CHAPTER FIFTY SIX

BA drove through every little side street and parking lot he could to stay off the main roadways. He was back-tracking to the park, figuring it was the last place Decker would look for any of them. He wished Hannibal and the others had stuck together, but he also understood the colonel's reasoning. They were up against more than just Decker and his ego this time. The FBI had their own methods, methods that the team hadn't gone up against before. Just as well they couldn't sweep them all up at once.

He had a couple of close calls before actually reaching the entrance to the park, but he was so used to being pursued he easily evaded them. But by the time he actually drove back into the park, he was feeling the effects of the long day. He drove carefully through the park, eventually pulling off into the trees and going cross-country, watching always for MP's or anyone else who might be patrolling the area. Eventually he found a spot where the van would be hidden from view.

He walked around the van, checking out the area. It was about as secure as it could be, all things considered. And he felt a little comfort, knowing he had an alarm of sorts, sitting once again in Hannibal's seat, waiting for him. He chuckled, remembering Hannibal's look when Murdock had suggested, facetiously, that Petey would be an excellent "hook" to catch the young woman Hannibal had his eye on.

BA climbed into the van, and stretched out in the back. He set his watch alarm, knowing a few hours sleep would not only feel good, but ensure that the initial hunting frenzy would have died down some. He planned on heading straight north, through the park, and on northward toward Burbank. Just the opposite direction of the village. He'd then circle around and head to Charlie's. He figured he'd be there late that night.

He stared up at the ceiling. He was still too wound up to go immediately to sleep. And he had a lot to think about.

Like Face and Charlie.

He'd seen the look on Hannibal's face when Charlie walked into Face's room. There for just for a split second, but he'd seen it. He could only imagine what was going through the colonel's head right then. He sighed. He knew Face was all screwed up inside, but BA also knew that, deep down, he still felt a strong loyalty to Hannibal. If he didn't, he wouldn't be all upset thinking Hannibal was lying to him. And Hannibal shouldn't have lied to him, shouldn't have kept him away from Charlie.

And that's what Hannibal was really doing. He didn't care if Face lived out there in the desert. The colonel was just plain jealous of Charlie.

And thinking about Charlie brought BA back to Nick.

Nick, a member of the Tiger Force. No way. Just no way. His first instinct had been to bash Nick's face in, but after Hannibal put the kibosh on the whole thing, BA had had time to think about it. He just couldn't see Nick doin all those things - cuttin people's ears off, shootin civilians just 'cause they was in the wrong place at the wrong time. And the way Nick had talked when they first met up with him - about bein tired of killin and bein killed. That didn't sound like no one who would kill women and children.

Or maybe it sounded like someone who was ashamed of havin done just that...


*****

Hannibal watched as the van and Jeep drove off in opposite directions. He noted, nodding appreciatively, that BA almost immediately turned north. He'd go back to the park. Smartest move to make, considering he was the most likely to be spotted. BA knew Decker well enough to know he'd have pulled everyone away from the park and stuck them on the roadblocks.

He caught one last view of Murdock and Nick as they turned the corner and headed down the street. He almost thought for a moment they should've changed back into the uniforms, but they wouldn't have the Jeep that long. He knew Murdock would be able to lose anyone who might try to stop them. Strangely enough, he felt somewhat more confident knowing Nick was with him.

He still didn't like Nick, and now, knowing his history a little more, he had even more reason not to like him. But he was obviously a good soldier, and would act as a balance for Murdock. And Murdock needed that now. He was too close to the edge, too much bouncing back and forth between the crazy and the sane. Without Face...well, hell.

The more Hannibal thought about it, the more he realized that Nick wasn't that much older than either Face or BA. He thought back to the way those two had been, when he first met up with them. He knew, without hesitation, that BA wouldn't have put up with what the Tigers did. His mother's influence left no doubt about that. But Face? Face could've gone either way. Growing up with too much institution, too little one-on-one. With the wrong commander...well, maybe Nick just got the wrong one. There had certainly been enough of those to go around.

Hannibal shook himself. No time for wool-gathering. He would have a talk with Nick later, when this was over. Why, he wasn't sure. It didn't matter, after all. Well, except that he would be around Face. Probably.

Enough. Right now, he had a young woman to 'rescue'. He straightened his jacket and walked purposefully over to the burger stand. The woman he'd targeted was still waiting, leaning against her car, more and more often checking her watch. He stopped a few feet from her, just enough so she could see him, and glanced at his own watch with a definite frown. Looking around, as if watching for a ride that should already have been there, he caught her looking at him, and smiled, ruefully.

"I hate people who aren't punctual, don't you?"


*****

Nick drove quickly and efficiently through the streets. He didn't look anywhere except at the immediate traffic around him, trusting Murdock to watch for MP's or dark, government-style sedans. He drove for some distance, wanting to put as much distance between themselves and Smith before leaving the Jeep. He didn't know if that was for their protection or Smith's, and didn't dwell on it.

He finally found a place to dump their vehicle, behind a gas station where several other vehicles were already parked. He slid it carefully between a pickup truck and the fence, figuring it wouldn't be seen from the street for some time. He looked at Murdock.

"How are you at hot-wiring cars, Captain?"

"Well, it's not really my area of expertise. I was thinking something along more conventional lines." He looked pointedly at a bus stop across the street.

"A bus? You want to make a getaway on a city bus?"

Murdock nodded, enthusiastically. "City busses don't go out of town, so no one is going to be stopping them."

"But we want to get out of town, Murdock."

Murdock continued as if Nick hadn't said a word. "City busses do go to the edge of town. All edges of town. So if we see anyone we know, we can change busses and go in another direction. I think, in a city of this size, we should be able to find the one less guarded by, and that will make all the difference."

Nick looked askance at his new partner. It made sense, in a roundabout way. He would've preferred to just heist a car and be gone, but then again, stolen cars got reported.

"Okay, Murdock. We'll take the first bus that comes along, and figure out where to go from there." He climbed out of the Jeep and headed across the parking lot, trying to act casual. Murdock bounced along beside him.

They made it across the street with no problem, and mingled with the small crowd waiting at the bus stop. Nick knew Murdock was watching him. He only hoped he would keep his mouth shut until a more private time.

"Nick, can I ask you something?"

Nick sighed. At least Murdock was keeping his voice low. "What?"

"When you were with...them..."

"The Tigers, you mean?"

Murdock glanced around, as if suddenly realizing they were surrounded by people. "Yeah. Uh, did you...well, did you..."

"No, Murdock, I managed to transfer out before it came to that. Thanks for bothering to ask."

Murdock smiled briefly, then frowned. "Did you report it?"

Nick looked up the street. A bus was lumbering toward them, and the crowd began moving closer to the curb. He looked at Murdock, returning the frown.

"No, Captain, I didn't. I wanted to get out of that hell hole in one piece, and I didn't fancy watching out for my own kind as well as the enemy. Nothing would have been done, anyway. The Army didn't need that kind of publicity, not back then."

Murdock stared down at the ground. For some reason, he felt ashamed.

The bus arrived, and Nick nudged Murdock forward. Together, they found a seat near the rear, where they could easily watch anyone coming up from behind.

The bus shuddered and jerked, and moved ponderously into traffic.


*****

He felt himself pulled along, not roughly, not quickly, but with urgency. He was turned this way and that, and he bumped into things, into people. He kept his head down, turned toward his companion, holding on tightly to the rough sleeve. He could hear the man talking, but it buzzed around inside his head, mixing with the sound of car engines, the rumble of trucks and busses and other people's voices, and he couldn't make any of the noises go away.

He stumbled over the curb, and felt Charlie grab his arm with his free hand. It was hard to breathe; he was suffocating. But Charlie just kept pulling him, making him, making him, not letting him stop. He heard something behind them, something loud, a shout. Charlie pulled harder, faster, he was almost running now, forced to look up, heard gasps as they swept past the people on the sidewalk.

How long they kept running, he didn't know. He just kept putting one foot in front of the other, as fast as he could, holding Charlie's sleeve as tightly as he could. He was so afraid he'd let go, and lose Charlie, lose him in this maze of concrete and people and cars. And then...and then he'd be lost, too.

He tried calling his friends. He thought, if they were with him, it wouldn't matter if Charlie got lost. But they wouldn't come. He didn't know why. Maybe because Charlie was there. Because they wanted him not to lose Charlie. So he tightened his grip on the rough sleeve, and ran a little faster.

And then suddenly they slowed to a walk. He looked around, cautiously. No people. Very few cars, all parked in driveways. Nothing but house after house, and tall shrubs and trees.

"I think we lost them, Ed. But we need to keep moving. Are you okay?"

He nodded. He hadn't lost Charlie. He was okay.

They kept walking, slowly, as if out to enjoy the late afternoon sun. He watched the sidewalk sliding by beneath his feet, felt the heat rising from the blacktop road next to them. Charlie wasn't saying anything now.

They just walked.

Charlie stopped, after a long time, and gently pulled his arm away.

"It's okay, Ed. I know how to get us home now. But you'll have to be strong for a little while longer, okay? We're going to take the train, and..."

"No! No, I can't go on a train! Charlie..."

"No, listen to me, Ed. Listen! I can call ahead, get us a sleeper berth, so it'll just be the two of us, no one else. The only hard part will be going through the station, and I know you can do that, because I'll be right there with you."

"I can hotwire a car, Charlie. I can. I know how. I can hotwire a car and we can..."

"Get pulled over by the cops. Ed, we can't take that chance. We can wait until the last minute, pick up the tickets just before the train leaves, when everyone else is already onboard, and when most of the people have left the station. We can do it, Ed. You can do it."

Listen to him. You have to stay with Charlie. You have to.

He swallowed, hard. He'd shown the others what a coward he was. Did he want Charlie to see that, too? Did he want Charlie to detest him, the way Hannibal did? He knew he couldn't take that. He couldn't lose Charlie, too.

"Okay. Okay, Charlie. We'll take the train. I can do that. I can."