“I still think it’s a mistake.”
Two hours of argument hadn’t convinced Face otherwise. BA and Murdock had retired to the sofa an hour ago and, though they still chimed in with their opinions, in the end it had come down to Face and Hannibal.
Face against Hannibal.
The two of them stood, facing each other, in Hannibal’s den. Not yelling, just… discussing it. Repeatedly.
“Getting involved with Stockwell was a mistake the first time,” Face went on. “And it would be a mistake this time.”
“We got our pardons in the end. Just like he promised,” Hannibal reminded him, but Face shook his head.
“And Philip Shriver handed them to us. Not Stockwell. And who knows who arranged them. But it wasn’t Stockwell.”
“Face is right,” BA said. “We don’t owe that guy nothing.”
“We made a commitment,” Hannibal said. “And not to Stockwell, to Shriver. We bought in to Zephyr, and we knew there was no get-out clause.”
“We destroyed it though,” Murdock said. “That was meant to be the get-out clause.”
“Well, it looks like we didn’t destroy it enough.” Hannibal frowned at Face. “We start a job; we finish it, however long it takes. It’s a matter of honour.”
He stomped over to a table with a humidor on it and took out a fresh cigar. For a moment, he stood glaring over at a locked cabinet on the wall. Face knew that was his gun cabinet where, among his own weapons, he kept Philip Shriver’s Glock 17. Hannibal didn’t use it. He just kept it.
Shriver died while under Hannibal’s command, and Face knew from the war what that meant. Any promise made to that man would be honoured. Was he wasting his time even arguing with Hannibal about it? Maybe, but that was his job. He owed it to BA and Murdock.
“Look,” Murdock said, sitting forward. “We keep talking about Stockwell, but this isn’t about what we owe him. It isn’t even about what we owe Philip. We know what the stakes are here. I don’t see that we have a choice.”
“You heard what Stockwell said,” Hannibal said. “We’re the only ones he can trust to pull this off.”
Face snorted at that. “You’re letting him do it to you again. Flatter your ego. He’s recruiting us for the exact same reason he did last time.”
“And that is?”
“Because we’re expendable.” He hesitated for a moment, in the face of Hannibal’s furious glare, but rallied and continued. “He didn’t recruit us back then because we were the best.”
“He said a lot of things to butter us up and get us where he wanted us. Is your ego so big that you still think we were the best unit Stockwell could recruit? Yeah, we had our… unique approach. But you think there weren’t younger teams? We were already slowing down even then.”
Hannibal didn’t answer, just looked narrowly at Face. Murdock was looking down at the floor now, his shoulders tense.
“He manipulated us back then and he’s doing it again now. Making us think we’re the only ones he trusts to help him save the damn world! But, the truth is, we’re all he can get. And still expendable. Not because we’re convicted murderers any more, but because we’re just has-beens.”
BA spoke, jumping in quick, addressing Face, but looking at Hannibal.
“Maybe you said enough to make your point, Faceman.”
“Have I, Hannibal?”
“If you have more to say, don’t let me stop you.”
Face hesitated. That wasn’t a friendly invitation. But shutting up had never been his strong suit.
“Didn’t you ever wonder why he never told us about the other teams he had stashed around the place? Like those Marines you said the two of you found living at Langley. It’s because he wanted us to think we were special.”
“We are special,” Murdock protested at once.
“You always been special,” BA snapped at him. “Quiet. Face ain’t done.”
“Ain’t done digging,” Murdock muttered. Face glanced at him and grimaced. Had he gone too far? Hannibal still wore a deep scowl. But after a moment, it cleared and he just looked determined.
“I’m doing it. We made a commitment to Shriver.” Face wondered if Hannibal had heard a word of anything Face had said. Had he ever listened? Murdock stood up and stood beside Hannibal. His action made his choice clear without him saying anything.
“BA?” Hannibal asked.
BA looked at Face and shrugged. “We can’t let those two fools go without us. Get themselves killed.”
Face nodded and sighed. BA had a point. Face had to be there to tether Hannibal back down to earth. BA and Murdock needed him there for that.
“Okay,” Face said. “But I’m not committing to anything until I know exactly what’s involved. And if I don’t like it, Stockwell can whistle for it. He can’t force us to do anything.”
“He never did force us,” Murdock said. “Not really. Heck, I volunteered! Unpaid.” He shook his head. “Which I guess gives you a definitive ‘yes’ to the question of whether I was still crazy when they let me out of the VA.”
“So it seems you’re curious after all, Lieutenant.”
“I’m here, Stockwell.” Face met smug with scowl, as he followed Stockwell into the living room, the first of the team to arrive. “How about we forget the wisecracks?”
“Can I take your coat?”
“I think I’ll keep it in sight.” That smirk again. How he’d love to wipe it right off.
“So, what you lack in curiosity you make up for in paranoia.”
“Well, after working for you, I can say I learned paranoia from the best.”
“I think I was paying you a compliment, Lieutenant.”
Face stared for a moment, and then shook himself. “Yeah, well, you can see why I’d be confused.”
Face wanted to laugh when they walked into the living room and Stockwell went back to setting up a slide projector. A screen stood against the wall. A long way from the state of the art electronics of the old days. Oh, how the mighty are fallen.
Silence stretched between the two of them, while Stockwell loaded his slides and Face watched him warily. Face’s small talk skills were no use here. What could he make chitchat with this man about? The weather? Right now, he’d swear Stockwell was trying to hold back his contempt for Face and his methods. Just like the old days.
“You don’t think much of me, do you, Stockwell?”
“What makes you say that?” Stockwell looked up from his slides, surprised.
“I happen to be very good at reading people. Goes with the job.”
“I’m sure.” There it was, in his eyes, the contempt for Face and his ‘job’. But then he shrugged and smiled. “Actually, though I can’t claim to have much affection for any of you, you demonstrated to me that you’re the most intelligent of the group.”
“What?” Of all the things Stockwell might have said to him, that came further down the list of likely possibilities than ‘I secretly have a crush on you.’ He recovered from his amazement and put a mocking tone back into his voice. “How did I demonstrate that then?”
“You’re the only one who tried to leave.”
The doorbell rang then and Stockwell walked out of the room, giving Face a nod to excuse himself. Face stared after him. He knows about that? Well of course he does. Just assume he knows everything. Safest way. Had Frankie – or whatever his name really was – reported it to him? Frankie hadn’t been working for either Hannibal or Stockwell in the end, despite what both of them thought, so who knew what he did and didn’t tell Stockwell? Whatever suited his own agenda.
Stockwell showed Murdock in and then went off to the kitchen, saying he’d make some coffee. Murdock, wearing a T-Shirt with Maxwell Smart on it, made a beeline for the slide projector.
“Should I mix ’em all up?” He asked, running his fingers around the carousel, making the slides clatter and click.
“God, no!” Face said. “This evening is going to be long enough!”
“Spoilsport.” Murdock turned a couple of the slides upside down anyway, and then flicked the projector on and the brilliant light hit the screen. A moment later a vaguely rabbit-like shape appeared in the light.
“Murdock, we’re here on serious business. And if that’s supposed to be a rabbit it’s a pretty deformed looking one.”
“How about a bird instead?” The shadow changed to that of a fist with the middle finger raised and Face rolled his eyes and sighed.
Hannibal and BA showed up in a few minutes and Stockwell served them all coffee and got straight down to business. Any sign of the more relaxed man who’d made them steaks a few days ago was gone.
“Gentlemen,” Stockwell said, turning off the lights and walking to his projector. “The person I need you to extract is a Dr Katherine Miller.” He brought up the first slide. It showed a dark haired and not bad-looking woman in her mid-thirties, wearing a white lab coat. Cropped from a larger picture, Face guessed, noting more white lab coats beside and behind her.
“Nice,” he said, because it was expected. However, he knew from her hair and the style of the collar of the blouse that the picture was an old one.
“I’m afraid that picture was taken about twenty-five years ago, Lieutenant. Here is the most recent one.”
Somewhat blurry, and she had short and almost entirely grey hair and spectacles. The same woman, but now aged at least sixty.
“So, what’s the deal?” Hannibal said. “Was she part of the Zephyr team?”
“Can’t have been,” Face said. “She’s still alive.” He thought he saw Stockwell wince in the light from the projector. Touché.
“No. She was a government scientist and a professor at M.I.T. She’s a specialist in encrypted radio communications.”
“She was a government scientist and professor.” Face noticed the important word in that sentence. “And now?”
“Dr Miller was involved in many top secret projects. However, about fifteen years ago she suffered a mental breakdown.”
“And your sort really don’t like crazy people knowing your top secret crap, do you?” Murdock said.
“She would have been a target for the enemy, or she could have spoken to the wrong people.”
“So you locked her up some place,” Face said. He heard a discontented mutter from BA somewhere in the darkness.
“Not me personally,” Stockwell said. “But yes, she was sent to a secure facility for treatment.”
“And I suppose she’s still there,” Hannibal said.
“And is she still crazy?” Murdock asked.
“I… don’t know.” Face heard the hesitation in Stockwell’s voice.
“The place has a one way door, huh?” he said.
“I’m afraid so. It’s a matter of national security.”
“Yeah, ain’t it always?” Hannibal had a tone in his voice almost as bitter as the taste in Face’s mouth. They knew what it felt like to be caught up in the machinery for the sake of the greater good. “So why do you need her? You said this was about someone having information about how to engineer Zephyr. She have that? You said she wasn’t part of the project.”
“She wasn’t. But her husband was.” The next slide popped up. Another lab coat, worn by a man with a neat row of pens in his top pocket, glasses and a bad haircut. A good smile though, a kind looking man, aged about forty.
“Dr Lewis Miller. Geneticist, and member of the original Project Zephyr team.”
“You think he told his wife about the project?” Hannibal asked.
“The Zephyr scientists were forbidden from telling even their family members anything about their work. However, the information I have is that Lewis Miller may have hidden some notes about the project, and that his wife knows where they are. I don’t -”
“Widow.” Face said.
“What?” Stockwell said, thrown off track for a moment by the interruption.
“You said wife. You mean widow, don’t you?”
“Yes,” Stockwell said, quietly. “He died in a plane crash.”
“With the rest of the team of scientists?”
“And it wasn’t an accident?” Face wasn’t letting it go.
“It would be naïve of me to expect you to believe otherwise.”
Face shifted uncomfortably in his chair, and heard shuffling from the rest of the room too. They’d all known when they were working for him what kind of stakes Stockwell played for. They’d met a few men like him in the war. Men who played by different rules.
“So, how you gonna get the old lady to tell you where the information is?” BA asked. “If you gonna hurt her, then you know what you can do with your mission.”
“I’m going to offer her freedom. You’re going to get her out and I’m going to let her stay out. If she leads me to the notes.”
“What?” Face said. “Are we supposed to believe you’re quite happy for her to wander around loose, talking to whoever she likes about her top secret work?” Was Stockwell playing one National Security risk against another?
“Remember I said it was fifteen years ago that she was committed. Her knowledge is so far out of date now that it’s useless. At least as a saleable commodity.”
“Okay, where is she?” Hannibal said. “And you’d better have good intel and equipment for us before we hit the place.”
“I’m afraid it’s not quite as straightforward as ‘hitting’ it.”
“Imagine our surprise.” Face sighed. Knew it. Just knew it.
The projector clacked again and a new picture came up, of a cruise liner at sea. There was silence for a moment, filled only by the whirring of the projector’s fan. Murdock spoke first.
“You’d better be about to tell us that this is the fabulous fourteen-night Caribbean cruise we’re going to win for completing this mission successfully.”
“This is the secure facility I mentioned earlier,” Stockwell said. The projector clicked around, showing more views of the ship. “The SS Meirion.”
“Are you serious?” Face said. “A cruise ship?”
“It was a cruise ship. Technically, according to the records of the fake company registered in Italy, that’s what it still is. But it’s actually something else now.”
“Let me guess,” Hannibal said. “An asylum.”
A floating asylum. It seemed like a good idea, actually, Face thought. At least it did if your mind worked in a particular way.
“It never puts into port,” Stockwell explained. “All supplies, personnel and patients arrive by boat or helicopter.” As he spoke, Stockwell clicked through more views of the ship. Some of them must be old, from when it actually operated as a cruise liner. The pictures showed happy vacationers wearing clothes from thirty years ago, in rooms decorated with flags and streamers. Face would bet that carnival atmosphere was long gone.
“So let’s get this straight,” Murdock said. “This thing cruises around the world, jam-packed full of crazy people who know really juicy secrets?” He shook his head. “Man, it’s a good thing the CIA never told me anything cool or I’d be playing shuffle-board right this minute.”
“Okay, how are we playing this?” Hannibal asked. “How much security is aboard?”
“The crew complement is around six hundred and at least half of them are security.”
“Three hundred? That would make it seventy five to one.” Even Hannibal sounded somewhat intimidated by those odds. “That’s… a lot of security.”
“Remember that not all of the patients are back room operatives like Dr Miller. There are also many former field agents.”
“Oh, crazy people who are trained to kill.” Face shook his head. “Even better.”
“Hey, I was a crazy person trained to kill,” Murdock protested.
“Yeah, and you got a lot more days out to blow off steam than these people.” Face looked at Stockwell. “So the security is tight.”
“And you think we can’t handle it?” Hannibal sounded disgruntled at the lack of faith, either from Face or Stockwell, Face didn’t know.
“Well you said it yourself, Colonel,” Stockwell said, “that you’re neither as young nor as sharp as you once were.”
“I don’t think that’s exactly what I said. But okay, if we’re not going to launch a commando raid, what are we doing?”
“Undercover!” Murdock said at once. “That’s it, isn’t it? You’re going to get us on board as new patients!”
“Exactly right, Captain.”
“Exactly wrong,” BA said. “I’m not pretending to be no nut.”
“Aw, it’s a cinch, BA,” Murdock said, grinning. “I managed it for years.”
“What? You weren’t pretending -”
“Guys,” Hannibal said, silencing them. “Stockwell, you actually think that can work?”
“With the cover identities I’ve created for each of you, I’m sure it can.”
Cover identities he already had worked out of course, Face thought. So arrogant that he knew they’d take the job. So sure of himself. So sure he could put them exactly where he wanted them. Exactly where he wanted…
“Wait just a tiny minute here,” Face said. “Now call me paranoid, but do you think we’re complete dummies or something?”
The other looked at him, and Stockwell raised his eyebrows. “Excuse me, Lieutenant? I don’t know what you mean.”
“If this ship is what you claim it to be, what’s to stop you leaving us on there to rot once you’ve got Miller. If Miller even exists and this whole thing isn’t a trick!”
“That’s a good point,” BA said.
Stockwell sighed in exasperation. Murdock looked very thoughtful and Hannibal scowled, at Face.
“He’d be the dummy if he tried that. He knows we’d get off there and come find him.”
“He just got done explaining escape is impossible,” Face reminded Hannibal. Hannibal started to laugh.
“Oh yeah, because we’ve never heard that one before.”
“Dammit, Hannibal, you’re as arrogant as he is. You damn well deserve each other!”
“Lieutenant,” Stockwell said, stepping away from the projector for a moment, close to Hannibal, perhaps to restrain him. “I know you’ve never trusted me. Frankly, I consider that more evidence of what I mentioned earlier.”
The others looked at Face, not understanding. He didn’t explain, just scowled back at Stockwell.
“None off us trusts you, General.”
“Then you’re all wrong. I once gave you my word. Did I ever break it? Did I ever actively plot against you?”
“You got us put on trial for our lives and almost executed!”
“That was before I gave you my word.”
“Oh, well, that’s okay then. What the heck was I worried about?” Face said, in a mock nonchalant tone.
“Besides,” Stockwell said. “What do you actually think I have to fear from you?”
There was silence for a moment.
“Us kicking your ass?” Murdock suggested.
Stockwell gave a thin smile. “A threat I’d be a fool not to take seriously. And since double-crossing you would only make that more likely, while gaining me nothing, I’d be an even bigger fool to try.”
“It gains you our silence,” Face said. “We know about your organisation. We know about Zephyr. And we know quite a few reporters.”
“And what’s your evidence of Zephyr? Or my organisation?”
They were silent again.
“You have a lot of unsubstantiated stories, that would be dismissed as groundless, and coming from men with a long-standing grudge against the government. Men whose fame is fading, and who would like some attention and money.”
All the silence before was nothing compared to the depth of the one that followed Stockwell’s statement. Eventually Murdock spoke up.
“Well, I think I’ll just step outside and shoot myself now.”
Face looked at Hannibal, the lines in the Colonel’s face deeply etched in the brilliant light shining from the projector. Stockwell was right. He had nothing to fear from them. He never had. He was in control back then. He was in control now.
“So, our only real weapon against you is revenge?” Face said.
“Exactly. And I have no intention of provoking that.”
Face sighed and shook his head. “Okay, go on. Let’s hear the rest of it.”
“You’ll only have to pull it off for a few days,” Stockwell said, stepping back to the projector, his tone brisk and business-like again as if the recent conversation had never happened. “Once you’re aboard, you will locate Dr Miller, and contact me. I’ll pick all of you up before anyone realises what’s happening. I believe that’s exactly the kind of scenario you’re good at.”
“What do you mean, locate her?” Face asked. He didn’t like the sound of that. It sounded like something that could turn into a great big nightmare.
“The ship has extensive accommodation decks, to house the patients and I don’t know which cabin she lives in. You will have to find her.”
“Just how many patients are there on board?” Hannibal asked.
“Currently, one thousand, three hundred and forty seven.”
“And we have to pick out one woman from all of them?” Face groaned. He knew it. Great big nightmare.
“Well, the ratio of men to women is actually about three to one, according to the last information I had,” Stockwell said. “So really you only have to pick her out of a few hundred women.”
“Only a few hundred. Great.” Hannibal sighed. “I think we should take another look at the commando raid idea.”
“No.” Stockwell’s tone brooked no argument, though that had never stopped the team in the past. “There have been attempts to attack the Meirion in the past. Sometimes from simple pirates, some to try to take the ship, or extract particular targets.”
“And?” Hannibal said.
“They all failed. I appreciate your talents, gentlemen. However, if you attempt a raid, you will die. We need to employ your subtle side.”
“We have a subtle side?” Murdock looked surprised.
“Well of course.” Stockwell turned off the slide projector and switched on the light. “You learned it from me.”
Yeah, we learned some stuff from you, Stockwell, Face thought. Subtlety isn’t even the half of it. They’d learned to accept sick stuff like this as normal. As the way the world worked behind the scenes.
Still… he thought about a small island and a crazed dictator. Three men to rescue and a boat to blow up, and the team had done it, of course. But they’d done more. They’d rescued the whole damn country. He glanced at Hannibal. Could he have something similar up his sleeve here?
With no more objections raised, Stockwell handed them the folders with their cover identities. Face discovered he was Ryan Ashton, CIA agent.
Hannibal looked up from his folder. “At least I keep my rank.”
“Yes, Colonel Reese,” Stockwell said. “I thought that would please you.”
“Hey, call me Jack.” Hannibal waved a hand. “We crazy people from Military Intelligence are very informal.”
“What about you, BA?” Face asked.
“I’m still Army too, Military Intelligence. Warrant Officer Travis Hayes,” BA said. He scowled. “Why can’t I be a sergeant?”
“I don’t like mine.” Murdock looked up from his folder.
“What’s the problem, Murdock?” Hannibal asked.
“Well for one thing the name. Larry McKenzie. Larry? Screw that. For another, I already have a secret cover identity.”
“Oh no,” Face said, seeing what was coming and determined to head it off. “Don’t you dare!”
“Surely, Logan Ross…”
“No!” Face and BA chorused. Hannibal grinned.
“Absolutely not!” Face went on. “Don’t even do that voice again, Murdock, or I’ll finish what I started in the strangling department.”
“But, Face -”
“I mean it!” Face would not go through that again. He’d already been edgy back then, nerves like bowstrings. Murdock’s behaviour as Logan Ross had sent him right to the brink of losing control. Then shoved him over it hard.
“Actually, I’m afraid that Logan Ross died some time ago.” Stockwell kept an absolutely straight face as he spoke. Murdock’s mouth fell open. “Heroically, of course, in the line of duty. He tried to bat away a grenade with a cricket bat, to prevent the assassination of the British ambassador to India.”
“And he… he…” Murdock whispered.
“He was out leg before wicket, I believe they call it.”
BA started to giggle. Face caught Hannibal’s eye and had to quickly look away again, to keep from cracking up.
“Why didn’t anybody tell me?” Murdock asked, still staring at Stockwell.
“Fool,” BA muttered. “Man never existed and you ain’t him.”
“I… I need a moment alone,” Murdock said, voice shaky and walked out of the French windows into the garden.
Face grinned and nodded to Stockwell, feeling almost kindly disposed to him.
Stockwell frowned though, losing the deadpan-yet-secretly-amused look he’d worn a moment ago. He turned to Hannibal.
“Colonel. Captain Murdock… is he…?”
“Don’t worry,” Hannibal said, relighting his cold cigar. “He’s just getting into character as a crazy man.”
BA snorted. “Fool ain’t never been out of character.”