CHAPTER FIFTY SIX

The sun sent a near vertical shaft of heat down on Clifton's back as he watched the activities below him. A half hour before, he'd felt a quickening inside, when he saw the first of the jeeps, patrolling. The men in it were dressed casually, and would have been taken as modern ranch hands had it not been for the automatic rifles they carried. Not that they weren't discreet, but it was hard to hide rifles like that from binoculars.

Luckily for Clifton, he hadn't yet left the main road when he heard the jeep, up in the hills. He continued on his way, as if going into La Venata; as soon as the patrol was out of sight, he swung back around and started scouting for a place to stash his own jeep. It was possible, of course, that a wealthy and eccentric landowner would arm his people with such weapons. Possible. But Clifton didn't really think so.

By the time he had worked his way slowly to the top of the hill, he'd seen two more such jeeps. Marucchi was taking no chances. Clifton wondered, idly, if this was normal procedure or if someone had tipped him off that he was being hunted. Not that it mattered. It didn't change Clifton's goals. It just might take a little longer to accomplish.

So now he was watching the ranch. He'd found a place, among a pile of rocks and dead trees, where he could see nearly the entire compound. He found the interaction among the men down there interesting. There were some who seemed to know exactly what to do, some who stood around, waiting to be told. He paid special attention to the former. They were dressed like the men in the jeeps, which put them slightly better off than the others, whose clothes looked well worn, dirty from actual labor. The difference between Marucchi's hand-picked men and the locals. Good to know that. Easier to know which ones to shoot, which ones to scare.

And then he saw him.

Talking with Marucchi's men. Going from group to group, pointing, discussing. Directing. Interesting. Well, that made sense. Daryl was family, but there could be resentment toward the prodigal son. Smith would be seen as a usurper to Mick. Baracus didn't have the temperament, and no way these guys would give Murdock the time of day. That left Randy or Kurt. And Randy didn't deal well with people who had a choice as to obeying or not. He expected obedience, demanded it. Kurt accepted by Marucchi's men? Sure.

Kurt was perfect. Clifton had seen him in action. He could work with anyone, as long as they had the same goal. He could issue orders without seeming to, deal with military and civilians with the same aplomb. He knew when to push, when to lay back.

Without him, any cooperation between Marucchi's people and Smith's would have to be dealt with by the leaders themselves, taking their concentration away from the real battle.

From him.

Clifton moved cautiously down the hill. He had to get closer. And he had to get Kurt away from the crowd.

One by one...


*****

Kurt stopped for a moment, watching Mick's goons hurrying around, taking care of the orders he'd given them. He didn't like his new role here. Not at all. But it had been his own idea.

Kurt had noticed something last night, as he watched Leandro and Daryl talking. Mick's head man did not like Daryl. He spoke to Daryl politely enough, apparently presuming Daryl's right to act on Mick's behalf, yet there was a stiffness to it. And there was something different about Daryl. Something Kurt had noticed after the two men had come back from their errand. Nothing obvious, but there, just the same. He seemed more...confident. More in his element. At home.

The ease with which Daryl had assumed command last night just didn't seem right. Even after the colonel had been informed of the possible threat, Daryl had not waited for him to call the shots. Almost immediately after telling Smith, Daryl had started giving Leandro orders, preparing for a possible assault on the villa. And for some reason, no one seemed surprised at that. It was as if this was no longer so much the team's problem as Mick's problem, and therefore Daryl would handle it.

Kurt hadn't been sure he liked that idea, even as he went along with it. And he knew Leandro didn't like it one bit. Daryl was doing what Leandro, as Mick's right hand man, should have been doing. And something about Daryl's new demeanor told Kurt that he would not step down. Not until Mick got back. Kurt didn't know Leandro that well, but he knew the type. Knew how that kind of man would deal with a threat to his position, regardless of where that threat came from. The last thing anyone needed right now was a turf war.

That's when Kurt decided he would have to get his hand in it. As soon as Leandro left, he got Daryl to one side, reminding him that Mick had people that should be talked to as soon as possible. People who were supposed to be protecting him. It was time for Daryl to do what he did best - gather information, deal with the bureaucrats. Kurt would work with the 'troops'. Exactly the combination that had worked so well for them with Stockwell. Daryl had agreed readily enough.

So Kurt worked with the men, acting as a buffer between Daryl and Leandro, allowing the man to keep his pride. Keeping the jealousy from gestating into something more troublesome. Protecting Daryl without making him look weak. As long as no one realized what he was doing, it would work.

And he hated every minute of it.

Sighing, he started double-checking the arrangements. He was moving past the stable when he saw something that didn't look right. A couple cases of ammo that had been in the shade of the building had been moved out into the hot sun. That wasn't good. He headed over, wondering why anyone would be so stupid...


*****

Marucchi liked landscaping. Liked things looking nice. Bad for him, good for Clifton. It still wasn't easy to maneuver his way down the hill to the stable without being seen, but the cultivated greenery made it simpler. A locked side door to the stable popped open easily, and he slipped inside, leaving the door open just enough to watch his target.

Kurt finished talking to one man, who seemed to be the one the others listened to most readily. Clifton noted the man's face carefully. One to watch for in particular. The man nodded, walked away, and Clifton's attention went back to Kurt. The man stood for some minutes, deep in thought. Turned to watch some men loading a jeep.

Distracted. Working on automatic, not paying attention, not the way he should.

Clifton spotted the cases of ammo sitting next to the stable, not far from his vantage point. Smiled. Making sure Kurt was still watching the jeep, he slipped out of the door, quickly shoved two cases out in the sun. Back in the stable.

Waited.

It only took a few minutes. The jeep took off, leaving Kurt standing there, alone. No one around him. Lady Luck was smiling on Clifton. Kurt turned, started walking away, looking around. Frowned when he saw the ammo cases. Started walking toward them. Picked them up, one in each hand, moved to the stable.

Perfect.

Kurt caught the motion behind him as he bent to put the cases down in the shade. Hands full, no chance to grab his gun. Saw the face of his attacker just as the man's gun connected with his head.

Kurt went down like a sack of rocks, and was quickly dragged into the stables. Five minutes later, he was tied, gagged, and buried under a large pile of loose straw in a far corner.

Clifton retraced his steps to the pile of rocks on the hill. Waited for the fun to begin.


*****

Hannibal and Mick stood, a few feet apart, watching the activity in the yard behind the villa. It had been Leandro who had discovered that Kurt was missing. Had gone looking for him, to clarify a problem with logistics, and got nervous when no one had seen him for some time. After a cursory search of his own, he had alerted the household.

Hannibal had noted, with interest, the near shock on Mick's face when Daryl openly defied his uncle and joined the rest of the men in the search. Shock, anger, and moments later, a small smile of what Hannibal could only conclude was satisfaction. He filed that away for later consideration.

His own concerns were for the missing man and the rest of his team. Quickly, tersely, he paired Randy with Daryl, BA and Murdock, Frankie with Leandro. Under no circumstances, and he repeated this forcibly, was anyone to go off on a wild goose chase by themselves. If they saw anything suspicious, they were to alert the rest of the searchers. No heroics, no attitude. He looked directly at Randy and Daryl when he said the last. There was a moment's hesitation from the pair, before the professional in each accepted the order.

Hannibal watched for another minute, making sure his men were behaving themselves. With a nod to Mick's continued supervision, he turned and left.

His pace increased as he moved toward Face's room.


*****

Maggie was also watching the commotion surrounding the villa, from Face's veranda. She was worried, knowing something was wrong, not knowing what. Instinctively, she backed into the room, closed and bolted the French doors leading out. After a second's hesitation, she closed the heavy Spanish drapes. Turning, she shook her head at her precautions. She didn't need to get spooked, not now.

Just the same, she wished she weren't alone with Face.

She moved over to the bed, stumbling a little in the now dark room. She fumbled for the lamp by the bed, relieved when she finally found the switch and a warm glow of light filled the room. She didn't flip on the fluorescent lamp over the bed. It was too cold, clinical, and right now she wanted something... homey.

She looked down at Face, noting his lips were dry again. He was still talking to himself, the words too slurred and soft to make out. Gently she massaged Vaseline over his lips, noting unhappily the now familiar reaction. He immediately quieted and his whole body stiffened. When she finished and removed her hand, his body trembled violently for a second or two before relaxing. Another minute, and the mumbling started up again.

She wished she could make out what he was saying. What was going on, inside. What made him react that way to her touch. She would be better prepared for what might happen when he finally came to. But that could be damn near anything. Hannibal had stayed a long time last night, telling everything that had happened after Face had left the hospital to be returned to Langley.

She had listened impassively, her professional demeanor deliberately in place, but inside she was seething. Angry and sympathetic at the same time, toward all of them. Well, there was no sympathy for Stockwell. The root cause of all of this. But for the rest...She even felt more kindly toward Randy, which was a shock to her. But he had been as much a victim in all of this as Face had been. No wonder he was so angry.

She nearly jumped out of her skin when the door to the bedroom suddenly opened. Professional demeanor forgotten, she allowed herself to be held, secure, in Hannibal's arms. Let someone else worry about things, just for a few minutes.