CHAPTER FIFTY EIGHT

"Um, John..."

"Yeah, Janey?"

"Why are you turning off here? This doesn't go to Vegas."

"Ah, no. You're right. We have to make a little detour..."

Janey sat up straight in her seat, her eyes wide. "John...?"

"Oh, no, don't get upset, Janey. I'm not going to hurt you. I'm not a rapist or anything. Really. Although you really do need to be a little more careful about who you talk to."

"What do you want, John? Or is that even your real name?"

"Oh, yeah, I'm John, all right. And what I want is exactly what I'm getting - a ride. Look, I'm sorry, Janey, but I didn't have much choice."

"Where exactly are you taking me?"

"You're taking me to...another nice little town. After that, you're free to go wherever you want."

"What if I call the cops?"

Hannibal sighed. Janey was pleasant, but she was about as sharp as a marble.

"And tell them what, Janey? That you picked up a man, a perfect stranger, who bought you lunch, and then dinner? And, after knowing him for a few hours, you offered to let him drive you and your car to Vegas? Only he changed his mind, drove somewhere else instead, said thanks, and let you drive home again, unharmed? Is there a crime there that I'm missing?"

"This is! This is kidnapping!"

"Oh, no, not at all. I'm simply taking the 'scenic route'. And when we get where I need to be, that's when I change my mind about Vegas and you, and send you home, safe and sound. Again, where's the crime?"

Janey slumped back in her seat.

Hannibal sighed as he drove on into the night. He felt bad now, scamming a nice, if naive, woman like this. True, he'd had no choice, but...

He wondered how many times Face had felt that same regret.


*****

Nick watched the sign as it was illuminated by the headlights. He shook his head. Murdock just grinned.

"Want to stop in, say hi?"

"Not funny, Murdock."

"Chill, my man, chill! You know how many times Decker's put the alert out for the team? You really think these jarheads are going to care? Besides, everybody's looking for a black van full of fugitives in LA - not a used VW in Twentynine Palms."

"A stolen VW driving by the Marine Corps base at Twentynine Palms."

"Okay, get nitpicky." Murdock sped up a little, anyway. He didn't care about the Marines; he just wanted to get back to the village. He looked at the clock on the dash. It would be a good four hours before they arrived.

He knew the roadblocks had been cleared because of BA. If Decker had caught up with Hannibal or Face, he would have kept them up to grab the rest. So Decker was definitely on BA's tail. He knew BA hadn't been caught. Not when he knew he was the bait. He smiled. Bet those MP's were having a hell of a ride...

He glanced over at Nick, who had turned, watching nervously over the back seat as the Marine base faded into the darkness behind them. Four hours. It was a long time to be with one person and not say anything.

"So, Nick. You've been with Charlie since '71?"

Nick straightened back around in his seat. "Yeah, why?"

"Just curious. What'd you do before that? I mean, after Nam..."

Nick hesitated, and Murdock knew what he was thinking.

"I mean, you go to school, or join the family business, or marry your high school sweetheart, or..."

"Yeah, yeah, I get it, Murdock. I went back to school, GI bill, dropped out. Wandered around for a while, then headed out to Charlie's."

"How'd you find it?"

"I knew Charlie from before. He and my brother worked together." Nick chuckled. "It was actually me and Charlie that found the village. Well, where it would be, anyway. Did a lot of camping out there. Charlie moved out there just after I went to Nam, along with my brother and a couple others. So, it made sense for me to take a stab at the place. Once I got there, it just seemed like a good place to stay."

"Did, uh, did Charlie know about the Tigers? I mean, I know you probably don't want to talk about it, but..."

"But you need to know, right?" Bitterness stung in his words. "Yeah, I told Charlie about it. I had to. Charlie always wanted to know why people wanted to live there. Didn't want people coming there for the wrong reasons. So I had to tell him. He didn't like it, but he understood." Nick turned in his seat, so he was looking directly at Murdock. "I swear, Murdock, I did not do anything. But maybe that was just as bad."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, maybe, if I had spoken up, it would've stopped. Maybe all it would've taken was one man saying, enough, y'know?"

Murdock thought for a while before answering. "I doubt it, Nick. We saw guys like that. Hannibal tried to do something about it, reported it, but it didn't do any good. Like you said - once the brass got involved, it was a dead subject. Back then it wasn't a good time to air dirty linen. The military had enough problems, stateside. You probably were right - you'd've just got yourself fragged."

Nick stared ahead, watching the lines on the highway disappear under the car. "Instead, I came back here and hid, like a scared kid."

"No, not like a scared kid, Nick. Like someone who just needed some time to work things out."

They didn't say any more for a long time. Nick settled down in his seat and dozed. Murdock drove, and thought about someone else who just needed some time.

Why was it so hard to give it to him?


*****

BA watched from his vantage point in the back of the parking lot. It was getting dark, but the streetlights gave him a good look at any and all traffic going through. He was pretty sure he'd lost all his followers, but it never hurt to double-check. Especially since he didn't want to lead anyone back to the village.

He'd had a few close calls, back there. Nothing he couldn't handle, but it had taken a little more effort than usual, thanks to the FBI. At first it hadn't been hard at all. In fact, it had taken more effort to keep the MP's and agents with him than it would've to lose them. But he had to lead them away from the others. So he'd played with them for a while, actually started enjoying it. It was always fun, making these guys look like idiots. Not that he'd let Hannibal know that. No way. If the colonel thought BA actually enjoyed those pursuits, he'd make sure it happened more often.

So he'd run through the streets of Glendale, then Burbank, keeping just ahead of the pack. In and out of alleys, racing the wrong way on one-way streets, barreling through parking lots and warehouses as if he owned them. Even ran the van through a car wash at one point. Drove the dog nuts, that did. BA chuckled.

But then it was time. He'd taken these guys about as far as he could. There were getting to be more and more of them, and they were moving in from all directions. Trying to block him. Getting smart.

And then they'd brought in the helicopter. BA hadn't had much opportunity to deal with those. He soon found it was nearly impossible to lose them.

Nearly.

Then he realized three things.

One, he now had to think about cover from above as well as from the sides. Turning unexpectedly into an alley might lose the car behind him; it didn't lose the copter above him.

Second, he realized, happily, that the ground vehicles dropped back, letting the chopper take over the main pursuit.

The third thing he discovered was that this pilot was not like Murdock. This one thought logically, rationally. And BA knew just how to deal with that.

He had been just south of Santa Clarita when he made his move. There was a tangle of ramps and side roads there, and it was the perfect place to deal with his airborne pursuer. He took the first off ramp, suddenly cutting down the embankment and back onto the freeway, while the chopper flew off in the direction he had been going. His next 'detour' was under a six lane overpass. Surprising the hell out of fellow drivers, he slammed on the brakes, cut across the median and ramrodded the van into traffic heading the other way, still hidden by the overpass. By the time the chopper realized he hadn't come out on the other side, he was already taking a ramp onto another freeway.

By now it was nearly dark, and his black van was disappearing into the twilight. He took another off ramp, heading east toward Barstow, getting away from the highway lights. At the first opportunity, he got off the freeway altogether, and disappeared in the maze of side streets and back roads, keeping to the streets with a lot of trees. Miles later, when he hadn't seen any sign of the chopper, he returned to the freeway, not stopping again until Barstow.

There he waited in the dark parking lot, watching.

He was surprised when he saw it, although he shouldn't have been. He waited a few minutes, to see if there were any others, but when it appeared the coast was clear, he pulled out. He followed discreetly, until he was sure.

He waited until they came to a long deserted straightaway before making his move. He had to be careful, do this just right.

At the first turn off, he slowed and started to take the exit. He immediately cut his headlights and pulled back onto the road. Using his quarry's taillights as a guide in the darkness, he gunned the engine and raced forward. Swinging into the left lane, he zoomed past them and swung the van wildly, coming to a dead stop across the lane. He watched, breath held, as the vehicle started skidding, straightened suddenly, and came to a screeching halt mere feet from the van. BA got out, and stepped quickly around to the driver's door, scowling blackly at the driver in the flashy convertible.

"Not bad, BA, not bad. Oh, I'd like you to meet Janey."