CHAPTER EIGHTY FIVE

The Preacher wasn't at all surprised by Smith's reaction. Eyes nearly closed, head tilted just a hair, Smith hadn't said a word for almost a full minute. Then he'd smiled, a broad smile, pulled a cigar from his pocket, lit it, and spoke.

"Well, you're good, I'll say that for you. Stockwell's moving up to the top guns, huh?"

He returned Smith's smile. "The general is always on the lookout for good men, Colonel. You should know that."

Smith chuckled. "Yeah, well, he seems to have a knack for it. So, you think we have some business to discuss, huh? Before or after you call in the Ables?"

"If we can conclude our discussion satisfactorily, I won't have to call them in. At all."

That stopped Smith, and the Preacher felt a small surge of pride. It took a lot to catch John "Hannibal" Smith off guard.

Recovering quickly, Smith grabbed a puff from his cigar and smiled again, although the smile had a bit of steel to it this time. "So? I'm listening."

"This might take a while. Shall we move around the corner? There's a very nice little cafe there - quiet, private."

Smith glanced across the alley to Face's window. A light shown through but he hadn't seen any movement for some time. The Preacher watched the quick frown and decided to forestall any objections.

"Colonel, we both know that if the general knew he was here, that you were here - well, we wouldn't be talking. Your lieutenant is perfectly safe. And will remain so. Believe me - he couldn't be safer."

It took another few seconds before he knew Smith understood the implications of the statement. His partner had been right - the colonel's highest priority was the safety of his men. And he was quick.

The two men moved casually down the alley and around the corner, where, as promised, stood a small cafe. Comfortable without being careless, private without being claustrophobic. Smith allowed the Preacher to lead the way to a table toward the back. The waitress stepped over quickly, smiling and handing out coffee. She automatically placed a small pitcher of real cream in front of the Preacher, an action not missed by Smith.

"Come here often?" he grinned.

"Every day, Colonel. A very nice place to conduct whatever business I need to attend to."

The two men sipped their coffee, studying each other while appearing not to.

"So, what does Stockwell want?"

"I think we both know what he wants, Colonel. And we both know he'll get it. It's how he gets it that matters to us."

"So this is an 'us' situation? You have a stake in the team's future?"

"Most definitely, Colonel. I've gone out on a limb - a very long, thin limb - to get to this point. You could say I have as much at stake right now as you and your team do."

"Just cost yourself some bargaining power there, mister."

"You can call me 'Preacher'. And there is no bargaining, Colonel. This is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition."

Smith frowned. Obviously the man didn't like what he was hearing so far. The Preacher moved quickly to reel him back in.

"What I am proposing is a way for you and your team to return to the general's...protection...without repercussions. No problems for you, no problems for the team. No problems for the lieutenant."

"Sounds like so much bullshit there, Preacher." The smile that was not quite a smile again. "We've caused Stockwell a lot of headaches over the last few months. And Fa...my lieutenant even more so. Why should Stockwell welcome us back like prodigal sons?"

"Because if he doesn't, he would find that certain information he thought dead and buried could...resurface. Very quickly."

As expected, that got Smith's attention...


*****

"Templeton, I think it's time that you met with Colonel Smith."

"No. Not yet. I..."

"Templeton..." Magill's voice took on that tone he knew so well. After all these years, it still made him cringe. "You've come as far as you can with me. You know what the truth is, and you've come to terms with it. Except when it comes to Smith and the team. You need to talk to him."

"And say what, Father? Talking is not going to change things. I just don't feel..."

"Templeton, you don't feel anything for them because you won't let yourself. Because you're filling your mind and soul with Randy. And Randy is dead."

"You think I don't know that? What the hell is wrong with you?!"

He stood, aghast. He had never, ever spoken to the old man like that. What the hell was wrong with him? He couldn't speak, seeing the pain and hurt in Magill's eyes.

"I...I'm sorry, Father. Really, I'm so sorry...I didn't mean that..."

"Templeton, can you see now why I want you to see Hannibal? Why you have to talk this out with him? Let him know what you're feeling, what you felt, what Randy meant to you? Give him the opportunity to understand? This is tearing you up inside and nothing is going to change that unless and until you share it - with your family."

His tone was softer, but dismissive. "My family..."

"Yes, Templeton. Your family! They were, long before you ever met Randy. And, mistakes or not, they remained your family throughout all of this. Did you ever stop to think about your rescue? Who do you think instigated that? Who was it who ran from this Stockwell, chancing their own deaths? Who was it who followed you across the United States, never giving up, even after those terrible things in California? Who never gave up on getting you back? Who never gave up on you?"

He stared out of the window. Hannibal. He knew that. Hannibal and Murdock and BA. They had taken a lot of chances for him...big chances...

"And who did the same thing after you left them this last time? Who went after you yet again? Even after you shot him?"

He flinched at that. Damn. Randy. Hannibal. It seemed he wasn't much of a friend to any of them...

"Templeton, you don't have to feel guilty about any of the things you've done. It wasn't you. And they realize that. All of them. Even Randy. Otherwise he wouldn't have stayed with you. And Colonel Smith could have walked away, but he didn't. Because he knew, too.

"Don't you understand, Templeton, that that's what families do? Yes, they get angry at each other. Yes, there are misunderstandings. But they never turn their back, especially when a member of the family is in trouble. And none of them did."

"I did."

"No, Templeton, you didn't. You didn't. That wasn't you." Magill sighed, and he knew the priest was losing patience with him.

He wanted, really wanted, to go back with the team. He wanted to feel what he knew he had felt before. Like he belonged with them. Almost. Not quite the way he and Randy had belonged together. But close. It wasn't that easy, though. He couldn't just make himself feel things. All he could feel now was guilt for what he'd done, and, once again the outsider he'd always felt like, a longing to belong.

Maybe that would have to do. For now. Until they decided if they would keep him or not. Until he knew if he really had a chance...

"Okay, Father, you win. I'll talk to him. Set it up." He sighed, resigned and afraid at the same time. He wondered if the priest really knew what was at stake, what he could lose, meeting with Hannibal.


*****

He sat back from the desk, amazed. Half their work was done, and they hadn't had to lift a finger to accomplish it. He shook his head. No wonder the lieutenant had turned out the way he had - with a man like that guiding him. From Magill to Smith - damn. He wanted to smack Peck upside the head for not realizing how lucky he had been, how willingly he had turned his back on that life.

Then he remembered why he'd left them...

He lit a cigarette, inhaled deeply. He wished the Preacher would get back here. He wished even more that he'd been able to convince him to wear a wire. He needed to know if their plan was going to work, now more than ever. If Smith balked...they'd all lose.

He had no doubts Smith would agree to talk with Peck. Hell, he was probably chomping at the bit, wondering what had gone on inside those walls. Just as well he didn't know. If he had heard the anger, the guilt, the doubt coming from his XO, maybe the deal with Stockwell wouldn't sound as enticing. And it would be enticing. If Smith was convinced it could actually work, if the Preacher could make him believe they could pull it off, he would go for it. Hook, line, and sinker.

It was maddening. So much at stake, so much riding on a stranger's ability to persuade. He worried, despite the fact he had great faith in his new partner. He wasn't a stranger to the Preacher's reputation. It was almost like a giant club, a fraternity of assassins, con artists, magicians...all doing dirty jobs so others' hands would stay lily-white. Building up the reputations of the people they worked for, making those people powerful and dangerous, not only because of what they knew, but because of whom they employed. Who they controlled.

But those powerful, dangerous people rarely realized who was actually in control. A lesson Stockwell was learning the hard way. He smiled, bitterly.

He heard the signal rapped on the door. A moment later, the Preacher sat down beside him, slightly breathless. A satisfied smile.

"Good news. He's in."

He smiled back. "Better news. Magill has already convinced Peck to meet with him."

The Preacher stared back at him; seconds later his smile grew into a grin. And then faded.

"Can Smith do it?"

"Yeah. Peck is ready. He won't want to go back to Langley, but he wants to be back with the team. Badly. He'll do whatever Smith tells him to."

"That's not exactly what you wanted."

"No one gets everything they want. But it's close enough. He'll put forth the effort. And, like you said, he's dealt with the priest this time. I think it's time to give Stockwell a wake-up call." He relit his cigarette, blowing out the stale smoke before inhaling, deep. "But I want to deal with him myself. You just call him."

"You're sure?"

"Yeah. I want this." His voice hardened for a moment before turning light. "Besides, it gets you off the hook - a little."

They grinned at each other like schoolboys planning a panty-raid. The Preacher picked up the phone, dialed.

"General? Yes, something has definitely happened. I have someone here who'd like to speak with you."

He took the phone from the Preacher, a devilish grin forming.

"Hello, Stockwell. This is Lazarus..."