CHAPTER SEVENTY TWO

The body had been moved to the side of the road. A short note distastefully placed in the folds of the man's shirt.

"La caccia sopra adesso. Mio zio vendicato." The hunt is over. My uncle is avenged.

Hopefully, between the note and the ravaged body, the deceit would be accepted. Leandro and his jeep would have simply disappeared in the harsh countryside, not an unusual occurrence. The sons would not miss him. He was, in the end, and despite his self-deceptions, not that important.

The colonel drove the jeep, his lieutenant beside him. The others hadn't been happy with the decision; now was not the time to put their leader in jeopardy. But they had been given that look, and, the sergeant's rumblings notwithstanding, they had silently climbed into the van and followed.

The lieutenant's thoughts on the matter were not clear. At the colonel's announcement of the traveling arrangements, he had looked up sharply, eyes narrowing for a moment before a hint of a smile had shown. He didn't speak now, and hadn't again, only sauntered down the road to the jeep and climbed in, settling himself as comfortably as possible in the passenger's seat. He stared off into the distance, never looking at the colonel, as they drove away.

Mile after mile, the two men sat in silence. The sun, just to the left of the road, sank slowly toward its destination. Long after darkness had fallen, they still drove. They eventually topped a steep rise and the colonel slowed to a stop. The van, its driver recognizing the need still for discretion, rolled to a stop some distance behind. Close enough, yet not too close.

Ahead of the jeep, the full moon illuminated a struggling quilt of farmland, an isolated house with its outbuildings in the distance. The colonel looked back at the van once, and drove off the road into the near field. Turning off the engine, he climbed stiffly out. After a close look around him, he turned and contemplated the lieutenant. His face masked by the darkness, the lieutenant sat for another moment before he, too, stepped out of the jeep. The two men, by unspoken accord, walked silently further into the field. The occupants of the van stood beside it, watchful, as the two disappeared into the darkness.

They walked, slowly, for perhaps two minutes. The colonel stopped, pulled a cigar from his pocket and lit it. Offered one to the lieutenant, who, after a second's hesitation, took it. Another hesitation before accepting a light from the colonel. They stood, smoke drifting lightly around them.

"Hannibal Barca was famous for taking his elephants over the Alps." The colonel's voice was soft, reflective. "No one seems to know, or care, that he lost most of the elephants on that trip. Along with a great many men."

The lieutenant looked at the colonel, merely a silhouette in the moon's light.

"The general had, in Rome, land of his enemies, a student of his military strategies. An outstanding student. Scipio was his name. In 202 BC, the two men finally met in head to head battle. Both were masters of deception, an unheard of tactic back then. Both took great pains, setting up their lines for the battle. It was, perhaps, the greatest challenge either of them had faced." The colonel took another puff from his cigar, stared up at the stars.

"And yet, for all their brilliance, it was a fluke that decided the eventual outcome of that battle. Hannibal's elephants, which he planned to use to literally crush the enemy, were frightened by the trumpets of Scipio's army. They stampeded. Unfortunately, they stampeded over Hannibal's own troops. In the ensuing confusion, Scipio took advantage and annihilated Hannibal's army.

"Hannibal was over-confident. Depended too much on his elephants. Scipio, on the other hand, while becoming a hero of the Roman empire, didn't realize the fickle nature of Rome. He died some years later, accusations of bribery and corruption clouding his name. Hannibal died a year or two after that, in exile. Committed suicide rather than be taken by encroaching Roman troops."

Again, silence surrounded them. They stood, a few feet apart, calmly smoking, looking over the farm fields. Finally, the colonel spoke again, his voice still reflective, but with just a hint of wistfulness.

"Can you imagine what would have happened, what could have happened, if those two had worked together? Two of the world's most brilliant military strategists?" He chuckled, softly. "Rome wouldn't have had a chance."

The lieutenant allowed himself an answering chuckle.

"Hannibal made mistakes. Maybe let his reputation inflate his ego too much. Made him think he knew the solution to every problem. He and Scipio actually held a parlay before the battle, but the two men couldn't come to terms. Who knows what would have happened if they had." He turned, looking directly at the lieutenant. "Maybe Hannibal underestimated Scipio. Maybe Scipio couldn't see beyond Hannibal as the enemy. I don't know. But mistakes were made. Opportunities lost."

The question, when it came, had no bitterness or sarcasm in it. "What do you want from me, Colonel?"

"It's more what I don't want. I don't want you to become another Randy. Filled with bitterness and hate. Cynical. I'm sorry he's gone, more sorry than you might realize. I don't think he was totally lost; I think he just needed a nudge in the right direction." The colonel shrugged, ruefully. "Okay, maybe a shove. But I think he would have taken the chance, if he'd had time.

"I guess that's what I want from you now. You know the man I want you to meet, and you know why. Take the chance. That's all. After that, you make your own choice. Stay with the team, or go your own way. I won't interfere again; none of us will."

Again, there was no bitterness or sarcasm. "You think he'll come back, don't you? You think you'll have Face again, all safe and sound - and compliant."

The colonel shook his head, another short chuckle. "He was never compliant, but, yes, I hope he comes back. If not, I'd at least like to know that I won't be letting a cold-blooded killer loose on the world. What you did to Mick, and Leandro..."

"I didn't kill Leandro."

"You know what I mean." For the first time, anger came out in the colonel's voice. He took a deep breath, forced himself to calm down. "You're a better man than that, Lieutenant. If you come out of this realizing nothing more than that, I'll be satisfied."

"You're sure of that?"

"I won't let the elephants stampede. That much I'm sure of."

The lieutenant sighed, threw the cigar butt in the dirt, fiercely ground it out. Whatever he had expected, this wasn't it. He stared up at the night sky. He remained standing there, even as the colonel turned and began walking back.

After a few moments, he turned, saw the colonel approaching the van, speaking to the others. Watched as they all climbed into the van. He expected it to drive off, but it remained on the side of the road, waiting.

He looked away, shaking his head, exasperated. Nothing was going the way it was supposed to. Nothing made any sense. The colonel should have been angry, disgusted. Dropped him off along the road with the jeep to go his own way, get out of his sight, keep him from damaging his team further. Or beaten the shit out of him. Hell, shot him.

Anything but this.

He turned and started walking back to the road. Hesitated at the jeep, keys still in the ignition. He could get in, drive away, and know the colonel wouldn't try to stop him. He would be free of them, free of the ghosts, free to do whatever he wanted.

But then, he'd always been free to do that. He could've left at any time. He could've let Mick have Daryl. He could've let Stockwell come for the colonel and the others. He didn't owe these people anything. He could have just walked away.

So why hadn't he?

He slammed the side of his fist into the jeep. Damn him! He shook his head, glared at the fields. Damn him. He stalked up to the van and climbed into the open side door. He settled back against the cushion without a word, closed his eyes. The colonel nodded at the driver as the door slid shut.

The van moved down the road, leaving the jeep in the field.