CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE

Charlie was driving fast, but not as fast as on the way down. He needed some time to think. More time than the drive would give him. He had no idea what he was going to say to Ed to make up for the harsh words Smith had battered him with.

Strangely enough, he no longer felt angry at the colonel; he could understand the shock he must have felt, seeing his "dead" lieutenant like that. He could even understand the anger. He'd felt much the same way, when he'd first heard of the fake suicide from Sandy. He'd almost refused to let Ed come at that point. But then Charlie had realized how desperate he must have been, to go to that extreme.

What Charlie really could not understand was how someone like Ed had ever connected with people like Smith and those other two. Frankly, until Nick had investigated the A-Team, Charlie had harbored some niggling doubts about Ed's story. After all, Ed lived in a sort of fantasy world, anyway. And it wouldn't be unheard of for someone like him to make up a story about belonging to some macho group. A Walter Mitty thing. But Ed had been too detailed, too...emotionally involved. Nick's report had only validated things for Charlie.

Still...

There was just no way he could picture John "Hannibal" Smith choosing Ed to be on his team.

So involved was Charlie in his thoughts, he almost didn't see the dog running down the path. He only spotted him at the last minute, and swerved the jeep sharply, slamming on the brakes. It came to a rest at a bit of an angle on the side of the ravine, and Charlie scrambled out.

"Petey!"

The dog, intent on following the trail, came to skidding halt, looking surprised. A second later he had launched himself at Charlie, joy and triumph in his eyes.

"Petey, what the hell...?"

Charlie stared at the wiggling animal, a bad feeling building. Petey wouldn't just run away. He had been sent, sent after Charlie.

Something was wrong.

Something was seriously wrong...


*****

He started out with a hard sprint, running at a ninety degree angle to the intruders' path. The distance and element of surprise gave him a pretty good lead, but he didn't want to lose them just yet. He was buying time, now. Time for Petey to find Charlie. Time for Charlie to get to Hannibal. Time for the team to be on its way to the locker. The longer he could keep these guys moving, the less time they'd have to 'persuade' him to sell.

Self-preservation.

A minute of hard running, and he started slowing down. He had to pace himself now, bring his breathing down, keep just far enough ahead of them to give them hope. He knew they would close the gap somewhat at first, but that was all right. Eventually they would begin to tire. If he was lucky, they would give up entirely, let him run off into the desert and safety...

He smiled grimly. Charlie thought all he'd been doing out here was collecting bones...


*****

Hannibal had effectively shut down any discussion of his meeting with Ed Mordake. No matter how hard Murdock tried to slip past his guard, Hannibal blocked him. Which didn't bother Murdock quite so much as the tone of voice he used.

He was almost gentle about it. Like he was when Murdock was out of it, or coming close. Like he had to protect him, for some reason.

Why the hell would he act like that?

Murdock wandered out of the cabin, leaving Hannibal to his planning. The team was going to pay a little visit to Sinon Corporation later that morning, through the front door, no doubt. Murdock wasn't sure he really wanted to. Which surprised him. He had tried to build up his old enthusiasm for the mission, but it just wasn't coming together for him. He didn't think he was the only one, either.

Hannibal had mouthed the right words about his plan, and had acted normally...acted being the key word. Murdock had missed one thing.

No jazz.

No spark in his eye.

Hannibal was just going through the motions.


*****

He glanced behind him. The two men were still there, one a bit ahead of the other. He noticed, not with a little concern, that they, too, seemed to have found their pace. Apparently, he was not going to be as lucky as he'd hoped.

He stared straight ahead of him. He knew where he was going. Even if these guys managed to keep up with him, he still had a chance to get away. It was a little chancy, using a box canyon, but he knew the way out. He just had to make sure the guys behind him didn't get any closer.

His breathing was still good. He picked up the pace, just a hair...


*****

Charlie had immediately taken the dog into the jeep and started up to the trailer. He held onto the dog's collar to keep him from bouncing out. The earlier reluctance to arrive too quickly was replaced by a strong feeling of urgency.

And then he felt it.

He tried to look while navigating and finally gave up. Once again, he pulled the jeep to an abrupt halt and concentrated on the collar. Something was taped to it. He struggled for a moment, and finally removed the collar and peeled off the tape.

Underneath the tape was a small piece of paper, wrapped in aluminum foil, and a key. Charlie squinted at the tiny printing. There was an address and a number. A short sentence.

"Go there NOW!"

For a moment, Charlie was torn. He knew something had happened to Ed. He also knew that if Ed had gone to all this trouble, he meant what he said in the note. Charlie stared up the path, in the direction of the trailer. Reluctantly, he turned the jeep around and headed back to the village. Somehow, he knew he needed Smith.


*****

He made a sudden turn, and another sprint into the canyon. Taken by surprise, his pursuers fell further behind. It gave him the time he needed. Running full throttle now, he fixed his sights on an outcropping of rocks, some ten feet above the floor of the canyon. Enough speed and he could literally run up the side of the canyon to those rocks. Once there, he'd have enough cover to work his way to the top of the canyon. Not an easy climb, but do-able. For a man, anyway. Many animals spent their last moments here, discovering, too late, that the climb was too much for their small bodies.

It was a favorite spot of his.


*****

"Hannibal!"

There was an urgency to Murdock's voice that immediately got Hannibal's attention. He practically dropped the coffee cup on the table as he hurried to the door. He got to Murdock's side as Charlie's jeep came to a skidding halt in front of them.

"Smith! Ed sent me a note. I think he's in trouble, but..." Obviously shaken, Charlie stumbled out of the jeep, holding the note and key out to Hannibal.

Hannibal grabbed them, quickly reading the note, Murdock looking over his shoulder.

"He sent this to you?"

Charlie nodded. "Taped it to Petey's collar. I found him on the way out there. I didn't go to the trailer - the note sounded...urgent..." Charlie looked suddenly uncertain. "Maybe I should've gone up there..."

"No, you did the right thing. You know where this address is?"

"More or less. It's in the city."

"Okay. BA, you and I will go out to the trailer. Murdock, you and Charlie head into town. Call us in the van when you find whatever it is F...Ed wanted you to find."

Murdock gave Hannibal a puzzled glance, but Charlie was already heading back for the jeep, and he hurried to join him. A small white dog hopped into the back, laying quietly on the seat. Murdock smiled at him, and was rewarded by a small tail wag.

Moments later, there was only a lingering cloud of dust in front of the cabin.


*****

His moves were nearly perfect. They should be. He'd done this so many times now. Hated to think about the first few times. He'd gotten more than a few bruises, slipping and sliding down the rocky slope, before he finally found the right path. In seconds, he was scrambling among the rocks, trying to keep to the larger ones that afforded more cover.

He hadn't bothered to check on the men. He was committed now, regardless of how close or how far they were. Knowing the way, he would gain even more time while they scrambled around, trying to find their footing.

He heard it. Strange, how that worked. He heard it, but never felt it. Not even a little twinge. Instead, he suddenly found himself falling, his left leg useless. He hit the rocks hard, and slid down a few feet. It took a few seconds before he realized that he'd been shot. That wasn't right. They needed his signature. How could they chance shooting him, for chrissake?

Such idiots.

Hardly seemed fair...


*****

Hannibal looked down at the trailer, BA close beside him. It looked quiet enough. No sign of anyone. Anyone at all.

His first thought when he'd read the note was that someone had come after Face. He hadn't thought there would be any other reason for the hasty scribbling, the urgency. Now, seeing no sign of trouble, no other vehicles, he was having second thoughts.

Thoughts he didn't like. Thoughts about the hell he'd given Face earlier that day. Letting his anger override the relief, the joy, at finding him alive. Sure, he'd said he was glad, but he knew it hadn't sounded that way.

And then they'd left. Left Face alone. God knew what he must have felt like after that. What he must have been thinking...

No. Oh, no.

Maybe the note hadn't been urgent so much as timed. Maybe there was a reason Face wanted Charlie - and the team - to go into town. Before they had time to think, before they could decide to come back to the trailer. Before they could stop him...

Hannibal felt a freezing cold come from deep inside. He started down to the trailer. Walking fast. Faster. Running. He burst through the door, saw the empty room, pushed out the back door. Looked wildly around the empty yard.

"Oh, God, Face, where are you? What did you do?"

"Hannibal?"

BA. Right behind him. Puzzled. Hannibal realized then he'd spoken out loud.

"Hannibal, what's goin on? What's Face gotta do with this?"


*****

Murdock held tightly to the note as the jeep raced down the highway. He had the perfect opportunity to pump Charlie for information, to ask the questions that had been surrounding him since they arrived. And yet, he couldn't open his mouth.

He opened the note one more time. Looked at it. The address had been printed. The message scribbled in longhand. He stared at it. The longer he studied it, the more sure he was. The more confused he was. Yet there was no doubt in his mind.

That was Face's handwriting...