Hannibal was singing.
“Ninety nine bottles of beer on the wall on the wall. Ninety nine bottles of beer …”
So far he’d worked his way down from one thousand bottles of beer. The song, chanted mantra like, coming out muffled through the black hood covering the colonel’s head. As the last bottle fell his voice died away and for a while there was silence. Hannibal tried to sit down again, against the wall. But with his hands cuffed behind his back and his ankles in leg irons it wasn’t exactly easy to get comfortable. And he knew the guards would check on him in a few minutes and come in to kick him until he got back to his feet. He made the most of the minutes, the small respite, his eyes closing, longing for sleep. Keeping track of the time was difficult, but he knew from the itchy growth of stubble on his chin that at least twenty-four hours had passed since they were brought to the interrogation blockhouse.
Frankie and Murdock were taken first, at the direction of the four westerners, who spoke Russian to each other and were, Hannibal guessed, probably KGB. Hannibal, Face and BA had started to fight as their friends were taken away, trying to provoke their captors into taking them instead. But these people were professionals, they had a schedule and nothing would distract them from it.
Hannibal assumed Face and BA were now getting the same treatment as him. They know exactly who we are he thought, they know who is vulnerable and who needs to be softened up first. He fretted about his men, Face tended to freak out when put in a hood for an extended period. He’d be ready next. BA reacted badly to lack of sleep. He worried most for Murdock and Frankie. Murdock for the fragility of his mind and Frankie… well, this wasn’t supposed to happen to him. He was supposed to be back in Hollywood, happily blowing things up on a film set.
Now he would change, a change Hannibal hadn’t watched happen to a man since Vietnam. Damn Stockwell, damn him, Madari was right, civilians had no place anywhere near combat. Damn Madari, where the hell was he? The uprising should have started last night, has he abandoned us? Damn him, no damn me! Why did I trust him? Why did I put our fate in the hands of a man who probably has some psychobabble post-traumatic stress crap? They say he wakes at night, screaming. He’s lost his nerve. I could see that. Why did I think I could say a few inspiring – hah! – words to him and he’d miraculously get better? Dammit, why am I such a fool?
“Damn! Damn! Damn!” His internal rant turned external and his head whirled, a deeper blackness pulling him down than just the darkness of hood. And it was met with the iron hardness of his will. He caught a deep breath pulling his thoughts together again. It’s the sleep deprivation, the sensory deprivation. Don’t give in to it, don’t let it take you down. He heard the heavy metal door opening and in a few seconds a boot crashed into his side. Painfully, awkwardly he got to his feet, several more blows from feet and truncheons landing on him before he was standing straight enough for them. They left again and he began to walk slowly, counting out the steps it took to get to the opposite wall. This hadn’t changed from the other fifty-four times he had counted them. When it did change he would start to get worried.
He was losing track now. Time had no meaning. All that existed was the darkness. In his eyes. In his head. No, hold on to yourself, Colonel. There is more. There is still a universe outside of this hood, outside of this cell. Where his men were suffering. Where they would all suffer and maybe die if they didn’t get out of here. Madari wasn’t coming. Hannibal had accepted that now. Why should he? He didn’t owe them anything, why risk getting himself killed for them?
What about the others though? The next most senior man was Captain Noor, a bulky, placid looking man, who came out with intelligent questions and bright ideas. While Hannibal had concentrated on the major Face and Murdock had worked on the rest of the soldiers, charming them, bonding with them as fellow officers. Those men had been eager to fight. Would they sit idle while their new friends were tortured? And would they fight under someone else if Madari refused to act?
But what if no one came? What if…? No, don’t go there. He had to keep his mind focussed. He’d already sung every song he’d ever learnt several times over. His mind went back, way back to a Midwestern schoolroom, spring-time, blossom heavy on the trees outside the open windows. He could smell it, my god he could actually smell the flowers and the grass, feel the warmth of the sun on his skin. And he started to recite to the class “Fourscore and seven years ago…”
“With throats unslaked, with black lips baked… black lips baked… damn, what was it?” Hannibal had moved on to poetry, and the longest thing he’d ever learnt. Half of it seemed to be gone now. And then it was all gone, because the door was opening and he could hear a babble of voices outside. They’re coming for me. It’s time. Well, I got through it before, I can do it again. The hood was untied and pulled off. He closed his eyes as light from the doorway blinded him after so many hours in the dark, briefly seeing shadowy figures surrounding him.
“Get those manacles off him.” At the sound of the voice his eyes sprang back open and he stared at the man in the doorway.
“Madari!” He gasped out, then, because he couldn’t stop himself, “What the hell took you so damn long?” Madari didn’t answer that, moved back out into the corridor, barking orders at his men. Hannibal was released from his shackles and the two officers helped him out of the cell. Face and BA were being brought out too. Both looked about as bad as Hannibal felt, but neither appeared seriously hurt. The three of them were given water, which they drank greedily. Then despite the pain Hannibal pulled himself up straight, away from the support of the officer on either side of him.
“The others?” He asked, his voice still croaky.
Captain Noor, a machine gun looking small in his large hands, said, “In here, sir.” He took Hannibal, Face and BA through to a large room. The smell of it hit them all as they went in, making their stomachs roil. Blood and vomit and burnt flesh. Frankie and Murdock were tied onto straight-backed wooden chairs, both slumped in their bonds, a man tending to each of them. At the far end of the room two officers were holding the four Russians, and their Arab colleagues at gunpoint and looking as if they were itching for an excuse to fire. Murdock wasn’t obviously hurt, but Frankie’s hands were covered in blood. Face and BA hurried to their friends, to check their injuries, to offer comfort.
“I think they’ve used drugs on them,” one of Madari’s men said, standing up from Murdock’s side, talking to Hannibal, “they’re barely conscious.”
“Frankie has…” Face’s voice cracked a little. “…they pushed needles under his fingernails, and his arms have been burnt.” Hannibal felt the anger start to rise, hot and red inside him.
“Somebody give me a weapon,” Hannibal said, enjoying the fear in the eyes of the torturers as Captain Noor quickly handed his gun to Hannibal. But he pushed away the anger, stored it up for later, needed a cool head now. “Get Murdock and Frankie out of here, leave these…people locked in here for now.” He left the torture chamber and found Madari outside in the corridor. Knew the major wouldn’t go into that room. Hannibal focussed his mind; there was still a long night ahead.
“Report, Major. First off, what time is it?”
“About one in the morning. We have all the guard towers and the dog patrols and I have men going for the armoury now.”
“I thought the attack was meant to start at sunset. The shift change on the guard towers?”
“There was a change to the shift patterns. They changed shifts at midnight instead.”
No time to ask why Hannibal ploughed on. “Okay, after the armoury is secured we get the guard’s barracks, then the guardhouse itself. Any alarms yet?”
“No. They don’t know…” He stopped as Murdock and Frankie were carried out of the room, and laid down on blankets in the corridor.
“Colonel…I’m…” Madari said quietly, then pulling himself together, “we’ll get them to the infirmary as soon as we take the guardhouse.”
The blockhouse guards were locked into their own cells. The team and the officers moved out, leaving two men behind to guard Frankie and Murdock. A squad of men, led by Captain Faraj had taken the armoury from the two men guarding it and they regrouped inside, began distributing weapons. Hannibal noticed how, with a gun in his hand, Madari lost all his previous self-consciousness about his mutilated fingernails.
“Major,” Hannibal asked, “any casualties?”
“Minor injuries only so far.” At Hannibal’s glance he added, “Apart from your men. I am sorry about that.”
“Why didn’t you attack last night? Hannibal asked, icy calm to keep any note of accusation out of his voice.
“It was impossible, they had every guard in the camp watching us last night.”
“Did they suspect something was going on?”
“Something was going on. After you were taken away there was some unrest among the prisoners. Especially when they saw the foreigners going to interrogate you.”
“There was a riot?” Hannibal was impressed. The charm offensive by Face and Murdock had apparently been even more successful than he’d realised.
“Not quite, but it was enough to make Ziyahd nervous. That’s why the shifts were rearranged today, most of the guards were up all last night.”
“Really? Nice. Okay,” he turned to his very small, but currently very well equipped, army. “Everybody armed to the teeth, I see. Let’s get this show on the road.”
The klaxon screamed into the night as the prison guard pulled the alarm lever, just before BA punched him into temporary oblivion.
Damn, thought Hannibal, and we were doing so well. They had taken the guards barracks with the minimum of fuss, most of the men were asleep. But making their way to the guard house they were spotted and the man who’d seen them was just a little too quick to get to the alarm. Shooting him would have had the same effect as the alarm so Hannibal had pushed aside the pistol Madari was raising and urged the squad into a run instead. They still had the element of surprise. Hearing the alarm the guards were probably expecting more prisoner unrest, not that they were about to be hit by a heavily armed unit of trained soldiers. And if he’d counted right there were only six men in there, including the general.
As they burst through the door, bristling with weapons, the first man who saw them instantly dropped his gun and threw his hands in the air. One down.
“Major, find the General, Face, with me, the rest of you mop up the rest of the guards. And somebody kill that alarm!” Madari headed off in the direction of the general’s quarters, two men with him. Hannibal led Face at a dead run through the corridors towards the radio room. Had to keep them from getting out a call for reinforcements. They reached the room with no interference and Hannibal barged the door open without even checking if it was locked. The radio operator turned from his console, a pistol in his hand. But he dropped it as he saw two machine guns, pointed at him by two very desperate looking men.
“Hands up!” Hannibal yelled, “Get away from the radio!” The guard didn’t understand, but got the message when Hannibal dragged him out of his seat and grabbed a coil of wire to bind his hands. He offered no resistance.
“Face, find us some more walkie-talkies,” Hannibal ordered. They had taken some from the guards, but not enough to go around yet. Face began searching the room while Hannibal took the operator out into the corridor, marched him back towards the common room area, where a group of guards was being held by Lieutenant Jahni and two other officers. As Hannibal entered the room the alarm stopped.
“Another one for your collection,” Hannibal pushed in the radio operator. “The major reported back yet?”
“Yes, Colonel.” Jahni answered. “He’s got the general, that’s the last, sir,” he gave a wide grin. “We did it.” Hannibal double-checked his mental calculations. The lieutenant was right, that was every guard accounted for.
“We sure did, well…” and he was interrupted by a scream from back in the direction of the radio room. His blood turned to ice water. Face. He turned and ran full pelt, vaguely aware that Jahni was following him. He hit the door even harder this time, smashing it off its hinges. Face was on his back on the floor, a huge Alsatian dog standing over him. Its claws were scrabbling on his chest, slavering jaws snapping at his neck.
“Hannibal!” Face yelled, “Get it off me!” The only thing keeping him from having his throat torn out was the barrel of his machine gun, which he was pushing the dog’s head away with. Not far enough away, he could feel its hot, foul breath on his face.
Hannibal ripped the handgun from his belt and knelt by the struggling pair. He pushed the gun under the dog’s chin and fired, upwards to keep from accidentally shooting Face as well. Its body fell limply on top of Face and Hannibal pushed it off him quickly. Face closed his eyes, covered them with a shaking hand and groaned. Hannibal quickly checked him for injuries. They were superficial. Cuts to his hands and forearms where the dog’s teeth had grazed him, scratches on his chest from its claws, no doubt some nasty bruising soon, but no broken ribs that Hannibal could feel.
“It was in there,” Face pointed a trembling finger into a small storeroom, “I opened the door and the damn thing came out like a rocket.”
“Nice little trap,” Lieutenant Jahni said, sounding as if he wanted to go and have a few words with the radio operator about leaving unexploded dogs around.
“Stupid,” Hannibal muttered to himself. “Stupid. I counted the men, I didn’t account for the damn dogs.” He turned to Jahni, ordered, “Go check the dogs. Make sure they’re all locked in their kennels.” The lieutenant saluted and sped off. Hannibal helped Face to his feet.
“We’ll get you cleaned up soon, Face.”
“I’m okay,” Face said, seemed to be recovering from his shock. He looked down at the dead animal, the top of its skull blown away. “Hannibal, don’t tell Murdock you shot a dog.” The colonel had to smile.
“That wasn’t exactly Billy, Face. It was an attack dog trying to rip out your jugular. I think Murdock would understand.”
“Even so, just… don’t tell him.” He went back over to the storeroom where there was a rack of walkie-talkies. Found a bag and started stuffing them in. “Are we secure yet? Can we get Murdock and Frankie into the infirmary?”
“Yes, bar checking on those dogs. You organise moving Murdock and Frankie. And find someone to distribute those radios.”
Face went off and Hannibal made his way through to Ziyahd’s office. General Ziyahd was sitting at his desk, his usually neat hair unruly, his uniform jacket over a pair of silk pyjamas. Madari and the two officers he had taken with him were searching the office and piling their more interesting finds on the general’s previously empty desk.
“Smith!” Ziyahd said, in a disgusted voice. “I might have known. Are you in charge here?”
“Well you aren’t any more, General, that’s for sure.” Hannibal looked over the items accumulating on the desk. “BA will be glad to get his gold back,” he said. “And I think that’s my watch.” He put it on.
“Smith, I demand to be treated in accordance with international law.” Ziyahd said. Of course, thought Hannibal, this sort always did.
“And your men?” Hannibal asked in a low, dangerous voice.
“What? Oh, them too of course.”
Hannibal just gave him a long cold look, then said, “Major, take him to the blockhouse. The rest of them too, lock them up, make sure they have water.” Madari pulled the general up from his chair, by the front of his jacket. He growled something in Arabic in the man’s face and then dragged him out, taking one of the officers with him.
“What did he say to him?” Hannibal asked the man left behind.
“Sir? Oh, the major said, ‘you really should have asked him about your men first.’ And then he, erm, called him a bad name, it’s hard to translate,” the man actually blushed a little, “it, er, involves goats…”
“Never mind, I’ll use my imagination. Captain Faraj, isn’t it? Go and fetch a couple of doctors. Not the camp doctor. From among the inmates please. Bring them to the infirmary.”
Frankie and Murdock were brought into the infirmary and the doctors brought from the inmate barracks set them up on IV fluids, to flush their systems of the drugs they had been given. Satisfied his men were in good hands Hannibal dragged away Face and BA. They met up with Major Madari and Captain Noor in the guardhouse common room.
“All of the guards are locked in the interrogation blockhouse, except the two still tied up in each tower.” Noor reported.
It would be tricky to get them out of the towers, everyone agreed. They would have to be untied to allow them to climb down the ladder. Much better to do that in daylight. The inmates were still in their barracks. Hannibal was happy to keep things that way until dawn. Didn’t want a lot of civilians wandering around in the dark. They still had work to do.
“By the time the sun comes up I want that cannon stripped, cleaned and ready to fire. If an air attack comes I want us to be ready. Let’s go.”
Hannibal sat on the steps of the main entrance to the guardhouse, sipping a tin mug of coffee. The Arabs normally served coffee in tiny cups, but Hannibal felt the need for a large amount of very strong coffee. Two nights without sleep was telling on him. He’d gone longer in the past, but he’d been younger then too. Against the lightening, near-dawn sky he could see the menacing shape of the anti-aircraft gun. Men climbed over it, working under Face and Madari’s supervision. He could hear BA’s voice as he ordered around another team of men checking over the trucks and jeeps, tweaking every part to perfect efficiency. BA did not intend for them to break down in the middle of the desert half way to Jordan. Hannibal’s walkie-talkie crackled as the officers talked to each other. Most of it was in Arabic, but sometimes he heard Face or BA.
“Mornin’, Colonel.” Hannibal almost spilled his coffee as Murdock’s voice sounded right behind him. He must be tired; he hadn’t heard anyone approaching him. Murdock moved past him and outside.
“What are you doing up, Captain?”
“Oh, I feel fine now. After all the drugs they’ve tried on me at the VA that stuff the Russians gave me was like taking NyQuil.” Hannibal looked at him narrowly, but he seemed lucid.
“Frankie?” He asked. Murdock looked serious.
“He’s still out. He got the worst of it, they were…” he took a breath, shaking off the memories. “They were hurting him to pressure me. It was pretty bad, Colonel.” He wrapped his arms around himself, shivered.
“Okay,” Hannibal said, after a moments pause. “Go get yourself a weapon and a radio.” Murdock ran off to the armoury. Hannibal noticed that the inmates were coming out of their barracks now. Some of them stood by the fence staring at him. He raised his mug in a salute and grinned, then went back to drinking his coffee. Two Arab officers were in the prisoner compound, talking to the inmates, explaining the new situation.
“Hey, Colonel, just like old times, huh?” Murdock was back, carrying an M-16. He nodded at the rifle. “Old friends from ‘nam. And here I was expecting to find crates of Kalashnikovs, labelled ‘from your good friends in the Soviet Union.’”
“We can’t expect them to make it too easy for us.” Hannibal said.
“I used a Kalashnikov once,” Murdock went on. “The instruction manual was weird though.”
“Oh yeah?” Hannibal had heard this gag before, was only half listening to the Captain. He was watching the prisoner compound. An inmate approached the gate pushed it open in an experimental way, as if he couldn’t quite believe it wasn’t locked any more.
“Yeah, it said ‘for best results draw the enemy into your own territory and wait for him to freeze to death.’”
“Funny, Murdock. Hey, kid, whaddya say?” He called out to the man making his way tentatively out of the gate. It was Salim. He ran over to Hannibal and Murdock.
“Colonel Smith, you did it!” He grabbed Hannibal’s hand in both of his own as Hannibal rose, shook it enthusiastically, did the same to Murdock. “We’re free!”
“There’s still work to do, Salim, do you want to help Sergeant Baracus with the vehicles?”
“Of course, I’ll be…”
Machine gun fire cut across the camp, throwing up sand as it gouged the ground. Men scattered, yelling. Hannibal, pure instinct driving him, threw himself backwards into the doorway with Salim in his arms. Murdock lunged in beside them, the three men landing in a heap. Hannibal pushed away from the other two at once, scrambled on his knees to his dropped radio.
“It’s the south west tower!” He yelled into the walkie-talkie, which was babbling with voices, Face and BA’s the only ones in English. “South west tower! I saw the muzzle flashes!” Then he stared at the radio in his hand and snapped urgently, “Shut up! Everybody quiet! Radio silence, now! Major, order your men to radio silence!” One by one the voices stopped. Hannibal breathed a little easier. This would be hard enough without giving away their plans to the men shooting at them, who were doubtless listening in, and, he realised with a sinking heart, could have been listening in for some time. He became aware of a voice that wasn’t on the radio. It was Murdock’s behind him, speaking very quietly.
“Oh no, oh no.” Hannibal turned, his gut a knot of fear. Murdock was sitting with Salim clutched awkwardly to his chest. The back of Salim’s shirt was soaked with blood. Hannibal sprang over to them, took Salim from Murdock’s arms into his own.
“Get a medic!” Hannibal ordered.
“Hannibal…” Murdock said softly, sadly.
“Do it, Captain!” Hannibal yelled. Murdock scrambled to his feet and ran.
“They were shooting at me.” Hannibal said, half to himself, half to Salim, “dammit, they were shooting at me!” Salim couldn’t hear him. His eyes were open, but they no longer saw anything. Gently Hannibal closed them, held the young man close.
Murdock returned with two doctors within minutes and they took Salim… Salim’s body… from Hannibal. Hannibal stood up and watched them check the engineer. Then one looked up at him, shook his head. But Hannibal didn’t need the confirmation. He already knew that Salim was dead.
Another burst of gunfire erupted, met this time by answering bursts from the other guard towers. Hannibal looked around as Face and Madari appeared from the interior of the guardhouse. They must have worked their way around under the cover of the other buildings and got in through a window.
“Hannibal,” Face gasped, wide eyed, seeing the blood staining the colonel’s clothes. “Are you okay?” Not trusting his voice yet Hannibal nodded towards the group on the floor. Madari was already staring down at them. “Oh god,” Face whispered.
Hannibal straightened himself up, again storing away the anger and pain. He turned to Madari as the medics picked up the body and carried it away.
“Did you get anything useful before we went to radio silence?”
“My man in the south east tower reported that a body was pushed out of the hatch of the south west tower. Just before they started shooting.”
“Who was your man in the south west tower?”
“Lieutenant Hoshel.” Madari’s face twisted with anger, but it was directed at himself. “I should have reinforced the towers. I should have sent another man up each of them.”
Hannibal shook his head. “That would have left us too thinly spread on the ground. How long can they hold out up there?”
“They keep plenty of ammunition and food and water rations for several days.”
“Long enough to wait for reinforcements to arrive. Meanwhile they take pot shots at anyone who moves.”
Another burst of machine gun fire interrupted them. Strange metal spanging noises were heard and over their radios BA’s voice yelled.
“Hannibal! They’re shooting up ma trucks!” At another time Hannibal might have smiled at the outraged, possessive tone in BA’s voice, but he was a long way from smiling now.
“Maintain radio silence, Sergeant,” he snapped.
“If they hit a gas tank we could lose all the vehicles.” Face said.
This had to end fast. Hannibal couldn’t let them keep everyone pinned down like this indefinitely. And they couldn’t lose those trucks. It was getting light and there was a lot of open ground with no cover between here and the south west tower. Even if they could get to it, no one could climb the ladder without being fired on through the hatch. Taking them out with a sniper rifle from another tower was near impossible. The towers had shutters all around them to keep out sand storms and defend against enemy fire, and all the shutters on the southwest tower were down now. Flaps in the shutters permitted the occupants to poke weapons through and keep anyone from approaching. Steel was plated over the interiors of the shutters. They were small fortresses in themselves, well equipped for a siege.
There was only one option Hannibal could see. Hated it, but had to take it. He looked at the expectant faces around him, said, “Follow me.”
They re-traced the route Face and Madari had just taken to get into the guardhouse. Out of a back window, round the back of the armoury and the blockhouse, along the side of the blockhouse by the eastern perimeter wire of the camp. The men who had been working on the anti-aircraft gun were sheltering there.
“Is it ready?” Hannibal asked Face.
“It should be, but we never got a chance to test it.”
“Shells?” Face pointed at a wooden box beside the gun. “Okay, Madari, I need you with me. Face, Murdock give us covering fire. Go!”
As Face and Murdock broke cover and fired their weapons the men in the other friendly towers got the message too and fired on the south west tower, keeping its distinctly unfriendly occupants from shooting at Hannibal and Madari as they ran for the gun. Hannibal grabbed a shell and climbed into the firing seat, loaded the shell and swung the barrel around to bear on the tower.
“Major,” he shouted at Madari, who was on the ground, behind the gun, sheltered from the machine gun fire. “Tell them they have twenty seconds to throw out their weapons. They won’t be harmed if they surrender.”
“They killed Al Fulani and Lieutenant Hoshel,” Madari reminded him.
“I know. Twenty seconds. Tell them.” He heard Madari on the radio, speaking in Arabic. When he stopped talking Hannibal started counting. He heard a reply coming over the radio, recognised the defiant tone in the voice if not the words, swallowed the sick feeling rising inside him. Don’t be damn fools, don’t make me do this. Madari went on talking to them, his voice steady, calm, reasonable. Hannibal hoped he was trying to persuade them to do the sensible thing. The defiant answers came back interrupting him. They don’t believe us, Hannibal realised, they think we’ll kill them anyway. They just want to take out as many of us as they can before we can get them.
Sixteen. Sweat broke out across Hannibal’s back and arms. He had to wipe his palms on his shirt as they became wet.
Seventeen. More machine gun fire burst from the tower. Hannibal and Madari instinctively ducked.
Eighteen – But it wasn’t directed at them. Instead it smashed into the front walls of the prisoner’s barracks, wood splintering, glass shattering and flying lethally from the windows. Hannibal heard screams from inside. And all that pain and anger he’d stored up today was finally unleashed. He took the last two seconds of their warning…
Nineteen – to sight the gun and…
Twenty – trigger it.
The shell smashed into the tower and at such a short range the effect was devastating, ripping it apart in a huge fireball. Charred debris raining down all over the camp and the surrounding desert. As the thunderous noise of the explosion died away the only sound was the barking and howling of the dogs in their kennels. Black smoke rose high into the sky as dawn broke.