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"FRIENDSHIP'S CHOICE" PART ONE

FRIENDSHIP'S CHOICE

Author:  Shadowwalker213

Rating:  PG-15

Disclaimer:  The characters from the series 'A-Team' and any other characters used from television and film belong to their relevant owners and are used here only for pleasure and not for profit. Any similarities with real life characters or situations is unintentional and coincidental.

Summary:  Stockwell forces Face into a no-win situation on behalf of the team.

Warnings:  Language, violence, mental illness, mentions of blood.

Notes:

Chapter 5: A gutrah is one part of the traditional Arab head cover, but I have used it as the entire ensemble.

Chapter 6: A thaub (or thoub) is the traditional one piece "dress".

Chapter 8: Ghillie suit - Hard to describe textually, but basically a camouflage suit.

                 http://home.swipnet.se/sniper/sniper/camoufla.htm#Ghillie%20suit

Special thanks to:  Mel Ewing, http://www.snipercentral.com.phtml, for his expert help and information. Also to all the members of Yahoo's ATeamSB-2 (A-Team Story Board) for their comments and suggestions.

 

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"The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other's life." Richard Bach, author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1970)

 

PROLOGUE

"It can't continue. That's obvious. Someone, somewhere, has to do something."

"Yes, if these groups are going to converge into one organization...I never thought they'd be able to pull it off - too much infighting and disorganization. Unfortunately, I was wrong..."

"You weren't the only one. All our intelligence said the same thing. But they've come up with three people who seem able to unite the whole damn bunch. We can't let it go any further."

"We're all agreed on that, gentlemen. The only question before us now, I believe, is how do we put a stop to it - without it coming back to haunt us in the international community..."

"We can't use our people. No matter how hard we try, there's bound to be a leak."

"No, we can't use any 'official' group. No way. Not even volunteers from the ranks - still open to leaks."

"Mercenaries? They're notoriously disloyal - and greedy. We can't leave ourselves open to blackmail, either."

The roomful of men sat in dismal, desperate silence. A small secretive smile prowled over the lips of one conspirator, however. He had the beginnings of a plan...a plan that would not only solve this small group of dignitaries' problem, but possibly take care of a burr in his side at the same time. Not to mention create a wealth of power for future use. But it would need to be done very carefully; if not given the proper consideration, it could literally blow up in his face...

"Gentlemen, I believe I may be able to provide a solution to our mutual problem. However, it will take some time to arrange satisfactorily. There are some contingencies that must be covered - however, I would be willing to guarantee an arrangement could be made within a month's time, if not sooner."

"They would be dealt with in that time?" "Surely not!" "What's this solution?"

"Gentlemen, gentlemen, please. You all know how I work. Let me worry about the details. What I will need from each of you is the highest level of intelligence you can each get from your 'sources'. I will need completely up-to-date information on each of these three men and their organizations. If this plan of mine - 'of ours' - is to succeed, accuracy of information will be paramount. Forget the normal channels. We all have our little 'secret weapons' in the intelligence community - I suggest we use them to the fullest extent. It is imperative, as I know you understand."

Many heads nodded in agreement. They all knew that normal intelligence gathering just would not be adequate for this type of operation. They also understood, implicitly, that they could very well lose some of their 'secret weapons' in this undertaking. However, it was necessary. Only their very best would be able to elicit the information they would need without forewarning the objects of their interest.

"Very well, gentlemen, shall we meet again in say, three weeks time? I should have everything on my end in place by then, and will need your information to solidify things..."

The distinguished gentlemen of the world slowly took their departure from the hotel, using various exits and transportation. Each was hopeful that, once again, General Stockwell would provide a solution to their problem...

 

CHAPTER ONE

Face was not happy about this meeting. When Stockwell had contacted him yesterday, he had specifically said he had a mission for the lieutenant alone, and he was not to mention it to the rest of the team. Naturally, Face's first instinct was to talk to Hannibal, but something in Stockwell's tone had told him to wait. So now he sat in his 'vette, watching a Little League game playing out a hundred yards away, with no one else around except an occasional dog walker. Stockwell had said to be at the park at 3:00 and he had arrived twenty minutes early to check things out. Not that he thought Stockwell would plan any betrayals - but why make it easy?

He didn't like the idea of solo missions. They never worked out well. Hell, they just plain never worked out. They were a team, that's how they functioned, that's how they existed. Solo missions were like taking three wheels off a car and expecting it to win the Indy. But Stockwell would probably have some extreme reason why this would be a one-man job. Then the question would be why Face? Stockwell had no great respect or liking for the LT, he'd made that clear from the beginning. The General found him redundant, cannon-fodder. And certainly Face felt that way himself many times. Hell, most times. There were very few times he'd actually been needed for his "special skills"; occasionally out in the field, when they'd been out of touch with Stockwell or it had been quicker just to deal with situations on site. So again, why Face? What possible use would Stockwell have for him?

'Speak of the Devil, here comes Stockwell now. If he wants to keep things under wrap, he needs to lose the limo. Not exactly clandestine, buddy.'

The vehicle pulled up a few yards from the 'vette, and sat. Heaving a deep sigh of resignation, Face pulled himself from his car and sauntered over. He settled himself in the back, facing his nemesis.

"Good afternoon, Lieutenant. I trust you had no problem leaving your teammates in the dark?"

"No, I told them I had a date. They'd never think of you in those terms."

"Hmm. Down to business, Peck. I have a very special assignment for you - and for you alone. If you complete it satisfactorily, the A-Team will have the pardons within hours of that completion."

Face shook his head. "Sorry, General - been there, done that. Hannibal may believe in your fairy tales still, but not me."

"I suggest you revive your faith in the system, Lieutenant. For this mission, you will not be working exclusively for me - or the United States, for that matter. And that means the 'fairy tale' has a bit more substance."

Stockwell straightened, his businesslike demeanor becoming even more pronounced, if that was possible.

"What I have to say from here on out is strictly between you and I, Peck. No discussion with the rest of your teammates, no discussion with anyone. If it goes outside this vehicle, the mission will be immediately aborted and you'll be lucky if you see a pardon in time for retirement. Do we understand each other?"

"Pretty concrete, General."

"Very well. Now, some background. Over the years, there has been a growing problem with terrorists in the Middle East. Most of these groups are small, disorganized, relying on local fanatics to provide them with manpower and supplies. Recently, leaders of a few of these groups have started discussing a coalition. Historically, these coalitions have never worked out. However, this trio of extremists are not only highly respected among their followers, they are articulate and practical. They know that, as individual factions, they will not be able to achieve their ultimate goals. They also know if they were to combine forces, not only would they have more manpower and resources, they would provide a strong front to the rest of the world - and in turn, gain even more followers and resources."

Stockwell paused to sip his coffee. Peck was looking bored yet curious. Stockwell knew he had no idea what was coming.

"Obviously, if these men are successful, this would be disastrous in terms of not only national security but in terms of Middle East stability. It would have massive ramifications worldwide. Therefore, I - and the other people I am working with - have decided that we must put a stop to this coalition before it reaches fruition.

"We also realize that this cannot be accomplished through normal - or legal - channels. That's where you come in, Lieutenant."

Face was not liking the direction this whole conversation was going. What the hell could he do about a bunch of fanatics halfway across the world? These jokers couldn't be captured by just one man; it would take the whole team and then they wouldn't have a snowball's chance in hell of getting them away from their followers. And if they couldn't be captured...

"What's the mission, General?"

"We need this threat...eliminated. Permanently. You will take care of that."

 

CHAPTER TWO

"You are out of your fucking mind."

Stockwell just kept looking at him. No backing down, no acknowledgment of the comment. Just kept looking at him.

"We are not killers. Not any more."

" 'We', Lieutenant? There is no 'we' - this is you. And yes, you are a killer. You were trained for it. You were very good at it. Very good. You haven't forgotten."

"Damn right I haven't forgotten. That's why I won't do it. Never again."

Stockwell smirked. "Never say 'never', Peck. You understand what is at stake here? You understand what getting rid of these people will mean?"

"There are alternatives. There are always alternatives."

"Certainly. In this case, political chaos. Thousands of innocent people dead."

"Killing these men would only make them martyrs."

"Probably. But martyrs can't negotiate, can't cajole, can't create dangerous alliances. That remains the province of the living."

Face remained silent. He had given his answer. There was no way...

"You really have no choice in the matter. This is a mission. This is what is required of you. You will do it. Or face the consequences."

"What consequences? More waiting for pardons that aren't coming?" Face snorted.

"No, Lieutenant, this is far more important than mere pieces of paper. You will accept and complete this assignment. You will give me your word, today, before you leave. Because if you don't, by the time you get back to the house, it will be empty."

"What, you'll cut us loose? Set the army on our tail again? Like we haven't been that route before."

"No, the Team will not be cut loose. You, yes. To run and hide and watch over your shoulder for however long you can. But not the team. The team will cease to exist...completely and irrevocably, Lieutenant."

The cold was devastating. It hit him with the clout of a Mack truck. Surely Stockwell wasn't saying...yes, the bastard was saying exactly that. Three lives for four. My God, what kind of monster had Hannibal bound them to?

He couldn't do this. He couldn't. Cold blooded murder? Not that these men were innocents. No, far from that. Far far from that. But Hannibal, BA, Murdock - they'd all sworn, no more killing. He'd sworn it. No more. But...damn. To refuse to kill would mean the deaths of those he loved more than life itself. To kill or allow to be killed. Three strangers for the Team. Three terrorists for men who had saved more lives than he could count. Three monsters for his family.

What would Hannibal say? My God, Hannibal. What would you do? What would you do afterward? How would you look at me then? Would I lose you forever? BA, Murdock... could you look at me again? Could I live with myself if I said no? Could I really let you all die for a long-ago promise?

Three for four.

It wasn't as though he couldn't actually accomplish the task. He hadn't lost the touch, the surety, the finesse needed to stalk them and lay out the plans. But pulling the trigger? Lighting the fuse? Knowing it was not just disabling but destroying?

Three for four.

No turning these people over to the authorities. Total destruction. Murder. These terrorists had killed how many? How many had the Team saved? Did the math make it right?

It would take so much planning. They would not be easy to take. Foreign country - he'd stand out like a sore thumb. It would have to done so carefully. Not once, but three times. And each time it would get more difficult, as the defenses increased. And without the Team for backup, for support. No one watching his back...

Three for four.

He'd have to work through Stockwell. Ways and means. In's and out's. Backdoors. Intelligence. Facts, figures, contacts. Not too many of those. No more loose ends than necessary. Would he have to kill others to get to these three? Maybe. Probably. Do the math. How many more? How many more innocents? No, not innocents. Terrorists. Killers themselves.

Three for four.

A dozen for four.

A hundred for four.

"Tell me about the targets..."

 

CHAPTER THREE

"Targets."

Stockwell loved that word. Not 'people'. Not even 'terrorists' or 'ringleaders'. Targets. The General had watched Peck. He'd seen the realization hit. He'd seen the denial, the conflict, the reasoning. It was the reasoning he'd been looking for. Once he'd pushed past the emotionalism and gone into logic, Stockwell knew Peck was his. Targets. What a lovely little word, signifying the switch from the moralistic high ground to practical realities.

And the tone of voice. No mistaking that. Businesslike. Professional. Oh yes, Peck would take on the mission and complete it to the best of his ability. How successful would he most likely be? Stockwell had already figured he would take the first with minimal difficulty. No one would be expecting it. The second would be much more difficult; the third, most likely impossible. He expected to lose the lieutenant on that one. However, with two of the principals gone, no alliance would take place. Even one missing would make it a Herculean task. He'd just have to make sure they were taken out in the right order, the most effective target first.

Would he have gone through with his threat? Everything was in place. 30 minutes at the most. They would all have just disappeared. The only thing the team would have noticed were a few extra security people. A clean up crew already in place, just waiting for the order. A simple push on an automated phone dialer. He wouldn't even have to speak the words. Very clean and tidy. No mess, no muss.

Yes, he would have done it. The costs for Peck's refusal would have been monstrous. Much greater than the loss of four men. Granted, very talented and successful men. But that didn't mean much when compared to the disaster resulting from an alliance; not to mention the loss of power and prestige he himself would face among the men he dealt with. Peck would have had to pay for that loss. Dearly.

He pulled three files from his case, silently handing them to the Lieutenant.

"Read through these carefully. These are just the basics. When you're done, they'll stay with me. You and I will meet again on Monday. Pack a bag. Just the essentials. You'll get whatever you need when we arrive at our destination. There will be much more detailed information for you then also."

"Monday? What am I supposed to tell the rest?"

"I'm giving the team a couple weeks off, for 'good behavior'. I'll provide transportation for all of them, incentives to take separate vacations. The captain may be a problem - I don't want him making any plans for the two of you. However, you might invent a young woman to be romancing for those two weeks. Captain Murdock will accept that he would not be invited along for that."

"You expect this to be taken care of it a couple of weeks? That's crazy."

"I only expect that this will give you time to disappear into the mission without the rest stepping in to create problems. I will deal with them myself on their return."

"Deal with them? How?" Face was immediately suspicious.

"Don't worry, Lieutenant. You hold up your end of the bargain, I'll hold up mine."

Face glared at Stockwell. For just a moment, the General almost felt threatened. He must remember he was not dealing with some kind of patriotic zealot. This was a man with his back against the wall. And like any trapped animal, he was ready to lash out at any perceived threat. Peck might just decide that one kill would be better than three. Something to bear in mind. He would maintain tight surveillance on the rest of the team. Stockwell's threat must remain in the lieutenant's mind. Always.

Face finished reading the files quickly. Enough information to let him know what kind of targets he was dealing with. He would definitely need more information, detailed information. He shoved the files back at Stockwell.

"Anything else?"

"No, that should handle things for the moment. There will be plenty of time on the flight to go over details. You'll receive your travel information along with the rest of the team sometime tomorrow."

"Fine." Abruptly, Face left the limo and marched to the 'vette. Tires squealing, he left the park and hit the highway. He couldn't go back to the house right away. He had to get himself together. He had to prepare. God. How the hell do you prepare for what he was going to have to do? How was he going to live with the Team for the next three days without letting them know something was wrong? So terribly wrong...

 

CHAPTER FOUR

He'd driven for hours, trying to throw all thoughts from his mind. He didn't want to think about anything, anyone, any time. He finally found himself on a secluded shore, no one except a few gulls for company. Normally the ocean provided Face with a solace he could find nowhere else, but today the steady thrum of the waves was almost mocking, reproachful. The late afternoon sun had drifted behind insipid gray clouds, and the water was a cold steel color. The earlier soft, warm breeze had even changed to a cold blast. God expressing his opinion of me, Peck thought. Showing me my soul...

He was committed now. No way to change his decision. He could still tell Hannibal, but he knew exactly what would happen. The colonel would immediately take the team and escape. Stockwell may or may not be able to stop them. But he would come after them - with a vengeance. The Army would look like teddy bears compared to what Stockwell would throw at them. And there were others to consider. Maggie. Mrs. B. Frankie's dad. Father Magill...their lives wouldn't be worth a plug nickel. The General would obviously not be held to any standard of morality.

"If I survive this, Stockwell, yours will be the last death on my hands. I swear to God."

If he survived. He knew Stockwell didn't think he'd be able to complete the mission. One, probably two of the targets could be counted as dead. He knew that. He also knew that his chances of surviving the second attack were not good. He could pretty much plan his funeral after the third. Accept death and then you're not afraid of it. They faced it every time they went out on a mission. But this time he wouldn't have the team with him - he'd be facing death on his own. That made it a little different. But he would at least have the knowledge that his family would be safe - and free. He just hoped Stockwell would have the decency not to let them know the price for that. Let them think Face had just died somewhere but not how, doing what.

He shook his head. Enough thinking along those lines. Too easy for that to warp into self fulfillment. Accept the possible outcomes and then move on. Don't fix on them. He began thinking in terms of what he would need. Possible scenarios. Looking at what could happen, where, time frames - living them in his mind. What could go wrong - how he would deal with that. Contingencies. Emotions were shoved away, replaced by plans. Worry, disgust, displaced by pragmatism, professionalism. This was his job. He would do it well. Very well. He would bring on the Jazz.

He drove back to the compound. The people living in it were asleep. Good. He wasn't quite ready to deal with that problem yet. He needed to bring out more of the Professional first. Needed to get past Hannibal, to The Colonel. Past BA, to The Mechanic. Murdock, The Pilot. Frankie ceased to exist as a person at all. He was just there. The Ables were machines. He would not spend much time at the house. He needed to get some training in. The sooner he started on that the better. Get sharp. Prepared. Easier that way, not seeing them constantly. He couldn't afford to have them on his mind. He would need all his energy to complete the Job.

He quietly let himself in and headed immediately for the shower. He stood under scalding hot water, scrubbing and scrubbing. When his body felt raw, he turned off the tap and dried off, slipping immediately into bed. He didn't think he could sleep. No, he needed to sleep. He needed to be rested. It was necessary. What was needed, was necessary, would be done.

Morning came. Barely. The eastern sky was just starting to lighten when Face woke up. He quickly dressed and headed to the kitchen. He needed a good breakfast. He would need energy and stamina today because he was going to put himself through the toughest course he could think of. Today and each of the next days, until it was time.

He was just finishing when Hannibal came into the kitchen. The colonel was surprised to see his lieutenant up so early, particularly after the obviously late night he'd had. He cocked an eyebrow at the younger man.

"Morning, Colonel."

"Colonel? Awfully formal this early in the morning, aren't we?"

Face shrugged and carefully stacked his dishes in the sink. He needed to get going.

"Something wrong, Face?"

"Not at all. I have a lot of things to do today. Just a little preoccupied."

"What kind of things?"

"Odds and ends. Things I should have taken care of earlier but didn't. Anyway, I gotta get going. I'll see you later on..."

Hannibal thoughtfully watched the back door as it swung closed after his friend.

*****

"What's going on with him?" Murdock watched the 'vette pull down the driveway and onto the street. Three Ables watched but didn't even question him, which was also odd. And what was with all these extra goons, anyway? "Things are all weird, Hannibal."

"Yeh, something's going on. Stockwell's got something up his sleeve." Hannibal had watched as the additional Ables had arrived the day before yesterday. Face had just left on a date. They had shown up unobtrusively, almost wandering in, gracefully blending in the with others. But it was noticeable. They hadn't done anything aggressive, no posturing. They were just there. And they had stayed. About an hour or so after Face had left, he'd noticed a tension among them. And it almost seemed as if they were gathering around the various team members. There was a sense of waiting for something, and then, as suddenly as it appeared, the tension evaporated and the Ables spread out around the compound once more. No more tension, but they didn't leave again.

And yesterday, Face was up at the crack of dawn after getting home well after the others had gone to bed. That in itself was strange. He normally would have slept in late. He'd taken off almost immediately and been gone all day, coming home dirty, sweaty and looking exhausted. Hannibal had started questioning him, only to have Face almost deliberately turn his back on him and head for his room. He'd heard him in the shower and figured he would talk to him when he came out. He never did. Hannibal looked in his room, and Face had been sound asleep.

Then there was this 'vacation' crap. One of the Ables had brought the tickets yesterday afternoon. He found he was going to Bad Rock, BA to Chicago, Frankie to see his father. Murdock would be staying in Langley; he'd gotten a call the day before to start a new job. But Face was going to New York. New York? What the hell was in New York?

Yeh, something was definitely going on.

*****

Face had gone to a secure training area normally used by Stockwell's Ables. It wasn't quite what he needed, but he could work it adequately enough. He hated dealing with Stockwell's people on any level, but he needed spotters for the Stalk. Two spotters stood on a truck, two others walked the field. Face would start at 1000 meters out; he had to get to within 150 meters of the truck without being seen. Then he had to take a shot and get to a second position. If he was spotted at any time, he had to start all over.

The first several hours had been grueling; he'd forgotten more than he had realized. He'd been seen almost immediately the first several attempts. Slowly he began remembering things. Remembering that long ago training. The subtleties. The thinking. Planning. The movements. And then it clicked. And the Ables weren't seeing him. Not until he was right on top of them. And it felt good.

He remained at the training ground until nearly dark. And when he got back to the compound, he knew the training was still in his head, and the mission was worming its way into his subconscious. He found himself looking at Hannibal/The Colonel, Murdock/The Pilot, BA/The Mechanic. His friends were disappearing.

*****

The team were finishing a late night snack in the living room when Face walked in that night. They were tense; another day of extra Ables was getting on their collective nerves. Even Frankie was antsy. Four pair of eyes landed squarely on the Lieutenant as he crossed the room with only a quick nod in their direction.

"Face. Mind telling us where you were today?" Hannibal's voice was definitely "don't walk away from me tonight!".

"Just seeing a friend, Colonel. We had a lot to talk about." They all noticed the formality in Face's voice. Something was up there.

"A friend? Who might that be?"

"A lady friend. She's going with me to New York."

Hannibal stared. "Stockwell knows about her?"

Face frowned. "Sure, he knows. He's not happy about it, but he knows. Anything else, Colonel?"

Hannibal sighed and dismissed him with a shake of his head. Face headed to his room without a backward glance.

As soon as Face was out of earshot, Murdock observed dryly, "I hope they don’t 'talk' in New York like they have here, or Face won’t live through it."

"You noticed that, too, Captain?"

"Yeh, he looked like he’d been on an obstacle course, not one of his dates. What do you suppose is really going on?"

"No idea, Murdock. But you know Face - if he doesn’t want to talk, he doesn’t talk. Maybe he needs this vacation more than we realize." Meaning, Murdock understood, that Face had better straighten things out when he got back.

"Picked a fine time to go cold on us," BA grumbled, as he and Frankie carried the snack remains into the kitchen.

"I wonder if it had anything to do with that call from Stockwell?"

"What call?"

"The other day, I heard him on the phone, I thought talking to Stockwell. Called him ‘General" a couple times. Didn’t sound real happy. Why do you suppose he’d be talking to Face instead of Johnny?"

"Oh he probably just told Face to tell Hannibal something. Face hates being his messenger and Stockwell knows it. Otherwise he don’t talk to Face any more than he has to."

They laughed, both knowing the reasons behind Stockwell’s reticence, and headed back to the living room.

*****

Murdock had decided to stay over at the compound that night. They had stayed up late, talking about the vacations Stockwell had provided. He was a little envious of the others, and yet he'd been excited about the new job as well. And after all, between missions he was pretty much free to come and go as he pleased.

He knew Hannibal was excited about seeing Maggie again, and yet they had a shared concern about events at Langley. It seemed very strange that, just when it appeared Stockwell was beefing up security, he'd suddenly decided to let them all take off. It didn't make a lot of sense. They both knew, of course, that there would be surveillance on these trips. Stockwell wasn't stupid. Still, it just didn't sit well.

Then there was Face. What was going on with him? He knew that his friend had a tendency to get preoccupied with things, but that was usually when he was running a scam. And Face hadn't had to do that for a long time...not since coming under Stockwell's wing. Little things here and there but that was about it. Murdock knew that bothered him. Not the lack of scamming necessarily, but the lack of having something he considered 'useful' to do.

As to this new 'lady friend' of his, that was bothering him, too. It shouldn't. Face always had something up his sleeve in that department. But he hadn't mentioned any one girl in particular of late, and then he's taking this one on a two week vacation? And Murdock knew damn well he hadn't been spending all this time with her. He was coming home physically and mentally wired. No woman could be that good.

"Oh, Murdock, you chauvinist!" he grinned, and fell asleep.

*****

There was no more discussion of Face’s new woman friend. The next day, he once again disappeared first thing in the morning, arriving back at the compound shortly before Hannibal and Frankie left for the airport. Murdock was going to drop BA at the train station. The departures were strained. Four people felt there was something wrong about leaving, but couldn’t explain what exactly. The fifth felt it would probably be the last time they saw each other and yet dare not express anything other than normalcy. ‘The Colonel, The Mechanic, The Pilot,’ he thought, as his friends disappeared.

Face’s flight didn’t leave until later in the evening, so when Murdock returned, he offered to take him to the airport, hoping to meet the new lady.

"That’s all right, Murdock. I’ve already arranged for a limo for us."

"A limo? Geez, Face, what are you going to do, marry this one?"

Giving Murdock an exasperated glance, Face retreated to his room. Except for giving him a hearty good-bye when the limo arrived, Murdock didn’t see him again.

 

CHAPTER FIVE

Face tossed the papers down in disgust. If he looked at one more communiqué, one more aerial photo, he was going to scream. The information he needed, absolutely. What he didn't need was sifting through the various sources' documents trying to reconcile the conflicting information. Everything that didn't match up had to be double-checked in the field, which took time and risk. But if it wasn't done, he could end up watching a group of shepherds instead taking aim on his target. Or worse. The problem being, of course, that his targets were paranoid and tended to move quickly and frequently. But a pattern was emerging. The same few places showing up. The same names. Even a few behavioral patterns, which was excellent. Damn the paperwork. He was ready for action.

Pushing away from the desk, Face moved to the small kitchenette and poured yet more coffee. It was nearly three in the morning and he had planned another good 3-4 hours work. Then a run through the training course, a few hours sleep, and then tanning. He smiled at that. He never thought sunbathing would be part of his job requirements. But he needed to fit in here and for more than just a few hours at a time. Makeup just wouldn't cut it. He glanced in the small mirror over the dresser. He still couldn't get used to dark hair and brown eyes and his new beard was really itching. He was getting used to wearing the contacs. But in a couple of days, you wouldn't give him a second look in a crowded marketplace.

He glanced around the small apartment. Bedroom, living room, kitchen all in one room, small bathroom with a tiny shower. Panoramic view of a back alley. Second floor, easy access to escape. The only person who came here was a courier - never the same one, never the same time of day or night. He looked at the floor, out the window, or stayed in the bathroom each time they came in, so they never saw his face. He saw no one else. If he needed something, he called a number from a phone booth. A different booth each time. They would call him back. And give him a new number for the next call. They didn't know who he was or what his mission was, precisely. They only knew if he asked for something, they got it for him. He was a ghost.

His wired mind shifted back to Langley. He knew the men there had thought something was amiss. Nothing serious, just something off about Face. He was almost never there, for one thing. And he had been cool, almost formal, when he was. Had to be. Several times The Colonel had come close to forcing a "little talk" with him, but he'd wiggled out of it. Things had settled down when he announced he was taking a new girlfriend on a trip for his 'vacation'. That had answered their questions adequately enough - his mind was occupied with the 'latest', that's all. What had they thought when he didn't show up at the compound? What had Stockwell told them? Ok, didn't matter. Close that book. He had to concentrate on the Job. That's all. Nothing he could do about Langley here. None of that was under his control any more.

Sighing, he headed back toward the table, filled with papers, photos, and his notes. Stockwell and his cronies wanted him to move in soon but he had conflicting evidence as to where Aadil was staying. It was infuriating - he had two possible locations and they were within a few miles of each other. He had people working on it, but he couldn't do anything until he knew. He sighed again. His change in appearance was almost completed; it would make it so much easier when he could do his own footwork. It didn't matter if he had information five minutes old from his contacts - he'd do his own recon in the final stages. That could not be left to others.

Stockwell considered Aadil to be the most important of the three. Take him out and it might be enough damage to destroy any thoughts of a coalition. Might. No taking any chances. Stockwell wanted them all taken care of, just to be sure. Aadil was the most paranoid. He'd moved at least three times in the last ten days. According to reports. Face gritted his teeth. He needed to know the layout of the land, where he could hide, where his backdoor would be, who would be around the target, how fast they'd react...so much he had to know, just for a job of two minutes.

His phone rang. He stopped dead, listening. Two rings. A third. Then silence. After about 30 seconds, two more rings. Face threw on a gutrah, loosely tossing the end of the scarf over his face. He paused a moment before opening the door, and then was out and hurrying down the staircase. Three blocks from the apartment he entered a phone booth and made the call.

Aadil had been found. The game was on...

 

CHAPTER SIX

The target and his entourage had engaged rooms for a week in a small hotel near the center of the town. This had been done two days ago, and the Lieutenant had been notified at once. He had not gone immediately to the location. He continued his routine the next day. It gave him time to complete his appearance, rest, and see if any conflicting information surfaced. He spent several hours breaking in the barrel of his rifle. It was custom built. McMillan stock, Remington 700 action, patterned after the USMC M40. Effective range about 2600 feet. He had ordered three of them.

That night, he made his first foray into hostile land.

He was not dressed in the traditional garb this time. There was no need to hide his face, now darkly tanned and bearded, even during the day. He had no intention of being seen, however, day or night. He was dressed in dark casual clothing and was carrying a duffel containing his rifle, a single clip, scope, shooting glove, and a gutrah and thaub ready for his escape. It also contained enough rations and water for three days. If it took longer than that, it wouldn't happen. This time.

He easily found the address of his prey. He didn't go closer than a block away, near enough to see what it looked like, far enough not to be noticed. He stayed to the shadows as much as possible. He didn't want to be seen, but he didn't want to raise suspicions at this point if he were. Once he had set the location in his mind, he moved on to the next street. He was more circumspect here. He was getting closer to the area where he would be hidden away, and wanted no one remembering any strangers wandering the streets at night.

One more street over he found his spot. A series of taller buildings, business offices according to intelligence, which faced the target's building. Finding the rear entrance, the Lieutenant quickly picked the lock and entered the silent building, and made his way quickly but carefully to the top. From the roof's air conditioning system, he could easily see the side of the street where Aadil would exit his hotel. He quickly hid the duffel in among the air conditioning equipment and exited the building. He needed to walk the area, confirm in person what satellite photos had already told him about the layout of the area, to ensure a quick and orderly escape from the roof after the job was completed. Tomorrow, he would venture down during business hours, to see how crowded the building would be, how his escape might be helped or hindered by the flow of people in and out of the building and streets. Beyond that, he would not leave the roof until his final escape.

He confirmed three different avenues of escape. Tomorrow he would decide which one would be the most viable, keeping the others open as contingencies. He returned to his rooftop perch and pulled the scope from his duffel. A quick check of his target's building confirmed that all was quiet and he found a shielded place to sleep. Tomorrow would be more observe, confirm, practice. After that, he would wait for opportunity.

*****

The target was moving. The Lieutenant had watched the early scouts come out of the building, casually studying their surroundings. The next set of bodyguards stepped out, glancing back at the doorway to the hotel. The target would be next out.

He had lain on top of the air conditioning unit for hours. His position was secure from observation for the most part, thanks to the height of the building and other parts of the buildings' mechanical systems, but he acted as though he were constantly under observation. His movements, though few, were cautious and slow. His rifle rested against his cheek, held in position by the bipod. He watched through the scope, every movement, every nuance of the bodyguards. His gloved finger rested lightly on the trigger. He made his breathing slow and regular, finger tightening slightly with each exhale.

The doors to the hotel opened once again. Target sighted. Stepping out, talking to his entourage, nodding sagely, smiling occasionally. Stopped, glancing around the street. Talking some more.

The Lieutenant tensed slightly. No room for doubts, no room for any thought other than the job. Sighting on the target. Calming. Readying. Finger tightening, not jerking, slowly pressing back on the trigger. Ready...ready...ready...

Figures moving, running, pointing. The rifle laying on the roof. A door opens. Stairwell. Thaub thrown on. Steps. Another door. Quick left into the men's room. Gutrah placed carefully, calmly. Hallway. More stairs, doors, halls. Street. Crowds. Sirens in the distance. Melting into the crowd. Movements calm, calculated, brisk. Side street. Alley. Street. No panic. Blending in. Disappearing. A ghost...

*****

"They're killing each other off again," Frankie commented.

"What's that?" Murdock glanced over, feigning interest while bouncing a rubber ball off the wall. It was beginning to get on everyone's already frayed nerves.

"Somebody took out the head of one of those terrorist gangs."

Hannibal was deeply involved in mending a shirt, peripherally interested in Frankie's comments. He looked up at the TV. Apparently the guy was some big shot over there.

BA would rather have been watching a baseball game. People getting killed was the last thing he wanted to think about. Unless it was killing Murdock - him and that damn ball. As the ball sailed past his head one more time, a meaty fist reached out and grabbed it. One less ball in the world. Murdock stuck his tongue out at him.

Hannibal smiled at the exchange. Something close to normal. It had been a long time. Smith's thoughts jumped to his missing teammate. He hadn't gone a day without wondering about Stockwell's thin explanation for Face's continued absence. The General had appeared dangerously angry that the missing man had apparently disappeared with his new girlfriend, but Hannibal had had a hard time believing that Face would just take off with no word to his team, especially with someone he hadn't mentioned before. Yet his behavior of the three days before their vacations would certainly confirm that he had had plans he didn't want the team to know about.

Murdock noticed the Colonel's smile, and how it faded so quickly. He knew what Hannibal was thinking about. Who. It had been a long, long month...

....To say that tempers were flaring would be the understatement of the decade. Murdock arrived at the compound after getting off work, and found Hannibal shouting at Stockwell with none of the bantering edge.

"How the hell would I know, Stockwell? You're the one who let him go to New York! You're the one that okayed this woman to go along! And where were your guys? They sure made their presence known where I was. BA and Frankie, too. So where were Face's guys? Sleeping or drunk?!"

"I expect you to control your men, Colonel, regardless of where they are or who they're with! Your Lieutenant never mentioned this woman to me. If he had, that would have been the end of it. Are you trying to tell me he never once said anything about her to you? Or about his plans to desert?" Stockwell sounded angrier than Murdock had ever heard him before.

"Wait a minute, man, ain't nobody deserted!" BA was getting more and more worked up.

"Easy, BA, easy, he didn't really mean that, did you, General?" Frankie was bouncing between the two men, trying to stave off a worse disaster.

"You find my man, Stockwell, or you let us go find him! One way or another, he's going to be found!"

"You will stay right here, Colonel, and so will the rest of your unit. In fact, no one is going anywhere until your Lieutenant is back where he belongs."

Stockwell stalked out of the house, leaving Hannibal standing open-mouthed and angry.

"What the hell's going on?" Murdock glanced from one to the next.

"Face took a powder." Frankie flinched when Hannibal glared at his phrase. "Well, he did, Johnny." Looking back at Murdock, he explained, "Stockwell said he and his girlfriend arrived at the hotel, spent a couple days there and then disappeared. He's really pissed."

"Fool thinks Hannibal can just make him reappear out of nowhere." BA was pounding his fist into his palm, anger pouring out of him. "If I get hold of the Faceman I'm gonna pound him good!"

"Well, now wait a minute, BA. Do we know for sure Face took off? I mean, has anyone checked the hospitals and...stuff?"

"Yeah, Stockwell checked everywhere, he says," Hannibal actually growled. "Face has taken off with that woman, that's pretty clear to him. I just can't believe he'd leave without saying anything to any of us."

"Well, it does kinda explain the way he was acting before we all left, though. I wonder who this gal is? She must be something special for him to do this."

Hannibal was starting to calm down. "I don't like it. If Face had talked about this new girlfriend, said anything at all about her, then maybe I could believe him leaving with her. Maybe. But this is Face..."

"He'd never do it, Hannibal. We all know that."

"Yeah, I know, BA. And probably, in another couple weeks, he'll come running back, all apology and relieved as hell to be away from her." Hannibal almost smiled. But it wasn't adding up. He knew that all of them had been shadowed during their vacations. That would have been normal procedure. But this was something more. He'd KNOWN the Ables were there. The surveillance was too tight. It was overkill. And yet Face, with a girl who wouldn't know surveillance if it bit her on the ass, had managed to slip away. Face was good, but not that good.....

Things had only gotten worse. The more time passed with no word, the more volatile Hannibal had gotten. He verbally attacked Stockwell at every opportunity. He baited the Ables without mercy and without any of the sardonic humor. He might have continued, had it not been for BA. Hannibal had been going at one of the Ables again, taking his anger out on the unhappy man after yet another confrontation with Stockwell. BA had watched for a moment, then lumbered over, slugged the Able, and then looked at Hannibal without saying a word. Hannibal just stared as several other Ables ran over.

"Now, did I just accomplish anythin', Colonel?" BA finally asked.

"Not really, Sergeant."

"You think you're screaming at these guys is doing any better?"

Hannibal shook his head, chagrined.

"You better start remembering you still got other people in your unit, Hannibal. You ain't the only one angry and hurtin'. Okay?"

There were no more tirades against the Ables, although Stockwell didn't escape them. Hannibal hadn't given up; but he wasn't giving in to the incredible frustration he felt. He took every scrap of information Stockwell gave him and tried to come up with a plan. But, isolated on the compound, surrounded on every side by alert guards, he was hamstrung. So he thought and planned and thought some more. And tried to keep his other men occupied.

And Frankie kept thinking about that phone call.

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

He spent a lot of time staring at his hands. Not just staring, actually, but studying them. The nails, the cuticles, the wrinkles of the knuckles, the blood vessels on top, the lines of the palms. They didn't look any different. Not really. Darker, of course. But not 'different'. For some reason, that didn't seem right. They should look different. They should. Because they were. Really. They weren't his hands any more. So they should look different. They should look...dirty. They should be ugly hands. The fingers shouldn't look long and graceful. They should be stubby and ugly. Bent. Yeah. Ugly and bent. That's how they should look.

He stuck them in his pockets.

Wandering to the window, he looked over the new vista. He'd left the city within an hour of the shooting. All the paperwork, photos, everything that had to do with the job had been collected by a clean up crew while he was out. He had picked up the remainder of his effects, being careful not to touch anything and re-contaminate the site. He had gone to a produce truck and climbed into the back, legs hanging over the tailgate, and ridden silently to his new abode. They had been stopped three times on the way out of the city; being deaf and dumb, a victim of the past war, he had been dismissed by the guards. The first thing he had done on arrival was to remove the fake scar from his throat. There had been no way anyone would know he spoke little of the local language.

He had no idea how long he would be in this new place. Nabeeh, the next in line, would undoubtedly have disappeared immediately upon hearing the news. It would take some time to track him down. The new intelligence reports would start filtering through to him later, but they would be of little use to him. For the next few days they would only tell him what he already knew - Nabeeh hadn't been sighted yet. Which meant he would be left with a lot of time on his hands.

At least he was able to move about more, not stuck in the house as he had been at the apartment. His supplies would still be delivered, so he would not have to make direct contact with any of the locals. The idea was to remain isolated, avoid any possibility of being detected. Which was fine with him. He wanted no human contact.

*****

Out of desperation to keep them occupied, Hannibal had had Stockwell bring their weapons out of storage. These were each member's own personal favorites, the ones they had broken in over the years and preferred over any others. Although they were cleaned thoroughly after every mission, Hannibal had decided they needed to broken down completely and inspected. There were two problems with this diversion. One, it left Frankie without anything to do except get in the way. Two, cleaning was so automatic it left room for talk.

"It ain't right, Hannibal. We woulda heard somethin' by now."

Hannibal knew BA was right. Even if Face had decided to cut and run, he would have found some way of letting them know he was all right. He wouldn't have just disappeared without a trace. Almost three months. Stockwell had given them some so-called updates - he'd been spotted here or there with his girlfriend, but had vanished before he could be collected. But the General had said nothing for the last several weeks. Something else was going on.

"I know, BA. I know. I wish to hell there were some way of looking for him. But I can't risk one of us getting shot. That wouldn't help Face or us."

BA scowled as only he could. He knew Hannibal was wanting to go after Face, but he was stymied by Stockwell's goons. None of them could move from the house itself without being obviously followed by at least three Ables. A couple of times, guns had actually been drawn when one of them had ventured too close to the perimeter. They hadn't had any serious missions, quick side trips almost. A couple days here, a couple days there. Most of their time was spent here. Doing nothing. How many times could he strip the van down and rebuild it, anyway?

Murdock wasn't helping things any. He had been fired from his last job after snapping at the owner, almost a month after. He moved in with the Team, sleeping in Face's room, rarely talking to anyone. When he did talk, it was one wild speculation after another as to what Face could be doing, where he might be. Or making dark comments about the team not going after him. It was all BA could do to keep from literally knocking some sense into him.

Frankie was the only one who seemed unaffected by events. He was never that keen about going on their missions, so their forced inactivity suited him. Not that he didn't wonder about the wayward lieutenant. He'd voiced his own opinions about it. None showed any real knowledge of what Face was all about, but at least it showed he wasn't just forgetting about him.

'Hey, what about this one? I could clean it, right?"

Murdock damn near had a fit. It was Face's rifle. He'd had it with him since Nam and wouldn't let anyone, absolutely anyone, touch it. Murdock didn't know the significance of it; it was one thing Face would not discuss with him. But he knew Face would have exploded to see Frankie, of all people, handling it. The pilot grabbed it from Frankie's hands, scaring the bejeebers out of him.

"No, Frankie, this is Face's and nobody cleans it but him. I don't know why they brought it over..." And then Murdock stopped, and looked at the rifle, puzzled.

"Hannibal, this is clean."

Hannibal looked up. "Of course it is, Murdock."

"No, no, I mean, CLEAN. Look at your Ingram. When was the last time you used it?"

Hannibal picked up the Mac 10. It was clean, but it was obvious it had been in storage for some time.

"Last time was about four months ago. Why?"

"Look at this rifle, Hannibal. It's cleaner than the Ingram. It shouldn't be. Face hasn't used this in at least six or seven months."

Hannibal reached over and took the rifle. That was strange. He knew it hadn't been out of storage; Hannibal had to ask for specific weapons every time they went out. And he hadn't asked for this one...

BA looked over at Hannibal. That rifle was not something Face liked to use if he didn't have to. That was his sniper rifle. It brought back memories Face didn't like. He remembered Frankie talking about that terrorist getting shot by the sniper. BA had wondered at the time if that guy used the same kind of rifle. Face wouldn't have used any other. But then Face wouldn't kill anybody anyway. He'd get himself killed rather than that.

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

He couldn't believe the information coming through. A meeting had been arranged between Nabeeh and Dahwar, his two remaining targets. In fact, a third person, Aadil's successor, was also supposed to be at this meeting. The information had come from multiple sources. Times and places kept changing, as the principals tried to decide where they would be safest. But every location mentioned so far had been in isolated areas, with lots of open space surrounding them, making it harder for anyone to infiltrate the immediate area. That was okay. He didn't need to be that close. He only needed to know the kind of terrain surrounding it. The various ways in and out. He wasn't worrying about Dahwar yet, but definitely kept him in mind. Aadil's successor wasn't in the equation. Not just because he wasn't part of the original mission, but because he was already proving himself to be too much the zealot, not enough the diplomat. He was just another terrorist. He would bring nothing to the coalition effort.

The Ghillie suit was under the bed, well out of sight. He'd tried it on the day it arrived, making sure it fit properly, allowed him easy movement, didn't pinch or bind. Depending on where the meeting was to take place, he would customize it further for maximum camouflage. The rifle case, too, would be camouflaged, as he could take no chances on the weapon itself being seen.

His senses were honed now. The Jazz was building. No, not the Jazz. Something darker. There was no joy in this. Not exactly excitement either. The challenge. The challenge to his intellect, his physical conditioning, his marksmanship, his training. The need to succeed. The need to carry out this mission, the stakes involved. The stakes. The consequences of failure...

He shook his head. Don't go there. Not now. He found he was staring at the hands again. Damn, those hands. Stop it. Now. Hands in pockets. The only safe place for them to be. He'd like to cut them off. Maim them. Enough. Concentrate on the reports. Work on the rifle. Clean it. Check the maps. Take a walk. Anything. Just don't look at the hands.

*****

Murdock was still worrying about the rifle. He knew Hannibal was, too. Someone had used that rifle within the last few months. It was possible one of the Ables had taken it out, but Murdock couldn't figure out why. Stockwell denied that it had been removed from storage at any time.

"Face probably took it. I mean, it's his gun, after all." Frankie could be maddening sometimes.

"Face couldn't get it out without Stockwell knowing. And why would he? We didn't need it for any missions."

"Well, maybe he thought he was going to need it for something." Frankie thought once again about the phone call from Stockwell. "Maybe Stockwell had a job for him."

Murdock snorted. "Face would have told us if Stockwell had given him a solo."

"Yeh, I guess."

'Maybe not.' BA had been listening to the conversation from the kitchen. Feeling guilty that he hadn't mentioned it before, BA stepped in and pulled Hannibal aside. He told him about the call Frankie had told him about just days before Face had disappeared. As he expected, Hannibal was not happy to hear about it.

"I can understand you not mentioning it right away, BA, but why not after Face disappeared?"

"I'm sorry, Hannibal. There was so much else goin on, I never even thought about it. I shoulda tol' ya first thing."

"All right, BA, never mind. I'll have to have a talk with the good General. Now."

Hannibal did not like this. Face taking off, the rifle, now this phone call business. There was something going down between Face and Stockwell, and Hannibal was going to find out what.

*****

He lay on his stomach. He'd been moving slowly, cautiously, across the open ground, every move slow, small. Progress measured in inches, not feet. Finally in position. He could see the encampment below him, close to the maximum range of his rifle. He could get closer, but he needed to give himself time before his pursuers could react. His targets had made it easy for him. The meeting had not taken place in the true desert area. There was enough ground cover to enhance his suit. It would make it harder for his target's followers to determine where the shot had come from. They wouldn't even hear it. All they would see is their leader falling. By the time they determined where it may have come from, he would be somewhere else.

He thought about Dahwar. It would be good if he could take him out along with Nabeeh, but maybe not. He thought about Aadil's successor, too. Maybe it would be better to do him instead. That would be something to think about. Aadil, Aadil's successor, Nabeeh - all dead and only Dahwar left. What kind of credibility would that give the last of the trio? What kind of suspicions would follow? Or would it be considered holy intervention? Interesting. He'd have to consider that further...

Movement below. He watched through the net covered scope. He could just make out the faces. He didn't want to waste his efforts on some nobody. There - there he was. Nabeeh. And the Successor. And Dahwar, too, off to the side. All three. Three quick shots. Could he do that? He thought he might be able to. Might. Take advantage of the shock of the first to take out the other two. He might...at least two...then it would be over. He could go home...well, get out of this Godforsaken country anyway. Yeah, it would be over.

Almost.

He took aim...

*****

Stockwell had not been to the compound in days. Not since Hannibal had confronted him about the phone call to Face. He had denied any such call, but Frankie was adamant that Face had referred to the caller as 'General'. Stockwell had practically called Frankie a liar, and stormed out.

Murdock made it his mission to find out anything he could about the rifle. Find out who had taken that, and why, he reasoned, and they might be closer to finding Face. And with all Stockwell's people at the compound, one of them must know something.

His first opportunity came when they came to pick up the guns for return to storage. Murdock and Frankie decided to help and, as the Ables considered them both basically harmless nuisances, indulged them. Murdock reverently carried Face's rifle out in its case and handed it the Able in charge.

"We didn't clean this one," he said regretfully.

"Oh?" The Able didn't really care.

"No, it's Face's. He hasn't used it for seven or eight months."

"Hmm?" He was trying to check off the armload of weapons Frankie had appeared with.

"Seven or eight months since he used it."

"Naw, he had that one," he grabbed a semiautomatic that was about to hit the ground, "about three months ago at the range...here, don't put that there!" The Able grabbed for the pistol Frankie was laying in the rifle case.

Bingo.

Now to find out what and where 'the range' was.

Murdock went to the newer Ables for this one. He made a show of leaving the house in a huff, and stomped over to a group of four standing by the corner of the house.

"Man, that Colonel can be a pain in the ass, sometimes," he growled.

A couple of the men looked quizzically. The other two ignored him. Murdock focused on the first two.

"Yeah, he's complaining that our marksmanship is going downhill. Thinks we oughta be practicing. Like we can do that around here!" he snorted. "That's just dumb."

One of the two looked sympathetic. Great.

"I mean, it's not like you guys. I bet you've got a target range all set up, right? Go out any time you want."

"It's more than a target range. Whole training arena."

"Really? Like what? Obstacle course, the whole thing?"

"Yeah, sure. Stockwell had it designed after the military's SF training camps..."

"I think we should check the perimeter - now." The oldest of the four Ables looked meaningfully at his talkative colleague and the men moved off.

Hannibal had a very, very bad feeling.

****

Stockwell showed up at the compound for the first time in nearly a month. He gathered the team in the living room.

"Gentlemen, I have some good news for you. After conferring with my colleagues in Washington, I have been able to procure your pardons. You will be receiving them in a small ceremony at the Pentagon in two weeks. After that, you're free to go wherever you wish."

The men stared at him. Where had that come from?

"This is a little...sudden, isn't it, General? What gives? We haven't even been on a mission for..."

"Your pardons have been paid for in full, Colonel. That's all you need to know. I don't think you really want to look a gift horse in the mouth, so to speak. There's still time before the papers are official, after all." His meaning was clear.

"What about Face? He's being pardoned, too, isn't he?" Murdock was bristling, prepared to argue for his friend.

"Oh, most assuredly. The sooner I can wipe that slate clean, the better." With that cryptic remark, Stockwell abruptly left.

BA, Murdock, and Frankie looked at Hannibal. He shook his head.

"Something stinks, guys. And we're gonna find out why."

 

CHAPTER NINE

After Stockwell had announced their pardons, Hannibal knew without doubt it had something to do with Face. Something that required him to renew his training, brush up on his marksmanship. Something that was big, big enough to warrant the pardons. And he knew it wasn't anything good.

Keeping his fears to himself, he'd started combing through the newspapers. He wasn't sure what he was looking for, but he'd know it when he found it. It took him several days, but he finally found something. An article about two terrorists who had been shot while at a supposedly secret meeting. It was a very short article, just a blip really. Apparently they were fairly important guys.

Hannibal had thought back. There had been another terrorist...shortly after Face left. And no clues as to the shooter in that one, either. A real smooth operation.

He hadn't wanted to go where logic had taken him.

Hannibal had had no doubt that if Face had set out to kill those guys, he would have managed just as smoothly as this man - or men - had. The only thing was, Face would never do it. He'd never kill anyone except in self-defense, certainly not in cold blood. And the planning that had to have been involved - well, that would have been about as cold as you could get. And that just wasn't Face.

And yet...there had been something about the timing. It would take a couple of months to gather the kind of intelligence one would need to set up an assassination like that. Maybe longer. Face disappears, and a couple months later, the first one gets taken out. More time goes by, say more planning time, and then its the other two. Suddenly the team gets pardoned. If Face were involved in that nightmare, it would all fit, time-wise. And it would certainly explain why he had disappeared like he had.

'Bullshit. Face would never do it. It was just coincidence. Strictly coincidence.'

'So why hasn't Face contacted you, smart guy? There's no reason not to now. He has to know about the pardons. They included his pardon in the notices.'

'Maybe he's out of the country. Maybe he still doesn't know about them. It's only been a few weeks, after all.'

'Face wouldn't contact you if he'd been involved in those deaths. Even if he hadn't directly pulled the trigger. And especially if he had.'

'Bullshit. I know Face. There's no way he would do anything like that. Just no way. Not unless...'

That was when it had hit Hannibal like a bomb. Not unless the team was threatened. Seriously threatened. Things had come together in crystal clarity. The sudden appearance of the extra Ables just before those 'vacations' - vacations where Stockwell knew exactly where they'd be. Face's behavior that last couple of days, starting practically the same day the Ables came on board. The talk of Face being at the training camp, shooting the sniper rifle. The heightened surveillance around them. The forced down time. And then the pardons. Announced shortly after the double killing. No explanation why. And then no word from Face even after he had to have known that he and the others were free.

'Aw, Face, what did you do?'

****

Face was in another hotel room. Where didn't really matter to him. He knew about the pardons - Stockwell had sent him his via courier the day after...well, after. Along with newspaper clippings about the rest of his team. He knew they had gone back to LA and he knew they would need money. He made a few calls to 'his' people and got the name of the attorney handling their affairs. A few more phone calls and everything they would need to access the team's money would be in the lawyer's hands in just a few days. Once that was taken care of, he relaxed a little. The guys didn't know how much money they actually had, how many investments he had made on their behalf. Scamming and killing weren't his only talents. They would be well taken care of.

 

CHAPTER TEN

Hannibal stared silently out the window, lush bushes framing the view of the oceanfront. They were back in LA, in a nice but not fancy hotel. They had been given a stake by Stockwell, surprisingly; not a lot, but enough to start out with. There was a meeting set up with an attorney the following week, to see what could be done about any money they might have coming from the military. It had come down to mundane things like that - money to support themselves. Hannibal wished now he'd paid more attention to the financial end of things, not just left it to Face. He had no idea where their money was hidden. And God only knew if Face would ever come back. A thought Hannibal had kept to himself.

Turning back to the room, he watched his team. BA, appearing just as angry now as if he were still under Stockwell's thumb, was engrossed in a football game on TV. He was still trying to decide if he wanted to stay with the Team or go back to Chicago. It was a harder choice to make than it would appear on the surface. He wanted to be close to his mother, and he had wanted to work with kids for as long as he could remember. But there was still the matter of Face. He couldn't walk out on the Team until he was found. He didn't believe that story of the girlfriend for one minute. Never had. Face just wouldn't do that. So now they were going to look for him. The problem with that was they didn't have a lot of money right now. They would have to find some paying clients, get the money coming in, before they could look very far. And more delay meant it would be even harder to track him down. The frustration was almost physical.

Murdock was reading through the papers. Not just one - every major paper sold in LA. Every morning he was the first out the door, going to several newsstands to make sure he got every edition. Then he would spend hours checking the personal ads. He knew Face would have something in there soon. Now that the pardons were public knowledge, he would get in touch. He would find them, or let them know where to find him. Murdock had placed his own ads as well, even though Hannibal thought it was unnecessary. They didn't have to work underground any more. But Murdock wasn't taking any chances. He was also contacting all their old clients, and Face's old girlfriends. As many as he could find, anyway. He'd tried to file a missing persons report with the police and had just gotten laughed at. 'Fuck them, anyway.'

Frankie wasn't there. He'd headed back to LA with them, and almost immediately split. He'd never felt like a real member of the team, especially since the pardons. That had placed a whole new focus on finding Face, and Frankie knew he wouldn't really be expected to stay on with them. But he had kept in touch, waiting to hear about Face. They were all waiting.

"God, Face, just come home..."

*****

He was so tired of airplanes. He felt like he'd been living in them or airports for the last month. Always moving, never stopping for more than a day anywhere. Kill a man, see the world. He grimaced as he lugged his carryall up to the desk. This was it, anyway. The last leg. Tomorrow he'd be back in LA. After that, he had his own plans.

He handed over his passport. This was always dicey. He still didn't trust Stockwell and the passport came from him. It had worked so far, but he hadn't gone into the US yet. He knew it was the General's way of keeping track of him. That was okay. Let him. Once he hit LA, he'd disappear. Rest up. Plan. Stockwell wouldn't know what hit him.

"There you go, Mr. Booth. Have a pleasant trip," purred the ticket clerk.

He nodded and moved on. 'Mr. Booth'. Actually 'Mr. Oswald Booth'. Stockwell had a sick sense of humor.

Not for long...

 

 

TBC

 


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