CHAPTER ONE

Fort Bragg

December 22, 1971

The man seated at the metal table - graying, but perhaps prematurely - was young for his rank. He was not at all what Major Downing had expected of Colonel John "Hannibal" Smith - the living legend. Frankly, he looked just like every other man Downing had seen return from Vietnam. Although he hadn't seen the rest of the renegade team, he suspected they all had the look down pat - the hard, badass posture and the telltale thousand-mile-stare in cold, unemotional eyes. But somewhere along the line, they all broke down in one way or another. It wasn't Downing's job to make that happen, but it was certainly part of his job to help determine when it would.

Smithlooked up as Downing entered the room. As they locked gazes, the majorread his opponent instantly. Smith wanted him to feel like a gazelle caught in a lion's stare, to intimidate him and make him slip up. Strong arm tactics, the colonel would soon find, did not work here. Downing was on neither side of the trial - at least not officially - and had nothing to gain in the event of Smith's guilt or innocence. Simply doing his job, he offered a polite, professional smile and set his briefcase on the metal table.

"John Smith, I'm Major Ryan Downing," he introduced in a formal, flat tone. "I'm here to make sure you understand the charges that have been filed against you."

The colonel seemed distinctly unimpressed. It was nothing personal, of course; the man didn't know anything about him on a personal level. But Downing wore a uniform and under the circumstances, that made him more suited as an enemy than a friend. After all, it was Smith's own army that had locked him up and landed him in this interrogation room.

Lowering his gaze back to the table, the colonel muttered an offhanded, "Are you a lawyer?"

Something about his voice - the authority he carried in his presence alone - was surprisingly intimidating. Downing found it fascinating rather than frightening. He had dealt with plenty of battle-hardened soldiers before, but none of them had been quite so calm and disinterested in their arrest and imprisonment as this man. More than that, one would think that after six hours of sitting in that uncomfortable metal chair and waiting for someone to talk to, he'd be more excited to finally have company. He'd had plenty of time to think while sitting in this empty room, yet the anxiety didn't seem to have set in. Most men would be climbing the walls.

"I'm an investigative officer," Downing explained. "I'm just here to make sure we have all the facts."

The colonel looked up at him again andDowning was suddenly transported back to those very first days of basic, face to face with drill sergeants who could neither be impressed nor appeased and were certainly not amused with his efforts in either case. Smith looked at him as if he saw right into his soul. In spite of all his years and experience, it made his skin crawl. Other men - especially officers - had tried that in the past, but none had pulled it off quite so well. Downing hid a small smile. This man was definitely as fascinating as his unofficial reputation.

"Do you have a cigar?"Smith deadpanned.

Downing was startled not only by the question, as if the man cared more about his nicotine habit than the charges they were here to discuss,but the complete flatness of a tone that clearly expected an affirmative reply. "Uh, no sir," Downing replied, deferring to the man's rank out of habit, even if he would soon, almost certainly, be stripped of it. "I'm afraid I don't smoke."

Smith nodded slowly, but didn't answer.

Clearing his throat, Downing took a seat across from him and opened the file folder on the table. "You are aware you're being charged with robbery and treason." He glanced up, searching for a reaction, but there was none. "Those are pretty serious offenses."

Still, Smith offered no raised a curious brow. Surely he didn't have to point out just how serious the offenses actually were; the army still executed for treason in some states. But without response, Smith's eyes remained on his hands, folded calmly on the table in front of him, not fidgeting, not flinching.

"Look, I'll be frankly honest with you," Downing sighed, trying a different approach. "Everyone wants to know if you'll be cooperating with this investigation or if you're going to try and stonewall us."

Smith nodded again, and was quiet for a long moment, as if considering his response. Then, slowly, he leaned forward on the table and tapped his steepled thumbs together. "If you're being frankly honest," he finally said, "then let me do the same."

Downing nodded, pleased and a bit surprised to find the colonel so willing to talk. Even if he felt entitled to call the shots at the moment, Smith's cooperation would make this whole mess easier to sort out.

"In the past 72 hours," the colonel recounted frankly, "my team and I have been hauled out of an active war zone, flown across the ocean in chains, and thrown into the stockade of some god-forsaken stateside base without any satisfactory explanation as to what the hell is going on here. I haven't slept, I haven't eaten, I haven't had a cigar, and I'm not feeling very cooperative. So if you want anything out of me besides name, rank, and serial number, I will have a cigar in my hand in the next thirty seconds."

Frowning at both the content and calm authority of Smith's speech, Downing hesitated. Perhaps "willing to talk" was a bit of an overstatement, but at least he wasn't staying silent. Some negotiations were to be expected when dealing with a man of his rank and experience. Conceding to the implied demand, Downing stood and walked to the door. Smith's cold stare remained fixed on him every step of the way.

Though no one watching on the other side of the one-way glass had a cigar, Downing returned from the hallway with a pack of cigarettes and a box of matches. "Best I can do," he said with as much authority as he could muster against the arrogant confidence of a man still technically his superior.

He set the offering on the table and Smith eyed it carefully. Finally, he reached for the cigarettes, ceremoniously tapped one out and lit it, then sat back in the uncomfortable metal chair, staring across the table.

"Good conduct medal, Vietnam, Korea, silver star," Smith rattled off, reading the medals on Downing's Class As. Their gazes locked, but Smith remained emotionless. "And rear echelon all the way."

Not sure whether he should be offended, Downing raised a brow. "What makes you say that?"

"Because you've probably never seen a dead man," Smith answered with conviction, "let alone had a friend die in your arms."

Downing shifted a bit uncomfortably. He'd done this sort of interrogation a hundred times before, and it wasn't the first time he'd heard a snide comment like that. It was meant to rattle him and it normally did just the opposite. But there was something about Smith that was different from any other soldier he'd had in here. Maybe it was just the rumors, or the sheer fact that he'd been a colonel on an SOG team - unheard of in any other instance. There was a haunted mystery about him, secrets that Downing knew for a fact had never made it into his file.

He had the same dead, unfeeling look in his eyes they all had by the time they came to this room. But most of the time, they'd gone way off the deep end first. Drowning in anger or angst, the men who filtered into this prison came with their priorities and identities mutilated by war and trauma. Sometimes, he almost felt sorry for them, no matter what their crimes. The "devil made me do it" excuse was more convincing when used by a man who knew the devil personally.

Smith undoubtedly had his share of experience with Satan. In fact, it was entirely possible that Smith was more intimately acquainted with him than most men. But he didn't seem the type to offer an excuse. And it didn't appear to even faze him that his crime, however odd and confusing his motives might have been, had landed him here. Just how difficult would it be to crack through the hard outer shell and get the real story of what had happened out there?

"We're not here to talk about me," Downing clarifiedwith a polite smile. "We're here to talk about what happened in Hanoi."

Smith took a long, slow drag on the cigarette and tipped his head back, blowing the smoke into the air. "Where's the rest of my team?" he asked flatly, diverting the conversation again.

"They're here," Downing replied, hoping the answer would sufficiently appease him so they could move on. Negotiations were coming to a close. Now it was time for the colonel to answer questions.

But Smith was in no hurry. "Why aren't they keeping us together?" he demanded.

Not at all interested in either exchanging banter or being interrogated by the prisoner, Downing answered simply, "That'd be a question for somebody higher up the chain of command than me."

"So why am I talking to you?" Smith snapped back without even missing a beat.

Downing sighed, and looked down at the file in front of him. Smith's eyes flickered to it, but he made no attempt to read it. His attention was instead on Downing. Normally, men who reached this point were either scared or furious - easy work for him in any case. Hannibal Smith seemed neither. But there was still hope that he might cooperate.

Reminding himself that he was the one with the real authority here, Downing put his shoulders back and continued with confidence. "As I said, you're being charged with treason," he repeated. "And robbery."

Still, there was no response, not even the slightest flinch.

"I understand that you and your team robbed the Bank of Hanoi," Downing tried again. "Is that right?"

Taking another drag on his cigarette, Smith locked stares, but didn't reply. He didn't look away as the silence stretched, didn't back down. As if anticipating a performance he'd already determined would be second-rate, he just watched.

After a long, unfriendly pause, Downing continued. "I guess this answers my question about whether or not you're going to cooperate, doesn't it?"

Finally, he was rewarded with the smallest hint of a reaction - a faint, knowing smile as the man took another drag off his cigarette. Smith held his stare for a long moment, then glanced away, towards the one-way glass to his right.

"I don't suppose I could get a cup of coffee," Smith insinuated, the authoritative tone leaving no room for denial of his request. "I'd feel much more cooperative with a cup of coffee."

Vietnam

July 20, 1968

"Let's go! Let's move!" Hannibal called with all the enthusiasm of an alarm clock at 4 a.m. And like an alarm clock at 4 a.m., Cipher immediately wanted to shit-kick him to the other side of the concertina fence as he flicked on the light. "Everyone up and at 'em!"

Cipher turned into his pillow to shield his eyes from the glaring light in the team room. "Are you fucking kidding me, Hannibal?" he grumbled, somewhere between a plea and an angry protest.

"Ugh!" In the next bunk over, Ray "Boston" Brenner sounded even less pleased than Cipher. As he grumbled something about coffee and God's gifts to humankind, Hannibal moved on, tapping bunks.

"Let's go," the Colonel urged with far too much excitement. It was still fucking dark outside. Nobody should have so much energy so early in the morning. "Five minutes. Outside. Move."

A few slurs and groans and grumbles later, Cipher's feet hit the plywood floor. He wasn't really even aware he was moving - it was purely routine - until his foot hit the post of the bunks on the way to his locker. "Ah! Fuck! Jesus!"

"It is 0400 and we are officially off stand-down!" Hannibal declared could hear the smile in his voice and had to remind himself that he really did like the man most of the time and would probably regret killing him. "Thought we'd start our next rotation with a quick jog around the camp."

Stumbling, mildly injured, and already in a fine mood, Cipher forced his eyes to adjust to the light and glared at Hannibal. "You got a sick sense of humor, Colonel, you know that?" he said dryly.

Hannibal chuckled, and Cipher reconsidered the easiest method to get away with murder.

"Hey, wasn't that new guy supposed to be here for this?" Boston mumbled sitting up on the edge of his bunk. He put his feet on the floor and rubbed his face.

"He's been held up in Da Nang," Hannibal answered. "I'm going to talk to General Westman this afternoon about getting him transferred."

"And signing off on our permanent reassignments," Cipher reminded him with a yawn, though at 4:00 in the fucking morning, he wasn't so sure he was going to like being permanently assigned to Hannibal.

"Yes, that too," Hannibal answered with a nod.

Splashing his face with water, Cipherfelt a bit more human. The thought of having those papers filed actually did lift his piss poor mood considerably. The last thing he wanted was to go back to his former team. It was nothing personal; they were good soldiers. But they weren't like Hannibal. There was something about this man that was different from all the rest. Like a drug, once Cipher had tasted it, he couldn't go back and pretend he hadn't. Two weeks with the guy and Cipher was sold on his "fuck the world and take no prisoners" attitude even if, in the end, it would probably be the death of him. And, worse, if it meant 0400 wake up calls until then.

"How long before his hold up gets worked out?" Cipher asked, flexing his toes. They didn't feel broken, but still throbbed.

"We'll see when I talk to Westman," Hannibal answered

Boston had finally made it to his feet. "What's his name?" he managed before stretching to try and work out all the kinks and knots in his back.

Hannibal didn't hesitate with the response. "Templeton Peck."

Although he knew he should never be surprised by anything that came out of that man's mouth, Ciphercouldn't help the groan that escaped as the name formed an image in his head. "Fucking kidding me?" he muttered.

Amused and wearing a slight smirk, Hannibal raised a brow. "Problem, Sergeant?" he challenged playfully.

Cipherwas too fucking tired for the banter. "What is he, some poor little rich kid too stupid to evade the draft?" he challenged. "Or a fuckin' academy dropout?"

Boston found that far too funny. "This from the man who dropped out of pre-med and did basic instead of OCS," he pointed out. "Like an idiot."

Briefly, Cipherturned his glare to the dark-haired man fumbling with the buttons on his shirt. "Fuck you."

"And he says it, incidentally, to the proud and aspiring West Point grad," Boston added with a grin.

"Fuck West Point, too." Cipher looked up at Hannibal again, hoping that maybe this was just a joke. "Come on. Where'd you pick this guy up?"

If Hannibal was offended, he didn't show it. That was probably because unlike every other officer Cipher had ever come into contact with - especially one who was a colonel - the man had no sense of formalities when it came to field work and field living. It made working for and with him much cozier than most COs were willing to allow. And it made Cipher much more comfortable with the fact that he lived or died by this man's calls.

"You guys got three minutes to be dressed and outside," Hannibal said, ignoring the question. "I suggest you have that morning cigarette while you get your pants on because you may not have time for it later. Now let's move!"

Fort Bragg

December 22, 1971

Coffee was easy to come by on an army base. Smith finished the first cup, and another cigarette, without so much as a word to Major Downing. Then he wanted more. By the third refill, a thermos was brought from the break room, to facilitate a never-ending Styrofoam cup of coffee. This seemed to be what the prisoner wanted.

Finally, lighting another cigarette, Colonel Smith sat back and sighed an offhanded, "So ask your questions."

Downing had used the ample silence to formulate his open-ended inquiries very precisely. He knew a lot about this team - as much as was on paper. But even on paper, they were unusual. They took their orders directly from General Westman and they functioned more autonomously and with less accountability than any other unit Downing had ever seen. It seemed like a recipe for disaster, and he was surprised they had lasted as long as they had before overstepping the terms of warfare in search of personal gain.

"As I understand it," he began carefully, "your team's structure was a bit unusual."

Colonel Smith sipped his fresh cup of coffee, careful not to let it burn his mouth. "I thought you wanted to hear about Hanoi."

Downing nodded with certainty, studying the colonel. "I think understanding the structure of your team is relevant to understanding what happened at Hanoi,"he , even in the midst of apparent cooperation, a sixth sense warned that he was being baited.

Smith shrugged, as if he couldn't be bothered to follow the logic. "What do you want to know, Major?" He gestured offhandedly to the open file folder on the table. Although he hadn't so much as given it a lingering glance since he'd first noticed it, he had to know his history on paper was inside. "I'm sure you've seen all of our service records. Though if it's the really juicy gossip you want, you should know that I really don't keep track of all the rumors."

A slight, knowing smile crossed Downing's lips. "I have heard a few of those rumors, to be honest," he admitted. "But I'm more interested in your perspective than other people's."

The colonel grinned, as if he found the comment amusing and possibly unique. Downing waited a moment for some snide remark, but when none came, he continued, leaning back and settling in as comfortably as Smith.

"Give me an overview of your team," he prodded. "How you functioned together, the various roles and how you managed such a -" he chose his words carefully "- colorful bunch of young men."

Smith chuckled at the political correctness and, as expected, called it out. "Colorful?" he mocked. He sat back, relaxing and crossing one leg over the other. "My team was made up of the most 'colorful' sons of bitches in Vietnam. But we lost fewer men per hour on the ground than any combat team in country that I'm aware of."

"How many men was that?" Downing asked.

Hannibal hesitated, and a cold grey shadow passed over his face. "I'm not sure I understand the question," he said in a tone that made it clear he understood the question precisely.

Well aware that he was pushing buttons, Downing kept a neutral expression as he continued, "You lost an entire team before acquiring these two, didn't you?"

The look that passed over Smith's eyes was so empty, so cold, the man looked like the Grim Reaper himself. But he said nothing, and finally Downing consulted his notes. It wasn't strictly necessary; he already knew the answer to his own question.

"Sergeant Jacob Redman," Downing recited, "Sergeant Adam Voucher, Sergeant Joseph Ericks-"

"What about them?" Smith demanded, interrupting with such force, it made the muscles in Downing's shoulders involuntarily tense up with fight-or-flight instincts. The colonel's icy stare was enough to make a lesser man piss himself. But Downing had gotten precisely the reaction he was looking for. Smith wasn't the only one holding high cards, and it would work out better for both of them if they were clear on that point.

"They were exceptional men," Downing replied with the utmost respect, leaning back again and leaving the folder open quite purposefully to the service record of one Lieutenant Robert Coring - a record abruptly concluded by a self-inflicted bullet to the head on Smith's watch.

The colonel didn't flinch. "They were," he said dryly, offering no hint of willingness to comment more on their short lives.

Downing nodded and tipped his head to study Smith with curiosity. "It's pretty clear why you chose them," he offered conversationally. "What's not clear is why you went in the opposite direction with your second team - renegades and problem children." Downing smiled cordially. "Perhaps you were looking for men who would be expendable?"

If Smith could be moved to violence, Downing was pretty sure that would be the comment to push him over the edge. But the colonel only stared back, finally lowering his eyes to his coffee before taking a slow sip and setting it back down.

"Major Downing, let me make something very clear," Smith said simply. "I am cooperating with this investigation because my men and I have committed no crime. But if I hear one more disrespectful comment about my team, or one more snide remark not fitting for a junior officer, I will make certain your rear-echelon ass is sent all the way to the front lines once we're done here. Do I make myself perfectly clear?"

Downing sighed at the impotent posturing. "I'm only interested in the truth," he responded. "And, with no disrespect intended, I will say or do whatever is necessary to extract that truth in a manner consistent with the acceptable treatment of a prisoner. Which, I might point out -" Downing raked him up and down with a long, scrutinizing look "- you are."

The insufferable smirk made its way back to Colonel Smith's face - a perfect, arrogant mask for the anger seething just below the surface. "Then for your sake, Major," he said knowingly, "you'd better hope I stay that way. Because once the orders for the Bank of Hanoi find their way to your desk, it might be far too late to get on my good side."