CHAPTER SIXTEEN

It was a circuitous route to Ed's home. Although not far in miles, it took nearly 45 minutes, rounding through gullies, dry creek beds and around stands of Joshua trees. They had chosen the site for that very reason. To make it as difficult as possible, without being impossible, to find. Eventually, he stopped the jeep near an outcropping of rocks. He would have to walk the rest of the way. That, too, was planned, much to Charlie's discomfort.

Some ten minutes later he rounded a group of barrel cactus and stopped, waiting. He never went closer until Ed had seen him first. Something about the look on Ed's face the first time he had come straight to the door told him it was better this way.

The small trailer sat several yards away, the generator beside it humming softly. From off in the distance, he could hear a dog barking. He sighed. Ed was probably off on another hunt. He eased himself down on a large rock, his usual place, listening as the dog's barking got closer.

A few minutes later, he saw him in the distance, walking slowly across the hot sand, holding a cloth sack of some kind. Charlie squinted. Sighed. Yes, he'd acquired something new. Again. Charlie shook his head, unhappy. An obsession Ed had developed. A bizarre obsession, and Charlie didn't think it was at all healthy. So far, he had been unable to convince Ed of that.

The small dog barked again, and leaped up at Ed, wiggling in the air. A mutt of some kind, definitely part Jack Russell. Totally white except for one ear, which was speckled with black. The animal was totally psycho, never still, constantly sticking his nose into things. Such a contrast to the slow moving, methodical, and mainly silent Edward Mordake.

Ed loved that dog. And the feeling was mutual.

He was closer to the trailer and Charlie now, and the dog, Petey, noticed their guest for the first time. He took off like a shot, heading straight for Charlie, who stood and prepared for the onslaught. It was like getting hit with a bolt of white lightning, and for several minutes he wrestled playfully with the dog. Finally, Petey took off and Charlie looked up to see Ed standing by the trailer door.

"Hey, Ed."

Ed ducked his head when Charlie looked up, then smiled up at him, almost bashfully, before turning and entering the trailer.

Charlie's own smile faded. He wasn't looking forward to this conversation. Ed was almost pathological in his isolation. Charlie had to convince him to not only meet with these three men, but to work with them.

It was the only way...


*****

Nick had kept Hannibal and the guys busy since leaving Charlie's. First, getting them settled into the small cabin not far from his own, and then introducing them to the community.

People seemed genuinely friendly, although Hannibal sometimes felt he was being scrutinized more than welcomed. Nick informed him they had started with a small group of flower children, led by a charismatic Charles Hewitt.

"It stayed pretty small for a while. Then a brother of one of our ladies came to try and 'reclaim' his sister. He was a Vietnam vet, and didn't want his sister involved with any 'peace-niks'. He planned to stay only a few days. Instead, he ended up moving in with his sister and her partner. And he started telling his friends about this place where vets weren't spit at, but welcomed. It became kind of stopping off place for a lot of people trying to start new lives. A place to center, if you know what I mean.

"In its heyday, the village had nearly a hundred people. Now, we usually have around forty. Most are permanent, but during the winter we get an influx of visiting artists. They usually camp out around the perimeter, though, and not in the village itself."

Throughout the discourse, they wandered seemingly aimlessly, but Hannibal noted Nick kept them at the opposite end of the coulee from Charlie's cabin.

He had no doubt Charlie was already on his way to meet with Mordake. Not that Hannibal had had any intention of following him. It would be much better if the recluse could be convinced to meet with them, rather than having it forced upon him. But Hannibal admitted a growing curiosity about the man. He seemed to be somewhat 'farther afield' than even Murdock. Much farther.

And yet, there was obviously more than a little intelligence there. And guts. Buying the mineral rights from the community, knowing full well it would bring him in direct conflict with Sinon. Why would someone do that for a group of people he otherwise seemed to want nothing to do with? It made Hannibal curious about these folks, and Mordake's connection with them. So, as Nick introduced the Team around, Hannibal made some subtle inquiries, and a couple interesting discoveries.

Throughout, Hannibal had gotten the impression from both Nick and Charlie that their resident "Howard Hughes" had been here for quite some time, nearly as long as Charlie. That turned out to be a false assumption. Mordake had only arrived about six months before.

Hannibal also noticed something else, something the villagers apparently hadn't - or pretended not to. Ever since the arrival of Edward Mordake, the lives of the villagers had changed in small, but interesting, ways...


*****

Charlie watched as Ed started heating the water for their coffee in the trailer's tiny kitchen. Actually, it was not really a kitchen, just a sturdy table with a hot plate on top and a 'dorm-style' fridge underneath. His only sink was a small galvanized tub, currently hanging from a large hook on the wall.

The rest of the trailer was just as Spartan. The living room consisted of two straight chairs and a sanded slab of wood balanced on cinder blocks. The fold-out couch in the corner served both living room and bedroom. An old radio crackled out tinny music from its place on the floor next to the couch. There was no television or telephone.

Ed always seemed content with it, to Charlie's mind.

The water was starting to boil in the kettle now, and Ed pulled down two cups from the shelf and dumped some instant coffee in each. Charlie hated instant coffee, but he'd tasted Ed's brewed version, and would rather drink drain cleaner. Ed picked up the cups and carefully carried them in to the living room. Ed had a habit of tripping over things, but Charlie could swear he saw an improvement every time he stopped in. He reached hastily for the proffered cup, anyway, not willing to tempt fate.

Ed sat down in the other chair, and they sipped cautiously at the boiling coffee. Setting his cup down on the table, Ed reached down and carefully pulled out a large cardboard box and opened the top. He looked over to Charlie's feet.

"I finished it."

He opened the box wider and reached in. Even more carefully, he lifted his prize out and placed it delicately on the table. Charlie looked down in near-awe. Macabre as it seemed, there was no doubt about Ed's skill. The skeleton of the small ring-tailed cat was perfectly put together, and posed so naturally Charlie could almost see the complete animal, not just the bones.

"How many did that take?"

"Seven." There was obvious pride in Ed's voice, and Charlie didn't blame him. Finding a compete skeleton of anything was unheard of in the desert; predators didn't like to share their kills, and scavengers would rush in, grab their loot and run for safety. Ed had kept Charlie informed every time he'd found more pieces for this one.

That part of Ed's hobby wasn't so bad. A lot of people with an interest in biology and nature liked to fit together animal skeletons, like working a three dimensional jigsaw puzzle. It was what Ed did with the leftovers that made Charlie wonder.

He'd only seen it once, close up. It was maybe a month after Ed had gotten involved with his hobby, and Charlie had stopped in for a visit. He tried to do that at least two or three times a week, just to make sure everything was okay, but that day had been a special trip. Earlier in the week, Ed had mentioned that it would be a friend's birthday that day, and had seemed bothered by it. So Charlie made a note to be out there that day, and had brought a bottle of Scotch, so they could celebrate the special day together.

It had been a mistake.


*****

Hannibal and the men were walking back to their cabin. Nick, apparently confident Charlie had made his escape undetected, had left them to wander about on their own, promising to meet them shortly with the information he had gathered on Sinon. Hannibal was relieved, as he thought the others were; Nick was nice, but a continual flow of earnest enthusiasm was very tiring, especially after the visit with Charlie.

He was mulling over everything that had happened so far; what they had been told, what had been implied, what he had dug up from his questioning. It was a strange puzzle, and Mordake was at the heart of it.

A little girl wanted a dog; her mother sold an expensive sculpture. A man had arthritis in one knee; he was chosen for an experimental replacement joint. A couple needed a new roof for their workshop; they received a grant from a private art foundation. Several other instances of "luck" had been mentioned; things that had plagued the residents for some time, suddenly rectified. All after Mordake's arrival.

Hannibal did not believe in coincidences.

The question was, why? What motivated the man? What was he getting from these people in return for all these favors? There had to be something.

They had reached their cabin, and were just about to go into the relative coolness when Nick came up with his files in hand. Not for the first time that day, Hannibal found himself thinking if he saw one more happy smile, he'd puke. The whole damn place was filled with Pollyanna's...

Nick was just handing over the file, along with the start of an undoubtedly lengthy explanation of its contents, when one of the men came rushing up.

"Nick, we got trouble! Some guys just drove in - they're raising a ruckus down at Queenie's."

Hannibal looked at Nick.

"Queenie's one of our potters. Been here since the beginning. C'mon..." Nick started running down the road, followed immediately by the team.

It was easy to spot Queenie's place - a crowd of people stood in front, many of them shouting at the intruders; a couple of the men were sporting bloody noses, apparently having tried to stop the men. Inside, Hannibal could hear the distinct sound of breakage. He pushed his way through, past Nick, past the would-be rescuers. BA and Murdock were right behind him.

There were five of them, big, ugly, typical goons. One of them was holding the woman Hannibal assumed was Queenie, while the others were either smashing vases and sculptures, or keeping the crowd outside at bay. They stopped when Hannibal stepped up to the door, flanked by his men.

Hannibal smiled coldly.

"Looks like quite a party, guys. Too bad you weren't invited."

The man holding Queenie grinned. "We didn't need an invite, mister. All we wanted was a little information, and the lady here doesn't seem to want to help us out. That ain't nice."

"Hmm. Just what information is it you're looking for? Perhaps we can help."

The man's eyes narrowed, looking briefly at Hannibal's backups. "We're looking for a nutcase named Mordake. He's got something our boss wants."

"And I'm assuming his cooperation would be gotten in the same manner as Queenie's?"

The goon laughed. "Unless he's a lot smarter than the broad, yeah."

"Well, I think we can probably help you get where you need to be, right, guys?" Hannibal turned to look at Murdock and then BA. When he turned back to the goons, he held his Smith and Weston. BA moved quickly to his right and bounced one goon off the wall with a punch. Murdock rabbit-punched his adversary, which did little damage to the stout neck. But the subsequent poke to the eyes, followed by a knee to the stomach, took care of things nicely, to Murdock's thinking.

"Let her go or you'll be breathing through a whole 'nother nose, buddy." Hannibal looked serious, and both BA and Murdock glanced apprehensively at him. They didn't hear any smart-ass banter in his tone.

Apparently Hannibal's target didn't either, as he slowly released Queenie and stepped back, arms up.

"Okay, pal, you get your guys and move out. You tell your bosses at Sinon that this place and these people are off limits. And the same goes for Mr. Mordake. Any trouble, and we'll be on their doorstep with an invitation of our own. Got it?"

The man looked at Hannibal, then BA and Murdock. Clenching his jaw, he pushed past them, not waiting for his men, who scrambled to get out. Moments later, they roared away in their vehicles.

There was a momentary silence, and then Queenie stepped up to Hannibal. Still shaken, she managed a quivering smile.

"Thank you, Colonel."

Nothing more was said, as the villagers entered her shop and began clearing up.

Hannibal turned and walked out, carefully putting away his pistol. Murdock and BA watched him go, mutually and silently agreeing he needed some time alone.

They hadn't seen the colonel act like that since Nam...