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Q.E.D.: An A-Team Adventure
Author: Nicole Wilson (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Comments: All are most welcome.
Dear Readers: I constructed this story in ten parts. Some of the files are large and may take a while to download. My apologies to those folks with dial-up connections; I'll remember to do better next time.
Summary: This novel is a direct sequel to "I Am Become Death," also on the ateamfanfic archive. You might want to read that first to avoid confusion. I also briefly refer to my first A-Team fanfic, "An Old, Bold Pilot" which has been retired for a major overhaul. I'll try to repost it eventually. But no worries, you don't really need much background information to figure out what's going on. In this story, Murdock and his favorite psychiatric nurse Rosemary Devlin are kidnapped from the hospital by a group of mercenaries. Their employers are interested in a valuable secret placed in Captain Murdock's brain years ago when he was working for the CIA. The first of many plans "goes oft awry" as Murdock unexpectedly withstands a number of torture scenarios inflicted by master interrogator, Hans Gunter. Meanwhile our intrepid team, accompanied by Professor Goldman, try to find Murdock before it's too late.
Warnings: There are several chapters concerning torture, both physical and psychological. Violence occurs here and there, sometimes extreme. All the guys use bad language in this story, hopefully not also surrounded by bad grammar and sentence structure. A time anomaly exists on the emergence of AIDS as a health threat in the United States. I also assume an extensive, somewhat AU relationship between Murdock and the VA staff. Several of my original characters get killed but no one major gets more than roughed up a little. There is reference to both con and non-con sex, not graphic except in one het instance. Murdock and Face are decidedly slashed in this novel. Be advised if this is not your kind of thing. There are also numerous references to angels and God, including the odd Billy sighting. The angst is laid on thick in places, counterbalanced by more than a few silly jokes, sometimes very silly. Beware of song lyrics, more than one reference to popular culture and occasional sappiness. This is a spy novel, folks, with plot line to burn. But hang in there and I don't think you'll be disappointed.
Disclaimer: The A-Team, Dr. Richter, Father Magill and the Empress Leader (AKA Stockwell) were created by Stephen J. Cannell and Frank Lupo. They are owned by NBC/Universal. Dr. Julius Goldman, Rosemary Devlin, Hans Gunter, Lockhart and his shadow team, Carruthers, Wilkins, Mark Scottsdale and various minor original characters were created and are owned by the author. Please ask permission before using them or parts of this story in any form. This novel was written entirely for the learning experience and not for any profit whatsoever.
Acknowledgements: My very deepest thanks to the technical
advisors on this novel. To real-life pilot Mel Bengston for helping me get Murdock's
cargo plane off the ground and most importantly, back down again. To Jenny and
my sister Andrea, real-life nurses, for detailed advice on Face and Murdock's
various injuries. A fan's appreciation to the following TAT authors, some for
their comments and all for their remarkable fiction: Auntie Hill, Barb, Beanosmart, Cath, Dusty, Elizabeth Kent, emmastark, Fingers, Ldot, Lark, Logansmoneypenny, Merry, Mig, Murdock's Doc, Pam, Reckless,
Rita R., Roady, Sherrygabs,
Snowflake, Stompy Sara, Susie Owens, Tee, Ushbeti, Val, Waffles, Wendybyrd,
and witchbaby. Special thanks to Jipster
for permission to borrow from her Killing Time universe for Murdock's early
years; also to Wallygator who doesn't write A-Team fic as far as I know, but probably ought to. Kudos to
Sherry and Pax, archivists extraordinaire, from an
author too untechy to put together her own site. Final
acknowledgement goes to Ann Emmess for her wise
observations on the second, slashier version of this novel,
including the discovery of a major stylistic error. It stands uncorrected
purely from my desire to kick this now eight-year old project out the creative
Dedication: In memory of C.P.H., my maternal grandmother, who was the inspiration for Rosemary in this novel--- just keep looking at the moon and I'll be seeing you.
© Nicole Wilson, 2009
Q. E. D.
AN A-TEAM ADVENTURE
"There is a special providence in the fall of the sparrow.
If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come,
It will be now; if it be now, yet it will come: the readiness is all."
-William Shakespeare "Hamlet," V, ii, 232
VA Medical Center
'Christmas-time coming up in just a few days,' thought Rosemary Devlin, basking in the sun. 'And yet it feels more like spring. Go figure.' The novelty of all this beautiful weather hadn't worn off, even though she had been living in California almost a decade.
Back home, it was more like monsoon season; cold, heavy rains that often drenched her father's farm on the Texas/Arkansas border. One of many reasons the adventuresome nurse had taken Horace Greeley's advice and gone west, young woman. She'd originally planned to stay in Los Angeles only a few months. Then move on up the coast, working at various short-term jobs, until she reached Canada and points north. The idea was not to get too attached to one place, or one person.
But things had not turned out that way at all.
With a smile, she relaxed against the bench. It was a typical, peaceful afternoon in the hospital's back garden. Patients walked among the trees or were wheeled by staff as they enjoyed the fine day. At a nearby picnic table, two players were hunched over the board, deeply engrossed in a chess game. They were strangers, not the oddly matched partners in crime she had noticed there almost every afternoon since late November. Mutt and Jeff as her father would say--- big dog, little dog--- which, of course, led to the obvious question.
'Where is he?' Rosemary thought, smile fading.
Her hazel eyes scanned the yard, in search of the greyhound rather than the chihuahua. She noted that the extra security guards Dr. Richter hired were on the job, moving unobtrusively among the patients. But where was the man they were supposed to be watching? The first frisson of panic was just beginning to move up Rosemary's spine, when she heard a rustling sound.
"Lophortyx californica," came a voice from behind her.
She swung around, immeasurably relieved. "What's that, H.M.?"
"A nest of little bitty eggs, darlin'." The pilot stood up, his lanky figure still half obscured by the foliage around him. "Come over here and take a closer look."
Sliding off the bench, she made her way through the bushes, moving up next to her friend. Tucked away in the long grass at Murdock's feet, Rosemary spied five eggs spotted with golden brown flecks.
"They sure are cute. But what's with all the Latin?"
"California valley quail," he explained, with a lopsided grin.
She was still puzzled.
"You know," chided Murdock gently. "Our official bird since 1931." He did an uncanny imitation of a quail's panicked take-off through the brush. "Adopt a new state, ya gotta keep up with all that stuff."
"I didn't know you were into bird watching?" Then her face cleared. "Oh! So that's why you wanted me to get those binoculars."
Nurse Devlin had performed a small favor for him several weeks before. Visiting a camera shop over on Wilshire, she picked up an expensive pair of field glasses to Murdock's exacting specifications. He reimbursed her with part of an emergency fund, money usually kept secreted under the bed. Rosemary was alarmed when she discovered just how much money. Not disability checks alone, that's for sure. Eventually she had gotten H.M. to admit the real source: that conman friend of his--- the one who was always getting him into trouble.
'Templeton Peck should have known better than to give him all that cash.' For the hundredth time, Rosemary found herself deeply annoyed with a person she'd never even met. 'Hiding over two thousand dollars in a pair of beat-up old Chuck Taylors. I swan, that's almost as bad as under the mattress!'
Murdock rocked back on heels. "Yup," he sighed. "Just a-watchin' the birdies. Not much else to do around here these days."
She gave him a sympathetic, albeit worried look. Security was now extremely tight. Except for a brief visit to Laguna last November, Murdock had been cooped up at the V.A. for more than two months. There seemed to be a deep inner coil of tension within him lately, winding tighter and tighter with the passage of each uneventful day. As if one shoe, or perhaps the gauntlet, had already been flung down.
Leaving only a matter of time for the other to fall.
Rosemary almost wished Murdock's enemies would do something. Anything! Just to get it over with. This wasn't news. Though she probably would have been surprised to know four others, including the man standing next to her, were thinking the exact same thing--- at the exact same moment.
Well, it would have been five. But one was sound asleep at the time.
Up on the third floor of the hospital complex behind them, Alexander Richter was seeing a patient. As the day was pleasant, he had turned off his wheezy air conditioner, opening up the window to catch what passed for fresh air in Los Angeles. He could hear familiar voices drifting up from the garden below. Murdock going on about something or other--- was it birds?
He stifled a tired sigh. Tried to focus on the agitated man lying on the couch in front of him. But the good doctor's mind was already drifting, fixed on the details of a more challenging appointment scheduled for later that afternoon. Wondering, for perhaps the hundredth time, if he was doing the right thing.
The daily hypnosis sessions were becoming increasingly painful for both doctor and patient. Alexander also remained dubious about using Nurse Devlin as an assistant. She and Murdock had become personal friends over the years, a fact that guaranteed her trustworthiness--- and her silence. But at what cost to Rosemary's own mental health? It was simply not fair to put her under that kind of strain.
And he wasn't even sure this method of therapy was working. Whether he was competent enough to be hypnotizing Murdock in the first place. It wasn't his area of expertise; one certification course does not an expert make. For all Richter knew, he might be violating a physician's most sacred oath, inadvertently doing more harm than good.
"Perhaps Julius might be of help," he mused aloud. His old Stanford classmate had been regularly visiting Murdock for the past few weeks, though Richter had no idea why.
"Wha- what's that?" An impassioned monologue about the U.S. Army's plot to get Private Kraslowski skittered to a stop.
"Nothing." It was the most professional, soothing voice in a considerable arsenal. "Nothing at all. Go on, I'm listening."
The tirade continued.
'However, sometimes,' Richter observed silently, bitterly, his mind already returning to Murdock's problem. 'Just sometimes, the paranoids are right. They really are out to get you. It's just a matter of where and when.'
Dusty and tired, Julius Goldman pushed through the half-open door of his office at the Council for Controlled Nuclear Proliferation. An equally bedraggled picket sign trailed behind him. The group's latest demonstration, at a medical waste incinerator out in Tarzana, had not gone terribly well. Not well at all, in fact, the denouement necessitating more than three hours cooling their heels at the L.A. County Jail. Goldman's own cellmate, a biker named Rosebud, had the tattoo to prove it--- right in the center of a rather extraordinarily hairy chest. The professor now knew more about tattoos in general, and Rosebud's Rose in particular, than he ever wanted to know.
There was a bulky FedEx box waiting for him, propped against a stack of files--- one more item added to the already monumental paper chase residing on his desk. With a grim little smile, he sat down and tore the strip that sealed it closed. Pulled out a thick, yellowing folder. No doubt the CIA would have been dismayed to know how easily one of their ex-operatives had gotten access to this classified information--- and by a commercial delivery service at that.
The peeling label bore the title of a long-defunct project. It was also marked with the name of the only remaining participant not just as dead and buried. The file read: "THIRTY-NINE STEPS: Classified: Need to Know Only. SUBJECT: Captain H.M. Murdock, U.S. Army Air Force: Courier Number #11."
Julius let out a deep sigh. He had fervently hoped never to see this folder again in life.
But needs must, as they say.
"All right, Murdock!" False bravado echoed in the large, empty classroom. "If our hypothesis is correct, the Company should make another try at recovering that list any day now. However, this time around--- for what it's worth--- I'm going to be there to help." The professor's voice dropped to a whisper. "I owe you, and the memory of all those other brave men, at least that much."
Pushing the coke-bottle lenses up on his nose, Goldman dragged an empty legal pad toward him. A frown gathered over the bridge of those glasses as he began reading the file. Began turning the pages with greater rapidity, filling his pad with notes. As the sweep of Murdock's story once again caught at him, dragged him under--- into yet another theory to be tested, problem to be solved.
Some miles away, John 'Hannibal' Smith took a puff of his cigar. He was stretched out in the conversation pit of Faceman's latest acquisition, a beach house in Laguna. Ostensibly watching college football on T.V., he was really paying more attention to a slender form curled up tightly on the other end of the couch. The colonel noting that even when unconscious, his lieutenant was too fastidious to actually snore.
'That kid could fall asleep on a coat hanger,' he thought, grinning.
Face had gone out to dinner with some stewardess last night, a long-legged beauty named Marie--- Maria--- something. And hadn't returned until the proverbial wee hours of the morning.
His grin slowly faded. 'Burning the candle at both ends.'
Hannibal was deeply worried about the younger man, taking this abrupt increase in extra-curricular activities as a very bad sign. It seemed that, much like Murdock's crazy riffs and personas, Face was desperately using his own methods to release some of the growing tension. Exhibiting behavior that was not nearly as risky in Smith's day, perhaps resulting in a good dose of the clap. But now, with an insidious new disease making an appearance, the A-Team's resident charmer was playing a much more dangerous game. Hannibal was torn between a strong desire to broach this subject with the lieutenant, and an equally firm conviction that it wasn't his business.
He let out a frustrated sigh. 'And it's not as if all this sleeping around even seems to be doing much good.'
In front of strangers, Templeton Peck played his usual class act--- smooth as ever. But the colonel knew just how easily that veneer could crack. As each day passed, he watched Face struggle harder to keep up the illusion. Watched him lose weight he couldn't afford to lose. Grow paler and more withdrawn.
Something had better break soon--- before it broke the kid as well.
He glanced down at his watch; reveille was long overdue. 'A quick jab on the shoulder?' Hannibal considered. 'Maybe jack up the T.V. full blast?' Face was running late for his shift on guard duty in front of the hospital. B.A. was going to kill him.
"I'm gonna kill him," said B.A., aiming a glare through the windshield.
The big man had consumed an equally monumental breakfast before taking over for Hannibal at 07:00. And had not wanted to leave his post, except for bathroom breaks, even to get some lunch. It was after 15:00 already--- and he was starving.
"Face," he muttered. "Better get your ass over here soon--- or you gonna pay." Man, oh, man! This waiting around was getting on his very last nerve.
He scanned the traffic ahead for any sign of a flashy Corvette.
One lane over, another van cruised slowly past. Someone dressed entirely in black was sitting in the passenger seat. He gave the sergeant a deceptively casual glance.
"It's Baracus," the man said quietly.
"Fuck!" his driver replied. "Where's Peck? He's half the contract. Lockhart is gonna be seriously pissed."
"No kidding, Dugan. Pretty boy's late for his shift--- again. That's the third time this week. Sloppy, unprofessional bullshit." Lieutenant Vargas snorted. "And they call themselves The A-Team! Like there weren't any other units just like them back in Nam."
"Oh, I don't know," offered a third man. In nighthawk camouflage like this teammates, he blended into the shadowy interior behind them. "Those guys weren't much like us. Sure did pull some fucking crazy shit back then. Got away with it every time."
"Yeah," Dugan said. "I heard Colonel Smith managed to get all his men out of Chao's death camp alive--- and in one piece. No other unit ever came close to that."
Vargas let out an impatient sigh. "You girls wanna wrap up this fan club meeting--- your little A-Team Appreciation Society? Maybe give me some idea how we're gonna salvage this contract? If we just snatch the pilot, our client'll pony up only half the cash."
Dugan pulled their van up behind an eighteen-foot brick wall, marking the V.A.'s rear perimeter.
Ericsson leaned forward. "Guess half is better than nothing at all," he said. "We got a real small window of opportunity here. I say we do it now. Wait for Peck and the whole plan could be screwed." He and Corporal Dugan exchanged a look. "Whaddya say, LT?"
Vargas thought for a moment. Finally nodded. "Yeah, might as well do it to it."
They climbed out of the vehicle, Dugan hotfooting it around to the back door. He pulled out several long ropes, grappling hooks already attached. The largest of their group, Sergeant Ericsson eased on a backpack stuffed with a heavy canvas tarp. Checking to see that their handguns were firmly holstered, the ex-Greenies looked up. Studied the coils of barbed wire above them, glinting in the bright afternoon sun.
They were ready.
Back on his side of the wall, Murdock gently rearranged blades of grass around the nest. Then followed Rosemary to her bench.
"Have a seat, H.M."
"You sure?" he said, dropping down anyway. "Don't want to bug you on your lunch hour." Murdock gave her a tentative smile. "Must be sick of looking at me by now."
One eyebrow rose in an amused arch. "Ah, but were you looking back? Hypnotherapy sessions don't count. It's not like you were entirely with us at the time. Besides--- " Her face grew serious. "I want to ask you a question."
"O.K., darlin'--- shoot." Murdock's right hand unconsciously formed a gun as it lay in his lap.
"Do you really think all this hypnosis is worth the effort?" Rosemary gave him a searching look. "Are you feeling better--- any better at all? I just wanted to know because--- because--- " She broke off.
"Because--- why?" he asked softly.
"I know you and Dr. Richter are counting on me. I don't want to let either of you down. It's just that--- well--- are you sure you feel O.K.?" Her eyes glinted with sudden tears. "I mean--- afterwards."
"You mean after each session? Sure, I'm fine. Just a headache--- bit of a sore throat--- nothing to worry about."
"Sore throat," she repeated dully. "Yeah, I suppose it would be sore." The nurse leaned forward, molding her hands over both ears. Trying desperately to muffle the sounds in her head, the sounds of Murdock screaming. Sounds that had begun to haunt her waking hours as well as her dreams.
Murdock frowned. "Hey," he said, grabbing her by the shoulders. "You all right?"
Rosemary looked up, rattling him further. Murdock remembered that look on another friend's face, many years ago. Helpless, hopeless desperation--- the night before he---
His mind skittered away from the memory.
'Well, it won't happen again.' Murdock's decision was swift and sure as the colonel himself. 'It's one thing to risk what marbles I've got left, rollin' around in the old brainpan. But damned if I'm going to take anyone else with me.'
"O.K., darlin'--- that's it," he announced. "That's quite enough. You can stick a fork in it. I'm done."
She laughed shakily.
"Nah, I'm not kidding. I'll talk to Dr. Richter this afternoon. Get him to knock off all this hypnosis mumbo-jumbo. No more Mr. Guinea Pig, O.K.?"
"O.K.," the little redhead agreed. "Though I think you mean Mr. Nice Guy--- and you already are that."
A tinge of pink darkened Murdock's face, the back of his neck. "Nah," he said again, very low.
"Besides, if there's any chance you could get better, we have to keep going."
"Not on your tinny tintype." He grinned. "Only me and the Doc were dumb enough to volunteer for this FUBAR. As of today you, Miss Devlin, are retired from active service."
She shot him a quick, grateful salute. "O.K., Captain--- and thanks."
"De nada," he said, his grin disappearing. "An' I'm sorry--- real sorry. Never would have got you into this if I'd known--- " Murdock broke off, dark eyes watching her for a moment. Then abruptly, impulsively, he pulled Rosemary into his arms.
She hugged him back. Not like Murdock's nurse, or even his friend, but as---
Her mind skittered away from the thought.
The two drew back. Studying each other like some weird new bug under the microscope, something new and beautiful unfurling its wings. Butterfly on a corkboard, bumblebee in a bottle--- both realizing that after almost nine years of friendship, a line had just been crossed.
But what the hell did they do about it? What the hell happened next?
'Face--- ' was the only word Murdock was able to formulate. The first word--- first salvo--- in a long internal battle, a battle never fought.
That he never had time to fight.
Not before the pilot heard a muffled thump against the far wall. Followed by an explosion of shotgun sparrow-scold, little birds suddenly emerging from the bushes in agitated flutter.
Over Rosemary's shoulder, Murdock watched black-clad figures appear at the summit. Place their feet carefully under the barbed wire, the largest man dropping a heavy tarp over the coils. Watched them readjust their grappling hooks. Send three ropes slithering into the yard below.
"Shit!" he cursed, with feeling.
"Wha--- what?" Rosemary said.
"What time is it?" he asked--- a low, urgent non sequitur. Then, not waiting for an answer, Murdock drew one of her hands into his lap. Tilted her watch upward, taking a look for himself.
'Oh-three-thirty? Shit--- shit! After all these weeks, the one afternoon he was late for guard duty--- the one and only time! And now they've got Face.'
Murdock caught her again--- the fear crackling, arcing between them. Forcing her to pull back, hazel eyes wide.
"Gotta go now, darlin'," he explained, no real explanation. "I'll be back as soon as I can."
It was all Rosemary had time to say before H.M. gave her an order. Before he metamorphosed into someone entirely different from the gentle psychiatric patient she had known until then. Into Captain Murdock, USAF, sometime air jockey for the A-Team. It was her first glimpse of what he must have been like in combat: someone quick, hard--- and utterly focused.
"Run!" he told her. "Find Dr. Richter. He'll know what to do."
Without another word, no further argument--- not like her at all--- she rose from the bench. Took off across the yard like an Arkansas jackrabbit, making for the hospital complex behind them.
Murdock stood up too. Only to walk in the opposite direction, tortoise to her hare. Amble across the lawn--- his loose-limbed, relaxed gait in sync with an almost lighthearted monologue. For, in a way, it was time for lightheartedness. The other shoe had finally been dropped, the gauntlet thrown. Time to address some remarks to a certain omniscient power. Someone that, at the moment, Captain Murdock felt was being rather less than fair.
"Don't mean to complain," he said, glancing up. "I know this had to happen sooner or later--- but you gotta know your timing really sucks. I mean--- does stuff like this ever happen to Face? No--- ohhh, no. His timing is always perfect, always right on the money. Faceman always gets the girl, and really gorgeous ones too. O.K., O.K.--- so he's a lot better looking than me. Like the Doc says--- Q.E.D."
"But I'm not half bad. An' all I'm askin' for is one girl--- if that's not asking too much. Like maybe the one I left--- " He waved a hand behind him. "The one with all those red curls, sprinkle of cute little freckles--- " Wiggled his fingers over his nose. "Any of this ringing a bell, Lord? Clangin' a heavenly chime? 'Cause she would do me just fine."
Vargas and the others watched him approach, their faces a study in confused suspicion. The target's description certainly fit. Captain H.M. Murdock: about six foot three, dark eyes. Wearing khaki pants and plaid flannel, t-shirt with some kind of writing. Blue baseball cap to disguise his receding hairline, lend some order to the wild, overly long corona that remained. It was Murdock's uniform of choice these days, at least according to the briefing they got before they left.
Positive I.D., all right.
So why the fuck was he headed their way? Instead of hotfooting it back to the hospital building--- and safety? Just didn't make sense. As Murdock drew closer, they could hear him mumbling to himself.
"Well," pointed out Dugan. "Lockhart did say he was nuts."
"Yeah, no shit, Sherlock! Didn't we just break into a mental hospital to get him?" Vargas let out an explosive sigh. "I'm surrounded by idiots."
"Think that's supposed to be my line," said Murdock, as he came to a halt in front of them.
"Captain Murdock?" Ericsson's voice was tinged with respect.
"Yeah," he said, giving them a smile that was not a smile. Not quite reaching eyes brown-black with anger.
"Sir, you need to come with us."
'Gotta stick with your unit,' the pilot reminded himself, one hand closing protectively over a bump in his left forearm. 'Gotta stick with the plan.'
"And you gentlemen, I presume, are the kidnappers?" It was an effortless impersonation of Jeff to his Mutt--- right down to the myopic squint. "I believe you were expected." He shot both arms out in front of him, wrists together. "If it were done when 'tis done, 'twere well it were done quickly."
"Huh?" This was from Dugan, not really the sharpest knife in the drawer.
Murdock gave him a look. "C'mon, you guys. Cut to the chase. Take me to your leader."
His voice dropped to a less than a whisper.
Rosemary ducked inside, mashing hard on a button just inside the back entrance. Immediately, the hallways reverberated with alarm bells. Then she turned, checking to see why the long-legged Murdock hadn't beaten her to the door. Let out a shocked gasp when she found him moving toward the intruders.
"H.M.!" the nurse screamed, racing frantically back the way she had come.
Two of the commandos had already moved into position behind their target. All heads swiveled toward Rosemary as she came up behind them.
Murdock's eyes widened. 'Time to change strategy--- just a smidge. Nothing the colonel wouldn't do in his place, if he were here.' The plan often etched in quicksand as far as Hannibal was concerned. Damn, and how he wished Hannibal was here! Wished for the big guy, thunderous growl an' all--- 'cause this situation was rapidly spiraling out of control.
Dugan never saw the punch that decked him as the pilot suddenly decided to give them a fight. Lieutenant Vargas motioned for all three men to tackle Murdock at once. Looking more irritated than angry, the stocky corporal rose out of the melee that followed. Reaching past the LT, he struck one half of their contract on the temple with a quick, hard blow. Captain Murdock just as suddenly relinquished the field. Or rather it was relinquished for him as he collapsed, unconscious on the grass. His attackers untangled themselves from the untidy heap that was now their captive. Studied him for a moment, breathing heavily.
Vargas redirected his glare at Dugan. "Why'd you hit him on the head, you stupid fuck!"
The other man just shrugged.
They watched the captain's little red-haired nurse skid to a stop. "You'll never get away with this," she told them, all breathless indignation.
"Got news for you, honey." The lieutenant's smile was cold. "We already have."
They promptly abandoned Murdock, forming a circle around her.
Rosemary's first flush of anger was wearing off. As, not for the first time in her life, she cursed her Irish temper. 'Fools rush in--- ' she thought, as one of the commandos yanked both arms behind her, tying the rope in quick, precise knots. The big, dumb-looking one slapped a piece of tape over her mouth.
"C'mon, let's get out of here!" shouted Ericsson, as he hoisted Murdock up off the ground.
Richter was up in his office, preparing for the captain's hypnosis session. He had just cued up a place on the reel-to-reel tape, when his quiet "testing--- testing--- " was overlaid with the sound of all hell breaking loose in the yard below. Checking out the window, he was appalled to observe three intruders wrestling Nurse Devlin over the wall. There was also a man on the ground, someone wearing a rumpled plaid shirt.
He was lying very still.
Alexander ran to the door, yanking it open. He slid across the linoleum to an office opposite his own, all the while fumbling for a small whistle, one of several dozen dropped off by Face a few weeks before. As he burst through the doorway, his colleague glanced up in surprise.
"Sorry to interrupt your session, Horace." Richter neatly hopped over an ottoman that blocked his path to the window. "But could you help me get this open? It's an emergency."
The other psychiatrist lent a hand, both of them wrestling the warped casement upward. Leaning out as far as he could, Alexander blew three short piercing blasts on the whistle--- followed by one long note.
"Thanks," he puffed. "And once again, my sincere apologies." Without waiting for the other man's reply, Dr. Richter raced out the door and down the hall.
Horace and his patient exchanged a bewildered look.
Outside, thoughts dark and Baracan were interrupted by an S.O.S. echoing across the yard. His head shot up, Pavlov's dog to the sound. The melodic dit-dit-dit-dot was their prearranged signal for disaster: A-Team member in need--- do you read?
B.A. was out of the van before the last note had faded, sprinting toward the hospital building. Taking the steps two at a time, the wild-eyed sergeant charged through the door, a grand entrance that just missed someone teetering along on crutches. Sent two frightened nurses diving for cover behind the registration desk.
'Three men, rear entrance,' he thought, correctly interpreting Richter's signal. 'What rear entrance? Ain't nothin' back there but an eighteen foot wall topped with barbed wire!' The big man cursed himself for being too intimidated by this loony bin to come inside earlier, memorize the layout. Now he didn't know where the hell to go.
Fortunately, Murdock's psychiatrist chose that moment to push through the fire doors and into the lobby.
"Sergeant Baracus," he called. "Over here!"
The two men ran across the grass, Richter's white coattails flapping. Several of the rented security guards, better late than never, followed at their heels.
As they reached the back wall, B.A. latched onto a rope the commandos had left behind. Large biceps flexing, he pulled himself up to the top. Rested gingerly for a moment on the canvas-covered wire, before leaning over the edge. To his left, he could just see a gray van reach the end of the block, and merge with other traffic heading onto Route 405 South. It was too far away for him to make out the plates.
"Hannibal!" His bellow was loud enough to carry all the way to Laguna. "This time they came in the fuckin' back door!" Almost immediately he cringed. Shot a guilty look behind him as if he expected a familiar figure to emerge from the bushes--- Boraxo in hand--- to thoroughly wash out his mouth.
"Sorry, Mama," he said, aiming his apology eastward--- almost two thousand miles away.
B.A. slid down the interior wall. Leaned against the masonry as his pounding heart began to slow to normal. He glanced over at the more sedentary psychiatrist. Richter was also bent over, struggling to catch his breath.
"Gotta--- get--- to a--- phone," he said.
The doc nodded. Straightened up, slow and careful as an old man.
They went back inside.
The colonel was just leaning over to jostle Face awake when the phone rang. He picked up the receiver. "Joe's Pizza."
"Hannibal," came an angry voice on the other end.
"Now, B.A.--- calm down. I was just getting ready to wake him."
"I know you've been taking part of his shift for the last few days. But we gotta cut the kid a break. Face hasn't been looking too good lately and--- "
"No reverse pincer movement--- no big ol' Trojan Horse."
He frowned, perplexed.
"No charge of the Light Brigade at--- at--- Waterloo!"
"Khyber Pass--- what happened, Sergeant?"
"Khyber Pass, Waterloo--- middle of the Hollywood Bowl at high noon. Don't really matter. I think those guys left your playbook at home." The colonel heard a single, shaken breath. "I'm sorry--- real sorry. They got him. I jus' didn't get there in time."
"What guys!?" Hannibal's voice was rising.
The sleeping man next to him began to stir.
"I told you they wasn't gonna make a frontal assault. This is the CIA, man. They got a whole other kinda Jazz goin' on."
"You're telling me they came over the back wall? Damn, and I thought that was the most secure section of the perimeter."
"Yeah, probably why they tried for it. Knowin' we didn't expect them to take that route. All I caught was a gray van getting on the expressway. Too far to make out what state, never mind a plate number." B.A. sighed. "Think you better get on over here. Dr. Richter wants to see us."
"Yeah, tell him we'll be right there."
Hannibal hung up the phone.
Face uncurled in a bone-cracking stretch. "What's going on?" he asked sleepily.
Best to just spit it out. "They got Murdock," Hannibal said.
He shot to his feet, zero-to-sixty in fifteen seconds. "What?!"
"Yeah, yeah." It was the colonel's turn to sigh. "I know--- my plan didn't work. C'mon, we better hit the road. B.A.'s waitin' for us over at the hospital."
Hannibal's exec glared at him, eyes sharp as marquis-cut aquamarine. Sharp enough to cut to the bone. He started to speak. Then thought the better of it, snapping his mouth shut.
Turning on one heel, Face went out the door. Made swiftly for the Corvette parked out on the street.
The colonel followed him, jumping into the passenger seat. He just barely got inside before his teammate gunned the engine. Screeched away from the curb.
B.A. handed the receiver back to Murdock's shrink. "Should take 'em a while--- rush hour's just startin' up. Meanwhile, I'm starving. Know where I could get something to eat."
"Try the cafeteria. It's right next to the lobby." Richter lowered himself into his office chair. "No point in rushing anywhere now," he said. "What's done is done."
The sergeant frowned. "Not like we expected--- like Hannibal planned."
"No." Hundred-years old tired; "The best laid plans of mice and--- "
"Man proposes, God disposes," B.A. interrupted gently. "My mama told me that."
Richter smiled. "Mrs. Baracus was a very wise woman."
Which earned him an even broader smile back. "Still is," he said, starting for the door. "I'll see ya in an hour, Doc."
The big man glanced over his shoulder.
Richter fixed him with a complicated look. Like the man was judging him, weighing what to say next. "Best if you don't try the meatloaf."
'What?' thought B.A., thrown off guard. 'Was he kidding? Man should just come out and say what he was gonna say.' All this reminding him of their one-and-only session back in Nam, that debriefing after Chao, shrunk by the Army shrink. Like that poor dude on Creature Feature, trading places with a fly. His tiny voice goin', help me--- help me.
"Stuff's chancy at best." The psychiatrist swung his feet up on the couch. "Positively lethal on a bad day."
Even looked like the same couch. Maybe ol' Richter brought it with him--- all the way from Saigon. B.A. was relieved when the man finally closed his eyes, leaned back in his chair.
"No point incurring any more causalities. Add ptomaine to the harm I've already caused through my meddling--- getting out of my depth." Richter shrouded his coat around him. "Aooga, aooga, dive--- dive--- dive--- "
B.A. quietly pulled the door closed.
Muffling a snort loud enough to echo down the corridor. "That doc's nuts as the crazyman. Just hope Hannibal's got some new kinda plan." He shouldered his way through the fire doors. "Cause we sure as hell gonna need one!"
The stairwell was quiet for a moment. Then echoed with a equally quiet:
A gray van joined the creeping line of rush hour traffic moving southward on Rt. 405. Fifteen minutes and several exits later, Dugan finally chose a ramp that gave onto an industrial section along the waterfront. He pulled up in front of a dilapidated warehouse, the curbside view made incongruous by the addition of a showroom quality Jaguar XJ-6, mirror black finish glinting in the late afternoon sun. A door opened and the driver got out, running lightly over to the passenger side of the vehicle.
Lockhart jumped up onto the running board. "Is Murdock unconscious?"
"Out cold," Dugan said.
The newcomer poked his head cautiously inside. "You got them both?"
Instinctively, Vargas edged away from the window. Two decades of working for the man and he still found those dark, obsidian eyes unnerving. Dugan was right, Lockhart was gonna be pissed.
The lieutenant cleared his throat. "Ah--- not quite," he said.
"What do--- you--- mean--- not--- quite?" His careful enunciation was not a good sign.
"We did get the pilot," put in Dugan, hastily. "Snagged his girlfriend too." His voice ran down as Lockhart's eyes bored into him. "Uh---maybe--- I dunno."
"His girlfriend!? Where the hell is Peck? Gunter asked for him by name--- wrote it into our contract, for Christ's sake! He should have been out front, sitting in the black GMC."
Vargas shrugged. "Wasn't there. And I didn't think we could take Baracus, not without somebody getting hurt."
"Yeah--- like us," Dugan muttered, earning a glare from both men.
Ericsson leaned forward. "So we took the girl instead, Captain. Her and the pilot seemed pretty friendly as we were coming over the wall."
"I'm surrounded by idiots," Lockhart said, with an angry, resigned sigh.
His team imperceptibly relaxed.
"Well, c'mon, Sergeant. Bring her into the light."
The third commando dragged Rosemary forward.
"Take off the gag."
Ericsson peeled the duct tape from her mouth.
Rosemary immediately took a deep breath. Enough to fuel a piercing scream that echoed down the alleyway, reechoing against graffiti-covered brick walls--- blank, empty panes of glass.
Unfortunately, there was no one around to hear it.
On the floor behind her, Murdock stirred just a bit, unnoticed by the others. He was beginning to come around.
Lockhart frowned. "Who the hell are you?"
Fuckin' loudmouth bitch.
Rosemary frowned right back. "I could ask you the same question. Just who the hell--- " Then paused for moment, downshifting sixty-to-zero, as anger turned to puzzlement.
This guy sure looked familiar, disturbingly so. She could almost place him--- almost--- but where?
Poor Rosemary's confusion was not simply bad luck--- but more the result of a deliberate, if unconscious, plan. The brainchild of a man too intimidated by his teammate's remarkable way with women to actually hazard an introduction. It was a successful plan--- at this moment successfully, spectacularly backfiring. Positively Hannibalesque. For although she had been Murdock's nurse for over nine years, called herself his friend, Rosemary had the contrived misfortune to have never actually met Templeton Peck--- face to face.
She knew his voice, of course. Taking phone messages for H.M.--- in those years before the conman managed to get him a private line. She had also seen his picture. Not one of those grainy Nam photos kept tucked away in an old footlocker, away from Lynch's prying eyes, but something much more recent. Appearing right in the middle of his bureau last week, a place of honor--- Murdock's gauntlet thrown. It was this image that was tweaking her memory.
"What do you want with Captain Murdock?" Rosemary said, her voice rising. "What's going on here anyway!?"
Lockhart studied her--- dark eyes cold, assessing. "You ask too many questions, lady. As in one too many questions killed the curious little--- " Shark's eyes, dead in the water; "Pussy-cat."
Her frown deepened. Not so much from this stranger's insolent glare, but the reaction of his team. She could swear--- swan--- the other men looked almost frightened.
Their leader pinned the little redhead with those eyes, butterfly on corkboard. Measured her worth.
Rosemary's chin went up. The tension ratcheted up too--- just a notch.
Then just abruptly faded. As with a graceful, disinterested shrug, Lockhart passed judgment. Not worth the trouble. He decided to ignore her completely.
"Get a move on," he told the others. "Herr Gunter is expecting both packages in Martir by 24:00. Now--- thanks to you assholes--- I've got to tell him we can deliver only one. You shoulda waited for Peck to show. Now those Russians'll pony up only half what we agreed." Lockhart zeroed in on each man, making sure they got the point. "And you know that's not gonna come out of my cut."
The others quickly nodded. Seemed only fair. Not that any of them was stupid enough to argue about it.
Behind them, Murdock was wending his way toward consciousness at much the same pace he'd crossed the yard an hour before. Still unable to open his eyes, he could hear garbled voices all around him--- the underwater reecho of someone's scream.
'Rosemary?' He tried to concentrate on what the others were saying, one of the voices suddenly--- achingly familiar. 'Oh yeah--- ' Memory came flooding back. 'They've got him too.'
"Face!?" It was a piercing, almost mournful call.
Rosemary immediately turned. Brushing past Ericsson, she knelt on the floor beside Murdock.
He blinked his dark eyes open. "Wha--- " Tried to focus. "What's goin' on?"
"Shit!" Lockhart rapidly pulled out of the vehicle, hunkered down behind the passenger side door.
Vargas risked a triumphant smile. "Almost screwed that part of the contract yourself, Einstein," he said.
"San Pedro de Martir--- twelve o'clock," Lockhart hissed back. "And tie him the fuck up--- you fuck-ups!"
With that parting shot, he stepped off the running board and ran over to the XJ6. Jumping in, Lockhart gunned the engine. Took off up the street in a squeal of tires, heading toward the freeway.
"Man thinks he's fuckin' Speed Racer," muttered Vargas.
Ericsson shot him a quick, worried glance. Things were getting real bad between those two, the LT starting to act stupid, even foolish. And Captain Jesperson--- Lockhart--- whatever the hell he was calling himself these days, didn't suffer fools gladly--- the bodies showing up weeks later, if at all.
Dugan started the ignition, pulling away from the curb. Followed the Jaguar back into freeway traffic heading south.
Swaying with the van, Ericsson used his momentum to reach for the nurse. Hoist Rosemary over the prone Murdock by one tightly bound arm.
"Put me down!" This came out sounding nasty as anything Jesperson, but without the power to back it up--- sound and fury signifying nothing.
Rosemary made soft landing on the bench.
"Cool out," he told her, his blue eyes neutral--- almost kind. "You'll only make things harder on yourself." Ericsson knelt where Rosemary had been, tying the half-conscious pilot's hands behind his back. Lay him down on the floor.
Murdock angled his head upward, still too weak to move into a sitting position. Squinted painfully into the late afternoon sunlight coming through the windshield. It filled the van's interior, highlighting each freckle on the small, pale, worried face above him. "Rosemary," he whispered. "Face is--- "
"Not here," she supplied quickly. "I think these guys planned to kidnap both of you. But Sergeant Baracus was on guard duty instead. They didn't wanna mess around with him."
Rosemary watched H.M.'s expressive face: relief, anger, dismay and finally--- improbably--- a flicker of humor.
"Best move these jerks made all day." He gave her a shaky grin. "Not a good idea to tick off the big guy. He probably woulda reached right down their throats. Yanked out their tonsils, roots and all."
"Now that's a fairly graphic mental picture, H.M." She smiled. "Even for a nurse." Rosemary was pleased to see he was feeling better.
"To tell ya the truth, an entirely different body part came to mind." His grin widened. "But then I'm in mixed company."
"Ah, a gentleman to the core."
They both laughed, Murdock wincing slightly.
Ericsson gave them a startled look.
The pilot made an unsuccessful attempt to sit. Flopped down again, like a beached seal.
It was an undignified move that seemed to bother Ericsson more than his captive. He rose, pulling Murdock upright almost as easily as he had moved the nurse a moment before. He leaned the bound man more comfortably against Rosemary's seat.
Murdock gave him a calm, assessing look. "Do I know you?"
"No, Captain. We've never met. But naturally I've heard a lot about you."
"Naturally," echoed Murdock, with a sarcasm honed sharp by worry, the razor-sharp pounding in his head. "Always a good idea to scope out everything you can on a target. Memorize his file. Right before you nap him, that is. Start in pickin' on all his friends."
Ericsson looked embarrassed. "No, it was before that--- back in Nam. We were both members of--- "
"Shut up, you stupid fuck!" Vargas snapped.
He glanced over at the LT. Then back at Murdock, his eyes pupil-dark and fearful. Returned to his place behind Dugan without another word.
The captain puzzled over this exchange for a moment. 'Man, his head hurt way too much for all this shit!' With a mental shrug, he turned back to Rosemary. Gave her a faint, accusatory smile.
"So--- whatcha doing here anyway, darlin'? Thought I told you to go find Richter."
"Sorry, H.M.." She looked it. "I did manage to set off the alarm. But when I glanced back, saw you going in the opposite direction. When these--- these--- slimeballs hit you on the head." Looked like her head hurt too. "I'm afraid I lost my temper--- and decided to come to your rescue. Alone. Not a terribly brilliant plan."
"Worthy of Hannibal at his best." This was Murdock's highest praise. "And it's the thought that counts. Thanks."
"Welcome," she told him, still mystified. "But why did you walk toward them like that? Why didn't you come with me?"
"Seemed like a good idea at the time. Just got tired of waitin' for the bad guys to make a move, I guess." He slipped effortlessly into his John Wayne impersonation. "And it was getting real quiet these past few days--- down at the old VA corral. Too quiet." Murdock grinned; added in his own voice. "Always wanted to say that."
Rosemary gave him an uncertain smile. Then decided to try another question.
"But when you first woke up, what made you think Lieutenant Peck had been kidnapped too?"
"Thought I heard his voice," Murdock replied, with a sudden frown. "Musta been dreaming, I guess. Anyway, knew it had to be Face's turn on guard duty--- and mine."
"Those binoculars." The light dawned. "Oh--- now, I get it! So that's why you disappeared into your room after all those hypnotherapy sessions. Telling everybody you were just gonna do a little bird watching. I thought it was the headaches."
"Well, that too." The current pounding in Murdock's head was merely an echo of what he felt back then. Each time Dr. Richter tried to loosen the secret stuck in his brain. "Killin' two birds with one stone."
"Ericsson!" Vargas called out. "Stifle those two. Get them ready for crossing the border."
"It's too soon," he said dubiously. "That's no water or bathroom breaks for hours."
The LT swiveled in the chair. "What are you, their mother?"
Another embarrassed shrug, "Nah," Ericsson said, tearing off a strip of duct tape. He brought the struggling Rosemary forward, carefully sealing her mouth. Then dropped her back on the bench, pulling some rope from his knapsack. Holding the pocketsize woman down easily, he bound her feet, also checking to see her hands were still secure. At that point, the commando turned to Murdock.
They looked at one another a moment.
The pilot narrowed his brown eyes.
"Captain." He sounded almost apologetic. "We can do this the easy way--- or the hard way."
Wishing fervently there some point to doing it the hard way, Murdock just glared. "You have your orders," was his curt reply.
"Sir!" Ericsson said, as he taped and tied up his other prisoner.
Murdock raised his eyebrows. 'Interesting,' he thought. 'Now, that might come in handy.' He exchanged a quick glance with Rosemary lying on the seat above him.
She nodded at him once, in quick reassurance. Then she settled herself on the bench, closing her eyes.
Murdock decided to follow her example. Try to get as comfortable as possible on the hard floor. Best to get some sleep now, while they could. He had a feeling it was going to be a long night.
Dugan exited 405 and pulled onto Route 5. Heading south to Tiajuana--- and the Mexican border.
Fighting traffic-clogged highways, it took the lieutenant more than an hour to get from Laguna to Westwood.
More than once during the long ride, Hannibal was tempted to apologize yet again. But one look at the younger man's face convinced him to remain silent.
It was a wise decision.
Face left his beloved 'vette with the owner of a garage he sometimes used when visiting Murdock. He paid in advance for several weeks' storage, the victim of a sudden, strong premonition. He wasn't going to see that car again for while.
They walked swiftly down the street, entering the VA complex through an open delivery bay.
The security guard on duty looked up, surprised to see two men on foot. "Hey, trucks only! You're not allowed to just--- " Tripped over his own words as he recognized the intruders. "Lieutenant Peck--- am I glad to see you! Guess you heard?"
"Geez, what a mess--- like something out of the Keystone Kops." The guard brandished a silver whistle. "Real walkie-talkies might have helped, instead of these things. Seems kinda low tech."
Hannibal noticed the stranger was only a kid, probably no more than twenty-five. He had an open, ingenuous face--- half obscured by a thatch of sandy blond hair. Despite the man's age, creases were already forming at the corners of his eyes, mute evidence of someone easily moved to laughter. All of which made the frown seem even more out of place.
"Too easy to monitor a radio." Kid was no solider. "We didn't want the enemy listening in."
"I see," replied the guard, politely.
Face cocked his head in introduction. "Colonel Smith."
"Officer Mark Scottsdale." They shook hands. "It's an honor, Sir."
Hannibal's smile was paternal.
"So, what went wrong?" Face gave Scottsdale's new mentor a cold look. "Other than the plan, of course."
This look meant nothing to Hannibal, other than the fact his second was royally pissed. Only Murdock, having encountered Lockhart up close and personal, would have caught the resemblance--- been shaken to the core.
"Both medical and security staff change shift at 3:00 PM," Mark explained. "The kidnapping happened then. Just when the day guards had stepped inside, were briefing their replacements in the lobby."
"You mean there was no security out in the yard at all?!" The lieutenant's voice was harsh.
Scottsdale winced. "Not VA staff. We thought the extra guards you and Dr. Richter hired would cover for a few minutes. But we were wrong. Those commandos came over the wall so damn fast--- in and out. The rent-a-guards panicked when they saw automatic weapons." He moved his shoulders in an apologetic shrug. "Old men and young boys. I don't think they were ready for something like that."
"Looks like these guys did a thorough recon. Knew exactly when and where to make their move." Hannibal frowned. "Could be mercs."
"Doesn't seem civilian to me either," Face said. "Almost like someone in their group has military--- maybe even Special Forces training."
The colonel looked grim. "I think that's possible, Lieutenant, very possible. C'mon, we better go find Richter."
"Yeah." Face held out his hand. "I know you did your best, Mark. Don't worry, we'll find him."
"Sure hope so. My guys--- not the rental cops--- are real broken up about it." The two men shook. "Captain Murdock's got a lot of friends inside this place. Anything we can do to help."
"Thanks," Face said.
Flashing the kid a smile, Hannibal followed his exec off the cargo dock, making rapidly for the stairwell beyond.
Scottsdale stared after them a moment. Then, with a sigh, returned to his kiosk. He settled back in the chair, giving the whistle in his hand with a brooding look.
He wasn't just blowing smoke either. Murdock really was one of his favorite patients. No real trouble, even for staff unable to comprehend the entertainment value of trash bags--- jello cube fights--- the care and feeding of an invisible dog. A man who was generous with his huge comic book collection--- his friendship--- always ready with a good word, even when he wasn't feeling too good himself. Known throughout the hospital complex as a generous go-between, matchmaking no extra charge. Hooking up fellow patients, Mark's co-workers--- with his illustrious, mysterious team. Men who saw abusive husbands, loan sharks, and all manner of everyday slimeballs removed with dispatch.
Yeah. All in all, he liked Murdock a lot--- a whole lot.
"Vaya con dios--- wherever you are, Captain." Mark's voice sounded almost Vader-like as it reechoed in the small booth. "Come back to us safe and sound. We won't let the A-Team down next time--- and that's a promise!"
The teammates climbed upstairs to the lobby. Face pushed the fire door open, checking for any sign of Army MPs. "All clear," he whispered.
They rode up the elevator to the third floor, Face leading Hannibal to the psychiatrist's office. He knocked several times on the glass, the two exchanging a look when Richter didn't answer. Face reached into his jacket pocket for the lock picks.
Hannibal, as always, took a more direct approach. Stepping forward, he turned the knob. Then merely pushed the door open. "All in the wrist," he said, with a grin.
Face wasn't in the mood for jokes. He brushed past his commander into the office.
The older man followed, his look more concerned than annoyed.
It soon became apparent why Richter hadn't answered their knock. Murdock's shrink was leaning back in his favorite chair, long legs propped up on the couch. He was snoring gently.
"Better wake him up." The colonel reached for a white-coated shoulder.
"Stop!" Face flashed on the image of Hannibal jouncing his best friend roughly awake back in Missouri. "Can't you ever just leave anyone alone? B.A.'s not even here yet. Just wait a minute, O.K.?"
That look was now more worried than anything else. "Kid--- " he began.
It was a moot point in any case. Right on cue, B.A. entered the room without further ceremony. "Hannibal! Real glad you're here," he said loudly, slamming the door behind him.
Dr. Richter came back to the land of the living with a snort. He blinked up at three men, trying to get his bearings.
"Sorry, Doctor," Face apologized for the others. He glanced over at B.A. and continued in a sharper tone, "So--- where the hell were you?"
B.A. frowned. "Down in the cafeteria." He shot Murdock's shrink a faint grin. "Thanks for the tip, Doc. That mystery meat looked pretty evil."
Alexander returned the smile.
Face's temper, already on a slender thread, abruptly gave way. "Murdock gets kidnapped--- and you go eat lunch! Jesus, don't you ever think about anything other than your stomach!? Of all the insensitive, self-involved--- "
Generally it took a lot less to get a rise out of the sergeant, who was already feeling at least partially responsible for the Fool's disappearance. He didn't go by the name of 'Bad Attitude' for nothing.
"Oh, yeah!" he growled. "Maybe I wouldn't have been so hungry if a certain officer would show up on time once in while." He grabbed Face by the collar, raising a large fist.
Not backing down an inch, his smaller teammate returned the glare.
"Sergeant--- Lieutenant!" ordered Hannibal. "Knock it off!"
B.A. dropped Face like a hot potato.
The other man staggered against the wall.
"Gee, thanks," Face drawled, brushing off his jacket.
"It was all Hannibal's fault anyway," he said, by way of Baracan apology.
"Got that right." At least the two agreed on something. "Of all the idiotic plans," Face said, redirecting his anger toward the colonel. "Just the three of us--- and a bunch of rent-a-guards--- to watch a perimeter how big?"
"Yeah," echoed the sergeant. "Jazz sure let you down this time, Hannibal. That plan really sucked."
"Just the three of us--- a bunch of rent-a-guards." Smith gave them all an angry look, Richter included. "Versus the U.S. Army--- the CIA--- KGB--- whatever alphabet soup's got Murdock. Not to mention we don't know why the hell they want him the first place! You guys expect miracles sometimes, expect--- "
"Gentlemen," interrupted a quiet voice. "Calm yourselves. I know you're all very worried--- but none of this is helping in the slightest. Please have a seat. There's a lot a ground to cover. And time's a-wastin' as I'm sure Murdock would say if he were here."
The three men looked at one another. Then looked down at the floor.
Alexander Richter was not a psychiatrist for nothing.
"You're right," B.A. said grudgingly. "Sorry, Face--- Hannibal."
"Me too," said Face. "At least you gave a try, Colonel."
"Let you all down." Hannibal cut right through remorse to the chase. "So, let's figure out where we go from here."
Richter couldn't resist. "Ah, a Walton's moment," he said, with a faint grin.
B.A. snorted. "You're crazier than the crazyman, Doc."
"Thank you," Alexander said--- and meant it. "Now, please." He gestured toward the hardback seat and low divan in front of him. "Make yourselves at home."
Richter's amusement grew as he noted the swift game of musical chairs to see who would get stuck with the couch. The two losers sat down uncomfortably as if they expected to be analyzed any moment. The winner lit up a cigar.
"So, Doc." Hannibal sent a puff of smoke drifting toward the ceiling. "What the hell went wrong?"
"I'm not entirely sure, Colonel. In fact, I wasn't aware of anything out of the ordinary until the alarm went off. By the time I got to the window, Murdock was down on the grass. And poor Rosemary Devlin, all trussed up like Christmas turkey, was being lifted over the wall."
"Devlin." Face knew the name. "That nurse who works on Murdock's floor--- they got her too?" He frowned. "Why?"
Dr. Richter gave them a sad look. "I think she just got in the way. Murdock's young friend always has let her heart rule her head. God knows what made Rosemary think she could take on those commandos all alone."
The others were silent, pondering this new wrinkle in what had already become a very complicated mission.
"Something else kinda strange happened," B.A. told them. "I overheard security talking about it in the lobby."
"What?" Hannibal said.
"They might justa been covering their asses." He gave a meditative tug on one feathered earring. "But the rent-a-cops reported Murdock walked toward the kidnappers. Actually went out to meet them--- like he was expectin' them or something. Sounds a little weird, even for the Fool."
"No," Richter said, slowly. "Not so very strange. In fact, quite understandable, I'd say--- considering the circumstances."
"What circumstances?" The lieutenant's voice rose. "What are you talking about? C'mon, Doctor, get to the point. Who took Murdock? Where have they gone?"
Alexander shook his head. "I'm sorry. I really have no idea who or where--- though I'm beginning to understand why. As you know, Murdock approached me after your return from Pennsylvania. We've been working on this little problem of his ever since."
"And were you getting anywhere at all?" Face leaned forward on the couch. "When he came over on his birthday, Murdock looked exhausted. Didn't say much, didn't really want to talk about it. But I got the impression things weren't going very well."
His teammates nodded. They had both come to the same conclusion.
"Our therapy was moving forward--- up to a point." He sighed. "But no further."
The three just looked puzzled.
Richter leaned back in his chair. Studying each of them for a moment--- butterfly on corkboard, bumblebee in a bottle.
'Listen carefully,' he thought. 'And you almost could hear their collective hum.' The Faceman's self-recrimination, B.A.'s simmering anger--- and beneath it all, ever-present, the Jazz. These men deserved to know what happened to their friend, at least as much as he could tell them--- as much as he knew himself.
"Gentlemen!" The psychiatrist rose to his feet. "I believe I'll let you hear it for yourselves. Please, follow me."
Murdock's team scrambled to keep up with Richter as he strode down the hallway. Pausing in front of Room 104 only long enough to pull a key from the ring on his belt, he unlocked the heavy door and everyone piled in.
To Face, everything in this room seemed pretty much the same. Perhaps a little less cluttered than normal. At least the bed had been made--- for a change. The walls were crowded with pictures, everything from Van Gogh's "Starry Night" to the coming attractions for "Aquamaniac meets Gatorella." A tier of bookshelves contained the usual jumble, subjects ranging from bird watching to nuclear physics. Over the years, he had seldom caught the same titles twice, weathervane of a questing mind. Tucked in among some of the more heavy-duty volumes were chronicles of Superman, Batman--- the Incredible Hulk.
One of the drawers had been left partially open, a favorite Gumby shirt hanging over the edge. The place of honor on Murdock's dresser taken by a single photograph in a freestanding frame--- as yet unnoticed by Colonel Lynch. Next to it rested a miniature Sopwith Camel, the WWI aircraft an intricate construction of balsa wood and wire.
Templeton Peck crossed over to the bureau. Tucked the shirt neatly inside, closing the drawer. He stood looking at the photograph for a moment. Then suddenly picked up the frame, laying it face down on the chipped formica. Murdock's little plane was examined next, the lieutenant stroking it lightly with one forefinger. "Snoopy and the Red Baron," he murmured. "This is new. Looks like someone's been busy."
"One of several hobbies Murdock had recently acquired. Between the problems encountered in our sessions and the boredom of inactivity." Richter sighed. "He was--- well--- just a little more energetic than usual."
Peck gave him a faint smile.
Colonel Smith picked up some binoculars left on the windowsill. "Where did Murdock get these?" he asked Face.
The blond man just shrugged.
Hannibal sat down in the chair, still positioned where Murdock had left it. He lifted the field glasses, adjusting the focus a bit. "Got a lovely view of the van's front seat from here."
Both his teammates looked up in surprise.
"Guess we had four men on this job after all."
"Well, on swing shift at any rate," said Richter, glancing over at Face.
Not real happy at being singled out; "What do you mean, Doc?" he asked.
"It's very possible Murdock was aware of the colonel's plan to keep him safe."
Hannibal frowned. "You told him?"
Alexander shook his head. "Didn't have to. I suspect you all were as transparent as that window." He squinted. "Hmmm, minus the wire mesh, of course."
"As through a glass darkly," came B.A.'s quiet voice. "But then--- "
"One thing remained certain," Richter put in. "He was very worried about you, Face."
Singled out. Judged as less than competent by the extra attention. This was how Face saw it at any rate. And he was damn tired of always being considered the most vulnerable member of their team.
"You mean Murdock was only looking out the window when I was there? Why didn't you stop him?"
Dr. Richter's look was enigmatic, unfathomable--- professional. "I didn't think it was such a bad idea."
'Come into my parlor,' B.A. thought, the heebie-jeebies moving up his spine. 'Shrunk down to fly-size, no extra charge.'
Face glared back, but did not reply.
The glare intensified.
"Lieutenant, if you would only--- " Richter paused for moment, hand outstretched. Then with a sigh, let it drop. "Ah, well--- tempus fugit." He turned his back on the others, inexplicably beginning to push Murdock's video game away from the wall. "Sergeant--- "
"Just plain nuts," B.A. muttered, as he bent to help.
"Face, see if you can locate the tape player. It must be around here someplace."
Giving the shrink a last irritated glance, Face opened the closet and looked inside. He spotted it almost immediately, sitting on the top shelf. Reaching upward, his sleeve brushed something hanging just inside the door. It was Murdock's birthday present, an almost identical replacement for the leather jacket destroyed back in Pennsylvania. Face took it down, folding the painted image of a tiger carefully over one arm. He closed the door behind him.
Richter wedged himself behind the machine, taking something out of a hole in the cinderblock wall. "The CIA has been all over the files in my office. But those idiots never thought to look here--- and they call themselves spies!" He straightened up. "I took a tip from Murdock. He's been keeping extra cash under the bed for years now. Stuffed in the toe of Chuck Taylors so ancient, Chuck probably wore them himself."
The colonel grinned. "Hidden in plain sight."
"Exactly," Richter said. "As well as making him feel more secure. The captain has spent a good deal of time down there, off and on."
All three gave him a solemn look.
"Yes," Face said, quietly. "We know."
"It occurred to me a little Murdockian logic was just the ticket in this instance. That his former employers would never guess I might be up to the same thing--- and in my patient's own room. Just a bit too crazy for a supposedly sane psychiatrist, don't you think?" Alexander gave the others a slight, almost mischievous grin.
"Don't know about that," said B.A. "All those years with the Fool mighta shrunk you too."
Hannibal stifled an amused snort.
At least Face had the good grace to look embarrassed. All of this was striking a little too close to home. For until a few months ago, Hannibal's orders included a routine search of the paperwork in Richter's office. Looking for any tidbit Murdock might have dropped in session--- information that might compromise the team.
He handed over Murdock's tape player without a word.
Dr. Richter plugged in the little machine and set it on the bedside table. Dragging over a chair, he sat down and began to flip through the pile of tapes. "These are marked with a private code my wife and I came up with--- yes, all looks in order. As far as I know, these recordings have been undisturbed. You gentlemen will be the first non-medical personnel to hear the results of Murdock's hypnosis sessions. Patient confidentiality is extremely important to me. Paramount. I wouldn't be playing them for you now--- if this weren't an emergency."
Hannibal nodded once, in acknowledgment.
Face and B.A. settled down on either end of Murdock's bed, giving each other a sidelong glance. The hatchet had not quite been buried. Without getting up, the colonel edged his chair around until he was facing the others. They all looked at the doctor expectantly.
Richter chose a single cassette, sliding it into the player. "This tape documents a recent session--- two days ago, in fact," he said. "I warn you, some of this can be rather intense."
The two men on the bed exchanged a worried look. Almost unconsciously, edged closer together.
Alexander depressed play.
They heard a rustling sound of people moving in front of the microphone, a chair squeaking faintly as it was dragged across the floor.
"Doctor, he's ready now," came a low, feminine voice.
Face raised his eyebrows. The nurse sounded frightened.
"That's Rosemary Devlin, the only other person I allowed in on these sessions. A very trustworthy young woman--- and also the captain's friend."
That name again.
Yes, Face knew it well. From listening to his best friend talk about Rosemary for nine years, almost from the time they first broke him out of the hospital. In fact, he was pretty sure this nurse was one of the reasons why Murdock often seemed happy, almost relieved, to get stuck back in this bozo barn--- especially after a difficult mission. Hearing about her always produced the same curious mixture of anxiety and relief, especially as Murdock's admiration for Miss Devlin continued to grow. Somehow, Face both regretted--- and was grateful--- that Murdock had never gotten around to introducing them. That he and Rosemary had never actually met.
It was all very confusing.
Tucking Murdock's jacket into his lap, Face concentrated on the voices coming from the recorder.
"Courier Number Eleven, report!" This was Richter himself.
Hannibal and his teammates exchanged a confused look.
"Uncoded information available and ready, suh!" Murdock replied--- in a dreamy, detached voice. The others noticed that his Texas drawl was much more pronounced than the softer version they were used to hearing.
Alexander hit the pause button for a moment and explained.
"During the past few months, I've spent a large part of these sessions returning Murdock to his past as a CIA courier. The captain has revealed that he was Number Eleven of some network I have not yet been able to identify. The change in accent is due to his age. Here, Murdock thinks he is nineteen years old."
He resumed playing the tape.
The men listened without comment as this younger version of Murdock began to recite a remarkable amount of data in the same, almost bored tone. Reports on the schematics of a secret aircraft in development, troop movements in the ever-escalating war in Vietnam--- some interesting line-item expenditures for a CIA drug operation in South America.
Hannibal raised his eyebrows on hearing the last report. "Doc, do you think Company drug runners kidnapped Murdock? Might be trying to kill him?"
Richter hit the stop button. "If they are, Colonel, they'll probably have to get in line. Wait just a moment. Further along in this tape we reach the heart of the matter."
He hit fast-forward. The little machine made a whirring noise.
"The greater part of each session includes more of the same. Extraordinarily detailed bits of information, often tedious--- some outright fascinating--- always reported in the same detached manner. By now, Murdock has told me almost every message he ever carried as Courier Eleven." Richter let out a tired sigh. "But then we always, inevitably, come crashing into the same psychological brick wall."
He resumed the recording.
Eleven was relating the actual casualty figures for a certain week during in 1967.
Hannibal frowned. He always suspected General Westmoreland had been downplaying those numbers to the public--- to his own troops. Now he knew.
At last, the young CIA courier stopped speaking. His report had ended.
"Captain?" Alexander's recorded voice said. "You have one more piece of information to give us, I believe."
"No, suh!" Murdock replied, with polite--- but emphatic--- finality. "That report is coded. Need ta know only. You mus' give me the password."
"The code was lost, Captain Murdock." Richter took on a stern, fatherly tone. "Lives are at stake, give me your report."
"Can't, suh, I'm sorry." Murdock sounded very young and very confused. "Need ta know only. You gotta have the code."
"Captain, you do realize the importance of this information. Give it to me now! That's an order. If you love your country, tell me what you know."
Face frowned at Dr. Richter. He felt that this approach was unnecessarily harsh.
Staring blindly at the recorder, the other man paid no attention.
"But I do love my country, suh!" The teenage Murdock's voice was beginning to rise in panic. "I can't give you the names. Other people will die--- innocent people."
"What people, Captain?" asked the doctor, more gently. "Tell us who they are so we can protect them."
"My family." This was almost a whisper. "If I tell ya , the men on that list will have 'em all killed."
"We'll find your family, Captain," Richter's voice was low, reassuring. "The government will put them in protective custody. They'll be safe."
"No, suh. You can't protect them. No one can." Murdock's reply was tinged with almost heartbreaking sadness. "They're gonna die. And then I'll be alone again--- just the way it was before."
"You must let us try and help them. Help you," the doctor pressed. "Give me those names now."
"I can't do that. No--- please! Not without the password."
"Rosemary," ordered Richter's quiet voice. "Prepare an injection."
The nurse cleared her throat. "Yes, Doctor."
"Tell me about the list now, Captain!" Alexander continued, relentless. "For your family's sake--- as well as your own."
"No--- no! They'll die. I can't let that happen--- not for somethin' I did. They've been through so much. It wouldn't be fair." His voice rose full-throated, reverberating from the small recorder on the table. "I can't let them die!"
Face winced. Put his hands over both ears, trying unsuccessfully to mute the sound.
There was more background noise--- the screech of a large piece of furniture being pushed up against the wall. Murdock's cries suddenly grew more muffled.
"He's under the bed, again, Doctor," said Rosemary. She seemed on the verge of tears.
"Give me the syringe." It was the same tone B.A. caught earlier. Resignation, exhaustion making Richter sound like an old man. "I think we're just about done for today."
More rustling as the microphone was shifted into a new position. The screaming had stopped. A more disturbing sound now came over the tape player--- the harsh, rapid breathing of someone in full panic attack.
"Murdock, listen to me. This is Dr. Richter." His professional voice masking everything else--- the patient paramount, "You're at the VA hospital in Los Angeles, son. You're safe here. Calm down. I'm going to give you something to make you sleep."
"Doc, are they O.K.?" panted the captain. "Hannibal, B.A.--- Facey--- are they all right?"
Smith's head shot up when he heard this. He gave Richter a piercing stare.
Alexander shrugged. Held up one finger, mutely asking the other man to wait with his obvious question.
"Yes, they're fine. Everyone's fine." Professional calm next best to the real thing; "You can rest now. No more today."
"O.K., Doc." The young Murdock was gone now, this voice sounding every bit like a man in his thirties--- and then some. "Me and Billy are gonna stay under here a while. If that's all right with you."
"No problem. Just hold out your arm."
"Nurse," Richter called out. "Would you get a pillow for the captain?"
"Here you go, H.M.." She had obviously been crying.
"Thanks, darlin'," Murdock replied, too sleepy to notice her distress. "Don't mean to be so much trouble--- "
There was brief moment of silence, as the tape continued to turn in the player.
"Oh--- Dr. Richter," Rosemary said, in a low, miserable voice.
The microphone picked up an uncomfortable, almost painful rasp. "Captain H.M. Murdock--- " Richter cleared his throat again. "Patient. Dr. Alexander Richter, therapist--- the date is 12/21/81. Session ends."
Alexander halted the recording. Then just sat quietly, studying the floor.
For at least several minutes, the room was completely still.
Then the others heard a faint sound, halfway between a sigh and a groan.
Face was bent over, clutching Murdock's jacket to his chest, eyes tightly closed.
B.A. put one heavily muscled arm over Face's shoulders. "It's gonna be all right, l'il bro," he said softly. "Crazyman's gonna be just fine. Don't you worry now."
Hannibal moved over to the bed. "C'mon, kid. You gotta stay with us. Because we're gonna need you." He hunkered down next to Face. "Murdock's gonna need you."
It was the voice of reason, drawing Face back from an all too familiar abyss. A place where, both tortured almost beyond endurance, two friends--- lovers--- once stood together. But only Murdock dared peer over the edge. Forgetting what the philosopher said was true. The abyss looks back--- looks into you. Face remembered Murdock's warm brown eyes overwhelmed by that blackness, until only blackness remained. Until there was no reason for Murdock to be afraid for himself--- or his team--- there was simply nothing left to be afraid of anymore.
Had it been courage that kept Lieutenant Peck from making that same descent into madness? Or cowardice? He could not be sure. He only knew that for now--- today--- the abyss could wait.
Face drew himself up to a sitting position. Sitting unnaturally straight, drawn tight as a bow. His sightless eyes, turned inward, fixed on the psychiatrist.
'Oh, Face!' Richter thought, as a decade-old medical opinion suddenly gained more meaning--- more urgency. 'If only you would trust me enough to let me help.'
But he said nothing.
"Doc." Hannibal got to his feet. "What the hell's going on? Why does Murdock think we're all going to be killed? Back then, he didn't even know we existed."
It was a reasonable question, to the point. It seemed to focus the lieutenant, at least. He shook himself once--- like a wet dog--- the psychic droplets flying.
"You, O.K.?" B.A. asked him, very low.
The sergeant withdrew his arm. "Crazyman didn't need to get no crazier," he growled at Richter. "What's goin' on?"
All attention was on Murdock's shrink, each face mirroring the same anxiety and puzzlement.
He cleared his throat. "The problem is one of transference."
The three seemed unenlightened.
"Ironically," Alexander explained. "Removing the information would have been rather simple in the months following Murdock's release from duty as Courier Eleven. I believe someone inserted a prohibitive suggestion, extra insurance that this big secret would remain buried--- unless a certain code word acted as trigger. The hypnotist likely indicated something dreadful would happen to his family if the courier revealed these names."
Face sent him an angry look. "What makes you think Murdock would have given up this secret so easily?"
"Because the CIA expert probably made the assumption Murdock was close to his biological family. But as we all know, the captain doesn't feel any real tie to his Texas relatives--- not since the death of his grandparents back in the mid sixties. A threat to other family members wouldn't have carried the same psychological weight that it does at present."
Dr. Richter tilted back in his chair.
"Transference, Gentleman. Over the years, Murdock has come to regard your team as his family unit. And since his love for all of you is much greater than for the family named in the original hypnotic suggestion, the prohibition against revealing this secret has now grown frighteningly strong."
Hannibal was alarmed. "How strong?"
"Colonel," replied the doctor, solemnly. "It's clear that Murdock now firmly believes that to reveal this information would result in your death--- and those of your comrades. I hope to God whoever took him knows the right code. As it stands now, any unauthorized person will probably have to kill him to get at that list."
Face let out a small, miserable sigh.
"So that's what you meant by psychological wall?" asked the colonel.
There was another sigh, more guilt-ridden, of a self-appointed Father Confessor gone wrong.
"This is all my fault. I'm sorry I ever let Murdock talk me into this in the first place. I'm the therapist--- " Richter gave them a helpless look. "He's supposed to be the patient! But you know how persuasive he can be. It's just we had been making so little progress using conventional therapy, that I decided to take a weeklong seminar in the latest techniques over at UCLA Medical. One seminar does not a hypnosis expert make. I know that now--- to my sorrow. But then--- well--- I had begun to think, in my monumental hubris, that I just might be able to pull it off. My eagerness to try something--- anything--- to help Murdock, may have actually complicated the issue--- made things worse."
Face nodded slowly in agreement.
"The past few months have been like trying to perform brain surgery with a sledgehammer--- tough on the doctor, but hell on earth for the patient. Murdock trusted me to help. Or at the very least, do no harm." The exhausted man once again fixed his eyes on the floor. "I've let him down."
B.A. leaned forward. "Don't know much about this hypnosis stuff." He clasped Richter's arm. "But it sure sounds to me like you gave it your best shot."
Alexander looked up, gave him a grateful smile. "Thanks," he said. "Just wish my pride hadn't kept me from realizing sooner that I was in over my head. Made me put off deciding to call in a real hypnosis expert until only this afternoon--- classmate of mine from Stanford. Murdock recently mentioned he spent several years doing research for the CIA in hypnosis. I thought we might be able to use his help."
The colonel frowned. "Are you sure it's wise to bring in an outsider at this point?"
"But he's not an outsider." Richter was genuinely surprised. "I was under the impression you all knew Dr. Goldman quite well--- especially the captain. After all, hasn't Julius been visiting Murdock almost every day for the past month?"
The teammates exchanged a shocked glance.
Surprise turned to alarm. "Didn't you know?"
"Are you saying that Goldman waltzed in and out of this hospital, and we never even noticed him?" Hannibal glared at the two men on day shift.
Alexander nodded. "Usually in the early afternoon--- right before Murdock's sessions."
"Sergeant, that was your watch. How the fuck could you miss him!?"
"Dunno, Hannibal," B.A. admitted softly. Yet another reason to blame himself for the crazyman's disappearance.
Richter came to his defense. "Goldman must have received some kind of basic training as a field agent, back when he worked for the Company. Maybe he used some of those techniques to avoid being detected by you and your men, Colonel. Also, it's quite possible Murdock himself told Julius where you were."
"Why!?" Face's feeling of betrayal was growing with each new piece of information. "Why would Murdock not want us to know Goldman was involved?"
"Some sort of plan, perhaps? Those hypnotherapy sessions were obviously reinforcing his subconscious fear of endangering the three of you. Perhaps Murdock felt compelled to come up with his own solution. And when that grew too difficult, he turned to Julius for help."
The lieutenant frowned, remembering a private conversation at the beach house last November. Murdock's voice had been stubborn, resolute. "Facey, I can't involve you or the others. I got myself into this--- and I'll get myself out."
"So, that's what they were up to," Hannibal said. "Cooking up some sort of plan."
"And playing chess." Richter's smile was sudden, affectionate. "Cutthroat--- and at a breakneck pace. I could see them from my window. In fact, they used to draw quite a crowd of regulars out by the picnic tables--- until Murdock requested a little privacy."
"Do you have any idea what they were talking about down there, Doc?"
"No, I'm sorry. Murdock is well liked by both staff and patients. When he asked them to back off, everyone took him seriously." He gave the other man a piercing look. "Whatever you decide to do, Colonel--- please be very careful. I think Murdock was right to be so concerned about Lieutenant Peck. It seems very likely that he was also an intended victim of this attack."
Richter sent a concerned glance in his direction before he went on. "In any case, you must consider the inherent danger to more than one of your men. When your team returns from this mission, I'd rather not have two psychiatric cases on my hands. Or two bodies for the cemetery across the street."
"No," Face whispered, staring down at the floor.
"Ya got nothing to worry about, Doctor." The colonel's voice was hard. "Nobody messes with my team and gets away with it." He turned to the others. "So whaddya say, guys?" Hard as the steely glint in his blue eyes, "How 'bout we pay our dear friend Julius Goldman a visit? Find out just what the hell is going on."
"Yeah!" B.A. clenched his fists. "That little weasel's got some talkin' to do." He got up from the bed. "C'mon, Face."
The lieutenant rose more slowly, Murdock's jacket still draped over one arm. "Stayed outta the loony bin so far," he told Alexander, his voice still very quiet. "And the morgue--- plan to keep it that way, if I can." He followed the others out into the hall.
A sudden, terrible premonition swept Richter. "Watch yourself, Face," he called out. "Take good care." Then paused for a moment, the silence of Murdock's room suddenly overwhelming. "Vaya con Dios!"
Moving swiftly after his teammates, the younger man didn't hear him.
Two hundred miles to the south, a dusty gray van approached Mexico at the San Ysidro/Tiajuana crossing. It pulled up in front of the inspection station. Vargas jumped out and went inside to obtain tourist cards allowing them to cross the border.
Dugan twisted in his seat. "Everything O.K. back there?" he said, trying to see into the dark interior of the van. Ericsson was sitting next to barely discernable shapes on the floor.
Before the sergeant could open his mouth, Rosemary decided to answer for him. Squirming in her bonds, she lifted her head out of the cocoon of blankets. Tried desperately to shout through the duct tape over mouth and draw the guard's attention. Although still completely covered, Murdock took the hint, adding his own muted hue to her cry.
"Shut those two up!" Dugan sent an agitated look toward the door. "Vargas will be out any minute."
Ericsson moved swiftly. He pulled out his 9mm, screwing on the silencer. Then flipped back the blanket covering Murdock, starting for a moment when he saw the level of anger in those dark eyes. Kneeling beside the struggling Rosemary, he pressed the barrel against her temple.
She grew very still.
"Please don't make me shoot her, Captain," he said, in a quiet voice. "I'd rather not kill a woman--- but you do know she's expendable."
Murdock nodded, never taking his eyes off Ericsson's face. His intense glare was definitely spooking the commando.
"All right then." Ericsson sounded unsure his order would be obeyed. "I'm going to put the blankets back. No more noise from either of you--- O.K.?"
Both prisoners indicated their assent.
Then glanced at one another for a moment.
Rosemary could practically feel the vibration. The close, dark air pressing in, her own panic just under the surface--- and yet, somehow, Murdock was there too. In the steady thrum of underwater calm--- his voice--- the flash of his smile in dayroom sunshine: "Those fish sure got something real peaceful goin' on down there, darlin'." Even tied and gagged as he was--- as she was--- Murdock was willing her to be calm. Ooommmm--- Hari Krishna--- Krishna, Krishna--- fish vibes.
Watching his face, concentrating on him, she made an effort.
It was appreciated. The corners of Murdock's eyes crinkled up. Under all that duct tape, she just knew he was smiling.
Her own eyebrow rose: elegant, amused--- calm, just before Ericsson tugged the blankets over both their heads.
Vargas emerged from the office, two Mexican officials trailing behind him. The men were having a relaxed conversation in Spanish. One of the guards glanced in the passenger side window.
"Anything to declare?" he asked, in heavily accented English.
Dugan shook his head, eyes frightened.
Vargas gave the marks a practiced smile. Cordially bid them farewell as he climbed into the van.
His teammate started up the engine, driving slowly out of the parking lot.
Glad that part was over, the conman raked one hand through his black hair. 'Man,' he thought. 'H.M. Murdock and some little nobody of a nurse, instead of their second target--- that was half the contract screwed already.' Somehow Vargas doubted this Hans Gunter would appreciate the last minute substitution. 'And just where the fuck was Peck anyway?' Irritated, he wondered if the three of them would have to make another trip north. Snag their missing package. 'Jesus H. Christ! That pretty boy would be late to his own funeral.'
Suddenly realizing the darkly ironic path his thoughts had taken, Vargas burst out laughing.
Dugan shot him a nervous, sidelong glance.
It was not a pleasant sound.
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