CHAPTER FOURTEEN

BA propelled the van down the freeway, out of LA, heading east toward the border. Hannibal had said their client lived about four hours away, somewhere near the western borders of Nevada and Arizona, in a small artists' community. From the description, it sounded like a bunch of over-aged hippies, but BA didn't say anything.

The gist of their problem was a group of so-called investors who wanted to purchase the mineral rights to the community's property. The community leaders had refused, since it meant opening up their land to mining. The investors had, of course, taken this badly and decided to use whatever means necessary to secure those rights. 'Whatever means necessary' had been slowly building up from constant phone calls to acts of vandalism. Their client was afraid things might take an even more serious turn.

"What minerals are they looking for, Colonel? Gold?" Murdock chuckled.

"Might as well be. Something they call a 'rare earth mineral'. Whatever it is, they use it in televisions, computer equipment, electronics in general. But I get the feeling there's something more to it. There's several other mining operations out there, doing the same thing. So it's not like it's the only place they can get it."

"Think the client ain't tellin us everything?"

"I don't know, BA. There was something...off about him. Something he wasn't telling me. Maybe he just wasn't all that sure about us yet. It happens. We'll get more details when we get there."

BA couldn't help but think that Face woulda got it outta the sucker. He could smell somethin wrong a mile away and he'd go after it like a terrier. Wouldn't let loose until he'd wormed it outta the client. Most times, they ended up not bein a client.

Hannibal had let it go. BA glanced over at him, sitting shotgun as always, puffin on his cigar like he hadn't a care in the world. BA scowled.

He shoulda found out.


*****

Murdock stepped out of the van, looking around with an air of confusion. No matter which direction he looked, there was nothing. Well, almost nothing. A scattering of strange looking trees, scrub brush, low mountains in the distance.

And sand.

Lots and lots of sand.

"Hannibal?"

Hannibal was re-reading the directions the client had given him. Somehow, he must have missed a turn. He must have...

"Uh...yeah, Murdock..."

"Are you sure this is..."

"Positive, Murdock. We're a little off-course, but nothing we can't straighten out. Right, BA?"

"Sure."

Murdock looked over at the two men. The words were bantering, but the tone was off. Hannibal almost sounded...impatient. And BA...well, there it was again. Something was wrong with BA. Murdock looked around again, wishing he could see something that looked...earthly.

He looked back at his teammates, who were now both looking over the sheet of directions. Finally, BA shook his head, grabbed the letter and stalked back to the van. Hannibal watched him for a moment; Murdock didn't know for sure what that look on his face meant. It disappeared when he turned toward the pilot.

"C'mon, Murdock. BA's got it."

Murdock stole one more look at the desert around them.

He could just hear what Face would be saying about now...


*****

Nearly an hour later, the van came over a hill and BA pulled it to a stop. They looked down into a coulee where several ramshackle houses and other small buildings were scattered. If it hadn't been for a couple of dogs and several small children gathered near one house, they might have been looking at a ghost town.

One of the older children suddenly stood and pointed up at their van. A man and woman came hurrying out of the house. While the woman hustled the children inside, the man, joined by several other residents, came walking toward them. Hannibal looked at BA and nodded. Slowly they drove down the hill to meet the welcoming committee.

The three men stepped out of the van. The first thing Hannibal noticed was that there was no hostility here, only cautious curiosity. But they had taken the precaution of hiding the children. Careful, not paranoid. The investors apparently hadn't stepped up their attacks. Yet.

"Can we help you gentlemen?" The first man spoke, soft, with a slight drawl.

"We're looking for Nick Wasserman."

"May I ask why?" The group had moved somewhat closer together at the mention of the client's name, but again, Hannibal only noticed caution.

"It's okay, Pete." A man stepped up from the back of the group, grasping Hannibal's hand firmly. "Glad to see you, Colonel. If you'll come with me..."

Before they knew what was happening, the team found themselves being led up a rise to a small house. Woodworking tools could be seen in the open doors of a shed next to it.

Nick stepped up on the open porch and held the door open for them. Silently, they trooped in, followed by their client.

"Well, have a seat. Glad you found your way here."

"What was that all about, Nick? I got the impression this was a group decision."

"Well, it was." Nick had the grace to be embarrassed. "But now, well, things have changed a bit."

Hannibal pulled out a cigar, contemplating it. "How so, Nick?" He could see BA suddenly looking out of the window, Murdock moving toward the back of the house.

Nick sighed. "We sold the mineral rights."

Hannibal didn't say a word. He just looking at the cigar.

"To..."

"One of the residents."

"And..."

"And now we're kinda divided. Some of the residents think its his problem now, not ours. Still others didn't want to sell even to him. Others figure he did it just to protect the rest of us, and that Sinon - that's the investor's group - will come after us to get to him. But everybody's nervous about what might happen next. As far as hiring you guys, well, now they're kinda..."

"Negative?"

Nick just nodded his head.

"What are you people, pacifists or somethin?" BA scowled at the hapless man. They'd gone this route before and it was a hassle he didn't think worth doing again.

"Oh, no, nothing like that. More a bunch of over-aged hippies, really." Nick chuckled. "Most of us came out here back in the '70's, you know. This whole thing started out as a commune."

"While we was gettin our butts shot off..."

Murdock looked at BA, surprised. He'd never heard that level of bitterness before. Nick looked at him, eyes flashing.

"Some of us came here after serving over there. We were tired of killing and being killed. And yes, others of us were against the war from the start." Nick visibly brought himself under control. "But that's ancient history. If you want to stay and help us, fine. If not, I'll understand. We'll deal with it ourselves."

Nick waited. Hannibal looked at BA and Murdock. Reluctantly, BA nodded. He didn't like Nick, didn't like the setup, didn't like the place. But he'd seen the kids come out again to play, and they seemed happy here. This was their home. Nobody was gonna mess that up.

Murdock didn't want to be here. Period. There were more trees and greenery in LA. This place was like a whole other world. It didn't seem real. They had no business being here. Had no business being on a job at all. If Face were here...He sighed. He knew Hannibal wanted this. Apparently, so did BA. He didn't want to lose them, too.

"Whatever you say, Colonel."

Hannibal nodded and turned to Nick. "Okay, we're here. We'll take care of these guys. Now who owns the mineral rights?"

Again, Nick looked uncomfortable. "Fellow named Ed Mordake."

"Okay, let's go talk to the local hero..."

"I'm afraid that's not possible, Colonel Smith."

Hannibal sighed, stared up at the ceiling. "Why not, Nick?"

"He doesn't see anyone. Not much, anyway."

"Well, maybe we're the 'much' he will see."

"You'll have to talk to Charlie first."

Hannibal closed his eyes. Tight. "Who's Charlie?"

"Charlie's his cousin. Ed's cousin. He's pretty protective of him. Charlie says you don't see Ed, you don't see Ed."

Hannibal took a deep breath, let it out slowly. This was not going the way it should have. Not at all.

"Can you get us to Charlie? Or does he have a protective cousin, too?"

"Huh? Oh, no, Charlie's a regular motor mouth. He'll talk to you, no problem."

"Fine, Nick. Let's go see Charlie."

Nick grinned, looking almost like he was relieved. He led the way out of the house, and they headed up to the far end of the coulee.