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"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."
"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."
out of the car. It moved off at once, leaving Frankie on the roadside a mile
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.
Various greetings came his way, most without the speaker looking in his direction.
thanks, Johnny." Frankie said. He was sweating. "I'd better hit the
shower." As he left the room he looked at
"Kid's working hard on getting fit." BA commented.
"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 said, sounding distracted.
"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?"
"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."
"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
"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.
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,
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."
"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.
Then the darkness took him and ended his pain.
Murdock, it’s , what's the problem?" Frankie interrupted
himself with a huge yawn. Face caught
"Come out here," he said, gesturing.
hell is this about, Johnny?" Frankie said, hopping, tying his sneakers.
"Why don't we
let Carla tell us?"
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,
"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."
"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."
right." Face said, his expression hard. Frankie
didn't speak. He turned to look at
"Mr Murdock, gentlemen, I think you misunderstand."
dead is he?"
"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
Carla shook her head. "He's in a coma."
"His chances are very slim." She said.
"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 last night. You left your apartment building again at nine oh five. You caught a bus at . The next time you were seen was when you returned to your apartment in a cab at 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.
that was… different. He wasn't…" Frankie said.
"You are not going anywhere." Carla said, crossing her arms. "I am not finished…"
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.
"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.
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."
"Of course he does, fool!" BA snapped. "He knows you wouldn't shoot Stockwell."
Murdock nodded. "She just had to ask nicely," he muttered.
"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."
The rest of the team looked at each other, surprised, dubious.
"But he's our
"Pride." BA growled in a low voice, an accusing voice.
"Maybe they just know how we feel about him," Face suggested.
okay is it?"
Face looked down, folded his arms.
"And what do
we do if we find out who did it,
"We show them just why they should have been afraid of us."
"We'd better get
back to the house."
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."
Back in the house
"Alright keep me apprised." She hung up. "Colonel?"
give you the name of his alibi witness."
"You heard. I'm offering you our help to get whoever did this."
"That really isn't necessary. Besides…" she didn't finish.
still suspects ourselves, right? Carla, think about it. If we were behind this
why would we still be here?" She didn't answer. So
"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.
"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."
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
"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.
"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.
officer can be as dangerous as the enemy." BA explained. "So
sometimes the men kill him. It's like self-defence.
Frankie's face changed to dawning understanding. "Oh, frag as in fragmentation grenade?"
"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?"
"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.
"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."
want us leaving," Face said to
she could stop us if we wanted to go." Murdock said. The tension in the room edged up.
"Now, fellas, don't assume the worst."
"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.
don't want to end up in DC General with Stockwell do we?"
"I never mentioned which hospital he was in." She said.
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
Not that they
couldn't leave if they wanted to,
It was only 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.
say he has improved slightly." She said. There was no emotion in her
"Really?" Face sounded surprised. "I thought you said his chances were slim?"
"I guess he's
stronger than you thought."
"Is there a possibility he'll wake up?" Murdock asked.
"Nervous about that, Mr Murdock?" Carla asked. Murdock scowled at her.
certainly save a lot of time if he did,"
course," Carla snapped. She stood up. She looked as tired as the rest of
"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.
Frankie looked down then up again. He turned and walked into the bathroom and
turned on the shower.
"So why don't we go right now?"
"Tell me what
we do if we go for 'Harry'."
"Johnny, I know it." Frankie insisted.
"So tell me."
Frankie rolled his
eyes but he recited the details of the plan, then at
For the second
morning in a row a hammering on his door woke
Frankie's room was
trashed, clothes and belongings strewn around.
An Able came in
the door and
"Where the heck is he?"
"You think someone took him?"
"You think he ran?"
Face picked up some books that had been knocked down from a shelf.
Able Six, with very
bad timing, came into the room just then. He met
"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?"
the Ables have him?" Face asked
"So it's an inside job?" Murdock said. "You think they believe he shot Stockwell?"
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."
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.
Surprise was the
only way through her shield,
"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.
"You think I know?" Her apparent surprise at his question was all fake.
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,
"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?"
"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
"Okay, Carla. You think he left on his own, why don't you let us go and look for him?"
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
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.
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
Gunfire crackled around them.
"Shit!" Murdock yelled as the ground right by his feet spat up grass and soil.
in a quarter mile."
They reached the
perimeter, a wire fence, exactly eleven minutes after they left the house. Right on schedule. Gunfire was still sounding along with
Then they were
out. Free. Well close to freedom.
on." He said to Murdock. They set off for the rendezvous, Murdock acting
as rearguard. There was no sign of pursuit.
"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.
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."
down, Captain." Murdock started to climb down a ladder, sneezing all the
The part of this
But they had been
waiting for an hour now and there was no sign of them.
"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?"
love the guy."
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.
"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."
think I'm Steve McQueen,"
"Well, no, obviously not. I just said that to make you feel better," Murdock admitted.
"They'll be here." Murdock said.
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.
BA glared at
"Right through. Missed bone." Face gasped. "Hurts…"
Damn, damn, damn.
After a hasty
patching up job
"Which way?" BA asked from the driving seat.
BA parked in a
quiet corner of the lot at DC General.
"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.
"What you gonna do, man?" BA asked.
"Visit a sick
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,
The reason this corridor
was familiar to
He didn't turn
left, he went right. That corridor led round to the maternity ward.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There were no
Ables inside. The screens were pulled around the bed and
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.
am I not…" He stopped. "Excuse me."
"Feeling better?" Carla asked, almost smirking.
"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.
Colonel. I agree to the deal, I'll make arrangements about Mr Santana
immediately." She reached for the phone and
"Liar. You don't have Frankie. I can read you like a book."
Her scream was so
loud it almost deafened
"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.
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.
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.
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
The Ables hadn't
come after him. They were probably down in the lobby now, meeting up with their
friends and being baffled.
hell happened to you?" Face asked.
"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
"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."
"Are we in
crossed the state line about twenty minutes back," he answered. "I
figured we'd push on to
Murdock nodded and stretched as much as he could in the passenger seat.
"You can drive for a while after that. I'm beat."
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.
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.
disturb you, did it?"
"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 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?"
"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?"
Murdock went quiet again for a long time.
"You're certain about this?" Murdock asked eventually. "You're certain Frankie ran?"
occurred to you that maybe…" Murdock hesitated as if he was worried
"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."
"And then we
can get back on track."
"Ah." Murdock hesitated for a long time. "And you're sure that's not what we're doing now?"
The car swerved violently.
not shoot Stockwell!"
"I'm just saying that, well, if he got out the night he ran he could have got out the night before." Murdock said.
BA had guessed right away what they were talking about. After a moment of tense silence he spoke up.
asking me about 'fragging',
think he was really asking about himself, not Murdock?"
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.
"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
were physically painful to
"You said he
did fine that night, Murdock."
"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?"
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.
have stayed in the car."
"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.
don't get up."
"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
"That's right." Mr Santana said. "Yes, that's my Vanessa. She was quite a beauty, don't you think?"
Mr Santana slapped
"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." His voice was very shaky now. "I'm sorry, Mr Smith." He
turned in his chair, trying to look at
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."
Frankie died when he was six years old.
The words played over
and over in
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
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.
"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
"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.
they'd been before was as nothing to how screwed
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
"I saw a sign for a rest stop a couple of miles up ahead." Murdock said. "Gas, food, lodgings."
stop for the night,"
They were going to
have to keep a man on watch and
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.
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!"
"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
"What's wrong with Face?"
"He was using crutches. Is he okay?"
"And you care because…?"
"Johnny… Colonel." Frankie said. "I need to say something right up front."
about your real name?"
"I'm not working against you and your team."
really?" To say
"Really." Frankie insisted. "I needed you guys, but I haven't betrayed you."
delivered us into Stockwell's hands, Frankie."
"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?"
guys. I brought us a chew toy."
"Hi, guys." Frankie said. He started to get to his feet.
"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.
"So who is he?" Face asked.
he won't tell me."
yeah?" BA growled.
He was wearing only pyjama trousers. When he moved his huge chest and shoulder
muscles glistened in the light.
Frankie flashed a
tiny grin at that. Gone again as quick as it came, but
"I didn't get out the second night. I didn't leave until after you did."
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."
saying you were in the house the whole time."
"Under the floor boards 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.
guys came in
"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
It was a white
envelope, folded over to fit into a jacket pocket. On the front, in what
The envelope had been sealed but was torn open.
mother ever teach you that reading other people's mail is not polite?"
"No." Frankie said, his voice quiet. "She didn’t."
"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.
addressed to me?"
"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
Murdock had taken
the paper from
probably Mandarin." He said. "We know Stockwell was an agent in
Of course, Stockwell
would never just be straightforward about anything,
"How come you
haven't just passed this on to your bosses?"
"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
Frankie slid down the wall to rest on his haunches.
"I'm CIA." He said, rather wearily.
say I believe that."
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
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.
"It's the truth, Colonel. They wanted to condition us from birth. To make us think of the CIA as our family."
"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
"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.
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."
"I found out that Loyola was his idea."
Dawn was tinting
the sky pink as
buying any of this, Murdock?"
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."
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.
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."
Stockwell send me something that threatens his own organisation?"
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."
"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?"
Murdock said. "You know we're not far from Vegas."
"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."
It was mid morning when they stopped at a motel on the outskirts of Vegas.
get us a room. One will do, not planning on staying overnight."
"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.
needs room to stretch out his bad leg."
"I had a car! We could have brought that."
"Yeah, like I'm gonna trust your car."
told you, I'm on your side." He looked at
"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
"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.
"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?"
"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.
"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."
"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
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