CHAPTER FORTY THREE

"BA! Take the next turn. I don't care where it goes. We gotta get these guys off this highway, now. Take 'em for a ride, Sergeant!"

BA hadn't heard all of the conversation but he didn't question the change in plans. A gravel road peeked up through the weeds to the left and BA swung wildly into it. The dust cloud behind them would help keep their pursuers on track. The road was rough and BA couldn't go as fast as he'd like, but one couldn't tell by the bouncing around his passengers were doing. They rounded a curve, and he could see increasing dust where the other cars were following, no longer trying to be discreet. Good.

"What's going on, Hannibal?" Murdock's voice was as rough as the road they were on.

"Something's gone wrong at the Potter's. The men there tied up the family and Hank and took off with Maggie. They were headed right down the same highway we were on."

"They tied up the family? Why?"

"I don't know, Murdock. It doesn't make sense. Face wouldn't do that. So now I have to think that he's the reason they were at that hospital and somebody else is calling the shots."

"Maggie said he was traveling with three other guys, didn't she?"

"Yeah. One, from the beginning of this whole mess. The other two, probably Carla's. I don't think Ables would resort to tying innocent people up unless they were ordered to, which leaves that other guy. The one Maggie said had been traveling with Face from the beginning."

"Doesn't sound like someone Face would be sticking with, though."

"There's so much going on here that doesn't sound like Face. I'd really like to have Stockwell here right now. I'd get some answers out of him. Or Carla. Either one would suit me."

BA growled. "Hang on. Time to lose these guys."

They were moving into an area of tall trees and rocky hills, scattered with small private driveways and cutbacks. BA took the curves and hills with calm precision, suddenly making a tight turn at a crossroads. Turning into a hard packed road that led up into the hills themselves, he shoved the accelerator down, practically vaulting up the hill. He roared through the trees, close to the narrow road, concentrating on the curving path. Murdock and Hannibal watched behind them, waiting for some sign that one of the other cars had seen them take the turn. BA finally pulled up near the top of the hill.

Murdock hopped out and scurried to a clearance in the trees, where he could see for miles. He saw the cars on the road below - they were still moving, but starting to slow, gathering together. He ran back to the van.

"They're slowing down but there's a million places they'll have to look for us. We're good to go, Colonel."

Without a word, BA maneuvered the van down the road, moving quickly back toward the highway. Back to Face.


*****

The first few miles, Randy drove well within the speed limit, watching carefully what vehicles they met, which ones they passed, any waiting at crossroads. He forced himself to forget the demands that bitch had made on him. Forced the calm. When he'd come back out of the house, he'd actually been surprised that she was still there. He'd hidden the anger he felt at himself for walking off and leaving her free to take off like he had. That was stupid. Just plain stupid. At least she'd had brains enough to keep her mouth shut after that. If she had said one more fucking word to him...

He glanced in the rearview mirror. He had adjusted it so he could keep an eye on Sam while he drove. The bitch had given him a sedative for the ride, but Randy kept watching for problems anyway. Occasionally his eyes strayed to her. He didn't trust her. He didn't like the way she'd evaded his questions. He didn't like her, period. No way she would stay with them for the whole trip. Once Sam was feeling better, she was gone. Gone.

A wave of exhaustion swept over him. He blinked, stretched his shoulders. No time for that. No time for anything except putting as much distance as possible between them and Bad Rock. Appropriate name for that piece of shit town. He didn't know why he'd let Sam talk him into coming here to begin with. Look what it had cost them. Him. The whole damn town crawling with those people. And Sam. He glanced once more toward the back of the van. The bitch was checking his pulse. Again. She better not have screwed up that sedative.

Damn, he wished he had gotten more sleep last night. He'd been so pumped when they got to the farm, it had taken forever to relax once it was over with. The family secure in the living room, Kurt taking first watch. Daryl had sacked out in one bedroom while Randy had stayed in Sam's room. Sam had not had a good night at all. Randy had done what he could to make him comfortable, tried to cool him down with cold damp cloths, given him aspirin. Nothing seemed to work. Randy had felt so helpless. He hated that. He hated to see his friend in pain. It wasn't right. Sam had done so much for him, and now he could only sit by that bed and watch him suffer. No one should suffer like that.

Kurt had come in some time later. Daryl was watching the family now and Kurt wanted Randy to get some sleep. He still didn't know about those two. They seemed okay. But that didn't mean anything. He knew how easy it was to pretend. But they did seem genuinely concerned about Sam. That counted for something. He'd gone into the bedroom Daryl had just vacated, lain down, attempted to sleep. Although he'd been wiped out, he couldn't get to sleep. Not right away. And when he did, that dream had come again. But different. So different this time.

He was on a beach, finally. He could hear the waves breaking against the rocks, smell the special odor of salt water, feel the breeze in his hair. He grinned, knowing he would finally find his friends. He would be whole again. And then he saw them. Walking along the shore, waves lapping at their feet as they moved slowly away from him. He called to them to wait, please wait, he was coming, he was back. But they kept moving away. He started running, but his feet sank into the wet sand and the waves got higher, pushing against him, slowing him down. He saw one of them turn and look back at him. He waved and shouted again for them to wait. The man turned his back and started walking into the waves. The others turned slowly and followed. They moved farther and farther into the froth, the water reaching up higher and higher. Randy kept shouting, his voice turning hoarse. He stumbled, fell, felt the waves pushing him back, as he watched, horrified, as his friends slowly sank into the water. The last man turned and looked back at him. Randy still couldn't see his face clearly but he somehow 'saw' the expression. Felt it, almost. Disappointment. Anger. Disgust. And then the man disappeared under the water. The sand disappeared, the ocean ceased to exist, and Randy was in a jungle. Hot. Raining. Nam. He woke, sweating and trembling, frightened at the change. They knew...

Daryl abruptly brought him back to the present. He was pointing to the side. A long row of dust was drifting from one of the side roads. It was an oddity in this otherwise empty landscape. Local kids drag racing? Who knew? He made a note of it as he turned his attention back to the road ahead of him. As long as they didn't come his way, he didn't really care. There was only one thing he cared about right now. He had to explain. He had to find them and make them understand. He concentrated on that.

He didn't see the dark van emerge from the dust, tearing down the road toward the highway.


*****

John Clifton and Able 17 sat on the bench at the park, sipping coffee from plastic cups. They had gathered here with their men after the debacle with the team. Neither had said anything of consequence yet, only waited silently for their coffee, watching their men warily co-mingling with each other.

Able 17 finally spoke up.

"Appreciate the phone call. I understand the chance you took there."

"Logistics. The more trained people I have, the better my chances. Barish doesn't always understand that."

They were silent for a few more minutes. Again, it was Able 17 who spoke first.

"We have to get something settled between us, John. Some decisions need to be made now, before things reach a point where there's no more time for discussion."

"Your objective versus mine."

"Exactly. To a point, they're the same. But..."

"But then yours becomes a retrieval, mine becomes a cleanup. One jeopardizes the other. One of us must fail."

"Not necessarily, John." Able 17 looked around, determined no one else was close enough to hear. "It's possible for us both to win." Clifton looked at him, saying nothing. "I've been in your shoes, John. Trying to put the actual job aside, concentrating only on your orders. It's not easy. It takes a special kind of person to do that over and over. I don't think you're that kind of person. No more than I was."

Clifton still remained silent. He wanted to hear all that the other man had to say.

"Dr. Barish is powerful, John, but he's on the way out. This whole project has become an albatross around his neck. You know that. He wouldn't need your group if that weren't so. Stockwell, on the other hand, is going to come out smelling like a rose. His only possible loss is the A-Team, and he could survive that very well. If, however, the team was retrieved, he would be very grateful for any assistance he received. Very grateful." Able 17 looked at Clifton. "You wouldn't have to do cleanups any more, John. Stockwell would find a good spot for you in his organization. You, and any of your people you felt comfortable bringing along.

"Stockwell has a lot of operations going, John. In a lot of places. Lots of opportunities for the right man. All it would take is for you to turn your back at the right moment. You wouldn't have to 'do' anything. Except let me do my job."

Clifton looked around, casually. Sipped his coffee. Outside, he was calm, almost disinterested. Inside, he was in turmoil. He'd gotten through each job he'd been assigned by convincing himself it was best for his country, but he'd hated it. Every minute of it. Unfortunately, he was also very good at it. Very much in demand. From various agencies. Barish may be on his way out, but did that necessarily mean Clifton had a real choice in where he worked?

"It's a bit more complicated than that, you know. I don't work exclusively for Barish, or even his agency. I'm not sure I could leave that easily."

Relieved that Clifton had not dismissed him immediately, Able 17 plunged forward. "Stockwell works with the government very closely, John. If he wants you in his organization, the government will leave you alone. I guarantee it. The choice is yours. Only yours."

He watched as Clifton contemplated the possibilities. He didn't take the man's hesitation lightly. It was a huge risk. Barish may be on his way out, but the agency he worked for was still powerful. Cleanup was SOP for them. Failure would not be looked on kindly. But Able 17 had confidence in his own employer. The man had something on everyone. It was only his discretion that kept some people in power, some agencies running without interference.

Finally Clifton straightened. Looked around once more.

"You realize I can't speak for all of my people. I know which ones will follow my lead, which ones won't. You'll have to deal with those who will concentrate on the original orders."

"I can handle that."

Clifton smiled, an almost bitter smile. "You know, with people like you around, they almost don't need Barish and his experiments."

"I don't think they need them at all."


*****

"Hank, anything?"

"No, Smith. We covered the area right up to the county line. No sign of the van. And no other vehicles I don't already know. I think they got away."

"Okay. We're going to keep going. They've got to stop sometime. When they do, we'll be right on top of them."

"Just be careful, Smith. Who knows what they might do. Maggie..."

"I know, Hank. Let's just not forget who the good guys are in this. They might be desperate, but they are the good guys."

Hannibal hung up the phone, pulled out a cigar. The others were watching the road ahead, as if expecting the gray van to magically appear in front of them. Hannibal did a quick calculation. They couldn't be more than a half hour behind.

"Pick it up, BA."

The black van surged ahead, racing to catch up with their teammate.