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The Tethered Ghost
Summary: One Halloween, Face runs into car trouble and a mystery on his way back to LA. Satisfying his curiosity leaves him facing a dilemma.
Disclaimer: I don't own the A-Team. I don't make any money from this.
The Tethered Ghost
Typical Halloween weather. Warm and sunny, with a nice westerly breeze. Typical for California that is. And typical luck for Face, as the Corvette's engine started to make a nasty gurgling sound.
Well, just marvellous. If he didn't get back to LA in time for Hannibal's Halloween party, he'd never hear the end of it. Pulling in to the side of the road, he got out and popped the hood. The engine made hot metal pinging sounds and defied him to find the problem. When he leaned over it, the heat from the engine warmed his face and chest and the heat from the sun warmed his back. He muttered under his breath about sweat ruining a perfectly nice shirt.
Ten minutes later, after some probing, some burned fingers and a lot of cursing, Face slammed the hood down with unnecessary roughness. Now oil and not just sweat was ruining his shirt and that in turn ruined his day.
He couldn't fix the problem himself. He couldn't even figure out what the problem was. Sitting in the car again, he picked up the car phone and sighed when he heard no dial tone. The surrounding hills must block the signal.
Now what? He'd driven through a small town a few miles back, he could hike there and either get a tow truck or call BA for an assist. He might not even need to make it all the way to the town, there could be a pay phone somewhere along the way, telephone wires ran along the side of the road and...
He smiled. And one telephone wire ran away from the road, over a field, between a couple of poles, past some trees and... there! Face saw a chimney, a roof just visible. A house, surrounded by farmland, well back from the road. A house with a phone. About a half a mile away, he estimated. Definitely better than walking five miles back into town, under the sun that had climbed to noon now and seemed to be trying for "unseasonably warm".
Face left the car's top up and doors locked, more by habit than necessity, since he couldn't imagine the squirrels were going to rip off his radio. He set off across the field towards the hidden house. To fill in the time as he walked through the waist-high grass, he thought up reasons why this was all Hannibal's fault.
When he passed under the trees and beyond them, he found a pleasant white painted clapboard house, picket fence and everything. The house seemed small in the sense of the space it took up on the ground, but it made up for that in height. Three floors and then the dormer windows of an attic. A man could get a lot of exercise living in a house like that.
Face walked around and found the back door first, a screen door closed across it. He went up and knocked on the doorframe, shaded his eyes trying to see into the interior, dim in comparison to the outside.
"Hi. Anyone there?"
A moment later, a woman came to the door, looking at him through the screen. An older lady, in her sixties, Face guessed. Quite a wisp of a thing really, wearing a flower patterned dress, and an apron. She was drying her hands on the apron as she came to the door.
"Can I help you?"
Face put on his 'I'm a sweet and entirely trustworthy guy' smile. "I'm sorry to bother you, ma'am. I'm having some car trouble and I wondered if I could use your phone?" Thinking that, even with that smile, she might be reluctant to let him in if she was alone in the house, Face added, "Or if you could call a tow truck for me, I'd be very grateful."
"Oh, come in." She opened the screen door, smiling back at him. Nobody can resist, Face thought. It's a good thing I never use this power for evil. Well, not real evil.
He stepped into a kitchen that ran the length of the house and, he thought, must take up half of the ground floor. It was one of those kitchens that are the heart of a house, he saw at once. One end had the work area, with a big kitchen table. The other end held a dining table, and on the cabinets around that, stood photographs and books and papers, a radio and the telephone. Two well-worn armchairs sat in a corner, with rugs tossed over them.
He must have interrupted her preparing lunch. On the kitchen table, sliced vegetables lay on a marble chopping block, waiting to go into the pans of water bubbling on the stove. The smell of chicken wafted from the oven.
"The telephone is there," she said, pointing. "See the list of numbers beside it? Call Houghton's garage and tell him you are at the Rushbrook farm."
"Rushbrook, right. Ah..." He gestured over at the stove, where a pot of water had started to boil over. "Don't let me stop you."
"Oh, my!" She saw the bubbling pot spitting water and hurried back to it. Face went to the telephone, found the list; vet, doctor, sheriff, ah - Houghton's garage.
As he stood listening to the phone ring at the other end some photos on the wall caught his eye. Old ones of a boy, then more recent, but starting to fade, of a young man, in Army uniform. Some showed him alone, some with a man and woman, the woman obviously the same one as the one here in the room.
Judging from their clothes, Face guessed the eras of the photographs. Some pictures showed the same man who wore the uniform as older, wearing clothes from more recent years. He came back, anyway, Face thought.
The voice interrupted Face's thoughts and he looked away from the photographs.
"Oh, hi, I need someone to come out with a tow truck..."
When he ended the call a few moments later, his hostess stepped up to him carrying a cup and saucer.
"I just made a fresh pot of coffee. Would you like some?"
"That's very kind of you, ma'am." Face took the cup.
"Emily," she said. "Emily Rushbrook."
"Sam," Face said, "Sam Griffin." He'd not even thought it up beforehand. Lies just came so naturally now.
"Won't you sit down, Mr Griffin? My husband will be in shortly for lunch. Perhaps he could drive you back to your car."
Face sat down gladly. The tow truck would take at least thirty minutes Houghton had told him and he'd rather spend that time here in this welcoming kitchen.
So he sat at the kitchen table, where she still worked on preparing lunch, slicing some bread now, which smelled newly baked. She offered him a slice, which he accepted, spreading it thick with fresh butter. His eating habits were a study in contrasts. Fast food or Haute Cuisine, rarely anything in the middle. The chance to eat some good, plain fare was one he shouldn't pass up. He wished he had the time to stay for lunch.
Had she read his mind? She'd turned from a cupboard and put three plates down on the table. She'd only mentioned her husband coming in though. While Face watched, she took the chicken out of the oven, set it on a bench, and turned off the oven. Before she closed it again, she put the three plates in the bottom to warm up.
The aroma from the chicken and the sizzling from the fat that Emily was pouring off now to make the gravy, made Face's mouth water. Maybe he did have time. No. He tried to distract himself.
"Is that your son?" He nodded back towards the pictures.
"Oh, yes, that's Eric."
"He was - um - he was in Vietnam?"
"Yes." Her voice, her eyes, showed the pain still raw from that time. Soldiers suffered and those who waited at home for them, fearing every knock at the door, they suffered too. Sometimes Face felt glad there hadn't been anyone like that waiting at home for him.
"Were you in the service too, Mr Griffin?"
"Yes, Marines." Oh, so easy, so easy the lies came. But never leave a trail. Never leave the crumbs for anyone to follow.
"Your family must be very proud of you."
"Yes, ma'am. Is, ah, does Eric work on the farm here?"
"What?" She looked taken aback for a moment, perhaps jolted from some old memories. "Oh, no, he... He doesn't live here just now, he's... not here."
Pain and awkwardness in her voice told the story. He's in jail, Face thought. Or a mental hospital. It wasn't just that he was out of touch. That would only make her sad. No the awkward tone, the... shame. That told Face what he needed to know.
"Well, maybe I should get back to my car." Face stood up. As he did, a sound behind him made him turn, to see a man coming in the screen door. Tall, lean and weather-beaten, the same age as Emily. He took off a wide brimmed hat as he came in, went to hang it up on a hook by the door, when he saw Face and froze.
"Jeb, this is Sam Griffin. His car broke down, he came to use the telephone. Mr Griffin, my husband Jeb Rushbrook."
"Pleased to meet you, sir." Face held out his hand. Jeb hesitated for a moment before he took it, scowling at Face. Not pleased to meet me, Face thought. A man comes in for his lunch after a morning's work in the hot sun, he doesn't want some stranger cluttering up the place. Time to go.
"Jeb, I... I thought perhaps you could drive Mr Griffin back up to his car."
Jeb clearly thought different. "Got a lot of work to get back to."
"Oh that's fine," Face said. "It's not far." He turned back to Emily and bowed his head. "Thanks for the coffee and the bread, Mrs Rushbrook. And the use of the telephone. I'd have had a long walk in to town otherwise."
"Emily, is lunch ready?" Jeb asked.
"Almost." She nodded and went to open the oven. Jeb turned his glare back on Face and walked back to the screen door. He held it open.
"Good day, Mr Griffin."
Definitely time to go.
"Thanks again." Face nodded at the man as he left, one last glance into the room to see Emily laying the three warmed plates on the table. Then the screen door banged shut behind him. With a sigh, he headed back through the field to the Corvette. He could still taste that fresh baked bread, still smell the chicken.
A chicken sandwich in a diner in town, while he waited for Mr Houghton to fix up the Corvette, just wasn't quite the same. The diner gave him a view of the garage and lots of men seemed to be coming and going. Face suspected all of Mr Houghton's friends had come for a look at this flashy sports car. And then they'd called all their friends. Face wasn't getting the Corvette back for a little while yet.
So he spent the afternoon in the town, strolling, smiling, and flirting here and there, often with the young mothers, kids in Halloween costumes in tow. He'd been the champion trick or treater back in his day. The nuns helped the kids make their costumes, so they didn't all have to ruin their bed sheets and go out as ghosts. But the costume barely mattered. The smile got him more candy than he could shake a stick at.
Not that he'd eaten all of it, or he wouldn't have had that smile when next Halloween came around. But, like cigarettes in a prison, candy was a de-facto currency in an orphanage.
Face ducked into a store as he saw a sheriff's department car cruise slowly along the street. As he watched from the window he saw it stop outside the sheriff's office and a man in uniform climb out, waving and calling hello to a couple of people passing as he went into the office.
By all means, let's stay away from there. The people in town already gave him curious looks, he noticed, just because he was a stranger. The Sheriff would spot him a mile off as a stranger, and just maybe recall the face - the Face - from a poster.
He bought himself a newspaper in the shop, and took it to a small park he'd noticed earlier, found a bench to sit on. Some kids ran around playing, shrieking. People walked their dogs. Face ignored them all and read his newspaper. It was a local paper, and his attention soon wandered from the reports of committee meetings and school fairs. It wandered back up the road, over the fields to the Rushbrook farm.
Why did Emily put out three plates?
He frowned, turned a page and tried to concentrate on a story about how a local farmer had won a prize at the county fair for his pumpkins.
One of the plates might have been for the bread. No, they were going to sit at the kitchen table. They'd just take the bread right from the chopping board.
The picture by the story in the paper showed a proud man, arms folded, surrounded by several enormous pumpkins.
So... Maybe she'd thought Face was going to stay for lunch. Without asking him? She did it automatically. She didn't seem to be thinking about it.
The reporter had asked the farmer his secret to growing such monstrous squashes. 'Well if I told you that it wouldn't be a secret.'
She took out three plates today as if she took out three plates every day, at every meal. But only two people lived in the house, didn't they?
Did they? For all Face knew there was a bedridden elderly relative in a room upstairs. But why was Jeb so hostile? Well, not hostile maybe. But not welcoming. He'd been very clear he wanted Face out of the house.
So? It was lunchtime. The man was hungry. You don't get between a hard working man and his lunch. Face had known BA long enough to have learned that lesson. Paranoid. That's all. I'm paranoid. Now, just how does this man grow such huge pumpkins? And more importantly why?
He glanced up at the sky. The sun was going down. The witching hour approached and the kids were lighting up their lanterns.
Face dropped the newspaper into a trashcan and strode off. Time to get his car back. He had a party to go to.
Face had to pass by the same spot where he had broken down earlier and he slowed down as he approached. Slowed. Stopped. Turning off his lights, he gazed across the field in the direction of the Rushbrook house. He could barely see it now. Clouds drifted and the moon peeked in and out of view, sometimes a gleam of light reflected from roof slates showed past the trees.
Face got out of the car. He had to know. Even if he had to be late to Hannibal's party, he had to know. What did he intend to do though? Knock on the door and say, "hi, remember me? I just wanted to know why you put out three plates at lunchtime." Yeah, that'd work.
Okay, he'd think of something when he got there. Opening the trunk, he found a dark grey zip up jacket and put it on over his now grubby white shirt. He wore black pants already. A knit cap and some camouflage paint on his face might be considered a step too far. He closed the trunk.
His memory guided him back across the field, the moonlight enough to see the way. He only had to start using his small flashlight when he reached the trees. Keeping that pointed down he got through the trees and approached the house.
Light shone from the kitchen. Sounds, voices, then laughter. It sounded like a lot of people, and that made him nervous for a second, until a burst of music told him all those laughing people weren't in the house, they were on the television. No, he hadn't seen one in the kitchen. The radio then. He sighed his relief and moved on, around the house. Other windows on the ground floor were dark. As he thought, the kitchen was the living space of the house.
Face moved back, put some distance between him and the building, so he could look up at the upper floors. All dark, until he walked right around to the side away from the kitchen. High, high up, the dark shape of the roof outlined against the sky, a strange light flickered in little wisps. He kept looking, letting his eyes adjust, and letting his mind work out what he could see. Then in an instant, it clarified, like staring at an optical illusion until it suddenly flips to the other image.
What he could see was light leaking from the edges of a blind or drapes, in a dormer window, up in eaves, under the roof of the house. There must be an attic up there. The light flickered, in a spooky fashion, until again, it clicked. A cool light, that flickered in a very familiar way. A television.
There's somebody in the attic. Does Mr Paranoid get a prize?
No, not yet he doesn't. Maybe it's Jeb. Or Emily. Maybe one likes the TV and one likes the radio. And of course the best place to watch TV is up in the attic, right? The reception could be better up there, but... there's a TV aerial on the roof. The TV doesn't have to be up there, it just needs a wire to the aerial.
So, three guesses who's up there. And the first two don't count.
Face sighed. The party beckoned him. Lots of cute, dumb 'actresses' in skimpy costumes. Lots of Hannibal's near lethal punch. Murdock's apple bobbing barrel. All those cute, dumb actresses, drunk on the lethal punch bending over Murdock's apple bobbing barrel, getting their skimpy costumes all wet...
No. He was going to miss all that, so he could lurk here and wait until the house went silent and dark. And then he was going to find out what he felt damn sure he already knew.
The kitchen went dark at nine thirty. Farmers at least went to bed early. An upstairs light came on a couple of minutes after that and stayed on for about twenty minutes, then that went out too.
But the light in the attic stayed on until nearly eleven and Face came close to giving up several times, dreaming of lethal punch and apple bobbing. But at last, it went off. A stronger light came on for a few minutes, then that went out too. The house towered over him. Silent, dark. And now he had to wait again. Make sure everyone in there was fast asleep, before he dared continue with his - insane, paranoid, stupid - plan.
He let his watch reach midnight before he made his move. Well, this is Halloween after all. Rising from the cover of the trees, probably dislodging about a million bugs that had taken up residence on his still and silent form, Face moved towards the house.
Kitchen door. He took his lock picks from their black velvet fold. The real thing these. Just owning them must be a crime. A man carrying these couldn't convince even the most naïve cop that he was just an innocent locksmith going about his legitimate business. The steel wasn't polished and burnished to a high shine, but rather dull and matt. No stray gleam in the moonlight to catch the eye of a guard. These were the tools of a criminal.
Though, honestly, he could have just brought along a nail file and he'd still have been through this door inside of ten seconds.
He stood in the silent, moonlit kitchen. A glance at the clock on the wall showed the hands at just after twelve, as they had been when he'd been in here earlier, but at twelve noon, not midnight. A guest, not an intruder.
Silent, even on the flag-stoned floor, he moved across to the photographs, found the one that looked the most recent, and memorised the face of Eric Rushbrook. The face of a man who didn't live here. No, sir.
He replaced the picture and went to open the kitchen door. A dark hallway lay beyond. To the left the front door, to the right, stairs. Face went for the stairs and began to climb. He stepped on the edges of the stairs, avoiding the middle of the treads, to minimise the risk of creaking. Again, he used his flashlight, but covered most of it with his fingers, pointed it at his feet, just making sure he didn't end up tripping over anything and breaking his fool neck.
Up and up he went. He moved especially slow and quiet on the floor where he'd seen the light come on earlier, presumably a bedroom. All the doors he passed were closed tight and he liked them that way. Anybody coming out of a room would have to make some kind of sound. Face would hear them if they did, Face had damn good hearing.
Last flight, up into the attic. Narrow steps, a short narrow passageway beyond, pitch black. Face used the flashlight for the floor and held his hand out in front of him. A gasp almost escaped when his hand touched something, but he swallowed the sound. Just a door.
On the other side must be the attic room he'd seen the TV light coming from. On the other side... Well, don't think too much now, just get ready to react to whatever, whoever, is in there. For a moment he stood, barely breathing, listening. No sound came from beyond the door. No sound came from anywhere in the house. Outside an owl hooted now and again, bats chittered, but the house was silent as the... Don't say it. Not on Halloween.
As the silence went on, Face risked using his flashlight again, to examine the door, and the lock. The door didn't match the rest of the ones in the house, it looked much sturdier. Even BA would have trouble shoulder charging this one. And the lock. Ah, now that's what Face called a lock. He could defeat it, of course. But it was a much better lock than the one on the outside door. The flashlight also showed bolts at the top and bottom of the door. Bolts on the outside.
Well, snap to it, Lieutenant. The lock picks came out again, to face more of a challenge this time. Face winced at every click they made as he worked on the lock. But he smiled at the click that told him the door was now unlocked.
He drew the bolts, slowly and as quiet as he could, then took hold of the door handle and waited again for any reaction to the small noises he'd made. When none came, he turned the handle. If the door squeaked he would run like a son of a bitch, he decided. Forget this ninja stuff, he'd be down the stairs like a ton of bricks.
It didn't. The door swung in on well-oiled hinges. The room beyond was lit by the moonlight, the window blind up. A bedroom. No, not quite, more like a tiny studio apartment. The bed was unoccupied. A man sat on a chair facing the door. Eric Rushbrook smiled at Face.
"You're the guy with the Corvette."
"Saw you." Eric waved a hand towards the window. A telescope stood there on a tripod. "Beautiful machine. Is the suspension as hard as they say?"
"What? Oh, it's pretty brutal, yeah. Um, Eric... It is Eric, isn't it?"
"Yeah. Is it automatic or stick? Did you go for the leather interior?" He laughed. "Oh, why even ask? You're obviously a leather interior man. If you've hurt my parents I will kill you."
Face began to wonder if he'd actually fallen asleep outside and was only dreaming this.
"I haven't touched your parents. Eric..."
"You must have to fight the women off when you're out in that baby. How's she handle? Bet you chose the performance handling option."
"Eric, you know that I'm going to have to ask you about the shackle."
The shackle that circled Eric's left ankle, and attached to a bracket on the floor by a long steel chain. The chain looked long enough to let him go anywhere in the room. But still. Shackle.
"Don't worry about it." Eric shrugged. He pulled up the leg of his pants to show padding around the ankle. "It doesn't hurt or anything."
Not exactly the issue. "It's a shackle. It stops you leaving." Face looked around. "That and the locks on the door and the bars on the window." He looked back at Eric, who smiled up at him. Face stayed in the doorway, because if the man moved Face intended to back up fast, out of his range.
"What's your name?" Eric said.
He could lie, but really, there seemed little point.
Eric stared at him.
"I thought I recognised you!" He stopped, put a finger to his lips, when he saw Face wince at the noise. "Sorry, don't wanna wake Mom and Dad up, do we? Wow, you're with the A-Team? No wonder you got in and up here so quietly."
"You heard me though."
"Yeah, well. I'm trained like you, aren't I?"
"Eric, you want to tell me what the hell is going on here?"
Eric stood up. Face took a step backwards, but the chained man didn't come towards him. Instead, he walked up and down his room, the chain clinking, the links glinting in the moonlight that streamed through the barred window. Face stepped forwards again.
"Thing is, Mr Peck, I'm kind of crazy. Have been since the war."
"And your parents are ashamed of that? They keep you here, rather than let anyone know you're crazy?"
"How about you let me finish and quit making stuff up?" The soft voice made Face take a step backwards again.
"Sorry. Go on."
"I ended up in the nut house a couple of times. You've got no idea what that place is like."
Eric frowned at him. "You've been in one?"
"No but --"
"Then you've no idea." His tone said 'don't argue'. Face didn't, just let him go on. "And when I wasn't in there, I did stuff, scared people, ended up in jail sometimes. Never for long, but hell, feels long enough."
"Yeah." Face nodded. This time Eric couldn't tell him he had no idea.
"So we came up with a plan. My folks and me. I'd stay here. And I mean stay, even if I said I wanted to go, they weren't to let me. We just had the bars on the window and the locked door at first, but, you know, I got out of them in the end. Did some stuff. When I was brought back, that's when we decided on the shackle." He sat down again, smiling at Face.
"You're telling me that this is your idea?"
"Sort of a mutual thing, we came up with it all together. My dad and I fitted this place out. Look at this!" He jumped up and ran to an embroidered screen, pulled it aside to show Face a little alcove built into the wall, a tiny bathroom, with a shower and a toilet. "Neat, huh?" He replaced the screen. "Three home cooked meals a day. TV, radio, books. Privacy, because, you know you don't get that in jail."
"Eric, are you on any medication? I mean for your..."
"My craziness? No. How'd you think we could work that? But that crap is useless anyway. Just made me worse. No. It's better this way, better for everybody."
"It's not acceptable, Eric. You're a prisoner."
Eric scowled at him. "It's acceptable to me, Mr Peck. I don't say it's the way I planned on living out my life and I know one day things will change. But right now, this is the best option. We all make compromises. This is mine."
"I can't just walk away and leave you like this."
"If you try to set me loose..." He didn't finish the sentence, but the threat was clear. Face looked around the room, saw the exercise bike and a rack of weights in a corner. So he was trained and he kept himself in shape, was well able to take care of himself. Face would find it hard to drag him out of the house against his will. Of course Face had a gun, but Eric was a soldier, he wouldn't be panicked by the gun, he'd soon work out Face was bluffing.
Eric smiled. "Well, it's best you don't set me loose. Best for everybody. Now you should just go before you wake... Oh. Too late."
He looked past Face, into the short passageway beyond the door. Now Face heard the sound that he'd been too intent on Eric to hear before. Footfalls. Turning slowly, he saw Jeb, just barely visible in the light from the open door into Eric's room.
Ah, commonly known fact number three about farmers. They just wanted their lunch in peace. They went to bed early.
And they had shotguns.
The shotgun barrels looked huge, wide as train tunnels. Face couldn't possibly draw before Jeb fired.
"Dad," Eric called. "Don't do anything dumb. He can't go to the cops, he's a fugitive. I've explained to him. He was just about to leave."
Face glanced back at him, saw the pleading look in his eyes, pleading with Face to just go.
"That's right," Face said, turning back to Jeb. "Eric explained the situation. I understand, and I really need to go now."
"Our secret's safe with you, right, Mr Peck?"
"Peck?" Jeb said. "So, you're a liar and a burglar?"
"Yes." Face started to edge away from the door, towards Jeb. "I'm a criminal and nobody would listen to me if I did report you. So how about I just get out of here and we all forget this ever happened?" He tried the smile, the weapon that got him out of most kinds of trouble.
Not this time.
"No, I can't risk --"
Face didn't let Jeb finish, he'd heard quite enough. Rushing at the man, he shoved the shotgun up to point at the ceiling. Jeb's finger must have jerked on the triggers and both barrels fired.
Unspeakable noise, like a bomb going off. Plaster rained down on them both. Eric started yelling. Somewhere else in the house, Emily screamed. Face, deafened by the blast and half-blinded by plaster, choking on it, ran. He took the narrow steps from the attic in two big jumps.
Down, like that ton of bricks. At one point he passed a ghostly shape, Emily. She screamed again and ran back into the bedroom. Down. Down. The shotgun roared again and Face ducked, missed his footing on the last step onto a landing and fell. A window he had just passed shattered. Somehow, he righted himself as he rolled from the landing onto the stairs, kept running.
Down. Down. Down.
Last flight. He hit the ground floor and dithered for a second, not sure whether to run straight at the front door and try to break it down. But if he did and failed, he'd have to come back up the passage to the kitchen door, and Jeb might catch up before he made it.
He made the choice. Kitchen. And that flimsy door he'd already unlocked. Jeb's feet clattered down the stairs as Face ran into the kitchen and hurtled out of the door, sending it smashing back against the wall.
Make for the trees. Can't spot you in the trees. Get past there, then use the darkness in that field, find cover, a drainage ditch anything.
Shit! Pain stung his leg at the same moment he heard the shotgun blast. He stumbled a moment, but kept his feet. Keep moving. That was a couple of balls of shot, nothing more. Move. Move. Move.
He moved. Ran and eventually crawled, using the long grass as cover, heard Jeb crashing about. Heard Emily yelling from the house. And another voice, faintly, Eric calling from his window.
"Dad! Dad! Dad!"
Calling for his jailer. Face kept going, commando crawled fast through the grass as the sounds faded behind him, as he left his pursuer behind. Perhaps Jeb thought he'd stayed in the trees, taking cover there, perhaps even climbing one. Face had felt the temptation to do so when he'd passed them, but had resisted the monkey brain instinct to climb out of danger. That wasn't a lion after him. Lions didn't carry double-barrelled shotguns.
No, he had to make it to the car. Put some distance between him and that madhouse. Eric thought he avoided the madhouse by having his parents lock him in the attic. He couldn't see that just turned his own home into the very thing he wanted to escape.
And when Face got to the car, what then? Did he go back to LA? Did he go away and try to forget this happened? Or did he go to the sheriff?
Eric actually said himself he wanted it this way. Since when was it Face's job to decide what was best for other people? Weird situation for sure, but the world had many weird situations. And if Face went to the sheriff, well, how soon before Eric was free and Face was the one locked up?
Jeb's voice, distant, heard as the wind shifted, yelling. Face froze for a moment, but then went on, grass and dirt joining the oil and sweat ruining his clothes. His mind still nagged him.
It's not right. He may say it's his idea, but that doesn't mean it's the best idea. His parents shouldn't have gone along with it. They might say they're doing it for him, but Face didn't believe that they didn't have at least some of that small town shame that they had a crazy son. That they didn't find this more... socially acceptable than having to admit their son was in prison or a mental hospital. Eric gave them a way to avoid that and they took it.
They should have insisted it was wrong, should have insisted he got treatment, even if it did have to be in a hospital. If someone is ill - and coming up with an idea like "lock me in the attic!" is a good indicator they are - then you should get them medical help, not just... just feed their disease.
And playing along with Murdock is different how? Playing along with his delusion of the week isn't feeding his disease?
No, there is a difference. Murdock is getting treatment. Face stopped for a moment, looked back towards the house, couldn't see it in the dark.
It's not right. If Eric had treatment, maybe he could get better, live a normal life. That's not going to happen while he's locked in there. He'll end up worse. His madness will just burrow deeper and deeper. Maybe it's already too late. What if Face brought the sheriff, they took him to hospital, and he never got out? He spent the rest of his life in a place he already knows he hates?
How long ago had Eric been in hospital though? It could be a long time back, and maybe a bad hospital. There were better places now, better treatments. He might not even need to stay long. With the right drugs, he could be an outpatient.
A skittering in the grass, some small animal, startled Face for a moment before he moved on again. Silence now from behind, no voices, no sound of movement.
What if Eric is violent though? He said he scared some people when he was out. Did stuff. What if it was worse than that?
And I'm not his doctor. I can't judge that.
Speaking of judging... Jeb and Emily. They'd go to jail for this. Well, maybe a good lawyer would keep Emily from going to jail, but not Jeb. And he shouldn't go to jail? Stabbing pain in Face's leg reminded him that Jeb had just tried to kill him. But still, people tried to kill Face on a regular basis, he could let that pass.
Anyway, Face was a strange man in Jeb's house. A known criminal who broke in. Face smiled, wry and resigned. Probably get off with a warning even if he had blown me away. So forget that. But locking his son in the attic? That was a whole other thing.
At last, Face reached the fence between the field and the road. He climbed over that, trudged a hundred yards uphill to the Corvette, ghostly white in the moonlight. Thanking heaven he hadn't lost his car keys, he opened the door and collapsed into the driver's seat. His watch told him it was one-thirty. Hannibal's Halloween party was an all-nighter. Face could be back to LA, in an hour, walk in there and not get a second glance, the state he was in now.
Face put his head in his hands. He couldn't stay here all night. He had to make a choice. Eric preferred to be at home, rather than the hospital, did Face have the right to make the judgement that he was wrong? He looked up. Yeah. He did. Because Face wasn't crazy. Eric was. He couldn't judge what was best for himself. That's part of the whole definition of crazy after all.
And one question lurked in the back of Face's mind, the decisive one. The answer to that one would tell him what he had to do. He spoke it aloud into the darkness.
"What if that was Murdock?"
What if the team came up with some dumb idea to keep Murdock chained up, because they all decided they could give him a more comfortable life than the VA could? And what if someone happened by and found out about it? Would he want them to get Murdock the hell out of there, even if he claimed he didn't want to go?
Sometimes you had to rely on the people on the outside. Maybe they didn't have all the details, but they had the distance, the big picture, enough to look at it and decide. Decide: this is wrong.
Face sat up straight in his seat and put the Corvette in gear. He turned to drive back into town.
"Mr Frey, I'm sure you have this all wrong."
The sheriff, Matheson, glanced at Face from the driver's seat of his car. Face was now Lance Frey, an ID he'd been carrying in the glove box of the Corvette. He'd hidden the car, too flashy, too noticeable, walked the last mile into town and rousted the Sheriff from his bed. Now they were in Matheson's car and driving out to the Rushbrook's place. Face hadn't attempted to clean himself up, since the dirt and plaster dust covering his face and hair helped obscure his identity quite nicely.
"I know Jeb and Emily Rushbrook, they're respectable people. And last I heard their boy was living in Pittsburgh."
"Yeah, well he's home. Believe me, he's home."
"What you're suggesting, it's ridiculous. I'm sure it's a misunderstanding." Matheson gave Face a narrow look. "You sure you haven't been drinking? You look like you've been to a Halloween party. It that some sort of costume you're wearing? You meant to be a zombie?"
"Party!" Face gave a bitter laugh. "That's where I should be! That's where I was heading!" The reaction to it all started to hit him and his anger surged. "Should have kept on going!"
"Yeah, maybe you should."
"What?" Face looked up, confused as the car slowed, pulled in to the side of the road. He looked back at Matheson, who turned off the engine, put on the parking brake. Then he turned to Face, pointing his gun.
"You really should have kept on going, Mr Peck."
"Oh for crying out loud!"
It came back to Face then, something Eric said, about the time he'd escaped, before they started using the shackle. "When I was brought back," he'd said. Who the hell do you think brought him back, dummy?
"Jeb and Emily are good people, Mr Peck. They're just trying to do the best thing for their boy. It's better that he's home, with his family than in the state hospital, or in prison."
"Better for who exactly?"
"We don't need outsiders coming into our town and telling us what's right and wrong. Especially not thieves and liars."
"I hate small towns," Face moaned. "You know, if you turn me over to the military I'll just pass this story along to them."
"I do believe your wanted status is 'dead or alive'."
Face went still. He wore his gun under his jacket, but had no chance of reaching it before the Sheriff could shoot him.
"You're going to shoot me, here in your car? Make an awful mess."
"Needs cleaned any --"
Same trick twice, Face thought. He attacked even while Matheson was speaking, going for the gun, faster than the man could deal with, trying to get the gun away from him. And like before, it went off, blasting a hole in the windshield. A revolver, so Face had a second while he got it cocked again.
He swung. Hard to get much momentum in the confined space, but still the blow to his jaw knocked Matheson back in his seat. His arm fell, he dropped his gun. Damn, it went down the side of his seat, out of sight.
Face had no time to try to find it. He reached for the passenger door, and fell out onto the road. Scrambling away, he unzipped his jacket to get at his own pistol, got to his feet and ran. Off the road, onto to the grass verge, and then he stumbled as the ground fell away beneath his feet.
A ditch. Great, go with it. He fell down into the ditch, his feet splashing into water at the bottom. Fine. Some green slime would put the finishing touch to his Halloween ensemble.
Move or keep still? Water splashing would be a giveaway. But to stay in the same spot he jumped down into would be dumb. The Sheriff, who Face could hear running on the road now, could just start firing blind. Face would have to be unlucky to actually be hit, but he wasn't trusting his luck this night.
Move which way? He hadn't a clue which direction his car lay in, doubted he'd figure that out until daylight. Never mind. He reached down, wincing in disgust at he grabbed at slimy and wriggling things, but came out with a handful of stones. He lobbed one over-arm along the ditch and the splash sent Matheson's footsteps hurrying in that direction. A couple more stones that way, then Face started moving in the other direction, going slow, fearing the noise if he fell. He still held his gun, but shooting the Sheriff really wasn't an option and he knew it.
Just get away, escape, find the car, and get back to LA. Go back and get help from the only people you can actually trust.
The A-Team van moved slowly up the narrow track that led from the road to the Rushbrook's farmhouse. It drove around the house to stop outside the kitchen door.
Face stepped out first. Limping a little, he headed straight for the kitchen door. Hannibal's voice stopped him before he reached it.
"Slow down there, Face. Let's be careful."
Face looked back as the other three member of the team came up behind him. Hannibal and Murdock both looked tired, since Face had woken them when they'd only barely gone to bed after the party.
After he babbled out his story, they patched him up, cleaned up him, gave him food, and made him tell the story again, slower this time. Then they had all gone to fetch BA and the van and headed out here.
The low afternoon sun cast long shadows of trees against the house and Face looked at the place and knew suddenly that they were too late.
Once again, he picked the lock on the kitchen door and stepped inside.
Empty. The room that had been a warm, welcoming, living space yesterday stood stripped of everything but the two tables. Murdock walked past Face and opened a few cupboard doors at random. Empty. Cleaned out.
"Let's check the attic," Hannibal said.
They climbed the stairs, cautious, ready for a trap, but reached the top floor without incident. The sturdy door with its serious locks stood open. Eric's room was bare. The furniture remained, but the bed was stripped. The TV, the telescope, the books, all gone. Face walked over to the bracket in the floor, the one the shackle had been attached to. Hannibal followed him, bent down and pulled on it.
"Solid," he said. Bolts sunk into the floorboards, probably into a joist, held the bracket in place. Face looked over to see BA looking up at the ceiling of the corridor outside the room, the damaged plaster, shot embedded in it. They'd seen more evidence of shotgun damage on the way up here, including the broken window.
"Fast work," Hannibal said. "Kind of thing you'd need a bunch of helping hands for."
Face nodded, depressed. "Yeah, whole townful of helping hands."
"Do we go talk to that sheriff?" BA asked. "I got a coupla things I'd like to say to him."
"Not in daylight," Hannibal said. "And we'd better reconnoitre the place first. He could have the MPs in for backup, in case we show up. But yeah, I think I'd like to drop in on him tonight, have a little chat." He smiled a grim and evil smile.
Murdock was wandering around the attic room, looking at the bars on the windows, looking at the tiny bathroom setup.
"Bet if we went into town and asked, people would say these folks moved out years ago." Murdock said. "Ooh, maybe they did... It was Halloween after all. Maybe they weren't even here, Face. Maybe they were ghosts."
"Fool," BA muttered.
"Tell that to my leg," Face said, still feeling the pain of the pieces of shot that Hannibal had tweezered out of there this morning. "Not to mention my clothes."
"No," Hannibal said, looking down again at the bracket in the floor. "No, it went down just as Face says it did." They all fell silent for a while, and then Hannibal spoke again. "You did the right thing, Face."
"Yeah. Not your fault it didn't work out," BA said. "Colonel's right. You did the right thing." He turned to head out of the room and Hannibal followed. Face and Murdock remained.
"Murdock?" Face asked. "Did I do the right thing? I mean, in the end, they just wanted to stay together. Is that so terrible?"
Murdock looked around. "Comfy room. Three meals a day. Nice."
He walked to the window and pulled at the bars, which didn't give at all. He turned to Face.
"But you did the right thing." He walked out of the room then, leaving Face alone. Not alone, he realised a moment later, as the smell of tobacco smoke made him look around to see Hannibal in the doorway.
Face gave a weak smile. Here, in the sunlight that streamed from the window, it all seemed unreal. A dream. He walked to the window. Even the blind was gone.
"Maybe Murdock's right." Face said. "Maybe they were ghosts."
Hannibal came into the room and stood by Face at the window. He took out his cigar and breathed out a wraith of smoke.
"There's no such thing as ghosts. They're just something we tell stories about on Halloween, something to distract us from the really frightening things in the world." He gazed out of the window. "He was real. And he's still a prisoner. Somewhere."
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