CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

It had been a mistake.

Charlie really should have known better. He'd never seen Ed drink anything other than coffee or soda, but he thought nothing of it at the time. He only knew that Ed was missing his friend and needed some cheering up. So he brought a bottle of his favorite Scotch and planned on having a pleasantly inebriated evening.

It had started out nicely enough. Ed hadn't shown any surprise when Charlie appeared; he never did. He did look somewhat doubtfully at the bottle, but accepted a glass without protest. Glanced questioningly at Charlie.

"I thought we'd celebrate your friend's birthday, Ed. What's his name, anyway?"

Ed ducked his head, looked away. Charlie barely heard him when he said, "John."

"Well, here's to John!"

That first glass went slowly, Charlie enjoying his drink, Ed somewhat reluctantly obliging.

The second glass went a bit faster, the third, faster still.

Charlie was pleasantly surprised to see how Ed opened up as the Scotch took effect. It only took a few questions before Ed was telling him all about John, how they'd met, the things they'd gone through in Nam. Mentioned two other friends, someone nicknamed "BA", and Murdock.

Slowly, as more and more Scotch was consumed, Ed told him the story of the A-Team.

And how he'd gotten maimed.

Suddenly, the trailer was deathly quiet. Ed stood, swaying dangerously, and headed for the back door.

"C'mon..." he held the door open, and followed a mystified Charlie out into the back.

It was getting dark now, with only a sliver of moon showing, but Ed seemed to know exactly where he was going. Several yards from the trailer, they came upon a pile of boulders and a couple Joshua trees. Ed stopped abruptly. In the dimming light, Charlie saw him put his fingers to his lips.

"Shhh. A secret..." He chuckled quietly, and stepped behind the rocks. Charlie hesitated only a moment before following.

Ed was standing - well, leaning, really - by something covered by a tarp. It wasn't big, maybe a couple of feet high and almost as wide.

"Y'ready?" Ed was looking right at him, grinning.

Mystified, Charlie grinned back. "Shoot."

Ed actually giggled. Charlie was enjoying this new, happy Ed. Not that Ed was morose, but to see someone so shy, so subdued, suddenly acting, well, "normal"...it was great, even if Ed did have to get drunk to do it. He stepped closer as Ed carefully started pulling the tarp away from his surprise.

And, just as quickly, stepped back...


*****

Hannibal walked through the crowd, ignoring the stares of the people. Innocents. Frigging innocents. They didn't know what it really took to stand up to scum like that. Didn't know the price he paid. Come in, come in and clean up our town, save our business, our ranch, our home...take care of it for me. Do what I don't have the guts to do myself. Do what the law won't do.

And then leave. Take your pay and go. Don't make me grateful for the violence you committed on my behalf. Don't stick around, reminding me of how low I've sunk.

Didi mau.

And take your dead with you.

He found himself on the edge of the village. Up ahead, Charlie's place. Beyond that, the desert. And Mr. Edward Mordake. The Great Edward Mordake. Hannibal knew why the man had done all those things, now.

Payment.

He'd bought the protection, the silence, of the people here. He didn't care about them; he cared about staying invisible. And they didn't care about him, either. Only about what he could give them.

So much for fucking Pollyanna's...

Those damn serene smiles. Smug, that's what they were. Smug.

Hannibal looked up at the washed out sky, felt the damn heat beating down on him. Closed his eyes, taking a deep breath. Stood, perfectly still for several moments. Remembering how he'd felt, holding the gun on that son of a bitch. Just another coward, another asshole. Just like the ones that cost him his lieutenant...

Letting out the breath, he opened his eyes and looked at Charlie's cabin, off in the distance. Charlie knew. Charlie knew what Mordake was hiding from. And Charlie knew what Sinon was really after.

Charlie held all the answers, and he was going to let Hannibal in on them.

Like it or not.


*****

Charlie looked at Ed, sitting at the table, gently running his fingers over the skeleton sculpture. To look at him now, Charlie found it hard to think of the man who'd shown him that...thing...

Charlie had stepped back, startled. Under the tarp was a dome-shaped structure. Staring back at Charlie were row upon row of skulls. Animal skulls. But not the entire skull - only the top halves. Row upon row of empty eyes and white domes, staring at him, connected together with an intricately glued web of smaller bones.

Under some of the skulls were small pieces of wood, with names carefully printed on them. Names of people from the village. People who had had sudden turns of good luck.

"Like it?" Ed ran his fingers gently over the top.

Charlie definitely did not like it. The sculpture, if one could call it that, was grotesque enough, but the names...

"What, uh..." he knew better than to ask an 'artist' what something was, "what does it represent, Ed?"

"Friends, Charlie." Ed's words were starting to slur, badly. "My friends. The ones who see me as I am, and don't care. 'Cause they're just like me. I'm not a freak, not to them..."

Charlie straightened, looked at Ed, who was still gazing at his creation.

"You're not a freak, Ed. I've never treated you like that. And no one here would..."

Ed looked back at him, almost as if he felt sorry for Charlie. "That's because you've been here too long, Charlie. You'd never make it out there, no more than I can any more." He looked back at the skulls. "None of us can."

Charlie watched him, concerned. "Why the names, Ed?"

"They're special. The ones you've told me about. I know them, because of you. I like them."

It was that simple.

Charlie looked again at the sculpture. He noticed something.

"I don't see John's name. Or your other friends'."

Ed dropped his hand. Abruptly, he turned and grabbed up the tarp, started pulling it back over his creation.

"That's because they aren't there. They couldn't..." He tugged one last time at the tarp and turned back toward the house, weaving badly across the sand. "They didn't want me, Charlie. They wanted Face..."

Ed was back to his silent self after that, steadily drinking himself into oblivion. Charlie finally put him to bed, took the empty bottle of Scotch and sadly went home. He never mentioned what he'd seen, what he'd heard.

Charlie doubted if Ed remembered it at all...

"Like it?" Ed ran his fingers gently over the top.

"What? Oh, yes, yes, Ed, very much. It's beautiful." And it was, really. The bones shone, almost like a pearl would. It must have taken hours.

Ed looked both pleased and embarrassed at the compliment. Charlie hated to break the spell. But he had come here on a mission, and he would have to go through with it.

"Ed, there's something I need to discuss with you. I hope you'll hear me out before deciding anything..."


*****

Nick stood on his porch, watching the sun coming down over the desert mountains. The team were settled in at their cabin, going over the file he had left them. Smith had declined his invitation to supper on their behalf. Nick surprised himself by being relieved.

Shortly after Sinon had been turned down, and the pressuring started, Charlie had asked him to check into a group of men called the A-Team. For some reason, he thought they would be the ones to help out the village. As always, Nick had done what Charlie asked. A week after the request, Nick sat in his living room, going over everything he had found out with him.

"Now, Charlie, are you going to tell me how you heard about these guys, and why you think we need them? Because Sinon hasn't done anything that any other company wouldn't do. Yeah, they're making phone calls, but that's all."

Charlie had looked uncomfortable. After obviously fighting some kind of internal battle, he had first sworn Nick to secrecy, and then told him about Ed. Charlie thought he could help Ed, the town, and the A-Team in one fell swoop if he could get the team out here.

After his initial shock, learning who Ed really was, Nick had thought about it. Hard. He knew Charlie hadn't told him everything, just enough to justify his reasoning. But he'd agreed to it anyway. He liked Ed, and wanted to help.

Nick was probably the only other person in the village that Ed had actually talked to. He hadn't had much choice, since it was Nick that picked him up at the bus station. Charlie had arranged the whole thing, after a talk with his niece in LA. So Nick had been somewhat prepared for him. At least, he'd thought he was. But what he'd found at the bus station was a man bordering on pure panic. The bus had gotten in early, for a change, and Ed had found himself stuck with a crowd of likewise stranded people, all waiting for rides that hadn't yet arrived. He'd practically run to Nick when he'd seen Nick's sign with Ed's name on it.

The ride back to the village had been long and mostly silent, although Ed had answered any questions Nick had asked him. He seemed, all in all, like just a nice, though terrifically shy, man. As long as Nick didn't openly stare at him, he seemed to relax, bit by bit, as they drove along. Going through the village to Charlie's, he'd kinda shrunk down in the seat, and pulled his hat down further, but Nick could understand that. He was still a stranger here. Once he got to know folks, he'd be okay.

But he'd never done that. He'd just stayed at Charlie's for a few days, and then the two of them had gone out into the desert. Within a few weeks, Charlie had moved an old trailer out of his barn, and Ed disappeared. He never came into the village again. Folks knew about him, because Charlie always let them know about new folks coming in. And, as always, if Charlie accepted him, the rest of them did, whether they ever saw him or not.

He was theirs now.

So Nick had agreed to bring the A-Team here. Charlie thought it would be in Ed's best interest, and so did Nick. But it had been hard. He knew, from his research, that Colonel John Smith was cautious about who they took on as clients. He hadn't expected to be refused outright. But Nick was stubborn. Charlie wanted this for Ed, and that's what was going to happen. And finally, they were here.

But this wasn't the team he'd been expecting. Hannibal Smith's odd humor was almost legendary, but Nick had seen none of it. Other clients he'd spoken to had talked about the way they almost thought in sync, the way they acted as one. He hadn't seen that, either. All he'd seen were cold, business-like mercenaries.

He didn't think that was what Charlie had in mind. Not at all.