Note to Witcher Fans!
After going three rounds with Covid-induced depression, I have finally climbed back into the "enjoys writing and CAN imagine" zone. Lark and I have resumed edits on our next story and it WILL be coming. Just... not immediately... because Lark is also switching jobs and I need her to edit Jask.
TO THE FAN WITH THE DISCORD: I tried to follow the link but it had expired by the time I saw your review! Now I am recovered and writing again, I would love to join! I couldn't find any other way to reach you but here, lol.
For A-Team fans
WOW this story has been a LOOOONG time coming! I started this one way back in... 2013? I think? Since then I've been falling in and out of fandoms and always coming back to it to add a little more or edit here and there and at long last, it is complete!
CHAPTER SPECIFIC WARNINGS will be in the notes at the top of each chapter! This one gets pretty gritty with the whump, both physically and emotionally. (Sorry, Murdock... and team...)
"Come, please, I'm calling…."
Savin' Me (Nickelback)
Face fidgeted in his seat, staring out the window between the backwards letters that declared the diner's name in bright red to the people walking and driving past. He was in Lakewood, Colorado - had driven through the night from his latest scam in Vegas - and was starting to feel strung out. The bustle and chatter of conversation surrounding him only made it worse. Everything seemed so normal for a weekday afternoon, but after what had happened the day before, Face just couldn't relax. Not with Murdock gone.
Well, not really 'gone'… he was still in the V.A. building somewhere but security had risen to a ridiculous level and Face couldn't even consider conning his way in, not with the place in lockdown like this. None of his skillful array of characters or scams would work when the first guy you con – and consequently, the first guy to figure it out – is the guy with the gun guarding the only exit.
For Face it had all started yesterday around lunchtime with something as simple and innocent as answering his phone. The conman put his head in his hands, trying to forget (or at least muffle) the memory of Murdock's call….
"Thomas Peck advertisement agency, the Tom Peck speaking, and how can I help you today?"
The conman dropped the act with a frustrated sigh.
"Murdock? How'd you get this number? How'd you even get a telephone? This is supposed to be a private advertising agen-" Face stopped, suddenly aware of the odd silence on the other line. "Hey, you okay, buddy?" Panting breaths and an almost manic chuckle. "Murdock?"
"Am I okay? Are you okay, Face?"
"What? Come on, Murdock, what's going on?"
"Jus' answer me, Face!" Murdock's voice had risen to a near shout, his usual humor gone, replaced by a trembling urgency that made his voice shake and Face's heart hammer in his chest. "Are you an' the guys okay? I mean somewhere safe an'… an' not hurt an'… jus'- jus' okay?"
"Yeah! Yeah, we're fine. What's this all about? Did something happen over there?"
A shaky, relieved sigh.
"N-No, I jus'… I thought… Doc-Doc Brenner said you might be… might be hurt an'…"
Another huffed breath. There was a moment of silence… then a sound that made Face's blood run cold: a soft, almost inaudible whimper that instantly changed this call from 'important' to 'deathly urgent' in Face's mind.
"We're all fine, Murdock. Hannibal and B.A. are still in Nashville getting the van suped up. I just talked to them today. Look… who's this Brenner guy? I thought your doctor was Richter."
"He's a new doc here. An' by 'doc' I mean a quack, a real mad scientist, dangerous type quack. He-He does special sessions with a few of the guys here an'… an' none of us l-like him."
"Yeah? Why not?" A dark suspicion rose in Face's mind, turning concern to anger. "Did he hurt you, Murdock?" Face felt an icy tendril of dread curl around his heart as his friend hesitated. "Murdock?" When the other man spoke again, it was in a soft, pleading whimper that had Face scrambling for Hannibal's number, heart pounding as he tried to listen to Murdock on the cordless and text Hannibal an SOS on his cell at the same time.
"Can… Can I come home n-now, Facey? I d-… I don't like it here n'y more." The voice on the other line sniffled, swallowing another sob before continuing, croaky with unshed tears. "Pl-lease, can I come home?"
"Yeah, yeah, of course, pal! But I thought you said the VA was like home?" Face sent the text, returning his attention to the cordless phone and the sounds on the other side that might (but really needed to not) be sobs.
"N-No, home's where you're safe. I wanna come home, Temp… please, please, please… I wanna come home." Murdock sounded close to hysterics and Face struggled to get his coat on without letting go of the phone.
"Yeah, I'll come get you right now, okay? I'll be there in no time." The VA was in Lakewood, Colorado, a good day's drive away from Vegas but driving through the night he should be able to shave a few hours off the trip at least. "I gotta hang up though, alright buddy? I'll call you back on my cell as soon as I get to the 'Vette, I promise."
"… kay, Facey."
When Face had called, his hands shaking so much he could hardly dial the number, Murdock hadn't picked up. When he'd arrived at the VA that morning, the guards were already in place.
So here he was, sitting in a diner booth at two in the afternoon, sipping bitter coffee with his shoes sticking to the grease and soda on the floor, glancing out the window every ten seconds for the familiar hulking shape of B.A.'s van. He and Hannibal had left Nashville the day Face had texted and weren't due till that evening but he couldn't help checking. Maybe there'd been no traffic. Maybe they'd taken some shortcut; Hannibal was a master at planning, even on something as simple as a road-map. It wasn't completely insane to think they'd show up any minute.
"Just really, really unlikely," Face muttered, taking another sip of coffee, wincing when he realized the stuff had gone cold and placing the mug back on the checkered table top. The diner he was in was a block or so from the V.A., somewhere public where he could wait for the team that wasn't right across the street from the hospital and thus number one on the new security's 'suspicious places' checklist. Still, the distance made Face uneasy. If he couldn't see the doors, he wouldn't know if they moved Murdock or if someone important like Lynch arrived – because the dark uniforms on the men out front reminded him too much of Lynch's cronies and Black Forest – hell, from here, he wouldn't even know if the place's lawn sprinklers were on!
The lieutenant scrubbed a hand across his face, banishing the 'What if' scenarios filling his head and taking a deep calming breath. He'd been at this all day, alternating fretting in one public eatery or another and cruising around in his Corvette, passing the V.A. whenever possible and trying not to do it so often that he drew attention to himself. There was no way he could go up to the place. Even if they didn't recognize him, Hannibal would kill him for acting without intel or a plan of any sort. But it was torture to sit here, listening to inane diner chatter and the sizzle of over-greased fries while his best friend was locked up and… well… freaked out at least.
Not for the first time since Murdock's call, Face wondered if he was overreacting. Some of Murdock's meds made him unpredictable at times and if the doctors had switched a few or changed the doses, the frantic call could've been little more than a flare up before things settled down again. And on top of all that, Murdock wasn't a kid. He was a full grown man and a fully trained Army Ranger too. Face had seen the pilot in action and although he wasn't as used to hand-to-hand combat as the rest of them, preferring to keep to the skies, he had a devastating right hook and was more than capable of keeping himself safe on the field.
Again, not for the first time, Face's mind put up a solid argument against his doubts. If it had been the meds, someone would've called him back and assured him everything was fine. Also, a change of dosage or even medication was supposed to be done gradually to avoid episodes like this. Murdock had said he'd been seeing a different doctor but any doctor should know that.
The real clincher though, the one thing that got Face's heart racing again, was what Murdock hadn't said. It was that one little pause between, "Did he hurt you?" and Murdock's whimpered plea.
Something bad was happening in there and somehow, Face knew it all revolved around his friend. Sitting there in the diner booth, leg bouncing anxiously and skin crawling with a need to do something, Face felt like he'd snap at any minute.
Luckily, an idea came to him in the lovely form of a waitress. She was blond, but not naturally so, and her hair was up in a messy bun. The eye shadow and lipstick were a bit overdone and she seemed like the kind of waitress that would normally be seen chewing a piece of gum loudly and openly. Thankfully, she was gum-free today and Face just hoped she was the gullible type because he didn't have a lot of time to come up with a story. She sidled up to his table, looking down at him with concern in her pretty brown eyes.
"I think that coffee might taste bettah hot." She gestured at the cup with a smile. "Would you like me to bring you some more?" The last bit of Face's plan fell into place in his mind and he dove right in, flashing the woman a quick, nervous smile. Judging by her accent, she was from Boston and her nametag read 'Lacie.'
"Uh, no. Thanks, Lacie, but I'm… I'm fine." He adopted a morose look and fixed his eyes on the plain white mug between his hands. Lacie took the bait. He'd known she would. She'd been eyeing him from across the counter ever since he'd distractedly ordered the now cold coffee almost two hours ago. Thankfully, she wasn't put off by his twitchy, anxious behavior. Lacie slid into the booth across from him with the rubbery creak and sigh of leathery cushions, setting her notepad and pen on the checkered table and frowning concernedly.
"Ah' you okay, sir?"
Face feigned distraction, rubbing the glass mug absently with one thumb.
"Huh?" He looked up, blinking as if he'd only just noticed she was there. She bought it and her frown grew. "I'm fine."
"You've been sittin' in hea' for almost two hours nursin' a cold cup of frankly awful coffee and lookin' like you're gonna to have a panic attack any second."
Really? He hoped she was exaggerating, for his pride's sake. He heaved a sigh, pushing the cup aside and folding his hands on the table.
"Okay. Guess it can't hurt to talk about it. Not like I'm getting anywhere on my own anyway…." He let out a short laugh, glancing up to make sure Lacie was still paying attention. She was.
"It's my brother, Joe." Face paused, wondering if the slight break in his voice on the word 'brother' had been genuine or just instinctive acting. Lacie was watching him, a sympathetic softness entering her eyes. She reached across the table, resting a well manicured hand on his.
"Did… Did he die?" Face swallowed hard. Blunt, Lacie, real blunt. Maybe she wasn't the sensitive young woman he was looking for… but the con was too far along to swap waitresses now. Face forced a chuckle, shaking his head.
"No, nothing like that. He's a patient at the V.A. just down the street." He hooked a thumb toward the window and Lacie nodded. "And I haven't heard from him in a while. I came down here to see him but they've got all this new security and sneaking in past my step-mother is hard enough." He frowned down at her hand on his, waiting for her to ask and trying not to twitch too much. This was taking too long for his liking. Of course, 'his liking' would be to have Hannibal, B.A. and him bursting into the V.A. guns blazing right now… so anything apart from that was automatically labeled 'too long.'
"Yeah." Face sent her a sad smile and hoped his sob-story wasn't too over the top. He needed something that was just enough to get her sympathy but not so much that she suspected him. "Amelia Banks, my wicked step-mother." Another forced laugh. "She thinks I'm a bad influence on her 'little boy' but I wouldn't even be staying long. Just long enough to make sure he's okay. See, last time he didn't answer my calls, it turned out he had pneumonia and no one even told me till he got back from the ER two weeks later!"
Lacie's expression was one of heart-broken shock and her hand tightened over his.
"Is there anythin' I can do?" she asked after a short pause. That's the million dollar question right there, Lacie, he thought. Here goes nothing… and everything. He made a show of hemming and hawing as long as he could stand, which was a grand total of five seconds, before looking earnestly into her big doe eyes.
"Well… You… You could go down there and, um, and ask about him for me? Just so I know he's okay!" he added hastily when a doubtful look came into her eyes. "Maybe give him a message from me?"
"I… I don't know…" She glanced back toward the counter where another waitress was taking someone's order.
"It doesn't have to be right now! It can wait till you're off or on break or something!" It could wait. Face would probably explode with worry but if he pushed her to go now, she'd be far more likely to back out. To his relief, Lacie smiled and moved to get up.
"No, I'm due for a break anyways. You said his name's Joe?"
"Yeah." Face stood with a small smile. "Joe Banks." The name belonged to a kid Murdock talked about all the time, just someone Face knew would be in there and might know something about what was going on. "And I'm Tom by the way. If you could just tell him his brother's worried about him? No other siblings so," Face shrugged and gave a weak chuckle, "he'll know who you're talking about." Lacie smiled and nodded, heading for the counter to drop off her nametag and notepad before leaving. He followed her to the door, catching her arm and biting his lip as if he were shy or apprehensive about adding this last, ever so important bit. "Oh, and would you ask about his fish?"
"He calls it Murdock." Another short laugh. "It's all he talks about in his letters." Lacie patted his arm and winked flirtatiously.
"Just wait right hea'. I'll be back in no time." With that, she was gone. Usually, Face felt pretty stoked after a successful con, but this time, there was no elation, no rush, no Jazz. There was only worry that made every minute seem like an hour. Hannibal and B.A. weren't due for another five hours at least, so that left Face with five hours of nail-biting and napkin shredding between frequent checks of his cell. Still no calls, not from Hannibal or Murdock. Face had called Hannibal in the 'Vette right after he failed to get Murdock back on the line. The call had consisted of Face freaking out, Hannibal ordering him to do nothing, and B.A. demanding answers in the background.
He killed a few minutes fixing his appearance in the bathroom then went back to his booth, shoving the mug aside and pulling out his cell. No new calls. He went into messages, just to give himself something to do while he waited for Lacie to come back. Maybe he still had some texts from old girlfriends he could delete. It was better than making more napkin confetti. The first message he saw, though, sent him back into his fretting thoughts. It was from Hannibal and read simply, 'Details.' It was the response to his urgent SOS and as soon as he'd failed to reach Murdock again Face had called Hannibal right then and there from his seat in the still-parked Corvette outside the building he'd set up his fake office in. The conversation played back in Face's mind as he stared down at his phone.
"Boss, we need to move, right now." It was all he could think to say. He hadn't been thinking clearly, Murdock's terrified voice still ringing in his ears.
"Where are you?" Hannibal's voice was all business, tight and grim and angry to anyone who didn't know him as well as Face did. He recognized it as worry, genuine and protective.
"It's not me. It's Murdock." The SOS had been vague, just a code for 'emergency.' Hannibal naturally assumed it was Face in danger and that only fueled Face's need to tell Hannibal everything before the Colonel started going in the wrong direction. "Something's wrong, Hannibal. Really wrong. I mean…." Face cursed and ran a hand through his hair, clenching his teeth in frustration as his mind scrambled for a place to begin explaining. Hannibal's voice came back, slow, clear and calming.
"Calm down, kid, and start from the top. What happened?" A few deep breaths later, Face was able to continue.
"Murdock just called me, asking if we were okay. I told him we were fine, all of us, but he sounded…. He was… off. And talking about this new doctor named Brenner and-" Murdock's fearful voice played over and over in Face's head and he swore softly, clutching the wheel tightly in one hand even though the car was still parked.
"Brenner?" Hannibal prompted. Face nodded to no one.
"Yeah, he said he was a quack and a mad scientist, a dangerous one." A door closed in the background and Bosco's deep voice rumbled behind Hannibal's. A brief shuffle later, Hannibal spoke again.
"You're on speaker, Lieutenant."
"Wha's goin' on, Faceman?" Bosco sounded both worried and annoyed and Face tried to sum up quickly because his promise to get going was weighing on his mind and he wanted to get on the road as soon as possible.
"Murdock's in trouble. We've got to get over there and-" Hannibal cut him off.
"Face, what proof do you have that Murdock needs our help?" Face paused, urgency still drumming in his heart.
"Murdock's crazy, man." Bosco's voice answered. "How d'you know he's not jus' playin' around or hyped up on 'is meds? C'mon, Face! We can't jus' drop everything an' run down there 'cause the fool's new doc don't believe in fairies or gremlins or all that other crazy stuff he's always babblin' about!"
"He's not playing around, Bosco! This is serious!"
"Fool's never serious! Did he tell you he was in trouble? Huh?" Bosco's voice was challenging and Face snapped back angrily.
"He didn't have to, man, I could hear it!" There was a moment of silence as Face fought to control his rising temper. Finally, Hannibal spoke.
"Hear what, Face?"
"He was scared stiff, Hannibal. He-… Man… He might've been crying, okay? I don't know."
"Cryin'? What-" Bosco fell silent, probably silenced by a warning look from Hannibal whose steady voice calmed the frustration growing in Face's mind.
"Face… is he hurt?" Face closed his eyes, his best friend's pleas echoing in his memory.
"I don't know." He sighed. "He didn- He wouldn't tell me. He just… He just kept begging me to let him come home," Face finished softly and he heard Bosco mutter a curse. When Hannibal spoke again, it was with a purposeful strength that was like cooling water on a burn for Face's nerves.
"In your opinion, Lieutenant – your professional and unbiased opinion – is this an emergency situation?"
"Yes, sir." No hesitation.
"Then start driving. We'll meet you down there tomorrow." There was a bustle of noise on the other line as Hannibal and B.A. moved around, presumably gathering their things. "And Face?"
"When you get there, I want you to stay away from the building."
"Lieutenant. This is a direct order. You're on surveillance until we get there but don't hang around long enough to be spotted. We need to know what we're dealing with before we go in." Face tried to argue but Hannibal cut him off. "If this is a hostage situation, if Murdock is in danger, we need to keep the element of surprise on our side. Watch, but don't let them see you, understood?"
Face blinked as a passing car drew him from his thoughts. A big van, but not the big van. He shifted uncomfortably on the booth seat and ordered another coffee. This was going to be a long and hard wait….
As it turned out, it took Lacie a good two hours to get back and Rachel, the other waitress, was well on her way to a good tantrum by the time her coworker returned. Lacie had apologized profusely and taken over at the counter, then beckoned for Face to move to a stool against the counter so they could talk.
"So… how'd it go?" Face asked apprehensively, noting the slight shake in the manicured fingers as Lacie set aside her pad and pencil. The girl turned a worried look on him and lowered her voice.
"What's goin' on, Mr. Banks? Because 'new security' doesn't cover fingerprinting an' background checks!" Face winced and shushed her, glancing at the other customers who thankfully hadn't noticed her whispered outburst. Swallowing down his worry, Face channeled the unhelpful emotion into his voice, hoping his story would hold up against this new obstacle.
"Look, I'm sorry, okay? But there's no way I could get in there to see him and I've tried everything else! No computers, no mail, no phones – he's practically quarantined from me, Lacie!" To his immense relief, Lacie's uneasy expression softened and she sighed.
"Just a sec." She stepped away to fill a long overdue order then returned, giving him that 'No way you get my number after this' look that he usually hated, the one that looked like a slap to the face and full can of pepper-spray, but this time he didn't mind. Blunt Lacie could keep her number. He just needed to know about Murdock.
"Okay. Your brother, Joe?" Face nodded and Lacie continued. "Not a real friendly guy. I gave him your message and he looked at me like I belonged in that joint. Didn't say a word, just stared. Then when I ask him about his fish, he gets real creepy. He scoots closer, yeah? And he says to me, 'They took him away. The dead-eye man took him away an' locked up his room.' How creepy is that? I mean-"
She went on about Joe's bizarre behavior, but Face ignored most of the affronted complaints and just tried to calm his racing thoughts. Joe was certifiable, sure, but that didn't mean he wasn't a reliable source of information where Murdock was involved. The eccentric pilot had nicknamed the kid 'Aquaman' and boasted like a proud father that Joe was the eyes and ears of the institution. Or at least the ears, as the kid was most often found mesmerized by the fish tank in the common room. But the point was, if Joe said Murdock had been 'taken away,' then Face could be sure of two things: One, Murdock hadn't expected or at least hadn't been able to resist whatever happened to him and two, wherever this 'dead-eye' man had taken Murdock, Joe hadn't seen him since.
Face thanked Lacie as graciously as he could manage through his frustration and he left. Face spent the rest of the day watching the V.A. from the roof of the law firm opposite. Without the fake IDs he had stored in the van, Face had been forced to bypass his usual 'mechanic checking the air conditioning unit' route in favor of using a dumpster to reach the fire escape on the side of the building. With the help of a pair of binoculars, Face gathered several pages of notes on the guards' rotations, weaponry, and vigilance. As the sky darkened, he reluctantly began packing his things. Still, before he left, he snuck a quick look at Murdock's window on the first floor. But the darkened room remained still and as far as he could tell, empty.
Trudging through the lobby of the hotel, Face hefted his big black bag and tried his very best to look like any other guest heading to bed after a long day. He wasn't sure he succeeded but it didn't really matter. The receptionist was too absorbed with the game playing on the little TV behind the desk to notice him. The room was a standard issue type with two beds, a desk and a TV. Face kind of hated it. It was better than the dirty, roach-infested motels they had to stay at sometimes, but he was so, so used to cartoons playing on the TV, or Murdock chattering away about something or another while lying on his back on a bed and tossing a tennis ball into the air, and now the silence was too weighty.
Face tossed his bag onto the extra bed and collapsed into the desk chair. Frustration was making his jaw tight and he ran both hands through his hair, thinking vaguely that it could do with a wash, but not wanting to be in the shower when the others arrived. Hannibal had called ahead and reserved the room joining Face's like they always did. It was less conspicuous than four guys walking up and asking for two rooms. So here he was, left with at least two more hours before Hannibal's ETA and an order to stop texting or the Colonel would let B.A. follow through on his threat to shove Face's phone down the conman's throat.
There was one thing he could do though. Face dug his laptop out of the bag and flipped it open, thanking his lucky stars the hotel had reliable wi-fi. As soon as he started hacking into Lynch's files, Face noticed a change in security settings. Lynch had upped his firewalls quite a bit since the last time Face had hacked him. Face acknowledged the slime-ball's efforts and bypassed the firewalls, digging into the files in search of anything to confirm his suspicions that Brenner was the main threat… and Murdock almost certainly the target.