Author's Note: As you can probably tell, this story was inspired by the third Bourne movie. I was watching Jason Bourne running through the streets of Tangier and I thought, 'I bet Face would love it there!' A few years and a lot of iterations later, this is what I came up with. I have never been to Tangier or any of the other exotic locations in the story, so you can thank Wikipedia for what I got right and blame my own ignorance for what I got wrong.
I hope you enjoy it! - Chevy
The Peck Ultimatum
A dockyard tavern, Marseilles
The two men crouched over a table in the very darkest corner of the room. They kept their heads together and their collars turned up to hide the movement of their lips, clearly shielding themselves from curious eyes, while the rest of the bar's customers ignored them. Both were dressed as Marseilles dock workers and both spoke French, though one had a distinctly British accent and the other clearly hailed from somewhere in Scandinavia.
The Norseman slid a manila envelope across the scarred tabletop toward his companion. The Brit cast a wary look about the dim, filthy room and row of indifferent backs turned upon them, then he flipped back the flap of the envelope and slid out a thin sheaf of papers.
On top lay a dossier—one concise page of dates, names and facts—that he digested at a glance. He turned up the dossier to find an 8x10 glossy beneath it. This he took more time with, studying the features of the man in the picture with apparent detachment until he had them memorized.
"This is the asset?"
"You must be certain. There can be no mistake."
"My source is completely reliable."
"This man is American, U.S. Army Special Forces."
"He was. Now he's a fugitive, a mercenary who lives by selling his talents."
"Not by killing." The Brit let the top sheet fall back in place to hide the photo and extended the papers to the other man. "Go back to your source and tell him to try again."
The Scandinavian did not so much as glance at the dossier being thrust so dismissively at him. "You asked me for the name of the assassin and I've given it to you. What you do with that name is your affair, but you would be a fool to ignore it. That is, if you want this diplomat your government thinks so highly of to survive another week."
He pushed back his chair and made as if to stand, but the Brit stopped him with a raised hand.
Obediently, a half-smile playing about his thin lips, he sank back into his chair while his companion studied the dossier again.
The Brit looked more than a little doubtful when he lifted his eyes to the other man's face again. "You're absolutely sure of your source?"
"It just doesn't make sense. Why would such a man turn assassin? He's an idealist, a romantic, by all accounts."
"That's the legend his team has written for itself, certainly, and perhaps it is true for some of them. But for this one?" He lifted the dossier to expose the picture once more. "I think not. According to my intelligence, this one does it for the thrill of the game, not for idealistic principles, and after a few years of playing Robin Hood, it gets harder and harder to find the thrill."
"Are you saying that he went from saving the world to killing for hire because he was bored?"
"Bored, restless." He shrugged. "Broke, perhaps. A lifestyle such as his does not come cheap."
The Brit gnawed his lip for another moment, then he slid the dossier back into its envelope and tucked that into his heavy pea coat. "Where is he?"
"Somewhere in North Africa, according to our last report. He shook off our surveillance in Tunisia and hasn't surfaced since."
"Which means that he could be in Cairo already."
"If that is where he means to do the job."
"The way this man of yours travels, it could be anywhere. The Middle East, the Far East, on vacation in Fiji… who is to say where the bullet will find him?"
"We have sources, as well, and they tell us it's Cairo. Now you tell me that our asset is somewhere in North Africa, possibly in Cairo, and that only confirms our intelligence."
The Scandinavian shrugged again, dismissing the subject as uninteresting, and asked, "What will you do with the asset when you find him?"
The Brit gave him an odd look and said, woodenly, "That is not for me to decide."
"These Americans are dangerous and unpredictable." The Scandinavian grinned and pushed back his chair, rising to his feet to tower over the seated man. He leaned over to bring his mouth close to the other man's ear, then he said, very precisely, "Kill him, if you get the chance. It is the only way."
Without waiting for a reaction from his companion, he turned and began to thread his way through the crowded tables toward the door.
Out on the street, the tall, white-blond man in the oversized coat looked a good deal more conspicuous than he had in the darkness of the bar. He flipped up his collar against the desultory rain and shoved his hands—long, white hands that had never hauled on a line or rigged a fishing net in their lives—into his pockets. Turning to his left, he strode along the wharf until he found a sunken doorway that opened onto a deserted courtyard. He huddled into the shelter of the doorway, pulled a cell phone from his pocket and speed-dialed.
The moment the line opened, he said in Norwegian, "It is done. Tell him we're moving."
"Are you sure?" the voice on the other end asked, a touch nervously.
"Quite sure. He balked a little at first, but eventually swallowed the bait whole. He'll have all of MI6 hunting for our decoy within the hour."
"Then we'd best get the decoy in place."
"Yes. Contact Jarl's team. Tell them to move at once. Then call the airfield and have them prepare for the cargo." He smile coldly and added, "The sooner we get the British out of Cairo, the sooner we can drop on the target. And the sooner Mr. K will have satisfaction."
"I'll make the call at once. Where are you going to be?"
"On a train for Gibraltar."
"Very good. I'll contact you when the plane is in the air."
The false Frenchman snapped the phone closed and tucked it into his pocket once more. After casting a wary glance up and down the street, to be sure no one was watching, he climbed out of the sunken doorway and sauntered off down the wharf, whistling a satisfied tune.
A street, rural California
Hannibal approached the small, nondescript car warily, gazing intently down the street in either direction as he sidled up to the passenger door. He paused to scan the street one more time, then he stooped to peer through the window. The man inside was slumped against the glass, his head turned so that Hannibal could not see his face.
"They in there?" B.A. asked from behind him.
"Someone is." He rapped on the glass with one gloved knuckle, but the slumped head did not move. "Go round the other side and have a look."
B.A. grunted and headed around the front of the rental car. At the same time, Hannibal hit a button on his cell phone and cocked his head to listen. Both men heard a faint beeping from inside the vehicle.
"Who'd you call?" B.A. asked.
The corporal bent to look in the window, shading his eyes with one hand to cut the glare. "The phone's on the seat. I can see it lighting up. But that ain't Faceman in there."
Hannibal tried the door handle. It was locked.
"It's Murdock. And he's bleeding!"
"Shit!" Hannibal growled. He tried the door again, to no avail, then stuffed the phone into his pocket and drew an automatic pistol. "Is he in there alone?"
Hannibal swore again and tried the rear door. "Get us into that car, Big Man! I can't shoot out a window without bringing half the city down on us!"
"Hang on, Boss."
B.A. started down the street at a run, headed for the van parked at the end of the block. Hannibal watched him in seething impatience but knew enough of his teammate to trust that he had a reason for his desertion. A few moments later, B.A. returned with a jimmy in his hands. Hannibal followed him around to the driver's side and watched as he deftly slipped the latch on the door.
Hannibal immediately pushed past him and climbed into the car. He found Face's cell phone lying on the front seat, just as B.A. had described, but no other sign of his XO. Murdock lay huddled against the passenger door, unconscious, with blood oozing sluggishly from a cut along his hairline and vivid bruises forming on his cheekbone and jaw. He looked as if he'd been beaten pretty badly, but when Hannibal felt for a pulse, it was strong and steady.
Twisting around to catch B.A.'s eye, he smiled fleetingly. "He's okay. Just out cold from a blow on the head."
"Must've been one Hell of a blow to put Murdock out. Can't nothin' make a dent in the crazy man's skull."
Hannibal grunted in agreement, his eyes raking the interior of the car for other clues. A pile of bags and equipment filled the back seat, evidence that Face and Murdock had nearly completed their errand. If it weren't for the blood and bruises on Murdock's face, Hannibal might have suspected that his lieutenant had been tempted by a pretty pair of legs and left Murdock to finish the job. But even at his most overheated, Face would not hurt Murdock. Nor would he completely blow off Hannibal's instructions and disappear without a word or a trace.
No, Face must have been gone or completely disabled by the time Murdock was attacked, or he would have stepped in to help and shed some blood of his own on the upholstery. Had Murdock tried to protect Face and been beaten for it? Had Face gone with their assailants willingly to save Murdock? Had both men been jumped somewhere else, and Murdock shoved into the car when he was already unconscious? Above all, where was Face?
All of this passed through Hannibal's head in a handful of seconds. Before B.A. could grow restless or wonder what his colonel was thinking, Hannibal was moving again. He slid as close to Murdock as the cramped interior would allow and reached past him to unlock the passenger door.
"Help me get him out. We'll put him in the van, then I want to search this car top to bottom. There has to be some sign of…"
Murdock groaned and rolled his head, leaving a smear of blood on the window.
B.A. muttered a curse and ran around the car. Hannibal caught Murdock's shoulders, supporting him, as B.A. wrenched open the other door, then he surrendered the limp body of his friend into B.A.'s waiting arms.
"It's okay, Murdock, I gotcha," B.A. murmured soothingly, as he lifted Murdock out of the car and laid him gently on the sidewalk. "Talk to me, man. Talk to me."
"Unghh…" Murdock groaned again, his eyes flickering open briefly. "Who…?"
"It's me, man, Bosco. You're okay now."
At the sound of Hannibal's voice, Murdock tried again to drag his eyes open, with more success this time. "Boss."
"Where are you hurt?"
"Ngh… head. My head." He reached up to touch the gash above his left eye and pulled his fingers away smeared with blood. "It hurts."
"You took a good, solid hit. Does anything else hurt?"
"No." His eyes lingered on B.A.'s face in dazed confusion, then suddenly the fog seemed to clear and they snapped wide open. "Face! Where's Face?!"
"We don't know."
"Take it easy," B.A. chided, as the injured pilot tried to sit up.
"They got him! Oh, Jesus, I tried to stop them, but two of 'em jumped me and Face was out cold…" He tried again to sit up but collapsed back on the pavement with a heartfelt groan.
"Slow down," Hannibal urged. "Start from the beginning. Who got Face?"
"I don't know! There were at least three of 'em—big dudes in running suits, with sidearms under their jackets."
"We were sitting in the car, going over the list to make sure we got everything." He levered himself upright, throwing off B.A.'s restraining hand, and clutched at his head as he struggled to piece together his thoughts. "Someone knocked on the window. Face rolled it down to talk to him, then just… slumped over the wheel. I got outta the car fast, but there were two more of 'em on the sidewalk."
"They beat you up?" B.A. growled, his eyes burning with rage.
"Only when the trank didn't work. One of 'em stuck a needle in my neck and shot me full of some sleepy juice. I just laughed and took a swing at the guy. He didn't like that."
When Murdock broke off, Hannibal prompted, "And then?"
"Nothing. The next thing I remember is Bosco pulling me outta the car." He shot Hannibal a pleading look and mumbled, "I'm sorry, Boss Man."
"You've got nothing to be sorry for, son." Hannibal gripped his shoulder for a moment, then he climbed to his feet and offered Murdock a hand up. "Let's get off the street and go over this more carefully. There has to be a clue, here. And a reason."
"What about Faceman?" Murdock asked, his eyes wide and wounded.
"We'll find him. I promise you that."
"Before they kill him?"
"We don't know that's what they plan to do. Let's not go down that road until we have to."
"Why else would they grab 'im?" B.A. asked, his gruff voice doing nothing to mask his distress.
Hannibal just shook his head and strode off down the sidewalk.
MI6 Headquarters, London
Agent Cartwright sat in the elegant, wood-paneled office, his dockworker's overalls and peacoat exchanged for a tailored suit, his face weary from hours of travel, waiting patiently for the man on the other side of the desk to finish reading. The Minister was a handsome, polished man, his expression as impassive as his silver hair was immaculate. To all outward appearances, he was the perfect politician—slick, charming and insincere—but the agents who served under him knew that his polished exterior concealed a fierce intelligence and ruthless patriotism. This was a difficult man to read and an even more difficult one to persuade, but Cartwright had set himself the task of doing just that.
He'd spent all the hours on the train between Marseilles and London considering his options, trying to decide just what he believed and how far he was willing to go to prove it. And weighing the risks he was taking. After all, if he was wrong, he would not only give an international assassin the chance to escape, but he would likely sacrifice the life of a top-flight British diplomat in the process. But if he was right…
The Minister lifted the top sheet to gaze at the photo beneath for a moment, then he let the page fall again and raised his eyes to meet the pair fixed so intently on him. For a heartbeat, he said nothing.
"Well?" Cartwright prompted.
"Well, what? What am I to make of this?"
"Do you believe it?"
"I see no reason not to. Your source has proved reliable in the past, and we paid handsomely for this intelligence. Why would he mislead us?"
"I don't know the answer to that, but he has. Or is trying to do so."
One distinguished silver eyebrow rose at that, and the Minister tossed the dossier onto the desktop. "You sound very sure of yourself."
"I am. Sir, I've met Templeton Peck, and he's no more a cold-blooded killer than I am."
The Minister smiled slightly. "Considering our line of work, I'm not sure you want to draw that parallel."
"I've killed men, certainly, but only when forced to it. When my duty and the interests of my country required it, or when my own life depended on it. Not for money, and certainly not out of boredom."
"And you believe that Peck shares your moral code. Your sense of duty."
"Because you met once." The Minister leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs. "The Kasza affair, wasn't it?"
"That was when? 2000? Your first field assignment?"
"You met Peck once, more than a decade ago, and spoke to him for all of thirty seconds."
"And you're prepared to discard valuable information from a proven source because you exchanged a few words with the man all those years ago and… what? Liked him? Trusted him?"
"I liked him, certainly, but that's his stock in trade. Everyone likes him."
"A con artist," the Minister said dismissively.
"The very best." Cartwright grinned at the memory of his brief meeting with the irrepressible Templeton Peck and the effect it had had on him—still had on him—in spite of his native caution and cynicism. "But that's my point, sir. He's a con artist, not a killer."
"He's also a soldier, and soldiers kill."
"Granted. But the good ones do not kill for fun."
"We're talking in circles, here, Cartwright. What, precisely, are you asking me to do? Authorize you to ignore this intelligence and let Peck walk free in… where is he, anyway?"
"We don't know yet, but I have I-Branch looking for him."
"Excellent. Find him, remove him, and focus your efforts on protecting our man in Cairo."
"You know protocol as well as I do, Cartwright."
"We can't shoot a man on the evidence of one source!"
The silver eyebrows rose at that. "Can't we?"
"Not when that source is suspect."
"We pay our sources to give us intel we can trust."
"But we do not blindly accept what they tell us, with no thought for the consequences. Minister, please, consider what you're suggesting. You want me to have a member of the A-Team executed out of hand, with no real evidence to suggest that he's a threat. Do you have any idea what kind of hell that would unleash?"
For the first time, the Minister seemed unsure of himself. He frowned and shifted in his leather chair. "Hannibal Smith would have our guts for garters."
"That's putting it mildly."
"And our intel?" the Minister said.
"This?" Cartwright flicked his fingers disdainfully at the dossier that lay in the middle of the blotter. "This isn't worth the paper it's printed on. Anyone with a word processor and a vivid imagination could have produced it."
The Minister gazed at him for a long, silent minute. Then he leaned forward to retrieve the dossier and flipped up the top sheet to look at the photo beneath it. "What if you're wrong, and Peck is our assassin?"
"He moves on our man in Cairo, we intercept him, and we take him out."
"If we can. We're talking about one of the most highly-trained, unpredictable, flat-out dangerous covert operatives in the world."
"I'm well aware of that, sir."
"If he's gone rogue, he's a threat the like of which you've never faced before."
"And if he hasn't, he's a target. Just like our man in Cairo."
"You understand the risk you're taking?" The Minister's cold, grey eyes bored into him. "The livesyou're gambling with?"
"Ian, I'll ask you once more. Are you sure about this?"
Cartwright swallowed, squared his shoulders, and said the words that could end his career. "Yes, sir."
The Minister held his eyes for another burning minute, then he abruptly settled back in his chair, breaking the tension between them. "All right. I'll go along with it, for now, but at the first wrong move from Peck, he's dead. No hesitation, no second chances."
"What's your next step?"
"Find Peck, follow him, and see what crawls out of the wainscoting."
"You think he's more than just a decoy?"
"I think someone wants him dead. And that someone wants MI6 to do his wet work for him."
"Based on what?"
"Something the source said. He urged me to kill Peck, if I got the chance. Now, why would he do that unless he had a vested interest in having him dead?"
"It seems a needlessly complicated way to go about it when a simple bullet in the head would suffice."
"Not if you factor Hannibal Smith into the equation. No one in his right mind would kill one of Smith's men without covering his tracks."
"Hm." The Minister digested that, his face as impassive as ever, then said, "Follow Peck, by all means, but don't neglect our man in Cairo. He has to be your first priority."
"Of course, sir."
"And if you're right about Peck, there's still an unknown assassin hunting him."
"I'm well aware, sir."
"I assume you're looking into the source that fingered Peck?"
"I am. We're combing his file for some link to the A-Team, but we've found nothing yet."
"What do the Americans have to say about it? If anyone knows what connection Peck has to your source, our friends in Langley will. They must have a dossier a meter thick on him by now."
Cartwright smiled wryly. "I haven't asked them yet. I've been putting it off."
The Minister raised an eyebrow at him. "Afraid to paint yet another target on his back?"
He shrugged elegantly. "It's your operation, Ian. You have my support, for what that's worth. But I give you fair warning that if our man in Cairo ends up dead, it will be worth precisely nothing. And if Peck ends up dead… well, I'll let you explain it to Hannibal Smith."
Cartwright broke out in a wide grin. "Thank you, sir."
A flat, Tangier
The first thing Face noticed when he woke up was the pain in his head. The second thing was the foul taste in his mouth, like he'd been licking the insides of old tennis shoes. But the third and most unsettling thing—the thing that drove out all other considerations, including his shattering headache—was the complete and total strangeness of his surroundings.
With a groan and a curse, he rolled over to stare at the ceiling above him. It was dirty white plaster, with a wooden fan turning sluggishly in the middle of it and a delicate pattern of cracks decorating it like a huge spider web. The air felt hot and heavy, and the fan did not seem able to move it. He sucked in a deep breath and promptly began to cough as the fetid air caught at the back of his throat.
Rolling onto his side, he buried his face in the mattress beneath him and coughed until his sides ached. It was not the smell that set him off, he knew, but traces of some gas or drug in his lungs that his body desperately wanted to be rid of. He could feel the effects of it in his swimming head, behind his swollen and burning eyes, on his furry tongue. Years of experience told him that he'd been drugged and unconscious for hours—maybe even days—and had hours more of misery ahead of him before the drugs left his system.
The smell, now… the smell was tantalizingly familiar to him. He recognized it instantly as the powerful reek of a large, sun-baked, unwashed city. But this was a city that he had visited before, a reek he had tasted and even enjoyed on another occasion. Sooner or later, when he felt a bit less disgusting and could breathe without hacking up bloody lung chunks, he'd remember. In the meantime, his number one priority was to remain conscious and try to inspect his surroundings without moving any part of himself other than his eyeballs.
He lay on a bed—that much was obvious even to his battered senses. The quilt that covered it was a hideous shade of orange-yellow, but it was worn soft and smooth with age and felt comforting under his cheek. When he ventured to let his gaze wander a bit, he saw a tiny, shabby room with plaster walls and a scarred wooden floor strewn with moth-eaten rugs. A desk, a chair and a lamp were the only other pieces of furniture. Beyond the desk, a door opened on a minuscule bathroom that was entirely lined with brightly-colored tile.
Something about that tile, with its vivid pattern in blue and yellow, made Face forget all about his illness and brought him abruptly upright. He swung his feet off the mattress and sat, staring intently, trying to dredge up a memory from the fuddled recesses of his brain. He had seen this bathroom before, or one just like it, and it fit together in his mind with the suffocating heat and the pungent city smells. He knew this place. He knew it! If he could only remember…
Pushing himself to his feet, he padded in his socks across the room to stand in the bathroom door and stare at the tile. Nothing came to him, so he crossed the room again to the window behind the bed. The white gauze curtains were closed. He brushed them open and looked down on a teeming hive of narrow streets, sun-bleached buildings and hurrying mobs of people. Lifting his eyes, he saw the city fall away toward a shocking blue crescent of ocean.
"Tangier," he murmured. "Holy shit, I'm in Tangier." Or someplace so much like it that he couldn't tell the difference from here. The shape of the harbor looked right, as did the skyline of the medina above it. And the smell… that powerful, rank, lovely Moroccan smell!
Back in his Army days, when Hannibal had sent him here on a covert mission, Face had embraced Tangier with all the passionate delight of a rogue who had found his true home. The city had, throughout its history, attracted rascals and villains, artists and outcasts, freebooters, freelancers and pirates of every kind. Face had belonged from the moment his feet touched the sandy soil.
Now he was back. He didn't know how or why, but he was back. And no matter what awaited him, he could not be sorry.
Another flat, Tangier
Directly across the street, at a window on a level with Face's, a pair of high-powered field glasses poked through the gauze curtains, trained unwaveringly on the figure standing in the opposite window. Behind them sat a large, nondescript man in a rumpled, sweat-stained linen shirt. He had his elbows propped on the windowsill to support the heavy glasses, a bottle of water and a cell phone lying next to him. He held his breath as Face's gaze swept past him, hoping the vista of the city and harbor would draw his attention away from the dingy building across the street. When Face grinned and stepped back, letting the curtains fall closed, he let out a silent sigh of relief and reached for the cell phone.
It rang twice and the line clicked open. A cold voice said, "Eagle's Nest."
"Hatchling One. He's awake."
Face's flat, Tangier
Turning to survey his room, Face decided that it was not really so ugly as he had first thought. In fact, it had a scruffy, sweaty, bug-bitten charm to it that brought a gleaming smile to his face. The sight of a plastic water bottle on the desk widened the smile into a full-blown grin and sent him hurrying over to grab it. He knew better than to drink water from the tap, but this was imported European spring water in a sealed bottle, and his parched mouth cried out for a drink.
He broke the lock on the cap and tilted the bottle to his lips, downing half its contents in a few long swallows. The water not only slaked his thirst. It also cleared his head and sobered him a little. He looked around the room yet again, as he sipped thoughtfully from the bottle, and his brows drew together in a frown. Then, with a decisive gesture, he capped the water bottle, set it on the desk, and proceeded to search the apartment from top to bottom. What he found only served to deepen his frown and his confusion.
His abductors had gone to some lengths to make it look as if he'd been living here. In the kitchen he found cartons of leftover take-out food in the refrigerator and a single place-setting of dishes drying on the counter. The closet was full of clothes—not his own, but in his size and far more appropriate to this climate than what he currently wore. And the desk contained the most perplexing collection of all: a passport, a cell phone, a pile of money and a handgun.
Face sat on the bed and surveyed the items spread out in front of him, chewing thoughtfully on his lip. The weapon he inspected and set aside very quickly. It had a full clip of 9mm ammunition and, as far as he could tell without actually firing it, worked perfectly.
The money gave him more pause. It was an odd mixture of U.S. dollars, euros and Moroccan dirhams, each type of currency sorted by denomination and tied in neat bundles. Face estimated that he had the equivalent of $50,000 in front of him. He rifled each bundle carefully, looking for tracking devices, sequential serial numbers, or anything else that might shed some light on his predicament. Finally he decided that the money was not obviously marked, and he set it aside as well.
The passport held him fascinated for several minutes, as he studied and pondered it. Apparently, he was traveling under the name of Michel Varens, resident of Paris, arrived in Tangier by way of Rome and Casablanca. Flipping back through the pages, he saw stamps from nearly every country around the Med and most of Europe. Monsieur Varens had also been touring the Far East in recent years and the U.S. He was a very well-traveled man, it seemed. And he bore a striking resemblance to Templeton Peck. In fact, the picture might have been stolen from one of the forged passports Face habitually kept on hand for emergencies. But how? And why?
He turned last to the cell phone. It had only a few numbers stored in it, all of them European or African and none of them familiar to him. It also had several old calls and text messages logged. Face opened the most recent text and just stared at it, while a prickle of recognition went down his spine.
"I've seen this in a movie," he murmured to the uncaring phone. "That's it. I'm starring in a spy movie, and no one told me."
A street, Tangier
At a sidewalk cafe in the medina, another anonymous individual with more muscle than visible personality sat, sipping Arabic coffee and watching the colorful mixture of tourists and locals that filled the narrow street. When the cell phone lying on the table beside him buzzed for his attention, he set down his coffee cup and lifted it to read the incoming text. No change of expression gave a hint of his thoughts as he pocketed the phone, tossed a few coins onto the table top, and rose to his feet.
He strode down the street, parting the crowd with his formidable bulk, and turned into the doorway of a European bank. Two minutes later, he came out again, folding a thick sheaf of bills and tucking them into his pocket. With one reflexive glance up and down the street, he headed toward the port.
A rented house, rural California
A burst of tinny music cut through the darkness and jolted Hannibal out of an exhausted slumber. It was the first sleep he'd managed in the 48 hours since Face's disappearance, and he desperately needed it to keep his brain operating at peak capacity. But even asleep, he was so tightly wound and tuned to trouble that the first notes brought him instantly awake.
He rolled over and fumbled at the nightstand until he located the source of the noise. Lifting it, he squinted sourly at the lit screen, only slowly grasping the fact that it was Face's cellphone—the one he'd found lying on the car seat—and it was playing a Steely Dan song. A split second later, he recognized the significance of the song and the number displayed on the screen. His annoyance abruptly turned to heart-pounding excitement.
Thumbing open the line, he barked, "This is Smith."
A moment of startled silence met this announcement, then Charissa Sosa's voice spoke in his ear, "Smith? What are you doing with Face's phone?" Without waiting for an answer, she snapped, "I need to talk to him. Put him on."
His excitement abruptly chilled and he felt every hour of their fruitless search come crashing down on his shoulders again. "He isn't here."
"I need to get in touch with him. It's important!"
"So do I. When I saw your number, I hoped…"
He broke off, and Sosa jumped into the gap. "Hoped what?"
"You had him."
"Had him?" Her voice scaled up in alarm. "What do you mean, had him? What the hell's going on, here, Smith?!"
"No, you go first. Tell me what's so urgent that you had to talk to Face at four o'clock in the morning!"
Another, longer silence answered him. When Sosa finally spoke, the angry edge had gone from her voice, leaving it tense and unhappy. "I called to warn him about a conversation I had with our old friend, Lynch."
"You mean the bastard who tried to kill us?"
"No, the one who arrested the bastard who tried to kill you."
"That's not much better. Why is the Company interested in Face?"
Sosa answered in a tight, clipped way that betrayed her distress. "The CIA has heard rumors that Face is doing wet work."
Hannibal felt as if he'd just been punched in the stomach. He fought to breathe around the shock, then found his voice again and exploded, "He's what?!"
"Yeah. That was my reaction."
"Face? An assassin?!"
A noise from the doorway drew Hannibal's gaze, and he looked up to see Murdock and B.A. standing there. They both looked exhausted but fully awake and appalled at what they'd just heard. Hannibal obligingly hit the speaker button and let Sosa's voice fill the room.
"I told Lynch it was impossible. But now you tell me that Face isn't with you…"
The doubt in her tone set Hannibal's brain ablaze with fury and he fairly snarled at her, "He's not here because someone kidnapped him! We've been turning over every rock in the state, looking for some trace of him, afraid we'd find him dead in a ditch somewhere! And now you call me at four o'clock in the morning to ask if my XO is off killing people! Are you completely insane?!"
"I didn't say I believed it."
"But you just had to ask, didn't you? That's really rich, after the last time you jumped to the wrong conclusions about him—about all of us. I'd have thought you'd learned your lesson!"
"I did. Smith, please, listen to me!" Hannibal shut his teeth with a snap and waited, audibly fuming but saying nothing. "I don'tbelieve Face is killing people! I don't! But he's in serious trouble!"
"Ya think?" Hannibal shot back, sourly.
"Let 'er tell it, Boss," B.A. said softly from his post by the door. Beside him, Murdock nodded frantically.
Hannibal sighed, expelling his rage with his breath, and said, "Sorry, Captain, you're right. So talk to me. Where are these rumors are coming from?"
"The Brits? What have they got against Face?"
"Nothing. That's why they wanted confirmation of the rumors before they took action. Apparently—and this is coming to me third hand—they got intel from a contact in Europe that Face was hired to kill a British diplomat."
"The agent who received the tip-off actually knows you. He worked with you and Face back in the early 2000s…"
"Did you get a name?"
"No. Lynch was being pretty cagey. But I got the impression that he knows this agent and trusts him."
"What did he say when his friend floated this ludicrous idea?"
"As little as possible. He promised to learn what he could about Face's activities and report back. Then he called me."
"To get your reaction to the rumors?"
"That, and…" She broke off, clearly weighing her words, then went on. "He knows I'm making this call. He's counting on me to warn you and give you what little intel we have, so you can keep Face out of harm's way."
"Except that you're too late. He's already in it."
"Which begs the question…"
"What are we going to do about it?" He uttered a harsh bark of laughter. "We're going to find him and we're going to pull him out of the shit, like we always do. Then we're going to find the people responsible for putting him there and take them down."
Hannibal waited for a response that didn't come, then prompted, "Was that what you wanted to hear?"
"So, we're on the same page?"
"Is there anything else you can tell me that would help us track down Face?"
"No. Everyone is being very tight-lipped about this. They're all spooks who live by guarding their secrets."
"Damn them and their secrets! I've got a man to find!" Hannibal thought for a moment, then said, more calmly, "Call Lynch. Tell him that Face was grabbed and 'disappeared' by unidentified hostiles, and make sure he passes that along to his contact at MI6. I want every one of those spooks, from Langley to London to Outer Mongolia, to know that the rumors are lies, that Face is not their shooter, and that if anything happens to him there'll be hell to pay."
"Then tell him that I expect to hear from him if he gets a line on Face's location. Same goes for you, Sosa. You hear anything, you call. Night or day. Got it?"
"Got it. Any idea who this agent is? The one who reached out to Lynch?"
"Maybe. I'll think on it." He hesitated for a moment, then said earnestly, "Thank you, Captain. I know what you're putting on the line to help us."
"Just find him, Smith. Before someone puts a bullet in his head."
"Count on it."
Sosa gave a wordless grunt that may have been a farewell and the line went dead.
Hannibal lifted his gaze from the phone in his hand to the two men standing in the doorway. B.A. cleared his throat and looked away to conceal the distress in his eyes, while Murdock asked in a husky voice,
"What next, Boss? How're we gonna find 'im?"
Shoving back the blankets, Hannibal bounded to his feet, full of a grim energy and purpose. "We've been thinking too small, boys. MI6, foreign diplomats, shadowy organizations spreading dangerous rumors… This is an international job, not some local trouble."
"And this is good?"
"Having a direction is good, even if it leads places we don't like." He headed for the kitchen, his men trailing unhappily behind him.
"Have you got a plan?" Murdock asked, as the colonel pulled a steaming pot from the coffee maker. Clearly, none of them had thought to shut it off before they tumbled into bed in the wee hours of the morning and the resulting brew was the consistency of melted tar. Hannibal produced mugs from a cupboard and began pouring coffee as he talked.
"Only the beginnings of one, but that's more than I had ten minutes ago."
"You gonna share it with us?" B.A. asked.
"I'll tell you this much. We've been looking in the wrong place. We aren't going to find Faceman in some barn in the California countryside."
"Yeah," the corporal said heavily, "Now we got all of Europe to search."
"Like I said, we've got a direction to go in. We'll start by finding out how they got him out of the country."
"Must've been by air," Murdock said hopefully.
Hannibal nodded. "As soon as the sun is up, we'll hit every airfield in a hundred mile radius of town. We'll identify the plane, find out where it was headed, and take it from there. Sosa can help."
"I ain't gettin' on no plane, man," B.A. insisted.
Hannibal smiled humorlessly at this knee-jerk reaction. "You will if Face needs you. Cheer up, Big Man. We're not flying anywhere before breakfast."
The corporal sank into a chair and accepted the cup of coffee Hannibal offered him. "One of these days, I may just refuse to get on that plane, no matter how much Faceman needs me."
"But not today."
"No." B.A. took a sip of coffee and rumbled quietly, "Not today."
Face's flat, Tangier
Face felt like shit. He would gladly have crawled back into bed and slept for another eighteen hours, until the last of the poison had left his system, but he knew he didn't have that luxury. He had to get away from this very exposed apartment and contact Hannibal. Somehow.
The first order of business was food. He found a carton of lamb tagine in the refrigerator and sniffed suspiciously at it. The moment the scent reached him, he decided that he didn't care if it was drugged. He wolfed it down so fast that he barely tasted it and felt better almost instantly.
The next order of business was a shower. He cranked on the hot water in the colorful, shabby bathroom and stood under the spray until he'd steamed most of the remaining drugs out of his pores. Then he scrubbed himself thoroughly, hoping not only to remove days of accumulated dirt, but to destroy any electronic devices that may have been secreted about his person. Anything that remained untouched by his lengthy soak was simply too well hidden to reach, and therefore not worth stressing about.
Unfortunately, he could not give his clothing the same treatment as his body. He dismissed without consideration the garments hanging in the closet. Maybe they had tracking or listening devices stitched into the seams; maybe they didn't. Either way, he wouldn't have them. That left the very disreputable suit he'd been wearing when he was captured. It looked bad and smelled worse. And, of course, there was no guarantee that his mysterious abductors hadn't electronically tagged it, as well. But he preferred garments of his own choosing, no matter what their condition.
Wearing a slight grimace of distaste, he dressed in his creased slacks and rumpled shirt, leaving the jacket as both inappropriate and unnecessary in this climate. Then he shoved the roll of bills into his pocket and headed out the door, whistling.
Cartwright's flat, London
Agent Cartwright sat at the desk in his London flat, studying the file on his computer screen and frowning in thought. He scrolled through the words, only half reading them, until he reached a photo embedded in the final paragraph. It was grainy, badly lit, and out of focus, but it was enough. More than enough, as he had been there himself in that farmyard outside of Budapest and seen it all. He could still remember the freezing slush on the ground, the cars pulled into a ring with their headlamps blazing to hold back the night, the group of mercenaries huddled in disbelief around their leader as the State Police snapped manacles on his wrists. And two men standing a little apart, watching it all with a well-deserved satisfaction.
One of them flipped up his fur-lined collar and drew on his cigar. The other grinned, his teeth flashing impossibly in the light spilling over from the ring of headlamps. The camera caught them at that moment, though it had intended only to immortalize the arrest of the Hungarian war criminal Kasza for the files of MI6. It was only by happenstance that it had also captured Hannibal Smith and Templeton Peck basking in their success.
This was Cartwright's own file. He had been assigned to find and eliminate Kasza for the British government, but Smith and Peck had gotten in before him. He had faithfully documented their achievement and shaken Smith's hand in the aftermath of the arrest. He had spoken only briefly to Peck, but he still remembered the lieutenant's blinding smile and unrestrained laughter as he recounted his adventures in Kasza's headquarters to Smith. He hadn't seemed to care, or even to notice, that he'd been living on the edge of disaster for weeks, infiltrating Kasza's organization, luring him into a trap, and risking life and limb in the process.
Cartwright smiled to himself at the memory. Peck and Cartwright had both been ridiculously young at the time—not long in the field and still finding their feet as covert operatives—but there the resemblance ended. Cartwright was passionate, serious, intent on making the world a better place and still fired by a youthful ambition to become the real world's answer to James Bond. Peck had none of the Brit's fresh-faced earnestness. Even at so young an age, he was street-wise, cynical, emotionally armored and utterly fearless. Never before or since had Cartwright encountered a man with so little regard for his own skin. He seemed to care for only one thing—Hannibal Smith's good opinion.
That was what ultimately stuck in Cartwright's craw about the idea of Peck turning assassin. Would the man he had met in that farmyard in Hungary ever betray the trust and affection of his commander in such a cold-blooded way? It didn't seem possible. Templeton Peck was many things, but cold-blooded was not one of them.
The phone on his desk purred for his attention, and the agent reached for it without shifting his gaze from the picture still displayed on his screen.
"Sturgeson," a gravelly voice on the other end replied. "We have a hit on Varens."
Cartwright's tired face relaxed into a grin. Tangier. Of course. Close to Cairo, but not too close, just where a decoy ought to be. "How did you pick him up?"
"He used a cash machine."
Cartwright blinked, nonplussed, then demanded, "Wait… what? A cash machine?"
"That's what I said. The man waltzed into a bank in the medina and withdrew three hundred Euros with his cash card."
"Bloody marvelous!" He massaged the bridge of his nose for a moment, thinking hard, then said, "Get me a local address for Michel Varens. Try the other aliases as well. I want to know where this man sleeps at night."
"That might take a while. If he's got any brains at all, he'll stay off the grid."
"He used a cash machine, didn't he?" Cartwright did not add that a visible trail to Varens' location would only reinforce his certainty that this was all an elaborate frame. "Find him. You've got exactly as long as it takes me to call in my ground team."
"I'll do my best." The line went dead.
Cartwright stared at the phone for a moment, wishing with an unaccustomed fierceness that he was free to go haring off to Tangier and throw in his lot with the A-Team once again. He was not free, of course. His duty was clear, and it did not involve playing spy games in Morocco while his countryman's life was at risk. But the thought of meeting Smith and Peck again, fighting beside them, helping them take down another international criminal of sinister power and evil intent made his heart race and his blood sing. The spirit of 007 flared to life inside him once again.
He allowed himself a full minute of such wishful thinking, then, with a weary inward sigh, he called himself to order and picked up the phone to contact his ground team in Rabat.
A street in the medina, Tangier
Face had never met a city that he didn't like. He was a born urban dweller, with the skills and smarts to thrive in any populous environment, but Tangier was his spiritual home. He could feel it, like a stiff drink of good Scotch, flowing through his body and starting his nerves tingling—the glorious, hot, rank, beautiful energy of the place. It filled his senses and drove out all worry. It did not, however, undermine his native caution. One of the reasons that Face did so well in cities of all descriptions is that he knew how to watch his six.
Instinctively, he headed into the heart of the medina. The old walled city was a strange mixture of ancient and modern, with tourists crowding every shop and street corner, while local entrepreneurs flocked around them, ready to take every possible advantage. Face navigated the twisting streets effortlessly, dodging beggars, pickpockets and insistent salesmen with ease, his eyes raking the crowd until he spotted what he needed.
Two middle-aged women stood in front of a street vendor's booth, chattering excitedly in German. One clutched her purse defensively to her chest, while the other had a string of bags dangling from her arm, but they were both far more interested in the textile wares draped all over the booth than what was going on around them. Face deftly extracted a brochure from the pocket of a passing man and opened it as he approached the women.
A moment later, all three of them were sprawled on the pavement, amidst a scattering of belongings and a chorus of half-laughing apologies. Face helped the older of the two ladies to her feet with extreme care and reached out a hand to the other one.
"Pardonnez-moi," he cried, as he caught her elbow and hoisted her upright. "Je suis trés désolé!"
"Oh!" the first woman fluttered, "Vous êtes Français!"
"Oui, Madame." He hesitated, fixing her with a wide, beguiling gaze, and ventured, "Deutsche?"
The woman gave a fluttery laugh and pressed one hand to her throat. She may have been blushing beneath her layers of make-up, but it was hard to tell. "Oui, Monsieur."
Face instantly and obligingly switched to German. "I can't tell you how sorry I am! So clumsy of me! I was trying to decipher this map," he waved his pilfered brochure, "and didn't see you there."
"Oh!" she gasped again, "your German is lovely! Quite lovely…"
"Let me help you with all this." He retrieved the woman's purse, then began collecting the scattered parcels.
"These streets are impossible," the younger woman sighed, as she looked vaguely around at the wreckage of her shopping expedition. "We spent two hours trying to find a shop that was recommended by our concierge. And now I've lost the bag with…"
Face extracted the missing parcel from beneath a trailing length of cloth on the front of the stall and handed it to her with a glinting smile. "As I said, it's entirely my fault. Let me buy you ladies a glass of mint tea, as an apology."
He reached for his pocket as he spoke, as if ready to whip out his wallet and purchase an entire café on the spot. The first woman looked tempted, but the second was more determined.
"That really isn't necessary. We have to get back to the hotel."
"Well… If you're sure…" He looked entirely unconvinced and unhappy to be losing their scintillating company.
"Quite sure. Thank you for finding my bag. And do try to be more careful!"
Face waved the two ladies away, a wistful smile firmly in place, until they had turned a corner and vanished from sight. Then he lowered his hand and slipped it into his trouser pocket to cover the fresh wad of bills resting there. Whistling to himself, he started off in the opposite direction to that the women had taken, eyes once again raking the crowd for a likely mark.
By the time he completed a circuit of the medina, he had nearly five hundred dollars in mixed currency, most of it Euros, in his pocket. He had also relieved an Australian man who resembled him in build and coloring of his passport. In each case, he had dropped money into a pocket or bag in payment, trading the suspect currency provided by his kidnappers for clean, unmarked and unremarkable bills that he could spend without risk. It was really quite sinfully easy. Even the most vigilant traveler did not suspect the handsome, rumpled, smiling European who apologized so profusely for his clumsiness.
His pockets now flush, he rested for a few minutes at a sidewalk cafe, indulged himself in a cup of coffee, and considered his options. He needed to get in touch with Hannibal, but a glance at the time and a quick mental calculation told him that it was still early in California. Hannibal might very well be awake, formulating some fantastic plan for his rescue, but more likely he was sleeping. And while Face fairly itched to talk to his commander, he still had to deal with his wardrobe. He couldn't stand to wear his filthy suit much longer and he didn't like the idea of wandering around in clothing that might be electronically tagged. He needed to cut all possible ties with his kidnappers before he contacted his team. So, with a silent apology to his distant and no doubt worried friends, he set off in search of new clothes.
An hour later, a very different man sauntered down the streets of the medina. He was dressed in effortlessly-stylish, perfectly appropriate desert gear that proclaimed him a European resident of long-standing who made no attempt to look like a native but fit in perfectly all the same. A headscarf twisted into a turban covered his hair and a pair of sunglasses hid his outrageously blue, all-too-memorable eyes. Even his posture had subtly changed. Only the sharpest of eyes would have spotted him as the tourist in the scruffy, gray suit who had stumbled so artlessly into two German shoppers.
Face grinned to himself as he walked, letting his satisfaction show in his confident swagger. He knew that he was still in a great deal of danger. Someone had kidnapped him, shipped him halfway around the world, and dumped him into the middle of a sinister plot that could very well cost him his life. But here and now, loose on the streets of Tangier with his head finally clear of drugs and his blood singing with the joy of the game, he was happy. And more than anything, he wanted to share this adventure with his friends.
His steps carried him swiftly to the gate of the medina and out into the more modern city that crowded around the waterfront. There he found a gift shop for tourists that sold pre-paid phones. Laying down a handful of cash for a phone, he tore it out of the package as he left the shop, dropping the wrapping in a convenient trash bin, and headed for the beach.
A small airport, rural California
The young man with the scrubby, blond beard stared down the length of the gun barrel leveled at his forehead and met Hannibal's implacable eyes glaring back at him. He swallowed audibly but had the sense to hold his tongue.
"Let's try this again," the colonel said, his voice deceptively pleasant and widely at odds with the fury in his eyes.
"Wh-who are you?"
"Does it matter?"
"I thought you were p-police," the man stuttered in terror. "That b-badge…"
"Is fake. But the gun is real, and it will blow a hole in your head, if you don't quit asking stupid questions and tell me what I want to know."
"I'm not s'posed to just hand over… I mean…"
"Listen, you," Murdock snarled, pushing past a desk to reach Hannibal's side, "I don't care about your damned rules! My friend was on that plane, and I want 'im back! So either you answer our questions, or I'm gonna climb over your corpse to get the answers myself!"
B.A. fixed the terrified man with his fiercest glare and growled, "That makes two of us."
"Three," Hannibal assured him. "What's it gonna be?"
"I don't know anything about your friend. I don't! The plane arrived here on Monday morning and took off late Tuesday afternoon. There were three men on board - big guys, all dressed in fancy running suits. The one who talked to me had some kinda accent. That's all I know, I swear!"
"Did you see them get on the plane?"
"And they had no one else with them?"
"No. Just them and their luggage and a big crate."
"What kind of crate?"
"Just… a crate. Wood. Looked heavy, 'cuz it took two of 'em to load it."
"You didn't ask what was in it?"
"Course not. None of my business."
"They must have shown you a cargo manifest."
The man laughed shortly, then stifled the sound and stared nervously at the gun. "Cargo manifest? Here?"
Hannibal frowned at that, thinking hard. "But they had to file a flight plan, even in a backwater burg like this."
"Oh, yeah. They did that."
"Where were they headed?"
"I dunno. I'd have to…" His words petered out as he gestured toward the desk and the stack of files on it.
Hannibal twitched his gun to indicate his permission for the man to move. The man scrambled around the desk to reach his chair and sat down, ducking his head to avoid the sight of the menacing, black barrel that followed him.
"I want anything you've got on that plane. It's registration number, destination, anything."
"Yeah. Sure." He flipped through a large book that lay on the desk, running his finger down a column to find the appropriate entry. "Here it is. Tuesday the 12th. Departed 4:19 pm to Van Nuys airport. That's in L.A.," he offered helpfully.
Hannibal exchanged a look with his men. "They probably had a jet waiting. Something big enough to get them out of the country." Turning back to the nervous man, he snapped, "Get me its numbers!"
Switching his attention from the record book to the loose files, he began rifling through them. The team waited with ill-concealed impatience for him to locate the right one. He was reaching for a sticky note to write down the registration number, when Hannibal snatched the form out of his hands.
"Thanks." The man opened his mouth to protest, glanced at the gun in the colonel's rock-steady hand, and changed his mind. Hannibal scanned the form, nodded in satisfaction, and said, "That's all we need."
He turned for the exit, shoving his pistol into his waistband as he went. Murdock and B.A. fell into step behind him and they strode out of the little office, leaving the man staring after them in slack-jawed disbelief.
In the van, B.A. cranked the engine and shot a look at Hannibal. "Where to, Boss Man?"
"Van Nuys airport and step on it."
B.A. offered no comment on this, just nodded and eased the big vehicle out of the parking lot. Murdock showed less restraint. He was overstressed and exhausted, running on pure nerves, and getting perilously close to his breaking point. They had found their first clue to Face's whereabouts, and this ought to have cheered him up, but he could take no comfort in the news that his best friend had been stuffed in a crate, loaded on a plane, and shipped off to one of the busiest airports in the country.
"How're we gonna find that plane?" he demanded, his voice sharp with fear. "We can't walk into the flight control tower in Van Nuys and stick a gun in some guy's face, like we did here. We need a plan! We need a scam! But we don't have Faceman to run it for us!"
"Calm down, Murdock. Have a little faith."
"I don't want faith. I want a plan."
"I'll come up with something by the time we hit L.A."
"Maybe Sosa could help us," B.A. suggested, as he pulled out of the little airport and onto a two-lane rural highway. "We got the plane's numbers. Maybe she could tell us who's flyin' it."
"It's worth a try." Hannibal reached for his phone, but before he had it out of his pocket, it beeped for attention. He pulled it out and frowned at the unfamiliar number.
"That her?" B.A. asked.
"No." Thumbing it on, he lifted the phone to his ear and growled in a heavy Brooklyn accent, "Bob's Pizza Palace."
"Hey, Boss!" a blessedly familiar voice sang out.
Murdock cried ecstatically, "Face!" in the same instant that B.A. slammed on the brakes and swerved over to the shoulder of the road. Both men turned eager eyes on Hannibal, as he lowered the phone and hit the speaker button. Face's voice filled the van, making his friends grin with relief and delight.
"Yeah, it's me."
"Faceman…" Murdock called out but Hannibal overrode him to demand,
"Are you all right, kid? Where the hell are you?!"
"Tangier!" Face replied. "Can you believe it? I'm in Tangier! But I'm okay, really. Tell Murdock not to freak out."
"We've all been freakin' out, man," B.A. chided.
Hannibal took a deep, steadying breath, pushing down his surge of panicky relief, and said more calmly, "Jesus, kid, you scared the shit out of us."
"I'm really sorry, guys. I would've called sooner, but I had to get my hands on a clean phone and find a…"
"Never mind that," Hannibal cut in, "are you in a secure location now?"
"I'm down by the beach. Just a lot of tourists around here and none of 'em are speaking English."
"Okay. Good." Hannibal gave another explosive sigh and rubbed his free hand over his face, struggling to get his thoughts in order. He had been so worried, angry and frustrated for so many hours that he found it hard to change gears and accept good news.
"Murdock, are you okay?" Face asked in concern. "They didn't hurt you when they grabbed me, did they?"
"Not much," Murdock assured him. "They hit me on the head, but you know me. Skull like concrete."
"Yeah. I don't remember anything after that guy knocked on the window."
"You wouldn't 'cause they tranked you up, good."
"How long was I out?"
"It's been three days since you disappeared."
"Three days!" Face whistled in amazement.
Hannibal gave a dry, humorless laugh. "Haven't you looked at a calendar or newspaper, kid?"
Face chuckled, and the familiar sound seemed to banish the shadows from his friends' brains and brighten the sunlight around them. "I had a few other things to worry about. So, tell me why I'm here, Boss. You must've figured it out by now!"
"Apparently, you're there to assassinate a British diplomat."
"Didn't you know? You've traded in your White Knight's lance for a sniper rifle."
Face took a moment to digest this, then said with perfect aplomb, "Well, that explains the phone. And the money. And the gun."
"Okay, kid," Hannibal said reasonably, "maybe you'd better start from the beginning. B.A., get us moving."
While B.A. turned back onto the road surface and hit the gas, Face obligingly described everything he remembered from the time he woke up in the shabby, little flat. He described his abductors' efforts to make it look as if he'd been living there for some days and the clues they'd left that he was now an international hit man. Then he gave a rapid account of his activities since taking to the streets.
Hannibal picked up the story, filling him in on all they'd learned from Sosa. And minimal as that information was, it seemed to flesh out what Face told them in a very satisfactory way. The colonel began to see a distinct picture of the situation forming in his mind. He didn't like what he saw, but at least it made some kind of sense.
"We've got plots within plots, here, kid," he finished up, "and a whole new level of threat. It's not just the U.S. Military who wants you, now. It's MI6, the CIA, and God only knows who else if this story gets out."
"Not to mention the guys who put me here in the first place. I get it. But I'm not worried."
"Are you ever?" Hannibal demanded sourly.
Face laughed. "Not with Hannibal Smith on my six!"
"Yeah, that's the trouble. Think about it, kid. Whoever set this up, our Deep Dark, knows I'm always on your six."
"Hmm. So he's really after you and I'm the bait."
"Or maybe he just wants me to see you die and know I didn't get there in time, for once."
"That's a cheerful thought!"
Hannibal grinned in spite of himself. "Sorry."
"Quit trying to scare me, Boss, and tell me what to do."
"I'm still working on that. Can you stay off their radar for now?"
"Yeah, I think so. But…"
"We'll head your way as soon as we can, but I need more intel, first."
"Where are you gonna get that?"
Hannibal thought for a moment, then said, "Do you remember that mission in Budapest, ten or twelve years back? The Kasza job?"
"Yeah, sure. He was one mean son-of-a-bitch. Are you thinking he's our Deep Dark? I thought he was still in the gulag."
"As far as I know, he is. No, I was trying to remember the name of the MI6 agent who showed up the night we arrested him."
"Young guy? Very polite and kind of eager?"
"That's the one."
"His name was Cartwright."
"Cartwright. Thanks, kid."
"Is he the guy who saved my ass?"
"Looks that way."
"Then I owe him one."
"After Kasza, I'd say it makes you even."
"Aww," Face drawled, "that was nuthin'."
Hannibal laughed in spite of himself. He still had vivid memories of that operation and the weeks he'd lived on high alert, expecting at any moment to receive one of his lieutenant's body parts in the mail—one of Kasza's favorite tricks. Only Face, he reflected, could describe his fantastically dangerous high-wire act as 'nuthin'.
"I'm going to set up a meeting with Cartwright and see what we can pry out of him. That means a delay before we head to Tangier."
"No problem. Gives me time to turn over a few rocks and see what crawls out."
Hannibal sighed. "I don't suppose you'll listen if I tell you to keep your head down and stay out of trouble."
"Of course I will. You know me…"
"Face, you never stay out of trouble. You could find trouble shopping for toilet paper at the local market."
Face chuckled. "You never know what kind of lowlife you're gonna find in the paper goods aisle."
The colonel hesitated, then ventured, "What if I make it a direct order?"
"I'll follow it, like I always do."
He sighed again. "That's what I thought. All right, kid, you're on your own for now. Keep in touch. Don't run any stupid risks. And watch your back!"
"I'll be fine, Boss. Do what you need to do."
Hannibal opened his mouth to bid his lieutenant goodbye when Murdock tugged urgently on his sleeve and said, "Can I talk to 'im?"
"Yeah." He handed the phone to Murdock and settled into his seat, his eyes fixed on the passing scenery but seeing none of it. His mind was too deeply occupied with the layers of deceit and danger that surrounded his team. It was baffling and ominous, especially considering which of his men was planted at the center of it all. Face was brilliant, resourceful and fearless. But he was also completely unpredictable and more than likely to go off half-cocked, ignoring Hannibal's orders and his own safety. They needed to get to Tangier fast, before his incorrigible lieutenant got himself into an even worse fix.
Turning to B.A., he murmured low enough not to disturb the conversation in the back seat, "When Murdock's done, I'll call Sosa and see if she can put me in touch with Lynch. He's our line into Cartwright."
"We goin' to London to meet with this Cartwright dude?"
"London, Paris, wherever he is at the moment."
"I s'pose I am gonna have to get on a plane, then."
"Yes, Big Man, you are."
"Okay, this one time," he conceded reluctantly. "For Face."
Behind them, Murdock switched off the phone's speaker and lifted it to his ear so he could speak to Face with a modicum of privacy. Keeping his voice low, he said, "Hey, it's me."
"Are you really okay, buddy? You weren't just sayin' that?"
"I'm fine, now that the drugs have worn off." His voice warmed with laughter as he added, "You wouldn't believe the hangover I had when I woke up! Felt like I'd been sucking on old tire treads."
The pilot gave a slightly soggy chuckle, and Face's laughter turned to concern. "What's wrong, Murdock? You're not worried about me, are you?"
"Maybe. A little." He dropped his voice even more, almost whispering, "I thought you were dead. When we couldn't find you anywhere and no one contacted us to tell us why they'd taken you…"
"I'm not dead," Face cut in firmly, "and I'm not going to end up dead."
"…I was afraid some crazy person had you and was hurting you for fun!"
"Instead, here I am in my favorite city, doing what I do best."
"No… No. That's bad, Face. Don't say that."
"'Cause what you do best is get hurt!"
Face laughed at that. "I work the angles, buddy. I draw out the enemy, make him show his hand, make him let down his guard."
"Then you get the shit beaten outta you, or you get shot or stabbed or stuffed in a stack of burning tires or…"
"Dropped in the harbor with a weight strapped to my feet," Face interjected gleefully. "That's what happened the last time I was in Tangier."
"You're not helping!" Murdock wailed.
"Relax. I always get out in one piece—or close enough."
"Because of Hannibal! But what if he can't put it all together in time? What if the bad guys grab him, too, and he can't get to you?"
"He will," Face insisted. "And if he doesn't, I'll look after myself."
"Spit it out. You know you can say anything to me."
"I need something to do!" Murdock blurted out. "Some way to help! Just waiting around to hear that you're dead is driving me crazy…"
"You were crazy to begin with," Face pointed out. Then he abruptly dropped his bantering tone and switched to the sincere, direct approach he always used to cut through Murdock's haze of lunacy and touch the core of strength and loyalty beneath it. "I know it's hard to wait—God knows I suck at it!—but the old man'll figure this out, like he always does, and bring us through. It's just another mission, buddy. Just another plan. Okay?"
"It's not," Murdock said softly. "You heard what Hannibal said… a whole new level of threat…"
"That was to keep me in line. He wanted to scare some caution into me."
"It didn't work, though, did it?"
"It's gonna be fine, Murdock. I'm gonna be fine. And when it's all over, and everybody's still alive, and another international crime lord is out of commission, we'll have a good laugh about it over a pint in the pub. You'll see."
Murdock hesitated for a moment, then murmured, "Yeah. Okay. Face?"
"Be careful. Please."
"Thanks." He swallowed painfully. "See ya."
"See you soon, buddy."
A street near the harbor, Tangier
Face pocketed his phone and turned his steps away from the water. He needed a comfortable place to sit and think, so he strolled along the marina until he found a gracious, old-world Moroccan hotel with a terrace restaurant that overlooked the harbor. There, he settled into a rattan chair, ordered a drink, and gazed absently at the sweeping view of the Straits of Gibraltar.
While he sat and sipped his drink, he pondered his current predicament. And the more he pondered, the more discontented he became with Hannibal's cautious approach. The colonel wanted him to go to ground, but every instinct he had told him that this was a mistake. After all, if Hannibal wanted intel, who better to get it for him than the man at the eye of the storm? And if he went into hiding, how could he find out who had set him up and why?
Of course, trusting his own instincts meant ignoring Hannibal's warnings—if not actively disobeying an order—and for all his rashness, Face always thought twice before doing that. Hannibal was the brains behind the A-Team's success, the strategic genius who kept them all alive against overwhelming odds, the man who'd made a career out of rescuing Face from the consequences of his own bad decisions—including fishing him out of this very harbor. It would be suicidal to wantonly destroy Hannibal's plan before it was even formed, to place himself in the line of fire when his only backup was thousands of miles away. Face was reckless and impulsive and borderline insane, but he was not suicidal.
On the other hand, the colonel had not given him a direct order. All he had said was 'don't run any stupid risks,' and wasn't it up to Face to decide what that meant? It was his ass on the line, after all.
He drained his glass and toyed with the idea of ordering a refill, but quickly discarded it. He didn't want to dull his senses with alcohol and he had a lot to do. As seductive as this cool, elegant spot was, with its lovely view, cold drinks and obsequious waiters, he could not afford to linger. Getting to his feet, he dropped a generous handful of bills on the table and sauntered out through the lobby, into the blazing sunshine of a North African afternoon.
For the next two hours, Face prowled the city streets, intent on his business. First he acquired a few thousand dollars in mixed currency from various tourists, always leaving a little more than he took in the tainted money from his flat. Then he went shopping. His last stop was a street vendor's stall, where he bought a paper tray full of brochettes slathered in red-pepper sauce and a cup of spiced, Moroccan coffee.
He ate as he walked, making his way back through the crowded, twisting streets toward the room where he'd awakened that morning. A few blocks from the flat, he stepped into a sunken doorway and stripped off his turban, stuffing it into the nylon kitbag he carried over one shoulder. His sunglasses followed, baring his face to full view and ensuring that anyone watching the street would recognize him. Then he continued on his way, whistling.
Five minutes later, he let himself into the tiny, shabby flat without having run afoul of trouble. It was dim and quiet, apparently empty, but Face felt a warning prickle go down his spine. Something was off. Letting his bag slide gently to the floor, he swept the room with intent eyes, taking in every detail.
The pillow on the bed was perfectly straight and plump. The gauze curtains hung precisely together. The items on the desk were very carefully positioned where he'd left them but just a little too straight. All signs pointed to one thing—his flat had been searched by neat freaks. And if his obsessive-compulsive invaders had the sense God gave a garden slug, they'd have planted monitoring devices to keep tabs on him.
A swift, expert survey of the flat proved Face right. He found microphones in every room and cameras in the bedroom and kitchen. As he squirted toothpaste over the lenses to blind the watchers, he reflected that he ought to be grateful they hadn't put a camera in the bathroom. They must belong to MI6. No one else would be so unfailingly polite while spying on him. With the cameras disabled, he made short work of the microphones, pulling them loose from their mountings and snapping the cords.
He made another pass through the flat to make sure he hadn't missed anything, then he dumped the contents of his bag out on the desk and got to work making himself a passport. Face had produced many a forged passport in his time, but he usually did it with an array of modern equipment, not with an exacto knife and a few chemicals. This was a bit like performing brain surgery with an icepick and a staple gun, but Face had never let a little thing like a lack of technology slow him down.
He cut the photo from Michel Varens's French passport, then glued it down over the photo of Stephen Drake in the Australian one he'd stolen that afternoon. With the picture attached, he carefully melted and sealed the edges until it appeared to be part of the original page. That done, he set about recreating the embossed seal stamped over the photo.
It was well after midnight when he finished. The result was far from perfect, but it gave him a form of ID that would pass cursory inspection. He felt less vulnerable with an identity, even a hastily-assembled one.
Stretching luxuriously to unkink his muscles, he tilted his chair back on two legs and indulged in a satisfied grin. Life was good, even if it might prove unreasonably short. He had a plan, he had the know-how to execute it, and he had a lovely, lawless city to run wild in. What else could a man want? Weariness washed over him, and he yawned. Then he laughed and let his chair fall back onto its legs with a thunk.
Of course, what he really needed was a good night's sleep. He'd spent nearly three days drugged into unconsciousness, but that didn't count as sleep, and his body was aching for the real thing. Unfortunately, he was alone in hostile territory, with no teammates to watch his six, so a good night's sleep was out of the question. He'd have to find a protected spot where he could hole up until morning. Then step two of his plan.
He pushed himself to his feet and strolled leisurely around the room until his steps carried him to the window. Pausing there, he pulled aside the curtain and gazed out at the street. He yawned again and scrubbed a hand through his hair. No one passing in the dark street paid any attention to the man standing in full view above, lit by the yellow glow of the lamp. But as Face dropped his hand and reached to pull the curtains closed, he saw a tiny movement at the dark window directly across from his. It was only a twitch, as if a breath of air had lifted the curtain then let it fall, but it was enough.
A small, triumphant smile lifted one corner of his mouth. Turning casually away, he padded over to the desk and switched off the lamp, plunging the room into darkness. Then he flopped down on the bed and, carried by the momentum of his fall, rolled off the mattress to land in a crouch on the floor behind it. Without lifting his head up above the level of the windowsill, he pulled the orange quilt from the bed, crept over to the desk to retrieve his bag and weapon, and made for the door.
He went to the roof first. Tucking his belongings into a shadowed corner, he pulled a high-powered monocular from his bag and crept to the front edge of the building. The wall stuck up three feet above the roof, giving him the perfect blind from which to view the opposite building. He crouched behind the wall, slid his matte black monocular over the lip, and trained it on the suspicious window.
For long, silent minutes, he saw no sign of life. His arms ached, his eyes stung with weariness, and the muscles in his legs began to cramp. But he didn't move and didn't let his attention wander. Finally, after nearly twenty minutes frozen in one position, he saw a pair of lenses slide between the curtains and fix on the window of his flat. They moved slightly, catching a gleam of moonlight, and fell still again. Then, after five minutes, they withdrew without ever touching any other part of the building.
Face grinned in satisfaction as he eased down below the edge of the wall and pocketed his glass. The watcher had no idea that he'd left his flat, which meant that he had the element of surprise. With the pistol tucked in the back of his waistband, the hand tools in his pocket and the colorful headscarf looped around his neck, he crept to the access door and slipped back into the stairwell. Then, one hand trailing along the wall for guidance, he sprinted down the stairs to the ground floor.
The stairway ran around the four sides of an open, central well. At the bottom, short hallways led to the street door and a back entrance. Face headed for the back, pausing just inside the door to twist his scarf into a neat turban again and pull one long end of fabric across his face to hide his features. With this minimal disguise in place, he stepped out of the door and into a narrow, rank, trash-strewn alley.
At this hour of night, nothing human moved in the alley, and the buildings looming above it were dark. Face moved swiftly and silently down it, sidestepping the obstacles in his path and ignoring the noises that hinted at the presence of other nocturnal prowlers. He didn't go far, just past three blocks of flats until a curve of the narrow street took him out of view of his own building. Then he ducked around yet another crumbling, stone edifice and found his way out to the street. A quick, cautious glance to either side to convince himself that he was unobserved, and he sprinted across the street to the shelter of the shadows on the other side. Two minutes later, he was standing at the door of the flat opposite his, one ear pressed to the wood, listening for some sign of life.
Nothing moved on the other side of the door and no light showed beneath it. With complete disregard for the smothering darkness, Face pulled out his hand tools and went to work on the lock. It opened with barely a touch, as susceptible to his expert blandishments as any woman he'd ever met. He pocketed the tools, drew his weapon, and eased the door open a few inches to peer inside.
From this vantage point, he could see the watcher at the window very clearly. It was a large man, dressed in crumpled, white linen, sitting on a wooden stool and gazing out at the night. He had a pistol, a brown glass bottle and a phone sitting on the windowsill at his elbow. A pair of binoculars hung on a strap around his neck, and he held them casually in one hand, not bothering to use them at the moment. As Face watched, he reached for the bottle with his free hand, took a long drink, then checked his watch. His attention never wavered from the scene outside the window.
Pushing the door very gently open, Face slid through it and eased it closed again. The man at the window did not even twitch when he let the latch slip back into place with a click so minuscule that he barely heard it himself. One glance around the flat told Face that he and the watcher were alone, and that was all he needed. Without waiting for heightened senses or simple bad luck to give him away, he started across the room toward the other man.
The watcher heard him coming and turned, but too late. He got one glimpse of a shadowy figure with its head and face shrouded in fabric, then a gun barrel connected with his skull and he dropped like a bag of rocks.
Face caught him as he fell and lowered him gently to the floor, then he whipped his headscarf off and used it to bind the man's wrists. That done, he searched the man's pockets and the room, collecting anything that looked useful and taking it into the bathroom. Blockaded behind a door, he turned on the ceiling light and sat down on the closed toilet to examine what he'd found.
The man was Finnish, according to his passport. He had entered the country a day before Face had awakened in his little flat, and he still had the ferry ticket in his pocket. His ID and the contents of his wallet all looked genuine, but then, Face wouldn't know a forged Finnish driver's license if it came up and bit him, so his judgment wasn't worth much in this case. His pistol was German. His binoculars were Swiss. And the money he carried was all in Euros.
His phone was a bit more interesting. Face couldn't read the texts—they appeared to be in Finnish—and none of the saved numbers had names attached. But he used his own phone to snap pictures of the last five texts and entered all the most recent and most frequent numbers in his own phone, as a gift for Hannibal and Agent Cartwright. After a moment's consideration, he took pictures of the passport, ID and ferry ticket, just in case they proved useful.
When he'd finished his investigations, Face turned off the light and went back into the main room. The watcher was lying just where he'd left him, limp as a boned fish. Face returned his belongings to his pockets, put the phone back on the windowsill, and tucked the gun into his waistband. Then he unbound the man's wrists and assembled his turban once more. With a final, satisfied glance around the little room, he let himself out of the flat and locked the door behind him.
Face took a much more direct route back to his own building, but he did not return to his flat. Instead, he made his way to the roof, where he rolled up in his orange quilt and fell asleep in the shadows at the base of the raised wall.
The other flat, Tangier
The man groaned and rolled over to stare blankly at the ceiling. His head ached fiercely and blotches of color swam before his eyes, turning the darkness green and purple and making him groan still more miserably. When he tried to sit up, his stomach heaved and he retched painfully, then he collapsed back on the floor and shut his eyes.
Several minutes passed before he tried again. This time, to the accompaniment of muttered curses and threats of vengeance, he managed to push himself upright. He scanned the flat with narrowed, watering eyes, assuring himself that he was alone, then he patted down his pockets. Nothing seemed to be missing, including his weapon and the sheaf of bills in his wallet, which ruled out a robbery. But who else…?
Scrambling to his feet, he dived for the window and snatched up his binoculars. Nothing moved in the opposite flat. He swept the entire building with the lenses, straining to pierce curtains and shadows and dumb stone with no success. If his target had moved, he'd missed it. And if he'd allowed the target to slip away again, he'd probably find himself minus a few essential body parts by the end of the week.
His hand shook slightly as he lifted the phone and dialed it.
The familiar, arctic voice answered on the first ring. "Eagle's Nest."
"Why are you calling at this hour?"
"I had a visitor tonight. Someone broke into the flat and attacked me."
The man on the other end of the line hesitated, processing his news, then demanded, "Peck?"
"I can't say for certain. It was dark and I didn't see his face. But I don't think it was him."
"I've been watching him since he returned to the flat, and I would swear he doesn't know I'm here."
"He's evaded our surveillance once already."
"Yes, but he came back. Maybe it was just dumb luck that he got away before."
The voice turned dry. "This is the A-Team we're dealing with, Hatchling. Dumb luck doesn't enter into it. No, his every action has a purpose, including his return to the flat after he'd slipped our leash. He knows he's being watched."
"That doesn't mean he knows where I am."
"Who else could it be?"
"MI6," he said, with a certainty he did not feel. He wasn't deliberately trying to mislead his commander, but he wanted to live, and that meant he had to convince the other man that he had not screwed up. "They searched the flat earlier and might have spotted me."
"Hmm." He didn't exactly sound convinced, but he wasn't threatening to carve his underling into steaks, or worse, hand him over to Mr. K. "I'll send Hatchling Three to relieve you. Get some sleep. And inform me when the target moves again."
"Yes, sir. Thank you." He hung up and sagged with relief. Then he lifted the binoculars again and trained them on Peck's window, mouthing a silent prayer that he was lying safely in bed, enjoying the sleep of the just.
The rooftop of Face's flat, Tangier
Face awoke when the sun lifted high enough to spill over the wall and touch his eyelids. Blinking and cursing, he untangled himself from the quilt and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. It was still early morning. The street was nearly empty, but the buildings lining it rang with the sound of many hidden people preparing for the day. The smell of food cooking and coffee brewing made Face's stomach rumble. He quickly packed up his gear and headed back downstairs.
In the flat, he made a point of walking up to the window and pausing to peer up and down the street, giving his watcher a clear look at him. He took a hot shower to clear his head, then he dressed, collected his money and passport, and prepared to sally forth. He left the handgun that had served him so well last night in the desk, though it cost him a pang to do it. Hannibal had told him not to take any stupid risks, and carrying a weapon of unknown origins through a foreign city where he had no legal right to be seemed like the very definition of "stupid risk". Even if he did feel naked without it.
Face had not reached the first bend in the street when he spotted his shadow. It was not the white-shirted watcher from across the street. This one was dressed all in khaki, tall and broad-shouldered, with the taut, controlled movements of a trained fighter. He made every effort to blend into the scenery, but to Face's experienced eyes, he stood out like a penguin in a flock of parrots.
The lieutenant started to whistle as he walked, then abruptly laughed. He felt like the Pied Piper, tempting rats out of hiding to trail at his heels—over-muscled, khaki-clad rats! Well, he was ravenously hungry, so this rat would have to cool his heels while Face ate his breakfast. Then he'd see how many more he could snare with his music.
A backstreet hotel, London
Cartwright stepped out of the lift and hesitated, shooting a wary glance up and down the hallway. Nothing moved in the shadows. Reaching under his jacket, he drew a small, evil-looking pistol from its shoulder holster and held it poised in one expert hand. Then he glanced at his phone, checking the text displayed on it. Satisfied that he was in the right place, he slipped the phone into his pocket and moved down the hallway to his left with silent, catlike grace.
He was here at Lynch's invitation, though he had almost refused to come when he saw the location. It wasn't that he didn't trust the CIA operative, but the last place he wanted to meet with an unknown contact was in a hotel room. A public place was safer. It provided more escape routes and crowd cover. Or a restaurant, perhaps, where they could talk without drawing too much attention to themselves. But an ancient hostelry like this, on a quiet back street, with only one surly Cockney at the desk and no guests in evidence, set all his warning antennae humming. It smelled of a trap, and only his determination to get the information Lynch had promised could tempt him to risk it.
He reached the end of the hall and a heavy, dark, wooden door with a brass number 6 tacked to it. Pulling out his phone again, he texted Outside.
A new text appeared almost instantly. Come in.
Taking a firm grip on his pistol, he turned the knob and eased the door open a few inches. Someone caught it as it moved, pulling it out of his grasp and swinging it wide. Cartwright jerked his gun down to point through the opening and found himself staring down the barrel into a pair of blazing brown eyes beneath the brim of a red baseball cap.
"Bloody Hell!" he swore, before he could stop himself.
Captain Murdock—it could be no one else, though he'd never met this member of the A-Team before—muttered, "Shut up and get in." He twitched his head at the gun in Cartwright's hand. "And put that away."
Cartwright obediently tucked the gun back in its holster and slid past the other man, his eyes jumping around the little room, hunting for the familiar face he knew must be here. Another stranger that he could not help but recognize loomed up in front of him—a huge black man with a mohawk and a fearsome glower on his face.
"This the dude that wants to kill Faceman?"
"No!" Cartwright blurted out, "that's not…"
"Stand down, Big Man," a welcome voice cut in, silencing Cartwright and forcing Baracus to step backward.
Then, suddenly, the man he most wanted to see was standing right in front of him, holding out his hand and offering him a wry smile. Hannibal Smith. The renowned leader of the A-Team. The legendary commander and strategist. One of the two men he most respected in their perilous world of plots and counterplots, whose brilliant heroics had helped to launch his career.
"Colonel Smith!" he gasped, reaching to shake his hand. "It's an honor to meet you again, sir!"
Some part of his brain was standing back, marveling at how quickly he had gone from veteran spy to callow youth at one word from this icon. But most of him was simply, overwhelmingly glad to see him. If anyone could help him sort out this mess, it was Hannibal Smith.
"Who were you expecting to see?" Hannibal asked sardonically.
"I had no idea." His glance jumped between the three men, taking in their faces eagerly. Murdock and Baracus still looked as though they'd rather be maiming him than chatting with him, but he could hardly blame them for that. "Lynch said that he had a contact in London who could give me background on Peck. He didn't say who it was."
"He could hardly use our names. We're wanted men on both sides of the Pond, and neither one of you can afford to be caught aiding and abetting Level Ten fugitives."
"True." He looked around at the gathered men again, feeling the excitement bubble up still higher in him. He was really standing here with the A-Team. Or most of it. "I've been wanting to talk to you since I saw Peck's photo in that dossier, but I had no idea how to find you. How did Lynch manage it?"
"It's a long story that can wait for another time. We're in a bit of a hurry, here."
"Yes! Of course! You need to locate him…"
"We have. He's in Tangier."
Cartwright blinked at him, nonplussed, then said, wryly, "I should have guessed you already knew."
Hannibal grinned at that, briefly clearing the lines of exhaustion and worry from his face. "I can't take the credit. He called us."
Relief flooded him, startling him into laughter. "He's still in one piece, then!"
"And loose on the streets of Tangier. Heaven help the locals."
Cartwright laughed again and looked around for a handy chair. "My team will keep an eye on him while we work out a way to extract him safely." A small, round table stood under the window with two chairs pulled up to it. Shooting an enquiring look at Hannibal, he stepped up to it and drew out one chair. Then he slid a hand into his jacket, reaching for the inner pocket.
Murdock and Baracus reacted instantly, the pilot jumping to his feet with a warning hiss and the corporal catching his arm in an iron grip.
"Take it easy, boys," Hannibal said. "He's on our side."
"Move your hand real slow," Baracus cautioned.
Cartwright nodded and, very slowly, withdrew a folded sheaf of papers from his pocket. When Baracus saw what he held, he promptly let go of his arm and stepped back. Cartwright flattened the papers on the table top and slid them toward Hannibal.
"That's our dossier on the source who fed us the story about Peck." With a glance at Baracus for permission, he sat down in the chair. "His name is Anders Ruud. Norwegian. Ex-military, with a long, distinguished career as a fixer for the criminal underworld in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. He currently works for a Finnish mobster named Reiki Kaukonen."
Hannibal took the other chair, while Murdock perched tensely on the end of one bed and Baracus took up a post at Smith's back. The colonel scanned the document quickly, taking in the details at a glance. "Kaukonen. I haven't heard that name before. Did Ruud approach you with the intel on Face, or did you go looking for it?"
"We went looking. We learned that someone had taken out a contract on our top diplomat in the Middle East, so we asked our sources for names. Ruud was the only one to turn up anything."
Hannibal turned the page and continued to read, asking as he did so, "And that didn't strike you as odd?"
"That he was the only one?" Cartwright frowned. "Not necessarily. The buyer could be deep underground, paying handsomely to cover his tracks."
"Or this Kaukonen could be controlling your sources, making sure that his story is the only one you hear."
"You believe Kaukonen is the brains behind the operation."
"Who else?" Hannibal lifted his piercing gaze to Cartwright and asked, "Does Ruud have the juice to set it up himself? Or the motive?"
"Not as far as we can tell. I was hoping you could give me some connection… some reason why either of them would want to play the A-Team and my government against each other."
"I've never heard of Kaukonen before today. And Ruud is an errand boy." Hannibal flipped the dossier closed and tossed it onto the table. His eyes went unfocused as he turned his powerful mind to the problem at hand.
"Let's break it down," he mused. "We have a contract on a British diplomat. We have a buyer paying for the contract, but paying whom? Is he finding the asset himself, or going through a supplier? Then we have the asset. That gives us no names and no answers. Just three unknowns."
"Unless Kaukonen is the buyer."
Hannibal eyed him thoughtfully. "Is there any indication that his organization would benefit from the death of this diplomat?"
"Then it's more likely that he's the supplier."
"Hmm." It was Cartwright's turn to stare blankly off into the distance, thinking hard. "He provides the asset, and at the same time, he hands us Peck as a decoy…"
"And we all know what happens to the decoy in this scenario," Murdock said suddenly, his voice harsh and full of anger. "He ends up dead."
"My men aren't going to hurt him," Cartwright objected.
"Don't mean someone else won't," B.A. growled.
"No, it doesn't," Hannibal agreed, "but Face isn't just any decoy. He's damned near impossible to kill and he never plays by the rules. Kaukonen made a serious mistake when he chose Face as his patsy."
"But why did he?" Murdock demanded. "That's what I wanna know! You told Face you thought you were the real target, that he was just bait, but now you say you don't know this Kaukonen and Face is a decoy bein' used to protect some assassin! So which is it? Who's Kaukonen? And what's he want with you and Faceman?"
Hannibal chewed on those questions for a minute, then he shot a look at Ian and asked, "Any ideas?"
Cartwright shook his head. "We know almost nothing about Reiki Kaukonen. He stays so far under the radar that no one knows where he came from or how he seized power in the region. He simply appeared, fully formed, with an army of well-trained soldiers at his back. And everyone who comes into contact with him is either too loyal or too frightened to leak information."
"There has to be something useful you can tell me. Even a list of known business interests and allies would help. Maybe we've stepped on his toes without knowing it."
"I'll get you everything we have." He pulled out his phone and switched it on. "I'll have to pick up the file in person. They won't release it otherwise. But I can start the wheels moving."
As he dialed, he rose to his feet and drifted away from the table.
Murdock stared gloomily at the MI6 agent's back for a moment, then pushed himself to his feet and loped over to where Hannibal still sat. "How much more time are we gonna waste here, Boss?"
"Relax, Murdock, Face is fine. You spoke to him yourself."
"Hours ago. Anything could've happened by now."
"Or nothing, which is far more likely."
"We heard what Double-O Seven, there, has to say. What else are we waiting for?"
"Intel. You don't want to drop into a hot zone without it, do you?"
"I want to get Face outta that hot zone, and I want to do it now."
"We will. Be patient."
"Everything we learn just makes it worse! You've got nothing to go on… no answers… and Face could already be dead!"
"He's not dead," Hannibal insisted wearily, for what felt like the hundredth time since Face had disappeared. "If you don't believe me, call him. But I doubt he'll thank you for interrupting whatever he's got going. He's probably talking his way into the penthouse suite of the ritziest hotel in the city."
Murdock gave a grunt of laughter at that and some of the tension drained out of him. "And lining up the prettiest chamber maid to run his bath."
Cartwright finished his phone call and returned to the table where Hannibal sat. "I'll bring back everything we have on Kaukonen as quickly as possible. Is there anything else I can do?"
"Let your ground team in Tangier know we're coming."
"Done." He headed for the door, with Hannibal following right behind him. "I assume that you have clean passports?"
Hannibal grinned. "Face keeps us well supplied."
"And weapons? Security is tight in the EU these days, what with the recent terrorist attacks. You'll have trouble getting a penknife across the border."
"I have a supplier who can arrange delivery in Morocco."
"Of course." He stuck out his hand and shook Hannibal's vigorously. "I'll be in touch."
Hannibal ushered him out the door and closed it behind him, then turned to be confronted by Murdock, yet again. The pilot looked sullen and rebellious. He shoved his hands deep in his jacket pockets, hunched his shoulders, and glowered at his commanding officer.
"Where is this supplier?"
"So, now we gotta stop off in Paris."
"Hannibal…" he started, his voice scaling up alarmingly.
"Look, son, I know you're worried. We're all worried. But we need to get the lay of the land before we go in. Play it smart. Stay frosty. The last thing we want to do is make things worse for Face."
"That means none of your crazy shit, man," Bosco rumbled, his voice unusually gentle.
"I'm not… I…" Murdock floundered. "I just can't…"
Bosco gave him an affectionate shake and said, "C'mon. Let's figure out the fastest way to get from here to Paris. What d'ya figure? The train?"
"Yeah." Murdock shook himself all over, dispelling the incipient panic and lunacy clinging to the edges of his brain, and traipsed after Bosco to the table where their laptop lay. "Or a plane to de Gaulle…"
"No planes, Murdock."
"If the plane is faster, we're taking the Goddamned plane!"
Hannibal watched them, a half smile tugging at his lips, then pulled out his phone and began to dial.
A street in the medina, Tangier
Agent Partridge slipped through the crowd, his eyes glued to the distinctive figure strolling along ahead of him, while he dodged obstacles with every other step. They wove a snaking path through the market, the American drawing the Brit along behind him as if connected by a cable. The target knew the city as well as Partridge—better, when it came to places where you could lose a tail without half trying—except that he didn't try. He walked at his ease, looked at wares in the market stalls, chatted with tourists in a range of languages that made Partridge shake his head in amazement, and waited for the agent to catch him up when he fell behind.
Since the target had left his flat that morning, closely followed by Partridge, they had stopped for breakfast in a café, gone down to the harbor, strolled along the beachfront, then dived into the Grand Socco and the medina. They had been roaming the streets for a couple of hours and were deep in the maze of the old market, when the target abruptly disappeared.
Partridge halted, causing a local following too close behind to plow into him.
"Shite!" he swore. Ignoring the spate of Arabic from the local, he craned his neck for a glimpse of dark, sun-streaked hair but saw nothing. He started moving again, more purposefully, pushing through a group of tourists loitering at a spice stall. When he reached the last spot where he'd seen the target, he stopped and turned in a full circle, more than half expecting to see the American propped against a convenient wall, grinning at him. Instead, he spotted a tiny, twisting alley leading away from the market. A dozen paces from where he stood, it turned at a right angle and vanished behind a crumbling, sandstone building.
Muttering another obscenity under his breath, Partridge started up the alley. He approached the corner cautiously and peered around it. Nothing moved between the looming walls of ancient buildings. He hesitated, then drew a Walther from the holster beneath his left arm and eased around the corner.
This felt entirely wrong. His target had led him a merry dance around the city all morning, but he'd done nothing to signal a threat. And the few times that Partridge had lost sight of him, he'd obligingly turned up again, as if inviting the agent to follow. It didn't make sense that he'd suddenly vanish. Unless…
The blow fell without warning. It came from directly above, another body striking his and throwing him to the ground. He landed on his stomach and rolled with the impact, trying to get his weapon up, but his attacker moved with the speed of a striking snake. One hand fastened under his chin, cutting off his oxygen, while the other closed on his right wrist and a knee landed in his solar plexus. The hand holding his wrist twisted until his bones creaked, threatening to snap, and Partridge froze.
A pair of blazing blue eyes stared down at him, pinning him like a bug on a card and draining the last of the fight out of him. Partridge had studied this man's dossier. He had seen pictures of him, in the files of MI6 and plastered across every news outlet in the known world. He had thought, until that moment, that he knew who Templeton Peck was. But in the handful of seconds that they stared at each other in that little Moroccan alley, he realized that he had been entirely wrong.
"Would you like me to break it?" Peck asked, his pleasant tone at odds with his fierce gaze and coiled, tensed body.
Partridge swallowed once and replied, with tolerable composure, "No."
His hand went slack, and Peck took the weapon from his fingers almost gently. Then he was looking into those terrifying eyes over the muzzle of his own pistol.
"Now let's see who you belong to." Peck's free hand slipped into the front of his jacket.
"MI6," Partridge croaked through his crushed larynx. "I'm MI6."
Peck extracted his ID and flipped it open. His eyes shifted to the wallet, but the gun did not waver, and Partridge did not doubt for an instant that he could still place a bullet between his eyes, if he chose.
"Partridge?" One eyebrow rose, and his mouth tilted in a mocking smile. "Really?"
"Do you travel under your own name, Monsieur Varens?" Partridge retorted in a flash of defiance.
Peck laughed, and for a minute, the man lying on the ground, pinned under his weight, forgot how dangerous he was. "No, but I didn't choose that one. Okay, Partridge, what else have you got?"
He proceeded to rifle the agent's pockets and search him for other weapons, shifting his position as necessary without ever letting Partridge move. When he was done, he had the ID, a cell phone, two spare magazines, a hunting knife, a cosh, and a cough drop covered in pocket lint. Peck fingered the magazines, his eyes narrowed, then rose to his feet and gestured with the pistol.
"On your feet."
Partridge complied and stood with his hands laced together behind his neck, while Peck searched all the places he hadn't been able to reach earlier. It came as no surprise to Partridge that he easily located the backup weapon, another magazine, and a few electronic toys that the agent liked to have handy when tracking a target.
When Peck had practically stripped him down to his toenails, he turned Partridge around to face him again and said, in a conversational tone, "You can put your hands down."
Partridge was several inches taller than Peck, broader through the shoulders and at least a handful of years younger. In a just world, he would have easily overpowered the American, taken back his weapon, put the fear of God into him, and maybe trussed him up like a turkey to teach him proper respect for the British Secret Service. But this was not a just world, and Agent Partridge was at least smart enough to know when he was out-classed. So he obediently lowered his hands and waited for his captor to tell him what to do next.
"Are you working for Cartwright?" Peck asked.
"Not directly. I report to the leader of the ground team, a man named Dawes. He reports to Cartwright."
"And this Dawes sent you to shadow me?"
"Yes." He hesitated, trying and failing to read Peck's expression, then gestured toward the contents of his pockets scattered on ground. "May I?"
Peck stooped to retrieve the second pistol and spare magazines, then he nodded.
As Partridge stowed his various belongings about his person, he remarked, "I'm not here to kill you. You know that."
"I do, but I'll hang onto these, anyway. For now." Peck slipped one pistol and all of the magazines into his pocket, then, after a slight hesitation, tucked the larger pistol into his belt. A smile glimmered in his eyes when he added, "If you get any ideas about using that knife, I should warn you that I'm something of a marksman."
"I don't doubt that." Partridge lifted his hands well away from his body and the weapons now hidden there. "And as I said, I'm not here to kill you."
"Just to follow me around Tangier, like a clumsy puppy. No offense, Partridge," he added kindly, "but you weren't exactly subtle."
"None taken," Partridge replied, with an abashed grin. He was embarrassed by how easily Peck had spotted him and even more so by how efficiently he'd disarmed him. But he found it utterly impossible to feel resentment in the face of the American's effortless charm. "So, what now?"
"I think we should have a chat." Peck stepped up beside him and put a companionable hand on his shoulder. "Get to know each other. Maybe invite your buddy Dawes to join us."
MI6 I-Branch, London
"Here it is, sir."
Cartwright glanced up at the big screen mounted on the wall and saw a series of images and text strings appear. The barrage of information halted with a multi-paneled picture in the center of the screen. It showed four images of varying quality, with a different figure framed in each. Cartwright stepped closer to study the blurred, half-obscured faces.
"Four possibles?" he mused. "Who's our front-runner?"
"We don't have one." The young man seated at the computer flicked his fingers over the touchpad to make the image bigger. Then he pointed to the face in the upper left corner. "This one has been identified as a Swede named Berglund. We have an extensive dossier on him, but he dropped off the grid three years ago, right around the time that Kaukonen appeared. So we still consider him a possible. The other three are unidentified."
"Hm." Cartwright narrowed his eyes in concentration. His gaze moved from Berglund to the next man, and the next, trying to pierce the anonymity provided by dark glasses, cocked hat brims, thick beards and bad camera angles to read the faces. He studied each in turn, then stepped back again to take a longer view of the gallery.
Something nagged at the back of his mind, drawing his eyes repeatedly to the picture on the lower left. The man in it stood half-turned from the camera, his head angled so that his one visible eye peered out from beneath his hat brim from shadows too deep to reveal its color. He wore several days' growth of graying beard that blurred the heavy lines of his jaw but did not conceal his thin, hard lips or the sneer that twisted them. He looked dangerous, even in so grainy a photograph, but it was not the obvious menace in his face that fascinated Cartwright. It was something else… something familiar about him…
"It's him. It's him!"
"Who? Kaukonen? How do you know?"
"I know him. I know that face!" Pulling the cell phone from his pocket, he snapped, "Print that file. And give me a blow-up of the photo."
Then he turned abruptly away and began to dial. The phone line opened on the first ring, and Cartwright spoke without waiting for a greeting.
"Where are you?"
Hannibal Smith's voice answered him. "Right where you left us."
"Stay there. I have something you need to see."
A backstreet hotel, London
Murdock was waiting for Cartwright and had the door open before he could knock. He pushed past the pilot and strode up to Hannibal, holding out a large envelope. It bore an official seal and had TOP SECRET blazoned across it in red ink.
"What am I looking for?" Hannibal asked as he took the envelope and broke the seal.
"The photo." Hannibal slid out a thin stack of papers with the blow-up of the photo on top. Ian pointed to the man in the hat. "That man, right there. Recognize him?"
Hannibal stared at the picture for a handful of seconds, while the others waited, not daring to breathe. Then he lifted his eyes to Cartwright's face and asked, "This is Kaukonen?"
"It could be. Any one of those four could be. Nobody knows what he looks like."
Hannibal looked down at the picture again, and his eyes were bleak, hard chips of blue ice. Once again, his concentration and fury seemed to hold the entire room in stasis. Then he jerked into motion. Snatching up his phone, he dialed a number and clamped the phone to his ear.
"Come on, kid. Come on."
"What is it?" Murdock demanded, but Hannibal ignored him.
"Come on, Face, answer the fucking phone!"
A cafe in the medina, Tangier
Face sat at a table in the back of a small café in the Petit Socco with two British agents. One was Partridge. The other was a short, stocky man with tightly-curled, red hair and very straight eyebrows that made him look as if he were eternally scowling. Each man had an ornate glass of mint tea in front of him and they sipped the beverage as they talked. The general din of conversation in competing languages all but drowned out their voices, forcing them to lean in close to make themselves heard.
The red-haired man propped his elbows on the table and growled across it to Face, "You're making a lot of assumptions. In the eyes of my government, you're a dangerous criminal. I shouldn't even be talking to you, much less forming an alliance."
Face grinned at him, his teeth flashing, and chided, "You should have had Partridge, here, shoot me when I stepped out of the building this morning, but you didn't."
The other man just grunted at that.
"It's a little late to decide you don't trust me."
"Trust isn't part of the equation."
"You agreed to meet me, didn't you? Come on, Dawes, quit playing hard to get. I don't have time for it."
Dawes grunted again and took a slug of his tea. His face contorted in a grimace and he shoved the glass away. "Gah! Bloody disgusting!"
Partridge glanced at his own glass, frowning, and took a sip. "It's all right. A little sweet."
"Melt your damned teeth, it will," Dawes growled.
Face laughed. "When in Rome…" He drained his glass and pushed it into the middle of the table. "How can you live in Morocco and not like mint tea?"
"The food here is rubbish. Country's all right, if you can stand the heat, but the food…" He grimaced again and demanded, "Who eats stuffed camel spleen?"
"It's actually very good. Have you tried it?"
Dawes shuddered. "Give me a plate of nice, greasy chips and a pint of Guinness, any day. After eighteen months in this place, I'd sell me old mum for a pint of Guinness!"
"Mmm, Guinness," Face said appreciatively. "We get out of this in one piece, I'll stand the first round."
"There you go again, making assumptions…"
Face sighed and fixed his bright, compelling eyes on the other man. "Give it up, Dawes. You aren't going to shoot me, and you aren't going to sit by and watch while someone else does it. You're too honorable a man for that."
"I follow orders, and if my orders say shoot you, then I shoot you."
The other man glowered at him for a moment, then unexpectedly let his face relax into something that was almost a smile. "No. Cartwright just wants me to follow you and see who else shows an interest."
Face leaned in a little closer to Dawes, throwing all his persuasive powers into his voice. He could feel the other man wavering and knew all he needed was another little push to crumble completely. "That's all I'm asking you to do. Nothing sinister, nothing that will put your men in harm's way, just follow orders. And if you happen to see a rifle trained on my back while you're at it… well, I'd appreciate a warning shout."
"The notorious Templeton Peck needs us to keep him alive?" Dawes taunted sourly.
Face's gleaming smile lit the dim corner table in response. "The notorious Templeton Peck will take all the help he can get, when it comes to saving his skin. What d'you say, Dawes? Do we have a deal?"
Before Dawes could answer, the beeping of a phone interrupted them, drawing a grunt of annoyance from Face. He extracted the burner phone from his pocket and looked at the incoming call. It was Hannibal, but this was not their pre-arranged check in, so something must be up. Shooting Dawes an apologetic look, he thumbed the line open and lifted the phone to his ear.
"Hey, Boss Man."
Face blinked, startled into stupidity, and opened his mouth but nothing came out.
"Did you hear me?" Hannibal demanded. "Our Deep Dark is Kasza."
"I heard." Face hesitated, then said with unnatural calm, "That makes things more interesting."
"It makes things damned dangerous. Face, you've got to get out of there!"
"Out of Morocco?"
"Out of the line of fire!"
Face's brain was working again, rapidly sorting through his options and assessing risks. "I have a passport, but it won't stand up to any kind of scrutiny. I could try to get across the border…"
"No. That's not going to work." He could hear Hannibal struggling to contain his urgency and stay cool. "He'll have eyes on you. If you go anywhere near an exit point, he'll take you out."
"What do you suggest?"
After a moment of tense silence, Hannibal said, "Stay in Tangier but go underground. Get completely off the grid."
"Hide?" His discontent was plain in his voice. "Are you serious?"
"Deadly serious. I need you to disappear, kid, whatever it takes."
"Face, I'm counting on you to play this smart. If you give him a chance, Kasza will kill you. And if that happens, Murdock's going to kill me. So for both our sakes, keep your head down and stay safe."
"What about you? You're as high on Kasza's hit list as I am. You show up here and you'll be vulnerable, too, so maybe you should stay where you are. Let me find my own way out."
"No, the only way we can take on Kasza is together, so we're coming for you. Just make sure you're still in one piece when we get there."
Face switched off the phone and tucked it back in his pocket. Then he flashed a smile at the two men gazing expectantly at him from across the table. "Ever heard of a guy named Kasza?"
They both shook their heads.
"He's a very unpleasant man with a warped idea of fun and a tendency to hold grudges."
Dawes raised one ginger eyebrow. "He's your Deep Dark?"
"Looks that way."
"What's your connection?"
Face waved a dismissive hand and said, "I sent him to prison in Hungary for war crimes, weapons dealing and mass murder."
"And he's holding a grudge?" Green eyes twinkled at him. "Fancy that."
Face laughed, then abruptly dropped his joking manner and leaned forward to say, earnestly, "Things are gonna get very hot for me around here, once he realizes we're working together."
Face ignored this irrelevancy and went on in the same low, urgent tone. "Kasza wants me dead and he expects you to do the honors. When you don't, he'll come for me himself. So, the question is, when? When will he decide that Plan A has failed and revert to Plan B?"
"If we're Plan A, then it's already failed," Dawes said, "and he knows it. His men saw you leave the flat this morning, just as we did, and they saw us tailing you. I'd wager that he knows we're sitting here together now."
"Right." Face slumped back in his chair, frowning thoughtfully. "Which means I'm officially on borrowed time. So the next question is… what do we do about it?"
This time, Dawes made no demur, just gazed expectantly at the American, waiting for some flash of brilliance that would justify his reputation. Partridge had long since surrendered to Face's charm and was more than ready to sign up for anything he might suggest.
Neither man was disappointed when, after a minute of thought, Face looked up and said brightly, "I say we quit fighting the inevitable and give Kasza what he wants!"
The Eagle's Nest, Gibraltar
"What progress have you made?"
Anders Ruud gazed dispassionately at the dour, craggy face staring out of the laptop screen at him and answered evenly, "Everything is proceeding as planned, sir."
The other man scowled. "Is he dead?"
"MI6 has him under surveillance, but they haven't moved on him yet."
"The British are notoriously cautious. They like to think before they act."
"Not when they perceive a real threat," the other man growled. "Not if they took your bait. You blew it, Ruud! You tipped your hand!"
Ruud was used to his employer's temper. He didn't wither under its blast, but he did school his face into an expression of utmost blandness to avoid aggravating it further. "I followed orders, sir, right down the line. I put that dossier into Cartwright's hand personally and I'd swear he…"
"Wait," Kaukonen snapped, "what did you say?"
"I'd swear my contact took the bait."
"No. The name. You said Cartwright?"
"Yes. He's my regular contact at MI6."
Kaukonen paused for a breathless moment, then exploded. "Bloody fucking Hell! No wonder they didn't bite!" Leaning closer to the camera so that his face filled the entire screen with its quivering, mottled fury, he snarled, "Cartwright was working with them! He was there that night! Shaking Smith's hand… fawning over that filthy, little cocksucker… The bastard was there!"
"Where?" Ruud asked in honest confusion.
"Budapest! He was in on it with them! Ruud, you fucking idiot, you gave that dossier to the one man at MI6 who knows it's a lie!"
Ruud stared calmly at the howling beast confronting him and thought about the implications of this new information. It opened up a whole new range of possibilities, not all of them bad. But rather than sharing his thoughts with Kaukonen, he simply asked, "What do you suggest we do, sir?"
"There's only one thing we can do!" Kaukonen was struggling to rein in his temper but his face was still blotched red and purple with rage, and spittle flew from his lips as he hissed, "Kill Peck ourselves! Now!"
"Smith will know MI6 didn't do it. And we'll lose a valuable asset."
"Valuable?! He's only valuable as a corpse!"
Ruud steadfastly refused to let his control slip. He knew that he would have to follow whatever orders Kaukonen gave him, and he would have no compunction in doing so, but he wanted to think this through before he committed to anything.
His voice was maddeningly reasonable when he replied, "Peck is functioning as a decoy, even if MI6 doesn't truly believe that he's a threat. Cartwright has tied down a whole team monitoring him. His own attention is more on Tangier than Cairo, probably because he knows that Peck is innocent. He's just the sort of man who would allow a debt of honor to distract him from his duty. Maybe we can use that."
"Are you suggesting that we let Peck roam free in Tangier?"
"Not free. And not for long. Just until we fulfill our contract in Cairo."
"No." Kaukonen loaded the word with more venom than Ruud would have believed possible in one, short syllable. "I want him dead. I want him dead! And I want you to handle it personally!"
Ruud took a beat to absorb this instruction. "You want me to kill Peck?"
"What's the matter, Anders?" Kaukonen sneered, "Getting squeamish?"
"Not at all, sir," he replied coolly, "I just want to consider all our options."
"Fuck your options! I want Templeton Peck rotting in Hell! And I want him there before Smith can stop it! Do you understand me?!"
"Yes, sir." The tone in the other man's voice left no room for discussion. He'd received his orders. "I'll be in Tangier by nightfall."
"Before Smith gets there, Ruud! Do you hear?"
"And Ruud, don't be neat about it. Make it public, and make it messy. If you can make it hurt, all the better, but get it done!"
"Yes, sir. Understood."
He cut the connection, making the screen go black, and settled back in his chair. No flicker of emotion disturbed his face as he pondered the task given him.
Death was easy. If Kaukonen had simply told him to kill Templeton Peck at the outset, he could have done it in any of a hundred different ways, with all the noise and mess and pain that his employer could have wished. The matter was more complicated now, with Peck on the alert for trouble and Smith riding to the rescue, but he had every confidence that he could pull it off. Kaukonen was the fly in the ointment. He wanted a public demonstration, when the situation called for stealth and speed.
Kaukonen was a bloody-minded bastard with no trace of human warmth or conscience in him. When he hated, he hated completely. And when he set out to make another creature suffer, it suffered in ways most civilized people could not imagine. He'd been nursing this grudge for more than a decade, waiting for the chance to make Smith and Peck suffer in full measure for their part in his capture. He hated and feared Hannibal Smith, but he loathed Templeton Peck with a virulence that defied logic or sanity. Ruud suspected that it was only his fear of Smith that kept him from going after Peck himself and tearing his beating heart out of his chest with his bare hands.
As tempting as this image was, Ruud didn't allow himself more than a moment to savor it. He appreciated a bit of blood and pain when he had the chance to indulge himself, but common sense dictated that he act quickly in this case. Smith was simply too dangerous to toy with.
It was an interesting problem.
Pushing himself to his feet, Ruud opened the door and stepped through it into the Eagle's Nest—his rather grandiose name for the very ordinary room that he'd turned into the command center for this operation. Three men, all seated at separate desks, staring at clusters of computer screens, glanced up at his entrance. Picking out one among them, he said, "I'm leaving within the hour. Get me a car and a ticket on the next ferry to Morocco."
"Yes, sir." The man turned his eyes back to the computer screen and began to type.
The other two men waited in expectant silence for his next order.
"Notify the Hatchlings that I'm en route. They are to hold position until they hear from me, personally. And tell Qasim that I want him there when I arrive. I'll need some specialized ordnance."
His gaze swept the little room, taking in the quiet efficiency of his handpicked operatives. It warmed his heart, as much as anything could warm that cold, calculating, disinterested organ, and he nodded in satisfaction as he turned back toward his inner sanctum. He had a job to do and a plan forming in his head. Time to pack.
The airport, Tangier
Hannibal accepted his passport from the Customs agent with a nod of thanks and moved past the desk into the busy terminal. He glanced at his phone, seeing for the hundredth time his brief text exchange with Face from last night—first his own message: boots on ground tomorrow am, then Face's response: 12:30 hotel metropole. His eyes shifted to the time displayed at the top of the screen and his mouth tightened in frustration. Halting in his tracks, he turned back to see B.A. and Murdock hurrying toward him. The stream of bodies moving through the terminal parted and flowed around them, as the three men drew into a tense, huddled knot.
"We're running late," Hannibal informed them curtly. "It's nearly noon."
"Where's the stuff from Giles?" B.A. asked.
Hannibal pulled a crumpled, well-worn luggage tag from his pocket and gestured toward the lost luggage counter. "You two find a taxi. I'll get the bag and meet you outside."
Murdock nodded and headed for the exterior door at a near run, dragging B.A. after him. Hannibal approached the counter with the tag and his passport in hand, ready to spin a tale about a bag gone missing and multiple trips back to the airport to find it. But thanks to Giles, his ingenuity went untaxed. He simply handed over the tag, waited for all of thirty seconds, and accepted the nylon gym bag that the attendant thrust across the counter at him. In less than two minutes, he was out on the sidewalk, climbing into the rear seat of a taxi and ordering the driver, in broken French, to take them into the city.
B.A. took the bag from him and lifted it onto his own lap. As he unzipped it, Murdock cast a disinterested glance at the pile of shirts and socks revealed, then lifted his eyes to meet Hannibal's.
"Are we heading straight to the rendezvous?" His words were clipped and sharp, edged with excitement. Now that they were on the ground and in reach of his teammate, his frustrated misery of the last several days had vanished, replaced by this sizzling, almost frantic eagerness.
"Yes. I want to link up with Face before we do anything else."
"We're not gonna make it in time."
"He won't leave without us."
"What about this stuff?" B.A. asked, as he rummaged through miscellaneous pieces of clothing in search of the weapons he knew were concealed there.
Hannibal put a hand on his arm to still him, then shot a sideways look at the driver's back. "Not here. When we get to the hotel."
The corporal obediently drew his hands out of the bag and pulled it closed, but his words were full of doubt. "I feel like we oughta be better prepared. We don't know what we're gonna find at the rendezvous."
"We're gonna find Face," Murdock said emphatically.
"Yeah, but what else?" Fixing troubled eyes on Hannibal, he asked, "What d'you know about this Hotel Metropole, Boss?"
"Nothing. But Face must have picked it for a reason."
"You think it's safe?" He dropped his voice. "You think he's okay?"
"Does it matter?" Murdock shot back, his control slipping and his eagerness turning to anger. "We're going to get him, and I'm not waiting for you to unpack!"
"I ain't suggestin' that we…" B.A. started, but Murdock cut him off.
"You're talking about strategy and recon and gearing up, while I'm talking about saving our friend's life!"
"As you were!" Both men shut their mouths with a snap and turned matching glares on Hannibal. His gaze was fierce and quelling, but his tone was almost gentle when he said, "We're almost home, boys. Let's not lose our cool, now."
Murdock sank back in his seat and stared out the window, his mouth clamped shut. B.A. rolled his eyes but offered no further comment. Hannibal pulled a cigar from his pocket and stuck it, unlit, between his teeth. He hoped to God that he was right and they were almost out of this infernal shit storm, because if he was wrong, Kasza would be the least of his problems.
A rooftop above Avenue Pasteur, Tangier
Partridge lay sprawled on his belly in the stifling shade of a sniper blind, a rifle snugged to his cheek, peering through the telescopic sight at the street below. Sweat trickled into his eyes, forcing him to let go of the weapon long enough to wipe his sleeve across them. Then he settled his grip again, eased his finger into the trigger guard, and blinked the street into focus.
They were in the more modern part of the city, outside the medina, where the streets were wider, more gracious and less crowded, but that didn't mean that they were empty. Far from it. From Partridge's vantage point on the roof of a modest four-story building, he gazed west along the Avenue Pasteur to where the street bent slightly northward, then swung sharply south and out of sight. Right at the bend stood the impressive French Colonial bulk of the Hotel Metropole, framed perfectly in his crosshairs. Vehicles and pedestrians streamed past it, a few people trickling in and out of its lofty doors, while a line of cars were parked along the curb in front.
It was the perfect place for a public execution—if you weren't too concerned about collateral damage. For Partridge, the man who actually had to pull the trigger, it was a nightmare.
"T minus two minutes," a now-familiar voice said in his ear.
"Roger that," Dawes replied, bringing a small, wry smile to Partridge's face. For all his insistence that he didn't like or trust Peck, had no interest in saving his life, and was only working with him now to appease Cartwright, Dawes had adapted to the American's style with startling ease. He'd even taken to using U.S. Military slang.
"I don't like this, sir," Partridge muttered into his throat mic. "There's too much foot traffic. Recommend we abort and find a better spot."
"Negative." That was Peck, answering for Dawes and instinctively taking control of the operation. "We have one chance to do this. We can't abort."
"I can't guarantee a clean shot!"
"I'll set it up for you. Just tell me where you need me to be."
"I could misjudge and blow your head off. Or, God help me, hit a civilian!"
"Steady on, Number Two," Dawes cut in. "You've done this a hundred times."
"Not when I was trying not to kill someone!"
"It's easier this way, trust me," Peck said. "Hit me anywhere on the vest, from shoulder to waist, and the blood packet will make it look like a kill shot. Just aim low."
"And if I hit below the vest?"
"I won't hold it against you."
"Christ on a cracker!" Partridge swore fervently.
Peck chuckled. "I didn't know you Brits had crackers."
"I heard it from a Yank."
"Not one I ever met."
"Cut the chatter!" Dawes barked.
Partridge glanced away from the scope long enough to check his watch. T minus one minute. The sweat began to trickle into his eyes again.
A street near Avenue Pasteur, Tangier
Ruud eased his motorcycle through the traffic, his eyes behind the reflective visor of his helmet scanning the sidewalks for a glimpse of his quarry. A voice spoke in his ear, clearly audible over the throaty roar of the motorcycle's engine.
"He's approaching the Avenue Pasteur, proceeding west."
"Hatchling Three, do you have eyes on him?" Ruud asked.
"Negative," his henchman replied.
"He's coming round the corner past Rue Magellan," Hatchling Two said.
Even as he heard those words, Ruud spotted a familiar, tall, arrogant figure strolling along the sidewalk. Peck was making no attempt to blend into the crowd or conceal his identity. His head and face were uncovered, his posture full of confidence, his face lit with a smile as he gazed about him. Almost as if he were taunting the men trailing him.
Sliding over toward the curb, Ruud cut around a slow-moving car, found a stretch of open pavement, and put on speed. He reached Peck and passed him without so much as glancing in his direction, but his gaze found the American in the side mirror and dwelt curiously on him.
So this was the man he was ordered to kill in as public and messy a way as possible. He had seen many photos of Templeton Peck over the years, and heard countless stories, but he'd never seen him in the flesh till now. Till the last minutes of his life. Now that he did see him, he began to understand Kaukonen's obsessive need to annihilate him. For surely, if any human living could make a creature like Kaukonen feel small and ugly and worthless, it was this one.
Putting on a slight burst of speed, Ruud swept around the curve and onto a straight stretch of road. Ahead he saw the gracious, white facade of the Hotel Metropole, with a scattering of cars parked haphazardly in front of it. A smile tilted his lips. That would do quite nicely.
The same street, Tangier
Face watched a sleek, black motorcycle pull past him and speed down the street, then he shifted his gaze to the buildings looming on his left. Partridge was on top of one of them, just waiting to put a bullet in his back with a high-powered rifle. He grinned at the thought and began to whistle, his steps growing jauntier as they picked up the rhythm of his tune. Nothing lifted his spirits quite like the threat of imminent death!
He came around the corner and saw the hotel ahead. "On the home stretch," he murmured into his comm.
"I've got you," Partridge replied. His nerves seemed to have steadied, now that they were down to the wire, and he sounded calm.
"Copy that," Dawes said.
Face strolled casually toward the hotel, not betraying by so much as a twitch that he could feel Partridge's crosshairs on his back.
Ten seconds ticked by, ten strides closer to the hotel. Then Dawes asked, his voice taut with strain, "Have you got a clear shot?"
"Not yet," Partridge murmured, "Angle's too steep."
Face continued on his way, subtly trying to keep some distance from the other pedestrians and leave a buffer zone around him, but the traffic was thickening.
"Too many people," Partridge said. "I can't keep you in my sights. Can you get into the street?"
Face gave a thoughtful whistle and paused in the middle of the sidewalk, as if suddenly undecided where to go. He pulled out his phone, pretending to check an address, then stepped off the curb and moved between two parked cars. Now standing between the parked cars and the moving traffic, he paused again and looked back down the street the way he'd come.
"That's good," Partridge murmured in his ear. "Now a few more yards… give me a better line…"
Still holding his phone, Face once more headed toward the hotel.
Avenue Pasteur outside the Hotel Metropole, Tangier
Ruud throttled back and coasted to a stop just short of the hotel. Walking the bike into the wide gap between two cars, he bent to slide a hand round the curve of the gas tank until he touched the device mounted there. His fingers brushed a mechanical switch and flicked it on. A light began to blink on the device, barely visible beneath the polished, metal tank.
Now smiling in the concealment of his helmet, Ruud pushed the bike up onto its kickstand and dismounted. He peeled off his leather gloves as he headed for the hotel, then eased the helmet off and ruffled a hand through his hair. The smile lingered on his lips as he easily mounted the shallow steps to the hotel's double doors, turning to cast one glance back at the bike before he disappeared inside.
An alley beside the Hotel Metropole, Tangier
"What's the problem, Number Three?" Dawes demanded, as he popped his head out of the alley, looking for his other agent. Willis was stationed on the far side of the street with a clear view of the hotel doors, but Dawes couldn't pick him out of the crowd from this vantage point.
"It's Ruud!" Willis hissed. "Anders Ruud! He's going into the hotel!"
"Ruud?! Are you sure?!"
"Who's Ruud?" Peck asked. He was still moving toward the front of the hotel, his posture relaxed and his expression unconcerned, betraying none of the tension Dawes heard in his voice.
"It's him! I swear!" Willis cried, his voice scaling up in excitement. "He just got off that bike, took his helmet off and…"
"Dawes?" Peck said sharply, cutting him off. "What's going on?"
Dawes's eyes flicked from the strolling figure to the motorcycle, his brain sizzling with conjecture.
"I've got a shot," Partridge murmured suddenly.
"No! Hold your fire!" The words were out of Dawes's mouth before his brain had time to register them.
"What is going on?!"
Dawes wasn't even sure which one of them—Peck or Partridge—had asked the question. He only knew that something was wrong. Terribly, maybe fatally, wrong. And Peck was walking straight into it.
"Abort!" he shouted and saw Peck break stride in reaction. "Peck, get back! Get…"
The motorcycle exploded in a tremendous gout of flame and noise. It cut off Dawes's cry of warning, drowned out the shouts of his team, and filled the air with heat, smoke and flying metal. Dawes instinctively recoiled into the protection of the alley, eyes clenched tightly shut, until he heard Partridge screaming through the comm.
"Where is he?! Where is he?!"
"Belay that!" Dawes growled, coughing as the smoke tore at his throat. He risked a look around the corner of the building and felt his gorge rise at the sight. The boiling smoke obscured most of the scene, but he could see three bodies at the near edge of the blast zone and what appeared to be several body parts closer to the flashpoint. He could hear people screaming and sobbing, voices keening over the roar of flames.
"I can't see him! There's too much smoke! Jesus Christ! There are bodies everywhere!" Partridge cried.
"Bloody Hell," Dawes swore as he moved out of the alley and onto the sidewalk. Only ten feet away, a woman lay sprawled in a pool of her own blood, moaning pitifully.
"I can't see him!" Partridge howled again. "He was in the street… He was…"
"Get out of there, Number Two," Dawes barked, cutting through his near-hysteria. "Get back to base!"
"That's not your problem! I'll find him! You clear out before the authorities show up and find you with a weapon!" When Partridge didn't answer, he snapped, "That's an order, Number Two!"
Sure that Partridge would obey, albeit reluctantly, he turned his attention to the situation on the ground. Stepping around the injured woman, he ventured farther into the carnage of the blast zone. "Number Three?"
"In position, sir, and uninjured," Willis responded promptly, sounding shaken but resolute.
"Peck?" No one answered. "Peck, can you hear me?" He kept walking as he spoke into the comm, not honesty expecting a response. "Report!" His eyes watered from the smoke and his lungs ached but he ignored the discomfort, all his attention focused on the blood-spattered pavement and the bodies littering it.
"Get out here and help me, Number Three. We have to find him before the emergency crews show up."
"What about Ruud?"
He'd forgotten about Ruud in the horror of the moment. "Let him go. We have to find Peck."
Willis approached through the smoke, looking decidedly sick. His grey eyes, now swollen and red, traveled over a pile of fabric that had once been a man, then abruptly lifted to gaze eastward.
"I hear sirens."
Dawes's mouth tightened in fury. "Bloody Hell. Come on, let's get this done."
A nearby street, Tangier
Murdock was out of the taxi before it came to a full stop, his head thrown back to watch the dense, black smoke boiling up from between the rooftops, his mouth dry with fear. All around him, people were milling and crying, pushing against the police cars that blocked the road and shouting questions at the harried officers standing behind them. Murdock did not spare them so much as a glance. He just stood there, staring, knowing down in his guts that the sinister column of smoke was a marker flare that would lead him to Face.
Hannibal's voice reached him through the din, muttering in an aside to Bosco, "High explosives and gasoline."
His commander's words snapped Murdock out of his paralysis and he started shoving his way through the crowd toward the roadblock. He did not check to be sure the others were following, but he heard Bosco growling at a policeman who tried to stop them from stepping between the parked vehicles, and he smiled grimly to himself. Then he was through the roadblock, free of the frightened mob and past the cowed officers. Nothing stood between him and his friend but a few city blocks. He broke into a run.
As they came around the corner onto the Avenue Pasteur, they saw the scene of devastation spread out in front of them. Murdock picked up his pace, running full tilt down the length of the block while the others pounded after him, the smoke tearing at his throat and making him sob with every breath. Or he told himself it was the smoke. He didn't break stride until he reached the first line of emergency vehicles and debris that marked the edge of the blast zone. Then, at last, he halted to take stock of what he saw.
Two cars burned furiously in front of the French Colonial facade of a hotel, pouring flame, smoke and heat into the sky, while firefighters struggled to keep the flames from spreading to the other cars parked nearby. Police and medical personnel swam through the smoke, stooping over humped shapes that lay in the blood-blackened street. Their slow, methodical, almost casual progress told Murdock that the crisis was over. These were the dead, not the wounded, and there was no point in hurrying now.
But where was Face? He couldn't be under one of those tarps. It was impossible. Wherever he had been when the blast went off, whatever had happened to him, he simply couldn't be lying so still and quiet and dead under a shroud in the street!
Murdock watched in mute outrage as Hannibal stepped over a snaking fire hose to reach the nearest huddled shape. He lifted the tarp, glanced at the thing under it, then let it drop and straightened up.
"Is it him?" Bosco ground out.
Hannibal shook his head, his eyes scanning the carnage with no visible emotion in them.
"You think he was here," the corporal stated.
It was not a question, but Hannibal answered it anyway. "When things explode, Face is never far away."
Glancing away from his commander as Hannibal approached another body, Murdock hunted for something else to do, some other way to help his friend that didn't involve assuming or accepting his death. He saw red-black puddles on the pavement. Pieces of metal and glass torn from a vehicle. A purse with its contents spilled and trampled beneath running feet. A cell phone lying in the shadow cast by a parked car. At the sight of the phone, a little prickle of curiosity went down Murdock's spine, and he crossed to where it lay. He picked it up, examined it for a moment, then switched it on. The screen lit.
"What ya got there, Crazy Man?" Bosco called.
"A phone," Murdock answered without looking up from the object in his hands. It was booting up, showing him the low-res screen of a cheap, off-brand phone. "It still works."
"Let's see." Hannibal strode up to him, his hand out to take the phone. When Murdock surrendered it, he tapped a few icons and flicked through the screens. Then, abruptly, he froze. There on the screen, where they could all read it, was Hannibal's text: boots on the ground tomorrow am.
"Jesus," Bosco muttered.
"We knew he was here," Hannibal said with an unnatural calm that infuriated Murdock even as it reassured him that his commander was still in control of the situation, "this doesn't change anything."
"So he's under one of these tarps."
"No!" Murdock shouted, startling the other men into silence. "No! He's not!"
Before they could react to his outburst, Murdock spun away and began running through the chaos of smoke, hoses, vehicles and blurred figures, hunting for someone—anyone—who could tell him what had happened to Face.
"Parlez-vous Anglais? Anglais?" he shouted at each person he passed. A firefighter waved him away. A policeman babbled at him in rapid-fire French. A medic just stared blankly at him. He was sprinting toward yet another fire crew, his fear and frustration rising to the boil, when a hand caught his arm.
He spun around, his hand reaching instinctively for the weapon he did not have, a snarl of rage contorting his lips, to find himself glaring into the face of a stranger.
The man—a wiry, nondescript European in soot-stained khakis—took a hasty step back and lifted his hands defensively. "MI6! I'm MI6!"
"You're Cartwright's man?" The stranger nodded and hope flared hot and bright in Murdock's eyes. "You've got Face!"
Without seeming to hear him, Murdock twisted around to bellow over his shoulder, "Boss! Over here!"
"Where is he?!" Before the man could answer, Murdock's frantic excitement got the better of him and he blurted out, "Jesus! Hannibal! Bosco! Get over here!"
Summoned by his shouts, his teammates materialized out of the smoke, appearing almost at his shoulder.
"What's up, Crazy Man?" Bosco growled, eyeing the stranger fiercely.
"This guy is MI6. He says they've got Face!"
"I didn't say that!" Turning to Hannibal, who seemed the most likely member of the team to let him get a word in edgewise, the man said, "I'm Agent Willis. I'm part of Cartwright's ground team."
"Then, you do have Face. Or you should. Cartwright said you would protect him till we got here…"
"We tried. Things just got a little out of hand."
Hannibal glanced around, his expression dour. "No kidding."
"If you didn't protect him," Murdock cut in hotly, "and you haven't got him somewhere safe, then where the hell is he?!"
"At a local hospital, with the other casualties from the bombing."
His revelation did not have the effect Willis had anticipated. Years of practice at rescuing Face from every conceivable kind of peril kept his friends from panicking now. Every mission ended the same way—with Face in the nearest hospital, clinic or field dressing station, getting stitched, stapled, splinted and taped back together. This was par for the course and no cause for immediate concern.
"Dead or wounded?" Hannibal asked, reasonably.
"He was alive when he left here."
Hannibal nodded, as if he expected nothing less, and B.A. shot Murdock a relieved grin. "How badly was he injured?"
"I don't know," Willis replied earnestly. "He was unconscious when we found him, but he could've just been knocked out by the blast. Agent Dawes rode with him in the ambulance. He'll know more."
"All right. Let's go see how he's doing." Hannibal caught Willis's arm and began piloting him through the chaos toward the open street. "And on the way, you can tell us how this happened."
"Well, it was actually Lieutenant Peck's plan," Willis began, as they moved off.
"You don't have to tell me that. I knew Face was behind it the minute I saw the smoke…"
A local hospital, Tangier
The A-Team slipped onto the ward and moved down the long row of beds. Those few patients alert enough to notice them showed no surprise at the sight of three Americans in their midst and simply gazed dully at them as they passed. Hospital staff were too busy with the influx of wounded from the bombing to notice the visitors and vouchsafed them no more than a glance. Murdock led the way, counting off the curtained beds, while Hannibal and B.A. followed on his heels. Together, they covered nearly the length of the ward before Murdock stopped before yet another white fabric barrier with yet another bed beyond it. He squared his shoulders, swallowed audibly, and stepped around the curtain.
A man lay in the bed, anonymous beneath the red ugliness of his wounds and the white blankness of his bandages. Bloodstained gauze covered his eyes and most of his face. A sheet and more bandages covered his torso, with the few patches of exposed skin showing angry red cuts and burns. An IV dripped clear fluid into his left arm, while his right lay on a pillow, his hand strapped into a splint and swathed in bloody gauze.
All three men stared at the battered figure in the bed, at a loss for words, until the truth seemed to hit them all in the same instant. B.A. muttered a curse and turned away, unable to bear the sight any longer. Murdock threw himself at the bed with a strangled cry. Only Hannibal did not move. He simply stood there, his eyes bleak and hard with the effort of controlling himself, and gazed at his shattered friend.
When he saw Murdock lean over the bandaged, brutalized face framed against the pillow, Hannibal shook himself out of his paralysis and said gently, "Be careful, Captain."
Murdock gave no sign that he heard. All his attention was focused on the injured man. "Face?" He rested one hand on Face's tousled hair and stroked his forehead lightly with his thumb, deftly avoiding a wicked cut that ran from his eyebrow to his hairline. "Can you hear me?"
"Don't wake 'im up," B.A. pleaded, his voice rough-edged with pain.
"It's okay, he knows it's me. Don't you, Faceman?"
"Please, Murdock! Leave 'im alone!"
Hannibal placed a hand on the big corporal's shoulder and gave it a squeeze. "Take it easy, Big man. Murdock won't hurt him."
"He's gonna wake 'im up, and that's gonna hurt 'im!"
"He needs to know I'm here," Murdock insisted. Bending closer to his injured friend, he clasped Face's undamaged hand in both of his own and called urgently, "C'mon, Face, wake up and talk to me. Please, buddy…" His voice thickened with tears. "You gotta talk to me, Face. Please. Please don't do this…"
"Give it a rest, Murdock."
The words, muttered in a blessedly familiar voice from between bloodied lips, stopped the breath in Murdock's throat with a comical gulp and brought Hannibal's head up sharply.
"Face?!" the pilot squeaked, his hand tightening on Face's till his knuckles turned white.
"Are we alone?"
Hannibal blinked at his lieutenant, too startled to respond for a moment, then he answered, "I think so."
Detaching his unsplinted hand from Murdock's, Face peeled up the lower edge of the bandage covering his face. One impossibly blue, completely unscathed eye twinkled at Hannibal from beneath it. "Better check."
His mouth twitching with a smile he wouldn't yet acknowledge, the colonel turned and looked through the curtain to make sure no one on the ward was eavesdropping on their conversation. "We're alone."
"Whew!" Face sat up and pulled the bandage off, tossing it away with a sigh of relief. Then he scrubbed his fingers through his hair, making it stand up every which way. "These bandages itch like the devil!"
"Face…" Murdock stared at him in blank disbelief, tears shining in his eyes and beginning to slide down his cheeks. Suddenly, he threw his arms around his friend in a bear hug, shouting, "Face! You're okay!"
"Of course I… Oww! Watch it! Some of those are real!"
Murdock let him go with a whoop that was half laugh and half sob. "Sorry!"
"'S okay, buddy."
"Okay? Okay?! I thought you'd been blown to pieces!" Murdock sat down on the bed with a thump and gazed accusingly at him. "Why'd you scare me like that, Face?"
Face shrugged as he pulled out his IV and began peeling up some of the fouled bandages. "We had to make it look good enough to fool Kasza and his goons. As far as they know, I was blown to bloody scraps, or as near as makes no difference." He grinned, his wicked, blue eyes dancing at the thought of the perilous scam he was running. "Dawes did a hell of a job, didn't he? This was all his work… except for the blood. That's mine."
"Does the hospital staff know you're faking it?" Hannibal asked.
"Only one doctor." As he spoke, Face worked at the velcro straps holding his splint in place, but he was too clumsy with his left hand to loosen them. Murdock impatiently brushed his hand away and began peeling them up. "I don't know what Dawes told him to get him on board, but he hid me in the surgery while Dawes worked his magic, found me a bed, and ordered the staff to let me die in peace."
"And where are your co-conspirators now?"
Face flexed his liberated hand and grinned his thanks at Murdock. "Off plotting my untimely death. I think they're going to smuggle me out of the hospital in a body bag, which sounds like about as much fun as a root canal with no anesthetic, so if you have a better idea…"
"Before I come up with any ideas, I need to know what's going on. Why are you playing dead? And why were you walking around in the street where you could be blown up, to begin with? I thought I told you to lie low!"
"I am," Face replied, all innocence. "What's lower than dead?"
"No, listen, Boss. It's actually brilliant…"
"Which part? Getting yourself blown into next Tuesday by a bomb, or smuggled into the hospital by a Secret Service agent who was sent here to kill you?"
"He wasn't really going to do it. And no, the bomb wasn't part of the plan, but it worked out anyway. Maybe better, since it was Ruud's idea."
"Wait… Ruud? What does he have to do with this?"
"He's the one who tried to blow me into next Tuesday. D'you know him? I didn't know he existed till he turned up at the hotel with a block of C-4 taped to his gas tank."
Hannibal sighed and rubbed his eyes, trying to banish his weariness and catch up with Face's manic style of story-telling. "I know who he is. Okay, kid, let's try this again. You're working with Dawes and Willis…"
"And Partridge. He's the one who was trying to shoot me."
"He was what?!" Murdock half shrieked.
"No, Murdock, be quiet," Hannibal ordered sternly. Turning his gimlet glare on Face, he said, "Stop driving Murdock crazier than he already is and tell it from the beginning. You're working with the MI6 team?"
"Yeah. I was with them when you called, having a glass of tea and getting acquainted."
"By which you mean that you were conning them into doing what you wanted."
"Who, me?" Face gave him a guileless smile that rapidly morphed into an impish grin. "We were getting along famously. Then you called with the bad news about Kasza, and I had to come up with a way to get off his radar. That's when it hit me… The whole reason he put me here was so MI6 would kill me, right? So why not let them do it?"
"With a bomb?"
"No, I told you that was Ruud's idea. We planned a nice, neat, public execution, with Partridge putting a bullet in my back, and Dawes waiting to swoop in and claim the body on behalf of her Majesty the Queen. I had on a kevlar vest—good thing, too, since it probably saved my life in the blast—and some blood packets under my shirt."
"Why a real shooter?" Hannibal demanded. "Why not use a squib and the fake blood to make it look like you were shot?"
Face shook his head emphatically. "Kasza's boys were all over me. They were gonna see it, up close and personal, so it had to look real. Had to be real. It was the perfect plan… until Ruud showed up with his bomb and blew it all to Hell. Then we had to improvise."
"Which is what you do best," Hannibal said, with an appreciative grin. "Well, it's not exactly what I meant when I told you to go underground, but I see the logic."
"What I don't understand is why Ruud got involved," Face mused. "Dawes says that he's typically giving the orders, not doing the wet work. So why this time?"
"Maybe Kasza was convinced that only his very biggest gun could take you out."
A smug gleam lit Face's eyes. "Should I be flattered?"
"You should be damned glad you weren't standing a few feet closer to that bomb," Hannibal retorted sourly. "I saw some of the people who were, and they were none too pretty."
"Yeah, yeah, I know… I'm reckless and dangerous and I don't think things through… But I'm still in one piece, so now what? Are we gonna go after Kasza?"
"We have to find him, first."
Face's smile dimmed. "I had a lead for you—phone numbers and texts that I got off of one of Kasza's flunkies—but they were on my burner phone. And I think it got blown up."
Hannibal reached into his pocket and pulled out the phone Murdock had found at the bomb site. He held it up where his lieutenant could see it and asked, "You mean, this one?"
Face gave a whoop of triumph and snatched the phone from the colonel's hand. "Where'd you find it?!"
"Just where you left it. Lying in the street with a bunch of dead bodies."
Switching it on, Face stared intently at it, visibly willing it to work. When the screen lit up, he chuckled and began punching buttons. "Here they are! One of these has to be a direct line to Ruud."
"And if we find Ruud, we can use him to get to Kasza. Nice, kid!"
"Okay, so how're you gonna get me out of here?"
"Well, you went to a lot of trouble to play dead, so I think we'd be smart to keep you that way. For now."
Face's enthusiasm deflated at that. "I guess that means the body bag."
Hannibal grinned. "Oh, I think we can do a little better than that."
A hangar at the airport, Tangier
The featureless, black van pulled into the hangar and cruised slowly up to the group of men awaiting it. A stocky figure in rumpled khakis stepped forward to meet it, leaving the others hanging back. He had an ID in his hands, which he showed to the attendant that climbed out of the truck.
"You'll have to sign for it," the attendant said in Arabic, shoving a clipboard full of papers at Dawes.
The agent took it and rifled through the contents. "The Death Certificate?"
"Very good." Dawes scribbled a signature on the first form, gave the original copy to the attendant, then took the rest of the paperwork and pocketed it.
The attendant tossed the empty clipboard through the window onto his seat, and slapped the side of the van once as he headed for the back. At his signal, the rear doors popped open and another man climbed out. Under Dawes's critical eye, the two white-uniformed attendants slid a long, ominous, dull-silver box out of the van. Metal legs unfolded from its underside, dropping to support it, and wheels touched down on the smooth concrete floor. The two men guided the box over to Dawes. One of them handed him a key.
The agent took it with a nod but made no move to touch the coffin. He simply waited, eyes cool and implacable, as the attendants climbed into their van, fired up the engine, and drove slowly back out of the hangar. Agent Partridge trailed behind the vehicle on foot, stopping just inside the hangar doors to watch it drive away. Then he hit a large, yellow switch that sent the doors humming closed.
Dawes waited until Partridge had rejoined the group, till the doors were closed and the hangar quiet, till only the A-Team and his own men could see what he was doing. Then he fit the key into the padlock that secured the coffin and flipped it open. Hannibal Smith lifted the lid, while Murdock hovered beside Dawes, peering beneath it.
The moment the coffin was fully open, Face lurched upright and tore off the oxygen mask he wore. He fixed a sour glare on his commanding officer and said, flatly, "Let's never do that again."
Smith grinned unrepentantly. "You look like you could use a shower, kid. And a cold drink."
This was the understatement of the century. Face's clothes—surgical scrubs borrowed from the hospital—were damp and filthy. His skin was slick with an unpleasant combination of soot from the explosion, blood from his many minor injuries, and sweat from being locked in a metal box in the full heat of a North African day. And his hair stank of smoke and gasoline. He was a thoroughly disreputable object, and only Hannibal seemed to find it funny.
Shooting Hannibal a resentful look, Face began to clamber out of the coffin. Murdock promptly moved to help, catching his arm and steadying him as he climbed stiffly to his feet. The bulge of a thick dressing on his left thigh and traces of blood on his pant leg betrayed the presence of a real injury that brought a worried frown to Murdock's face. Together, Murdock and B.A. hoisted their teammate out of the coffin and set him on his feet. Then B.A. handed him a bottle of water.
Face accepted the bottle with a nod of thanks, drained it in three swallows, and turned a slightly less dyspeptic look on Hannibal. "What now?"
"Ruud. Cartwright's tech boys at MI6 are tracing those numbers you got for us. They'll find him. And when they do, we'll go after him."
"If you think you're gonna fly me out of the country in that damned coffin…" Face started, but Hannibal cut him off with a laugh and a dismissive wave.
"That was just to get you out of the hospital. Dawes will ship the coffin back to London, sealed and marked as property of the British Secret Service. No Customs agency will dare open it, and Kasza will go on believing that you're dead."
"And while my unlamented remains are on their way to London? What will the living be doing?"
"Relaxing. Getting some rest. None of us are at our best, after the last week, and we need to be if we're going after Kasza."
"That's gonna be tough, with Kasza and Ruud watching every move we make. It's not like we can just stroll into a hotel and book the Presidential Suite."
"Well, you can't." Hannibal cast him a fond smile. "Don't worry, kid, it'll only be a short ride to the hotel. You won't have to hide in the trunk for long."
"The trunk?! Wait just a damned minute…!"
"Sorry, Peck," Dawes interjected, his eyes twinkling, "but my car is too small to hide you anywhere but the boot."
"Then hire a bigger one!"
"Come on, Face," Hannibal chided, "you don't want to blow your brilliant plan now, do you? Get in the trunk, we'll smuggle you into the hotel, and you can have that shower. Dawes's boys'll handle security for us, so we can all relax for the night."
"I'm not getting in that trunk. I'll suffocate."
"Take your oxygen tank," B.A. suggested helpfully.
Before Face could deliver a blistering retort, Murdock chimed in, "I'll ride back there with you, buddy. Keep you company."
"You will not," Face snapped. Shooting Hannibal a scathing look, he turned and limped toward the battered sedan parked near the hangar doors. "Let's just get this over with, before I decide I'd rather have Kasza kill me for real!"
A hotel room, Tangier
Face came through the door of the hotel room and headed straight for the bathroom, peeling off his sweat- and blood-stained shirt as he went. Murdock entered on his heels and locked the door behind them. He watched Face's progress, catching sight of a raw burn on his upper arm, and called to his retreating back,
"Don't get your bandages wet!"
"Or those open wounds! Face…"
Face shut the door firmly on the pilot's well-meaning advice. Shucking his hospital-green trousers, he sat on the closed toilet lid to peel up the dressing on his leg. It came away reluctantly, bringing a fair bit of congealed blood with it, to show a long, wicked row of black stitches holding closed a slash on the outer curve of his thigh.
He tossed the dressing into the trash without giving the wound more than a cursory glance. Cranking on the shower, he waited until the water was hot enough to fill the room with steam and stepped under the spray. The touch of the fiercely hot water on his various open cuts and burns sent pain sizzling across his nerve-endings, but he welcomed it. It was a familiar pain that fit comfortably into his mind. He stood for a minute simply relaxing, then set about scrubbing off the layers of dirt.
By the time he stepped out of the shower, he'd cooked out most of his aches and pains and was able to move easily again. His fresh wounds were bleeding, and the towel he used to dry off was quickly covered with crimson splotches. He tossed it onto the floor with his discarded scrubs and wrapped a clean towel around his waist before he ventured back out into the bedroom.
Murdock had settled himself in, claiming the bed closer to the door, leaving Face the one with the view out over the balcony. When Face appeared, he swung his feet off the bed, sat up, and patted the mattress beside him.
"C'mere. Let me clean you up."
"What do you think I was doing in there?" Face retorted, but he obeyed out of habit and sat down next to his friend. When the pilot took a large, metal box full of first aid supplies from the nightstand, Face peered curiously into it. "Where'd you get all that?"
Murdock doused a square of cotton in antiseptic and dabbed it carefully over the cut that ran from Face's left eyebrow to his hairline. The chemicals stung fiercely, but Face didn't react. He was used to Murdock's doctoring techniques, and he found them reassuring, even if they hurt.
"This one doesn't look too bad," the pilot murmured, pressing the swab more firmly to the cut.
"None of them are."
Murdock nodded toward his left thigh and the blood now darkening the towel. "What about that?"
"They stitched it up. It'll be fine."
"Stubborn as a bag of rocks," the pilot muttered, shaking his head lugubriously. "I told you not to get it wet."
"And I told you it'll be fine. I don't need nursing, Murdock. I just got out of the hospital, remember?"
Murdock fell still, his hand dropping to rest in his lap with the bloody swab still clutched in it, and lifted mournful eyes to his friend. "You want me to stop? Is that what you're telling me?"
"I want you to stop fussing. That's all." Face eyed him thoughtfully, his head cocked to one side and his brows drawn together in a slight frown. "What's wrong, buddy?"
Murdock opened his mouth to answer, closed it, then muttered, "Nothin'."
He dropped the dirty swab into the trash and soaked a fresh one with antiseptic. Face waited until his friend had finished cleaning the deep cut that split his lower lip before he tried again.
"Come on, Murdock, talk to me." When Murdock still did not answer, he grabbed the pilot's hand and pushed it away, halting his move to dab at yet another cut on his face. "Hey. What's going on? Are you pissed at me about something?"
"Why would I be pissed at you?" Murdock countered sullenly. "You didn't do anything… except try to get yourself killed again, with every psycho in the known universe lined up to take a shot at you again…"
"Hold on." He fixed his friend with disbelieving eyes and demanded, "Are you seriously gonna blame me for this one? Did I ask to be kidnapped and set up as an international assassin?"
"No." Murdock squirmed slightly, his gaze skating away from Face's. "But you got a kick out of it."
"Yeah, I did. So shoot me."
"That's Partridge's job."
Face's brows rose nearly to his hairline and his mouth quirked into a wry smile. "Oh. So that's it. You're pissed that Partridge was here to enjoy it with me and you weren't."
"You think I would've enjoyed it?" Murdock's eyes turned on him again, full of hurt and accusation. "You think I enjoy watching you do this stuff? Well, I don't. I hate it. And if I'd been here, you never would've tried to pull a stupid stunt like getting yourself shot on a public street, 'cause I would've tied you up in a sack before I let you do it!"
"Let me? Since when do you let me do anything? I don't need your permission!"
"No, what you need is keeper!"
Laughter sprang up in Face's eyes, but he kept his expression severe. "That's what you are, now? My keeper? I thought you were my nursemaid!"
Murdock opened his mouth to retort, his eyes bright and furious, but nothing came out.
Face gave him another second or two to stew in his frustration, then chided gently, "Do you really want to pick a fight with me, Murdock? Will it help?"
"Yes." The pilot swallowed to clear the lump from his throat, then amended, "Maybe."
"Okay, go for it."
He swallowed again and wiped a sleeve across his eyes. "Never mind."
Face reached out to clasp his shoulder. "You can shout at me till the walls shake, if it'll make you feel better."
"It won't. Only one thing will."
"Tearing Ruud's head off."
"That doesn't sound like your style. Why so bloodthirsty all of a sudden?" Again, Murdock had trouble finding words, and Face nudged him gently. "Come on, buddy, talk to me."
"He tried to kill you."
"A lot of people try to kill me."
"This one almost pulled it off."
"Almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades."
"Huh. That was one big, damn hand grenade," Murdock retorted. He drew in a steadying breath, then ventured, "Face…"
"D'you… d'you have any idea what the last week has been like?"
The lieutenant laughed in spite of himself. "I lived through it, too."
"Yeah, but you were doing stuff! Comin' up with plans, conning British agents, playing hide and seek with Kasza's boys! I was just…" He broke off once more, then said flatly, "This was the worst week of my life."
"Seriously? What about the time we spent in that Afghan prison camp?"
"That was nothing. In the camp, we were together, watching each other's backs. I knew you could take whatever they did to you, and I knew that if anyone was gonna crack up and get a bullet in the head, it would be me."
"And that made it better?"
"Yes." The look Murdock gave him stopped the words in Face's throat and stifled his impulse to laugh. "This time, I didn't know anything. I didn't do anything. I just followed Hannibal around, totally helpless, begging him to hurry, always afraid that we would be too late… and then, we were."
"No, you weren't. You got here just when I needed you."
"Just in time for you to scare the life outta me by playing dead? I don't think I can ever forgive you for that one, Face."
"I'm sorry I scared you."
The utter sincerity in his voice brought sudden, hot tears to Murdock's eyes. He swiped at them with his sleeve again and muttered, "If you're really sorry, you'll let me finish patching you up."
"Of course." Face flipped back the edge of the towel to expose the ugly wound on his thigh. "Why don't you start with that? Keep it from bleeding all over your bed?"
Murdock gave a short, watery laugh and began rummaging through the medical kit. "Weren't you just a little bit afraid?" he ventured as he worked. "When you knew it was this Kasza dude coming after you? Or when Partridge was trying to put a bullet in your back?"
Face shrugged apologetically. "I'm not good at fear."
"I know. It's one of the things I hate about you."
"Well, if it's any consolation, I wished you were here with me the whole time."
"So I could watch you risking your life?"
"So you could enjoy it with me." Face smiled, his eyes lighting up with affection. "And so you could give me a bandaid and a lollipop after I got blown up."
"I don't have any lollipops," Murdock muttered, ducking his head.
"No. But you're the only medic I trust, and I couldn't survive even one of our missions without you."
Murdock finished assembling the dressing for Face's leg and bent over the wound. He was taping the bandage into place when he said, quietly, "I'd still like to kill Ruud for what he did to you."
"Maybe you'll get the chance. But don't take it so personally, buddy. He's just another psycho who couldn't get the job done. And we," Face grinned playfully at his solemn friend, "will make him sorry that he ever heard of the A-Team."
The Eagle's Nest, Gibraltar
Ruud smiled at the image of his employer's scowling face on the laptop screen. "Yes, sir, it's done."
"You're absolutely sure."
"Absolutely." He hit a button on his keyboard, then added, "You should be receiving the documentation now."
"Hmph," Kaukonen grunted, his eyes shifting away from the camera as he studied the file Ruud had just sent. After a moment, he demanded, "Drake? Who's Drake?"
"That's Peck's alias."
"Not the one you created for him. Where did he get a new identity so quickly?"
"I don't know, sir, but it's him. Check the photographs. They track him from the bomb site to the hospital, where he was admitted under the name of Stephen Drake."
"So he was alive when he got there."
"Yes, but he didn't last long. One of my Hatchlings spoke to the doctor who signed the death certificate—a Doctor Serhane—and verified that the dead man is Peck. Serhane recognized his picture. He also told us that the British Secret Service claimed the body. It's currently in a hangar at the airport, awaiting shipment to London."
"And Smith?" Kaukonen demanded. "Is he going to London with what's left of Peck?"
"He and his men were in the hangar with MI6 to take possession of the body, but then they drove back into the city. They spent last night at the Continental."
"Where are they now?"
"Unknown. They left the hotel at 0700 and went into the city. We lost them almost immediately."
"Of course you did," Kaukonen sneered. "You'd better bar the door, Ruud. They're coming for you."
"I expect so, but it will take them time to find me."
"I wouldn't count on that. Smith is going to take this very personally, and if you think he'll give you a pass because you were following my orders, think again. You put his precious protégé in the ground. He will make you sorry."
"I wouldn't count on that, either."
"Smith won't kill me out of hand," Ruud said dismissively. "He's too steeped in honor and duty and so forth. He may rough me up a bit or let that mohawked behemoth of his have some…"
A sudden noise from the outer room cut off Ruud's words and brought his eyes up to the door. He hesitated, listening intently, and heard the eerie, muffled sound of a bullet fired through a suppressor. Then something solid hit the floor.
Dropping his hand to the keyboard, he murmured, "I have company," and cut the video connection.
The words were barely out of his mouth when the door slammed back on its hinges and Hannibal Smith came through it, pistol raised, blue eyes blazing over its barrel at the seated man. Ruud kept his hands flat on the desktop, in plain view, and met Smith's gaze with no sign of fear in his own. He registered the presence of two other men at Smith's back, both heavily armed, both training their weapons on his unprotected body, but he did not look away from Smith to study them. All his attention was fixed on this man who had filled Kaukonen's nightmares for so many years.
"Anders Ruud?" Smith barked.
Ruud nodded, his face inscrutable. Smith twitched his head at the enormous black man at his side, sending him around the desk at a trot. The man grabbed Ruud's chair and pulled it away from the desk, swinging it around so that Ruud found himself staring up into a dark, furious face.
"My name's Bosco Baracus," the man growled, "an' I been waitin' for the chance to hurt you. So don't give me no reason."
With that, he hauled Ruud out of the chair, slammed him facedown over his desk, and jerked his arms behind him. A plastic zip-tie tightened around Ruud's wrists, confining them at the small of his back. Baracus searched him quickly and efficiently, relieving him of his phone and weapon. Then a massive hand fastened in his collar and pulled him roughly to his feet again. It had all taken only a few seconds, and Ruud once more found himself staring down the barrel of Smith's pistol into his implacable eyes.
"You speak English?" Smith demanded. Ruud nodded again. "Good. That'll save time. Put him in the chair, B.A."
Baracus gave him a practiced shove that landed him in the chair and sent it skating backward, away from the desk. Smith, shadowed by the third man, came around the desk and loomed over him, pistol still trained on his forehead. The two adversaries stared at each other in silence for a long moment, fierce blue eyes meeting glacial grey ones, each man weighing the strength and determination of the other.
It was the third man who broke the silence—the one with the twitching face and wild, unsettling eyes. "Shoot him, Boss. Or let me do it."
"Not yet," Smith replied evenly.
"We don't need him. We can get Kasza's location from his computer."
"Cartwright wants him."
"I don't give a shit what Cartwright wants. Just shoot the bastard. Or let me do it. I promised Face…"
"You been talkin' to dead people again, Crazy Man?" Baracus rumbled, a hint of worry in his deep voice.
"So what if I have? Being crazy doesn't affect my aim, not at this range."
Throughout this exchange, Ruud's gaze jumped from man to man, trying to follow their rapid, idiomatic English while sorting through his options. Smith's message was clear: he was at the mercy of the A-Team until they had what they wanted, then he belonged to Ian Cartwright and MI6. For all Kaukonen's warnings about Smith, Ruud suspected that MI6 was the greater threat. They could make him disappear as completely and permanently as if the Earth had swallowed him up. And while Smith could hurt him, torture him, even kill him, he didn't have the luxury of dragging it out. Cartwright, on the other hand, had a lifetime in which to make him suffer for his transgressions.
If he wanted any chance of a long, relatively pain-free life, his only option was to cooperate. And if in the process he sent Smith to his death, so much the better. For Kaukonen was ready for him, Ruud was certain, and would chop his precious A-Team up for firewood to warm his Finnish fortress.
All this flashed through his mind in a matter of seconds, then he said, calmly, "I will tell you where to find Kaukonen."
The three men abruptly broke off their chatter and turned, as one, to confront him. Smith pressed the muzzle of his pistol to the center of Ruud's forehead and leaned hard on it.
"Why would you do that?"
"To save time. I am a…" he broke off to hunt for the English word, then went on, "practical man. I cannot protect my employer now. So I will tell you what you want to know and save time for everyone."
"Kaukonen knows we're coming."
Ruud nodded. "Of course."
A grim, humorless smile lifted one corner of Smith's mouth. "And you think that's enough to save his life?"
Shrugging with his hands bound behind him and crushed against the chair back was a challenge, but Ruud managed it. "That is no longer my concern. I am thinking of my own life."
"Honor among thieves…" the lunatic muttered, as Smith laughed coldly.
"Give us his location."
Ruud jerked his chin at the computer. "It is there. Let me use the keyboard and…"
"Nice try. Tell Murdock where to look."
"As you say."
The lunatic crouched in front of the desk and swiped his finger across the touchpad to light up the computer screen. Under Ruud's direction, he opened a map and pinpointed a location on the coast of Finland, north and west of Turku, where the mainland broke into the countless islands of the Archipelago Sea.
"Kaukonen owns all the land from the western inlet to the eastern curve of the river and the ridge to the north. The manor house is built on a bluff above the river, surrounded on three sides by old forest."
"What are the access routes?"
"There is one road in from the highway."
"Kasza wouldn't risk being trapped in such a remote location. He must have other exit points."
"There is also the river. And a helipad behind the house."
"Helipad won't do us no good," Baracus offered. "He'd hear us comin' a mile off."
"Hm." Smith stared at the map, eyes narrowed in concentration, then asked Ruud, "Do you have pictures of the compound? A floor plan?"
"No. I have been there only twice since it was built and saw little beyond the main rooms." He tried to inject a note of sincerity into his voice, as he added, "I am willing to cooperate in any way I can, Colonel Smith, but I cannot help you plan an assault on a defended position. That is not where my talents lie."
"Yeah, you stick to that story," Baracus growled, "an' I'll enjoy beatin' the truth outta you."
"I get first dibs!" Murdock objected, twisting around to glare at his teammate.
"Both of you, stand d…" The door abruptly opened, interrupting Smith's attempt to quiet his men, and Ian Cartwright stepped through it.
The Brit gave Ruud one killing look, then turned to Smith and said, "What's left of his team is in the truck and the scrub team is on its way. Are we a go?"
"How many of my men are still alive?" Ruud interjected.
Cartwright just glanced at him, then away, dismissing his question. "He's in Finland?"
Smith nodded shortly. "Southwest coastal region, near Turku. Murdock, bring that laptop. And the phone. B.A., you're responsible for this piece of garbage."
His men moved to obey, Murdock scooping up the electronic equipment as he scrambled to his feet and Baracus hoisting Ruud from the chair. They started for the door to the outer room, Baracus and his prisoner trailing at the back, but Ruud could hear the others talking very clearly.
"I've been in contact with my chief," Cartwright said, "and he won't authorize covert action on Finnish soil without clearance from higher up."
"How long will that take?"
"Impossible to say. Kaukonen isn't a priority for them, and I'm not officially part of this operation anyway. I'm supposed to be in Cairo looking for an assassin."
"Your assassin is dead, remember?"
Cartwright smiled crookedly at that. "I was a little too convincing when I challenged the intel on Peck. The chief doesn't believe he was the asset, which means we still have to find the real one."
They stepped into the outer room and over a body sprawled in the middle of the floor, blood pooling under its head. Only one body, Ruud noted, which meant that two of his men were still alive and in the custody of MI6.
"And if Kaukonen is the man supplying the asset?" Smith demanded, as they threaded their way through the room toward the outer door. "Does that change the equation?"
"It would if I had proof. And only after we secure our man in Cairo."
"We can't wait for you to resolve the Cairo situation. We have to move on Kaukonen before he has time to dig in or disappear."
"Just the three of you?" Cartwright protested. "You can't go into his compound without backup!"
"We'll do what we have to do." Smith halted at the outer door and hooked a thumb at Ruud. "Get him the hell out of here before I decide to let Murdock off his leash. We'll need a few more minutes in here, but we'll be done before your crew arrives."
Cartwright nodded wearily. He rapped a knuckle on the door, and it opened under the hand of an anonymous MI6 operative. Two more lurked just behind him in the hallway. "Take him down to the truck."
Ruud found himself bundled out of the office and into the elevator with brisk efficiency. He rode with two of the MI6 agents holding his arms and the third planted in front of him, watching him with wary eyes. Just before they reached the basement level, the third man slapped a strip of duct tape over his mouth to ensure his silence.
The elevator doors opened, and his guards frogmarched him a few steps to where a blank, white, windowless van stood in the loading zone. The rear door popped open at their approach and yet another man climbed out to meet them. Ruud instantly recognized him as the head of Cartwright's ground team in Morocco.
"Put him in with the others," Dawes said. "Are they almost done up there?"
"Smith said a few more minutes."
The guards were just moving to hoist him into the back of the truck when another figure climbed out of the cab and came sauntering toward them, calling, "What's the hold up?"
Ruud didn't recognize the voice, but something about the way the new arrival carried himself sent a frisson of alarm down his spine. Then, abruptly, the man stepped into full view and he found himself staring into a pair of bright, laughing, impossibly blue eyes—the eyes of a dead man.
"Well, well. You must be Ruud." That unmistakable smile broke over the other man's face, and behind his gag, Ruud swallowed a groan. "I'm glad I got a look at you. I like to put a face to a murder attempt."
"What are you doing out here, Peck? You're supposed to stay in the truck," Dawes chided.
Peck just laughed. He studied the prisoner intently for a moment, and Ruud had the distinct impression that the American was reading his mind. Or sucking out his soul. Anders Ruud was neither impressionable nor easily intimidated, but he found Peck's gaze distinctly unnerving, and after only a handful of seconds, he looked away. Peck chuckled again and clapped a hand to Ruud's shoulder.
His voice was pleasant, easy, utterly seductive in its warmth and charm, when he said, "You didn't really think I'd let you kill me, did you?"
Ruud stared at him over his silver gag, swallowed once, and shook his head.
"Don't take it so hard, buddy. I'm like a cockroach. I never die, I just get older and meaner and harder to kill. You, on the other hand, better hope we find a very deep hole to drop Kasza in, because he isn't going to forgive you in a hurry."
Ruud lugubriously shook his head again, drawing a chuckle from his tormentor.
"Don't worry." Peck's voice took on a comforting note that made Ruud long to pound his face to a bloody ruin. "We'll get 'im for you."
And much as he hated to admit it, Ruud believed him.
Kaukonen's compound, Finland
Face lay flat on the stone-flagged floor and peered through the railing at the scene playing out fifteen feet or more below. A group of men stood in the middle of an ornate, inlaid marble floor, five guards surrounding three prisoners. Another man—Face assumed it was Kasza, though he couldn't see him properly from this angle—paced around the stationary figures, gesturing and bellowing as he gloated over his victory. His voice echoed off the walls and carried easily to Face's perch, but he could also hear it through his earpiece, telling him that his friends still wore their comms and their mics were picking up Kasza's voice. Clearly, Kasza hadn't bothered to search them properly. Or he'd assumed that there was no one else out there to hear them.
Hannibal had told him it would be easy to get in, and as usual, he'd been right. Face had scaled the outer wall, taken out a couple of guards, and broken into the main house without meeting any serious resistance, while his teammates launched an open assault on the gate to draw attention and overload the security grid. Now he lay in a Musician's Gallery, overlooking the Great Hall where Kasza held court or, in this case, taunted his prisoners.
"Ten years!" the mobster snarled, spitting the words at Hannibal in heavily-accented English. "Ten years I planned my revenge, and now it is done!"
"It took you ten years to plan this?" Hannibal retorted, his voice hard with contempt. "I could do better in five minutes, with a pencil and an old napkin."
"I have you. I have your men. I could make you watch while I torture them, but why go to the trouble? I already got the one that matters." Kasza stepped up close to Hannibal, and even from his distant vantage point, Face could feel the tension thicken around the two men. "I blew his pretty face off. Made him bleed. Made him suffer. Did you get there in time to say goodbye, Smith? I hope so."
Face heard a low, warning growl from Murdock, picked up by his throat mic, and he saw the pilot make a move toward Kasza. The nearest guard grabbed his arm and jerked him back, but Face knew that it was time to end this farce, before one of his teammates lost it and went off-script. He eased back from the railing and rose to a crouch at the back of the gallery. Then he studied the room, looking for an access point.
To judge by his decor, the aging mobster couldn't decide if he was a Bond villain, a Russian Prince, or a feudal landowner. The basic shape of the building was Medieval manor house, with heavy stone walls and exposed wooden beams, but this central hall looked like a Romanov's fever dream. The walls were covered with arched alcoves, ornate moulding, gilt fixtures and baroque artwork, while tall doors with arched tops and deeply-carved panels lined either wall. There were plenty of ways in, but none that would conceal his approach. What he needed, Face reflected ruefully, was a secret entrance behind a tapestry.
Hannibal and Kasza were still exchanging barbs, the Hungarian taunting his prisoner with the supposed death of one friend and the imminent death of the others, but Face blocked it out and concentrated on the job at hand. Slipping out of the gallery and into the corridor beyond, he headed for the nearest stairway. It was a tight spiral of steps around a central column, and as he bounded down it, Face found himself losing his sense of direction, so that when he stepped out of the stairwell and into a ground floor corridor, he had no idea which way to turn.
He seemed to have come out in the utilitarian part of the house. Here, its Medieval clumsiness was made even uglier by stark modern fixtures, stone floors and bare walls. Security cameras marked his progress at every turn or junction in the hallway, but Face ignored them. It was too late for caution, now.
He took his best guess as to where the center of the building and the Great Hall lay and sprinted down the hallway toward it. The sound of running feet warned him that he was not alone and forced him to duck through the first unlocked door he found. The room beyond was dark and obviously empty, so he wasted no time investigating it, but crouched by the door and cracked it open.
Two men dressed in combat boots and parkas with fur-lined hoods came pounding down the hallway. As they approached his hiding place, Face heard a voice crackling from the walkie-talkie one man held, saying,
"I need marksmen on the roof! We have incoming aircraft! All teams to your defensive positions!"
"Vehicles on the road," another voice cut in, sounding almost panicked. "They're past the second checkpoint!"
Face smiled to himself as he slipped back out into the now-empty corridor. The cavalry, in the form of Ian Cartwright and the British Secret Service, was coming over the hill. All the pieces of Hannibal's plan were falling into place and it was time to do his part.
He knew instantly that he'd reached his goal when he turned a corner and saw in front of him a door, topped by a carved lintel and flanked by ornate light fixtures. Stepping up to the door, he removed his earpiece to muffle the sound coming through the comm, then he pressed his ear to the panel. Voices reached him, their words muffled by the thick wood but still identifiable as Kasza and Murdock. His teammate was working himself up into a fury, shouting insults and threats at his captor, imminent hysteria plain in his frantic tone. Face put his earpiece back in and eased the door open a crack.
He'd obviously found the closest thing to a servant's door this monstrosity of a house could boast. It wasn't hidden behind a tapestry, but it was placed in the back wall, behind a massive chair that bore a strong resemblance to a throne, and immediately beside a fireplace big enough to roast an ox. Between the garish furniture clustered around the hearth, the movable screens provided to block the heat of the blaze, and the weight of carved stone that held up the mantelpiece, the crack through which Face peered was virtually invisible.
Kasza stood about twelve feet away, his back to the hearth and Face's vantage point. The A-Team and their guards formed a loose clump just beyond Kasza, all looking more or less in Face's direction. To get to Kasza, he had to cross the open floor without attracting the attention of either the mobster or his minions. Not an easy task.
Pulling the door closed again, Face took his sidearm from his waistband and chambered a round. Then, his hand on the door latch, he said quietly into the mic at his throat, "I'm here. I need a distraction."
No sooner were the words out of his mouth than he heard a furious shout cut through the thick door and howl in his ear. It was Murdock in full Lunatic mode. Face cracked the door again and saw the pilot hurl himself bodily at the nearest guard, grappling for his weapon, biting and flailing and screaming defiance. All eyes were turned on the struggling pair, and when Murdock knocked the guard to the floor, the others moved to help him.
That was Face's signal. He was through the door and halfway across the floor before anyone noticed. One guard saw the movement from the corner of his eye and turned, mouth opened to shout a warning, but he was too late. Face covered the last few feet in a rush and ground the muzzle of his gun into the base of Kasza's skull.
At the sound of his voice, the entire tableau froze for the space of a heartbeat, giving Face a moment to savor the effect of his dramatic entrance. But in the next heartbeat, Kasza uttered a stentorian bellow that was half rage, half delight, and spun around to face his old nemesis. He took no notice of the gun in Face's hand, totally ignoring the threat it posed, focused completely on the man he had hated and hunted and plotted to destroy for more than a decade. His dark eyes were as mad as Murdock's had ever been, with an exultant light in them that would have made Face's skin crawl, if he'd had time to think about it. He did not.
Even as he turned, Kasza lashed out with one fist and struck Face in the side of the head with all his years of hatred fueling his strength. Face staggered back, his weapon shifting wide of its target, and fought for balance as a second blow took him in the chest. He started to topple backward, but Kasza moved with a speed that seemed supernatural in one so heavy-looking. He had Face by the throat before he could fall, lifting him nearly off his feet and pulling him close until their noses were only a handspan apart.
"You're alive!" Kasza snarled, his face distorted by a hideous, gloating grimace. "I should have guessed! And I'm so glad…"
Face couldn't answer because he couldn't speak. The Hungarian's enormous hands were crushing his throat and cutting off any trace of oxygen. His head was already beginning to pound.
"So glad I get to do the job myself… do it properly…"
Face lashed out with one foot, catching Kasza in the knee and making him grunt with pain, but not succeeding in loosening his grip. He caught the other man's wrists and wrenched at them, even as he jerked forward and slammed his forehead into the bridge of Kasza's nose.
The Hungarian's grip opened as he flinched away from the blow. Face dropped to the floor in a crouch, ready to spring, but a boot connected with his head and sent him flying. He landed on his back on the floor, and a split second later, Kasza's full weight fell on him.
Now he was good and truly trapped. The other man sat astride his midriff, both hands wrapped around his throat and squeezing the life out of him. Face clawed at his arms. When that had no effect, he reached for his face, scrabbling at his eyes, clutching a fistful of hair to keep him from pulling away.
Kasza snarled a curse in Hungarian and tried to wrench his head free. Face held on for dear life, jamming his thumb into the other man's eye until he felt warmth and wetness run down his hand.
"You filthy little cocksucker! I'll tear your heart out! Feed your body to my dogs! I'll make your friends watch as I…"
The litany of insults faded out, swallowed up by the pounding of blood in Face's ears. He could no longer see properly. Great black splotches obscured his vision. His chest felt as if it were about to explode. He knew he was seconds from blacking out. In desperation, he jammed his thumb in harder, dragging a howled curse from Kasza. The massive hands on his throat lifted him like a rag doll and slammed him against the floor, cracking his skull against the polished stone.
Pain ignited in Face's head. He managed to hold on the first time, and even the second, but on the third blow, his hands went limp and fell away. The Hungarian uttered a fierce shout of triumph that Face heard only distantly through the thickening darkness. He could hear other noises, too—cries and thumps and clattering, the sound of muted explosions and gunfire—but he couldn't resolve them. He was dying. He knew it, and in that instant, his deepest regret was that Murdock had to watch. Then, with his last flicker of consciousness, he heard a single, sharp crack.
Something warm and wet splattered his face. The hands on his throat convulsed once, then loosened. The weight on his body toppled to one side and he was free.
Face took a deep, grateful breath that turned to a gasp of pain as it tore at his crushed throat. He twisted away from the lump of dead meat still lying half atop him, curled on his side, and struggled to breathe without sobbing. He could still hear voices shouting and calling orders, feet thudding on the marble floor, but he made no effort to unravel what was happening. Not until he heard the hard crack of a weapon hitting the floor and Murdock's voice calling, hysterically,
The pilot raced across the floor to him and skidded the last few feet on his knees, fetching up against Face's huddled body. Face felt a hand under his head, lifting it, and an arm behind his shoulders to steady him. He let Murdock settle his head in his lap and leaned gratefully against the pilot's circling arm, eyes closed and mouth open to pull in as much oxygen as humanly possible. Murdock's hand stroked his hair. Then he heard, from right above him,
"Thanks for letting me kill him."
Face almost smiled at that. When he spoke, he sounded as if his throat were full of ground glass—which was entirely possible, considering how much it hurt. "My pleasure, buddy."
He lay there for another minute, letting Murdock's concern wash over him, until he could muster enough air to speak again. Then he muttered, "He almost pulled it off that time."
"Almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades," Murdock reminded him, his voice thick with unacknowledged tears.
Face took another, easier breath and whispered without opening his eyes to witness his friend's distress, "I'm ready to go home."
Epilogue: A pub, London
Face threaded his way through the crowded pub, deftly sidestepping a sea of legs and elbows that might have tripped him up or spilled the contents of the three tall glasses he carried. He approached a table where two men sat, wearing expectant smiles, and set the glasses on its scarred top. With a grin at the smaller man, he slid a glass full of a thick, dark, sable-brown liquid toward him.
"A round of Guinness on me, as promised."
Agent Dawes accepted the glass with a nod, and Face slid a second glass over to Partridge. The third glass contained clear liquid with a slice of lemon floating in it. Face took the empty chair across from the two Brits, then lifted his glass and took a sip. Partridge watched him in bemusement.
"What is that?" he asked, when Face lowered the glass.
Dawes cocked an amused eyebrow. "You don't strike me as the sober and restrained type, Peck. What happened? Did your near-death experience put you on the path to righteousness?"
Face laughed. "Hardly. No," he tilted the glass, studying its contents with a distinct lack of enthusiasm, "I have Murdock to thank for this."
"Murdock?" Partridge exclaimed. "Isn't he the barmy one?"
"He's totally batshit crazy. But he's also the best medic I know and he's kept me alive for the last ten years, in spite of myself. So when Doc Murdock says no booze, then no booze it is."
"Is he afraid you'll embarrass yourself?" Dawes needled, taking another appreciative sip of his own, more satisfying, drink.
Face gave him a glinting smile over the rim of his lifted glass. "Something like that."
"Did he make you wear that, too?" Partridge gestured toward the knit scarf that Face wore wrapped close around his throat. "Keep you from catching a chill?"
"The muffler. I know this isn't quite sunny California, but it's not that cold."
"Oh, that's right, you boys weren't with the assault team in Finland." Face reached to pull down the loop of scarf covering his throat. Beneath it, his skin was stained a vivid purple-black, bruises spreading from just below his jaw all the way down to his collar bones, with green starting to show around the edges of each ugly handprint.
"Bloody Hell!" Dawes swore.
"Did Kasza do that?"
"Yes," Face settled the scarf back in place to hide the bruises, "while he was trying to crush my skull against his fancy, marble floor. That's why Murdock made me promise not to drink. He says my brain can't take anymore abuse right now."
Dawes eyed him curiously and asked, "Just how many people have tried to kill you in the last week?"
"Counting Partridge, here?"
"I didn't…" Partridge protested, only to be silenced by a chuckle from Face.
"This has been a pretty typical mission, for me. Granted, Kasza was more determined—and more creative—than most, but he was still just another psychopath in the end. Now he's another corpse."
"Thanks to Murdock, or so I hear," Dawes said.
"Yeah. He needed cheering up, so I let him do the honors."
"That's true friendship for you."
All three men grinned at this sardonic observation, then Face said, "Speaking of friends, where's Willis? I wanted to say thank you for saving my neck."
"So Kasza could break it?" Partridge cut in, making Face laugh and bringing a slight flush of embarrassment to the young agent's cheeks. He seemed startled by his own attempt at humor and even more so by his success, but Face just laughed again and clapped him on the shoulder.
"Willis is at one of our interrogation facilities, debriefing Ruud," Dawes said.
"Does Ruud know that Kasza is dead?"
The answer came from behind Face's shoulder, and the American twisted around in surprise. A smile spread across his face at the sight of the new arrival. "Double-O Seven! Pull up a chair and join us."
Cartwright grinned at his use of the nickname Murdock had pinned on him. It wasn't exactly original, but it sounded affectionate, coming from Face. "I'm not staying. I just thought you'd like to hear the news that Ruud has rolled over on Kasza's entire operation. The moment he realized his employer was dead, he asked to be placed in protective custody in exchange for his full cooperation."
"So you found your asset?"
"We have a name and a location, and we should have him in custody by the end of the day. But more importantly, we have the buyer."
"I think that calls for a toast. Join us, Cartwright. Please."
"Peck is buying the first round," Dawes added persuasively.
"Well, if the Yank is paying…" Cartwright looked around for an empty chair, snagged one from the next table, and folded his tall frame into it. "What's that you're drinking, Dawes?"
"I'll have a Black and Tan."
Face jumped to his feet and headed for the bar. He returned a few minutes later with Cartwright's drink and set it down in front of him with a flourish. "I owe you a damned sight more than a round of drinks for getting me out of Tangier alive, but it's a start."
"You owe me?" Cartwright looked genuinely surprised at that. "I'd say the shoe is on the other foot."
Face waved that away with magnificent disdain, as he resumed his seat, but Dawes smelled a story and was determined to hear it. He frowned at his superior and demanded, "How do you figure that, Chief? And how did you know Peck wasn't our shooter when all the intel said he was?" The stout was hitting Dawes's system and loosening his tongue, making him unusually expansive. "Only, you were right, obviously, but how did you know? And how did you convince the Brass not to have him removed?"
"Removed," Peck mused, his eyes twinkling with amusement, "what a polite word for it."
"We're British. We're nothing if not polite!"
"Yes, I noticed that when you set up surveillance in my flat. No cameras in the loo."
Dawes chuckled. It was the first such sound Face had ever heard him make, and it brought an answering grin to his face. "No offense, Peck, but none of us wanted to watch you in the shower."
"Well…" Partridge temporized, "maybe Willis did."
Face laughed aloud at that and said, "No fair dragging Willis into this when he's not here to defend himself! And maybe you'd better lay off the Guinness, kid. It's a bad sign when you start making rude jokes about your buddies."
Partridge flushed and opened his mouth, but Dawes cut in before he could speak. Turning to Cartwright, he said, "You didn't answer my question. How did you know Peck wasn't the shooter?"
"I never considered the possibility."
"I've known Colonel Smith and Lieutenant Peck since the beginning of my career."
"Call me Face. Everyone does."
Cartwright quirked a smile at him and went on, "We met on my first solo field assignment—the one that put Kasza in prison—and I've never forgotten that night. So when Ruud handed me the dossier and told me Face was an assassin, I knew he was wrong. The only question was whether he was mistaken or lying."
"You were so sure?" Face interjected. "Because of that one meeting?"
"Because of the meeting, and the mission, and what you did to trap Kasza." Cartwright gazed steadily at him for a moment, clearly wishing he didn't have an audience and could speak freely, then he said with quiet sincerity, "I owe you and Smith my career. I've never forgotten it."
Face's eyebrows flew up at that, but he took his cue from Cartwright and simply said, "Call it even."
Partridge chose that moment to shove back his chair and rise to his feet, glass in hand. "I'd like to propose a toast!"
"Sit down, you ruddy idiot," Dawes snapped.
"No, sir, I won't. Peck said…"
"Sorry. Face said we should have a toast, and he's right. We should."
"If you start reciting limericks, I'll know you're drunk," Face cut in.
"How about this one? 'There once was a lady from Oxford…'"
"Oxford?" Face gazed up at him in disbelief. "Are you gonna tell me you've got a smutty rhyme for Oxford?"
Partridge laughed. "No, sir, I was just taking the Mickey. I'm not drunk and I don't know any limericks. But I do want to say thank you for letting me join you on this mission. I really enjoyed it. Except the part where I was pretending to be a sniper—that wasn't much fun—or the explosion. Or the hospital. But the rest of it…"
Dawes cut him off with a derisive snort but Cartwright was smiling indulgently and Face was laughing outright.
Partridge grinned and lifted his glass higher. "So, here's to mint tea and stuffed camel spleens and playing hide-and-seek in the medina!"
Face raised his glass. "To exploding motorcycles and snipers on the roof."
"To cooking in metal coffins and hiding in the boot," Dawes added, his eyes twinkling.
"To a bloody good time and a job well done!" Partridge finished with a flourish. "To Tangier!"
"Tangier!" they all chorused, and drank.
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