we’re dead.”


From his reading of military history, Hannibal knew of some stirring tales of long survival at sea, but he decided not to regale BA with them now. He liked his nose the shape it was.


“If it comes to that, we’ll activate the beacon to bring the Meirion to us. We won’t die out here, I promise. Now, let’s wake those two sleeping beauties and get some food.”


After they ate, they lay there, four men in a boat. The bobbing motion was quite soothing.


“Are we going to row again?” Murdock asked.


“Not in this heat,” Hannibal said. “We’ll wait for dark. And the more we row the more water we use.”


“How long do we wait before we give up and activate the beacon?” Face asked.


“Thirty six hours more,” Hannibal said, thinking of BA’s estimate of their food and water supplies. “It won’t come to that. You know BA’s got the radio working right. Nobody around right now, but we’ll find someone.”


“So,” Murdock said. “Unless rescue comes sooner, then we’re all stuck together on this tiny boat for at least two days. All of us. Me and the big guy.” He sighed and shook his head. “In that case, I think we’re gonna need a -”


“Don’t say it!” Face snapped.


“You don’t even know what I was going to say.”


“Oh yeah? Bet you a hundred bucks that I do.”


“Money isn’t much use to you here,” Murdock pointed out.


“Then I’ll bet my right arm that I do.”


“I already called your right arm,” Hannibal said. Face looked at him, questioningly. “Didn’t I mention it? While you were asleep earlier we decided to eat you first.”


BA giggled, but Face just shot Hannibal a dirty look. Meanwhile, Murdock was tapping his foot and frowning.


“Look, Face, I can either say this, or my head can explode. Your choice.”


“Okay, say it. I guess if BA kills you that means more water for the rest of us.”


Murdock sat up straight, took a huge breath and declaimed, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”


None of the team spoke. Some distance off a couple of splashes sounded. Eventually Face broke the silence.


“You done?”


“Yes.”


They lapsed back into depressed silence. BA made another SOS transmission. Still no reply.


Hannibal lay with his eyes shaded, looking up into the sky. High above he saw a dark shape. A bird. Was that…?


“Hey, take a look,” he said. “I think that’s an albatross.” Murdock perked up at once, and looked up, shading his eyes.


“I love those guys,” he enthused. “They fly for thousands of miles. They circumnavigate the globe!”


“An albatross, huh?” Face looked at Hannibal. “Maybe you should shoot it.”


“What?” Hannibal glared at him. “That’s supposed to be very bad luck.”


“Especially for the bird,” Murdock said.


“Quite,” Hannibal agreed.


“Yeah,” Face said. “But some standard, ordinary bad luck would be such a step up for us.”


Sounded about right. Hannibal didn’t shoot the albatross of course. For one thing, he’d neglected to pack his crossbow. He just watched it glide and soar on the thermals, wings almost still most of the time.


“It is an ancient mariner,” Murdock began, in that declaiming tone again. “And he stoppeth one of three.”


“Oh, don’t start, please,” Face groaned. BA started scowling as Murdock went on, cherry picking lines from the poem. “Day after day, day after day, We stuck, no breath nor motion. As idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean.”


“We really do need a bigger boat,” Hannibal said.


“Yeah,” BA agreed. “One with bilges, so I can clap the fool in irons and toss him into them. Quit talking about painted boats, or you going over the side!”


“That’s enough, BA,” Hannibal said quietly. BA at once dropped his gaze to the bottom of the boat.


“Water, water everywhere,” Murdock began, but Hannibal just looked at him. Murdock shut up at once.


The team waited in their much too small boat.

Chapter 14

A spooky glow surrounded the team’s boat as they rowed, still heading northeast towards the shipping lanes. Murdock looked over the side, into the water visible in the tiny halo of light cast by the lantern.


“Think there’s any sharks around here?”


“Why not dangle your feet over the side and find out,” Face suggested.


“Forget his feet,” BA said. “Dangle his head over.”


“That’s…” Murdock began, and stopped. “I hear something.”


“No you don’t,” Face snapped, too weary to go along with any more of Murdock’s nonsense. “There’s no such thing as mermaids, or sirens, so you don’t hear any women singing, unless that heap of scrap…” he nodded at the radio, “…is picking up some music station…”


“Shut up! Stop rowing for a second.” The seriousness in Murdock’s voice this time shut all of them up and they stopped rowing. Face heard only the lapping of the water against the boat for a moment and then he gasped.


An engine.


BA must have heard it at the same second. The two of them rammed into each other as they started to scramble off their benches.


“I still don’t hear…” Hannibal began. But he stopped and snapped, “Give me the flashlight.” Face slapped the flashlight into his outstretched hand. “Switch off the lantern.”


“I see a light!” Murdock cried when he turned off the lantern. Face saw it too. Blurred by mist, dim, but real.


Hannibal stood, accepting Face’s hand and then shoulder for balance. Raising the flashlight over his head, he began to signal. Three short, three long, three short. A pause and he repeated it.


“They’re coming this way!” Murdock said a couple of minutes later, sounding breathless.


It was hard to be sure in the mist, but Face agreed. The engine grew louder, the light brighter. When the light actually shone on the team it touched off a fuse, releasing all the anxiety of their long wait. As one man they started yelling and waving their arms. The boat rocked and Hannibal sat down fast to avoid falling overboard.


It wasn’t the Meirion – too small for that. But Face didn’t care what ship it was. It could be the Meirion, Noah’s Ark or the Flying Dutchman. Didn’t matter. It was rescue. Someone called to them, voice harsh and distorted by a megaphone, but still sounding like celestial music to Face.


“Ahoy there. Prepare to come alongside.”


The team got a grip on themselves, stopped their frantic waving and yelling and manoeuvred their boat alongside the larger one. Two rope ladders dropped over the side and Hannibal and Face went up first, both groaning at the effort of the climb, muscles aching from all the rowing. At the top, hands reached down and Face took them gratefully, looking up into lights that made the men pulling him aboard mere dark silhouettes against them.


“Thanks, guys! Thanks!” he said, wondering if they even spoke English. Could be anyone. The megaphone man had spoken English though, so maybe. Who cared? The big smile he was giving them translated effortlessly. Stepping onto the deck, he tried to move away from the men helping him.


They didn’t let go.


“What the hell?” Face tried to yank his arms away. “What’s going on?”


Another man stepped forward, holding a pistol. Face recognised the man who’d led the Marines that the team had fought in the Meirion. Should have know, Face thought. Should have damn well known our luck hadn’t changed.


“Randall?” Hannibal said.


“Welcome aboard, fellas,” Randall said. “I think we have some unfinished business.”


~~~~


The Marines handled the team roughly, probably looking for payback from the fight on the Meirion, Face thought. In a few seconds he and Hannibal were slammed face first on the deck and cuffed. Shouts and protests behind him told him Murdock and BA were getting the same treatment. Unseen hands started pawing him roughly, frisking him for weapons.


He had none, none of them did. On Randall’s order the Marines dragged the team below decks, into a room with a couple of big tables spread with papers and a scattering of coffee mugs. A man and a woman sat at the table. The man was Blaine, the traitor from the Meirion. But Randall ignored him and spoke to the woman.


“We were right, Ms Frasier, it’s them.” His men hustled the team into the room.


“Hello, gentlemen,” Carla said. “Nice to see you again after all this time. Colonel, I think you owe me an Uzi.”


“An’ you owe me a van, lady,” BA said, his bitterness sounding as strong as it had been that day they found the burnt out shell of his van in the ruins of the Langley house.


“He’s been waiting a couple of years to bring that up,” Face told Carla.


“Aw, cut her some slack, BA,” Murdock said. “She did you a favour. It really was past its prime.”


“It was in perfect condition!”


“Perfect? The floor had so much rust I could have poked my finger through it.”


Blaine was watching them with his mouth open, but Carla just wore her look of mildly amused cynicism that Face remembered well, and not fondly.


“I see you gentlemen haven’t changed a bit.”


She, on the other hand had changed a lot. Her power suits had given way to a cotton shirt and jeans, the heels to flat, sensible shoes. Her hair was straight and in a simple pony tail. She wore little make-up.


She wasn’t anybody’s Girl Friday any more, that was clear to Face. She may not be the boss of all of Stockwell’s old organisation, but was certainly in charge of this team and this operation. And out in the field as well, not behind a desk. Had she wanted that all along? Face wondered. Been waiting for the chance to prove herself?


“Been promoted from ‘coffee fetcher’ then, Carla?” Hannibal asked, and got the same reaction to the provocative remark that the team used to get from Stockwell. That is to say – none at all.


“Major Randall,” Carla said. “Uncuff them. Blaine, pour them some coffee.”


“Yes, ma’am,” Blaine said, going to the coffee urns bolted to a sideboard.


The Marines apparently didn’t like this soft treatment of the team. Randall made no move to follow her order to uncuff the team.


“We should lock them up, right now. They’re dangerous.”


“You guys sure found that out,” Hannibal said, smirking.


“Uncuff them,” Carla repeated. “And please don’t smoke in here.”


Randall scowled more horribly than before, and his men glanced at him. But he dropped his cigarette and stamped on it, then gestured at the Marines to uncuff the team. They did that, then shoved them into chairs around the table.


“Thank you,” Carla said. “Now, can you wait outside, please?”


Another slap in the face, telling him he’s not important enough to hear what she had to say to the team, Face thought, enjoying the show, the evidence that the Marines were not ready to jump the instant she snapped her fingers.


“These men are dangerous,” Randall objected. “If we leave you alone with them what’s to stop them taking you and Blaine hostage?”


“What good would that do us?” Face said. “Are we going to demand you put us back in our small boat with its dwindling supplies of food and water?”


“Wait outside,” Carla repeated the order, and this time had some impatience in her tone.


“Here come the new boss, just like the old boss,” Murdock muttered.


No, Face thought, not just like. Stockwell never had to repeat his orders – except the ones he gave to the team of course.


“We’ll be right outside,” Randall said. He ordered his men out of the room, closing the door as he followed them.


Blaine, looking very nervous of the team, started handing mugs of steaming coffee around.


“How’s your nose?” Face asked him as he took a mug. Blaine still had bruising visible.


“Um, better, thanks.”


“Good. Sorry about that, but you know…” he shrugged, no real ill-will towards Blaine. Just another agent. “These things are all in the game.”


“It was you?” Blaine looked disappointed. “Oh, I thought it must have been Sergeant Baracus.”


“If I’d hit you you’d still be on your back.” BA waved the proffered coffee cup away.


“Would you like cocoa instead?” Blaine asked him.


“I don’t want nothing from you people,” BA said.


“BA,” Hannibal said, in a mock scolding tone, “where are your manners? Ms Frasier here is an old, old friend.” Face chuckled at the way Hannibal played with the name like it was a new toy, drawing out the “Ms”.


“Hannibal,” he protested. “Don’t be rude. She isn’t that old.” He smirked at Carla. Come on, ice queen, a smile, a frown, anything. But her armour had no chinks. She didn’t react.


“Gentlemen, as much as I’m enjoying the nostalgia of this, if you’re quite finished, we need to get down to business.”


“I thought you’d never offer,” Face said and Murdock spluttered into his coffee as he laughed.


“We know you’re working for General Stockwell,” Carla said. “We know your mission was to take Doctor Katherine Miller off the Meirion. But we don’t know why. What does Stockwell want with Miller?”


“What, you think he told us?” Hannibal said. “Come on, Carla, you remember about ‘need to know’, right?”


“He has no hold over you any more that I’m aware of; he couldn’t force you to go on that mission. So you volunteered. You wouldn’t do that without knowing why. And there’s something else. A word keeps coming up in connection with this mission, but nobody in the organisation knows what it means.”


Face guessed the word, but had his own suggestion. “Ethics?”


“Integrity?” Hannibal said.


“Honesty?” BA contributed that one.


“Breath mints?” Murdock said.


“That’s two words,” Face pointed out, while BA giggled.


“The word is Zephyr.”


No reaction, Face thought, keeping his expression carefully neutral. He didn’t look at any of the others, hoped they were all wearing puzzled or neutral expressions too. Hannibal could do it – an actor of course. Face the con artist could do it. Murdock and BA – not so much.


“It means breeze, doesn’t it?” Hannibal said. Face glanced at him. Was he deliberately drawing attention to himself, and distracting from any reactions Murdock and BA might be showing?


“There’s a flower called a zephyr lily,” Murdock said. “And I think the word must come from the Greek, after Zephyrus, the god of the west wind.” The others looked at him, surprised at his obscure tidbits of knowledge. “I used to get a lot of time to read.”