CHAPTER TWENTY THREE

The car was not meant for this kind of terrain, and the five men inside were feeling every bump, rut, and rock. The man in the front passenger seat gripped the dash with one hand, glaring ahead at what he would only call an appearance of road. If it got much rougher, they would have to turn around, find some other means of transport, and come back, hoping they could pick up the trail once again. He didn't like that idea, but he wasn't dumb enough to chance getting stranded out here.

He had been hired only recently by the partners of Sinon. It was a job he was used to, although typically his clients were landlords who needed their tenants 'convinced' to move out, or developers who needed landowners 'persuaded' to sell. He was good at what he did. Typically, his clients were more than satisfied with his services.

In his opinion, this would be no exception. Indeed, until this afternoon, he had thought it would be a simple case. After all, he only had to deal with one person. The only complication was finding that person. He had been certain that a little overt intimidation of two, maybe three, resident nut balls would give him the information he needed.

He hadn't known about these other guys. And that irritated him. His informant in the village would be learning just how irritated, but that would come later.

The driver suddenly pulled the car to a stop, dust floating past the car. He looked over at the man in the passenger seat, shrugging his shoulders.

"This bird can't take any more, Les. It's just not made for it."

Les nodded, not surprised. He didn't say a word as the driver struggled to get the car turned around, and headed back. One thing they had in their favor. It was obvious that only one other vehicle had come this way. It wouldn't be hard to follow the tracks to its destination. They would come back, following those tracks, and then Les would have a little chat with Mr. Edward Mordake.


*****

Charlie closed the door to the trailer, after checking to make sure Face was still asleep. He pulled two camp stools from an old locker by the corner and handed one to Hannibal before seating himself. Hannibal also sat, bringing out yet another cigar. They were the only things keeping him relatively calm, and then, just barely.

"Sinon, Charlie."

"Yes. Well, they actually were here long before I realized it. We frequently find hikers on the property, which we don't mind, as long as they're careful. We discovered there was a group of people checking out the old mines; they came and went, and were generally respectful. Told me they were doing research on the old gold mines of California."

"Gold? Is there still gold here?" Maybe...

"Oh, no, not enough to bother with. That was depleted long ago. But there's still a mystique, you know. So none of us saw it as anything unusual. In fact, we started referring to them as the '49'er's, kind of a joke, you know." Charlie shook his head, sadly. "If only we had known..."

"So these 'researchers' were actually working for Sinon."

"Yes, we figured that out after their representatives showed up, about a month after Ed came to us. They were polite at first, business-like. I told them we weren't interested in selling the mineral rights, and they thanked us and left. The next week, they were back. And the week after. Each time, a little more aggressive in their sales pitch.

"Finally, I told them, politely but firmly, that we were not interested now nor would we be in the future, and that they were not to come back. That's when the phone calls started. First to me, and then to some of the more influential members of the village. Still polite, for the most part, but aggressive. Again, we all refused. None of us wanted to see any mines reopened, or new ones dug.

"That's when they began the threats. Veiled, of course, so we couldn't press any charges or make any accusations without causing ourselves problems legally. And, of course, I was telling Ed about them. He didn't like it any more than the rest of us. The difference was, he seemed to know what to do about it. He offered a solution for us. He would purchase the rights himself, for a penny, and we would have, oh, what did he call it? First right or something. Anyway, he couldn't sell to anyone unless he gave the village the opportunity to purchase them back for the same amount first. It protected us, but not him. As soon as Sinon heard of the transaction, they began putting pressure on us to get at Ed. Up until this thing with Queenie, it was still just verbal, and vague."

"So when did you find out about us?"

Charlie chuckled ironically. "On your birthday, Colonel Smith..."


*****

BA looked out of the front door one more time, staring intently up the coulee toward Charlie's. Still no sign of the men, and it was getting late. Very late. He angrily shut the door and turned back to the living room. Murdock was seated on the couch, where he and BA had been pretending to play cards.

"Nothing yet?"

"Not a thing. I don't like it."

"Well, they would have a lot to discuss. If this guy has plans like Hannibal does, the two of them could go on for hours."

"Yeah, or he could've decided he didn't want Hannibal interfering - at all." BA scowled deeply, staring again at the front door.

"I don't think he'd do anything, BA. From what Charlie's said, he seems like kind of a milquetoast, if you know what I mean. All brains, no brawn. Besides, I don't think Charlie would let anyone violent stay around."

"Yeah, I know. Still...what if somethin happened on the way out there, or comin back? What if those goons followed 'em?"

"We're talking about Hannibal, BA. He wouldn't be caught short."

"Maybe. Before...no, he wouldn't. But he ain't thinkin straight any more. You know that."

Yes, Murdock knew that well enough. He sighed. BA seemed to be more on a level now; at least, he hadn't washed his hands again since Murdock talked to him. But it wasn't all over for him, and Murdock knew it. He also knew that Hannibal would be a whole other story. He was a lot more devious than BA would ever think of being, and his self-delusions would be a lot harder to break through.

BA stared at his cards for a few more minutes before tossing them on the table. He stalked to the front door, yet again staring out into the dark.

"I'm gonna go wake up Nick. Maybe he knows how to get out there."

"BA, he already told us he doesn't. Nobody knows except Charlie. Besides, it'd be pure hell trying to find our way over this terrain in the dark. And the van isn't exactly desert-ready."

BA sighed. Murdock was right. It didn't make him like it any better. He returned to his seat, picked up his cards and stared down at them.

It was going to be a really long night...


*****

"So once you knew who he really was, and about us, you decided to let him run with the ball, is that it? Figured he could hold off an entire corporation all on his own?"

"I knew from the minute I met him that he was intelligent, resourceful, determined. When he offered to buy the mineral rights, he told me he knew how to stop Sinon dead in their tracks, and I believed him. There was no craziness in that discussion, Colonel. He was as grounded as that cactus there. When I found out about you all, it just confirmed my belief in him. Yes, I decided to get you here, but not because he needed help with Sinon. I wanted you here because he needed you, whether he realized it or not."

Hannibal was pacing now. Charlie's description of Face when he first arrived was not easy to listen to, but his account of that night, with that 'sculpture'...that was insane. Good God...Charlie should have sent Face back to the hospital long ago. He didn't belong out here, falling into some kind of psycho world where dead animals were his only friends. But Charlie had let him stay, because Face knew how to deal with Sinon. Let him go crazy, just to save the damn village from what? A couple holes in the ground?

"You should've just told us, right from the start. We'd have come and gotten him, taken him home, before all this craziness started. Damn it, you saw what was happening and you just let it!"

Charlie remained calm. "I didn't just let it happen, Colonel. I talked to Sandy, asked her to find you. But by that time, you'd disappeared. Not knowing who you really were, we had no way of finding you. By the time I found out who he was, well, it was too late. He'd already gone too far around the bend. All I could hope was that bringing you together would keep it from being permanent."

"Doesn't explain why you didn't tell us right away."

"Because I didn't want you racing up here and dragging him away, or confronting him. I told you, Colonel, and I meant it - he's fragile. You saw what happened tonight. He left the trailer hours ago, and obviously he's been out in the desert since then. God knows what happened out there, considering what he looked like. And look how he reacted when you came up on him like you did. It doesn't take a genius to know he wasn't ready for you to be here, and didn't want you to be here. I should have tried preparing him for this before, but we had such a hard time finding you, getting you to respond, I had no idea when, or if, you'd ever get here."

"But if you had told us..." Hannibal was losing the last bit of patience.

"If I had told you, you would have barged in here just like you did tonight, regardless of what approach would have been best for Ed. I know your type, Colonel. You always know better than anyone else how things should be done, don't you? Your kind feeds off being in charge, calling the shots. Ed called what happened to him a 'miscalculation'. You and I both know better, don't we, Colonel? What happened to him was your ego!"

Hannibal turned fast and furiously, his impulse to put his fist right through Charlie's face. But he stopped, shaking with anger. And shame. Charlie was only echoing what he'd been telling himself for months. He turned away, staring at the trailer. Closed his eyes, trying to gain some control. He had to think, to plan. He had to find some way of salvaging...everything.

"Look, Colonel, I know this hasn't been easy for you." Charlie's tone was conciliatory, as if he were ashamed of his outburst. "Believe me, I have not only Ed's best interest at heart, but yours. You were together a long time, and I can't discount the loyalty and attachment I heard in his voice when he talked about you. But you need to follow my lead on this. Will you do that?"

Hannibal could only nod. What else was there to do?


*****

"The jeep's not back yet. They must still be out there."

"You better be right this time. Not telling us about these new guys was not a good move on your part."

"I didn't know anything about it, Les. I swear. Charlie and Nick played it close to the cuff on that. Not everyone knew they were coming."

"All right. I can't run up there in the daylight, but we'll take a swing over with the chopper. The yokels must be used to that by now."

"Yeah, no one will think anything of it, Les. I could try to follow the tracks if you want."

"Sure, and have someone see you? Real smart. You just keep your eye on those other two. I want to know everything they're doing, understand? Everything."

"No problem, Les."

Les hung up the phone. The guy was a real weasel, and he hated weasels. Maybe he'd use him as the next target at the village - send a little message home, as well as to the rest of that lot. In the meantime, he needed to get his pilot up in the air...


*****

Hannibal woke, stiff and sore, and more tired than he had been when he'd gone to sleep. At whatever the hell time that had been. Charlie had stationed himself on an air mattress next to Face's bed, giving Hannibal a couple of blankets and a sleeping bag he kept in the jeep. The floor of the trailer was hard, but Hannibal had slept worse places.

He listened for a few minutes to the soft voices coming from the radio. It was true; Face did not like having the radio off. Even in his drugged sleep, he'd gotten restless as soon as Hannibal had shut it off. Charlie, giving him that infuriating "I-told-you-so" look, had reached casually over and turned it back on, letting Face drift back to sleep.

Now, as he gradually came fully awake, he was aware of other noises as well. He looked over toward the couch; it was empty, and the air mattress was gone. He made out soft voices outside, and a dog's excited yap now and again. Groaning softly, he pushed himself up off the floor and headed outside.

Charlie was sitting on the camp stool from last night, talking quietly but earnestly to Face, who sat on Hannibal's stool in the shade of the Joshua tree. The dog lay by his feet, at least until Hannibal stepped out. Immediately the dog stood and commenced growling.

That would be the first change Hannibal made.

Charlie looked up at Hannibal, said something to Face. Instead of turning to look at him, Face sat up straighter, but kept his head down, to the side. Hannibal had the distinct feeling he was looking at an animal ready to rabbit at the first scent of danger. Not a good feeling.

Charlie laid his hand on Face's knee, said something more, to which Face only nodded. Standing, Charlie headed over to the door of the trailer, where Hannibal had waited, on instinct, until he was told to move.

"He's still a little groggy, and I can't guarantee how long the headache will leave him alone, but I've talked to him and he's willing to talk to you. Just take it easy, all right?"

"I know how to talk to my own man, Charlie."

"You just don't get it, do you, Colonel? That's not your man any more. He wants to be, but he also knows he can't be. Accept that. Accept him."

Hannibal just looked at Charlie before stepping around him and heading toward Face. He stopped when the damn dog started in again. Charlie called him, and reluctantly, he trotted past Hannibal and followed Charlie into the trailer.

He stood for a minute, looking down at Face. He wasn't wearing the eye patch yet; instead, he had a pair of dark sunglasses on, and a battered cowboy hat. Hannibal didn't expect an invitation to sit, and didn't wait for one.

"Well, Face. I'm glad to see you're alive and well." He tried to sound sincere, but a tinge of sarcasm came through. He could've bitten his tongue.

"I'm sorry, Hannibal." Face shifted uneasily on the stool. "I couldn't think of any other way."

"Any other way to do what, Face? If you needed some space, all you had to do was say so."

"It wasn't that. Not just that, anyway."

"Then what was it? Please, Face, I really want to understand what possessed you to go to such an extreme. Do you have any idea what that did to us? To BA? To Murdock? My God, we almost lost him again."

"I made him promise...to keep working..."

"You think that made any difference?"

"Charlie said he's here. That he seems okay."

"He's here, yes. And he's functioning. That's about all any of us are doing." Damn. Hannibal didn't want the conversation going this way. He didn't want to make Face feel guilty, he wanted him to come home. But he couldn't help the anger he felt at what Face had done. "Look, Face, I don't want to come down on you like this. I don't. I want you to come back with us. Where you belong. Then we can work all this out, together."

"I can't."

"Why not? Why cut yourself off like this? My God, Face, this isn't how you want to live."

"It is for now. I can't...I can't make it out there. Not any more."

"Bullshit. You've convinced yourself you can't, but it's not true. Sure, it's going to be rough for a while, but you'll have us backing you up. You don't have to hide away out here."

"I like it out here, Hannibal. There's no one to stare at me. No one telling me what to do. No one treating me like a child."

Hannibal straightened up at that. Eyes squinting, he glared at his lieutenant. "Is that what's bothering you? That I took charge? Well, someone had to. If I hadn't, you would've hidden away in your room, feeling sorry for yourself. Which is exactly what you've been doing out here. Hiding. Talking to bones, for God's sake. Indulging yourself in a fantasy world where everything's okay, because nobody looks at you. It didn't matter a damn bit what you put the rest of us through, as long as you were happy. That was more than just childish and selfish. That was cruel. To put Murdock through that, especially. What the hell were you thinking?"

Face's voice was so low Hannibal could hardly hear it.

"It was for the best, Hannibal. The way everybody was acting..."

"Everybody was under a lot of stress, Lieutenant. And you didn't make it any easier. I thought you had more fight in you. I thought you would at least try to make the best of it, but you wouldn't. All you could think of was what you lost. That wasn't the man I took into my unit."

"No, it wasn't, Hannibal. You're right about that. You wouldn't want me in your unit."

"That's not what I meant, and you know it. Damn it, Face, I'm trying to understand where you're coming from, but I can't. I just can't. If you would just come back with us, at least try to get your act together again...we'll help you, but you've got to try."

"I can't come back, Hannibal. Why can't you believe me? That's not my world any more. Maybe it never was."

Hannibal had had enough. Charlie was right about one thing. This wasn't his man any more. Face would never let himself get defeated like this. Face never just gave up. He stood abruptly.

"I'm going to have Charlie take me back to the village. We'll stick around long enough to take care of these goons for them, and then we're heading back to LA. If you decide you're willing to start living again, you're more than welcome to come with us. You just let Charlie know."

A few minutes later, an angry Charlie and an even angrier Hannibal headed off toward the jeep. Charlie made Face promise he would be at the trailer when he came back.

No one noticed the helicopter flying high overhead.