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."

"Yeah, 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."