CHAPTER FORTY THREE

"Hey, yeah, this the, uh, Stowaway Motel? Yeah, hey, this is Agent Fulbright, FBI. We're lookin into a little problem you fellas had there the other night...Yeah, some of my colleagues shoulda been there...Oh, yeah? What's that? No, no, I didn't get a report..." Hannibal partially covered the mouthpiece and yelled toward the road, "Hey, Decker! Where's that report from the Stowaway? Well, get your ass in gear!" Grinning widely, he turned back to the phone. "Yeah, yeah, you know, government bureaucracy and all. So anyway, when did the agents show up?...Yeah, that was quick, all right. Listen, since I don't have their report right here, why don't you tell me what you told them, okay? Yeah..."

Moments later, Hannibal lit another cigar and grinned at his team. "Well, seems like a couple FBI agents showed up at the motel a few hours after we left. Clerk there gave them a blow by blow, including our mention of Reno. Yeah, these FBI guys were in a big hurry after that. Too big a hurry to check with the local constabulary."

"So, we know they're on their way to Reno. Now what?" Hannibal's grin faltered at the tone in Face's voice.

"So, I'll call the other places we stopped at and see if these guys have shown up yet. We made enough noise along the way, in all the obvious places, and if they're posing as FBI, they may just check in with the local authorities."

Face said nothing more, but leaned back in his seat and closed his eye. Hannibal looked at him for a moment. It wasn't hard to see that Face was getting exhausted, but Hannibal knew there was more to it than that. Not only was the Jazz missing; the all-business attitude seemed to be steadily moving into something almost...angry. He had a pretty good idea where that was coming from, too.

Clamping down on his cigar, Hannibal turned to the van's phone once again. Two more phone calls, and he sat back, grinning.

"Time to get set up, guys. Depending on how much time they waste at Eagle Lake, they should be here within the hour."

"How you figure that, Hannibal?"

"They found that little gas station, but haven't been to the cafe."

"So?" BA scowled. Sounded more like the guys had lost the trail.

"It was right after they got to the gas station that I called Nick. I did tell him to check his phone, but after I rather carelessly told him we were at Eagle Lake." Hannibal clapped his hands together. "I love it..."


*****

"How many?"

"Six. They'll meet us in the parking lot where the call was made. I don't expect to find Modake there, but we're not that far behind them now."

"You think they're hiding out at the lake?"

"No, they know someone's after them now, after that call to that Nick fella. They'll try to shake us off, then head back to LA. We just have to catch up before they can reach home ground. Shouldn't be a problem."

"You think we'll have enough men? These people have a reputation."

"But they're also off their game. This falling out they've had is affecting them badly. Like Smith letting it slip where they were; that's sloppy. No, they have a wounded man, a noncombatant at that, they're distracted, fighting amongst themselves - eight of us against that? It'll be a walk in the park." He looked at his partner, smiling grimly. "We'll get Mordake, take him back to our employers, and collect a nice, fat commission."

"What about the others?"

"That, my friend, is entirely up to them."


*****

Hannibal watched, smiling softly, as BA worked on the engine. Murdock stood nearby, quiet. Face was still in the van, ignoring all of them.

"They're not gonna be stupid enough to stick with just two guys, Hannibal. You know that."

"I know, BA. But we'll have the element of surprise on our side. They aren't going to expect to find the van broken down, abandoned. It'll give them pause, and that's when we hit them. Piece of cake, BA. Right?"

BA just looked up from his work, a skeptical frown on his face. Hannibal just grinned more. BA shook his head, slamming the hood down.

"Done, Hannibal. I'll head up the hill."

"Okay, BA. C'mon, Murdock. Let's get you and Face set up. I want everyone in place long before the scuzzballs get here."

Murdock nodded, preoccupied. Hannibal watched as he moved around the van to get Face. He wished he could have both men closer when the action started. Not that he didn't trust Murdock to do his job, limited as that was. He was more worried about the effect Face might have on him.

He was worried about the effect Face was having on all of them.

He came around the van and found Face already out, leaning heavily on Murdock, obviously favoring his bad leg. Hannibal immediately got concerned. He hadn't thought to actually check the wound after Face's performance at the motel. Too much adrenaline flowing at first, and after...well, Face hadn't seemed in any discomfort. Not until now.

"Face, you all right? We should probably change that dressing..."

"I'm fine. It's just a little stiff, that's all." Face wouldn't look at him, not even a glance. Murdock did, and shook his head. The two men moved off toward their position, leaving Hannibal standing. BA came over, wiping his hands, watching Hannibal.

"He'll be all right, Hannibal. They both will, once this is over and done. We'll go see that doctor, and things'll be better. You'll see."

"I hope you're right, BA. Because right now, I just see things falling apart. No matter what I try, no matter what I say."

"Well, maybe sometimes it's better not to do or say anything. Just let things go the way they're s'posed to."

"And if that means losing him? Or Murdock?"

BA looked down at the ground. "Maybe we already have, Hannibal. Have you thought of that?"

"Yes, I've thought of that, BA, but I'm not ready to give him up. Either of them. They've been part of this team too long. It'll be a cold day in hell before I let them go."

BA sighed as Hannibal stalked to the back of the van and started pulling out their weapons. Silently he took his automatic from the colonel and headed up to his position. Hannibal hauled two more rifles down to Murdock, who had just gotten Face safely concealed behind a low rock. Murdock lay one rifle down next to a thick bush, and slung the other over his shoulder.

"You two set?"

"Yeah, Colonel."

Hannibal looked down at Face, who sat back against the rock, staring off across the field toward the distant road. Without saying a word, he leaned down and lay Face's Colt on his lap. Face jumped, staring down at it.

"Watch yourself." Hannibal didn't wait for a reply, but headed determinedly up the hill to his own position.

Murdock watched Face for a moment. "Okay, muchacho?"

Face picked up the Colt, automatically checking the chamber. He glanced up at Murdock before staring back across the field.

"Just peachy, Murdock. Just peachy."


*****

"All right, stay spread out. If they're watching, we don't want to alert them to a convoy. We'll take the lead. Put a three minute interval between the vehicles. Anyone see anything, use the secure bandwidth and code. If they're spotted on the road, stay back unless you have to pass. Don't do anything to catch their attention. If you see them off-road, drive at least another mile before stopping. No one is to take them on until I give the signal. I don't want them taking us out, one by one. Until then, we're just tourists, nothing more. Understood?"

His men nodded. He looked at them, satisfied. Zealots, patriots, blending in until they were needed for little jobs like this. Practically bred to take orders. They would do as they were told, and those who survived would go back home, return to their cover lives, maintain those covers until they were needed again.

He shook his head. Cannon fodder, or sacrificial lambs? Depended on which side you were on. All he knew, all he cared about, was that these men would do what was needed to complete the mission, regardless of personal safety. Despite his earlier words to his partner, he was not taking Colonel John Smith for granted. Once the element of surprise was gone, he had no doubt they would be facing seasoned soldiers, fighting for their existence. And, off their game or not, they could make mincemeat out of his men if given the chance.

He just had to make sure they didn't get that chance.


*****

BA could see the road from his vantage point, and he kept an eye on it. He wished he knew what these guys were driving, but unfortunately, no one had paid attention to that. How many were coming? How much armament did they carry?

How determined were they?

BA was nervous and he didn't like that. He couldn't feel the Jazz playing, not in himself, not in Hannibal. None of them. And, for possibly the only time since that first foray under Hannibal's leadership, he wondered if they would come out of this one.

It was maybe an hour later that he knew they were coming. He'd seen several vehicles go by on the road, none of which seemed to pay any attention to the van. But then he saw them. Two, maybe three guys, sneaking through the tall grass, Face and Murdock between them and the van.

Damn!

He looked around, and saw two more, coming from the north, heading toward the van. A jeep suddenly came down the road from the north, and he recognized it as having passed by, going the other direction, nearly a half hour before. It parked several yards behind the van, and two men stepped cautiously from it.

With a sinking feeling, he cautiously looked to his right, farther up the hill he and Hannibal were on. Sure enough, he spotted the muzzle of an automatic rifle, pointing down toward the van.

Damn...