“The future is not some place we are going to, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found, but made, and the activity of making them, changes both the maker and the destination.” – John Schaar
Ray Brenner stepped off the bus and it pulled away, revealing a diner on the opposite side of the street. He didn’t make an immediate move towards the diner, but paused on the edge of the sidewalk, apparently only waiting for a safe moment to cross the street. But, his eyes were not on the moving cars; they searched for any that might have pulled in when Ray got off the bus. People caught his attention too, the street around them fading to a blur as he focused in turn on each man and woman in sight. Had anyone gotten off the bus but not left?
No, he decided after a moment, it looked clear. Safe to cross the street, safe to walk into the diner. At the counter, he ordered a sandwich and a soda and took a booth, right by the window, as he’d been instructed. That made him smile. Typical. Bravado, perhaps. But practical too. Those outside could see in, but Ray could see out too, and keep watch. A quiet booth in the back could turn into a trap.
A glance around told him where the escape routes were. A second door stood at the opposite end from the one he’d come in, both of those equipped with a jangling bell. Kitchen door lay behind the counter. Another marked Private probably led to an office. It could have a fire exit through there, or windows at least. The bathrooms – almost certainly a dead-end.
He didn’t look for those exits for his own sake, but for the man who slid into the booth opposite him, startling him. He’d seen this man come in a moment ago, looked him over and dismissed him. The man he’d come to meet would be in disguise of course, Ray knew that, but when you knew someone well enough you could spot him by the way he walked, by his posture. At least, he thought you could. Seems he’d been wrong.
“Hannibal, you are too damn good at that.”
Hannibal grinned and Ray marveled at the fact his face was disguised only by a moustache and glasses and yet Ray still hadn’t spotted him. The body shape and the posture were different though. Padding, Ray supposed, and enough of a slouch to take off a couple of inches of height.
“You should be an actor, Colonel.”
“Well, I am looking for a new job right now.”
The waitress came over then with Ray’s order and Hannibal ordered a cup of coffee.
“Is the moustache real?” Ray asked, curious. The last time he’d visited them in Fort Bragg, almost two months ago, Hannibal had been his usual clean shaven self.
“Depends what you mean by real.” The old sparkle danced in his eyes. “It physically exists. It’s currently attached to my face. How much more real does it need to be?”
“You sound like Murdock.”
The sparkle faded. “Have you seen him?”
“No visitors allowed yet. They said maybe next week. I’ll try to get back up to LA then, if I can get a pass.”
“Right.” Hannibal took an envelope from his pocket and passed it to Ray. It had no name written on it. By the feel of it, there must be several sheets of paper inside. “This is for Murdock, when they let you in to see him. It’s to tell him what we’re doing. ”
“Doing?” Ray asked and then they waited a moment as the waitress brought over Hannibal’s coffee. Hannibal spooned a couple of sugars into the coffee and sipped it.
“That’s why I asked you to meet me. You’ve been a good friend, Ray. Always stuck by us.”
“You guys are getting railroaded.” Ray had done what he could for his friends. Visited them, supported them, written to everyone he could think of who might be able to help. But he received few replies, and none those were encouraging.
Of course, he didn’t know what really happened with the robbery; he’d left the team by then. But he trusted the guys. If they said they robbed the bank under orders, that’s what they’d done. After all, Hannibal had never cared about money for himself. Ray doubted he even had a savings account. What would he do with a million dollars? Retire? The idea made Ray smile. The day of Hannibal Smith’s “retirement” would involve a shovel, not a gold watch.
If he had no doubts about the robbery, he did have some about the escape. He thought they should have stayed until their trial ended. Now, things could be worse for them, if Lynch caught them. He knew how determined the brass was to get the team back. The escape made the Army look pretty dumb. You’d think they’d know how to contain guys who had skills the Army itself taught them. Of course, Hannibal and the team had picked up a few extra skills.
But, it wasn’t Ray’s job to question Hannibal’s choice. He felt sure Face would have that covered.
“Have you heard anything new lately?” Hannibal asked. “About Lynch?”
Ray nodded. He had friends in the Pentagon who kept him up to date on developments. And when he could, he kept Hannibal up to date.
“He’s still head of the team assigned to catching you guys. They’ve posted a temporary replacement for him at Bragg, so they must think Lynch will be working on your case for a while.” He grinned. “Let’s hope it’s a long while.”
“If this works out, then it should be. A long, long while. We’re going to vanish, Ray. Off the map. LA is too hot for us. Any city is. I thought we could vanish into the crowd, but it didn’t work that way.” He sighed, then grimaced and put his cup down, making a small rattle as it touched the saucer. “Tough to vanish while hanging with two guys who look like a bouncer and a male model.”
Ray almost laughed, but Hannibal didn’t seem in the mood. “When you say you’re going off the map, what do you mean? Are you leaving the country?”
Hannibal’s head snapped up, his face wearing a fierce scowl. “No!” He didn’t shout the word, but the vehemence behind it made Ray move back just a fraction of an inch. “We won’t leave the country.”
“I guess it could be hard to get back in.”
“Yeah,” Hannibal shrugged. “Yeah, there’s that.”
So, that wasn’t the reason, Ray knew. He thought he understood. Hannibal had always been a patriot. Sometimes the younger men had looked uncomfortable or even laughed, behind his back, at the old-fashioned patriotic things the colonel said. But Ray knew they were sincere beliefs. No, Hannibal wouldn’t desert his country.
“We’re just going out, you know, into the wilds,” Hannibal explained. “We’ve got the training for it. They don’t call us guys ‘snake eaters’ for nothing, do they?”
Ray winced at certain memories from his training. Thanks for that reminder, Colonel.
“We can camp out,” Hannibal went on. “Live off the land. Hunt. Fish.”
“Face must be looking forward to it.”
Hannibal laughed, at the dry tone in Ray’s voice. “Do him good.”
“So, where are you going?”
“Ah, well, I’m not actually going to tell you that.”
“Colonel, if you think you can’t trust me, because I’m still in the Army, you’re wrong. You know after what we all went through together, that my loyalty -”
“I know,” Hannibal held up a hand to cut him off. “You’ve shown me that, by the fact you didn’t slap a pair of cuffs on me the minute I walked in here. But I’ve already compromised you enough.”
“Then why tell me about your plans at all?”
“Because anything could happen to us out there. If we fall into a ravine and nobody ever sees us again, at least someone will know that we didn’t run off to South America.”
“Okay, I understand.” Ray tapped the envelope on the table. “And this explains all that to Murdock?”
“Yeah. I wasn’t so sure about that, but Face insisted. Said it has to help him to know we’re okay.” He sighed. “Frankly, I’ve had a hell of a time keeping Face from trying to sneak into the VA to visit Murdock.”
“That would be a bad idea,” Ray said at once. “I know for a fact Lynch has the place watched.”
“I know, that’s what I tell Face.” Hannibal shrugged. “So the sooner we’re out of LA the better.”
“So how long do you plan to stay out of sight?”
“As long as it takes for our trail to go cold. For the newspapers to lose interest, so we don’t have everybody in the country trying to spot us. And maybe Lynch’s search will be scaled back by then.”
“He’s spending a hell of a lot of money,” Ray said, nodding. “The Army won’t let him do that indefinitely. You’re right – if he doesn’t catch you soon, they’ll cut his budget.”
Hannibal grinned at that thought, and then sobered again. “We’ll have to touch civilisation sometimes. When we do, I’ll post letters to you. You can forward them on to Murdock, to BA’s mom. I guess that’s gonna give you some clue where we are, but there’s not much I can do about that.”
“That sounds risky. There’s always a chance that Lynch could get suspicious of me, intercept my mail.”
“I know, so I’ve paid for a post office box, here in LA. Six months upfront.” He handed Ray a key and a piece of paper, with the address and box number. He didn’t look happy about it, Ray thought, and wondered if Face and BA had forced him into a compromise.
Ray tucked the key and papers away in his pocket. All very cloak and dagger. His life had taken a strange turn, one that could see him lose his career and probably his liberty if caught. But he did it despite that and knew why. Not reasons he liked to think about much, but he knew why.
Hannibal glanced at his watch. “I’d better go. Got some shopping to do.”
“How’s Trish, by the way? You persuaded her to marry you yet?”
“Still working on it.”
“Good.” Hannibal smiled, some of the sparkle coming back. “I never let quitters in my unit.” He finished the last of his coffee in a gulp and then held his hand out. Ray shook it.
“Good luck, Colonel. To all of you. Don’t fall in any ravines.”
“Thanks, Ray. When I come back, I want a wedding invitation waiting for me.” With a wink, he slid out of the booth and walked out of the diner, once again unrecognisable when Ray couldn’t see his face. Ray watched him go, and then picked up the envelope for Murdock.
Murdock. Kind of an anomaly, that guy. Not part of the unit officially, yet part of the team. For reasons beyond his piloting skills. Hard to imagine the team out there without Murdock, but according to the phone call from a friend with contacts at the VA, Murdock would be bouncing off the walls there for years to come.
Thinking of that now, of his planned visit to the VA, he felt sick. He liked Murdock and wanted to see him, but the thought of seeing him like that… Not many things could scare Ray Brenner, career soldier, decorated war vet, Special Forces. Yet the prospect of that visit did.
But, he’d promised Hannibal that he’d give Murdock the letters. And once Ray Brenner gave his word he’d do something, count it as done.
Hannibal walked into the motel room where he, BA, and Face had slept the past two nights. Damn, he thought, the place looked like Christmas morning in tornado country. Heaps of brand new camping and hiking gear lay around on the beds and floor. The boxes, bags and wrappers it all came in took up the rest of the floor space. BA sat on one bed, examining a camping stove with a critical eye. Face lay on his stomach on the other bed, head resting on his crossed arms.
Hannibal grinned at BA. “When I said ‘get everything’ I meant everything on the list, not everything in the whole store.”
BA shrugged, not smiling back. “Looks like more than there is. We get it packed you’ll wonder where it all went.”
Face still hadn’t moved. Sleeping? Through Hannibal coming in and talking to BA? Unlikely.
“Shopping tire you out, Lieutenant?”
No answer. Hannibal opened his mouth to speak again, but caught a look in BA’s eye, and a small shake of his head. A clear signal, one they’d exchanged in the war when traversing hostile and booby-trapped terrain. Don’t take another step in that direction.
So Hannibal began inspecting the gear instead, starting with the three modern, lightweight backpacks. One blue, one yellow, one green, and the nearly florescent colours made him wince, thinking the enemy could see you a mile away with one of these on your back. But in this case the bright colours were their own kind of camouflage. Just like normal hikers. Normal hikers wanted to be highly visible in case of trouble. Normal hikers worried more about falling and getting trapped some place than they did about enemy snipers.
Hannibal inspected the packs carefully. He’d told Face and BA not to skimp, whatever the expense. They’d have to live out of these for months. Different models he noticed as he checked each one. Good. Not too regimented. It could strike someone as odd if all their gear matched. And odd meant memorable.
A fat roll of cloth and light metal poles beside each pack made him look at BA, questioningly.
“A tent each? We decided one big one is warmer.”
“Yeah, well me and Face decided that one tent is like one motor home, and we already decided against the motor home.”
Hannibal grimaced. Why the hell had he even thought for one second that a motor home would be a good idea? They’d have killed each other before the end of the first week.
“We have a tent each means we get some privacy,” BA said. “Ain’t had any of that in a long time.”
No indeed. Hannibal had been in the Army for so long that at times he forgot the whole concept of privacy. And Face, with the orphanage and all, couldn’t ever have known any. He glanced at Face, who still hadn’t moved or spoken. He wasn’t asleep though; his body was too tense for that.
Okay, Hannibal thought, I can wait. I can wait all night if he wants to play it that way. He turned back to the equipment, making sure they had everything they needed. Only had a couple of days now to get anything still missing. Then he wanted them on the trail. BA was still playing with the little stove, though he must have learned all its secrets by now.
“Let’s clear up this mess.” Hannibal waved a hand at the wrappers and bags. “And get these babies packed.”
BA got off the bed and started clearing up. Face didn’t move. Hannibal decided that actually, no – he couldn’t wait all night, however Face wanted to play it.
“And, Face, you can quit pretending you’re asleep and get your ass off that bed to come help us.”
BA’s tensed. Hannibal expected Face to shoot up to his feet, the scowl he’d worn so often the last few days burning up his features. But instead he sat up slowly, moving at a very particular pace that Hannibal recognised. Just slow enough to annoy the officer, without actually being insubordinate. He rubbed his eyes as if he really had been asleep.
“You gave Ray the letters?” Face asked.
“Yes. He’ll get them to Murdock as soon as he can.”
Hannibal stood up with the blue backpack and propped it on the bed, opened all the zips and pockets.
“You taking that one?” BA asked. When Hannibal nodded, BA turned to Face. “You care which one you have?”
Face shrugged, not looking at the packs, hands clasped, leaning forward, elbows on knees. BA dumped the yellow pack on the bed beside Face and took the green one for himself.
“Has Ray seen Murdock?” BA said.
“No, he’s not allowed any visitors right now.”
“Oh isn’t he?” Face looked up, with a determined expression replacing the scowl.
“That includes you, Face. Ray says Lynch has men watching the VA.”
“Like they’d catch me,” Face sneered.
“They don’t have to catch you. They only have to see you once to confirm the connection with Murdock. And then they’ll double the surveillance.”
“Look I could just –”
“Face.” Hannibal turned to him, his impatience coming out in his voice. “We’ve talked about this already.”
Face stood, his voice rising. “Well now we’re talking about it again.”
“We are not taking about it again. I’ve made my decision and you have your orders.” His glare pierced Face and after a long moment, Face backed off a step. BA handed him a pile of folded clothes, and Face took them with a small nod of thanks, and put them into his pack. They all worked in silence for a while, until Face spoke again.
“What if we took Murdock out of there? Took him with us?”
Now Hannibal stared at Face as if he should be in the room next to Murdock. Face had spent the last few days trying to persuade Hannibal to let him go see Murdock, but Hannibal had stood firm. Face had also been the reason they’d chosen the destination for the journey into the wilds. It was as far from LA as Hannibal could persuade him to go. But this?
“Face, he’s in a hospital, not jail. He’s there because he’s ill.”
“We could take care of him,” Face insisted, still not looking at Hannibal, rearranging the items already in his pack.
“Yeah,” BA said, and Hannibal wondered if they’d discussed this while they were shopping. “We always took care of each other. Don’t need no hospital for that.”
“Murdock does. He needs medication.”
Face snorted. “Yeah, sure. I’ve heard about the pills they give psych patients. They make them worse.”
“I heard that too,” BA said.
“Guys…” Hannibal hesitated, trying to figure out how to make them see sense. “If he had… cancer or something –”
“Don’t even say stuff like that!” BA snapped, little difference between his scowl and Face’s now.
“I’m still talking here. I meant, if he had a physical illness you wouldn’t dream of suggesting this. You’d want him where they can help him.”
“But it’s not a physical illness, is it?” Face stuffed more items into his pack, shoving them in hard as if they’d personally insulted him. “It’s some made up shrink mumbo-jumbo. How is that even real?”
“There’s nothing ‘made up’ about hallucinations.” Hannibal almost smiled. That didn’t come out right. But he sobered again. “We can’t help him. We’re not doctors.”
“We’re his friends.” Face spoke more quietly now. “Like BA said, we help each other. We all went through the same thing.”
“Yeah, and look how great we all turned out.”
Face gave Hannibal an unpleasant look for that remark, but turned back to his packing. Several moments of silence passed as they all folded and packed, until Face spoke again, in a soft voice.
“What if they give him electro shock?”
That froze Hannibal in place, a flashlight in one hand, packs of spare batteries in the other. The sounds of BA’s packing stopped too and he knelt unmoving on the floor beside his gear, his back to the other two.
“He couldn’t take that,” Face went on. “Might as well be torturing him all over again.”
Shaking himself, Hannibal put the flashlight and batteries into a side pocket of his pack. “It’s hardly the same thing. We don’t know that they’d even treat him with that. This is the VA after all. They understand this stuff. They know what guys like Murdock have been through. They won’t just decide ‘hey today let’s try out ECT on this guy’.”
BA snorted his opinion of that, and resumed his own packing. Face didn’t answer at all. Hannibal resisted the urge to sigh. He thought they’d worked through all these questions already, but Face wouldn’t let go. Hannibal should have anticipated this last minute resistance.
“Guys,” Hannibal said. They both stopped packing and looked back at him. “I’m as worried about Murdock as you are. But he’s in the place he needs to be right now. I know it hurts to think that we can’t help him, but we can’t. I’m sure we could bust him out of the VA, it’s not exactly high security. But to take him with us would be, well, frankly, it would be cruel. He needs medication and professional care. Fresh air, prayers and group hugs aren’t gonna cut it this time.”
BA nodded and after a moment Face did too, though looked away from Hannibal as he did so.
“Okay.” Hannibal said. “Finish packing. Face has to catch his bus at midnight.”
Face felt like a kid leaving for college as Hannibal watched him get on the bus. He couldn’t help wondering why Hannibal hadn’t just sent him to the bus station in a cab, as he’d originally planned. Instead he’d driven Face and now stood waiting for the bus to leave the station. Did he just want to wave Face off? The thought made Face snort. No. He wanted to make sure Face left, and on the right bus.
Well, Face didn’t feel like chewing that over right now. With a journey of over twelve hours ahead of him, Face wanted nothing more than to just go to sleep and wake up in Reno. To that end, he folded his arms, snuggling into himself, and tried to ignore the crying baby across the aisle. His folded up jacket cushioned his head as he leaned it against the window.
Sleep did not come easily. He would doze for a while and then jerk awake and watch the road outside the bus stream by, turning from city streets to freeway and eventually interstate. Once they were on the latter, Face hoped he’d have a better chance of sleeping. No turns. No stops. Just open road for hundreds of miles ahead.
Neither the sounds from the other passengers, or the engine noise and vibration bothered Face, a man who could sleep in a helicopter. The guy in the seat next to him was a big man, his shirt buttons stretched dangerously over his belly, but he slept silently, so he didn’t bother Face either. His fingers twitched in his sleep, making Face smile. Dreaming he’s at the craps table already.
An occasional giggle from the two teen-aged girls a few rows back certainly didn’t bother him. He’d given them a grin and a wink when he took his seat, though quickly ducked down when a man in the seat behind the girls scowled at him. By all means, let’s not upset anyone’s dad, he thought.
No, the only voices that kept him awake were inside his head. All those doubts and fears that preyed on him as he looked into the future and saw only uncertainty. Sighing, he turned from looking at the dark, endless road and stared up at the ceiling. Most of the bus was in darkness, but a few lights, set into the ceiling, illuminated the aisle.
A fly buzzed around one light and Face watched it fly back and forth, round and round, bouncing off the plastic cover over the light, flying away and then coming back for another try. When it flew into the beam of the light it changed from a black speck to a floating drop of gold. The light turned it from mundane to beautiful, but if it got close enough, the heat from the bulb would fry it. That didn’t stop it from exhausting itself trying over and over to get closer.
Another giggle from those girls made him glance away, and smile and wonder if they were talking about him. The smile grew wider. Of course they were. For all the good it did him, with their dad on the bus and an appointment with Hannibal and BA at the other end of the ride.
What if I didn’t meet them?
That whispered question silenced all the other voices for a moment. Not meet them. Not meet them. The repetition made the idea solidify. He saw himself in Reno not meeting Hannibal and BA. Saw himself getting off this bus, picking up his backpack and not going to their rendezvous.
And doing what? Going where? Back to LA? To Murdock? Why go anywhere? Stay in Reno. Face felt certain he could make a living in Reno, around the casinos. Or if Reno wasn’t a big enough playing field there was always another bus, down to Vegas. Or right across country, Atlantic City.
How long would the people who ran those towns allow him to work for himself though? They’d notice him if he did well enough and either offer him work or a one way ticket out of town – in the trunk of a car. Neither option appealed.
No. Crazy idea. Anyway, did he really think Hannibal wouldn’t come looking for him? Which definitely made Reno too small. Vegas too. Possibly the entire country.
Face gasped suddenly and actually jumped in his seat as a new thought struck him. His seatmate muttered and stirred when Face accidentally nudged him, but he didn’t wake up.
What if this is a test?
It could be. What if Hannibal wanted to see if Face and BA would meet him or if they would take the opportunity to run out on the team? A test of loyalty. Face scowled and his cheeks flushed, fists balled for a moment, before he took a breath and calmed down. Stop that, you’re getting mad at Hannibal for something you have no evidence he’s done. Just your own damn imagination running riot.
With a long sigh he relaxed against the back of the seat again. A new sound started up from a few rows away, soft rhythmic clicks that he recognised at once as knitting needles. That didn’t distract him, in fact it soothed him. He’d often fallen asleep to that sound as a child. Some of the sisters at the orphanage seemed to knit twenty four hours a day. Sweaters and socks. Endless socks. And when those wore out, they unraveled the wool they could salvage and knitted something new. Well, something else. Very few things back then had been ‘new’.
He’d almost dozed off to the lullaby of the clicking needles when his eyes opened wide again.
What if it’s not a test, but rather an opportunity? A chance for Face or BA to leave without having to actually confront the others and say it. Just not arrive and the others would know, would understand. Or, what if it isn’t an opportunity for Face and BA but for Hannibal himself? To give him the chance to dump them?
Face shook his head. No, that couldn’t be true. Hannibal wouldn’t do that to them. Although Face had been the one most insistent on staying together, he felt sure Hannibal wanted that too. Or at least felt sure his feeling of responsibility for Face and BA would make him stick with them.
Unless… Face gasped again. Unless he dumped us, cut us loose and made some kind of deal with the military. To give himself up and leave Face and BA free.
Face began to wonder if Hannibal’s mind worked this way all of the time, running several steps ahead of the game. And he also began to wonder if lack of sleep had driven him crazy. All these scenarios, and probably in a few hours he’d be sitting in the bar in Reno Hannibal had told them to meet in. Where he could tell the two of them about all the possibilities he had thought of and they could all have a laugh about it.
On the other hand, he’d probably keep them to himself.
Right, he decided, I really do need to sleep, before I decide Hannibal is in fact luring us to Reno to sell us into slavery. His mind felt clearer now. Perhaps he’d emptied it of all the worries. Or most of them. One last one remained that he’d never shake off.
Murdock. If he’d just managed to get in to see him once, that would have helped. But Ray would be allowed to see him soon. Ray was a good guy; he’d make sure they were taking care of Murdock properly, he’d complain if they weren’t.
With that small crumb of comfort and the clicking of those knitting needles to soothe him, Face finally closed his eyes and drifted to sleep.
BA didn’t feel much at home in bars, but where else could a guy hang out for several hours without arousing suspicion? He’d already brought attention by drinking Coca-Cola instead of beer. BA refused to compromise on that point. He was an athlete. His body was a temple. Liquor was only the half of it; beer made you fat. A little complaining to the bartender about “pills” and “doctors orders” just about took care of that, though the bartender looked amazed that anyone would want to hang out in this place if they weren’t drinking.
With his backpack under the table, he sat and waited for the others. He’d taken a train, changing a couple of times, but made it before Face on his bus. Hannibal was coming by rented car. They’d all agreed traveling separately would be the best idea, but it left BA’s nerves stretched, fearing what could happen to the others while they were out of sight of each other.
Face and Hannibal could take care of themselves, but even so, BA worried. BA himself might sometimes attract trouble, but those two, they went looking for it. Hannibal couldn’t keep his nose out of other people’s business. Face couldn’t keep his mouth shut, plus he let other body parts overrule his brain at the sight of a girl.
If wouldn’t surprise BA if either of them failed to show up here because they’d found trouble on the way, even without Lynch and his MPs being involved. BA might have doubts about Hannibal’s plan, but he supposed that at least it would keep them away from other people most of the time. Yeah, he smiled at himself. All we have to worry about are bears, cougars, coyotes and snakes.
He turned to the newspaper he had open on his table and went back to reading about a basketball game. Speaking of bears, they’d better finish this little walking tour before the football season started. It was bad enough that he’d miss the pre-season games. If Hannibal expected BA to miss out on getting the Bears’ regular season results, well, he could think again
The door opened a moment later and Face walked in, which made BA at least half relax. Okay, so Face made it, just Hannibal to go.
With the big yellow pack on his back and wearing battered jeans and a T-shirt Face looked very much like a student. Well, a grad student, maybe. In fact he attracted a couple of speculative looks from guys in the bar, probably thinking they didn’t get his sort in here. And maybe wondering if there was any chance of taking him out to the back alley and stealing every penny he had. They’d get a surprise if they tried. When Face joined BA the speculative looks stopped. Nobody jumped a guy who had a friend that looked like BA.
“Hey,” Face said, shoving his pack under the table with BA’s, bumping BA’s legs and provoking a muttered threat. “Sorry. You been here long?”
“Hour or so. You just got in?”
“Yeah, came right over. Get you anything from the bar?”
BA shook his head and watched Face get himself a beer and come back to the table with a bottle and a glass.
“Man, I swear, I never sweated this much in the jungle,” Face complained, pouring the cold beer into the tilted glass. “I hope we can find a hotel with decent air conditioning tonight.” He drank at least half of the glass of beer in one go and sighed. “I needed that. That bus ride… I promise you I am never getting on a bus again.” He looked around. “This place is a dive. I thought Hannibal said it was classy.”
BA just sat and half listened to Face rattling on. Can’t keep his mouth shut. Right. BA had learned to tune most of it out long ago. Kind of like with the fool. He gabbed on about nothing for hours. Put the two of them together and they could drive a man crazy listening to them. So he stopped listening to most of it, hoping he caught the important parts as they flashed by.
Back in Fort Bragg, he’d wondered if Face would talk as much without Murdock there. Seemed he just doubled the output to compensate. Compensate, yeah, that was the word. Maybe he figured if he talked enough he wouldn’t notice Murdock’s side of the conversation was missing.
“No sign of Hannibal yet?” Face said. Repeating, BA realised. The first time he asked the question it flew past with the rest of the jibber jabber. Dumb question anyway.
“You see him hidin’ under the table?”
“Right.” Face traced a finger through the condensation on his glass.
He’s working up to something, BA knew. Face rarely came right out and said what he had on his mind. No, he had to dance with it for a while first.
“BA, what if he doesn’t show up?”
BA joined the dance. “Why wouldn’t he show up?”
“Oh, I dunno. Whatever.” Face shrugged, still not looking at BA.
“I guess we’d go look for him,” BA said.
“Yeah. He could have run into some kind of trouble. The military could have picked him up or something.”
“We’d go look for him. Same if you didn’t show up. Or me. You’d come looking for me.”
“Yeah. We’d check the sorority houses and girls’ schools first.”
Face laughed and the moment of tension seemed to pass. But BA suspected Face hadn’t actually said what he had on his mind. As usual he hid it behind the smile, pretending nothing was bothering him. But BA knew different. Detective work needed as usual to get to the bottom of it.
Asking about Hannibal not showing up? Of course BA had been thinking about the same thing. He could run into trouble, even got picked up by the cops or the military. But BA didn’t think that was what worried Face. He wasn’t asking what if Hannibal couldn’t join them – he meant what if Hannibal chose not to. Well BA didn’t know whether to laugh or growl about that. Hannibal wouldn’t run out on them. They were a team. Face kept talking about that very thing, back when they decided to skip out of Fort Bragg.
BA knew Face had some kind of thing about people running out on him. Pretty tight-lipped about his past, but Murdock had got him drunk and talking a few times back in ‘Nam. They had at least got out of him that some girl left him, right before he joined the Army. And that he’d been in orphanages as a kid, dumped there, which still made BA mad every time he thought about it.
Kept it under wraps real tight, that fear of people walking out on him, but BA had figured it out. Even in Fort Bragg Face hadn’t seemed too unhappy, as long as he was with Hannibal and BA. Only when they heard about Murdock’s section eight did he start to get antsy.
But, Face was a fool too, BA thought, scowling at the fool in question, who now sat sipping his beer and reading BA’s paper. Scared of people running out on him, but he pushed them away if they got close. Some people thought they were close, like the girls he’d chased so much. But, like a non-stick pan, Face just washed them off. Teflon coated soul. He’d only shown the real one in the camp, when that coating got stripped away. BA often woke in the cage to find Face beside him, asleep and yet clinging with a death grip to BA’s hand, or clothing.
Contradictory guy. BA wished people could just be up front. Face danced around, played games with everybody, spinning lines, running scams, and usually hiding the best part of himself. Why was he afraid of people seeing that?
Now he’d got himself all knotted up with some dumb idea that Hannibal wouldn’t meet them. Dumb. This whole trip was Hannibal’s idea. They’d bought all this equipment. If it was all a plot to split them up, it sure was an expensive one.
The door opened and Hannibal walked in. BA looked quickly from him to Face very fast and saw Face sigh with relief. But, by the time the door slammed closed behind Hannibal, that expression had changed to the cockiest of grins.
“What kept you?”
The hotel did indeed have the good air conditioning that Face hoped for. But, after taking a shower, he found he had no desire to stay there and enjoy it.
With only a towel wrapped around his waist, the cool evening air playing over his skin, he stood by the open window. The sound of the people and cars on the street floated up to him. He knew most of them would be heading for the bars, clubs and casinos. Reno might not be Vegas, but Face could certainly have a good time out there.
Tomorrow they’d set off to the back of beyond, to sleep on the ground with the bugs and snakes, and cook their food over a camp stove. Face would like a little something to distract himself from that prospect. A little luxury, a few of the pleasures of the flesh, some female company. That last was definitely on his mind. Tonight would be the last chance for months. Hell, it had already been months. Since before the robbery even. And since then… well Fort Bragg had been all about avoiding sex. He put the brakes on thinking about that. He’d been successful at Bragg. Don’t think any further back.
The breeze blew the scent of cooking through the window. It could be a fine restaurant or a street vendor selling hot dogs, Face couldn’t tell. But he wanted to go find out.
Of course, Hannibal had ordered Face and BA to get some rest, ready for an early start tomorrow. Well Hannibal could sleep. BA could sleep. Face was getting out there and making the most of this last night.
He took a clean pair of jeans and a white polo shirt from the wardrobe. He wouldn’t get into any VIP lounges or the exclusive clubs dressed like this, he knew, but he didn’t have the money for that anyway. Not a problem. The ordinary casinos didn’t care much what you looked like, as long as you gambled. Face might gamble a little tonight, but his real object was to find a sure thing.
Once dressed, he ran a comb through his hair, which he wished would grow faster. It was still short enough to be military looking. The way some people felt about the war meant that could bring trouble. Which he could handle fine, but trouble meant attention, the one thing they really weren’t meant to be attracting. He looked in the mirror at the hair he’d just combed neatly into place and then ran his fingers through it, ruffling it enough to get rid of the “ready for inspection, sir!” look. Perfect.
Look out Reno. Here comes the Faceman.
But first he had to get out of the hotel. BA’s room lay between Face’s and the elevators. Though they’d all checked in separately, with false names of course, Face and BA had still found they had rooms on the same floor. Hannibal had a room a couple of floors above, so that should be safe. Even the colonel didn’t have hearing that good.
Face closed his door quietly, and set off along the hallway, his feet making no sound on the carpeted floor. BA’s room lay on his left, near the elevators and he gave the door a narrow look as he passed, kept watch it closely as he waited for the elevator.
The ping announced the elevator’s arrival, making Face wince. Still watching BA’s door, he stepped into the elevator, vaguely aware of someone else already in it. As the doors closed he turned to look at his fellow elevator passenger.
“Going someplace, Lieutenant?”
Face gaped into Hannibal’s glare and tried to come up with answers. The small hotel had a bar and a couple of lounges – he could say he was going to sit in one of them. By himself, without so much as a newspaper to read? Dinner? They’d already had it. And he wouldn’t have bothered borrowing an iron and pressing a shirt just to go someplace in the hotel and…
Hannibal wore a freshly ironed shirt too, and slacks that looked like they’d been in his room’s trouser press for a while. Face smiled.
“Going the same place as you, Colonel.”
“Yeah, back to my room… In a while.”
Hannibal went on glaring, but Face knew this was a standoff. He gave Hannibal a lazy smile.
“Let’s hope,” Hannibal said. The elevator reached the lobby and the two men stepped out. Hannibal looked at Face for a moment then shrugged. “Be back no later than two.”
“Is that when I turn into a pumpkin?”
“No, Lieutenant, that’s when you turn into an enlisted man.”
Face laughed. Hannibal still made threats like that, even though he had no power to carry them out any more. Better to take notice though, just in case the Army straightened this mess out one day, and Hannibal applied all the punishments at once.
“It’s a deal, Colonel.”
“Right.” Hannibal turned away, but looked back once. “Just… don’t draw attention.”
“I won’t,” Face promised. Well, not of the wrong sort. The right sort on the other hand…
“I might not be able to send you another letter for a few weeks, but I want you to know that I’m okay. I’m safe. Colonel’s got a plan as usual and I can’t explain it, just in case this letter ends up in the wrong hands. But trust me, I’m okay.
“I know you’re still trying to understand why we escaped from jail, even though we’re innocent, but I can’t tell you much about that either. We had our reasons and they were good ones and I’ll tell you one day. It may seem like a crazy thing to do, but I think it was the right one. I hope I’ll be home one day soon to tell you all about it. Face is always saying this thing is sure to get straightened out and we’ll be okay. Not sure if he’s right, but I guess I have to hope he is.
“You remember me telling you about Captain Murdock in my other letters? He’s kinda sick right now. They got him living in the VA hospital at Westwood in LA and could be he’ll be there for a long time. I think he’d like it if you send him a postcard or something sometimes. I don’t think any of his folks are still living, and I know you, Mama, you send more birthday and Christmas cards than anyone I ever met, so one more on the list won’t make much difference. I know I sometimes called Murdock all kinds of names in my letters and said how much he made me mad, but he’s okay really. I think Face would like it as well, if you wrote to Murdock.
“I’m sending you this letter kind of a roundabout way, but Hannibal says we gotta be careful about how we write to people, since the Army could intercept your mail. I don’t even know if that’s allowed, but that probably wouldn’t stop them the way they got it in for us.
“Well, I’d better finish this and get some rest, since we’re starting early in the morning. Try not to worry about me too much, Mama. I know that’s like telling the sun not to shine, but you got my word I’ll be okay. One thing the Army teaches a man is how to take care of himself and his buddies. So I’ll be watching out for the guys and they’ll be watching out for me.
“Take care of yourself, Mama.
“All my love
BA read the letter over, and sighed. He wished he could say more, be more honest with her, but he didn’t dare risk giving too much away. He’d learned to be guarded back in the war. The Army censors read your letters home and blacked out anything you shouldn’t have said, like security, operational stuff. He didn’t argue with that, it had to be done. But it made him feel shy about expressing his feelings too much, knowing some stranger would read it.
Now he was a fugitive, he feared they would intercept all his mother’s mail to check in case he wrote and revealed something he shouldn’t. So he had to be cautious both with the information and the sentiments.
To try to keep Military Intelligence from getting their slimy paws on his letter he wouldn’t send it directly to his mother, but instead to an old friend of hers. Trusting anyone was risky of course – heck there were family members he suspected would turn him over to the Army for the reward. But the woman he addressed the envelope to, Mrs Petrowski, had been a neighbour back when BA was just a kid. That winter after Mrs Petrowski’s husband died, and her little girl got really sick, Mrs Baracus had helped her in a hundred small ways. Ways that added up, and paid off now, by ensuring a loyalty that BA had only come close to in the Army.
The Army couldn’t monitor the mail of all of his mother’s friends and family. He had to risk it. He had to at least give her a hint that the team were about to vanish off the face of the Earth. Just so she knew it was deliberate and that they were safe. She’d worry about him anyway, he knew that. But he didn’t want to make it harder for her.
He propped the letter on his nightstand behind the clock and saw it was past ten already. That letter had taken him longer than planned, the guarded words not coming easily to him. Time to get some sleep.
A few minutes later he turned out the light and lay down. For a moment he just closed his eyes and tried to make sleep come quickly. Then it hit him – this would be the last time he’d sleep in a bed for weeks to come. Even Fort Bragg had made him soft, made him take a mattress and sheets for granted. For a while he’d forgotten that a bed was a luxury a soldier dreams about, and doesn’t get to have for long periods of time.
So he gave himself a moment to really enjoy it. The crisp cotton of freshly laundered hotel sheets and pillow case. The soft mattress. The warmth. Just the sheer size of the darn thing, which meant he could turn over without suddenly feeling a draught in tricky places.
Reveling in the small luxury of the bed, he fell asleep.
“How come you look so tired?” BA asked Face as they travelled down in the elevator, both carrying their backpacks now. Face gave a sheepish smile, hoping he didn’t look too guilty.
“Didn’t get much sleep last night.”
BA scowled and made a small disgusted grunt. The elevator doors slid open at the lobby and they spotted Hannibal sitting on a couch.
“We supposed to be heading out into the wilderness today and you nearly sleepwalking.” BA scowled at Face. “What’s the colonel gonna say about that?”
They reached Hannibal who tried to say “morning” but had to speak through his hand as he covered a huge yawn. BA snorted and stomped off towards reception to check out.
Waiting in line on the railway platform stretched Face’s nerves. Always aware of being more conspicuous as a group, they split up at the station. But Face felt sure they were still conspicuous enough as individuals. All of them looked so nervous and shifty he felt sure a cop or MP would home in on them in a second. They could teach sore thumbs about standing out. Backs a little straighter than most. Carried their heavy packs more easily than most hikers. They might as well be wearing their uniforms.
If the MPs did show up, the only escape route was down the tracks. Face considered it. Drop the pack or not? It slowed him down, but without it he had only the clothes on his back and the contents of his pockets. Anyway, escaping onto the tracks and into a train yard didn’t appeal to him. Far too many chances to get an unexpected locomotive in the back.
That’s if he got that far and they didn’t just shoot him anyway.
The train arrived and that made him sigh in relief, at least for the end of the long wait on the platform. Face found a seat near the door at the end of a quiet, non-smoking car. The window seat beside him was empty, but he stayed in the aisle seat. He memorised the position of the emergency brake with the red sign beside it warning of the fine for “improper use”. He’d risk that fine if a bevy of MPs showed up.
The train set off and the movement at once started to lull Face into a doze. Despite the whole pot of coffee he’d drunk at breakfast that morning, his nearly sleepless night had started to catch up with him. No, he told himself, as he snapped out of a doze, head nodding. Have to stay on the alert. Damn, whose damned stupid idea was it to go out last night, anyway? Not mine, his brain answered, the one who wanted to do that is lower down. A tiny smile touched Face’s lips.
It had been worth it. She had been… worth it. Thinking about her, long blond hair, expensive scent and an all-over tan, he started to doze again.
Someone pushing his arm woke him again, as they stopped by his seat, leaning across in front of him to look out of the window. Hannibal. Face knew he was probably about to get a blistering scowl for sleeping when he should be keeping a lookout, so as Hannibal turned to him, he closed his eyes again, and made the sign of the cross.
“Amen.” He opened his eyes and nodded to Hannibal. “Colonel,” he said quietly. Hannibal shook his head.
“That trick would work better on me if I hadn’t taught it to you in the first place, Lieutenant. Take a walk, keep your eyes open. Get some coffee.” Face nodded, keeping a serious look on his face, until Hannibal grinned.
“Tally ho,” Hannibal said and left, walking on up toward the front of the train. Face stretched in his seat and got up too, and headed toward the rear, in search of coffee.
Once they reached Winnemucca they did their last shopping, some fresh food for the first few days. That done, they ate a lunch of burgers and soda at a picnic table in a small park. No more of that kind of food for a while, Hannibal thought.
“Okay,” Hannibal said, as he sipped his soda after demolishing the burger. “This is it. Last chance to change your minds.”
Face and BA glanced at each other.
“Change our minds?” Face said. “At this point you’d, um, accept that?”
Hannibal shrugged. “Wouldn’t have a lot of choice, would I? I can’t force either of you to come.”
They looked at each other again and Hannibal got the feeling they’d talked about a lot of things – just the two of them. Yet they were both here now, ready to follow him.
“Guys,” he said, putting down the soda and looking at them, wearing his most serious expression. They’d already gone over this a dozen times of course, but Hannibal needed to remind them, in case of any last minute nerves or cold feet. “I know both of you still have worries about this, but I really believe this is the best thing for us to do. Right now the whole country is looking out for a group matching our description. So we either stop being a group, or we get out of sight. You’ve already told me you want to stick together.”
They both nodded – yes, they wanted to stick together. Face nodded pretty vehemently in fact.
“Okay, so we’re going to do this, but I have to believe that we’re all in this one hundred and ten percent. Once we’re out there we’re relying on each other, and everybody has to pull his weight. We have to take care of each other. We may not have anybody shooting at us…” He winced. “I hope. But there are dangers, you know that. Dangerous animals, getting injured, getting sick.” When they looked glum again he smiled. “But, guys, this is my element we’re going into. I promise, I’ll get you back out of it safe and well.”
They all had survival training of course, could live off the land for extended periods. But their training had been jungle based. Anyway there was a difference between just surviving and living well, staying healthy. Life out there could be good. Hannibal knew the two city boys probably found that hard to believe, but he’d teach them different.
“Okay, let’s go,” he said. “We’ll take it easy for the first couple of days, get our feet hardened up again. But you both look pretty fit to me, so after that we push on into the mountains. Really vanish.”
Face and BA got up, groaning and making a big show of lifting their packs onto their shoulders, but Hannibal knew grandstanding when he saw it. Both looked sleek and strong. With little else to do all day in Fort Bragg but exercise they were all as fit as they’d ever been. They were strong enough for the challenge that lay ahead, and Hannibal could teach them what they still needed to learn.
Deep in his mind a persistent voice told him that splitting up was an even better plan than this. But Face and BA didn’t want to split up, and he couldn’t leave them if they wanted to stay together. They were his responsibility. He felt that more strongly for these guys than he’d felt for any other unit he’d been part of, or even commanded.
Though Face might be the one who talked about it most, it still broke Hannibal’s heart that the team had a missing man. But the voice that didn’t lie said Murdock was in the best place he could be right now. Alone, a treacherous whisper added. Hannibal tried to avoid hearing the last part.
“Ready?” Hannibal asked as Face and BA finally stopped fussing with their packs. They nodded.
“Then let’s head for the hills.”
Ray only decided on an impulse to call the VA before he left Los Angeles, expecting to be told the same thing again – no visitors. But to his surprise the nurse he spoke to said that the doctors had decided Murdock could now have brief visits from friends. In fact they hoped it would help, would make him respond.
Respond? That made Ray nervous. He’d seen guys in the field hospitals back in Vietnam who weren’t “responding”. Not because of injuries. Just guys who’d gone somewhere else.
“Do you know Captain Murdock well?” The nurse asked, leading him to Murdock’s room.
“Yeah,” Ray said. “Flew together lots of time.” Thanks to Hannibal, who kept requesting Murdock for their missions. Nobody really understood why, except those guys who’d traveled in the choppers Murdock flew. It wasn’t just a question of being brave – lots of those pilots were brave, would fly in to pick up the grunts whatever was flying back at them. And it wasn’t just a question of being good, though Murdock just might be the best pilot Ray had flown with. Murdock just had something extra that appealed to the Colonel. An edge. Hannibal liked people with that extra sharp edge.
The nurse took him to a room and unlocked the door. Ray felt a little sick. He had too many friends who lived behind doors that locked only from the outside. Not just the team either. Sometimes he counted his blessings that he’d made it through the war nearly unscathed, in body and mind. He carried a few scars, he had a nightmare sometimes, but he coped. Too many of the others didn’t – couldn’t – adjust to coming home.
The nurse led him into a dim room. Decent sized, but so sterile. Not just in the hospital sense, but there was also no sign of any personal belongings lying around. Murdock lay on the bed. A small lamp inset into the wall above him cast his face in deep shadow. Ray approached the bed while the nurse closed the door behind him. But when he glanced back, he saw her watching through the observation hatch in the door.
Damn, Ray thought. He couldn’t hand Hannibal’s letter over in front of the nurse. What if she passed it on to Colonel Lynch? Still, maybe he could manage to slip it across unseen. Murdock would realise he had to keep it hidden.
He’d thought Murdock must be asleep, but when he got close enough Ray saw the half open eyes, caught a gleam of reflection in them. Careful not to loom over Murdock, Ray stood by the bed.
“Hey, Murdock, how you doing, man?” Murdock didn’t answer, gave no sign that he’d even heard. Ray frowned and looked back at the nurse again. “Is he drugged?”
“He’s only lightly sedated at the moment,” she said.
So Murdock wasn’t drugged into not responding, Ray thought, looking back at him. He lay totally still, and yet not relaxed, Ray could tell. His body was tense. Thin too. He’d always been scrawny, despite eating like he had a tapeworm. Now he looked gaunt.
“Aren’t you feeding him?” Ray asked the nurse, his voice harsher than it should have been. “He’s skinny as a rake.”
“He was underweight when he was admitted. We’re trying to bring his weight up, but it’s difficult to get him to eat.” She didn’t rise to the note of accusation in Ray’s voice and he felt ashamed of it.
“All that institutional food, eh, buddy?” Ray spoke to Murdock again. “Maybe next time I come I’ll bring you something you like. Any requests?”
Still no answer. Ray sighed and pulled up a chair to sit down by the bed. The letter in his breast pocket crackled as he sat down and he wondered again how he could pass it across unseen. He’d have to try to shield the movement with his body. But the white envelope would be hard to conceal. As he sat, Murdock’s head turned and now his eyes were wide open and looking at Ray. They had no hint of recognition in them.
“Hey, bud.” Ray smiled, though with a hint of nervousness behind it. “How’s it going?”
“They’re in the walls.”
Ray frowned at the strange pronouncement.
“What’s in the walls, Murdock?”
“I hear them at night. I hear them now. You hear them?”
“This place got mice then?”
Murdock didn’t answer. He spoke, but it wasn’t an answer.
“See them sometimes. Ooze right through the wall. See them pointing. Hands.”
Involuntarily Ray glanced up. No ghostly hands protruded from the wall of course. Ray looked back at Murdock, who had turned away again, lay with his eyes closed now. His lips moved, a soft whisper that Ray could just make out; realised it was Vietnamese. He winced as he listened and hoped like hell that the nurse didn’t understand the language, because in among a lot of rambling, Ray heard things, operational info, protocols, that weren’t meant for the ears of anyone outside the Army.
Ray touched his chest. I’m sorry, Hannibal, he thought. I have to break my promise. He’d said he’d give the letter to Murdock, but now he knew he couldn’t. Murdock wouldn’t understand he had to conceal it. He might not even understand who is was from. Did he even remember his friends? He’d given no sign so far that he knew Ray, or could even hear him. He wasn’t ready for the letter, not yet.
He didn’t even dare tell Murdock about Hannibal’s plan. Couldn’t even whisper it. If Murdock said anything, let it slip… Ray couldn’t take that chance. Not just for the sake of Hannibal, Face and BA, but Murdock too. If Murdock came to understand later that he’d inadvertently betrayed information that could help the Army close in on the team, well what the hell would that do to him?
“Time’s up, sir,” the nurse said, opening the door. “The doctors will only allow short visits for now.”
“Right.” Ray stood up. Carefully, slowly, he rested a hand on Murdock’s, felt the tension in it, the stiffness of the fingers. Again he got no response, but spoke anyway. “Take care of yourself, Murdock. Eat something. And don’t worry about the walls. I don’t hear anything in there. I’ll get back and see you again as soon as I can.”
Murdock just went on whispering secrets as Ray reluctantly turned away from him and left the room. The nurse locked the door and Ray felt that twist of sickness again. In his pocket the letter he should have given to Murdock felt heavy. Like it would burden him until he handed it over.
Without another word to the nurse he hurried away and out of the hospital, longing for the fresh air away from the stink of disinfectant. He walked out of the hospital grounds, the letter heavy as a rock in his pocket.
Murdock had gone somewhere else. Ray could only wait for him to find his way back.