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I Am Become Death: An Incident at Pine Ridge

Chapter 1

The year is 1981.

It was late on a warm evening toward the end of September. The moon was setting in the dark sky over the VA hospital at Westwood. It was a harvest moon, larger than normal, with a soft orange glow, pale reflection of its partner on the celestial day shift. On the ground below, in the psychiatric section, a more earthbound graveyard shift was quietly at work, preparing all the residents for the coming night. Rosemary, the nursing supervisor, was just putting another blanket on a comatose patient when she heard a piercing scream of utter terror echo down the hallway. The woman froze for moment, bowing her head as she let the sound of abject fear wash over her. Rosemary recognized the man’s voice, a patient who was admitted in a catatonic state about the same time she first came to work at the hospital. Almost nine years later, the two were now more than nurse and patient; they had become friends. As if waking from her own nightmare, the woman suddenly moved toward the door. She quickly pulled it open and raced down the corridor toward Murdock’s room.

Half an hour before, deeply asleep, the captain had been having a pleasant dream. He saw himself standing alone on the empty, flat surface of a dry lake bed, bathed in bright sunlight. Before he turned in, the pilot had been reading about a famous colleague, Chuck Yeager, so he was not surprised to hear the roar of an approaching aircraft in flight. Yeager had just taken off in the X-1 prototype craft, racing across the sky in his attempt to fly faster than the speed of sound. The first supersonic airplane streaked past Murdock standing on the ground, leaving a long vapor trail in its wake. Although the captain knew perfectly well the pilot above couldn’t see him, he nevertheless jumped up and down energetically, both arms sweeping the air.

“Go, Chuck!” Murdock shouted gleefully, “MACH-1 or bust!” as he continued to wave.

Then, suddenly, the sky around him grew dark and the captain’s glorious vision of flight took a sudden and nasty turn. In one of the strange segues made within the sleeping brain, Murdock began to picture yet another miracle of science demonstrated in the desert. Something was invented a few hundred miles to the east with an even greater impact than breaking the sound barrier. Something that was infinitely more horrible. The captain began to dream about Trinity.

As Murdock looked off into the dark horizon, there was a sudden flash of brilliant white light, harshly changing night into an unnatural day. The pilot turned and raced away in panic, blindly seeking whatever darkness he might still be able to find. As the minutes passed in his dream world, the ground began to rumble as a wall of supercharged air rushed toward the running man. Nothing and no one could outstrip this massive freight train blast from hell as it caught up Murdock’s body and slammed him down on the ground. The sand around him melted, fragmenting into shards of sharp glass as the heat of the blast tore off his clothes and began to burn and blacken his skin. Murdock opened his mouth to scream…

His agonized cry still reverberating off the walls of his room, the pilot sat up suddenly, heart racing. Almost without pause, Murdock leapt off the bed and slipped quickly under it, curling up in a fetal position against the wall. Still breathing harshly, he made himself as small and still as he could.

The captain heard rapidly approaching footsteps in the hallway and a sharp click as the door was unlocked and yanked open. Flicking on the overhead light, Rosemary strode inside and began to search for her patient. She scanned the room in agitation, running a hand absently through her curly red hair; “Where was he?” she thought.

Suddenly, she heard a small rustle from the shadows near the floor and letting out a soft sigh of relief, approached Murdock’s bed. As she bent over, Rosemary could just see a glimpse of hospital pajamas near the wall. She dropped down on the linoleum tile to get a better view of her friend.

“H.M.?” she questioned softly, “Are you under there?”

Rosemary heard only silence in reply so she lay flat on the floor and wiggled under the foot of the bed, turning on her side toward the man pushed up against the cinderblocks. The nurse paused a moment and after taking a deep calming breath, said, in an almost conversational tone, “Another one of those nightmares again? Must have been a doozy this time.”

The nurse was rewarded by a small, tentative nod from her patient. Encouraged, she asked, “Want to talk about it?” The captain shook his head and moved closer to the wall.

“That’s O.K., darlin’.” Her soft accent was an echo of the captain’s own Texas drawl. “You don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to.” Murdock slowly unclenched his body and stared at her with panic-filled eyes although his rapid breathing began to slow to normal.

“Don’t worry, you’re safe here with us.” continued the nurse softly, as she stretched out her hand toward the man under the bed. Murdock suddenly leaned forward and grabbed her, holding on so tightly that Rosemary struggled not to wince in pain. “Take it easy, now,” she soothed, “Just let me go for a minute. I’m just going to go down the hall and get you some meds for your anxiety. Are you sure you wouldn’t like to come out from under there?”

Her patient shook his head again but almost immediately eased his crushing grip on her hand, reluctantly letting his friend slip out from under the bed. She strained to hear his whispered reply, “No thanks, Rosemary, me and Billy want to stay under here just a little while longer.”

“Damn it!” The young nurse thought, as she began to pace down the hallway toward the reception desk, “If only those two creeps hadn’t bypassed hospital security and gotten in the captain’s room last week. I don’t know what they said to him before we threw them out but he hasn’t been right since. Nightmares like this every night!”

“What in the world is going on?” she said to herself, referring both to visit of the strange men and the confused contents of the pilot’s head. Rosemary reached the desk and immediately picked up the phone, dialing a number from memory. “Hello, Dr. Richter?” she said, “Sorry to call you again at this late hour…”

Chapter 2

The next morning, Templeton Peck was walking casually down the corridor on his way to visit Murdock, when he passed by Dr. Richter’s open door. Glancing inside, he saw the good doctor seated at a desk covered with mounds of patient files. Looking up wearily, Richter caught a glimpse of the younger man and beckoned him inside.

“Lieutenant!” called the doctor, “I would like to talk to you.”

Face raised his eyebrows in surprise. He and Dr. Richter had developed only a passing acquaintance over the years, their single commonality the doctor’s patient and Face’s best friend. The lieutenant had briefly seen the doctor in therapy, along with the rest of the team, after their break from the Cong prison camp in 1971. The psychiatrist had released him for combat duty after only a few sessions, as a charming but uncooperative patient.

“Sure, Doctor.” Face replied as he entered the psychiatrist’s office.

“Close the door if you would.” requested Richter, indicated the empty chair in front of his desk. The conman quietly did as instructed and sat down, his expression quizzical but impassive.

The doctor sighed and took off his glasses, rubbing the bridge of his nose. The dark circles under his eyes indicated more than a few hours of lost sleep in the past few days.

“You O.K., Doc?” questioned Face, unconsciously sounding like the doctor’s patient down the hallway, “You look tired.”

“I’m fine, Lieutenant,” sighed the doctor, “But I’m not so sure about your friend. That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”

Face shook his head in emphatic dismissal. “Now Dr. Richter, Murdock and I have never discussed anything you two have talked about in therapy, not in nine years! There’s no need to tell me anything about it now.”

“Calm down, Lieutenant.” replied the doctor, giving the suddenly agitated man a curious look. “Actually I wanted to let you know about some changes in your friend’s status that might effect his activities involving a certain team that may or may not exist.”

Face gave the doctor a startled glance. He had always wondered why the hospital staff had fallen for all those hokey disease scams he used to spring Murdock over the years. No mark could be that gullible. The lieutenant had long since suspected that Richter knew something about the A-Team and had given the staff permission to release the pilot on purpose. ‘I wonder how much Murdock has told his shrink about us that isn’t in the files?’ Face thought. The doctor did not seem to notice the younger man’s sudden consternation.

“This is really all my fault,” the doctor continued, “Considering your friend’s former employers, I really should have required that the hospital provide him with better security. It simply did not occur to me that they were still interested in him after all these years.”

“Who is interested?” said Face sharply, “What are you talking about, Doctor?”

The psychiatrist looked uncomfortable. “Last Thursday afternoon, two men were able to bypass the front desk and make unauthorized contact with the captain. One of the supervising nurses coming on duty saw them exit out his room. She called security but these men evaded our guards easily and disappeared. Since their visit, I’m afraid that Murdock’s mental condition has taken a markedly downward turn. He appears to be more anxious during the daytime, much too quiet; not his usual self, which as you know, is considerably more frenetic.”

Face smiled slightly at the doctor’s choice of words to describe his quicksilver friend. Worry deepening in his blue eyes, he gestured for Dr. Richter to continue.

“His behavior at night is even more alarming.” said the doctor. “Captain Murdock has been experiencing a series of rather dreadful nightmares which according to the staff seem to concern the explosion of nuclear weapons.”

“The night nurses have heard him talking in his sleep?” Face asked.

“The whole ward knows about his dreams, Lieutenant,” replied the doctor in a weary voice. “His screaming has woken almost all the patients every night since the visit of these men. The resulting chaos has caused the evening shift a few nightmares of  their own. I was hoping that you might have some clue about what was bothering him. I have been called out to the hospital every night this week to supervise the captain’s sedation after one of these nightmares. It is getting exhausting for us both.”

“Do you know what these men looked like?” asked Face, his alarm was growing as the psychiatrist continued his report.

“No, I don’t have an exact description. Rosemary saw them, however, and may be able to tell you more about them.” Murdock had mentioned the young nurse to Face more than once. His crush on her was often the subject of gentle teasing, although lately the lieutenant wondered if his friend’s feelings weren’t reciprocated.

“She will be coming on duty this afternoon about 3:00 if you want to give her a call.” The doctor continued.

“I’ll do that,” said Face, as he rose from his chair, “Now if it is OK with you, I’ll go down the hall and see Murdock. To tell you the truth, Doc, there’s a little something coming up possibly as soon as tomorrow. We were going to ask him to join us. Now I’m not so sure he should come along.”

“Considering what has been happening around here the last few days, maybe the captain would be better off in the outside world.” said Dr. Richter. “Whatever activities you and your friends might be planning, perhaps a mission of some kind might help take his mind off whatever is causing these nightmares.” The doctor smiled. “As a matter of fact, Lieutenant Peck, I believe this time I will spare you the trouble of coming up with a new disease. I’m going to release Murdock to you directly. You can come and pick him up anytime.”

Face gave the doctor a surprised look. “Thanks, Dr. Richter, he said gratefully, “I’ll swing by and get him tomorrow morning. By the way,” the lieutenant grinned, “Call me Face.”

The tired doctor returned his smile. “Alex,” he replied.  The two men shook hands and parted company. Face continued down the hallway toward his friend’s room.

Chapter 3

On that same day, 3,000 miles away, a man waited for a package. Passengers bustled back and forth on Concourse A of the Philadelphia International Airport. No one noticed a lone figure, dressed entirely in black, as he leaned against a wall near the Gate 10 passenger lounge. The slender, good-looking man had a longish shock of blonde hair that he impatiently brushed back from his forehead as he checked his watch. Although the lounge was dim in the early evening light, he wore aviator sunglasses, their dark lenses reflecting the running lights of an aircraft approaching on the tarmac outside the window.

Maria Dwyer, a beautiful stewardess with chestnut hair and lively brown eyes, was walking quickly down the concourse. Based at LAX, the young woman was in a hurry to catch a connecting flight from the domestic concourse, and head for home. Although she was in rush, someone she saw at Gate 10 made her slow her steps and break into a large welcoming smile. “Good Lord,” the young woman exclaimed, “Templeton Peck! What brings you to Philly?” Slowing to a stop in front of him, she leaned forward, giving the unresponsive person a hug. “Where are you headed? Hope you’re going my way?” she flirted. She moved back in surprise as the blonde man frowned at her. He took off his glasses and staring at the now flustered stewardess, asked coldly, “Can I help you?”

“Oh, dear!” replied Maria, “I am so sorry, sir! You see, you look just like a friend of mine from California. I was wondering what he was doing so far from home.”

The stranger’s black eyes bored into the embarrassed woman as she backed away. His silence was unnerving. “Please forgive me,” Maria apologized again, “I have a flight to catch.” The stewardess hurried on. “Whew!” she thought, relieved to get away, “Those eyes sure were spooky. How could I have mistaken that guy for Temp!” The young woman stretched out her long legs and broke into a dead run trying to make her connection.

Turning away from this minor annoyance, Peck’s doppelganger began to scan the passengers now disembarking the newly arrived flight from London-Heathrow. He knew this trip was just the last leg in a long journey ostensibly from Finland, but really originating in the Soviet Union. Only a trickle of people now walked down the ramp connecting the plane to the lounge area. The quasi-Face at last spotted his target.

A small, pinch-faced man, his thinning hair carefully brushed sideways over his head, entered the room and looked around him. He was carrying a small, very heavy suitcase, the weight of the object tilting his body to one side. He spotted the man who looked like Face and approached him tentatively, holding out his hand.

The other man ignored the gesture, staring at the courier from behind his tinted glasses. Disconcerted, the bald man said, in a soft voice, “I have brought it as promised. Do you have my money?”

“Not here!” snapped the black-clad stranger as he gestured for the smaller man to proceed him onto the concourse. The two men soon came to a utility elevator. Taking the over-ride key he had lifted from an inattentive security guard an hour ago, the quasi-Face opened the elevator and accompanied the courier inside. As the doors closed, two almost identical men in gray suits separated themselves from the passing crowd and entered a stairwell next to the elevator shaft.

One flight down, the quasi-Face and his target exited on a dimly lit lower level, crowded with storage carts and luggage. “I thought it would be more private here,” said the stranger. “That case seems very heavy; lead-lined, I see.”

“Yes, all perfectly safe for your clients,” replied the courier. “That is until they try to use it.” He laughed nervously. The stranger smiled at the other man’s little joke.
“I would like the money now.” the courier continued, “I must catch a return flight to Europe leaving very soon.” The smaller man put his heavy burden on the floor next to a nearby luggage rack.

“Oh, I think you will be leaving even sooner than that,” replied the stranger, now grinning openly at the courier. It was not a pretty sight.

As his now terrified prey began to back against the wall, the quasi-Face produced a 9mm and silencer from under his coat and swiftly shot the courier between the eyes. Shocked expression still on his face, the bald man slumped to the floor. The stranger dragged the body across the room and deposited it behind a large mound of luggage, leaving the small suitcase momentarily unattended. One of the gray suits emerged from behind a nearby rack and silently switched the case on the floor with an identical copy. Moving back into the shadows, he waited as the assassin returned. Picking up the duplicate case, the blonde man entered the elevator and returned to the concourse above.

The two CIA agents emerged from hiding, meeting under the dim light of a utility passageway. “Think he’ll buy the switch?” said one spook to another. His partner nodded his head, “Yeah, I think this part of the job is complete. We better call the chief and find out when he wants us back in L.A.”

“Right,” the other man replied, “Time to hire that useless burn-out, Murdock and his friends, the A-Team.” The agents’ laughter echoed up the stairwell as they began their ascent.

Chapter 4

The following morning, Face stopped by the VA to pick up Murdock who was waiting impatiently for him in the lobby.

“Face, can’t you ever be on time?” asked the pilot in exasperation, “Is lateness a religion with you or something?” Murdock bowed in front of the large clock over the reception desk. “Oh, Great Father Time,” he intoned hollowly, “Please forgive this poor sinner before you for his eternal tardiness.” Taking a scrap of paper from his pocket, the pilot continued in his own voice, “Wait! I’ll save you from a sentence of doom, Facey. Have a tardy slip.” He smoothed out the crumpled ball and offered it to his friend.

The lieutenant shot him an irritated look as he signed the register releasing Murdock from the hospital. “I hope you also got your meds in that pocket, buddy, you’re pretty wired this morning.”

“No problemo, muchacho!” replied Murdock in a cheerful voice. He took the bottle of pills out of his jacket and shook them gently. “Don’t leave home without them!”

“Let’s go, Father Time,” said Face, pushing his friend toward the door.

“No, no!” protested Murdock, “Not Father Time, merely his acolyte.”

“Whatever, Murdock!” sighed Face as the two men climbed into the Corvette and drove off. The lieutenant had a feeling it was going to be a long mission.

On their way to the team’s latest rental, a Malibu beach house, Face brought up a subject that had been bothering him since his talk with Richter. “Murdock,” he asked his friend,  “How much do you think your doctor knows about the team?”

“Um, don’t know,” replied Murdock curiously, “Why do you ask?”

“He called me into his office yesterday morning to talk about you.” said Face.

“Yeah, what about?” asked the pilot, starting to get angry.

“Calm down, Murdock,” said Face, “He just wanted to tell me about your nightmares. He’s worried. You know you’ve got a good friend there as well as a good headshrinker.”

“Yeah, the Doc is a decent guy,” his friend replied, “But I’ve had nightmares before. Why would he suddenly want to discuss them with you for the first time in nine years? I’ve been crazier than this before,” the pilot paused in consideration, “I think.”

“He wanted to warn me about your visitors last Thursday.” answered Face, “He believes they are the cause of your bad dreams. Who were they? Anything the team needs to be concerned about?”

“No,” snapped Murdock. “Don’t worry about it, Face. I can handle them.”

“Apparently not,” replied his friend, gently, “Or they wouldn’t be giving you nightmares. C’mon Murdock,” he coaxed, “Tell the Faceman all about it.”

“Why do I have to TELL you anything!”  Murdock shouted, his temper giving way. “Damn it, Face, there isn’t anything you need to know to about me that isn’t in Richter’s files!” The lieutenant looked shocked. “And don’t tell me that you haven’t been scamming copies and passing the contents on to Hannibal all these years because I won’t buy it. Anything to protect the team!” he finished bitterly, “Even investigating one of their own.”

Face was silent after this outburst. He considered pleading innocent to Murdock’s charge but instead pulled the ‘vette onto the side of the road. Turning toward his friend, he admitted, “Yeah, I’ve been reading his notes, Murdock, ever since we first found you at the VA. I’ve even looked over a few about myself.” Face winced. “Did you know Richter also considers me a prime candidate for head shrinking?”

Murdock shook his head slowly, still glaring at this friend.

“Hannibal ordered me to keep tabs on your therapy.” Face continued. Murdock’s frown deepened. “C’mon, Murdock, you were pretty screwed up for a while. The colonel was worried you might let something slip about one of our jobs. We had our clients to consider, you know. We had to be sure.”

“Great, great!” said the pilot sarcastically, “It sure is nice to be trusted by people I thought were my friends.”

“We are your friends!” protested Face, looking directly into Murdock’s angry brown eyes. “I am your best friend, you know that. Besides,” he continued, “I didn’t tell the colonel everything that was in your files, just anything I thought might affect the team.”

“So that makes it alright then,” said Murdock angrily.

“No, it doesn’t,” his friend replied, guilt-ridden. “I’m really sorry. I should have told you that I was violating your privacy.”

“So that means you won’t do it again?” returned the pilot, starting to calm down.

Face gave a long sigh; all this honesty was taking a lot out of him. “No, Murdock, I really can’t say I won’t do it again.” Face gave him a serious look, holding up three fingers. “But never again without telling you first. Scout’s honor!”

“Scout’s honor,” echoed Murdock softly. “Oh, O.K. Facey, I forgive you.” The pilot had never been able to stay angry with his charming friend for very long. Getting away with stuff like this had always been Templeton Peck’s greatest blessing and his greatest curse.

The two men were silent as the lieutenant pulled the Corvette back into traffic. After they had driven a few more miles, Face asked, “So do want to tell me about those goons that bypassed hospital security last week? Richter was pretty broken up about it. He thinks that the VA should beef up security just to protect you.”

“Not a bad idea,” answered Murdock quietly, “Although I don’t think the VA security guards could have done much against these two. They were Company.”

“What?!” said Face in surprise, “You haven’t worked for them since before Nam! What did they want with you after all these years?”

“You mean an old burn-out like me, a basket case,” replied Murdock bitterly. Face shook his head in denial, keeping his eyes on the road. “That’s the odd thing,” his friend continued, “They offered me a mission. They want a pilot to fly operatives in and out of a doomsday survivalist camp in Western Pennsylvania. Something about missing plutonium.”

‘Ah,’ Face thought, ‘So that’s where the nightmares were coming from.’

“Granted the CIA always wants to hire the best,” Face replied. Murdock smiled, acknowledging the compliment. “But don’t they have pilots of their own to do the job?”

“‘Course they do,” replied the captain, “That’s the weird part, why me? And when I turned the job down and told them to go fuck themselves, they didn’t even get offended. They just smiled and let me kick them out of my room. Curiouser and curiouser.”

“What do you think is going on?” asked Face, mystified.

“No idea,” the pilot replied as his friend pulled up in front of the house. Two identical archetypes of clean-cut American manhood came out the front door and approached the car. “But I think we’re about to find out.” Murdock continued in a low angry voice, “Speak of the devil and up he pops.”

“Two demons this time, I think.” replied Face worriedly, as they climbed out of the car.

Chapter 5

Spook #1 held out his hand and said, “Lieutenant Peck, I presume. How nice to finally meet you. I am Special Agent Carruthers and this is my partner Special Agent Wilkins. Of course, we are already acquainted with the Captain.”

Raised in a strict Catholic orphanage, Face was nothing if not polite. He silently shook hands with each of the men. Murdock declined the honor, saying irritably, “Now if this little tea party is over, you guys, let’s get on with it. Why are the hell are you here!?”

“Patience, Captain Murdock, patience!” chided Agent Carruthers. “Let’s proceed inside, Gentlemen, so that we can speak to your entire team.”

The four men entered the beach house, walking into a comfortable living room with an oceanfront view. There was a long couch angled away from the door, facing a large TV with connecting Betamax video recorder. The new arrivals could see cigar smoke rising from one end of the couch. Hannibal looked behind him and gestured for his younger teammates to come forward.

“Face, Murdock, we’ve been waiting for you.”

“Yeah!” growled B.A. “You’re late again, Faceman.”

“See, Facey!” said Murdock cheerfully, ignoring the CIA agents, “Yet another country heard from and a large country at that. You really need to join the cult of Father Time.” He plopped down next to B.A. on the couch and gave him a hug.

“Knock it off, Fool!” said the big guy, squirming. “I don’t know what the hell you are talking about as usual.”

“My mind is an open book, B.A., for my friends anyway,” Murdock added, glaring over his shoulder at the agents standing by the door.

“Yeah, an open book is right,” replied B.A., in a disgusted voice, “With a few chapters missing.”

Hannibal smiled at the squabbling friends but thought it was time to move on to the topic at hand. “Settle down you two,” he said, as the lieutenant sat next to him. “Let’s hear what these guys have to say.”

“Thank you, Colonel.” answered Carruthers smoothly. He was apparently the partner who did most of the talking. “May I introduce you to Dr. Julius Goldman, a scientist who is serving as our consultant on this mission.” The agent indicated a small, middle-aged man standing next to the television. “Dr. Goldman, may I present Lieutenant Templeton Peck and Captain H.M. Murdock, the others you have already met.”

“Gentlemen,” acknowledged the doctor, raising a hand in greeting. The four men looked him over curiously. Short and very slight, with a shaggy head of gray hair, Goldman was ordinary to the point of being innocuous. The most interesting thing about him was a pair of bright blue myopic eyes. They blinked rapidly as the doctor pushed very thick glasses back up on the bridge of his nose. Dr. Goldman also had a strong chin, which was unconsciously set at a slightly stubborn angle. Strangely, considering his current employers, Murdock liked him immediately.

“The A-Team,” said Dr. Goldman in a warm voice, “A distinct honor, Gentlemen. I have heard a lot about you and look forward to joining you on this mission.”

“Whoa, Doc!” replied Hannibal, smiling at the little man, “We haven’t said that we would take the job. Let’s have some details first.”

“No offence to the Doctor here,” said Murdock angrily, “But I, for one, don’t have any interest in details that involve working with these two goons or anybody else in the Company!”

“Yeah,” echoed Face, “You guys have been messing with Murdock’s head pretty good this past week. Something he just doesn’t need right now!”

Hannibal glanced over at the lieutenant in surprise. His blue eyes then narrowed as he gave the agents a hard look. B.A. gently nudged the man sitting next to him and was worried when Murdock wouldn’t meet his eye.

“Gentlemen, you may or may not wish to work with us after you’ve heard what the good doctor has to say.” said Carruthers. “But we will definitely make it worth your while. Many times your usual fee, I believe. How does $500,000 sound?”

“It sounds like you have a lot of taxpayer’s money to throw around,” answered Hannibal, with a cynical smile.

Carruthers just shrugged. “Well, Agent Wilkins and I will leave you to it, Colonel.” he said, giving Hannibal his card.  “Here is a number where we can be reached with your decision. We’ll expect your call within the next two hours.” The two agents left the beach house as silently as they had come.

Minus the two suits from the CIA, the tension in the living room lessened considerably.

“Hannibal,” continued Murdock stubbornly, “I really mean it! I won’t work for these guys. You might as well get Face to take me back to the VA and warm up the van, ‘cause you ain’t gonna have a pilot on this one.”

“Why, Captain?” asked Hannibal curiously, “Are we taking a long trip?”

Dr. Goldman cleared his throat. “I can answer that, Gentlemen.” The four teammates turned to face him. “You see, the agents got a little enthusiastic, shall we say, and offered the mission to Captain Murdock last week when they visited him at the hospital. He already knows the location and a few of the details.”

“What!?” exclaimed Hannibal, glancing over at the pilot. “Are you telling me that those two spooks broke into the VA and asked you to fly them somewhere?”

“Spooked is right!” answered Face for his friend, “Murdock’s been having these terrible nightmares every night since they showed up.” The captain glared at him but said nothing.

Hannibal looked at Murdock’s half-averted face with concern. He gave poor Dr. Goldman a piercing glare, which the slender man withstood valiantly. “Perhaps you had better tell us just what the hell is going on?” he said in a low voice. Hannibal did not like it at all when anyone messed with his team.

Chapter 6

Nodding his head nervously, Dr. Goldman began to outline the mission. “Gentleman, I am representing the Council for Controlled Nuclear Proliferation. We are an international watchdog group vitally concerned with the full accounting of worldwide supplies of fissionable materials.”

“You mean as in materials used to make nuclear weapons?” asked Face, already not liking the sound of this job.

“Yes,” replied Dr. Goldman. “I am sorry to say that every year there may be as much as 500 pounds of nuclear material unaccounted for by processing plants around the world. Since it takes only 15 pounds of a fissionable element such as plutonium or Uranium-235 to make an atomic bomb, the situation has become very grave. In fact, we calculate that it would currently require as little as 4 kilograms of plutonium to make very creditable nuclear device.”

“Wait a minute, Dr. Goldman,” asked Hannibal, “I assume you are talking about plutonium falling into terrorist hands here.” The professor nodded. “But wouldn’t it take a physicist like yourself to put such a bomb together. How many terrorist groups have a scientist on the payroll?”

“I wish that were true, Colonel Smith,” sighed Goldman, “Unfortunately a college undergraduate in physics would have enough knowledge to put together a very nasty little explosive. Some of the missing material is so unstable that you only have to drop one ingredient on top of the other to get a nuclear explosion sufficient to destroy an area the size of a small town.”

“This is very interesting, Doctor,” said Face politely, “But what does all this have to do with us?”

“Well, gentlemen, it seems that upwards of 5 kilos of plutonium may have been smuggled out of the Soviet Union by a low level functionary. This man has apparently brought home small amounts of the element over a number of months, bypassing the lax security at his job site. I would like to show you a short piece of film that we were able to “liberate” from a KGB storage facility. The Russians are also very interested in terrorist bombs and apparently set one off in an occupied Mongolian village to see the effects.”

“What?!” exclaimed Hannibal, “A village full of civilians, women and children?” This was not the kind of war, cold or otherwise, that the colonel understood.

Goldman nodded sadly. “Yes, I’m afraid over half of the population of the settlement were women and children.”

The four men exchanged shocked looks, taking note of the doctor’s use of the past tense when referring to the villagers.

“Please watch the film,” asked Dr. Goldman, pushing the play button on his remote. The TV came to life and the team saw a picture of a suitcase sitting in the middle of a town square. Suddenly, the case exploded in a blinding light, almost too bright for the distant telephoto lens to record. Several seconds passed and a shimmer of displaced air shot out over the village flattening the houses. The supercharged blast rose up in the sky and formed a horrible yet strangely beautiful mushroom cloud.

As Murdock stared at the screen, his face began to change. The gentle captain’s expression grew more detached and intellectually inquisitive but with a deep undercurrent of both guilt and betrayal. When he spoke, his Texan drawl had taken
on a flatter Mid-Atlantic accent and the delivery was rapid as if the speaker was thinking a good deal more rapidly than he could ever express in words. The person inhabiting the captain’s body looked at the mushroom cloud and quoting from the Bhagavad-Gita, said quietly,  “I am become death: the destroyer of worlds.”

All three of Murdock’s teammates turned to stare at their friend. Over the years they had seen the captain take on a lot of strange personas, mostly to relieve the tremendous stress of their missions, but this was a new one on them.

Not so, Dr. Goldman, who was so rattled by the captain’s transformation, he dropped the remote, pausing the frame on the mushrooming explosion. “Dr. Oppenheimer?” he whispered. Pulling himself together, he picked up the device and turned off
the VCR. The TV screen grew dark.

This action seemed to release the pilot from his trance. He looked around, noticing that everyone else in the room was focused on him. “What?” he asked the others softly. “Did something happen?”

“Some one happened.” said Face. “Who the hell was that guy?”

“What guy,” replied Murdock, shaking his head in confusion, “What are you talking about?”

Staring fixedly at the captain, Dr. Goldman said, almost to himself, “My father worked for him you know, on the Trinity Project. I was one of the children who played on the streets of Los Alamos. Such a long time ago.” The physicist then addressed the team directly, “Cancer took my father 15 years ago; it was not a comfortable death. He is the reason I took both a M.D. and Ph.D. so I could study the effects of nuclear byproducts on the human body. And the reason I am here talking to you today.”

“Captain Murdock,” the doctor continued, “The quote is apt if the impersonation a bit unnerving.” The pilot looked puzzled; he didn’t know what Goldman was talking about. “Your file does say you are a talented mimic. It doesn’t do you justice.”

Murdock gave up. With a small shrug, he looked down at his sneakers.

“Hannibal!” said B.A. suddenly, bringing them back to the subject under discussion, “What about all those kids.”

“I don’t know, Sergeant,” his commander replied, with a grim expression. “All we saw on the tape were flattened houses.”

“Unfortunately, with a full complement of villagers hidden inside.” answered the doctor, “The KGB gave them a five minute warning before beginning the test. They were simple people and thought the buildings would protect them from the blast.”

B.A. shook his head angrily and drove one fist into the other.

The doctor sighed, “There is one more tape. Next, let me show you a closed-camera video of a delivery accepted last night at the Philadelphia International Airport.”

Three of the team shifted uncomfortably in their seats and dutifully looked at the screen. Murdock continued to stare at his feet.

The scene changed to a grainy view of an airport lounge filled with passengers. The camera focused in on a man dressed entirely in black who was talking to a smaller courier carrying a suitcase. The bag was so heavy that he listed to one side. The blonde man turned slightly, perhaps with the instinct of a hunter being hunted, and stared directly into the camera.

“Why,” exclaimed Face in surprise, “That guy looks almost exactly like me!”

At this, Murdock’s head jerked up; he stared at the man on the screen intently.

“Who is he?” said the lieutenant, intrigued. It’s not every day that you see your own double. “Does he have a name?” he asked Dr. Goldman.

Murdock shot a sharp glance at the professor. Dr. Goldman, still rattled by the Oppenheimer incident, would not meet his eye and pausing the tape once more, addressed the rest of the men.

“Not that we know.” he replied, “Even the Company has been unable to discover this person’s true identity.”

“Think I can help you there,” said Murdock. His teammates all looked at him as if to say “Now what?”

“That guy on the screen,” stated the captain, in a flat voice. “He might look like the Faceman but he is nothing like him, nothing at all.”

“How do you know that, Murdock?” asked his friend curiously.

“Because we have met, Face, that’s why,” said the captain. “On the one job in Nam we didn’t work as a team, remember?”

“Vividly.” replied Hannibal.  The colonel still felt guilty about releasing the captain for a last minute mission, even if it was on Morrison’s orders. The team splitting up on that occasion had resulted in the mental hospital for Murdock and the stockade for all the others.

“You never did tell us much about what happened out there,” said Face.

“I didn’t remember much for long while,” replied his friend “That’s when, if you’ll recall, I did lose a few cards short of a deck.”

“I’d say more like Fifty Two Card Pick-up!” Face suddenly grinned.

Murdock laughed at his friend’s joke, his formerly grave expression so altered that the professor was arrested by the change. “Quite an interesting person, the Captain.” he thought to himself. Dr. Goldman was a man given to understatement.

The pilot’s face grew serious once more. “Well, I can’t help you out with a name, Facey, because the bastard didn’t let it slip but he sure knew all about us.” Murdock’s eyes narrowed. “That man had a nasty mind. We had a slight disagreement about the fate of the village children. Something about selling them as sex slaves that just didn’t sit well with me.”

“You never told me about that, crazyman.” B.A. said, putting a gentle hand on Murdock’s arm.

“Aww, big guy, you never asked!” replied the embarrassed pilot in a silly voice, laying his head on B.A.’s shoulder. His large friend pushed him roughly away. “Knock it off!” he shouted.

Hannibal, ignoring all this, cut to the chase. “So, Captain,” he asked curiously, “Whatever happened to Face’s double?”

“Don’t know,” answered Murdock, looking back at the screen, “And until now, I didn’t care.”

Dr. Goldman cleared his throat, drawing their attention. “Well, I hope you will all be concerned, Gentlemen, when I inform you that this is the one and only time you will be seeing that courier. Very shortly after this was filmed, his body was found on the lower level behind a pile of unclaimed luggage. The suitcase containing the plutonium had disappeared.”

“Well,” said Hannibal, making his usual swift decision, “We’d better go find it, right guys!”

“Right!” the other three answered; and B.A. added, “For the kids.”

Chapter 7

At that same moment, on the other side of the country, a dark blue rental car drove slowly up the dirt road, pulling in front of a barbed wire gate. An old wooden sign hung over the entrance. It read: Pine Ridge Boy’s Camp and sported a small but cheerful-looking Christmas tree. The man who looked like Face got out cautiously, scanning the area until he spotted two heavily-armed thugs waiting for him by the front entrance. Walking around to the back of the car, the stranger got a small, heavy case from the trunk and crossed over to meet the men.

“I’ve got your package.” The quasi-Face said, “Where’s Rayburn?”

The two younger men, neatly dressed in jeans and button up plaid shirts, looked appalled by the new arrival’s heresy. “The Lord’s Messenger awaits you inside,” one of them replied, indicating a lone cabin at the top of the hill.

As Face’s double climbed towards the small house, now closely accompanied by one of the two survivalists, he began to notice other details about the enclave not evident from the road. A large truck was parked in a field nearby and the ex-soldier also spotted the sunken entrances to bunkers of some sort, south and west of the cabin. As they approached the house, his guard pulled open the door and motioned the stranger inside.

The quasi-Face strode into the main room of the cabin, taking off his sunglasses, which were a tactical disadvantage in the dim room. The men inside were all dressed in the same neat woodsman’s uniform, fifteen acolytes surrounding their leader who was seated at a large table. The Messenger of God rose and extended his hand to the stranger.

“Welcome!” said Rayburn genially, his deep brown eyes telling the ex-soldier quite a different story. “I assume this is our purchase as agreed.”

“It is,” said the quasi-Face, as he hefted the lead-lined case onto the table with a loud thump. All the acolytes involuntarily backed away. They knew well what was in it.

Their leader had an opposite reaction. Running his hands over the suitcase, he said softly, “Ah, at last, the culmination of years of planning. Finally what we need to take our cause into the nuclear age.” The men around him nodded, still looking at the package as if it might explode at any time.

“Jones!” said Rayburn, turning to one of the men next to him and handing him the case, “Take this. You know where to put it.” The man nodded to his leader and exited the cabin, carrying the lead-lined object.

“Now, as to payment,” continued Rayburn smoothly pulling an Uzi out from under the table and pointing it at the stranger. “I’m sorry, my friend, but my group was unable to raise the amount first proposed. Bomb shelters do cost a lot to build, you know.”

The quasi-Face frowned at the leader, a murderous glint in his flat obsidian eyes. The ex-soldier was disgusted with himself; he should have seen this coming. Folding his arms impassively, he gently poked one of his fingers under his shirt cuff and activated a homing signal sewn into the garment. The stranger gave the survivalists his unpleasant smile.

“Not a good decision, Messiah.” replied the ex-soldier sarcastically. As the acolytes surged forward in anger, he tipped over the table, giving him enough of a head start to race out the cabin door. Easily killing the young guard by the entrance with his 9mm, the stranger waited for the other survivalists to emerge, continuing to fire the weapon. As more men poured out the door, machine gun bursts were heard from the woods as several snipers began to systematically mow down anyone unlucky enough to get caught in the front yard. The leader and four of his followers ducked back into the cabin, abandoning their dead and wounded, slamming the door shut. The quasi-Face ran down the dirt pathway to the waiting car and kicking up a large cloud of dirt and gravel, drove swiftly back the way he had come.

“Better cut our losses on this job,” thought Face’s doppelganger as he maneuvered the rental down a half-hidden woodland path on the way to pick up his partners. Perhaps if the stranger had known that another, more famous Special Forces team was on the way, he might have found a reason to persuade the others to stick around. Three men silently emerged from the woods and approached the car, slipping into the seats of the blue sedan. The vehicle returned to the main road as the mercenaries started for their home base.

Chapter 8

Three hours later, the A-Team plus Dr. Goldman were on the road to LAX. Hannibal had contacted Carruthers on the mobile phone and gotten instructions from the nearest large airport to the survivalist enclave that was their target. Unfortunately, Hannibal’s newly forming plan had already hit a snag, and from within his own ranks.

“Don’t give me no milk!” B.A. was saying stubbornly. “I’m not going to eat or drink anything from you guys for at least the first five hundred miles. We’re taking the van!”

Face sighed. “C’mon, B.A.!” he said, “Even if we drive straight through in shifts it will take us more than two days to get to Pennsylvania.”

“Yeah, big guy,” called Murdock from the back of the van. He had given up his seat to their guest and was lying on his stomach perusing the latest issue of the Fantastic Four.
“Gimme a chance to do my job. Let Faceman scam a plane at the airport and I’ll have you there in less than 3 hours. We can rent a van in Pittsburgh.”

“That’s what I’m worried about,” said B.A. “Crazyman flying me anywhere. We drive.” he declared.

“B.A. just might have the right idea,” agreed Hannibal. Face looked at his leader in surprise; he had already surreptitiously begun to prepare the usual injection. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this one,” the colonel continued, “I think we might need all that stuff we got stored in the trunk.”

B.A. shot Hannibal a worried glance then returned his eyes to the road. Murdock put down his comic book, catching his best friend’s eye. This cautious admission was not like their leader at all. Where was the Hannibal who blithely took them where angels feared to tread?

“The last time the colonel told me he felt hinky about a mission was right before Hanoi.” Face thought, with an involuntary shiver.

“Since we won’t be needing a plane this trip,” Hannibal continued, twisting around to look at the pilot. “You’re free to bail out now, Captain. B.A. can swing by the hospital and drop you off. I know you’re not happy about doing a job for the Company.”

“That’s O.K., Colonel,” replied Murdock with deceptive nonchalance. “Since I’m already here, I might as well go along for the ride.” The captain grinned at Dr. Goldman who had been following the conversation with increasing concern. “Besides, I think I might know more about the people who hired us than any of you guys, and I don’t mean the Council for Controlled Nuclear Proliferation. That is the name of your group, right, Doc?” The small man nodded, returning a tentative smile.

“Thanks, Murdock.” said Hannibal, relieved. The ways of the CIA had always been a bit of a mystery to the straightforward colonel. ‘Going in the front door’ was not their usual method of operation.

B.A. pulled onto the freeway heading east. The team and their guest settled in for long ride.

Twenty-five hundred miles, multitudinous pit stops and at least sixteen Murdock personas later, a dusty gray van quietly drove up the dirt road leading to Pine Ridge and pulled to a stop behind a stand of trees. A group of very rumbled, very grouchy men emerged from the vehicle and looked around at the dense bank of virgin forest surrounding them.

“I think that I shall never see,” Dr. Goldman began, glancing at the captain out of the corner of his eye.

“A poem as lovely as a tree.” answered Murdock, “Joyce Kilmer. Easy one, Doc! C’mon, it’s your turn, give me something more challenging.”

“Alright,” the professor thought a minute, then said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life…”

“…and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”  the two men finished together.

“Henry David Thoreau, Walden Pond.” stated Murdock, triumphantly. “Sorry, Doc! You haven’t stumped me yet.”

B.A. glared at two former child prodigies. “As if one of them wasn’t bad enough,” he thought disgustedly. Murdock and Dr. Goldman had been playing the quotation game for the past twelve hours, neither man able to get an edge on the other. It was getting real old.

“When you two were kids,” asked Face, facetiously, “Did your parents ever tell you get your noses out of a book and go outside to play?” The two men looked up in surprise. “I thought so!” he said.

While the others stretched their legs, Hannibal removed the card from his wallet and placed a call to Carruthers in L.A. Several minutes later, the colonel rejoined the team. “Well, the suits tell me that a package was successfully delivered two days ago.” he said, “The courier was a blonde man wearing sunglasses, dressed entirely in black. He arrived carrying a suitcase, leaving an hour later empty-handed. CIA surveillance reports that the exchange was uneventful.”

The other men nodded. Murdock looked around cautiously as if he expected legions of spooky agents to start dropping down out of the branches.

While the rest of the team waited behind, Hannibal and Face walked through the woods, coming to a stop just short of the clearing, still in the shadow of the trees. The colonel handed a pair of binoculars to his second-in-command and then lifting his own field-glasses, began to survey the lone cabin and surrounding area.

Face ran a hand wearily through his hair, squinting in the bright sunlight as he brought the binoculars up to his eyes. He was beat; the result of more than forty-eight hours spent with a possibly cracked, but definitely bored, Murdock. In addition to Dr. Goldman’s version of Twenty-Quotations, the captain had amused himself by slipping into some older characters the others had not seen since Nam. He simultaneously began developing other, somewhat unformed, new ones. The lieutenant had not seen so many different people emerge from Murdock since the team’s desperate escape from the Cong prison camp years ago. It was definitely not a good sign.

The object of Face’s concern came up silently behind the two other men so that the lieutenant jumped slightly when Murdock sucked in a deep breath of woodland air and loudly commented in his ear: “Ah! Penn’s sylvan woods! Perfect territory for a pioneer settlement.”

“Quiet, Captain!” Hannibal growled around a tightly clenched cigar as he continued to scan the clearing. Face lowered his binoculars and gave his friend a significant look.

‘Not now, Murdock.’ Face thought, ‘The Colonel is getting testy.’

Not even noticing the hint, much less taking it, the captain slipped into the Pathfinder, one of his more recent favorite characters. With a past still on the production line so to speak, the pioneer was currently a cross between Natty Bumpo and Walter Brennan.

“Pathfinder reporting, suh!” announced Murdock, giving the colonel a smart salute. “Ready to help bring the miscreants in yon forest glade to a swift and sure justice.”

Hannibal, normally tolerant and even amused by the captain’s antics, had spent the last five-hundred miles listening to Murdock’s nonsense while frantically trying to come up with a plan that wouldn’t get them all killed. He had a fierce headache and was in no mood.

The colonel put down the field glasses and turned to glare at the pioneer standing at attention behind him. “Captain,” Hannibal snapped, “We do not need the Pathfinder right now. Put him back, that’s an order!” The colonel grimly resumed his tactical analysis.

Visibly shaken by his commanding officer’s tone, the pilot made a concerted effort to return to reality. “O.K., Colonel,” he answered quietly in his normal voice.

With a deep sigh, Hannibal looked over at the men standing beside him, confronting two very disturbed pairs of eyes, one an angry blue, the other a confused brown.

“That was uncalled for, Sir.” said Face, coldly.

“You’re right, Lieutenant,” Hannibal replied, chagrined. “I’m sorry, Murdock, I shouldn’t have lost my temper. This mission is starting to get to me. Something just doesn’t feel right.” He indicated the enclave before them. “I wish I knew what the Company was really up to and where we fit in. I need you to focus, Captain. You are the only ex-CIA operative on the team; the only one who has met the man we saw on the surveillance tape. I need you to stay with us, both mind and body.”

Murdock raised his eyebrows in both surprise and pleasure. He knew that the colonel had often relied on his flying skills but Hannibal seldom needed any help with the plan. Like the other members of the team, after some initial complaining, they pretty did what their commanding officer ordered. It was pretty hard to argue with the Jazz.

“Can I be the Pathfinder later, Colonel?” the captain asked wistfully.

“Sure, Murdock,” Hannibal replied, “But not right now, I’ll tell you when.”

“O.K.,” the pilot agreed. “I wish I could help you figure out what’s up with these guys.” he continued, with a worried frown, “But I was just a raw recruit, just barely out of my teens when I last worked for them. I don’t think I can remember anything useful.”

‘So much is missing about those years.’ Murdock thought, in frustration. ‘If only some of it would come back to me!’

“Sorry, Colonel.” sighed the pilot, apologetically, giving up for now.

“That’s alright, Captain,” said Hannibal absently, putting his hand on Murdock’s shoulder but looking over at Face intently. The lieutenant saw a sparkle ignite in the colonel’s eyes and he involuntarily backed up a step from his commander. “Let’s go!” the colonel ordered and the three men returned to the van.

Chapter 9

B.A. was helping Dr. Goldman recalibrate a portable Geiger counter the physicist had borrowed from the Council’s headquarters. The professor had already begun one sweep of the area and was preparing to run a second test.

“I don’t understand it!” said the puzzled doctor. “By all accounts there are at least 15 kilos of plutonium less than a quarter mile away! I should be getting something more than background radiation.”

The officers approached quietly. “Maybe the lead-lined case is shielding any readings,” suggested B.A.

“Maybe, Sergeant,” replied Dr. Goldman doubtfully, “But some leakage would likely have taken place by this time. I should be picking up something.”

Face didn’t like the sound of the word ‘leakage’. He especially didn’t like the look Hannibal was continuing to give him as they rejoined the others. ‘Might as well get it over with,’ the conman thought.

“O.K. Colonel, go ahead, what’s the plan?” Face asked.

“Funny you should mention that, Lieutenant.” their commander replied, with a small smile.

“Oh, no!” said B.A., noting the sudden reappearance of the Jazz, “Not the front door, Hannibal, you know I hate the front door.”

The professor gave the sergeant a confused look and then shrugging, began to pack up the Geiger counter. After two days on the road with this bunch, the professor had concluded that to know them was to like them. ‘Understanding them was a whole other proposition, especially Murdock.’ thought the physicist in amusement. Goldman looked up expectantly as the colonel began to outline his plan.

“No, B.A.,” said Hannibal slowly, “Not right now, at least, not everybody anyway.”

Murdock looked at the colonel sharply and then glanced over at his best friend. Face just looked resigned. He had seen the surveillance tape with all the others and knew what was coming next.

“Dr. Goldman,” ordered Hannibal, “I want you to stay with the van and continue to take readings.” The physicist nodded in agreement; he was no soldier. As the only man in the group who was an expert on nuclear weapons, he was also not expendable.

“We need to reconnoiter the area and get a better look at the layout. Sergeant, I want you to rig up a homing device that can be read on the same frequency as our walkie-talkies.”

“O.K., Hannibal,” B.A. replied. He opened up the trunk and began rummaging inside for the necessary materials.

“Murdock,” said the colonel, “I need you to help Face get ready. He will be the first one in the front door.”

“Wait, Colonel,” asked the captain angrily, “You mean Face is going to go in alone disguised as that guy in the tape?”

“Why not?” replied Hannibal, “The Lieutenant is almost a dead ringer.”

“Dead is right!” exclaimed the captain. His friend winced involuntarily. “You don’t know this guy. Face might look like him but that’s about it. He’ll never get away with it; that’s suicide.”

“Murdock, could you be a little more optimistic here?” asked the blonde man. “‘Dead’ and ‘suicide’ don’t have quite the positive note I’m looking for.”

“Sorry to disturb your delicate sensibilities,” snapped Murdock “But that just about describes the situation. Take my word for it, I’ve met this guy and so have the survivalists. I’m sorry, Faceman, you’re just not that good an actor!”

The conman gave his friend an offended look as if to say: “Moi?”

“Well, it’s the best plan I can come up with,” said Hannibal, firmly, “So unless you have any further suggestions, Captain, I suggest we give it a try.”

Ignoring the colonel, Murdock looked closely at his friend. “You O.K. with this, Facey?” he asked softly. The lieutenant nodded. “Alright, I’ll try to remember everything I can about this asshole,” said the captain, “After all, it’s been ten years since I ran into him.”

“First off,” stated Hannibal, once again taking the reins of command. “You’re not dressed properly, Lieutenant. This slimeball seems to wear the color black like a uniform.”

“A definite lack of sartorial imagination.” commented Face as reached in the van and went through the contents of his bag. “Sorry, Colonel,” he replied, indicating the black pants and deep blue shirt he was currently wearing, “I have a black leather jacket but did not think to bring along a black shirt. You gotta start telling me about these plans ahead of time so I can be sure to pack appropriately.”

Hannibal smiled; then looked at the captain. “Murdock seems to be dressing more conservatively than usual today,” the colonel pointed out. Instead of his usual crazy t-shirt, the pilot was wearing a plain black turtleneck under his beat-up leather jacket. “Switch shirts,” the colonel ordered.

Murdock took off his jacket and throwing it in the van, peeled off the black top, handing it to his friend. Face slowly removed the designer silk shirt, and begged, “Try, just try, to take good care of it, Murdock. Make an effort, please?”

“Pretty please,” said Murdock, slipping on the shirt with a grin. “Or maybe, pretty please with cherries on top, I haven’t decided.” Face sighed; that shirt was doomed.

“O.K.,” the pilot continued more seriously, as he gave his friend’s appearance a critical review. “The biggest problem we’ve got are your eyes; they’re all wrong.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” replied Face “They seem to work pretty well with the ladies.” He batted his eyelashes a few times and grinned at the captain.

“Yeah, Facey and if that was a cult of female doomsday survivalists up there, you’d be in good shape,” said Murdock in an irritated voice. “This guy has eyes like that shark in Jaws, sort of a flat black, and soulless.”

The lieutenant nodded, now focused on Murdock’s description of the stranger.

“Also, his voice is different,” said the captain. “He sounds like you but not like you at the same time. Kinda low and evil with a sort of raspy quality.” Face looked confused; he didn’t follow.

“Like this,” continued Murdock and quoted something he had heard the quasi-Face say in another time and place, “I know where I can get a very pretty price for some very pretty children.” The captain’s impression was chilling and the rest of the group involuntarily moved slightly away from him.

B.A. frowned fiercely. “Did the dude really say something like that when you met him back in Nam?” he asked, looking over at Murdock. The captain nodded silently.

“What a sweetheart!” exclaimed the lieutenant, his nonchalant tone in conflict with his grim expression. Face lowered the timbre of his own voice and tried to achieve the same rough edge as in the captain’s imitation. “How does this sound, Murdock?” he said, as the quasi-Face.

“Not too bad,” replied his friend, nodding his head. “Maybe it would be better if you tried to talk as little as possible. Also, you might want to wear these.” The pilot got his aviator glasses out of the van and handed them to Face.

The lieutenant slipped on the shades and adjusting his leather jacket over Murdock’s turtleneck, stepped back slightly so the others could see the overall effect.

The other men regarded him doubtfully. “Better put a wire on him, B.A.,” ordered Hannibal. “And rig it up so we each got an ear mike to monitor what’s going on inside. We need a little extra insurance.”

“Another vote of confidence,” sighed Face, “C’mon, colonel, you know I hate those things; the tape is itchy.”

“Life is tough, Lieutenant. ” replied the colonel, without sympathy. B.A. lifted up the conman’s shirt and began to secure the transmitter to his back.

After he had finished the job, the sergeant handed Face the homing device, which the younger man placed in his jacket pocket.

“Try to find the suitcase when you get inside,” Hannibal said. “It would be helpful to know exactly where that plutonium is located when it’s time for the rest of us to go in the front door.”

“I knew it!” said B.A. under his breath.

The sergeant handed walkie-talkies to Hannibal and Murdock, keeping one for himself plus the monitor for the homing device. The soldiers armed themselves with tear gas grenades, 9mm revolvers and M-16s from B.A.’s ordinance locker. They were ready.

“Good luck, Gentlemen.” said the colonel.

Murdock grasped his friend’s shoulder and shook it gently. “Take care of yourself,” he said in low voice. The lieutenant nodded and the A-Team split up, moving silently into the trees to take positions around the perimeter of the clearing.

“Let’s go, Professor,” said Face. The two men got into the van and drove slowly up the road to the entrance gate.

Chapter 10

Goldman climbed behind one of the back seats as the lieutenant stopped the vehicle and got out. Face looked up at the sign over the gate, smiling faintly at the cheerful little tree. The man guarding the entrance glared at him. Pointing his rifle at the conman, he said, “You again! You got a lotta balls coming back up here, mister.”

‘Interesting reaction!’ thought Face, studying the young thug curiously. ‘Wonder what he’s talking about?’

“Just take me to your leader,” replied the lieutenant, repressing a grin as he caught his own unconscious imitation of an old sci-fi movie.

Unburdened by any discernable sense of humor, the survivalist poked Face in the back with his gun and forced him up the dirt path to the enclave headquarters at the top of the hill. Dr. Goldman emerged from his hiding place, watching them worriedly through the driver’s side window.

The young guard pushed Face through the front door of the cabin. The five men seated around the table jumped up angrily, knocking over several chairs. They moved menacingly toward the lieutenant.

Meanwhile, Face’s teammates began to reconnoiter the rest of the enclave area. Hannibal had circled around to the east of the cabin and was surprised to discover a large Army surplus truck parked close to the outside wall. Before the colonel had a chance to look inside, his walkie-talkie crackled to life.

“Colonel,” came Murdock’s voice, “I found a fall-out shelter directly south of the cabin about 300 yards. Very well built by the look of it and stocked with plenty of supplies.”

“Same here,” reported B.A., “About an equal distance due west. No sign of unfriendlies in the shelter or on the ground.”

“Nada here too, Colonel,” Murdock’s walkie-talkie voice said again, “I think all the hens are in the hen house.”

Hannibal rolled his eyes toward heaven and pushing the send button, replied, “More like roosters, don’t you think, Captain?” He heard mechanical laughter. “Get ready to move on my signal.”

Inside the cabin, Face’s carefully planned scam was unraveling before his eyes. Before he could trot out his story about yet another “package” for sale to the terrorists or even have a chance to search for the suitcase, the leader grabbed him by the collar and picking the smaller man up bodily, slammed him into the wall.

“What the fuck are you doing back here!” exclaimed the Messenger of God, his face red with anger. “You and those other assholes killed ten of my best men. And that fucking suitcase you brought us; we ran some tests. There’s no plutonium inside, just some metal canisters filled with lead shot. Do you think we’re a bunch of idiots?” he shouted.

‘A leading question,’ considered Face, ‘Probably rhetorical.’ He looked up at the glittering dark eyes identical in color to Murdock’s own gentle brown. ‘Talk about the difference between ‘bad’ crazy and ‘good’ crazy,’ he thought.

The conman’s silence seemed to inflame the leader further as he swept the lieutenant’s legs out from under him, sending him tumbling to the floor. Motioning to one of his angry acolytes to give him a rope, the Messenger tied Face’s hands behind his back tightly.

“Maybe we can beat the truth out of you,” said the survivalist leader, his followers surrounding the lieutenant as he lay on the floor. “But first, let’s get a good look at your face.” The Messenger reached down and yanked the off the sunglasses, revealing blue-green eyes that stared back at him calmly. “What?!” exclaimed the leader, now even more angry and confused, “Who the hell are you?”

‘I didn’t even get to imitate the guy,’ thought the lieutenant with regret. Now, of course, there wasn’t any point.

“Thought I’d drop in and join the cult,” said Face lightly, in his own voice. “Though apparently, you don’t seem to be welcoming new members. You ought to take a lesson from the Hare Krishnas although I guess instead of following people around airports, you probably just blow them up.”

The Messenger’s eyes widened at the lieutenant’s last words and he involuntarily flicked a glance at a small box bolted to the middle of the table.

“You better stop bull-shitting around, asshole!” shouted the Messenger, his voice growing increasingly hysterical, “Or I’m going to kick the crap out of you!” As if to illustrate his point, the survivalist leader brought back his boot and drove his toe viciously into the small of Face’s back. Fortunately, instead of making contact with the other man’s vertebrae, the Messenger crushed the transmitter. The lieutenant grunted in pain as the device shorted out, the battery acid burning his bare skin.

The three soldiers, in position around the perimeter, had been listening to this exchange with increasing alarm, when their ear mikes suddenly went dead.

“Hannibal?” shouted Murdock through the walkie-talkie, pronouncing his commander’s name as though it were a battle call.

“Go, go, go!” yelled the colonel into the radio, as he raced toward the cabin. Hannibal lobbed a grenade through one of small windows, splintering the glass. Smoke almost immediately began to emerge from inside.

As a great cloud of burning tear gas began to fill the room, Face looked up from his position on the floor and saw the Messenger run to the table, lifting up the lid of the small box and flicking a switch inside. Coughing and choking, the survivalists clawed their way from the cabin to the fresh air outside. Unable to follow them or cover his face from the fumes, the lieutenant began to cough deeply as the tear gas sunk to the floor. Giving a last gasp in a fruitless attempt to suck in air, he passed out.

Chapter 11

B.A. and Murdock ran to meet Hannibal as the survivalists staggered into the front yard. Great billows of smoke continued to pour from the entrance, completely obliterating any view of the inside. The three men paused a moment, considering the tactical disadvantage.

“Oh, the hell with it!” cried an exasperated Murdock as he dropped to the ground and crawled through the doorway to find his friend.

Back on the road, Dr. Goldman waited in the van. As he looked toward the top of the hill, a large white plume rose upwards, obviously coming from the enclave headquarters.  The physicist watched the column of smoke spread out across the sky and thought about the men bent on a mission of rescue; men whom he was beginning to regard as friends.

“Sure, they’re professionals,” thought Goldman, as he shouldered a backpack containing the Geiger counter and his medical kit. “But I am the one responsible for returning the plutonium. I have to help them!” Coming to a decision, the physicist made his way to the rear of the vehicle and took one of the automatic pistols from the locker. Holding the heavy, unfamiliar object in a wobbly grip, he opened up the vest of his tweed suit and stuck the gun in his belt. Now sufficiently armed, the professor trudged determinedly up the hill toward the cabin.

Murdock ripped off a piece of elegantly tailored shirttail and tied the piece of blue silk over his nose and mouth. His eyes burned as he snaked his way across the floor looking through the fog for a sign of his friend. Suddenly, he spotted a dim figure lying about five feet away. Reaching over, he grabbed Face by the rope that bound his wrists and began dragging him to the doorway.

“Watch them, B.A.!” Hannibal commanded, indicating the choking survivalists still lying in the yard. The colonel started toward the cabin, just as the pilot fell though the doorway, Face unconscious in his arms.

Murdock collapsed on the ground, coughing repeatedly as he took in a huge gasps of fresh air. The lieutenant lay on his side, unresponsive, as the colonel turned him over, untying the ropes that bound his hands. Hannibal looked up as he spotted a small figure coming over the hill. The professor was marching toward them with fierce determination, packing a weapon that the colonel doubted he know how to cock much less fire. If the ex-Special Forces commander was amused, he did not show it.

“Dr. Goldman, over here.” he called. “Thanks for the help, Doc,” said the colonel, indicating the gun under the professor’s belt, “But right now we need a medic.”

The physicist cum medical doctor knelt down by the lieutenant and pulling open his jacket, leaned over and briefly listened to his chest. Dr. Goldman then began to perform CPR. The captain, still making an occasional wheezing sound, watched him anxiously.

After about a minute, Face gave a long, shuddering gasp and in a series of deep, hacking coughs, began to breathe again. Barely conscious, the lieutenant sought out his commander.

“You, O.K., Kid?” asked Hannibal, bending over the younger man with concern.

Face looked up, tears streaming from his reddened eyes. “Hannibal,” he wheezed, breaking into a new bout of coughing.

“Don’t try and talk,” said Murdock, gently, placing a hand on his friend’s shoulder.

Face shook his head in agitation. “No!” he whispered, trying desperately to communicate what he had seen moments before. “Bomb!” said the lieutenant.

The colonel’s eyes widened as he met Murdock’s shocked glance. “Where?” he asked. The lieutenant shook his head almost imperceptibly; he didn’t know. Suddenly, Hannibal remembered that mysterious Army surplus truck parked by the cabin wall.

“Murdock, stay with Face.” he ordered. The captain nodded. “Dr. Goldman!” said the colonel, “You’re with me!”

The two men rounded the corner of cabin, approaching the vehicle and lifting up the canvas flap covering the back. Hannibal took a flashlight off his belt and sent a beam of light into the darkened interior. A long, deadly, metal object was nestled in a bomb sling stretched tightly between the sides of the truck. As the light revealed more of the weapon inside, Dr. Goldman sucked in his breath involuntarily. The colonel gave him a sharp, inquisitive glance.

“It’s not nuclear,” began the physicist. Hannibal sighed in relief. “But I imagine in Vietnam, you must have seen or heard about the fuel-air bomb.”

The colonel looked at Dr. Goldman in alarm. He certainly had heard about the vicious weapon and had seen its effects first hand when in 1968, his unit had come upon a village recently destroyed by this type of explosion. That’s if you could call what was left, a village.

“You can see the propane tanks strapped to the body of the bomb,” Goldman said, pointing inside the truck. “When the device is ready to explode, the gas will be released forming a thick cloud that is then ignited by the subsequent explosive charge. Quite the same effect as a nuclear weapon, over a limited area, but without any radioactive fallout.”

Hannibal’s flashlight beam illuminated the detonator device. A simple digital clock had been crudely wired to the sophisticated explosive, the bright green LED flashing 3:00, then 2:59.

“Run!” shouted the colonel at the top of his lungs as the two men darted around the side of the cabin, heading for the bunker 300 yards to the south. Hannibal looked back to make sure his men were following. Upon hearing the colonel’s urgent command, Murdock and B.A. abandoned the terrorists now getting up from the ground. Each taking one of Face’s arms, the two men lifted up the lieutenant and propelled him unsteadily toward the fall-out shelter. As the three men struggled across the field, Face tripped in the tall grass and went flying.

B.A. grabbed up his little brother, slinging him over his shoulder. “Move your ass, Murdock!” he shouted, “We’re coming!” After one sharp glance in their direction, the captain turned and raced toward the bomb shelter. Hannibal and Dr. Goldman dove inside, Murdock close behind. A few seconds later, B.A. reached the entrance and practically throwing Face through the portal, turned to close the heavy metal door.

Suddenly the sky lit up with a brilliant white flash that illuminated even the corners of the windowless room through the partially open door. ‘Just like my dream!’ thought Murdock in wonder, as he flung his arms up over his head.

The light waned in the small shelter as B.A. slammed the door shut, the automatic bolt clicking in place. Murdock could hear the professor counting quietly, “One-one hundred, Two-one hundred, Three-one hundred. Gentlemen,” he commanded, “Get down!”

The men inside the shelter heard a massive explosion as the sturdy bomb shelter was buffeted by waves of displaced air radiating out from the epicenter. The resulting vacuum outside caused the air vents to clang shut, trapping oxygen within the small lead-lined room. Containers of supplies danced off the shelves and flew through the air, one heavy canister hitting the colonel on the forehead with a glancing blow. The great rumbling sound that followed slowly began to ebb away until all was silent.