“This is a joke, right?” Face held up a square of white card as the front door opened.
“Nope, it’s a dinner invitation,” Hannibal said, leading Face into the living room. “Hey, guys,” he called out. “Guess what Face got in the mail?”
Murdock and BA, sitting at a table, held up identical white cards.
“Yeah, one of those.”
“You know this means he has all of our addresses,” Face said, taking off his jacket and hanging it on the back of a chair. Hannibal put a glass and a beer bottle beside him when he sat down.
“We’re not exactly in hiding.” Murdock passed Face the basket of potato chips, but Face waved it away and picked up the deck of cards from the middle of the table.
“We’re not exactly in the telephone book either.”
“Face,” Murdock said, “did anybody ever tell you that you’re one suspicious guy?”
“I am not!” Face protested, looking up from examining the cards, making sure they weren’t marked. “But come on! You think Stockwell wants us to come round to dinner so he can try out his great new lasagne recipe on us? He has to have an ulterior motive.”
“That guy never had a motive that weren’t ulterior,” BA muttered.
“Right,” Hannibal said, taking his seat. “We playing cards then?”
Face started dealing, but glared at Hannibal. “Is cards all you can think about when Stockwell is trying to lure us to his house with who knows what plans for us?”
“It’s a dinner, Face,” Hannibal said. “And anyway, I’m curious.”
“And of course satisfying your curiosity never got us into trouble before.”
“There might be women there,” Murdock said, making Face shut up and think for a moment. But only for a moment.
“Yeah, paid by the hour like the ones at Langley.”
That caused an awkward pause. They didn’t like to talk about that. Stockwell had used more than the promise of pardons to keep them from wandering off. Hannibal broke the thick silence.
“Well, I’m going.”
“Me too,” Murdock said. “I never turn down free food.”
BA just shrugged. He didn’t usually turn down free food either. But still, his expression said, Stockwell…
Despite himself, Face would admit to some curiosity about what Stockwell wanted. They hadn’t seen the man in over a year, since they destroyed the last of the samples and set him and themselves free of Project Zephyr. Stockwell had shown no interest in socialising with the team. Face smiled as he imagined Stockwell joining them at this weekly poker night.
Hell, no. Who’d want to play poker against that face?
“Okay.” Face conceded at last. “But there’d better be some women there.”
There were no women there. In fact, the A-Team were the only guests.
Stockwell let them in himself, when they arrived at his home in BA’s new van.
“Gentlemen, good to see you all again. Please come in.”
They stepped inside cautiously. Stockwell hadn’t changed much since they’d last seen him, Hannibal thought. He’d regained some weight, but not enough. With his white hair and sallow skin, he still had a cadaverous look.
“Come through here, and let me get you all some drinks. Sergeant, I assume you’re the designated driver.”
“Ain’t I always?” BA said as Stockwell led them through the hall to a spacious living room. Gauzy curtains fluttered in the evening breeze through the open French windows.
“I thought we’d eat outside,” Stockwell said, “since it’s a fine night. I’ve started the barbecue. Can I interest any of you gentlemen in a cocktail?”
Hannibal asked for a Bloody Mary and Stockwell went to the kitchen to find tomato juice. When the door closed behind him, Hannibal nodded at the team.
“Anybody see anything weird?”
“Well, he’s wearing brown loafers,” Face said. “That’s pretty damn weird.”
“I mean anything suspicious.”
Shrugs greeted the question. Nothing obvious. The house seemed normal. Almost too normal, intriguing Hannibal. He’d expected something bigger, packed with genuine antiques, and expensive artworks. This house was nice, but not huge and the furniture and paintings were reproduction. Standard for a retired general, he’d say. Part of Stockwell’s cover, perhaps, so even now nobody would suspect he’s been anyone but the General Stockwell you’d find in public records. Had the more secret part of his career genuinely given him no extra pay-off? Maybe he really was the dedicated American patriot he once claimed to be. The work had been its own reward.
No. Hannibal’s train of thought braked sharply. The power had been the reward.
Stockwell came back with Hannibal’s drink, and now wearing an apron. He led them outside to a terrace, with a brick barbecue grill, heat shimmering above its metal hood. Stockwell opened a cooler and started taking out steaks.
“BA I believe you like yours well done. Face medium rare, Murdock rare and Hannibal…”
“Show it the grill to scare it, and then bring it over,” Murdock called, grinning.
“Indeed.” Stockwell tossed the steaks onto the hot grill one by one, where they sizzled and their aroma filled the evening air. “Help yourselves to food and drinks.” Stockwell waved at a table set for five and they took their seats. Murdock pulled a napkin off a basket of bread and handed it around.
“Did we ever eat steak with him before?” Face asked, leaning close so Stockwell couldn’t hear him.
“Don’t think so.” Hannibal shrugged. “So somewhere there’s a file on us that says how we like our steaks. Frankly, if someone wants to waste their time with that nonsense, let ’em.”
“Don’t like people knowing so much about me,” BA said. “Ain’t none of the government’s business how I like my steak.”
“Yeah,” Face said. “And he’s acting too friendly. It’s making me jumpy.”
Hannibal glanced over. Stockwell was being a little too friendly. Of course, they no longer worked for him, and maybe retirement had mellowed the guy out a bit. Still…
“He’s trying to put us at ease,” Murdock said. He smirked. “Must have read about that in a book.”
“Well it’s having the opposite effect on me.” Face’s gaze darted to Stockwell, watchful, almost nervous.
“He wants something,” BA said. The others waited a second to see if he’d elaborate on the assertion, but BA didn’t go on. Of course not, Hannibal thought. How do you explain an instinct?
Well, if he did want something, they’d get to it soon enough. Meanwhile, steak, cold beer, a gentle, warm breeze and Stockwell waiting on them. Whatever he was up to, having him wait on them made it worthwhile.
Of course, it didn’t last. When it grew dark and cool, they moved back inside and Stockwell lost the apron and the smile and stood in front of the fireplace. The team, on couches facing him, glanced at each other. Suddenly, this felt unpleasantly familiar.
“Okay, Hunt,” Hannibal said. He’d been using the name all evening at Stockwell’s invitation. Another twenty years and maybe he would manage to say it without a carefully honed mocking edge to the word. “Nice dinner, and great to catch up on the good old times – the suicide missions and all. But let’s get on to why we’re really here, huh?”
“Very well. Of course, you’re right. Although it’s certainly very… interesting to spend time with you all again, I did ask you here for a specific purpose.”
“Can I just interrupt a second?” Face leaned forward. “We’re all armed. I just thought I would mention that. You know, in case it might factor into your plans.” He sat back. “Carry on.”
Oh, there was the old Stockwell they knew and loved, Hannibal thought, in the irritated look he shot Face.
“Your paranoia is unwarranted, Lieutenant. I have no ill intentions towards you. And I’m alone here. I could hardly threaten you.” He paused. “I brought you here as members of Project Zephyr.”
A collective groan broke from the team, followed by a protest from Face. “We destroyed that crap! Don’t tell us you thought of a last sample you forgot to mention before.”
“We ain’t part of Project Zephyr no more,” BA said. “We’re supposed to be free. All of us.”
“Well, not quite,” Stockwell said. “The samples are gone of course. But there is always a chance of knowledge about Zephyr escaping my control.”
“We’re not helping you with any cover up,” Murdock said, scowling.
“I don’t simply mean the knowledge of the existence of the project,” Stockwell said. “I mean the knowledge of how to recreate the Zephyr virus.”
That shut them up. After a moment Hannibal spoke. “Philip Shriver implied that all the material about how to make it had been eliminated.”
“And he implied that the people who knew how to make it had been eliminated too,” Face said.
“Yeah, he said that was standard procedure.” BA’s disgusted expression told them all what he thought about standard procedure.
“What Philip told you is true.” Stockwell looked at the floor for a moment, then back at them. “I’ve had to do things I’m not proud of, as part of my work. But they had to be done for the sake of national security. For the greater good. I was ordered to destroy everything about Zephyr expect for those final samples. I carried out my orders to the letter.”
“And that included killing people?” Hannibal asked. “Our own people?”
A long silence filled the room. Hannibal spoke eventually.
“So what’s changed?”
“I may be retired,” Stockwell said, “but I am managing to, well, keep my ear to the ground. I’ve learned that some information about how to engineer the virus may have been hidden by one of the scientists involved, before his death. And that someone may know where that information is.”
“And you want us to go get this someone,” Hannibal said. Not even a guess. “If you think we’re going to go fetch someone for you to torture or murder -”
“I don’t intend them any harm, I give you my word on that. I know exactly where to find them, but I need your help to extract them from their… situation.”
“He’s being vague again,” Face said. “It’s just like the old days.”
“Yeah, I think I’m having a flashback,” Murdock muttered. BA just grunted.
“I can’t be any more specific until you confirm that you’ll take the mission,” Stockwell said.
“That’s how Shriver got us,” Face looked at Hannibal. “Remember? Made us want to know what it’s all about, but we can only find out if we sign up. Somehow, I’m just not as curious as I used to be.”
“And is your patriotism as weak as your curiosity, Lieutenant?” Stockwell asked.
Face scowled at the provocation, but he regained control and plastered on a fake smile. A mocking smile.
“No, I’m all fired up to help the country that branded me a war criminal and a murderer and tried to execute me.”
The bitterness in his tone earned him surprised looks from BA and Murdock and a frown from Hannibal.
“The government and the country aren’t the same thing,” Hannibal said. “We’ve talked about that before, Face.”
“And it’s not only a question of the United States,” Stockwell said. “If this information got into the wrong hands, and someone managed to successfully engineer and release the virus -”
“Yeah, doomsday scenario, apocalypse and all that, we know,” Murdock said. He stopped suddenly and frowned. “Damn, it sounds like something from a comic book. But it’s what we’re actually talking about.”
“Yes, Captain,” Stockwell said, his voice quiet. “That’s exactly what we’re talking about.” It had grown dark in the room now, the only light from a couple of wall lamps behind Stockwell, casting his gaunt face in deep shadow. Only thing he’s missing is the scythe, Hannibal thought. Otherwise, he’s got the part down to a T.
“So why us?” Hannibal asked, his voice loud in the hushed room. “And don’t say, because we already know about Zephyr. If all you need is to extract a target and bring him to you, then whoever does that doesn’t need to know why they’re doing it. And I know we’re good, but we’re… well there are younger, sharper, squads out there.”
“True,” Stockwell said, annoying Hannibal slightly. He could at least have disagreed about the ‘sharper’ part. “But I truly am retired now, Colonel. I have no Ables at my command or teams of agents. I can call in some favours from friends still in the intelligence community, but there’s only so far I can go without revealing why I need the help. Without revealing Zephyr.”
“So what you’re saying,” Hannibal said, smirking, “is that we’re the only ones you can trust.”
Stockwell grimaced, and couldn’t even bring himself to say more than, “Correct.”
“I knew it.” Hannibal grinned. “I said that, hell, back after you’d been shot. I figured that we might be the only people within your organisation you could actually trust.”
“Believe me, that’s not a position I relish.” He looked around at them. “I need your help. You understand the stakes involved. Will you do it?”
The team looked at each other. Face shook his head just a little. Such a tiny gesture Stockwell might not even have caught it. BA wore a deep scowl that told Hannibal exactly what he thought of the idea. Only Murdock looked at least open to persuasion. He shrugged when Hannibal looked at him.
“We’ll have to think about it for a couple of days,” Hannibal said, and got a scowl from Face now too. However, neither he nor BA spoke. They wouldn’t argue about it in front of Stockwell.
“Wait, Hannibal,” Murdock said. “He’s gonna have to say it. I’m not even going to think about it until he asks us properly.”
“What you talking about, fool?” BA said. “He’s asked us, what more do you want?”
“You know what he wants, don’t you, Hunt?” Hannibal grinned, ignoring the baffled looks from BA and Face. He knew what Murdock was getting at and, going by that scowl on his face, so did Stockwell.
“Is that really necessary?” Stockwell asked haughtily.
“He’s gotta ask us properly,” Murdock insisted again.
Stockwell muttered something and shook his head, perhaps already regretting his choice to bring the team in. But he rallied and looked up, giving Murdock a glare, before turning to look at Hannibal. He spoke.
“I would like to hire the A-Team.”