CHAPTER NINETEEN

Hannibal strode up to Charlie's door and forced himself to knock civilly. It wouldn't do any good to piss him off if he held the key to Mordake. Especially if he'd talked the guy into working with them.

His civility was wasted, however. Charlie apparently was not yet home. Hannibal's knock did, however, cause the door to swing gently open. Didn't these people lock their doors? Then he shook his head. In Pollyanna-Land? He looked at the open door. So inviting.

He really shouldn't. Even though there might be something in there that could lead him to Mordake. Or a clue about Sinon. It wasn't like Charlie would know. And he had left his door open.

A quick glance around and Hannibal was inside. It was surprisingly cool. Charlie had conveniently left his shades down to stave off the day's heat; it shielded Hannibal's activities nicely. It also made it difficult to see well, and he would have to hurry. He wanted to be outside when Charlie got back.

He knew there hadn't been a desk in the living room. That left the bedroom, or a study, if he had one. Charlie kept all the records for the village; there was a good chance there'd be some clue in there as to what Sinon was really after.

He moved cautiously down the hallway, feeling the wall with his fingers. There were two bedrooms. The first was obviously a guest room - from the frilly bedclothes, apparently for someone of the female persuasion. He moved further down the hall until he reached Charlie's room.

Hannibal had conducted a lot of searches in a lot of places, but he was never comfortable going through someone's bedroom. There was something so...intimate about it. It was the place where people were the most vulnerable, and yet felt the safest. It was where they kept their secrets, for safety, but hidden, from fear.

Luckily, Charlie's desk was placed directly under a large window on the west side. He had just enough light to make the search relatively quick and easy. He found the files for the village in the bottom drawer on the right. Carefully, he pulled them out and laid them on the desk. Started glancing over them.

A regular gold mine of information. Everything about the village, from the original platting to the latest tax records. Who lived where, for how long, who'd lived there before...everything. He started flipping through, faster as the light started fading. He wished he'd brought their little sneak camera, but now that he knew where things were, he could always come back another time.

He finished looking through the tax records, and impatiently pushed the folder to one side. In doing so, he knocked over a photo sitting near the back of the desk. Absently he picked it up and glanced at it before putting it back. And stopped.

He picked it up again. Looked closer, holding it toward the light from the window. Charlie, with a young woman.

What the hell...

He slowly turned the picture over. There was an inscription on the back.

"Thanks for everything, Uncle Charlie. Love, Sandy."


*****

Face really didn't have things to do. He just needed to get away from Charlie, and the trailer, and...everything. Everything he thought he gotten away from already. He stopped, closed his eye and hung his head. Just more evidence.

He really was a coward.

Petey barked at him, running ahead, sniffing here and there. He smiled. He still had one thing in his life that he could count on. Dogs didn't care what you looked like, or what was inside you. As long as you fed them and played with them, they loved you. That was worth something...

He started walking again, ignoring the growing darkness. He was too caught up in his thoughts to pay attention to his surroundings. He had to think. He'd had things in place, ready to move on Sinon. He'd only had to wait for the right moment. For Sinon to make their first idiotic move. Charlie would let him know when that happened, and then...

All hell would break loose. At least, for Sinon Inc.

He had done his homework. It hadn't been easy. But Charlie was used to coming out to the trailer and finding him gone. So when he made the trek into the nearest city, he hadn't been missed. He'd put on the hated makeup, worn his hat low, his shirt collar high. Hitched a ride with a farmer who, thank God, spoke little English. Spent the day at the public library and county clerk's office, sifting through information, making phone calls, taking notes.

Flinching every time someone came near him, fighting with himself every time he had to ask a question. The county clerk had been especially hard, as he had to ask the man every time he needed a new document. By the time he'd caught the bus and had them drop him off a couple of miles from the village, he could hardly stand from the headache he'd developed. The next two days were spent lying in agony on his bed, fending off Charlie's concerns and questions.

No, he definitely hadn't spent all his time wandering the desert like some madman. Just most of it. Oh, he knew what Charlie thought. Knew what they all thought. That he was nuts. Well, maybe they weren't so far off. He lived in a bare bones trailer, eating whatever Charlie happened to bring. Why?

Because he didn't care where he lived or what he ate, or even if he lived or ate. It was like it was just someplace to be, something to do.

Weird. Yes.

Did he understand it?

No.

He didn't go into the village, but the radio played twenty-four seven. Why?

Because every time he was around people he panicked, yet he wanted to hear human voices.

Crazy? Yes.

Could he change it?

No.

He wandered the desert, picking up bones. Why?

Because when he chose them, they ceased being bones. They lived, they breathed. They spoke. Because of him. He gave them life, and then he wasn't alone.

Irrational? Of course.

Did he really believe it?

Yes.


*****

Hannibal had been gone a little over an hour when the door to the bedroom opened and Murdock shuffled out. BA looked at him, worried. His eyes were a give-away red, and he looked pale. BA shook his head. He shoulda left Murdock at the VA, Richter or not.

"Hannibal?"

"He left. Can't say I'm sorry, either. Talkin like that..."

"C'mon, BA. He didn't mean half what he said. You know that."

"Do I?" BA shot a glare in Murdock's direction, but it didn't hold the strength they normally did. He stalked into the kitchen, started rummaging through the cupboards. Nick had filled them in anticipation of a fairly long stay, but mostly with health foods. He finally found a large can of chili way in the back. It would have to do. Tomorrow he'd drive into the city and get some real food.

Murdock came to stand in the doorway, watching him hunt some more for a pan. He knew BA was preoccupied, otherwise he would've seen the set of pots and pans hanging on hooks in the corner. Murdock watched for a few more minutes, until it was obvious BA was going to keep looking in all the wrong places.

"Um, BA?"

"What?" BA looked up from the floor, where he had been peering into the deep recesses of the cupboard.

Murdock ducked his head and pointed to the collection on the wall. He then bid a hasty retreat, as BA rose from the floor, a nasty growl coming from his throat. Normally he would have gotten a kick out the little riposte, but BA didn't seem in the jousting mood. Frankly, Murdock wasn't, either. It just wasn't the same.

He wandered over to the front door, looking out the screen for any sign of Hannibal. It was getting darker, and Murdock was getting uncustomarily uneasy, not having all of them together at night. He wished Face were here.

Not for the first time, of course. He understood Hannibal's anger. He'd felt it, right after Hannibal and BA had come and told him, and then had to leave, back on the run. Richter had tried to work through the grief and the anger with him, but...there wasn't any working through it. It just happened, and he went with it, until slowly, he felt it drying up inside him. Leaving a hard little pit. Except now and then, like today, when it swelled up and he had to let go...

He and BA hadn't said anything, but he knew neither of them had told Hannibal about Murdock's meeting with Face. If Hannibal found out, he'd kill both of them. Because Hannibal wouldn't have let go of those words Face conned them with. In hindsight, Murdock saw how obviously he'd been conned. Face had done what he always did - let the victim think they were getting exactly what they wanted, when, in fact, Face was the one in the winner's circle.

"Now I can do what I have to do..."

Murdock and BA knew what they wanted. For everyone to be okay. And so they had accepted his words to mean exactly that. If he knew Murdock was going to do whatever he had to to get healed up and move on, then Face could do the same.

Instead, he'd just...moved on.

And, in a sense, so had Murdock. Sure, he'd died a little - a lot - inside, and somehow he couldn't get the craziness to work for him, not like it used to. It used to be a safety valve, a release. A way to get all the jumbled thoughts racing through his head out in the open, where they weren't so scary. But now, the scariest thing of all had happened and no acting out would chase it away. No fantasy could erase the reality.

He'd had two choices, back then. One was to just shut down, let his mind take him someplace far away where the pain and the anger and the sorrow didn't exist. Where Face was alive and whole and nothing would ever change that. He'd almost let that happen. He'd quit taking his meds, for a while, and quit trying to reason away the visions and the voices...

But he'd promised Face. And he'd never broken a promise to Face. So he did what he was supposed to do - started taking the pills again, and fighting the hallucinations. It wasn't easy. It wasn't like he could just decide to be sane and voila! he would be.

But he could fight it the best he could.

Now, he could see what Hannibal and BA were going through, and understand it. A lot better than they themselves did. And he worried about them. He worried that he wouldn't be able to help them through it. That if he tried, he might fall off the edge again and not make it back up.

But he was going to have to try. He'd failed Face - they all had, somehow, without knowing it. But he wouldn't let Hannibal and BA self-destruct, not in any way, shape or form. Not without a fight.

He might not be as good at it as Face had been, but he would give it one hell of a try...