CHAPTER SEVENTY

"You sure you want to go through with this, Charlie?"

"Yes, Nick, I'm sure."

Nick looked at him, concerned. Charlie had had a hell of a time making that first phone call to his former colonel, now a general, at the Pentagon. Charlie hadn't talked to the man for so long...the last time was a few months after Cody's death. And the only reason the man had gone along with Charlie's plan for Glendale was because the situation invovlved the possibility of civilian injuries.

This time was different...

"I thought our business was concluded, Charlie. I took care of your little...problem. At least, as far as I know from the reports filed." The general's voice crackled over the phone line.

"That you did, General, and I appreciate it. But I have one more little 'problem' that you can help me with. And, if things go the way I'm hoping they will, you won't have to do anything more than make a few phone calls. But I need to be able to use your name, and know that it will fly."

"You 'just' need to make me the target, you mean. I'm not sure I'm ready to do that again, Charlie."

"Again? You were hardly a target the last time, Harley. You followed protocol all the way."

"It wasn't my job to interfere at all. I had to move in very carefully, Charlie, and more than one eyebrow was raised at the intrusion. I'm too close to retirement to take unnecessary chances."

"You don't do me this one last favor, Harley, and you won't have to worry about retirement. You'll be lucky if you keep your stars." Charlie went for the throat. "You owe me, General. For Cody. Now you're going to pay, in full. A life for a life."

"What do you mean?"

"Tomorrow morning, you're going to call for the personnel file of a certain Colonel Rod Decker. That's all. Hold on to it for a few days, and then send it back."

"That's all?" The general's voice was hard, suspicious.

"Just about. You're also going to call a few people along Decker's chain of command. Just a casual inquiry into his performance. Just enough to make people take notice, not enough to make them nervous."

"There's got to be more to it than that."

"Only if Colonel Decker is dumber than I think he is. If that's the case, I'll call you. And you'll make sure the man never gets past the front gate of another military installation for as long as he lives."

There was silence on the other end of the phone. "You want me to destroy a man's career, just on your say so?"

"Payback's a bitch, General. If I call you, and you don't come through, it'll be your career in the crapper. Your name will be on the front page of every newspaper in the country. And it won't be a pleasant experience."

Another heavy silence. "This better be the last time, Charlie. I do what you ask, don't ever call me again. You do, and I'll take you down, if I have to go right along with you. I won't be blackmailed any more."

"Don't worry, General. This is the last time I want to get this close to the stench of the Pentagon."

Both men had slammed their phones down. Charlie had spent the rest of the evening finishing off the new bottle of Scotch...

Nick scratched the back of his hand, nervously.

"If he thinks you're bluffing..."

"He'll find out I'm not. All it will take is one phone call." Charlie sighed. He made it sound much easier than it really was, and they both knew it.

"And then you lose your ace in the hole."

"Not much of a loss, anyway, Nick." Charlie grinned at Nick. "Actually, this might be kinda fun."

"Fun? Extorting an Army colonel is fun? Geez, Charlie..."

"Oh, don't worry about it, Nick. After all, it's for a good cause. And, quite frankly, I like the idea of getting a little of my own back against a stuff-shirt officer." A steely glint came into Charlie's eye. "Yeah, I think Decker's going to find out he's bitten off a little more than he can chew."

"Are you sure you don't want Hannibal in on this? I mean, they are his men, after all."

"No, Smith would put the kibosh on it before I even had a chance. I know this will work, Nick. I just have to be reasonable, not push him too far."

"I doubt he'll see it as reasonable, no matter what you ask."

"No, probably not, but...he'll get over it." Charlie grinned again.

Nick just shook his head. Sometimes, Charlie could be just a little out of control...


*****

BA sat in the corner, studying the latest Popular Mechanics, pleasantly surprised that Feist even had one. Murdock was at the desk, methodically taping tongue depressors together into stick men. Hannibal sat next to the bed, pretending to read a book, but dividing his attention between Ed's breathing and Murdock's taping. Neither one made him happy.

Dr. Feist had said Ed's breathing problems weren't unexpected, only a slight setback. Ed now had an oxygen mask on, to make it easier. Feist seemed confident he'd be able to get rid of that in another day, maybe two.

Hannibal kept telling himself Feist was a competent doctor, who undoubtedly had treated heat illnesses many, many times before. And then he'd listen to the rasping from the bed, waiting for a change.

Murdock was another story. He seemed to take Ed's problems in stride; if Feist said he would be okay, that was all Murdock needed. But he kept taping, and taping, and taping. The longer Hannibal watched him, the more he realized that Murdock was trying desperately to keep things together. Concentrating on those stick men was one way to do that.

Hannibal stood up. It was time to broach the subject of Murdock's living arrangements. Hopefully, Hannibal's arrangement with Charlie would be enough to reassure the pilot. He'd already had a long talk with Dr. Feist, during those early morning hours as they waited to see what Ed's fate would be. Dr. Feist, being the only doctor for miles around, was not ignorant of psychiatric medications or techniques, but he did express some doubts; he wasn't a psychiatrist by any stretch. It was only after Hannibal assured him that Murdock's old doctor would be willing to advise him that Feist agreed to taking on his new patient.

Hannibal only hoped he hadn't lied about Richter. He didn't think he had.

He turned around the corner of the cabin, unwilling to be under Decker's gaze as he talked to Murdock. The less contact any of them had with Decker between now and...the departure, the better he liked it. He wouldn't put it past Decker to say something, hint at something, just to make trouble.

"What's up, Colonel?" Murdock came around the corner, curious and just a little anxious.

"Sit down, Murdock. I have a proposition for you. Something I think will suit you - and Ed - just fine..."

Hannibal sat down beside Murdock and started explaining his plan. He didn't see Charlie enter Decker's cabin, or Nick standing guard just outside.


*****

Decker looked up, surprised to see who his visitor was.

"Well, well. If it isn't the omnipotent Charlie. Should I bow, sir, or..."

"Cut the shit, Decker. We've got business to discuss."

Decker's eyes narrowed. So he wanted to play that way, did he?

"I talked to Smith. Frankly, Decjer, I'm surprised at your tactics."

"Oh? I'm surprised Smith would tell you about it. He's not the confiding type. But as long as you understand I have nothing against your people. It was strictly business."

Charlie looked at Decker, suspiciously. He wasn't sure he believed Decker held no grudge against Nick, but he was willing to let it pass. His arrangement with Decker would include Nick, anyway.

"Well, I'm here to strike a new bargain with you. One that I'm quite sure you won't like, but that I'm equally certain you will agree to."

Decker straightened. "Oh? And what makes you think I'm willing to make any agreements with you? Smith and I have already..."

"That is now null and void, Colonel. You're not dealing with Smith any more. You're dealing with me."

"Guess I got you a little upset, huh? Well, you're not playing with a bunch of artists, any more, Charlie. I made the price high, because it was the only way Smith would agree to it."

"I didn't think a colonel in the military would sink so low as to use two sick men as bait, Decker."

Decker actually laughed.

"You think that's what Smith's price was? God, he didn't tell you, did he? Well, that changes things. And you may want to reconsider whatever 'bargain' you had in mind."

"What are you talking about?"

"Smith wasn't bargaining just for those two remnants. He was bargaining for your village, Charlie. The whole kit and caboodle. He turns himself in, and I don't set your little kingdom up for one government investigation after another."

"What?" Charlie was dumfounded. He'd never considered that the village would be in jeopardy.

"Yeah, guess Smith was keeping his own counsel, after all. Well, now that you know, I think you can understand why I'm not impressed with the idea of dealing with you. I think you're on a short stack there, Charlie."

Charlie glared at Decker. He hadn't intended to actually use his secret weapon yet, if at all, but Decker threatening the village and its people had pushed him over the top. He pulled a piece of paper from his jacket pocket and dropped it on the couch beside Decker.

"That's where you're wrong, Colonel. You're about to go bust..."


*****

"What do you think, Murdock? Are you willing to give it a try?"

Murdock stared out into space, thinking. On the one hand, it was the perfect solution. He'd have a place to live where he could be free, and still have support when he needed it. And he'd be with Ed. On the other hand, would Ed want him here? And what happened if things got really bad? Would Dr. Feist be able to handle it? Would the villagers be willing to put up with his...eccentricities?

"It's, uh, kind of a scary idea, Hannibal."

"Yeah, I can understand where it would be, Murdock. But Dr. Feist will know how to reach...us." Hannibal told himself it wasn't really a lie. "And I think Ed would feel more comfortable socializing if you were here with him."

"Well, see, that's a problem. What if he doesn't want me here? I mean, what if he thinks I'm just going to try and get Face back?"

"I already talked to Charlie about that. He's agreed to keep you on your toes in that respect, and he'll talk to Ed about it, too. If Ed ever starts feeling that you're pressuring him, he can let Charlie know. And you don't have to worry about the villagers. Charlie says they've had more than a few 'anomalies' show up over the years. By and large, there've been no objections."

Murdock sat still, looking at the ground. He sighed, looked up at Hannibal.

"You two got it all figured out then, huh?"

"It's all up to you, Murdock. Yea or nay, your choice."

"I can stay as long as I want?"

"As long as you want."

"And I can still go on missions with you guys, if I want to?"

Hannibal looked skeptically at him. "I thought you didn't like going on missions?"

"Well, no, but..."

"Murdock, you won't lose the team, any more than Ed will. If there's a mission, you'll be asked to come along. Asked, not expected. Again, yea or nay, Murdock."

"Man, Hannibal, I don't know if I can handle having all these choices. I mean...geez..."

Hannibal laughed. "It's about time you actually had some choices, Captain. All of you." He sobered for just a moment before forcing a grin. "So what do you say, Murdock? Home, sweet home?"

Murdock grinned back. "Yessir, Colonel. Home, sweeeeeet home!"


*****

Charlie had walked out of the door before Decker had a real chance to react. He was still staring at the piece of paper, Charlie's last words echoing in his head.

"The village is off limits. Its inhabitants are off limits. When we have visitors, they are off limits. Any breach within ten miles of this place, and I will place a call. Your career will be over. You'll be lucky if they let you stay in the Army to sweep out the messhall. Think I'm bluffing, Decker? Lay one hand on Smith or anyone else here, and that man there gets a call from me. And believe me, you don't want to know what he can do to you!"

Looking at the name on the paper, Decker understood how things in Glendale had fallen apart. He'd never be able to prove anything, of course. Everything the General had done had been according to military protocol. Perhaps a bit too much, but still within bounds. And any information leak would never be traced to him.

Decker looked around the cabin, frustrated and angry. He'd had Smith, goddammit! He'd had him right where he belonged, and now...

The guard outside stepped to the window, looking in, concerned, when he heard the crash. Shook his head at the site of the chair, splintered against the far wall.

Military types...