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Memorials

Memorials

by Kate L. Nickell & Joy Riddle

Rated G

Summary: Harry St. Cloud invites the A-Team to a picnic.



       Today she had a million things to remember, but not right now, not when she'd stayed up till 2 A.M. finishing her work. Resolutely shutting her eyes against the growing daylight, she snuggled under the covers in search of some serious dream time. The phone jangled on the night stand. Alma groaned, hoping against hope that some power would shut it off. No luck - once, twice, three times, and she was well and truly awake. Groping for the noisy instrument, she summoned her most professional voice. With luck, it would give her time to wake up. "Hello, you have reached the Woodard residence."

      "Woodard?" A deep feminine voice rumbled in her ear, "Sorry, darling, I was trying to reach someone called St. Cloud." Alma rolled to a sitting position and resisted the urge to stare at the receiver in dumb amazement. When she didn't reply, the voice continued, edged with a faint note of worry, "Maybe I made a mistake. I swore Scooter said ... "

      Scooter? Who the hell was Scooter? She wanted some answers, and she wanted them now - or as soon as she got rid of her caller. Pushing the question aside, Alma hastily said, "No, you've got the right number. Harry St. Cloud lives here. Whom shall I say is calling?"Silence on the other end. As the seconds ticked towards a minute, Alma wondered whether it indicated disapproval or surprise at her unorthodox household. Well, she could sympathize - when she considered it logically, it surprised her, too.

      But when the woman spoke, the polite manner had returned. "This is Mrs. Baracus. My son Scooter told me to call this number when my plane landed."

      "I see ... " Alma sucked in a deep breath. Harry was going to owe her big time for this!

      "I shouldn't have bothered you." The words were clipped; while Alma had hesitated. she'd reached a decision. "I'll take a taxi."

      "Ma'am, I couldn't let you do that."

      "And why not?"

      She'd best walk carefully. Those three words announced that Alma had unknowingly crossed some invisible line, and she'd better talk quickly before war was declared. "We're pretty far out in the country, Mrs. Baracus," she explained. "About fifty miles from D/FW."

      "Dee - "

      "The airport, ma'am. I wouldn't want you to spend all that money just on a taxi ride. I'll come out and pick you up."

      "Oh, I don't want to bother - "

      This time Alma matched her firmness. "It's not a big deal. You're a guest. I just wish Harry had told me earlier, so I could've met your plane and you wouldn't have to wait so long."

      "If you're sure ... "

      "I'm sure. Just tell me your airline and flight number, and I'll find the gate and terminal. No problem."

      "About how long will all this take? I want to have enough time before supper to fix a few things."

      "What things, Mrs. Baracus?" Alma knew better than to speculate on whether the older woman needed to rest or whether she just wanted time to check out the sights.

      "I just want to cook up a little something - "

      "We got that covered as soon as Harry told me he'd invited - " She hesitated, recalling a casual comment that her phone might be bugged ever since a monstrous black van had cruised through her quiet neighborhood two days ago. A very polite interview with some local ordinance officers had followed; obviously Harry's friends were wanted for something. For what, no one would tell her, as if none of the usual euphemisms for ordinary criminals would fit.

      Maybe Mrs. Baracus - Later, she'd ask later. "When Harry told me he'd invited them out to the house, I made sure we had everything covered."

      "Well ... I promised Scooter I'd fix his favorite pie." The gruff voice softened to a gentle purr.

      "I see ... " Another trip, and her with guests on the way. "Not a problem. We can stop by the store and pick up whatever you need on the way back."

      "All right then! You'd best get moving, little girl, so we can have everything ready when all those hungry menfolks arrive."

      "Yes, ma'am!" Rolling out of bed, she stretched lazily. Time to throw on some clothes and seize what was left of the day. Then she'd settle with Harry.

      "Mommy?"Alma hurried to the railing and peered at the small figure grinning proudly from its perch on the chair. Her daughter was dressed in what Harry called "little cowgirl chic." Only Harry knew how many coins he'd summoned in order to pay for the outfit.

      And he claimed she spoiled Estelle!

      "There's another one waiting for us, Mommy," she announced.

      "Oh, great." No use asking how Estelle knew or wonder whether she was right. Even Harry couldn't tell her how Estelle "knew" things, so Alma accepted the statement as fact. "Another mouth to feed."

      "Can I come, too? I promise to be good."

      "Kid, you're staying here," Harry's chuckle echoed from the kitchen. "We've got lots to do. 'Sides your mom's car is kinda small for four people, plus luggage."

      "And you need someone to play lookout," Alma muttered as she headed for the fridge. She needed some serious caffeine to arm herself for what promised to be a very busy weekend. The cool Dr Pepper bit the back of her throat; she savored the tingling shock to nerve endings, then grabbed a bagel lavishly slathered with strawberry cream cheese.

      "That gonna be enough?" Harry had materialized beside her.

      Raising the bagel in mock salute, she grinned at him. "Breakfast of champions!" Now she was ready to face whatever today threw her way.

     * * * * * * * *

      "But I'm telling you we're going the wrong way!" Murdock insisted with the determined persistence of a child who knows he's right. "We should've taken that left turn in Alberquerque!"

      "I know where I'm going, fool."

      Face opened his eyes wearily. "I'm glad you do. This looks like the last five places we stopped since we crossed the state line. Are we still in Texas?"

      "It's a big state," Hannibal observed with a wry grin. "We still have another two hours before we get there."

      Face groaned and shut his eyes.

     * * * * * * *

      Surveillance jobs were the worst, especially on days like this one. The outside temperature promised to top 90 degrees, and even the car's air conditioner couldn't keep out all the heat. Crane peered at the two-story house through his binoculars, then took the car phone from his subordinate. "No sign of anyone besides the man and the girl. No activity for the last half hour." He listened as his superior officer recited the few facts they'd gleaned of the A-Team's plans; he'd heard it frequently as they'd traced the few leads to this small gingerbread-style house, so Crane concentrated on the scene before him.

      Since this was an older neighborhood, they had carefully interviewed the local Crime Watch officer, feeding him a story to be on the alert for any strangers. The Army needed to bring in some men who had gone AWOL for questioning. After the scare of a pilot going AWOL with a fighter jet and its armament, the man was willing to give his full cooperation.

      If only the targets had believed them so readily. The woman had listened very politely, her daughter on her lap, the picture of the modern mother; she'd answered most of the questions while her blind husband stood beside her. She'd promised to notify them about any strangers, but Crane knew she was lying. Worse, Decker called her on it, threatening that they could be prosecuted for harboring criminals.

      That ended any chances of getting her cooperation. When she asked them to leave, he could've sworn the room temperature dropped several degrees. They were halfway to Dallas before the chill wore off.

      "I want a watch put on that house," Decker had insisted. "Notify me as soon as you see them, and we'll be ready. They'll never know what hit them."

      But the hours had passed, and nothing to show for it but a sweaty uniform and strained vision. Crane sighed.

      Something tapped on the window. It was the woman's daughter; as he rolled down the window, she grinned winningly at him. "Hi, mister! You and your friend look thirsty. Wanna drink?" She held up two glasses filled to the brim. Ice clinked an invitation.

      Stories of little children bearing arms and booby traps ran through his head as he watched condensation runnel down the beveled glass. Beside him, McMahon murmured, "You can't be too careful, sir."

      Yeah, and if he didn't watch out, they'd collapse from heat exhaustion. Crane reached out the window and carefully took the glasses from the girl. McMahon cautiously tasted his, and his eyes widened in amazement for a second before he abruptly chugged half the glass. "Take your time, soldier; it's only water."

      "Water's good for you, specially on a hot day. Mommy says so. Daddy drinks lotsa water."

      "Estelle?" The blind man stood on the porch; his face slowly turned as he seemed to listen to every locust whirr and engine roar.

      "Over here, Daddy." She whirled and dashed across the street as Crane automatically yelled a warning.

      Crane couldn't understand what she said; but the man straightened and the blind eyes, hidden behind their smoked glasses, seemed to study the car and its occupants. The day's heat hammered down on them for a long moment, then the man smiled and took the little girl's hand. Suddenly the breeze shifted to the north, and Crane relaxed.

      Sipping his drink, he reflected that things were looking up.

      Once they were safe from prying eyes, Harry removed his glasses and peered at his step-daughter. "I"ve told you before, Estelle, it's not nice to put the influence on ordinary people."

      She shrugged. "I didn't hurt nobody. And they won't hurt nobody, neither."

      He grimaced. It was useless to argue ethics with a five-year-old. To them, the ends justified the means, even if it meant bending the rules slightly. Which reminded him - their guests would arrive soon, and they were barely halfway through the preparations. "C'mon, kid. Time to get to work."

     * * * * * * *

      The clock on the courthouse steeple declared that it was almost noon; although it was late May, heat radiated off the street. A few cars were parked in front of a local restaurant, but most of the parking spaces near the red granite building were empty. B. A. swung lengthwise in front of the courthouse; as Murdock slid open the van door, he said, "Now don't you try any crazy tricks, fool. Just get out and get over to the Magicman's place quick, so Decker don't spot ya."

      "Decker ain't lookin' for me, big guy. But I'll be careful, don't worry."

      "You know Decker has this van pegged; he's probably alerted everyone in this area to watch for it," Hannibal warned the unpredictable pilot.

      "That's all we'd need, Decker at a picnic." Face slumped into his seat, sliding down as if eyes were focussed on him from afar.

      "He ain't invited." Murdock glanced around before scampering off in the direction indicated on the map. "Harry'd throw him out in a heartbeat!"

      "Harry doesn't know what Decker looks like!" Face yelled after him.

      Murdock stopped and grinned back over his shoulder. "But I bet he'd know how Decker smells - all military authority an' spit an' polish! C'mon, Billy! Heel, boy!" He skipped around the corner, ducking with elaborate caution that would have any observing lawman on his tail.

      Face slid the door shut, then rolled his eyes heavensward. "How did I get myself into this? I could've been on a beach with lots of lovely women, but no - "

      "Shut up, Face. Soon as we got the invitation, you know you been just as nosy as that fool out there."

      "Harry St. Cloud with a woman," Hannibal chuckled, blowing out a cloud of cigar smoke. "It does boggle the imagination. Move on, B.A. We've spent too much time in one spot already."

      The big black van started up and drove away at a reasonable rate of speed.

     * * * * * * *

      Loping easily along, Murdock traveled the distance in no time. He checked his map, nodded as he located the area he wanted, and headed towards the wooded area in back of Harry's home. No sense trying to go in at the front door; he'd spotted an olive-colored car parked in front of the house with uninvited guests inside.

      As what was left of the morning dew evaporated, it carried the heady scent of honeysuckle. Murdock took a deep whiff and shut his eyes in ecstacy. The sweet smell of home.

      A tree creaked above him, then something heavy struck him in the chest, knocking him off his feet. "What the - " Before he could move, claws pricked through his shirt and he lay absolutely still. Green eyes peered at him, paws kneaded his shirt as the feline sniffed at him. Its mouth fell open, revealing way too many sharp fangs, and a deep rumbling purr emerged. "Hey, kitty, how you doing? I really don't taste all that good. Maybe you should - " The huge head ducked and fangs pricked his chin. Murdock froze - if he played possum maybe it'd go away - or decide to take another nip.

      "Klawd! Is that any way to greet a guest?" Harry loomed upside in his vision; he prodded the feline with a cane. Despite the danger, Murdock wondered why his friend needed a cane - and dark glasses.

      The cat raised its huge head, gave Harry a long look that said he'd be next on the menu if he interfered, then settled itself on Murdock's chest. It was hard to breathe - the thing somehow knew how to triple its weight, and its purr rattled his thoughts."Uh, hiya, Harry. This your cat?"

      "Nope. Estelle! Come get Klawd. He's being a pest." Harry knelt beside the pilot. "He'll listen to her, as much as a cat listens to anyone."

      A cute blonde child skipped towards them. "Naughty kitty! Did you hurt Mr. Murdock?" The cat peered at her. She put her arms around its middle and tugged; amazingly, the thing turned boneless - and the weight lifted from his chest. The girl plopped the cat on the ground and brushed at the grass clippings that clung to his jeans and shirt. "Klawd doesn't know better - "

      "Oh, yes, he does," Harry snapped, giving a baleful look at the feline who yawned so they could see inch-long fangs. "He knows you'll take his side."

      "He's a good watchcat. Not like them."

      Murdock glanced up before he got up and saw two pairs of feline eyes peering down as if the whole thing was interesting, but it was beneath them to get involved. "How many cats you got, Harry?"

      "Three - and that's two too many. We oughta hurry. Alma's waiting. And you three moochers are not invited." Six slit-eyed glares followed him as he lead the way across the field towards a trestle table laden with food.

      "Don't worry, guys. You'll get some treats later. You okay now, Mr. Murdock?" Her grin was a feminine version of Harry's.

      "Yeah. I'm fine. No harm done ... " He glanced at the minute pinpricks in his t-shirt. That could've been his skin. The little girl grabbed his hand; as she lead him away, he glanced back at the huge feline which turned and leisurely stretched alongside the tree before shredding several handsful of bark to test its claws. That also could've been him. "You say that's your kitty, - " He fumbled for a name.

      "Estelle. Don't let Klawd scare you. He just likes to play. You like to play? We got a swing, and there's a playground down the street ... " Her words washed over him, and he began to grin. Yeah, this day was going to turn out all right.

     * * * * * * *

      "You're next, Face." Hannibal scanned the twisting street for any signs of covert watchers. "It's about four blocks in that direction. You ready?"

      "As ready as I'll ever be. So this is Middle America," he commented as he peered at the Dairy Queen sitting next to a Chinese restaurant. "Can't say I'm impressed."

      "It'll grow on you. Give it a chance."

      "Yeah, right." But he slid out of the van, waiting until it drove away before he adjusted his glasses, straightened his dark tie and grasped the leatherbound book to his chest. Assuming his sincerest expression, he stalked towards his objective. As he crossed the Dairy Queen parking lot, a middle-aged man and his wife took one look at his dark pants and white shirt and scurried towards their vehicle as if the devil himself were after them.

      He struggled to keep a straight face. Amazing. Sometimes the simplest disguises worked the best.

      A few minutes later, he stood on the street corner opposite his objective. A nondescript dark sedan was parked across the street. Sunlight flashed in its window. Decker's faithful watchdogs were on duty. For a moment, he toyed with the idea of walking up to the car and exhorting them on the virtues of faith, but concluded that he shouldn't press his luck. If they broke up the party and B.A. found out he'd brought Decker down on them, he'd have to go into permanent hiding. The big man would tear him apart.

      Besides, in this disguise he ought to resist temptation. Face strolled down the street, noting that Harry had located in a quiet middle-class neighborhood. No, make that an old-money neighborhood, he thought as he read the historical society plaque in front of the house. Obviously Harry's lady had some cash. Nice work, if you could find it. Maybe if he ever considered a career change ...

      He knocked on the door, waited; as he started to knock again, the inner door opened. A dark-haired woman peered at him. "If you're selling anything, we don't want any."

      "Ma'am, I'm here to represent - " The door started to close. "Wait! Harry sent me." The door swung open again. "This is where he lives .... "

      "When he's here. Come inside and join the party." She unlatched the screen door and gestured for him to enter. "And you're - "

      "Templeton Peck, ma'am."

      "I'm Alma Woodard. And I'm much too young to be a ma'am." She grinned as he made an elaborate display of studying her through the glasses, then removing them to give her a second, more thorough, scrunity.

      "My apologies, ma - Alma. You're absolutely right."

      "You flirting with my wife, Face?"

      Peck's usual aplomb deserted him for about half-a-second; instinctively he froze to give his jangled thoughts a moment to settle. "Your - your wife, Harry?" He hoped his voice hadn't strayed up an octave.

      "You could call me that," she drawled, then added with a wry smile, "but if you get bored tonight, we can always go out honky-tonking." She gave him a wink then glided towards the kitchen with the slow, seductive sway practiced by Southern girls.

      "Such thoughts do not become a man of the cloth," Harry dryly commented as a deep feminine voice added, "You too evil, girl! You oughta be shamed of yourself, playing like that."

      The voice brought him back to earth. "Is that Mrs. Baracus?"

      "In the flesh, darling." She came towards him with the direct inevitability of a train on its track; and Harry, wisely sensing this, stepped aside. "You look hot. Here." A cool glass was pressed in his hand. "We got some snacks on the table. Don't eat too much before dinner. And where's Scooter?"

      "Oh, he's around, ma'am. We didn't want to alert the troops."

      She gave a snort of derision."They oughta be with their families, not running round messing with folks. Alma! Don't you touch those pies, girl!" She steamed back towards the kitchen, leaving the men alone.

      Face debated on what to say. He couldn't say, "Didn't expect you to have such good taste, Harry" - not after her invitation. And "Nice lady" didn't cover the half of it - and if he didn't get the inflection just right, Harry would think he was being sarcastic. So what should he say?

      "She's quite a lady," his host observed. "As you noticed."

      "Uh ... you didn't think I was going to take her up on her invitation."

      Harry shrugged. "Don't matter to me. Alma likes to dance. You're available. Besides," he added as their eyes met, "I trust both of you to do the right thing."Face stared after his host who left to investigate what was happening in the kitchen. As he sipped the sour-sweet lemonade he reflected that some people had a gift for ruining the fun of the chase. But Harry'd read him right; he wouldn't sample the forbidden fruit. But that didn't mean they couldn't enjoy each other's company.

      The evening was definitely filled with possibilities.

     * * * * * * *

      She wasn't quite sure why she'd come. True, she enjoyed cross-country trips, and this one coincided with a medical convention hosted by the Southwest Medical School, so she could even claim most of it on her income tax. But the added bonus had come with an unexpected phone call asking her to spend the evening in this small town.

      "Hello, Maggie! Didn't know you'd be here." Peck raised his glass in a mock toast. "Waiting for someone?"

      "Aren't we all?" Together they watched the sun slowly turn the sky to red and gold. "Why are you here - "

      The answer surprised her. "Harry invited us. Paid for our expenses. So, there's no real business reason - no drug smugglers, no crime lords, nothing ... not that you'd expect to find it in a quiet place like this."

      "You'd be surprised what you'd find hiding under the rocks around here." Alma frowned as she studied a wizened male figure shuffling down her neighbor's walk; the elderly woman clung to his arm as if he were her prom date. "I'd better see what this is all about. Mrs. Manning!"

      Maggie watched as their hostess intercepted the pair. As the trio approached, she commented, "That's something you won't see in L.A."

      "What?" Peck's gaze snapped from the woman back to her. If she didn't know better, she'd suspect he had a guilty conscience.

      "Neighbors watching out for each other." Something about the man's walk alerted her; as he escorted the two women towards her table, he raised his head and grinned at her. Despite the mustache and stubble, she recognized the twinkle in the blue eyes and felt an answering grin tugging at her lips. Let him have his moment; Hannibal loved playing his parts as much as the man sitting next to her.

      Alma introduced her neighbor, then guided the older woman towards her other guests. After a moment, Peck excused himself and drifted towards the coolers to refresh his drink, leaving her alone with the old man. "Hello, little lady," he rumbled. "There room at this table for an old soldier?"

      Oh, this trip was going to be worth every penny she'd spent.

     * * * * * * *

     Once more around the block, then he'd take his chances. Better to leave the van and fetch it after dark than to be late when his momma was waiting. She'd called him, even though it might put Decker on their trail, and he'd promised to be there at 8 sharp. Kinda late for supper, but considering how hot it had been all day, it made sense. Otherwise, they'd be all crowded up together in Harry's house, and he'd had enough togetherness during their two-day trip to last him a long time. One more sigh from Faceman or one more crazy sing-song rhyme out of Murdock, and he'd kill both them fools dead before Hannibal knew what hit them.

      Then his momma really would be mad at him, and he didn't want to spoil the party for her sake. So, he glared at the dark sedan with all the bottled-up fury of a man unable to solve a problem with direct force."Okay, suckers, we gotta do this the hard way."

      The cemetery was down the block, but he couldn't hide the van inside. Tomorrow too many folks would be visiting their honored dead, and he didn't want Decker to get any fool ideas of chasing them over people's graves. It wasn't respectful to the dead. The parking lots of the businesses that lined the main highway that lead into what passed as the town square was out; the traffic would discourage car thieves, but even Decker's thickheaded hounds could sniff out the van if he tried to hide it there. Someone knocked on the passenger door. B.A. jumped. He was getting soft; no one should've been able to sneak up on him like that. Furious with himself, he growled, "What you want?"

      "Alma thought you might need someone to guide you in," drawled Harry's voice. "It's almost dark, so it should be safe enough. Mind if I get in?"

      "Suit yourself." Frowning, B.A. started the engine and waited for directions. When St. Cloud didn't speak, he snarled, "Which way?"

      Harry seemed to snap to attention. "Had to make sure it was clear ... Take a left. You'll see a playground. Drive onto the gravel, and keep going. Follow the creek around. There's a storage barn where we can hide the van."

      The van took the curb easily, and B.A. found the barn's doors opened. Grinning like crazy, Murdock stood beside it, his arms waving a wild semaphore. "Just back her up, B.A.!" he shouted. "I'll guide you in!"

      "You just get outa the way, fool, before I run you over." Despite his words, he backed the van smoothly into its hiding place, set the brake, and gave the place a cursory glance before he let Harry shut and lock the doors. The wood looked solid; no intruders could get inside unless they wanted to do some serious work on the lock and chain. Best of all, no casual observer could spot the distinctive vehicle and report them to Decker.

      "Looks like you got all the bases covered, Magicman," he said grudgingly. Then he felt something tugging at his hand; he looked down. As his eyes narrowed, the little girl dropped his hand and stared back fearlessly. "What you looking at?"

      "You ... " She had guts even if she didn't have sense. "You're big ... "

      "And Black. And don't you forget it." Kneeling, he studied her; she had the look of Harry's eyes and hair, though she'd never manage to blend into the background the way he did. "What's your name?"

      "Estelle Woodard-St. Cloud." She thrust her hand out and he carefully enfolded it in his huge one. They shook hands with all the solemnity of two adults. "Nice to meet you."

      "Hey, Stella!" It was a bad Marlon Brando imitation. "Come on - they're gonna eat without us!" Murdock bounced on them from wherever he'd been hiding; Harry was half-way across the bridge connecting the playground to a field where tables stood under the trees. "Hey, big guy! What kept you? All the pies'll be gone before you get a bite, even with your momma standing guard."

      "My momma - pies?" The two thoughts galvanized him into action; swinging Estelle onto his shoulder, he snapped, "Hold on, little girl. It's gonna be a bumpy ride."

      Murdock was already running backwards. "Race you there. I bet you she'll give me both the pies!"

      "You lay a finger on one a them pies, and you a dead man!" He thundered in the pilot's wake. Estelle giggled and held on to his ears and gold for dear life. His hands were occupied with trying to grab his target and strangle him.

      Nobody was going to ruin this night, especially no crazy fool bent on stealing his momma's special lemon chess pies!

      B. A. came pounding up the gravel driveway, when a stream of water arched across his path. "Look out, mister!" Estelle crowed in his ear.

      "What you think you're doing, fool?" he growled as Murdock grinned and gulped at the water sloshing out of the hose he was holding like a fountain. "You wanna get this little girl all wet?"

      "Naw, just you, mudsucker. You gotta wash your hands before you eat."

      "I'll wash your head ... " Swiftly setting down his burden, he stalked forward and the pilot retreated.

      "Now, boys, quit all that fussing. I don't know what Alma's gonna think of all this carrying on." Balancing a tray of drinks on one arm, a tall woman stumped down the steps. "Ain't you got no home training?"

      Murdock crowed, "I'm saved!"

      "Get on with you." She waved him aside and smiled at her son. "Well, Scooter ... took you long enough."

      "Hello, Momma. Sorry I'm late." He kissed her on the cheek and took the tray. "I'll get that for you." As she lead him to the trestle tables, B. A. glared over his shoulder at Murdock, daring the pilot to comment on his following his mother like any well-bred, obedient son.

      Estelle looked up at Murdock, who was almost as tall as her daddy Harry. "You like him a lot, don't you? And he likes you, too."

      "Don't tell anyone," Murdock whispered as he stooped down to her eye level. "It's a secret. We play like that all the time."

      "Klawd likes to play with Daddy like that, too." The pilot had no answer to that, especially since the feline enjoyed playing leaping leopard on people's backs. "I'm sorry he scared you."

      Murdock's attention snapped back to the little person staring at him with big blue eyes shining with almost adult concern. "Oh, surprised me, maybe. I wasn't expecting anything to come crashing down out of the trees. Got any more surprises up there? I bet B. A.'d enjoy 'em."

      "Maybe ... " Her eyes lit with mischievous glee.

      "Shouldn't put ideas in her head, 'Dock. No telling what she'll think is a fun surprise - " Harry's voice suddenly lost all its playful tone. "And remember what you promised Mommy last night. I'm holding you to it, little lady."

      Estelle heaved an aggrieved sigh. "Yes, Daddy. I promise ... " Her bottom lip curled in a little pout. "I never get no fun ... "

      "Maybe we can play later, after dinner. Just tell Klawd to take it easy, okay?"

      Estelle's face blossomed in a wide grin. "Promise?"

      He held out his hand. "Promise."

      She gripped his fingers and they shook on it. Then she spun around and dashed towards the picnic tables. "See you later, wallygator!"

      As Murdock blinked in surprise, Harry commented dryly, "She picks up all sorts of things out of people's heads. She hasn't learned how to stay inside her own yet."

      "You know, Harry, when you talked to her you sounded just like my dad."

      "Yeah, well, I guess it rubs off on all of us." The pilot watched the little girl dancing around Mrs. Baracus trying to help set the table, then studied Harry. The Mage shrugged. "She's decided she's my little girl. Since she's a bit of a Shapeshifter herself, she looks something like me now. Go figure. I ain't much in the looks department, an' I know it"

      As he followed Harry towards the picnic tables, Murdock reflected that life must get very interesting around this little town at times. One day a Mage settles there, and then a strange little girl decides he's her daddy, and - "Hey! Is Alma really Estelle's mother?"

      Harry stopped and glanced back at his friend. "Long story, don't ask, but yeah, Alma is Estelle's mother. I'm just not her biological father, but I'm her Daddy so far as she's concerned."

      Alma strode towards them with the air of a woman determined to herd the menfolk into place whether they want to go or not. "Come on, guys. Our guests are starving, and Mrs. B. won't let anyone eat till we say grace." Harry opened his mouth and she added firmly, "We talked about this - Estelle doesn't need adult debates about philosophy, not at a party. Besides, she volunteered Scooter for the job."

      "Oh, this should be good," Murdock muttered.

      But Mrs. Baracus stationed herself next to him and, even if he'd been tempted to cut up while B. A. spoke, he knew that she had as heavy a hand as her son. And, to tell the truth, he didn't want to disrespect Whoever had blessed them with the good luck to stay free and good friends to share freedom with. He wasn't that crazy.

     * * * * * * *

      Ravening hordes of teenagers couldn't have done more damage to the feast laid out as did Harry's guests. Though the women made a show of watching what they ate - generally limiting themselves to one or two small helpings of everything - the men made no pretense that this was the best meal they'd enjoyed in many months Three kinds of meat - four, if one counted the veggieburgers that Harry piled high with fresh tomatoes, onions, lettuce and homemade pickles - baked beans, both sweet and hot, potato salad (Mrs. Manning refused to divulge her secret recipe), cole slaw (store bought because no one wanted to grate that much cabbage), plus enough cakes, pies and cookies to satiate even Harry's notorious sweet tooth.

      And, best of all, they didn't have to peer over their shoulders just in case someone decided to crash the party."Man, if I ate any more, I might bust," Murdock announced.

      "Save it, Murdock. We just ate." Hannibal blew out a stream of cigar smoke; out of courtesy to their hostess, Maggie had drawn him towards a free-standing swing under a tall oak tree. He'd agreed because it pleased her - and gave them some privacy to pursue their own plans. Besides, he'd spotted the dark sedan during his first approach to the house; Crane hadn't made any overt moves, and he wanted to make sure things stayed peaceful.

      "Believe it or not, you don't have to stand guard," Maggie observed. "They can take care of themselves."

      He grinned lazily. "Old habits die hard."

      A shadow fell across them; since it was feminine, he only tilted his head and peered at Alma. For once, she wasn't tempting them with more food; but she was smiling which made him instantly suspicious. The woman was planning something. "Looks like the party's breaking up. I thought you might like to see the sights, scope things out, incognito." She tossed a set of carkeys towards Hannibal who caught them automatically. "Try not to wreck the car; it would raise all sorts of awkward questions."

      Before he could answer, Alma headed towards the house. "I wonder where she's heading," his companion murmured.

      Hannibal studied the keys. Two were standard issue Chevy keys; the third looked like it fit a Yale lock. He glanced at Maggie who grinned and stood gracefully. "I guess we ought to take her up on her offer. I want to make sure there're at least two ways to get into and out of this place, so Decker can't box us in."

      She made a noncommittal sound that might be agreement; it wasn't like Maggie not to give her opinion, but she made time to say good-bye to Mrs. Baracus and Mrs. Manning.

      The older woman chuckled. "Be careful, you two. Don't do anything I wouldn't do in your shoes."

      "Now what do you think she meant by that?" he asked as he started the car.

      It was her turn to chuckle. "Oh, those little old ladies are the worst ... in the kitchen, she gave me directions to a nice little hotel just off the Interstate ... if you're interested in checking out the local wild life."

      "Sounds like a plan to me."

     * * * * * * *

     As the pewter grey Cavalier pulled into the street, Crane glanced at the couple inside the car. However, he was much more interested in the plate of food the little girl had delivered. A little voice in the back of his head lectured on the perils of unprofessional behavior, but the savory smells of freshly served meat, bread and vegetables drowned it completely. After months of fast food and cafeteria commissary meals, this was a temptation he couldn't deny.

      Johnson muttered around a mouthful of bar-b-que, "It looked like Smith in that car. What if he's getting away?"

      "Without the rest of his men? He'll be back." Crane sipped the lemonade, enjoying the tartly sweet flavor, then frowned at the setting sun. The day had passed quickly, but he only vaguely recalled where all the time had gone - and nothing solid to report, besides spotting Hannibal Smith leaving the house. Decker would not be pleased.

      Sometimes a military policeman's lot was not a happy one. Oh, well, at least they'd gotten a good meal out of it.

     * * * * * * *

      Merry-go-rounds were great fun at any age. Harry played carthorse and pushed it faster and faster until the rail spun out from under his hands. Estelle shrieked happily as Murdock made the unevenly balanced hub bounce up and down. Finally it slowed. The pilot leaped off and dragged it to a halt. "Now it's your turn, Harry. Climb aboard."

      "No thanks - my stomach won't take it."

      Estelle added her pleas. "Come on, Daddy. Just once. It's fun!"

      "Yeah, right. Depends on your idea of fun." Nevertheless, he did as she asked, positioning himself opposite her.

      "All right! Hold on, lady and gentleman, and make sure your feet are in the upright position, 'cause we're taking off - NOW!" Gripping the upright stansion, he dug his feet in and shoved off, racing around the worn path faster and faster until the world was spinning madly like a top.

      And just when Harry thought they couldn't go much faster, Murdock let out a wild yell and leaped aboard. Estelle echoed the ululating cries. If anyone were listening, he'd swear a pack of coyotes had invaded the Jaycee Park.

      Sometimes Howling Mad Murdock had to live up to his name.

     * * * * * * *

      Later, after they'd swung on the swings, and Estelle had slid down the slide, they had gone down to the small campsite B. A. and Murdock had made beside the creekbed. Harry had banished all the bugs and mosquitoes when they'd initially checked out the site, so all they had to worry about were the three felines who positioned themselves at three points of the compass. Kitsucat and Blaise would probably behave themselves, in hopes that they'd score a free meal at daybreak, but Klawd had his own ideas of what constituted amusement. Still, sprawled over Estelle's lap, he blinked sleepily at the crackling fire, looking every inch the domestic wildcat.

      His daughter snuggled into her sleeping bag. "Tell me a bedtime story, Daddy."

      "You've heard most of mine. Let Murdock tell one."

      The pilot perked up. "You want a story? I've got a story for you. There was a time when me and the team was traveling in the jungle an' - "

     * * * * * * *

      K. P. duty wasn't so bad if you were doing it with your momma, even if she was pickier than his old training sergeant. While he scrubbed the serving platters, she told him about everything that had happened since he and the team had cleaned out the gangster wannabes who had tried to intimidate the local residents.

      "And that cute little Cherise - you wouldn't believe how much she's grown!" She chuckled then pointed at the glass he'd set on the drainboard. "You wash that again, Scooter. You know these dishwashers can't do glassware worth a lick."

      Or anything else to her satisfaction, since the dishes he'd loaded into the dishwasher were almost clean enough to use again. But that was all right because it gave her a way to repay Alma's hospitality. "Momma ... " he paused, debating on how to broach the subject without rousing her temper. "Uh, the guys and me, we're sleeping out tonight. You know, down by that creek, so's Decker's watchdogs don't spot us and give Estelle's little momma any trouble."

      She nodded. "I figured as much. Alma put me up here in the guest room. She claims this is cool weather for it being almost June, but it sure feels like a hot summer to these old bones."

      "You ain't old, Momma. You's fine."A dry chuckle answered him. "You finish with those dishes and bring some of that lemonade with you into the living room. It's nice and cool there. I got so much to tell you ... " So saying, she continued a running monologue that gave all the details of his uncles, cousins, and aunts, far into the night.

      After she went to bed, he remained in the old rocker, listening to the floor creak beneath his weight. The dark surrounded him like a blanket, silent and peaceful.

      The sound of a cardoor's slamming alerted him. It was still night, and B.A. vaguely remembered hearing the clock chime two o'clock. Then the most awful caterwauling started on the porch; he couldn't make out the words, but he recognized the voices. Alma and Face - he'd lost sight of them earlier, and now they'd come back, making enough noise to wake the dead or, worse, his momma.He hurried to the door and jerked it open. Face had his arm twined around their hostess' waist; she was giggling at whatever stupid remark he'd made. Then they caught sight of him, and Face's grin faded a little. "Now, B.A., I know what you're thinking. It's not what it looks like at all."

      "You got no idea what I'm thinking, fool."

      "Now, Temp, no fighting. You'll wake Mrs. Baracus." Alma wore the sleepy grin of a woman who'd drunk just enough to relax. "Thank you for seeing me to the door; I had a great time. I'll see both of you in the morning." With that, she headed for the stairs.

      "She's something special," Face observed.

      B. A. grunted. "Yeah, she's a lady. Harry's lady. And don't you forget it."

      Templeton Peck wore an expression of aggrieved innocence. "Of course not, B. A. You know me."

      "That's the problem. I know you. Now let's get down to the camp and get some sleep. Dawn'll be here before you know it."

      Face sighed and followed him out. Dancing and drinking till dawn was hard on a man who was on the run.

     * * * * * * *

      The team assembled at the breakfast table about 9 o'clock. Mrs. Baracus supervised the preparations with the air of a general mobilizing her troops. Everyone was co-opted (non-volunteers were coerced by the decadent scent of freshly baked cinnamon rolls); while she and Alma cooked, Harry filled the glasses and supervised Estelle as she set out dishes and silverware. Meanwhile, Murdock, B. A., and Face broke down the campsite while Hannibal and Maggie reconnoitered the cemetery grounds.

      Overnight, the barren grass knolls had sprouted flowers and flags. Some were simple bouquets in vases; some were mounted on the tombstones. Several spread like blankets across the graves. A small stage with a small podium had been erected beside the main gates; intent on connecting and testing the sound system, the few technicians ignored the couple as they strolled along the gravel drive.

      "I don't like it, Hannibal. There's no way in or out except for the main entrance. What if Decker's men block it?"

     "Then we go out the back door." He studied the narrow blacktop street leading into the cemetery. It was barely wide enough for two cars to pass one another; new visitors had made his task more challenging by parking on both sides of the street. Even Alma's little Cavalier would barely make it through these straits, so they'd have to hide the van somewhere nearby. The baseball field presented some possibilities, as long as it didn't get boxed in by late arrivals coming to pay their respects to the dead.

      If that happened, they'd improvise. There was a chance his plan might fail, but the odds were good it wouldn't. Besides, if a man didn't take some chances, then life would get very boring, very quickly.

      And being bored was worse than being dead.

     * * * * * * *

      After they'd managed to put away second (and third) helpings at the urging of Mrs. Baracus, she insisted on packing leftover snacks for "her boys" while Murdock and B. A. did the dishes. Afterwards, Alma and the ladies commandeered the upstairs bathrooms to change into something more appropriate to the occasion.

     "You'd think they were seeing us off to war." Being a creature of comfort, Face was appreciative of the benefits of indoor plumbing and mirrors when seeing to his own satorial splendor.

      "Mebbe they are," B. A. growled. "Some days those bullets hit home."

      "And we always enjoy the results." Hannibal rose and strode to the staircase.

      Maggie lead the ladies down; as he offered his arm, she smiled and slipped hers through his. "Flatterer."

      B. A. handed his mother down the last steps. "Momma, you look younger every day."

      "Go on with you, Scooter. We're holding up the show." But she smiled proudly as he lead her to the porch.

      Estelle bounded downstairs in a billowing concoction of pink and white frothy petticoats. She clutched a bouquet of flowers with both hands. "Hurry, Mommy!"

      Murdock intercepted her before she could dash out the door. "May I escort you to the ball, mademoiselle?"

      "You may ... " She grasped his hand and trotted beside him.

      "Lovely bouquet of flowers."

      "Thank you."

      They joined B. A. and his mother who grinned at the little girl. "How sweet! You all dressed up like a bride!"

      "That's right! I got flowers for my boyfriend -- and a gun for the bad guys." She produced a bright pink and green water pistol from the lacy spray. "See?"

      The three adults stared at her in speechless wonder. Taking their silence for approval, she grinned brightly and neatly tucked the gun back into hiding. "Mommy says it's best to be prepared."

      Murdock almost choked when he heard Hannibal's philosophy coming out of the mouth of a five-year-old. As he struggled not to snicker, B. A. frowned at him. "What you laughing about, fool?"

      Oh, he knew -- they both knew. And the pilot lost it completely. Estelle waited for him to catch his breath, then tugged imperiously at his hand. "You're silly. Come on, or we'll miss the show."

      Only two steps of her skip-stepping to keep up with him before Murdock swept her up and skipped off to the sound of her giggling pleasure. Mrs. Baracus and her son followed at a more sedate pace. "Guns and rosebuds." Her eyes narrowed and her lips thinned to a grim line. "Remind me to have a talk with that girl's momma."

      B. A. merely nodded. Only a fool would interfere with his momma when she was on the jazz, and Mrs. Baracus hadn't raised no fool.

      Alma discovered Face waiting for her in the living room. "Where is everyone?"

      "They left without us. Harry said he'd meet us there. He's walking Mrs. Manning to the cemetery. Something about an arrangement."

      Alma chuckled as she made sure the front door was secure. "Mrs. M is known for her flower gardens; she wouldn't just buy something to put on her husband's grave. As long as she's able, she'll do the arrangements herself."

      "That's a lot of work."

      Her lips quirked as she locked the door. "It's a work of love. Who worries about the work?"

      Face had no glib answer to that. After all, this peaceful weekend was the result of several people's determined effort. As they strolled under the archway created by the trees, he reflected that maybe -- just maybe -- they shouldn't have taken Harry's money. "Penny for them."

      He grinned at how appropriate the phrase was. "My thoughts? They're a dime a dozen ... " When she made no comment, he added, "Harry's lucky to have a place like this."

      "You're welcome to visit whenever you're out this way, Temp." Now that was a switch. An invitation with no sexual strings attached. He didn't quite know what to say.

      "Don't have to say nothin', Face. It's an open invitation from both of us." Harry rose from the ground and dusted off his hands.

      "It's lovely. Thank you, Harold." Mrs. Manning beamed proudly at the elaborate floral wreath of homegrown Texas flowers. Blues, reds, whites, and yellows vied for attention in a huge starburst of color. A smaller one of pink and white roses adorned the grave beside it.

      "Mrs. M lost her son in Viet Nam," Alma said quietly. "It hits her hardest this time of year."

      It could easily have been him -- or Murdock -- or B. A. lying there. Face slowly manuevered around the other visitors until he stood beside the elderly woman. Intent on putting the finishing touches on the tiny tribute of rosebuds, she didn't acknowledge his presence. Finally she rose stiffly and he helped her stand. "Oh, I didn't see you standing there ... these old eyes." She blinked quickly, but he'd glimpsed a suspicious glitter.

      "... are a lovely shade of blue. Like these, uh -- " He fumbled for the correct name for the spray of azure flowers; for once, he wished he hadn't skipped so many biology classes.

      "Oh, those are bachelor's buttons. And these are marigolds. Joe's favorite. I prefer irises myself, but they're all bloomed out this time of year." As she pointed out one genus then another, her voice became firmer and more confident.

      A rumbling overhead distracted him. "What's that?"

      "Oh, they're coming!" She slipped her arm through his and hurried towards the others who was staring upwards. "You know, they come all the way from Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth!"

      Now he recognized the thunder of approaching jets. Seconds later, he spotted four tiny spots shining in the sun. Within minutes, they emerged as four planes flying in a vee-formation. They roared overhead as the town clock struck noon, then circled around for a second pass. Face snapped off a salute. Out of the corner of his eye, he glimpsed the Team doing the same. He grinned proudly at the iron eagles. It was great to be part of something bigger than yourself.

      Some watchers cheered as one plane then another spiraled out of formation to regroup just above the trees. And just as quickly as they'd come, they zipped away towards the northwest. Soon even their engine roar had diminished to the soft steady thrum of insects.

      "Uh-oh." He'd seen an all too familiar face in the crowd, one surrounded by about two dozen military types. And they weren't here to listen to the mayor's speech. Face wished he could find someplace to hide, but a little old lady made a lousy shield.

      "Time to go, guys." Hannibal watched as Decker directed his man to disperse. "Out the back way."

      "Au revoir," Maggie said with a smile. "I hate good-byes. They sound so permanent."

      Before he could move, Mrs. Baracus grabbed her son and kissed him soundly on the cheek. "Now you watch your back, Scooter," she admonished. "And theirs, too. I want you boys to come home safe and sound."

      Estelle planted a big smooch on Murdock's cheek then handed him her water pistol. "This is only for protection," she declared solemnly. "You be good."

      "And if you can't be good, be careful." Alma kissed Face on the lips; as he blinked in astonishment, she added, "Save the last dance for me."

      Harry took Estelle from Murdock's arms. "You get going. I'll see the ladies home."

      It was a strangely dignified retreat, as if choreographed by a pantomime waltz king. As a precaution, the team split up and moved swiftly towards the rendezvous point. The MPs tried to follow, but the crowds kept shifting and they had to dodge around the milling visitors or crash through the flowery memorials. In the end, they trotted along the gravel paths; it was the simplest way to avoid the civilians blocking their way.

      They came to a halt in front of a wire fence. A sturdy lock and chain secured the gate. The MPs had rounded the main loop and were closing in on two sides. Decker had obtained a jeep and rode like a pasha behind his troops. But it was all silent, except for the mayor's speech about the veterans honored this day. No bullhorns, no visible weapons, nothing to disturb the ceremony.

      Murdock eyed the metal uprights. "It's only 'bout 8 feet, give or take a foot. We can climb it, easy."

      "Let's not and say we did." Face could picture the damage if the sharp prongs snagged his Armani slacks.

      B. A. jerked the gate, but the chain held fast. Murdock frowned and fumbled at the lock. "What you think you're doing, fool? You ain't got no key."

      "They're coming up fast," Hannibal snapped. "Get into position, B. A."

      As the big man obeyed, Murdock slapped at his pockets, searching for something, anything, he could use to spring the lock. But no pliers, no screwdriver, nothing but a little hairpin adorned with a pink and white bow and tassel. "Now where'd that come from?"

      Face plucked it from his fingers. "Stand back and watch an expert at work."

      Hannibal glimpsed him deftly examining the lock. "Hurry it up, Face. Three minutes to showtime."

      "Got it!" Face displayed the lock and chain like a fishing trophy.

      "This way, gentlemen." Murdock bowed them through the gate. "The valet has brought your vehicle around to the back."

      "Move, fool." B. A. stormed towards his van. "We got no time to play games."

      "Buy us some time, Murdock." Hannibal and Face hurried towards the black war wagon.

      The pilot grinned. "Not a problem, Colonel." Undeterred by the dozen MPs closing in on his position, Murdock looped the chain round the fence pole and through the gate, then slammed the lock shut.

      Then he spotted the tiny hairpin still stuck inside. Shame to leave it behind, he mused, after Estelle had gone to the trouble of giving it to him. Maybe he could -- The pin came free in his fingers, but the metal bit them. Trotting to the van, he sucked his stinging thumb. If he didn't know better, he'd have sworn it'd given off an electric shock. As he clambered inside, Hannibal yelled, "Let's go, B. A.!"

      MPs clustered around the gate. They separated like the Red Sea as Decker swept through them. "What's the hold up?"

      "Lock's fused, sir. Shall I shoot it off?"

      The colonel surveyed the crowd, their heads bowed as some local preacher spoke the benediction. "No -- we don't want to disturb the ceremony." He glared at the departing van; a white-headed figure leaned out, and he saw it snap off a mocking salute. "Next time, Smith," he vowed. "Next time, you won't be so lucky."

     * * * * * * *

      B.A. drove the van for five hours; the A-Team rode silently, lost in thought, as they headed southwards. A friend from Viet Nam who had joined the DEA had contacted them about heading towards Matamoros to give him a hand with the local drug scene. Murdock pulled out his goodie bag and searched for something sweet. "I wanna go back to Harry's some day," he murmured as he bit into a cinnamon roll.

      Hannibal nodded. "Yeah, a little R&R is good."

      "Dunno when I'll get to see Momma again," B.A. rumbled, heading for a filling station off I-35. "How 'bout a quick pit stop?"

      They all tumbled out of the van and stretched. Face's thoughts turned back towards the peaceful weekend. "Yeah, I think we all want to go back," he murmured. "Harry doesn't know how good he has it."

      Beside him, Murdock sung in a falsetto tenor, "Some day I'll find it -- the Rainbow Connection -- The lovers, the dreamers -- and me ... "

      B. A. frowned at the pilot, but Face could finish the verse himself. After all, Murdock had made them see the movie six times before he'd lost count. "All of us under its spell ... you know that it's probably magic ... "

      Yeah, he'd like to go back there some day.


Memorials by Kate L. Nickell & Joy Riddle

 

 


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