Viper

Is Stockwell playing Hannibal or is Hannibal playing Stockwell? And whose side is Frankie really on?

Rated: PG13

Words: 33,200

Chapter 1

“Report, Mr Santana,” Stockwell ordered.


Frankie licked his lips. Stockwell could feel his nervousness. It filled the enclosed space of the limousine like a bad smell.


“Look, Johnny already gave you his report, there’s really nothing else.” Frankie flicked the top of the water bottle he carried. Open and closed, open and closed.


“That’s for me to decide, not you.” Stockwell’s voice was cold and he saw Frankie shiver a little. The man really was pathetic. But so easy to manipulate. “Heard from your father lately?” Stockwell asked. He saw Frankie’s eyes go wide for a moment, then narrow in anger and hatred. The expression was covered a second later, not quite quickly enough. Amateur.


“Okay, General, like I said, there isn’t much more to add than what Johnny already gave you…” He went over the details of their most recent mission. Stockwell listened expressionless and gave the occasional nod.


“Any more discussion of making a break for it?” he asked when Frankie was finished.


“No.” Frankie shook his head. “I think that was just talk, you know, hot air. They were all feeling kind of pissed last week, that’s all.”


“It wasn’t just talk when Peck attempted to make a run for it.”


Frankie shrugged.


“Something you were privy to beforehand and yet neglected to mention it to me until it would have been too late.” The voice wasn’t just cold it was icy.


“I didn’t get a chance,” Frankie claimed, not very convincingly. “They don’t really trust me, you know. There’s probably all kinds of shit they don’t tell me.”


“Your job is to make them trust you, Santana.” He didn’t add ‘or else’, but he didn’t need to any more. “Did they say anything else I should know about?”


“Well Murdock said you had all the cuddly charm of a rattlesnake and Face said he wouldn’t spit on you if you were on fire.” Stockwell’s eyes narrowed behind his glasses. “And Johnny suggested your sexual preferences involved male goats.” Frankie seemed to be warming to his subject, enjoying himself now. “BA talked for twenty minutes about how much he wants to pound you into a wet smear on the ground…”


“Thank you, Santana, that’s quite enough.” Stockwell interrupted. He resisted the urge to knock the smirk off the man’s face. Physical violence was so crude, but in the presence of Frankie Santana it was very tempting indeed. He waved a hand in an imperious fashion. “Leave.”


Frankie climbed out of the car. It moved off at once, leaving Frankie on the roadside a mile from the Langley compound.


***


Fifteen minutes later Frankie came into the living room of the house. The team were all there. BA and Face were reading newspapers, Face the metro section, BA the sports. Hannibal was bent over his new toy, an electronic chess game. Murdock was flipping channels on the TV, not settling on one for more than a couple of seconds. Click. Star Trek. Click. Lucy. Click. The news. Click. Something blowing up. Click. Bilko… click click click.


“Hey, guys.”


Various greetings came his way, most without the speaker looking in his direction.


“Good run, Frankie?” Hannibal asked, looking up.


“Yeah, thanks, Johnny,” Frankie said. He was sweating. “I’d better hit the shower.” As he left the room he looked at Hannibal, gave a quick nod.


“Kid’s working hard on getting fit.” BA commented.


“Yeah, he’s looking good,” Hannibal said. “Maybe a few people around here could learn from his example.” Face and BA both turned to him to express their outrage at this insult, but Hannibal was actually grinning maliciously at an Able who had just come into the room. Hannibal wondered if Stockwell sent these guys to a school for English butlers to teach them how to glide around the house without making a sound. The man scowled at Hannibal, but Hannibal was sure he saw him suck in his gut.


“I think your dinner is burning,” the Able said in a flat voice, but with a look in his eyes that said ‘And I hope it’s ruined.’


“Damn, the chicken.” Face rushed to the kitchen.


BA perked up at the mention of dinner and folded up his paper.


“You staying for dinner, fool?” he asked Murdock.


“Huh?” Murdock looked at him.


“Dinner. You staying?” BA repeated.


“Oh. What time is it? No.” Murdock sounded distracted. Hannibal looked at him as he stood up abruptly, looking at his watch. “I gotta go. Where’s my jacket?”


“Over there.” Hannibal pointed. “You okay, Murdock?”


“Yeah, fine.” Murdock smiled a not quite real smile. “Just got something I have to do.” He pulled on his jacket. “I’ll see you guys later.”


“You want one of us to drive you?” Hannibal asked, but Murdock gave his head a vehement shake.


“No, one of the Ables will take me.” He gave a more genuine grin. “You know how I love having those guys give me rides.” Hannibal grinned back. Stockwell had complained last month about Murdock using the Ables as his ‘personal taxi service.’ This had of course prompted Murdock to use them even more than before. He left, going via the kitchen to say goodbye to Face.


Hannibal left the living room too. He went to Frankie’s bedroom, and knocked on the door of the bathroom. He could hear the shower running inside. Without waiting for an answer he went in.


“Johnny?” Frankie peered around the shower curtain.


“Yeah, just me, kid.” He leaned against the sink as Frankie disappeared back behind the shower curtain.


“Just a second,” Frankie said. He emerged a moment later, wrapping a towel around himself. He left the shower running. There was nothing like the noise of a running shower to confound the bugs. Low-tech maybe but effective.


“You saw him tonight?” Hannibal asked.


“Yeah. Just the usual questions, report on the mission, anything you guys are saying that he should know about. I just gave him all the usual bull.” He picked up another towel and started to dry his hair. Hannibal wondered for a moment exactly what the spying Ables thought of him going into Frankie’s bathroom while Frankie was in the shower. But he didn’t really care what their dirty minds made of it. Better that than the truth.


“Okay. For next time l have some more misinformation I want you to feed him. Think you can manage that?” Frankie looked a little alarmed, but then nodded. He would try his best, Hannibal knew. Frankie wasn’t a natural liar. Face claimed Frankie had at least nine different ‘tells’. Omitting facts from his reports to Stockwell was one thing, but getting him to add in made up stuff was much more difficult. But he would try. Since the first day he’d come to Hannibal and told him Stockwell was still blackmailing him into reporting back Hannibal had seen the possibilities. He’d told Frankie to keep on with the reports, but only giving Stockwell what Hannibal wanted him to hear.


Frankie had dried off now and started pulling on sweat pants and a T-Shirt.


“This is some scary stuff, Johnny,” Frankie said. “Lying to Stockwell like this, trying to manipulate him right back. The missions, well hell, yeah of course they’re scary in a ‘bring a change of underwear’ sort of way. But lying to Stockwell. That keeps me awake at night. Sometimes I get the feeling that he knows exactly what I’m doing. Or then I think he doesn’t but if he found out… oh man.”


Hannibal had heard him saying all this before. He indulged the repetition, knew Frankie had every right to be nervous. And he was probably looking for reassurance from Hannibal again. Reassurance that he’d chosen the right side.


“Don’t worry, Frankie. You know we’ll take care of you. We owe you. You’re under our protection, and anyone who messes with you has to deal with us.” It was warm now, the running shower steaming up the room. “Just think of us as your personal round the clock bodyguards.” He grinned. Frankie smiled back, but shook his head.


“Aw man, you don’t owe me any more, you paid me back for that a long way back. And it was mostly Murdock anyway.”


“Not just the rescue, Frankie. And don’t play that down. I know what it took for you to do that.” Frankie looked pleased. “You’re stuck in this nightmare because you helped us. We owe it to you to get you out of it in one piece.”


Frankie smiled. “You know Johnny, I still can’t decide whether meeting you was the luckiest or the unluckiest day of my life.”


***


Stockwell’s limousine pulled up at the airfield beside the jet. Half absorbed in a folder Stockwell got out of the car. It appeared he would be “pulling an all nighter” as Colonel Smith would doubtless call it. The meeting he’d been to after getting the report from the weasel Santana had been long, difficult and tense.


“You can go.” He told the driver. He was part way up the steps to the door when he stopped. The Able who should have been standing at the bottom of the steps wasn’t there. He’d almost missed it, since he never bothered to acknowledge the guard. Stockwell drew his gun, and continued up the steps. As soon as he entered the plane he heard the sounds from his private office. There should be no one there. Carla was off duty.


He considered calling for backup, but didn’t want to wait and maybe lose the element of surprise. It sounded like only one person. There were no voices. Stockwell approached the door. It was unlatched and he pushed it very gently. Only the desk lamp illuminated the office. He could see a figure moving around in the gloom going through files. It was clad all in black and Stockwell could see a shoulder holster. In total silence Stockwell pushed the door the rest of the way open, and stepped into the room, gun levelled.


“Perhaps if you tell me what you’re looking for I can help you find it.”


The intruder turned slowly. Stockwell tried to control his face, but couldn’t help lifting his eyebrows in surprise.


“Well, it seems I have nursed a viper in my bosom,” he said.


The viper smiled without humour. “That must make me Caligula.”


“And we both know what happened to Caligula,” Stockwell said, somewhat impressed that they recognised the context of the quotation. His eyes flickered briefly to the butt of the holstered handgun. “Now drop your shoulder holster and any other weapons you are carrying and put your hands on your head,” he ordered, all business now.


The intruder made no move.


“Where’s your backup, General?”


“Weapons on the ground now or you are dead.” Repeating an order was not something he had to do often. He didn’t usually work with people who needed orders repeated. At least he didn’t usually work with them for very long.


“I notice you haven’t bothered to ask after the health of the man who was guarding the plane. How very typical of you.”


“On the ground now!” A third time? And still the intruder showed no sign of giving up their weapon. Stockwell could feel control of the situation slipping away from him. He began to realise he had made a mistake.


“You’re sweating, Stockwell. I’ve never seen you sweat before. Is that your tell?”


This needed to end now. Stockwell’s finger began to tighten on the trigger. It was a pity. He’d have preferred an interrogation not a corpse, but there was no option.


The gunshot was deafening in the enclosed space. Stockwell staggered back and then looked down at his chest. Bright red shock of blood on his shirt. He looked back at the intruder, at the smoking handgun. My god, no one could draw that fast, could they?


No silencer? Careless. No, deliberate. Would slow the draw. Darkness closed in. He flashed on the cowboy movies he’d loved as a boy. Never thought he’d be the one left bleeding in the dust. The one who faced the quick draw gunslinger and come off second best.


Pain. Pain was a cold fist in his chest. He couldn’t catch a breath.


He hadn’t even felt himself falling. Didn’t know he was on the floor until the carpet pressed into his cheek. The room above him tilted. How strange it looked from here. The angles all wrong.


Someone stepped over him. There were words. A long way off. Mocking.


“Hail, Caesar.”


Then the darkness took him and ended his pain.

Chapter 2

“Hannibal! Hannibal!”


Hannibal was awake and alert in an instant when the banging on his bedroom door started. His gun was in his hand without him consciously knowing he’d reached for it.


“Hannibal!” Murdock’s voice. It was Murdock out there. Hannibal got out of bed and went to the door. He opened it, squinting against the bright light from the hallway. Murdock stood there, looking agitated. He wore a suit, but the shirt collar was undone, and a tie hung loose around his neck.


“Something’s up, Hannibal,” Murdock said breathlessly. The others, roused by the noise were coming out of their rooms now. Face and BA looked alert and wary. Frankie looked drowsy and confused.


“Jeez, Murdock, it’s four am, what’s the problem?” Frankie interrupted himself with a huge yawn. Face caught Hannibal’s eye and nodded down the hallway. An Able stood there. Nothing unusual in that, except that he had his gun in his hand.


“Something’s going down, Hannibal.” Murdock said. “The Ables just brought me here. They were waiting for me when I got back home. They didn’t seem inclined to take ‘get lost’ for an answer.”


Hannibal eyed the gun toting Able. The man’s face was hard and he stared right back at Hannibal. Hannibal recalled him as one of the slightly more sympathetic Ables, usually up for some banter about football, even talked about his family sometimes. But there was no sympathy there now.


“Get dressed.” Hannibal ordered the others, quietly. “Fully dressed,” he added significantly. Face and BA disappeared back into their rooms at once. Frankie hesitated a moment, still looking confused.


“Now, Frankie.” Hannibal snapped. Frankie hurried back into his room. Hannibal went into his room, leaving the door open. Murdock waited there while Hannibal put on his clothes. A couple of minutes later they all met in the hallway. The Able put a hand to his ear, listening, and then he turned to the team.


“Come out here,” he said, gesturing.


“What the hell is this about, Johnny?” Frankie said, hopping, tying his sneakers. Hannibal nodded at BA and then at Face with a glance up the hallway. He and Murdock stuck close to Frankie as they moved towards the living room. Frankie didn’t appear to notice that Hannibal had put Face on point and BA on rearguard, just as if they were on a jungle patrol, not walking through their home.


“Why don’t we let Carla tell us?” Hannibal answered as they went into the living room to find Carla waiting for them.


She didn’t look quite as sharp as usual. The power suit was replaced by what appeared to be a hastily donned blouse and, somewhat astonishingly, jeans. Her hair was tied back and she wore no make up. It seemed she’d been dragged out of bed as unceremoniously as them.


“Not that we don’t love to see you, Carla,” Face said, dropping onto one of the sofas and yawning, “but you’d better have a good reason for interrupting my beauty sleep.”


It was an act, Hannibal knew. Face looked as lethargic as a man dragged out of bed before dawn should, but he was ready. BA stood behind the sofa Face was sitting on. Murdock sat down next to Face. Frankie took one of the other sofas and Hannibal stood behind him. Hannibal’s gut was clenched tight. There were eight Ables in the room, covering all the exits.


“Two hours ago General Stockwell was found in his office on the jet. He had been shot in the chest.”


A stunned silence followed her words. The first one to speak was Murdock.


“What does this mean for the team’s pardons?”


Carla looked at him with narrowed eyes and an expression of disgust.


“Is that all you have to say about what I just told you?” She asked, coldly.


Murdock got to his feet. “What do you expect, Carla? Tears? Should we wail and rend our garments? You’ll have a long wait for that.”


“Murdock…” Hannibal said.


“No, Hannibal,” Murdock said. “We’re all thinking it, so why not say it? So someone finally caught up with Stockwell, well boo hoo. What does it mean for us? He must have left some contingency for what happens to us if he kicks off.”


“Murdock’s right.” Face said, his expression hard. Frankie didn’t speak. He turned to look at Hannibal, looked confused and a little frightened. BA was scowling as always, unreadable.


And Hannibal caught the very tiny glint in Carla’s eye as she spoke again and he knew right away what her game was.


“Mr Murdock, gentlemen, I think you misunderstand.”


“He’s not dead is he?” Hannibal said.


“General Stockwell is in critical condition in hospital.” Carla said.


“You… you said…” Murdock began, and then stopped. He glared at her. “Smart work, Carla.” He sat down.


“Has he said anything?” Hannibal asked.


Carla shook her head. “He’s in a coma.”


“Will he live?” Hannibal asked.


“His chances are very slim.” She said.


“Where were his guards?” Hannibal asked.


“The Able guarding the plane was found concealed nearby. He had severe head injuries. He is dead.”


That made them go quiet again. Eventually Face spoke. “When did all this happen?”


“The General was found at two oh six. The gunshot was reported approximately ten minutes prior to that.” She walked over to the sofa where Face and Murdock were sitting. “I know that the rest of you were here in your rooms at that time. Where were you, Mr Murdock?”


He looked up at her, eyes narrowed. The others glared.


“Are you accusing me of something, Carla?”


“You’d better not be suggestin’ Murdock had anything to do with this, lady.” BA warned.


“Where were you?” She persisted. “Able Nine dropped you at home at eight seventeen last night. You left your apartment building again at nine oh five. You caught a bus at nine twelve. The next time you were seen was when you returned to your apartment in a cab at three ten this morning.”


“Well, aren’t we the precise one?” Face said, in a mocking voice.


“I was with a friend.” Murdock said, his voice low and angry.


“Until three in the morning?” Carla asked.


“A lady friend.” Murdock said, looking self-conscious. “I had a date.”


“What’s her name?”


“None of your damn business.” Murdock snapped.


“It is my business, if she is your alibi.” Face and Murdock stood up so abruptly that Carla took a few steps backwards.


” Alibis are what suspects need,” Murdock said. “If you’re accusing me come out and say it, Carla.”


Carla looked round at the angry men. She took a breath. “Yes, Mr Murdock, you are a suspect. Your movements are unaccounted for at the time of the attack.”


“Back off, Carla,” Face snapped. “Back off right now!”


“Mr Murdock has threatened General Stockwell at gunpoint before.” Carla said. “Mr Santana can testify to that.” She looked at Frankie who still sat on the couch. He looked mortified as all eyes turned to him.


“Yeah, but that was… different. He wasn’t…” Frankie said. Hannibal leaned over and put a hand on Frankie’s shoulder. He looked at Carla.


“We’re going outside.” Hannibal said. It wasn’t a request it was a statement of something that was going to happen. “To the basketball court, to talk in private. Get up, Frankie.”


“You are not going anywhere.” Carla said, crossing her arms. “I am not finished…”


“You can wait.” They moved towards the door. Carla backed up and stood between them and the exit. The Ables tensed up. Two of them moved to flank Carla. Hannibal stepped up very close to Carla, staring into her eyes.


“No, she said. But he could see fear deep in her eyes. He got as close as he dared, watching the Ables beside her. Too close and they’d drop him, he knew. But he was close enough to frighten her. Physically intimidating a woman was not something that he found either natural or enjoyable. But in this case it was necessary.


“We’re all armed.” He said quietly. “You can try to stop us. And if you do, then this will end with blood on the walls. I don’t think you’re ready for that. All we’re going to do outside is talk. Keep us covered, but keep them back from us and we all get to see the sun come up. You’re a smart girl. Don’t start this day with a mistake.” She studied his face for a moment. He kept it resolute, held her gaze until she looked away. She stepped aside.


Hannibal led the team past her and into the grounds. He’d said the basketball court so he’d better stick with that. If he headed elsewhere someone might get nervous and start shooting. Death was only a wrong step away right now. The Ables followed behind and took up positions around the court. Carla stayed in the house.


The team stood in a tight circle.


“I didn’t shoot him.” Murdock answered the question no one had asked.


“Of course you didn’t!” Face exclaimed. “None of us think you did.”


“Carla sure does,” Murdock said.


“Yeah, she was real quick to accuse Murdock, wasn’t she?” Frankie pointed out. “Kinda suspicious if you ask me.”


“I wonder what her alibi is?” Face asked. “I can’t imagine the Ice Queen was on a date herself.”


“Hannibal?” Murdock said. “You believe me?”


“Of course he does, fool!” BA snapped. “He knows you wouldn’t shoot Stockwell.”


“Sure he would.” Hannibal said. He ignored the protests from the others, looked right at Murdock. “You’d frag that bastard in a second if you thought he needed it, right, Murdock?” Murdock’s eyes were locked on Hannibal’s. He made no protest at Hannibal’s words. He waited. “But you wouldn’t bash in that Able’s skull.” The protests from the others silenced.


“Okay.” Hannibal said up after a moment. “So we know Murdock didn’t do it. Murdock, I think you’ll have to give Carla the name of your, ah, lady friend. If only to get her off your back so we can get to work on finding out who really did this.”


Murdock nodded. “She just had to ask nicely,” he muttered.


“Er, Hannibal, what do you mean, ‘we’ can get to work.” Face asked.


“We need to find out who did this.”


“Well I think Carla’s probably going to be looking into that, you know.” Face said baffled. “I’m sure she’ll find space in her calendar.”


Hannibal shook his head. “First off, Carla may still go after Murdock, even with an alibi. I have no idea if she wants the truth or just an easy kill. And if she was involved herself…” He got out a cigar and lit it. “And secondly the man is our boss.” He grimaced at the word, never liked using it. “We have to go after whoever shot him.”


The rest of the team looked at each other, surprised, dubious.


“Er, Hannibal,” Face said, “I don’t know if any of us have ever mentioned this, but we hate Stockwell. He’s a total bastard.”


“But he’s our total bastard.” Hannibal said. His face went hard. “Look, guys, I know we hate him, I know he probably deserved what he got. And if he dies I won’t cry for him. But the point is we work for him. And someone went after him knowing that fact and not caring.”


“Pride.” BA growled in a low voice, an accusing voice.


“Yeah, maybe.” Hannibal said. “So what? Are you happy that whoever did this isn’t afraid of us?”


“Maybe they just know how we feel about him,” Face suggested.


“And that’s okay is it?” Hannibal asked him. “That someone assumes we’d let them kill our boss just because we don’t like him very much? You don’t consider that an insult?”


Face looked down, folded his arms.


“And what do we do if we find out who did it, Hannibal?” Murdock asked.


“We show them just why they should have been afraid of us.”

Chapter 3

“We’d better get back to the house.” Hannibal said. The Ables looked nervous. Nervous and gun toting was not a good mix. “But be ready. I’m still not sure about Carla. I want you all ready to move at any moment on my signal.”


They all nodded and began to troop back to the house. As they walked they checked around, reconnoitring the grounds for any changes. They had three fully worked out escape plans and were ready to put any of them into action at a moment’s notice.


Although their escape routes weren’t tunnels Hannibal, after watching The Great Escape one afternoon, had code-named them Tom, Dick and Harry. He had often smiled to himself as he thought that one day he might be running around the house shouting “Dick! Dick!” It would be a terrible shame if Stockwell weren’t there to take that personally.


“If I give the go signal, stick close to me.” Hannibal told Frankie quietly. Frankie nodded. He looked scared.


Back in the house Hannibal sent BA and Frankie to the kitchen to make breakfast. He took Face and Murdock back into the living room. Carla was on the phone. Hannibal went and stood in front of her. She looked up at him.


“Alright keep me apprised.” She hung up. “Colonel?”


“Murdock will give you the name of his alibi witness.” Hannibal said. Carla looked smug. “And you and I are going to discuss suspects.” She stopped looking smug and frowned.


“Excuse me?”


“You heard. I’m offering you our help to get whoever did this.”


“That really isn’t necessary. Besides…” she didn’t finish.


“Besides, we’re still suspects ourselves, right? Carla, think about it. If we were behind this why would we still be here?” She didn’t answer. So Hannibal sat down and pulled over some papers and a pen that were on the table.


“Okay. Two things strike me as odd. You said the shot was heard, so no silencer on the gun. And no coup-de-grace head shot. So that tells me it’s not a pro hit.” He grinned at Carla. “See, that’s another thing telling you it’s not one of us.”


If one of the team had wanted Stockwell dead he’d be dead.


“It is possible that a professional may attempt to make it appear otherwise.” Carla said.


“Good point.” Hannibal said. “Stockwell obviously taught you well in the twisted thinking department.” He drew a line down the centre of the page. “So let’s divide this into Pro and Personal.” Carla leaned forward in her chair. She was starting to look interested.


“I suppose Trigorin is really dead?” Face speculated. “Any chance he got out?”


“Our information on that is inconclusive.” Carla admitted. “There was a body, but the ID was never confirmed.”


Hannibal wrote ‘Ivan Trigorin’ in the Pro column, though suspected a large overlap into Personal there. He smiled a little to himself as several of the prime suspects began the investigation.


***


“BA, what does ‘frag’ mean?” Frankie asked as he laid the table. BA stiffened a little at Frankie’s question. “Johnny said Murdock would ‘frag’ Stockwell. Is it some kind of Vietnam thing? I mean I figured it means ‘kill’, but there’s more to it right?”


“Yeah.” BA wasn’t very keen to discuss this. Frankie was a civilian. Soldiers didn’t really talk about this sort of thing with civilians. He looked at Frankie. Well maybe he had earned it.


“It is from ‘nam.” BA said. “Well the word is. Hannibal says fragging goes back a long ways with the military, just not called that.” He still felt uncomfortable. Wondered if Frankie might be shocked.


“It means troops killing their officer. Usually ’cause they think he’s gonna get them killed.” BA watched Frankie. He looked surprised but not shocked in the sense of being outraged. BA started pouring juice into glasses. Frankie was still looking at him and he knew the kid wanted to hear more.


“A bad officer can be as dangerous as the enemy.” BA explained. “So sometimes the men kill him. It’s like self-defence. Hannibal says it’s been going on for as long as there’s been armies. Was called ‘fragging’ in ‘nam ’cause it was usually done with a grenade.”


Frankie’s face changed to dawning understanding. “Oh, frag as in fragmentation grenade?”


“Right.”


“So…” Frankie said slowly, figuring it out. “No ballistics evidence if there was an investigation. Makes it easier to say it was an accident, right?”


“Yeah.” BA said. He wondered if Frankie was satisfied or if he was going to ask The Question. BA started cracking eggs into the frying pan. He felt tiny stings as hot fat spat onto his hands and forearms. The eggs bubbled, started going solid.


“Did you ever frag an officer?” Frankie’s voice was quiet, almost as if he was frightened of asking.


“Nah.” BA stared into the frying pan, not turning to Frankie. “I hit plenty of ’em, never fragged one.” In some cases he thought hitting them might have kept them from getting fragged later. Made them shape up and realise that it was a short step from being on the wrong end of BA’s fist to being on the wrong end of a grenade they’d personally signed the requisition order for. The officers had never seen it that way of course and they’d still put him in the stockade. He smiled to himself. Talk about ungrateful.


Frankie was quiet for a few minutes, apparently processing all this. Then he spoke again.


“BA, you said it was the troops killing their officer, right?”


“Yeah.” BA turned around with the frying pan, started dishing up the eggs onto the plates.


“But Murdock and Stockwell are both officers.”


“Yeah,” BA admitted. “I think Colonel was just meaning killing the guy in charge for the good of the unit.”


“And Johnny would think that’s okay? I mean he’s got a real bug up his butt about an outsider shooting the guy. But if Stockwell was a danger to us Johnny would think it was okay for Murdock to kill him?”


“You’d have to ask Hannibal that.” BA said.


“Oh.” Frankie paused. “So in the war, did officers kill other officers? Apart from, you know, the whole thing with Colonel Morrison.”


“I heard about some.” BA said, non-committal.


“But that’s not ‘fragging’ then? What’s that called?”


BA gave Frankie a slightly odd look.


“Murder, Frankie.” BA said. “That’s called murder.”


***


“Absolutely not.” Carla said.


Hannibal had just asked if they could go and take a look at the scene, but Carla was not even going to entertain the idea. She stood with arms crossed. It had been a long morning, but Hannibal had believed they were getting somewhere. Carla seemed to be taking his ideas on board and appreciating them. But it looked like there was still work to do.


“Why not?” Murdock asked. “Think we’ll interfere with evidence?”


“That had occurred to me.” She said. “Besides, we have forensic teams going over the area.”


“She doesn’t want us leaving,” Face said to Hannibal.


“Like she could stop us if we wanted to go.” Murdock said. The tension in the room edged up. Hannibal glanced at Frankie who was sitting beside him. Frankie was quiet and Hannibal was getting worried about that.


“Now, fellas, don’t assume the worst.” Hannibal said in a mildly sarcastic tone. He wanted to keep things calm. Keep Carla and the Ables off guard. “I’m sure Carla is just worried about our safety.”


“Our safety?” Face said, incredulous.


“Of course, gentlemen.” Carla agreed. “Did it never occur to you that whoever shot General Stockwell could be coming after you next?”


There was silence for a moment while the team tried to figure out if they’d just been warned of a threat or if they’d just been threatened. Carla just sat looking smug.


“Well we don’t want to end up in DC General with Stockwell do we?” Hannibal asked. He watched Carla as he spoke. He saw a tiny smile on her face then she frowned at him and he knew it was artificial.


“I never mentioned which hospital he was in.” She said.


Hannibal shrugged. “Closest to the airfield,” he said. He began to wonder which hospital Stockwell was really in. Probably Bethesda Naval. Had to be the safest. The Ables had started to relax again. Hannibal looked at his watch. “I think it’s lunchtime.”


***


Carla was on the phone again as they finished up the Chinese food they’d ordered in for dinner. She seemed to be talking about Stockwell’s condition to whoever was on the other end of the line. Interesting that she should talk about that in front of them, Hannibal thought.


Carla was listening to Hannibal, but he knew she still didn’t trust him. She would use them if they were useful to her, just like Stockwell himself. But she wouldn’t let them off the leash. Hannibal had spent most of the afternoon trying to persuade her to let them go after the suspects they had. She’d refused.


Not that they couldn’t leave if they wanted to, Hannibal knew, but running had to be a last resort. It would be dangerous and all it would get them was back to being on the run. They wouldn’t have time to find out who shot Stockwell while they were avoiding being shot themselves. No, they needed to be out there, but with Carla’s backing.


It was only nine o’clock but they were all tired after their early morning wake up. They needed sleep and then he’d start afresh on Carla tomorrow.


She got off the phone.


“How is he?” Hannibal asked.


“The doctors say he has improved slightly.” She said. There was no emotion in her voice, Hannibal couldn’t tell if the news pleased, annoyed or frightened her.


“Really?” Face sounded surprised. “I thought you said his chances were slim?”


“I guess he’s stronger than you thought.” Hannibal said, still watching Carla carefully. Damn how did she keep her face so controlled? He’d hate to play poker against her. The only way to get a reaction was to take her by surprise.


“Is there a possibility he’ll wake up?” Murdock asked.


“Nervous about that, Mr Murdock?” Carla asked. Murdock scowled at her.


“Would certainly save a lot of time if he did,” Hannibal said. “I assume there’s someone with him all the time, in case he says anything?”


“Of course,” Carla snapped. She stood up. She looked as tired as the rest of them, but Hannibal suspected she wasn’t heading off home to bed yet. “I’ll be back in the morning.”


“Can’t wait,” Face said. “Oh and Carla, try to make an effort tomorrow. A bit of mascara or something at least.” She gave his grinning face a burning glare and strode off.


“Okay guys,” Hannibal said to his men. “We need rest. Everybody hit the sack.” They started to head towards the bedrooms, leaving the Ables to clear up the dinner things.


“Frankie.” Hannibal followed him into his room, closed the door. “I know you’re scared. But stay cool. Stick close to me.” He reiterated, hoping that would make Frankie feel safer.


“Johnny…” Frankie looked down then up again. He turned and walked into the bathroom and turned on the shower. Hannibal followed him into the bathroom. The shower masking their conversation from the bugs Frankie spoke again. His face and voice were serious. “We’re prisoners now, right? Before, well we chose to stay, okay we were blackmailed into staying, I guess. But now we really are prisoners here.”


“Yes.” Hannibal admitted. “We are. Or at least they think we are. But if we have to go then we go.”


“So why don’t we go right now?”


Hannibal shook his head. “No sense in going off half cocked. We go when I think we need to. You remember all the details of the escape plans?”


“Sure, but…”


“Tell me what we do if we go for ‘Harry’.” Hannibal ordered.


“Johnny, I know it.” Frankie insisted.


“So tell me.”


Frankie rolled his eyes but he recited the details of the plan, then at Hannibal’s prompting those of ‘Tom’ and ‘Dick’ too.


“Good.” Hannibal nodded, satisfied. ‘Planning and preparation, Frankie. I know I’m notorious for improvising, but in this case planning is the key. Stick with the plan and you’ll be fine.” He squeezed Frankie’s shoulder. “Now get some sleep. See you in the morning.”


Hannibal left. He hoped he’d managed to reassure Frankie. He really seemed to be getting scared. He didn’t want Frankie to crack and do something stupid.


***


“Hannibal! Hannibal!”


For the second morning in a row a hammering on his door woke Hannibal. At least this time it was nearly eight o’clock and not four. But this time Murdock didn’t wait for Hannibal to come out of the room. He burst in, looking a little panicked.


“What is it?” Hannibal was quickly out of bed, gun in hand. Murdock took a breath, calming himself.


“Frankie’s gone.”

Chapter 4

Frankie’s room was trashed, clothes and belongings strewn around. Hannibal swept the place fast, although he guessed Murdock had already done the same. He checked the window. It was unlocked.


An Able came in the door and Hannibal snapped at him, “Bring me Able Six! Now!” The man vanished again. Able Six was the man in charge of the house right now. They never told the team which of them was in charge, but Hannibal always knew. The rest of the team piled into the room, questions coming fast.


“Where the heck is he?”


“You think someone took him?”


“You think he ran?”


Hannibal didn’t answer. He was looking around the room. Something wasn’t right. If Frankie had run then why was the room trashed? If someone had taken him and he’d put up enough of a fight to make this much mess then why hadn’t there been any noise?


Face picked up some books that had been knocked down from a shelf.


“No,” Hannibal said. “Wait, don’t touch anything.” And then he saw it. Nothing was broken. This room hadn’t been trashed. This room had been searched.


Able Six, with very bad timing, came into the room just then. He met Hannibal’s pistol pointing straight at him.


“Where is he?”


Able Six just looked at him with a maddeningly impassive expression.


“I’m sorry, Colonel, I don’t understand.”


“Okay, understand this. Get that bitch Carla down here within ten minutes.”


“She’s already on her way.” Able Six told him. There was a pause. “May I leave?”


“Yeah, get out.” Hannibal growled. The Able left. Hannibal gestured towards the bathroom. Now more than ever they didn’t dare to speak freely. Murdock stayed by the bathroom door, watching.


“You think the Ables have him?” Face asked Hannibal once the shower was running.


“Yeah.” Hannibal said. “No way could he have sneaked out unseen. With the security level these bastards are on right now I’m not even sure I could. And same thing for someone coming in from outside and getting him out again undetected. No way in hell.”


“So it’s an inside job?” Murdock said. “You think they believe he shot Stockwell?”


“Probably not.” Hannibal said. “But if they still think one of us did it, or that we were all behind it then Frankie is the obvious one to put pressure on.”


BA slammed his fist into the palm of his other hand. He didn’t speak, but his message was plain.


“Or if Carla is involved with the shooting she might want to extract a confession implicating us to cover her ass.” Face suggested. He paused frowning. He looked as if his head was spinning with all the possibilities. “Damn. I hate these people.”


“Right.” Hannibal said. “Carla will be here in a few minutes. I don’t know how this is going to go down. Get ready to run.” They all nodded and went to their rooms to dress.


Carla arrived five minutes later in a helicopter. She still wasn’t back in the suit. Now she was dressed in black pants and a white shirt and still had her hair scraped back. In a way she actually appeared more comfortable, more herself. Hannibal watched the way she moved and began to wonder where exactly she had been recruited.


Surprise was the only way through her shield, Hannibal knew now. He guessed that Able Six had already conveyed Hannibal’s accusation to her. She expected his first words to be about Frankie.


“How’s Stockwell?” That got through. He saw it in her eyes. And he saw her blinking too much as she replied.


“He’s still improving,” she said. “In fact the doctors believe he may regain consciousness today.”


She was lying though her teeth. But what exactly was the lie? She was watching the team closely as she spoke.


“That’s great news,” Hannibal said, brining her attention back to him. “Now there was another small matter I wanted to raise with you.” His voice went hard. “Tell me where the hell Frankie is right now.”


“You think I know?” Her apparent surprise at his question was all fake.


“Of course you know. Pick on the weakest of the group, right? That’s Stockwell’s MO, Carla, and he taught you everything you know. Or maybe it comes naturally to you. I just know that you were a real bitch in high school.” Her eyes narrowed at that. God, Hannibal thought, I love it when I get to her.


“You taught Santana everything he knows, Colonel,” she said. “Perhaps he put it into practice and left on his own.”


“So you think Frankie could have got out on his own? Yeah, that says a lot for your boys here, doesn’t it?” Hannibal indicated the Ables with a wave of his hand. He glanced around the room as he did so. The team had moved into positions that appeared entirely casual and arbitrary. They were not.


“And what does it say about your boys?” Carla countered. “Perhaps that he no longer believed you and your men could protect him?”


He wanted to hit her, an urge that disgusted him. But he knew his anger was really directed at himself. Because she had a point and it had been eating at him since the moment he heard the words “Frankie’s gone.” Either Frankie left or he was taken. Either way it meant Hannibal had failed.


“Okay, Carla. You think he left on his own, why don’t you let us go and look for him?”


“No.”


“Wrong answer.” Hannibal made the choice. Wherever Frankie was they weren’t going to find him by hanging around here. They were through. He kept looking at Carla, but when he spoke it wasn’t to her. Loud and clear he called out to his team.


“Harry.”


Carla frowned, presumably wondering who the hell Harry was. But she stopped wondering as the team started to move. Fast. Faster than the Ables had ever seen them move.


The team had been at Langley for over a year now. The Ables had watched them play cards and drink beer, watch football and bicker over the TV remote. And the more the Ables watched this bunch of apparently normal guys, doing normal guy things the more they forgot what these men really were. Familiarity had bred, if not contempt, at least complacency. The Ables had forgotten to be afraid. Big mistake.


The team were outside in less than ten seconds. There had been seven Ables in the living room. Only two were now in any state to pursue the team into the grounds. Hannibal hoped none of the Ables were dead, but there was no time to worry about it.


They split up on his signal, BA and Face in one direction, Hannibal and Murdock in another. The “Harry” escape route meant going on foot through the woods. There was no way they’d trust any of the cars, or the van. All were no doubt bristling with tracking devices. As he ran Hannibal could hear Carla yelling behind him.


Gunfire crackled around them.


“Shit!” Murdock yelled as the ground right by his feet spat up grass and soil.


Hannibal didn’t waste his breath. They reached the trees, which gave them some cover and crashed on through. It had rained overnight and the ground was slippery, water still dripped from the trees.


“Perimeter in a quarter mile.” Hannibal said, panting a little. Getting too old for this, Colonel. Murdock nodded. He looked grim. He had a pistol in his hand, but he put it back into his shoulder holster and unslung the rifle he had on his back. The one that had been concealed in the bookcase behind the cookery books. Murdock had swept the books aside and proceeded to heat things up.


They reached the perimeter, a wire fence, exactly eleven minutes after they left the house. Right on schedule. Gunfire was still sounding along with yells. As Hannibal cut the wire with the wire cutters they had concealed here six months ago Murdock kept watch, gun ready.


Then they were out. Free. Well close to freedom. Hannibal took a compass out of his pocket. The rendezvous point was due north. He hadn’t taken a chance on not being able to remember his way there, mindful of the possibility of doing this in the dark. In fact the dark was preferable.


“Come on.” He said to Murdock. They set off for the rendezvous, Murdock acting as rearguard. There was no sign of pursuit. Hannibal smiled a little. Hell, this really was turning out to be a piece of cake.


***


“I don’t suppose ordering you to leave me is going to work.” Face gasped out.


BA just glared at him. They were sheltering in a ditch just outside of the perimeter wire. BA had thrown Face into it and dived in after him. BA’s heart was still pounding. Not from the effort of running, dragging Face, but from the shock of hearing Face cry out, seeing him fall. Ables were close enough that they could hear them talking on their walkie-talkies to each other.


Face hissed in pain as he tried to move his left leg. To be honest he had no desire to be left behind sitting in six inches of cold, slimy water. It was just the done thing to suggest it in this situation.


“Quit movin’ around.” BA said. He bent over the bullet wounds in Face’s calf. “Least it went right through.”


“Yeah, I got off easy.” Face said with as much sarcasm as he could muster. BA just grunted. He bound up the leg as best he could with torn strips of his shirt. That would have to do until they got to the rendezvous.


BA checked over the top of the ditch. It had gone quiet out there. He couldn’t see anybody moving around. Time to go. “Think ya can walk?” BA asked. “It ain’t broken.”


“S… sure, it’s just a damn scratch.” Face said, still sarcastic. But he let BA haul him to his feet. He moaned but then controlled it. He knew if he showed BA how painful it was BA would insist on trying to carry him. Face gave a weak smile once they were out of the ditch. “Okay, I’m good to go.”


BA looked like he was about to say “Yeah right.” But he thought better of it.


“We get into a fire fight you hit the ground and stay down,” BA warned quietly as they moved off.


“I think that’s a given.” Face answered, leaning into BA. Every step was agony. It was two miles to the rendezvous. Whether he made it there on his feet was not something he’d bet the farm on right now.


***


Hannibal and Murdock approached a small barn cautiously. It was near the edge of the woods in a lonely, uncultivated field. The grass came up to their knees, clung to their boots, still damp from the rain.


On Hannibal’s signal Murdock went left and round to the back of the barn. Hannibal approached the front doors. They were secured with a large padlock. He reached under his shirt and pulled out three keys on a leather thong. The keys were marked “T” “D” and “H”. Key “H” unlocked the padlock and Hannibal slipped inside. The interior was gloomy, small, high windows the only illumination. Dust motes and tiny pieces of straw stirred up by the opening of the door danced in shafts of light. Hannibal had to suppress an urge to sneeze.


In the middle of the barn a tarpaulin covered a car. A Buick, for escape plan “Harry” Hannibal knew. Wooden boxes and plastic crates stood around beside the car.


Murdock appeared peering over the edge of the hayloft he had climbed into using a ladder at the back.


“Colonel,” he said. “All clear up top.”


Hannibal gave Murdock a thumbs up, smiling.


“Come on down, Captain.” Murdock started to climb down a ladder, sneezing all the way. Hannibal turned to the centre of the floor and pulled the tarp off the car. “Let’s get this baby warmed up.”


***


The part of this plan Hannibal didn’t like, really didn’t like, was being out of touch. But he didn’t dare trust radio communications this close to the compound. He stood at the barn door puffing a cigar. He and Murdock had got the car started and loaded and now they were just waiting for Face and BA.


But they had been waiting for an hour now and there was no sign of them. Hannibal checked his watch. An hour and a quarter actually. Forty-five minutes overdue. When they hit an hour overdue Hannibal had to make a decision.


“Hey, Hannibal,” Murdock came over to him. “Here’s ‘your’ driving licence.” Hannibal took the fake licence and despite his worry he had to smile at the name on it.


“Virgil Hilts?”


“Well you started The Great Escape theme,” Murdock said. “And Face ran with it. You know this place,” he waved a hand to indicate the barn, “is rented under the name Eric Ashley-Pitt?”


“Gotta love the guy.” Hannibal grinned.


He looked at the driving licence again, a slightly wistful expression on his face.


“You’re picturing yourself on that motorbike right now, aren’t you?” Murdock said, grinning.


Hannibal just gave a quirky smile in response.


“So tell me, Colonel.” He pronounced it “col oh nel” affecting a ridiculously bad German accent. “Ven did you start believing you ver Steve McQueen.”


“I don’t think I’m Steve McQueen,” Hannibal protested. “I just wish I was sometimes.”


“Aw, Hannibal,” Murdock said, in his own voice again. “You’re just as cool as Steve McQueen.”


“I am?” Hannibal said, pleased.


“Well, no, obviously not. I just said that to make you feel better,” Murdock admitted.


“Murdock…” Hannibal shook his head. He could always rely on Murdock to distract him from brooding. Then he went serious again and checked his watch.


“They’ll be here.” Murdock said.


Hannibal didn’t answer. They’d better be. He’d already lost one man today.


***


Hannibal was going to have to give Face and BA some refresher courses in stealth. He and Murdock heard them coming from at least a hundred yards away. Probably because they were arguing. Hannibal grinned and put his gun away as he and Murdock went to greet the latecomers. BA pushed open the door into the barn and Hannibal and Murdock lost their grins instantly.


Exhausted BA dropped to his knees, lowering Face off his shoulder. The pair of them were covered in blood and dirt. Hannibal and Murdock rushed to help Face.


“What happened?” Hannibal demanded. “Murdock, first aid kit!”


BA glared at Hannibal. “He got shot, man. What the heck you think happened?”


“Right through. Missed bone.” Face gasped. “Hurts…”


Damn, damn, damn. Hannibal swore never to even think the words ‘piece of cake’ again.


After a hasty patching up job Hannibal and Murdock lifted Face into the back seat of the car. Murdock stayed there with him, while BA and Hannibal got into the front. They drove out of the barn, over rough ground until they reached the road.


“Which way?” BA asked from the driving seat.


Hannibal thought for a moment, and then he said. “DC General.” BA pulled out onto the road.


“Hannibal,” Murdock said. “Are you absolutely sure that’s wise? I mean I know Face needs the ER, but DC General is where Stockwell is, isn’t it?”


“Yeah, supposedly.” Hannibal took a fresh clip for his automatic from the glove compartment, slapped it home. “Let’s say that on this trip we’re going to kill two birds with one stone.”

Chapter 5

BA parked in a quiet corner of the lot at DC General. Hannibal looked back at Face, who was pale and gritting his teeth against the pain. The he turned to Murdock.


“Take Face into the emergency room. Try not to draw too much attention. You’re just a couple of dumb guys who were messing around with the gun you bought for home security and had an accident.”


“I don’t know anything about guns,” Murdock said, getting straight into character. “I didn’t even know it was loaded.” He had a scared and slightly goofy expression on his face.


“Right.” Hannibal said. “They’ll probably want to admit you Face, you’ll have to talk your way out of that. Sign out AMA if you have to, but don’t make too much fuss if you can help it.” He turned to the driver’s seat as Murdock started to help Face out of the car. “BA stay here and guard the car.” BA nodded. Hannibal wanted Face and Murdock to be as low profile as possible in the ER and BA didn’t really do low profile. Besides this car was now their life, and Hannibal didn’t want to risk anything happening to it.


“What you gonna do, man?” BA asked.


“Visit a sick friend.” Hannibal said.


***


Hannibal left Face and Murdock at the door to the ER and went round to the main entrance to the hospital. He stopped off in the lobby gift shop and bought some flowers and a large teddy bear. Now he was just another hospital visitor. The bear he carried was pastel blue with a shiny ribbon around it that said “Congratulations on your new baby boy.” He kept a beaming smile on his face as he walked through the halls. Just another proud father… well okay, maybe grandfather was more convincing.


He stepped out of the elevator on the fifth floor. The corridor he stepped into was very familiar. When you went to the left it led to the secure ward. There was a strange mix of patients in there. There were prisoners, some of them hand-cuffed to their hospital beds, and people who for one reason or another needed police protection. A cop guarded the door. Correction, Hannibal thought. A man in a police uniform guarded the door. Whether he was an actual police officer was still undetermined. Hannibal shook his head ruefully. Stockwell’s influence was starting to mess with his head.


The reason this corridor was familiar to Hannibal was because Face had been in the secure ward after he’d been shot at Villa Cuchina. Hannibal hadn’t argued, although he’d suspected that it was less about mob reprisals and more about Stockwell’s paranoia. If Stockwell was here at DC General the secure ward are where he’d be. And if he wasn’t here… well Hannibal needed to know that for sure.


He didn’t turn left, he went right. That corridor led round to the maternity ward. Hannibal turned the corner that took him out of sight of the armed man outside the secure ward. He waited a moment, bending to tie his shoe until this corridor was empty, then he ducked into a supply closet.


He dumped the flowers and the bear and looked around in the dim light. He found what he was looking for. The air vent. He’d noticed before that they were big. Big enough for a man to squeeze through. In fact he’d mentioned it to Stockwell as a possible hole in security. He just hoped that nobody had got around to doing anything about it.


Hannibal found some cartons of supplies strong enough for him to stand on and used them to get up to the vent. Oh even better. It was hinged; he didn’t have to unscrew anything. This was a piece of… no. No cake. And no counting his chickens before they hatched.


He took a small flashlight from his pocket, put it between his teeth. Other useful items from his jacket pockets he transferred into the pockets of his pants. The jacket was too likely to snag on things. He took it off and left it behind as he climbed into the air vent. He had changed into sneakers before he left the car. They squeaked a little on the metal, but didn’t bang around the way his boots would have.


Hannibal began to crawl on his belly. It was slow going, but he had to give Face and Murdock time to get Face treated anyway. No rush. Hannibal crawled.


***


By the time he reached the vents to the rooms in the secure wards he was sweating and covered in dust. One or two of the sections he’d crawled through didn’t seem to have any air flowing through them and were full of dust, spiders webs and dead bugs. Hannibal had known what it was like to be so hungry or thirsty that you could think of nothing else, but he’d never known that the urge to sneeze could fill his brain from edge to edge. He stamped down hard on that urge.


He peered through the vents as he passed, checking out the patients. Most of them were tough looking customers with prison guards or cops watching over them. He had to move very slowly now, sliding himself along to make sure he made no noise. He looked through a vent into the corridor and smiled. Two dark suited men he recognised stood, looking bored, outside a room with the blinds closed. Ables. There was an intersection ahead. Hannibal took the left and in a moment was looking into the room.


There were no Ables inside. The screens were pulled around the bed and Hannibal couldn’t see what was happening behind them. Everything about this said ‘trap’. Oh well, sometimes the mouse just had to have that cheese.


Using a piece of steel wire threaded through the grid he lifted the catch on the vent cover and slid out and down to the floor. Drawing his gun he walked to the bed and pulled aside the screens.


“Hello, Colonel.” Carla sat on the unoccupied bed. She had an Uzi pistol in her hand and very smug expression on her face.


“Carla, why am I not…” He stopped. “Excuse me.” Hannibal turned away and sneezed hugely four times. Carla watched him with her eyebrows raised. When he turned back to her she held out a box of Kleenex from the nightstand. Hannibal grabbed a bunch of tissues and blew his nose, which felt like it was full of gravel.


“Feeling better?” Carla asked, almost smirking.


“Much,” Hannibal said a little hoarsely. His eyes were watering. He pulled himself together. “Okay, where were we? Never mind. I sprung your trap. Now tell me what the hell is going on. Where’s Stockwell? Bethesda?”


“That’s right.” Nope, she was lying. He’d spotted her tell. She blinked too often when she was bluffing and she was blinking plenty right now.


“Stockwell isn’t here and he isn’t at Bethesda Naval. At least not unless he’s in the morgue. He’s dead isn’t he?”


She didn’t appear surprised that he had figured it out. “Yes,” Carla admitted. “He was dead when they found him.”


“And you told us he was alive to try and trap us. You hoped that whoever had shot him would come along to finish the job.”


“And here you are, in his room, with a gun in your hand.” She sounded very smug indeed. “Now what am I supposed to make of that, Colonel?”


“Well, I’m sure you’ll try to make a prosecution case of it, Carla. Now let’s talk about someone whose life I actually care about.” His voice went very hard. “Where’s Frankie?”


“You still persist in this fantasy that I’ve got Santana…”


“How about a deal, Carla? You release Frankie and I’ll confess.”


She stared at him. “Confess?”


“I’ll sign anything you want me to. As long as Frankie and the others go free.”


She smiled, with what appeared to be genuine pleasure.


“Thank you, Colonel. I agree to the deal, I’ll make arrangements about Mr Santana immediately.” She reached for the phone and Hannibal pounced as she looked away from him for a second. He caught both her wrists, twisted the right one, forcing her to drop the Uzi onto the bed.


“Liar. You don’t have Frankie. I can read you like a book.”


Her scream was so loud it almost deafened Hannibal, though her knee driving into his groin rather distracted him from that. But even as he folded up he grabbed the Uzi off the bed. The Ables ran in and Hannibal let loose with the Uzi, just over their heads. They dropped to the floor and he ran straight at them, jumping over them and out into the corridor.


“Get him, you idiots!” He heard Carla yell.


Smart move, Colonel, Hannibal thought as, with a gun in each hand, he ran into a corridor that was heaving with armed cops and prison guards. Thankfully the room he’d just come out of was near the door out of the ward. Hannibal hit the door like a missile sending the cop on the other side sprawling. From behind him he heard yells of “Drop your weapons!” “Freeze!” “Armed police!” All the usual. If he had a dollar for every time someone had yelled ‘Freeze!’ at him…


He ran, expecting at any moment to be shot in the back. But there was a crowd of people getting off the elevator and the Ables showed some restraint. The people started screaming at the sight of Hannibal and the Ables pursuing him.


Hannibal risked a glance over his shoulder. It was only the Ables coming after him. Of course the cops couldn’t just run off and leave the dangerous prisoners they were guarding. Well that didn’t make things a piece of cake, but it was a crumb of comfort.


He found the stairs and took each flight in two jumps. If he fell and broke his leg, or even twisted his ankle it was over. But if he made if far enough down, and kept far enough ahead of them, he had a plan. They must be expecting him to head for the lobby, so he didn’t. Hannibal left the stairwell and went out onto the mezzanine, one floor up from the lobby. There was a restaurant there.


He shoved his automatic into the waistband of his pants and covered it with his shirt. He folded the Uzi’s stock and held the gun flat against his body, concealing it with his arm as best he could. Then Hannibal walked through the restaurant trying to pretend he was quite normal and respectable looking, as opposed to dishevelled, armed and filthy, with dead spiders in his hair.


The Ables hadn’t come after him. They were probably down in the lobby now, meeting up with their friends and being baffled. Hannibal walked out onto a terrace, where tables with parasols were set up. He climbed over the railing around the terrace. Some people sitting at one of the tables drinking coffee stared at him.


“Hi, folks.” Hannibal smiled at them. “Try the tuna salad here. It’s great.” He jumped and fell ten feet into a hedge. After a moment he struggled out of the hedge. It had cushioned his fall, but it was thorny and he was cut and scratched on every bit of exposed skin. The coffee drinkers had rushed to the rail and were looking down at him in astonishment. Hannibal gave them a grin and a thumbs up and ran for the parking lot.


“Go, BA!” Hannibal ordered diving into the front seat of the car. BA did, roaring away. Face and Murdock stared at Hannibal from the back seat. There was a big bandage on Face’s leg and a pair of forearm crutches lay across his and Murdock’s knees.


“What the hell happened to you?” Face asked. Hannibal was covered in dirt and scratches. He was panting, but he was grinning. A Jazzy kind of grin.


“Long story short. Stockwell’s dead. I just pretty much confessed to Carla. She doesn’t have Frankie. We’re screwed.” He laughed, adrenalin still having an effect. “But on the plus side I picked up this shiny little piece.” He showed them Carla’s Uzi.


“Could you just back up a second to the part about you confessing?” Murdock said.


“And the part about us being screwed,” Face said.


“She really doesn’t have Frankie?” BA asked.


“No, I’m sure she doesn’t,” Hannibal said.


“So where is he?” Murdock asked.


“If he ran, and I’m starting to think he did, then I can only think of one place he would go. For Frankie this whole nightmare has been about one thing. Or rather one person. One person he’s been trying to protect all along.”


“His father.” BA said.


“Right. That’s where he’s going.” Hannibal said. “So that’s where we’re going. Back to home ground, fellas. California here we come.”

Chapter 6

“Are we in Texas yet?”


Hannibal was surprised to hear Murdock’s quiet voice in the darkness, he’d thought the Captain was fast asleep.


“Yeah, crossed the state line about twenty minutes back,” he answered. “I figured we’d push on to Amarillo and get some gas and something to eat there.”


Murdock nodded and stretched as much as he could in the passenger seat.


“Sounds good.”


“You can drive for a while after that. I’m beat.”


“Okay.”


They both kept their voices low to avoid disturbing BA and Face who were sleeping on the back seat. Though there wasn’t much chance of waking Face, not with the painkillers he’d taken. Face was curled on his side, covered by a dark blue blanket, his head on a cushion on BA’s knees. BA had one arm draped across Face and Face was hanging onto BA’s hand. Hannibal wished he had a camera so he could embarrass them later with how disgustingly cute they looked.


Murdock looked out into the blackness. There were no other vehicles in sight. No lights on the horizon. An ocean of darkness surrounded them. A sliver of moon floated through the night sky.


“Radio didn’t disturb you, did it?” Hannibal asked. The car radio was playing very quietly.


“No.” Murdock started to fiddle with the tuning knob, seeing what he could find. “You get some weird stuff on the radio out here.” He said. “The midnight nuts on the talk radio stations aren’t even the half of it.” But all he could seem to find was sad Country songs. He sat back with a sigh.


“So how we going to play this, Colonel?” Murdock asked. “When we get to LA? Are we going to stake out old Mr Santana and wait for Frankie to show?”


Hannibal shook his head. He’d been thinking about this for the past several hundred miles.


“No. I expect Frankie has probably already contacted him and started making arrangements to take him out of the nursing home. I’m going to walk right up and tell him we’re friends. We need to get him on our side if we’re going to find Frankie.”


“Okay.” Murdock looked thoughtful. “What if Frankie already took him out of there?”


Hannibal shook his head again. “Unlikely. From what Frankie’s told me in the past he’s not in the best of health. It could take a few days to make proper arrangements to move him.”


Murdock went quiet again for a long time.


“You’re certain about this?” Murdock asked eventually. “You’re certain Frankie ran?”


Hannibal glanced over at him. “Yes. It’s the only thing that makes sense. I’m sure Carla doesn’t have him. I don’t believe anyone got in the house and took him out undetected. He ran.” Hannibal smiled a little. As anxious as he was over the thought of Frankie out there alone he realised that he actually felt rather proud of him. Seems like the kid had learnt his lessons well.


“Has it occurred to you that maybe…” Murdock hesitated as if he was worried Hannibal wouldn’t like what he was about to say. “Well, maybe we shouldn’t go after him. Should just let him and his dad be, not bring them any more trouble. If Frankie wants to leave us then maybe we should let him.”


“No.” Hannibal’s voice was sharp and louder than he intended. BA stirred a little and muttered something unintelligible. Hannibal lowered his voice as he went on. “I know what you’re saying Murdock. And hell, yes, we have brought Frankie plenty of trouble in the past and maybe that’s what we’re bringing him now. But I won’t abandon him. He doesn’t have the resources to stay ahead of the organisation, however much he’s learned from us. Not with a sick old man to take care of too.”


“Okay.”


“I’m not saying we bring him back onto the team. I doubt he wants that anyway. But we have to get him and his dad someplace safe. That’s the priority now.”


“Right.”


“And then we can get back on track.” Hannibal’s voice was grim and determined. “Then we can get back to going after whoever killed Stockwell.”


“Ah.” Murdock hesitated for a long time. “And you’re sure that’s not what we’re doing now?”


The car swerved violently.


“Frankie did not shoot Stockwell!” Hannibal snapped. BA blinked awake. Even Face stirred uneasily in his drugged sleep.


“I’m just saying that, well, if he got out the night he ran he could have got out the night before.” Murdock said.


“No.” Hannibal’s voice was commanding and cold. He didn’t want to hear any arguments, but he suspected he was about to.


BA had guessed right away what they were talking about. After a moment of tense silence he spoke up.


“Frankie was asking me about ‘fragging’, Hannibal. After we talked in the basketball court. He asked if I thought you’d be okay about it if Murdock had shot Stockwell for the good of the team.”


“And you think he was really asking about himself, not Murdock?” Hannibal asked, his voice still cold.


BA shrugged. “Could be.” He noticed that the blanket had slipped partly off Face when he’d stirred. BA pulled it back up around him and rested a hand on Face’s shoulder.


“No.” Hannibal insisted. “Frankie wouldn’t do that. He’s not a killer. He’s not like…that.” Not like us. Killing was one thing Hannibal had not trained Frankie to do.


“He’s been under a lot of pressure.” Murdock said.


“We’ve all been under pressure.”


“Yeah, but we’re more used to it. He’s not. He’s not trained to handle it. He’s a civilian, Hannibal.”


“You think I’ve forgotten that? You don’t think I’m conscious of that fact every minute we’re on a mission?”


“I know. But what I’m saying is that we have no idea how he might react to it all. To the things he’s seen the past year.” Murdock paused a moment when Hannibal looked at him. “I know you’ve tried to protect him when you could. But you couldn’t protect him that night at Villa Cuchina.”


Murdock’s words were physically painful to Hannibal. As always when he heard the words ‘Villa Cuchina’ guilt stabbed right through him. Irrational guilt maybe. But still painful.


“You said he did fine that night, Murdock.” Hannibal pointed out. “That he kept his head.”


“Sure.” Murdock agreed. “That night he was fine. But afterwards?” He paused for a moment and went on. “We’ve talked a lot about that night.” Murdock went on. “You and me have talked. You and Face. Me and Face. Me and BA.” He paused. “Have any of us talked to Frankie about what he was feeling when he was watching Face almost bleed to death?”


And Hannibal was suddenly not the only one in the car feeling guilty.


***


The nursing home was slightly shabby, the wallpaper faded, paint starting to peel. But it was clean and warm the staff seemed pleasant.


Face gave a little gasp of pain at one point as he hobbled along the corridor on his crutches.


“You should have stayed in the car.” Hannibal said.


“I’m fine. Anyway, you needed me to get past the reception committee.”


This was true. Thanks to Face’s silver tongue the people in charge of the home now thought they were old friends visiting Mr Santana.


“Room forty seven.” Murdock said. “Here it is.” He knocked and in a moment a wavering voice invited them to come in.


The man inside looked surprised at his four strange visitors. He was about seventy years old at a guess, skin dotted with age spots. His hair was thin but still had a lot of black in it. He was sitting in an armchair, a table at the side, which he was laying a newspaper down on as they came in. The room was pleasantly decorated and quite spacious. The bed was neatly made.


“Please, don’t get up.” Hannibal said as the old man tried to rise from the chair. Hannibal stepped forward and held out his hand. “Mr Santana. My name is Hannibal Smith. You son may have mentioned me.” Mr Santana took Hannibal’s hand to shake it. His hand trembled and he had no grip at all.


“Always pleased to have visitors, Mr Smith, but I’m afraid you’ve made a mistake. I don’t have a son.”


The team glanced at each other. Then they all looked at Face.


“Erm, I’m sorry, is there another Mr Santana who lives at this home?” Face asked, flicking through a notebook. He was sure they’d come to the right place.


“No, sonny, not that I know of,” Mr Santana said. “There’s old Eric Santiago, maybe it’s him you want?”


“Um, no, I don’t think so. You are Modesto Santana? You lived in New York most of your life? You were married to Vanessa?” He glanced over at the nightstand. A fading picture of a pretty young Hispanic woman stood there. Beside it was a picture of a man and a woman, middle aged, their arms around each other.


“That’s right.” Mr Santana said. “Yes, that’s my Vanessa. She was quite a beauty, don’t you think?”


“Yes, sir,” Hannibal said, also looking at the photograph. He leaned close to Mr Santana. “Look, Mr Santana, we’re friends of your son. I know he may have told you to stall anyone who comes looking for him. But believe me, he didn’t mean us. If you could just tell us where Frankie is…”


Mr Santana slapped Hannibal across the face. Murdock gasped out loud. There was no force to the blow; the old man had no strength to put behind it. But it shut Hannibal up as effectively as if it had been a two by four.


Hannibal got out of his chair and walked to the window turning his back to them all. Mr Santana fell back in his chair, a hand over his mouth. He had gone very pale.


“Are you all right, sir?” Face asked gently. He touched one of Mr Santana’s hands. The old man’s skin felt papery and thin.


“Yes… yes.” His voice was very shaky now. “I’m sorry, Mr Smith.” He turned in his chair, trying to look at Hannibal. “I’m sorry. But you caught me by surprise. Using that name. My… my son’s name.”


Hannibal turned back. “Mr Santana, I’m confused,” he said. “Do you have a son named Frankie or not?” His voice was impatient and BA scowled a warning at him.


The hand under Face’s began to tremble even more.


“We had a son. My little boy.” His eyes were bright with tears. “But Frankie… Frankie died when he was six years old.”

Chapter 7

Frankie died when he was six years old.


The words played over and over in Hannibal’s head as he drove. He drove without a thought of where he was going. None of the others objected, or indeed spoke.


Frankie died when he was six years old.


A car accident, Mr Santana had said. His supervisor at work had come and told him to go to the hospital at once. Vanessa was already there, called from her job at a bakery. They had waited, terrified, then a doctor had came in and told them. Hit and run, on the street outside his school. The injuries were too bad for the doctors to be able to do anything. Head injuries. So horrible that they weren’t even allowed to see the body. To say goodbye to their son.


Frankie died when he was six years old.


Vanessa had never been the same again, Mr Santana said, never got over his death, was hospitalised many times for depression after that.


“Part of her died that day too.” Mr Santana had said. And turned away from them to hide his tears. The team had known it was time to leave. But as they rose to go Hannibal had one more thing to ask. He whispered to his men.


“Has anyone got a picture of…?” He couldn’t say the name, but they knew who he meant. Murdock pulled out his wallet and extracted a photograph. A bunch of other pictures slid out and Murdock cursed as they dropped to the floor. Hannibal bent to help him pick them up. There were pictures of Hannibal, of BA and Face, one of Amy, one of Tawnia. Even one of Dr Richter. For a moment Hannibal smiled at Murdock’s apparent sentimentality. Until he noticed what was on the backs of the photos.


Murdock avoided Hannibal’s eyes as he gathered up the pictures. Hannibal turned back to Mr Santana.


“Sir,” he held up the photo. “Did you ever see this man before?” He watched the old man very closely. If this were all an elaborate bluff to throw them off the scent then there’d be some reaction there, some recognition.


But Mr Santana just looked blank. He tried to take the picture, for a closer look, but Hannibal kept a firm grip on it. Wouldn’t let the old man see the name “Frankie” written on the back in large clear letters.


“I never saw him before, Mr Smith.” He was telling the truth.


They left him alone with his memories and got back in the car and drove.


However screwed they’d been before was as nothing to how screwed Hannibal felt now. At least before they’d had a lead on finding Frankie. Now they really had to find him, whoever he actually was and they had no clue where to start. Now they were just out here running.


They’d been on the run before of course and mostly they’d made it through okay. Things got difficult if one of them got hurt, but in the end a doctor cared more about your BP than your ID, so he wasn’t too worried about Face’s wounded leg and any future injuries they might pick up.


What he was worried about was Murdock. He glanced in the rear view mirror at Murdock, who was gazing out of the window at the desert scenery growing dim in the twilight.


You didn’t just drop in on a small town doctor and say, “My friend is having hallucinations. Can you fix him up quick so we can get out of here?”


He thought about the photographs in Murdock’s wallet. The names written on the backs of them all.


Intermittent memory loss.


Instead of smiling at those words he almost shuddered. Being on the run with Murdock was a very different prospect. He was okay right now, but things could change, if he had a relapse.


What were their options? The Able’s would be coming after them. Once they got on the team’s trail they were going to be hard to shake off. And Carla would probably give a heads up to the army and the protection they’d enjoyed as apparent dead men would no longer apply. Every MP, every cop, every FBI agent in the country would have orders to shoot them on sight. They were convicted murderers. Convicted murderers sentenced to death.


And Carla had to eliminate them; whether she really believed Hannibal had killed Stockwell or not. They just knew too much now to be allowed to roam around loose. She had to be under pressure from her bosses to close the case on Stockwell’s death and Hannibal knew that getting to the truth was less important to her than proving her efficiency. She wasn’t getting Stockwell’s job, and whoever got it would bring in his own people. So if Carla wanted a choice new assignment she had to prove herself.


Hannibal began seriously thinking about getting across the border to Canada.


“Hannibal.” BA’s voice was uncharacteristically quiet. “We nearly out of gas.” Hannibal glanced at the dash, BA was right.


“I saw a sign for a rest stop a couple of miles up ahead.” Murdock said. “Gas, food, lodgings.”


“Okay, we’ll stop for the night,” Hannibal said. “We need some rest.” He glanced back at Face who looked pale. Nearly three days now in this car with his wounded leg was telling on him. He needed a proper bed for the night. They all did. Maybe things would look clearer in the morning.


***


They were going to have to keep a man on watch and Hannibal split them into three shifts. Murdock first, then it would be Hannibal’s turn, then BA’s. Despite Face’s protest that he could take a shift on sentry duty Hannibal had told him it wasn’t negotiable. If he got a full night’s sleep tonight Hannibal might consider letting him take a half shift tomorrow night.


Now Hannibal stood in the shadows outside the door to their motel room. He had a cigar, but it was unlit. Not wanting to give away his position. He was gazing out into the darkness pressing down on this little oasis of light, when he saw movement. Beside their car. He became even more still and watched carefully.


Someone was on the other side of the car, where he couldn’t see them. Moving shadows gave them away. Then the back door on that side opened, not very wide and then closed again, with no sound, so probably not closed all the way.


If this was a thief preying on travellers he was about to get one hell of a shock. Hannibal glided towards the car. When he was close to it he would be in the light so he got on his hands and knees to approach without being seen. The only door he knew was unlocked was the one the intruder had used so Hannibal had to make his way around to that. He got there held his breath and counted one, two, three.


He pulled open the door, reached in and grabbed a handful of cloth, jerked out a black clad figure. He threw them to the ground and put a foot on their chest, his gun aimed at their face.


“No! Johnny, it’s me! Don’t shoot!”


Hannibal gaped for a second at Frankie, then he reached down and grabbed him. Hauled him up to slam him face first against the car, frisked him. He found a pistol in a shoulder holster under Frankie’s jacket. Blinding rage filled Hannibal. He pressed his gun into the man’s neck.


“Don’t call me ‘Johnny’.” Hannibal ground out. “You call me ‘Colonel’ or ‘sir’ from now on. We aren’t Frankie and Johnny any more, understood?”


“Then you know?” Frankie’s voice was quiet.


“We know. We know who you’re not. Now who the hell are you?”


“Sorry, Colonel. Not at liberty to say.” Frankie said.


“We’ll see about that. Get in the car.” He shoved Frankie into the back seat of the car, not being bothered in the slightest when Frankie bumped his head on the doorframe and cursed.


Inside the car Hannibal pointed his gun at Frankie, was about to speak, but Frankie got in first.


“What’s wrong with Face?”


“What?”


“He was using crutches. Is he okay?”


“And you care because…?”


“Johnny… Colonel.” Frankie said. “I need to say something right up front.”


“How about your real name?” Hannibal suggested. Frankie ignored the suggestion.


“I’m not working against you and your team.”


“Oh really?” To say Hannibal didn’t sound convinced was an understatement.


“Really.” Frankie insisted. “I needed you guys, but I haven’t betrayed you.”


“You delivered us into Stockwell’s hands, Frankie.” Hannibal used the name, without even realising. But hell, what else was he going to call him? “And we forgave you for that, because we thought you were being blackmailed. But you weren’t, not really. You lied to me, to us, from day one.”


“Yeah, okay, I did that,” Frankie admitted. “But Stockwell was going to get you guys one way or another. I needed him to think he was getting me too, so I could get inside.”


“You’re saying you weren’t working for Stockwell?”


“If I was working for him would I have shot him?”


***


“Wake up, guys. I brought us a chew toy.” Hannibal switched on the light of the motel room, waking the others. He tossed Frankie into the room. Frankie tumbled to the floor. The other three stared at him.


“Hi, guys.” Frankie said. He started to get to his feet.


“Stay down there.” Hannibal ordered. Frankie sat back down.


“Where the hell did you find him?” Murdock asked.


“He followed us from LA. He watched Mr Santana’s nursing home and waited for us to show up. Which worries me as I feel like I’m getting predictable.”


Murdock and BA had got out of bed and were standing over Frankie. Well BA was more looming. Face sat on the edge of his bed. Hannibal noticed that Murdock stood very deliberately between Frankie and the injured Face.


“So who is he?” Face asked.


“That he won’t tell me.” Hannibal said.


“Oh yeah?” BA growled. He was wearing only pyjama trousers. When he moved his huge chest and shoulder muscles glistened in the light. Hannibal shook his head. He was watching Frankie and knew the sickly smile he was giving BA was fake. As fake as all the fear, clumsiness and apparent inexperience he’s displayed the last year.


“Don’t bother, BA.” Hannibal said. “This is a pro we’re dealing with here. Slapping him around isn’t going to work.” He stepped closer and crouched by Frankie. “The ‘I’m just harmless Frankie Santana’ shtick is over, boy. You are a pro. Only a pro could have got out of that house and back in. And then got out the second night when security was tripled.”


Frankie flashed a tiny grin at that. Gone again as quick as it came, but Hannibal saw it.


“What was that for?” Hannibal demanded. Frankie looked back at him. His gaze was confident; he met the Colonel’s eyes without a hint of nervousness.


“I didn’t get out the second night. I didn’t leave until after you did.”


“What?”


Frankie smirked. Smug.


“Security was too tight. But I figured you might get mad enough to run if you thought Carla had taken me. The Ables would go after you. And then I’d just stroll out.”


“You’re saying you were in the house the whole time.” Hannibal’s disbelief was clear from his tone.


“Under the floorboards in my room. I made myself a little hidey hole.” Enough food and water for a couple of days, a blanket, a flashlight and a book. Was pretty relaxing really.”


“Crap!” Murdock said vehemently.


“When you guys came in Hannibal said ‘Bring me Able Six, now.’ BA said ‘Where the heck is he?’ Face said ‘You think someone took him?’ Murdock…”


“All right.” Hannibal cut him off. “Like I said. Pro.” He levelled his gun at Frankie. “Okay, something else you might remember me saying. That we would go after the person who shot Stockwell and teach them why they should be afraid of us. And yet you turn up here and admit you did that very thing. Either you have a death wish or you just miss us too much.”


“He admitted it?” Face asked.


“Yes. So why come back, Frankie?”


“I need your help.” Frankie said, in an earnest voice.


Murdock gave a harsh laugh. “Yeah, that’s gonna happen.”


“I didn’t intend to come back.”


“Sure, why come back when you’d got what you needed out of us?” Face said.


“But I need your help with this, Colonel.” He reached towards a pocket and in an instant was slammed down on his back by BA. Murdock grabbed the hand that had been going for the pocket. While they restrained him Hannibal extracted what Frankie had been reaching for.


It was a white envelope, folded over to fit into a jacket pocket. On the front, in what Hannibal recognised at once as Stockwell’s writing were two words.


Mr Smith

Chapter 8

The envelope had been sealed but was torn open.


“Didn’t your mother ever teach you that reading other people’s mail is not polite?” Hannibal asked Frankie as Murdock and BA let him sit up again.


“No.” Frankie said, his voice quiet. “She didn’t.”


Hannibal shrugged. “You took this from Stockwell’s office?” Frankie nodded. Hannibal opened the envelope. There was a small piece of paper inside. It contained two Chinese characters. Well they looked Chinese to Hannibal. They could be Japanese he supposed. He had no clue. Frankie was looking at him expectantly.


“Well?” He asked Hannibal.


“Well what?” Hannibal asked. “Is this supposed to mean something to me?” He showed the paper to the rest of the team. They all looked equally baffled.


“It doesn’t?” Frankie asked.


“Not a thing. I don’t read Chinese, or whatever it is.”


“But… the envelope is addressed to you, it must mean something.” Frankie insisted.


“Is it addressed to me?” Hannibal looked at it. “I mean, when did Stockwell ever call me ‘Mister’ Smith?”


“No, it must be for you.” Frankie scrambled to his feet, and was pushed back against the wall by BA. “It was in his A-Team files.” He was starting to sound panicky, though Hannibal couldn’t be certain that wasn’t some kind of act.


Murdock had taken the paper from Hannibal and was examining it. Held it up to the light, shook his head.


“It’s probably Mandarin.” He said. “We know Stockwell was an agent in Hong Kong for years.” He shrugged. “I guess we need to get it translated.”


Of course, Stockwell would never just be straightforward about anything, Hannibal thought. But getting the thing translated surely wasn’t beyond the wit of Fra…. of this person who used to be Frankie Santana.


“How come you haven’t just passed this on to your bosses?” Hannibal asked. “I’m sure they’d figure it out.”


“Joh… Colonel. I guess it’s time to come clean.” Frankie said. “Can BA let me go? I’m not gonna try anything, I swear.” He looked rather depressed Hannibal thought. A little crushed, as if he’d expected Hannibal to have answers for him and there were none. Hannibal nodded at BA, but kept his gun on Frankie. BA let Frankie go, but stood right beside him, ready. Murdock went to sit on the bed beside Face, still examining the paper as if hoping to find some kind of clue beyond the obvious.


Frankie slid down the wall to rest on his haunches.


“I’m CIA.” He said, rather wearily.


“Okay. Let’s say I believe that.” Hannibal said. “What’s your name?”


Frankie looked up at him.


“Well, that’s kind of a funny story, Colonel. I don’t know.”


***


It was less a funny story than a very, very strange story.


‘Frankie’ was CIA he said, his mission was to infiltrate Stockwell’s organisation. A cover identity based on the dead Frankie Santana had been created for him, well enough even to fool Stockwell’s background check. But that wasn’t the strange part. Spies spying on each other was all fairly routine snake swallowing its own tail “intelligence” nonsense as far as Hannibal was concerned.


No, the strange part was when Frankie told them about Project Loyola.


He didn’t know his real name he said because he’d been brought up by the CIA from infancy as part of an experiment to create agents who were more than agents. Who belonged heart and soul to The Company. To the children of Project Loyola being an agent was not a job. It was who they were.


“Bull.” Hannibal had said, sneered.


“It’s the truth, Colonel. They wanted to condition us from birth. To make us think of the CIA as our family.”


“Why?”


“Perfect loyalty. And from that, perfect obedience. Perfect agents. Perfect assassins.”


“So you say you have no idea of your real identity, or who your parents were?”


Frankie shook his head. “I could have been stolen from a village in Guatemala or a maternity ward in Cleveland.” He gave a humourless laugh. “Or grown in some kind of vat.” Hannibal noticed Face looking at Frankie with some pity in his eyes. He hardened his own heart. This must be some kind of crazy story to get their sympathy.


“Well they must have called you something back in evil kindergarten.” Murdock said. “You know when they were teaching you how to kill a man with your red crayon.”


“I had a name. A code name. I’d rather not use it. Frankie will do. I like Frankie. At least Frankie had…” He stopped and put his head down.


“Okay.” Hannibal said, “Let’s all pretend I believe you. Keep going. Why haven’t you gone back to your bosses?”


Frankie looked up again. “Because I’m on the run too, Colonel.”


“From your own people? Why?”


“I wasn’t supposed to kill Stockwell. That wasn’t one of my mission parameters. But I found… I found something when I was searching his office.”


“And that was?” Hannibal demanded.


“I found out that Loyola was his idea.”


***


Dawn was tinting the sky pink as Hannibal stood outside the motel room, smoking. The door behind him opened and Murdock came out. He handed the Colonel a cup of coffee.


“Are you buying any of this, Murdock?” Hannibal asked.


Murdock shrugged. “The CIA does do some stuff that scores pretty high on the weird crap-o-meter, but I dunno. This is right up there with that guy who tries to kill goats by staring at them, you know. We’re deep in tin foil hat territory.”


“It sounds very Stockwell to me though. Raising perfectly conditioned agents. No conflicting loyalties. No messy emotions. He always hated the human factor.” He smiled a little to himself. He and his team had been way too human for Stockwell to handle.


“Robots.” Murdock said, and then he shook his head and corrected himself. “No. Manufactured sociopaths.” He grimaced. “He thought he could treat people like lab rats.”


“Yeah.” Hannibal said. Except it hadn’t worked. If Frankie was to be believed, while searching Stockwell’s office as a routine part of his mission, he had come across papers that showed Project Loyola was Stockwell’s idea and he had supervised its first few years, before Frankie joined the program. Long dormant anger about the life that had been stolen from him had burst to the surface and Stockwell had walked into the room just in time to get that anger right in the chest.


He had to go on the run he’d said. Loyola operatives didn’t disobey orders. Any that did would either be ‘retrained’, which didn’t sound like it was a few refresher courses, or they’d be considered ‘defective’ and eliminated.


Hannibal had still been sceptical. Why had Frankie come to them? If all this were true then surely now his best option was to disappear, not tag along with another bunch of hunted men.


Frankie had tried to spin them a line that he wanted to help them. That they’d all been screwed over by the government and if there was something in that envelope he’d brought along that could help the team then they deserved to have it. But in the end he admitted the truth.


“If there’s something in that message that helps you get one over on the organisation then I’d be smart to stick with you.”


“Why would Stockwell send me something that threatens his own organisation?” Hannibal had asked.


Frankie had shrugged. “That bastard’s mind was so twisted who the hell knows what he might be thinking. Maybe he believed the most likely threat to him would come from inside, not outside. Maybe you were the only one he trusted.”


Face had laughed at that, slightly shocked. “Now that is one very disturbing thought.”


***


Hannibal put down his coffee cup and took the paper with the Chinese characters on it out of his pocket.


“The first thing we need to do is get this translated.” He said to Murdock.


“We could go back to LA, see Sam Yeng, maybe?”


Hannibal shook his head. Much as he could just go for some of the crispy duck at the Golden Pagoda he didn’t want to risk bringing trouble to any of their friends.


“Okay.” Murdock said. “You know we’re not far from Vegas.” Hannibal was surprised, hadn’t even noticed they’d crossed into Nevada. “And I happen to know one of the professors at UNLV.”


“He could translate this?”


“Nah, he works in the physics department, but he could get us an intro to someone in Oriental languages.”


“How do you know this guy?”


“He’s a vet. Air Force. He was in the VA for a few months. We still send Christmas cards.” He smiled. “Us crazy folks like to stick together.”


Hannibal grinned. “Then tell Face to break out his loaded dice and marked deck. We’re going to Vegas.”


***


It was mid morning when they stopped at a motel on the outskirts of Vegas.


“Murdock, go get us a room. One will do, not planning on staying overnight.” Hannibal said. BA got out of the car. Face stayed in the back.


Hannibal went around to the trunk and opened it.


“Hey, Frankie. Good trip?”


An outraged and handcuffed Frankie scrambled out.


“I can’t believe you made me ride in the trunk, man.” He said, seething. BA giggled and Frankie glared at him. “This isn’t funny.”


“Yeah it is,” BA said.


“Well, Face needs room to stretch out his bad leg.” Hannibal said.


“I had a car! We could have brought that.”


“Yeah, like I’m gonna trust your car.”


“Colonel, I told you, I’m on your side.” He looked at Hannibal, in full on ‘annoying but harmless’ mode. “I thought you believed me.” Hannibal wanted to slap him. He didn’t even know if ‘Frankie’ was conscious of doing it, of slipping into the behaviour of his supposed cover personality, but Hannibal was willing to bet he was, that it was deliberate, to keep them off guard.


“Even if I believe you, I don’t trust you. Now move it.” Murdock came back rattling a set of keys. “BA, take him inside and handcuff him to something. If he tries anything shoot him.” BA glanced sharply at Hannibal. He looked totally serious. “I’ll drop Murdock off at the university and take Face to get his leg checked out. Those stitches should come out. We’ll see you later this afternoon.” BA dragged off Frankie. Murdock tossed the sergeant the room keys then got into the car.


***


“Ah, Mr Murdock, is it? So good to meet you.” Murdock shook the hand of the middle aged oriental woman after being admitted to her office. All four walls were lined with floor to ceiling bookcases and books were also piled in corners, on tables and her desk. Papers and folders covered any space on her desk not already covered in books. A white shade with oriental characters painted on it was half drawn over the small window, one shaft of strong sunlight cutting across the room.


“Professor Chung. Thanks for agreeing to see me on short notice like this.” Murdock said, with his most charming smile.


“Will you join me for tea?” She offered.


“Thank you so much.” Murdock had been drinking nothing but soda and horrible really bad coffee for the last few days. A touch of civilization was a very welcome prospect.


As she bustled about making the tea she said, “Professor Laing said something on the telephone about a treasure hunt, Mr Murdock?”


“Yeah.” Murdock said, going into the cover story he’d come up with. “My boss sets the clues. One clue leads to another and eventually to the big prize.”


“Big prize?” She brought a tray to the desk, realised there was nowhere to put it down. Murdock hastily moved some books and what looked like a stack of student essays to make room. “Thank you.” She sat down, stirred the tea in its pot.


“A brand new Buick. Whoever finds it first keeps it.”


“Goodness. And your employer organises this treasure hunt every year?”


“Right. This is my first one.” Murdock didn’t see it as lying. He was telling a story. Hannibal lied, Face scammed, Murdock told stories, BA just demanded answers. Though in this case he’d probably say “please” and “ma’am”.


“My boss,” Murdock explained, “He’s like this crazy ex-hippy type who started writing software and got converted to capitalism. The treasure hunt is supposed to get us to use our initiative, keep us thinking creatively.”


“How very exciting.” She stood up to pour the tea, moving the teapot back and forth filling both cups at once. “Perhaps I should try something similar with my students.” She smiled, handing Murdock a cup. “Not that I have a brand new Buick to give away of course.”


Murdock sipped his tea. He felt very relaxed here. The book-lined study was a nice break from the cramped car interior and crummy motels. Academia had often appealed to Murdock. He could see himself as a professor. A nutty professor, obviously. Students would be fighting to get into Professor Murdock’s classes. And academics had to do something spectacularly crazy before they were considered any more than a little eccentric.


“Could I see the paper?” The professor asked, breaking Murdock out of his brief flight of academic fancy.


“Of course.” Murdock handed it over. She put on a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles she wore on a red ribbon around her neck.


“Ah, yes, it is Mandarin as you suspected. Rather nice penmanship.”


Murdock had zero interest in the quality of the penmanship, but he kept his tone polite. “What does it say?”


***


Hannibal glanced out if the window as a soft knocking sounded at the door.


“It’s Murdock, let him in.” He told BA.


BA opened the door and Murdock slipped inside. The room was dim with the drapes pulled. Face was lying on the bed, his bad leg propped on pillows. He must have been sleeping as he blinked owlishly at Murdock as he came in. A sulky looking Frankie was sitting on the floor handcuffed to a pipe.


“Well?” Hannibal asked.


“Got it, Colonel.” Murdock smiled. “For all the good it does us.”


“What does that mean, fool?” BA demanded.


“I mean I got the translation, but what the hell it means is anyone’s guess.”


“Let’s hear it.” Hannibal said.


“Well, according to the professor, who was a very nice lady, by the way, and gave me a lovely cup of green tea …” BA growled and Murdock decided to stop milking it. ” It says ‘listen to zephyr’.”


“Listen to zephyr?” Face repeated.


“What the heck does that mean?” BA asked.


Murdock shrugged. “Like I said. For all the good it does us.”


“I’ll bet he knows.” Hannibal said, looking at Frankie. He’d been watching him, looking for a reaction. The man was a pro, but Hannibal thought he’d seen something, a flicker in his eyes at the words.


Hannibal bent over beside Frankie and pointed his gun. “Okay, Frankie. Tell me all about Zephyr.”

Chapter 9

“Come on, Frankie. Zephyr. What is it? Who is it? Is that your code name?”


“No, I don’t know what it means.”


“Liar!” Hannibal snapped. He pressed his handgun against Frankie’s temple. “I’ve had it, Frankie. I’m at the end of my rope…”


“Hannibal.” BA said. Hannibal ignored him, focused on Frankie.


“You tell me the truth right now…”


“Hannibal.” BA’s voice again, more urgent.


“You honestly think I believe you’ll shoot me?” Frankie said, almost sneering.


“You think I won’t? You forget what I am, Frankie…”


“Hannibal!”


“Not now, BA!” Hannibal shouted over his shoulder.


“Yeah, now! The Ables are coming!”


BA was sitting on one of the beds, their radio set beside him. He’d been listening in on the frequencies the Ables used. He turned up the volume and voices filled the room.


“…I’m driving into the car lot of the motel now. They’re in room thirty-one. Rendezvous on my…”


“Hell!” Hannibal jumped to his feet. “BA, help Face. Murdock, unchain weasel boy.” He tossed the key of Frankie’s handcuffs to Murdock.


He ran to the door. A black car was indeed driving into the lot. A second after he showed his face a bullet smashed into the doorframe inches from his head. He ducked back inside. BA was supporting Face; Murdock was behind Frankie, a hand on his shoulder and a gun in his back.


“Out the back way!”


“No,” Face protested. “Hannibal, the car.”


“No chance. Move out!” They scrambled for the window that led out the back. BA went through first and it was a tight squeeze. He took half the frame with him, but he made it with some pushing from behind that he didn’t have time to yell about right now. He pulled the splintered wood off his shoulders and turned back to help Face down. Face’s crutches followed, three backpacks, then Murdock, Frankie and finally Hannibal.


Hannibal cuffed himself to Frankie. “You’re sticking with me. Move out, guys.”


“Hannibal,” Murdock said as they moved off. “Would this be a good time to mention that I dropped the key for those cuffs down a drain when I was climbing out of the window?”


***


They couldn’t move fast, with Face on crutches. But they got into an alleyway without being spotted and headed down it as fast as they could.


Staying on foot was not an option, Hannibal knew. Face was moving along at a pretty good clip on his crutches just now, but he couldn’t keep that up for long. Losing the car was a blow, losing its contents, most of their equipment and possessions even more so. As he walked Hannibal took stock. They had no rifles now, only handguns. He went over the contents of the backpacks in his head. Most importantly there were plenty of extra clips and ammo, a couple of spare handguns, all the cash, the radio, walkie-talkies and medical supplies.


But transport was the priority now. Stealing a car would be easy enough, but, once reported, a stolen car became a target for every cop in the vicinity.


They came out onto a street and Hannibal began to wonder if someone up there liked him. A few yards away was a bus stop and just pulling into it, a bus. That at least could get them out of the area fast. He headed for it quick before it pulled away. Frankie yelped as the handcuffs jerked on his wrist, but Hannibal didn’t care. The others followed, seeing his plan at once. BA pushed in front and got on first trying to hide the fact that Hannibal and Frankie were cuffed together. Murdock helped Face up the steps.


The driver scowled at the ten-dollar note BA placed in his tray.


“Exact change.”


“What?” BA growled. “You kidding me, sucker?” The driver looked up at BA and his eyes widened with alarm.


“Um.” He said. “Okay.” He made change for the ten as the others climbed aboard and headed to the back of the bus, being stared at by the other passengers on the way. BA stuffed the change in his pocket and followed them as the bus pulled away.


“Where exactly are we going?” Face asked Hannibal as they settled into the back seats of the bus.


Hannibal shrugged. “Any place but here.” He was sitting right at the back, Frankie beside him in the window seat.


“Then we need another car.” Murdock said.


“Yeah,” Hannibal said. “But for now.” He turned to Frankie. “Let’s pick up where we left off shall we?” Frankie stared back at him, sulky.


“I told you, man. I don’t know anything about Zephyr.”


“Try again.” Hannibal’s gun was out.


“Yeah, you’re gonna shoot me here, on a bus.”


Hannibal cursed in his head. Frankie was right. Of course Hannibal wasn’t going to shoot him, not back at the motel and not here. This needed a different approach.


“Then how about instead of wasting you we use you? If your story about Loyola is true then the CIA want you back real bad. So we could make a deal with them. You, plus everything we know about Stockwell’s organisation in exchange for our freedom.”


Frankie’s eyes went wide.


“You can’t,” he said, pleading. “Colonel, you don’t know what they’ll do to me.”


“I know exactly what they’ll do to you. So how about it Frankie? You tell us what Zephyr is, or you go home and they crack your head open to figure out what went wrong with your programming.”


Frankie swallowed a few time.


“Okay. Okay. I’ll tell you what I know.” He kept his voice low, was hard to hear over the noise of the bus engine and the team all leaned in close.


“Zephyr is a project.”


“Another project?” Murdock said. “More wacky CIA stuff?”


“No.” Frankie shook his head. “It seems to be independent of any of the agencies. We know that Stockwell is involved with it from way back. It’s one of these, ‘Above Top Secret’ things. The sort of project that they only tell Presidents about on a need to know basis.”


“What’s it all about?” Hannibal demanded.


“I don’t know. That’s what I’m trying to find out. That was my mission. The CIA wants to know what Zephyr is.”


“I’m sure the CIA wants to know about Zephyr.” Hannibal said. “And I’ll bet the Russians and the Chinese want to know about it too. How do we know you’re not an enemy agent?”


“I… I’m not.” Frankie protested.


“Prove it,” Hannibal said. “Help us out. Tell us what that message from Stockwell means. How do we ‘listen to Zephyr’?”


“I don’t know, Colonel. I wish I did.” He had on a very sincere expression; that a few days ago Hannibal would have trusted completely. Now he was sure Frankie was still hiding something.


“Not good enough.” Hannibal growled.


“Hannibal,” Face interrupted suddenly, “let’s get off here.”


“Huh?” Hannibal said, turning to him.


“Trust me,” Face struggled to his feet and pressed the bell.


***


They sat on a bench on the sidewalk and attempted to look innocent while Face picked the lock of the handcuffs. Across the road was a used car dealership that Face had spotted from the bus. Once Hannibal was free he stood up.


“BA, Murdock, stay here with Frankie.” They nodded, sat close on either side of him. Hannibal took one of the backpacks and he and Face crossed the road to the car dealership.


Fifteen minutes later they pulled up at the curb in a roomy station wagon. BA Frankie and Murdock piled into the back. Face was sitting in the passenger seat with a smug look on his face.


“Three thousand under sticker price.” Hannibal said, grinning. “When Face told his story about how he was shot in the leg when we were car-jacked and all our possessions stolen, the salesman almost started to cry.”


“Worst vacation ever.” Face smirked. “Let’s get the hell out of this town.”


***


They headed north out of Vegas, but soon turned off the interstate and took back roads, wanting to be as far off the beaten track as possible. Hannibal wanted to find someplace to hole up and regroup, to lay in some replacement supplies and to see if he could get the truth out of Frankie.


As darkness fell they drove into a small desert town. Actually it was barely more than a few houses clustered around an intersection rest stop, but there was a motel, a diner and a general store. There was also a small chapel that had a sign outside advising that it offered marriages twenty-four hours.


They got two rooms at the motel and once again Frankie was chained to a pipe. Leaving BA on guard the others went to the diner to get food and the store to pick up supplies.


They walked back towards the motel slowly, rather enjoying the beautiful deep indigo sky glittering with stars.


“Hannibal,” Murdock said. “You’re going to question Frankie some more, right?”


Hannibal nodded. “There’s something else he’s not telling us. I’m sure of it.”


“Okay. Thing is, would you let me question him?” At their surprised looks he said. “You see the threat to hand him over is only really good for one turn and you used it already. And he doesn’t believe you’ll hurt him. Not seriously.”


“Getting information from the enemy was part of my training.” Hannibal said quietly. “If I have to I’ll use it on him.”


“No, you won’t,” Murdock said, “You know you won’t. Because part of you still looks at him and sees Frankie. Same for BA or Face.”


“But not you?” Face said. “Are you saying that you could hurt him?”


“No,” Murdock said. Then he grinned. In the dim light his grin gave both Hannibal and Face chills. “But I can make him believe I could.”


***


Murdock went into the motel room where BA was guarding Frankie.


“BA,” he said, “Hannibal says you can go next door with him and Face, get something to eat. I’ll guard Frankie.”


BA nodded and left and Murdock went over to Frankie, stood over him.


“Do I get something to eat?” Frankie asked. Murdock reached into the paper bag he carried and dropped a couple of wrapped sandwiches in front of Frankie, followed by an apple and a can of soda.


“Thanks, Murdock.” Frankie said. He started to eat the sandwiches. Murdock went and sat on the bed. After a moment he spoke.


“Frankie, you going to tell us the truth?”


“I already did,” Frankie said, mouth full. He swallowed. “I swear.”


“Oh right, that’s okay then.” Murdock had found a newspaper. He appeared to read it casually for a moment. Then he rummaged in one of backpacks and took out a pair of scissors. Frankie looked at the scissors with some apprehension for a moment, but Murdock just folded up the newspaper and started to cut shapes out of it.


After a moment Murdock spoke again. “You know what sticks in my craw most, Frankie? It’s you breaking your oath.” He looked at Frankie; his eyes were terribly hurt.


“Oath?” Frankie said, puzzled.


“The Fighting Nighthawk Commandos, Frankie. Your oath.”


Surprise forced a laugh from Frankie. “You’re kidding right?”


“Kidding?” Murdock raised an eyebrow. He finished cutting up the newspaper and opened it up. He’d cut a chain of five stick men figures into the paper, joined to each other at the arms, as if they were all holding hands.


“Look at that,” Murdock said, “Five of them.” Snip went the scissors and one of the stick men on the end of the chain fell away from the others. Murdock put the remaining four down carefully and picked up the lone one. He smiled gently at Frankie and cut one of the arms off the paper man. Frankie, his dinner forgotten, gulped a couple of times. He looked at the door.


“No-one’s coming, Frankie.” Murdock said. Another snip and the paper man lost another arm.


“Murdock, look, I know you’re mad at me. But I was just doing my job.”


“Your job?” Snip, snip. Paper man had no legs now.


“It was never personal.”


“Never personal?” A final snip and the paper man was decapitated. And then Frankie gasped and flinched away, banging his head against the wall as Murdock flew at him. He crouched by Frankie, the scissors coming to a stop inches from Frankie’s face.


“You screwed us from the start, Frankie. You helped Stockwell get us. You were working for him, weren’t you? Tell the truth.”


“No! I hated that bastard as much as you! I shot him, Murdock!”


“Yes. And because you did we’re on the run and will be shot on sight by whoever finds us first. You’re going to get us killed and you want me to believe you’re on our side? You already got Face shot.”


“Hey, how was that my fault?” Frankie protested. “I wasn’t even there!”


“I mean at Villa Cuchina, Frankie. You saw the third man, didn’t you? But you had to maintain your cover as poor harmless Frankie, so you said nothing and Face nearly died!”


“No!” Frankie sounded genuinely shocked. “I was trying as hard as you to keep him alive that night!”


“Liar!” Murdock lunged with the scissors and Frankie cried out and cringed away. The scissors snipped, but there was no pain. Frankie turned back to stare at Murdock who was now grinning and holding up Frankie’s cut off pony tail. Frankie gaped at him.


“You know what this means?” Murdock asked, with a very disturbing smile on his face.


“Yeah, that you’re a fucking nut!” Frankie yelled. “Colonel!” He shouted. “Hannibal!”


“To cut a man’s hair off is symbolic castration.” Murdock said. “Now.” He smiled again. “Now, let’s move on from the symbolic shall we…?”


“Hannibal!” Frankie screamed this time. The door to the room slammed back and Hannibal and BA piled in.


“BA!” Hannibal said, “get Murdock out of here.” BA grabbed Murdock around the waist and dragged him out of the room, yelling. As they disappeared Face came in. He sat on one of the beds. Hannibal looked at him and gave him a tiny wink. Murdock had played his part well by the look of it. Frankie appeared very shaken. Hannibal went to close the door, cutting off the sound of Murdock’s crazed ranting.


“You okay?” Hannibal asked, gruffly.


“Man, I really thought he was gonna cut me.” Frankie said, shakily.


“I’m sure he would have.” Hannibal said, “He’s off his meds, you know? I don’t think we can control him any more.” He gave Frankie an evil grin. “So how about you tell me what I want to know and I promise I won’t let him back in here?”


Frankie looked up at him, shocked, then he looked at Face. His face was hard, no help there.


“Okay, Colonel you’re right, there’s something I haven’t told you.”


“About Zephyr?”


“No, about me. My real identity.”


“So you do know your name?” Hannibal paused a moment. Was Frankie’s real name actually useful information at this point? Unless he was about to confess to being Boris from downtown Leningrad…


“I’m not sure why we should care what your real name is,” Hannibal said.


“You should care,” Frankie said, “because my real name is Richard Bancroft.”

Chapter 10

“What did you say?” Face stared at Frankie in shock.


Hannibal gave a harsh, disbelieving laugh.


“There’s about fifty reasons why that’s not true, Frankie. But let’s stick with the top three, shall we? You’re too young, you’re too Hispanic and number one on the list, that’s Richard Bancroft sitting over there.” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder at Face.


“Says who?” Frankie asked. He had a quite malicious gleam in his eyes.


“A.J. Bancroft.” Hannibal said. “And Stockwell confirmed it.”


“Oh, Stockwell confirmed it?” Frankie said, heavy on the sarcasm. “Must be true then.” Hannibal frowned.


“A.J. had evidence that I was…” Face began.


“Yeah, evidence planted by me to lead him to you.” Frankie interrupted him. “I knew he was looking for his son, you were the right age, you didn’t know who your parents were. It was an obvious way to bring Bancroft in.” He shrugged a little. “Sorry, kinda rough on you I know.”


“Kinda rough?” Face echoed, his voice sounding rather distant.


“Too young, Frankie.” Hannibal pointed out.


“You have no idea how old I am. You never heard of plastic surgery?”


“Bull. It doesn’t work that way.”


“It isn’t Hollywood hacks working at the CIA, Colonel. Given enough time those guys could make me look like anything and anyone.”


“Oh, I suppose you’re really a blonde, blue eyed Nordic type?” Hannibal said.


“No. I am Hispanic. So was my mother.”


“Samantha?” Hannibal glanced back at Face, who had gone very quiet.


“What, all Hispanic women have to be named Maria?”


“Well if you were really Bancroft’s son why not lead him to you instead of Face?”


“You think I wanted a tearful reunion, Colonel?” Frankie’s voice was cold and full of contempt. “I wanted his money. And I didn’t want to share it with the girl. Bancroft had cash stashed all over the world. I wanted to get at the information to lead me to that. I didn’t realise the old bastard was going to drop dead on us.”


“So you weren’t on any CIA mission?” Hannibal’s voice was still dripping with scepticism.


“No, I skipped out on Loyola three years ago, after I found out who I really am. I knew Stockwell was interested in you guys so I had to attach myself to one of you to get inside. So one fake resume later and I’m a special effects man and big pals with the Aquamaniac.” He looked at Hannibal and laughed. “I guess the main thing I’m grateful for Colonel is that at least you’re not a fag. I was worried, you know with the acting thing. I mean I’ll do anything for that money, but can’t say I was looking forward to giving you…”


The punch bounced Frankie’s head off the wall. Blood spurted from his mouth.


Face, having jumped up without his crutches, dropped gracelessly to the floor, cradling the hand he’d struck Frankie with.


“You’re a liar!” he yelled at the dazed Frankie. “Liar!”


“Face…” Hannibal said, helping him back to his feet.


“I won’t listen to this!” Face shouted, hanging onto Hannibal as the Colonel pulled him back over to the bed. “I’m Richard Bancroft!”


“I know, Face, I know,” Hannibal said trying to calm Face. Face grabbed his crutches and got back his feet. He limped out of the room. Hannibal glanced at Frankie. He was shaking his head slowly; blood still dripping from his mouth. But he wasn’t unconscious; he would keep. Hannibal pulled open the drapes and followed Face outside. Murdock and BA were there, had been on their way to investigate the yelling.


“He said what?” BA was saying as Hannibal joined them.


“He said he’s Richard Bancroft, claimed he planted the evidence that suggested Face is.” Hannibal explained. He glanced in through the window, keeping an eye on Frankie, making sure he wasn’t trying to get out of the cuffs.


“That sounds like garbage.” BA said.


“Thank you, BA.” Face said. “Maybe you should tell Hannibal that.”


“What?” Hannibal looked at Face, startled. “You think I believe him?”


“You were listening to him,” Face said, accusingly. “Asking him questions.”


“That doesn’t mean I believe him!” Hannibal protested. “I just wanted to see…” Then he stopped, calmed himself. Face was caught off guard, upset and lashing out, best not to rise to him.


“Face, go get some rest.” Hannibal said. Face glared back at him for a moment, but recognised an order when he heard it. He turned to go, then turned back. “He’s not having my name, Hannibal.”


“I know Face.”


“He’s not having my past.” He hobbled off and into the other motel room, slammed the door behind him. Then he opened it again and shouted. “And he sure as hell isn’t having my sister!” This time the door slammed so hard the wall shook.


Two elderly ladies were walking past at that moment on the way to their room. Hannibal gave a sheepish grin at their shocked expressions and then he turned to Murdock.


“Murdock, you stay with him tonight, see if you can make him get some sleep.”


“Sure thing, Hannibal.”


“Both of you rest. BA and me will watch ‘Richard’.”


“That better be a joke,” BA said, warning in his tone. “Faceman is real upset.”


“I know, BA, I know.” Hannibal said. “Don’t worry, I don’t believe him.”


“Hannibal,” Murdock said. “Can I have the message? The envelope from Stockwell?”


“Sure, Murdock.” Hannibal took it from a pocket and handed it to him. “You have some idea what it’s about?


“Not yet. That’s what I’m going to work on.” He held up the envelope. “This is what we should be concentrating on, Colonel. Frankie is a distraction. Whether he’s deliberately trying to distract us from this or not, I don’t know. But this has to be our priority. Stockwell wanted us to ‘listen to Zephyr’. It has to be important.” He smiled a little. “I mean, he wasn’t exactly known for being a zany prankster.”


“Good point,” Hannibal said nodding. “Let me know if you figure anything out.” Murdock saluted, spun smartly on his heel and marched off next door. BA muttered “Fool,” after him and Hannibal smiled a little.


“Come on, BA, let’s go clean up the weasel before he bleeds all over the rug and they bill us for it.”


***


Murdock lay on his stomach on the motel room bed, a mass of scrunched up papers and candy bar wrappers all around him and scattered across the floor. By the dim light of the bedside lamp he scribbled in a notebook. Then he sighed, ripped the page off, crushed it into a ball and tossed it across the room. It actually landed in the trashcan.


“Your aim’s improving.”


Murdock turned to look at Face, who was watching him from the other bed.


“Hey.” Murdock said. “Sorry, did I wake you?”


“Yeah, sure Murdock, I was sleeping peacefully having happy dreams about puppies and candy.”


“Ouch. Sarcasm overdose.” Murdock said, grinning. He sat up, cross-legged on the bed, his notebook in his hand.


“Are you getting anywhere with that at all?” Face asked.


“Nope,” Murdock admitted.


“Maybe you should take a break. It’s after midnight.”


“Not tired.” Murdock said with a shrug. “Too much sugar.” He smiled. “Maybe I’ll go next door and talk to Frankie for a while.”


“You think he’ll help you with that?” Face sounded sceptical.


“No,” Murdock said, “but he could keep me amused with a story about how he works for the Illuminati and is on a quest for the Holy Grail.” He was rewarded with a small smile from Face. “And then he’ll come clean that actually he works at Area 51 and is investigating the involvement of the Loch Ness Monster in the Kennedy assassination.” This time Face laughed out loud. Murdock was happy to hear the sound.


“Okay,” Face sat up properly and reached for a glass of water by the bed. “Come on, let’s figure this thing out. How do we ‘listen to Zephyr’?”


Murdock tossed Face a chocolate bar and sat back against the headboard, his notebook in front of him.


“Well, I’m concentrating on the word Zephyr, since that’s what we’re meant to listen to. So the obvious thing is that it’s some kind of code. The simplest code is substituting numbers for letters, which gives us, z, 26, e, 5, p, 16, h, 8, y, 25, r, 18.


“26, 5, 16, 8, 25, 18?” Face reeled off quickly.


“You always had a head for figures.” Murdock said, glancing at him. “That didn’t seem to mean very much. So I wrote down all the digits in those numbers in numerical order.” He grinned. “Which was a little freaky, because that give us…”


Face beat him to it, his head for figures working overtime. “1, 1, 2, 2, 5, 5, 6, 6, 8, 8. Five pairs.” He smiled, seemed be enjoying himself. “That is a little freaky.”


“Yeah,” Murdock said. He was definitely enjoying himself. “Well, Stockwell never liked mess, so let’s eliminate the extra digit in each pair, leaving us 1, 2, 5, 6 and 8.”


“Did you try turning those back into letters?”


“Yeah, that just gives me A B E F and H. I can’t make a word out of those.” He smiled. “Well not a real word.” They both sat silent for a while, eating the candy bars.


“Okay, let’s think about ‘listen to’.” Face said, “See if that gives us a clue. What do we listen to?”


“Sounds.”


Face rolled his eyes. “Be more specific.”


“Speech. The radio. Music…”


“Music.” Face’s head went up.


“I thought about that already, but aren’t there only seven musical notes? A through G? We have an eight in there.”


“Murdock, there are twelve notes in an octave.” Face said. “Give me that notepad.” He took it from Murdock’s hand and started to write quickly. “Instead of matching the numbers against the alphabet,” he explained, “we could put them against the notes of an octave, that gives us, A, B flat, C sharp, D and E.”


“Face,” Murdock said. “You are a genius! I should kiss you!”


“I knew my piano lessons would come in handy one day,” Face said, very smug. “Now we need something to play these notes on, to see if we’re even remotely on the right track.”


“And I know just where we can get that.” Murdock said. “Put on your best clothes, Face, we’re going to church.”


***


“Voila,” Face said, as the lock on the door of the wedding chapel gave way to his lock picks.


“Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to say ‘viola’?” Murdock said. “Musical theme and all that.”


“Just get inside before a cop comes by.” Face said, pushing Murdock inside. Murdock smiled when he went in. But he wasn’t smiling because he saw the harmonium he hoped would be in the small chapel. He was smiling at the decoration.


“Good grief.” Face said as he stepped in beside Murdock. All the walls around the chapel were covered in murals depicting Elvis Presley. Curtains and wall hangings were printed or embroidered with Elvis. There were stained glass windows high in the walls letting in the quite strong light of the full moon. The window at the head of the chapel was large and colourful, Elvis, larger than life and magnificent in his shining white suit.


“I love it.” Murdock declared. “When I get married I am definitely having my wedding here.”


“And you’ll serve burgers for the wedding breakfast, I suppose.” Face said. “Let’s do this and get out of here.” They went to the harmonium and Face began to noodle around with the notes. He played them in the original order, and that meant nothing.


“Mix ’em up,” Murdock advised, “Jam.”


“Jam?” Face said, incredulous. “Murdock, you idiot, do you know how many potential combinations there are of five notes?”


Murdock looked hurt. “Face,” he said, “Don’t be cruel.”


Face glared at him. “And you can knock that off right now.”


“Knock what off?” Murdock just looked innocent. “C’mon Face, treat me nice.”


“One more Elvis lyric and I’m going back to the motel.” Face warned him.


“I’m sorry, Face.” Murdock said. “Honestly. I’ll be good.” Face looked at him narrowly. Then he sighed and ran his fingers over the keys, trying combinations of the five notes.


“Maybe it’s a bit from a song or something?” Murdock suggested. He grinned. “How spooky would it be if it was something from an Elvis song?”


“Yeah.” Face said sounding distracted. He went over several combinations. As he played he started to get a far away look in his eyes.


“You okay?” Murdock asked, quietly. “You still thinking about Frankie’s stupid story? You were all shook up about it before.”


“Yeah,” Face said again, and then he seemed to snap back to himself. “Did you just say ‘all shook up’?”


“No,” Murdock said. “Jeez, talk about your suspicious minds.” Face glared at him. “Okay,” Murdock held up his hands. “I’m sorry, it’s this place, it’s getting to me. Face, Frankie is lying, we all know that. Hell, Ellen even looks like you.”


“I don’t even know why I’m so bothered about it.” Face said. “It’s not like I want to claim that name. It’s not like I want everyone to start calling me Richard.”


“Which is good, because you just know Hannibal would call you Dick, don’t you?”


Face grimaced at the thought.


“C’mon, Face,” Murdock said, quiet and serious now. “You know it’s not about the name. It’s about knowing who you are, having something to hold onto. Having family.”


Face glanced at him and then away again. “I have a family.” His voice was soft.


“Blood kin, Face. That means something, something important. You and Ellen have a connection you and I can never have. Not better, just different. And important.”


Face nodded slowly. He had told Murdock that although he wanted to get to know Ellen he also didn’t want to drag her into the nightmare that was their lives. So until they were pardoned their contact would be limited.


“It’s not just Ellen.” Face said. “My mother…” They didn’t even know if she was alive or dead. Murdock knew Ellen had promised to send Face anything she found out from her father’s papers and effects, but so far there was nothing. A.J. had effectively erased Samantha and Richard from his life. Being stuck at Langley had meant Face was unable to get out and investigate for himself. That was another thing ‘on the back burner until pardons’. And now the team’s pardons had vanished like morning mist.


Face shook himself. “We have to figure this out, Murdock. It’s now or never.”


“Now you’re doing it.” Murdock said, grinning.


“Sorry,” Face smiled. “I don’t think the music is the right idea though. Let’s go back and see if we can…”


A woman’s voice from behind them interrupted him.


“Put your hands up and turn around slowly.”

Chapter 11

“BA, can I have a drink of water?”


“Shut up.”


“I’m thirsty.”


“Shut up.”


“You can’t just let me sit here and die of thirst.”


“Oh yeah?”


“Please.” The voice was wheedling and BA sighed and put down the newspaper he was trying to read. He glanced over at Hannibal, asleep on the other bed. If Frankie woke the Colonel there’d be trouble. BA went into the bathroom and filled a glass with water, then took it to Frankie and pushed it into his free hand.


“Thanks, BA.” Frankie said, looking up at him. He sipped the water and groaned. “Man, I think Face broke my jaw.”


“It ain’t broke,” BA said, “Hannibal checked. You wanna know what a broken jaw feels like, just lemme know.”


Frankie gave a lopsided ingratiating grin. “Will do.”


BA’s face twisted in disgust. He waited until Frankie was finished with the glass, took it off him and went back and sat on the bed again, started reading a report of a football game.


“BA.”


“Shut up.”


“Any chance I could get a painkiller?”


BA almost laughed. The guy had some nerve. “We ain’t got any,” he lied.


“Yeah you have. Face has some from the hospital.”


BA put down the paper and stared at him. There was ‘some nerve’ and then there was ‘asking to have your butt kicked’. Frankie got the message.


“And of course you wouldn’t be giving me any of those… How about some aspirin or something? Come on, BA, I’m in pain here. My mouth hurts, and I banged my head on the wall a couple of times, and my wrist is all raw and swollen up from these cuffs. They’re starting to cut off my circulation.”


BA wished he could get the handcuffs round Frankie’s neck. He was willing to give it a good try.


“If you don’t quit complaining I’ll give you something to complain about.” BA threatened, his voice a low growl to avoid waking Hannibal, even though he felt like yelling. “Shut up and go to sleep.”


“Yeah, sure, I’ll go to sleep lying on the floor, in the cold, with a broken jaw and a splitting headache and gangrene in my hand and… BA, I kind of need to go to the bathroom…”


“Hold it.”


Frankie went silent for a while, to BA’s immense relief. Then his voice came quietly.


“The Bancroft story isn’t going over, is it?”


BA looked at him.


“You saying you was lying? I mean I know you was lying, but you admitting it?”


Frankie shrugged. “Maybe.” He appeared unrepentant about the shock he’d given Face, apparently for no other reason than playing mind games. For a moment BA regretted being the type of man who couldn’t beat up a chained and helpless prisoner.


“Why lie?” BA demanded. But Frankie just shrugged again. BA grumbled low in his throat and went back to his newspaper. It seemed Frankie wasn’t finished though.


“Supposing I’m exactly who I say I am?”


“Huh?” BA said, looking up, puzzled.


“Supposing I actually am Frankie Santana?”


“Frankie Santana is a dead kid whose name you stole.” BA said.


“What if it’s not the name that was stolen? What if it was me? The ‘accident’. What if that was fake, a lie?”


“What if I come over there and pound you?”


“Fine.” He shut up. For five seconds. “They didn’t let his parents see the body, you know? Said the injuries were too horrific. And we all know what ‘no body’ means, don’t we? I mean you guys made sure I understood that when Johnny was missing in Hong Kong.”


“So, what you’re saying is, the CIA faked your death, to get you into their crazy training project and now you’re using your own real identity as a cover?”


“That’s right.” Frankie grinned. “I mean who’d suspect that?”


“No one. ‘Cause it’s stupid.” BA went quiet himself for a while. Of course it was stupid. Who would use a fake version of their own identity as a cover? That was just… crazy.


And he tried to ignore the memory he had of Mr Santana Senior, his voice shaking, saying, “They wouldn’t let us see the body. Wouldn’t let us say goodbye to our son…”


***


“Would this be a good time to start singing Jailhouse Rock, do you think?” Murdock asked Face. The two of them turned around, slowly as instructed, hands in the air.


A woman in her mid thirties stood behind them. She had short dark hair and was wearing pajamas and a robe that were both covered in pictures of Elvis. Her bedroom slippers were balls of pink fur, with googly eyes and rabbit ears, that would have made Murdock smile, if it wasn’t for the shotgun she was holding. There was nothing remotely funny about the shotgun.


“Hi, erm, Miss?” Face went into a full-on charm offensive instantly. His smile lit up the chapel. “We’re very sorry, we didn’t mean to scare you. We didn’t realize there was anyone here.” She must live upstairs, Murdock thought. He smiled too, trying to look sweet and harmless.


“What do you want?” She demanded. Her accent had a soft southern twang to it. “There’s no money here, I take it to the bank every day.”


“Oh, nothing like that,” Face insisted. “We just… well, it sounds very silly, but we came to use your harmonium here. I guess that’s what woke you. I’m so sorry.” Murdock really wished she would point the gun somewhere else.


“The harmonium?” She looked surprised. “I didn’t know that thing even worked. Picked it up at a flea market. Only have it for the look of the thing. We play music over the PA for the weddings.” She frowned suddenly as if this wasn’t the right tone to be taking with a couple of burglars, however nice a smile the blond one had.


“What kind of music do you normally play for the weddings here?” Murdock asked conversationally She stared at him and he looked back at her, kept a look of innocent inquiry on his face for a moment, then grinned. She burst out laughing.


“You’re crazy, mister.” She said. And to their relief the shotgun was lowered to point at the floor.


“Amazing how people always spot that right away,” Murdock said to Face.


“Look, Miss…” Face said.


“Beth. My name’s Beth,” she said.


“Beth. Hi, nice to meet you, my name’s Richard and this is Murdock.” Murdock heard the very slight catch in his voice as he said ‘Richard’. Face stood up, using his crutches, trying to look as un-threatening as possible. “I’m pretty sure we didn’t do any damage getting in. But if we did we’ll pay you for any repairs.”


“Okay.” She said. She looked at them narrowly for a moment, then gave a small smile. “Were you fellas wanting a ceremony?”


“Ceremony?” Face said, puzzled, then his jaw dropped. “A wedding?” He gave a nervous laugh. “Er, Beth, we’re both men.”


“That’s okay,” she said.


“It is?” Murdock said. He grinned. “Wow, Nevada sure has changed since last time I was here.”


“Well, I can’t give you a license of course,” she said, looking round as if worried someone else might hear her. “But, well, you would know.” She put a hand over her heart. “In here.”


“And that’s where it really counts isn’t it?” Murdock said. Face was bright pink now and Murdock would not be happy until he was blushing hot enough to fry an egg on.


“That’s right.” Beth nodded, serious, agreeing with Murdock.


“Er, no, thanks.” Face said, heading towards the door, moving as fast as his bad leg would allow. “Come on, Murdock.”


“We can get hold of a couple of witnesses at short notice,” Murdock said.


“Don’t even think about it.” Face hissed. He reached the door and struggled to open it. Murdock and Beth followed him and helped him out.


“Cold feet,” Murdock said to Beth, in a confiding tone of voice. “He’s a terrible commitment-phobe.”


“I knew that story about the harmonium was fake.” Beth said. “I mean, who wants to play the harmonium in the middle of the night?”


“Busted.” Murdock said, looking suitably chagrined.


“Murdock!” Face called from outside.


“Oops, I’m in trouble now.” Murdock grinned. “Wait till he gets me home.” He winked at her and she giggled. “Coming, honey.” Murdock called. He went out, waving goodbye and she closed the door behind him, the words “so cute” audible before her voice was cut off.


“I suppose you think that was funny?” Face asked as Murdock caught up to him


“Very.” Murdock said, smirking. He put on a more conciliatory tone. “C’mon Face. She didn’t shoot us or call the cops and we didn’t have to do anything mean to her. No body ended up crying in the chapel.”


“Yeah, I guess.” Face admitted.


As they got near the motel they saw BA standing by the door of his room, waiting for them.


“If you say anything to BA or Hannibal I swear you will get one of these crutches so far up your…”


“I promise!” Murdock agreed, quickly. “Hi, BA, everything okay?”


“Yeah. I saw the note said you guys were in the chapel. What were you up to over there?” BA asked.


“Just following up on an idea to do with Zephyr. Didn’t pan out.” Murdock explained. “Any more funny stories from conspiracy boy?”


“Yeah, now he says he is Frankie Santana. His death was faked and now he’s using his real identity as a cover.” BA’s skepticism was palpable.


Face and Murdock were silent for a moment, absorbing that one.


“Did it ever occur to anyone that he may just be totally insane?” Face asked.


“Something else occurred to me.” Murdock said. “Remember Betty/Merissa/Sarah? From when my shrink was kidnapped?”


“Course I do,” BA said. “Hard to forget someone crazier than you, fool.”


“What, you think they might know each other?” Face said, intrigued. “Like she could have been part of the same program he was in?”


“No, I was thinking we should set those two up on a blind date. They’d be perfect together!”


Face rolled his eyes, “Murdock.”


“I mean every date would be like a first date. Wow, I am such a great matchmaker…”


Face turned away from Murdock, shaking his head. “Did you want us for something, BA?”


“Oh, yeah.” BA said. “The weasel wants to use the bathroom, you’ll need to pick the lock on the cuffs again. Sorry Faceman, I know you don’t even wanna look at him, but someone,” he glared at Murdock, “lost the key.”


“That’s okay, BA. I’ve got my picks right here.” He followed BA into the room and came back out a few moments later. Murdock was waiting for him.


“Let’s get some sleep.” Face suggested. “I’m wiped out. We’ll start again on that code, or whatever it is, in the morning.”


“Ah ha ha.” Murdock said, and followed Face into the motel room.


***


Murdock dreamt. He dreamt he was marrying Face and Elvis was performing the ceremony. Elvis was speaking in Chinese, which Murdock could understand perfectly. BA was Murdock’s best man and Hannibal and Frankie were bridesmaids, fetchingly attired in tin foil hats. Stockwell gave Face away and then spent the rest of the time standing at the back shouting out numbers at random. Part way through the service Murdock turned to Elvis and found he had turned into Buddy Holly. “Listen to Zephyr.” Buddy said, in Elvis Presley’s voice, right before Murdock woke up.


“Oooh-kay, that was weird even for me.” Murdock said out loud. Face stirred a little in the other bed and Murdock shut up. He looked at the clock, it was ten to six.


Ten minutes later he was the first customer into the diner over the road and drinking the strongest cup of coffee they could make. He sat staring at a sheet of paper with the numbers 1 2 5 6 and 8 on it. He was sure they were the key. But what that key unlocked he did not know. He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands.


“Tired, hon?” The waitress stopped by his table, putting down a plate of bacon and eggs he had ordered.


“Yeah,” Murdock said, smiling wanly at her. She topped up his coffee.


“Don’t mind if I put the radio on do you?” She said, “Gotta check my lottery numbers.”


“No, that’s fine.” Murdock said. She went back behind the counter, turned on the radio. A news bulletin played and Murdock kept an ear out for any mention of the team. There was none. Then at the end of the bulletin they read out the lottery numbers.


Murdock looked up slowly as the voice on the radio read out the string of numbers. Luckily, for the sake of his sanity, they were not the same numbers as he had on his paper, but even so a wide and very crazy smile began to spread across his face. He wrote three letters on the paper right after the numbers.


K, H and Z.


“Oh well, the waitress said, “that’s me stuck in this joint for another week, don’t know why I…” she looked around as the door banged. Murdock was gone.


Five seconds later he ran back in, slapped a five dollar bill on the counter, said, “Sorry, keep the change,” and ran out again.


***


The men in the motel room looked blearily at Murdock, BA from his bed, Frankie from the floor and Hannibal, who had dozed off a little while on guard duty, from a chair.


“Hurry up, Face.” Murdock called.


Face hobbled in, groaning about how painful his leg was, and followed up with some heartfelt whining about the blisters on his hands.


“Murdock its not even six thirty,” Face complained, sitting down heavily on BA’s bed.


“I know, sorry, but I think I’ve got it. I think I know how we listen to Zephyr.” They looked at him curiously. He grinned.


“Have any of you ever heard of ‘numbers stations’?”

Chapter 12

Numbers stations?” Hannibal said. He shook his head. The others all looked blank too.


“Okay,” Murdock explained. “Numbers stations are these weird radio broadcasts of, well, numbers. Strings of numbers.”


“Strings of numbers?” Face said, puzzled.


“Yeah, usually in groups of four digits, though sometimes they can be more or less, or even letters sometimes.”


Hannibal sat forward in his chair, looking much more alert.


“What the heck are they in aid of then?” BA asked. “Who wants to listen to a load of numbers?”


“Spies.” Hannibal said. “Coded messages to agents in the field?”


“That’s the most likely explanation,” Murdock said, nodding. “But no government or agency has ever admitted to what they are or to broadcasting them.”


“Did you find out about this when you did those missions for the CIA?” Face asked.


“Hell no, they didn’t tell me anything cool.” Murdock shook his head, frowning. “A guy at the VA told me. Eric. He was a marine, but he was an okay guy anyway.”


“Er, on your ward at the VA?” Face’s eyebrows lifted.


“Yes. Okay, yes, Eric had kind of a bee in his bonnet about them,” Murdock admitted. “He thought they were transmissions from alien spacecraft. But I don’t think that! And they are absolutely real, Face. You can ask any radio hobbyist.”


“Murdock.” Hannibal said. “Much as I’m finding this highly educational and all, why did you wake us at the crack of dawn to tell us about these numbers stations?”


Murdock held up the piece of paper he had been staring at in the diner.


It showed the numbers 12568 then right after them the letters kHz.


“Face and me shook these numbers out of the word Zephyr. I think they’re a radio frequency.”


Hannibal grinned. “Murdock, I think you’ve nailed it. I mean how typically Stockwell is this?” Murdock looked very pleased at the Colonel’s praise.


“BA,” Hannibal began, but BA was ahead of him and was already getting the radio set out his pack.


“What was that frequency?” He said. Murdock handed him the paper and went and sat down on the bed beside Face.


“Nice one, Murdock,” Face said, quietly, giving him a smile.


“What do you think, Frankie?” Hannibal asked, startling Frankie who had been silent so far. “I mean you claim to be CIA, if these are messages to spies you must know about them.”


“If I did I wouldn’t tell you.” Frankie said.


“What happened to helping us out?” Hannibal asked.


“I think I lost my inclination to help you when Murdock threatened to cut my balls off.” Frankie said, nastily. He went back to looking at the floor, sulking. Hannibal shrugged. BA had tuned in the radio but all he got was hiss.


“There’s nothing there man.” He sounded very grouchy. “Shoulda known better than to listen to a nut from the VA.”


“Eric wasn’t a nut.” Murdock said. “Not really. He just got these headaches.”


“I was talking about you.” BA said.


“Oh, right.” Murdock frowned at the quiet hiss from the set.


“Murdock?” Hannibal said.


“Wait, what time is it?”


“About six forty five.” Face said.


“Right. These broadcasts are usually on a schedule, like on the hour. Let’s wait and see what happens at seven o’clock.”


“Okay, in that case let’s get some breakfast. I’ll go fetch some from the diner, bring it back here.”


“Bring coffee, Hannibal,” Face said. “Lots of coffee.”


***


It was almost seven o’clock. The men in the room had fallen silent. They sipped coffee and watched the radio, as if they expected it to get up and dance. The radio just hissed quietly.


Murdock glanced at his watch. It was a little after seven now. He gave a tiny sigh. Maybe this was another dead end. Maybe lack of sleep was messing with his brain. If something didn’t happen soon he knew Hannibal would declare it a blind alley and make them move on. Murdock would be so disappointed. He had to be right. He had to be. Hannibal was right, this would be so Stockwell.


So when the music started Murdock’s grin was so huge it almost met around the back of his head.


As the synthesised and tinny music played Murdock said “Lots of the numbers stations play a tune before the messages start. Like a kind of identifier.”


As the short tune repeated Murdock recognised it and sang along. “How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man. The answer my friend is blowing in the wind…”


“Blowing in the Wind? Wind like in zephyr?” Hannibal said. “I like this.”


“And who knew Stockwell was into Dylan?” Murdock grinned.


“Shh!” Face snapped. “Turn it up, BA.” He had the notepad ready.


A voice started up. It was female but quite clearly synthetic.


“Start message.” There was a slight pause. “Subtract one subtract seventeen subtract five subtract five add three subtract fifteen add eighteen.” Another pause then “Message repeats.” It repeated and finally “Message ends.”


The voice fell silent and the soft hiss started up again. For a moment there was silence in the motel room. Then Face spoke.


“Well, thank goodness for that. I mean here I was worried it was going to be something mysterious.”


“Face…” Murdock began.


Someone knocked at the door and they all jumped. The team reached for their guns. Hannibal stood up and went to the door.


“Yeah?” He called through it.


“Mr Hilts?” Hannibal frowned.


“That’s you, Hannibal,” Murdock reminded him. “Your fake ID.”


“Oh, yeah.” He opened the door and peered out. The motel’s manager was outside. He did not look friendly.


“Could I have a word, Mr Hilts?” Hannibal looked back at the others, gave a slight shrug and holstered his gun, said, “back in a sec.”


As Hannibal went out Murdock and Face pored over the strange message.


“Right, it’s telling us to add and subtract numbers, but from what?” Murdock said.


“How about the radio frequency?” Face said.


“Can’t be. There’s five digits in that and seven instructions.


“Well maybe it means to do it in a sequence. You know, start with 12568 and take away one, then seventeen, then five then another five, then add three…” He trailed off. Murdock was shaking his head.


“Why not just give one instruction? Subtract, whatever. No. That would be pointlessly redundant. We need seven numbers to add and subtract these numbers to and from.” he ran his hands through his hair, knocking off his cap. “Damn, I thought we were going to have the answer and we just have another puzzle.”


“We’ll figure it out, Murdock.” Face said. “And it’s another step, thanks to you.”


“Another step to where, though?” BA asked.


Hannibal slipped back into the room a moment later.


“Er, guys, we’re being thrown out.” He said.


“Huh?


“The manager said there were complaints about noise late last night. Yelling, doors banging.” He grimaced. “I guess that’s fair. He made it pretty clear he wants us to check out today.” They would have to obey. If the manager called the police… well even if the team were not recognised the fact they had a slightly battered man handcuffed to a pipe in their room was likely to cause comment.


“Weren’t we going to anyway?” Face said.


Hannibal shrugged. “I thought about staying another night. Lying low to let us all try to catch up on some rest. But I guess we keep moving.” He glanced at the notepad Face held. “Any clue?”


Face Murdock and BA all shook their heads.


“Right, let’s pack up. Oh and for pity’s sake everyone take a good long shower before we get back into that car.”


***


BA drove all morning. Hannibal was in the passenger seat and Face, Murdock and Frankie in the back. Hannibal had shown Frankie some mercy, leaving off the handcuffs for now as both of Frankie’s wrists were swollen and raw. Instead Hannibal had attached Frankie to Murdock with a handcuff bracelet through belt loops of their pants. If Frankie was going to escape it was going to be either without his own pants or with Murdock’s.


He currently showed no sign of trying to escape, as, like Face and Murdock he was fast asleep. Hannibal found himself doing something a little strange. He was listening out for Frankie talking in his sleep. Who knows what he might say? And in what language? Hannibal smiled. He’d heard Frankie sleep talking before, it hadn’t been in Russian then, he was unlikely to suddenly start now. Still he listened out.


And every hour he listened to the same message they heard at seven o’clock that morning. It broadcast every hour on the hour. Hannibal shivered a little, despite the heat, at the disembodied, mechanical voice. He wondered just how long it had been repeating, waiting for them to pick it up. He bent his brain to try to figure out what it meant, but it was hard to think straight. He hadn’t had a full night’s sleep for days now. They really needed to find someplace quiet to lie up for a few days. Face still needed plenty of rest to let his leg heal.


“Rest stop ahead, Hannibal.” BA said. “It’s almost two o’clock.”


“Right, better stop for lunch.” Hannibal sighed at the prospect. A change from their diner diet would be very welcome too, he thought. He looked over his shoulder at the sleeping men. “Though I hate to break up the slumber party back there.”


BA just grunted and pulled into the lot.


They pushed on after lunch and made several hundred miles, driving in shifts, heading north. North was good, Hannibal thought. Canada, if it came to that. They still had to find somewhere to stop eventually, but for now Hannibal was happy for them to be covering as much distance as possible. Maybe once he got some sleep he’d be able to think of a better plan. As midnight approached Murdock was driving and Hannibal drifted off to sleep in the passenger seat.


He was jerked rudely awake as the car swerved violently. He woke up grabbing at the dash. The car juddered to a halt and stalled out.


“What the hell?” The car had come off the road and onto rough grass at the side of it. Murdock, his hands gripping the steering wheel tight turned a pale face to Hannibal.


“I… I fell asleep. Jesus, I could have killed us all. Shit.” His voice was shaking with shock.


“It’s okay, Murdock.” Hannibal said. He touched one of Murdock’s hands, and Murdock gave a gasp and released the frozen grip he had on the wheel. Hannibal glanced at the other three in the back, they all looked fine, if a little wide eyed. BA didn’t berate Murdock, which was a sure sign he was pretty shaken.


“Right,” Hannibal said. He glanced at the clock on the dash. Almost two am. “We’re stopping here. We’re all sleeping. Frankie that means I have to cuff you again.” Frankie grimaced.


“Colonel, we’re in the middle of nowhere. I’m not gonna try and escape, where the hell would I go? Anyway I’m too tired.”


“Sorry, you can’t be trusted.” He cuffed Frankie’s hands together, first threading one of the bracelets though one of BA’s belt loops. If Frankie had the nerve to try and remove BA’s pants then he deserved to escape.


“What happens if a cop or a highway patrolman comes past? Or the Ables show up?” Face asked.


“Then we are respectively screwed, screwed and dead.” Hannibal said with a shrug.


“Oh, right.” Face was slightly taken aback by the Colonel’s directness. “So long as I know.” He got out one of his painkillers, swallowed it and was soon asleep. Moments later everyone in the car was dead to the world.


***


Hannibal woke to bright sunlight glaring into his eyes. He checked around. BA, Face and Frankie were still fast asleep in back. Murdock was out of the car sitting on the hood. Hannibal got out too and stretched.


“Morning, Captain.” Hannibal glanced at his watch. Almost ten o’clock. Between the army and early morning calls on set he didn’t often get to sleep through until that kind of time.


Murdock glanced up from the notepad he was studying.


“Morning.” He said. He looked a little better, his eyes were not as dark circled as before.


“Still working on the code?”


“Yeah, you know I’m starting to wish Stockwell were alive and here right now.”


“So you could ask him what it means?”


“No, so I could kick his ass for an obfuscating bastard.”


Hannibal laughed. “Sounds good, Murdock.” He lit up a cigar and gazed out to the horizon. After a few minutes he spoke again. “These numbers stations…”


“Yeah?”


“Assuming they are messages to spies, how do the spies decode them?”


“They use a thing called a one time pad, apparently.”


“Like a codebook?”


“Sort of. Except each page is only used for one message and then destroyed.”


“Right. But the point is the person the message is for already has something they can use to break the code.”


“That’s right.” Murdock glanced at Hannibal. “You’re saying we already have something that can break this code?”


Hannibal shrugged, “If Stockwell was being true to the system.”


“But all he gave us was the paper with the Chinese on it.” He took the envelope from his pocket and took the message out. It was fingermarked and crumpled by now. “And we already used this to get the radio frequency. And I can’t make a sequence of seven numbers from ‘listen to Zephyr’.” He sighed. “Maybe there was something else we were supposed to get and never did.” Hannibal took the message from him. Looked at it for a moment. Then he looked at Murdock again, at what else he was holding in his hands.


“Murdock. The message isn’t the only thing he gave us.” Hannibal said. Murdock looked at him curious. Hannibal reached over and took the envelope from Murdock’s hand, held it up.


“When did Stockwell ever call me ‘Mr Smith’?” He echoed his own earlier words.


Murdock’s face was like the sun rising as understanding dawned in his eyes.


“Mr Smith is seven letters. Oh my god, Hannibal, I think you just found our one time pad.”


He grabbed the envelope from Hannibal.


“Okay, first let me substitute these letters into numbers.” He muttered to himself as he worked. “M is thirteen. R eighteen. Nineteen. Thirteen. Nine. Twenty. Eight.” Hannibal watched his hand moving fast over the paper.


“Should I wake the others.”


“Not yet, not yet.” Murdock said. “Let me do the math first. We may be on totally the wrong track after all. Right, thirteen minus one is twelve, eighteen minus seventeen…” In a moment he had a final sequence of numbers.


12, 1, 14, 7, 12, 5, 25


“Moment of truth, Colonel. If I turn these numbers back into letters and it makes some kind of sense… well I just hope it does, because my brain can’t take much more.”


Hannibal stood up, not watching Murdock’s hand this time. Perhaps he feared disappointment, that it would translate to nothing meaningful and they’d be no further forward.


“Oh wow.” Hannibal heard Murdock whisper as he worked. “Oh no, oh boy. Oh it can’t be.”


Hannibal looked at him, a little concerned.


“Hannibal,” Murdock said, “it does make a word. But I’m not sure if you’re going to like it.”


He held up the notepad. At the bottom of a page under the most recent sequence of numbers was a word.


LANGLEY

Chapter 13

They were back at Langley before Face and BA stopped sulking and started speaking to each other again.


Face had said he was absolutely not travelling right across the country by car yet again. He would fly or he wasn’t going. BA’s response, of course, was that he wasn’t flying so in that case the rest of them would leave in the car and Face could walk to the nearest airport, crutches not withstanding.


Hannibal had made the decision in the end after about twenty minutes of this. Despite Face’s protest about his bad leg Hannibal wanted them to stick with the car. It was more flexible he said, gave them more options. If the Ables found out they were in the air they could be be waiting for them on the ground. They could even scramble a couple of fighter jets and shoot them down.


BA’s smug smile at Hannibal’s decision had caused Face to rant for a further five minutes until Hannibal had said, “We’re going. Anybody not in the car in the next ten seconds gets left behind.”


Now Face and BA sat in the car, with Frankie, a mile from Langley, waiting for Hannibal and Murdock to return from reconnoitring the compound. The rather uncomfortable silence was broken when BA got out some potato chips from their food suppliers.


“You guys want some?” He offered Face and Frankie.


“Thanks, BA.” Face said. The three men sat crunching the chips.


“How long they been gone?” BA asked.


“Half an hour,” Face said. “Should be back in a minute.”


And right on schedule Hannibal and Murdock emerged from the trees. They had strange looks on their faces and were quiet as they got into the car.


“Well?” Face asked. “Is there a welcoming committee waiting for us?”


“Er, no.” Hannibal said. “Doesn’t look like it. Start the car, BA, take us to the main gate.”


“Going through the front door again are we?” BA asked.


Murdock laughed. “I can safely say we are definitely not going through the front door,” he said.


“What?” Face asked puzzled. “What’s going on? What have you guys seen?”


“You’ll know in a second.” Hannibal said, refusing to be drawn.


In a moment BA came to the gates. They stood open and Face put away the lock picks he’d started to take out of his pocket.


“Oh, this doesn’t feel like a trap much.” Face muttered.


“It’s not.” Hannibal said.


“And why not…” Face began and stopped. BA brought the car to a stop at the front of the house.


Face, BA and Frankie stared up at the burnt out shell that was all that remained of the house that had been their home and their prison for the past year.


***


The five men stood beside the car and looked at the ruined house. The roof was gone. All but a couple of the walls were collapsed. Among the rubble were black and distorted shapes that had once been pieces of furniture. Black flakes and ash stirred in the breeze.


Hannibal pressed his gun into Frankie’s back.


“Did you do this?” He demanded.


“What?”


“You said you left after us. Did you put a match to the place on your way out?”


“No!” Frankie protested. “What, I’m an arsonist now am I?” He sounded genuine. And in truth Hannibal didn’t much care if he had done it.


They split up and checked around the site. Stockwell’s message had brought them back here, but for what? There was no apparent trap. There was no one waiting for them to tell them why they were here. They had come full circle, there had to be a reason, something here. Zephyr. Where was Zephyr?


“Hannibal!” Hannibal spun at the sound of BA’s voice. The sergeant sounded panicked. Hannibal could see him over towards the east of the house. He ran to BA, dragging Frankie along, scattering ash as they ran. Murdock and Face were nearer and reached BA first.


When Hannibal arrived he saw what they were all staring at in horror. The burnt remains were only just recognisable.


“My van.” BA’s voice was shaky. “My van.”


Murdock clapped a hand on BA’s shoulder, squeezed it.


“I’m so sorry, BA.”


“My van.” BA repeated, seemed incapable of articulating his shock any further.


“Appalling isn’t it. This is what comes of leaving a woman in charge. They have no appreciation for fine machinery.”


They all turned at the voice that came from behind them. A man stood there on the gravel of the driveway. He was in his thirties, stood about five foot ten and wore a dark blue overcoat over a very good suit. He smiled at them.


“Welcome back, gentlemen. I trust your journey was not too unpleasant.” His voice was very educated, very Ivy League, with a New England accent.


“Who are you?” Hannibal demanded, he drew his gun, though didn’t point it at the newcomer.


“My name is Philip Shriver, Colonel.” The man answered.


“And who do you work for, Mr Shriver?”


“The United States of America.”.


“Jeez, could you vague that up a little more?” Face said, rolling his eyes.


“My apologies, Lieutenant,” Shriver said, smiling at Face’s sarcasm. “I cannot be more specific at the moment.”


“He’s a spook.” Hannibal said.


“Watch it, man.” BA said to Hannibal, who looked at him in surprise. Then he saw what BA was getting at. Shriver had quite dark skin and wiry hair. His features were fairly narrow, but he was clearly mixed race.


“Sorry, BA, I meant he’s a spy.” Shriver had taken no apparent offence at Hannibal’s words. He smiled a little as if enjoying this whole situation immensely.


“You said this is what happens when you leave a woman in charge.” Hannibal said. “You saying Carla did this?” he waved a hand at the destruction.


“Indeed. ” He sighed. “General Stockwell had tried to teach her that there are more subtle ways of dealing with problems. However it seems without his guidance she reverted to the scorched earth policy.”


“Where’s Carla now?” Murdock asked.


“She has been reassigned.”


“To a box?” Hannibal asked. Shriver looked shocked.


“Certainly not.” He snapped. Then he calmed himself and continued. “Carla’s future career is not my concern. I am not part of General Stockwell’s organisation.” He clapped his manicured hands together and rubbed them. “Chilly for the time of year don’t you find? Now then, to business.”


The team jumped, startled, as a man appeared from the shelter of one of the few remaining walls of the building. He wore a dark grey suit. He was large and he carried a briefcase. Hannibal glanced around, he couldn’t see any more men. Which wasn’t to say they weren’t there. Grey Suit, who was holding the open briefcase for Shriver, had been invisible until he’d chosen to show himself.


“Gentlemen, you may find these documents of interest.” Shriver handed a zipped leather folder to Hannibal. Hannibal opened it and looked at the papers inside.


“It’s our pardons, guys.” He said. He took each of them out and handed them to the others.


“Are these for real?” Face’s voice was nearly a whisper.


“They are.” Shriver said. “Oh, Mr Murdock, as you of course were not a fugitive you’ll notice the document with your name on it is a guarantee of immunity from prosecution for any of your activities as a member of the A-Team. I trust this is satisfactory?”


Murdock stared at him. “Er yeah. I guess it is.”


Face and BA were gazing at their pardons, holding them carefully, as if uncertain they were real. Murdock scanned the paper he’d been given. Hannibal smiled for a moment. It was like Christmas morning around here.


Except one person didn’t get a gift. He saw Frankie looking at him, his eyes wide.


“Colonel, isn’t there…?”


“No.” Hannibal turned to Shriver. He jerked a thumb at Frankie, “what about him, does he get one?”


“Well that would be a little difficult when I have no idea what name to make it out to.” Shriver said. Hannibal was surprised to hear him admit ignorance.


“You don’t know who he really is?” Hannibal asked. “He said he’s CIA, some project called Loyola, training agents from childhood.”


Shriver smiled again, that very irritating amused smile that suggested he could see a rather clever joke in all this that you couldn’t.


“What a strange idea.” Shriver said. “So far as I know the CIA still recruits from colleges, not elementary schools.”


“It’s a secret project.” Frankie said.


“I know many secrets.” Shriver said. His voice went quite cold and hard when he spoke to Frankie. “Mr Santana, or whatever your name is, I don’t know who you are, but I do believe you are a traitor.” He looked at Hannibal again. “Colonel, I assure you when we find out who he is you will be informed.”


“No!” Frankie shouted. He moved closer to Hannibal. “Please, Colonel, you can’t let them take me. You don’t know what they’ll do to me!”


“I’m pretty sure I do know.” Hannibal said. He turned to Shriver. “I don’t think I can just hand him over to you.”


“Colonel, this man has no loyalty to you and your team.” Shriver said. “He has used you for his own ends. And he is a murderer.”


“Nevertheless.” Hannibal said. “He’s my prisoner. And back at West Point they taught us there are rules about prisoners.” He smiled. “At the very least, you’re going to have to sign for him.”


Shriver smiled too. “Ah, I understand, Colonel. You want a receipt.”


“No, Johnny, please.” Frankie cried. “He…” he looked desperate for a moment, then pointed at Shriver. “He made me bring you back, here. He promised me I’d go free if I led you here. He promised me, said if I gave you the note… Don’t trust him!”


“Frankie, I don’t know if I can trust him or not,” Hannibal said. “But I know damn sure I can’t trust you. Every word you have said has been a lie. Sorry, but you’ve burnt all your bridges.” He turned to Shriver. “Does he get a lawyer?”


“Isn’t he in enough trouble already?” Shriver asked, smiling.


“Very funny,” Hannibal said, not laughing. “In that case I want to sit in. I want to observe his interrogation.”


Shriver looked thoughtful for a moment. Then he said, “Agreed.”


“BA!” Frankie said, turning to the others, pleading. “Murdock, Face, please, you can’t let him just hand me over. I helped you guys! The execution!”


But there was no mercy from any of them.


“Shouldn’t have tried that Bancroft story, Frankie,” Murdock said. “Kind of lost the sympathy of the audience there.”


Shriver gestured and Grey Suit moved towards Frankie.


“No!” Frankie abruptly launched himself at Hannibal. As they struggled, BA and Murdock jumped forward and Grey Suit moved fast towards them. Then Hannibal pushed Frankie away. Frankie staggered back, but he was holding Hannibal’s gun.


“No, you promised! You said you’d protect me!” He pointed the pistol directly at the colonel. The rest of the team reached for their guns, Face dropping both his crutches as he did so.


But the shot that rang out didn’t come from any of them. It came from Shriver. He had drawn a handgun, so fast Hannibal hadn’t even seen it. The smoke from the muzzle drifted off in the cool breeze.


Frankie fell. Quite a small amount of blood stained his shirt, but the blood was right over his heart. He made no sound as he fell down onto his back. His eyes were open and Hannibal shivered a little, turned away. The rest of the team stared down in shock.


“A pity.” Shriver said. “I’d have preferred an interrogation to a corpse.” He holstered his gun and took a handkerchief from his pocket, wiped his hands on it, then folded it and put it away. “Still, he did shoot General Stockwell and bludgeon an Able to death.” As Hannibal looked at him he said, “the man guarding the plane.”


“Yes, I know who you meant,” Hannibal said. He had just been a little surprised that Shriver had remembered or mentioned the Able.


“Did you promise him what he said?” Hannibal asked.


Shriver looked Hannibal straight in the eyes. “I never met Mr Santana before in my life,” he said. He held Hannibal’s gaze steadily. At last Hannibal looked away and down at Frankie’s body. Now they would never know.


He took off his jacket and covered the man’s face. This seemed to break the spell the rest of the team were under as they gazed down at the body. Hannibal straightened up.


“All right, Shriver. You know why we’re here. Tell us about Zephyr.”


“Ah, yes.” Shriver smiled, again that ‘I’m getting a joke you don’t even know is going on’ smile. “Well I can tell you about Zephyr, Colonel. There is however a catch…”

Chapter 14

“Of course.” Hannibal said. “There’s always a catch. Okay, what is it?”


“Ah.” Shriver said. “Well part of the catch is that I can’t tell you what the catch is yet.”


“I’ll bet this is one of those ‘I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you’ things.” Murdock said.


“Not quite.” Shriver said, smiling.


“Not quite? That’s reassuring.” Face had retrieved his crutches and was leaning on them heavily, looking very tired.


“Let me be clear.” Shriver said. He looked thoughtful for a moment. “You have your pardons. You can turn around and walk away now. Free and clear. You will receive monetary compensation to help you get settled into your new lives.”


“But we don’t get told about Zephyr.” Hannibal said. “Okay, so what happens if we do get told? That means we don’t get to walk away?”


“That will depend.”


“On what?”


“On the choice you make.”


“Choice?”


“That’s all I can tell you now. If you wish you may have a moment to discuss it.”


“Yeah.” Hannibal glanced at the rest of the team and nodded his head towards the basketball court, where they had so often gone to discuss things when they had lived here. As they moved off two more men in grey suits appeared from the ruins of the house. One of them was carrying a body bag. Hannibal turned away as they approached Frankie’s body.


***


The basketball court was covered in ash that had blown there from the house. Murdock found a ball in the corner and picked it up. Ash cascaded from it.


“Well?” Hannibal asked the others. “Do we want to know what Zephyr is bad enough that we risk our freedom for it?”


“He did imply that we may still walk away with the pardons after we find out.” Face said.


“Yeah, and what else will we walk away with?” Murdock said. “Ivy League Phil there plainly said there’s a catch. He’ll try to screw us for sure. He may have a nice smile, but he’s… he’s Stockwell junior.”


“So you’re saying we should walk away?” Hannibal asked.


Murdock shrugged. “Heck no, just pointing stuff out. If I don’t find out my brain may never recover.”


“BA?” Hannibal said.


“I think I want to know, Hannibal. There’s gotta be a good reason for Stockwell to go to all the trouble he did. It can’t just be to kill us. He coulda done that any time.”


“Face?”


“Well let’s see, I’ve been shot. We’ve driven right around the country. Been betrayed by someone we thought was a friend and seen him killed in front of us. I didn’t go through all that just to walk away now.”


“Okay guys.” Hannibal was a little surprised. He’d thought he might have to persuade them. Seems they were as curious as him. He held out his hand and shook each of theirs in turn as he went on. “Well we don’t know exactly what happens now, so let me just say this…” He grinned at their serious faces. “If we do end up getting screwed over, I’m blaming you three.”


“Hannibal.” BA shook his head, Face rolled his eyes and Murdock grinned, then tossed the basketball up at the hoop. It rolled around the rim for a moment then dropped through.


***


They walked back over to Shriver. He was apparently alone now. He was talking on a cell phone and as they approached they heard him say, “I have to go. I said I have to go! Hello?” He clicked his tongue in irritation and put the brick sized phone into his briefcase, his expression one of distaste.


“I hope to god those things don’t catch on,” he said, locking the case. Then he turned to the team, a questioning expression on his face.


“Okay, Mr Shriver. Tell us about Zephyr.” Hannibal said.


Shriver smiled with apparent delight.


“Follow me, please.” He turned and walked into the ruins of the house. “Do watch your step. Can you manage, Lieutenant?” He said as they made their way across the rubble, ankle deep in ash in places. Murdock and BA had to help Face a couple of times.


Shriver stopped in what had been the living room. Rubble had been cleared in front of where the chimney breast still stood mostly intact. The floor boards had burnt away exposing the foundation. A metal hatch was let into the concrete. It had a handle which Shriver bent down and tried to turn. He seemed to have a little trouble with it though and after a moment he looked up with a somewhat chagrined smile.


“It’s rather stiff. I wonder if you could help me out, Sergeant Baracus?”


BA grumbled something in which “skinny” was the only word audible. He stepped up and easily turned the handle. The released hatch lifted up a few inches and, when BA pushed it, slid across the concrete on runners they noticed set into it now. As the hatch opened it exposed a dark shaft. Shriver crouched and flicked on a light switch, turning on lights set into one corner of the shaft. It looked about thirty feet deep, there was a ladder down the side, set into the wall.


“This has been here all the time we were here?” BA said. Then he grinned at himself, silly question.


“I, uh, don’t suppose there’s an elevator?” Face asked.


“I’m afraid not.” Shriver said. “We could get some rope?” He sounded as if he was genuinely trying to be helpful.


“Er, no, I’ll manage.” Face said, not liking the idea of being trussed up and lowered down like a casualty.


“Follow me.” Shriver put down his briefcase beside the hatch and climbed into the shaft, started to descend quickly. Hannibal looked at the others and shrugged. He followed Shriver into the shaft.


“Wait until I give the order before you follow,” Hannibal said and climbed down. At the bottom the shaft opened into a concrete bunker. The only furniture a few folding chairs stacked against a wall. On the opposite wall was a metal door, like the safe door of a bank vault. The air smelled stale.


Shriver was brushing ash from the bottom of his pants, muttering what sounded like imprecations against Carla. Hannibal went back to the bottom of the shaft and shouted up. “Okay guys, you can come down.” He turned to Shriver. “I assume that hatch can be opened from the inside?”


“Oh yes, Colonel. Even by a skinny fellow like me.” He took off his overcoat and hung it on a hook on the wall then went over to get one of the folding chairs.


Murdock was at the bottom of the shaft now, calling up, “take your time, Face.” In a moment Face arrived and took the crutch Murdock had brought down with him. He limped into the bunker and looked around. He smiled at the sight of the safe and Hannibal grinned at his reaction.


“Lieutenant?” Shriver offered Face the chair he had unfolded.


“Oh, thanks.” Face said, sitting down. BA joined them finally.


“So?” BA asked, getting right to the point as usual. “What’s in the safe?”


“Perhaps you would care to open it and find out?” Shriver said, standing away from the door.


“Er, us?” Hannibal said. “Is Face supposed to crack the safe or something? What is this, a test?”


“Perhaps.” Shriver said. He folded his arms and looked at them, expectant. The rest of the team looked at Face and he stood up slowly. He limped to the safe door, using the one crutch. The door had a straightforward looking combination lock.


“Face?” Hannibal said.


“Maybe if I had a stethoscope,” Face said, “then I could…” Then he stopped and smiled. He started to turn the lock. “One, two, five, six, eight.” He said as the tumblers fell into place. Then he pressed down the handle and the safe door opened.


The rest of the team grinned and Shriver said. “Well done, Lieutenant.”


The others helped Face to pull open the door. The interior of the vault lit up as the door opened, a fluorescent light flickering on. The only thing inside was a refrigerator. Quite small, the type that might be used in a motor home. As well as a cable connecting it to mains power it was also attached to what appeared to be a couple of large battery packs, presumably as some kind of backup.


The door of the refrigerator was transparent. Visible inside it was what appeared to be a perspex block. Inside the block was a phial of clear liquid. The refrigerator was locked, with an electronic keypad. None of the team felt like attempting to open it. There was something inexplicably sinister about the small brushed steel appliance.


“Gentlemen.” Shriver said, his voice a little hushed. “This is Zephyr.”


“What is it?” Murdock asked, bending down to peer into the refrigerator.


“The end of the world as we know it, Captain.”


Murdock almost laughed at the dramatic words, but Shriver sounded very serious.


“It’s a virus.” Shriver said. Murdock stepped back quickly.


“A manufactured one? A biological weapon?” Hannibal guessed, unable to keep disgust out of his voice. He’d always hated such weapons.


“Yes. It is an interesting organism. It doesn’t kill its host, it renders them unable to reproduce, by directly attacking the sex cells. If it were to be released the human species would die out within around a hundred years. Of course civilization would break down long before then.”


They all stood silent for a moment, regarding the small refrigerator.


“You said this thing was manufactured,” Hannibal said, finally. “Who the hell would come up with something like that?”


“I’m told it was an accidental discovery. Apparently many such weapons are. The results of experiments that didn’t work as expected.”


“So why not destroy it?” Face said.


“Destroy all samples? All information on how to create it?” Shriver said.


“Yeah.”


“Eliminate everyone who knows how to make it?”


“Well…” Face looked uncomfortable.


“That would be the usual procedure of course. But there is a problem.”


“You don’t know who else has got it.” Hannibal said.


Shriver nodded. “A spy was uncovered on the project team. Unfortunately he died before he disclosed who he worked for.”


“So now you have to keep it because the Russians or the Chinese might have it?” Murdock said. “Couldn’t let them have a doomsday weapon we don’t have could we?”


“As you say, Captain.”


“Okay.” Hannibal said. “So now we know what Zephyr is. Now tell us about the catch.”


“Can we get out of this safe,” Face said, “I’m getting claustrophobic and my leg hurts. And if we’re going to get bad news I want to be sitting down for it.” They trooped back out into the bunker and Shriver closed the safe door. Face sat on the folding chair.


“Gentlemen. To know about Zephyr is to become part of it.” Shriver said. “As I’m sure you can understand Zephyr needs to be protected. Anyone who knows about it must become part of that protection.”


“If they don’t want to then they’re dead meat?” BA asked.


“In same cases.” Shriver admitted. “Though in recognition of the valuable work you have done for your country you would have special consideration. There are… facilities where you can live.”


“Places you put people who can’t be allowed at large.” Murdock said. “Ooh, can I can be Number Six? I wonder if Rover and Billy would get along?”


Shriver smiled. “That is the choice I spoke of. It’s a choice I had to make eight years ago. I work for the National Security Agency. I found out about Zephyr throug