CHAPTER FIFTEEN

It was some ways to the cabin, and, although it was not quite noon, the heat was stifling. Hannibal found himself breathing heavily, not a good sign. He glanced back, noting that BA and Murdock, too, were not faring well. He knew they were all out of shape; he hadn't realized how much. Nick seemed almost unaffected.

"So, how long have you lived out here?"

"Since '71. My brother had been here since the late '60's, and I just wasn't happy going the white collar, nine to five thing. First thing I had to do was talk to old Charlie. If he didn't like you, you didn't stay."

"Oh, yeah? He kinda the leader here?"

"You could say that." Nick was silent for a few minutes. "Charlie started this place. Kind of a Timothy Leary type."

Hannibal stopped. "A dope head?"

"Hey, weren't we all, back then?" He looked at Hannibal. "Well, maybe not. But, yeah, he did his share of experimenting. Into Eastern philosophy and religions. The whole Maharishi thing. And everyone that stayed here was pretty much that way, too. It was a groove." He chuckled, then sobered. "But, uh, he's come down to earth since then. For the most part."

"We don't work with dope heads, you know."

Nick stopped. It wasn't quite a glare he gave Hannibal, but it came close. "Charlie's good people. He doesn't make snap judgments, takes people for what they are. I suggest you do the same, Colonel. Otherwise, you'll get no help from anyone here."

"I thought we were helping you."

"Sometimes it works both ways." Again, that uncomfortable look flashed over Nick's face. "Give him a chance. You won't regret it."

Hannibal didn't have a good feeling about this. But BA and Murdock wanted to go on with the mission. So be it.

"Lead on, Nick."


*****

BA and Murdock had been listening to the conversation. BA was growing more and more unhappy with the situation. On top of everything else, now a doped up freak to deal with. What the hell was Hannibal thinking?

He kept looking around him. People were dressed "normally" - shorts, t-shirts. Some still wore beads and headbands, but nothing really out there. Still, there was something about the glances they were getting. Not hostility, not curiosity even.

More like they were being sized up.

He nudged Murdock. "You see the way we're bein looked at?"

Murdock casually glanced about. "Kinda like lobsters in the tank, huh?" He waved at one of the ladies, who promptly blushed and turned away. BA just scowled and stepped further away from Murdock. If Richter hadn't said Murdock needed this crap, he'd turn around and take the two of them out of here.

They'd almost reached their destination when, out of the corner of his eye, he spotted something coming up on his left. Suddenly stopping, he turned quickly and found himself looking down at a small boy - a very small boy. They stared at each other for a split second, before the little boy grinned up at him, displaying a remarkable gap in his front teeth.

Another day, another time, and BA would have immediately made a new friend. But BA knew why kids liked him - because they felt safe with him. Protected. Everybody felt like BA would protect them.

BA gave him what he hoped was a noncommittal smile, and stepped aggressively ahead, leaving the boy behind. Didn't need that now. That's why he'd quit workin at those day care places.

Didn't want no eyes lookin at him, trustin him...


*****

Murdock was looking over the shoulders of Nick and Hannibal at their destination. He was fascinated by the structure, which appeared to be some sort of old bus, added onto and somewhat remodeled into a house. Of sorts. Looking more closely, he could still see the faded paint on the sides of the bus - flowers, peace signs...and paisley! He giggled. He hadn't seen that in ages. Especially on a bus.

As they stepped up toward the tottering porch, the man Murdock figured was Charlie came sauntering out of the front door. Well, what Murdock assumed was the front door. It appeared there were several doors leading from the porch into the house. But it was the man himself Murdock focused on.

After listening to Nick talk about Charlie, he had expected some kind of sandal-footed, robe-clad guru. But the man stepping out on the porch, watching their approach with sharp eyes, looked just like Uncle Jesse Duke. Ruffled white hair and beard, checked shirt and bib overalls, work boots...and a big, welcoming smile. Murdock had to fight the urge to look for the General Lee.

"Welcome, gentlemen. I understand you've come to offer assistance..."


*****

They were all sitting in what Hannibal assumed was the living room. While cramped with the five of them, he could see that, for one person, it was more than adequate. And not badly made up.

For an old bus.

Charlie had offered coffee or Scotch and served the accepted coffee before seating himself in a rather large overstuffed chair in the corner, glass of Scotch balanced on the arm. From there, he could see each of them comfortably, whereas his guests were forced to sit sideways or suffer permanent neck damage in order to look at their host. Hannibal's estimation of the man went up, although he still had an instinctive dislike of the man.

"So, gentlemen. What can old Charlie help you with?" He smiled that benign smile that Hannibal was beginning to get sick of.

"We need to talk to Ed."

"Ed?"

"Ed Mordake. Nick here said you could set it up."

"Ahh. Or, not set it up, if I so choose, correct, Nick?"

Nick blushed. Charlie smiled. Hannibal frowned.

"Well, Nick was pretty much on target. Ed doesn't like visitors. Prefers that I deal with them on his behalf."

"Is that pretty much automatic, or do you bother to ask him first?"

Charlie's smile turned almost cunning as he looked back at Hannibal.

"You don't like me much, do you, Colonel? Which puzzles me a bit. I don't believe we've ever met, have we?"

"No, Charlie, we haven't. I just don't have a lot of liking for people who use."

"Ahh. I understand, now. You're, uh, regular Army, correct? Or rather, were."

Hannibal straightened in his chair. "That's right. So?"

"It takes a certain kind of outlook on life for that kind of career, don't you think, Colonel? This isn't intended as an insult, but it does take a certain...narrow view of things. Focused would perhaps be the better word. You know what you know. Correct?"

"When it comes to drugs, yeah, I know what I know."

Charlie actually laughed. A very pleasant laugh, Hannibal was surprised to note. "I have relatives that are exactly the same way, Colonel. I'm not offended by them, nor by you. Would it make you feel better to know that I very rarely partake any more?"

"Possibly. People make mistakes, learn from them."

Here Charlie sat up a little straighter, himself, and looked with slightly narrowed eyes at Hannibal.

"Yes, yes, indeed they do, Colonel. If they can learn from them. If they're willing to." He sat back, relaxed again. "As to the drugs, frankly, I don't consider them a mistake. A learning experience, rather, and very insightful. However, now I find other things in life much better for expanding my horizons."

"Such as?"

"People, Colonel Smith. People. Such wondrous beings we are! So full of contradictions. So full of emotions. So full of shit!" Charlie laughed loudly at the expressions on their faces. "Ah, if only people could be honest with each other, with themselves..." he sobered, shaking his head sadly, "...so much pain could be avoided. For ourselves and for others. Instead, we mete out shit, to spare feelings, to live up to expectations, to be something we are not, but whom others wish us to be."

Hannibal glanced over at BA and Murdock. Murdock seemed totally enthralled with the man, which didn't surprise him. But BA...BA wasn't scowling, as expected. He looked...stunned.

"Uh, Charlie...about Ed..." Nick came to their rescue. He seemed accustomed to reeling the man in.

"Oh, yes, yes, of course, excuse me, excuse me! Ed! Well, he won't see you, of course..."

"Why not?"

"Why, because he doesn't see anyone. A total recluse, with the exception of myself. Always was a little...shy, that way."

"Well, he apparently has some plan in mind. I mean, he bought the mineral rights that Sinon was after."

"Oh, I'm quite sure he has something in mind. Always does. Always cooking up some little scheme of some sort or another. Quite enjoys it. But that doesn't mean he's going to see you."

Hannibal was getting very tired of this whole merry-go-round. Charlie had a way of speaking that made one dizzy.

"Okay, Charlie, why don't you just tell us where Ed lives? We'll go see him. If he doesn't want to talk to us, we'll leave him alone. Okay? But we really should know what he's got going here. I don't want to do something that's going to blow up in our...that's going to go to hell because of something he's got going. Nor," he added, thinking about Charlie's protectiveness, "would I want to inadvertently cause Ed to get hurt."

Charlie looked hard at him, and Hannibal knew he'd seen through the ruse. All the way through and back to the truth it was.

"Well, I can't tell you where he lives. He trusts me not to let anyone near his sanctum, and I won't betray that. But I will go myself and ask him. I swear, I will do my utmost to persuade him. I do understand, Colonel," Charlie gently interrupted Hannibal's protest. "I really do. Of course, it's best if you talk to him yourself. For all concerned." Charlie stood, their interview over. "I'll let you know as soon as I can. Possibly this evening, by tomorrow morning at the latest."

Hannibal knew when to call it quits.

"Okay, Charlie. Thank you. I'll be waiting to hear from you."

It took several minutes to leave. BA moved slowly, as if lost in thought. Murdock had slipped by Hannibal and was engulfing Charlie in a convoluted and very one-sided discussion about his fellow VA members. By the time Hannibal was out of the house, out of the yard, and standing in the very hot sun, he felt like he'd just walked out of carnival funhouse.

Nick was the last to leave, after BA had emerged from his thoughts enough to drag Murdock out.

"I'll be right with you, Colonel." He turned back to Charlie, who stood just inside the door. "Well?"

"I think it might just work, Nicky. Two birds won't be easy, and three, next to impossible. But then again, what in life is easy, eh?"

They smiled gently at each other, and Nick walked out to join his guests.