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Makes Me Wanna Howl
Rating: PG-13 for some discussion/depiction of animal cruelty, profanity, and, um, purely comic nudity. J
Summary: The Team's on their way to rural Tennessee to bust a dogfighting ring, and they're crankier than usual. But that's nothing next to what ails Murdock! An A-Team Halloween treat.
Warnings: None aside from the above.
Disclaimer: The A-Team has always and will always belong to SJC and Universal. I'm just borrowing them for fun and no profit whatsoever. Sit back, relax, and HOWL!
"Pass me another cigar, would you, Face?" One gloved hand reached back in anticipation.
Barely looking up from The Life and Times of Marie Antoinette, Face obliged. "My last one. Make it last, Hannibal, all right? I'm not exactly sure the stores here are well-stocked with El Capitans."
"Get yo' directions right next time, Faceman. I went south on 41 like you said, and we've been lost for at least an hour," said B.A. with a snarl, staring ahead into a panorama of darkness and trees. A bullet-punctured "Deer Crossing" sign was momentarily reflected in the van's headlights.
Hannibal's Zippo clicked shut. "Go easy on him, B.A. I'm a little lost in this part of the country myself. Where are we, exactly, Lieutenant?"
A deep sigh, and Face marked his place with reluctance. "I'm following the directions the client gave us. We're…" He hesitated, peering at the map under the watery overhead light. "somewhere along 41, between Nowhere and Nothing. Looks like the next available stop is the bustling metropolis of Tyrell, Tennessee. Look, you think I actually know my way around here?"
"It was either you or Crazy Man as the navigator. What's he doin' back there, anyway? Sleepin'?" B.A.'s voice held more than its usual share of disdain. "I keep hearin' weird sounds, like he's snorin'."
"Just leave him for now. He'll be fine," assured Hannibal. "Now, what are we looking like on fuel?"
B.A. pointed to the dash. "Jus' under a quarter tank, not countin' the reserve cans." He glowered. "I ain't goin' back there with that fool to get those cans."
Hannibal patted B.A.'s muscled forearm consolingly. "Relax, Sergeant. Even these one-horse towns always have a pump or two. Worst case is we pull over till morning, I take watch, and we all get up with the sun and some roadhouse coffee, right?"
"You had to mention coffee, didn't you?" Face groaned. "To think I could be spending this weekend with a beautiful gypsy and her sister, sipping Moroccan espresso on a veranda and watching the sunset…" His eyes took on a dreamy look. "Instead, I'm on my way to Possum Lodge, USA, which isn't even on this map, I might add."
"True, Face. But just think: Possum Lodge's own Beatrice Hawkins paid twelve grand, up front, in cash." Hannibal waved his cigar back and forth in the air. "Guess which client Mr. Lee picked for us?"
"I thought you said this was a special interest case, Hannibal," said B.A., still looking for any sign of civilization through the darkness. "What's so special 'bout a flyspeck town in Tennessee?"
"Not special to me; to Murdock." He gestured to the rear of the van. "Isn't that right, Captain?"
A sad, keening sound, more animal than human, was the only response.
"That crazy fool ain't right."
"But he did leave Billy back at the hospital this time, right, B.A.?" Hannibal grinned.
"Don't you be humorin' him, Hannibal…"
Face sighed, his mind someplace else. "Ah, Cyan, Rochelle. I hope they'll remember me when I get back."
A few more minutes passed in silence. There was only more gloom, trees, and an occasional weathered, hand-painted billboard. The keening sound had turned to an almost frantic yipping.
"What are we doing out here, anyway? You were a little vague on the details," said Face, the gypsy girls momentarily forgotten. "And how exactly did Mrs. Hawkins of the Possum Lodge Hawkinses get her hands on that kind of cash?"
Even B.A. seemed curious. "Yeah, ain't we a little outta place here?"
Hannibal turned in his seat. "Mrs. Hawkins' husband is the mayor of Possum Lodge. They came into an inheritance after her aunt died. They've been having a problem with some local slimebags running a dogfighting ring and stealing kids' pets, using them as bait. She told Mr. Lee it's a big event every Friday, lots of betting and dealing drugs at the same time. It's got her and her husband in a bind, because their constable, one Trey Prescott, also runs the ring." He puffed at his cigar, eyes filled with the anticipation of a challenge. "She just needs some help to take out the garbage. I told her it was our specialty."
"Ah." Face looked disappointed. "And, oh, a blood feud between two rival gypsy clans in Newport Beach isn't as deserving of our help, right?"
B.A. scowled. "Hey, man, we talkin' 'bout kids here. Now, I don't care none for dogs, but them kids and their pets gotta have a safe place to grow up."
"That's the spirit, Sergeant. Always look on the bright side."
"You guys mind if I eat that last blueberry muffin?" Face asked, his stomach rumbling.
"Already did, Faceman. Ain't nothin' left but beef jerky," B.A. said, holding out a greasy, half-empty plastic bag.
Face stared at it in revulsion. "Oh, just remembered, I had jerky for lunch." In desperation, he fumbled around for a packet of Oreos or animal crackers that Murdock might have missed. Nothing but empty wrappers littered the floor. "C'mon, where's an all-night grocery when you need one?"
"There." Hannibal pointed to a hand-lettered sign that read Tyrell, 10 Miles. "Think you can hold out that long?"
"When have I ever not held out for ten miles?"
B.A. and Hannibal shared a quick, knowing glance. "You worse than that fool Murdock sometimes. We gotta stop soon anyway, 'cause we're runnin' low," said B.A. He pointed to the gauge again, now hovering just over "E."
"Captain? You still awake?" called Hannibal. "We'll be in for a pit stop pretty quick here."
"Colonel, I think it's gettin' worse." Murdock's voice was raspy and strained. "I better just hunker down here in solitude, lest I infect my brothers in arms…" There was a moan, as if he were in great pain.
"Infect? Infect with what?" Face was suddenly alarmed. "They are still giving you all those shots at the VA, right?"
"You better not be gettin' us sick, Crazy Man. I don' wanna be runnin' a fever, coughin' everywhere…"
"No, no, no! You just don't understand!" Murdock's baseball cap and one pale hand appeared over the rear seat. He continued in an ominous, melodramatic tone. "When the moon shows her full, wan face through the firmament of the heavens, and a man feels a strange, inhuman urge coursing through his mortal veins…"
Face put on a nervous half-smile. "Let me guess, Murdock. You've been reading Tales from the Crypt on this trip instead of Fantastic Four, right?"
"Foo' probably been eatin' them overripe peaches, and bellyachin' now."
Only Hannibal seemed unbothered. "What exactly is your problem, Captain?" he asked with genuine concern.
Murdock's head popped up like a prairie dog. A prairie dog that was snarling in an almost comical way. He'd glued one of Face's false mustaches to the spot between his eyebrows to make a single, unified strip of dark brown.
"Some say it's a tale told by grannies to frighten naughty children late at night. Others say it's a mere fabrication to cover up the grim reality of four-footed beasts run amok, or more terribly, the evil in the hearts of men. But it isn't." His gaze was haunted. "It's lycanthropy…"
The van swerved suddenly, either because B.A. had just seen a rabbit darting across the road or maybe because he was taken aback. "Say what?" he growled, unable for the moment to turn around and glare at Murdock.
Face wore an expression somewhere between horror and sheer confusion, and Hannibal was speechless for a moment. "Lycanthropy," Hannibal finally said. "That one's actually in the DSM-V, isn't it?"
"Yep. And it's no laughing matter," Murdock continued, clambering into his usual seat next to Face, who was discreetly edging away. "You see, there's this new fella at the VA, name of Lukas Kugelsilber. I know, real mouthful. He's right next to me in 105. So we're in the mess line last Thursday, and I notice ol' Lukas got these real hairy hands, and eyebrows that knit together. One strange guy. So he's weirding me out pretty bad, ya see, and I drop my tray, and…" Murdock buried his face in his hands and stifled a sob.
"Go on, Murdock. What happened?" urged Hannibal, ignoring B.A.'s expression of distaste.
Eyes wide like a child listening to a campfire story, Face gulped. "He bit you?"
Murdock scowled. "Bit me? You kiddin'? No, he didn't have to. He shook my hand."
"Shook your hand? Why would he do that?"
"Maybe he was just trying to be polite," suggested Hannibal.
"Maybe he's just as crazy as you, fool!" spat B.A.
"You guys don't seem to get it! I've been cursed, doomed to transmogrify into lupine form, helpless under a full moon…" He started keening again, louder now.
Face tried not to wince. "The moon's not full, right?"
"No." Murdock stopped, and fixated him with an intense, strangely sane gaze. "But it will be tomorrow." He pointed to his deep brown eyes. "They're turnin' yellow already, aren't they, Faceman? I know they are."
"You're sure this is going to take four days, Hannibal?" Face asked, his tone begging for sympathy. "I can call Cyan and Rochelle back, you know."
"An' I ain't puttin' up wit' this jibba-jabba for four days," added B.A.
"We're going in, guys, no turning back. I promised Mrs. Hawkins we'd be there early today. We're almost there, anyway," said Hannibal, taking a last deep puff on the end of his cigar. He rolled down the window, flung the butt out, and pointed. "See? Civilization, at last." A single lamppost appeared through the gloom.
The lamppost, and one lonely traffic light blinking yellow, were about the only things lit up in Tyrell in the witching hour. A stray dog trotted alongside the road in search of scraps. A large, handpainted mural on the side of an abandoned brick building urged people to Take Sum Pride 'N Keep Tyrell Kleen!
"So much for an all-night Safeway," Face muttered. "I guess even the Golden Arches missed the Land that Time Forgot here, Hannibal."
"We ain't goin' anywhere unless we fill up pretty quick," B.A. pointed out.
"Oh, for a taste of rare meat upon my palate," Murdock pined, as if rehearsing Shakespeare.
Hannibal just grinned. "Nope. We're in luck. Have a look," he said, indicating the billboard right next to the poorly spelled cry for civic cleanliness. The Happy Catfish! Gas, Home Cookin', Beer, and Bait. Open 24 Hours. Y'all Drop In!
"Isn't it good to know there's a place for the weary traveler even in this late hour? Come on, B.A., it can't be more than a mile."
The Happy Catfish turned out to be just on the outskirts of Tyrell, which was less than a full mile. B.A. swung his van into a heavily patched parking lot illuminated by a pair of streetlamps that flickered on and off, and a blinking green-and-pink neon sign that might have been stolen from one of the less desirable motels in Vegas. Several ancient pickups were parked close to the little tin-roof building. The faint strains of a Patsy Cline song were audible as B.A. rolled down his window.
"Let me guess…along with beer and bait, they've got 'Girls, Girls, Girls,' right?" Face asked with some of his usual cheek.
"Hannibal, I was kidding. I don't think I'd be their type, anyway, or vice versa."
"I'll start fillin' up. You wanna grab us somethin' to eat while you're in there? I'll take 2 percent if they don't have no whole milk."
"All right, B.A. I'm gonna try and put out a few feelers for our friend Mr. Prescott while we're here, too." Hannibal's eyes were mischievous.
B.A. raised one heavy fist. "Don't you be startin' a fight before I've had my milk."
"Did I say anything about a fight?" Hannibal said innocently.
"You on the jazz already and we ain't even there yet," said the big man with resignation, lowering his fist. "Jus' be careful wit' these redneck types. I got your back."
Face felt his stomach growl again. "Maybe if we've lucked out, they'll have some decent coffee along with their 'Eats,'" he said, pointing to the gaudy sign on the roof. "And if we're even luckier, they don't prepare the food and the bait in the same room."
"I wonder what kinda bait they got?" Murdock mused, scanning the cloudy sky furtively for any sign of a waxing moon.
"All right, guys, let's see how 'happy' this place is."
Inside, the Happy Catfish appeared to be the bastard offspring of a down-home diner and a hunting and fishing supply store. Patsy Cline had given way to Charlie Daniels on a banged-up jukebox in the corner. Mounted deer heads and fishing trophies stared into space with glassy, dead eyes. The stale aromas of cigarette smoke and Budweiser hung in the air, but with the hint of something pleasant and home-cooked just underneath. A few grizzled-looking sorts in tractor-supply and hunting caps slouched over a Formica bar with nearly empty glasses of beer close at hand while a youngish blonde scrubbed at a stubborn stain with a dishcloth.
"Hi there," said Face to the waitress, plastering his most charming smile across his features. "We're, ah, sure hungry tonight. What's on the menu?"
The girl, who couldn't have been more than a few years out of high school, looked up from her task. "Ain't much. Jay Bruce, he don't get in till 'round five or so. He's the best fry cook in the county. 'Course, he's also my second cousin," she offered, meeting Face's dazzling smile and batting her eyes.
Hannibal pulled two twenties from his pocket. "That's all right. We do need a full tank for that van outside. This should just about cover it. And we'll settle for coffee if that's all you've got."
"Okay. I think I can scare up summa that. You boys want I should check the kitchen?"
"Won't be necessary. I saw some lovely pecan pie in that bake case…"
"Oh, that! My momma makes that herself. You wanna try some?"
"Love to." Face tried not to stare at the name badge perched atop her curvy bosom. "Thanks, uh, Millie Rose?"
"Call me Rosey! Millie's my granny's name and I never liked her. One slice comin' right up," she chirped.
"We'll take two," interrupted Hannibal.
Murdock stood off to one side, hands in his jacket pockets, eyeballing a mounted stuffed rabbit on the wall with feral intensity. He hadn't said a word.
"Uh, does your buddy in the ballcap there want anything?" Rosie asked.
"You probably don't have what he wants," sighed Face.
She shrugged and disappeared into the kitchen.
Hannibal took the barstool next to Face, and idly unwrapped one of the packets of saltine crackers from a bowl. "Don't get any ideas, Face," he murmured.
"What? Her?" Face, looking scandalized, pointed to the swinging double door. "Look, Hannibal, she's all right on the eyes, but the Brains Fairy sure didn't stop by her house. When have I ever gotten ideas over someone like that?"
A wicked grin. "Let me count the ways."
"Just let it go, all right? I ordered pecan pie; I didn't ask her out! I'm hungry!"
"Remember, we've got to be careful down here. We're in hostile territory. For all you know, she could be Prescott's girl." Hannibal crunched on his saltines, looking thoughtful at the same time.
"Relax. No sweat."
"Here we go," said Rosey, flouncing past with a two plates and a steaming pot of coffee. "Dig in, boys. If you don't mind me bein' nosy, what's a couple 'a Yankees doin' in Tyrell at four AM anyhow?" She leaned on the counter, exposing a little more of her ample cleavage and watching Face's eyes stray.
"We're not staying long. You wouldn't happen to know how much farther Possum Lodge is?" asked Hannibal.
"Keep goin' right down 41, hang a left by the old Mathers place, then another left where Yarbrough's Garage used to be, and you're there. Maybe eight miles." She frowned. "Possum Lodge's lot smaller'n Tyrell. Why there?"
"The mayor's wife needs some help around the house."
"Oh." The frown persisted. "Y'all don't look like handymen."
Hannibal's eyes twinkled. "You'd be surprised."
"In fact, we're pretty good at that kind of thing," proffered Face, adding a wink.
"Your buddy there…what's he do? He's a little, uh…" She pointed to an oblivious Murdock, who was now face-to-face with a raccoon.
"Weird? Strange? Don't worry, he's harmless. Unless it's a full moon," Face said only half-jokingly.
"Oh. Just checkin'. Y'all enjoy that pie," said Rosey.
"Rosey," asked Hannibal, leaning in closer to the bar, "you wouldn't happen to know a guy named Trey Prescott, would you? He's the constable in Possum Lodge, and Mrs. Hawkins told us to ask for him. Does he ever come by?"
She blanched, and the hand holding the coffeepot trembled. "Oh, yessir, I know that sumbitch," she said, lowering her own voice so that the other patrons couldn't hear. "'Scuse my language. He ain't nothin' but a snake what's got a badge, thass what he is. Him'n that damn half-breed friend of his, Ike Redthorn, gettin' loaded and piss-mean, goin' up into them woods every Friday…" She put down the pot. "Y'all ain't…you know, FBI men, somethin' like that? They done stole my little niece's pug Dottie, 'course, we couldn't prove nothin'. And ol' Trey's the law 'round here, sad to say."
Face and Hannibal shared a quick glance. "No, miss, we're not FBI. But we are 'house cleaners,'" said Hannibal, "and we're going to try and put a stop to all this."
"Nothing the four of us can't handle," grinned Face. "Say, where is B.A., anyway?"
"You wouldn't happen to have any bottles of milk, would you?" asked Hannibal. "For our other friend."
Rosey perked up. "I think I might just, but it'll be out in the icehouse. Gimme a minute or two." She bustled back through the swinging doors.
The man sitting beside Face turned, as if just now noticing his two bar-mates. He looked like a semi-professional wrestler who'd been fired for debauchery and forced to work at hard labor outdoors for the last ten years of his life. His already ugly face was further disfigured by a weal on his right cheek and a yellowed set of stumpy teeth. A filthy bandanna with a rebel flag motif was tied around his greasy hair. "Milk? Lookie, fellas, we gotta couple 'a city boys wantin' milk. Prob'ly cookies too." He and the four other equally rough yokels shared a harsh laugh. He stood; he was easily six feet four. "This place ain't for city boys," he warned in a slurred voice.
"How kind." Out of habit, Hannibal reached for a cigar in his mouth that wasn't there. Instead, he put on a serene smile. "If we encounter any, we'll be sure to let them know."
"Fact is, ain't too safe for city boys or Yankees t'all 'round here." The big man slammed one set of tattooed knuckles into an open hand. "Why don't y'all just scat now, and take your damn milk on the way out" Another guttural, humorless laugh.
"Hannibal." Face had tensed visibly in his seat, and pulled at his colonel's sleeve. Hannibal just shrugged.
"Won't you guys at least let us finish our coffee? After all I've heard about Southern hospitality, Face…"
"Yeah…" He sighed, already knowing what was coming.
"I'm givin' you till three to git. One, two…"
"Amazing. Gorgeous George here actually knows how to count!"
Right as the behemoth's fist came forward, Hannibal ducked and swung his nearly full mug of coffee directly at his attacker's midsection. Roaring in pain, the big local staggered backward. Hannibal followed with a fierce uppercut and a left hook, which sent the other crashing into a display of fishing rods.
The other men charged at Face, who'd sprung to his feet like a cat. The first blow, by a trollish-looking man in fatigues and a John Deere cap, caught him squarely under the chin, but he quickly recovered and dished out a couple of quick jabs. When the troll staggered toward him again, Face smashed the now-empty barstool over his head.
"Not the face. Please!" he prayed fervently as the remaining three converged on him.
All but forgotten, Murdock yelped and sprung at one of his friend's attackers. A clumsy roundhouse kick was aimed at the rangy pilot; he easily dodged it and planted one of his own firmly in the other man's midsection. The local went down like an empty sack of grain, with a pained oof!
In response to his friends' almost simultaneous call for aid, B.A. Baracus appeared in the door like an avenging angel. He sauntered in to face the remaining two barflies, one of whom clenched a billy club and the other what appeared to be brass knuckles. The club-wielder screamed and swung his weapon wildly. B.A. did what he'd done so well many times before; dodged, weaved, and waited patiently for an opening. When it came, he launched several jabs, a powerful crosshook, then tossed his opponent almost casually into a table, which broke in two. Mr. Brass Knuckles was right behind, hissing in rage. B.A., thinking quickly, grabbed the eight-point buck's head mounted on the wall behind him. In one fluid motion, he slammed it down over the overalls-clad man's shoulders so hard that he appeared to be some strange human-Bambi hybrid. With a muffled shriek, he crumpled to the ground.
Stepping over the various forms on the floor groaning in pain, B.A. scowled and thrust one finger into Hannibal's grinning face. "What'd I tell you? I don't like no fights before I've had my milk, Hannibal!"
"Take it easy, B.A. It's on its way," said Hannibal blithely, as if discussing the weather. "You guys all right?"
Face brushed at the front of his shirt and rubbed his jaw. "Yeah, no problem. Did you smell that guy's breath? Guess they don't sell much Listerine down here."
"A-OK, Colonel. Good thing for them it's not a full moon."
Rosey re-appeared then, and almost dropped the quart bottle of milk she carried in surprise. "What'n the Sam Hill happened in here?"
Face, a guilty smile quirking at his lips, raised his coffee mug. "Sorry about the mess. We, ah, we just had a bit of an introduction to some of the, uh, local color."
"You'll…you'll…" It was the leader of the group, sounding like a gaffed fish from his prone position. "You'll pay for this!"
"Shut up, sucka!" B.A. snapped, raising one fist. The Neanderthal looked up at him and cringed.
"These gentlemen were a little less than hospitable, miss. We were acting in self-defense. Sorry for the trouble. We'll pay for any damages," offered Hannibal, reaching into his pocket for more twenties.
The waitress only shook her head and giggled. "Naw, don't worry about it. Ol' Jay Bruce and our bossman'll deal with it when they get in. Them fellas been askin' for a bruising for awhile anyhow. Y'all just better go 'fore they get here, but I won't say a word." She held one finger to her lips. "How was that pecan pie, by the way?"
"Delicious," said Face, making a circle with his thumb and forefinger. "Don't suppose you could share the recipe?"
"'Fraid not. Momma'd kill me. Y'all want somethin' for the road, though?"
"I want my milk," B.A. said with surprising calm, and reached for the bottle she'd brought. He popped the cap off and drained most of it in a single swallow. Wiping his upper lip, he turned to Rosey. "Y'all got some good milk here. Sorry I missed that pecan pie."
With his head askance, Murdock gave Rosey an odd stare. "Would you perchance to have any steak tartare, or a filet mignon done extra rare?" he said in his poshest boarding school accent.
Face held up his hands like a football referee. "Don't mind him. He's, ah, not feeling himself these days. Maybe some sausage, or bacon?"
"That I think I could round up. Hope it's okay cold."
"So long as it's rare…rare…" His tongue lolled out of his mouth.
"Whatever meat you got, muchacha. I like it rare, though."
Hannibal took out another bill and placed it on the counter. "For especially good service. Now, about those directions to Possum Lodge again?"
She repeated them, and Face jotted notes on a napkin. "So, it's left at one obsolete landmark, then another at a place that burned ten years ago?" he asked with a shrug.
"Yeah, y'all got it. And say hi to the Hawkinses for me, y'hear? They're nice folks, go to the same church as my niece and hers." Rosey's voice had dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. "And kick ol' Trey's ass clear down to 'Bama for me, would ya? Even if you ain't FBI, or KGB, somethin' like that…"
"You could file us under 'something like that,'" said Hannibal with amusement. "Again, sorry for the mess. No chance I could buy some cigars here, is there?
"Nothin' but some Marlboros and a few Luckies that Jay Bruce likes. I never touch 'em," she confessed. "Sorry. Be careful, now, y'hear?" She stared, her gaze settling on Face.
He caught it and smiled back. "We're pretty good at that, too."
"Come on, guys, we've got clients to meet." Hannibal swallowed the last of the coffee Rosey had poured for him. "Miss, it's been a real smash."
"Thanks for the milk." B.A. offered a rare smile.
"Until we meet again, Rosey."
"Hey! What about my meat?" Murdock's eyes widened.
"Oh, yeah. Almost forgot." Rosey dashed back to the kitchen, and returned moments later with a plate wrapped in paper towels. "Deer sausage. Jay Bruce's own. Real spicy, too."
Hannibal shepherded Murdock, who was looking at the food like a starving lion looks at a sickly zebra, quickly away. "Perfect. Oh, and we'll try to swing by again if we get the chance."
"Y'all do that." And with that, the A-Team was gone.
The big man who'd attacked Hannibal finally dragged himself up to a kneeling pose, and massaged his still-sore head. "Who were them guys? Trey ain't gonna like them comin' in here, pushin' us around," he complained.
Millie Rose faced him with all the ferocity her five-feet-nothing could manage. "You'd best count on it, Orey Grissom. I think those fellas mean business."
"Mmm, Faceman, you really oughtta try some of this sausage. A delight upon any palate, especially one as unique as mine," said Murdock through a mouthful of spicy venison. "Almost as good as gettin' it fresh off the hoof."
Watching his friend stuffing himself, Face felt slightly queasy. "On second thought, B.A., I might go with that beef jerky you offered me before."
"That must be the Mathers place there," said Hannibal, indicating a log cabin that had probably once been comfortable, but was now derelict and boarded up, covered in a thick tangle of kudzu, with a few squirrels scampering to and fro. "Take a left, B.A."
He did, onto a two-lane road barely wide enough for a horse-drawn cart. He kept the van at a snail's pace. The sun had finally made its appearance, breaking through a veil of clouds onto a dappled canopy of trees rich with the last of the autumn colors. Leaves fluttered down like tickertape on a politician's motorcade.
"Them guys back at that dive didn't seem too happy 'bout us bein' here," B.A. observed, turning to face Hannibal.
"Did you really expect them to buy us drinks?" Hannibal answered with his usual cheer. "Besides, we got their attention. It'll be easier to draw out Prescott and his cockroach cronies now that they know we're here. You did say you brought that new device you were working on, right, B.A.?"
The big man snorted. "Yeah, sure did. Ain't it a little too early in the mornin' for you bein' on the jazz like this?"
"Not at all, Sergeant. You didn't have a cup of Miss Rosey's coffee, did you?" Hannibal flashed a grin. "It was the kind that would have put hair on even the Aquamaniac's scaly chest."
B.A. suppressed a smile of his own. "No. Her doughnuts weren't too bad, though, man."
"Hey, guys, have a look," said Face.
As the van crested a small hill, the A-Team peered down into a bowl-shaped valley. A cluster of homes and businesses sat huddled around a country church, pretty as a postcard in the golden sunlight. Only a few Jersey cows in a nearby pasture seemed to be awake at this early hour.
"Possum Lodge, Tennessee, population 782. Plus four, for now," Face announced, reciting from the file Hannibal had given him back in L.A. "I wonder if they have a Kiwanis Club?"
"Or a chapter of Lycanthropes Anonymous?" wondered Murdock.
"Oh, shut up, fool," shot B.A. "You better not start actin' like no wolf man in front of these people."
"I'm safe for now, big guy. Sun's up and everything…"
"Four days wit' this crazy rap, Hannibal! I ain't gonna take it!" B.A. pointed accusingly back at Murdock.
Hannibal looked to his cohorts sternly, then to his wristwatch. "Speaking of our client, we're right on time. Mrs. Hawkins is over at First and Sycamore. Let's not keep her waiting."
There were only a finite number of named streets in Possum Lodge, which by comparison made Tyrell seem like Riverside. B.A. had no trouble finding their destination as Face read from his notes. The brick Craftsman house at which he pulled over, whose mailbox was stamped Hawkins, had probably been considered luxurious during the Depression, when it had been built. Now it was just comfortable. A white picket fence surrounded a slightly browned lawn, and beds of pansies added some color late in October. A flag on the porch fluttered lightly in the morning breeze.
"I can see it now. Mr. Hawkins is a farmer with glasses and a pitchfork, and his wife wears her hair in a bun and stands next to him. Right?" joked Face.
"Faceman, you been readin' that art book of yours too much," B.A. retorted as he killed the van's engine. "They just nice hardworkin' people who need our help."
A woman appeared on the wraparound porch. Her hair was cropped short rather than styled in a bun, and she wore a simple skirt and sweater with an apron instead of severe Victorian dress. She looked like the perfect image of everyone's favorite aunt or grandmother. She waved and called to Hannibal as he opened his passenger door.
"Mr. Smith? Is that you? Goodness, you actually made it! Any trouble gettin' here?"
Face looked to Hannibal, who in turn glanced at B.A. Murdock, looking slightly stunned, was staring somewhere off to the side of the house. "No, no trouble, ma'am. We did have to stop back in Tyrell just a while ago. But your directions were fine," said Hannibal, ignoring his men's slightly annoyed looks.
"This is too much! The A-Team, right here in my own Possum Lodge! Hayward…that's Mr. Hawkins…he'll never believe this, laws, no…" Mrs. Beatrice Hawkins looked giddy, and her wrinkled features for a moment showed something of the pretty young woman she'd once been. "But oh, where are my manners? Please, c'mon in and I'll introduce you."
"Much obliged," Hannibal said, the others trailing.
"You smell that?" Murdock muttered to Face as they crossed the yard. "I think they got some kinda dog here, a real big fella."
"Can it, Murdock," Face whispered back sotto voce. "I happen to agree with B.A. on this one. We want these people to like us. If you have to go to the bathroom, please go inside. No fire hydrants, or anything like that."
"Faceman, really. Fire hydrants?" The pilot looked affronted. "What kind of guy do you think I am?
B.A., a step behind, glowered. "I think you're a guy wit' a concussion if you don't shut up and behave yo'self."
"Here we are. Y'all come on in," said Mrs. Hawkins, not hearing a word of their conversation. "Straight through this hall, and the sitting room's just on your right. I'll let Mr. Hawkins know y'all are here." She held the door for her guests.
Inside the Hawkins home was just as comfortable and inviting as its all-American, Norman Rockwell exterior. In the sitting area, Hannibal took a grey chintz armchair. B.A. sat in the one opposite, while Face and Murdock shared a faded pink loveseat. Mrs. Hawkins continued to beam.
"Would y'all care for some redcurrant scones? Right out of the oven?"
"That's very kind of you," said Hannibal.
After a few minutes, Mrs. Hawkins came back with a platter of scones, tea and cream, along with her husband in tow. He was the kind of stocky, earthy Scots-Irish type whose ancestors had probably first settled the land two hundred years ago. His weathered face crinkled in a smile.
"Hayward Hawkins. So you're John Smith. Missus been tellin' me a lot 'bout you fellas." The two men exchanged a firm handshake.
"It's a pleasure, sir. I'd like you to meet Templeton Peck," Hannibal said, indicating Face, "B.A. Baracus, and H.M. Murdock." They each favored the mayor of Possum Lodge with a nod.
"B.A., H.M., all these initials. You fellas got first names?" asked Mrs. Hawkins, pouring tea from a silver pot.
B.A., a bite of scone in his mouth, swallowed quickly. "Momma calls me Bosco. Everyone else, jus' B.A. will do."
Murdock's eyes darted to the tea service. "Is…is that real silver?" he asked nervously, ignoring the question at hand.
"Why, no, hon. Just silver plate. Why do you ask?"
"No reason." Murdock let out a sigh of relief and accepted the cup of tea she passed him.
"We affectionately call him 'Howling Mad.' Long story," Face explained, sipping at his own tea and smiling as if in apology.
Hannibal cleared his throat. "Mayor Hawkins, back in L.A., your wife told me a little about this ongoing problem you're having with Trey Prescott and his gang. Now, how long has this been going on?"
Mrs. Hawkins spoke first. "'Bout since that no-good Trey got himself elected constable. Last December, that was, back when ol' Cale Garrett passed on and they held a special election. Nobody else wanted the post, see. We aren't exactly the size of Chattanooga, or even Fairwoods. He seemed like a nice fella at first, talkin' about truth and justice, but…" She sighed wearily. "He don't care about upholdin' the law, just about twistin' it for his own sake. Right, sugar?" she asked, elbowing her husband.
"Yep, that's just it. Takin' them pit bulls up in the woods and havin' their sick idea of some fun." Mr. Hawkins frowned. "Bunch 'a devils is what they are."
B.A. put down his cup and leaned forward. "Ain't there somethin' you can do as mayor of this town?"
The Hawkinses looked at him, then at each other. "I wish it were that simple, hon. Constable up this way has a lot more authority that we do. There's no regular police force here, just him and that Ike Redthorn. Plus we just ain't spring chickens anymore," admitted Mrs. Hawkins.
"And what does the county sheriff have to say about all this?" asked Face.
The mayor chuckled. "Vic Ames only comes up to Possum Lodge when Ginny del Greco has her free beer nights at the Triple Shot. Which is to say, once in a blue moon. He's also an old fraternity buddy of Trey's daddy, Junior. We're pretty far down his list of things to do," he admitted sadly.
"And you don't have anyone sympathetic to you? No one who'll help at all?" prompted Hannibal.
"That's why we finally looked you fellas up. Everybody here's just too scared, what with all the pets that've been disappearin', and the like. They're afraid it'll be one of their lambs or calves next 'stead of a puppy or kitten that goes missin'. We're farmers, Mr. Smith, not fighters. And Trey and his cronies are meaner'n a box full of copperheads," Mrs. Hawkins said as she dabbed at her eyes with a lace handkerchief. "Thank God we still got Took out there, he always lets us know when trouble's comin'…"
Murdock rejoined the stream of reality for a moment. He perked up and eagerly clasped his hands together. "I knew you had a dog, I could just tell! What kind? I just love dogs…"
B.A. glared at him as if to say Watch out, sucker!, and Face looked as though he wanted to disappear into the pink velvet. Hannibal shook his head like a kindly headmaster.
"It was Captain Murdock here who persuaded us to take this assignment, Mrs. Hawkins. He's quite the animal lover."
"Oh, is that so?" Mrs. Hawkins glanced fondly at Murdock, who was now rocking back and forth and grinning like a loon. "If you like, sweetie, you're welcome to take ol' Took his breakfast. He's the big husky in the run to the side of the house. Just be careful he don't lick you to death, y'hear?"
Murdock didn't need a second invitation. He was up and gone in a streak of brown leather and khaki. Some of the yipping noises he'd made earlier in the van could be heard as he made his way back outside.
"He seems, oh, what's the word?" Mr. Hawkins put a finger to his forehead. "A little different?"
"He grows on you after a while," Hannibal said lightly, finishing off his tea.
"I'll never get used to that crazy fool," muttered B.A.
"Murdock's an American original," Face agreed.
"So, y'all are gonna help us? The four of you against Trey and Ike and all them?" asked Mr. Hawkins hopefully.
Hannibal nodded and stood. "Consider us on the case. They may be a box full of copperheads, but they're going to find that there's a mongoose in town who's looking to even the score." He shook hands once again with the mayor and his wife. "We're going to pay a little visit to the constable's office this morning and see what we find. We appreciate your hospitality, and we'll be checking in soon."
B.A. and Face thanked their hosts in turn. "Don't worry, momma. We'll be fine out there, and we gonna make this Trey dude pay," B.A. said, towering over petite Mrs. Hawkins.
"But I am worried," she confessed as the big man comforted her. "Last one that tried to bring down that ring was old man O'Faolan, and we never saw him again. He was a strange old bird, to be sure, but that's no reason to wish harm on him, bless his heart."
Face, who'd been straightening his tie in a mirror on the wall, turned around. "Uh, never seen again? What happened to him?"
The mayor of Possum Lodge shrugged. "We just ain't sure. We never found nary a trace of him."
Hannibal put a hand around Face's shoulders. "Think of it as an added challenge, Lieutenant. An enemy that actually thinks, albeit in a backwoods sort of way, and fights back, instead of those lazy fat-cat developers from that Beddington job last month. Right?"
"Oh, right. An enemy like the VC, you mean?"
"VC? Y'all fought in Nam?" Mrs. Hawkins asked, her curiousity aroused.
"That's right. Another long story," sighed Face. "But I'm sure I can tell it to you another day over some more of those scones." He repeated the circle-and-forefinger gesture he'd given Rosey earlier and smiled.
"If you'd be so kind as to give us directions to the constable's office, that would be helpful," said Hannibal. As Mrs. Hawkins spoke, Face scribbled them down on the napkin from the Happy Catfish.
They repeated their goodbyes, leaving behind a stoic Mr. Hawkins holding his wife, who looked as though she were sending her own sons off to war. On the porch, Hannibal pulled a cigar out and bit off the tip. Face's jaw dropped.
"I thought you said you ran out?"
Hannibal grinned. "Always keep a reserve for the direst of emergencies, Face. This qualifies as a dire emergency." He lit up and inhaled gratefully.
B.A. put a hand to his forehead. The sunlight was brighter now that it had crested the hills surrounding Possum Lodge. "Gonna be a dire emergency if that fool Murdock don't get back here pretty quick…"
"Captain! We're ready to go!" shouted Hannibal.
Around the corner of the Hawkins home came two blurs: one the lanky form of H.M. Murdock, and the other an elegant Siberian husky with a Frisbee in its mouth. Both drew up, panting, in front of the porch.
"Looks like you've made a friend, Murdock," quipped Face.
"Fool, what you been doin'?" B.A. demanded.
Murdock paused to catch his breath, then spoke. "Took…Took here, for your information, B.A., is no ordinary dog. He hails from a long line of proud lupine ancestors too. He was just tellin' me it's not really so bad, once you get used to chasing rabbits and foxes, and dealing with fleas…" The husky sat on its haunches and made a soft whuff!
"See? He's my brother!" Murdock spouted, dropping to all fours and imitating the sound.
B.A. was not amused. He snatched Murdock's shirt front, bringing him back up to an upright stance. "I ain't got time for your crazy talk out here. Now you made us take this case, and these nice people…" He thrust one hand back at the house, "they countin' on us to help their town, not countin' on some crazy wolf man runnin' around diggin' up their flowers and eatin' dog food!"
Murdock swallowed hard, eyes wide. "All right, big fella. Lemme go. I let Took there have all the food. I swear I did."
"Hannibal, this fool's hopeless. Almost wish he'd brought his invisible dog 'stead of this jibba-jabba." B.A. let go of his comrade.
Hannibal pulled at his cigar in thought. "Guys, we've got a lot to do this morning. B.A., I'm probably going to need that device of yours."
"Yeah, I'll start settin' it up."
"I think it's time Professor Albert Colston and his graduate assistant paid a visit to Possum Lodge. What do you say?"
Face's bright smile matched Hannibal's own as Murdock raised his head to the sky to start yelping again.
"Stop messing with it, okay? You look fine," Face chided Murdock as they climbed the steps of the little brick building whose sign read Constabulary, Town of Possum Lodge: To Protect and Serve. He wore a drab tweed suit much more dowdy than was his usual jaunty preference, along with a porkpie hat and a pair of round-frame glasses. He held a large leather case in his left hand. "Follow my lead and everything will be OK."
Murdock looked glum without his usual T-shirt and bomber jacket. He'd slicked back his hair in a halfhearted attempt to look "academic." He was currently tugging the lapels of his dark suit as if trying to ward off evil spirits. "What if they don't go for this, Faceman? And what if that doohickey the Big Guy was tinkerin' with doesn't work?"
"It will," Face assured him, with one last adjustment of his bow tie. "Shall we?"
"After you, Professor."
The two men stepped into the reception area, where a young brunette about Millie Rose's age was busily absorbed in an old issue of People. Tinny-sounding country music came from a transistor radio on her desk. Face cleared his throat discreetly, and the receptionist dropped the magazine and blinked in surprise.
"Well howdy, y'all. What can I do to help you boys?" "Can" came out sounding more like "kin."
"Good day to you, Miss," said Face, briefly doffing his hat. "I'm Professor Albert Colston, University of South Carolina, Department of Seismology. This gentleman's my graduate assistant, Chauncey Swain," he said, gesturing to Murdock. Face's faux-cultured southern accent was a curious cross between Rhett Butler and Foghorn Leghorn.
"Professor? Hoo, boy. I never even got my high school diploma," the girl said with awe in her voice. "What's a university fella like you doin' up here all the way from South Caroline?"
She didn't know, of course, that Face had previously played Colston last month, as a taciturn New Englander, to a room full of suspicious would-be land developers just outside Long Beach. Nor did she question for a moment his accent and manners. He smiled at her, seeing her flutter her mascaraed eyelashes and sigh. With his right hand, he opened the briefcase and dug out a manila file thick with paperwork.
"I'm afraid I've got both good news and bad news, Miss."
Her green eyes widened. "What's the bad news? And what kinda professor'd you say you were? Size-somethin'?"
"Seismology: the study of the movement and constant change of the earth's crust, Miss. I'm one of the foremost experts in the Southeast. Now, I won't bore you with all the technical jargon and so forth of my trade, but suffice to say I've been sent here on special assignment by the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development." Face continued, producing a sheaf of stapled papers. "We're here to investigate this building and the surrounding structures for architectural soundness, make sure y'all are properly up to date with building codes, asbestos regulations…"
The receptionist blinked, uncomprehending. "I'm not catchin' your drift, mister. What the heck're you talkin' about?"
Murdock spoke up, his eyes going wide in a look Face had seen many times over the last fifteen years. "Quakes. We're talking about earthquakes," he explained as if telling the girl that she'd been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
"Chauncey's quite right, Miss. Haven't you felt any tremors down here? Pictures shakin' on the walls, toothbrush rattlin' in its little holder?" When she shook her head no, Face gasped in horror. "Oh, no, that means y'all are due for the Big One. Could happen at any time. It might be the kind what'll make those big San Andreas quakes look like a kid's birthday party! Aren't you aware of the faultline?"
"Faultline?" Her face had gone an unhealthy shade of pale.
Face unrolled a map he'd brought with him showing Possum Lodge and the surrounding area. Before he came, he'd taken special care to trace several lines of red and blue Sharpie right through the valley. "This here," he pointed to the main red line, "is the Lower Cumberland Fault. Dormant since the dinosaurs bought the farm. But this one," he indicated a smaller blue line, "it's an offshoot, the Colston Fault…I discovered it in July…well, it's quite active. Been detecting up little hairline movements every now and then, probably too soft for y'all to even notice. But those could pick up in time, and…"
Murdock spread his arms, then flailed, mimicking a collapsing building.
"Good Lord…wh…what are we gonna do?" stammered the girl.
"First of all, as I said, there is good news. This constabulary was unknowingly built right over the Colston Fault," he said, holding up his hands as she started to open her mouth, "but with the necessary steps, we two will be able to fully inspect and certify y'all's facility as fully earthquake safe. We'll need to conduct a full sweep of the area, but seeing as this is the bull's eye, so to speak, y'all are our first priority."
The addled receptionist plopped back down in her chair. "Oh, then, please go right on ahead! I just can't imagine bein' in a building what's about to fall down, no sir. How, uh, how long you think you'll be? Mr. Prescott's out right now, chasin' them deer poachers up near Split Log Holler again."
Face pulled the phony glasses off and placed them in his breast pocket. "Never rush a scientist at work, Miss…?"
"I'm Frannie Nalen," she volunteered.
"Well, Miss Nalen, Chauncey and I are going to conduct a full and thorough analysis of this building's soundness. Probably just a few hours, give or take, and you'll be right as rain. Think of the peace of mind it'll bring y'all in the end," said Face smoothly.
"Oh, well, I suppose that ain't too bad. You want I should stay while y'all do, y'know, whatever it is?"
"No. Absolutely not!" interrupted Murdock, an intense look coming into his dark eyes. "Do you have any idea the sensitive nature of a pH test, young lady? How the exhalations of one individual can skew the measurements irrevocably?" He moved toward her, looking more like Dr. Frankenstein than Dr. Swain.
She gulped. "I don't reckon so, no sir."
Feeling satisfied, Face replaced his paperwork and snapped the briefcase shut. "If you're worried about compensation for lost time, Miss Nalen, the federal government will see to that. Meantime, why don't you relax and get yourself some coffee down at Honey B's," he referred to the little café they'd passed on the town square, "and we'll come let you know when our work here's finished? Now, there's only three rooms here, am I not mistaken?"
Frannie picked up her purse and the issue of People she'd been reading, and nodded. "Yessir, just this here room, and Mr. Trey's office and the holding cell in back. It's empty right now; no need to worry there."
"Much obliged, Miss Nalen. We thank you for your kind cooperation," said Face, emphasizing the first syllable of his last word to sound more genteel. As she headed out the door, he reached up to drop the porkpie hat along with his southern-fried persona. He pulled a placard from the case that read "Do Not Disturb: Inspection In Progress" and placed it inside the glass on the front door. "Okay, Murdock, let's get to work. You take the back office, and I'll start looking in here."
In the alley behind the Triple Shot Tavern, B.A. sat in the driver's seat of his parked van, bejeweled fingers hovering over the red button on an innocuous-looking remote control. "I wish that sucka Prescott'd show up. I've been wantin' to use this for real," he said.
"You're sure it'll work?" Hannibal asked, puffing on one of several cigars he'd bought earlier from Sweet Lou's Grocery. It wasn't his usual high-quality brand, but beggars couldn't be choosers.
"Yeah, man. Those guys gonna get a wake-up call they ain't never gonna forget," B.A. said, a smile beginning to form on his lips. "Courtesy of the A-Team."
"Just be patient, B.A. We've got to wait for Face's signal."
The big man looked for a moment like a child eagerly awaiting Christmas Eve. "If I gotta, then, all right…"
"I got their phone tapped just fine, Faceman, but I'm not findin' anything. Nada, zero, zip." called Murdock in frustration from the back of the constable's office. "No silver bullets, though," he added with some relief.
Face had already looked through the reception area with his well-trained eyes, and come up equally empty. Trey Prescott may have been just a country boy, but he appeared to be a cautious country boy. No documents, maps, bundles of cash, or anything else in the office was present to indicate that the lawman was secretly fronting a dogfighting ring and dabbling in drugs. Face had even brought B.A.'s portable metal detector with him, which hadn't indicated a safe in the walls or underneath the floor.
"Anywhere else you think they might have something stashed?" Face asked while looking under the cushions of a sofa for the second time. "I'm running out of ideas here."
Murdock rejoined his friend in the lobby. "I guess I could try and sniff somethin' out. My sense of smell is sure goin' haywire down here." He flung down onto the couch and ran a hand through his hair, which had already started to revert to its normal flyaway look. After a moment, he suddenly sat bolt upright. "I think I got it! Did you see that big ol' storage shed out back when we came in, Face?"
"Yeah…" Face stroked his chin nervously, trying to guess where Murdock's erratic train of thought was chugging this time. "What about it?"
"Sniffing, Faceman. What's a dog do when it wants to hide a nice meaty bone?"
Face grinned. "It's worth a look. I'm letting you dig, though…"
The familiar joyfully demented look crept back into Murdock's eyes. "I just knew Took was tryin' to tell me something important 'sides how to catch squirrels."
"You see anything yet?" It was probably the fourth time he'd said it, but Face had to check. He'd begun to sweat not just because the sun had come out in force, but for the simple fact that Murdock and his heaps of dirt stood in plain sight of several businesses in Possum Lodge. Luckily none of the few passersby had seemed to notice thus far.
Murdock stopped momentarily and leaned on the shovel he was using. "It'd help if I knew what I was lookin' for, muchacho." He squinted up into the sunlight.
"Maybe we should try another spot?" suggested Face. "We're gonna have to explain this, you know…"
"I have no doubt you'll enthrall and amaze these rustic varlets, O loquacious one." The other used his posh boarding school voice for the second time that day.
"Yeah. Getting these bumpkins to believe it is something else altogether."
"What about the shed?" Murdock pointed, as if noticing it for the first time. "You wanna look in there?"
Face let out a sigh. "There's a high-gauge lock on it. It's gonna take me a little time without the proper tools."
There seemed no other alternative, so he rummaged in his leather briefcase for a metal lockpick. As he did so, the little signaling device B.A. had given him began to beep. When he pulled it out, he saw it was illuminated with three small red lights. He swore under his breath and quickly stashed it back.
"Murdock, we got company. It's probably Prescott, so just let me handle this." He quickly re-adjusted his hat and tie.
The skreek of old brakes was audible as a blue pickup with chaser lights on top swung into the parking lot. Two men got out, each of whom wore .38s on their hips. One was a wiry redhead in his early thirties with a mean look on his narrow, foxlike face. His companion, a dark-haired man of medium height with high cheekbones and striking blue eyes, followed close behind.
"This here's private property," said the red-haired man, his country twang thicker than anyone they'd yet encountered in Possum Lodge. "You fellas got a permit, sump'm like that?"
Face, who'd been pretending to study a surveyor's map, slipped right back into his Albert Colston persona. "I should be askin' y'all the same question. Do you have any notion how hard it is to locate a main water line with these maps outta date like they are?"
"Water line?" The first man, whom Face noticed had a small skull tattoo on his neck, seemed confused. "Ain't you dressed a little fancy for diggin'?"
"Are you Constable Trey Prescott?"
"Yeah. Who the hell are you?" A flush came over Prescott's cheeks.
Face reached for his glasses again. "Professor Albert Colston, University of South Carolina. That fella there's Chauncey Swain, my graduate assistant. For your information, Constable, we're in the process of inspecting and certifying this building and the surrounding environs," he indicated the storage shed, "for seismological readiness and overall soundness. Which does, unfortunately, involve inspecting this here septic system as well." He shot an exasperated glance at Prescott.
The constable, taken aback, scratched his head. "Them county folks usually handle this kinda thing. I didn't hear nothin' 'bout an inspection."
"'Didn't hear about an inspection,'" Face said, stalling for time and throwing his hands in the air. "When I get back to Columbia, I'm gonna have a word with my secretary…"
"Look, mister, we got business to take care of. What the hell kinda inspection is this?" Prescott asked with irritation creeping into his thick drawl.
He didn't notice Face reaching into his pocket for the signaling device.
B.A. Baracus raised an eyebrow. The twin of the signaler he'd given Face beeped and glowed bright green. Then, he grinned from ear to ear.
"Go for it, B.A."
He pushed the red button.
"Y'all don't seem to understand. I want y'all to pack on up and git outta here," Prescott continued to chide Face, who was now peering down into the fourth hole Murdock had created.
Face gave the man the kind of smile he normally reserved for his occasional roles as a man of the cloth. "Don't you worry, Mr. Prescott, soon as we find that mainline and make sure it's not cracked, or in danger of becoming so, we'll be out of y'all's hair and you can go about your business."
"You still ain't answered my question. What the hell y'all inspectin' for?"
It started as a deep rumble, as if a large aircraft were flying low somewhere in the vicinity. Then it started to get louder. The shovel Murdock was holding visibly began to vibrate, as did the pile of crates stacked outside the shed. Face, Murdock, and the two lawmen looked around with varying degrees of alarm. When he looked down, Face saw that the loose scree beside the hole was dancing like Mexican jumping beans.
"Oh, God, it's the Colston-Swain fault! We're all gonna die! RUN!" bellowed Murdock, abandoning his shovel and flinging his arms in the air. He started to dash back to the main building, but Face grabbed him by the collar and stood as firmly as he could in place.
"Holy shit! Is…is that a quake?" Prescott shouted as a few of the small glass windows in the shed shattered. His deputy, who hadn't yet said a word, uttered a low curse in a foreign tongue and tried to remain standing upright.
After thirty seconds or so, the rumbling and shaking stopped as quickly as it had started. Everyone looked around, stunned. Finally Face spoke.
"Sweet mother of Robert E. Lee!" he breathed. "The fault is active; I just knew it! Just a four-pointer, tops, but…remarkable!"
The tremor had stripped away most of Prescott's bravado. His complexion had blanched even further, leaving his scattering of freckles in stark relief. "F-fault?" he stammered.
"Yessir. You see, I was inspecting this here facility for precisely an event such as this. The Lord works in mysterious ways," said Face. "I didn't even know it until a few months ago myself, but the whole town of Possum Lodge lies right over an active fault. Forgive my bad manners." He beamed again, borrowing another clerical look.
"There hasn't been a quake in my thirty years here." It was the deputy, whom Face assumed must be Ike Redthorn. His Cherokee heritage was evident in the high cheekbones and raven-black hair. The bright blue eyes stared at Face and Murdock with equal parts suspicion and dislike.
"As I was tellin' your Miss Nalen earlier, these hairline faults can act without warning. Now, unless y'all want this entire town to collapse into a sinkhole, I suggest you let us complete our work so that we can certify this building." Face glanced at his watch. "I'll be needin' the keys to that storage shed."
Redthorn folded his arms across his chest. "Sorry. That shed's also our evidence locker. We're working an important case right now, and we can't risk contamination." There was almost no drawl to his voice, which was low and almost hypnotic.
Face's suspicions confirmed, he nodded and picked up his briefcase. "Very well. Mr. Swain, let's get on back to that delightful B&B. Gentlemen, we'll be needin' to complete this investigation pretty soon so I can report back to the chancellor at SC and the Secretary of HUD. If there's any more tremors, y'all don't hesitate to call. We'll be over at Miss Angelica's, but be sure to speak up nice and clear if she answers the phone. She's a lovely lady, but her hearing isn't what it used to be…"
"Go on and git!" spat Prescott, his measure of patience with Face gone.
"Your assistant there's sure a strange guy," remarked Redthorn as a still shocked-looking Murdock made his way toward the parking lot.
"Ah. Well, Chauncey was on vacation just outside Mexico City during that big nine-pointer. Scared him right green. If he hadn't been practicin' his 'duck and cover' drill, I don't know if he'd be with us today," said Face with a trace of amused irony. "I suggest y'all be rehearsing that drill. Just in case. You need a refresher course?"
"No. We can take care of ourselves," Redthorn answered, tight-lipped.
"Just asking. Never can hurt to take precautions. Anyhow, we'll be seein' you again soon. Call me if things start shakin' again, y'hear?" With a bright smile, Face left the constable and his deputy behind.
"Careful wit' that, fool! You got any idea how long it took me to build it?" B.A. snapped at Murdock, who was lifting what appeared to be an ordinary boom box with conical speakers into the back of the van.
"Relax, B.A. It worked like a charm, by the way. Ground trembling, windows breaking: it was a wonderful thing," Face assured him. With slight annoyance, he added, "If you'd have had this thing ready for those Beddington fat cats last month, it might have saved me getting pummeled by that one guy's bodyguard." He rubbed at his jaw as if in remembrance of the injuries.
Hannibal, an impish look on his face, leaned over the back seat. "And it really made an earthquake?"
B.A. could barely hide his smile even in the middle of chiding Murdock. "Yeah, that's an ultra-low frequency generator. Like when you're behind some sucka on the freeway wit' a big sub-woofer and you feel the shakin'?" Face and Hannibal nodded. "Same idea, only a lot more so. Feels jus' like a little four-pointer in the Valley."
With the machine safely back in place and covered with a blanket, Murdock looked up, panting. "All right, big guy, that's enough liftin' for one day. We got their phone line tapped, too."
"You did all right, Crazy Man." B.A. was in one of his rare good moods. "You guys find anythin' in that office?" he asked Face.
The con man shook his head. "No, but we're pretty sure they're hiding something in their storage shed. I may go back there with my tool kit later and see what I can, um, dig up," he said, noticing Murdock's stern glance.
There was a buzzing sound from the van, and Hannibal reached for a headset. "Looks like Trey Prescott's getting a call. Let's go ahead and listen in…"
After a brief click, Prescott's voice was audible. "Yeah?"
"Orey? What the hell you callin' me here for?"
"Your old lady said you warn't home. Look, we got trouble, man. Some city boys jumped us down at the Catfish this mornin', made us look real bad."
"Cops?" Prescott's voice sounded as worried as it had right after the tremor.
"Naw, they didn't act or look like smokies. Might be FBI, though, sump'm like that…"
"Not so far as I could tell. They fight pretty mean, though. Damn pretty boy o' theirs smashed a stool right over ol' Willie Purvis; he's still seein' stars."
Prescott's breathing was heavy as he hesitated for a moment. "You think they know?"
"I just ain't sure, Trey. They went on their way after bustin' up the place, God knows where."
Another moment of silence. Whatever cogs existed in Trey Prescott's brain were surely turning in an approximation of deep thought. "We better make a change of plans, throw 'em off the trail. You know the old Osborne farm, with that big ol' empty hay barn?"
"Yeah, what about it?"
"We're gonna fall back to there. Tonight. Spread the word. I don't want no damn feds breathin' down our necks. Wouldja recognize any of them boys if y'all saw 'em again?"
"Shit, Trey, we was hung over, man…"
"Shuddup, Orey. Just let all the guys know we're still on. Quit screwin' up, and if y'all see them Yankees again, holler. OK? Ike n' me'll be there, same as always."
Another click, and the line went dead. Hannibal removed the headset and pulled at his cigar pensively.
"Hannibal?" It was Face. "What's going on? What did they say?"
"Yeah, what's the plan?" B.A. asked, eager to use his earthquake machine again.
"The plan's the same as before. We've just got to work a little faster, that's all," said Hannibal with a broad smile.
"Tonight?" gasped Face. "You've gotta be kidding."
Murdock turned a shade lighter than even his usual pale complexion. "But, Hannibal, tonight's the full moon. Y'think it'll be safe?"
"It's never safe 'round here wit' you spoutin' crazy talk," B.A. shot back, his ration of good cheer for that day exhausted.
Hannibal patted the tripod-mounted rifle he'd always called "Baby" with the greatest of affection. "Guys, I sure don't expect it to be safe…for Prescott and those slimebag friends of his. Maybe we can even break out a pincer movement on 'em." His blue eyes twinkled. "Let's just hope all the crazies really do come out at the full moon, huh? No offense, Murdock…"
Murdock's face wore a suitably lupine expression. "None taken, Colonel."
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