CHAPTER FIFTY SEVEN

Clifton watched from his hideaway as the men searched the grounds. He noticed with amusement that Smith's people stayed in pairs. As if that would stop him. He wondered how long that would last. Not that it mattered. With Kurt missing, no one would be leaving.

He had all the time in the world.

He didn't worry about anyone finding his hostage. Not only was he completely covered with loose hay, he was stashed in a corner surrounded by bales of it. And Clifton was an expert at tying knots; the gag was so tight, Kurt would be lucky if he could swallow, let alone make any noise. The thought crossed his mind that the man could possibly choke to death under those circumstances, but he dismissed it. Whether Kurt survived his captivity was of little consequence to Clifton. The object was to get to Randy and Sam. As the others disappeared, one by one, eventually his real quarry would present themselves. If he could get to them early on, so much the better.

He had spotted Randy almost immediately. Paired with Daryl. That was quite the combination. With the exception of Sam, those two were the most dangerous to him. Smith, coupled with any of those three, would be formidable. Baracus and the pilot were probably next. He didn't worry at all about Santana or the man with him. In fact, he probably would deal with Santana next, just to get the him out of the way. Then again, it could be entertaining to see Smith work with only Santana left to him.

Clifton thought about Sam. He wasn't out there with the rest of them. Clifton had a pretty good idea why. The witness reports from the airport had said someone had been taken from the plane on a gurney. Now he knew who. He smiled in satisfaction. He had a special plan for Sam. He absently rubbed his neck, where there were still marks from the rope. Yeah, he had very special plans for Sam, and the idea that he was already injured just added spice to the sauce.

It didn't take long for the men below to cover the immediate area and the buildings. Gradually the entire group converged in front of the huge stone patio. Ah, Marucchi himself coming out to speak to the troops. Wish he could hear what the Great Man was saying...wait. Something odd...

Clifton let his binoculars rove over to the side, along the east wing of the villa, down toward the far end of the building. Something hadn't looked quite right...there. The last set of French doors.

Clifton put the binoculars down, puzzled. Curtains drawn in the middle of the day? Now, if all of them were, he could understand that. Keeping out the heat of the day. But one? That didn't make sense...

Clifton suddenly smiled. Brought the glasses up once more, studying the oddity, smile getting bigger. The curtains were being pulled aside. Yes. Smith. Talking to someone behind him. Moving away from the doors now.

Lady Luck was definitely in his corner today. If he had looked a minute later, he never would have known...


*****

Hannibal reluctantly released Maggie, stepping back just a bit. Maggie quickly composed herself, became the professional once more.

"What's going on out there?"

"Kurt's missing. We think..." Hannibal stopped short, looking around the dark room. "Did you close those?" He hurried over to the French doors, grabbing the curtains.

"Yes, I did. Silly, I know, but I..." Maggie stopped suddenly, as Hannibal roughly pulled the curtains back, letting the sun stream in once more.

"Turn out the light, Maggie." Hannibal took a quick glance outside, knowing even as he did that he wouldn't see anyone. "I understand, Maggie, I really do. But we can't do anything to draw attention to this room."

Realization dawned. "Oh, God, John, I'm sorry! I never thought..."

"It's okay, Maggie. Were they closed long?"

"No, maybe five minutes."

"Okay, whoever's out there may not have noticed. It's a big place..." He looked over at Maggie, saw the stricken look on her face. "I'm sure they wouldn't have noticed it, Maggie. I'll have someone stay here with you and Face, just in case, though. Don't worry about it. I should have let you know what was going on sooner."

"What is going on? You said Kurt was missing?"

Hannibal nodded. "He was out with the men, getting things organized, and he just disappeared. All the men are looking for him. But it's obvious that whoever was checking out the property records has found us. They must have found Kurt alone and grabbed him."

"You don't suppose they..."

"I doubt it. I would think they'd want to use him as a bargaining chip."

"Do you know who it is, exactly? Is it Stockwell?"

"I'm certain it's Stockwell. Well, his Ables. Which ones, I have no idea. Not yet. But whoever it is, is damn good. To sneak right up to the house like this and snatch a man, and then just disappear..." Hannibal stopped, suddenly scowling. "I think I know who it is. Damn it! It's got to be." He turned to Maggie, and took her by the shoulders. "Listen. I want you to lock this door. Remember the last code word?"

"Yes. Silverbird." Maggie watched him, getting more and more frightened by him. "John, who..."

"I think it's John Clifton. It's got to be. And that means we're in deep shit if we don't play this very carefully. So you do not open this door for anyone without the code word. And, even if they know the code word, if you don't recognize the voice, don't open it. Not even a crack."

"What about the veranda? He could get in there..."

"Just listen. I'm going to send BA in to stay with you two. And I'll station a couple men outside - not too close, so they give away your location, but close enough. And one last thing, Maggie. We're going to have to move you two out of here. Get you someplace where you're not so vulnerable. If possible, off the ranch completely, but I don't think that's going to happen. But get him ready, just in case."

"John, he can't..."

"He's going to have to, Maggie. You're not safe in here, not any more. So get ready, both of you." Hannibal hurried to the door, mind racing. "BA will be here in a few minutes. Remember, the code word." He stepped out, waited until he heard the lock snap, and strode away.

He angrily considered that there might not be any reason to continue the search for Kurt...


*****

Clifton watched the men for a while longer. Marucchi had still been talking to them, mostly Daryl and the guy that had been with Santana, when Smith came out. Clifton smiled. Smith hadn't look happy. He pulled his men, along with Mick, to one side and talked at length with them. Finally, Baracus had gone into the house, along with Marucchi and Smith, while the rest of the men dispersed, heading for the jeeps.

Clifton had known he should get out of there, before the search party started fanning out. But something made him stay. He kept looking at that room at the end of the villa. Two men were stationed outside now; granted, some distance from the house itself, but he knew what they were for. Baracus hadn't come out of the house again; he must be in with Peck. He pulled the binoculars away from the doors, moved around the walls outside, up to the roof. Ah, yes. That's what he was looking for. Moved his view along the roof, to the near end.

Perfect.

He knew he should get out before his line of retreat was cut off. But he couldn't resist.

It was just too easy.


*****

BA stood to one side of the French doors, looking out with a keen eye. He could see Mick's two men, several yards away, pacing back and forth. It didn't make him feel any safer. If Hannibal was right about Kurt's abductor, those two wouldn't stand a chance.

He backed away from the doors, looked around the room yet another time, as if anything had changed in the last five minutes. He'd checked the room out thoroughly before, and the only two ways in were the doors, and they were covered. Still, he felt uneasy. They were missing something. Something that dude Clifton wouldn't miss.

He glanced over toward Maggie, who was tending to Face. He'd watched the ritual several times now, and had to admit it didn't help his nerves. Every time she touched him... And that damn whispering. All the time. He just never, never stopped. After several hours of listening to that, BA wanted to go over and...He shook his head. Just ignore it. Ignore it.

"Are you all right, BA?" Maggie was looking at him with that look that said, "Don't even try to fool me, mister." He tried anyway.

"I'm fine. Nothin wrong with me."

"Then why are you clenching your fists so tight? And pacing? That's not like you, BA."

BA squirmed, but kept quiet.

"It's not just this Clifton person, is it?" Maggie stepped away from the bed, looked down at Face. "It's him, isn't it? The way he's acting?"

"He gonna be okay, Maggie? I mean, is he gonna be Face again? Ever?" There. It was out.

"I wish I could say yes, BA. I really do. But I just don't know. He should come out of this withdrawal okay. But he had a lot of serious problems before that. Stockwell and that Barish really messed him up. I doubt that's going to magically disappear. But I've been thinking about it, BA. I haven't come up with a solid solution yet, but I have some ideas. We just have to get through the next week or so, and then we can start working on the rest. In the meantime..." She stopped, frowned. "Did you hear something?"

They stood still, listening. There was a scratching noise coming from somewhere. BA quickly stepped to the patio doors, looked outside. Calm. Everybody where they belonged.

"BA! The fireplace!"

BA twisted around, staring appalled at the fireplace. Smoke was rapidly swirling into the room. Small, smoking embers started dropping down from the chimney. In moments, the room was filled with thick, black smoke.

"BA!" Maggie was trying to pull the IV bag from the hook, frantically waving at the smoke with her other hand.

BA rushed over, grabbed the bag and shoved it into Maggie's hands. Fighting the tears running from his stinging eyes, he grabbed Face and slung him roughly over his shoulder. He tried to see the interior door, next to the fireplace, but the smoke was too thick. He grabbed Maggie's arm and pulled her toward the veranda. Without stopping, he kicked the glass doors open, and the three of them stumbled out.

The two guards came running, attention on the three people who crumpled to the ground, surrounded by the smoke which was billowing out of the room. They never looked to the roof.

By the time Hannibal and Mick came running, the two guards were already dead, a single burst of automatic fire cutting them down. BA and Maggie sprawled on the ground, coughing and choking. Face lay next to BA, where he'd slid from BA's shoulder.

He didn't make a sound.