CHAPTER THIRTY THREE

The drive through Bad Rock was short and uncomfortable. Face huddled in the back seat, hands stuffed into his pockets, eyes looking out the window. Hannibal could swear he never blinked. He wondered if this was such a good idea. Face was already shell-shocked from BA's outburst. Just getting him ready to go was frustrating. They had to tell him three times to get his coat on before it seemed to register with him.

He looked over at Maggie. He could see she was also nervous about this. They didn't know if Face would even get out of the car. And what if there were a lot of people around? With Face so uncomfortable around them, what would he do if there were a crowd?

The tree lot was at one end of the strip mall. There was still a pretty good selection of trees and not that many people around. Hannibal made himself think positively. This would be okay. They could do this.

Maggie was out of the car and headed into the lot before Hannibal even turned off the engine. She looked back at him, raised an eyebrow, and continued on. Hannibal opened the back door, where Face sat unmoving.

"C'mon, kid, let's go find a tree."

Nothing.

"Face, c'mon. Maggie wants a tree and she wants us to help her find one. Ok?"

Face blinked, slowly pushed himself out of the car. Hands immediately into his pockets. He looked around, apprehensively. He couldn't see Maggie. Where was she?

"Maggie's gone ahead. We'll catch up with her, okay?"

"Ok."

It took some time to locate Maggie. She was wandering about the lot, hoping to give Hannibal and Face some time by themselves. But Face had other ideas. He watched around him like a hawk until he finally spotted her. He made a beeline for her, forcing Hannibal to hurry his steps just to keep up. As they came up to her, he shook his head. So far it was not working.

For nearly an hour they walked among the cut trees, Maggie and Hannibal discussing the various good and bad points of the trees they looked at. They kept asking Face his opinion, but he just shrugged, if he responded at all. He really didn't know why they insisted he come along; he wouldn't know a 'good' tree if it bit him in the ass. He just wanted to go back to the house, sit in his chair, and be left alone.

No one paid much attention when the semi pulled up to the lot, loaded with more trees. The driver, a big burly man who would've put BA to shame if he had muscle instead of flab, clambered down from the cab and strolled into the lot. He was looking for the owner. He'd been on the road for hours and wanted to get this load off and go get some sleep. He saw Face standing there and lumbered over.

"Hey, you know where the owner is, fella?"

Face stood there, staring off into space.

"Hey, you, I'm talkin' to you guy. You know the owner of this place?"

Nothing.

"Whassa matter with you, buster? You got a problem talkin' to me? Huh?" He jabbed Face. "Huh, guy, you got a problem?"

Face jerked around, startled. Who was this guy? Where'd he come from? He felt his hands clench in the pockets.

"Cat gotcher tongue, dummy? Huh? What's your problem?" Another jab.

Face felt hot. Very hot. The man's voice was echoing in his head, sounding far away and yet loud in his ears. His hands were coming out of the pockets. Go away. Go away.

Hannibal and Maggie were haggling with one of the salesman when the fat man's voice carried over to them. Too late, Hannibal realized that trouble was coming, and coming fast. Face had gone rigid and his whole body seemed to be vibrating. His hands were out, down at his sides. Clenching, releasing, clenching again.

Face put one foot a half-step back, balancing himself. The driver, no stranger to brawls, saw it immediately. He smiled. A crowd had started gathering, keeping their distance, knowing something entertaining was beginning. Their presence upped the stress levels Face was feeling. His back door was closing up. Fight or flight was becoming less and less of a choice.

Hannibal moved quickly toward them, but not quickly enough. He saw the fat man take the first swing, trying to hide it behind a "I give up" gesture. There was a blur of motion as Face easily ducked the fist, and returned with his own. But Face was not going for a knockout punch. He was going for the kill. Only the man's own instincts, and Face's slowed reflexes, kept the man from having his larynx crushed.

The driver had been propelled to one side by the blow. Enraged, the driver lunged, grabbing Face around the waist in a bear hug. Before he could lift him up, Face wrapped his feet behind the man's knees and plunged his upper body backward, ending up on top of the man as he lay flat on his back, struggling to breathe. Face rolled off, and prepared for the finishing blow. He would have killed the man then and there had not Hannibal grabbed his arm and spun him around.

"FACE!" Hannibal practically screamed at him, holding his wrists.

Hannibal was not prepared for the exultation he saw in Face's eyes. He was still holding Face's wrists up, trying to keep him off balance. He saw the other man's eyes flicker, catching sight of the held hands. A split second of confusion in those eyes, followed by something Hannibal could only describe as horror. Startled, Hannibal loosened his hold on Face, who wrenched free and took off running.

In a split second, Hannibal was after him. Maggie, having watched in dismay, ran behind them, trying to keep up. They followed Face across the street and down an alley. Hannibal stopped, breathing hard. Face had disappeared. Maggie caught up with him and they moved down the alley, looking in every nook and cranny. They found him sitting in a doorway, staring at nothing, mumbling as he rocked slowly back and forth. He was roughly rubbing his hands, squeezing and kneading them. Maggie knelt beside him.

"Face? Face, honey, do you hear me?"

"What's he saying?" Hannibal was next to her, practically on top of Face.

She leaned closer, trying to hear the whispers. At first she thought he was praying. She couldn't make out the words clearly. She looked up at Hannibal.

"Something about control..."