CHAPTER TWENTY ONE

He woke suddenly, cold. The desert always got cold, at night. Petey wiggled beside him, and Face reluctantly let loose his hold on him. The dog stood and shook, before turning and licking his face. Then he stared off into the distance, wiggling and whining. Like Face, he wanted to go home.

It took a few minutes before Face could sit up. He ached all over, and his hands stung. Painfully, he stood, looked around. Still dark. Dark and cold. He had no idea where he was, how far the trailer might be. But he couldn't stay here any longer. He looked down at Petey, who returned the look with expectancy. Face pulled off his belt, looped it through the collar and started forward. Petey strained at the makeshift leash, but accepted it.

He wasn't sure how long they walked. It seemed to take forever before he began seeing familiar sights. A pile of rock, a certain group of cacti. Eventually he could orient himself. They were maybe a mile, mile and a half from home. His knees were aching by now, and his head pounded in sync with his heart beat. He knew he would be dealing with that for a couple of days. Again.

They were close enough to the trailer now that he could vaguely see its silhouette in the moonlight. And then he saw a light bobbing around. Coming toward him.

Who the hell...?

Instinct made him pull the dog to the side, circumventing the light. Petey started to protest; a soft but harsh command from Face quieted him. Silently they moved toward the trailer, keeping the lights in sight. Before he realized it, they were coming up behind the trailer, and Face heard Charlie's voice, calling him. Relief swept over him and he was about to respond when he heard his friends, warning him to stay clear.

Stay clear of Charlie?

The urgency to the voices made his anxiety start rising once again. He looked over to where Charlie's light and voice were, still moving slowly out into the desert. Turning slowly, he began moving toward the sculpture of heads, trying to understand why they were so worried.

Petey began pulling on the leash, raising up on his hind legs in his frustration to be moving again. But he was looking at something, something beyond the heads. Face squinted, trying to make out what it was. But he could only see the trees, not what was around on the other side. He moved closer, giving a tiny jerk to the leash. Petey sat abruptly, still watching, but glancing around now, as if he'd lost whatever it was he'd seen.

The hum of voices from the heads got louder, even more urgent. It wasn't Charlie they were worried about. It was something else. They didn't like it. Not one bit. They were practically screaming at him now.

He swallowed. Stepped back. He had to get out of here. Get back into the desert. Even if it was dark, it was safer for him now to be out there. He took another step backward, pulling Petey with him.

"Mr. Mordake, I presume?"


*****

Charlie pulled the jeep up to the trees and stopped. Hannibal looked at him across the lights of the dashboard.

"Well?"

"Well, now we walk. It's not far. Remember, you are not to go any further when I tell you to wait. If he sees you, it could ruin everything."

Hannibal didn't like the sound of that. He knew that there was something more to all of this, dammit.

"What do you mean, Charlie? And let's have a straight answer this time."

Charlie looked down at the steering wheel. "I can't tell you yet, Colonel Smith. It's a...matter of trust, between Ed and myself. Believe me, when the time is right, I'll explain everything. And then, I think you'll understand why all the secrecy." He looked over at Hannibal, and the plea on his face was clear. "Ed is...fragile, right now. If this isn't done right..."

"What, he's some kind of head case? I've dealt with that, Charlie." He knew Charlie wasn't convinced, decided it was time to switch gears. "Look, Charlie, I don't want to cause problems for the guy. But you got to admit, you've made things a lot harder on both of you with all the secrets. Instead of treating us like the enemy, how about working with us on this?"

"I would like to, Colonel. But I can't. Not completely. I...he's just not ready, yet."

Hannibal sighed, the frustration rising fast. What the hell was going on with these guys?

"You didn't bring us here to deal with Sinon, did you, Charlie? That was just a pretense. There's something else going on here, something to do with Sandy. Something to do with her and us."

Charlie abruptly stepped out of the jeep and started walking away. Surprised, angered, Hannibal climbed out and followed. He'd give the guy one last chance. Either he met with this Mordake freak tonight or the team was gone. The hell with it. He'd had it with games.

They came over a small rise and Hannibal saw the trailer off in the distance. It surprised him. He had had the impression that the recluse was living in some kind of, well, not luxury, but at least as well off as some of the more established residents. This trailer couldn't be more than twelve or fourteen feet long. Hardly more than a room. One small window on this side. No vehicles of any kind. The trailer was dark.

"Doesn't look like anyone's home, Charlie."

Charlie was also looking at the trailer, a frown on his face.

"Something's not right. Ed doesn't go out after dark. Never."

"What, he's afraid of the dark now, too?"

Charlie flashed an angry look at Hannibal. "You're so quick to judge, Colonel. I'm beginning to think I misunderstood what he..." He stopped abruptly. "You stay here. I'm going to see what's going on."

Hannibal watched as Charlie hurried down toward the trailer. He waited until Charlie had checked inside the trailer, and hurried around the side, flashlight sweeping the ground. He realized Charlie was seriously concerned about Mordake. Which made his reliance on the guy even more confusing. As soon as Charlie had disappeared into the dark, Hannibal made his way to the trailer.

He was getting to be a regular Pink Panther. He slipped inside, pulling the pen light from his pocket and carefully glancing over the interior. Spartan didn't adequately describe the place, but then, there wasn't much room for luxuries, either. He stopped, startled, when his light crossed the top of the table. Some sort of animal skeleton. He stepped closer. He wasn't a naturalist, by any means, but even he could appreciate the effort it had taken to put that together. He stepped back, letting his light illuminate most of the creation. It was almost like a piece of art. He shook his head. This guy Mordake was a real riddle. So many contradictions.

He stepped outside, moving around the end of the trailer. Further out, he could see Charlie's light, hear him calling his friend. There was a note of desperation in his voice. Hannibal knew the desert could be dangerous, day or night, but he had assumed that Mordake was used to it. Maybe it was just another area where he'd been mistaken. He was about to call out to Charlie, offer to help look, when he heard a different noise from another direction.

A small whine.

Instantly on the alert, Hannibal felt for his Colt and quietly pulled it out. He didn't cock it; not yet. He merely wanted to be ready, just in case. Although he'd kept an eye out behind them on the way here, he couldn't be positive Sinon's goons hadn't followed them some way. Then again, he doubted any of the men he'd seen in the village would bother bringing a dog. Or have the smarts to handle one this quietly.

He came to halt a few yards from the trailer, keeping to the shadow of some small trees. In the dim light of the moon, he could make out something small, light-colored. Must be the dog. He could almost feel it watching him. A dog that size would never survive out here long; there had to be someone with him.

Mordake?

Carefully, Hannibal sidled his way around a pile of rocks, hoping the dog wouldn't decide to come after him. He heard another small whine; he wasn't sure, but could almost swear he heard a human voice immediately after. Then nothing.

He stepped carefully, the moon not helping much in the shadows. He came around a tree, and there he was. Standing perfectly still beside the dog, who still hadn't noticed Hannibal coming from behind them. Both were staring at the trailer. Concentrating on that, not their surroundings. Abruptly, the man took a step back, then another.

Hannibal took two short, quiet steps of his own, and then he was behind them.

"Mr. Mordake, I presume?"

The man stiffened. Hannibal grinned.

Finally, he was about to meet the famous Edward Mordake...