Please Send This Author Comments!
This page last viewed: 2017-08-15 and has been viewed 2229 times
Summary: The team takes a case that isn't what it seems. Can they work through their own internal problems to solve the case?
Disclaimer: I don't own the A-Team, but I think they had fun this time. The rest are all mine...
Thanks: to the RL Claudia for her enthusiasm, Glenda for continual assistance, and Meryn who is a continuity expert the likes of whom the series never had. (Although any problems spotted are definitely my own.)Author notes: My Cat Jeoffry is from Jubilate Agno by Christopher Smart. I think there is some Shakespeare in here somewhere too.
Murdock frowned. This wasn't going the way he hoped, but he should have expected it. None of the team listened to him unless it had something to do with flying machines.
"C'mon, guys. We've done jobs for each other before." Murdock didn't ask the team to do much for him - break him out of the VA occasionally, find him planes and choppers to fly, buy him t-shirts when they went on vacations, bring him the latest Burger Heaven promotional toy, take Billy on walks.... Hmmm, maybe he did ask them to do a lot for him. But it didn't matter; he wasn't asking for himself this time, and this wasn't a big favor. It wasn't like he would get anywhere near the wild blue yonder this time. It was strictly a ground mission.
"Claudia really needs our help," Murdock prompted, leaning against the china cabinet, hands in his khakis, cap pulled down over his face, but watching them all. He tried hard not to let on how important this was to him so that they wouldn't know how disappointed he'd be if they - Hannibal - wouldn't take the case. He really wanted them to take Claudia's case. Maybe if they didn't know how much he wanted it, they would take it. The doc would be worried about his thought process, but Murdock brushed that aside.
Hannibal, B.A., and Face stared at him, their surprise apparent. Murdock scowled, irritated. They had a tendency to think that he didn't know anyone outside of the people he met when he was with the team. It was like he didn't exist except when they took him out of his box at the VA. They forgot that he spent most of his time in there, that there were people at the VA whom Murdock spent more time with than he did with any of his best friends. That he was well-able to break himself out of the hospital when he wanted to. After all, he was the one who had called this meeting at Face's latest apartment and he had gotten here on his own. They just forgot him and what he was capable of sometimes.
"Who is she?" Face blurted out, dropping into one of the oak dining chairs. He rearranged the table's centerpiece, polishing the silver absently. Faceman always liked to take care of these places, as if his very presence weren't disturbing enough for the owners. Didn't he think any of these people discovered from their neighbors that someone had been living in their homes? Murdock knew that, in Face's mind, it wasn't much of a crime if he didn't really do any physical harm to his living accommodations. Kinda like renting without the rent.
"Claudia Rose Harmon, one of the volunteers at the hospital. She walks with me out on the grounds. Real nice lady." Murdock paced the room, finally coming to rest leaning over B.A.'s chair. Where did B.A. get these feathers? They were so smooth, kinda like petting a cat. A very tiny cat.
"Hafta be, spend her time with crazies," B.A. shook his head and took a sip of milk as he swatted Murdock's hand away from his earrings. Face slid a coaster under B.A.'s glass.
Murdock glanced out the dining room window. Small birds were perched on a feeder in the postage stamp yard, squabbling. /For I will consider my Cat Jeoffrey... For he is of the tribe of Tiger./ Cats were so undemanding, so sleek and graceful.
"And why does this nice lady need our help?" Hannibal asked, puffing at his cigar. Face pushed an ashtray across the table underneath the ash. Hannibal smiled and leaned back in his chair, dangling his cigar over the creamy berber carpet. Hannibal liked to push Face's buttons. Hannibal liked to push everyone's buttons sometimes.
Murdock turned back to the table, and slid into a chair, stretching. "It's her ex-husband, Hannibal. He's been harassing her, stalking her, and withholding alimony. He owes her a pile of money. Tens of thousands."
At least he had Face's attention. The team customarily got ten percent if they weren't paid up-front and this shouldn't take more than a day or so. Claudia just needed someone to talk to that rat of an ex-husband of hers. Murdock decided to press his advantage with Face, and appeal to B.A.'s soft side.
"Gilbert Roy is rich, and poor Claudia can't even support the kids. She starts crying whenever she talks about it. I heard her talking to a doctor's office yesterday, telling them that she couldn't pay them for surgery for little Tammy! We have to help her! C'mon, guys."
Murdock watched as Hannibal made eye contact, first with Face and then with B.A. The team had to help Claudia, but Murdock knew the decision rested with Hannibal. Hannibal always decided what the team did and how they did it. Murdock didn't always like it, but there it was.
"All-right, Captain, we'll check her out, meet her and get a few more details. Then we'll decide."
* * * * *
Stopping the corvette at a red light, Face glanced over at a silent Murdock. The pilot's mouth was a thin compressed line as he pointedly looked out the passenger side of the car. Face smiled a bit. As if he would let Murdock ignore him.
"What's up, buddy?" Face asked, tapping Murdock's knee to get his attention.
Murdock sighed. With the intensity he gave everything, the sigh seemed to travel down his entire body, releasing all his tension at once. He blinked and seemed to come back to himself. Face could feel those brown eyes on him as he accelerated, attention back on the road.
"Why can't we take a case because I say so?" Murdock asked. He sounded hurt, and not a little defeated. Face hated it when Murdock was down; he had a way of dragging everyone in a ten-foot radius with him. A black hole of misery. It was almost as bad as when he was pumping a little too much adrenaline.
And Murdock was his friend, his best friend. It wasn't always easy having a mental patient as a best friend, but he and Murdock had history. Face sometimes mourned the Murdock he had known in Vietnam, but he supported what Murdock had pulled out of that place. Not quite in touch with reality, but still sensitive and caring. It was a good kind of crazy.
"It's not personal, Murdock. You know Hannibal likes to decide these things. And we'll have a team meeting."
"Is it because I'm crazy?" Murdock went on as if he hadn't even heard Face. He probably hadn't. Sometimes Murdock was in a little world of his own, but sooner or later he came up for air if you waited long enough. "I mean, I can be sane if that will help."
"Don't strain yourself, Murdock," Face muttered under his breath as Murdock kept talking. Face could tell there was no point in interrupting until Murdock had stopped on his own. The only one who could stop Murdock when he was on a roll was Hannibal, and he could do it with a couple of words. Face didn't have that kind of power over Murdock, even if they were best friends. Maybe because they were best friends.
"...Crazy people are very good judges of character... all that therapy..." Face let the words wash over him, knowing he wasn't going to have to respond to anything in particular, just the general tone of the comments. Eventually. Face settled in for the wait. "...Learn to read people...we're experts..."
In a way, Murdock was right. Murdock was the most sensitive person Face knew, with B.A. running a close second. He would trust either of them and their judgments about someone's sincerity. Both of them always saw through him, even when he had his scamming-ability turned up bright. And they seemed to have some built-in antenna when it came to recognizing good people. He, on the other hand, seemed to fall in time and again with people who hurt him. As if he were destined to be hurt by people he trusted. Especially by people he trusted.
"...Good is all this therapy if no one..."
And Murdock was right that Hannibal always seemed to get final say about what cases they took. Occasionally B.A. would get away with taking a case, but that was because no one, not even Hannibal, wanted to run into one of his fists. Ticket to the hospital came with that ride. If anyone else suggested a case, Hannibal put it under a microscope before he would give his okay.
Face still smarted from their reaction to Leslie's appeal for help. He had asked them, begged them, to take the case. B.A. and Murdock had looked on as Hannibal refused. They had joined in on the joke at Face's expense. Face couldn't believe that they had read her letter to him and laughed. B.A. had
actually giggled. His stomach still got a heavy feeling when he thought about it.
Face knew they had to be careful; the MPs could be anywhere, but sometimes it seemed that Hannibal was just exercising control over the team for the sake of proving he still could. And despite what Hannibal had said in that high tech apartment weeks ago, Leslie had needed help. Face had proven that.
"Murdock, it's nothing personal," Face repeated when Murdock finally wound down. Whatever Face thought, he didn't want Murdock upset about it if Hannibal decided not to take the case. These kind of things could have Murdock depressed for months. "You guys wouldn't go help Leslie for me until I said I'd pay for the case myself. And I knew her better than you know Claudia."
"Ah, we just wanted to make ya squirm, see how far ya'd go. Facey, the sight of you all twisted in knots over a woman was worth it!" Murdock laughed.
"Thanks." Face hadn't thought of that at the time; he just knew Leslie needed help or she never would have contacted him after all these years. His heart had raced, thinking she was in trouble and called on him to provide it. He had been hoping, even after fifteen years, that she had changed her mind. Hurt again by people he trusted. Leslie and the team both, that time.
"You offered to pay way too soon. But, Face, I know Claudia is okay," the pilot said quietly, sighing and shifting in the car seat. "Just like Fluffy."
"Fluffy?" Face hadn't heard about a cat before, and Fluffy was definitely a cat name. Or would Fluffy turn out to be a turtle? You could never tell with Murdock.
"Billy brought her home. Poor little stray kitten."
"Ah, Murdock," Face asked cautiously. "Billy brought her home? Doesn't he chase cats?"
"'Course not! Billy is very well-trained. He's always bringing in strays to help them."
Face let that slide. He was a little worried that Murdock was so sure of this woman after such a short time. Yes, Murdock was a good judge of people, but sometimes he formed attachments and threw himself into them just like he threw himself into his delusions. That is to say, whole-heartedly. It was one of the things Face liked best about Murdock, but it could cause Murdock pain at times. And that pain never seemed to stop him from trusting again and again. Face marveled at that. He also tried to protect Murdock because of it. Someone had to protect Murdock until he could protect himself. He'd have to look into Ms. Harmon if they took the case. She better be everything Murdock thought she was.
* * * * *
Two days later, the team was assembled in Claudia's living room in a comfortable upper-middle class neighborhood. Murdock ran his fingers over a piece of the shiny polished furniture in the room; he'd never seen anything as new looking as these antiques. He'd have to keep Fluffy away from the furniture legs in here! The house was beautiful and elegant, like one of Face's acquisitions. Murdock caught the glimmer of water from the swimming pool that graced the perfectly manicured backyard. Better keep Fluffy away from the water too. Cats were unpredictable around water.
Introductions were accomplished with a minimum of fuss, and soon Claudia was bringing in refreshments. Warned by Murdock, she brought coffee and milk, and a plate of cookies. Having seen them all taken care of, she sat on the sofa.
"Murdock says your ex-husband, Gilbert Roy, is giving you trouble, Ms. Harmon," Hannibal said, putting his half-empty cup on the tray on the glass table. He patted his jacket pocket absently for a cigar. Looking around, and no doubt noticing the lack of an ashtray, he picked up his cup again.
Murdock nibbled on a cookie, wondering how he could get some of B.A.'s milk for Fluffy without causing a problem. Right now he didn't want to upset anyone. The team, Hannibal, Murdock reminded himself, had pretty much decided to take the case during yesterday's meeting. Claudia didn't have any military connections that they could discover. It wasn't like the time Face had asked them to go out of the country to help his old girlfriend. The team didn't have anything better to do at the moment, and leaning on a rich man to help Murdock's friend shouldn't take more than a phone call or two, Hannibal had reasoned. But Murdock knew that this meeting with Claudia would be the final test. He contented himself with watching his friends and how they reacted to Claudia.
Hannibal was smiling the smile that reached up to light his eyes like sapphires. The smile that he usually reserved for plans coming together and Maggie. Murdock was surprised Hannibal let the absence of an ashtray keep him from his cigar. Hannibal wasn't usually quite so considerate to potential clients, especially not the "skirts," a term he liked to apply to young women of questionable intelligence. He had made it clear during yesterday's meeting that he regarded Claudia that way, sight unseen.
Face had managed to sit next to Claudia on the sofa, unbuttoning his jacket, and attentively refilling her coffee cup before it needed refilling. He was hovering in that way he had around attractive women, as if no one else were about and he was a teensy bit nearsighted so he had to be *close*. Murdock usually found it amusing, and he loved to interrupt Face on the prowl. Today it just annoyed him and he couldn't pinpoint why.
Even B.A. was smiling at Claudia as she offered him another cookie. Didn't see the big guy smile, and mean it, except at kids.
At least they all liked her. That was in her favor.
Murdock turned a bit to really look at Claudia. He hadn't noticed before how pretty she was. Well, he had noticed, but he hadn't really *noticed*. In his mind, she was associated with the hospital. He liked her because she was always pleasant and upbeat, but he tried not to notice the physical attractiveness of anyone he met at the VA. It only led to frustration. Now, seeing his friends' reaction to her, he saw the warm hazel eyes and the thick silver blond hair that rivaled Face's. She was petite and slim and knew how to dress.
"Yes, he's given me nothing but trouble," she said, tearfully. "We were divorced more than a year ago, and he's supposed to pay alimony and dependent support. He refuses to. Says he'll never pay me a cent."
Face reached into his inner jacket pocket, pulled out a pristine handkerchief, and handed it to Claudia. She sniffed into it, casting a grateful glance at Face. Face flashed her a quick smile, white teeth gleaming. Murdock scowled.
"I don't know why he is doing this! He signed the divorce settlement agreement; he didn't have to. Now I'm on the verge of losing the house!"
Murdock felt so sorry for her. She had always been kind to him, walking for hours sometimes out on the VA grounds, listening to his ramblings. It had been weeks before she had shared her problems with him, telling him that she didn't want to add to his burdens. He had told her that anytime his friends were having troubles it hurt him, so he'd rather be able to try to help her than ignore how she was feeling.
"But if the court ordered him to pay support, why don't you go back to court and get them to enforce the order?" Hannibal asked, putting down his coffee again.
"It's so complicated! The order isn't in this county; I have to take him to court here again, and I just can't afford the lawyer fees," Claudia twisted the handkerchief in her hands.
"It would be less expensive than hiring us," Hannibal stated frankly. "I don't want to take your money if you don't really need us."
"He didn't pay even when we lived in the other county, so I don't expect him to pay now without getting some help," Claudia replied. "Oh, he divided up the other property, but said I'd never collect on the support."
"Have you tried hiring less expensive help? We don't usually work for one of the parties in a divorce, not even years after," Hannibal continued. "You should be able to take care of this through a regular P.I."
Murdock didn't like the way this was sounding. Was Hannibal backing out? Murdock thought of appealing to Face and B.A., but he knew it wouldn't matter if the Colonel had decided against helping Claudia. He glared at Hannibal, but kept quiet. Murdock wanted the team, not strangers, to help Claudia.
"He's out on bail now for a drug charge. When I found out who Murdock's friends were, I knew you could help. I don't think anyone else could make an impression on Gilbert." Claudia's hazel eyes were watering up again.
"He's involved with drugs?" Face asked, taking one of Claudia's hands.
"Yes, he's been a dealer for years! That's how he made most his money, but he has legitimate money too. I'm afraid that if I take him back to court, he'll send some of his drug connections to teach me a lesson. " She dabbed at her eyes with Face's handkerchief.
"Hannibal..." Face said and Murdock smiled. Faceman to the rescue! He could always count on Face. "We can't let a drug dealer get away, think of all those drugs hitting the streets. He needs to be put out of commission. And we need to help Claudia so she doesn't lose her house. No one deserves that."
"Where can we find him?"
Murdock grinned at Hannibal's question. It meant that they were definitely taking Claudia's case.
"He lives on a cattle ranch out in the hills. It's enormous, really, and very remote. Here's the address." Claudia handed Hannibal a slip of paper, trying to control her tears, sniffing. "His phone number is on there too."
"You just hired the A-Team, Ms. Harmon."
Murdock breathed a sigh of relief.
Murdock, hands deep in his khakis, kicked a stone across the sidewalk, pretending for a moment that it was Hannibal.
As much as he admired the Colonel, relied on him at times, Murdock hated it when, well, when the Colonel acted like an Army officer.
One of the things that had gotten Murdock through all these years at the VA was that Hannibal believed in him. Face might be his best friend, but even Face didn't always understand him and sometimes he was just too protective. Supportive, but protective above all.
Hannibal always expressed confidence in him, as if he knew how important it was to Murdock's sanity to have a purpose, to belong to something like the team. Hannibal was the one he went to get things, important things, straight in his head, the one he went to make sense of his experience. He had long talks with Hannibal about what was going on in his life, and what it meant. Maybe Hannibal talked to him to make sure he hadn't gone off the deep end, but he really listened too. He heard the questions Murdock asked behind the questions. Hannibal more than anyone was his underlying sanity. Even when Murdock had lost sight of that sanity for himself sometimes.
He could always count on Hannibal to be objective, to tell him the truth even if he didn't want to hear it. And Hannibal always said he was part of the team, always had said he was part of the team.
But if he were really part of the team, then the others would have taken this job on his word. Just once, he wanted the team to take him seriously. They trusted him on cases. They trusted him to fly them all over the world. Why couldn't they trust his judgment before a case started?
Face would usually support him, but not against Hannibal. He had been surprised that Face had even encouraged Hannibal to take this case for Claudia. Even more than Murdock, Face considered Hannibal someone to look up to. Face might occasionally complain to Hannibal, but he didn't rock that boat enough to capsize it.
Murdock kicked another stone, lost in thought for a moment. Suddenly, scooping up a short willowy branch, he ran over to one of the benches. Sitting on the backrest, feet on the seat, he dangled the branch down for Fluffy to swat at. She put out a tentative paw and he soon had her dancing.
"H.M." Murdock realized from Claudia's tone of voice and the manicured hand waving in front of him that he had zoned out again. She must have been trying to get his attention for a few minutes.
"Sorry." He blinked his eyes, trying to focus.
"Nothing to be sorry about," Claudia laughed, eyes warm. "I was just wondering if I should call an orderly."
"Nah, I'm fine," he smiled at her sheepishly.
Claudia was so beautiful, her eyes sparkling almost blue-grey as she smiled back, her hair shining in the sun. "Good. Let's go for a walk."
Murdock liked these walks with Claudia. She was content to listen to his rambling and laughed at his flights of fancy. He liked to entertain her.
Usually he was drawn to women who threw themselves into life the same wholehearted way he did. Claudia didn't seem to be that adventuresome, but there was something about her that told him that she'd like the chance to live on the edge. She was a volunteer, bringing companionship to lonely vets, but Murdock sensed she would like action and adventure too. Maybe she hung out at the VA to hear all the stories. Maybe she just needed some encouragement.
"Billy brought Fluffy in; he's always worried about strays. Just last week he brought me a grasshopper. Fluffy, here, was abandoned by her mom and doesn't have any littermates." He pulled a piece of cording out of his pocket. "She likes to play."
They walked all over the extensive grounds, finally settling on a bench in a remote corner overlooking a pond. A few wild ducks had made the pond home, and Murdock came out here sometimes to feed them. Today, he was aware that Fluffy might be a problem.
"I liked your friends, Murdock." Claudia leaned forward, and put a hand on his knee.
"Yeah, they're great guys," Murdock said, slightly confused by her closeness and perfume. She had never even touched him before, and Murdock thought he liked the way her soft hand and elegant fingers caressed his leg. Hell, it had been a long time; he would like the way any woman touched him. He let out a sigh.
"And thank you for talking them into taking my case."
Murdock blushed that she thought he was the one responsible for them taking the case. He was even more irritated with Hannibal that he had taken any pleasure Murdock would have had in helping a friend away from him. A friend....
"You are so sweet," Claudia leaned closer and kissed Murdock.
* * * * *
"Messenger service," Face whined, juggling a clipboard and mail pouch. He shoved a pencil behind his ear, and pushed his glasses back in front of his eyes.
The county records office was the only place he had to look at the files that were available. He was hoping he'd get to see a few that weren't public record yet. Most of the records on the drug charges would be with the District Attorney. Only a break-in would get those files, and he doubted that Hannibal would think them important enough to risk arrest. This was really just a simple case. They'd find out a little more about Gilbert Roy; and Hannibal would scare him into paying the money he owed to Claudia. With a little luck, it would only take a phone call. Hannibal could be persuasive.
The woman behind the counter took his paperwork, and went off to consult her supervisor. Face started looking around, quickly pushing buttons on the office computer.
This was a routine con. He didn't need to actually get the files. In fact, he didn't want them. Too much evidence. All he needed was to get a look at the files, maybe be alone with them for a few minutes to take a few pictures.
As he went through the motions checking file drawers, he had plenty of time to think.
Murdock was right; Hannibal was a control freak. He might be willing to delegate, like sending Face in to get a look at these records, but he made all the decisions for the team. He went through all the steps that made it seem like a team decision, but it was only an illusion. Hannibal decided everything.
Hannibal making the decisions might have been best fifteen years ago when Face, Murdock, and B.A. were all green and scared and Hannibal was the only one with experience. It was that way in Vietnam, in the camps, and even in Fort Bragg.
When would Hannibal realize that they were now the age he was when he first took them under his wing back in 'Nam? Granted, they hadn't known what was what in those days and Hannibal was a godsend. But now they had the knowledge and experience to back their own choices, if only Hannibal would let them make those choices. Hannibal needed to ease up; the team was all grown up. They were a team, after all.
It wasn't that Face didn't appreciate Hannibal's plans. They didn't all work, but there was always one that eventually worked. Hannibal was just full of plans, but it didn't seem like he tried very hard to pick one that would work the first time. And the entire team suffered for it. Worse yet, when Hannibal was on the jazz, their problems just seemed to add to his manic behavior. Face had caught Hannibal laughing that crazy laugh more than once when a plan had taken that twist that sent it spiraling into failure. Sometimes Face thought Hannibal settled on a less than first rate plan just for the jazz of trying to get it to work. The extra excitement.
Maybe it was time for a change.
Face checked what he had gathered on this case. It wasn't much.
He thanked the puzzled receptionist for her assistance when she returned from her supervisor's office, and made his way back to his car.
* * * * *
B.A. made another note in the mini-tape recorder he was wearing clipped to his coveralls. Much more practical than pencil and notepad where he had ended up. There was no cover around the ranch to hide his presence, so he had finally perched in an old oak tree on the ranch property but far from the ranch house itself. He had brought binoculars and a nightscope and enough food and water to last a couple days of surveillance, although he ventured nightly down to the van to call Hannibal.
Gilbert Roy came out of the house, probably to pick up the mail. He'd done that yesterday this time. B.A. trained his binoculars on the man. He could best be described as average, but most people could be described as average. Roy was a little under six feet tall, medium build, with brown hair. B.A. couldn't see his eyes from this distance.
Roy was living in the house with a woman and a couple of children. Seems he had moved on with his life. The children probably weren't his, too old unless the relationship had started before the divorce from Claudia. That thought left a bad taste in B.A.'s mouth. He'd leave figuring out who they were to Hannibal or Face; information gathering of that kind was usually their part of the operation. B.A. dropped the binoculars to his chest. Roy was back in the house, invisible.
The household's routine was standard. Every morning the woman walked the children out to the road to catch a school bus. She left in a car, probably for a job, half an hour later and didn't come back until almost dark. The children were back by mid-afternoon, delivered back on the side of the road by the bus. Roy had walked down to the road to meet them yesterday.
B.A. was glad that Roy seemed to be at home much of the day by himself. Wouldn't be good to involve another woman and children. B.A. hadn't seen much of Roy the last thirty-six hours. The man stayed indoors most of the time. He washed his car once and picked up the mail out by the road and met the children. Otherwise, he was inside the house.
Outside contacts were more interesting. Just in the two days B.A. had been in the tree, there had been a laundry delivery, a gardener, a pool service call, and a delivery from a grocery store. Not to mention a pizza that had showed up late last night. Everyone was buzzed in at the gate. Shouldn't be too hard to get in.
B.A. ducked for cover at the sound of a truck lumbering up the road. It was a fuel tanker of some kind. He watched as the driver pressed the intercom button and was buzzed into the ranch property. Tonight he'd have to check on the fuel delivery to see what it was for. He wouldn't be surprised if there was some kind of aircraft out back. He hadn't noticed one the night before, but following the tanker with his eyes, he had a better idea of where to look.
B.A. had more than enough information for Hannibal to form a plan from, but he'd stay until he checked out the fuel pump.
Settling back on a tree limb, B.A. relaxed as much as a big man could relax sitting up in a tree. He didn't expect Roy to leave the house until it was time for the kids to get home from school.
B.A. was a little worried because Murdock had seemed upset after that meeting at Face's place. The skinny pilot had stalked out to Face's car to be driven back to the VA, without even saying a word. Not like Murdock to be so quiet unless something was wrong. Couldn't be the case, because the fool had got his way in that.
And Face was upset because Murdock was upset. That's just the way it was between them two. And this time it had something to do with Hannibal. B.A. sensed trouble coming for the team, but there wasn't much he could do about it. They never asked his opinion, and hardly ever listened to it when he just told them what he thought. He didn't bother most times.
Sometimes Hannibal could be so insistent, carrying them along on a plan that everyone knew was doomed to fail. Sometimes B.A. thought Hannibal did it just so they would know the difference when something worked. Piece of cake. One, two, three. Oh, well, Hannibal was Hannibal. There wasn't any point to arguing with the man.
* * * * *
"Nice, B.A. Get back here as soon as you can."
Hannibal hung up the phone, and pulled out a cigar.
The team would be back together this afternoon, and he'd be getting reports from everyone on their assignments. Then Face would give him a cigar and light it, and they would all stare at him, waiting for a plan.
They had come to expect it. You would think that they would like to come up with their own plans, but they always looked to him. Not *always*, he reminded himself. They did feel free to contribute their ideas when they had them. It was just that he, Hannibal, was never allowed the luxury of not having a plan. Granted, he usually did have one, and when he did, he liked it to be followed....
The gears in his mind were already turning.
"It's a cattle ranch, all-right. No other houses for miles. Rollin' hills, almost no trees, just like 'round Bad Rock. Cattle. A gate by the road with a code box, but no cover to hide behind to watch the box. We'll never be able to get the code. It's wide open out there. They buzz people in. Cain't see the house from the road. I been there for two days, and I've seen a gardener truck, a pool service, and grocery delivery. And laundry. They don't seem to have any live-in help, but they ain't poor, either. Roy's there with a woman and a couple of kids. And they got a plane."
Murdock smiled from where he sat on a stool in front of the workbench; this case was looking better all the time. Maybe he would get to fly. His mind wandered to the possibilities.
The big guy had been back since this morning, but Hannibal had set the meeting for late afternoon to let B.A. get some sleep.
"And a chopper." B.A. rolled his eyes as Murdock let out a whoop. No matter what else Murdock was thinking of, that was a word that got through to him.
Murdock's grin grew wider, happy to have gotten a response out of B.A. He felt he had been letting B.A. down lately, not devoting nearly as much time as usual to him. Murdock plunged his fingers into the cleaning solution, rubbing some small van parts free of grease and dirt. He probably owed this to B.A. after what Fluffy had done to the van, but B.A. didn't know that.
They were meeting in the warehouse that they rented in a run-down part of L.A. Spacious, this was where they kept extra vehicles, weapons, and all the little odd parts that the team needed to go to war.
"Murdock," Hannibal turned to him, cigar clenched in his teeth. "Did you get Claudia off safe?"
"Yeah. She left early this morning for her cousin's house." Murdock concentrated on the cleaning solution with a little smile.
Murdock had spent all yesterday with Claudia, helping her pack and getting to know her better. He was a little surprised at that last. Until she had kissed him on the VA grounds, he had never really thought of her that way. He had noticed her attractiveness when the team met her at her house. She was cool and elegant. But she had seemed more interested in Face. And what woman wasn't? So, when she had kissed him, he was shocked and intrigued. And not a little aroused.
When she called the next day and asked him to come by her house to help her pack, he had readily agreed. One thing had led to another.... Murdock smiled to himself and tried to concentrate on the team meeting. Last night had been... well, he wanted a repeat of last night. He had reluctantly seen Claudia onto the bus to Sacramento this morning, but she had promised to visit him when she returned and suggested he visit her.
"What did you find, Face?" Hannibal brandished his cigar.
"There wasn't much in county records," Face was all business, taking out a notebook. Faceman loved his props. "Nothing about the divorce. Roy's drug charges are pending trial, but he's out on bail. I couldn't find out much about those charges either."
"Claudia said the divorce was granted in San Diego," Murdock defended her. "That's where they lived. It wouldn't be in local records."
"If the drug case hasn't gone to trial, you can't expect to find much. Most of it won't be public record yet, " Hannibal started pacing, still puffing his cigar.
"I thought of that, so I checked for any previous convictions," Face flipped a few more pages of the notebook.
"And?" Hannibal brightened. Murdock had to admit that, even as much as Hannibal liked to be in control, he also liked the team to show initiative. He just wanted to direct that initiative.
"Bingo!" Face flashed a smile. "Two years ago for a misdemeanor possession of a controlled substance. Not much about it because it was in San Diego. It was mentioned in the current records because of the request for bail. The DA argued, but the judge didn't seem to think that a previous minor possession charge made Roy more of a flight risk on this major dealing charge."
"Great, Face. I'll call around about the bail," Hannibal's eyes gleamed.
"Right," Face replied, pocketing the notebook.
"I tried calling the ranch," Hannibal continued. "But they're letting an answering service pick up. Okay, B.A., we need details of the layout of the ranch. We'll have to go in."
B.A. spread the map he had drawn out on the table. Neat and precise, it showed not only the important landmarks, but the contours of the hills that seemed to play such an important part of sneaking up on this place. Murdock had laughed when he heard that B.A. had spent two days up a tree.
"The gate's here," B.A. indicated on the map. "And the house is over the hill along this private driveway that leads from the county road. There are trees and bushes around the house, but they're too close to the house for much cover, especially cover for spying in daylight. That's why I ended up in the tree way over here."
"You could've took Fluffy. She likes trees."
"What I want with an invisible cat, fool?" B.A. snarled at him.
"Where's the runway?" Murdock's fingers rubbed together. The cleaning solution was slippery, but behind it was the grit of the dirt it had soaked off the van parts. Strange feeling.
"Out here," B.A. pointed to a place over another hill, about a half mile behind the house. "It's pretty rough."
"Probably use it for the drugs," Murdock couldn't resist the urge to scratch his nose, leaving an oily streak.
"B.A., how's the house laid out?" Face edged closer to the table, studying the map.
"I could only get close at night. The usual, really. Livin' room and kitchen at the front of the house. A bedroom and a study in the back. Couldn't tell what was upstairs, probably more bedrooms."
"The tape's probably in one of the bedrooms. Maybe the study," Murdock said
"The tape?" Hannibal's eyes darted over to Murdock with that look that Hannibal used when he wasn't pleased.
Murdock turned bright red, but there was no way he could leave with his hands full of this gunk. He looked down at the pan sensing its betrayal.
"What tape, Captain?" Hannibal's voice was clipped, talking through the cigar clenched in his teeth.
"Ah..." Murdock was suddenly nervous. Did he forget to mention the tape? Did he forget to mention that he had spent the night with Claudia? Oh, yeah, he was *supposed* to forget to mention that. Life could be so confusing at times.
"Out with it, Murdock!" That was Face interrupting his thoughts this time. Geez, couldn't they leave a guy alone? Murdock sighed.
"When I was helping Claudia pack yesterday she said that what she really wanted back from her ex-husband was a video tape of her."
"Video tape?" Hannibal sat down at the table and stared at Murdock. Murdock didn't get that reaction from Hannibal often; usually the Colonel went along with anything he said whether it made sense or not. Somehow it pleased him that he had caught Hannibal off-guard. He half-smiled, but didn't meet Hannibal's eyes.
"Of her and him *together*," he clarified. Claudia had been so embarrassed to even mention the tape that he had had to draw out of her why she needed it back, what was on it.
"Since when did we get involved in what amounts to a divorce case?" Hannibal grimaced. "I wouldn't have agreed to this if I'd known."
"Does he even owe her *any* money?" Face asked.
"Of course he does! Claudia wouldn't lie. He's a drug dealer, isn't he?" Murdock said.
Hannibal wouldn't dare leave Claudia on her own now. She needed their help, and they had promised it. Why did Hannibal always have the last word? He said they were a team and sometimes Hannibal acted as if they were, but other times he was their commanding officer and that was that.
Hannibal brightened a bit. "At least we have proof of the drug dealing. Guys, we can still go looking for evidence of that. If we find the tape, we can always help out a lady."
"So, what's the plan, man?" B.A. asked. Leave it to B.A. to get to the point. Murdock was glad the emphasis was off whether they would take the case and back to how they would proceed with it.
"We'll go through the front door."
Face, B.A., and Murdock groaned together.
"Come on, fellows, you know it's the best way."
"Well, it's the easiest way to think of," Face said under his breath.
"You say something, Lieutenant?"
"Good. B.A., what services did you say were buzzed in at the front gate?" Hannibal was smoking and pacing around the warehouse again. Murdock could almost hear the wheels turning and, for once, he resented it.
"Laundry, grocery, pool service, gardener...."
Hannibal took the cigar and pointed it at the team. "Pool service. Face, we need one of those pool service vans tomorrow morning. B.A., what was the company name?"
"Crystal Clear Pool Service."
"Hannibal, how do you expect me to get the pool service van by morning? It's getting dark now!" Face's voice stopped just short of a whine.
"Losing your touch, kid?" Teeth clenching his cigar, Hannibal's blue eyes sparkled.
"Of course not!" Face protested, straightening his tie.
"Then, move it, Lieutenant!"
Murdock watched this scene unfold just as it usually did. Face asking whether he was a valuable member of the team, and Hannibal reassuring that he was, without either of them actually asking or answering the question aloud.
It was scary sometimes.
Hannibal could read them all too well, and could play them like an orchestra. Anytime that Murdock had ever expressed his concern that he wasn't a member of the team, Hannibal told him that he was, in just those words. "Of course, you're a part of the team, Murdock." "Murdock, you're our secret weapon." When B.A. was irritated (it was hard to think that the big guy actually ever felt un-needed), Hannibal would put a hand on his shoulder to make the connection and steady him. No need for words with B.A. For Face, Hannibal saved this goading, forcing Face to examine his own worth, and never expressing any real doubt in it himself.
"Okay, then I'll need Murdock," Face looked at him.
"Hold on, Facey," Murdock entered the fray, holding up greasy hands. He needed time to think, not be in on one of Facey's scams. They tended toward the elaborate, taking time and energy that he wanted to use elsewhere. "I believe my services are needed here. But the angry mudsucker can go with you."
"I ain't scammin' nobody!" B.A. didn't even look up from the van's engine where he had been drawn as if by a magnet once he had answered Hannibal's questions.
"Hannibal," Face got that tone in his voice. "You know B.A.'s no good on these things. He just doesn't have a dishonest enough face. I need Murdock."
"Thanks!" B.A. and Murdock chorused in unison.
"Jinx!" Murdock cried gleefully, jumping up and down on B.A., covering B.A.'s overalls with grease.
B.A.'s eyes rolled heavenward at the childish game. "Get off me, fool!"
* * * * *
Colonel Decker sat in his car, waiting impatiently for the bus from Los Angeles. He wasn't happy working with someone he knew was a criminal, even if it meant having proof about the identity of the fourth team member and capturing the team itself.
Ever since she had contacted his office, he had had her house watched. No sign of the A-Team yet. Part of him wondered why he was listening to this admitted criminal. The rest of him just wanted to see Hannibal Smith behind bars, no matter what it took.
The sound of crunching gravel caught his attention and he looked up to see a petite blonde woman walking toward the car.
"You have the proof?" he said gruffly, not bothering to greet her or get out of the car.
"Not so fast. I haven't seen anything in writing. Draw up the deal and send it to my lawyer. He'll contact me and I'll give you the proof you need. I don't plan on spending a single night in jail."
Claudia Harmon turned on her three-inch heels and got into a waiting limo.
B.A. liked working on the van in the silence of the warehouse. The echo of the place might be irritating to some, but to him it was a way to tell that he was truly alone. He liked being with the team, but sometimes all the talking was more than he could stand. Just the sheer noise of them. When the team was in L.A., B.A.'d usually end up here in the warehouse. On a case, he'd go out to the van, and start working on it wherever it was. Most times, the guys understood and left him alone. He just needed more quiet than they did. Time to think without the incessant chatter of Face and Murdock distracting him, without Hannibal's cigars.
B.A. stretched and set about putting all the parts Murdock had cleaned for him back together. It was routine, comforting work, allowing plenty of time to work through his thoughts.
Something was going on with Murdock. B.A. wasn't sure what, but he didn't like how the pilot had been acting today. True, he had done a few irritating things, but none of it showed the usual attention to detail that Murdock applied to trying to get B.A. going. B.A. smiled to himself. If Murdock did anything on the day-to-day maintenance of the van, it was to stare at B.A. working on the van until B.A. told him to go away. But, out of the blue, Murdock had started cleaning engine parts early this morning and had still been at it during the meeting. And B.A. hadn't missed the crazyman's reactions when they were talking about Claudia and the case. What was that about?
Claudia seemed sweet, but there was something about her that B.A. didn't feel comfortable about. When she was in the same room, B.A. felt fine about her, but afterwards there was something about her that left a bad taste in his mouth. And if she was messing with Murdock.... Murdock might be an adult, but he needed protecting from himself at times. Crazyman never did anything halfway; if he was involved with Claudia, he was involved body, soul, and mind. If the fool could look after himself, the fool wouldn't be a permanent resident of the VA psychiatric ward.
But something else was going on with Murdock too. B.A. saw how Murdock had been looking at Hannibal. Irritation. Anger. Frustration. B.A. didn't know what to call it. It started with this case, but it didn't really have anything to do with Claudia. And if that was true, and it was as serious as B.A. thought it was, that meant something was going on with Face, too. Sometimes Face didn't have much patience with Murdock's flights of fancy, but if it was something important to Murdock, Face always supported it. Man, he even kept dog biscuits for Billy!
B.A. did a final check of the van's fluid levels, and pressed the remote to close the back garage door. He'd stick by the phones for a couple hours more in case Hannibal called.
Hannibal and Murdock were going to pay a late night call on the bail bondsman. B.A. himself had finally agreed to scam with Face the next morning with the understanding that he was driving the car, not actually saying anything. He'd have a chance to talk to Face about all this then.
* * * * *
It was nearing midnight, and one of the few buildings still showing signs of life in the neighborhood was Ralph's Bail Bonds.
Hannibal readjusted the rearview mirror so that he could check his makeup one last time. Mustache, bushy eyebrows, and wig looked just fine. He was Tex Johnson, a disheveled uncle worried about his nephew Joey, locked up for the first time in his very young life. No telling what those hardened criminals could be doing to him. Had to get him out before his mother found out he'd been arrested; it would be the death of her.
"Okay, Murdock. Give me three minutes and then come in."
"You got it, Colonel." Murdock started counting 'chimpanzees' under his breath.
"Why don't you just use the clock in the dashboard?" Hannibal smiled.
Murdock laughed. "And miss saying chimpanzee 180 times?"
Shaking his head, Hannibal got out of the van. He hobbled across the parking lot, leaning on a cane, and staggered up the stairs to the front door. Ralph's appeared to be a converted house, conveniently located near the jail. As he walked along the porch, Hannibal looked in the window. As he expected, there was only one man, a kid really, in the office this late at night. The plan should work like a charm.
Hannibal squared his shoulders, slumped them, and opened the door.
The kid looked up from the comic book he was reading and swung his legs off the desk.
"Can I help you, sir?" He inquired, politely enough.
Hannibal sat heavily in the chair in front of the desk. The file cabinets were to the right, apparently unlocked, and looking very neatly labeled. He just hoped someone had had the time to do the filing. Ah, if not, there were some files in a tub marked "FILING." So organized.
"Mr. Ralph?" Hannibal coughed.
"No, sir. I'm one of his employees. Jason Vance."
"Well, then," Hannibal settled into his role, coughing again. "Mr. Vance, it's my nephew. He was arrested."
"I'm sure we can help you. Would you like some coffee?"
"That would be kind of you, young man. Joey isn't a bad kid, but I worry about him," Hannibal rambled on about Joey and his mother, as the kid rustled up the coffee.
Suddenly, the door crashed open.
"Oh my gosh!" An hysterical Murdock gasped, almost tripping over his tennis shoes. "Mister, is that your Chevy out there?"
Hannibal shook his head, and Murdock locked eyes with the kid's.
"What happened?" the kid cried.
"Is that your car? The one with the primer on it?" Murdock went on without waiting for an answer. "I was just using the parking lot to cut around that intersection, and I grazed it. Better come out to see it. I think it's okay, but it's so dark out there....You got a flashlight? I think maybe Fluffy jumped out of my car."
Murdock grabbed the kid's arm, and pulled him out the door, giving him an earful of what B.A. would call jibber-jabber and Face would call something else.
As soon as they were out the door, Hannibal sprang over to the window, opening it so that he could hear if the kid came back. He quickly found the Rs in the filing cabinet, and leafed through them. Rice, Ritt, Rodriquez, Royce, Runner.... No luck. Hannibal headed for the filing tub. Braley, Abbot, Nickerson, There it was. Roy, Gilbert.
Hannibal opened the file and gathered the papers in it, sticking them in his inner jacket pocket.
He closed the window as he slid out the door. Closing the window was the sign that he and Murdock had agreed on to show he was done. Murdock was still talking loudly and gesturing as Hannibal walked quickly out of the parking lot. The kid didn't seem to know what to do.
Hannibal ran the block to the place Murdock was going to pick him up, pulling his disguise off as he went. Murdock would be there when he noticed that the window was closed. If he noticed any time soon. He could become distracted at times.
Murdock had seemed a little distracted since the beginning of this case, but Hannibal hadn't had time to ask him why. He was functioning fine, so Hannibal thought he'd let it go until Murdock came to him or until it was making a difference in his performance.
Murdock pulled the car over to the curb a few minutes later. Hannibal climbed in and they drove a while before stopping to check the papers.
"How'd it go, Murdock?"
Murdock smiled. "Poor kid. Doesn't have a penny to his name; it all goes to school. Glad there wasn't any damage. Found Fluffy, too. Anything important in there, Hannibal?" Murdock switched on the interior light.
"Mmmm...." Hannibal flicked through the papers from the file. "Not much. Gilbert Roy. The address and phone number we have. Employed at a hardware chain. Coupla bank account numbers. Has some money, but not enough to make bail. Seems like an average Joe."
"Maybe he keeps his drug money in his *other* account."
"Probably," Hannibal said absent-mindedly, continuing to study the papers.
"Here's the woman's name, same address as his - Miranda Nunes. It doesn't list their relationship."
"What a surprise."
"Lists the previous drug charge, but it was minor, just like what Face found at the courthouse. That's it."
"Not much more to go on, is it?"
"Nope. We'll know more tomorrow after B.A. and Face get the pool van, and we can go in."
* * * * *
Next morning, B.A. drove the scamming Face in the Impala convertible that was B.A.'s current project car. B.A. could drive like a maniac, but he could also ease a car around so no one noticed it. You would think that the flashy cars and B.A.'s own appearance would make it impossible, but he was good at tailing.
They watched from half a block away at the pool service van's first stop. It was a nice neighborhood: neatly clipped yards, big trees, picket fences. Just the kind of neighborhood Face wished he could settle into. No use thinking of that now. He and B.A. would try for the van at one of its stops this morning, once they had established a pattern.
It had finally been agreed that Murdock needed to get back to the VA last night, after he finished helping Hannibal. Apparently the pilot had been gone for a couple of days now. No one asked about the night before last, but Face couldn't help but wonder what had happened between Murdock and Claudia. He could have sworn he saw Murdock blush a few times in the warehouse when they were talking about Claudia. Hannibal had strict rules about fraternization with clients, but how could Face begrudge anything to his friend when he had so little social contact? Even if Face had been thinking of asking her out himself after the case was over.
"What's wrong with you and crazyman?"
"Huh?" Face was startled out of his thoughts by B.A.'s gruff voice. It was as if B.A. knew where his thoughts were going.
"He ain't been botherin' me since this case came up. Even cleaned parts for me yesterday. And you don't have your mind on this scam."
Face breathed a sigh of relief.
He wasn't sure what to say or how much to say. Murdock had told him why he was upset with Hannibal, but that didn't mean he wanted it to go any further than Face. Murdock might not even mention it to Hannibal; he would just settle back to normal and Hannibal being in control wouldn't bother him any more. He might even forget he had ever had a problem. Murdock didn't tend to hold grudges.
So maybe it was best not to say anything to B.A. about Murdock's concerns. Of all of them, B.A. was the quietest and probably the most out and out loyal to Hannibal. He might disagree with the colonel personally, but B.A. usually followed his orders. And then there was the fact that Face was sure that B.A. just didn't like him, had never really liked him. The only value B.A. ever found in Face was that he could provide material things. He might go to Hannibal, complaining about Face.
"I can do this," Face latched onto the easiest part of B.A.'s comment to handle.
"Wasn't doubting you. Just know something's going on."
"It ain't nothin'. I wanna know what's goin' on!"
Face shook his head, still reluctant to say anything. "Murdock's just upset because we didn't jump on this case on his say-so."
"Hannibal has the final say!" B.A. growled. "What does the fool expect?"
Face cringed, not wanting to be on B.A.'s bad side any more than he always was. It was best not to say that Hannibal being in charge was the problem, in Murdock's eyes. "I think Murdock's sweet on Claudia," he offered, trying to steer the conversation to safer ground.
"Think it goes farther than that! And Hannibal ain't goin' be happy if he finds out! Fool shoulda gone back to the VA after that meeting and stayed there!"
"Maybe, but I get a little tired of following Hannibal's rules all the time, too. And of his plans," Face said defiantly.
"Yeah. His plans are terrible sometimes," B.A. shook his head. "Man, you would think he'd figure they don't work, but he just keeps using the same old plans, shined up a bit."
The pool van started moving and B.A. carefully followed it. It was always an advantage when the quarry didn't realize they were quarry, Face thought.
They sat silently through one more stop. There was a balance between knowing the pool service drill and being spotted, and Face was a good judge of that balance.
At the next stop, the pool man grabbed his stuff, unlocked the front gate, and disappeared. Face looked around. There wasn't anyone on the street and it was one of those neighborhoods where everyone's privacy was protected by eight-foot stucco walls, a style Californians thought of as Spanish. He nodded to B.A., and B.A. pulled the Impala up next to the van. Face jumped out and B.A. drove off.
Face ducked around the pool van and quietly opened the driver-side door. There was a gate and the house between him and the pool service man, but he wasn't taking any chances. B.A. would swing around the block to make sure he got the van all right, but just the same....
Face leaned over the seat to pop the hood latch. Going around the front of the pool van, he opened the hood and pulled a wire out of his pocket and attached it in the right places. Using a screwdriver, he got the car running. The sound was music to his ears. Gently, humming to himself, he let the van hood drop into place so that it wouldn't spring back up when he was driving.
Face hopped into the driver seat and unlocked the wheel using the screwdriver. He waved as B.A. passed him, and pulled out to follow him.
"B.A., you in place?" Murdock talked quietly into the radio.
Hannibal had decided that B.A. would have the van out of sight over a hill on the road outside the ranch. They needed someone on the outside, and they could call him, either by radio or phone if they needed him. Murdock and Face were in the front seats of the pool service van, and Hannibal was crouched in the back.
If B.A. was right, only Gilbert Roy would be left in the house at this hour of the morning. Murdock hoped B.A. was right.
Leaning out of the van window, Murdock hit the intercom button by the gate.
"Crystal Clear Pool Service!" Murdock identified them.
"You guys have already been here this week!"
"At that time, we marked you for an extra check. This hot weather, ya know?" Murdock grimaced at Face. "No extra charge, just part of the Crystal Clear service." No one could resist something for nothing. One of Face's basic rules to scam by.
There was a buzzing sound as the gate opened. Murdock drove through the gate and down the private road, pulling up in front of the house.
The house was large and sprawling, surrounded by a well-kept landscape.
"No sign of life, Colonel," Murdock said conversationally as he picked up a box from the floor next to his seat, and glanced back at Hannibal in the storage area of the van.
Face and Murdock got out of the van and opened the back, starting to unload the van. They left the back doors unlatched as they assembled everything on the lawn. They were to provide the distracting cover that Hannibal would need to get close to the house.
Murdock picked up two covered buckets of pool chemicals and started across the yard.
"Killer!" Murdock turned around at Face's call. He was used to responding to just about anything Face chose to call him on these scams, responding to the voice and not the words.
"Yes, Momma's Boy?" he asked smiling. Didn't mean he couldn't fight back.
Face's eyebrows shot up, and he mouthed the name, grimacing.
"Yes, Momma's Boy." Murdock made it a statement this time. Face looked resigned.
"Come back for the other equipment."
"Sure, boss. C'mon, Fluffy. We got work to do." Murdock whistled as he sauntered to the back of the house. The point of this was to be as distracting as possible to anyone who was watching from the house. Murdock considered himself an expert at distraction.
Murdock put the buckets down on the concrete next to the pool, and sat on one. Face would bring the rest of the stuff eventually. Idly, he pulled the cording out of this pocket to play with Fluffy. Suddenly, he had an idea and started digging for another piece of cord. It was thin, but strong.
Murdock jumped up. He threaded the cord through the bucket handles. Keeping hold of the ends of the cords, Murdock stepped up onto the buckets. Carefully, he took a step. The buckets were a little heavy, but manageable. Murdock walked around the pool on his new stilts.
"Watch out!" Murdock narrowly missed Fluffy, almost falling in the pool as he rounded a corner.
"Killer!" Face yelled.
Murdock looked over just in time to see nets, hoses, and other pool cleaning equipment clatter to the ground in front of an irritated Face.
* * * * *
Crouched in the back of the van, Hannibal pulled his black gloves on, waiting for Murdock and Face to start their distraction. He cracked a smile when he heard Face's nickname.
Momma's Boy swung open the back door of the van and started pulling out more of the pool cleaning equipment.
"I'm gonna kill him, Hannibal."
Hannibal laughed. "Look, go up to the front door and around the house to the left. Check the windows in that direction. Give me the signal when you hit the corner. I'll start on the house once I know that the left front is clear. Check the side, come back around to the front, and signal me again. I should be along the front of the house by then.
Hannibal watched as Face grabbed most of the rest of the cleaning stuff and started up the front walk. Face was dropping and picking things up often enough to keep the attention from the house riveted to him.
When Face got to the corner of the house, he dropped everything. Leaning over to begin picking it up, he shook his head 'no.'
Once Face was on his way again, Hannibal carefully hopped out of the back of the van. Crouching low, and using what cover the landscape provided, Hannibal made his way to the house. He waited a long minute to make sure he hadn't been seen.
The first window was the dining room. It was relatively dark from the tree that shaded that part of the house, and it was totally deserted. Hannibal moved on to the next window. The kitchen. Here there was a light, and as he peered over the windowsill, there was a man who had to be Gilbert Roy. He was exactly the way B.A. had described him - average in all ways.
Hannibal watched as Roy fixed a sandwich, and sat down at the table to eat it. A newspaper was next to him and he started reading. Good, that should keep him busy for a while. Now all Hannibal needed to do was find the best way into the house.
* * * * *
"Hey! Be careful with that stuff!" Murdock hopped off the buckets and ran over to help Face.
"Murdock!" Face hissed under his breath. "What are you doing?"
"Being a distraction!" He smiled with that goofy grin that was infectious.
"You're always a distraction!" How could Face not smile?
"Didn't think you noticed!" The grin got bigger.
"Geez, be useful for once!" Face shook his head. "Hannibal's waiting for a signal at the front of the house. Tell him the side is clear. I left a hose for you to pick up at the corner of the house for cover."
"Gotcha." Murdock loped around the side of the house.
* * * * *
Hannibal heard the bellowed 'Killer' and wondered what Murdock was doing now.
A minute later, the captain appeared around the corner of the house, shaking his head and grinning. As Hannibal already knew, that side was clear. Murdock picked up the hose Face had dropped earlier and glanced up at Hannibal.
Hannibal signaled 'yes' and pointed at the dining room window. Murdock nodded in reply.
Face and Murdock were doing a good job of diverting attention from him.
Sometimes Hannibal got a little tired of always having to come up with a plan. It was a relief when he could trust Face to come up with a scam or Murdock to come up with a diversion. Like a small vacation. But he was their commanding officer and commanding officers didn't get vacations. He smiled to himself. And there was the jazz. Hard to deny that feeling when it coursed through his body. But it might be a good idea to make Face try his hand at command someday. Kid had a good head on his shoulders. Hannibal was proud of him.
The study, at the back of the house, had a sliding glass door. It wasn't eve locked. Hannibal could see Face and Murdock from here, Murdock standing on top of the two chemical buckets. Hannibal couldn't figure out what he was doing, but Face was arguing with Murdock. Judging that they were providing enough of a distraction, Hannibal slid open the door and entered the study.
"Stop right there," came a voice from the darkness and the unmistakable sound of a revolver being cocked.
* * * * *
"Hey, Face," Murdock asked quietly, leaning against his friend. "Roy's in the kitchen."
Face nodded, sorting equipment.
"What?" Face asked when Murdock didn't move away.
"Ah, how do you clean a pool?"
"How should I know?"
"Facey. . ."
"Here," Face pushed the long-handled net at Murdock. "Take this and skim the leaves out of the water. You can't mess that up."
Face turned on the pool filter, and looked at the equipment he had taken from the van. He'd never cleaned a pool before either, but he had to buy some more time for Hannibal. What was all this stuff for, anyway? Ah, a brush, that should be safe. Not many options when it came to scrubbing things.
Face looked up to see Murdock standing on the buckets and dancing with the net.
"Killer!" He said warningly.
Hannibal should be in the house by now. His plan was to avoid Roy entirely, get the money and tape, check for any evidence of drug dealing, and leave. With any luck at all, they would leave before Roy realized why his pool was being serviced twice in one week.
* * * * *
Hannibal froze where he was, framed in the door opening. Not his favorite situation, but not one he was unfamiliar with either.
"I suppose those clowns out there are with you?"
Hannibal shrugged in assent.
"Keep your hands where I can see them!"
Hannibal complied. For now, the man with the gun was making the rules.
Roy motioned him out the door and toward the pool. Face and Murdock were working on the edge of the pool and they dropped what they were doing, straightening, when they saw Hannibal coming toward them with Roy.
Hannibal saw their momentary hesitation, both of them wanting to respond, and spoke quickly and calmly, "He has a gun."
Face and Murdock stopped, eyes warily on Roy.
"All of you, on the ground."
They were soon flat on the concrete surrounding the pool. Roy picked up the phone that was on a patio table and started to dial.
"Who are you calling?" Hannibal was never one to allow his captors too much time to think.
"Who do you think? You entered the ranch under false pretenses, and broke into my home. I'm calling the police!"
Gilbert Roy was not acting the way Hannibal would expect him to act. A drug dealer wouldn't be calling on the police for help. Hannibal decided to take a chance. Everything about this case had made him vaguely uneasy from the beginning.
"Your ex-wife hired us."
Roy put down the phone suddenly. "When will that woman leave me alone?"
"Maybe when you give back what you took from her!" Murdock said, angrily.
"What are you talking about?" Roy sounded confused.
"Killer!" Murdock yelled, looking intently at a spot behind Roy.
It was enough of a distraction that Roy glanced away from them for a fraction of a second. Face sprung up and tackled Roy. The revolver went flying, clattering on the concrete, and Face and Roy toppled into the pool.
Hannibal drew his 9mm from its place in his back waistband, and had it trained on Roy as he pulled himself out of the pool. Murdock reached down to help Face over the edge of the pool and back on dry land.
"Why you always getting wet, Facey?"
Hannibal motioned a very wet Roy over to Face and Murdock. The man started crawling, apparently too dazed to stand.
Face jerked the man to his feet and flung him onto a patio chair, pool water flying everywhere. Murdock picked up Roy's gun where it had skidded into one of the flowerbeds, and tossed it to Face.
"Ah, Fluffy, come here." Murdock picked the invisible kitten up off the cement, stroking her fur. "You scared her!" He admonished Roy who looked at them with wide eyes. Hannibal smiled. Roy didn't seem to know if he should be more worried about Murdock and Fluffy, or the guns pointed at him.
"You guys are crazy!'
"No, that's him. We've just been tried to the end of our limited patience," Hannibal said, pulling out a fresh cigar, but keeping Roy covered.
"What do you want? We don't keep any valuables. . ."
"Where's the video tape?" Hannibal went through the process of getting the cigar ready for smoking while keeping his gun on Roy. Might as well get to the point. Any advantage of surprise they had was gone, anyway.
"And the money," Face added, holding the revolver on the man.
"What money?" The man seemed genuinely puzzled as he tried to wring water out of his hair. Hannibal stopped him from doing anything about his clothes with a wave of his gun.
"All the back alimony and support you owe her," Murdock said from behind Roy's chair, his eyes bored into the back of Roy's head. Murdock was taking this case more seriously than he usually took their cases, but then Claudia was his friend.
Roy laughed; it was not a happy sound. "I don't owe her any money. The woman has completely ruined me," the man sounded as if he were on the wrong edge of hysteria. He wouldn't be much good to the team if he went over that edge.
Hannibal said, indicating the house and ranch. "What's all this?"
"The ranch belongs to my sister and her husband."
"Sister and her husband," Hannibal repeated. "You're telling us you don't own this place? There's no money?" Roy shook his head. "Face, get B.A. in here," Hannibal clipped, unlit cigar clenched between his teeth.
Face picked up the phone, dialed the van, and was soon speaking softly into the receiver.
"Claudia cleaned me out in the divorce. I'm living with my sister because I can't afford to live anywhere else. I'm ruined. Claudia got all our joint property in the settlement."
"She got it all?" Hannibal said in disbelief. Man, this guy was either incredibly stupid or he thought Hannibal was. No one handed all the property to the other party in a divorce.
"Oh, she only started with the joint property. I agreed readily enough to that just to get rid of her." Roy was calming down, having gotten use to the idea that if he didn't move no one would do anything with the guns. Hannibal had seen it before; it was a mistake he never made when a gun was trained on him. "We hadn't been married long before I figured out that I hadn't really known her before we got married. There wasn't much joint property."
"How did you meet her?" Motioning to Face, Hannibal got his cigar lit and took a deep draw.
"I was on one of my weekends in Vegas."
"Not the best place to meet a future spouse. . ." Face still covering Roy, Hannibal dropped into a chair on the opposite side of the table from the man. He kept the gun on him under the table. The more the man relaxed, the more honest he was likely to be.
"I suppose, but I spend a lot of time there, so where better? I didn't want to compound the mistake by staying married. So I cut my losses."
A gambler. Maybe they did have something in common.
B.A. came noiselessly around the house, carrying a rifle.
Face walked by him and quietly said, "No money."
B.A. growled softly, holding the rifle on Roy.
"What happened?" Hannibal continued. He was having trouble reconciling that sweet woman with what he was hearing, but he wanted to know more.
"I had a transportation business before I married her, and I never put any of it in her name."
"What kind of transportation business?" Hannibal interrupted, taking the cigar from his mouth for a moment.
"Trucking south, southwest, of San Diego, sometimes as far as the border."
Hannibal rolled his eyes at Face, seeing where this was going. Where the drugs came in. Face grimaced, nodding. B.A. grunted, a disillusioned half-laugh coming from him. Murdock was quiet now, sitting in a chair behind Roy and stroking Fluffy.
"Suddenly, once she had me agreeing to give her the joint property, she wanted the business too. I couldn't believe it! There was no way I was going to give her something I had worked so hard for! Gilbert Transportation was mine! She had always been interested in it, constantly asking questions and coming down to the yard, even when I wasn't there, but it was my business and always had been."
Roy shifted uncomfortably in the chair. At this point, Hannibal felt he could tell Roy the story himself. It was so obvious.
"She showed up at my lawyer's office with some slick divorce lawyer. He wanted me to sign the business over to Claudia. I don't even know how she could afford a lawyer that expensive! He asked for a lot of things, even wanted support for our dogs, Trevor and Tammy!" Roy laughed again. "I refused to sign the papers, of course."
Hannibal was silent, giving the man time to tell the story in his own way. It had the ring of truth to it.
"Then my lawyer was beaten up, and I started getting threatening phone calls. The transport business was important, but not that important. I figured that once she had drained me that would be the end of it. I was wrong."
Hannibal was surprised. He had thought with the property and money all gone, there couldn't be anywhere for this to go. But there was the transportation business, working in Southern California, so close to the border...
"So, what happened? I assume you're saying she was involved in drugs somehow?"
"The transporta. . ." Face said, mirroring Hannibal's thoughts.
* * * * *
"What I didn't know was that she was involved in drug trafficking before we were married, and continued to be after our marriage. Now I realize how stupid I was. For all I know, she set me up in Vegas from the beginning."
Face thought that likely. It would have been an easy enough con. If Roy were dropping the amount of money Face suspected he was on his Las Vegas weekends, Claudia would have noticed him. The rest was just a little background checking, the conman's bread and butter.
"I should have seen the signs," Roy continued. "Hell, we lived in San Diego and she was making trips south almost monthly and people I didn't know were visiting the house constantly. When I asked, she wouldn't tell me who they were. And the interest in the transportation business. She knew every employee by name."
Face glanced over at Murdock. The pilot was sitting on a patio chair behind Roy, knees to chest, shoe soles on the chair seat. He was whispering to Fluffy. Face wished Hannibal would find something for Murdock to do somewhere else; he didn't need to hear about Claudia like this.
"So she's using your business to illegally transport drugs. What does that have to do with you now if you had to sign the business over to her anyway?" Face could sense the growing impatience behind Hannibal's words. "Why is she still hiring people to go after a tape in your house?"
"Besides the fact that the business has my name on it, you mean?" Roy didn't wait for an answer. "One day I picked up the paper and she was on the front page. The feds had picked her up on drug trafficking charges." In his agitation, he started to stand up, and sat quickly again at B.A.'s growled warning.
"You are divorced. What did that have to do with you?" Hannibal asked.
"A week later I was arrested. She had given me up as part of a plea bargain. She had been manufacturing evidence the entire time we were married just in case she was arrested. Planted it down at the transportation yard while I wasn't there. Doctored my books, left false files, made phone calls on my business line. My lawyer told me that it was possible for her to plea bargain down to time in prison that was even less than what I would get. And because I didn't know anything about the drugs, I didn't have any bargaining chips to plead down my own sentence."
"What proof you have she set you up?" B.A. rumbled.
"That tape she sent you for."
"What do you mean?" Murdock spoke up, but his eyes weren't focusing. Face grimaced. Murdock put his trust in people and was completely loyal, even in the face of disloyalty. Hearing all this about Claudia would be hard for him.
"I hired a private investigator to set her up. The video tape shows her admitting that I knew nothing about her drug dealing, and that she had set me up."
"Right now it's still your word against hers."
"Fine. Look at the tape. I have a copy here, but my lawyer has the other at his office. I don't know what she was trying to accomplish getting this copy."
The group moved into the study to use the video player. Hannibal finally sent Murdock out of the room to get the tape. Face was starting to worry about Murdock when he finally returned. Everyone sat down to watch the tape.
It was exactly as Roy described, complete with an official-looking date stamp. Face doubted that Roy's lawyer would be a party to a hoax of this magnitude. It was legit; Claudia had set up her ex-husband from the beginning. She'd used his business to transport drugs, taken over the business, and then finally blamed him for all the dealing, reducing her sentence to just a few years. Roy was likely to get at least twenty years in a federal prison.
Face had to bow to an expert. Not only was Claudia getting away with a crime, but she was getting revenge on an ex-husband.
"A perfect plan," Hannibal mused.
The phone rang, startling everyone in the room.
Hannibal motioned Roy to answer it, and Face kept his revolver trained on the man, although it was hardly needed now.
"Yes, this is Gilbert Roy. Oh, Harry, I didn't recognize your voice. What's happening? What?"
Roy listened for a minute and then hung up the phone, staring at it before turning to face the other men. Roy was a deathly white.
"My lawyer's office was burned to the ground last night. My file and all the evidence were destroyed. This is the only copy of the tape that proves I'm innocent."
"Why do I feel like we're working for the wrong side on this one, guys?" Hannibal smiled through clenched teeth.
Things went quickly once the team left the ranch. Roy was making another copy and then taking the tape straight to the police. Face and Murdock took care of the pool van and collected Face's car. In no time, the pool service van was wiped clean of fingerprints, put through a car wash, and dropped near where it had been picked up. Just the victim of a teenage joyride. Hannibal had told Face and Murdock to swing by Claudia's house to check for clues before coming to the warehouse. B.A. and Hannibal had gone ahead to start the packing for Sacramento.
There was no question that they were following Claudia up to Sacramento. They had helped a criminal leave town, and had to make sure she was in police hands again. Hannibal hadn't even asked for anyone else's opinion. He was on the jazz, as B.A. had noted, shaking his head.
Face had been watching Murdock during the revelation of Claudia's character at the ranch. The pilot had been progressively quieter as Roy had continued to talk, the earlier exuberance draining visibly out of his body. He had sunk down on a piece of lawn furniture, withdrawing more and more into himself. He was petting Fluffy and looking smaller and smaller and lonelier and lonelier by the minute. By the time they had taken the pool van to clean it up, Murdock wasn't talking to, or looking at, anyone.
In the corvette, on the way over to the warehouse, Murdock was still brooding. Face watched as Murdock looked out the passenger side, humming some rock song, just like he usually did when he was relaxed. But today his jaw was clenched tight, and the hand hitting his knee in rhythm to the song was in a fist. There was none of the customary lightness in his expression. This wasn't even the black hole of depression from a few days before. This was an anxiety level so high Murdock buzzed, the vibration palpable.
Face was afraid that this situation was degenerating into one of those walls of impenetrable silence that could pull on friendships, testing them to the limits. There was a point where it was just too late to say anything, to admit you knew something had happened. It didn't necessarily mean that their relationship would be damaged. Some things were better left unsaid. But leaving things like this unsaid meant a missed opportunity in friendship, a chance when they could have been closer that was now forever lost. And he and Murdock had always been the closest of friends.
There were already things unsaid between he and Murdock about Claudia, and if they weren't said soon, they never would be talked about. He would be careful about ever bringing up the case and what had happened between Murdock and Claudia, and Murdock would pretend that no one knew. But it would still be there, effecting their every action. They didn't normally share every intimate moment of their lives, but this was different. Claudia had hurt Murdock, and Face couldn't let him go through it alone. Not if he could share the pain with only a few spoken words.
* * * * *
"Up to hunting for clues, Murdock?"
"Sure, Faceman." Murdock got out of the car, not eager to be back in Claudia's house. This was the last place he wanted to be. His feet dragged as he made his way up the walk.
They divided up the house, each taking a part of the search. Murdock checked the study and bedrooms while Face took the living room, dining room and kitchen. He tried to be professional as he poked through books and listened to answering machine messages, but it was difficult not thinking of Claudia in her own home, the place he had spent time with her. He pocketed the answering machine tape and moved on, trying to wipe his mind clear of his bombarding memories.
It had been so flattering to have a woman interested in him. Especially a woman who had met Face. The VA wasn't the best place to find a date. They had had dinner, and listened to music, and danced, and one thing had led...
Face's voice broke his train of thought. He couldn't even remember what he had been thinking anymore, but he was standing in the doorway of Claudia's bedroom. The bedroom where he had spent the night with her.
Face was holding a small plastic bag of spaghetti paper that obviously came from a paper shredder. Murdock almost winced at the look he saw in those blue eyes. He hated it when Face felt sorry for him.
"Murdock?" Face repeated, in his softest voice. "You and Claudia more than friends?"
Murdock took a deep shuddering breath, and met Face's eyes for a minute. If he said something his voice would break and he didn't think he'd ever be able to face his friend again. He broke away from Face's eyes.
Face groaned. "Geez, Murdock!"
"It's all-right, Face. I'm a big boy."
"Doesn't mean I can't be angry when my best friend is taken advantage of!"
"Thanks, but I can be angry for myself without losing it. Face, don't worry about that."
"Hey, I know," Face patted Murdock's shoulder.
"I'm more angry at myself. I was just fantasy-building again," Murdock sighed. "She was just a friend until a few days ago. Didn't even see her that way. I just can't believe that she lied to me. And, worse yet, that I believed her."
"Welcome to the world of the swinging single, my friend."
Murdock looked up, finally meeting Face's eyes again. There was nothing but friendship there now. Murdock smiled. At least it was out in the open between them. Face did seem to have a lot of women parading in and out of his life. Maybe he did understand.
Face helped him search Claudia's bedroom. When Murdock saw the phone, he had the faint memory of waking up and hearing Claudia on the phone late at night.
"What is it, Murdock?"
"I think Claudia made a phone call that night." Murdock played with the notepad next to the phone.
"Do you remember anything about it?"
"It's hazy. Not too sure. I remember something. Some words and numbers. Sea. Westminster. Fourteen. Thirty-three. Two-Sixty-five. Travel. Light. Bee. Tri-gold green fantasy."
Face rolled his eyes at that last. Murdock's selective memory could be a problem at times.
"Well, let's wipe this place down for fingerprints. I don't want anyone to know we've been here."
* * * * *
"Hannibal, I can't believe what happened back there."
"Just a little set back, B.A."
"Little? What you thinking, man?" Hannibal didn't even seem to realize anything was going on with Face and Murdock. Maybe it would blow over, but B.A. didn't have much faith in that with those two involved. Murdock alone might hold something in until he had calmed down, but Face almost never did. And if he thought he was fighting for Murdock it would be all the worse.
"B.A., nothing was public record. How could we know she was the one who was dealing the drugs?"
"Ain't my job to know how. It's your job to come up with plans that work!"
"Well, at least she wasn't connected to the military."
* * * * *
Face turned the corvette into the warehouse. Murdock seemed a little less withdrawn now that he had admitted his relationship with Claudia. Face couldn't believe that Claudia had used Murdock to get at the team. She would pay. At least Murdock was talking again.
B.A. and Hannibal were already sitting around the table when Face and Murdock joined them.
"What a mess, Hannibal." Face sat down at the table, head in his hands, eyes closed.
"Oh, it's not so bad."
Face opened one eye to look at Hannibal.
He opened the other one.
"Then let me re-cap for you, Hannibal. A. Our client is a drug dealer. B. She hired us to steal legal evidence that she planned to destroy. C. Said evidence proved her ex-husband was innocent of her accusations against him. D. These were the accusations that she used to plea bargain herself into a minimal sentence. E. We helped her leave town."
"I've always admired your ability to summarize, Face."
"Hannibal. . ."
"Oh, lighten up, Lieutenant," Hannibal grimaced.
"Fine, what do you plan on doing now, Hannibal?"
"First, we need a plane."
"Not gonna fly, Hannibal," B.A. stated firmly.
"Something small is fine," Hannibal continued. "Sacramento isn't too far. . ."
Face watched Murdock bouncing with the thought of flying. He felt bad that he had to be the voice of reason in this, if only because of Murdock's disappointment. But he remembered earlier, when Murdock had been so clearly upset, that Hannibal hadn't done a thing to help him. Face was tired of Hannibal ruling their lives.
"Hannibal," Face began. "Can I point out that we don't have a paying client here?"
"Yes, you may. Thank you, kid. Now get us a plane."
"Ain't flyin', Hannibal."
"I think B.A. is right." Face needed any support he could get in this. Hannibal was on the jazz and wasn't likely to see reason until they had brought Claudia Harmon to justice. Flying was just too expensive when they could get to Sacramento by tomorrow morning using the van. Not to mention that it would be easier to carry all the equipment, including the weapons, in the van.
Why did Hannibal have to stick with the first idea that came into his head until the bad guys showed him it wouldn't work? Why couldn't he consider all the options before settling on a plan?
"B.A., you're not flying," Hannibal clipped out, teeth holding his cigar. "No one said you were flying."
"And I don't wanna be drugged either!" B.A. was starting to raise his voice.
"Hannibal, you never listen to us! You treat us like we were still eighteen! We have ideas; we have plans."
"No planes. No drugs."
"We have brains, you know!"
"Lieutenant, are you staging a coup?" Hannibal frowned, looking at Face.
"I guess I am. Colonel." Face suddenly found he couldn't breathe.
He met Hannibal's eyes and, for once, refused to back down. Hannibal wasn't backing down either. Face was afraid to blink, to show any weakness at all.
"Fine. Have at it!" Hannibal said it more as a challenge than as a capitulation, his teeth still clenched down on his cigar.
"Uh, guys?" Murdock was over by the window.
"What is it, Murdock?" Hannibal grated out, still staring at Face.
"I think there are MPs out there."
"Oh, this is working great so far, Face!" Hannibal leaned back in his chair, smoking.
B.A. couldn't believe that Hannibal continued to poke at Face when they were in danger of being caught by the MPs. Some things were more important than being right all the time.
"What you going to do, General?" Hannibal asked with an edge to his voice.
"Give me a minute."
Face's eyes glazed over, and B.A. hoped he was coming up with a plan. It didn't look like Hannibal was thinking at all right now.
"Need a cigar?" Hannibal laughed softly, tilting the chair back on two legs.
B.A. sighed and shook his head. For once Murdock wasn't the fool here. Got two of them, and neither of them lived at the VA.
Hannibal wouldn't listen to anyone if he didn't like what they had to say. He already had the answer to everything and the man did what he wanted. B.A. didn't usually have a problem with that; it was good to know where someone stood. But they were a team and they hadn't been in the Army in a long time.
And Face had a point; sometimes Hannibal still treated them like the kids they were when he first met them.
And Face! Face let wrongs fester inside until they had to explode out of him. B.A. had seen enough temper tantrums at the daycare center to recognize one when Face started. Some days that whine would put a four-year-old to shame. And once Face decided on something, he was just as stubborn as Hannibal.
Absently, Face took a cigar out of the pocket where he always kept them for Hannibal, bit off the end and lit it. B.A. just shook his head as Face started pacing.
"Ah, Face..." Murdock looked away from the window. "The MPs. . ."
At least Murdock looked better than he had at the ranch. He was quiet, but didn't have that extra edge of tension he had had out by the pool. Face must have talked to him on the way to the warehouse, and Murdock must have told him what was bothering him. B.A. had been worried when he saw how quiet Murdock had become. Wasn't like him to keep his mouth shut. Murdock was upset about the whole situation with Claudia, but B.A. still thought there was something else going on in that skinny pilot's mind that had little to do with the woman.
If Murdock had talked to Face, that explained Face's behavior too. Those two always had stuck together. Face was more likely to fight for Murdock than he was to fight for himself.
"I'm thinking, Murdock! I need some time!"
"Smith!" That was Decker's unmistakable voice. "I know you're in there!"
B.A. watched as Face stopped pacing. Face's eyes darted to the front of the warehouse where Decker was.
"General?" Hannibal asked, not letting up.
B.A. went to get the van ready. He and Hannibal had already done most of the packing to go to Sacramento. It's not as if they had a lot of choices of how to get out of the warehouse. B.A. sighed. The van would probably be mashed up again. The others wondered why he was so obsessed with the van, but they forgot that he spent all his free time repairing the damage the team's cases did to it. Every dent meant less time to spend with the kids at the daycare center.
"Smith! I'm giving you thirty seconds!"
Hannibal laughed. "He never learns. Lucky for you, General! More time to come up with a plan."
Face was starting to look hunted, more by Hannibal than Decker.
Murdock came over and quietly helped B.A. with the van, loading the weapon locker and transferring bags from the corvette.
"Hey, General, you even get a countdown!"
B.A. started up the van. Hannibal strolled over and stepped into the side door of the van. He got into the seat behind B.A. Murdock grabbed Face and stuffed him in the front seat, Hannibal's usual seat, and then followed Hannibal into the back. He slammed the door shut.
The van rolled toward the back of the warehouse. B.A. pushed the remote control and the back garage door opened. He was glad that he had installed the garage door opener a couple of weeks ago. It never hurt to have more than one way out.
Of course, there was nothing to stop the MPs from noticing the back way. And they had, judging by the sirens. B.A. turned the corner into the alley, pressed the remote again, and skidded the van away. He grimaced as the MPs started firing at the van.
At least the team wouldn't be flying anywhere with Face in charge.
* * * * *
Face couldn't figure out how he had gotten into the van. He vaguely remembered Murdock grabbing him. How could he have frozen like that? The team needed someone who could make quick decisions, not blank out at the first sign of trouble.
Maybe there was a reason that Hannibal sometimes came up with such awful plans. No, Hannibal came up with terrible plans even when he had the time to think up something else. Hannibal loved terrible plans just like he loved those terrible movies he acted in. He *laughed* when he presented those plans!
Face heard the shots being fired at them and took the rifle that Hannibal shoved at him. Hanging out of the window, he fired at the MPs following them through the alley.
He had never been more surprised than when Hannibal told him to take over the case. Hannibal never gave up control. Even when the bad guys had them out-maneuvered and Hannibal surrendered, he didn't really give up control. Superior firing power was not the only way to maintain control of a situation. He might not have guns and rifles, but Hannibal had that mouth of his. Face couldn't count the number of times that Hannibal had forced the bad guys to give up any edge they had in weaponry just with taunting words. He could goad total strangers into doing things they never would have even considered doing before.
B.A. turned the van out of the alley, and Face got off one clear shot before the MP cars disappeared from sight behind the building on the corner. A radiator blew and the MP car swerved, its hood popping up. Face smiled grimly. If he could learn to shoot, he could learn to think up plans. It was just a skill that improved with practice. Like conning.
Yes, Hannibal had surprised him. But now it was his job to make sure he didn't mess up the case. He had to be on his toes. The key, Face thought, was to examine the alternatives. But he had just proven that sometimes the alternatives needed to be examined *fast*. He wouldn't make that mistake again.
* * * * *
Murdock couldn't stop thinking about the last few days.
Ah, Fluffy. He hadn't seen the kitten since they were at the ranch, but he knew she was in the van somewhere. B.A. scared her.
He knew now that, although he liked Claudia, he wasn't really interested in her. It had just been so flattering to have a woman seek him out, to have a woman choose him over Face, his mentor in all beings female. And he didn't understand why she had gone so far to get his interest. He had already talked to the team and they had taken her case *before* that night. It just didn't make sense.
Murdock sighed when he looked at Face riding in Hannibal's usual place. He knew that Face had only confronted Hannibal on his behalf. He was sorry to drive a wedge between them that way. Face over-reacted sometimes. Yeah, Murdock was upset because he wasn't taken seriously, but he meant it when he told Face he didn't need him to fight his battles. After years of therapy, he could at least do that. The past was hard, but he was dealing with the present one day at a time. He would have talked to Hannibal about it eventually, when he was less upset.
No use alienating Hannibal for something that would blow over. If only Face would think about what he did before he did it. Murdock might always be out there with his emotions, but at least people got a steady hum from him. He didn't usually blow up unexpectedly at people. Face was the one who could seem so calm one moment, and be arguing the next. He never gave a guy any warning.
Murdock hoped that Face would still be happy he had confronted Hannibal after the case was over.
* * * * *
Hannibal couldn't help himself. He just couldn't give Face a break. If he did, he would be offering advice, and eventually take over the case. Hannibal knew himself all too well. Face deserved to have a real chance at planning and command.
B.A. skidded the van around a corner, the MPs following. Hannibal rolled with the turn. He couldn't believe the MPs had actually fired on them in the middle of L.A. At least they had stopped once they were out of the alley and on the streets.
None of the guys had ever shown any interest in coming up with plans, although they were all capable of it. Their ability for independent action had been the reason he had chosen them to be on the team in the first place. They just always seemed to let him do that job. But they hadn't had much encouragement to, and that was his fault. He liked being in charge.
Hannibal wondered how Decker had found the warehouse. They had rented the space only last month, and had used it off and on along with their old place. They alternated workspaces, phasing in one as they phased out another.
The only explanation was that the MPs had followed Face and Murdock. There were too many MPs out there to have not planned the hunt. Hannibal chuckled at the thought of marauding MPs swarming L.A. randomly looking for them. Not likely. They had to have had a lead to commit so many men to looking for the A-Team. Hannibal hadn't seen them out at the ranch. The only reasonable place for them to have picked up the trail was Claudia's house. So, the skirt was involved with the MPs. Hannibal wondered if Face had figured it out yet.
B.A. made another sharp, skidding turn.
Hannibal couldn't help laughing. There was a certain savor to the jazz when he wasn't even in charge of the plan. A delicious kind of helplessness that just added to the spice of it. He'd never known. . . .
"Okay, I need some team discussion, here." Face held his breath, waiting for Hannibal to say something. Hannibal could make this easy or he could make it hard.
It had taken B.A.'s usual skill to shake the MPs, but the Army had been left behind in L.A. without further incident. A detour through a construction site, a trick that the team used frequently, had left behind a herd of disabled MP cars. Good thing that the Army changed personnel so often, or someone would have caught on to B.A.'s techniques by now.
They were breaking for dinner at a hole-in-the-wall pizza restaurant in Stockton. B.A.'s van was parked in the back to avoid notice. The building was a converted something; Face couldn't tell what. A gas station? A drive-in? A pawn shop? They slid into a booth that featured a view of an ill-kept garden. The weather had been cloudy for the last couple of hours of driving, threatening rain.
"Sensible," Hannibal said quietly, sighing. His blue eyes looked sad and Face felt guilty. It was like he had taken an essential part of Hannibal's life away from him. "Face, I'm going to stay out of this, if you don't mind."
They were interrupted by the appearance of a pretty brunette wearing jeans, t-shirt, and an apron, and carrying napkins, tableware, and a pot of coffee.
"Hi, I'm Lynn. I'll be your waitress tonight," the girl put napkins on the table,
Face smiled at her without thinking. "Hello, Lynn. Thanks."
"Can't help yourself, kid," Hannibal said under his breath. Face pointedly ignored him.
The girl took their order for pizza and drinks. Lynn was young, probably a student from the nearby university. She had a nametag and a childish-looking pin of a dog clipped to her t-shirt. She was chewing gum.
"You guys been driving a ways? You look tired."
"From L.A." Face turned up the wattage on the smile.
"You an actor?"
"Me? Oh, I've acted a bit." Face kicked Hannibal under the table as he joined B.A. in laughing.
"That's cool." Lynn flashed Face a dazzling white smile. "Let me get your drinks for you now, and if you need anything else, just call." Face's eyes followed her as she walked back around the counter. He wasn't staying in town, but no harm looking.
"Hannibal," Face grimaced, turning back to the team. He had to stay focused. "I'm sorry about the way I did this."
"No reason to be. You can tell me what you need me to do, but I'll be keeping my ideas to myself."
Face sighed. It was fair, but Face still was hoping for something better from Hannibal. Maybe he couldn't expect Hannibal to be happy about being ousted like this, but Face could use some help running his first case.
Hannibal was probably feeling that the entire team was against him. B.A. and Murdock had supported Face by the very fact that they hadn't sided with Hannibal. Face couldn't think of a time they had all united against Hannibal.
"Okay. Thanks." It was the best he was going to get.
At least Hannibal wasn't angry. Having Hannibal mad at him was not an experience he wanted. Hannibal didn't get angry like anyone else did, in a burst of emotion. Or if he did, the burst was in fast talking and icy blue eyes. Sometimes just the clipped words of contempt. This calm, polite Hannibal was painful. It would almost be better if Hannibal had kept on sniping at him like he had in the warehouse. This truce made Face feel uneasy. Somehow, it would have helped relieve Face's guilt if Hannibal weren't being so calm.
"Here are your drinks, gentlemen." Lynn had returned with milk, a soda, and a pitcher of beer. The four sorted the drinks out as they were set down on the table. "The pizza's almost ready."
Face watched as Lynn went for a cloth and started washing down tables. He forced himself to concentrate on the guys. It was so much easier to look at Lynn.
"Let's summarize what we know about Claudia," Face tried again.
Hannibal snickered, and Face shot him a quelling glance. Hannibal sobered instantly and put a hand up, as if swearing an oath.
"I believe what Roy said. She's a drug dealer," B.A. said gruffly.
"It does seem to fit," Face said, trying to avoid Hannibal's gaze. "Murdock overheard a phone conversation with Claudia when he was helping her close up the house."
"You didn't tell us that!" Hannibal exclaimed.
"I only remember a few words," Murdock's look thanked Face for not bringing up the real circumstances of the phone call. "I've been trying to figure out how they fit together."
"What you hear, crazyman?"
"Word, B.A., words."
"Okay, okay. Let me think. . ." Murdock closed his eyes tightly.
B.A. growled again.
Murdock's eyes flew open. "Ya ain't helpin', ya ugly mudsucka! Drink your milk!"
Luckily, the waitress showed up with their pizzas before a fight broke out. Face wondered suddenly if he could have prevented them from fighting. Hannibal usually let them argue, but a word from him would stop the fight immediately. Face didn't think they would be listening to him. He knew he was running the case, but did that mean the team was his responsibility too? He hoped Hannibal didn't expect him to keep B.A. and Murdock in line.
B.A. settled into his anchovy-less pizza, ignoring Murdock for the moment. Face sighed in relief as everyone relaxed and ate their dinner.
Most of the pizza was gone before Face lit up an after-dinner cigar, and started talking again. "Murdock, you told me you heard the words Westminster, and TravelLite."
"Sure," Hannibal took a sip of beer. "She's gone to a TravelLite Motel in Westminster. I guess we'll be flying after all."
"Hannibal, you said you'd stay out of this."
"That I did." Hannibal sat back, swirling his beer in its mug.
"Murdock, go on."
"Yeah, Face, I did hear some other words. Sea was one. A number too. Forty-one? Ah, I'm forgetting already."
"Don't worry about the numbers." Face could handle the numbers with no problem. "You told me fourteen, thirty-three, and two hundred and sixty-five.
Face rolled his eyes, taking a draw on the cigar. Without the prompting of the location of Claudia's bedroom on his memory, Murdock would never have remembered the numbers. Face was used to the fact that most people weren't as good with numbers as he was.
"What's it mean?" B.A. stuffed another piece of pizza in his mouth and washed it down with milk.
"I don't know," Face admitted.
Hannibal snorted. Maybe this was Hannibal's way of sniping at him. Not as hard-edged as the warehouse, but irritating all the same. Face felt a little less guilty and smiled.
"And, Facey, don't forget the rest."
"The rest?" Face couldn't think of anything else Murdock had told him from the phone conversation with Claudia.
"Yeah. Bees and tri-gold green fantasy," Murdock said earnestly, leaning across the table.
Hannibal started laughing quietly.
"Okay, tri-gold green fantasy," Face glanced at the ceiling. Why did Murdock have to pick this case to visit FantasyLand? It was that Claudia woman. "What you guys make of it?"
"Anything else I can get you?" Lynn had stopped on her way from washing tables. She snapped her gum.
"Another soda?" Murdock held up his glass.
Lynn took the glass. "Are you guys going to the dog show?"
"What dog show?" Murdock asked eagerly. Face groaned. Murdock and animals were a natural. First fantasies, now animals.
"You don't know about the dog show up in Dixon?"
"Why would we?" Face asked. He didn't think he looked like the kind of person who went to dog shows. Not that he knew what that kind of person would look like.
"I heard you talking about dog shows, and just thought you were going to the one in Dixon," she explained carefully.
"Why did you think we were talking about dog shows?"
"All I heard were a couple of words," Lynn was starting to look nervous. "I wasn't eavesdropping or anything! Westminster is a famous club and show. And I know that all the entrants to the Dixon show are staying at the TravelLite in Sacramento."
Hannibal started laughing and Face gave him another look.
Lynn continued. "And then you mentioned Tri-gold Green Fantasy."
"And that is. . ."
"Only the most famous Shetland Sheepdog kennel in the country! But you know. You've been talking about them!"
Face didn't know what to say to that. Lynn walked away, shaking her head.
"A dog show!" Hannibal started chuckling again.
"Hannibal. . ." Face pointed at Hannibal with his cigar, emphasizing his point.
"Sorry, Face, but, a dog show!" Hannibal laughed. "And we find out about it from a gum-chewing waitress."
"MPs," B.A.'s voice cut across Hannibal's laughter.
The table was suddenly quiet.
"Musta followed you and Murdock," B.A. rumbled. "That Claudia woman. . ."
"Claudia's house," Hannibal nodded, looking out the window.
Murdock shifted in his seat. "I was looking for them when Face and me were there, Hannibal, and didn't notice anything. I don't think the MPs followed us from there."
"Then she out for us, for the entire team," B.A. shook his head.
Had everyone else figured this out? Face hadn't even thought of the possibility that Claudia was working with the MPs. Drug dealing was one thing, but the sheer calculation behind bringing in the MPs against the A-Team. Bringing down both her ex-husband and the A-Team in the same move. Face wondered what she was getting out of it. He was angry at himself. He had to get himself under control and start thinking. First he froze. And now he just wasn't thinking at all. Geez!
"Same scam as with her husband," Hannibal laughed.
Face sighed. Of course that's what she was after, to further reduce her prison time. But what did she want from Murdock?
"What's the plan, Face? The MPs are looking anxious."
"Ah, Hannibal, if you're going to stay out of this, stay out of this!"
Hannibal watched as Face walked back from the pay phone. They had stopped at a gas station to refuel the van. The rain was light but steady now, the skies shaded gray. Face slid open the door of the van so he could talk to everyone.
"Okay, here's the plan," Face looked self-conscious, smiling that half smile of his. Hannibal was sorry he had been giving the kid - Face - such a hard time.
"We're driving into Sacramento and checking into a hotel a few blocks away from the TravelLite. We are going to the dog show undercover."
"We don't know nothing 'bout dog shows," B.A. pointed out.
"That's why I got Lynn's phone number." Face held up the napkin he had gotten from the waitress in the thirty seconds it had taken the team to escape out the back door to the van.
Hannibal had to hand it to Face. Personally, Hannibal would have used Murdock to call the woman and lure her to a meeting place, but this wasn't a bad idea. Thanks to Claudia, the MPs were looking for them, and Claudia herself would recognize them on sight. They couldn't go in through the front door, at least not in the usual way. Undercover was a good compromise.
"I'm going to be a show judge," Face cleared his throat. "B.A. and Murdock, you can be show visitors."
They both nodded, B.A. meeting Face's gaze. Hannibal could read that look as well as the sergeant could. Face thought Murdock needed protection from that
"What about me?" Hannibal asked.
"You are going to be a volunteer. Lynn is arranging it. " Face had turned slightly red. He was studying the van carpet.
"Uh, Face, exactly what do volunteers do?" Hannibal asked suspiciously.
"Volunteer stuff. You know - run errands, deliver coffee, clean up the grounds..."
"Face. . ."
"Well, someone has to clean up after all those dogs!" Face sputtered.
"And why do you get to be the judge, Face?"
"Lynn says the judges and handlers dress formally. Suits and ties. I'm the only one with the wardrobe. All the volunteers get lunch. . ."
* * * * *
B.A. knew he didn't fit in at this silly dog show. He'd rather be in the van, providing support, or at least somewhere where he could be punching someone out. No chance of that here. He knew from that glance they had exchanged that Face wanted Murdock out of the action and protected. That Claudia woman.
The plan was simple. Face and Hannibal would find Claudia, inject her with some of what they hadn't had a chance to use on B.A. this trip, and escort her to one of the "authorized personnel only" areas. Once B.A. saw that everything was going according to plan, he and Murdock would get the van and they'd take Claudia to the motel. They'd call Gilbert Roy so that he could contact the police to arrest his ex-wife.
B.A. would do what he could to help Face and Hannibal while keeping Murdock out of the way. Shouldn't be too hard. The crazy fool loved animals. He had found a ball for Billy almost immediately, and B.A. had bought it for him with the money Face had given him for that very purpose. Now Murdock was looking for something for Fluffy. Leave it to Murdock to look for a toy for his invisible cat at a dog show. And to find one.
"Whatcha think, Big Guy?" Murdock poked his arm. "You think Fluffy'd like the ball or the mouse?"
"The mouse. Cats love mice," B.A. said distractedly as he looked around the show. Not many people out. The ones who were stood huddled under the canopies that had been erected as a gesture to the rain. The rain was light, but continual.
Murdock looked at him suspiciously, but held out the mouse for purchase. B.A. gave the vendor the money and got change. They moved on to the next booth.
"So, where we need to be, B.A.?" Murdock spoke softly, not looking up from examining merchandise at the new booth.
"We're fine. I can see them from here," B.A. was satisfied. He could reach Face and Hannibal in under ten seconds if he had to. "Just keep looking at the tables, and I'll tell you what's going on."
Murdock sighed but did what he was told.
"Hannibal is delivering coffee to the ring-side tables. Rings A through D. What them dogs look like, Shetland Sheepdogs?"
"Pint-size version of Lassie," Murdock was studying the label of a bag of dog biscuits.
"How you know that?"
"I just know." Murdock had moved on to another bag, reading the ingredients aloud.
B.A. shook his head. He was always amazed by how much a crazy man could know. Didn't seem like there'd be room for anything more in that head than crazy.
"Face is at a table by a bunch of them dogs, his nose in a book. Ring C."
"Not the show catalogue?" Murdock asked in dismay.
"Paperback book? Some kind of seal on the front?"
"The show catalogue, then," B.A. said.
"Oh, no. Face," Murdock sighed, putting down the sack.
"What?" B.A. looked at Murdock, startled.
"Judges aren't allowed to look at the catalogue until after the judging."
"How you know that?"
"I just know."
"Can't do anything about it now," B.A. shrugged and looked away.
B.A. watched as the waitress Lynn walked by Face, taking the book as she sped by. Face looked up, confusion written everywhere, and B.A. smiled. Leave it to Face to get that waitress's phone number while they were heading out the back door evading MPs, and then get her to cooperate with them in getting into the show. B.A. didn't want to know how he did it, although he had never turned down a woman's number Face had handed him.
Just then, B.A. saw Claudia talking to a couple of guys near one of the buildings. They were both in suits, one of them with a piece of heavy cardboard on his upper arm with the number 33. When B.A. had asked earlier, Murdock had said those were the entrant numbers listed in the catalog. All the people showing dogs had them on their arms. Claudia handed the leash of the dog with her to the guy with the number, and waved both the goons away with the dog.
* * * * *
Face had never seen so many dogs in his entire life. And he hoped he never did again.
Even with the continual drizzle, the flying fur was unbelievable. As far as he was concerned there would have been more than enough of the stuff just with the presence of the dogs. But these people had actually set up tables and were brushing and combing more fur into the air. The Environment Protection Agency should shut the dog show down.
The atmosphere was something like one of those carnivals that Murdock was so fond of going to. Or it would be if not for the rain. The steady light downfall was keeping the vendors buttoned up behind overhangs and plastic sheeting walls. Potential customers were hurrying from one building to the next in an attempt to keep dry.
The weather was actually in the team's favor because it meant fewer witnesses to what they were about to do.
A little checking had led to the discovery that Claudia was not staying at the TravelLite, but Murdock said he thought she really did have a cousin somewhere in Sacramento. Face's backup plan involved discovering where the cousin lived and getting to Claudia there. He still had the shredded papers from Claudia's house and had spent the previous evening putting them together like a jigsaw puzzle. There were several addresses. He hoped one of them would be the cousin's address if they needed it.
What was that about, Face wondered as Lynn grabbed the show catalogue, and kept walking by. Face adjusted his glasses and suit jacket, and picked up a clipboard to study. Couldn't go far wrong with a clipboard in your hands. Hannibal was at the next table, the one for Ring B, disguised as an old man and setting up a large coffee urn. He was talking to himself; getting into character no doubt. Face could see B.A. and Murdock across the grass, checking out the vendor stalls. Murdock looked happy, B.A. resigned.
Face would have liked to have kept Murdock out of Claudia's way altogether. He wasn't sure how the pilot would react to being around Claudia after she betrayed him. More importantly, Face still hadn't figured out why Claudia had slept with Murdock. The team had already agreed to help her by then, and Face just didn't understand what she had to gain from it. Face didn't want Murdock hurt, but Murdock was hard to get rid of on a case. He always wanted to stay with the team, no matter what. So Face had put Murdock with B.A., and given himself and Hannibal most of the work.
Scanning the crowd, Face finally spotted Claudia. She was standing by a building not fifty feet away from him. She was wearing a smart-looking pantsuit and had a piece of paper around her upper arm with the number 14. Quickly he caught Hannibal's eye and gave him the signal. Face reached down automatically to pat his jacket pocket. The syringe was in his pocket, all ready to go.
Face watched, impatiently, as Hannibal fussed with the coffee cart. Face groaned as Hannibal slowly leaned down to put something on the bottom shelf of the cart and almost fell over. If he didn't get a move on, Claudia would disappear into the building.
Finally, Hannibal started pushing the cart across the grass toward Claudia. Face began closing the distance himself when Hannibal was halfway there. Just as Hannibal bumped Claudia head-on with the cart, Face was behind her with the syringe. The needle went in Claudia's arm easily, and a couple of heartbeats later, Claudia's knees gave way and she started falling. Face grabbed for her, and with Hannibal's help moved her toward the building that housed the first aid station. Face hoped they looked like good samaritans helping a woman who had passed out.
* * * * *
"'Kay, crazy man, they're making their move now."
Murdock was examining leashes on a rotating rack as B.A. spoke, and sneaked a peek at where Claudia was standing. His heart felt a little tug, but that was it.
Murdock watched as Hannibal bumped her with the cart. From his vantagepoint, it looked as if the old man had accidentally hit the woman, and the younger man was helping them both. Face held her with an arm around her waist as Hannibal draped her arm over Face's shoulder. They started toward the first aid building.
"Trouble," B.A. hissed at Murdock.
"What?" Murdock's eyes darted around.
There were a couple of goons making their way to Claudia determinedly.
"Hers," B.A. confirmed. "And MPs," He nodded to the main gate where five uniformed men were searching the grounds with their eyes. Murdock saw Crane point in the direction of the first aid station, and Decker nodded as they started over.
Claudia's men reached her just as Face gently deposited her on a bench outside the first aid building. Face must have been warned by Hannibal because he rounded on the nearest goon, fist connecting with his jaw. The man went down as Face shook his hand out, wincing. He flashed a smile at Hannibal and they both went after the second man.
By then, the first man was getting up, and the MPs had reached the fight. Murdock realized that B.A. was almost there, and hurried to join him in the fray.
The rest of the team was concentrating on the MPs, so Murdock worked on keeping Claudia's hired men down and out of the way. He jumped on the back of the one getting up, but was slammed against the building. Murdock felt himself sliding down the wall. The other goon pulled him up and socked him
in the jaw. Murdock thought he heard a crunch that was a little too close to his ears. He knew his brain was suddenly fuzzy.
Murdock couldn't get his limbs to cooperate as one of the goons slung him over his shoulder. The other goon carefully picked up Claudia. The sound of the fighting faded as Murdock lost consciousness.
Murdock came to in a darkened room, feeling the pull of his wrists tied behind him, and ankles bound. He was on his side on what felt like a bed. He did his best not to move a muscle as he came slowly to consciousness. He knew a trained observer could tell the difference between a conscious and unconscious man, but he hoped there were no trained observers in the room.
It sounded quiet enough.
Murdock tried to piece together what had happened. His head hurt and he was a little fuzzy about the dog show, especially the fight with Claudia's goons and the MPs. During the fight he had tried to keep Claudia's goons out of the action so that the rest of the team could focus on the MPs. Claudia's men would have been enough to have put a stop to her being kidnapped in a public place, but the arrival of the MPs put the team in serious danger of being caught.
What had happened after Claudia's goons had hauled him off? Were Hannibal, Face, and B.A. okay? Did they get away? Or were they army prisoners? Murdock felt a hard knot in his stomach, not knowing, worrying about his friends.
He had to get away from Claudia. He had to help the team. Had he told Face Claudia's house number here in Sacramento? It was one of the numbers he had remembered from that night. But he didn't remember the street name. He hoped the team could find him, but he wouldn't leave that to chance. He had to escape himself.
Cautiously, Murdock opened his eyes. He was in what looked like a darkened bedroom. For a moment he thought it was a motel, but then his hearing registered the neighborhood noises - kids playing, an ice cream truck making the rounds - and saw the shadow of a tree through a window. He could tell by the direction of the street sounds that he wasn't on the ground floor. There wasn't anyone else in the room, but the house didn't have a feeling of emptiness. Someone else was in the building.
He tested the bonds around his wrists and ankles, and found that they were solid. He had apparently been just dumped on the bed, diagonally with his head at its foot. It was a strangely disorienting feeling, not being in bed the right way. He had to sit up and get his bearings. Try to still the throbbing and dizziness in his head.
Swinging his legs over the edge of the bed, he accidentally knocked a large ceramic lamp off the nightstand. The ensuing crash made him cringe.
Murdock fell back on the bed, and waited to see if anyone had heard and what they would do.
There were soft footsteps outside the door and the door was opened by one of the goons. Another was on the other side of the door, but they didn't come in, just held the door open for their employer.
"You're awake," Claudia walked over to him and ran a hand caressingly through his hair, brushing it away from his forehead. "I had a little nap too, thanks to your friends," she grimaced.
"Where's the team?" Murdock didn't see any reason for pretense. This lady had a serious problem.
"Either with the MPs or on their way here. I haven't had time to check yet." Claudia kept stroking his hair, and Murdock just wished she would stop.
"What are you doing?" Murdock choked out. "Why am I here?"
Claudia smiled sadly. "I'm in a little trouble, but I don't plan on serving any jail time for it. The A-Team put some of my associates in jail. When I talked to my friends, they said that you, H.M., were part of the team. I started to cultivate you out on the VA grounds after that. Thought you might come in handy."
Murdock was disgusted in himself all over again that he had ever been taken in so thoroughly.
"You are so sweet. I didn't even have to come right out and ask for help. You offered first. Once I had met your friends, I contacted Colonel Decker about the reward. I told him he could keep the money, I wanted immunity for the charges against me. He arranged everything. He must really hate the A-Team."
It was hard for Murdock to believe that even Decker hated the team so much that he would make a deal with someone so heavily involved in drugs. But it seemed to be true. Murdock pulled at the ropes holding him, struggling to get loose.
"Oh, sweetie, " Claudia brushed a kiss along his temple. " I don't want to give you over to the MPs. I haven't told Decker about you yet, so maybe I can just use you to get the team here for him. He doesn't have any proof that you are part of the team yet. I don't plan to stay in America after this. But we can be together. I've really grown fond of you and I want you to come out of the country with me when I leave."
A very serious problem.
"Well, you just settle in here a little longer, take a nap, and I'll check with Decker about what's happening. I'll be back in a while."
Kissing him once more, she left the room. Murdock could see the two goons who had brought him here, but they seemed to be following Claudia as the door closed behind her. He could hear the soft carpeted footsteps receding and then going down stairs.
He had to get out of here. Murdock swung his feet back onto the floor, and carefully backed up to the nightstand table. He felt along the table top, finally grasping a shard of the broken lamp. Trying not to cut himself, he sawed across the ropes binding his wrists. It took a few minutes, but he freed his hands. Bringing his knees up, he soon had the ropes pulled off his ankles. Murdock stuffed the rope into his pocket, thinking Fluffy might like it.
Now he had to get out of the house without rousing the suspicions of Claudia or her goon duo. Hopefully, the two were the only ones around the property, but he'd have to be careful. He'd worry about finding the team once he was out of the house.
Trying not to make any noise, Murdock walked over to the door and listened. All he heard was the sound of his own breathing, and the throb of his head in time to his heartbeat. It would be better if he knew for sure where everyone was, but he didn't have much choice in the matter. He had to find the team.
He considered opening the door and leaving through the house, but it was just too dangerous.
Murdock glanced at the bedside clock. It was mid-afternoon; he had been unconscious for a couple of hours. He walked over to the window and looked at the cloud-filled sky. The rain had finally let up.
He knew he couldn't jump to the ground from up here, but maybe there was a way down through the window. He was relieved to find that the garage roof was just below the window and a tree stood next to the garage. Just a little climbing now. Fluffy's forte. Maybe she'd give advice.
Murdock eased the window up and gave the screen a little push. The screen started falling, but Murdock made a grab and pulled it into the room, hiding it behind the curtains.
He slipped over the windowsill onto the garage roof. Quelling his dizziness, Murdock found that he was overlooking the backyard. There was a pool next to the garage and the concrete around it looked hard. From this vantagepoint, Murdock could just make out B.A.'s van the next street over. He let out a little sigh of relief, although he wasn't sure what the van's presence meant. Either the team had gotten away from the MPs and tracked him down, or the army had captured the team, impounded the van and were using it as bait to get him too. Murdock shook his head to clear it and instantly regretted the action as everything in his field of vision tumbled.
The roof incline wasn't steep, but it was enough to disorient him further and Murdock put a hand along the side of the house to steady himself. The fact that the roof was wet from the rain didn't help.
"Psst. . ."
Were there snakes up here? Murdock looked around cautiously. Nope, just him and Fluffy.
Murdock peered over the edge of the roof, fighting the urge to meet the ground. He had heard about that effect, but it had never bothered him before. Nothing in the air usually bothered him. It must be an effect of the blow to his head. Face was in the yard below, an M-16 slung over his shoulder. Murdock swayed and grabbed the corner of the house for support.
"Ah, there you are," Face said, smiling with his teeth, but looking worried with his eyes. "You got Fluffy up there with you?"
"Sure, Faceman. She likes heights." Why was Face asking him about Fluffy?
"Then balance like she does."
"Face," Murdock said, pronouncing each work with exaggerated carefulness. "I am not a cat."
"Geez," Face shook his head and looked down at the base of the house. "Never delusional when I need you to be! Hold on, Murdock."
Face disappeared. Murdock heard noise closer to the house from where Face had been. It wasn't loud, but Murdock's head hurt even more now.
Face appeared suddenly at his knee, popping up from below. Murdock almost fell backwards.
"Trellis," Face explained, smiling. "Come on, Killer. Let's get you down from here."
Murdock sorted out his feet and placed them on the slats of the trellis with Face's help.
"That's it. Put that one there," Face patted Murdock's hightop.
Murdock tried to focus on Face's voice, but the shrieking sound of metal against wood was suddenly louder. A nail was pulling loose from the wall. Murdock felt the trellis begin to pull away from the wall, sending another wave of disorientation through him.
Murdock held on as the trellis fell. He could feel Face moving fast to get down, but Murdock just went for the ride. He was too dizzy to make his body move with any speed. Face would just have to pick up the pieces. Murdock closed his eyes tightly against the impact.
Just before he hit, Murdock could hear Face laughing. That's what the jazz did to you, laughing at the danger.
The wet and cold Murdock was suddenly enveloped in was a shock. Instinctively, he made his way up, to the air. Of course, the pool. Murdock could hear an irritating wailing in his ears, and he shook his head to clear it. The last few hours had just been too much.
"Come on, Killer," Face's hand stretched out in front of him as he was treading water. Face was grinning. "I think that siren is the police, coming to get Claudia. And that one is the MPs, coming to get us. Let's get a move on!"
Yep, it was the jazz.
Face pulled Murdock up out of the pool and steadied him. He was a little worried about Murdock. His friend was acting even crazier than usual. Face hadn't seen what happened to him in the fight, but it was apparent that he had hit his head somehow. Or Claudia had given him drugs. Face grabbed Murdock's shoulders and looked deeply into his eyes, looking for any sign of unevenness between the pupils, or unusual dilation. Felt his scalp for bumps.
"Gee, Facey, I didn't know you cared. Aren't we supposed to be escaping?" Murdock giggled.
Face had had a bad moment back at the dog show when he had realized that Murdock was missing, along with Claudia. He had run out into the parking lot, just in time to see her drive off with her two hired muscle. And Murdock. The team had followed in the van as soon as they could. They had found the general neighborhood, and one of the addresses that Face had salvaged from the shredding had proved to be the one where Murdock was being held.
There was a big bump on the back of Murdock's head, but satisfied with what he saw in Murdock's eyes, Face smiled. "Come on, then." Murdock swayed a little on his feet and giggled again. Just to be sure he kept up, Face grabbed Murdock and started pushing him toward the back gate.
"Hannibal and B.A. are in the van the next street over. We better hurry."
Face stopped suddenly at the sound of the back door slamming closed. He pulled the M-16 around and aimed it, making sure Murdock was behind him. Claudia stood on the top step. She looked harried.
"Stop right there."
Ignoring him, Claudia started running toward the back gate. Face fired a warning shot over her into the garage. Claudia stopped in her tracks and slowly turned around, her hands out in the open.
"What the hell do you think you're doing, lady?" Face bit out. "I can't believe what you've done to Murdock."
"I haven't done anything to him," Claudia looked genuinely puzzled.
"You kidnapped him!"
"I'm moving out of the country. H.M. and I connected over the last couple of weeks. I like him and I thought he could come with me. My employees knew my plans and got over-enthusiastic when I was knocked out," Claudia looked over Face's shoulder at the pilot. She smiled.
Face shot a glance at Murdock who blushed, shrugged his shoulders, and dissolved into laughter.
Face thought Claudia sounded as if she were taking some of her own drugs. Why would Murdock want anything to do with a criminal? Face shook off the thought. It didn't really matter why she was acting this way; she wasn't getting away from the police this time.
"Murdock, find some rope. We need to tie her up," Face shouldered the gun strap again, and went to turn Claudia around.
Murdock produced some soggy rope from his pocket and Face did the best he could to tie her hands and ankles. Someone would be around to let her loose before the ropes dried and tightened. He left her sitting in a pool-side chair, his handkerchief stuffed in her mouth as a gag, a note for Decker woven through the ropes.
~*This* is what a criminal looks like. Sorry we missed you, Lt. T. Peck.~
Pushing Murdock in front of him again, Face ran through the gate.
Face and Murdock ran down the alley, finally cutting across a lawn to get to the next street over.
The sound of the sirens was louder now. This one was going to be close.
* * * * *
Hannibal sighed with relief when he saw Face and Murdock running toward the van. They rounded the corner of the narrow street, avoiding the ice cream truck parked there, and the children gathered around it. Hannibal hadn't wanted Face to go alone after Murdock, but Face was still in charge. Hannibal knew Face felt responsible for Murdock being taken. He had seen the look in Face's eyes when he realized that Murdock was missing. Hannibal had felt that way himself when one of the team was injured because of one of his plans gone awry.
B.A. started the van engine and Hannibal slid the side door open. The sirens, both the city police and the MPs, could be heard wailing, ever closer. Even if they were a street over from Claudia's house, they were cutting it close. Hannibal grinned as he helped pull Murdock into the van.
"Glad you could drop in, Captain."
"Thanks, Colonel," Murdock started laughing, collapsing into the seat behind B.A., water spraying over the interior of the van as he shook his head.
"Hey, man! How'd you get so wet? And in my van!"
Hannibal shot a questioning glance at Face. Murdock seemed to have lost it.
"I think he's okay. Need to check his head. I think he hit it during the fight, big knot on it. Then he fell into the pool trying to get off the roof. I'll get a blanket."
B.A. growled as Face pulled a couple of blankets from the emergency supplies. Face made Murdock stand up for a minute so he could put a blanket on the seat under him, and wrapped the other around Murdock's shoulders. Hannibal could see that the pilot was shivering from the wet and cold. He reached a hand out to adjust the van heater.
"I'll clean up the van, B.A.," Face was concentrating on getting Murdock comfortable and checking him for injuries.
"Aaww. . . As long as the crazy fool is all-right, it's okay," B.A. put the van in gear and pulled out into the narrow street.
Suddenly the van swerved as one of the MP's cars careened toward them. B.A. maneuvered between the MPs and a parked car, narrowly avoiding both.
Hannibal laughed as he saw the face of the passenger of the second MP car, and couldn't help waving at Decker as they drove by. There was no way the MPs could turn around on that narrow street, especially with the kids and the ice cream truck. B.A. would get them out of here before the MPs could circle around. Decker looked steamed. Face had done a good job.
* * * * *
The van pulled into the Stockton pizza place late that night. Face knew that Lynn was working the late shift and he wanted to thank her for her help. They all needed the break now that they had shaken the MPs. B.A. looked tired from all the driving. He wouldn't complain, but there was no point in stretching him to his limit.
Hannibal had been quiet since they had left Sacramento. No telling what he was thinking, but Face knew it wasn't good. Face knew he had made a mess of the case. First, he had totally zoned out when the MPs showed up at the warehouse, next he had missed the connection between the MPs and Claudia. Finally, he had gotten Murdock, his best friend, captured by the very person they were supposed to be handing over to the police. And she hadn't even been conscious at the time. Geez.
Murdock had chattered for a while about Fluffy not liking the water, the string he had in his pocket, and something about bedroom lamps that Face didn't catch. Murdock had finally fallen asleep after Face had convinced him to change into some dry clothes in the back of the van. He was breathing softly in his seat as Face shook him awake when the van came to a stop.
They all got out, silently stretching. Face looked up at the now star-filled sky. It was a cold crisp night. He smiled slightly as they walked to the restaurant entrance. Lynn had apparently been watching; she was at the front door to greet them.
"Hi, Lynn." He leaned over to give her a kiss on the cheek. "Thanks for being so much help in this."
To Face's amusement, Lynn blushed. "I didn't do anything. The show can always use volunteers, and you didn't actually judge anything."
"But we needed the information about the shows. You really helped."
"Glad I was keeping an eye on you. You gave me a turn with that catalogue. Okay, I'm going to get you guys some coffee," she looked at B.A. and smiled. "And milk. Find a seat. I'll be with you in a minute. I want to hear what happened."
Lynn left for the kitchen as the team went to a table big enough for all of them.
"I'm going to play video games for a while," Murdock indicated the machine in the corner. "Hey, Facey, got a quarter?"
"I'll cover you, fool," B.A. punched Murdock in the shoulder.
Lynn brought the drinks as B.A. and Murdock walked to the back of the restaurant. She sat down at the table with Hannibal and Face. In the process of helping them, she had heard most of the story. Face didn't see any reason for her not to hear the ending.
"We talked to Claudia's ex-husband about half an hour ago. Claudia was picked up by the Sacramento police and will be transferred to federal custody tomorrow," Face recounted. "It seems Colonel Decker is expediting the matter. Apparently he wasn't happy about working with a minor drug dealer, not even to get us. Once he found out that she had set her ex-husband up and was actually the one behind the whole operation, he got nasty. They have all the evidence they need to convict her now, of all the charges."
"Wow, I can't believe what some people will do. I'm just glad I could help."
"So are we."
"Thanks for coming by to tell me how it turned out. Stay right here, and I'll bring you something to celebrate with," Lynn left to go into the kitchen.
"Good work, Face," Hannibal said.
Face looked at Hannibal carefully. "Really?"
"You got the job done, didn't you?"
"Yeah, but I also totally missed how dangerous Claudia was, had the MPs following us for hundreds of miles, and got Murdock caught."
Hannibal shrugged. "You got the job done. Claudia's been arrested, we've lost the MPs, Murdock's safe and as sound as usual. You did a good job."
"You aren't going to tell me where I went wrong?"
Murdock and B.A. came back to the table and sat down, listening to the conversation. Face was nervous, but it was better to have it all out in the open now, so no one was saying things behind his back.
"Face, there was nothing wrong with your plan. You just have a different style. Lighten up on yourself. A leader has to think of his men first, and his own feelings second. And you did that. The important thing isn't whether the plan works, but that *a* plan works eventually. You know that."
"Yeah, Face. You got me and Fluffy off that woman's house," Murdock leaned across the table.
"You did okay, Faceman," B.A. agreed, taking a sip of milk.
"If it's all the same to you, Hannibal, I'll let you run the next case or two," Face pulled out a cigar and handed it to Hannibal.
Face thought it was surprising how many times in the course of the case there hadn't seemed to be many alternatives. There hadn't been any other way for the case, for the plan, to play out. Maybe Hannibal wasn't always to blame for the terrible plans. And maybe it was easier to just keep on complaining about them instead of coming up with them himself.
Face smiled, relieved that things were back to normal.
"I don't think so, Lieutenant."
"What?" Face's teeth disappeared with his smile.
"As much as it pains me to admit, I have a habit of taking control."
B.A. snorted and Hannibal gave him a quelling look.
"I have a habit of taking control," Hannibal repeated. "You were right. It is hard for me to not think of the three of you the way you were when we first met. I'm your CO and have always felt responsible for you, but you're grown men now."
"So why were you giving me such a hard time when you turned the case over to me?"
"Watching you struggling was frustrating, Face. I wanted to help you out, but I knew I'd just take control again once I got started. So I had to do something to keep my distance. Sorry it came out that way."
Face was surprised by both Hannibal's admission and his apology. He had thought Hannibal had closed his mind on the matter and had only let Face take over in the heat of the argument.
"That's okay, Hannibal."
"Thanks, but let's try again. With a plan this time."
Hannibal leaned in to let Face light his cigar. He leaned back and puffed. "But, you did good, ki - Face."
Lynn came from the kitchen bearing a tray loaded with plates of cake and ice cream. "It's on me, fellows! Dig in! You need to celebrate!"
For more reasons than she knew, Face thought.
Lynn started putting the tray down on the table, Murdock and Face both coming to her assistance at the same time.
"Guys!" Lynn protested, hanging onto the tray with one hand and swatting away their hands with the other. "I don't need help; I'm a professional!"
But, unbalanced by their intervention, the tray tipped and fell into B.A.'s lap. Ice cream dripped down gold chains and rings, cake landed on camo fatigues. B.A. looked down at the dessert and then up at Face and Murdock.
The two friends backed cautiously away.
"Face and Crazyman gotta pay; Face and Crazyman gotta pay," B.A. growled, lunging up for them.
Hannibal leaned back in his chair, grinning around his cigar.
Now things were really back to normal.
(c) Catherine C. Plummer 2000
Please Send This Author Comments!