CHAPTER SIXTY SEVEN

BA had stayed in the library all evening, shooting pool, first with Kurt, then by himself. Twice, Mick's people had stuck their heads in the door, checking him out. No one had come around for over an hour now. The clock on the mantel struck the half hour; he played a couple more desultory games. At exactly one o'clock, with no further intrusions, BA carefully placed the cue against the table, as if he were just taking a short break, and headed for the patio doors.

This was the dicey part. He'd deliberately left the lights on in the library, to reinforce the idea that he had just stepped out; it also left him wide open to view. He stepped outside, closing the doors behind him, and stood, stretching slightly. If anyone were to look, all they would see was a bored houseguest, taking some air. He strolled casually to the edge of the patio, waiting to hear a warning call.

Nothing.

With an alacrity that would have surprised most people, BA was over the patio wall and into the bushes by the house. He stopped again, crouched, waiting.

Nothing.

In a few minutes, he'd worked his way to the open area he'd been just the night before. He wondered, not for the first time, about the missing guard. He'd been in the dining room with the others that morning, when Leandro had come in, informing Mick about the sudden disappearance. Mick had frowned, tensing along with the rest. They'd all immediately thought Stockwell's people had come back. But then Mick had stammered out that he'd forgotten about sending the man home; something about a family emergency. BA couldn't swear to it, but he was pretty sure he'd caught a quick look between Mick and Face just before that. He'd mentioned it to Hannibal later, but the colonel had just frowned and told BA he was getting paranoid.

BA shook his head. Better to be a little paranoid than blind. He took a quick look around before rushing for his stand of trees. Another quick look before running across the clearing. He waited a full five minutes before he left the shelter of the rocks and headed into the hills.


*****

It was after one, and Frankie was pacing. He was anxious to get going, and yet, he didn't want to leave his room. It was one thing to go on assignments with the guys, knowing they were close at hand. It was another thing to know he would have to sneak past Mick's guards and get all the way to the cave completely on his own. He stepped over to the door, opening it just a crack. All clear. He could leave now. Just walk out the door, down the hall...Yep. Piece of cake. He quietly closed the door and resumed his pacing.

It was maybe twenty minutes later that he heard the quiet knock on the door. Panic almost took over - Mick's guys, come to take him away. The knock came again, a little louder.

"Frankie! Open up!"

He almost melted to the floor. Hurrying over, he opened the door and stepped back as Murdock pushed through. The pilot turned and grinned wildly at him.

"Hey, Frankie. Ready to fly the coop, blow this Popsicle stand, take a hike?" Only Murdock could sound giddy while whispering. "Or you decide to stay on for a while?"

"Murdock, man, hey, I'm cool. I was just, y'know, making sure things were quiet..."

"Uh huh. Okay, well, I just kinda realized that I didn't know exac-a-tally where this old cave of yours was, which could be problematic. So I thought I'd tag along with you. Whaddya say, ol' buddy?"

Frankie looked skeptically at Murdock. "Johnny sent you, didn't he?"

"Well, he thought you might need a little, uh, backup..."

Frankie looked around the room, embarrassed at being, once again, the one that had to have 'backup'. "Sorry, Murdock."

"No problemo, Frankie. Besides, the Nighthawks haven't worked a gig for a long time, y'know?" He winked at Frankie.

"Ahh, man, don't even bring that up again! Let's just get outta here, okay, Murdock? The further we are from here, the better I'll like it."

Murdock immediately sobered. He'd managed to get Frankie relaxed and that would be half the battle. Tense people made mistakes, and they couldn't afford any tonight. He quickly turned off the light, and he and Frankie waited for a moment to let their eyes adjust to the darkened room. Gently plucking at Frankie's arm, he pulled him toward the window.

A moment later, they were slipping quietly through the shadows around the house.


*****

Kurt stood a few yards from the mouth of the cave. He could hear BA inside, tinkering with the motor of the ancient van he'd gotten. Murdock and Frankie had arrived a short time before them, and were trying to make the inside of the van more accommodating for the long trip ahead. Maggie was sitting on a log a short distance from him, watching anxiously for the rest of the team. She and Kurt had run into a minor detour on their way here; Kurt had had to feign a sprained wrist in order to get away from them. Even then, the two guards had insisted on escorting them to the small infirmary off the kitchen. Only when Maggie had actually started wrapping Kurt's wrist had they left them alone. Calm until they reached the cave, Maggie was now mindlessly pulling apart every plant within reach of her perch, eyes glued to the ranch buildings below.

Kurt was forcing his own anxieties into the background. He scanned the countryside, watching for any of Mick's patrols, any sign of trouble from the ranch itself. Making himself think and act like the professional he was, trying not to think about Daryl.

And failing.

He had been trying all day to get his partner alone, to talk to him, try to convince him to come along tonight. But Daryl had stayed out of reach, either ensconced with Mick, or dealing with the men who were going after Mick's hijackers. Kurt wasn't fooled. While everything Daryl was involved in was necessary, it was equally obvious that Daryl was using the circumstances to avoid any confrontation with him. Now, waiting for the rest of the men to show up, Kurt had accepted the fact that Daryl most likely would not.

Part of him wanted to go back down to the ranch and physically drag Daryl's ass up to the cave. Part of him had almost decided to go back and stay, if only to keep Daryl from getting pulled into the seamier side of Mick's operations. The rest of him admitted defeat, and felt it.

He could feel the others glancing over at him. Did they already know? Were they just waiting for the colonel and Sam to get here before dropping the bombshell? Or were they as much in the dark as he was?

He saw it before he heard it. Movement down the hill, heading toward the cave. His gun was out, ready. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Frankie grab Maggie and pull her into the cave, while Murdock and BA took their positions.

A few minutes later, Hannibal and Sam stepped out of the bushes. Sam looked calm, but you could almost feel the energy buzzing inside. Hannibal grinned widely at them all - until he saw Kurt.

Kurt put his gun away and walked silently into the cave.


*****

Daryl had gone over and over what he should do, what he could do. It finally boiled down to what he had to do. And he didn't like it. But there was really no choice.

If Mick had just been any man, Daryl could have allowed the autopsy to go as usual and chances were nothing would be found amiss. But this was Alberto "The Mick" Marucchi. If he'd been in his eighties, maybe no one would have thought his death unusual. But not at his age. Whoever did the autopsy would be expected to check and double-check everything. Suspicion as to the cause of death would be endemic. And they would find out.

At first, Daryl had tried to delude himself about that. Thought if he just acted as if Mick had died of natural causes, no one would press the matter. The more he realized that that wouldn't happen, the more he also realized that any pretenses he put up would only push him further to the front line of suspicion. Particularly when it was discovered that in his will, Mick had put Daryl in charge of damn near everything. Put Daryl over and above his own two sons. Daryl hadn't known that until he'd gone through Mick's safe.

It had been an automatic response, his soul's way of dealing with the shock and pain. Slipped into his agent mold, and searched the office thoroughly for any documents that might be of value. The will, dated shortly after Daryl had joined Stockwell, for heaven's sake, was at the back of Mick's wall safe. That, and lists of all of Mick's holdings, interests and contacts. A gold mine for the Feds. Daryl had glanced through them and placed them back in the safe. Had that will been Mick's way of getting his nephew away from the general in the end?

If ever there was a motive for killing Mick, the will spelled it out in capital letters. He could, of course, tell the truth, that he hadn't known anything about it. Considering the date it was made out, and the fact that no one knew if Daryl had decided to stay, he could probably live through it. But it also meant that Mick's family would be looking for the real murderer. And his accomplices. And they wouldn't stop until they found them and meted out justice.

Daryl couldn't put the colonel in that position. He was well aware of the team's track record with the military, and so far, they had managed to stay clear of Stockwell, although barely. But if they thought the general was ruthless, they would find new meaning in that word, dealing with Mick's people. Daryl thought about Mick's two sons, Ben and Nicky. Cruel and sadistic in business, motivated by revenge, they would be virtual juggernauts. They would look for the team, certainly. But if they couldn't find them, they would go after the targets they could find - Maggie, for starters. Daryl shuddered to think what they would do to her.

So, Daryl had no choice. He couldn't stay here. Not that he wanted to, not now. He'd only even considered it because of Mick. But he wouldn't be able to just leave. He would have to make sure no one went after the team. That they would have no reason to go after the team. Ever. And there was only one way to do that.

He glanced at the clock. He still had time. He knew how both the colonel and Kurt thought. Despite what Daryl had told Smith, they would wait until the last minute before leaving. Just in case Daryl changed his mind.

He had a lot to do before he could go. With Leandro away, it was actually easier. The man in charge would do exactly what Daryl told him to do, without question. By the time Leandro returned, and contacted Ben and Nicky, the team would be long gone.

And Daryl would right there with them.