CHAPTER FIFTY ONE

Frankie was cursing to himself all the way from the van until he hit the first tentacles of the crowd. It was bad enough when Johnnie had told him to keep an eye out for Face and not lose him; now he had to find and keep track of a perfect stranger that he'd barely gotten a glimpse of. He stopped, looking frantically for any sign of the man. That's when he saw the jacket laying on top of the trash can. He grinned. Maybe this guy wasn't so smart, after all. Losing the jacket wouldn't change his appearance enough to fool Frankie Santana. No way, man.

He moved forward into the crowd, sometimes having to stand on tip-toe to see over people's shoulders. It only took a few minutes for him to spy his quarry, who was moving slowly up the boardwalk. Frankie slouched down then, wanting to make sure he wasn't seen himself. He knew he wasn't supposed to actually catch the guy, just keep an eye on him and report back to Hannibal. He followed him for a few more minutes before pulling out the small walkie-talkie.

"Hammer, this is Blaster, come in."

"Blaster, this is Hammer. Report."

"In sight, Hammer. About 15 yards ahead of me, heading north on the boardwalk."

"Okay, keep him in sight but don't get any closer. I think I know where they're going to meet up so don't spook him. Keep me posted."

"Will do, Hammer. Blaster out."

Frankie moved ahead slowly, maintaining his distance. The man ahead of him seemed oblivious to his presence, although Frankie saw he was scanning the crowd constantly. He would disappear in the sea of bodies, only to reappear moments later a few feet to one side or the other. It took only minutes for Frankie to lose sight of him completely.

"Damn! Man, Johnnie's gonna have my ass..." Frankie searched frantically, moving quickly to the last place he'd seen the man. He was moving past one of the lifeguard towers when he felt a poke in his back. He stopped suddenly and the pressure on his back increased and remained. Shit.

"Don't try anything stupid, buddy. Just move toward the back of the tower. Now."

The disembodied voice behind him allowed for no protest. Frankie carefully stepped off the boardwalk and moved behind the tower. Frankie's eyes darted back and forth, looking for anyone who might offer a diversion, help. Hell, would even notice them. Nothing.

"Stop here. Turn toward the road."

"Listen, man, we're on your side, okay? We're friends of Face's, man. We're trying to get you guys out of here, away from the bad guys, okay? Take me to Face, he'll tell you..." The words spilled out of Frankie's mouth a mile a minute. The pressure increased again and he shut up. For a moment, there was silence, Frankie waiting for the gunshot or knife cut or hands around his neck. Anything.

"Who's Face?"


*****

At what point he lost him, Murdock couldn't say. The guy had been just ahead of him a moment before, then he'd bobbed in and out of sight for a few minutes, and then nothing. He just wasn't there any more. It was frustrating as hell. Murdock was better than that. He wouldn't let himself panic. The guy didn't just vanish. He had to be around there someplace. Murdock just had to raise his antenna a little higher, that's all.

It came so fast he had no time to react. One second he was walking down the boardwalk, the next the man was moving toward him, passing by his side, his fist ramming into Murdock's stomach. Murdock doubled over with the blow, the air knocked out of him. As he struggled for breath, he felt his arms gripped tightly.

"Hey, you okay, buddy? Here, let me help you...no, he's fine, just something he ate...excuse me, ma'am, we'll be fine..." He was being manhandled off to the side, across deep sand. They came to a stop beside a chain link fence, maintenance equipment on the other side. The crowds were several yards away.

Murdock was finally able to breathe almost normally, and he glared up at his captor. The guy was staring back down at him, a look of distaste on his face. But there was something else in his eyes. Murdock knew that look.

"You don't want to kill me, man. I'm just looking for my friend. I just want to help."

The man, still holding Murdock's arms in a tight grasp, looked startled.

"Your friend?"

"Yeah. Yeah, we've been looking for him for a long time. We just want to find him and take him home."

The man didn't say anything for a few minutes, obviously thinking about what Murdock had said. He never loosened his hold. Finally the man spoke, almost tentatively.

"You know a General Stockwell?"

Man, talk about a loaded question. When in doubt, tell the truth...

"Yeah, I know the son of a bitch. Why?"

His captor didn't answer, but there was just a hint of a smile on his face.

"Okay, buddy. Listen up. I'm going to let go of you, for now. You walk just ahead of me. Try anything and you'll be dead before you hit the ground. Got it? We'll go see if Randy knows you or not."

Randy? Who the hell was Randy?


*****

Hannibal moved purposefully into the crowd. He'd stopped running when he saw his man merge into the crowd around the concessions. For just a moment back there, he'd been tempted to stay with BA and go after the van. But then he'd realized what they were doing - baiting their pursuers to give the wounded man more time to get away. Tempting as it was, Hannibal had heard Face's voice in his head, telling him to control the Jazz and stick to the plan. So he found himself jumping down from the van and running. He was more than confident in his quest. After a run like that, with a limp that pronounced, he knew this guy would be hurting. He couldn't possibly keep moving for very long. He would be the one the others came to, and Hannibal would be there waiting.

Edging into the crush of people, Hannibal caught a glimpse of his target moving down the boardwalk. It was easy enough to follow him, his head bobbing in that distinct movement that came with a bad leg. That worried Hannibal. Just how badly was he hurt? It was obvious he shouldn't be doing this now. Obvious that these men were very desperate or they wouldn't have left the hospital when they did. He began to consider more seriously what his own men were walking into. It might not be as simple as it had first seemed.

Hannibal glanced around and saw them. Not many. Not yet. A couple, here and there. Looking. Watching. Time was running out.

"Hammer, this is Blaster, come in."

Hannibal pulled out his walkie, keeping his head down to talk. "Blaster, this is Hammer. Report."

"In sight, Hammer. About 15 yards ahead of me, heading north on the boardwalk."

"Okay, keep him in sight but don't get any closer. I think I know where they're going to meet up so don't spook him. Keep me posted."

"Will do, Hammer. Blaster out."

Hannibal stuffed the radio back in his pocket and headed out to catch up with his target. And stopped dead. He looked around. All around. No bobbing head. No hurrying figure.

Nothing.


*****

BA was having a hard time keeping up with this guy. The crowds, although parting readily enough for him, still kept him from getting close, or getting a clear view. As long as he could keep track of him, that was all that really mattered right now. BA was actually more concerned with the others who were moving in on the chase. Couldn't mistake an Able on the job. But there was something off about them, too. Someone else was with them. Someone that didn't really belong.

BA tried to push ahead but the crowd was just too thick. He would've moved off the boardwalk onto the sand but there were too many surfers there. That's all he needed, running through a gauntlet of surfboards while trying to keep this guy in sight. So far, the man's actions were puzzling. He just didn't act like someone who was worried about a tail. Didn't act like he even cared if anyone was following him. More like he was looking for someone. He was pushing through the crowd ahead like a bulldozer. It wouldn't take long before that was noticed. That was dumb. Just dumb.

BA saw the first attempt. Saw it coming from a mile off and surged ahead. He was still several yards behind when the Able caught up with the guy. Saw the Able bump into him, his right arm moving towards the man's back. They stopped for a moment as the man half-turned and then moved off, quickly, while the Able just stood there.

BA watched transfixed as the Able slowly sank out of sight. A moment later, a woman screamed. And the man disappeared into the shocked crowd.