1 year, 1 month, 28 days
Hannibal watched the highway, puffing on his cigar, determinedly looking calm while his mind bounced from one scenario to another. By rights, they should keep moving, get to LA and then disappear into the maze. But unlike in-country, they were running with no intel.
All they'd heard on the radio was a short statement about a "vicious home invasion" on the outskirts of Vegas. That had been nearly three hours ago, shortly after Hannibal made that anonymous call to the authorities in Kingman. He would've let Wrenn stew until his boss noticed his absence, giving them at least a few more hours head start, but there was that housekeeper to consider.
Damn. What had she actually seen, or heard? And what about that cop in Paradise? Would he connect that odd little traffic stop with Wrenn's place? Or had one of those local patrols seen the van leaving the neighborhood? How long had it taken the cops to find the note, contact the Army? And would the Army take it seriously? How quickly would they move on it?
Three hours and not one more word about it. He had no idea what the hell was happening back there or what they'd be driving into in LA, and he didn't like it.
Up ahead, he saw a motel sign. Big, just off the highway, but with rust starting to show through the faded paint. A cheap place, on its last legs, yet only a few miles from Palm Springs. Just the kind of place they needed, where the owners were long past caring who came or went or why.
"Pull in up there, BA. I need to think."
1 year, 1 month, 29 days
Early in the morning, BA set out to scout the area, finding a small truck stop just down the road. He was relieved that he'd barely been noticed among the variety of truckers there, and no one seemed to think twice about setting out four breakfast boxes to go. There was also a small tourist-trap grocery next door to the cafe where they could pick up anything else they might need. Right after breakfast, Hannibal pulled out a couple of the file boxes, handing folders to both BA and Murdock. Hannibal apparently had learned from the past and had no intention of letting the guys sit around getting on each other's nerves. It would take time and attention to decode those pages. BA wasn't especially happy dealing with another round of coded files, but at least it would make the time pass faster.
Murdock despondently glanced through the pile of papers in front of him. It was going to be tedious work but necessary. The really "interesting" files, the team's, Hannibal hadn't touched. He wanted to be able to work through those more methodically. Made sense, but also made the current files more mind-numbing. He was familiar with some of the decoded names, but that was about it. They could've left these back at Wrenn's, in the pilot's assessment, but then, Face thought they were more important than the rest, so... At least Murdock was starting to recognize more of the encoded words.
He looked up, startled, as Face got off the bed and moved slowly and stiffly into the bathroom. He listened, heard the lock clicking, clicking, clicking... Hannibal had said Face was getting better about that, but you couldn't prove it by Murdock's observations. He heard the toilet flush, but it was several minutes before Face came out, lay painfully back on the bed, and resumed staring at the ceiling.
Murdock sighed, and pulled the next paper off the pile.
Face reached for the doorknob, stopping just before making contact. He knew when he opened that bathroom door, Harry would be there. Waiting. Grinning in anticipation of all the shit he would be taunting Face with. Reminding him of how stupid he had been, falling for the bullshit the colonel told him, trying to help them and being ambushed for it...
He didn't want to listen to it anymore. As long as he could lock the doors, Harry was locked out. Oh, he'd tap at the door, whisper at the keyhole, but he couldn't come in. Couldn't make the words loud enough that Face had to listen to them.
Lock the doors and have peace.
Would he have had peace if he'd just stayed in that jail cell? Let them lock him up in that prison for twenty or thirty years? Would bars be enough, if they were locked?
No. No, he couldn't have taken that chance. At least this way he had a choice. He could run somewhere else, find another door, lock it or not, his choice. Find silence when Harry got too loud, too nasty, said too many things that made that world come back. Come out when he was stronger...
He blinked. How long had he been standing here, almost touching the knob, not willing to move his hand that last half inch. He took a deep breath. Remember what Murdock had said. Count the ceiling tiles. Focus on that and let the rest of the world and its chaos disappear.
Just count the tiles...
The debris from yet another take-out lunch had been cleared away, and BA was staring unhappily at the pile of papers on the table. Hannibal pulled a cigar and motioned him toward the door.
Walking out to the van, BA had a pretty good idea of what the colonel wanted to talk about. What he planned to do next, where they were going to go, how he planned to deal with Face, what he expected from BA... Same song, next verse.
Instead, Hannibal went to a whole different hymnal.
"What do you think about this whole Wrenn thing, BA?"
It took a moment for BA to switch focus. It wasn't that he hadn't thought about "this whole Wrenn thing", long before Face had taken off even, and he knew damn well Hannibal understood what those thoughts were. But was Hannibal suddenly asking for his opinion on where to go from here? Had he finally faced cold reality, a reality BA had tried to warn him about, over and over since they'd found Face?
It would have given him a somewhat sadistic satisfaction, but the surprise of the question had brought another to the forefront. It was something he'd thought about many times, and now, after all that had happened, he had to have an answer. And a real answer - no evasions, no excuses. Not now.
"Was this another Saigon, Hannibal?"
Hannibal stopped, cigar in hand, match unlit. He'd thought that issue had died back in the hospital, when Wiley's confession had taken center stage.
Wished it had.
"What does Wrenn have to do with Saigon?" Stay calm. Reasonable.
"You saw what Face did to him. What he was going to do. I need to know - is that what happened in Saigon? Did he really beat that guy to death?" BA swallowed, not wanting to ask. "Could he do it again?"
Hannibal looked at the barren mountains around them. What was he supposed to say to that? He looked at BA, still waiting, growing impatient. Angry.
"Saigon was... special circumstances. Her name was Dao Quy. I guess that was another thing I never told you guys. I think it meant 'Precious Peach'." He stopped, seeing her face as clearly as if she was standing there. "He wasn't just shacking up with her, BA. It may have started out that way - doesn't matter. He was bringing her back to base with him because he intended to marry her. I saw the paperwork. He was going strictly by the book.
"He loved her, BA. And I know for a fact she loved him. And those 'Marines' beat the shit out of her and an old man who never did a damn thing to them. They beat her. Raped her. Then they cut her to shreds."
Hannibal angrily threw the dead cigar on the ground.
"He went after them. And yeah, he took a baseball bat to the two he could get his hands on. The dead guy was the ringleader. And while I don't think Face did the actual killing, I wouldn't blame him one god-damned bit if he did. What would you have done? When you knew damn well they'd get a few months in the brig and a dishonorable discharge and then go on to live their sorry lives - because all they did was kill a couple of gooks."
The two men stood, the only sound the distant traffic from the highway, neither looking at the other. BA finally spoke, his voice quiet.
"Why'd he act like it was no big deal, then? When he come back?"
There was no accusation in the questions, just puzzlement. Hannibal relaxed, just a bit.
"Because that's what he does when he's hurting, BA. Hell, he'd lived his whole life in institutions, surrounded by people who had their own lives and didn't really give a shit about his. And he wasn't exactly coming back to people who had warm and fuzzy feelings about him."
BA just looked away.
"A mutual hatred that went way back. I've a pretty good suspicion that Wrenn was pushing him toward things he wanted no part of. That's why he wanted in with us." Hannibal would not mention that episode in Cholon; he knew full well why that happened. "He saw a chance to get us off the hook, just like I did, and he took it. And yeah, he went too far - but if I'd listened to you, none of this would've happened.
"You were right, BA, I should have told him about Wrenn. We could've worked together then - but I didn't give him the chance. I left him to handle things on his own. Can you imagine the planning that went into this?" There was a tiny hint of pride, before he remembered. "And the pressure he put on himself to contrive and execute this mission of his. But we both know why. You heard him, as clearly as I did. So we could move on with our lives. Move on - and be 'free' of him."
Hannibal pulled a fresh cigar, noticing his hand shook a bit as he lit it. Damn.
"Do I think it will happen again? No. No, I don't, BA. I don't think he'll ever let himself care enough to do it again."
Colonel Franklin sat back, looking at the various papers strewn over his desk. Reports, memos, inquiries... orders. Just four years from retirement, he almost wished he'd never listened to Longway all those months ago. It had made sense, though, and had they been successful in bringing in Smith and his damn bunch, it would've made a great end to the Franklin's career.
Now there was this whole debacle in Nevada.
Though quickly squashed by officials, it was too late to prevent all reports of the clusterfuck from getting out. That was nobody's fault; Longway had kept a loose eye on Wrenn after the Ackman incident, and dutifully reported the somewhat dubious characters he associated with, but nobody expected Smith or any of his jerk-offs to actually get in touch with the man. The news release was simply unfortunate. Particularly for the ATF. Unbeknownst to the Army, they'd had their own quiet investigation of Wrenn going on which had been blown wide open. With Wrenn's wild claims about Peck, the Army and thus Lynch, Longway, and Franklin had been dragged into the middle of it. Not that those claims were being given much credence. If Wrenn had something on the team that the Army didn't already know, Smith would have gone after him much sooner than this, and nothing in the decoded files had so far mentioned any of the team except in generalized terms. No, there was nothing to it, although the housekeeper's rather vague descriptions of those so-called FBI agents was a bit unsettling.
The colonel stared at his desk and sighed. All that was beside the point. Once the A-Team was mentioned, the higher-ups had decided it was up to him to clear up the whole mess regardless, while the ATF would get all the credit for bringing down Wrenn and his cohorts.
The first step for Franklin was dealing with that idiot, Lynch.
Much as he liked the idea, there was no way to get him out of the Army. But a transfer, say to California... That would at least get him far away from Longway. Lynch was getting too defensive and too loud about the major's "guidance". And there was a certain General Bullen out there who wouldn't be a general at all if he hadn't screwed Franklin over. It would take calling in a few favors - one didn't just shift personnel to a general's command without 'permission' - but it could be done. Calling in favors was SOP in the military, after all.
He'd smiled as he realized it would also solve the other problem Franklin faced - Major Longway himself. There were still whispers about Neumann and Brazil going around; this latest mess wouldn't help his career any. He was capable, eminently so, and the colonel would hate to lose him, but he would be much better off helping the CID in their joint operation with the ATF. Sever that connection with Lynch's obsessional hunt for Smith, and enable him to 'encourage' dismissal of Wrenn's claims about Peck...
Yeah, it would definitely be best for all to bury any possible connection with Smith et al., however improbable. The Army was just as anxious for that as he was. That whole money angle had been a good idea, but far too tenuous to hang on to any longer. Making sure Longway's reports concerning Wrenn's activities were noted certainly wouldn't hurt his reputation - or Franklin's. And considering Smith no doubt had his hands full with Peck, Franklin figured they'd been steering clear of any attention, real or fictional. Wrenn could actually turn out to be a godsend for everyone involved, grabbing the headlines while making further reports of the team as believable as Sasquatch sightings.
Colonel Franklin grinned as he reached for the phone. He'd left the major stewing in the outer office long enough. Time to deliver the good news.
Murdock paid little attention when BA and Hannibal left. He glanced at Face, wondering, hoping he might at least look their direction, but he just kept staring at the ceiling. His lunch sat untouched on the nightstand. Other than the take-out in Kingman and a bit of breakfast, he hadn't eaten anything since leaving Wrenn's. Murdock wasn't sure he'd eaten anything while there, either. The man had to be starving by now, but he showed no interest in food, or anything else for that matter.
It was like time had shifted back to that trip from Alabama. Only worse.
Murdock started putting the current file away, carefully tapping the papers so they were neatly lined up together. For some reason, Face noticed that. Murdock watched as he frowned, got up from the bed, still slow and stiff, and headed into the bathroom.
Locked the door. Murdock heard it. Three times.
The last time he'd been in there almost a half hour. Murdock wasn't worried. The first time he'd come out without a 'warning' flush, BA had waited until he'd settled on the bed again. Then he'd gone in, coming out a few minutes later with a garbage bag that he quietly put in the closet. When Murdock went in next, everything but one hand towel was gone.
Hannibal had raised an eyebrow but said nothing.
Face didn't seem to care.
So far, so good. Murdock pulled another file from the box, opened his notebook to the next blank page, began decoding.
He looked up, startled. How long had Hannibal been watching him? He recalled hearing him and BA come back in, but was so engrossed in decoding this last sheet, he hadn't really paid attention. But it was no wonder Face had wanted that file. There was some good stuff here. Well, not good, actually really bad, but -
A little firmer this time. Right. Maybe Hannibal had figured out what to do about the VA and Richter. Murdock jumped up, heading for the door Hannibal was holding open. One quick glance at Face as he left.
As with BA, Hannibal took Murdock by surprise. It was usually the best way to get past pretenses and find out what was really on his men's minds. He just hoped he would be 'happier' in the end than he had been with BA.
"Okay, Captain, why don't we start with you telling me what happened to my car."
"Oh, um, it's uh..."
"You do remember where you guys left it, don't you?"
"Well, yeah, kinda. I don't know the address. I don't know if it had an address. It was this farm thing, um, produce, I think. I mean, it was just a building, and it was dark..."
"And where was this 'produce' place?"
"Mugu. Well, not at Mugu exactly, but, maybe a mile or so from there."
"I don't suppose either of you would know the name of this place?"
Murdock hung his head. "Sorry, Hannibal."
Hannibal struggled with his temper. He'd figured the car would've been hidden somewhere, that he could just go there and pick it up. Now he was thinking that a stray car left in a parking lot for days would more likely be in an impound lot. Meaning a personal appearance, cover story, paperwork, fines...
Great. Just great.
"Tell me, Captain - at what point did you realize that Face was going to steal that plane?"
"Not until after we got to the base, Colonel. I thought we were just doing some recon for you until then. Honest."
Ignore that hopeful smile. There was a time to indulge and a time to rein in. Hannibal had no intention of letting Murdock think he could pull this kind of shit again.
"And at what point did you tell Face that you absolutely were not going to fly a stolen plane?"
Murdock kicked at the dirt. Hannibal waited.
"I tried to talk him out of it. But he told me why he wanted to do it and then I couldn't say no."
"He told you he was going after Wrenn and you decided to help him? Murdock - "
"No, he didn't tell me he was going after Wrenn. Geez!" Murdock whipped around, stalking off a few paces before turning back to Hannibal. "He said he wanted to get me back in a plane so I wouldn't think I was... washed-up. And he needed to prove to you that he could still plan an operation, that he wasn't just... But he never mentioned Wrenn. I didn't know about that until it was too late."
Hannibal closed his eyes. Took a deep breath. None so blind... He didn't doubt those reasons Face had given were the truth. Originally. He'd known Face was planning something for Murdock for a long time. Getting him back in a plane made sense, after Brazil. Proving something to Hannibal? Yeah, he could accept that, considering how Faced chafed at restrictions. And Hannibal had made no secret about where Lynch's plane was. Golden opportunity.
But when the hell had he found out about Wrenn? When did those good intentions turn to murder?
He shook his head. It didn't matter. Not anymore. Listening to BA and now Murdock, he realized how many times he'd gone left when he should've gone right, seen the action instead of the intention, pushed when he should have pulled. And now he had to pull with all his might if any of his world could be salvaged. Damn, he needed to think!
"Okay, Murdock. Go on back. I'll be there in a while."
Murdock nodded, hesitating. "Uh, will I be able to go back to the VA, Hannibal? Or..."
Hannibal sighed. "I'll come up with something, Murdock. Don't worry."
Another nod and Murdock hurried back to the room.
Hannibal lit yet another cigar, and start walking slowly in the opposite direction. Yeah, he needed to think very carefully before the next step...