Title: I Am Become Death: An Incident at Pine Ridge (Chapters 12-25)

Author: Nicole Wilson (bibliophile8 )

Rated: R

Archive: Yes

Comments: Yes, please.

Summary: The A-Team is hired by the CIA to find a missing suitcase of plutonium. They travel to a survivalist enclave in western Pennsylvania to retrieve it, accompanied by Dr. Goldman, a nuclear weapons expert. As a result of this mission, new information comes to light regarding Murdock's involvement with the CIA as a young man and the long-term effects upon his mental health. A sequel will follow. Also, I reintroduce two characters from An Old Bold Pilot, if you care to read that first; it's not absolutely necessary.

Warnings: Violence. Bad language. I refer twice to the usual horrendous stuff from Face's past. Lots of bad guys die but no major characters. None of the team remains undamaged, though. Do they ever?

Disclaimer: The A-Team and Dr. Richter created by Stephen J. Cannell and owned by Universal. Dr. Goldman, Rosemary and the CIA agents created and owned by the writer. This story was written for fun and not for any profit.

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Reckless for taking time from her own writing to make a number of valuable editorial suggestions on my first "serious" fan-fiction. If any parts remain unreadable, blame an author too stubborn to implement them all. Also, thanks to Dave for listening to the plot as it developed and then helping me figure out how to "nuke" the A-Team.

Dedication: To the memory of my mother who passed away during the week in 1981 in which this story takes place.

© Nicole Wilson, 2000

I AM BECOME DEATH: INCIDENT IN PINE RIDGE

PART TWO

Chapter 12

Dr. Goldman was the first to stir in the aftermath of the explosion. He wondered why the world was now only visible through only one eye, then realized with relief, that his glasses were broken. Squinting though the remaining intact lense, the professor glanced over at the other men.

Hannibal was leaning against the shelves at the back of the shelter, surrounded by a drifting pile of loose supplies. He was bent over slightly, holding his head, blood seeping between his fingers. "Are you alright, Colonel?" asked the doctor.

"Still here," replied Hannibal in a shaken voice, "Just attacked by a can of chili. I'll survive." The colonel looked up, determining the status of his men. Murdock was already picking off loose bits of plaster that had fallen on him during the explosion. The pilot turned to check on his friend, lying quietly beside him. "O.K., Facey?" he asked. The lieutenant smiled and giving a single hacking cough, also began to sit up and brush himself off.

Turning to the professor, Murdock said, "I don't know about this one-one hundred, two-one hundred business, Doc. Kinda boring; no imagination. Me and the Faceman, we prefer chimpanzees."

"No, that's you that likes monkeys," replied Face, his laugh turning into another cough. "You know I always use Mississippis." The lieutenant took in the ragged and dusty condition of his blue silk top and arched a blonde brow. "Murdock," he said in mock disappointment, "That shirt is a wreck! You promised me you'd take care of it."

"You forgot to say pretty please," the captain replied with a grin. "I'll make it a point to take better care of your stuff next time we survive a nuclear explosion."

Dr. Goldman gave the younger men a bemused look and pulling out the portable Geiger counter began to make his first sweep of the shelter. "Captain," he began, "the bomb that went off wasn't nuclear."

The professor's report was interrupted by what sounded like a whimper from behind them. Everyone turned toward B.A. who was sitting on the ground, his back supported by the heavy metal door. The large man fixed his panic-stricken eyes on his teammates. "Hannibal!" he said, in a strangled voice, "I can't see. I'm blind!"

Face was the first to react to the news. He moved toward the sergeant, laying a hand on his arm. The big man pulled back, flattening himself against the door. "Take it easy, B.A.," he said, softly, "It's just me." Face waved his other hand back and forth in front of his terrified friend. When B.A. didn't react, the lieutenant gave Hannibal a grim look and shook his head.

Wiping the blood out of his eyes, the colonel awaited a report from the team's new adjunct medic. "What do you think is wrong with him, Doctor?" he asked quietly.

Before Dr. Goldman could reply, Murdock, who had been staring at B.A. with a shocked expression, suddenly slid over to the big guy and put his arm around the sergeant's shoulders. B.A. knew immediately which of the team was offering comfort and for once, didn't object to the captain's demonstrative behavior. In fact, he reached out to the man sitting beside him and tightly grasped his outstretched hand.

"Sergeant," asked the professor, his voice sharp with concern, "Think! Did you look directly at the blast?"

"No," replied B.A. "I'm sure my head was turned to the side when the bomb went off. All I remember is a bright light all around me; I thought it looked a lot like heaven." The blind man smiled sadly.

"That's fortunate. You probably just have a case of 'snow blindness', a temporary condition," said the doctor, in relief. "If your retinas have sustained no permanent damage," he amended. "You will mostly likely regain your vision quite soon. We'll know for sure in a few days."

B.A. listened intently to the doctor's report. Upon hearing the words "most likely", the sergeant squeezed Murdock's hand, his many rings cutting into the captain's palm. Murdock lowered his head in pain but didn't move or make a sound.

Dr. Goldman returned to monitoring the readings on the Geiger counter. When he looked back up, he noticed all eyes were on him, as the others waited for the results. "Higher than normal background radiation," the professor reported, "But that is a natural occurrence with such a violent explosion. It should be safe to go outside in a few minutes when the dust settles."

"Alright, we'll stay here a little while longer." Hannibal said, leaning back against the shelves and closing his eyes. Dr. Goldman cleared away some of the debris from around the colonel. Taking out his medical kit and opening some bottled water from the supplies, he began to clean and bandage the wounded man's head.

"You doin' alright, big guy?" asked Murdock softly. B.A. nodded but wouldn't let go of his hand.

Face frowned in concentration. Letting out a somewhat asthmatic sigh, he asked, "Hannibal, what do think went wrong with the con? Those survivalists were really surprised to see me, I mean that other guy, and they were seriously pissed off." He looked puzzled. "What happened?"

"We were lied to; that's what happened, Lieutenant!" snapped Hannibal, grimacing in pain as he opened his eyes and started to sit up.

"Lie back, Colonel Smith and keep still!" ordered Dr. Goldman sharply, "You have a very nasty cut there. Let me do my job."

"Yes, Sir!" the colonel responded with a smile. "You know, Doc, you were pretty intrepid back there in the thick of battle. You looked like a whole cavalry charging over that hill. You know how to fire that weapon?" he asked, indicating the handgun still jammed under the professor's waistband.

Goldman looked down at the gun in surprise and pulling the 9mm slowly from under his belt, handed it to a grinning Face as if it were a poisonous snake.

"Why did that asshole Carruthers tell you that the case was dropped off with no trouble?" Murdock asked the colonel in a low, angry voice. "We sent Face walking into a neat little trap."

"I don't know," answered the colonel, his eyes growing deadly, "But I mean to find out."

"Yeah, Hannibal," said B.A. from the doorway, "That plan went south real fast, man!

Not one of your best."

The colonel winced, holding his hand to the newly wrapped bandage. "I'm sorry, guys," he said. "I know you all trust me to come up with a plan that has more than a snowball's chance in Nam of working out. This time I just didn't have enough information, or the right information," he added with a frown.

"To be honest, it's the Jazz, I don't always trust, Hannibal," replied the lieutenant, "I think we can all speak from personal experience; it has gotten us into trouble more than once."

The other men were unconsciously introducing a prickly topic that had been bothering the captain since the team left Los Angeles.

"Oh, I don't know," said Murdock slowly, his eyes narrowing, "Sometimes I don't really trust you either, Colonel."

The ex-Special Forces commander gave his pilot a startled look. 'What was this all about?' he wondered.

"Or maybe it's just that you don't trust me," continued the captain, fixing his intense brown gaze on the older man.

Face, who had been rummaging around on the floor looking for a clean bottle of water, glanced up and said quietly, "Hannibal, he knows about the files."

The colonel brushed Dr. Goldman aside and pushed himself away from the wall. Sending a guilty glance toward the captain, he turned to Face in accusation, "You told him!" he said, "And just how was that supposed to be useful to the team?"

"He guessed, Hannibal!" the younger man snapped back. Murdock was not the only one who had been thinking about those files. "And everything is not always about the fucking team! You ordered me to spy on my best friend! Every week for more than eight years! How do think that made me feel?" The lieutenant clenched his fists and involuntarily moved toward the colonel.

Releasing B.A., Murdock slid over toward the slender man and pulled at the back of his leather jacket. "Down, Facey!" he said gently, "This is my fight."

"What are you guys arguing about?" demanded B.A. from behind them, "What's going on?"

Turning to the sergeant, Face replied, in a bitter voice, "We're talking about Murdock's files at the VA, the ones in Dr. Richter's office. Hannibal ordered me to "borrow" them to make sure Murdock wasn't telling his shrink anything damaging about the team or our clients."

"What?!" exclaimed, B.A., with a frown. "Hannibal, that ain't right!"

Dr. Goldman was feeling increasingly uncomfortable with this conversation and moved away from the colonel. He wasn't sure what they were talking about but it definitely wasn't his business.

"C'mon, Colonel," continued the pilot, returning to their original topic. "You were on the Jazz! We all felt hinky about that plan. I'm just saying that when you get like that we can't always trust you to do the right thing." More than anyone else on the team, Murdock understood the bright light generated by the colonel's intuitive flashes and the darkness that sometimes followed in their wake.

Hannibal sat forward, his steely blue gaze now fixed on the captain. "Murdock, maybe you don't trust me anymore. I regret that, more than I can say." His eyes glazed over briefly in pain. "But, Jazz or no Jazz, do you really believe I would send the kid into a deathtrap?" he asked, glancing over at the lieutenant sitting silently in front of him.

Murdock stared down at the floor, remembering the Hannibal he had known for almost eleven years in all his complicated glory, often just as unpredictable as the captain himself. Paranoid as events over the past week had made him, it was simply too difficult for Murdock to see the colonel as an enemy. It didn't make any sense.

Finally, the pilot looked up and said, "No, Colonel, I don't believe you would. And maybe you were thought you were justified in asking Face to look at my records. Besides," he continued, "He and I have come to a new arrangement about those files, haven't we Facey?"

The lieutenant met his friend's eyes solemnly, "Scout's honor," he said.

"If you gentlemen are quite finished arguing with each other," said the professor in exasperation, "It is becoming increasingly apparent to me that this was a plan to get us all killed! I, for one, would like to have a talk with those two miserable excuses for human beings in the gray suits."

"Point taken, Doctor," commented Hannibal, with a grin. He heaved himself up off the floor. "Well, we're not going to get anywhere just sitting around. Let's get back to L.A. and find those slimeballs."

B.A. shook his head in panic. "Please, Hannibal, not on a plane!" Having to handle blindness and his flying phobia both at the same time was just too much for the sergeant's already frayed nerves.

Murdock looked over at the colonel and frowned, shaking his head once, decisively; he would not be the pilot on this trip.

Hannibal sighed, "Alright, B.A., no plane. Now, let's get going. We're pretty far out in the woods but somebody might have seen the explosion and called the sheriff's office. We don't have much time." The other men nodded and moved toward the exit.

B.A. pushed himself up off the floor. Facing the metal portal, he felt around for the handle, turning it so that the automatic lock clicked open. He pushed at the door firmly but it didn't budge. "It's stuck, Hannibal," reported the sergeant.

Suddenly the confines of the room seemed much smaller to the men trapped inside. As three members of the team exchanged anxious glances, Dr. Goldman thought perhaps this was a good time to restart the quotation game. Clearing his throat, he looked at the captain and said loudly, "Lord God, remember me and strengthen me only this once, so that with this one act of revenge I may pay back the Philistines for my two eyes."

Murdock's face lit up as he answered the professor's challenge, "Judges 16:28, Doc." He turned to the big man standing next to him. "You know, B.A., the story of Samson! C'mon, I'll help you."

"Got it in one, Captain," replied the good doctor with a grin.

His sightless brown eyes smiling, the sergeant returned to the heavy door and with Murdock at his side, grunted as he took most of the weight and began pushing against whatever barrier blocked the way. Soon, the others could hear the sound of splintering wood as the door started to swing open and pieces of several large tree branches fell through the opening. With a last great effort, the two friends sent the metal plate clanging back against the cinderblock frame and sunlight poured into the shelter lighting up the relieved faces of the men inside.

Chapter 13

The A-Team and their new medic emerged from the shelter and four of them looked around at what remained of the survivalist enclave. The afternoon sun filtered through the mist still hovering in the air from the recent explosion. There was almost nothing left but several large piles of timber plucked from the surrounding woods by a vacuum induced by the fuel-air bomb. The cabin had been completely flattened and there was no evidence of the army surplus truck or any of the survivalists.

"Check out the other shelter," ordered Hannibal.

Drawing their weapons, Murdock and Face moved to the west and found the second bunker. As the two men approached the shelter, they found that the door had been blown off the entrance. Looking cautiously inside, they discovered what remained of the Messenger of God and his acolytes.

Murdock looked over at Hannibal. "They didn't make it," he called out, in a grim voice.

"Let's get out of here," replied the colonel. The five men made their way down to the road, Hannibal giving the sergeant a hand. B.A.'s "baby" was a flattened wreck, all of the vehicle's contents burned or melted beyond recognition.

"How's my van?" the sergeant asked softly, though he already knew the answer judging from his silent teammates.

"Sorry, B.A., it's a goner," answered Hannibal, "We'll have to scare up another vehicle somewhere." The colonel squinted, staring off down the dirt road.

"Oh, no!" said Murdock in a small, shocked voice, suddenly realizing where he had left one of his most treasured possessions, "My jacket!"

Before the others could react to this discovery, they heard sirens in the distance.

"C'mon, into the woods!" commanded Hannibal as he and the lieutenant went crashing into the dense foliage by the side of the road. Dr. Goldman followed, straining mightily to see through his broken glasses. Sadly shaking his head, Murdock put his hand on B.A.'s forearm and led him into the trees, bringing up the rear.

The colonel and his second-in-command began to move forward, forging a path that kept them just in sight of the dirt road. Although inexperienced woodsmen, the soldiers had lost their way in the jungle often enough to know that pushing further into the virgin forest was a risky proposition. Hannibal and Face moved swiftly but the others immediately began to have trouble. Dr. Goldman was struggling along, but Murdock and B.A. were making little progress.

"Watch out for the branches overhead, Fool!" the big man yelled. "You gotta tell me when to duck." Hannibal looked back to see the sergeant rubbing his head in disgust as the two men pressed onward.

Murdock met his commander's eye. "Now, Colonel?" he called out hopefully. "Pathfinder, reporting for duty, suh?"

Hannibal shot an inquiring glance at the lieutenant walking beside him. Face nodded his head in response, knowing that the stress of the past few hours had badly upset his best friend. The Pathfinder might be annoying, but at this moment, he was absolutely necessary.

"Now, Captain!" replied the colonel in a loud voice. "Take it easy back there with B.A., Pathfinder, you need to keep alert for any obstructions in his way."

"Thank you, suh!" replied the Pathfinder, "I shall endeavor to lead my wounded comrade

with both accuracy and dispatch."

"Oh, man!" whined B.A., under his breath. A bad situation had just gotten worse.

The Pathfinder began to scan the forest around him. His eagle eye searched the trees above for telltale shadows of native warriors or perhaps a pouncing mountain lion.

Unfortunately, he also forgot to watch the path immediately in front of him. The pioneer was suddenly brought up short; falling into a large pile of leaves, when he ran B.A. directly into the trunk of very substantial tree.

"Oww!" objected the sergeant as he slammed into the oak, landing in an undignified position on the forest floor. "Hannibal!" he yelled, "Get over here and help me. The crazyman don't have no better sense of direction on the ground than he does in the air."

Laughing out loud, Hannibal and others turned back to rescue their friends.

The Pathfinder arose majestically from his leafy bower and bent over B.A., regarding him with concern. "My apologies, Sergeant, I did not mean to do you injury. In fact, I truly could not see the forest for the trees."

"It's alright, B.A., I'm here." replied Hannibal. Putting out his hand, he pulled the slightly damaged sergeant to his feet. "Pathfinder," he said to the captain, who gave his commander a sweepingly dramatic salute, "Why don't you scout the area ahead and return in a few moments with your report."

Murdock grinned and began to lope off into the woods. "And don't get lost!" called the colonel after him. The Pathfinder waved his hand cheerily in acknowledgement and disappeared behind a stand of trees.

Dr. Goldman pushed his almost useless eyeglasses down on his nose and watched Murdock's departure over the top of the rims. Turning to the others, he said, with a smile, "You must find working with the Captain an entertaining experience."

Over by the oak tree, B.A. gave a small snort of disgust.

"I don't know if entertaining is quite the word I'd use," said Face, grinning back, "But it is definitely never boring."

"C'mon, Sergeant," said Hannibal, taking over the Pathfinder's job. "Let's get going."

The team set off again, now making better time as they continued to hike through the forest.

After the men had traveled parallel with the road about three miles, they approached another clearing, a large white farmhouse just visible through the branches. A rustling of the trees next to the group indicated that the Pathfinder had rejoined them. "Colonel," the pioneer announced in a stage whisper, "The homesteader is seated on the porch of his abode. He awaits our arrival."

Sure enough, a weather-beaten old farmer was perched silently on the top step of the house, smoking a cigar. He watched the approach of the dusty, ragged men as they crossed the clearing to stand on his front walk.

The colonel sniffed the cigar smoke in appreciation and inquired, "You wouldn't happen to have another one of those, would you? I seem to have left mine in my other jacket." Hannibal patted his own pocket gently, raising a small cloud of plaster dust.

The farmer narrowed his gray eyes as he gazed upward at the smoke still rising from the enclave three miles to the east. "Heard sirens about an hour ago," he said, "That wouldn't have anything to do with you folks, would it?"

Hannibal gave the man an innocent look. "No idea. We were deer hunting a few miles away and had an accident with our truck. We're looking to buy a new one if the price is right," The colonel tilted his head toward a battered delivery van parked in front of the house.

The old man gave Hannibal an acquisitive smile. "Deer season doesn't begin until next month," he observed, taking in the bedraggled group dressed in their city clothes. "What happened to your hunting rifles?" he asked the soldiers, now armed only with handguns, "Get eaten by a bear?"

Hannibal gave him a hard look. The old man's eyes widened and he pushed himself back slightly on the step and stood up. "Name your price," the colonel said.

Not too intimidated to try and make an obscenely large profit from men obviously in trouble with the law, the old man replied, "Twenty thousand dollars."

"What?!" Hannibal laughed in disbelief.

Dr. Goldman looked at the farmer in disgust, and quoted, "So for a good old- gentlemanly vice; I think I must take up with avarice."

"Lord Byron, Don Juan," answered the Pathfinder absently, his eagle eye now observing the farmer's side yard with increasing interest.

"Twenty-thousand dollars," said Face, struck to the core of his accountant's soul. "That's ridiculous! You must be kidding."

"Take it or leave it," replied the farmer with a nasty smile as he turned to walk inside the house and away from the deal.

Pathfinder cleared his throat loudly and began his report. "Observe yonder kitchen garden," he said, indicating a large unkempt growth of weeds.

"Not now, Murdock," ordered the colonel.

The pioneer looked reprovingly at his commander. After all, Hannibal had given the Pathfinder permission to exist. No give-backs allowed. "It is only an opinion, mind you," he continued, oblivious to the colonel's glare, "That were we to set fire to the vegetation that abounds upon this farm, the resulting smoke might be rather pleasant to inhale."

Face gazed at his rustic friend in confusion, then looked more closely at the plants waving in the gentle breeze. Growing in among the usual more "garden variety" vegetables, he spotted a large healthy crop of cannabis.

"Maui Wowie!" said the lieutenant under his breath and grinned in appreciation. Sometimes it was helpful to have the sharp-eyed Pathfinder along for the ride.

The captain returned Face's smile. "Acapulco Gold," echoed Murdock in his own voice.

Hannibal puzzled expression finally cleared. "Nice, Pathfinder, nice," nodded the colonel in approval. The pioneer bowed, acknowledging the compliment.

"Alright, Mister," said the colonel, fixing the suddenly anxious farmer with a steely glare, "It seems we both might have something to hide from the local constabulary. Suppose we say, one-thousand dollars for your old van." The farmer nodded, as he went inside to get the pink slip. "And don't forget to throw in a cigar!" called Hannibal after him.

Chapter 14

As evening fell outside Youngstown, Ohio, a beat-up brown delivery van quietly pulled up beside a large auto impound yard. Two slender young men got out of the vehicle and walking over to the chain link fence, stood looking up at the barbed wire along the top. Face took off his black leather jacket, the only garment he still possessed in relatively good condition, and slung it over the razor-sharp wire. Murdock gave him a gentle "alley-oop" and the lieutenant was up and over, stepping onto an oil drum left carelessly on the other side.

"Deplorable security," commented Face to himself.

Moving among the parked vehicles, the conman chose a dejected-looking Toyota. Pulling out a screwdriver, he deftly removed the plates and tucked them under his belt. Suddenly, Face heard a rustling sound from the far side of the yard and the single warning bark of a very angry Doberman Pincher. The lieutenant raced across the impound lot, hopping up on the drum and over the fence, his ankle only inches from the animal's sharp teeth. The dog let out a loud volley of frustrated barking from his side of the metal links. Murdock reached up helpfully and yanked the leather jacket off the barbed wire with a loud ripping sound. He shrugged in apology and handed the resulting shreds to his partner in crime.

"Thanks, Murdock," Face sighed, pulling on the now tattered jacket. The two jumped in the delivery van and drove away.

Around 2:00 AM, the van, with newly attached Ohio plates, traveled westward with Murdock at the wheel. Not nearly as roomy as B.A.'s gray ghost, the old vehicle was set up to accommodate plants more comfortably than people. There was a platform area in the back covered with a mound of burlap sacks, which provided a nice bed for the soundly sleeping sergeant. In front of the storage section, Hannibal and Face sat on a long wooden bench which the farmer had bolted to the floor, hard on the body, but serviceable. The driver and passenger-side captain's chairs at the front of the old Ford had also seen better days. With the exception of an occasional gentle snore from B.A., the men had been silent for last 100 miles. It had been a long, and largely horrible, day.

As the others started to nod off, Murdock stared unseeing at the roadway ahead. Hannibal jerked his head upright when he heard the captain ask plaintively, "Facey! You seen Billy around here anywhere?"

"What?" replied Face, in a groggy voice, "Billy?"

"Yeah, where is he? I haven't seen him for hours." As Dr. Goldman studied Murdock from the neighboring seat, he saw a look of panic cross the other man's face. "You don't think we left him behind?" the pilot asked, turning around to look at his friend. He took his eyes off the road and the van swerved slightly onto the soft shoulder.

"Captain," ordered Hannibal, snapping Murdock temporarily back to reality, "Stop the van! It's my turn to drive."

The pilot pulled the battered vehicle to the side of the road and put it in park while the colonel made his way forward. Hannibal glared at Dr. Goldman as he passed, as if it was the physicist's fault that he had never learned to drive.

"Have a seat in the back, Murdock," said Hannibal as the two men switched places and the colonel got in the driver's seat, readjusting the bandage on his forehead.

"Are you alright?" asked the doctor in low voice.

"Guess I'll have to be," replied the colonel grimly.

Puzzled by his answer, Dr. Goldman wondered why Hannibal didn't ask the lieutenant to take a turn at the wheel if he wasn't feeling well.

The captain curled up on the wooden bench and slid all the way to left, leaning against the inside wall of the van.

"You alright, Pathfinder?" asked Face, softly.

"Not the Pathfinder anymore," whispered Murdock, "Just me."

Concerned, the lieutenant moved over and put his hand on one of the arms now tightly folded over the captain's chest.

"I don't think I let Billy into the shelter before the bomb went off," continued Murdock, his voice rising, "I think maybe I forgot to take him along with us when we were running away. Maybe he's dead, Facey, maybe I killed him!"

Face put his arm around the shoulders of the tight little ball his friend had become and pulled him gently to the middle of the bench, flicking on the van's overhead light. "Take it easy, Murdock, " he said, "We didn't bring Billy with us on this trip. You left him with Rosemary at the VA, remember? He's just fine!"

"Oh, yeah," acknowledged Murdock in a small voice, "I remember now." He started to unclench his body, swinging his feet down onto the floor.

"Who is Billy?" asked Dr. Goldman, quietly.

"His invisible dog," replied Face, giving the doctor a significant look. The other man nodded and leaned over to pick up the knapsack from the floor by his chair, taking out the medical kit.

"Murdock," asked Face, "How long has it been since you've taken your pills?"

The captain gave his friend a vague look. "This morning, I guess," he replied. "About 08:00. Lost them, though, in the pocket of my jacket. All burnt up." His eyes began to fill with tears.

"What was in the bottle you showed me, buddy?" asked Face, "What is Dr. Richter giving you these days?"

"Oh, I don't know," replied Murdock, in a tired voice, "Chlorpromazine, thioridazine, carbamazepine, lithium carbonate…"

The doctor raised his eyebrows; that was quite a litany of heavy-duty drugs.

"Lithium citrate, benzodiazepine…" the captain continued, beginning to run down.

"Not everything your shrink has ever tried out on you, Murdock," Face interrupted, giving his shoulder a gentle shake, "Just what you're taking now."

The pilot fixed confused, watery eyes on his best friend's face and shook his head in despair.

"Those are some very powerful drugs, Lieutenant," ventured Dr. Goldman. "Without knowing his diagnosis, I couldn't even make a guess about what his doctor prescribed. It sounds like the captain may still have an MAO inhibitor in his bloodstream. Introducing another medication at this time could have serious side effects."

Face stared at the doctor in mute appeal.

"Alright," the professor relented, "Let's try a benzodiazepine, a mild dose of Valium perhaps. It shouldn't do any harm and might help him sleep."

"Knitting up the raveled sleeve of care." Murdock mumbled.

"Macbeth, Act II, Scene II," responded the doctor quietly, frowning when the captain paid no attention. He pulled out a small bottle and syringe from his kit, squinting over his broken glasses in the dim light as he struggled to prepare the shot.

"Let me do that," said Face, as he reached over and competently inserted the needle into the top of the bottle. "How much?" he asked, looking over at the surprised physician.

"One cc should be enough," the professor replied.

The lieutenant swiftly followed instructions and taking the swab offered by the doctor, wiped off a small patch on his friend's mutely outstretched arm and administered the injection.

Silently handing the needle back to Goldman, Face turned to the man beside him and said, "Come here, Murdock," as he reached over to pull the unprotesting pilot into his arms.

"You think Rosemary will remember to give Billy a doggie treat?" Murdock asked sleepily, laying his head on Face's shoulder.

"Yeah," soothed his best friend, stroking his hair, "Probably a big juicy bone."

Closing his eyes, Murdock smiled. "Good," he whispered, "Billy likes bones." The exhausted pilot fell asleep.

Dr. Goldman reached up and turned off the light; the dim interior of the van now illuminated only by a passing streetlamp.

"Everything O.K. now?" Hannibal called softly from the driver's seat.

"O.K., Colonel," his lieutenant replied, continuing to hold Murdock as he slept.

The two friends remained in that position until the first rays of the sun peeked over the horizon and it was Face's turn to drive.

Chapter 15

Mid-morning, Face pulled the battered van up in front of a K-Mart in Quincy, Illinois. He turned off the ignition and sat for a moment staring moodily at the discount store through the windshield.

"C'mon, Face," urged the colonel sitting next to him, "You know all our sizes. Go on in there and buy us some new clothes. We can't go back to L.A. looking like this."

The lieutenant had to concede that no one in the entire group had a completely clean or intact garment among them. To make matters worse, the emergency funds stashed in Face's money belt had been severely strained by both the acquisition and feeding of the gas-hungry van.

"I know, Hannibal," said Face in dismay, "But K-Mart!"

"I'm sorry to offend your fashion sensibilities, Lieutenant," the colonel replied with a grin, "Just get some basic stuff for a couple of days. Nothing too fancy."

"Yeah, Faceman," said B.A., from the back of the van, "And don't forget the XXL t-shirts, the sleeves on the last ones you got me were too small."

"O.K., Colonel," Face sighed, opening the driver's side door. Sometimes it was a trial to be the A-Team's scavenger; these guys were fussy, fussy, fussy. "Professor, you better come along, I'm not sure what to buy for you." Dr. Goldman nodded and slid open the delivery hatch on his side of the vehicle.

As the professor got out, the lieutenant gazed past him and into the upraised face of his friend. "Me too?" asked Murdock, hopefully.

Face gave him an appraising look. The pilot had been abnormally quiet since sleeping off the effects of last night's drug. It was nice to see him take an interest in something.

"O.K, You can come with us if you want."

Murdock climbed out of the van and hopped up and down on the asphalt next to the smiling doctor, waiting impatiently for his friend.

"Hey, Face," called Hannibal, as settled himself in the passenger-side chair, folding his arms across his chest. "Don't forget the cigars!" The colonel hated shopping.

"Can I have a toy, please, Facey? Can I?" Hannibal heard the pilot say excitedly, as he closed his eyes.

"Sure, Murdock. I'll get you a toy," the lieutenant replied with exaggerated patience, as the three men walked toward the store. Hannibal smiled and drifted off to sleep.

An hour later, the colonel was jolted out a pleasant dream in which he was beating the hell out of Carruthers, when the side door was suddenly yanked open and a large mound of packages thrown inside. The professor and Murdock jumped in after them and pulled the door shut while Face went around and got behind the wheel. The pilot was carrying a small stuffed Guernsey cow with a cheerful red ribbon around her neck proclaiming: "Souvenir of the Heartland."

"Nice cow," commented Hannibal with a grin as Murdock held her out for inspection. "I see you got your reward. But the question remains, were you a good boy?"

The pilot looked down at his sneakers and did not reply.

"Captain Murdock had a slight disagreement with the security guard," explained Dr. Goldman, trying to be helpful. "Something about a Styrofoam airplane, I think."

"The man simply had no appreciation for the principles of aerodynamics." chuckled Face, as pulled onto the highway.

"Hey, I was just trying it out," said Murdock in his own defense, "That plane was definitely not worth the money. I only got it halfway across the store before it crashed."

"Yeah, Murdock," the lieutenant replied, now laughing openly, "When it collided with that rather large-sized lady in the lingerie section. I don't think she appreciated an airplane up her…."

"Never mind, Faceman," interrupted the captain. "I didn't want that toy anyway. I'd really rather have this cow instead." He gave his hysterical fellow passengers an offended look.

"Well, they made us pay for them both, anyway, Hannibal," said Face more calmly, wiping his eyes. "We got enough for burgers and gas but that's about it."

"We're gonna need to stop and get cleaned up." replied Hannibal.

"As I said in the store, Lieutenant," offered Dr. Goldman, "You gentlemen are welcome to use my American Express card for any traveling expenses."

"Thanks anyway, Doc," said the colonel, "But first lesson of life on the run; always use cash. Carruthers and Company would zero in on a credit card purchase within minutes. As it stands now, if they don't talk to that old skinflint at the farm, those spooks probably think we died in that explosion. Let's leave it that way; I like the element of surprise."

The rest of the team nodded in agreement.

"Well, B.A.?" asked the colonel, "We need some money for a motel. Think you can spare something?"

"Aw, Hannibal!" B.A. sighed, as he picked through the nest of gold around his neck, withdrawing one of the chains. "Murdock, where are you?" he called as stretched out his hand. "Take this. I've got another one like it at home anyway."

The captain passed the heavy links to Face sitting in the driver's seat and the conman steered the van toward the nearest pawnshop.

One successful transaction later, a wealthier A-Team drove southward along the Mississippi River, looking for the next crossing. The great waterway was magnificent in the morning sunshine, small waves whipped up by the windy day glistening in the reflected light. Two large riverboats passed one another, hauling cargo possibly bound for ports from Canada to New Orleans.

Murdock looked out the window and sighed peacefully, "No wonder you prefer Mississippis, Face." The lieutenant smiled in reply as he glanced out through the windshield at the beautiful scene, quickly returning his eyes to the road.

As he watched the men working on the cargo deck below, the captain quoted, "Your true pilot cares nothing about anything on earth but the river, and his pride in his occupation surpasses the pride of kings."

"Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi, Captain. A quote that I imagine is apt whether on the water or in the air," said the professor. "But," he added in gentle reproof, "I believe it was my turn?"

"Sorry, Doc," Murdock replied with a grin.

The team crossed over the Mississippi, heading westward, when the colonel suddenly sat up in his seat and pointed to a passing road sign. "Behold, Gentlemen," he announced, "Hannibal, Missouri."

"Ah, named after you, I suppose." Face laughed. The team heard an answering chuckle from the cargo platform at the back of the van.

"No, afraid not," answered the colonel, with a good-natured shrug. "But I take it as a good omen. Find us a place to stop somewhere around here, Face."

The lieutenant nodded and pulled into the parking lot of a Holiday Inn. "Wait here," he said, "I'll get us a room."

"Better make it two," called out Hannibal, "It'll be faster that way; and thanks to B.A., we have enough money."

The others all sighed in resignation; the colonel had no intention of letting them get some much-needed sleep.

Chapter 16

While Face went to the motel office to pick up the keys, Dr. Goldman and Murdock sorted out the various plastic bags assigning each person the right size clothing. Shaving equipment and other drugstore stuff were also evenly distributed.

The lieutenant climbed back into the driver's seat and moved the van in front of Rooms 107 and 108, handing Hannibal one of the keys. The colonel looked at the tag and said, "I'll take B.A. with me into 107 and the rest of you use the other shower. Be as quick as you can, we gotta get back on the road."

The others nodded, each taking a bag into their respective rooms. As the professor and Murdock entered 108, Face pushed past them with a charming grin and darted into the bathroom, saying, "First dibs!"

"Don't use up all the hot water!" called out Murdock to his friend. "He always hogs up all the hot water," he confided to the professor with a tired smile. "The man is a sponge, positively weird."

The pair looked longingly at the neatly made-up hotel beds. "Maybe if we just lay down and closed our eyes for a minute." Goldman suggested.

"Yeah," Murdock agreed, "Hannibal just said not to go to sleep. He didn't say anything about resting."

Dr. Goldman and the pilot each lay down on one of the soft mattresses. Murdock stretched his lanky frame with a groan of pure pleasure and closed his eyes. "C'mon, professor," he said, trying to keep awake, "I think you said it was your turn."

"To sleep, perchance to dream," quoted the professor drowsily, not at his best.

"Not Hamlet, Doc." replied Murdock with a huge yawn, "Way too easy." Already sound asleep, the professor did not reply. "Besides," he continued, his voice growing softer, "You don't want to dream, dreaming can be very dangerous, very scary…" The captain turned over on his side and fell silent.

Fifteen minutes later, which was a new personal speed record for him, Face emerged from the bathroom, feeling much better. It was a relief to be freshly washed and wearing new clothes, even considering their regrettable source. The lieutenant stood looking down at the sleeping men and wondered which poor, dusty creature he should wake up first. They both looked pretty pitiful. The little professor was flat on his back snoring slightly, cracked glasses pushed up on his forehead. On the other bed, Murdock had curled up in a ball, using the little cow as his pillow. Coming to a decision, the lieutenant went over to Dr. Goldman and gently shook him awake.

"Professor, your turn in the bathroom," he whispered, "And, yes, I did leave you some hot water." Rising slowly, Goldman nodded and picking up a bag, went in to take his shower. Face twitched the cover off the professor's newly vacated bed and laid it over his friend. He went out of the room in search of a caffeine fix, closing the door softly behind him.

When a newly spruced-up Hannibal and B.A. entered Room 108, they found Face drinking coffee as he sat in a chair by the window, staring out at the parked cars. Murdock had snuggled further under the bedspread, still dead to the world. The colonel gave him an annoyed look.

"I thought I said no napping," stated Hannibal. He went over to the pilot's bed and bounced the mattress up and down, disturbing the sleeping man.

The captain stirred slightly and turned over mumbling, "Leave me alone, Rosemary! It's not time for breakfast."

The colonel raised his eyebrows with a grin. Rosemary! Breakfast!

"It's not what you think, Hannibal," replied Face, in irritation, "Rosemary is a nurse at the VA. Here, let me do it." The lieutenant pushed his commander aside and shook Murdock's shoulder. "C'mon buddy, rise and shine, time to get cleaned up."

"O.K., Facey," the waking captain said in a drowsy voice as he swung himself off the bed and started to make his way unsteadily to bathroom.

"Try the one next door, Murdock," said the colonel, pressing the key into his palm. "That one's occupied." The pilot nodded in acknowledgement and stumbled out the door.

"Coffee?" offered Face, as he indicated the other chairs by the window.

"Your right, two o'clock." said Hannibal to B.A. who felt his way into an armchair and sat down. The colonel handed the sergeant a cup, then took one for himself.

The three men sat in silence for a moment.

Suddenly, Face began, "Colonel, you know that I made a promise to Murdock a couple of days ago."

The colonel nodded. He had hoped in vain that this subject wasn't going to come up again. "About his psychiatric records?" he ventured.

"I promised him, on my honor," Face said, with a shrug, "For what that's worth, that I wouldn't read any more of Richter's files without his permission."

There were few things that made Hannibal feel more helpless than when the kid beat himself up. 'How the hell do you answer a remark like that?' the colonel thought sadly.

"A promise, I imagine, you intend to keep," replied Hannibal aloud.

"To the letter of the law if not the meaning," said Face, his self-revulsion becoming more evident to the others. "I'm going to tell you about one other file which I removed from the doctor's office and read before I made Murdock that promise. It's important and I think you need to know about it. But," he amended harshly, "This is my last report!"

The two other men nodded.

"Did you know that Murdock's shrink has recently become certified in an advanced form of hypnotherapy?" Face said. "Dr. Richter plans to use the technique to pry out some kind of information that the Doc thinks is stuck in his brain."

"What?!" asked B.A. in surprise.

"Richter thinks that the CIA planted something in him years ago and later tried to wash it out. They did such a crappy job that they sent Murdock over the edge," continued Face in disgust.

Finishing up in the bathroom, Goldman turned off the light and opened the door a crack, listening intently.

"Does Dr. Richter know what the information is?" questioned Hannibal.

"No fucking idea," replied Face angrily, "But he thinks it is something so dangerous to the Company that the very mention of hypnotherapy might scare them into trying to take Murdock out. That's why he was frightened when Carruthers and that other goon broke into the hospital last week. He thought they were going to kill his patient."

The professor leaned his head against the doorframe and closed his eyes. 'Captain Murdock must have been one of the couriers,' he thought, swallowing painfully. 'I knew I had seen him somewhere before! All those fine young men, so long ago.'

"Jesus," swore the colonel, who was starting to feel distinctly out of his league.

"What are we gonna do, Hannibal?" asked B.A., worried, but trusting in the power of the Jazz.

"I don't know, Sergeant," replied his commander. "Let me think about it. Murdock should be safe with us for now. At least until we get back home. Maybe I can talk to Richter about beefing up security at the VA."

The three men at the window and the one hiding in the bathroom all gave a start when the object of their discussion stuck his damp head around the outside door and asked cheerfully, "So, y'all coming or what? Time's a-wastin'"

"Get Goldman." ordered Hannibal, shaken by the captain's sudden appearance. Murdock raised his eyebrows at the other man's tone but walked over to the now closed bathroom door and tapped lightly. The doctor burst out of the little room, carrying his dusty suit in a plastic bag tucked under his arm. Hannibal narrowed his eyes, making a note of the hasty exit.

"C'mon, let's get out of here!" said Face, rising to his feet, his expression still grim.

The captain looked around at his friends in confusion as he followed the rest of the team out to the waiting van.

Chapter 17

Partly because he seemed to be feeling better but mostly because they were just too exhausted to drive, Hannibal and Face decided to let Murdock have turn at the wheel. The pilot took his little stuffed cow and put her on the dashboard to keep him company.

Dr. Goldman settled down in the passenger seat, allowing the two other drivers a chance to stretch out, Face on the wooden bench and Hannibal on the floor below. B.A. returned to the cargo platform as the men supplemented the burlap sacks with blankets the lieutenant had purchased at the store.

Some hours later, all his passengers now asleep, the captain was driving down a highway lined on both sides with fields of newly harvested corn. Murdock was singing softly so as not to wake the others: "The corn is as high as an elephant's eye…" from Oklahoma, never mind that this was Kansas. Suddenly, as the pilot topped a rise in the road, as tall as hills ever get in the prairie, he saw something wonderful. In a lush green field, grazing peacefully in the late afternoon sun, was a large herd of Guernsey cows. Murdock looked in delight at his own little friend on the dash, then over at the real-life Technicolor version. That few seconds of inattention was enough for the captain to miss a piece of barbed wire sitting in the middle of the road. It caught the left rear tread of the van squarely, the old tire blowing out almost immediately and spinning the vehicle out of control and into the path of an oncoming truck.

Although it is fair to say that without him the accident might have never have happened, it was lucky for the team that the captain was at the wheel when it did. The same quick reflexes that made Murdock such a remarkable pilot surely saved all their lives. As the van tilted alarmingly to the left, going fifty miles an hour, he was able to slow the vehicle and gradually maneuver it onto the soft shoulder of the road as the passing semi driver blared his horn. Right wheel catching in a ditch, the delivery van came to an abrupt stop, throwing Dr. Goldman and Murdock forward onto the dashboard. Face, caught totally unaware, was flung bodily off the slippery wooden bench and on to the floor, landing on top of the colonel. B.A. slid forward on the surface of the slippery cargo platform, hitting his head sharply on the side of the van.

For a moment, all was silent on the quiet country road until a low moo from one of the cows sounded through the driver's side window. Murdock slowly unclenched his hands from the steering wheel and moved back in his seat, rubbing a slightly bruised shoulder. "You alright, Doc?" he asked the little man next to him who was pushing himself up from the dashboard.

"Just had the wind knocked out of me, I guess," replied the professor. "A good argument for always wearing your seat beat." he added, unnecessarily.

"Get off me, Lieutenant!" came a muffled voice from behind them as Hannibal and Face struggled to untangle themselves. Fortunately, since both men had been sound asleep, their muscles completely relaxed, they sustained little harm from crashing into one another.

B.A. was another matter. Already a large lump was rising on his forehead from the collision with the metal wall. "That it!" he yelled, enraged, "I'm gonna get that crazyman! First he runs me into a tree and now this. Face! Point me at him. Murdock, you gonna die!"

The captain was already smiling as he turned to make sure his bad-tempered friend was not really hurt when noticed a strange silence from the other men. Far from being amused, Hannibal looked distinctly uncomfortable at the sergeant's reaction.

"Shut up, B.A.!" snapped Face and the big man was abruptly quiet, looking as if he wished he could eat his words.

After a worried, almost guilty, glance at the captain, Dr. Goldman got up from his seat and stepping over the other men, climbed into the back to take a look at B.A.'s head.

Murdock glanced around in surprise. "Why are you all actin' so weird all of a sudden," he said, "Is everything O.K.?"

Hoping to deflect the captain's question with one of his own, Hannibal asked, "So Murdock, what happened? You weren't pretending to be the Pathfinder again, were you?"

His eyes still puzzled, the pilot answered, "No, Colonel, not the Pathfinder, cows!"

Murdock pointed accusingly at the herd of Guernseys across the road, still chomping away at the grass, oblivious to these humans and their noisy traffic accidents.

The colonel raised an eyebrow at this excuse; then turned to glare at his lieutenant.

"Well, you're the one who decided he was O.K. to drive." said Face, in his own defense.

"Yes, I did." acknowledged Hannibal.

"Don't worry, Colonel," said Murdock, hastily. "I know this is all my fault. I'll have the tire changed in a jiffy."

"Yes, you will." answered Hannibal, giving the captain a level stare. Murdock hurried to open the back hatch of the delivery truck and hanging his denim jacket on the radio antenna, began to search under the cargo platform for the spare. The colonel watched as the blue cotton garment gradually bent the antenna down toward the ground. This reminded him of some unfinished business.

"C'mon, Lieutenant," Hannibal said. "Let's stretch our legs."

Face followed the colonel across the road to a rough wooden fence separating them from all those cows. The colonel looked over at his friend. "Have a cigar," he said, taking two from his pocket and handing one to the man beside him. He bit the end off the other and struck a match.

"Thanks," the lieutenant replied.

Across the road, Dr. Goldman was standing next to B.A. as the big man offered Murdock much unwanted advice on the proper changing of a tire. The professor smiled as he observed Face unconsciously imitate each move made by his commander as they lit up their cigars. Both soldiers leaned casually against the wood planks with their backs to the others and took a puff, sending identical clouds of smoke up into the sky.

"Murdock looks funny in that denim jacket," the colonel observed. "Not really like himself, if you know what I mean."

Face nodded. "And did you notice that he hasn't mentioned it once since last night? I think he misses that beat-up thing more than he is willing to admit."

"I remember a dapper young lieutenant actually admiring that jacket when it was new," said Hannibal with a laugh.

Face shrugged. "It looked and certainly smelled a lot better back then."

Hannibal took another draw on the cigar and asked thoughtfully, "Think you could find the artist who painted that tiger?"

Face looked over at the colonel and grinned. "I could certainly give it a try," he replied.

Chapter 18

The following evening, the A-Team was in much more familiar territory as they made their way across the Nevada desert. Hannibal was at the wheel and Murdock sat on the floor behind the driver's seat so that Face could take a nap on the wooden bench. It was the least he could do having been banished from driving duty as a result of the cow incident. Abandoning the quotation game, to the great relief of their fellow passengers, Murdock and Dr. Goldman had embarked on something equally arcane, riddles.

"I have two arms, but fingers none. I have two feet, but cannot run. I carry well, but I have found I carry best with my feet off the ground." said the captain, looking up at Goldman in the passenger's seat.

"Give me a minute," replied the doctor, his forehead wrinkling in thought.

Face stirred slightly, trying in vain to convince himself that the hard bench was a comfortable bed. "I don't suppose you two plan to knock this off anytime soon and maybe let me get some sleep?" he asked. Next to Muzak, there was truly nothing the lieutenant found more annoying than riddles; he hadn't even liked them when he was a kid.

"O.K., Face," Murdock agreed. "The Doc and me are all tied up. We each get one more chance to win; then we'll call it a draw."

"Your colonel thanks you, your sergeant thanks you and I, Gentlemen, most sincerely thank you," replied Face, as he pulled the blanket up over his head. Hannibal and B.A. chuckled in agreement.

"Alright," said the doctor, "Let's see, two arms but no fingers; feet that carry best off the ground." He face cleared, "I got it, Captain, an airplane."

The pilot snapped his fingers, "Shucks," he said, "I picked one that was way too easy. One last turn for you, Doc."

Goldman replied, "I have a neck, but no head. I have two arms, but no hands. What am I?"

Murdock considered this for a moment; then a shadow crossed his face and he said, "A jacket, professor. An old leather jacket, all nice and broken-in, with a tiger; I really liked that tiger." Murdock put his head down on his knees.

Face pushed the covers back and gave the offending riddler an irritated glare, "Thanks, Professor, that was helpful."

"I'm sorry, Murdock," apologized the doctor, "I wasn't thinking."

The captain, his head still bowed, mumbled, "It's O.K., Doc, we're all tired."

As Hannibal brought the van around a bend in the desert road, the men could suddenly see the lights of Las Vegas on the horizon. Distance gave the garish neon signs an ethereal quality, like a strange beautiful constellation glowing brightly against the early evening sky.

The sergeant squinted through the windshield. "Just like a big Christmas tree," he said, softly.

"Yeah, B.A.," answered Face, sitting up on the bench. "It sure does look pretty…Hey!" he broke off, in surprise, turning to stare at the big man.

Murdock's head shot up. "Professor," he shouted exuberantly, "Answer me this riddle! What big, stubborn, ugly mudsucker has finally decided he's not gonna be blind after all?" Without waiting for a reply, the captain jumped over the wooden bench and into the cargo bay, giving the squirming B.A. a big hug.

Glancing behind him with a smile, the colonel pulled off the highway and parked the van.

"Get off me, Fool!" grunted the sergeant, pushing Murdock away, as he tried to focus on the blurry shapes in front of him.

"How many fingers, B.A.!" asked the excited captain, waving his hand back and forth showing a different number of digits with each pass in front of the big man's face.

"You ain't gonna have no fingers left, if you don't cut that out." replied B.A. as he caught the pilot's wrist, holding it in place.

Finally sitting still, Murdock gave his friend a delighted grin so contagious that the sergeant couldn't help returning a small smile of his own.

"Glad to see you getting back to normal, B.A.," sighed Hannibal with relief, turning in the driver's seat. "Guess you were right about that snow blindness after all, Professor."

"When we return to my office, I'll make a full examination, Sergeant," said the doctor, "But it looks as though you're going to be alright."

"Thank, God!" responded Face with feeling. B.A. nodded in agreement as he reached out to clasp the lieutenant's hand.

"C'mon, guys," said Hannibal, as he restarted the van, "How 'bout if we all give those bright lights a closer look."

Murdock leapt nimbly from the cargo bay onto the wooden bench, peering out through windshield in anticipation. None of the men knew what he expected to see.

"Now that you mention it, Hannibal," said the lieutenant, moving into his best persuasive mode, "I think I see an opportunity here to pick up a little money playing blackjack."

The colonel chuckled. This was the Face that Hannibal had first met all those years ago, running a traveling nightclub and gambling den only a few miles from the DMZ. "No, Lieutenant." he replied.

"C'mon, Colonel," urged the conman, "Just two weeks ago, I got a few tips in card counting from Benny the Dip. It's full-proof; we can't lose."

"Sorry, Face." said Hannibal. "No time and also, I suspect, not much cash."

The lieutenant had to admit that what little was left in the money belt didn't leave any margin for error. "Ah, well," he sighed, as he stared wistfully out the window at the casinos passing in review, "Another day."

"There it is!" said the captain as he pointed to a giant Elvis statue by the side of the road. "The King," he added, reverentially.

"Oh, no!" muttered Face, under his breath, "Here comes the Muzak."

"Uh, huh!" grunted Murdock in his best imitation, "Please let me be, your lovin' teddy bear…"

"Murdock," Face begged, "Do you think we could get through Vegas without one Elvis or Sinatra impersonation. It would make a nice change, don't you think?"

The captain fixed his friend with a manic eye. "You mean, you want Frankie, too?" he asked. "When I was seventeen," Murdock crooned, "It was a very good year…."

Face groaned in misery.

"C'mon, Murdock," called the colonel from the front of the van, "Give it a rest."

"No, wait a minute!" said B.A. suddenly. "Hannibal, let the crazyman sing."

"What?!" exclaimed Face in surprise, feeling somewhat betrayed.

Hannibal took his eyes off the road a second and gave the sergeant a startled look.

Murdock gazed at his large friend, his dark brown eyes glowing. "Alright, B.A." he said softly, "I got one for you."

Face sat back expecting the worst, hands ready to cover his ears in self-defense.

The captain took a deep breath and began to sing: "Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound! That saved a wretch like me." His rich baritone voice rose gloriously, filling the inside of the little van. "I once was lost, but now I'm found. Was blind but now I see."

As the last joyful note faded, Dr. Goldman wiped something out of his eye. "Damn desert!" he thought to himself, "Sand and dust everywhere."

B.A. cleared his throat and said in a low voice, "Thanks, Murdock."

"Por nada, muchacho," the captain replied, as he swung into the next verse.

Unnoticed by the singer and his audience, Face pulled back into the shadows, leaning up against the wall of the van. Bending his head downward, his eyes suddenly filled with tears. Intending merely to offer thanks for the return of B.A.'s sight, the lieutenant instead directed God's attention to the problem uppermost on his mind. "Lord!" he whispered, his fierce prayer sounding more like an order than a request, "Take care of Murdock. Watch over him!"

The same agonizing worry also weighing on his mind, a grim-faced Hannibal drove on, heading all too rapidly toward L.A. and their home base.

Chapter 19

Very early the next morning, a battered truck drove down the side street of a quiet Los Angeles suburb. The exhausted men parked in front of a large Victorian house that had been converted into headquarters for Dr. Goldman's organization. A sign over the front porch read: The Council for Controlled Nuclear Proliferation. The team plodded up the stairs and waited while the doctor unlocked the door.

Once inside, the professor turned on the overhead lights, and led the men through the lobby into his office. The room definitely reflected the doctor's two somewhat divergent interests. Half of the large area was taken up by a battered mahogany desk completely surrounded by several large blackboards; every spare inch of available surface covered with incomprehensible equations. The physicist obviously lived there. The other end of the room, however, was the domain of Goldman, the physician. It contained an efficient laboratory of sophisticated medical equipment including a heavily secured locker with an enormous and varied selection of drugs.

"Wow, that's some pharmacy you got there, Doc!" said Face with a low whistle.

The physicist just smiled and pointed to a row of chairs against the wall. Reaching into a drawer, he pulled out his spare eyeglasses and slipped them on. "If you gentlemen will have a seat. I'd like to check you over one by one."

Hannibal did not really know how he felt about this strange little man but the offer of discreet medical care was tempting. It avoided the usual annoyance of asking Face to manufacture assumed names then later removing all records from the physician's files. "In fact, after what has happened the last few days," the colonel thought, "I'd be lucky if I could get him to fix a parking ticket."

"You first, Colonel," ordered the doctor, as he positioned Hannibal in front of the x-ray. "I want to look at your skull where you took that knock from the can of chili."

While Hannibal was undergoing the test, Murdock, restless even at 3:00 in the morning, wandered over to the professor's blackboards and began to study the equations.

"Now you, Sergeant," said Dr. Goldman, as he took the same set of pictures of the lump still visible on B.A.'s forehead.

"Captain Murdock, if you would kindly join us?" called the doctor from across the room. "I'd like to do a chest series. You took quite a lungful of tear gas back there, when you pulled the Lieutenant from the cabin."

The pilot wandered back over to the others and stood in front of the machine. "Quite an interesting thing you're doing over there with Planck's constant," said Murdock, as the doctor began the test.

The professor did a double take, then laughed, "After spending a week with you, Captain, why am I not surprised."

"Kinda gives you are greater appreciation for those brave few who have been hanging out with him for years, doesn't it, Doc?" asked Face with a grin.

"Certainly a better understanding," replied Dr. Goldman. "Now, if you would please step this way, Lieutenant, I want to take a full series of your chest and back to make sure those survivalists didn't do any lasting damage."

Before responding to the doctor's request, Face looked over at Hannibal. The older man nodded and cocked his head toward the machine.

'An unusual reaction!' thought Goldman as he finished up the x-rays. The professor then left them a moment to develop the plates.

"The Doc's an interesting guy," commented Murdock when he had gone. "Maybe he'd like to play chess sometime."

"Don't get too cozy," replied the colonel, "He seems O.K., but the professor is still a Company man, consultant or not. I'm not sure that I trust him."

The captain stared at his commander, raising a single eyebrow. He did not reply; none was necessary. Hannibal looked away.

Dr. Goldman re-entered, carrying the completed films. He flicked a switch and lit up a row of panels on the wall as he swiftly clipped the photos up into place. The five men stood and regarded the gray-and-white pictures solemnly, even though four of them didn't know what the hell they were looking at.

"Hmmm!" said the archetypical doctor, rubbing his chin. Murdock and Face exchanged a grin behind him.

"Well," said Goldman, looking at the two skull series, "On the whole, I'd say you and Sergeant Baracus were lucky, Colonel. You both have very hard heads."

The two younger men both burst out laughing. "Oh, no!" said Face, choking, "I'm not going to say a word. Too easy."

Their commanding officer gave them a hard look as the soldiers made a valiant effort to calm themselves.

"Humph!" snorted B.A., glaring at the pilot who was still wearing a wide grin. "Better a hard head than a soft one, crazyman!"

Dr. Goldman went on to the next x-ray. "Captain Murdock, I wouldn't have an opinion about what's going in your head,"

Face gave the professor a sharp glance.

"But your lungs are fine." the doctor continued. "No damage from the gas."

"Thanks, Doc." acknowledged the pilot.

"Now, Lieutenant Peck," said the professor, as perused the bulk of x-rays on the wall. As the doctor studied the pictures, his expression moved gradually from detachment to shock and finally a profound pity. He looked over at Face and almost managed a deliberately dispassionate tone, "No new breaks anyway, Lieutenant. Also your lungs are clear."

Face nodded, not meeting the doctor's eye. Murdock put his hand on the smaller man's shoulder.

"Well," said Dr. Goldman, wanting desperately to move on, "That just leaves your eyes, Sergeant. Let's turn down the lights a minute and we'll take a look."

Switching off the overhead, the doctor seated himself in front of B.A. and pulled out a small light pen. As he instructed the sergeant to look at different positions in the darkened room, the physician checked his retinas for damage from the blast. The captain, for lack of anything better to do, followed along with the examination studying each point in the room indicated by the doctor: above, below, to the right, to the left. Suddenly he saw a shadowy figure standing by the doorway. "Bogie at three o'clock, Colonel!" reported the pilot.

Hannibal quickly switched on the fluorescent lights as Carruthers walked into the room, carrying a small suitcase.

Chapter 20

Before the other men could react, Murdock launched himself upon their enemy, his fierce expression identical to the Doberman that almost bit Face back in Ohio. Fumbling for his weapon, the agent went down, knocking against a nearby table and sending a pile of x-ray plates crashing to the ground.

"B.A., get the door!" Hannibal shouted as moved over to help the captain. The loud noise brought Wilkins in from the porch, his 9mm already drawn. The sergeant jumped from behind the entrance and efficiently relieved the agent of both his gun and conscious thought. He lowered the man's limp body to the ground

Meanwhile, his partner had unholstered his weapon and was taking aim at the pilot. Before he had a chance to fire, Hannibal outflanked him, moving to the agent's left. The colonel pulled out his "baby" and put the gun to the struggling man's temple, smoothly releasing the safety. Carruthers grew very still.

"Murdock, get off him!" Hannibal ordered. Face and B.A. each helped to pry the enraged man's hands from around Carruthers' neck. The agent glared at the captain, his eyes filled with scorn.

"Fucking psycho!" he said, "You and your friends are supposed to be dead. You assholes can't even do that right."

"Sorry to disappoint you, pal." replied the colonel in a steely voice. He grabbed the CIA goon and flung him half-sitting against the wall, pushing the 9mm up under the agent's chin. "I think you have a little explaining to do."

"Agent Carruthers," said the professor, fiercely officious, "What did you do with the plutonium? The Council must be made aware of its' location."

"I don't have to tell your little watchdog group squat," replied the Company man. "All you have to know is that the suitcase you saw on the tape is in a safe place. We replaced it with a duplicate copy at the airport while the lieutenant's double was killing the courier."

"Well, moving right along then," said Hannibal, with a frown, "Question number two, how did the survivalists manage to acquire a fuel-air bomb tucked up all nice and snug in an Army issue truck?"

Carruthers just stared at him.

The colonel's already fraying temper finally snapped. He tilted the agent's head upward with his gun, forcing Carruthers to look into the angry eyes of the men surrounding him. "I think now would be a good time to point out," said Hannibal, with a grim smile, "that three of us are already looking at twenty years and the other has one hell of an insanity defense. Perhaps we can work out a deal?" he offered, "A little information in exchange for your life."

The CIA operative was silent; swiftly running through all the information he had learned from their files. The A-Team had killed a lot of the enemy in Vietnam but to his knowledge, no one had died on any of their stateside missions. However, was he really willing to take that chance? It was his life at stake and one thing was sure, more than one of these guys was crazy. Carruthers made his decision.

"O.K., O.K.," he conceded, "The plan had a code name, Three Birds."

The five men looked at the agent in puzzlement. "Not very illuminating, Carruthers." said the colonel, giving the man a more persuasive poke with his weapon.

"As in killing three birds with one stone, where two of the birds flock together," added the agent, further muddying the waters.

"Hannibal," complained the sergeant, "This guy is as crazy as Murdock; he's giving me a headache."

The captain looked at over at B.A., raising his eyebrows in protest.

"Maybe I'll let you return the favor," replied the colonel, "If he doesn't starting talking some sense, like now!" He gave the agent another nudge.

Carruthers looked up the others as if they were backward children. "Don't you get it? Three separate targets marked by three separate organizations. At least two of the targets could be neutralized together. It was an intra-agency cooperative effort," he said, with an unpleasant smile, "Your tax dollars at work."

"Doing what!?" asked Murdock in exasperation. "C'mon, Colonel, let's just kill this jerk. I'd be glad to oblige"

"It would be nice if you could get to the point sometime in this century." added Face with a sigh.

"Three Birds," continued the agent, as he instructed his class in the remedial version of Spy 101, "The FBI was interested in taking out the first target. The Messenger of God and his followers were becoming a real pain in the ass. Bird number one."

Carruthers then looked over at Hannibal. "You can guess the identity of the second target and the agency requesting that particular hit," he said, "The Army wants the three of you out of the picture. All the times you have eluded capture in the past nine years has become a major embarrassment to some very high-ranking officers. They no longer care whether you guys get a court martial or not."

The colonel nodded; this piece of information came as no surprise.

"And finally," continued the agent in a nasty tone, glaring at Murdock, "We come to the last and most important little bird, the yellow canary so inconveniently locked away in the nuthouse. A bird that just might decide to start singing."

The captain frowned in confusion, "Go on, Carruthers, spit it out!" he said.

"We have been reading your files and know you and that busybody Richter plan to begin hypnotherapy next week," the agent replied, "That's something I'm afraid the Agency cannot possibly allow."

Face arched a blonde brow. "And how do you figure what goes on with Murdock and his shrink is your business, anyway?" he asked angrily, forgetting, for the moment, that until a week ago, he had been removing the same information himself.

Murdock gave his friend an amused look. Sitting back on his heels, the pilot said, "Damn, I think that Dr. Richter and I need to start publishing my psychiatric records in book form. We're missing out on a few royalties."

"Well, Gentlemen," continued Carruthers, ignoring that remark, "That is the gist of Three Birds. We arranged for a nice little fuel-air bomb to be acquired by the Messenger of God. That stupid merc and his team thought all along that they were selling a container of plutonium. Both groups were completely expendable, as was Dr. Goldman." The agent nodded toward the increasingly incensed professor. "In fact, he and his council were the perfect cover."

The doctor was so angry that he was quivered like a tightly drawn bow. "In this instance, Carruthers," he said, "I'll keep in mind one of my favorite quotes: 'Vengeance is a dish best served cold.'"

The agent looked over at the little man, and replied sarcastically, "I'm shaking in my boots, Goldman. I can see I've made a powerful enemy."

"He may not be much by himself," said the captain, his eyes cold, "But the Doc now has some powerful friends. You guys have made sure of that. By the way," Murdock continued, glancing at the professor, "Old Sicilian saying, unattributed."

Dr. Goldman gave the pilot a faint smile.

Carruthers narrowed his eyes and glared at Murdock. "What is locked in your brain is Agency property, Captain! Your psychiatrist believes that we will try to protect what is ours even if we have to kill you in the process. The man is correct; you are the most expendable target of all."

Murdock began to make an angry reply when he suddenly noticed his teammates and the doctor had grown very still. Looking around at the other men, he caught an identical mixture of anger and fear on each of their faces, but no vestige of surprise. This information was not news to anyone but himself. Richter had asked Murdock for permission to begin the treatment only last week, but had not yet explained why. The answer must be in the files still on his desk at the VA and only one person could have informed the others of their contents. The captain stared at his best friend.

"Did you tell them before or after you made me that promise?" he asked quietly.

"Murdock, you don't understand…" Face began, an agonized look in his blue-green eyes.

"Oh, Facey!" said the pilot, in a low, disappointed voice.

Hannibal looked on helplessly as the lieutenant held out his hand in silent appeal. Not meeting his eye, Murdock turned away. The younger man stared down at the floor, his face a mask of self-hatred. It was a hard thing to watch for the fierce man who loved them both.

Chapter 21

Over by the door, Wilkins came back to the land of the living with a low groan. B.A. noticed the small suitcase lying near the agent where it had landed in the scuffle. He picked it up and brought it over to Hannibal, then returned to the doorway to cover Carruthers' partner with his weapon.

"One last thing, asshole!" said the colonel, now livid. He jammed his gun hard into the squirming agent's neck. "Just what is in this little bag of yours, more fucking plutonium."

"Your payment, Colonel Smith." replied Carruthers, fear finally teaching the man a little respect. "All we could scrape up at the last minute, I'm afraid."

"Meaning you never expected us to be alive to spend it," Hannibal said bitterly.

"Face, take a look and see how much is inside," the colonel ordered. "Face!" he repeated more urgently, when the younger man did not look up.

Templeton Peck stirred slightly as though waking from a bad dream. "What, Colonel?" he asked.

Hannibal frowned. "I said, check the case, Lieutenant. See how much is there."

"O.K. Hannibal," replied Face softly. He bent over and lifted the little bag onto the doctor's examination table. Opening the suitcase, the lieutenant began to count the money inside with the swift accuracy of a bank teller. "About $50,000, " he reported. "It should just about cover expenses."

"And the other $450,000, Carruthers?" Hannibal asked. The agent just shrugged. "I see," said the cynical colonel, answering his own question, "Not enough room in the budget for this fiscal year."

"Or any other year, I would imagine," added the professor in a dry tone.

The lieutenant snapped the suitcase closed and tucked it under his arm. "C'mon, Colonel," said Face, with a sigh that seemed to come from the depths of his soul. "I think we've all had enough for tonight, for the whole week in fact. Let's go home!"

Behind him the captain bent his head, closing his eyes in pain.

"Alright, slimeball," said Hannibal, suddenly moving back and letting the agent get up from the floor. "This is your lucky day."

The man gave him a questioning look.

"Get out of here!" said the colonel, angrily, "Go back to your master!"

Carruthers didn't need to be told a second time. With one nervous glance over his shoulder, he collected his partner and the two CIA goons slipped out the door. Running over to a deliberately anonymous vehicle parked on the street outside, the men jumped in as Wilkins started up the engine. "Empress One, this is Abel Seventeen," Carruthers began saying into the radio, as the two agents drove away into the night.

"Well, Gentlemen," began Dr. Goldman, with false heartiness, "It has been an experience."

"You were a trooper, Doc," replied Hannibal. "Thanks for all your help." The two men exchanged a warm, if slightly wary, handshake.

"Good news, Sergeant." the physician continued as he also shook the big man's hand. "I was about to tell you, before we were so rudely interrupted, that your retinas look fine to me. Be sure to wear dark glasses during the day for next few weeks until your eyes heal completely."

B.A. nodded, "Thanks, Dr. Goldman," he said in relief.

"Lieutenant," said the professor, gently patting the younger man's shoulder, "Take care of yourself. You've had a tough couple of days. Go easy."

"I will; don't worry." Face promised with a smile that did not quite reach his eyes.

Goldman then turned to Murdock and held out his hand. "Aw, c'mere, Doc!" the captain said, pulling the professor into a big bear hug.

Returning the embrace awkwardly, Dr. Goldman stepped back and looked up at the lanky pilot, his smiling expression suddenly turning deadly serious. "One last quote offered for your approval, my friend," he said, "I will never surrender though I be the last. If I am taken, I pray that I may have the strength to spit upon my enemy."

Face gave the professor a startled look.

"Colonel," said Murdock, quietly, "I think I'll let you answer this one."

"The Special Forces Creed." replied Hannibal promptly, grimly reassessing the mysterious little man.

"Watch your twenty, Captain," the doctor added.

Murdock nodded, following the others to the door and out onto the porch. Changing mood in a typical quicksilver fashion, he turned suddenly and grinned at the professor, saying in his best Yiddish accent, "So, Dr. Goldman, don't be a stranger."

"Don't worry, I won't," replied the professor, smiling at the captain fondly. "Now, Gentlemen," he admonished, "It's very late, go home." Raising a hand in final farewell, the doctor closed the door behind them.

Outside on the front walk, the A-team, now more than nine years on the run, stared at one another, each with the same thought: "Home, where was that?"

The weary men walked across the street and got into the delivery van.

"Face," said Hannibal from behind the wheel as they drove away, "Better find us a new rental tomorrow; those goons know all about the Malibu house."

"O.K., Colonel," the exhausted lieutenant replied. Turning to the friend sitting quietly beside him, he asked, "Is it alright if you bunk on the couch, Murdock? I'm too tired to take you back to the hospital tonight."

"Anything you say, Face." said the captain in a polite but remote tone.

Hannibal and B.A. exchanged a worried glance.

Chapter 22

Six weeks later, B.A. pulled up in front of the hospital in a rented van. He climbed out of the vehicle and stood on the sidewalk staring up at the large entryway, his brow wrinkled in worry. The sergeant disliked hospitals in general and truly hated even the idea of a mental institution. He had the illogical, but inescapable fear, that just perhaps the patients inside might be contagious. The idea of an entire building full of Murdocks made him very nervous.

"You gonna pay for this, crazyman," he said under his breath, walking up the steps. "You gonna owe me for this one, big time."

As he came through the door, B.A. wondered if he was going to have to go searching for the team's pilot among all the other loonies. He was very relieved to see Murdock standing in the lobby facing away from the door. He was having an argument with a tired-looking man in a white coat.

"Doc!" the captain was saying, "It's my birthday. Don't you always give me a freebie on my birthday?"

"Not this year, Murdock," answered Dr. Richter, with an anxious look. "We can't guarantee your safety outside the building and I can't spare one of the guards to go with you."

"No problemo," said Murdock, "I got it covered."

The doctor's eyes widened as B.A. Baracus in full regalia, came up behind the captain and glared at him. It was an intimidating experience.

Guessing at the reason for the change in Richter's expression, Murdock smiled and without turning around, cocked his head over his shoulder and asked "Bodyguard big enough for you, Doc?"

"Quite sufficient." admitted the psychiatrist. "Nice to see you again, Sergeant." he continued, holding out his hand.

B.A. gave the man's hand a brief shake and turned to the grinning captain. "C'mon, Murdock, let's get out here. This place gives me the creeps."

"Don't worry, Dr. Richter. See you later." the pilot called, with a wave. He galloped out the door in pursuit of the rapidly disappearing B.A.

"Not bad." the captain commented, getting into the plush maroon van.

"Just a rental." replied B.A. with a shrug. "Face is working on something more permanent."

Murdock's face grew solemn at the mention of his friend. "How is he, B.A.?" he asked, "How are all of you?"

"What do you care?" the sergeant snapped back, "You've have hardly talked to us since we got back from Pennsylvania."

"I'm sorry," replied the captain, softly. He looked out the window, pretending to stare at the passing scenery.

"Why, Murdock?" continued B.A. "Me and Hannibal, that's one thing; but refusing to see Face or even talk to him on the phone, that's cold, man."

The pilot looked down at his sneakers. "You don't understand, B.A." he began.

"No, I don't understand a lot of things, especially about some crazy fool who won't even talk to his best friend; won't even let him apologize." said the big man.

Murdock opened his mouth to speak.

"No, let me finish!" the sergeant ordered his superior officer. "You don't have to live with the guy every day. He don't eat good and he's too skinny as it is. He's not sleeping too good either, man, when he sleeps at all. The Faceman looks like shit and it's your fault!"

B.A. took his eyes off the road a second to glare at the silent man beside him. "We've been through a lot together, Murdock. I could say a lotta things about you, hell, I have said a lotta things but one thing never, until now. I never would have said that you were cruel. What you're doing to Face, well, that's just plain cruel."

This was a long and impassioned speech for the sergeant. It struck Murdock to the core.

"B.A.," he begged, his voice shaking. "Please don't say that! I never meant to hurt Facey. It's just safer for all you guys if I stay away right now, O.K.?"

"Not O.K.," replied B.A. angrily. "If it's safer, then why did you ask me to pick you at the hospital today? First time we hear from you in weeks and it's me you want, not Face, to get you out of the V.A.; how do you think that made him feel?"

Murdock sighed, rubbing his forehead with the heel of his hand. As he glanced over at the captain, B.A. suddenly noticed how exhausted he looked. In a more subdued tone, the sergeant continued, "You look like you haven't had much sleep yourself. You alright?"

"It's me and the Doc," replied the captain, "We started working on this hypnosis thing about a month ago. It's not going too well."

"You remember anything yet." asked B.A.

Murdock gave a short, ironic laugh. "That's the problem; I don't remember if I remember! Sessions almost every day but Dr. Richter says nothing yet. Just a bear of a headache afterwards and the next day we start all over again. I just need a birthday break," said the captain, "Please, B.A., no more questions. Couldn't we just have a nice day and leave it at that?"

"O.K. by me and Hannibal," answered sergeant, finally relenting. "But you gotta talk to Face and make things right, promise?"

"Alright, B.A., I promise." Murdock agreed, as he leaned back and rested his pounding head on the seat. The captain closed his eyes. "Oh, Facey," he whispered, "What am I gonna do about you?"

B.A. looked over at the pilot, his expression a strange mixture of anger and sympathy. Turning southward, down the Pacific Coast Highway, he and his now sleeping passenger drove into Orange County. Yet another rented beach house awaited them.

Chapter 23

Face had outdone himself this time. Wanting to put as much distance between the team and the Malibu house, while still keeping an eye on his beloved ocean, the conman had found them a three-bedroom glass and cedar beauty in Laguna. When Murdock and B.A. arrived, they found the other two working in the kitchen preparing one of the men's favorites, roast beef.

Dinner was a strained, difficult affair with only Hannibal and B.A. truly doing justice to the delicious meal. The two younger men picked at their food, looking anywhere but at each other. The only high point came when Murdock asked Hannibal what he had been doing the last few weeks. The colonel gave him a big grin and pulled out his wallet. "Look what Face got me the other day!" he said proudly, showing the pilot a crisp, new Screen Actors Guild union card. "And I just landed a great part, the Aquamaniac."

"You're going to start a new career as a sea monster?" asked Murdock in surprise.

B.A. was both relieved and dismayed to see a slight manic gleam return to the pilot's eyes. The captain stood up from the table and began to stomp around the room, doing a very creditable imitation of Godzilla destroying Tokyo. It was tough on the furniture.

"Hey, c'mon, I had to pay a deposit for that stuff." complained Face mildly, as the giant dinosaur viciously tortured an offending pillow.

Murdock immediately dropped both the cushion and the impersonation. "Sorry, Face." he answered, returning to his seat.

An uncomfortable silence followed. "Well, anyway" continued the colonel, "I don't plan to play him like that." Hannibal put his hand on his chest and said with great pathos, "This monster has a heart. He suffers. He is covered with remorse, for all those tourists he eats in the first scene, covered with guilt…"

"Covered with primordial ooze." interrupted Face with a grin, "Provided in large quantities by the studio's special effects department."

"Ah, I see, Hannibal," concluded the captain, his serious expression conflicting with the twinkle in his brown eyes. "Truly the world's first slimeball."

Meeting the lieutenant's amused gaze, both of the younger men simultaneously burst out laughing. At that moment, a damaged but far-from-broken relationship began to mend itself.

"Yeah, Murdock, you're right! I can use that." Hannibal said, grinning around his cigar, "Thanks for the motivation."

"Anytime, chickie," the pilot replied, "That's what us directors are for."

"I'll wash up." said Face, smile still lingering. He rose from the table and began to clear the dishes.

The sergeant wisely decided to ignore all this and turned on the T.V. "There a good game on," announced B.A., "Rams vs. the 49ers." The team's resident football maniac plopped down on the couch. With a relieved glance at his now more relaxed teammates, Hannibal joined him.

"Want some help?" Murdock offered.

"Nope," Face replied, "Not on your birthday, you don't. This is my job."

The captain nodded. Noticing the setting sun through the glass doors in the dining room, he slid them open and walked out onto the deck.

Twenty minutes later, the kitchen once again relatively tidy, the lieutenant wandered back into the living room and sat down on the couch between the two deeply absorbed football fans.

"So, what's going on?" asked Face, referring to the game.

"We're winning," replied B.A., absently, "Malavasi brought in Haden and the guy's already made two touchdowns."

Face looked over on the screen, beginning to get equally involved in the play.

Yanking himself away, B.A. glanced down at his little brother. "So, what's going on with you." he said, giving the lieutenant a nudge with his large shoulder.

The sudden motion knocked Face over, sending him careening into the surprised colonel sitting to his left.

"Hey!" they both objected in unison, glaring at the big guy on the end of the couch.

The sergeant returned the irritated look, "C'mon, Faceman," he said, "I didn't drive all the way up to Westwood to get Murdock so that you could sit on your ass watching football."

Face did not appreciate these strong-arm tactics; his body language said it all. He placed his feet firmly on the floor and folded his arms across his chest.

B.A. gave the lieutenant a stronger, less-friendly push. "Go out on the deck and talk to the man!" he said with exaggerated patience, enunciating each word.

"O.K., O.K," replied Face as he rubbing his sore shoulder, bowing to a force, at least physically, greater than himself, "I'm going."

Chapter 24

Murdock was stretched out on one of the beach loungers notched in an upright position. Head resting against the plastic cover of the chair, he watched as the burning orange globe, all that was now left of the sun, dipped below the horizon. Face stepped quietly out onto the deck, closing the glass doors behind him. Glancing over at Murdock in repose, the lieutenant noticed new lines of exhaustion etched upon his face. He reluctantly switched on the porch light and the captain looked over his shoulder, blinking, as his eyes readjusted to the change. Face pulled up a patio chair next to the lounger and sat down, studying his friend intently.

"What?" asked Murdock, uncomfortable under such close scrutiny, "I got a wart on my nose or something?"

"You don't look too good," replied Face, softly, "Kinda worn out."

"Funny," the captain said, "B.A. told me the same thing about you. In fact he said you looked like crap." Face smiled. "But I don't know," continued Murdock, "Crappy looking for you is as good looking as some of us are ever going to get."

"Thanks, I think," replied the lieutenant in an annoyed tone. He didn't really like it when anyone referred to his physical beauty; a gift from God and not something he had earned. In fact, considering what he had done with that gift, more a source of shame than pride for the man who went by the nickname of "Face."

"So, Murdock," he continued, trying hard not to think about the missing six weeks, "How are you, really? How's the new treatment going with Richter?"

The lieutenant had prodded a sore place, not yet fully healed. "You tell me," sighed the other man, as he rubbed his eyes tiredly, "You're the one who likes to read."

The guilt that had weighed Face down the last few weeks suddenly became too heavy to bear. "I wouldn't know! I haven't been near the VA since picking you up for our last mission." he replied in an anguished voice. "I read the file on Richter's desk before making you that promise and only told Hannibal about it later because I was so damned worried. Whatever happens, you shouldn't have to go it alone."

The pilot did not reply; and in an agony of self-doubt, Face misinterpreted the meaning of his silence. He looked down at the floor boards under his feet and continued, miserably, "Look, Murdock, I haven't made too many real friends in my life," Face shrugged, "I don't know why, too shallow, maybe? But if I'm going to lose one of them, one of the best I've ever had," his voice broke, "Then tell me now and get it over with." The lieutenant unconsciously squared his shoulders to meet what he thought was coming.

Murdock swung around on the lounge chair until he was opposite the other man, their knees almost touching. Then, he did a strange thing; reaching swiftly over to catch Face's hands in his own, he pulled them forward into his lap, turning his friend's wrists upward and under the beam of the porch light. He ran his thumbs gently over the faded scars he found there.

Face suddenly remembered Murdock's reaction to his suicide attempt years ago, after the team had been rescued from Chao's prison camp. Amid all the sympathy and forced cheerfulness from the others, the captain had looked at the position of the scars and said in a matter-of-fact way, "Horizontal is just a cry for help, Facey. When you try it vertical, then we'll know you mean it." B.A. had almost punched out Murdock's lights for that comment but it had made Face feel a whole lot better.

Murdock sat back, releasing the younger man's hands. "Just doing a quick check?" the lieutenant asked, with a faint smile.

The pilot looked into Face's blue-green eyes and saw equal parts friendliness and despair. If his best friend expected yet another person in his life to abandon him, then he was about to be disappointed.

"Face, you idiot, we've been best friends for more than ten years!" he said, in gentle exasperation, "What makes you think that there is anything you could do, anything, that would make me stop caring about you!" He looked worried, "Maybe B.A. is right, maybe I do have a cruel side, I don't know."

"What?!" interrupted Face, looking though the glass door at the two men sitting on the couch inside, "That was a rotten thing for him to say! Why, I outta…" The lieutenant started to get up from his chair.

"Have a seat, my gallant protector," the pilot laughed, as he pushed his friend down again. "Maybe B.A. was just pissed off at me for fighting with you, ever think of that? Maybe he loves you almost as much as I do." Murdock suddenly moved forward and pulled the surprised lieutenant into his arms, giving him a quick embrace. As he released the younger man, the captain gave him a gentle shake. "Muchacho, you want files, you can have files, anytime."

"Oh, no. No thank you!" Face began, "I'm not ever going down that road again."

"I'm not kidding," interrupted the captain, "I'll break into Richter's office myself, tomorrow morning and make little paper airplanes out of each page. Professional pilots, you know, make primo paper airplanes."

"I don't know, Murdock," chuckled Face, "You didn't do so well with that Styrofoam one back at the K-Mart. Remember where it ended up."

"Ah, but the VA doesn't have a lingerie section," replied the captain. He paused for a moment in consideration, "At least I don't think so."

"And what do you plan to do with this fleet of paper aircraft, Captain?" asked his friend.

"Why, I vill shoot them down to you, of course, running around on ze lawn below, trying to catch them." Murdock took on the accent of a crazed Freudian psychiatrist, theatrically rolling his r's.

"But what about all those CIA agents with their brief cases open and at the ready. They'll be out there with me in droves, trying to catch all those messages of yours," laughed Face, "Won't that be too much competition?"

"Then ve vill get you a little butterfly net, Mein Herr," replied the Austrian doctor. "There are plenty of extra ones in the supply closet at the VA. All the better for catching those pesky little secrets."

The mental picture of Carruthers and Wilkins leaping about in the front yard of the hospital like a pair of gray-suited gazelles was just too much for Face and Murdock. So damned relieved to still be friends, they completely cracked themselves up. Leaning on one another, the two laughed hysterically.

The colonel looked up from T.V. screen at the welcome sound, smiling at the two younger men through the plate glass door.

"Hannibal, will you look at that!" said B.A., pointing at the screen. "Wersching's field goal is good. That's all she wrote, man, the Rams are done. Might as well go home."

Glancing over at the sergeant, Hannibal cocked his head toward the patio door and said, "Looks like the A-Team is winning anyway."

"Yeah," replied B.A. with a satisfied expression. "I think they're gonna be O.K."

"You wouldn't happen to have had anything to do with that, would you, Sergeant?" his commander inquired.

"Well, maybe I did say a few things to Murdock on the way down there. A few things that needed saying!" replied the big man emphatically.

"B.A., you missed your calling," said the colonel, looking at him fondly. "You really should have been a shrink."

The sergeant gave Hannibal a truly horrified look as the colonel returned a devilish grin and wiggled his eyebrows.

"Ah, Hannibal," sighed B.A., "Don't even joke about that, man. That's not funny."

Both still smiling slightly, the two men returned their eyes to the screen as the post-game show began.

Back out on the porch, Face had recovered enough composure to ask his friend a question. "So, maybe I'll come by next week to play paper airplanes? Then we'll go out for a drive, how does that sound?"

The captain immediately frowned and shook his head. Before he could speak, Face looked down so the other man wouldn't see his hurt expression. "It's O.K., Murdock," he said, softly, "I understand."

"No you don't understand!" replied the pilot, as he put his hand under Face's chin and tilted his head upwards, unsuccessfully trying to get the lieutenant to look him in the eye.

"Shit!" he cursed softly to himself, "Doc, this plan really sucks."

Pushing the captain's hand away, Face gave his friend a confused stare. "What plan?" he said, his eyes narrowing in suspicion, "What are you up to?"

Murdock was silent, looking as guilty as if he had been caught cheating on a big test; or giving someone else the answers.

The lieutenant's face cleared. He gave his best friend a complicated smile as both relief and annoyance intermingled. "You're protecting me, aren't you? Protecting them." Face indicated the men through the glass doorway. "Murdock, you're supposed to be the big genius! Which part of the concept of 'team' don't you understand? Were you absent that day, or what?"

The captain regarded him solemnly. "Facey, I can't involve you or the others. All this is happening because of some things I did before I even met you guys. It's not fair to get the team involved in my problems. I got myself into it and I'll get myself out."

Face stared at the pilot, wondering whether Murdock was truly alone in whatever he was planning. If not, who was helping him? As far the lieutenant knew, his friend called two possible accomplices, "Doc."

"Will you stop looking at me like that?" said Murdock. With an irritated shrug, he rose from the lounge chair and walked to the edge of the deck. The pilot gazed at the horizon, the demarcation now only a faint line of orange light.

Face followed, standing quietly beside him as the two men watched the black waves break gently against the shore. The beach was empty of passersby, the sea birds long since asleep. Except for the gentle sound of breaking surf, all was silent.

Murdock leaned over the railing and called out in a hollow tone, as if testing for an echo, "By the pricking of my thumbs; something wicked this way comes." His resonant voice traveled out over the sand and beyond the waves, to be swallowed up by the depths of the dark ocean.

Face glanced up at his best friend with a frown. Wrapping his arms around himself, he tried to repress an involuntary shiver. He was not successful.

Chapter 25

"C'mon, Murdock," said Face, now wanting desperately to lighten the mood, "Let's go inside. We got something for you." He cocked his head toward the door.

One look at his friend's worried face and Murdock was happy to play along. "A birthday present, maybe perhaps?" the pilot replied, his face lighting up. "For me!" He galloped over to the doorway and pushed aside the glass, motioning the now smiling lieutenant inside. Hannibal and B.A. looked up from the couch as Murdock leaped over the threshold as if it were a hurdle. "So?" he said expectantly, having made his grand entrance, "Where's my present?"

The colonel and B.A. got up. "Get the you-know-what, Sergeant!" his commander ordered as he turned off the T.V. The large man gladly obeyed, opening the hall closet and rummaging inside. He took out a white box tied with red ribbon and put it on the coffee table. "Hope you like it." the colonel said.

The pilot knelt down on the floor. "Aw, guys, you shouldn't have." replied Murdock in the silly voice he affected when embarrassed. He untied the ribbon with agonizing slowness; the suspense was terrible and the captain was determined to make it last.

B.A. couldn't stand it a minute longer. "You're never gonna know what we shouldn't have done unless you open the box, Fool! Get on with it."

"Alright, B.A.," the pilot replied, smiling. He took off the top, pushing back the tissue paper inside. Looking down at the present, all expression drained from his face. "Oh," was all he said, in a shocked voice. A truly remarkable thing had happened; Murdock was at a loss for words.

"Just what you ordered, buddy," prompted Face, gently. "An old leather jacket, all nice and broken in, with a tiger. We know how you liked that tiger." Above the graphic, the artist had also painted: "Da Nang 1970."

Murdock lifted the jacket out of the box, holding on to the sleeves tightly as though he was afraid it might get away. "Thanks, Face." he said simply, looking up at his best friend, dark brown eyes suspiciously shiny.

"No, don't thank me," replied the lieutenant, shaking his head. "It was Hannibal who flew up to San Francisco to see the artist and talked him into copying the design at short notice."

"Yeah," agreed the colonel, "After Face spent two weeks combing through all the used clothing stores in L.A. looking for just the right jacket."

"Well, when I finally found one scruffy enough, I had it thoroughly dry-cleaned too!" The lieutenant laughed, "Sorry I couldn't reproduce the smell."

B.A. snorted. "As if anyone would want to," he said. "Now, go on, crazyman, let's see how it looks."

The bemused pilot slipped on the jacket and spun around, showing off his present. As he completed the circle, arms upraised, he said, "Ta, dah!"

B.A. nodded at the colonel. "Yup! That should do it."

"Glad to see you looking more like yourself, Captain." said Hannibal, holding out his hand. "Friends again?"

Murdock gave the colonel a surprised look. "We never stopped being friends, Hannibal," he replied, "Never will. And no matter where the Jazz leads us, you know I'll come along for the ride." The pilot smiled.

"Thanks." Hannibal replied, as they shook hands. As Murdock met his eye, the colonel was relieved to see an underlying core of trust evident once more. The captain's respect was something the older man had never lost.

"Well, there's one present down," began Face. His best friend looked hopeful. "No, not for you, Murdock" he laughed, "The next one is more of a work-related item, for all of us, but mostly for B.A."

"It ain't my birthday, Faceman," said the sergeant with a puzzled frown.

Giving a mysterious little smile, the A-Team's scavenger led the others through the kitchen and down to the lower level. Opening a doorway at the bottom of the stairs, Face flicked on the overhead light and motioned for the men to enter.

"Voila!" The lieutenant swept one arm forward as he indicated a large GMC van parked in front of them. "For you, B.A., a brand new 'baby' of your very own."

Murdock gave a low whistle of appreciation as he walked slowly around the shiny, black vehicle, hands deep in the pockets of his jacket. "Facey, you are really something. She's a beauty! Where did you get her?"

B.A. had been standing silently behind the other two men, his mouth hanging open. Before the lieutenant could reply, he pushed past them and went forward, laying his hands on the hood of the van almost in benediction. The big guy had fallen deeply and irreparably in love. Suddenly, a spasm of pain crossed his face and he stepped back, glaring over at the conman.

"Face!" he said accusingly, "Where'd you get the money? A custom vehicle like this one costs some major bucks. I ain't gonna drive no scammed van, no matter how beautiful she is." He gave the GMC a wistful look.

"Don't worry about it, B.A., all taken care of." replied the team's supply officer.

"How'd you do it, Face?" asked Murdock curiously, "Those goons only gave us $50,000 for the Pennsylvania job and you must have put most of that back into expenses and our retirement fund."

"Ah, " replied Face, "A whole new scam, but a legal one this time. One of my old friends from the orphanage now works at the NYSE as a broker. I asked him to invest a little money on our behalf."

"A little money?" asked Hannibal, suspiciously; he was going to need that retirement fund sooner than the rest of them.

"O.K., a lot of money," admitted Face, with a mischievous grin, "But c'mon, Colonel, you wouldn't let me play blackjack when we passed through Vegas. I needed to have some fun."

Reflecting that the younger man sometimes operated under his own version of the Jazz, Hannibal asked, "So, what did our money go into, Lieutenant?"

"VHS recorders." replied Face, promptly. "I got the idea when we were watching that tape of Dr. Goldman's back in Malibu, remember?"

The men nodded, their expressions suddenly somber.

"Well," the lieutenant continued, "I noticed how large and clunky the Betamax was; how the remote was connected by a cord. I wondered if there wasn't something new on the horizon to replace it. After talking to my friend, I decided to put our money in VHS stock and it went through the roof. We are rich, Gentlemen, at least for now."

Taking the cigar out of his mouth, Hannibal nodded, "Nice, Face, very nice."

Basking in the warmth of his commander's approval, the lieutenant gave his teammates the very best version of his trademark smile, the genuine one. Reaching into the pocket of his jeans, Face pulled out a ring of keys. "Catch, B.A.," he called, as the big guy neatly grabbed them in mid air.

The sergeant opened up the driver's side door and immediately popped the hood, checking out the powerful engine inside. "Not bad," he acknowledged, "But with just a few adjustments." His head disappeared from view.

Taking advantage of the unlocked door, the captain climbed through and slid open the hatch from inside, peering out at the others. "A positively palatial parlor of perfect pigmentation." he pronounced.

"And Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, to you too, Murdock." replied Face with a grin, "Yeah, I thought this shade of gray was rather nice for the interior, myself."

Hannibal raised an eyebrow at this, wondering, not for the first time, why it was always Face who seemed to know what the hell the pilot was talking about? It was a good thing the colonel had an interpreter.

The captain plopped down in his chair and stretched out. Glancing over to the side, he noticed a built-in pocket. "Ah," he said, "Perfect for my comic books." Reaching into what he thought was an empty cavity, the superhero fan found something already lurking inside. He pulled out a single volume, carefully preserved, and his eyes lit up. "Incredible Hulk Number One!" he exclaimed, "A collector's item." Looking through the hatchway at his friend, Murdock asked, "From you, Facey?"

"Yeah," replied the lieutenant with a smile, "The jacket was a team present; the comic book is from me to you."

"You know what I like!" Murdock tenderly removed the Hulkster from his plastic home. "Thanks, Face." he said absently, already burying his head in the pages.

"Well, Lieutenant," said Hannibal, "It seems that all the presents are a success. Now is there anything we can do for you?"

"Well, now that you mention it," replied the Facial One, "There was this girl…"

"Wait a minute, wait a minute!" he continued, interrupting their laughter, "She said she would bring along some friends. Matter of fact, we made a date for about," the lieutenant looked at his watch, "Half an hour ago."

"Then we're late," said the colonel, jumping into the passenger seat. "C'mon, B.A." he called, reaching out through the open window and thumping on the door. "Get your head outta that engine. Let's take her on the road and see what she can do."

The big guy dropped the hood back in place and climbed into the driver's seat. "Don't be thumpin' on my new van, Hannibal," he said, glaring at his commander.

The smiling colonel put up his hands in surrender as the big guy turned the ignition. Face opened the garage door and got inside, sliding the hatch door closed. As B.A. backed out the drive and pulled onto the highway, he asked, "Where to, Face?"

"I'll say when," The lieutenant replied. "It's a nice little place about five miles up the road."

The four men fell silent and settled down for the ride. Murdock looked up through the windshield, noticing a brilliant full moon low in the evening sky. As the shiny new GMC traveled northward, it seemed to follow along in their wake.

"Blue Moon," he sang softly, "You left me standing alone; without a song in my heart, without a love of my own."

Face gave his friend a worried look and suddenly leaned over, putting a hand on the pilot's shoulder. "No, Murdock," he said, "Not alone, buddy, not while you got me."

The captain smiled and reached up to cover Face's hand with his own.

"I want you to do something," the lieutenant continued, his voice increasing in intensity, "Call us right away if anything happens. What's the point in being part of a team, if you won't let us help you?"

Hannibal, noticing the change in Face's tone, turned in his chair and raised a questioning brow.

"That's right, Fool!" growled the sergeant, his eyes watching the road. "Leave me out of this and you'll be sorry."

"Whatcha gonna do, big guy?" Murdock asked, gently, "You gonna kill me for being so careless as to get myself killed?"

B.A. looked up in the rear-view mirror and glared at the other man but did not reply.

"Starting tomorrow, I want you to contact us at 09:00 and 21:00 hours every day," said Hannibal, in a sharp voice, "That's an order, Captain!"

"Yes, Sir, I'll certainly try," replied the pilot, giving his commander an enigmatic look.

Raising three fingers, Murdock's best friend tried to exact a more binding promise. "Scout's honor?" Face asked.

"O.K., Facey," the captain replied, returning the same childhood salute. Bringing his other hand downward and into the shadows, he quickly crossed his fingers. "Scout's honor, for what it's worth."

Hannibal exchanged a frustrated glance with his lieutenant. The younger man just shrugged, looking over at Murdock with a puzzled frown. Leaning back against the headrest with a sigh, Face closed his eyes, giving up for now. The colonel swiveled his chair forward, studying the highway ahead.

As the sergeant angled slightly to the left, moonlight filled the interior of the van, illuminating the faces of the men inside. If B.A. and the lieutenant had been paying attention, they would have noticed the sudden presence of a benevolent yet uncontrollable power. A very familiar glow began to ignite in the other men's eyes, a twin flame reflected in light blue and dark brown.

Dr. Richter had recently added new members to the hospital security staff. Hannibal now thought it was high time Murdock's shrink hired the A-Team. Conjuring up a mental picture of the VA's perimeter, Hannibal was furiously considering ways they could protect the pilot, yet still avoid being caught by Lynch.

'A three man team; each taking an eight hour shift?' he wondered, 'Good thing the MPs won't recognize the new van but it too risky with only one guy on guard duty. We're stretched too thin.' The colonel frowned in concentration. 'No way this plan can come together without hiring some more guards. Better send Face over to see Richter tomorrow. We're really gonna need some help on this one.'

Dr. Goldman had recently visited the pilot bearing a startling piece of news. Murdock now felt he had his first real weapon against a growing list of enemies. Still puzzling over the dangerous secret locked in his brain, the captain was just as rapidly calculating how to protect himself, without involving any of the people he loved.

'The colonel's probably cooking up something to keep an eye on me,' he worried, 'I can't let them do that. It's too risky with only one guy on guard duty, especially for Face.' The captain suddenly smiled in relief. 'Don't worry, Hannibal, this time I'll be the man with the plan! Better call the professor tomorrow. I'm really gonna need some help on this one.'

That idiot Carruthers had been right about one thing, more than one of these guys was crazy. Two questionable plans conceived by two unquestionably good men, both fueled by the highly unreliable power of the Jazz. This team was in big trouble.

As the van passed a secluded driveway, headlights suddenly pierced the darkness and a non-descript car pulled smoothly out onto the road, following at a discreet but watchful distance.

FINIS (for now)

© Nicole Wilson, 2000