THE EMPEROR'S SCARLET WOMEN
The Sacred Heart Orphanage was a fairly nondescript building, ageing noticeably, and with numerous holes in its red slate roof. Tacked on to the St Bartholemew's Church and hospital complex during the nineteen twenties, it was a testimony to the good intentions of a group of people anxious to gather some of LA's many orphans up off the cruel streets and into rather more safe and secure accommodation - whilst lacking even the most basic funds for such a venture. Bigger now, built upon over successive years whenever there was money available, the orphanage was growing increasingly ramshackle and yet ever more homely, the cracks in the stone and the white wash sprouting floral additions to the building's already colourful appearance. Children's voices almost invariably echoed through the corridors, and anybody who spent enough time near to the place soon became familiar with the sight of errant children being pursued at speed by surprisingly fleet-footed nuns. Strict though the regime might have been, the people of Sacred Heart were happily united in many ways; a certainty as obvious amongst past residents as amongst those still under the orphanage's wing.
One such past resident - although in certain circles he might not have been terribly ready to admit to it - was Templeton Peck; con-man, mercenary, and second-in-command of the A-Team. His visits to the orphanage were by necessity not as frequent as he might have liked, but he still passed by the place whenever he could; and particularly when, as now, he received a summons from Monsignor Magill.
"You're looking nervous, Face. Something worrying you?" Hannibal Smith, part time swamp monster and full time leader of the A-Team, sounded only half-teasing, although his eyes were bright with amusement. Face shot him a scathing look.
"You try going home for a visit occasionally. It's never easy." He straightened the tie of his immaculate cream suit, and ran a hand through his rather less than immaculate hair. "I always feel like I'm in trouble whenever I get a call from the Monsignor's office."
"Somehow I doubt it's you that's in trouble, Face. Not since your priest friend asked to see me as well." Hannibal glanced about, but could see no indications of the usual kind of trouble that resulted in the hiring of the team. There were no bullet holes in the walls; no broken windows or damaged doors. He could distinctly hear the sounds of happy laughter from somewhere behind the building. If the orphanage had been in trouble he would have expected there to be an atmosphere of fear, or at the very least some evidence of extra vigilance on the part of the staff. There was nobody to meet them on the door, however, and not a single pair of suspicious eyes looked out from any of the numerous windows. It was encouraging, but it didn't answer any of his questions.
It was cool inside the building. A large entrance hall floored in patterned tiles with a decidedly Mexican feel clattered loudly under foot, and the large windows lit the place brightly, emphasising the cracks and patches, and the need for a fresh coat of paint. A pair of small boys playing with marbles looked up as the footsteps of the two men echoed through the room, and they watched with the rounded eyes of those unused to many visitors. Face flashed the pair one of his trademark grins, and Hannibal nodded in their general direction, but the only response was a rush of over-loud whispering. The boys ran off together, but nobody else came to take their place. Hannibal glanced around.
"I thought we were expected?"
"We are. The staff here don't have the time to meet people at the door." Face crossed to the stairs, which led away upwards into somewhere featureless, cool and dark. "This way."
"Real security conscious."
"They've never needed to be anything else." Face shrugged. "Until now maybe."
"Well if it's this place we're being asked to look after, we've certainly got our work cut out for us. It's a nightmare, Face. There are a hundred possible points of entry, and the structure looks about as sturdy as a paper house in a hurricane. I could take the whole building with just a couple of men."
"Maybe." Face grinned. "But you might find the nuns a little more determined than you'd think. Sister Rachel on her own could probably stop an army."
"Fearsome type, huh?"
"Definitely." They passed a landing, and headed on up the next flight of stairs. Hannibal peered out through a window.
"There's a lot of cover out there, with that orange grove. Plenty of low walls too. Anybody who wanted to get in could get a long way before they were spotted."
"Colonel, it's an orphanage. What do you want? Watch towers with spotlights?" Face frowned. "Actually I seem to remember Sister Rachel suggesting that one year, back when I was a kid."
"My kind of nun."
"You probably wouldn't think that if you met her." They shared another grin, then abruptly broke off the conversation as they came to a worn looking wooden door. It was less than imposing, and badly in need of a coat of paint - if not an immediate replacement. A small sign, typed onto a strip of paper and slipped into a metal frame, read Monsignor David Magill, although the typewriter that had been used to create the little sign had clearly had a defective 'o' key. Face fiddled with his tie once again, and made another stab at smoothing his somewhat unruly hair. Murdock was always telling him that he should get it cut, but what was the point in being a flash young man about town if he still had a military cut? Not that he had ever had a military cut, but the principle still stood.
"Come on Face. You're pretty enough." Pushing past the younger man, Hannibal knocked hard on the door; two blows, that made the wood rattle so loudly that he was afraid the hinges might give out. Face rolled his eyes.
"Dismantling the place is always a good start, colonel."
"Sorry. I was expecting the door to conform to a few safety standards at least." He considered knocking again, but decided that discretion might serve him - and definitely the door - rather better. Moments later a faint voice sounded out from within the office beyond.
"Come in. Come in." It was an old man's voice, that much was obvious; probably a man who was quite some way old before his time. Hannibal had heard enough about Monsignor Magill to know that as a young missionary the priest had travelled far and wide, suffering more than one bout of a number of tropical diseases as he tried to help people the world over. Clearly it had all taken its predictable toll. Face opened the door.
"You okay Monsignor? I thought you were supposed to be confined to bed?"
"Oh, what do those doctors know, lad? They know their books and their medical instruments, but they don't know a thing about me." Monsignor David Magill was a surprisingly robust man in his seventies, at death's door according to his doctors, but clearly possessed of a rather greater vigour than they gave him credit for. Plagued by a respiratory problem, he was given to bouts of violent coughing, and was not nearly as strong as he claimed to be. To Face, who had last seen him in a hospital room with hardly the strength to sit upright, the old man looked truly wonderful. They shook hands, in the warm and familiar way of old friends who were very close indeed.
"And this is Colonel Smith of course." Magill stepped past Face, going to meet Hannibal at the door. "It's good to see you again. Last time was... seven years ago?"
"About eight." Hannibal shrugged, for he was not the Church-going type, and certainly wasn't going to apologise for failing to visit probably the only priest whom he could be sure would listen without prejudice to his lengthy confession. Magill smiled and nodded, understanding completely even if he didn't necessarily approve.
"Eight years. Well you're not showing a day of it. Being chased by the police from pillar to post must do you good."
"It's not perfect, Father, but I can't say that it doesn't agree with me."
"Hmm." Magill sounded faintly disapproving, but there was a sparkle of amusement in his eyes that Face knew only too well. He smiled, and stepping forward to take control of the conversation, he guided the ageing Monsignor to a chair.
"So what can we do for you?" He asked the question gently, as though he didn't especially want to hear the answer; which, if it genuinely did involve the orphanage being in trouble, he probably didn't. Magill smiled at him.
"Ah. Well it might be that you've already guessed that, my boy." His eyes were twinkling so brightly that they took years off him, and Hannibal got the distinct impression that the old priest was very much going to enjoy this. "Templeton lad - I want to hire the A-Team." He gave a faint giggle, and shook his head rather wistfully. "I can't tell you how long I've wanted to say that, my boy. Just don't tell my young deputy that, will you. He's been waiting years for a chance to declare me senile."
"What's the problem, Father?" Ignoring the old man's gentle chortles, and the somewhat less than serious image they conjured, Hannibal sat down in a second chair opposite to Magill's. "Everything here seems okay. I didn't get the impression that there was anything wrong with the orphanage. Why do you need to hire us?"
"It's a long story, colonel." Magill's eyes had taken on a bright blue shine, and his voice was showing a stronger Irish brogue than before. To Face it was a sure sign that he was excited about something, and was about to launch into a tale that was close to his heart. He sat down on the corner of the old man's desk, and tried to ignore the fit of coughing that temporarily broke up the story before it could even begin.
"It begins with my niece, Colonel Smith. My brother's middle child, always a wild young thing. Her name is Molly, and for some years now she's been working with a museum back east in New York, as an advisor on noteworthy items. She helps to collect things; tracks down pieces of value and the like. Well not long ago she found a beautiful piece - I've seen it with my own eyes, and I can tell you that it's something special. A carved wooden figure - a dancing girl - with a necklace of real jewels, and clothing all of gold leaf. Her eyes are quite beautiful - both sapphires, although neither one's any bigger than the head of a drawing pin. In terms of the actual worth of the jewellery itself, the value isn't much - but in artistic terms, and through sheer originality, it's worth a fortune to the museum."
"And has it gone missing?" Hannibal considered lighting a cigar, but another fit of coughing from the ageing priest put all thought of that from his mind. Face poured the old man a glass of water, but when he tried to hand it across, Magill waved him away with a flap of an indignant hand.
"I'm fine, lad. Quite fine. A little coughing never does any harm, and it helps to clear out the airways. No Colonel Smith, the statue hasn't gone missing. Actually it's a question of something that's been found - by Molly, when she was examining the statue. It had a hollow space dug into it - recent work apparently - she can tell from the chisel marks or something, it's all Dutch to me. Anyway, there was a hole inside the base of the statue, and inside it was a piece of paper."
"A map?" Face sounded completely enthralled, and Hannibal had to smile. Hidden treasure was obviously not just the stuff of boyhood dreams.
"Aye lad." Magill was beaming, just as excited by his tale as a small child might be, even though he had undoubtedly already heard the story several times. "A map, showing the way to a remarkable treasure. A stash of jewels stolen by a gang back in the nineteen twenties. Remarkable pieces, worth a very great deal to their rightful owner. Molly plans to recover the collection. I'm sure that I don't need to tell you what it would mean for her reputation, and that of the museum where she works. It would be the find of the century!" His excitement clearly was not good for him, and he burst once again into a mighty coughing fit, this time rocking back on his chair with the force of the convulsions. Hannibal saw Face's features crease with worry, but when he went to the Monsignor's side, Magill flapped at him in fond irritation.
"Don't fuss, boy. You're as bad as Sister Ruth. Now, Colonel Smith. Are you interested?"
"I'd be lying if I tried to make out that it isn't a great story, Father." Hannibal frowned, contemplating the long and exhaustive series of checks that he usually made whenever a new client appeared on the horizon. "We have to pretty careful, though. I can't just-"
"I think we can dispense with the suspicion this time." Face was eyeing him with a faintly hurt expression, and Hannibal nodded in understanding.
"I'm not saying that the Monsignor here would try to sell us out to the military, Face. Of course not. But do you know anything about this niece?"
"If you're suggesting that my niece would try to turn you in for a reward, colonel, you'd be quite wrong." Magill was smiling in the faintly amused manner that he had, which Hannibal was fast beginning to warm to. "Molly is a... I'm not sure that she calls herself an anarchist exactly, but it's something not at all dissimilar. Either way, she wouldn't give the time of day to the likes of your Colonel Lynch. Besides, she knows how much Templeton means to me, and she'd no more hand him over to the authorities than I would." He frowned. "Although if he keeps hovering around me like he thinks I'm going to break, I'll be calling up the military myself."
Face blushed. "Sorry, Monsignor."
"It's alright, lad." The old priest smiled across at him, managing the admirable task of looking stern and soft at the same time. "Colonel Smith, I do understand your concerns, and I know how carefully you usually check people before meeting with them. Molly might not have that time. She's already been threatened by people who are obviously also after the jewels, and she's fairly certain that somebody has got at the map."
"Got at it?"
"Copied it. There was a telephone call - obviously a ruse - and when she got back the map had moved to a different place on her desk. She was suspicious, so she looked at it more closely, and she thinks that she saw new lines on it - as though somebody had traced it. Whoever she's up against could easily get to those jewels before she does, and their intentions might not be nearly so honourable. According to my niece, this collection is worth a fortune - considerably more on the black market than the finder's fee offered by those with a rightful claim to the stuff." He reached out for the glass of water that Face had poured earlier, and sipped it with as much relish as he might have sipped whisky. Hannibal remained silent for a moment.
"You're asking us to take a lot on trust here, Father."
"Trust is my business, colonel." The two men held each other's gaze for several moments, each quite opening gauging the other, almost as though they were competitors in a ring. Father Magill had done his share of boxing in his younger days, and although his sparring was now limited strictly to the verbal and psychological kind, Hannibal was still certain that the older man was more than capable of holding his own.
"Would it help if you were to meet my niece?" Magill's voice was soft, gently asking for Hannibal's complete trust. Again the silence returned, again the eye contact held the two men motionless. Face was beginning to feel decidedly surplus to requirements, but had the sense to remain still and quiet. Eventually Hannibal smiled.
"I'd be happy to meet your niece. Face?"
"Colonel?" Jumping off the table, Face glanced from one to the other of his two companions in the office. Hannibal frowned, toying with an unlit cigar as though lamenting the fact that it would be insensitive to light up.
"Spring Murdock. Make preparations for a trip to... to where, Father?"
"West Virginia. According to Molly's map the jewels are hidden somewhere in a large, undeveloped area of forest a good way off the beaten track." He sighed. "That's a beautiful piece of country. I took a walking holiday there once in... 1959 I think it was. Met a young fellow from Kentucky who was trying to walk from the Mexican border to the Canadian border, with nothing but a Bible and a copy of On The Road for company. I often wonder what happened to him."
Hannibal smiled. "Probably got eaten by a bear."
"Probably." Magill smiled too. "But it's still a lovely piece of country. I wish I was going along too."
"If you think you can make it past Sister Ruth, you're welcome to come." Face shared a brief look with Hannibal, which was apparently some secret form of communication. "I'll call BA and Amy. I assume you're gonna want air transport?"
"Something we're not gonna need a long strip for. Assume that Miss Magill has her own digging equipment, but get us some of the basics as a stand-by. We're also going to need the most detailed maps of the state that you can get your hands on."
"We'll meet at BA's garage at midnight tonight. I want to be in the air by dawn."
"Okay." Face turned to Magill, shaking the old man's hand with a regretful look. "Sorry to leave so suddenly, Monsignor. I'll drop by again soon."
"You'd better." The old man's combative temperament bubbled to the surface once again, as he gave Face's hand a squeeze that belied his ailing health. "And send my niece in on your way out. By now she should be right outside the door."
"Sure." He raised an eyebrow, tentatively checking with Hannibal that it was okay to ask their client to join the discussions. Hannibal nodded. He was wary, as always, but his opinion of the priest was rising all the time, and he didn't really believe that his team would be in any danger from the man's niece. Face pulled open the door.
"Er... hello?" The woman standing out in the corner had an unmistakably American accent, suggesting that she had not spent anything like as much time in her ancestral homeland as had her uncle. She resembled him in a way though, from her bright, watery blue eyes to the proud way in which she stood. Confidence clearly was not a problem in the Magill family. She was a good deal prettier than the Monsignor, though, at least in Hannibal's opinion, with an obviously intelligent face done great justice by a cloud of sleek, black hair. Her skin was quite pale, typically Celtic, and set off nicely by the thick, over-large sweatshirt she was wearing. It bore the legend Bolivian Archaeological Expedition, 1981, in small, bright letters around a picture of what appeared to be a broken dagger.
"Hi." Despite the fact that he was supposed to be leaving, it was Face who answered the girl's greeting first, reaching out for her hand with the practised grace of a man who spent much of his time meeting - and charming - new people. "Templeton Peck. You must be Miss Magill."
"Molly." She was smiling at him with the slightly amused air of somebody meeting a person for the first time after hearing a very great deal about them. Hannibal got the impression that Father Magill had done a lot of boasting about his former charge. "Were you just leaving?"
"Me?" He grinned at her, eyes appreciative, smile all too familiar, at least to Hannibal. "Not me, no."
"I'm going." He sighed. "It was a pleasure to meet you, Miss Magill."
"Likewise." He could feel her following him with her eyes as he went out through the door, and he turned back to flash her another quick grin before he left. The warmth in her eyes was definitely encouraging, which led him to wonder whether they couldn't introduce some new policy, whereby all clients had to look like that. It was just a shame that she was Father Magill's niece. Really that couldn't help but preclude the usual casual fun...
Back in the little office Hannibal and Molly shook hands, before sitting down in adjacent chairs under the watchful, and clearly excited, eye of the good Monsignor. He was acting like a small child, his coughing fits apparently not disturbing him in the slightest as he listened to Molly's in depth explanation of the story he had himself only glossed over. He loved to hear her talk about the stolen jewels; about the stunning ruby necklace that was the centrepiece of the collection; about the eccentric old collector who had bought the items from the descendant of a pirate, who had in turn stolen them from a passenger vessel in 1712. Hannibal was also quite obvious in his appreciation of the story, particularly the lavish descriptions of the pirate and his many voyages. He eyed her carefully as she talked, searching for any of the little signs that might tell him she was not on the level. Although all his instincts were telling him that he could trust her, it was just not in his nature to be slapdash; especially with the lives - and freedom - of his men.
"Are you interested, Colonel Smith?" Apparently amused by his evident enjoyment of her narrative, Molly raised a questioning eyebrow. Hannibal smiled back at her, beginning to relax almost completely in her presence, even though he would usually require at least two days of research and observation before he got this close to a prospective employer.
"I'm interested. Just to bring things a little more up to date, though - what do you know about the opposition in this little game?"
"I have to assume that they're rival collectors. Perhaps they work for a different museum, although I doubt it. A private collector is more likely. Their methods so far have been very unorthodox."
"I've received letters, telling me not to try to find the jewels myself. They were very threatening. My house was ransacked, and I was followed home once or twice. I didn't see anybody, but they were making it pretty obvious that they were there - like the whole point was to scare me."
He nodded. "Did you try the police?"
"They weren't terribly helpful. I have no direct evidence except for the letters. I didn't want to tell anybody about the map, so I couldn't even tell the police that much." She shrugged. "Then I remembered some of the rather tall tales that Uncle David told me, the last time I visited him here in LA. All that talk about a former ward of his being a member of a famous team of mercenaries that like to help people. I hadn't believed him at the time, but then I thought... well, what harm could it do to ask?"
"Usually none." He raised an eyebrow. "But we don't come cheap, Miss Magill."
"I know. Or at least, so I assumed. These jewels that I'm after have an estimated value of five million dollars, and the finder's fee is ten percent of that. I'm willing to split that with you, in whatever way you choose. I'm really not in this for the money, save for certain necessary expenses. There might even be more money than that, once ownership of the collection is decided once and for all."
"That certainly sounds generous." He frowned at her, running through the upcoming project with more than a little enthusiasm. The idea of a treasure hunt in the middle of nowhere, searching for some ancient pirate's impressive spoils, could not fail to inspire his imagination, and the promise of tangling with some unknown enemy was more than enough to awaken the Jazz. It should even be worth the hassle of trying to get BA onto a plane.
"Then we have a deal?" She sounded girlishly excited, with just a trace of a bookish reserve. "When do we start?"
"Dawn." He jammed his unlit cigar into his mouth, and imagined that he was blowing a smoke ring. "But pretty stories about hidden treasure don't buy you that much trust, Miss Magill. You're going to have to stick with me until then." He nodded towards the eager priest. "I understand that she's your niece, Monsignor, but people will do all kinds of things, willingly or not. I'd rather not take the risk."
"You don't need to apologise to me, Colonel Smith." Magill was still beaming, apparently enjoying the adventure of merely listening to the stories and plans. "You need to be a suspicious man, I suppose. Just take good care of my niece."
"I always take good care of a client." Hannibal stood up, reaching over to shake the old man's surprisingly strong and tough-skinned hand. "She's in good care."
"And find those jewels." The pale blue eyes that had once seen nearly as much adventure around the world as had the A-Team - albeit adventure of a different kind - were bright and wide and round. "I'd like to get a look at them."
"We'll find them." Hannibal shared a grin with Molly Magill, already feeling the excitement of the treasure hunt beginning to tug at his adrenalin levels. A justified sense of vaguely conceited pride swelled his chest as he stared into the middle distance. "Once you've hired the A-Team, you can count the mission already done."
"It might not be as easy as that. The man that I think is also after the jewels isn't the kind to roll over and let go." Molly sounded torn between her desire to gain his services, and an inability to lie about the potential dangers. If she had thought that her words might dissuade Hannibal Smith, though, she evidently did not know very much about the A-Team at all. His grin widened.
"Tenacious type, huh?" His eyes had acquired a faraway look, and his smile had turned into the wide, merry beam of a man truly happy with his work. "They're my favourite kind."
Face collected Murdock with the same sense of dj-vu that always lingered on such occasions, even though he couldn't remember the last time he had sneaked the pilot out of the building under cover of darkness. Ordinarily he preferred to rely on more subtle means, but after spending such a long time collecting together the equipment needed for the team's latest mission, he had been getting rather low on time. He was familiar enough with the VA's layout to make the midnight rescue an easy task, and in no time at all he and his old friend were speeding away from the scene of their crime - of sorts - in what was, perhaps, not the most sensible car to use for an unobtrusive getaway. The sky blue Corvette was a rental, although Face wasn't actually paying for it, and was quite the most gloriously eye-catching vehicle that he had ever driven. Murdock had been delighted with it, whatever its shortcomings as an object of stealth, and spent most of the trip reclining in the passenger seat like some idle millionaire being chauffeured by a loyal underling.
"Nice breakout, Face." Folding his hands behind his head, Murdock stared up at the neon lit sky. "You running out of ideas for getting past the nurses?"
"Hardly." Finding new ways to break his friend out of the VA hospital had become such a major part of the Faceman's life that he sometimes found himself planning the next break at the oddest - and most inconvenient - of moments. Running out of ideas wasn't likely to become a problem for at least the next ten years. "I just didn't want to risk being late for Hannibal's rendezvous. It took me a little longer than I'd planned to track down some of his supplies."
"Probably just as well. We've had Nurse Thatcher prowling the corridors all week. You've talked her into releasing me into your custody three times now, so even she's going to start getting suspicious sooner or later." He turned his head, frowning thoughtfully at his friend. "You can borrow my disguises kit if you'd like. I have fourteen different moustaches, and a great pair of bushy stick-on eyebrows."
"Is that the same set of disguises that you collected from the back of your cereal boxes?"
"It's made out of cardboard, Murdock."
"Well it would be, wouldn't it. Cereal boxes are usually made out of cardboard. It's all realistic stuff though."
"Thanks all the same, but I think I'll stick to doing things my way. I haven't been caught out yet." Murdock had a point though, as Face very well knew. Quite how he managed to liberate the captain almost every week, without arousing the suspicions of the staff, was entirely beyond him, especially since he rarely used any form of physical disguise. Nobody seemed to catch on though; or maybe they were just glad to be getting rid of Murdock for a while. Certainly his room at the VA always seemed to be at the very epicentre of its own particular cloud of chaos.
"So where we going this time? Somewhere nice?" Practically bouncing with enthusiasm, Murdock was fidgeting about on the car seat with such a feverish display of stored energy that Face could almost feel the car vibrate. He recognised the signs by now, and knew that some new character was fast approaching. All that remained was to hope that it would annoy BA rather less than the last one. Murdock, Lord of the Jungle, had been with them less than five minutes before the irascible sergeant had threatened to feed him the team's entire stock of grenades. On reflection, Face had to admit, that might have been his fault. Suggesting that Murdock swing from seat to seat in the back of the van definitely hadn't been one of his better ideas.
"West Virginia." He said it without looking at the pilot, distracted by the attentions of a pair of young women loitering on the sidewalk. This car was definitely an attention-getter. He gave the steering wheel an appreciative pat, and decided that he was going to have to buy himself one. If women liked Corvettes this much, it was clearly time to stop renting.
"Forests and stuff." Murdock was frowning, trying out this prospective location with his latest persona. "I like forests."
"Forests and mud and probably rain." Face was considerably less enthusiastic. "Probably bears too."
"Oh, sure to be." Murdock perked up even more. "I always wanted a bear. Did you ever see Gentle Ben? They still show it sometimes during the afternoons."
"You're not getting a bear, Murdock. BA would never let it in the van. Remember the fuss he made when you tried to adopt that Canada goose?"
"I could get a baby bear."
"I still don't think it's a very good idea." Face smiled to himself at the thought. "Anyway, we're going to be too busy to go looking for bears. We're going on a treasure hunt." He cast his friend a sidelong glance. "With a map."
"A treasure map?" The familiar flash of childlike enthusiasm lit up Murdock's expressive face. "And pirates?"
"Not that I know of." Face turned the car around the sharp bend that led into BA's underground garage. "But there are sure to be plenty of bad guys."
"Goes with the territory, Faceman." As the car came to a halt, Murdock leapt out over the door, and bounced neatly on the balls of his feet. "But you needn't worry about them. I can handle anything."
"You can?" Face could feel the trepidation building. "You're not trying to be Superman again are you? It's kinda hard to intimidate the bad guys with you wearing those bright red underpants."
"Come on Faceman. You know I never repeat myself." Murdock looked faintly affronted. "I may be mad, but that doesn't mean that I'm lacking originality."
"Oh, you're original alright, Murdock." Face had to smile. "Now come on. It's getting late. Hannibal wants to get underway at dawn."
"Doesn't matter." Murdock sunk his hands into his pockets, and feigned an extravagant show of nonchalance. "If we're late I'll just perform a quick spell... something simple but spectacular... and we'll be back on track in no time." He grinned broadly, in that devil-may-care way of his that usually meant he was in one of his more hyperactive moods; then suddenly spotted Hannibal and BA over at the other side of the garage. He waved at them wildly, snatching his cap from his head and flapping it in the air like a flag. Even at such a distance, and in the bad lighting of the subterranean workshop, Face could see the scowl that abruptly found its way onto the mechanic's less than cheery countenance. Murdock was not bothered in the slightest of course.
"Hey guys." Sauntering over with his usual casual stride, Hannibal gave his cigar a little wave of greeting. "Everything go smoothly?"
"Like clockwork." Face gave his car a pat. "Can't help it with a motor like this one. She handles like a dream."
"Huh." BA eyed the sports car with an impressive scowl. "Couldn't keep up with my van, man. That thing's a scrap heap compared to my wheels."
"You know, sometimes I think you lot argue just for the sake of it." Wandering up in Hannibal's wake, Amy was wearing her usual expression of amusement at the way that the team behaved. Molly was with her, looking flushed with excitement, and yet tired by the early hour. She had clearly been doing a lot of travelling in the past few days, and it seemed to be catching up with her now. Amy also looked tired, as she always did when her commitment to the team meant being out of bed at awkward hours. She was eager to be off though, ready as always for whatever the latest mission led them into. She had heard the whole story from Molly, and was almost as eager as Murdock had been, when he had first heard about the treasure map.
"Is this everybody?" Nodding at the two latest arrivals, Molly addressed her question to Hannibal. She sounded nervous, and anxious to be off. Hannibal nodded at her, cupping his hands over his cigar in order to light it.
"This is the A-Team, in total. Face you already met, briefly. This is Howling Mad Murdock, our expert in psychological warfare."
"Huh." BA clearly didn't think much of that particular job description, but Molly did not quite understand why Hannibal was smirking. She decided to put it down to some inside joke, and tried not to look too puzzled.
"So can we be off soon? I'm sorry to sound so restless, but I don't know how long we're going to have before my rivals get out on the trail. If they have a copy of the map, they could be there by now."
"Doubtful." Hannibal felt in his pocket and drew out the map in question, which he had taken at Molly's request for safe keeping. He tossed it to Murdock. "It's pretty complicated, wouldn't you say captain?"
"If you think so it can't exactly be straightforward." Unfolding it, slipping so neatly into his serious mode that it was rather as though a switch had been pressed, Murdock frowned at the thick piece of paper. "I'd say it's been put together by somebody who really knows the ins and outs of cartography. Nice piece of work, and there's a lot of detail, but it's... kinda like short hand. Like whoever drew it didn't need to put in everything, 'cause he knew it so well."
"So you don't think it'll be easy for somebody to follow it?"
"Maybe, maybe not. Point me at the right piece of land, and I can navigate no problem. Like I said, the detail's good. But pilots have an eye for these things, colonel, and I've had a lot of training in following maps a lot more basic that this one. Could be the opposition have themselves another me."
"There is only one you, fool." BA rolled his eyes at the mere mention of such a dreadful thought. "No way could there be more than that!"
"Why thank you, BA." Sliding into his English accent, Murdock ran a hand through his hair and fluttered his lashes. "You are just full of compliments."
"I didn't mean it as a compliment, fool." BA snatched the map away, and glanced through it. "He's right though, Hannibal. This is good work, and for us it's not all that tough to read. If the bad guys have forces training, or if they know the terrain well, we're going to lose some of that advantage."
Hannibal nodded sagely, then raised an eyebrow at Molly. "Well?"
"I'm not sure." She looked around at the group, anxious to explain more fully. "I have suspicions about who we're up against, but I've never had any proof. This man called Blaise. Jason Blaise. He's a collector of fine pieces of jewellery - really beautiful stuff. Something like this would be right up his street. He's said things... veiled threats I suppose. He has one or two men working for him who are pretty unpleasant. Heavy types, you know? A lot of muscle and attitude. I honestly don't know if any of them have any military training, but I suppose a lot of guys of that age saw some action in Vietnam." She shrugged. "I don't even know how many people we might be up against. If it was somebody working for Blaise who copied the map, there might be anything up to twenty or thirty people out there now, trying to get to the treasure first. Blaise isn't lacking in money, either. He could be sweeping the area in helicopters."
"No." Murdock snatched the map back from BA, and pointed to one or two pencil lines drawn in what was roughly the centre of the paper. "These are important landmarks, but according to the map they're in pretty thick forest. They wouldn't be visible from the air, but they're vital for pinpointing your position if you're heading for the treasure. I don't think it's possible to do this by air, and there are no roads or paths marked. It has to be done on foot, so I doubt anybody could have got that much of a lead on us." He handed the map back to Hannibal, who stowed it away again. "Unless they have my incredible magical powers of course, in which case they could transport themselves pretty much directly to where the X marks the spot."
"Um... magical powers?" Molly looked a little lost, but Murdock merely smiled at her. His switch from serious professional back into escaped madman had been so smooth that none of them had seen the join. He flipped the cap off his head, and bowed so low that his hair almost scraped the ground.
"Allow myself to present myself properly, my lady." The English accent was back, this time at its most plummy and theatrical. "I am of course The Great Mur-Dock, man of a thousand spells. You may have seen me on some of the famous stages of the world, performing my incredible feats of magic before my adoring fans."
"Oh." Clearly Molly did not know how to take that, and simply regarded him with more than a flicker of concern. "Um... that's nice."
"No it ain't. It sounds terrible." BA waved a large, ring-encrusted fist in Murdock's face. "So tone it down, sucker. I don't want to be spending the whole of this trip listening to you spout that junk. You hear me?"
"I hear you." The pilot smiled nervously, and put the cap back onto his head. He backed away slightly, hands sunk into his pockets, and looked sulky. Molly got the impression that she was not supposed to take these two men entirely seriously, and yet there had been no obvious hint of a joking either in Murdock's lunacy or BA's threat. Hannibal was grinning at the pair though, and Amy's eyes suggested that inwardly she was laughing at them both.
"Cut it out you two." As though noticing Molly's discomfort for the first time, Hannibal seemed to sober up a little - although only, Molly could not help but notice, a very little. "We should be getting out of here. "You get all the stuff, Face?"
"Sure, colonel. Just about everything we're going to need, I should think." He ticked off the items on his fingers as he listed them, looking increasingly pleased with himself all the while. "I decided not to bother about armaments. We have a pretty good store of them by now, and there's no point going overboard since we're going to have to carry everything ourselves. In the end I went along to this great camping place I discovered, and I picked up a lot of army surplus stuff. Lots of khaki gear to start with. Not exactly the height of fashion, but it should help us to stay more or less invisible in those woods. Boots, rucksacks, compasses... Oh, that reminds me." He reached into his pocket and extracted something, which he tossed over to Hannibal. "Waterproof container for your cigars. Sleeping on the ground every night isn't going to do them a whole lot of good."
"Nice, Face." Hannibal glanced at the Corvette. "You didn't fit all that lot in there?"
"No. I had it sent on ahead to the, er... bus station, along with six sleeping bags and a couple of first aid kits. Nothing too big or heavy, but I figured they might come in useful."
"I must be costing you a fortune." Molly sounded apologetic, but Face merely flashed her a somewhat careless grin.
"Money is usually the least of my worries. Paying for things doesn't tend to be all that much of a problem." He said it so casually that she had no doubt he was speaking the truth, which brought to mind a whole stack of further questions that it was probably better not to ask. Face merely smiled at her, as cool and unconcerned as it was possible to be, before suddenly clicking his fingers in thought. "I almost forgot. As it turns out, I was the store's millionth customer. They were quite excited."
"Faceman, you never paid for anything in your life. How can you be the millionth customer?" BA did not sound scathing so much as faintly amused. Face shrugged.
"Well, the film company they thought I worked for was the millionth customer then. Whatever. Either way, they were kind enough to give me these in celebration." He reached into the back of the car and pulled out a cardboard crate containing six glass bottles. "It's only soda I'm afraid, but I figured it was a safer bet than champagne."
"I like champagne." Murdock used his small boy voice to complain at this substitution, but he accepted the bottle Face handed to him nonetheless.
"I know you like champagne, Murdock." The lieutenant handed the rest of the bottles around, delivering Molly's with a peculiar lack of eye-contact. "But the last time we had some, you insisted that you knew all the bubbles by name, and you kept trying to introduce them all. You wound up with BA dangling you out of that third floor window by your ankles, remember?"
"Yeah, I remember." Murdock had immediately switched into grouchy mode, although his eyes were still bright with good humour. "Ugly mudsucking..." he caught sight of the big sergeant glowering at him, and immediately flashed a nervous smile... "really nice, understanding guy."
"Huh." It seemed to be BA's favourite word today, and certainly it suited his ever present scowl. Twisting off the lid of his bottle, BA eyed the liquid with surprising fondness. "This stuff is better than champagne anyway. Champagne is for people like Faceman, who wear clothes nobody else can afford, and like to drive around the place in flash cars."
"Why thank you, BA." Sounding very droll, Face held up his own bottle in salute. "Cheers."
"Cheers." The sergeant took a long drink, and smirked into the bottle. "Here's to happy treasure hunting."
"Absolutely." Amy met the toast, taking a long pull from her own bottle. She wasn't the greatest fan of orange soda, but by now she knew Hannibal and Face very well indeed; and was becoming quite adept at helping along certain of their plans. It truly was quite amazing that BA still drank anything given to him by either man.
"We're going on a treasure hunt." BA lowered his bottle, grinning stupidly at the rest of the group.
"Yep." Face folded his arms, regarding the larger man thoughtfully. Molly opened her mouth to begin a question, but thought better of it in the end.
"Gonna get the treasure." BA's grin grew wider. "X marks the-" He broke off, and five sets of eyes followed his limp form as it crashed to the ground. Hannibal grinned.
"Nice work, Face."
"But he's unconscious." Crouching down beside BA, Molly looked up at the others in some confusion. "Shouldn't we be trying to wake him up?"
"Not till we're safely in West Virginia, ma'am." Turning to his left, Hannibal chinked bottles with Amy, before taking a long, satisfied drink. "For now, he's a whole lot better off the way he is."
It was a good flight, through increasingly sun lit skies as they progressed further east; over an ever changing panorama of mid west fading to Eastern Americana; over winding roads and straight-edged freeways; over forests and desert and twisting rivers. Hannibal spent most of the voyage seeing nothing at all of the scenery, talking instead with Molly about her work. She seemed glad of the audience, being obviously nervous of the work ahead, and clearly enjoyed his gently subversive attitude. The leader of the A-Team had a remarkable talent for making even the most dangerous escapades sound like child's play, and Amy also enjoyed listening to his little jokes, and his easy descriptions of how smoothly everything should go. She didn't believe any of it for a moment of course, for with Hannibal nothing ever went smoothly. It was reassuring to hear it all though; all his plans and intentions; all neatly laid out as though he honestly expected them to work. BA snored peacefully through it all, as unmoved by Amy's cynicism as he was by Hannibal's good cheer.
They landed without incident, despite Murdock's enthusiastic boast, just prior to take-off, that he would be flying by "incredible mind power alone". Face had spent much of the journey with him in the cockpit though, so presumably that declaration had unnerved him as much as it had Amy. One could never be entirely sure with Murdock just where the lunacy ended.
From the airport - little more than a strip of mud and grass, lined on either side with chunks of white stone - it was a short jeep ride to the starting point on the map. There was a hangar of sorts at the airstrip; a large stone building containing a vague approximation of restrooms, a shop that sold - rather bizarrely - maps, stale doughnuts and out of date copies of Playboy magazine; and an office manned by a large, bespectacled man in his late forties, who gaped at the A-Team as though they were members of an alien race. Face sweet-talked him into looking after their 'borrowed' plane, and lending them a pair of hardy little jeeps - and after that all that remained was to load up their supplies and head out. Amy tried not to feel too excited, aware as always that the mission was likely to be dangerous - and yet somehow it was impossible to be anything other than excited when embarking on a hunt for buried treasure. She felt like Jim Hawkins. To judge by the general high spirits, so did everybody else.
BA was still asleep when the two jeeps rumbled to a halt at the end of a thin dirt road. Hannibal left him sprawled in the back of the rearmost vehicle, snoring softly to himself, apparently unconcerned by the sergeant's prolonged unconsciousness. Murdock amused himself by trying to push pieces of grass into BA's half-open mouth between snores, whilst Hannibal and Face transferred the various stores and pieces of equipment into the six rucksacks they had brought along for the purpose. They put most of the food into the rucksack intended for BA, along with one of the first aid kits and a selection of survival equipment, before dealing out the rest of the stores rather more evenly. Amy protested when Hannibal declared that the women would only be carrying their own sleeping bags, and some of Molly's less bulky archaeological equipment, but her only answer was a firm look from the team's leader that she knew only too well. Hannibal, it seemed, would always remain that one step behind the rest of them, when it came to women's lib. Either that or he knew her limitations rather better than she did.
They moved the jeeps off the road when it began to seem likely that BA would soon be waking up, after having first carried him into the beginnings of the undergrowth at the edge of the forest. Murdock threw leafy branches and mud over the vehicles until they were hidden from view, and Hannibal consulted his compass, comparing the reading to the information scrawled in almost illegible notes on the back of the map. He sent Face out into the forest to scout ahead, and detailed Amy to hasten BA's return to the land of the living, anxious to avoid wasting any further time. Perhaps it was because they were now so very much closer to the treasure than they had been whilst still in Lost Angeles, but the urgency to beat the opposition to the hidden jewels seemed to have caught at him as well, and he was clearly eager to be off. Amy couldn't blame him, even though she was less interested in the jewels themselves than in the exclusive story about them that Molly had promised to her.
BA proved to be rather difficult to wake up, resisting Amy's initial attempts to shake him into consciousness, and even sleeping on through her determined yelling of his name. Molly added her own efforts after a while, seemingly amused by the situation. BA, however, showed complete indifference. Unmoved by the comedy of the occasion, he merely snored once or twice, unaffected by the two young women calling his name. Finally, frustrated at every turn, Amy sat back and glared at his sleeping form.
"Just how much magic juice did Face put in that soda? At this rate BA's still going to be asleep when Molly's taking the treasure back to her museum." She folded her arms, signalling that her exertions were at an end.
"You just don't know how to do it right, Amy." Bouncing over to them, cap stuck on his head at an absurdly rakish angle, Murdock dropped to his hands and knees beside the sleeping sergeant. "You have to penetrate his subconscious - make an impression on his sleeping mind." He leaned over BA's peaceful face, then reached out with his right hand, and gave the big man's nose a sharp tug. BA snored loudly, and made a noise that sounded suspiciously like a growl. Encouraged, Murdock gave the gold chains a firm rattle. "Come on BA... Wakey wakey wakey." There was another faint growl. Molly looked a little apprehensive.
"Are you sure this is safe?" She was looking from BA to Murdock to Amy and back again, uncertain just how sensible it was to risk getting BA Baracus annoyed. Murdock just grinned at her.
"It's perfectly safe." He tweaked one of BA's ears. "Isn't that right you great big ugly mudsucker?"
"Let go of my ear, fool, or I'll hit you so hard you'll land in Oahu." BA's voice made them all jump, even Murdock with his assertions of nonchalance. He backed away quickly, scuttling into reverse, still on his hands and knees, until he was brought up short by a tree trunk. BA opened one eye.
"I'm awake." He said it as though it were a terrible thing, and when he opened his second eye, his characteristic frown showed that certainly he was not terribly happy about something. "And if I'm awake, that means I must have been asleep." He sat up, rearranging a few of his gold chains that had slipped around his neck. "Why am I in the middle of a forest? I don't like it when the last thing I remember is being in one place, and all of a sudden I'm somewhere completely different."
"You just don't remember the bus ride." Coming over to join them, his face calm and devoid of expression, Hannibal offered BA a hand to rise to his feet. BA glared at him, and stood up on his own.
"I don't remember the bus ride 'cause there was no bus ride. I've been drugged enough times now to know what it feels like, Hannibal - and right now it feels like I been drugged." He folded his large arms, glowering so fiercely that Molly backed away.
"Now now BA. No scaring the client." Amy sounded a little nervous herself, but BA merely glared, before turning to take stock of the area. Apparently he was not impressed by the profusion of trees and mud, for the already impressive frown deepened still further.
"Where's Face?" He sounded calmer, as though he had accepted his situation. Hannibal stepped up to stand alongside him.
"Scouting around. He should be back in a minute."
"Always supposing he ain't lost." BA seemed to be in a mood to insult things, but Face, emerging from the trees at that moment, did not seem in the least bit insulted.
"I never get lost." He said it as though it were the grandest of boasts, and not just a reply to a surly colleague. Murdock frowned.
"That's not true Face. You got lost coming off that recon patrol in 'Nam that time, and we all thought you'd got-"
"Murdock..." Face shot him a look that plainly said 'Not in front of the client'. Murdock grinned.
"Did you find any bears?" He was back to bouncing, and went over to join the lieutenant in the manner of a small child forced to sit still for many hours, and then finally allowed to get up and play. Face shook his head.
"No bears. Plenty else though. I counted eight bad guys, Hannibal, including some guy who looked like he was in charge. They're not far from here - and I really mean not far. I headed straight out north-west, and I ran into them after less than half an hour. It's a pretty well-equipped party, and they're heavily armed. Doesn't look to me like it's the local wildlife that they're taking precautions against, either. Every one of them had an automatic pistol, and they were carrying automatic rifles as well. Mostly AR-15s, all nice stuff. Well cared for, and I'd say that they know how to use them. Some heavy duty muscle as well."
"Not your average archaeological party." Hannibal puffed thoughtfully on his cigar. "They must be expecting competition."
"Could they know about us?" Amy was wondering who Molly might have told about her trip to Los Angeles, but Hannibal shook his head.
"Doubtful. Very doubtful. But they've got to know that Molly is going to try to get to that treasure, and they'll assume that she's not going to be alone. They're probably expecting nothing more problematic than a few archaeologists and a museum representative.." A familiar, twinkling grin spread its way across his face. "We really ought to put them straight."
"Hannibal..." Amy's warning fell on deaf ears, and so did Murdock's almost simultaneous objection. BA shook his head.
"We want to get to this treasure, Hannibal. Wouldn't it better if we tried to pretend that we ain't here? If they know about us, they'll try to stop us."
"They'll try, BA." Hannibal's eyes were sparkling. "I just don't think it's fair to sneak up on them - to let them think that the treasure's theirs, and then disappoint them at the last minute when they discover that we got it all first. It would be much more sporting to drop in and say hi right away."
"They didn't look like the friendly kind, colonel." Face looked even less enthusiastic about this latest development than did the others. Hannibal blew out a long stream of smoke.
"All the more reason to drop in. Maybe we can cheer them up." He nodded to himself, slow and thoughtful, as though agreeing with his own words. "We'll split into two groups."
"Hannibal, is this really a good idea?" Murdock's lunacy had dissipated, to be replaced with the voice of tired, resigned experience. Hannibal nodded, eyes aglow with amusement and anticipation.
"BA, Murdock, take the girls and head on out. Follow the map, get as far as you can, and if Face and I haven't caught up with you by nightfall, make camp and wait for us. Stay out of sight, and don't let the opposition see you. I don't want the women involved if anything happens. Face - you and I are going to take a little walk."
"We are?" Face sounded far from pleased. Still puffing and still grinning, Hannibal nodded happily.
"We are. Now come on. There's not that many hours of daylight left, and I don't want to bump into these guys in the dark."
"We could wait until morning." The hope in Face's voice was almost comic, and indeed Hannibal clearly heard it only as a joke.
"Face, don't you want to go confront lots of heavily armed bad guys in unfamiliar territory?" He was grinning around his cigar, looking blissfully happy. Molly felt very, very glad that she was just the client, and not one of his subordinate officers.
"Honestly?" Clearly Face did not believe that he was really going to be given any choice in the matter, but he seemed to be trying anyway. "I'd rather be playing tag with Colonel Lynch right now. Hannibal, these people did not look friendly. They were big. Their muscles had muscles. Walking into their camp would be like sticking our heads in a lion's mouth and shouting 'snap'. It's nuts."
"Yeah, Hannibal." BA had abandoned his glowers and his glares, and actually sounded reasonable and meaningful. "Man, sometimes you make Murdock sound sane."
"Hey!" Murdock looked faintly outraged. Hannibal just grinned.
"Sometimes, BA, you lack soul. Now come on, Face. We've got work to do."
"Yeah." Sighing theatrically, Face followed along in the jaunty colonel's compelling wake. "Lucky us."
"That's the spirit." His voice filled with cheer, Hannibal clapped him on the back, almost sending the younger man sprawling with the force of the unexpected slap. "I knew you were looking forward to it."
His only answer was a deeply resigned sigh.
Jason Blaise was in high spirits, which was an entirely new feeling for him. A large man of powerful build, he was possessed of the sort of physique that most men worked hard to obtain, whilst he himself had never so much as lifted a weight. Running was anathema to him, as was any kind of physical action, and ordinarily the idea of trekking through miles of thick forest would have caused his heavy, hang-dog features to droop even more than usual. Today, however, he was feeling exceptionally bright and cheerful. He was on his way to find a priceless store of buried treasure. He was going to find pieces for his collection beyond even the wildest dreams of his fellow jewellers around the world. What was a little physical exertion, when that was the prize that awaited him?
"We've scouted up ahead, Mr Blaise." His assistant, the eminently practical Derek Jasser, shouldered his gleaming AR-15 as he announced this piece of news. "There's no sign of anybody having been this way in months. Are you still expecting this Magill woman to make an attempt on the treasure?"
"She'll come." Blaise mopped at his brow with a large silk handkerchief, and looked around at his many gun-toting employees. He didn't know who all of them were, or where exactly Jasser had found them, but they seemed capable enough. His own men, the private security guards he had hired some months before, were easily recognisable, in their neater, newer clothing, with their expensive weaponry. The others were dressed in an assortment of gear that looked as though it had fallen off the back of an army surplus lorry; a mishmash of khaki shades and camouflage patching, mingled with blue jeans and heavy work boots. Theirs were the more powerful guns; the heavier calibres, in contrast to the sleeker equipment of his own men. That was understandable, since his people were all experts, guaranteed to hit their targets nine times out of ten. They had no need of extra power to make sure that they got the job done.
"Well if she does, we'll be ready for her." Jasser toyed with his own gun, wondering if they were really supposed to use such powerful weaponry against a young woman like Molly Magill. He had only seen her once or twice, and then only from a distance, but he had seen that she was not at all the type likely to be much of a threat to Blaise's operation. Killing her seemed hugely unnecessary. "Do you think she'll come alone?"
"I doubt it." Blaise pulled a shining silver-coloured hip flask from his pocket, and took a sip of expensive cognac. It was a luxury that he felt sure he was entitled to, given the indignities to which he was sure to be exposed during the long march ahead. Already he could feel his legs protesting about the uneven ground, even though his unworked-for muscles were more than capable of carrying him on for a good way further. "She'll probably hire somebody. The museum's not exactly lacking in contacts or resources. A few guards perhaps. Maybe bodyguards or private soldiers. People who know something about forests." He sighed, thinking about his comfortable, air-conditioned office back in New York. "They might even be armed."
"Well if they are, we'll soon know about it sir. Nobody is going to get anywhere near us with our men looking in every direction. If that woman comes through this forest, we'll know about it straight away. You have my word on that."
"I'm glad to hear it." Blaise, who fortunately had no knowledge of the stealthy lieutenant who had been within spitting distance of his very self less than half an hour previously, sounded mollified. "Nobody gets near that treasure except me, understand? Nobody."
"Of course. Mr Blaise." Jasser nodded so deeply that it was almost a bow. "You have nothing to worry about, sir. Believe me, right now there's nobody in this forest but us - and as soon as that situation changes, we'll know about it almost before the new arrivals do themselves. We won't let anybody else get near that treasure. Every man with us is prepared to do whatever is necessary to make sure that you're the one who gets to the end of the trail first. We haven't hired any slouches, sir."
"Good." Blaise nodded, rubbing at the back of his stout neck with one large, powerful-looking hand. "Good. Alright, Jasser, carry on. I think this is as good a place as any to make camp for the night."
"Sir." Jasser nodded once again, a curious gesture almost like the salute that he might have given in a military situation. Jasser had immense respect for his employer, and he showed it in every movement he made in the other man's presence. Determined to do his best for the man, just as always, he was anxious not to let anything slip by him. Nothing, he swore, would go unnoticed. Molly Magill would simply not get the chance to get that treasure; and despite his earlier misgivings he would, if necessary, bring her quest to an end himself. Whatever it took seemed fair enough.
Derek Jasser was one of the best security agents in the business, but even he had no chance of noticing the two shadowy shapes that by-passed the group, and circled through the thick undergrowth less than a hundred yards away. Bent almost double to avoid showing more of himself than was necessary, Hannibal Smith took the lead, followed by the slightly less awkward, but infinitely more nervous, Templeton Peck. There was something extremely unpleasant about being this close to this many guns, and he only wished that some of his concern would rub off on Hannibal. The grinning colonel was enjoying this far too much, as always.
"Are you really sure this is a good idea, colonel?" Battling his way past a slew of undergrowth that had swung back in his face following Hannibal's passage, the irate lieutenant made a surly attempt to straighten his clothes and hair. Hannibal, who could not see Face but knew well his expression and actions, smiled to himself.
"It's only polite, Face."
"Yeah, but when you want to get polite, somebody usually ends up getting hurt. Why didn't we bring BA with us?"
"Because I want him to help Murdock look after the women."
"Hannibal, the women aren't the ones wandering straight into the lion's nest. They don't need looking after."
"Lion's nest?" Hannibal smiled. "We aren't visiting any nesting lions, kid. Maybe a few bees though. There may be a few stings... but there's a whole lot of honey waiting to be found."
Face scowled. "You're nuts."
"Ya think?" Hannibal scanned the all-but invisible skies, taking a bearing on their position, and noting it in his encyclopaedic brain. "But so are these guys, if they think they can beat us to that treasure." He slowed to a halt. "They should be close by. Hear anything?"
"Maybe. Before it sounded like they were hacking the trees to pieces to find a way through." Face pushed through the leafy branches in order to stand alongside Hannibal. "Everything's pretty quiet now though. Figure they're making camp?"
"I think so. Seems like a good time to welcome them to the area, doesn't it." Arguments forgotten, both men shared a smile, even Face feeling the gleeful tug of adrenalin. Hannibal slung his rifle down from his back, and gave the stock a quick pat. "Call me old fashioned, but I think that a little frontal assault is called for."
"C'mon Face. Where's your sense of adventure?"
"Back in LA, hiding under a bush." Face rolled his eyes, painfully aware that his words would have no affect on his commanding officer. "Hannibal, if we just walk right on up to them, we could be dead before you can even get to say 'hi'. Isn't it better to sneak on up, nice and quiet, and make sure they don't see us coming?"
"I like the front door, kid. Service entrances are for the hired help, and I never like to see myself that way." He checked the load in his rifle, not needing to, but because it acted as a final preparation whenever he was about to go into battle. It was his wake-up call to the gun, telling it to get ready to do its stuff. Face groaned.
"Why's it always me that pulls this duty?"
"Because, kid," Hannibal slung an arm around his shoulders, giving him a cheery pat on the back, "I know just how much you love it. Now saddle up, and let's get moving."
"Your metaphors are getting more weird than Murdock's, you know that?"
"Yep." Hannibal was grinning madly around his cigar now, eyes alight with the excitement of possible danger. "Just follow the Plan, Face. Everything will be fine."
"Great. And what exactly is our plan?" As they came to a halt behind a thick border of trees that separated them neatly from Blaise and his men, Face slipped the rifle from his shoulders, and wished that his pack wasn't quite so heavy. Somehow his army days, when he had regularly engaged in heavy fighting with a good deal more strapped to his back than he had now, seemed an awfully long way away. Hannibal shrugged, showing that worrying tendency towards nonchalance that had disturbed so many of his cohorts in the past.
"We introduce ourselves."
Face sighed. "I hate this."
"That's because you lack imagination." Hannibal blew a stream of smoke into the air, then stubbed his cigar out against a tree, dropping it neatly into his breast pocket for later. Remarkably it showed no inclination to smoulder, despite how hot the tip must still have been, and his shirt seemed safe enough for now. "When I give the signal, we move out together. You cover the guards, I'll get the big cheese. Then we can have a little chat with our fellow treasure seekers."
"Right." Face weighed his rifle in his hands, looking ready and willing despite his numerous objections. "On three?"
"On three." They watched each other's eyes, waiting for the count, both feeling the heat of the Jazz. There was no need to vocalise the counting, nor to check that their movements were synchronised; for at exactly the same second they sprang to life, barrelling out from behind their thick cover as though fired from some giant gun. They separated almost immediately, Face moving smoothly to the right, firing a long, chattering burst of lead over the heads of Blaise's milling security men. At the same instant Hannibal's own gun burst into life, spraying a short fusillade into the dirt at Jasser's feet. The big man stumbled backwards, almost colliding with Blaise himself, managing to avoid an embarrassing tangle only at the last minute. He made as though to lift his rifle, but seemed to think the better of it.
"Sensible man." Hannibal had lowered his own weapon to his hip, although it was no less compelling a threat held in that position. "Alright, listen up everybody. This treasure hunt is over as of now. Whatever is waiting at the end of the trail belongs to the Museum of New York, and is to be collected by their agent, Miss Molly Magill. Is that clear?"
"Who the hell are you?" Starting forward with a look of belligerence written clear upon his face, one of Blaise's private security men pointed a thick, stubby finger at the fearsome colonel. Face fired into the ground just in front of him, sending plumes of thick mud up into the air.
"I don't think you want to come any closer, do you?" There was something resolute in his words and his face, despite the vague incongruity that his immaculate looks seemed to present. Blaise raised a hand, signalling to his men to remain still.
"I'm Jason Blaise." He moved slowly, radiating a glow of reasonable level-headedness and curiosity. "These are my men, and I like to know why they're being threatened. Why I'm being threatened. I came out here to indulge in a little harmless fun; a mere whim. I was given to understand that the 'treasure', as you refer to it, belongs to no-one. Why should this museum in New York have any prior claim?"
"The jewellery marked on the map - which, by the way, itself came into your position illegally - was stolen." Hannibal was grinning, although his eyes were hard and flinty. "By now it more than likely belongs to the insurers, who are happy for the Museum of New York to act in their stead. The jewels are to be displayed there."
"Ah, well... Pieces of paper, that's all. Once I have the jewels for myself, who's to know either way?" Blaise's attitude of confidence and calm, in the face of two evidently determined, and heavily armed, men was quite admirable. Hannibal grudgingly raised his opinion of the man, for he had presumed him to be just another in a long line of bullies and thieves. There was more to this one though; a coldness and a degree of courage that was very real, and very tangible. He allowed himself a smile that met Blaise's own arrogance and matched it.
"I'll know. And believe me, Jason, you don't want to get on my bad side."
"Really?" It was not so much a question as a challenge, for Blaise looked distinctly unimpressed by Hannibal's words. "You come here, with only one other man - you burst upon us firing automatic weapons at my men and I - and then you stand there and make threats. There are many more of us than there are of you. You, I would assume, are travelling with Miss Magill. So why should I be afraid of crossing you? Two men with a glorified librarian in tow, and you think that you can threaten me? I'll have the jewels before you've made it more than a mile into this forest."
"I wouldn't bet on that." Hannibal's eyes had narrowed, and his voice had lost some of its earlier carefree edge. He had been amused, but now he was becoming a little annoyed. Jason Blaise was not a pleasant man, and Hannibal was growing to dislike him intensely. "It's not about how many men you have on your side. It's about how close I let you get to that treasure."
"That works both ways." Blaise's intelligent face had been transformed by an airy smile. There were shadows of ruthlessness visible upon his large countenance now, and his deep eyes had lost their illusions of level-headedness. "I'm not going to give up this search." If he had been expecting his words to have their desired effect upon Hannibal he was disappointed, for the colonel, far from being dismayed or disheartened, offered him a sudden, broad grin.
"Then it looks like we'll be meeting again."
"It looks like it." Blaise kept his voice level, trying to decide whether or not there was really something to fear from this grinning, silver-haired madman and his companion. "Next time, maybe I'll be the one pointing the gun at you."
"I doubt that." Hannibal allowed himself a moment to look the other way. "Face?"
"Right behind you, colonel." The lieutenant started to back away, gun still levelled at the increasingly mutinous looking guards. The bravado of their employer had clearly inspired feelings of belligerence within them, for they were beginning to look as though they wanted to turn on the two men holding the party under the gun. The wall of blatant hostility was beginning to make the Faceman decidedly nervous.
"It won't take us long to find you." As inspired as the others had been by the performance Blaise had put on, Jasser was watching Hannibal through suspicious eyes. He didn't understand why he didn't feel as superior as he should do, given the force of arms in his favour, and the apparent hopelessness of this white-haired stranger's position. Somehow he couldn't shake the uneasy feeling that the odds were not as stacked in Blaise's favour as they had first appeared. If only this frankly bizarre intruder would have the grace to look a little worried.
"It might take you a little longer then you think." Hannibal was still grinning; still in apparent high spirits. He whirled even as Blaise and Jasser were still only beginning to wonder what he had meant, and the heavy chatter of his gun racked the air. One of the guards yelped in fright as the bullets knocked chunks of wood from a tree near to his head.
"The gear!" Jasser realised the intention behind this latest move just a second too late. Even as his cry was bursting from his mouth it was drowned by the sound of the gunfire, and the packs that his men had been carrying only a short time before were torn to pieces under the powerful assault. The neatly arranged water bottles fountained their contents high into the air, spraying a fine mist over the ruined sleeping bags and disintegrated rations. Hannibal's grin grew steadily wider.
"You'll pay for that." Recovering his voice as the gunfire died away, Jasser sounded considerably less sure of himself than he might have wished. Hannibal seemed to be considering his words, as though he had been made some tempting offer.
"How about I give you a little advice, in lieu of payment?" The gun turned again to point towards Blaise's glowering deputy. "Get out of this forest. You're not welcome here. Next time, it won't be your stores that get ventilated."
"We'll see about that." Pushing past Jasser, who had moved in front of his employer as though to protect him, Blaise came almost within striking distance of Hannibal. "I intend to get that jewellery."
"And I intend to stop you." Hannibal's voice was soft and deadly; something that Face had not heard in a long time. "You won't get any more warnings, Blaise. I don't think much of a guy who goes up against a girl like Molly Magill with this many men behind him; and believe me, I know just how to deal with a guy like you." He turned his head slightly, just enough to direct his next words at Face. "Move out, lieutenant." Together they dropped back, moving in reverse into the comforting web of trees. The enemy camp vanished from sight.
"Well that went well." Hannibal was grinning, his eyes bright with the fierce lights of exhilaration. Face leant back against a tree, almost scowling hard enough to rival BA's record.
"We barely made it out of there. Those men were not intimidated, Hannibal! One more second and we'd probably have been taken out permanently!"
"Maybe." Hannibal's tone of voice suggested that he agreed, but was nevertheless not particularly bothered. He shrugged. "But we're okay, and we've got the measure of our opponents. On the whole I'd say things are looking good."
Face sighed heavily. "One of these days, colonel, I'm going to get you admitted to the room next to Murdock's."
"Thanks, Face." Grinning widely, and dropping a hand onto the younger man's shoulder, Hannibal retrieved his cigar and clamped it back between his teeth. As ever it only seemed to increase his already brimming confidence. "It's nice to know you care."
They made camp in a small clearing lined with a particularly thick strip of vegetation - an early warning system in theory, since it was almost impossible to pass through it without making some considerable noise. Hannibal and BA fell asleep almost immediately, sprawled on one side of the small fire that Murdock had built in the centre of the clearing; not big enough, he hoped, to give their position away, but warm enough to bring a little warmth and cheer to the dark night. Amused by the ease with which both Hannibal and BA were always able to find sleep easily in the most difficult of circumstances - a legacy of their jungle warfare days perhaps - Amy curled up in her own sleeping bag and gazed at the fire, thinking loving thoughts of her feather bed back home in LA. The ground was not as hard as she had feared, but she had no doubt that she would be considerably less comfortable by the time morning came.
Murdock and Face sat up together talking, unsure quite which one of them, if either, was supposed to be on guard duty. Amy could hear the gentle buzz of their voices nearby, and found the sound to be an oddly comforting thing. It was not just because it was proof that they were awake and alert, but merely because the thought of their active presence was so reassuring. She hadn't really known them for so very long, so perhaps it was strange that she trusted them, valued them, so very much - but perhaps that was what danger did to a group of people. Perhaps that was how the team themselves had become so close. Maybe that had happened quickly too. She concentrated on the quiet conversation for a while, trying to discern individual words; guess what the pair were talking about. Knowing Face and Murdock it could be anything at all. She smiled to herself, thinking of the pilot's strange fancies, and the way that the lieutenant always seemed so willing to support and encourage them. She had thought them to be a rather mismatched pair at first, although she had soon come to know differently. This time, however, despite her passing interest, the voices remained out of reach, and she could do nothing more than speculate what weird imaginations Murdock might be extolling tonight. Eventually, tired out after the long flight, she drifted off into a surprisingly relaxing sleep.
"I'm not saying that the way we usually do things is wrong, Face. I'm just saying that there are other ways to get things done, and that it's about time we considered them. A team has to develop its skills you know. Expand its repertoire. We're no different from, say, a vaudeville troupe. They learn new dances, right? New songs, new styles. Why shouldn't we learn new things too?"
"It's an interesting theory, Murdock." Face actually sounded interested too, just as he always did when Murdock was imparting the wisdom and wonder of his latest craze. "Do you really think it's us though? I mean, I don't think I can honestly see BA in a spangled waistcoat and a shiny top hat. It's not exactly my style, either."
"We don't have to wear the clothes, Face." Murdock's eyes were bright with enthusiasm, in the manner that always managed to hide any real clues as to the depths - or lack thereof - of his insanity. "Not all magicians wear fancy suits. No, all we need to do is experiment with the magic itself. Now, I can confidently expect to levitate five or six of the enemy, thereby holding them immobile and helpless in a fight situation. You'd probably find that spell a little difficult to start off with, but I think I could teach you. You've got to see how useful that would be, Face. Imagine if the next time we went up against Lynch all we had to do was say 'hocus-pocus' - or some other similar phrase of phenomenal power and mysticism - and he could be rendered totally powerless to prevent our escape. In a little time I think I may even be able to crack the next level, and successfully enable myself to fly without even needing an aeroplane." He frowned. "Actually I might not bother with that one. I'd miss the levers and switches, and the in-flight coffee. Still be fun though."
"Very likely." Face didn't smile. There had been a time when Murdock's ramblings - crazy or not - had been the only thing keeping either of them sane. It was easy to remember that, sitting in this thick forest, with an unseen enemy lurking somewhere in the midst of the trees. At that thought he did smile. Imagination of that kind never got anybody anywhere - and it really wasn't his style.
"Hi. Do you mind if I sit down?" Appearing out of nowhere, looking a little lost, Molly sounded apologetic about interrupting their discussion. Face smiled up at her.
"Be our guest." He moved aside to allow her to sit between them, the better, he judged, to ease her evident unease. The forest did not seem to be agreeing with her, for it was obvious that she had been trying to sleep and had failed. She smiled at him, sitting down slowly, sipping from a tin mug of coffee as though it was the only thing keeping the fear at bay. She didn't seem to be enjoying it very much, and he couldn't exactly blame her. Coffee made on a campfire, drunk out of tin mugs and often liberally sprinkled with mosquitoes, was no substitute for the proper stuff, freshly ground and filtered at leisure.
"What were you talking about?" She seemed to want to be a part of the conversation, if only to avoid thinking about Blaise and his men. Murdock waved a stick at her.
"Magic." He said it the way that a commuter on a train might speak of economics to a fellow businessman. "I intend learning the art to the full." He toyed with the stick, which he had evidently picked up somewhere nearby. "I think my magic wand is faulty though. I tried to conjure up a hot bath, and all I got was a cold shower."
"Can you send it over to Blaise? Maybe it will slow him down. Even if it only makes him miserable, I'd still be happy." She smiled. "Sorry. Bitterness and spite isn't exactly my thing, is it. Uncle David would shake his head and look cross, and make me feel about six years-old again. It's just so annoying. Even without the fact that it's also pretty scary having him out there somewhere... it just makes me so angry to think that he's out here at all. I found that map. For him to just sneak in the back way like he did, copying the map and then coming out here thinking that he can get to those jewels before me..." She shook her head. "Sorry. I think that was the coffee talking. It's pretty strong stuff."
"Hannibal likes it strong." Face smiled over at his sleeping confederate. "It's a wonder he even manages to close his eyes, let alone crash like that. For mere mortals like the rest of us, it's not quite so easy."
"I could rustle up a little sleeping spell if you'd like." Murdock was waving his wand again, but Molly smiled at him, shaking her head.
"No thank you. I don't know that I like the idea of being put into an enchanted sleep. I'd rather stay awake, and think about those jewels. It'll be the greatest single display in the museum."
"They're really that good?" Face was showing remarkable restraint, keeping all of his eagerness out of his voice, and displaying only a polite sort of interest. Molly nodded.
"Oh yes. It's a very impressive collection. It was put together by a man with exquisite taste and a lot of money. There are very few photographs of the collection in total, but there are quite a few of some of the more famous pieces. Famous to jewellers that is. They've been out of general circulation for so long that the public don't know them at all, and even some experts are likely to be ignorant of some items. The Glass Cup for instance. It's a goblet made of silver, decorated quite heavily with tiny diamonds. The value of the jewels themselves is immaterial compared to that of the piece. The workmanship is quite remarkable." Her smile grew as she warmed to her theme. "Then there's the Romanstein Trio - three rings made of yellow and white gold, each one bearing three emeralds. Of great value singly, but almost priceless as a set."
"I've heard of them." Displaying his remarkable knowledge for all things jewel-related, Face frowned at some distant piece of long ago acquired information. "Made for Emma Romanstein by her husband in 1873. A wedding anniversary I think. She wore them on a gold chain around her neck. They were reported stolen from her body when she died."
"That's right!" Molly sounded very impressed. Murdock, who knew exactly how Face came by so much of his information of that nature, wisely kept quiet. Molly would probably be rather less impressed with any of them if she found out all of their secrets. Or even some of them.
"Strange story," was all that he offered in the end. "Were the rings not seen again after that?"
"Not until the turn of the century. A private collector had them, but since there were no rightful heirs, and no money had ever been claimed from the insurers, it was impossible to ascertain rightful ownership." She took another sip of her coffee, and clearly regretted it. "After that they must have passed almost immediately into the Weis Collection."
"And are they the centrepiece?" His ramblings on magic forgotten, Murdock was playing the polite conversationalist to great effect, something that Molly obviously appreciated. She liked to talk about her specialist subject, since it helped to keep her mind off other things. If she was surprised by the pilot's apparently new-found sanity, she did not show it.
"Oh no. Their worth is considerable, but they're not the most impressive pieces in the collection. That particular accolade goes to something that's worth almost as much as the rest of the items combined." She hesitated slightly, like an expert milking an audience. "The Emperor's Scarlet Women."
"The who?" Face sounded startled, and Molly laughed.
"The Emperor's Scarlet Women. Not at all what it sounds like, I'm afraid. It's a necklace, made of finely worked gold, bearing seven perfect rubies. They're large, flawless, and worth a small fortune each. That's another thing that makes me angry about Blaise. I doubt that he's planning to keep more than half of the collection; but a piece like the Women would be impossible to sell on. He'd have to take it apart; sell all of the stones separately." Her voice shook with obvious indignation and anger. "It would be like chopping up the Mona Lisa, and selling it off to anybody who fancied an ear or an eye."
"The Emperor's Scarlet Women." Face was running the image of it through his mind, clearly liking what he came up with. "I'd like to see that."
"That is the general idea." Molly smiled at him, expression rueful. "Always supposing we can beat Blaise to the end of the trail, anyway. That man... he makes me so angry. Makes my skin crawl too."
"Creepy type, huh?" Murdock twirled an imaginary moustache, mimicking the supposed gesture of the comic, stereotypical fiend. Molly smiled at him.
"He's horrible. I've never had any trouble with him myself - not particularly - but some of the other women who work at the museum say that he can't keep his hands to himself. From how you said he acted earlier..." She trailed off, looking back towards Face, "he's not going to give up easily, either. I hate to think that I might have got you all into danger. Perhaps I shouldn't have insisted that we come here. We're outnumbered, and I can't see Blaise turning around and heading for home any time soon."
"Hey... Blaise is no problem." His smile one of one hundred percent confidence, Murdock injected enough gentle amusement into his voice to make Molly relax. "He seems like a problem at the moment, because he's still kind of an unknown quantity. Once we get going, and we've had a chance to show you our stuff, he'll seem like nothing. Trust me."
"The bigger they are, the harder they fall, is that it?" She smiled, still not looking entirely certain. "Well, maybe." Her eyes turned to Face, sitting just on the edge of the circle of light provided by the fire. "Is that what you think too?"
"Sure." He seemed a little hesitant to answer, but offered her a fairly confident grin nonetheless. "With jewels like the ones you've just described waiting for us, we'll get to the end of the trail before Blaise has even got his foot soldiers warmed up."
"Just remember that you can't keep any of the treasure." Murdock was smirking, and Face shot him a look that hurled daggers. Molly's smile cranked up a notch or two.
"You like beautiful antiquities, Face? Maybe that's a shared interest between us." The flirtation in her voice was obvious, and Murdock rolled his eyes. Suddenly he got the feeling that three was almost certainly a crowd. He coughed, and tried to think of an excuse to leave the other two alone.
"Er... yeah. Maybe." Face's smile was oddly nervous. "I'm not that into antiques though. Used to, er, date a jeweller. That's all." He shrugged. Molly looked faintly disappointed. Murdock could almost see her mind working though, trying to come up with the best rejoinder. He sighed. So much for a quiet night beside the fire.
"Listen, it's been nice chatting to you two..." He waved a hand at each of them in turn, as though it was necessary to qualify his statement by indicating to whom exactly he was speaking. "One of us should check out the perimeter though. There's no telling where the enemy is." He started to rise to his feet, but Face shook his head.
"Leave it, Murdock. You did the last round."
"Yeah, but I was sort of thinking..." Murdock trailed off, looking pointedly towards Molly, whose own expression suggested a marked sense of hope. Face was already standing up, however.
"It's my turn. I'll, er, call back here in about half an hour. You should probably turn in, Molly. It's getting late."
"Yeah. Sure." She watched him go, disappearing into the darkness beyond the edge of the camp with the silence and speed of a professional. Murdock watched him go as well, wondering if his colleague was feeling alright.
"Is he always so nervous around women?" Molly's question almost caused Murdock to choke, but he managed to control himself just in time. "I figured that a guy who looks like that would be... well, pretty much experienced. I guess I was wrong."
"You weren't wrong." Thinking back over the long history of relationships that Face had had with female clients, Murdock found it hard to imagine anybody thinking that the brash lieutenant could possibly be nervous around women. "I think it's probably just because of who you are."
"Oh." She frowned, then realised what he meant. "Oh." A smile flicked across her lips. "I never thought I'd be sorry that I'm related to Uncle David. I take it that this isn't common behaviour then?"
"Not exactly, no." Usually by the first night Face had already asked a client out - sometimes more than one client - and had even gone rather further. Molly was a unique case indeed. She looked relieved, and he stifled a smile.
"I suppose we should be getting some sleep." Drawing her knees up to her chin, Molly gazed out into the darkness. She didn't look much inclined to relaxation though, and her eyes were still bright. "Face was right. It is getting late. I suppose Hannibal will want to start off early in the morning?"
"Very early. He's always liked dawn." Murdock leaned back, relaxing against several packs that were standing behind him. They formed a lumpy back rest, but a sturdy one. "If you try to sleep, though, and you don't manage to drop off, you'll probably feel worse in the morning than if you didn't bother trying to sleep at all."
"Yes, I know. I've spent a lot of nights outdoors, sprawled round camp fires in some pretty out of the way places." She grinned. "Not usually with quite such exotic company, but occasionally with a lot less comfort. Try spending a night with six archaeology undergraduates, all moaning about the cold and the lack of beer. They always seem to want to sing, too. What is it about undergraduates and guitars?"
"Everybody has a guitar, especially when they're young. You're supposed to play them round campfires, anyway." Sitting up straight again, Murdock slung an imaginary instrument around his neck, rested it on his knee, and started to pretend to strum a tune. He hummed in a creditable impersonation of an acoustic guitar, managing the chords and the individual notes. Molly recognised Blowing In The Wind and laughed.
"That's it, yes. It's always Bob Dylan. That or The Eagles - except that the only song of theirs anybody seems to know how to play is Hotel California." She listened to his pretend playing for a while, actually finding herself enjoying it. "That's pretty good. Memories of your own undergraduate days?"
"Me?" He sounded startled. "I didn't go to college."
"No?" She was genuinely surprised, for underneath the facade of insanity she had recognised quite an intellect. "Murdock, can I ask you a question?"
"Sure." He played a flourish on his air guitar. "So long as it's not quantum mechanics."
"It's not." She frowned. "Why not quantum mechanics?"
"Don't know." It was his turn to frown, and he tapped his head. "I forget what's in here sometimes. One week I'm quoting school history books word for word, and the next I've got advanced mathematical formulae scrolling up before my eyes. It's a jungle in here, baby. I can't fight my way through to good clean air."
"Oh. Right." She took a deep breath and tried again. "I wanted to ask you... about all of you..."
"Why we do this?" The deep, ultra-serious tone he had been speaking in before evaporated immediately, and he was back to his usual jaunty self. He played a few bars of Tambourine Man, making Molly relax and start to smile again. "I can't speak for the others, Chiquita. I just know that I'm too nuts to know what else to do."
"You're not nuts, Murdock. Not really. Are you?"
"Why sure I am, sugar." His voice had changed again, this time into something straight out of the Deep South, slightly high-pitched and tremulous. "Why, where I come from, there's so much in-breeding that when a new baby gets born, ain't nobody can figure out just how it's related to everybody. We all club together to try to get it a double-digit IQ for its first birthday."
"No?" He shrugged, and resumed his playing. This time it sounded like Beethoven's Fifth, and she found it remarkably relaxing. It seemed a shame that he couldn't play and talk at the same time. "They do say, Senrita, that the most dangerous madman of all is the man who claims to be sane."
"They do, huh?" She found her mind wandering, drifting off to wherever Face was. Part of her wished that she had thought to go with him, so that they could have been alone together out in the darkness, whilst part of her was glad that she had stayed behind to have this conversation with the unpredictable captain. "You never answered my question though. Why are you all here right now? I guess Face came because of Uncle David, but that doesn't explain the rest of you."
"It's what we do." This time he sounded entirely sane, and she opened her eyes to look towards him. He didn't look terribly sane, that much she had to admit; sitting with his sleeping bag slung around his shoulders in hopeful imitation of a magician's cloak, with a map wrapped around his cap in a vague simulation of a top hat. He was still strumming his imaginary guitar, although the notes were silent now, and there was a clip-on bow tie, black and covered with gold stars, fixed to his T-shirt. The image was certainly not one of sanity, and neither was it particularly illustrative of the magician he kept claiming to be. His straggly hair didn't help, and neither did his long thin body, even though she couldn't quite think why. She wondered if all mercenaries were this peculiar, which led her to wonder if Blaise's hired help was also certifiable. Strangely the idea made her feel more confident.
"You must have been normal once." She wasn't altogether certain that she had spoken the words aloud, or if she had just been thinking it all as she lay back on the ground. "All of you. Before the war I mean. You must have been regular citizens."
"Too long ago to remember." He sounded faintly wistful, but he didn't elaborate. Instead he merely began strumming once again on his imaginary guitar. He was still playing when she drifted off to sleep, and he carried on long after he was aware that his audience had gone. When he did stop, some time later, he carefully lifted the strap of the instrument from his shoulders, and placed the guitar down on the ground beside him, taking care not to knock it, and make a noise that might disturb the others. Afterwards, brushing a few pieces of twig from its polished wooden body, he pulled an equally invisible piece of cloth over it, to protect it from the dew of the approaching morning, then lay down nearby. Soon he too was asleep, and the only noise to be heard was that of Face, patrolling the perimeter on his own without even a gun for company. Oblivious to the dangers of the treasure trail, the A-Team was at rest.
If the team had been expecting trouble early on in their mission they were disappointed, for they heard nothing from Blaise the following day - or even the day after that. Pushing on through the almost jungle-like forest, Hannibal and BA led the way, with Murdock and Face far out to the sides keeping watch - but none of them saw any sign of their rivals. The destruction of their equipment might have caused a minor delay in their progress, but Hannibal was under no illusions that such a delay would be a long one. It was almost with a sense of relief that he came to a halt on the third day, staring down at the thick undergrowth ahead.
"What's wrong, Hannibal?" Close behind him, Amy had almost run into him when he had stopped so suddenly. He smiled back at her, and crouched down on one knee.
"Look." He reached out with one black-gloved hand, tracing the line of a fine trip wire that had been strung up between two low bushes just ahead. Very gingerly he moved one of the bushes, revealing a pair of hand grenades tied into place with a length of thin string.
"Trouble, Hannibal?" Out of breath, Murdock came out of the trees a short distance away, then noticed the grenades and fell silent. Hannibal flashed him a grim smile.
"Get the women back, then send BA up here to give me a hand. Where's Face?"
"On the left flank." Murdock gestured vaguely. "He was some way out. Said he'd seen something that he wanted to get a look at. He called in about twenty minutes ago."
"Then call him again. Make sure he's got his eyes peeled for any more little surprises like this one." Hannibal was regarding the grenades with little enthusiasm, although the shine in his eyes was unmistakable. Murdock nodded.
"Ten-four, colonel." He gestured for Amy to follow him, and she did so. Hannibal watched them leave, examining the trip wire and the grenades whilst he waited for his sergeant to arrive. BA came quickly, as silently as he had always moved in the jungle, in a manner that belied his great size.
"Trouble Hannibal?" It wasn't a question. Hannibal moved aside slightly, letting the big man settle down beside him.
"Hold this." The colonel was in full business mode, and BA reacted accordingly, taking the nearest of the grenades and holding it firmly as Hannibal began wrapping a length of string around its body. They worked carefully, anxious not to disturb the trip wire, or the second grenade, neither one of them speaking until the handle of the first grenade had been securely tied down. Still without a word they moved on to the second grenade, accomplishing the task with calm precision. Only when they had finished did either of the pair relax. Hannibal nodded.
"That should deal with it." With the handles of the grenades tied, they could not now go off even if the trip wire was knocked and the pins tugged out. BA nodded.
"Nice piece of work, Hannibal. Them as well as you."
"I know." Hannibal ran the trip wire through his fingers, feeling a certain amount of satisfaction as he gave it a sharp tug. The two pins in the pair of grenades fell out, tumbling into the thick grass.
"I wonder how many more little surprises there are?" BA was already looking ahead. Hannibal shrugged.
"Could be any number, anywhere. They couldn't know the exact route we'd be following, so I'd say that they've been hedging their bets. The forest is probably full of little traps like this one. No wonder Blaise has been so quiet the last few days."
"You want to pay him another visit?" BA sounded as though that was exactly what he wanted - the chance to show the enemy exactly what he thought of people who used such underhand means of attacking their rivals. He slammed a fist into his hand, indicating that he wanted to break a few heads. Hannibal rose to his feet.
"No, not yet. I don't want to lose any time making detours. Besides, they'll be expecting us next time. We're going to play this one their way. Let them think we're not going to do anything, then slip in a few little surprises."
"Isn't that a little subtle for you?" BA sounded incredulous, but Hannibal just grinned.
"These guys are conceited, BA. They don't know who they're dealing with, and they think that a few camouflaged traps are going to take us out of the race. I think I can afford to be subtle, for a while. Let them go on underestimating us. Truth is we'll be in trouble if they decide to go for a head on attack. I'd like to keep things low key until the terrain's a little more favourable."
"If it's favourable for us, it's favourable for them too, Hannibal." BA was beginning to sound as though he suspected that there was a plan on the horizon - and a plan that he was almost certainly not going to like. Hannibal puffed on his cigar, looking typically innocent.
"There's always a catch, BA. Now I happen to have a plan that'll get things moving again pretty soon, and make our sneaky little friends sit up and take notice. We'll see how things go. I might just have a little job for us later on down the trail." He clapped the other man on the shoulder. "Go on back and fetch the others. We should be moving on."
"They're not going to stick to booby-traps forever, man." BA had a note of warning in his voice, but Hannibal apparently did not need to be warned.
"I know. For now, though, if this is their game, we know we can handle it. It's nothing we haven't faced before."
"I remember." BA's mind went back to other booby-traps, and other enemies, in many other places around the world. This time around he still hadn't got a look at the enemy, though, and that made him very much on edge. An unseen target was the deadliest one of all, and it disturbed him that they were up against people who were so well-versed in the art of creating traps. It rang a whole new set of memory chords, which he didn't like at all. "Where do you think they are right now?"
"Nowhere near here, that's for certain." Hannibal could always smell an enemy, whenever they were close by. "But they very likely soon will be. From now on we move a lot more slowly. Pass the word, BA. Nobody takes a step without checking everything first."
"Right, colonel." BA turned, marching away back along the path his boots had made just a few minutes before. Hannibal watched him go, then turned his attention back to the way ahead. There were other booby-traps out there, of that he was certain. Question was, how long would Blaise remain content to play the game from a distance? If other enemies on other trails were anything to go by, the answer was probably not long at all. Soon enough there was going to have to be a head on clash - and it was Hannibal's job to make sure that he got his team through. He gritted his teeth around his cigar, and started forwards once again. For all the jokes and the laid-back manner, he was becoming increasingly concerned. All of a sudden, the forest seemed a far more dangerous place.
Jason Blaise was getting bored. Bored with the forest, bored with having to hack his way through it, bored with constantly wondering where Molly Magill and her team were, and bored with the fact that so far he hadn't heard a single booby-trap explode into life. Surely a bunch of archaeologists couldn't be that good at avoiding Derek Jasser's trip wires? His second-in-command had rigged up so many of them that it was impossible for the Magill team to have found a route that did not encounter any of them. Naturally it had not occurred to either Blaise or Jasser that so many traps might easily claim an innocent victim, for even though they had had the forest to themselves so far, it seemed unlikely that nobody would ever come this way again. They certainly gave no thought to the wildlife, as much at risk as anything else passing between the trees. Such things were hardly the concern of Blaise, and his insatiable desire for rare trophies.
"Any sign of the others? One of his men had just returned from a patrol, but his only answer was a terse head shake, Nobody was wasting words at the moment, for the temperature and humidity had made the already hard going even tougher. Tempers had already frayed almost to breaking point, and Jasser seemed to be spending much of his time defusing arguments between their men. He looked as though he was beginning to regret having swelled their ranks with three mercenaries, for the trio lacked the discipline of Blaise's personal staff. They did the job though, providing a certain brainless brute force that was invaluable when it came to tearing a path through the thick trees.
"We've made good progress today." As usual Jasser had appeared at his employer's side without making a sound, and as usual Blaise tried to disguise the fact that he had jumped violently. Jasser gave no sign of having noticed.
"I won't feel like we've made good progress until I have those jewels in my hands." Blaise hefted his heavy bag, and wondered what the point was in having seven underlings if you didn't order one of them to carry your luggage. To be fair, though, all of his men seemed fairly extensively burdened already, so he swallowed his pride and his irritation, and merely tried to find a more comfortable way to position the straps across his shoulders. It didn't work.
"Can't be long now sir." Jasser pulled the copied map out of his shirt pocket, and unfolded it with a flick of the wrist. "We're about here, which as you can see is considerably past halfway." Blaise's only answer was a non-committal grunt, for he couldn't see where they were at all, and the map meant nothing to him.
"How many days left?" he asked, hoping that he didn't sound too much as though he didn't have a clue where they were. Jasser shrugged.
"Two as a conservative estimate. Less I should think. I was wondering though sir..."
"Wondering what?" Wishing that Jasser would drop the ex-services act, and just for once get his piece said without the formalities, Blaise kept the frustration from his voice only with an effort. He was hot, he was tired, and he was well aware that he had not been doing nearly enough physical exercise in recent years. He felt terrible, and probably looked even worse.
"Well sir, like the map says, there are a couple of places on the trail vital for orientation. The first one is close by now. The other group will have to pass by, or risk going far off the trail. I thought perhaps we could be there waiting for them. We've been ahead of them almost all the way. Seems like they're going pretty slow, so it should be no trouble to set up an ambush before they get anywhere near this point on the map." He frowned at it. "Not easy to see what it is. Could be a particularly large tree, or maybe some kind of a rock. Whatever it is, it's big. Could be the perfect place to give somebody an unpleasant surprise."
"Are the trees thinner there?" Swatting at what might have been a mosquito, but might equally well have been a Boeing 747 if size was anything to go by, Blaise wished that he could understand the map. So far, of all of his men, only Jasser had shown any sign of being able to interpret its frustrating lack of clarity.
"There is no thinning of the trees, except in one or two little patches here and there. It might be hard to set up an ambush in this terrain, but it could also be in our favour. We won't be able to get a good look at them, but they won't be able to see us too well either. We'll have plenty of cover, and we know that we out-gun them. I don't foresee any problems, sir."
"Fine." Just glad to have had an idea presented to him that was a break from the monotony of the trip, Blaise nodded his consent. "Do things your way. I'll want to hear all about it as soon as you've got everything set up. How long until we reach this tree, or rock or whatever it is?"
"Depending on the thickness of the trees, between three and five hours sir." Jasser almost looked excited, although his dour face did not generally seem capable of forming such an expression. "I'll pass the word around. By this time tomorrow you could well be the only man after that treasure."
"I won't hold my breath." The look in the eyes of the crazy white-haired man who had held him up at the start of the trail still haunted Blaise's imagination, and he remembered the tone of the other man's voice with trepidation. Common sense told him that he had the upper hand, so why was he still worried about a fleeting encounter with a rival who had since remained tellingly quiet? It was stupid - and yet he couldn't shake the certainty that he was right to be afraid. He wouldn't relax until they had reached the place of Jasser's planned ambush - and he had seen the lifeless body of the man with the white hair. After that, everything would be fine.
It was hot and sticky work fighting the forest. The A-Team spoke little, turning their energies to looking for booby-traps, and struggling through undergrowth that was practically impenetrable. Hannibal wiped his face on his handkerchief for what seemed like the twentieth time in as many minutes, and tried not to think about cold beer. Behind him the others were looking just as bedraggled; just as exhausted - all except Face. Somehow the lieutenant had contrived to look almost as fresh as ever, his khaki clothing neatly creased and remarkably clean. He looked as well groomed as he always did, his jaw line clean shaven - and if appearances were anything to go by his hair recently brushed. He even looked better than the girls. Hannibal was used to him by now, but he still sent the younger man out on Point as a matter of principle. Nobody should look that good in the middle of a forest. It just wasn't right.
They called a halt at noon, regrouping in a thin clearing no more than a stone's throw in width, where it looked as though a small fire had once been responsible for the break in the vegetation. A thin, unhealthy looking grass covered the rough ground, gnawed to uneven lengths by the local wildlife, and the air felt thick and close. Hannibal pulled out the map.
"We're getting close to the first of those landmarks." He pointed to it, and tapped his finger on the thick paper. BA scowled.
"We gotta pass by there, right? Blaise is sure to know that. They'll be waiting for us, man."
"Only if they get there before we do, BA." Hannibal sounded almost jaunty. "I've been thinking about this, and I figure this is a good chance to really show our good friend Blaise what he's up against. He scored some points today, slowing us down with these trip wires of his. Now it's our turn to take back the initiative."
"You got a plan, Hannibal?" Some of Murdock's energy had been curbed by the hard walk, but still he had not lost his improvised magic wand or his bow tie. Although he was wearing camouflage trousers, his green Incredible Hulk T-shirt stood out rather amongst the massed khaki ranks of the rest of the group, somehow adding to his aura of unyielding good cheer.
"Yeah." Hannibal broke a fresh cigar out of the waterproof container that Face had found for him, although he didn't light it up. "We're going to beat Blaise to the draw on this one. Face, Murdock, you stick with the girls. Bring up the rear, and hang back far enough to stay out of the line of fire if things get out of hand. Keep in touch by radio though, in case we need you. BA, you and I are going to make ourselves a little advance party. We're going to have to move fast, to be sure of getting to that landmark ahead of the opposition. It'll be rough going, though. There's still these booby-traps to think of."
"It'll be easy." BA was smiling to himself, welcoming the challenge. "Just like that time outside of Bien Ho." Hannibal clapped him on the shoulder.
"That's the spirit, sergeant." He glanced at his watch. "Face, I want you to stay here for half an hour, then move on out at the same speed as before. Keep your party close together, and watch out for traps. BA and I won't have time to dismantle them, or to mark where they are. You might try setting one off though, just to give Blaise and his friends the wrong idea."
"Sure." Face nodded at the heavy packs that both men carried. "You'd better leave those behind. They'll only slow you down, and you're not going to need them. Then if Murdock and I just keep our handguns, you can take the rifles and give yourselves more firepower."
"Makes sense." Hannibal shrugged out of his pack, and swapped it for Face's rifle. BA took Murdock's, and dropped his own pack onto the wiry grass.
"You ready, colonel?" He sounded almost eager to be off, his usual caution thrown aside in the face of this new task. Hannibal nodded.
"We'll call in as soon as we get there. Once you know you're getting close, find some good cover for the women, and don't give your position away unless it really looks like we need you. We'll regroup one mile beyond the ambush point. Here, you better take the map." He handed it to Murdock.
"Hadn't we better get in touch with the police?" Molly was a little unsure just what Hannibal was hoping to accomplish with this ambush. Was it meant to take Blaise out of the game for good? "If they come, they can take the others away when you... get the drop on them, or however you say it."
"If the police do come out here, it won't be to take Blaise away. So far he hasn't done anything illegal - that we can prove, anyway." Hannibal shook his head. "I'm not trying to beat him, Molly. Not yet. This ambush is a chance to scatter his troops, and hold them up a little. Give us the chance to get a good lead."
"I don't understand." She sounded very dubious. "Why can't you just do something that will get rid of them altogether?"
"Because we can't." BA's forceful voice emphasised the awkwardness of their position. "Usually we'd take them down - put them out for the count and wait for the police to take over. Right now though, we got no real proof they're doing anything wrong, so we gotta wait a bit and bide our time. It's risky, but it's the best we got."
"For now, anyway," agreed Hannibal. "The alternative is to leave them all tied up somewhere in the forest, but I don't want to do that until we've finished. We'd have to leave them for too long, and they'd only get free - that or die, which is kinda messy. I'd have to leave somebody behind to watch them, and I don't want to do that. Truth is, we can't always be around to protect you or these jewels, and it probably wouldn't be too difficult for Blaise and his cronies to rob the museum some time in the future. I don't want that to happen, so when I take him down, I want to make sure he stays that way."
"Me too," Molly admitted slowly. "Okay. I see your point. It's just that it all seems unnecessarily foolhardy."
"That's the nature of the work, ma'am." Hannibal flashed her a grin. "Now we'll see you later. Keep together, and when things start moving keep your head down, and do what Face tells you. We'll see you in a while." He slapped BA on the back. "Come on. We'd better get moving."
"Right with you Hannibal." The big man sounded as gruff as ever, but he was smiling as they broke into a run. The others watched them go until the trees had swallowed them up, then Face and Murdock exchanged a look.
"I guess that's it." Murdock threw down his pack, and followed it to the ground. "Anybody want to help me practice my magic tricks?"
"That's it?" Molly stared in the direction that the others had taken. "I feel like we should be doing something."
"There's nothing we can do right now." Looking restless all the same, Face sat down beside Murdock, pulling off his pack and taking his handgun out of its leather shoulder holster. He toyed with it, checking the load, polishing the barrel on his shirt. Slowly, looking unhappy, Amy and Molly also sat down. An uneasy silence settled.
"Do you think they'll be alright?" Molly asked eventually. Amy smiled at her.
"Of course they will. You haven't seen Hannibal in action."
"He and BA were together in 'Nam long before Face and me showed up on the team," explained Murdock. "They're a close unit, and they can handle anything together. Don't worry about it."
"I'm not. Not really." She didn't sound very convincing. "It's just that they're going to be so badly outnumbered."
"Numbers aren't important in this kind of territory." Face gestured at the trees. "Everybody's cut off. It makes it all one on one. Besides, numbers never bothered Hannibal. One time in the jungle he got cut off from the rest of us. There were fifteen VCs holding him down with automatic rifle fire. He still came home to tell the tale. They'll be fine."
"I hope so." She folded her arms, and stared into the short, wiry grass. "But I wish we were already at the end of the trail."
"Yeah." Amy pulled out her notebook, deciding to use the time to catch up on the newspaper story she was planning to write about the affair. "So do I. Meaning no offence to the local flora, but I don't think I ever want to see another tree again as long as I live."
Hannibal and BA ran through the trees as only two men of such vast commando experience ever could. The undergrowth was an obstacle, but it was one that they both had had a good deal of experience negotiating. It caught at their feet, but they carried on nonetheless.
The occasional gleam of a tripwire was the only danger of which Hannibal was entirely conscious. He had switched his mind into an automatic gear, not allowing him to think of anything save the deadly booby-traps, not giving his thoughts time to switch to subjects that might distract him. It was simply look, see, avoid; look, see, avoid; everything happening at a speed too great to register fully as conscious thought. Beside him BA matched him step for step, using his large frame to knock aside the larger branches that might have slowed them down, not showing any sign of the ungainliness that his weight and size might otherwise have caused; would very likely have caused, had he not been the man he was. Neither man spoke. It was a distraction, and was unnecessary anyway. Both knew what the other was thinking. Both knew what the other would do, should they happen to be seen, or should sudden action become vital. They had done this so many times before.
They reached the 'landmark' drawn crudely onto the map a couple of hours after noon, and only just over an hour after they had left the others. It had been a draining experience, travelling at such speed over such terrain; but neither man allowed himself to show the exhaustion he was feeling. BA looked around, eyes drawn by the curious object that had been such an unidentifiable mass of pencil lines on the roughly sketched map. It was a stone; a large, moss-covered boulder greater that the size of any man, worn almost smooth in places, although not by any effects of the environment in its current position. That would have been impossible, for the air seemed hardly to reach it at all in this thick part of the forest. It was a different colour, too, to the many other stones and boulders that they had seen so far in the area - and yet who would go to such lengths as to bring something this size, this far from anywhere that it could naturally have been placed? Unless it was some natural phenomenon that had brought it. Hannibal couldn't help wondering, for the few short seconds that he allocated himself away from the rush, just why it was here. How it was here.
"Good cover, anyway." BA slapped the stone hard, and looked around him. "The others aren't likely to get here for a while even if we do need their help. We're going to need some good cover like this." He wandered around the stone, muttering about the terrain, and the likely direction that Blaise and his men would be coming from. Although he had been supportive of Hannibal's plan so far, it was clear that he did not altogether agree with it - but then had it been up to BA, they would have made a decisive strike against the enemy on the first day, and taken them out of the game completely. That was the difference between the sergeant and the colonel of course - BA liked to end a fight quickly and easily. Hannibal preferred to antagonise his enemies, and inspire them to ever more industrious manoeuvres against him. He liked the challenge. More importantly, he liked the danger. Nothing else could have brought them to this place, with eight armed men about to swamp their position. Despite himself, BA found a smile. Truth was that, once he was in a situation like this, he usually found himself enjoying it just as much as his Jazz-hungry CO.
"Think you can climb up this old thing?" Hannibal was looking up at the towering tip of the boulder, where a good vantage point was sure to exist. BA shrugged.
"Ain't exactly a mountain, is it." He performed a couple of circuits, choosing the best angle of approach, then with a sudden, nimble leap, seized hold of a smooth lump of rock and began to haul himself up. Hannibal watched him climb, keeping one eye on the surrounding forest. He would get little visual warning of an assault, especially given the thickness of the trees nearby, but he knew that his ears would not fail him. They hadn't yet.
"How's it going?" He called the words up as he began to slide himself into an inviting little place within a gathering of bushes. They looked like gossiping ladies grouped around a market stall, heads bent over a piece of salacious information, and as he had hoped they hid him well. It was easy to move in their embrace though, and he was sure that he would be able to make a quick escape should it prove necessary. He positioned his own rifle on the ground near to his feet, resting it against a particularly tough branch so as to be in a good angle for ready fire, then put Face's rifle nearby. He had ammunition enough for a sizeable siege, should the situation appear to be approaching anything of the kind, and with two rifles within easy reach he knew that he could comfortably hold off attack on at least two sides. Four, if the branches of his bushes proved amenable to an attempt to use them as a proper pivot for his guns. He found himself wishing that he had brought a few of the hand grenades carried in his pack, but then realised that he would have felt strangely guilty using them. It seemed a terrible shame to risk such serious damage to such an attractive forest; especially one that might well turn out to be a National Park.
"I can't see a lot up here." BA's voice told him that his cohort had reached the top of the stone, and he glanced back to get a look. The big sergeant was practically invisible, and would probably be even less noticeable to somebody who did not already know that he was there. The moss, and the natural contours of the smooth old boulder, provided cover enough to keep him all but unseen. Hannibal didn't think that Blaise's men would be particularly observant. They were undoubtedly expecting to be the first to have arrived, especially given the extra-slow progress that Hannibal's team had made since the discovery of the first of the booby-traps. On the other hand however, as he very well knew, they might have guessed something of his plans. It was, after all, such a very obvious place for an ambush... He grinned to himself in the green darkness of his fairly secure resting place. Well, there was always a risk, whatever you did.
"You alright up there, BA?" He asked the question in a confident voice; loud and sure of the fact that there was nobody else around to hear it. His answer was a grunt. "Comfortable, huh?"
"If they don't turn up, Hannibal, I'm gonna make you spend the rest of the day up here, just to see what it's like." There was the sound of shifting about; of evident discomfort and vague displeasure. "If they're coming, they'd better make it soon."
"If they are coming, it will be soon." Hannibal wished that he could light a cigar, but didn't want to take the risk. A plume of smoke would give away whatever element of surprise they did happen to have on their side. "Can you hear anything?"
"Only birds. Wind. No voices."
"It won't be voices necessarily, but these people don't travel quietly. Listen for machetes or axes. They're clearing a path that'll still be here three years from now - or at least they have been up until now. If I'd have thought that there was any point, I could have zeroed in on them days ago. It certainly wasn't hard to find them that first day."
"Yeah, but there's eight of them." BA's tone of voice clearly showed his disapproval of this fact. Having seven men under his command seemed like overkill on Blaise's part; almost as if he had known about the A-Team's involvement before setting out. They had fought worse odds before of course; but here, with limited armaments, limited space, and no opportunity for capturing and confining the enemy, they were rather hampered. There seemed little that they could do, save try to reach the hidden jewellery hoard first. He didn't like it. It didn't seem like a sensible way to do things.
"There are eight of them, yeah." Hannibal sounded as though such odds were a delight to him. They had to be, or he wouldn't have chosen to make things even less in his favour by coming here accompanied only by BA. Eight against two didn't have to be bad odds in a siege situation; odds of any kind tended to matter very little then. The problem was that, if they could not get an upper hand; could not find some way of turning a simple shoot out into something vaguely resembling a victory; it could all turn into a truly dreadful mess. Either way it was extremely dangerous. He could see the colonel's point, though, and he knew that the alternatives were few and unattractive. He just wished that there were better plans to be had than hiding in the world's most obvious site for an ambush, waiting for eight men who might just suspect their presence, to descend on them out of nowhere. The fact that Face and Murdock were, at their necessary slow place, several hours away, did not make anything look any better. BA scowled. He definitely wasn't enjoying this mission.
Half a mile away, taking the lead, Derek Jasser paused to consult the map. He had not looked at it in some while, for it had not proved necessary. Now, however, he wanted to be sure that they were heading in exactly the right direction to intersect with the as yet unidentified landmark. It was a vague map, its markings hard to decipher at times, but he could understand it well enough after a fashion. Blaise hadn't understood it at all. There might have been a flash of irritation there; a hint of discontent that a man as helpless in this situation as was Jason Blaise could remain in charge, and be the one to get all of the glory and the riches, when it was Jasser himself doing all of the work - but Jasser didn't think that way. He wasn't after money or jewels, but was simply following a challenge. It was like constructing a puzzle, created as a fiendish IQ test by some clever professor; follow the map, avoid or destroy the enemy, negotiate the obstacles, reach the objective. He was enjoying it. Strangely enough, the presence of armed men who appeared to be professionals had only made his enjoyment all the greater.
"Are we nearly there?" For all his remarkable physique, Blaise was looking tired and strained. Jasser took pity on him without quite knowing why.
"We'll be there soon."
"Then why stop? We should be hurrying, to get there before the others do. If this place is such an obvious site for an ambush, they might have had the same thought."
"Yes, I know." Jasser kept seeing, in his mind's eye, the sharp, intense stare of the white-haired man who had come to their camp before. He had had the hard look of a professional; of a tough soldier, who knew all about battles and tactics. There had been a remarkable mind behind that stare, and Jasser had recognised it, and had been thinking about it ever since. Had it not been for the fact that Blaise was determined to reach the buried treasure as quickly as possible, his second-in-command would have veered off course long ago, anxious to seek out this other man, and put him to the test in a decisive way. He liked the idea of meeting face to face with him, and testing his own skills against the other's.
"Then we'd better get going, hadn't we." Blaise was sounding eager again, the way that he always did when his mind was on the jewels. Jasser held him back though, frowning all the while. "Well? What is it?" There was impatience in his employer's tone, but curiosity too. Just as Jasser respected Blaise for his great abilities in his own field, so too did Blaise seem to have a certain amount of respect for Jasser's militaristic talents. The deputy frowned, then folded up the map and put it away.
"I think they've gone to the landmark ahead of us." He said it with a certainty that might have been disapproving or annoyed; but might just as easily have been approving and pleased. "It's what I'd do, in his position."
"His position? Who's he?" Blaise sighed. "You mean that man who came to our camp? The one who destroyed our stores?" He spat on the ground. "I'd like to do the same thing to him. I lost twenty-four hours having new equipment brought in."
"Didn't stop us keeping pace with Molly Magill, did it." Jasser still sounded as though he heartily approved of Hannibal Smith. "Listen, sir. I know the way that guy thinks, I'm sure I do. I could see it in his eyes when we met that time. He's good. Really good. We're not just dealing with some private security team that Magill's museum people called in, you know that."
"Suspected it, certainly. With the guns those two had..."
"Precisely. But it's not just that, it's everything else. I've had men scouring the trees, but we couldn't be sure where they were. We don't even know how many of them there are. They have a woman with them whose only experience of this kind of thing is archaeological digs in the past - and yet they're managing to travel without leaving any tracks, and they've managed to move faster than I'd ever have expected them to. At least they were until we planted those tripwires. Even then... we had to put them all over the place, risk running into them ourselves, because we didn't know where these guys are. What does that say to you?"
"What it is says is that I don't like this one little bit, and that I'll be a lot happier when these men are dead." Blaise brought his growing temper back under control. "But I assume that it means a very great deal more than that to you."
"Yes, it does." Jasser was frowning. "They'll know that we'll have thought about making an ambush. Nobody with their obvious training could avoid guessing that. But I saw something in that man's eyes, I swear it. It's competition, or adrenalin, or something - but either way, he'll be determined to get to that place before we do. He'll have done it too. I know he will. Maybe alone, or maybe with only one other guy with him - there are bound to be others, or one other, to stay with Molly Magill. They'll keep her out of the firing line." His mind was working fast, bounding ahead of Blaise's in sheer glee at the discovery of a man like Hannibal Smith. "They'll be there, sir. Waiting for us. I know it."
"Which means what?" Blaise didn't question him; didn't seem to need to. Clearly he believed what the other man was saying, and saw no need to doubt it. Jasser shrugged.
"We go in there shooting."
"And give our position away if you're wrong. Lose the element of surprise. If this man thinks so much like you, he might well have double guessed you. Could be he's the one planning to barrel on in there expecting an ambush."
"Could be." Jasser's frown had disappeared. "But I don't think so. He knows he can move fast through this kind of terrain. I reckon he knows he can spot our tripwires, and get through them at speed without triggering any of them. That's how good he is. He'll count on being able to get there ahead of us."
"Seems pretty damn foolhardy to me." Blaise scowled at him, shaking his head. "The man must be mad."
"Not necessarily sir. Or at least, not the way you mean." Jasser shouldered his rifle. "Trust me on this one, sir. I know what I'm talking about."
"I hope so." Blaise smiled faintly. "And you got all this from a five minute run-in several days ago?"
"Maybe. That and everything I've seen since. We've been watched, sir. I didn't notice it at first, but I've seen things. Little things. Felt it mostly. I think it's that younger guy that came with our white-haired friend the first day. Creeping about, watching us. It all says that they're professionals, and serious about what they do. That's why I know that I'm right."
"We've been watched, and you haven't said anything?"
"No point sir. We're going the same way, we're after the same thing. What's a spy going to learn? We've got nothing to hide." He glanced back into the trees, in the direction of the expected ambush. "So what's it going to be, sir?"
Blaise hesitated, looking around as though he almost expected to see somebody watching him now. Finally he shrugged. "Okay. We do it your way. Whatever you think best."
"Thank you, sir." Jasser seemed almost ebullient. Clearly he was going to enjoy what came next. "Give it a few hours, sir, and the forest's ours. Now that they've come out of hiding, we'll have these guys right where we want them."
"Fine. Just see that we do, Derek." Blaise was looking cold and determined, the ruthlessness as clear in his eyes as was the excitement in Jasser's own. "Just see that we do."
Far back in the forest, where they were busy making slow and steady progress through the trees, the two women and the other half of the A-Team could hear the rattle of bullets. Molly looked distinctly pale.
"Do you think they're alright?" Her voice was strangely hushed. Amy nodded.
"They'll be fine. Believe me, this is just the kind of thing that Hannibal loves." All the same, she sought support from Face and Murdock. They both nodded.
"Sure." Murdock's tone was bright and breezy. "There's no need to worry about those two. I put a spell on them before they left." He sighed, looking vaguely reproachful. "Look, Miss Magill, I don't mean to seem choosy, but if you're going to be my glamorous lady assistant when I take my act back onto the stage, you really are going to have to read up on this sort of thing."
She smiled. "Glamorous lady assistant? Is there some kind of a spangly bikini that goes with that?"
"Lycra and sequins as it happens, yes." The pilot grinned at her, looking positively radiant - and completely barking. "I think it'll suit her, don't you Face?"
"Huh?" Face looked a little taken aback. "Um... probably, yeah. We should be speeding up a little. I don't want to be too far behind in case Hannibal needs us as back up."
"Which I suppose means we have to stay here." Amy did not sound impressed. Face smiled lightly. Amy hated to be left behind when things got interesting, even though she did not always enjoy the action all that much when she did get a chance to be in the thick of it. Hannibal was always making her take a back seat, and she had never yet ceased to complain about it.
"I'd prefer to stay back." Molly sounded apologetic, and her eyes flicked from one to the other of her companions. "I couldn't shoot if my life depended on it. Sorry."
"It's alright." Amy smiled at her. "We'll stay here. You two better get going."
"Right..." Face sounded a little uncertain, but he nodded in the end. "Keep out of sight. Stay down. Murdock will give his whistle when we're on our way back, so don't come out until you hear it."
"We're not stupid, Face." Amy pointed through the trees, towards the sound of the guns. "Go." Murdock saluted.
"Right away ma'am." He frowned though, serious if just for a moment. "You do have guns?"
"I have one. A pistol." Amy gestured to her pack which was lying on the ground at her feet. "And yes, I do know how to use it. I think you've seen me with it more than once."
"Okay." He sounded meek, once again using his little boy voice, almost guaranteed to annoy. Whether or not it did tended to depend upon her mood, and today she merely smiled.
"Just go, Murdock." They went. The forest closed in around them.
"Now we have two more of them to worry about." Molly sounded more than a little bleak, and Amy could not help smiling.
"Sure it's not just the one of them that you're really worried about?" Her voice was teasing, but not without its sympathy. "Don't bother. They'll be okay. The first time I met them they scared the life out of me. I didn't even realise that I cared; not at first. Soon found out that I did, though."
"You've known them a long time, haven't you." Molly showed no inclination to move, or to bury herself in any sort of cover, and Amy was inclined to follow suit. After all, sitting in the middle of a bush for the next hour or two was definitely not her idea of great entertainment. She shrugged.
"Longer than most civilians, I suppose. They don't tend to collect friends very much. Too risky. Even former clients usually just disappear off back where they came from. Most of them don't want long term associations with wanted men of course, and I can't say that I blame them. I've lost count of the number of times I've looked out of my apartment windows and seen official cars parked in the streets down below. Military police usually, although sometimes there are unmarked cars too." She grinned. "Although once you've encountered two or three of them, black sedans really don't look all that unmarked anymore. They're practically gleaming with the official stamp."
"It's worth it though, from your point of view I suppose." They began to drag the packs into the undergrowth, camouflaging all six of them as well as they could. Amy dug her gun out before hiding her own pack, and tried to look as though she knew what she was doing, as she stuck the weapon into her belt. It didn't seem to sit nearly as comfortably there as she had hoped, and she began to understand why the members of the team tended to prefer the use of proper holsters. All the same, the presence of the weapon, and her apparently confident handing of it, had made Molly look a little better.
"From the point of view of a journalist, yes, of course it's worth it." They finished hiding the packs and sat down. "From a more personal point of view, though, it's still worth it. I'm not exactly a Jazz addict. I mean, so far as nearly getting killed seven days a week is concerned, I can live without it. But I like the excitement, and the tension. I like doing what the team - what we - do. And I like them."
"They're... I think 'unique' would be the kindest word." Molly had to laugh, and Amy joined in.
"Yeah. Unique about covers it. And I'm glad, too. I don't think it would be easy to have more than one A-Team in the world. I like the guys a lot, but that really doesn't bear thinking about." She shrugged. "Still, I suppose it would make life easier for Face, if there was more than one of him. Then he really could date every straight female on the planet." She winced. "Sorry. That wasn't very fair of me. You like him, don't you."
"I'm waging my own impossible battle to attract his attention, yeah. Murdock says it's not working because I'm my uncle's niece."
"Probably. I certainly couldn't say that Face is usually the shy and retiring sort." Amy grinned. "The way he reacted when Murdock started talking about you in a sequinned bikini - I never thought I'd see that look on his face. It was almost prudish." She laughed again. "I'm sorry. I'm being very unfair. It's just that, no matter what you're seeing on this little trip, Face is about the least reserved guy you'll ever meet. If it produces oestrogen, he hits on it. It's sort of an unassailable instinct."
"You're not making me feel any better, Amy..."
"Sorry." The journalist did not look particularly apologetic. "To be fair, I was exaggerating rather a lot. It's just... I can see that you're getting entirely the wrong idea about him, and it really makes me laugh. He's practically acting shy, for goodness sakes. If there's one thing Face is not, it's shy."
"No. He's just scared of my Uncle David." Molly sighed, looking exaggeratedly tragic. "It's not fair... Nobody ever said I was looking for a lasting relationship with the guy, but you've got to admit - if you're stuck in a forest in the middle of nowhere, there are worse people to be stuck with than a guy who looks like Face."
"True." Amy nodded, conceding the point. "That doesn't make this any less funny though. Poor Face. He must be going all shaky from the experience. Having a pretty young client, and trying not to ask her out on a date. It's got to be a first."
Molly scowled, trying to look resentful and not quite succeeding. "I suspect that you're not taking this very seriously." She folded her arms and pretended to glower, and Amy had to laugh.
"Try BA. At least he won't start to stammer, and insist on going out on patrol somewhere just to avoid you. Yesterday I thought Face was going to offer to scout out the enemy camp just to get out of helping you with the food - and it's quite something when Face volunteers to do anything, let alone something dangerous."
"You have a mean streak a mile wide, you know that?"
"Yep." Amy leaned back against the nearest tree. "It's the press instinct. We're a ruthless bunch." They shared a smile, before Molly sighed, sprawling on the grass beside her companion.
"Just my luck to catch a womaniser just as he hits a puritan patch. It's been the same story all my life. I fell in love with one guy at college who turned out to be gay, and another one who didn't believe in doing so much as kissing before marriage. Wouldn't mind that so much now, but it's not what you're looking for when you're nineteen, if you get my drift."
"I remember. It sometimes seems like a frighteningly long time ago, but I do remember." There was a silence. Somewhere overhead a bird was startled by something, and the distant sound of gunfire seemed to grow in volume. Amy sighed. Part of her wanted to be with the team, and part of her was very glad that she had agreed to stay behind.
"Think they're okay?" Molly folded her hands behind her head, staring up at the green thatch above them. A lull in the firing was her answer, although as a moment of respite from the noise it did not last long. Amy nodded.
"They'll be fine. Just a few minutes now, and we'll be on our way again. Don't worry about it. I'll bet Hannibal is cleaning up right now. Murdock and Face are probably already on their way back."
"I hope so." Molly let her eyes close, and tried to look as though she was ready to run and hide should her companion prove to be wrong. "That'd be nice."
In point of fact, things were not going quite as well as Amy had imagined. Pinned down by a steady stream of fire from two sides, BA was effectively imprisoned upon his towering boulder, unable to return fire. Only Hannibal was able to shoot back, and even then only with great care. Whilst he was confident of the cover provided to him by his bushes, he was under no illusions about the ability of simple vegetation to protect him from high velocity bullets. He didn't especially want to give anybody a chance to make a concerted effort to pinpoint his position.
"There's only two of them." Crouched between a pair of young trees, Jasser was craning forward at what might have been considered a dangerous angle. Nearby, wishing fervently that he was somewhere else, Blaise tried not to screw up his eyes and quiver too noticeably.
"Well it's not particularly important, I grant you. But it does mean that I was right." He looked thoughtful. "It's not the same two that came to the camp though. I can't see one of them for sure, but that guy up on top of the landmark is big and black. Both of the guys who came to talk to us that day were white, and neither of them was particularly large. Remember?"
"Of course I remember." Blaise frowned. "So there's at least one guy missing?"
"Plus the Magill woman. She must be out in the forest somewhere. "
"Keeping safe. Keeping out of the way, just like we figured." Jasser fired off a few more rounds, aiming more at the rock than at the man sheltering on top of it. "Which works in our favour."
"Meaning that there's a chance we can get ourselves some serious leverage. Now, we could use hand grenades, and take these two out of the picture - but that would be sure to bring whoever else they have on their side running, and we don't know how many there are, or how well they're armed..." He frowned, drawn momentarily by his thoughts, aware that he had begun to stray from the point rather. "Sir, I think they've made a mistake. They've split their forces - they must have done. They were counting on holding us here, getting the upper hand, given their positions and their obvious skills. But they didn't count on me thinking things through just as well as they have." He looked triumphant - vastly pleased with a plan he had obviously been considering for some time. "Now we've got them here, we can keep them here for as long as we like - certainly as long as we need to. And in the meantime, we can send somebody back out into the forest to track down our friend Miss Magill. If those two men came here in a hurry, they won't have been able to cover their tracks as well as they have been doing. It should be possible to see where they came from - and from that we can work out where she must be." He was grinning now, like a kid searching for praise from a parent. "Those two think they've got us right where they want us. I say it's the other way around. Difference is, they just don't know it yet. All we have to do, sir, is take advantage of their distraction, and get hold of that girl. Then we won't have to worry about these guys again."
"Kill them now, and we certainly won't have to worry about them again." Blaise seemed stubbornly indifferent to the tactical approach, and Jasser had to struggle to remind himself of his boss's impressive abilities, in order to overlook his deficiencies. He managed to smile.
"Yes sir. Fair point. But I don't think that we're going to be able to kill them. We haven't been able to get a proper fix on the one guy, and the other one is too well protected on top of that damn stone. Plus there's at least one other man out in the forest somewhere that we still have to deal with. Even one guy could be a serious problem, and we don't know if he's on his own. We need that girl, sir."
"We do, huh." Blaise didn't sound especially convinced, as was usual for him whenever a concept involved something other that jewellery or ancient relics. For all that, though, he still possessed an impressive intellect, in his own way; and he certainly knew enough to let his lieutenant take command at moments when his skills seemed to be what the moment required most. He nodded. "But if this one guy or more, who's still out there somewhere, could be such a problem for us, how are we going to get Magill away from him? He might be able to hold us off, just like these two are here."
"Maybe, but I doubt it. We'll have surprise on our side, and hopefully superior numbers. I admit that I'm taking a risk with this line of figuring, but I reckon we've got them outnumbered, or they'd have tried to take us out of the picture right back at the beginning. I'm gonna go out on a limb, and say that there's one, maybe two guys with the girl right now. No more. In an outright fight, they might cause problems - but if we sneak up on them... well I reckon it's worth the risk, that's all. They're still thinking they're winning, and all the time we're getting things to work out our way, and we're pulling into the lead. It's perfect."
"Perfect. Perhaps." Blaise still didn't sound too certain, but he gave a slow nod. "Okay. I'll send three of the men back into the forest. If they fan out, maybe they'll find the others." He jerked a thumb back towards the towering landmark, where Hannibal and BA were still making their valiant stand. "But the other half stay here; including you; and try to take these two out permanently. Right?"
"Right." Jasser nodded, accepting the condition happily. "You won't regret this Mr Blaise."
"I'd better not." Blaise turned around, issuing instructions to one of the men crouching nearby. The man nodded sharply, then turned around and headed away at speed. The bushes rustled faintly, but otherwise his passage was almost silent.
Approaching from the south-east, hidden by the thickness of the vegetation, Face and Murdock were assessing the situation with grim uncertainty. Whilst it was obvious that their colleagues were safe for the time being, it did not seem likely that they would stay that way for long.
"Where do you think that guy's going?" As they came nearer to the gunfight, Murdock caught sight of the man sent away into the trees by Blaise, and he crooked a thumb at him in passing. Face watched him nervously, soon losing sight of him in the midst of the incessant greenery.
"I don't know."
"You want me to follow him?" Murdock had finally abandoned his makeshift top hat, and even though he had retained his magic wand, it was stuck into his belt and was clearly well out of his immediate thoughts. He was definitely in serious mode. Face shook his head.
"I think we might need your special skills instead. You're still a crack shot with a catapult, right?"
"There ain't nobody like me, Facey." Murdock puffed out his scrawny chest, and grinned gleefully. "You want me to take a few pot-shots at some tripwires?"
"Yeah. Two or three of them. Make a noise, make the bad guys think we're getting clumsy, and that the odds are well in their favour. See if you can draw some of them off after you, and lead them away from Hannibal and BA."
"Right." Murdock was already searching in his pockets for his trusty catapult, a sturdy affair fashioned out of stout wood, and a length of powerful elastic filched from one of the store cupboards at the VA hospital back in LA. "What are you going to be doing?"
"Following that guy." Face indicated the man that had so recently disappeared. "I've got a nasty feeling that he's off looking for us - or the girls, at any rate. If they're splitting forces, Hannibal and BA have got a better chance. They shouldn't need us, so it won't matter if we're both gone for some time."
"Right." The captain waggled his catapult. "I'll see you later."
"I sure hope so."
They parted swiftly, heading off in opposite directions. Face was heading over ground that he had not yet traversed, but he trusted in the footsteps of the man he was following to guide him safely through any booby-traps that might lie hidden. Murdock had to be rather more careful, but he made swift progress nonetheless, choosing carefully where to put his feet. It was some time before he found one of the tripwires, and taking up position at a safe distance, he loaded a small stone into his catapult, took careful aim, and let his miniature missile fly. It struck its target fully in the centre, he saw the wire bend and sway, and heard a faint, almost inaudible click. There was a silence that seemed to last forever, but which could not have been more than three seconds in length; then the grenades hidden at the end of the wire burst apart in a thundering explosion. He felt the ground shake, and watched a confetti-like downpour of twigs and bits of leaf. Heat rushed by him, and he felt like whooping in glee. He held back though, and after a moment's pause for breath, started off again in search of another trap.
"Somebody's tripped one of the wires." Jasser sounded grimly pleased, but his eyes narrowed almost immediately. "Couldn't be one of our boys, I suppose?"
"It had better not be, for his sake." Blaise did not look at all impressed by the situation. "If it was, and he's still alive, I'll take whatever's left of him apart myself. Very slowly."
"You want me to send somebody out there?" Jasser was beginning to think that they were spreading themselves rather thin, but there were things that needed to be done, and that meant sending men away. Blaise nodded.
"Do it. I want to know what's going on." He hesitated as another explosion echoed towards them. "Could be somebody else panicking after the first explosion, blundering into another wire."
"Could be." Jasser slipped away, whistling softly. "Davis, Crosby." Two figures slipped silently from the undergrowth, and immediately the steady rattle of gunfire was diminished. "Get after whoever tripped that last wire. I want to know if it was an accident, or if somebody's pulling our chain. If you find him, deal with him. Don't bother bringing anything back."
"Right." Both men nodded, then disappeared in a flash. Jasser wound his way back to Blaise.
"It's being dealt with sir." He glanced about. There were only three of them left now - himself, his commander and one other. So much for the sustained assault. "In the meantime, I think we should pull back. We've lost our advantage here."
"No. I want them pinned down. If we let up, they can regroup." Perhaps, thought Jasser, Blaise wasn't quite as useless at tactics as he usually appeared to be. "I don't want them getting in the way of our men, and stopping them from grabbing Magill. No. We stay here for now. We'll pull back when the time's right, and not before."
"Sir, there's only three of us left. If whoever else is out in the forest manages to get here, we could be seriously outnumbered. I really think it would make sense to cut our losses here now, and fall back. We've got a lot of men combing through these trees, and they might well get lucky. We won't, though. There's no point in giving away our advantage when things are going so well."
"You think?" Blaise's eyes were narrowed in faint disapproval, but he could see the sense in his deputy's train of thought. He had learnt a long time ago that there were times when it was better to defer to Jasser, rather than following his own, rather more inexperienced, instincts. Agreeing with the man didn't mean that he had to like it though. He scowled. "Yes, alright. Give the order. Pull back. Radio ahead to the others and tell them that we're heading back to the camp. They're to follow, eventually." His eyes narrowed still further. "But I want results, Jasser. I don't want to see them unless they're bringing me something, whether it's information, bodies, or heads on sticks. Got that?"
"I got it boss." Jasser reached for his radio, and began backing away through the trees. Despite his initial glee at the situation, and at his planning of it, he felt rather worried now, for if the men did happen to return to the camp empty-handed the resulting scene would not be a pretty one. He wondered if he might, perhaps, have made a mistake in his calculations, or if he had left too much to chance - but he dismissed the thought straight away. His planning had been perfect, his tactics as foolproof as ever. Whoever was out in the forest, they were his now - or would be soon enough. Crossing Jason Blaise was going to be the very last mistake they ever made.
Face moved as fast as he dared through the trees, aware all the time of the noises made by the vegetation around him, and anxious that such a necessary racket should not alert anybody to his presence. The man up ahead appeared to have been joined by at least one other, but they were indistinct shapes, only occasionally seen with anything approaching clarity. He could not always be sure if he was genuinely following them, or if he was just guessing that he was following their approximate path. Only occasional noises; rustlings, footsteps and the harsh sounds of abrupt, shouted conversation kept him certain of the direction he should take.
They had been going for almost fifteen minutes before he realised that they seemed to know exactly where they were heading. The sudden knowledge was like a sledgehammer crashing against his chest; they must have seen some kind of trail to follow, and therefore they knew approximately where Amy and Molly must now be hiding. He cursed under his breath and doubled his speed, going off at a tangent, ultra-aware now of the tripwires that might be beneath his feet. He didn't see any - but the one that killed you was always the one that you didn't see. That old mantra of his Vietnam days echoed around in his head in a manner that was extremely off-putting.
He came at last to the small, shady space where he had left the two women, and was relieved to find it apparently empty. He had told them to stay well hidden, and even if they had not followed his advice completely, they must have heard the sounds of his approach and hidden then. He had told them to come out only at the sound of Murdock's whistle, but he found that his lips were too dry to make any attempt to duplicate that sound. He wandered out into the middle of the clearing, calling in a low voice that he dared not raise.
"Amy! Amy!" There was no answer, and he looked about for any likely cover. "Come on, this is no time for games. Amy! Molly!"
"Over here." Amy's voice was little more than a whisper, and came from nearby. He ran towards it, surprised at how long it took him to discern his friend in the midst of all the thick vegetation. "What's going on? What happened to the whistle? Where's Murdock?"
"Leading somebody a merry dance, I hope." He glanced about, spotting Molly huddled nearby. "Listen, there's a group of gatecrashers on their way. Two, maybe three of them. They came out here to get you, so we have to get to better cover."
"But where are BA and Hannibal?" Emerging from her hiding place in a shower of leaves, Molly was looking about in concern. "Are they on their way back?"
"They soon will be. It looked like the bad guys were expecting the ambush. BA and Hannibal were pinned down, but your friend Blaise has got his resources spread pretty thin right now. That should give the others a chance to get out of there, and meet up with us again." He scowled, faintly irritated by the luck that so often deserted them, whenever Hannibal came up with one of his 'brilliant' plans. "So much for Hannibal's ambush... I knew it sounded too good to be true."
"It'll be okay." Molly sounded surprisingly certain, despite her evident nervousness. "We shouldn't go far though, if the others are coming back this way."
"They'll find us." He pushed the two girls ahead of him. "Or we'll find them. Right now we have to move though. We probably don't have much time." A crack of breaking wood made him swing around suddenly, and the blood, already pumping fast in his veins, began to work that little bit harder. "Move!"
They ran together, a close unit hampered by the terrain. Face felt the urgency welling within him, enforced by the knowledge that, had he been alone, he could have run a great deal faster than the speed he was using now. He tried to inspire Amy and Molly to increase their own speed, but neither of them seemed capable of it. Behind him a series of shots rang out.
"Damn." He dared not draw ahead of the girls, even though it might give him a chance to find a place from which he could fire back. If he left the girls behind, even by just a little way, they might never get a chance to catch up again.
"This way." A sudden break in the trees to one side of them loomed up, and pushing the girls towards it, he led them on an abrupt change of course that saw them twisting and turning amongst a series of ramrod straight trees apparently planted by man. There was little grass here; less hampering vegetation to grasp at the feet. Amy began to run a little more easily, but Molly seemed out of breath. She was in good physical shape, but the difference between running for recreation, and running under pressure, in a dangerous situation, was great. He realised then that she was not going to be able to keep up.
"Come on, Molly!" Amy had realised the shortcomings of their client as well, and was trying to cajole her along. Face couldn't help remembering back, even at such a desperate time, to the mad rush during the Jamestown incident not so very long ago, when he had been pulling Amy along behind him, trying to cajole her along. Their pursuers had been mad monks on that occasion, but the situation had been just as deadly. Amy's breathless desperation had been the image of Molly's own, as she stumbled after them now.
"Just a little further." They were useless words, for it most certainly could not be just a little further before they rested. He said it anyway though, knowing that she needed the encouragement, and the hope of a quick end to the dash. Behind them shouts were echoing closer, and the gunfire was ringing out with greater frequency. Every so often the tree trunks around the threesome cracked and split under the barrage of lead. It was heartening to think that the enemy might be purposefully shooting to miss; but that single shred of reassurance was tiny indeed. Their reasons for wanting their quarry alive could be just as sinister as their possible reasons for wanting them dead, and Face had no particular desire to be thrown into either scenario.
"Maybe we should split up." Molly's words were pained, gasped through a throat that was dry and hoarse. "You two would have much more-"
"No." Despite - or perhaps because of - the fact that he knew he would easily be able to get away on his own, Face rejected her suggestion. Leaving the client was unthinkable. Leaving anybody was unthinkable. He did consider it for a moment, though. If Amy was to leave them behind, she might just have a chance... He glanced up at her, but she had looked back at him at the same moment, and obviously read his thoughts.
"We're staying together," she said firmly, ostensibly to Molly, but just as obviously to Face. He nodded. Fair enough. It was her head, after all.
"Give up!" The voice behind was very loud, and came from worrying nearby. Face thought fast. He did not have much ammunition with him, and his automatic pistol could not compare with the rifles that the other men were carrying, but he was sure that he had one advantage. If he could get into thick enough cover, to enable him to have just a few seconds grace, he might be able to make his shooting skills count. He was a good shot; one of the best. The idea of killing anybody was abhorrent, but a shot to the shoulder or leg would be enough to prevent their pursuers from continuing the chase. At the very least they would be slowed down considerably. That should give him the time he needed to get the two women somewhere properly safe. He could rejoin with Murdock then, and satisfy himself that Hannibal and BA really were okay. The uncertainty of that was bothering him, getting in the way of the necessary clarity of his thoughts.
"Amy." He barked the word out in the same tone of voice he had used on subordinates during his war days. She responded automatically, turning towards him with surprise in her eyes. He gave no apology for his tone, or for the shortness of his manner. "Get into the trees. Get as far back as you can, wait sixty seconds, then give me some covering fire with that gun of yours. Nothing too ambitious. Just shoot. Understand? Keep me in sight, but don't interfere if you see anything go wrong. Just run."
"Right." She glanced towards Molly, asking an unvoiced question. Face shook his head.
"You might have to move about a bit. I don't want you held back." He guided their breathless client towards the cover he had already chosen for himself. "Stay down. Don't move."
"Right." She could barely enunciate the word, so tired was she. Amy hesitated for another second.
"Do you have a plan?"
"Sort of." He gave her one of the broad, confident grins she had come to know so well, but it didn't fool her. One thing you always had to remember when dealing with Face; he never, ever told the truth. Even in the most tense of moments, lies and twisted tales flowed from his lips so much more easily that the truth ever did, and if he told her now that he had a plan; if he looked confident and sure of himself; she was certain that he was not. There was nothing that she could do though, for there just was not time to argue. Willing herself to believe in their usual luck, she turned about and dashed off through the trees. Face checked his gun.
"Stay down, Molly." He didn't look at her, but he heard the rustle when she nodded her head. He wondered where Amy was, and if she was ready yet to provide him with some cover. She wasn't a great shot, but that didn't matter here. All that he wanted was to keep the enemy from firing back at him, so that he had a chance to get a half decent aim. Back the way he had just come, a figure burst out between the trees. Face levelled his weapon. A shout; another figure. Any second now, and Amy would begin firing. He levelled his weapon, keeping it steady in his certain grip. Beside him Molly was struggling to keep her breathing quiet, obviously tense and nervous. His own breathing was in perfect control; silent and steady; as rhythmic as the beating of his heart. Another shout rang out, but there was no further sound. Hadn't there been three men chasing him? Where was the third? Perhaps he had been mistaken... He shrugged off the thought. Amy had been gone nearly forty seconds. She would start firing soon, and then so would he. He took a step back, unconsciously putting himself between Molly and the enemy, wondering whether the two men he could just about see through the trees had anything like as good a view of him. It shouldn't really matter, but it was something else to worry about. Something rustled just off to his right. He heard Molly breathe in sharply. He started to turn - and a gun jabbed suddenly and forcefully into his right shoulder blade. He froze.
"I think we'll have that, don't you?" A low, deep voice. Mid thirties, he estimated. Probably a heavy build. For some reason his imagination filled in short black hair and a ragged growth of beard. A dirty white hand, sun-tanned and weathered, snatched away his gun with hardly an effort. Inside his mind Face's instinctual countdown went past sixty. Amy should have begun firing by now - but had she obeyed his order to stay back if things went wrong, or had her position been overrun?
"Over here!" The man holding the gun to Face's back had a powerful bellow that rang through the trees, and made a startled pair of birds fly away. His companions appeared instantly; two of them, coming from the last position that Face had spotted them in. They didn't have Amy, then. They couldn't have. The gun left his back, and he heard his captor hauling Molly to her feet.
"Where's the other person? There were three of you before." It was a harshly barked question, aimed at Molly rather than at Face. The lieutenant started to turn towards the voice, moving slowly, just the way he had long ago learned was best in these situations. Molly was pale faced, but otherwise she looked okay. The fear was under control, and she clearly had no intention of giving away Amy's position. Face smiled her some gentle encouragement.
"Amy couldn't keep up. We left her behind." He sounded off-hand; casual and even. The three men quite clearly didn't believe him, but then he hadn't really expected them to. One of them began to move around the immediate area, kicking at bushes and hitting out at other likely hiding places with the butt of his rifle. There was, predictably, no response.
"We don't have time for this." Another of the men was looking worried. "We should be getting back. We've already been gone too long."
"Yeah. I guess." His companion ceased his fruitless searching. "We'd better get straight back to the camp. No point going back to that joke of an ambush. If that isn't dealt with yet, it never will be."
"Yeah." The third man, the one who had crept up on Face and Molly - and who was, to Face's satisfaction, indeed dark-haired and possessed of a ragged beard - nodded his head. "We've got these two. That's enough."
"Fine." One of the other two; a deceptively slender-looking type with an unpleasant gleam in his very pale eyes, took a last look around. "If she's out here, she can stay out here. She'll never find her way back to her friends without hitting one of those tripwires." He grinned at this apparently pleasing thought, then levelled his gun at Face. "Get moving."
"This way." The other man; a stout and stocky type discouragingly similar to BA in size and build, moved forward to take the lead. Face put out an arm to help Molly, and she responded with obvious gratitude. Behind them the other two men closed in. As the little procession started off, Face let his eyes stray over the surrounding trees, wondering where Amy was. He couldn't see her, but he hoped that she could still see him; could see in which direction they were heading. It wasn't much of a hope to cling to, but it was the best one that he had right now. Murdock was miles away, and he couldn't even be sure that Hannibal and BA were still alive. It might well be that Amy was his only hope.
It was some time before Hannibal was certain that the enemy was gone. The sound of their gunfire had diminished at first; and he had realised that they had begun to divide their forces. He guessed at the reasons, and the later sound of grenade traps being tripped had answered a few more questions. Somewhere Face and Murdock were trying to improve the odds. He grinned to himself in the dim green light of his bushy hideout. Whether it was Face or Murdock, you could always count on a great diversion.
"Colonel?" BA had also noticed the departure of their would-be murderers. The sergeant was probably restless, eager to get out of his awkward position on top of that uncomfortable boulder.
"Yeah BA," He stretched his muscles, stiff after so long in such a cramped place. "I hear it. They've gone."
"Man, I thought we were for it that time." There was a scuffling sound, and a few frustrated grunts as BA clambered down to the ground. Hannibal began forcing his way out through the bushes.
"For it? No, it was under control all along." Emerging from his bushes, Hannibal at least had the grace to look a little sheepish, helped in that respect by his flushed appearance. BA glared at him.
"Under control? Man, you're talking crazy again. They were expecting us to be here, and they were ready to kill us both. It was a disaster."
"Yes. It looks like we were second guessed." Hannibal frowned in petulant distaste. "I suppose it wasn't exactly the least obvious plan of the century."
"They have military training, Hannibal. It can't have been difficult for them to come up with the same plan. Then it wouldn't have taken much to figure out we might try the same thing." The big master sergeant glared at him. "I always knew you were lousy at planning."
"Now now BA. We're alive aren't we?" As bright and cheerful as ever, Hannibal was apparently unaffected by the close disaster. "Now come on. We better regroup."
"The others could be miles away. They'll have to lose whoever's after them before they can come back this way."
"Probably." Hannibal was searching for a cigar, choosing to light it up before he continued with his answer. "But I doubt they've got the women with them. They probably left them somewhere between here and where we were last together."
"You wanna head back there?" BA shouldered his two rifles. "Sooner we get away from here, the better. That guy Blaise might come back at any time."
"Since we don't know for certain why he left, it probably isn't a bad idea to make ourselves scarce." Hannibal puffed thoughtfully on his cigar. "Come on. Double time."
"After being cramped up on that rock for the last few hours, you expect me to do double time?" BA shook his head. "You'll be lucky if I can even limp straight."
"Yeah, I know." The big sergeant smiled in spite of himself. "But if we trip over any of those damn booby-traps while we're hurrying along, you better be the one to get blown up."
"You're a beacon of good cheer at times, you know that?"
"I'm a beacon of good sense, is what I am." Already starting on his way, BA did not bother glancing back over his shoulder at his companion. "You're just a beacon of insanity. And I thought we were in a hurry?"
"We certainly are." Hannibal moved up alongside him. "I'll watch the right, you watch the left. We'll take it in turns to take the lead and look out for wires."
"Right." BA took off at a jog, eyes strained and ready. "Man, do I hate this forest."
"I know what you mean, BA." Hannibal sounded almost subdued. "Now let's get the hell out of here."
They ran for some time, sticking as much as possible to the route they had used before, on the alert as always, using all of their skills to ensure that there were no unpleasant surprises. Both men were stiff from their long period of discomfort, and neither of them felt much in the mood for a long run. Nonetheless they kept up the speed, spurred on by urgency and unrest. It was disturbing to be so under-informed; to know nothing at all about where their colleagues were, or where the enemy was. That also gave them added impetus to continue, racing onward through the lengthening evening. Dark shadows of growing dusk made it harder to see the ground; harder to look for tripwires; but they carried on regardless. There was little choice.
"Can't be long now." Pausing for a few minutes so that they could change places, BA once again took the lead. Hannibal rubbed his eyes, glad to get the chance to stop straining them so hard. The tip of his cigar was beginning to glow more brightly now, or to seem to, as the darkness increased around them. It seemed foolhardy to continue, even to a man like Hannibal, who was foolhardy as a matter of course. There was no question of giving up, though. Not when there were still so many unanswered questions, and not when they had a client somewhere out in the middle of the forest, and very likely protected only by Amy.
"I recognise this place." BA's voice was soft but gruff. "We came this way before, not that long after we left the others."
"I thought so too." Hannibal moved up alongside him. It was a small clearing of sorts, much smaller than the one in which they had parted company earlier, and roofed over entirely by the surrounding trees. Instead of a broad expanse of dry and stringy grass, here there was a small carpet of much thicker, greener growth, almost like a suburban lawn. Bushes grew in thick groups, and a gentle slope led up into thicker, closer growing greenness. There were footprints here too, just visible in the failing light. A mixed up criss-crossing of different tracks, all twisting and spreading out. All were the marks of heavy, stout shoes. Some were bigger than others, but it was impossible to identify any of them in particular.
"Over here." Striding ahead, BA bent near an overhanging bush, and dragged out an unmistakable bundle. It was one of the packs; Murdock's, if the peculiar customisation was anything to go by - which it undoubtedly was. None but HM Murdock would go to the trouble of sewing patches onto their packs; or at the very least, not plain black patches, with the legend The Invisible Man scrawled in spidery, irregular embroidery at the top of each. BA lowered the pack back down to the ground, and began to excavate others.
"There's no sign of anybody. Just the packs." He straightened up again eventually, looking about as though expecting the remaining members of the team to appear suddenly nearby. "I don't like this, Hannibal. What happened?"
"I don't know." The colonel looked about, anxious for any sign of a clue or hidden message. There was nothing. "I'm sure those explosions were an intentional diversion, and that means they had to have been set off either by Face or by Murdock. Maybe both. They wouldn't have gone off with Amy and Molly, and left all the gear here."
"Not if they had any choice, no." BA frowned. "You do suppose those booby-traps were set off on purpose? There's always a chance-"
"No." Hannibal's voice did not allow for any argument. "Keep looking, BA. If they all had to go off somewhere and abandon the gear, they'll have left some kind of a message for us. It just won't be easy to spot in this light."
"Could be anything. A mark on one of the trees?" BA wished that they could take the risk of lighting one of their torches, even though there was no telling how close by any number of their enemy could be. The growing dark, coupled with the closeness of the trees, produced a claustrophobic effect that was not lessened by this latest problem. The different sounds of night, contrasting with the more familiar sounds of day, did not make life any easier either. He wanted to get angry, but didn't think he could take the risk of making that much extra noise. Frustrated, not knowing where to start looking, or even whether it was really worth looking at all, he threw down the pack that he was holding. It hit the ground with a dull thud, and the grass rustled and hissed. Hannibal froze.
"What was that?"
"I dropped the pack." BA was surprised that his companion had not identified the sound, but the colonel, it seemed, had been talking about something else. He shook his head.
"Not that. Listen." There were no immediate sounds, but Hannibal was turning his head to the left, to where the gentle slope led away into thicker tree growth. By now it was too dark to see even the closest of the trees, but the colonel seemed to have seen something. He started forward.
"Face? Murdock?" His voice sounded dangerously loud in the semi-silence. No answer came. A faint rustling came from nearby though; and then a sudden, much louder sound of approach. BA raised one of his rifles.
"Who's there?" His voice was a clear threat, but whoever was coming did not slow or stop. Instead there was a muffled gasp, as of relief, before a figure erupted suddenly from out of the bushes. BA saw long hair and clothing that appeared to be khaki, and then recognised Amy's tired voice.
"Hannibal. BA." She rushed towards them, giving each man a quick, impulsive hug in her delight to be reunited with them once again. "I was starting to think you were dead."
"Yeah. We were thinking that ourselves for a while." BA guided the young journalist down onto the ground, and she let out a long, tense breath of pent-up emotion. "What happened?"
"We got this far, and we could hear gunshots. Murdock and Face thought that they were probably a long way off still. You'd been gone a long time... They decided that they should go to help you, so they told me and Molly to stay here." She frowned, trying to remember the way it had happened exactly. "We were just waiting, chatting. It was almost fun. Then Face came back. He was hurrying. He said that Murdock was leading some of the gang away, and that we had to run because some more of them were coming. There were three of them. They chased us for ages, but Molly couldn't keep going any longer. Face had a plan..."
"Oh, great." BA was in no mood to make a secret of how he felt about that particular phenomenon. Despite her fatigue, Amy smiled.
"That's what I thought. It sounded good though. He told me to give him some cover, so that he could make his shots count. He said if anything went wrong I should keep out of the way... And of course something did go wrong. Something always goes wrong."
"They were captured?"
She nodded. "Both of them. I watched them leave, but I didn't see what I could do. I thought if I came back here, I might have a chance of running into you again, or that maybe Murdock would come back. He hasn't though. Not yet."
"He was leading some of Blaise's men away from us. He probably had to go a long way to throw them off." Hannibal sighed and sat down beside her. "He'll be along. It'll just take him longer in this light, that's all."
"That's what I thought." She looked up at him. "Face and Molly..."
"Oh, they'll be alright." He grinned at her around his cigar, the glowing end lighting his eyes, creating curious red specks in their centres. "There's no reason to kill them, or they wouldn't have been captured in the first place. There's nothing we can do for them until the morning though."
"They headed west. I looked at my compass to be sure, and they were heading dead on west." She held up the small compass in illustration of its part in her certainty. "Heading back to their camp, they said."
"Where they won't do anything until morning either." Hannibal frowned hard, staring into the darkness all around him. He hated the idea of leaving his client - to say nothing of Face - in such a dire position, but he could not very well do anything about it just now. Only a madman would attempt to get through a booby-trapped forest when there was no light by which to see the traps. Blowing himself up certainly wouldn't help to get anybody free. "We might as well make camp ourselves." He said it decisively, using his usual, confident tone of voice. "We'll have something to eat, and we'll get some sleep. All of us. At first light we head west. It'll take us a bit off course again, but thanks to that boulder we passed we've fixed our position well enough that we shouldn't get lost now. Murdock will join up with us again soon enough."
"You don't think he'll get lost?" The idea of leaving one of their number wandering confused and alone around the forest did not rest easy with Amy. BA dropped a reassuring hand onto her shoulder.
"Murdock won't get lost. He may be nuts, but he has a pretty amazing sense of direction. Pilots have to learn how to navigate by all kinds of different ways, especially when they're flying low over jungle in the middle of a war zone. He always knows exactly where he is."
"I hope so." She smiled up at him, finding his gruff-voiced platitudes remarkably helpful. There was something inherently sensitive about BA, for all his usual demeanour, and his words made her feel a lot better. "I just wish we could be sure that they others are okay too."
"They will be." Hannibal blew out a long plume of smoke that glowed faintly white in the darkness. "They will be."
Murdock lost track of how long he ran; how long he ducked and weaved and dodged and hid, as he made his way through the trees. After setting off the three tripwires he had become aware that he was being tailed, and had chosen to lead his shadows on a merry dance through the forest. It was work that he was good at, for although he lacked the speed or stamina of Face, or the brute strength of BA, he was agile and quick enough to stay ahead of his pursuers. All the same it took him a good while before he was sure that there was no longer anybody behind him. By then it was growing dark, and he did not feel safe dodging about through the trees, when he unable to see the tripwires that might well stretch across his very path. He slowed to a halt, leaning against a tree to rest, wondering what had happened to Hannibal, BA and Face.
He had not chosen a good place to rest, and he soon realised this when he took the time to look around him. There was no natural shelter save for the trees, and he was not sure that the weather was going to hold tonight. It was unnaturally dark, for the moon was hidden behind thick grey clouds that threatened a hefty downpour. He sighed. Little chance, then, of getting any sleep - not unless he could find somewhere where he could keep off the worst of the rain. He cursed himself for having left his pack behind with Amy and Molly. There was a waterproof sheet in there, and a sleeping bag. There was a torch, too, and a book about magic.
"No use thinking of these things, Murdock." He whispered the words, but they still sounded like a chastisement. He sighed and folded his arms, pacing up and down a tiny patch of clear ground in an attempt to focus his thoughts. He was fairly certain that he could find his way back to the place where he and Face had left the women; the darkness did not make too much difference to his sense of direction. The problem was in the tripwires, which he could not see. Did he really want to risk death from those hidden hand grenades, just in order to avoid a soaking? He smiled to himself, and began looking around to see what little cover he had. Remaining where he was most definitely seemed the better option.
He had all but decided upon a particularly wide-spreading tree as his roost for the night when he heard noises in the undergrowth up ahead. He froze, paused in the act of climbing into the branches of his tree, listening intently. Again the noises came; rustlings of a determined kind, such as those made by people, rather than aimlessly wandering animals. He frowned, and strained his ears still further. There were voices, he was sure of it; words that he could not make out, but voices nonetheless. For a moment he considered going nearer to the source of the sounds, and possibly trying to see who was responsible for them; but he quelled the urge. If he could hear the noises that they were making, so too would they be able to hear him. Instead he remained very still, and kept his breathing in check.
"Won't be... he'll take us apart." The voices floated nearer to him now, and he could make out disjoined parts of the sentences.
"Maybe... others had more luck... good mood."
"...hardly... shouldn't think... got away." There was a short burst of harsh laughter. Murdock frowned. He recognised the voices now that they were more easily discerned, for the men who had chased him earlier in the day had shouted out to him often to give himself up. Had they remained on his trail even when he had thought that he had shaken them off? He didn't think so. Perhaps, then, they had given up their fruitless search, and were on their way back to their camp? He might be close to it, for he had no idea where it was, and it was perfectly possible that his long run had taken him close to it. Not a great stroke of luck, all things considered. Very slowly, and extremely quietly, he dragged himself up into the branches of his tree, and lay very still across the boughs where the leaves were thickest. He could see nothing, and his ability to hear was not greatly improved, but he felt a good deal safer. Nearby the voices increased in volume momentarily, and he heard the crackle of static that could only indicate the use of a radio. It was impossible to hear what message came over the airwaves, but he heard another burst of laughter in response.
"Better luck... could be alright after all." The second voice joined in, sharing the unknown joke and amusement.
"What about the others... only two... which two exactly?" There was a jumble of indecipherable discussion, before finally the voices faded from his hearing altogether. Murdock lay back upon his lofty bed, and closed his eyes in thought. If his wits were working as well as normal, the meaning behind the words he had caught were clear enough. The two men he had overheard had been worried about returning to their camp empty-handed, but had received a radio message which had raised their spirits no end. It had sounded as though two people had been captured; and that could only be two members of Murdock's own company. He wondered who they were. Hannibal and BA perhaps, dragged from their useless ambush? Amy and Molly, captured before any of the others had been able to reach them? Either way he didn't much like the sound of things; and neither did he like the fact that there was nothing he could do about it. Alone, and especially given the darkness, he was incapable of helping whichever of his friends happened to be in need of assistance.
He had been lying still for only a few minutes, still trying to get comfortable whilst making as little noise as possible, when the first raindrops fell. They bounded off the top of his hat in quick succession, and he felt them soaking through to his hair. They awoke a cold chill within him, that grew as the rainfall began to intensify, and spread throughout his body in no time at all. He tried to press more closely against the tree, in the vague hope that that would help him to stay a little warmer; a little drier. It didn't, and as though to compound his misery, a cold trickle of water found its way down the back of his neck. He sighed. This was definitely going to be a long night.
With the grey light of morning came the sound of approach through the trees, but Hannibal and BA were ready for the intruder. He came with no great attempt at silence, and no particular finesse - or so it appeared. When Murdock's grinning face appeared around the trees, however, there were lines on it that showed the strain of a difficult journey through very awkward terrain. He breathed a sigh of relief, even though he had been greeted with two powerful, levelled rifles, and pulled off his cap to run a hand through hair that was much awry.
"Boy am I glad to see you guys." He jammed the cap back onto his head and leant against the nearest tree. "I have had the worst night. First I got pinned down by a bunch of the bad guys, then I had to spend several hours stuck up some tree. In the end I figured I had to get back here. When that storm passed the light started to get better, so I thought I'd take my chances with the tripwires. I could just about see them." He let out a long breath that was the closest he would ever come to showing just how bad things had been, then looked back at the others. One glance at the assembly was all that he needed.
"They got Face and Molly, huh." Hannibal nodded, without much of his usual cheer. Clearly the heavy downpour had put the dampeners on his natural optimism to quite some degree.
"Yeah. Yesterday, just after the light started to go. Amy got away though." He flashed her a grin, which she didn't seem to be in the mood to return. "You see anything?"
"Not much. Heard some, though. A couple of our friends out there mentioned that they'd grabbed themselves a pair of trophies, but I couldn't get any nearer to them. Figured I wouldn't be doing any of us any good if I got taken out of the picture." Seriousness dulled his familiar exuberance. "What's the plan, colonel? I don't like the idea of leaving Molly and the Faceman with these guys any longer than we have to. We are not talking friendly people here."
"I know, Murdock." Hannibal pulled his waterproof cigar container out of a very soggy pocket. "I figure they've grabbed the two of them as insurance, to try to make us back off. They might send us a message, or they might just leave us hanging, but either way they won't be expecting us to make an attack right now. They'll probably still be wringing their clothes out after that rainstorm."
"You planning to go visiting, Hannibal?" BA was not impressed. "We're down a man, plus we're all tired. They'd eat us for breakfast."
"I'm not saying that I'm going to go in there with all my guns blazing, BA." Hannibal slid a cigar out of its tin and put it into his mouth, biting the end off with a thoughtful frown. "I'm just saying that they're hardly going to be at their best for a while. They probably figure we're going to give them some space. They're not going to be expecting an ambush a few miles down the trail."
"An ambush? After what happened at the last one?" BA shook his head. "Hannibal, these guys think like we do. We were outplanned as well as outgunned last time. They knew we were there, they knew our forces were split, and they went right after Molly. They totally outmanoeuvred us, man! And now you're planning to try the same thing all over again?"
"BA..." Hannibal sounded vaguely hurt. "I'm not exactly a slouch, you know. Okay, so I might have underestimated them a little, but that's all over now. So what if we were outmanoeuvred then? We were in just the same situation that time by Tongking, right? And it all worked out then, didn't it?"
"We got captured by the Vietcong that time." Murdock sounded uncharacteristically serious, which was all the indication Amy needed to know that Hannibal's colleagues did not appreciate this little piece of nostalgia. "You got shot in the shoulder. I got shot in the foot."
"Yeah, man. And me and Face got interrogated by that lousy Cong colonel, who wouldn't believe we weren't part of some suicide squad out to blow up his harbour." BA was glowering as though his life depended upon it. "You said then that it was all going okay, right before some damn squad did come and blow up that harbour - with us still on it!"
"They blew up a harbour with you on it?" Amy was amazed. Murdock nodded.
"Yeah, and it wasn't pretty. Oh, they didn't know we were there, but I was swimming with a hole in one foot, Hannibal couldn't swim at all with the bullet in his shoulder, and the sea around there is thick with sharks who just loved the blood we were dropping all over the place. BA and Face were tied to a couple of chairs, and there were angry soldiers and bits of burning harbour floating about all over the place. It wasn't pretty."
"But the point is, we got out alive." Hannibal was waving his cigar in the air like a flag, a sure sign that he was warming to his theme, and was happy about something. "Come on, guys, it worked out okay. We all made it to the shore, BA got to rearrange that creepy Cong colonel's face, and we all got a pat on the back from the general when we got back to camp. Besides." He lit his cigar and began puffing happily. "It'll all work out differently here."
"How'd'you figure that?" BA clearly was not convinced. Hannibal beamed at him.
"Well there's no harbour here for starters, and there are certainly no sharks. All we have to do is get ahead of these guys, wait till they're least expecting it, and hit 'em hard."
"Without hitting Face and Molly at the same time," Amy pointed out. Hannibal nodded, conceding that point.
"Face will be ready, whenever we attack. He'll get the pair of them somewhere safe, and maybe provide us with a little vital cover from the inside. It'll be a piece of cake."
"That's just what you said before we made the move at Tongking, right before the VCs got the drop on us." Murdock did not look happy, but Amy could see that he was being swayed by Hannibal's argument. She frowned.
"Does that mean that we're going to go through with it?"
"Well if anybody's got any better ideas, I'd be happy to hear them." Hannibal's tone of voice suggested that he knew very well that nobody else had any ideas at all. "No? Well then I'd suggest that we move out. We can leave the gear here. It'll only slow us down, and we're not going to need it anyway. Not for the time being."
"This is crazy, man." BA was shaking his head, although he did not look as dissatisfied as he sounded. Hannibal shrugged.
"Maybe. But it's all we've got. Listen guys, once they've got the jewels, they're gonna kill Face and Molly. We have to go in there and get them out first."
"We're not disputing that, colonel." Murdock shook his head. "It's just that an all out assault... well we don't exactly have a long history of successes in that department."
"We haven't had one single fatal failure." Hannibal knew that he had just played the winning card, and grinned around at everybody. "Well have we?"
"No." BA sounded amused; excited almost. Murdock was nodding. Hannibal's grin grew even wider than before.
"Then we're decided. Let's move on out."
"But where are we going?" Taking the spare rifle that Hannibal passed to her, Amy tried to look as though she knew how to handle it, and to give the impression that she wasn't almost too exhausted to move. Hannibal had gone into battle mode, the amusement gone from his eyes, and the hint of laid back nonchalance gone from his body language. He glanced her way only briefly, and then she could see it was just to size her up; to see if there was any reason to leave her behind. She was determined not to be left out of this one, but whether or not he recognised that, or just couldn't justify leaving her behind alone, he made no attempt to order her to stay.
"We're going on." He said it as though it was the most natural thing in the world, and as though they were all well rested and ready for anything - instead of looking like something that had been chewed up and spat out by the world, which was certainly how Amy felt. "We'll need to move fast. They will be, even with prisoners. We take it at a run, and we take their grenades on the way. I kind of like the idea of using their own booby-traps against them. Then when the time's right, we dig in and make our move. It's not long now to the end of the trail; not if we move at a decent speed. We should be in sight of the place where the treasure's buried before nightfall."
"And that's when we make our move?" BA looked bigger than ever, thought Amy, as he stood there now in the grey light, backed by the deepening dawn. Hannibal nodded.
"One last stand. We don't have the ammunition for any more than that. We let them think we've taken the hint, and that their hostages are doing the job they were intended for - and when they go in for the treasure, that's when we get the drop on them. We take them out, hard and fast; we get the jewels; and then we're home free."
"We have a long trek to get out of the forest. They could get free and catch up with us before then." Amy didn't really want to run away, but she still couldn't help seeing obstacles with the other option. Hannibal shook his head.
"No they won't. My guess is that Blaise doesn't want a long walk out of here anymore than we do. Once he knows where the end of the trail is, he'll send out a radio signal to some other numbskull he has working for him, and they'll bring in some kind of transport. Helicopter probably. They'll find somewhere nearby to land, and Blaise'll plan on jumping aboard and taking off, soon as he's got the jewels in his sweaty little hands. All we need to do is beat him to the 'copter."
"We're going to have to work fast to make that happen." For once BA made no objection to the idea of flying. Hannibal shrugged.
"We're the A-Team. We always move fast. Now is it a plan?"
"Yeah." Murdock had a spark of familiar madness in his eyes, and his earlier seriousness was beginning to wash away. BA nodded as well.
"Sure is, colonel."
"Good." Hannibal blew a lazy smoke ring, and watched it as it sauntered up into the heavens. "Then let's move out. We've got a mighty long walk ahead."
It had been a cold, almost interminable night. The camp site had been chosen by Jasser, and as a result was well enough sheltered; but when choosing the best place for their prisoners Blaise's men had not been careful to find them somewhere that was protected from the oncoming rain. They had left the pair tied to a couple of young trees near to where Blaise was sleeping; but whereas the leader of the enemy ranks was sheltered by a sheet of canvas, Face and Molly had had no shelter at all, and were wet through. It was an extremely bedraggled looking duo that faced the approaching dawn, and neither of them was especially in the mood for the belligerent posturing of a gang of eight triumphant adversaries who were eager for a confrontation. Standing up to his ankles in thick grey mud, arms twisted painfully behind a tree trunk that seemed to be doing its best to be uncomfortable, Face didn't really feel in the mood for anything, save a hot shower and a long sleep. Molly, tied to another tree several yards away, just looked pale and sick.
"Did you have a good night?" Jason Blaise seemed the image of a concerned host, and his carefully enunciated speech was filled with apparent consideration for his guests. Face, never entirely the best judge of what constituted a sensible reply to a captor, nodded cheerily enough. He didn't feel like a chat, but Molly looked as though she needed some jollying along.
"Yeah. Great, thanks. I especially liked the mint on the pillow. Some say it's a clich these days, but I thought it was a nice touch."
"Funny man." Blaise didn't sound amused, but neither did he seem particularly angry. In Face's experience people usually responded to such quips either with indifference or with outright anger, and it was pleasant to discover that Blaise seemed to belong in the first camp. He shrugged, as far as he was able.
"Well you know what they say. A smile a day keeps the doctor away. Or in your case maybe it's the AR-15s that do the trick."
"You planning on going to your grave with a joke on your lips?" Pulling out a knife that looked big enough to take out King Kong with a single stab, Jasser cut the ropes binding Molly to her tree. She stumbled, but held herself up as though she had been involved in situations like this all her life. Face recognised the glint of determination in her eyes, for he had seen it a million times before in the eyes of her uncle. It made him glow with a fierce kind of pride.
"Actually I wasn't planning on going to my grave at all." He watched the knife with a certain amount of trepidation as it loomed closer to him. "At least not for a while yet." The knife made short work of the ropes around his wrists and arms, but when he made to move away from the tree, Jasser held him there.
"It'll be no time at all if you don't shut up. Understand?"
"I'm kinda getting the message, yeah."
"Good." Blaise's cold-eyed deputy let him go. "We're heading out in five minutes. Make a move before then, and you get to walk the rest of the way with a set of broken ribs. Somebody's watching you all the time." He turned away, striding rapidly in the direction of the larger part of his men. Blaise also disappeared, striding off with his head held high, and an annoying spring in his step. Face watched them go, feeling decidedly uninspired by the entire situation.
"You okay?" Turning his attentions back to Molly, he considered helping her to sit down, but changed his mind when he looked at the ground. It was a sea of mud, with nothing to act as a seat, and he really didn't think that she would appreciate sitting in the middle of all that despite her obvious state of fatigue. Instead he helped her to lean back against the tree that she had been tied to, whilst trying to look as calm and composed as he could. She glared at him.
"Do you always try to antagonise the men with the guns, or is it just bad weather that puts you in a damn silly mood? I don't want to be left on my own here, Face."
"Sorry." He felt faintly chastened, and lowered his eyes slightly. "It's kind of a habit. I always complain when Hannibal does it, but I can't seem to stop doing it myself." She smiled at him, and he flashed her one of his trademark grins. "Don't worry. The others will already be on their way. We'll be out of here in no time."
"I hope so. I really don't think I'd enjoy seeing Blaise crowing over those jewels, if he gets to them first." She clung to him, looking a little over-dramatic, and rather more helpless than seemed quite genuine. "Stick close by me. Won't you?"
"Of course." He extricated himself gently, despite his contrary instincts, and took a look around the camp. Already the signs of recent habitation were fading; canvas sheets removed, sleeping bags rolled up, fires kicked out. Only the sprinkling of litter; cigarette butts mostly, lying about on the surface of the mud; proved that anybody had been staying there. There were a few broken saplings too, for none of Blaise's men seemed at all careful about taking the least destructive path. Molly frowned at that.
"They're very confident, aren't they. All along they haven't made any attempt to hide where they are, or where they've been. It's as though they've known all along that they were going to win."
"Doesn't mean they're right." He took her hand. "Come on. We'd better look lively, or that ugly guy with the moustache is going to stick his M-16 somewhere sensitive."
She winced. "I'm right behind you."
"So's the guy with the M-16." They shared a rueful smile. Despite her pale face and obvious worries, Molly was holding up very well, and was clearly displaying the fact that she was no coward. Beautiful, intelligent and brave. Face had to remind himself several times that he had decided to maintain a strictly hands-off policy on this one. All the same, he thought rather wistfully, if there was ever a just cause for going back on a resolution... He tried to concentrate on the trees instead. It wasn't easy.
They walked for hours. It was hot and humid after the heavy rain, and the thickness of the forest, with its limited passage of fresh air, did not help matters much. Molly soon began to trail behind, and the large, moustachioed man with the M-16 growled at her in an accent suggestive of the Florida swamps. Blaise, himself something of a slow-coach despite his apparently athletic build, fell back until he was level with the struggling archaeologist, and tried to engage her in conversation. Face couldn't hear what they were talking about, but he could see from Molly's expression that she wasn't enjoying the chat. He tried to join them, but a sizeable Mexican with a gun nearly as big as Face seemed loath to let him go. They walked on in silence, Jasser leading the way, Blaise bringing up the rear with Molly and the moustache with the M-16. It was a hot and irritable procession, made none the more cheerful for the copious amounts of mud that slicked the ground and made the going more difficult still.
Molly's mood did not improve with the progression of the hours. Blaise's inane chatter continued for miles, as he boasted about previous treasures that he had found, and listed his plans for this latest addition to his collection. He spoke as though the jewels were already in his possession, and his supreme confidence, added to his natural repellence, did nothing to make the young archaeologist warm to him. She scowled at the ground, glaring at her slow and heavy feet; at the large, noisy men around her with their guns and their slimy, ingratiating good humour; and at Face in particular. They had been out in the rainstorm all night, and had been walking all day - so why did he look as though his shirt had been freshly ironed, and how exactly did he manage to stay so clean? Didn't the man ever need to shave? She would have kicked him, on principle, had it not been for the fact that she didn't think she could have kept her footing in all the wet mud. And just how the hell did he manage to get his hair looking so neat? He seemed to feel her eyes upon him, and he glanced back momentarily. So much for agreeing to stay with her, although admittedly it didn't look as though he had much choice about the distance. She wanted to glare at him, but didn't seem able. He offered her a distracted smile that only made her heart beat all the faster, and made her desire to kick him all the more powerful. He even managed to make the grin look fresh and happy, whilst here she was drooping with exhaustion and unable to smile if her life had depended on it. He was quite beyond belief.
They rested for a while at midday, when the sun, presumably high overhead, was as usual entirely invisible beyond the thick canopy of green. There was a large tree nearby; a vast oak of obvious venerability; and from the muted jumble of chatter going on between Jasser and Blaise as they studied the map, Face assumed that this was another of the important landmarks. Hannibal had mentioned several before they had even set out - important places to confirm that they were on the right track; invisible from anywhere save the forest floor. He looked up at it, wondering if Hannibal had been this way yet. If he had, then surely there would be a message somewhere? It could take any form - a mark on the tree itself, a sign in the mud, a cigar butt almost hidden by leaves and pieces of dead wood. There didn't appear to be anything, and his decidedly pessimistic mood deepened. Molly hung around beside him, shooting poisonous stares in Blaise's direction every once in a while, whenever he looked as though he might be coming their way. It was almost funny, despite the dire situation.
"I like it here." Molly's comment was entirely unexpected given the circumstances, and was perhaps rather more appropriate for a country stroll, or a romantic walk by moonlight. Face glanced her way, momentarily giving up his search for apparently non-existent messages from his colonel.
"Here. It's nice. Pretty." She pointed up into the trees, where an array of birds were merrily singing. Face didn't have a clue what type they were, but they seemed pretty cold-hearted birds to him, if they were prepared to sing in the midst of all that was going on beneath them. "There's a nice breeze at last, too."
"Yeah." He offered her one of his famous grins, then immediately wished he hadn't, for she responded to it just the way people always did. Her thaw was immediate and complete.
"When this is all over..."
"...barring fatal accidents..."
"Well obviously." She glared at him, clearly choosing to treat the interruption with the contempt that it deserved. "What I mean is, when we've got the jewels to the museum, and these creeps are in prison, we should come back here. Do it properly this time. No speed marches. No tripwires. It's such a beautiful place."
"Er... yeah." He had tried on the shy act, to say nothing of the confused and self-effacing act several times so far on this trip, and they had worked alright up until now. This time she didn't look convinced.
"Face, I'm not a fool you know. I'm well aware that you're not the serious type. I know that you can't settle down, and wouldn't want to anyway, and I know that you've probably left a trail of broken hearts all over the continent. I'm not going to get upset when you get bored a week from now, or have to go racing off because somebody has recognised you and called in the authorities, or whatever. I certainly won't go crying to my uncle about it."
"Oh." Such direct honesty was always a surprise, especially to somebody who almost never used it. He frowned, then let the smile take over again. If she wanted to put it that way, then she really was speaking his language. He edged a little closer to her, and let his smile do its work. "Well in that case..."
"Let's move." Jasser was striding towards them without any apparent recognition of the situation he was interrupting. Molly glared at him in frustration, and Face sighed.
"There really is no justice. Just when I was getting over my principles..."
"I can wait." She tried to sidle closer to Face again. "You can get over them later, I'm not going anywhere."
"No?" He had spied something, and much to Molly's chagrin was looking away. She sighed. If it was an escape plan, couldn't it have waited for a moment when she wasn't doing her best to look sultry? He touched her arm though, and when he did turn back his head it was to favour her with the most dazzling smile she had seen yet. He leaned a little closer to her, although only to whisper something so that it could not be overheard. "Look to your right. The dead tree."
"Huh?" He was holding her close, the better to make their whispered conversation appear like a romantic interlude, and it was hard to look past him at the place indicated. All that she saw when she did get a good look was a simple dead tree, its leaves brown and decaying, its branches drooping and still. There seemed no reason to be excited about it, anyway.
"What am I supposed to be looking at?" She attempted to make the question into some breathy imitation of a secretive, passionate whisper, all too aware of Jasser, looming towards them like a man with a vengeance - which he very likely was. Face smiled, drawing her closer into his embrace in a fashion that she doubted had anything to do with their little conspiracy. Now here was a man who could certainly dismiss his 'principles' with fine speed.
"Top branch." He gave her shoulder a pat, and she heard him say, in mock-comforting tones, "There there." She winced. A patronising attitude really didn't suit him. She glanced up anyway, trying to pretend that she really was leaning on him for support, in her hour of obvious need, in the vague hope that this would stop Jasser tearing them apart. It didn't. She felt his hand descend upon her shoulder at the very second that she saw the tiniest hint of a sparkle at the top of the limp, dead tree. It was a bright flash, but easily dismissed as sunlight or a trick of the eyes by anybody who might happen to catch a glimpse of it accidentally. Certainly only somebody who knew that it was a message would stop to give it a second glance - and even then would probably never recognise it for what it was. A bright, beautiful, gleaming, collection of star-shaped sequins, sewn onto a bow tie that remained invisible in the arms of the tree. She gasped - which fortunately coincided with the very moment in which Jasser chose to spin her around. Face's arms fell away from her.
"This is not the time for you two to get romantic." There was no mistaking the unpleasantness in the large man's eyes, nor the unspoken threat implicit in his manner. "Get moving."
"Right." She blushed, without quite knowing why, and chose not to meet Face's eyes. "We're just going."
"Damn right you are." Jasser gave her a push which nearly sent her stumbling in the mud, but she caught herself with a natural sense of balance, and walked onwards along the invisible trail as though nothing had happened. The ranks of other Blaise employees closed in around her. Face suppressed a sudden desire to whistle appreciatively.
"You waiting for something?" Jasser seemed anxious to do something violent, and the lieutenant was not in any hurry to encourage him. Instead he smiled disarmingly, and shook his head.
"Just... going." He tried to say it with a degree of deference, just to prove that he hadn't forgotten his status as a prisoner, but his belligerent captor didn't seem interested. He had a superior attitude about him, which was more than a little familiar; the look and poise of a man who is certain of his own abilities, and equally certain that nobody else's come close to comparing. He was counting this as a battle already won, and to him right now Face was no more than were the birds fluttering around in the treetops. He could have whipped out a super-charged grenade launcher, and Jasser would probably have looked merely scathing.
"How much longer?" Blaise, as usual, was trailing, and he wandered up alongside the mismatched pair just as they were beginning to move off after the others. He didn't throw even the slightest of glances in Face's direction, which, whilst it might have been slightly insulting, also seemed rather encouraging. Another over-confident foe; another crowing victor celebrating before the last punch was thrown. Even Face's natural caution couldn't read that as anything other than a good sign. He wanted to let his eyes ride up again, to the tie fixed to the top of the dead tree, but he didn't allow himself the pleasure. No point in taking risks when things were starting to look hopeful.
"At our usual speed?" Jasser was obviously thinking, weighing mental calculations against the map he had by now memorised accurately. "We'll be there before much longer. I doubt we'll get the treasure up before the light gets bad, but I suppose you don't want to waste any time?"
"I've wasted enough already. Stupid map, with its twists and turns. Why make the trail so long? Why couldn't the fool who designed it have started the map closer to the conclusion?" He shook his head. "And all these damn trees, making it impossible to come this way except on foot. I could have had those jewels in my collection a week ago if it hadn't been for the fool who buried them." He sighed. "Soon. Good. The minute you're sure we're there, get on the radio and get that damn helicopter out here. I want you and me on board, plus another two men and the jewels. The rest stay in this forest until they've hunted down those people that that dratted Magill woman brought here with her."
"And the Magill woman herself sir?" Jasser asked the question with an airy smile, his eyes resting on Face's uncomfortable expression. Blaise shrugged.
"What the hell do I care? Bury her in whatever hole we dig the jewels out of. Shoot her and leave her for the birds. What does it matter? All I care about is the treasure."
"Good." Jasser was smirking. "We'd better catch up with the others then sir. No point in taking any longer than is necessary to get to the end of the trail." He gave Face a push, but Blaise seemed indifferent to both of them.
"Yes, I suppose so." He sounded as though he rather wished that he had thought to bring along some kind of a litter, so that his men could carry him through the forest, and therefore spare him the great inconvenience of having to walk. With the faintest of sighs that was apparently directed at the pack he was forced to carry - and which he had again chosen to forget was considerably lighter than those carried by his men - he strode onwards. Face watched him go, until Jasser pushed him onwards again.
"Hurry up." Clearly the second-in-command didn't like to be left behind. Face didn't really care. He had an idea that Hannibal might appreciate it if their little party was held up as much as possible - and as he tramped off once again, through trees growing tight and close, he resolved to do just that. Time to think about wiping that look of superiority from Jasser's face. Time to show him that it was something more than archaeologists who had crossed his path.
Hannibal was feeling very cheerful, which unnerved Amy rather. There was always something oddly disturbing about a man who could be resolutely happy even in moments of quite dire misfortune. Here they were, after all, with their client and one of their own number held captive by a serial slimeball and his collection of towering simians, and facing an upcoming confrontation that seemed - to her - to have very little chance of success. BA kept chortling - a disturbing event in any instance - and muttering about the Bay of Tongking; whilst Murdock was looking grim and serious in a way that usually meant either that he was, genuinely, grim and serious, or that he was anything but, and just acting the part because he felt like it. Either could be cause for concern, especially for her. She was still too new to all of this.
"Here." Coming towards her with a grin so broad it seemed in danger of swallowing her, Hannibal handed her a short length of rope and a grenade. "Hold these."
"What are they for?" She watched as he tied one end of the rope to the ring at the end of the grenade's gleaming pin, and wished that she could see it all the way he did.
"Just a little addition to the welcome wagon." He finished tying his knots, then took the grenade away again. "Thanks."
"Is there something I can be doing?" She was exhausted after their speed march; her nerves cut to ribbons by the number of close calls that they had had with the booby-traps. So much for the attempts of their enemies to slow them down; so far it seemed to her that Hannibal had spent even more time rushing around the forest since the traps had been laid than he had before. It was encouraging, though, that he had trusted her enough to bring her along, even though it had been such a difficult journey for her. Sometimes she felt that Hannibal had not accepted her into the group quite as much as had the others.
"Er..." He was looking around, to where Murdock was re-rigging a few of the tripwires, 'borrowed' from their positions elsewhere, and to where BA was industriously scaling a series of tall trees, fixing something that she could not see into the branches. He shrugged.
"You could keep a look out."
"I can't see anything, Hannibal. We're in the middle of a forest."
"Yeah, but we need something to warn us that they're coming. I'd get Murdock to rig up a few of those wires further out, but I don't really want to blow Face up as well." He said it as though to do so would be a minor inconvenience, and not a dreadful accident, which only made her suspect that the strain of the last few days was starting to affect him too. At least she thought that the last few days had been a strain, at any rate. Hannibal seemed to have found them enjoyably bracing, which wasn't really a surprise even if it was faintly exasperating. "There's a tree just over there." He pointed to a largish growth nearby. "Should give you a pretty good view. Murdock's got a pair of binoculars."
"You want me to climb up there?" Usually he told her to stay out of the way, and not to get involved in anything dangerous - and yet now he wanted her to climb up what looked like a giant beanstalk, in order to watch for whoever might be coming. She was game, though, even if her head wasn't quite as sure as her heart.
"Give a whistle if you see anybody. They're probably coming from somewhere due east. Don't let them see you." He frowned, obviously having second thoughts, and she moved away before he could go all conservative on her again. Murdock handed up the binoculars with a grin like a child's, and offered her a broad spectrum protection spell. She declined. Unperturbed, he returned to his grenades and his tripwires, waving his magic wand over the collection as he worked, and muttering words that sounded like inventive gibberish, intoned in a deep English accent. Even after the several missions she had shadowed them on, she couldn't quite believe that these were really the guys who were going to shut the enemy down.
It proved quite easy to climb the tree, although once or twice she found herself looking down, and fervently wishing that she hadn't. The branches were close enough together to make the task a fairly short one, but they caught at her clothes and her hair, and made her think, inexplicably, of spiders. There must be all manner of them, hiding in amongst the twigs and the leaves. None seemed at all interested in ganging up on her though, so she concentrated on where to put her hands and feet, tried not to think about creepy-crawlies, and pulled herself up the last few yards. Her arms were tired, her face was flushed, but she found herself filled with the glow of pride. It was always good to think that she was doing something positive for the good of the team.
It didn't take her long to realise that she could see practically nothing. A bird alighted on a twig near to her, regarded her sternly, then flew away to a neighbouring tree with a squawk that was a clear rebuke. Other than that all she could see was green; green leaves, green branches, green trees; some still in the hot air, some moving in local breezes. Above her further greens rose up and towered, whilst beneath there was nothing but the impenetrable canopy of the smaller trees. Of the forest floor she could see no sign, save for occasional glimpses when a vague draught moved a few branches aside. She thought that she caught sight of a deer once, moving slowly between a pair of thorny looking bushes, but it didn't stick around for long. She hoped that it had too much sense to go treading on any booby-traps. She sighed. Some use she was going to be up here. Somewhere below her Murdock bust into song, using all his remarkable lung capacity and musical skill to blast the forest with thirty seconds of an operatic number apparently about a lonely magician named Norman. BA yelled at him to shut up, and there was a brief altercation. She thought that she heard Murdock's voice, along with a vague threat to turn BA into a frog, before Hannibal's calm, measured tone brought silence once again. After that there was just the forest to listen to, and a million variations on the increasingly uninteresting colour green to watch through her largely pointless binoculars. So much for doing something positive for the good of the team.
Down on the ground Hannibal was looking around, trying to decide how best to use the natural resources to the best purpose. The end of the trail; which was where he now was according to the map; was a piece of forest just like all the rest; not a clearing exactly, for there was not a single piece of sky visible from the ground, but sufficiently low on pressing tree trunks to enable some reasonably free movement. A pile of boulders some thirty feet high marked the emergence from below ground of a small stream, where tiny white pebbles rattled and rolled in the bubbling water. As far as he could tell this pile of stone was the hiding place of the jewels, although he could see no way to get to them. It was tempting to push a grenade into one of the crevices, then stand back and see what was blasted out of the rock, but he quelled that instinct. Pulverised treasure was of considerably less value to the museum. Besides, his presence here was supposed to be a secret. Admittedly his 'secret presence' at the last place of ambush had turned out to be considerably less than secret, but there was no reason to suspect that anybody would have guessed where he was this time. At least he didn't think so.
It was nearly evening when they finished their preparations, although the canopy of tree growth was so thick in their part of the forest that it was almost impossible to tell whether it was still daylight, let alone that the height of the day had long passed. Hannibal finished stringing up the last in a series of grenades that he had suspended from lengths of rope - making them look rather like targets at a fairground booth - and signalled to BA and Murdock to join him. Murdock was tired out after the rather draining business of setting the tripwires, and BA looked almost as exhausted, having spent the last few hours climbing trees and positioning all manner of booby-traps within their branches. He had dug several large holes too, covered with thin branches and several layers of the many years-worth of fallen leaves that carpeted the ground.
"Everything set?" Hannibal didn't really need to ask the question. He knew his men well enough to be sure that they would have completed their tasks as ordered. They nodded anyway, making their reports just as they had been trained to do many years ago, before they had even met.
"Traps are all set, Hannibal. We've got foot loops, enough tied back branches to sweep an army off its feet, and several holes that could each take a couple of men without them being able to get out in a hurry." BA wiped his brow with a handkerchief of truly remarkable proportions. "That little lot ought to make the odds more in our favour."
"Great. I've strung up some grenades. They're not too well hidden, but with a bit of luck they won't need to be. Somebody can hide pretty well up in the branches, and set them off by tugging on the ropes." He grinned, eyes dancing. "Nice little surprise for somebody, wouldn't you say? I've built us a good hide up on that pile of rocks. We've got cover on three sides, and enough of a field of vision to be able to shoot back and make it count. I can't see anybody being able to get up those rocks with us up there, but they're sure to try it. Murdock?"
"Tripwires are all set, colonel. Each one has one grenade attached, buried under enough leaf debris to stop it doing any real damage. Anybody who gets caught near one when it goes off is going to hear ringing in their ears for the rest of the day, but that's about the most they'll suffer. Wish I could say the same for the trees though. They're quaking in their boots, Hannibal. I mean it."
"I know, captain." Hannibal put a gloved hand on his shoulder, and gave him a reassuring smile. "But we have to do what we have to do. I'm sure the trees understand that."
"Man, don't be encouraging him again Hannibal." BA shook his head, exasperated. "You're nearly as bad as Face, talking to him like you agree with all his crazy jive."
"It's not jive, BA." Murdock sounded haughty, and switched into the upper-class English accent that he so loved to use. "It's a well known fact that trees are very intelligent beings. They respond to love and affection, and they like to be spoken to, and-" He broke off as a large hand descended with force upon his other shoulder. "And I see your point, and of course you are entitled to your opinion, and I'm sorry I spoke." He dropped the accent. "Nwo let go of my arm, man. You're like a limpet, clinging on to me all the time."
"The only thing I cling on to is the hope that one day you'll get cured, fool. That or Hannibal will finally figure we don't need you no more."
"That's a double negative, BA." Murdock was smiling like a gleeful child, and BA's glower deepened. Hannibal interceded before the pair could get any worse.
"Now now now children. Enough. We have bad guys to pulverise. If you've got to argue, do it when the treasure's ours, alright?"
"The treasure is ours, man. I don't know why you wouldn't let us dig it up already, and put it somewhere safe."
"I wanted it left where it was, BA, because I thought that Molly deserved to be here when it's uncovered." Hannibal puffed thoughtfully on his cigar for a few moments, and then shrugged. "I also think it might just be sensible to leave it, in case Blaise and his pals start digging for it before we can make our move. If that happens, it's gotta be there for them to find." He puffed for a few more minutes. "Not that we're gonna let them get that far. Right guys?"
"Hannibal!" Amy's excited whispering broke in before either Murdock or BA could reply to the question, and thereby display however much confidence - or lack thereof - that they had in their commander's plan. Hannibal glanced skyward, but could not see the young woman.
"Amy?" He headed towards the tree that he thought she had climbed, arriving just as she tumbled down the last few feet of trunk. He caught her by sheer reflex, and helped her to steady herself. "What is it?"
"They're coming." She was out of breath from the fast climb down the tree, but she looked just as flushed from her own success as from her exhaustion. "I wasn't sure at first, but there was a lot of movement in the undergrowth, and then I saw some of it being cut away. I couldn't actually see anyone, but it was definitely them. They're not far off."
"Nice work, kid." He turned to the other two, all casual banter forgotten. "Okay guys. Murdock, get up in the trees and watch those grenades I hung up there. BA, Amy, up to the shelter."
"Up there?" Amy did not look impressed, but Hannibal was in no mood to argue. He took her hand.
"Time is off the essence. Move it." She knew better than to argue with him when he was in full-blown military mode, and she followed on obediently, trying to match his pace as they clambered up the steep pile of boulders. BA easily outstripped them, and Amy marvelled at the speed and grace of a man who, by all that was stereotypical, should have been slow and clumsy. Hannibal impressed her too, with his ability to carry on displaying newer reserves of energy no matter how much physical activity he had already engaged in so far that day. For her own part, she had always believed herself to be in good shape - fit, healthy, fast. She had worked out regularly in the days before meeting the team, and had been pleased with the way that she had met and beaten the goals that she had set for herself in the gym every week. Now, though, she was utterly exhausted, uncertain quite where the energy still powering her along was coming from. Certainly it didn't seem to belong to her. She remembered the first time she had felt so inadequate, when she, along with BA, Hannibal and Face had been running for their lives from the Brotherhood of Jamestown. Then, and several times since, she had realised that her own level of fitness was nothing compared to these men. Hannibal had to be old enough to be her father, and yet here he was powering up the slope beside her as though he had been resting all afternoon, and was now merely going for a brisk evening jaunt. BA she had never seen flag for a minute, ever. Murdock looked as though he didn't have an ounce of strength in his body, and yet he was constantly wired; filled with the sort of energy that most people only found after a serious overdose of caffeine pills. Face too looked as though he was not built for much physical activity, and yet she well knew that he would be as fresh right now as he had been all along; and that when the moment came for the A-Team's first move, he would be ready for it, and fully prepared. She wasn't sure whether to feel terribly depressed, or terribly jealous. In the end, stumbling finally into the stout, perfectly camouflaged shelter that Hannibal had constructed on top of the boulders, she decided not to feel anything at all. She was too tired for anything save relief at a moment's respite.
"How long do you reckon, Hannibal?" BA was holding one of the team's AR-15s, less gleaming now than it would ordinarily be, the barrel dulled by days in the woods.
"Not long, BA. Not long." Hannibal was watching the trees with a fixed expression, as if he knew exactly which part of the forest their enemy was to emerge from. Given his skills he probably did know - down to the last square foot. He could probably hear them already. Amy strained her ears, but could hear nothing by the indignant squawks of several birds. She had only just realised that that was probably exactly what had alerted Hannibal Smith when, with a noise like a minor hurricane, a machete blade smashed through a section of undergrowth. That was a crack and a violent rustle, and a sweep of greenery fell aside. Leaves showered down, and Jason Blaise's private army came into view.
They were close together, forced to be so by the thickness of the trees. In the green light, dimming now that the largely invisible day was fading fast, it was hard to make individuals out, but Amy could see some details plainly. She could see that three of them were larger types; rougher clothes, bigger weapons, harsher looks; and that another three seemed of a different type again. Blaise's ordinary payroll, plus a few others to bulk the ranks? It was only a guess, but she was sure that she was right. She recognised two of the men that she had seen capturing Molly and Face, and almost gasped aloud when she saw Molly between them. It was impossible to tell what expression her face bore, but the young journalist was certain that there was probably a certain amount of excitement there. The end of the trail might mean certain death, but Molly was archaeologist enough to remain eager for a sight of the jewels she had come so far to find.
"Stay ready BA." Hannibal's words were like the faintest of breezes. She hardly heard them, but she knew that they were there all the same. "Wait for the right moment." She felt him press a gun into her hand, and closed her fist around the cold metal without even thinking about it. She wondered what she was expected to do with it, for she did not have that much faith in her aim. Hannibal had faith in her, though, and she saw as much in his eyes.
"Just add your flames to the fire, girl." His voice was razor sharp, yet gently encouraging. "Always aim over their heads."
"Right." She found to her surprise that she was no longer tired, although she was sure that that would return with interest as soon as this latest bit of excitement was finished with. If she was going to stay with the team, she found herself thinking, she was going to have to spend less time reading, or listening to music in the evenings, and more time down at that gym. Did Philip's Fitness Centre run courses for would-be commandos? Maybe she should talk to Hannibal about it. He might even help her to improve her shooting skills too.
"Down there Hannibal." BA's usually gruff voice was as soft as silk now. Amy saw what he had seen a second later; three more shapes that had just come into view. She did not recognise the two larger men, although she assumed that one of them had to be Jason Blaise. The third she knew well though, even in this diminishing light. His slight and slender form was unmistakable amidst so much overt muscle and obvious weight; and even had it not been, the air of breezy self-confidence would have marked him out a mile away. Again it was impossible to discern an expression, but Amy was sure that those sharp eyes were already hard at work. Even had he not spotted the bow tie up in the tree, surely he would be expecting something? She wondered what was going through his mind, and how he planned to get himself and Molly out of the thick of things, once Hannibal made his move - whenever that turned out to be. Beside her, as though reading her thoughts, the colonel shifted slightly, and sighted along his rifle. He seemed unwilling to do anything just yet though, as if he were not quite happy with the field of fire, or with the position of his targets. Certainly the light was in their favour at the moment, for they were well shaded, and it would not be easy to fire upon them with any real accuracy.
"So this is it." Stepping forward, Blaise missed the first of the tripwires by mere inches, and nearby Murdock winced when he saw what a close call it had been. He consoled himself with the thought that Blaise's luck couldn't last forever - not when he was going up against the A-Team. "This is where the treasure is buried. Doesn't look like much, does it, after all that walking."
"Looks pretty quiet." Jasser moved as though to step up alongside him, then paused, and indicated that Face should precede him. The lieutenant did so, with as much innocence in his expression and his body language as he could possibly muster. He even put his hands in his pockets.
"You expecting it to be anything other than quiet?" One of the men standing around glanced about as though searching for anything that might disturb the peace. "There's nobody out here."
"Maybe, maybe not." The ill-tempered deputy performed a quick rotation, looking about in all directions, save - thankfully - up. The suspended grenades remained unseen, as did Murdock, crouched above them at what was barely a safe distance. Face, however, did look up, although he gave no reaction upon seeing the dangling bombs and the hidden pilot. Murdock gave him a slow nod, a quick thumbs up sign, and then had to made a wild grab for a nearby branch when the movement nearly made him lose his balance. Mercifully his manoeuvrings made no noise. Equally silently, Face slipped over to stand beside Molly.
"Where's that map?" Blaise sounded as though he was in high spirits, and even Jasser was smiling when he pulled out the piece of folded paper, and shook it open. They both glanced over it, the examination a cursory one since it was almost entirely unnecessary. By now they both knew exactly what the map said, and although they had not been expecting the tumble of rocks, they were more or less certain where abouts they would find the treasure. Jasser unslung his heavy looking pack, and retrieved a folding spade from somewhere deep within it.
"Alright everybody. Unload and get ready to dig. Stay alert though, just in case."
"In case of what?" Blaise sounded scathing. "You've guessed these people right every step of the way, Derek. Even I'm impressed. Now you've guessed them right again, and they're keeping their distance. They must have realised we got their friends, and they're not to going to risk doing anything now. Good guys are always predictable that way."
"Maybe, sir." Jasser looked over towards Face, as though trying to gauge the possible danger from the other man's stance and bearing. Face, however, was inscrutability incarnate, and it was impossible to tell whether he was expecting anything at all. Certainly he did not seem tense or on edge, or ready to make any sort of a move. In the end Jasser shrugged, and accepted that what his boss was saying was probably the truth. He unfolded his spade.
"We should probably get to work, Mr Blaise. We took a long time getting here," - even Murdock, in his awkward position, did not miss the murderous glare he fired at Face and Molly - "and there's not a lot of light left. The helicopter won't be landing until dawn, but we don't know how long it'll take to dig up the jewels. Plus we've got some distance to walk to get to the landing site. When I told the pilot roughly what our position was, he said he could pin it down on his map to within a couple of miles. There's a clearing about a mile north of here, and he'll set down in there. It'll be hard going through these trees though, especially since the light won't be great."
"I know." Blaise sounded both annoyed at the tree-filled nature of the forest, and irritated that Jasser had seen fit to point it out to him - or maybe just annoyed that his deputy had been unable to prevent the long ago thief from hiding his stash in such a place to begin with. "But since we do have such a long walk ahead, I think we should take full advantage of our own special archaeologist. Make her do the work." He grinned at Molly, who was hovering nearby. "What do you say, Miss Magill?"
"I beg your pardon?" She had not been listening to him, being too caught up in thoughts of her goal being so close at hand. In answer Blaise pulled the spade away from his second-in-command and threw it at her.
"Dig. Now. You too, lover boy. You can make yourselves useful."
"Now wait a minute-" Face broke off as a series of automatic weapons lifted to point at him, and raised his hands in obvious acquiescence. "Okay. I'd be happy to."
"That's more like it." Taking a second spade from one of his cohorts, Jasser pushed it into Face's hands. "Right above where the stream comes out of the rocks. Dig inwards and downwards. And don't dig too hard. I'd hate to see the merchandise spoilt at this late stage."
"We'll do our best." Keeping most of the sarcasm from his voice, Face headed over towards the rocks. Molly was beside him and, just a few feet behind, were two of Blaise's men. Blaise himself, and the others, were hanging back a little way. Their over-confidence was practically palpable, and Face finally allowed himself to smile. Admittedly they had had every reason to be confident so far, and he had to confess that they had by no means been unworthy opponents - but they had allowed themselves to relax far too early. No matter what they thought, the A-Team did not give up this easily. He reached out for Molly's hand.
"What's up?" She had been surprised by his lack of objections to being used as slave labour, but had guessed that there was probably some reason for it. She hadn't forgotten the tie stuck on top of the dead tree, and had been hoping for something else ever since. He smiled, although he didn't look at her.
"Don't look now, but your favourite magician is hiding up a tree just above Blaise's head." His voice was very low, and his easy smile remained fixed in place throughout. "Are you ready to make a move?"
"What sort of move?" She tried to match his volume, but couldn't make herself speak that quietly whilst still remaining audible. Perhaps that was something that they taught you in Special Forces training.
"Just be ready." He seemed to be scanning the ground around them whilst not seeming to move his head at all. She wondered if he had seen anything, for she could see nothing at all.
"Here." One of the men tailing them was pointing with his gun to the place where they were supposed to start to dig. Face eyed the rocks without enthusiasm. A collapsible spade seemed an entirely unsuitable tool with which to attack a bunch of rocks, but there seemed little point in arguing. He gave a curt nod.
"Fine." Up above him, unseen and unheard to the party below, Hannibal's gloved hand fell lightly onto BA's wrist, and the big mechanic nodded his head. Face put the flat metal tooth of his spade between two large rocks, and gave an experimental twist. One of the rocks fell away, and revealed a large bank of earth beneath. Up in the trees, Murdock took firm hold of the first of his series of ropes.
"I guess we start to dig." Looking back at Molly, Face slid his spade into the earth. Hannibal's hand fell away from BA's wrist. Murdock's fingers curled more tightly around his chosen rope. Amy gripped her gun tightly, and tried not to screw up her eyes.
"I guess we do." Molly was still wondering if the A-Team really was here. Behind her Jasser and Blaise and the others seemed more than at ease. They were acting like a bunch of office workers let out early for the day, lounging around and joking together. She moved into place with her own spade. Face dug deep. Behind them, eyes as hard as they ever became, Murdock gave a sharp tug on the rope.
The explosion tore through the air with a force that, whilst not great, had added emphasis through sheer surprise. Caught in mid-squeal, Molly felt Face's hand on her wrist, and gasped in surprise as she was tugged off her feet and hurled bodily across the rough tumble of boulders. Wind whistled in her ears, and the ground rushed up to meet her. Face landed across her, keeping his weight on his arms in so practiced a fashion that it made her wonder just how much of his time he spent throwing people out of the way of warring forces. She caught a quick glimpse of his smile, before he was lost again to the growing dark. She wanted to go after him, but she stayed where she was, keeping her head down and listening to the mad cacophony of sound that was abusing the air.
The very second when Murdock had triggered his first grenade, Hannibal and BA had opened fire. Their bullets churned up the ground around Blaise's feet, and he leapt backwards in shock, his feet tangling instantly with one of Murdock's tripwires. He fell down with a scream of recognition, certain that he was about to be blown to kingdom come - but the explosion, when it came, was nothing like he had expected. Instead of violence and death he was greeted with a rush of heat and noise, and a shower of earth, leaves and stones. Disorientated he tried to stumble to his feet again, but almost instantly another explosion burst into life above his head. Bits of tree rained down. One of his men yelled out in pain and surprise.
"What the hell-?" Derek Jasser's voice came to him through the confusion, shouting out in amazement and fury, and he felt for his own gun in answer. Magill's men. It had to be. He wondered where she was, and whether he would be able to shoot her in revenge, but he found that he could not even see her. He could see little enough of anything, save little flashes of fire as somebody - or somebodies - fired bullets at him from atop the tower of rocks. Other flashes denoted the positions of his own men, firing back uselessly, their bullets ringing out in a series of pointless ricochets against the stone. Another yell, another explosion. Another tripwire tripped by incautious feet. Somebody yelped. Murdock tugged at another rope. Amy opened fire, and sent two men tumbling to the ground in an effort to avoid her inexperienced overhead fire.
"Face!" Standing up in his home-made shelter, Hannibal strained his eyes for a glimpse of his second-in-command. "Get Molly into the trees! We'll hold them off."
"Into the trees?" At present pinned down by gunfire, even though none of it was intentionally aimed in his direction, Face wondered just how he was supposed to break cover for long enough to get their cowering employer far enough back in the woods to be out of harm's way. She didn't really look as if she wanted to go, anyway, for in between shrieks and ducks she was obviously enjoying the show. Jasser and his compatriots were advancing though, anxious to attempt an assault on the refuge atop the boulders, and he could see the sense in falling back. He hefted his spade in one hand. Well, it was better than nothing.
He leapt out of hiding just as Murdock set off another couple of grenades, and in the bright burst of fire that resulted, the lieutenant caught a glimpse of a man rushing towards him. He swung his spade in a wild, fluent movement, catching the man across the side of the head. The collapsible spade followed its inbred instinct and collapsed, and so did the man it had struck. Face leaped nimbly over him, then reached out a hand for Molly. She grabbed it, and followed his lead just as Murdock's excitable yelp raised itself above the chatter of echoing gunfire.
"Not that way, Faceman!"
"Huh?" Face started to turn, responding to his friend's voice, only to see an overly large would-be opponent coming in his direction fast. He made a dash for the nearest tree, throwing aside Murdock's warning and dragging Molly in between the two nearest trunks. There was a crash of undergrowth as their pursuer continued after them. Face dodged, pulled Molly in a twisting manoeuvre that took them almost in a complete circle, and was about to start on an entirely new direction when they heard a slap of wood and an anguished yelp. They looked back. Their pursuer was hanging upside down, one foot caught in a loop of rope, his flailing arms brushing against the ground as he fought to get free. Face froze. Great. Booby-traps. That was just what he needed.
Up on the rocks. Hannibal was wishing that he had saved a few grenades, for it would have made things rather more interesting. Surrounded by BA and Amy he had remained on his feet, choosing not to hide behind his camouflaged shelter any longer. Bullets sent pieces of stone flying into the air around him, but he ignored them, focussing beyond the crashing and pinging ricochets. From what he could see, Jasser and two others were attempting to climb up to their refuge, firing wildly at targets that they could barely see. One man was unconscious following Face's attack with the spade, and another had chased him into the trees. Blaise was frozen, unwilling to try to get past Murdock's overhead grenade assault. One of his men had been knocked out by debris from one of the tripwires, and the final man was blundering about in the forest. Hannibal heard another tripwire blast into life, and allowed himself a little grin. Things had been too quiet in this forest for too long.
"You can't hold us off forever!" Jasser's voice, annoyingly confident, rose above the sounds of gunfire. Hannibal frowned. Now there was a man who needed his certainties wiped off his face. He thought about throwing down his gun and going out to do a little wiping in person, but thought better of it for now. Too great a chance of getting shot.
"You can't get us up here, pal!" Grinning around his cigar he sent a few more rounds down in the general direction of the advancing threesome, and took advantage of another of Murdock's grenades to take a better stock of things. The brief flash of light left his eyes seeing spots, but it gave him the chance to see exactly where his enemies were positioned. They had fanned out, and they were moving like professionals, but he already knew that they were good. That wasn't what worried him anymore. In the here and now, all that really mattered was whether or not he was better.
"Give it up guys." From his position in the trees, Murdock was trying to persuade Blaise and his remaining man, freshly returned from his disorientating tour of local tripwires, to give themselves up. Blaise took a few pot-shots at him, but Murdock fired back, leaving the would-be leader of men cowering. His confederate turned and fled again, crashing about in a second tangle of tripwires, and measuring his length upon the ground. Clearly this was more than he could stand, for despite his commander's fierce yells he remained sprawled and motionless, his hands clamped over his head, and steadfastly refused to move.
"And once again The Great Mur-Dock casts his spells of fiendish ingenuity and skill!" With a whoop of delight Murdock bunched his fists and waved them in the air. In doing so he presented a good target, but when Blaise tried to shoot him down his gun produced nothing more deadly than a hollow click. Empty. He threw it aside with disgust. Murdock gave a shriek of pure glee, followed it up with a series of yips that made him sound like an excitable puppy, and launched himself out into space. Blaise stared up at the tumbling body with shock, tried to get out of the way, and finished up flat on his back. Murdock, for all his apparently ungainly jump, landed neatly beside him on his feet. He grinned manically.
"Magic Police. Raise your hands and your wands above your head. Do not attempt to fly or become invisible." He waved his .45 with a happy flourish. "You have the right to silence, an attorney, and a copy of my new book, Spells For Beginners. I'd suggest you read it. It has a whole chapter devoted to escapology." His only answer was a very unimpressed groan.
In the forest, off to Murdock's left, Face and Molly had come to a standstill, determined not to set off any of the traps themselves. In the darkness it was impossible to see where any of them might be, although Face doubted that it would have been any easier in full daylight. He had seen BA's sneaky genius too many times before. He appreciated the way that his pursuer had been dealt with, but that didn't make his own current position any easier.
"What do we do Face?" Molly kept her voice low, sure that at any minute they were likely to be attacked again. Face didn't have a clue.
"Get back to the others I suppose." As a plan it was fairly hopeless, but better than doing nothing. He pointed back through the trees. "Aim for all the noise."
"And then what?"
"Watch where you put your feet." He was frowning into the darkness. "Follow me."
"But I can't see you. I-" Her voice trailed off into a squeak of alarm that stopped abruptly - and somewhat bizarrely - somewhere beneath the ground.
"Molly?" He looked around but couldn't see anything. Her voice came to him a few moments later, sounding more embarrassed than injured.
"Face? I think I've fallen down a hole."
"You think you have?" He took a step towards her, but she shrieked when she heard his footfall.
"No! Don't come any nearer. I don't want you landing on top of me. Just... just go and get help. Tell them they have to stop fighting each other and get over here."
"You fell down a hole?" He didn't know whether to laugh or sound serious, and was quite certain, even though he couldn't see her, that she was glaring at him.
"Yes, I fell down a hole. I'm not even going to ask what it's doing here." Behind them the volume of the gunfire seemed to crank up a notch or two, and she had to shout even louder just to be heard. "I can't get out. You'd better go and help the others."
"Okay." He peered into the inky blackness, trying to see her. "Stay where you are. You should be safe enough down there."
"I don't have any choice, Face." Her voice sounded halfway between deep irritation and acute embarrassment. "I can't go anywhere."
"Oh. Right." He nodded, although the gesture was entirely pointless. "I'll be back in a bit, then."
"Yeah." Beneath him, leaning against the soggy wall of her hole, Molly folded her arms and began to glower in earnest. "You do that."
On top of the tower of boulders, Hannibal was beginning to run low on ammunition. Jasser and his two confederates had got no further in their attempt to storm the summit, and were pinned down about halfway up. They still seemed as determined as ever, though, and the colonel had no doubt that they would soon reach the top if he stopped shooting at them. He glanced over at BA.
"How are you doing on ammo, BA?"
"Not good, man." They both looked over at Amy, but she merely shrugged.
"I don't think I've got much left either."
"Great." The barrage of grenades had long since ceased, and the tripwires had stopped exploding as well. Without that intermittent light the darkness was intense, and it would be hard to do any fighting at close quarters. There seemed to be little alternative, however. He puffed thoughtfully on the stubby end of his cigar, and frowned in thought. "Stay here, Amy."
"Stay here." He threw down his gun. "Would you like to step outside with me, BA?"
"Are you kidding? They've still got guns, man." BA was glowering, but Hannibal knew that he would follow anyway. He grinned into the darkness.
"Aw, BA. Don't be such a spoilsport."
"Just being sensible, sucker." The big man scowled, then threw aside his weapon. "Come on. Let's get this over with."
"Do you want me to carry on firing?" Amy felt nervous, for she had no idea where Face and Murdock were, and she didn't like the idea of losing Hannibal and BA to the darkness as well. The colonel shook his head, then repeated the answer verbally so that she would have some hope of receiving it.
"No. Keep quiet and stay down." She thought that she could hear him grinning, but his face was invisible behind the tiny glow of his decreasing cigar. "We'll be in touch."
"Be careful." She could hear noises now; Jasser and his companions beginning their ascent again, now that the gunfire had ceased. She heard Hannibal's laugh, faint and merry.
"Aren't I always?"
"Like hell." BA's sarcasm was filled with his own amusement. Hannibal laughed again.
"Come on BA. Time to put these slimeballs to bed. You with me?"
"Yeah, I'm with you." There was the sound of footsteps. Amy heard a scratching sound, a rush of movement, and a single, startled gunshot. After that there was nothing but confusion.
Hannibal knew from the first punch that he was in trouble. Jasser was strong and fast, and his companions were both large men. He threw a punch that seemed to have no effect on anybody, then had to duck straight away as another punch flew at him out of the darkness. He felt it whistle past his ear, and sensed a follow up that he could not dodge nearly so easily. It caught him on the shoulder, badly aimed but powerful, and he felt his knees buckle. Pain raced up and down his arm. He twisted aside, saw a fist flying towards him, spun out of the way and felt a sudden weight crashing down on his legs. He fell, and the hard rock came up to meet him.
Nearby BA was fighting hard against an opponent who appeared to be his match for size and weight. He was aware that Hannibal was in trouble, faced with two men who were both rather stronger than was the colonel himself, but there was nothing that he could do about it for the time being. He rode the force of a heavy attack, following it up with a punch of his own that would have dropped a lesser man in an instant. His assailant took it easily, however, and answered quickly in kind.
Nearby Hannibal was beginning to feel his vision blur, not that he had had much vision to begin with. The darkness was complete now, any moon that there might have been in the sky above completely invisible through so many thicknesses of leaf and branch. Darkness was sometimes a friend, but here, with two men both stronger than he was, it was a decided handicap. The colonel felt another powerful blow crash against his ribs, and began to think that he might be in trouble. He put up his hands to ward off the next blow - and felt his closest adversary jerked backwards. There was a grunt from the overbalanced enemy, and the sound of a powerful punch. Hannibal grinned.
"No problem colon-" The rejoinder was cut short as Face's opponent began to reassert his presence. Given a second wind by the appearance of reinforcements, however, Hannibal turned to his own foe - Derek Jasser - with renewed strength. He hit out - once, twice, three times - and felt rather than saw the other man crumble. He grinned. Now that was more like it.
"Er... BA?" Face's voice was plaintive, although in the darkness it was almost impossible to see his predicament. With a single punch the big sergeant finished off his own opponent, then turned about to help out his friend. Face was being held by the throat, his feet barely touching the ground, by a gorilla of a man standing before him. He gripped the big man's arm with scrabbling fingers, trying to free himself without success. BA smiled a grim smile.
"Huh?" Still struggling, Face glanced towards him, perhaps reading his comrade's intentions in the other man's mind, for it seemed unlikely that he could have seen the fist now flying towards him. Whether he saw it or not, his eyes widened and he blanched - then with a sudden effort tore himself away to one side. BA's punch struck home, felling the third assailant with a heavy thud. Face went down too, and so, caught up in the tangle, did Hannibal. The three of them rolled and tumbled down the rocky slope, and came to a halt above the stream. Water bubbled nearby. Face groaned.
"Is it over yet?"
"Yeah." For once not sounding too cheerful, Hannibal sat up carefully. He had lost what remained of his cigar, but he lit a match anyway, the better to see his resting place. In the tiny pool of light he saw BA, looming overhead with something approaching concern on his face; he saw Murdock coming over with Blaise at gunpoint; and he saw Face sprawled beside him looking spent. Amy's voice echoed down the slope towards them, asking if everybody was alright.
"We're fine." It was Face who answered, sounding anything but fine, as was his way when he was hoping for some sympathy. He sat up gingerly as he spoke, and untangled himself from the unconscious man who had been the recipient of BA's impressive right cross.
"Looks like we landed right on the X that marks the spot." Hannibal glanced about. "And speaking of which, where exactly is our charming client?"
"Oh." Face might have been looking sheepish, but Hannibal's match had gone out, and it was no longer possible to see. "I forgot."
"She's okay isn't she?" Amy was hurrying towards them, skirting unconscious foes and glowering prisoners as she came. Face nodded.
"She's okay. Just cross. Hannibal, next time you tell us to run for the trees, try telling us about the booby-traps, okay? They were a nice idea, but all they caught was the client. She's sitting down a hole right now, saying things that would make her uncle's hair curl if he could hear them."
"Oh." Hannibal grinned widely, then reached for another cigar and lit it up. They all saw his teeth flash in the light from the sudden red glow. Somewhere off in the distance, as if in response to his humour, Molly's voice came to them in the sudden unaccustomed stillness. It sounded as though she was demanding to be set free. "Oops."
They dug up the treasure in the first light of morning, after gathering up and securing Blaise's forces, and liberating Molly Magill from her hole. It took a little longer to liberate Murdock, who managed to stray into the path of a second hole whilst trying to find Molly in hers, and then even longer to cut BA down when he got caught up in one of his own traps. Murdock, grinning gleefully, set about trying to free the irate sergeant by the power of magic, and when Hannibal finally interceded and rescued the mechanic by more conventional means, it took all of Face's powers of persuasion - to say nothing of Murdock's hurried escape up the nearest tree - to prevent BA from dismembering the pilot there and then. He calmed down eventually, and with his muscles put to less violent use the team made short work of the hard earth. Molly and Amy watched in excitement, and Hannibal in interested detachment, as BA and Face dug down the last few feet to uncover a simple wooden box. Balanced in his tree overhead, Murdock kept up a running commentary in the sort of deep voice more usually employed to advertise film premieres. Even he, however, fell silent when Face tripped the lock and threw back the lid.
The jewels lay in a pool of fire, lit by the thin green light of the forest dawn. The Romanstein Trio, together in a triplicate of white gold and gemstones; the Glass Cup, lying rather innocuously on a bed of cotton wool; several anonymous necklaces and bracelets all a sparkle in the new morning light. In the centre of everything, draped in part over the rather inappropriately named Glass Cup, were the Emperor's Scarlet Women, the centrepiece of the collection in more ways than one. Molly lifted them up, watching the dark red lights flash and burn.
"Aren't they wonderful?" She held out the necklace to Face, who took it with an expression that suggested he would rather not hand it over to the museum.
"Wonderful." He could have said more - an accurate estimate of the piece's worth, a reckoning on how many carats each stone was worth - not to mention the names of several fences who would give him almost the necklace's true value with hardly the need to haggle. Instead he simply let it hang from his fingers, and offered the young woman an appreciative smile.
"Give that lot to me and I'll give you twice as much as the museum is paying you." Jason Blaise looked almost sick with jealousy, but Hannibal laughed at him.
"Try again, scumball." He twirled a necklace in his fingers, watching a row of tiny emeralds sparkle and shine. "Anyway, where you're going you're not going to be in a position to pay anybody anything. I think the authorities are going to be very interested when Miss Magill here tells them how you kidnapped her, and kept her at gunpoint." He put the necklace back in the box. "Now I really hate to conquer and run, but we've got a helicopter to catch. So long, Jason. Sorry to leave you all tied up, but there'll be somebody along to pick you up before very much longer."
"You're taking my helicopter?" Blaise sounded like a child whose favourite toy had just been taken away. Hannibal beamed at him.
"Very astute. I'm impressed. Fact is that we just couldn't be bothered to walk out of here, and since you were good enough to go over the details of the landing site right beneath my pilot's hiding place... Well sorry pal, but that's too good a chance to miss."
"Can I fly the 'copter?" Faced with the opportunity of a little jaunt skywards, Murdock brightened up immediately, dropping out of the tree he had been sheltering in, and risking the wrath of BA with a series of flamboyant leaps and bounds. "Can I? Can I? Please? Oh please. Please please please?"
"He ain't flying, Hannibal. If I've gotta go on some helicopter to get out of this place, I ain't having him fly me." BA folded his massive arms. "No way."
"BA..." Hannibal recognised the look of resolution on the sergeant's face, and sighed. Oh well. There was always the 'butt of the gun over the back of the head' trick, once they got a little closer to the landing site. "Oh, whatever..."
"How are we going to get close to them without them taking off?" Amy couldn't help thinking that in a clearing, where the light of dawn would be fully visible, instead of nothing more than a pale green glow, it would be hard to sneak up unseen. Hannibal grinned.
"That won't be a problem. We'd better be quick though. I want to get somebody to pick up the Slime Alliance here as soon as possible."
"Will the authorities listen to you?" Molly rose to her feet, watching as Face put the Scarlet Women back in the box and closed the lid. Hannibal shook his head.
"No, but they'll listen to you, kid. We'll tell you what to say, and then slip off into the background. You can tell them what you like about who was with you, but I shouldn't mention any names. The last thing you want is the MPs tailing you for the next month."
"Definitely not." Face flashed her a dazzling grin. "Especially not if we're going to be taking that little trip we spoke about."
"Trip?" Amy shook her head. "That hands-off resolution didn't last very long, did it Face."
"Who said anything about hands?" He leaned in close to offer Molly a quick kiss, and she smiled appreciatively.
"Besides," she added, with a wicked gleam in her eyes, "I never made any resolutions." She looked as innocent as she could manage. "I'm just looking forward to helping Face get over his."
"I'll bet." Rolling her eyes, Amy watched Hannibal and BA collecting up the various guns they had left strewn around the ground nearby. "And you won't be doing much resisting, right Face?"
"A gentleman never should." He had the grace to look faintly abashed nonetheless, then with Murdock's assistance lifted up the wooden box that had been the cause of all their recent exertions. It was heavy, but between the two of them was not too difficult to carry.
"You can't leave us here." Indignation coloured Blaise's tone. Hannibal did not bother looking in his direction.
"Yes we can." He sounded as though he was very glad to be doing just that. "It won't be for very long. See you around, Jason old fellow. I won't say it's been a pleasure."
"I'll pay you. Anything you like." Blaise's tone was becoming increasingly desperate, but Hannibal just grinned all the more.
"Pay us what you like, pal, but it won't do you any good. The A-Team's not for sale." He gestured at the heavy wooden box slung between Face and Murdock. "And neither are those jewels."
"The A-Team?" Jasser had gone very pale. "You people are the A-Team?"
"That's right, fool." BA's voice was edged with pride. "You suckers never had a chance."
"Well now that's not fair, BA. They might have done." Murdock was playing with his wand again, twirling it about in his free hand. "You forget that we had my amazing magical talents on our side. If it hadn't been for that, we might have-" He broke off as the sergeant turned a glowering face towards him. "You can't hit me, I'm helping to carry the treasure. If you hit me Face'll be cross."
"Gee thanks, Murdock. I always like to be stuck in the firing line." Face tried to prevent a tangle as the captain endeavoured to manoeuvre about to ensure that BA was kept well out of his way. "Can you walk in a straight line? I like my shins where they are, not scraped off onto the edge of this box."
"Guys guys guys." Hannibal was shaking his head in faint exasperation. "Can we at least pretend to be professionals? Don't squabble while the bad guys are listening. It's bad for our reputation."
"We're not squabbling," Murdock sounded cheerfully sulky. "We're altercating with imagination. It's just that BA always brings violence into it."
"I'm just trying to put up with you, fool. It ain't easy." BA's frown had grown deeper, and his voice had risen several decibels in volume. "Being trapped in this place with you for the last few days has been like being stuck back in the jungles in 'Nam. It ain't been fun!"
"BA really... You know you and Murdock like each other-" Amy broke off in the heat of the sergeant's glare, and slipped nimbly behind the relative cover of Face, Murdock and their treasure chest. Hannibal shook his head. Sometimes his team made him feel mature and responsible, which was honestly quite a feat. He quickened his pace, and let himself glide on ahead. Let them squabble. They had earned the right to a little recreation after the last few days, and he was proud of them, even if they did insist on arguing.
Left behind near the pile of boulders, tied well apart to a series of trees, Jason Blaise and his men listened to the fading voices of the quarrelling A-Team. Were these really the people who had defeated them? Who had ruined their wonderful plans and well thought out manoeuvres? Were these really the men who had overpowered them, and left them here like parcels for collection? It seemed impossible. It seemed ridiculous. And yet it was inescapably true.
"Why don't you let me carry that box, fool. You're dragging it along the ground." BA's voice filtered back long after the team had gone from view.
"Because I want to carry it." Murdock sounded haughty and insulted. "I got it first."
"Guys..." Amy sounded tired and amused.
"Keep back, Amy. I don't want to hit you with the fall out when I turn him into a platypus." Murdock again, agitated and incensed. The faint sounds of scuffling just reached the eight prisoners in their dark green cell.
"BA..." Face's voice, faintly admonishing. "If you shake him like that all his hair'll fall out. Besides, you're pulling my arm off."
"Come on, BA." Hannibal now, too amused to be properly remonstrative. "Put Murdock down. Honestly guys, sometimes I almost hate to be seen with you. What'll Jason and his boys think?" But back on the other side of the trees, Jason Blaise and his men were no longer listening. It was far too embarrassing. Three hours later, when the local ranger arrived to collect them, he could have sworn that Blaise and Jasser were still blushing - but then, of course, that might have been the heat.