Author's note: This story is based on a timeline in which "Without Reservations" occurs after "The Grey Team," since "Without Reservations" was originally the last episode to air.

Murdock: Pizza Ponderings

One thing I'll never understand is why anybody says they don't like pizza. Sure, you might be partial to different toppings — the big guy tends to get all riled up at the sight of anchovies, for example — but in itself, pizza is a fairly wholesome, unassuming dietary staple. What's not to like? And for those who accuse it of being unhealthy, and refuse to eat a single warm, cheesy bite without a whole plate of salad on hand . . . well, they must not know what it's made of. Cheese, boys and girls, is absolutely brimming with protein and calcium. Add a glass of milk, and BA would be proud. And tomatoes are (drum roll please) a fruit, which takes care of maybe a quarter of your recommended daily fruit intake as defined by the government-approved food pyramid. Or, to be conservative with the numbers, maybe an eighth. And what about the grains in the light and fluffy hand-tossed crust? And don't forget about the toppings; if you're that desperate for green stuff, you can always order a little spinach to garnish the top. My point, ladies and gentlemen, is that if you plan to eat out, the last thing that's going to kill you is the pizza.

These were the thoughts meandering through my brain one overcast afternoon as I made my rounds at the Villa Cucina. Waitering is an art, and don't let anyone tell you differently. It takes a certain manner, a certain charm, a certain . . . debonairness. But — and listen closely — the mark of a successful waiter, believe it or not, is one simple thing: he makes his customers happy. And that was what I was trying my very best to do.

Ever since the Attorney General incident, business had taken off. Everyone wanted to see the restaurant owner who had singlehandedly overpowered three gunmen to save Leapster's life. Sal was very modest about the whole thing, and would tell customers who asked about the rescue that I had helped him do it, which may or may not have contributed to the good tips I was getting. Last week, being Christmas week, had shown a surplus of customers who wanted to sit under the twinkle lights and celebrate with hearty Italian cuisine. Sal joked that we'd have to set up tables on the sidewalk to make room for all the people we'd have on New Year's Eve, which was only two days away. And I had a feeling Hannibal was planning a small celebration of our own since this time we had more reasons than ever to be thankful for making it to another year.

It was awfully tempting to take this opportunity to think up a few ideas for a fantastico New Year's party — like fireworks? — but I had a job to do. I approached the couple in the corner. Focus . . . locus . . . hocus pocus . . .

"One chicken parmesan and one mostaccioli, coming right up!" Oh, horsefeathers! That was a Russian accent, not Italian. I'd just have to remember to do the Russian at their table, and if they asked about it, I could come up with a story about a Russian father and an Italian mother. The unlikely tale of two immigrants who fell in love . . . I dropped off the order for Gina in the kitchen, then stepped through the swinging doors into the restaurant area and did a double-take.

He was back. The big, balding thug who had almost put Face six feet under was sitting at his favorite table in front of the storefront window.

I crept towards the register where Sal kept his gun, refusing to turn my back on the thug. I was almost there when slowly, he turned around.

"Hey, waiter, I'm ready to order!"

It wasn't the same guy. This guy was mustache-less, with the face of a pug that looked even puggier when scrunched with indignation. I let my breath out and gripped the counter with both hands.

"B-be there in a minute," I stammered.

Crash! A scream in the kitchen. I jumped, and suddenly transported back to that night two weeks ago — the gunshot, the scream, Face crumpling to the ground. What if they were back?

I grabbed the gun and burst into the kitchen to find Sal and Gina standing around a shattered glass bowl of pepperoni on the floor.

"It's all right, Murdock, she just knock-a the dish off the table," said Sal. He frowned. "Why you carry the gun?"

"Murdock, are you all right?" said Gina, stepping closer to me. "You're white as a sheet."

"I just . . ." How could I have been so stupid? The thugs were in jail, probably for the next twenty years at least. "I just need to get some air."

I got what I asked for as soon as I opened the back door. This December had been mild for Virginia, but today there was a nasty wind, a dark omen for some real winter weather coming this way. I headed through the alley and onto the sidewalk, heart still racing like Road Runner on an adrenaline rush. Just a block down the street was a telephone booth. I shut myself in and dialed a number that only a privileged few in the world even knew about. The phone rang once, twice. Why did they make telephone booths so small? Superman must have had a hard time changing outfits in here all the time. The walls were so close, it felt like they were getting closer, closer . . .

"Lou's Delivery."

A nervous laugh escaped as I started breathing again. "Colonel, it's Murdock."

"What's the matter, Captain?"

Steady. Deep breaths. "I-I can't do this anymore."

"What do you mean? What happened?"

"There was this customer at Table 1; from the back he looked just like the guy that shot Face. And he was even at the same table. And I couldn't . . . and then the crash . . . and I was . . ."

I reached down and stroked Billy's head. "It's okay, boy. Good boy. Everything's okay."

"Murdock."

"Yeah, Colonel?" I tightened my grip on the receiver.

"Listen to me. Face is fine. He's here lying on the couch playing Sudoku. You hear me?"

"Yeah, I hear ya."

"I want you to picture that in your head, okay? Are you picturing it?"

"Yes. He's wearing his white pajamas with blue trim and those Christmas tree socks I gave him last week."

Hannibal laughed. "That works. Just remember, anytime you get worried about him or think about what happened, go back to that mental picture. Christmas tree socks and all."

"Got it. Thanks, Hannibal."

"No problem. You gonna come straight home?"

"Well, I need to say goodbye to Sal and Gina. I hate to run out on them like this, but I just don't think . . ." I trailed off.

"It's for the best, Captain," said Hannibal comfortingly.

"And maybe I should pick up a pizza, since this'll be my last day working here and all."

"How about you make that two pizzas — one with half pepperoni, half sausage, and another with just anchovies. Oh, and while you're at it, pick up some breadsticks and a salad."

"Will do."

"Thanks, Murdock. See you soon."

"Adios, amigo."

I hung up, took a deep breath, and emerged from the telephone booth onto the bustling DC sidewalk. Mentally I prepared for taking leave of Sal and Gina. It was sad to leave such nice people so suddenly, but they would understand. What I was not prepared for was the sudden gasp and exclamation of "Murdock!" from six feet away. I looked up and saw the last person I expected to see.

"Amy Allen?"