One hundred twenty-five score and ten. Okay, eleven… But both Charleston and LA were big cities -- well, Charleston was a city, anyway -- you could fudge a mile somewhere easily enough.
Face looked out the side window of the four-year-old Mercury Cougar at the receding Charleston skyline -- such as it was. Beside him, Murdock was going through the contortions involved in hiding a fox terrier from BA, who'd forbidden the pilot to bring the stray dog along with him. Hannibal had agreed with the sergeant, but it hadn't stopped Murdock from stuffing the dog into his jacket, which he was wearing despite the 90 degree temperature and worse humidity, and bringing it anyway. He'd never manage to hide it for three or four days, of course, but planning that far ahead had never been Murdock's strong suit in the best of times. Face sighed, keeping it to himself. He should be thinking about the inevitable moment of discovery -- even if the dog stayed quiet it was going to need to crap eventually -- and what he could say to deal with the situation, but the fact was he just didn't want to.
There was a lot he didn't want to think about right now. Like the fact that the Cougar was bound to feel crowded well before they got back to California even if it held up -- BA had not been complimentary, but dammit, they'd only given him 20 minutes to get a car. Who'd they think he was -- Harold Hill? Not that Hill had ever gone after cars, but the point was still valid. Like the fact that they were actually going to drive 2500 miles instead of flying -- suddenly BA was getting all stubborn about not havin' to fly, Hannibal, so I ain't and winning the argument, though to be fair there had been more to it than that… which was itself another thing he didn't want to think about. Or like what that argument had shown about what Hannibal had in mind for the foreseeable future. And like what exactly had happened in Los Angeles that had led to this moment, BA turning the old blue Cougar onto US 78 West, Hannibal in the front seat next to him, and Face, Murdock, and a dog in the back, twenty-five hundred miles from home…
So instead, he thought about a nursery rhyme.
How many miles to Babylon? Three score and ten. Can I get there by candlelight? Yes, and back again… Face had known the beginning of that poem for his entire life. Whenever anyone asked "how many miles" that little voice in his head finished up with ‘to Babylon'. The first time he'd run across it in a book it had been like an electric shock. I know this! I know this…
There were a handful of things that did that to him. A few poems. A couple of songs. Make Way for Ducklings and Blueberries for Sal. He'd figured out early what it meant: my mother read me this, sang me this, said this to me. It wasn't a lot to hold on to, but when it was all you had, you held tight.
This little rhyme was all the more distracting because it was, well, Babylon. Not London, or Banbury Cross, or St Ives -- those were like saying Encino, or Pomona, or Malibu, to the English who'd written those poems. Ordinary places. Babylon wasn't ordinary.
He remembered trying to solve the riddle in junior high. Where was Babylon, anyway? All he knew about it was the Scarlet Woman and the Hanging Gardens… It was in Iraq, he'd found out; it was a ruin now, with the Ishtar Gate -- how beautiful, he'd thought when he saw the color plates in the library books, and wondered about the dragon on the gate, and how sad it was a ruin now. What was seventy miles away from Babylon? Another ruin, Ukhaidir (sounded like something out of Tolkien, that), and two small towns -- he could still remember their names, Afak and At Taqtaqanah -- nowhere he could imagine the English writer of the rhyme ever being. So Babylon wasn't really Babylon … some kind of metaphor … as if the concept of going 140 miles ‘by candlelight' wasn't enough of a pointer. But for what?
He came back to that puzzle every now and then, worrying it like a dog with an old, frayed chew toy, almost a comfort. He had that kind of mind, he'd realized early on, he liked to worry at things, push at them, break them down. This one wouldn't break, but in a way that was just fine, because that meant he wouldn't have to find a new puzzle, and it wasn't like this one really mattered. Except… what did my mother mean by it? Where was Babylon for her?
Where was Babylon for him, even? There and back again … If your feet are nimble and light, you can get there by candlelight. The end didn't have you coming back. You could come back, but you didn't have to. So where was Babylon?
He didn't have to wonder about Babylon right now. Babylon was Los Angeles. Babylon was his sprawling hometown, with its rational climate and its boulevards and its high-rises and its hills and ocean and people of every possible variety. Babylon was home. And he wanted so very much to be there ‘by candlelight' that he'd had to describe to himself in some very fine detail exactly what would happen if some military cop in this military-base town's airport, through which he had passed once before in uniform himself, recognized him. Christ, Templeton, he'd had to remind himself, it's only a few years since you went on the run. Maybe he could, somewhere along the way… they could; he couldn't leave Murdock behind with Hannibal and BA.
Nothing was working. Nothing was keeping his mind off the new worries. The only thing that could be said in their favor was that they'd succeeded in -- mostly -- making him forget the army. And that was a mixed blessing if ever there was one; forgetting that too much could lead to a nice long jail term. No, a military prison term -- hard labor and all the perks that came with it… for the jailers. Never again.
He shook himself internally, his hand moving to rest on his stomach, rubbing gently through the really awful shirt Hannibal had bought him, a size too big, and dark; it went with the jeans, and that was all that could be said for it besides that it covered him up in the god-awful Carolina sun. No, it really wouldn't do to forget that he was a wanted man in a strange country. He couldn't wait to get home -- home safe, home free -- someplace where people were not shooting at him or threatening to beat him up or trying to lock him up for the rest of his life. He was thirty years old, or would be next week (probably), and it was time to stop that. Six years of playing Robin Hood was enough for anyone. They had a nice little nest egg; they didn't need to keep challenging the Sheriff of Nottingham; no King Richard was coming to pardon them.
Most days, the dragon wins.
He glanced sideways out of the corner of his eye; Murdock was lying curled up on the Cougar's back seat, his feet well over the halfway point and just short of touching Face's jeans, and his hand stroking the sleeping dog's black-spotted back. The pilot shouldn't even be in it, for God's sake. It had been a game to him, not something actual, not something deadly. Face wasn't even sure the fact that the bullets had been real had registered. Okay, maybe it had been a good thing for them he'd been along (maybe?) but you didn't put innocents in danger of dying to save your own skin. And what could happen to Murdock was much worse than mere dying. Time to call it a day. Time to quit.
Time to walk off into the sunset and settle on beach with drinks and blondes. Or maybe one blonde and a brunette, or even a redhead -- no blonde could live up to Jill, even now, and a brunette was older and deeper pain, and why ask for that trouble when planning your dream future?
"78 all the way, Lieutenant?" Hannibal interrupted his memory.
"To Memphis," he replied; eight years and it was still odd hearing Hannibal leave off the ‘the' with road names. "Then we pick up I-40 all the way to Barstow."
"No interstates," Hannibal said.
"Why not?" Face said. "The freeway will take a day off this drive, maybe two. Seventy, eighty miles an hour across the plains --"
"No interstates," Hannibal repeated. "When you're on an interstate you're stuck. I don't want to look in the rearview and see MPs and know they can come on at the next exit and there's nowhere we can go before then."
Face contemplated complaining some more, but it was clear from his tone that Hannibal's mind was made up, and if the colonel turned around to make his point he'd see Murdock's dog. No point in that happening before it had to. He sighed, loudly, for effect. "Then after Memphis we want the 70 -- US 70, I mean. That goes through to the Arizona border, and we can pick up I-10 there, or if you're still paranoid California 78 to Escondido. You can navigate from there." He made that sound like ‘even you could' so Hannibal wouldn't pay too much attention to it, but he meant it quite literally. He and Murdock were leaving at Escondido at the latest.
Decision made, he relaxed against the seatback. Murdock glanced at him, anxious eyed. Below the rearview mirror's field Face gave him the hand-sign for ‘under control'. Murdock grinned and said, "We should take Route 66 when we get out west."
"You're like a man from the past," Face said, hoping that Murdock wouldn't start singing about getting kicks. "Route 66 is part of half a dozen freeways now."
"It's still there in Arizona, don't forget Winona --"
Too late. At least it was towards the end of the song.
"Kingman, Barstow, San Bernadino. Won't you get hip to this timely tip? When you make that California trip --"
Face couldn't resist Murdock. He joined in the last line. "Get your kicks on Route 66."
"No singin'." BA sounded annoyed. But he often did, and Murdock elected to ignore him.
"If you ever plan to motor west, travel my way -- take the highway that's the best --"
"I said, no singin', fool. You want me to stop this car?"
"BA," Hannibal said, his tone a cross between a plea and a reprimand. "This is going to be a long trip."
"My point exactly, Hannibal. Cain't be listenin' to him singin' the whole way."
Face meanwhile had put his finger to his lips, and then reached down to tap Murdock's and surreptitiously point at the dog. Murdock's eyes widened and he nodded. "Okay," he said. "No singing…" He yawned ostentatiously. "I think I'll take a nap."
"Good idea, Captain," Hannibal said. "It's been a long week."
BA didn't say anything, but the set of his shoulders and neck -- what you could see of it under the gold he'd started wearing -- relaxed. He clearly agreed with Hannibal. Face, on the other hand -- not so much. The pilot executed a maneuver that involved flailing all his limbs around as he turned over and around at the same time, somehow scooping up the little dog without waking it, and ended up curled up, dog tucked away inside his cap and under the jacket next to his chest, with his head on Face's lap. He squirmed a little, getting his lanky body comfortable on three-quarters of the seat, and then he closed his eyes and fell asleep immediately. At least that was good; he'd been hyperactive and awake for two days now, to Face's knowledge, and possibly three.
Face sighed to himself. Murdock's instinctive crawling into his lap meant nothing. Well, not nothing, but not what he wished it did, deep down inside himself, in the darkness he didn't like to admit was there. Father Engarry had made him understand he couldn't ignore it, but didn't have to let it boss him around, and that was good, but it would be better if Murdock didn't keep pushing inside it. Still, he couldn't push the pilot away -- even as he thought that he found himself smoothing Murdock's hair into place, and he stopped, resting his hand on Murdock's leather-clad shoulder instead. Behave yourself, Templeton; he's not for you. He sighed to himself again -- he was doing that a lot lately, he noted -- and hoped Murdock was all right.
Or at least as all right as he had been back when this started.
Twenty-five hundred miles ago.
Back in Babylon...
It had been a beautiful day in Los Angeles. In fact, it was such a perfect day that, had Templeton Peck been prone to prognostication, he'd have said something terrible was going to happen. He wasn't, though, so he wouldn't. He never prognosticated disaster. He knew the people who knew him wouldn't believe that, but it was true. He didn't bother to predict disaster; that was a waste of time. The fact was, he expected bad things every day, perfect days and totally flawed ones and all the days in between. What people didn't seem to understand was that expecting bad things, preparing for them, didn't mean he wanted them. Or that he couldn't enjoy the perfect days until the trouble did come, if it even did, which it might, actually, not. The perfect days like this one.
From this end of the balcony he could see the ocean; from the other, if he walked down there, he could see the mountains. Sure, the late April sky had a hint of dusky smog, a faint fuzz at the edges of the world, a little closer than they might have been, but that wasn't much, and it was the price of living here, which was the only place as far as he was concerned. Even on bad days -- a bad day in the City of Angels was better than a good day in Paradise, and a perfect day? Incomparable. He smiled to himself as he sipped his coffee and looked out at the ocean.
He had left LA in the spring of '69 after Leslie had dumped him so abruptly and he'd intended never to return. The army had certainly cooperated, sending him to the anti-California, Oklahoma, for OCS. After 23 weeks of Fort Sill, anyplace would have looked good, and he'd enjoyed his initial station in Germany though it wasn't what he'd wanted when he'd joined. The angry hurt had faded, but the determination hadn't; he'd said he was going to Vietnam and he meant to. So he had, as soon as he got the chance -- which had been some Special Forces training with Vietnam at the end, and he'd gotten there before his first year in the army was over.
And then he had learned some hard truths about the value of researching your plans before you made your decisions - and of making those decisions in cold blood, not in emotional turmoil - even if the results of those decisions were not, in fact, complete disasters.
Still, all said and done at the end of the day and other clichés, things had worked out well enough. He'd learned a lot in Vietnam, and he'd made some very good friends -- friends better than he'd ever had before. Things had happened he could have done without, but who was to say things would have gone well if he'd never joined the army? Bad things happened everywhere… and it was good people who helped you get over them.
He hadn't been ready to go off on his own back then. He'd thought he was, but that was his pride deceiving him; fortunately, the other two hadn't let him go. Hannibal had insisted they all stay together -- ‘we're a team, we stand a better chance coping with this together than any one of us does alone' he'd said -- and BA had followed his lead the way he always had, likely always would. They'd swept him along with them, not that he'd had any other notions. But they hadn't gone to LA at first; no, the first place they'd gone to ground was Manhattan.
Hannibal had set them up there, reasoning that the most populated place in the country -- sheer numbers and density both -- was the place they could most easily hide. There was no arguing with that, and if he had tried, BA could have pointed out that Chicago was the Second City, after all, and he didn't care what anybody said: no lake, no matter how big, was ‘the same thing, really' as an ocean. And wasn't one big city like another? So, New York it was, and why not?
But cramped on its island New York grew upwards, in tall steel canyons, as unlike Los Angeles as one major city could be from another, and after only six months in Manhattan he had known there was no way he could live there.
One evening he had walked into the apartment and seen Los Angeles on the TV pretending to be somewhere else and felt like -- although this was, in fact, not a sensation he had actually felt, it was instantly identifiable -- like he had torn out stitches that had been inside him, holding his heart in place. It had been an instantaneous attack of homesickness and he couldn't fight it.
"I cannot live here one more day," he had announced.
Hannibal had probably seen the crazy in his eyes. That at least was the notion Face had gotten a couple of years after the fact, when he and BA had briefly (did BA ever discuss things otherwise?) talked about that first cross-country trip. At any rate, the colonel hadn't argued with Face at all, but had simply picked them up, packed them up, and packed them off to LA.
And as far as Face was concerned he was never leaving again. Oh, sure, for a week or two, but not to live. He didn't know why being someplace else unbalanced him so, and he didn't really care. LA was home, it was that simple. There was no reason to make things more complicated than you had to; life usually did that for you quite nicely. And especially right now there wasn't need to complicate his life. He drank some more coffee and looked toward the Pacific.
The sun slanted over his shoulder and past the balcony as it started its daily run towards the west and he took a deep breath of the early morning air. He could almost taste the sunlight, thick and golden and crisp, and the sight of it brightening the ocean bit by bit raised his spirits as much as the coffee did. The air was crisp, too, and a trifle cool in the dawn, but as the sunlight slid over the edge of the balcony and drove the shadow right up against the edge of the building he felt it warming him, from his bare feet to the top of his head. Where his hair needed cutting, but that could wait a few more days, till he wasn't quite as busy as he was going to be.
Going to be: just at the moment he was not busy. Just at the moment, he had nothing to do but savor the dawn.
And then life complicated things for him, as he had known it would.
"Face?" The plaintive cry might have upset him if he hadn't known exactly how to handle it.
"Out here, Murdock," he called.
The sliding glass door was pushed further open and Murdock came outside. He was wearing the khakis Face had bought for him at the local army surplus with a plain white tee-shirt and white tube socks. "There you are."
"Here I am," Face agreed. "Want some coffee?"
"No," Murdock said through a yawn. "Did you hide my shoes?"
"I didn't hide them," Face said. "I put them in the front closet. Conrad doesn't like shoes on his carpets."
"Oh." Murdock looked down. "Aren't your feet cold?"
"Who's Conrad, anyway?"
"I told you yesterday -- he owns this condo."
"Oh, yeah." Murdock took a quick lap around the balcony. When he got back to Face he said, "He went to Rio by the sea-oh. When's he coming back?"
"I do not know," Face said.
Murdock grinned. "You have some interesting friends, Faceman." He leaned over the balcony. Face pulled his hand back before he made contact with the tee-shirt. He had done his share of lying and then some to get Murdock out of the VA for a long weekend, but he hadn't been stupid. He'd come away with a bagful of meds and four pages of instructions. Not one word or pill had been about suicide, and not even the gangly Murdock could accidentally fall over Conrad's wrought-iron balustrade.
But speaking of those meds… "You ready for breakfast?"
Murdock shook his head, looking at him through the rail, his face upside down and his hair hanging. Face noticed that Murdock's hairline was receding. Yesterday the pilot had been wearing a baseball cap and hadn't taken it off even inside. This was the first change that drove it home to Face how long it had been since he'd seen Murdock in an uncontrolled environment. Seven years… And so much of that time Murdock hadn't even known who he was when he visited -- might not have known who he himself was.
"Whatcha thinking, Facey?"
"You got a weird look in your eyes just then. Whatcha thinking?"
"Nothing, really," Face lied fluidly. "My mind was wandering. It's early."
"Is that your first cup?" Murdock straightened up. "Haven't you eaten breakfast yet?"
"I was waiting on you."
"Then I will have something. Whatcha got?"
"I bought some cereal. Trix, and some Cocoa Puffs-"
"Excellent!" Murdoch crowed. "You do have milk?"
"I do. Come on." Face waved Murdoch into the condo, thinking that Conrad's fancy stoneware had probably never had cereal soaking in chocolate milk in it before. Do it good.
He dropped a couple of waffles in the toaster and poured two glasses of orange juice, and then as casually as he could he dropped two pills next to the bowl Murdoch was filling with milk and chocolate cereal as carefully as if it were a science experiment and one vitamin next to his own plate.
Murdoch looked at the pills and then turned those big brown eyes on Face. "Do I have to? Can't we just say I did?"
"I promised them."
Murdoch sighed mightily, but he picked up the pills and swallowed them, washing them down with orange juice. Then he dug into the Cocoa Puffs, obviously relishing them. "We don't get these at the VA," he said between bites. "Just Chex and Corn Flakes."
Face made shocked noises as he took his waffles out of the toaster and drenched them in maple syrup. "I'm appalled," he said.
Murdock grinned. "You should be."
Face topped off his coffee and sat down at the table. "What do you want to do today?"
Murdock crunched his cereal, thinking. "What are my choices?"
"We have the whole city," Face said.
Face grinned at Murdock's tone, half wistful and half excited. "Absolutely we can go to Venice. It's early for tourists, too."
Murdock grinned from ear to ear. "Don't want tourists, Face," he said. "I just want to be outside."
"Outside we can do."
So that wasn't so complicated after all, Face thought. No more was the rest of the day: Murdock had simply been the archetypical tourist, other than begging for skates to join the crowd on the boardwalk. Fortunately, Face had anticipated that and brought a pair along in the car. Murdock's gangly grace, like a stork, had lifted his spirit as he watched, refusing to try no matter how the other man had cajoled. Hot dogs on the boardwalk, Murdock taking his pills without demurring, the sunset over the ocean…
And then when they came home, Hannibal was there, filling Conrad's living room with cigar smoke. And that's when the complications had started in earnest.
Once again Hannibal pulled Face out of his memory. This time Face was happy about it. What had happened in LA wasn't something he was proud of, something he wanted to relive. He couldn't pretend it hadn't happened, and he'd have to deal with the fallout from it without any doubt, but he'd already decided how that was going to play out and there wasn't need to dwell on it. He replayed Hannibal's words -- something about finding a place to stay in Atlanta -- and his actual brain started working again.
"Atlanta?" He leaned as far forward as he could without waking Murdock and tapped BA's shoulder. "I made a mistake, BA. We don't want the 78."
"Whatchu talkin' bout?"
"I wasn't thinking," Face said. "We don't want the 78 -- it's a bad way." He had reassumed the authority of his second-in-command position with ease, he noted, and was the way he always watched himself normal? And why was he wondering that now? He shook it off; the fact was he had a job to do and he needed to start doing it -- and do it to the best of his ability until he quit. And he'd very nearly made a huge mistake. "We don't want to go anywhere near Atlanta -- the interchanges there are a disaster."
Hannibal shrugged. "What route do you suggest?"
"Get off this road in Goose Creek and get on the 52." The sound of Murdock talking back to the television all night had kept Face awake, and he'd had the choice of his thoughts, the Gideon Bible, or a road atlas. Rand McNally, lifesavers… "We'll go up to North Carolina and across to Memphis from there."
"I dunno," BA said. "Ain't they mountains there?"
"Yes," Face said. "The Smokies. They aren't exactly the Rockies, though."
"I thought you were in a hurry to get home," Hannibal half asked, his tone quizzical.
"Not enough to want to drive through Georgia and Alabama," Face said. "And it won't add that much time. We should make it to Ashville by nightfall."
Hannibal was quiet for a moment, the kind of quiet that meant he was seriously thinking over what you had just said. Alabama… With BA along that could get dicey; they'd had a couple of problems in Charleston. BA, of course, wasn't the type to back away from a fight; Hannibal, though, might, if you got to him early enough, when it was still an abstract. They weren't in Alabama yet, or Georgia, on a secondary road, in little towns that were dying away from the freeway and looking for someone to blame. Face was readying a whole set of arguments -- from their fugitive status to Murdock's inability to believe in bigotry -- but he didn't need them.
"Good thinking, lieutenant. What town did you say?"
"Goose Creek. It's pretty close -- we need to get on US 52 North to just past Charlotte, someplace called Salisbury. We can pick up the 70 there and take it all the way west, just a couple of detours. Over the mountains here and then in Oklahoma for a bit."
"BA?" Hannibal asked, but not in his sincerely-asking-for-your-opinion voice, in his only-if-you-hate-it voice -- though, Face noted, not his not-even-if-you-hate-it voice. BA did still have a veto if he wanted it. And unless Face could override it. He hoped that wouldn't be necessary.
It wasn't; BA shrugged with a metallic rustle of gold chains. "Whatever you say, Hannibal. I don't care."
Hell, thought Face, if it did add a day BA would probably be happy; he did love to drive.
"Good enough. US 52 in Goose Creek it is, then," Hannibal said.
Face leaned back. He had mixed feelings, as usual: really good that Hannibal had accepted his recommendation, but angry with himself that he had almost screwed up so badly. He'd been thinking about getting them onto I-40, of course, but still. The only way he could have done worse would have been to put them heading south to pick up I-10. He thought about that for a minute: Florida, southern Alabama, Mississippi… Maybe he was just borrowing trouble, but there had been a couple of racially charged incidents in Charleston, and he could imagine buying gas, or eating, or -- given what Hannibal had just said -- finding a motel in some back of nowhere place. Not good.
No, not good. Nor was it good that he'd had to reassess, do his thinking afterward instead of before. The fact was that he had a job to do and he hadn't done it well. The reason Hannibal had accepted what he'd said was because it was his job. It was his job to think about logistics, and routes, and plans. He was the XO, and executives execute. He was good at it -- it was a source of pride to him that he couldn't remember the last time Hannibal had had to say anything about the way he worked. Not that Hannibal actually needed his input, of course; the man had joined the army before Face had even been born. He'd made short colonel without Face's help, and he could get along without Face now. He'd have BA, who'd been his sergeant since a couple of years before Face had even joined the army, let alone met either of the other two. They'd do fine.
But that didn't acquit Face of the responsibility that came with filling the position he'd agreed to fill. As long as he was here, he should be paying attention to the job. It didn't matter that he'd decided to leave; as long as he was still here, he needed to be here. He couldn't have Hannibal and the others counting on him if he wasn't going to deliver.
He rubbed Murdock's shoulder and the sleeping man pushed a little closer. Face leaned his head back on the seatback and closed his eyes. Why did life have to be so goddamned complicated?
Hannibal glanced in the rear-view mirror; both of them were asleep. He looked out the window as BA negotiated the change of highway from 78 to 52. Once they were smoothly underway, heading north through the flat South Carolina landscape, he pulled out a cigar and started the ritual of getting smoking underway. Then he took a long puff and said, keeping his voice low, "What do you think?"
"They both tired." BA didn't speak any more loudly.
"That's not what I meant."
BA shrugged. "Faceman a little off his game, but things be botherin' him. And he tired."
"What do you think is going on?" Hannibal turned to look at BA. He didn't expect to be told -- BA had been protecting Face since the first day they'd met and even when the lieutenant screwed up BA's first action was to fix it himself; things had to be very bad before he'd tell Hannibal something as nebulous as a suspicion. So he didn't expect much, because he didn't think things were more than a little bit screwed up.
BA confirmed that with another shrug. "He ain't happy, but that man ain't ever happy without something botherin' him. That don't necessarily mean nothin'."
"That's true," Hannibal said, and it was. Face was a worrier; he never let an opportunity to predict a disaster go by untaken. It made him a good planner, if not a good decider. He'd grow into that, he was trainable and Hannibal was, if he said so himself, a good trainer. He'd seen a lot of less promising boys turn into good officers and go on to commands of their own, and not a few of them had turned into good leaders.
Not that Face was a boy anymore, of course. Even when they'd met he'd had a year -- more -- of college and another year in the service; just twenty but it hadn't really been accurate to call the kid a 'boy' then, though he'd seemed improbably young (and so very golden), and that was nearly ten years ago. Hannibal still thought of him as a kid, though; he probably always would. And not just a kid, of course; in some ways -- important ways -- the lieutenant was his kid. And his current predicament in large part Hannibal's responsibility.
His responsibility, but beyond his ability to cure. All he could do was keep the kid close and watched over, and physically safe. So he would worry about Face as long as they were running and as long as the kid was on his team. At least he didn't have to do it alone; he knew BA had his back on this -- on everything.
"Don't fret, Hannibal," the sergeant said. "We got nothin' but time comin' up. You'll figure it out, or it'll go away, one or the other." He looked at Hannibal for a moment. "It probably nothin' anyway."
"You're right," Hannibal. "It's probably nothing."
They looked at each other, and then, as one, turned to look over the seat at the sleeping Face. After a moment, they looked at each other again, and then BA turned back to the road. "Yeah," he said.
Yeah, Hannibal thought. It was going to be a long trip. But maybe that would be a good thing. Maybe a long trip would let him get to the bottom of whatever it was was bothering Face.
And maybe BA was right, and it would work itself out, or Face would come to terms with it. That was, after all, the way it usually worked. Hannibal took a glance into the back seat by way of the side mirror. Face was drowsing in the angle of the back seat and the side frame with Murdock half in his lap. They were crowded together -- there never was much room in the back seats of these cars that couldn't decide if they were sports cars or coupes. Murdock looked bonelessly asleep, dead to the world, but Face wouldn't be hard to wake. So Hannibal kept quiet, and so did BA. Neither of them wanted the kid to wake up.
Though Hannibal had no doubts their immediate reasons were different. He himself wanted time to think -- it was one reason why he'd decided to drive. He would save fighting BA's growing fear of flying until he needed to, but there was always the train. That way was faster if time was important - three and half days coast-to-coast instead of a week or more -- and easier on everyone. But of course, trains were coops -- hard to get off except at stops and too easy for the MPs to get on… worse than interstates that way. And trains were hardly private, and mostly Hannibal wanted them to be alone.
To work out whatever it was was bothering Face, or give him the time to work it out himself.
And here he was again, Hannibal thought wryly, looking out the window: Face always left him running in circles. He couldn't seem to help himself -- the kid dodged around and he just had to chase, to try and pin him down, to just get hold of him. It never worked, but he kept on trying. A flaw in his own character, no doubt, a need to hold his team close -- not easy when you couldn't get any kind of hold on them to begin with.
Though it wasn't accurate to say he couldn't get any kind of hold on them. True, Face needed a light touch or he'd run. You had to let him have his head a lot of the time; for instance, Hannibal had known right away that they couldn't stay in New York, but moving to LA had been easy enough. It hadn't settled all Face's problems by any means, but it had put him into a place he felt comfortable enough in to start looking for solutions -- that Hungarian priest, for one. The man had been good for Face, no doubt, though his talking to a stranger had worried them, him and BA; Hannibal had spent many hours in various disguises checking out that church and its clergy, just in case, but they'd passed muster, no talking to cops or feds. And he'd helped Face, or helped him help himself… So, yes: a light touch on Face's reins, hint and nudge instead of push and pull. But BA? Not even a light touch.
Hannibal glanced sideways at the driver. BA had changed the most, physically, of all of them: hair, beard, jewelry -- you wouldn't have recognized him. But he'd probably changed the least of them all inside, and Hannibal counted himself in that. BA was, as he had always been, a rock, utterly dependable and utterly unshakeable. And as for guidance? No touch needed, only a word -- hell, by now it was a nod, a look, at times almost, it seemed, no more than a thought. BA was a good sergeant, and they were worth their weight in gold; he had Hannibal's back in all things, and yet Hannibal knew better than to think BA would support him quite so unquestioningly re Face.
Sergeants… sergeants and lieutenants: Hannibal had always been on the outside looking in at that. As a mustang, he hadn't gotten the sergeants' care (or wanted it), and he'd been a corporal when they'd commissioned him, never been a sergeant himself. But he'd seen enough of it to know that BA took it very seriously, when he did it at all, which he didn't always. If he didn't like a lieutenant, didn't think the man was or -- maybe -- ever would be a good officer, did think he was menace to the troops … well, then that same care that could help a newbie learn the ropes, keep him on track, and teach him his job could be used to derail him. BA had destroyed Jackson; Hannibal knew it though he'd never tried to do anything about it. But that had been unusual; mostly BA just ignored the useless ones. If he was honest with himself, Hannibal knew that's why he'd sent Face down after the sergeant that first day. Not because he'd thought BA would take against him -- though sometimes he thought he might have hoped that -- but because he'd known that BA would make a quick and accurate assessment and save him from himself if he needed it. Because his bitching about the new lieutenant had been pure show.
When BA took one look at the slick Californian and took against him, Hannibal would be able to ignore his own immediate reaction to that something behind those cool, wary eyes and that ironic, charming smile that said it was all a cover for a need that Hannibal wanted to believe existed. The last thing he needed in his life was another Taylor, and although Peck hadn't acted like that man, playing instant disciple to Hannibal's mentor, he could so easily be cast in the role… So he'd expected BA would reject the kid while hoping he wouldn't. But he would never have dreamed that BA would come back angry at him -- "What was you thinkin' about, sir, sendin' that lieutenant after me? Somebody could have got hurt." That lieutenant… you'd have expected that to be condemnation, but it wasn't.
So Face had gotten under everyone's skin. Hannibal himself had given up when he'd walked outside and seen the kid, all cocky, leaning up against the Lincoln Town Car and grinning. It hadn't even taken the Cuban cigars. Murdock had been attracted from the beginning, too. He'd hung around them even more after the kid had shown up, and they'd been even closer after… Having him with them was supposed to make Face feel better but it didn't seem to have worked out that way, and Hannibal wasn't sure why. Something to work on in his copious spare time -- the real reason they were driving.
He looked sideways at BA again. Hannibal had no idea what had gone on at that first meeting, down in the ‘South Side' of the firebase, but whatever it was, the sergeant had taken the lieutenant under his wing right off. He'd never let him out, either. Hannibal wasn't sure how much of that was inevitable, and how much of it was because Face was still, sort of, a lieutenant. He should have been a captain by now, moved on to let the sergeant collect another kid officer to watch over, but that hadn't happened. And BA didn't have any troops to watch out for, either -- just one perpetual lieutenant who enjoyed the pampering.
Hannibal hadn't wanted to be babysat, himself, but he hadn't tried to get in between his sergeant and his lieutenant -- that was the way it was supposed to work, after all. It had lasted too long, but he wasn't sure he could stop it now. Or even, really, if he should. This existence was a delicate balance. Maybe bringing Murdock had been a mistake.
And maybe it had been the best thing he could have done.
Only time would tell. All he could do now was wait and see what happened next. No plan survives contact with the enemy, he reminded himself. And sometimes you have to let the enemy hit you -- have to make some move, any move -- to find out just what that enemy was. And how much attention you really had to pay to it.
BA drove without really paying attention. His eyes moved between rear-view and side mirrors and the road ahead, but he didn't think about anything he saw, not the cars on the other side of the highway, not the monotonous scenery, not even the several cars and more old pickups he overtook, passed, and left behind. The Cougar was a muscle car that handled like a truck, but after years of jeeps that hardly bothered him and he liked the speed. The car did leave a lot to be desired -- it was way too small, to start with -- but it wasn't a disaster. Still, he wanted to get rid of it somewhere. They really did need more room; wasn't any way he was getting in that puny back seat, and the trunk space was pitiful. He'd been giving that some thought lately; if they were going to keep on driving all over the country helping folks out they were going to need a bigger vehicle, something they could all get comfortable in, something that had enough room for all the equipment and weapons they were going to need to tote around with them. Couldn't be depending on getting everything at the clients' end, after all. But the car wasn't as bad as he'd made Faceman think he thought it was. After all, Face needed to be kept on his toes.
Right now, though, maybe that wasn't as good an idea as it usually was. He stopped his eyes for a moment in the rear-view, looking at the lieutenant as he slept. He looked real tired, worn out in body and soul. BA pressed his lips together to stop words coming out and went back to driving.
Faceman was worried about Murdock. The colonel was worried about Face. BA was worried about everybody. And Murdock? He was worried about that stupid little dog he'd left behind in Charleston. Wasn't it always like that?
BA wasn't sure bringing Murdock along had been the colonel's best idea, even though the way it had turned out they'd been lucky he was along. Thing was, they'd have more than likely come up with some other way to get Face out of the jam he was in without the crazy man, and with him Face was in a bigger one. BA could remember how hard it had been to make Face go to the VA the first time, and the second time had been even harder. He wouldn't have thought there'd even be a third time, but Hannibal had forced the issue by playing that tape recording he'd made of Murdock's reaction when he'd been promised Face was indeed coming… Lord, he thought, it was a miracle Face had ever forgiven Hannibal for that. But he'd gone to visit the pilot, and this time Murdock had recognized him, and once he'd put his hand to the plow he hadn't ever looked back. It had been good for him, and he'd moved heaven and earth to get Murdock out of the VA on a pass, but he hadn't intended anything like this.
And he wasn't happy about what had happened, any of it, not happy at all.
Maybe Hannibal was right and it would work out, but BA wasn't so sure. Nor was he sure what Faceman was hiding behind those glass-blue eyes, and that was worrying. He was glad of the time stretching out in front of them to focus in on the lieutenant and figure him out. He had some notions, but he wasn't sure any of them were right.
And he wasn't sure exactly what he ought to do if any of them were.
And he wasn't sure just how long Murdock could go without his drugs and his doctors before he got really crazy. Or what Faceman would do if it got really bad again. What any of them would do.
And he wasn't sure when he should talk to Hannibal about any of it.
He used the excuse of passing an old Chevy to glance to his right and take in Hannibal. The colonel was looking out the window, smoking that awful cigar, and not seeing anything. He was off somewhere, planning.
BA relaxed. As long as Hannibal was thinking and Faceman was still with them, the situation wasn't too bad. They had time for things to come together. He looked down US 52 stretching out ahead of them and read the road sign that flashed by: CHERAW 115 miles. They could stop there; get gas and maybe some lunch. He took another look at the men sleeping in the back seat. Try not to wake them up when they stopped, he decided. Let them sleep all the way to Asheville.
And let Hannibal have his planning time. BA looked down the road, cleared his mind of anything but driving, and drove. Just under ninety minutes later he saw the big orange circle rising above the trees on the right side of the road, and slowed slightly. Time for gas, pick up something to eat in the car. He glanced at the back seat, where both men were still asleep, and then nudged Hannibal. He spoke softly, but didn't whisper because he knew whispering always woke the lieutenant up. "We need about twenty gallons. I'll pump; you go inside and buy somethin' to eat."
Hannibal nodded without speaking. BA slowed the Cougar gently, avoiding hitting the brakes, and pulled into the Gulf station and up to the premium pump. He didn't like the car that much, but it needed hi-test, that was for sure. He cut the engine and waited a moment, but there was no stirring from the passengers. He smiled as he and Hannibal got out, shutting the doors softly. Once on the concrete pad he stretched and worked the kinks out of his shoulders before reaching for the pump. The colonel pretended he wasn't, but he bent down and tied a shoelace that didn't need it. BA grinned to himself as he pumped the gas, but not for long.
A little dog was yapping, somewhere close. BA looked around and then saw it. If he'd been a swearing man he'd have sworn then: that fool Murdock had brought that stupid little dog with him, and it was scratching at the window. For half a second BA was tempted to let it do its business in the car, preferably on the fools that had brought it along, but he didn't want to be smelling it all the way to Asheville so instead he abandoned the pump, pulled the door open and let the dog out.
Face had woken up, probably at the first bark, but he was on the other side of the car from the gas tank. Murdock was coming awake more slowly, and hampering Face's attempt to get out of the car, so the dog was able to run about for a minute before settling on a place to take a dump. BA reached in and grabbed the pilot by his leather jacket, hauling him out by main force. "You cleanin' that up, fool," he said.
"Sure, sure," Murdock answered, "no problem, big guy." He looked quickly at the dog, which was sniffing at the Cougar's rear tire, and trotted off to get the bathroom key.
Face got out of the car a little cautiously. Well, he wasn't no fool, BA thought. The blond snapped his fingers and the little dog ran up to him; he picked it up carefully, avoiding its attempts to lick his face, and stayed on the other side of the Cougar. BA gave him a meaningful look and went back to pumping gas. Murdock came out with towels and picked up the dog's mess and went back to dump it. He and Hannibal came back at the same time.
"What have you got there, lieutenant?" Hannibal looked around the gas station as if expecting to see someone calling a lost dog. Maybe he didn't recognize it. BA wondered what Face was going to say.
But Murdock answered first. "He's mine, Hannibal, not Face's."
The pump thunked as it hit twenty and stopped. BA pulled the nozzle out of the tank and slotted it back into place, saying as he did, "Ain't your dog, Murdock. Ain't Face's, either. Ain't nobody's."
"That's why --" Murdock began but BA overrode him.
"I ain't havin' this argument with you, fool. I'm tellin' you. An' you -- " he pointed at Face. "Don't you even think about puttin' that mutt back in my car."
"Your-" Face started but thought better of it. He also thought better of getting into the Cougar and just stood there, holding the little dog.
Murdock circled around the car and took the dog into his arms, cradling it protectively. BA sighed angrily, keeping his mouth closed so no one would notice; Murdock was already too attached to the animal. What had Faceman been thinking? Usually he was several steps ahead, but this time he'd had to be stuck in the moment. Not a good sign, not a good sign at all. BA tried to speak calmly. "We ain't takin' that dog with us."
"Why not? He's not very big, are you?" That last was directed at the dog in a coo, and then Murdock looked back up at BA and Hannibal, who'd walked up to stand in BA's general vicinity, holding a cigar the signs wouldn't let him light. "He won't bother you, you won't even know he's here-".
BA ignored that piece of idiocy and pressed on. "We can't be stoppin' every hundred miles to let it out, and we can't be findin' water for it all the time and it too hot not to, and we can't be wastin' time huntin' motels that'll let us have it in a room. That why."
Murdock blinked at him.
"An' even if we could take it," BA continued remorselessly, "you couldn't have it in the hospital. They wouldn't let you."
"But Face…" Murdock looked at him, but Face stayed silent.
BA didn't want to hear whatever it was Murdock was starting to say. Besides, the fool had already talked the lieutenant into one bad decision today -- more than one. Didn't need to be giving him a chance to do it again. "Face can't have no dog. Face don't even like dogs."
"Yes, he does. Yes, you do, don't you?"
"Sure," Face said, reaching out to scratch the dog's ear, but that was all.
"Don't matter," BA said, not developing the theme with things he'd seen in the past. It wasn't relevant. "He can't have one. None of us can. Face don't know where he be sleepin' one day to the next. Half the places he does stay don't allow dogs. An' what if Lynch come up on us again? What he gonna do with a dog then? Leave it behind?"
"But, BA --"
"No buts, you fool -- we can't take it and that's that. I tol' you that back in Charleston, but of course you didn't listen. Well, now I'm tellin' you again and I mean it. We are not. Takin'. That dog."
"We can't just leave him here in the, on the, the side of the road! He doesn't even know where he is," Murdock protested.
"You'd left him in Charleston like I tol' you and he'da been at home." BA sighed loudly and gave in, as he had always meant to. "Awright, fool. We drive around Cheraw -- which is where we at -- and find us a animal shelter. And we leave it there."
"A no-kill shelter, right?" Murdock said, hugging the dog so tightly BA was surprised it didn't yelp or bite, "right, Hannibal?"
Hannibal broke his observing silence. "Sure, Murdock; nobody wants the little guy dead. We just want him to find a good home, with someone who can take care of him the way he deserves. He'll actually be better off here than running loose in Charleston on the docks."
Murdock looked happier at that. So did Face, who was still not talking. BA gave him a long look; he and the lieutenant were due a nice long one-on-one tonight. "Awright, get on in. We got to find us a phone book."
As it turned out, the town's animal control office was right on 52. Face went inside with Murdock. They were inside a long time, or it seemed that way to BA. A cop pulling up at the next-door Town Hall gave them a long look before going about his business. BA felt his hands clenching on the steering wheel and Hannibal said, "Thirty seconds more and I'm going in to get them."
BA nodded and relaxed slightly. It wasn't necessary, though; the two came out almost before the colonel's last word had died away. Murdock's jacket was unzipped and he spun around holding it open. BA snorted with reluctant laughter. "I ain't gonna frisk you," he said. "If you got it tucked away somewheres, I'll find out. And then I'll do worse than frisk."
Murdock made a face at him, but behind his back, forgetting the rear-view. BA didn't bother to react, he'd done what had to be done. And anyway, he was more worried by Face's behavior than Murdock's.
But it was a silent drive to Asheville. Over the border into North Carolina, past, or rather through, Wadesboro and Mocksville, where Face broke the silence to remind BA to get onto US-70, Hickory, Glen Alpine – a name that matched up with the mountains they were now climbing up, azalea and something else all red up the sides of the hills – and Old Fort, BA pushed the Cougar steadily, at about ten miles over the speed limit, and they made it to Asheville in just over four hours.
Face’s comment about the road was the only thing he said the whole time; in fact, it was the only thing anybody said the whole time. That was fine with him – well, to be honest, ‘fine’ wasn’t the right word, but he was just as happy not to be talking with the others right now. Murdock was okay, or he would be: at the shelter they’d let him make sure the terrier had a roomy cage and promised they wouldn’t kill it. He’d miss it for a while, then forget it; he’d want a new one when they got back, most likely, but that wasn’t a problem. Face didn’t particularly like dogs, but he wouldn’t mind one if it would make Murdock happy. Right now Murdock was drowsing on and off, tired still, and that was good, because though talking to Murdock wasn’t problematic in itself, talking to him where Hannibal could hear was.
But talking to the other two was problematic. Through the whole BA-laying-down-the-law scene, Hannibal had just stood there watching, looking, one eyebrow lifted. He was going to want to know why Face had let Murdock bring the dog along, and until Face had come up with an answer that didn’t involve lying – lying about the future, at any rate, since there was bound to be some lying – he didn’t want to have that conversation. He wasn’t at all certain why he’d let the pilot bring the dog, and that was the real problem here. He didn’t want to talk to Hannibal until he had things under control.
And BA? In some ways he’d be worse. Hannibal would give him room to run, enough rope – though he had confidence in his ability to get out of any noose and turn it into a rappelling rope to escape with – and he’d wait. History showed that the colonel preferred to wait, if he could, to pick a good time, and that could be used to your advantage if you knew how. The sergeant, though, he picked his time, too, and it always was his time. The only ray of light Face could see was that BA hadn’t lit into him already. But since that was probably just because he didn’t want to upset Murdock any further, it wasn’t necessarily a good sign. Especially since every time he looked in front he saw BA’s dark eyes in the rearview, looking at him.
That was a conversation to be put off as long as possible, even though he knew it was coming. And that it was his own fault it was.
When they reached Asheville it was nearly dark. “Let’s find something that’s not empty,” Hannibal said.
“We don’t want to stand out.”
“There a Motel Six down the road there,” BA said and took the turn.
The Vacancy sign was lit and the parking lot about half full. “This’ll do fine,” Hannibal said. BA turned into the lot and pulled up outside the office. “I’ll get rooms.” Hannibal opened the door. Murdock shoved the seat forward and scrambled out after him. Face wasn’t sure if Murdock was just bored with being in the car or didn’t want to lose Hannibal’s protection. If the latter, if he didn’t think Face could stop BA yelling at him again, then Face had a bit more work cut out for him than he’d thought. He sighed and reached to push the seat out of the way, but BA hadn’t moved yet. Didn’t look like he intended to, either, the keys were still in the ignition. Face was simultaneously wishing he’d gotten them a sedan instead of a coupe and thinking about sliding over and getting out on the other side when BA turned and said something unexpected.
“We should buy us some clothes an’ stuff.”
Face sagged back against the seat. He should have thought of that. “Especially ‘stuff’,” he agreed. “Did we pass a K-Mart?”
“We did,” BA nodded.
“Right.” Face did slide over. “I’ll let them know; be right back.”
He put his head into the small lobby and found the guys – Hannibal at the desk, Murdock engrossed in the display of local tourist attraction pamphlets. He had to admit he didn’t want to deal with that just now; the pilot was a born tourist, look at his infatuation with Venice, and Face wasn’t. He just wanted to get home as quickly as possible, no stops along the way… He spoke quickly before Murdock noticed him. “Going to get gas,” he said.
Hannibal nodded. “Pick up some takeout, too,” he added.
Another thing he should have thought of. Time to get yourself under control, dammit. All told, this had not been a good day. He hadn’t died, but things had gone downhill from there. He ducked out the door without waiting for anything else, and paused outside to take a deep breath. Then he got into the waiting Cougar next to BA.
“We’ll gas it up, too,” he said, “so we can just go in the morning, and get some take-out.”
BA nodded, his neck chains rustling against each other with a sound less like chiming than you’d have thought. Too many of them, Face decided; they made his neck ache to look at them. Then again, anybody who looked less like a sergeant you’d be hard pressed to find… “There’s a chicken place near the K-Mart” was all the big man said.
Face was grateful but wary. True, BA wasn’t dressing him down now that they were alone, but he could feel the other man’s weary disapproval. It stung. It should, he admitted to himself; he wasn’t pulling his weight. He was tired, that was all, tomorrow he’d be on top of things again. But that wasn’t a good excuse, and anyway excuses were never satisfactory. Even reasons weren’t… Shake it off, pay attention. You’re not home yet.
BA turned the car into the parking lot. “Gas first?” he asked.
“Right,” Face said, pulling out his wallet. He had a couple of gas cards in there, might as well use one before they got stopped. Hannibal preferred paying cash, and not just for pragmatic reasons, but getting that was no less problematic, really. And the big oil companies could stand a few gallons’ loss without going under. So he let BA fill the tank and then went inside and handed over the Shell card without a qualm on his conscience, which was the best way. The guy didn’t bother calling it in, just ran the card through the manual imprinter and filled out the form. Face signed, took the card and the dusty carbon copy – as usual, pretty smudgy and hard to read – and finished up the small talk he’d been making about the weather.
“What’s the best way to Shenandoah?” he asked as he tucked away his wallet, listening as the guy told him about the Blue Ridge Parkway. He even took a map before saying thanks and leaving.
Inside the K-Mart he and BA split up. He headed for the Men’s section and began loading up the cart. Hannibal was easy – a couple of short-sleeved shirts and a couple of long-sleeved ones, some casual pants and a pair of jeans – and Murdock even easier – three pairs of khaki pants and four colorful t-shirts. Socks and underwear for the three of them, undershirts for himself and Hannibal… BA could get his own. He spent a few minutes picking over the stock before settling on his own purchases – polo shirts in the best colors they had, their best jeans, a couple of not too dressy pants (not that ‘not too dressy’ was hard in a K-Mart)… well, he wouldn’t stand out. After a moment’s thought he picked up a windbreaker for himself and then a new one for Hannibal – the one the colonel had was suspiciously dirty. He thought about getting himself a pair of loafers but … not here. Not worth the money.
When BA joined him, his cart contained sweats and some overalls, and the basket was loaded with toiletries. Face had to admit the sergeant had a good memory for brand names. Motels didn’t put out stuff the way a good hotel did, just soap usually, so the shampoo and razors and so on would come in handy. And so would the four small suitcases – soft hold-alls, really – that he’d piled into the cart along with his clothes.
Which was one more thing he should have thought of. Left to him, they’d have walked into the Motel-6 carrying K-Mart bags. That wouldn’t have attracted any notice, no, sir. He definitely needed to get himself together. Maybe a good night’s sleep would help.
They reached the front of the line and began piling stuff onto the belt. “We’re together,” Face told the young man ringing them up.
“You boys going on a trip?” he asked, the slight quiver on the last word registering his sudden realization that the word ‘boys’ might not have been his brightest idea.
BA gave him the fish-eye but didn’t say anything. Face let him off the hook with a bright smile and a cheerful, “Yeah – Shenandoah. On the way to DC, actually.” He made sure to be a little more drawly than the clerk, to match the South Carolina license he was going to show with the card. The clerk was too happy to see them go to even think about checking that, despite their purchase being over the limit. Less than a day after he’d acquired it, it was bound still to be good, but Face wasn’t sorry not to have to put on the air of an unworried man. Who the hell knew whether Richard Dunning hadn’t run up his credit, after all? He took most of the bags and followed BA, who was carrying the suitcases with their flashy ‘Sold’ tape, outside the store into the dusk.
They tossed everything into the back of the car and BA pulled into a far corner of the lot so they could pack the suitcases. BA had bought four colors, and he took the black one for himself. Face put his things into the dark gray one, giving Hannibal the brown one and Murdock the blue. They packed their own bags in silence, and then started on the other two. As BA layered Hannibal’s shirts on top of the trousers Face made himself say, “Buying these was a good idea.”
BA met his eyes for a moment but didn’t speak.
Face nodded. “You’re right. The clothes were a good idea, too. Also the rest of it.” He zipped up his own bag and reached for Murdock’s. “You’ve had a lot of good ideas today.”
“Thanks, man.” BA dropped the bag onto the floor of the back seat and climbed in behind the wheel. Face finished up Murdock’s packing and settled in next to BA. He didn’t have to check his wallet; he always knew how much cash he had. “Let’s use the drive-through,” he said. BA nodded and pulled out onto the service road.
They ordered a 16-piece bucket of original recipe, a big side of cole slaw and another of potatoes and gravy, and some biscuits. Southern sweet tea, milk for BA, and “pull around, please.” BA handed over the money and took the big bags and passed them to Face, who balanced them gingerly on his lap as they headed back for the motel. Except for the thank-you and the chicken-buying, BA hadn’t spoken since they’d left the place. The silence wasn’t oppressive, but it wasn’t just plain companionable, nothing particular to say silence, either. It was a very familiar silence, and Face finally had to break it.
“What you mean, what?” was the unencouraging response.
Face sighed, not bothering to try to hide it. “I messed up. Okay?”
“No,” said BA. “You made bad decisions today, Faceman. An’ you missed stuff you shouldn’ta.”
“I know it.” Face kept that plain and simple.
“What else you missed that we didn’t think of?”
Face almost claimed the food as his idea, but then thought better of it. And not just because Hannibal was likely to say something that would give the game away, either. This was one of those conversations that meant they said the truth to each other – rare they were, and painful, but he’d never not gotten good from them. BA might dress him down, but he wouldn’t let Hannibal see it – just like he hadn’t raised the topic of shopping when Hannibal was around. And because he knew that BA would let him take the credit for that idea, he had to let the sergeant know exactly how badly he had, in fact, screwed up – and that he knew that, too. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “If there is anything else, I have missed it.”
BA shook his head. “You off your game,” he said. “You entitled to a bad day every now an’ then, everybody is, but you can’t have one this bad. You got people dependin’ on you.”
“That true,” BA acknowledged, fair as always. But then he added, “But you can’t afford to let that slow you down. You got to learn to sleep even when you worried or got stuff goin’ on. Gotta learn to catnap.”
Face knew it was true. Hannibal could lean back in a corner and grab forty winks at the drop of hat, while waiting to drop out of a chopper into a dark field probably full of people wanting to kill him. So could BA. Him? People wanting to kill him always kept him up nights beforehand... “I’ll work on it.”
“Do that. If bein’ tired slow you down, you gotta learn to stay fresh. But that ain’t the worst of it.”
“What do you mean?” he asked warily.
“Why you let him think he could have that dog?”
Face sighed, looking out the window into the advancing dark. “I told him it wasn’t a good idea.”
BA grunted more than sighed, and then pulled over on the side of the road. They were almost at the motel. Clearly he didn’t want to pull into the parking lot and have Hannibal clock their arrival. And that meant this wasn’t even close to over. Face summoned his best puzzled attitude. “Chicken’s going to get cold.”
“Only if you play games,” BA said. “You know he wouldn’t have brought that dog if you hadn’t let him. So why?”
Face shrugged. “I don’t know,” he admitted.
BA clenched his hands on the wheel and shook his head. “Now you are playin’ games.”
Face almost laughed. He didn’t, because he really had deserved it. “No, really. I don’t know.”
BA regarded him seriously. After a considering moment he said, “That ain’t good, LT. You need to figure that out.”
“I know.” And he did. “I suppose … I don’t know. I didn’t want to say no to him.”
“He needed ‘no’ said, though.” BA canted his head, his gold chains doing their chiming rustle again.
Face laughed, hearing how bitter it sounded. “Oh, I did know that. I didn’t want to say it.”
“So I had to.”
“You didn’t mind.”
BA looked long and hard at him. “That ain’t the point.”
“I know.” Face had to laugh again. “I know, I know. But I do know – I really do.”
“You better. An’ you better figure out what’s goin’ on with you and him, an’ you in general.”
“Tryin’ ain’t enough, LT.” There was that again. “You gotta do it. You playin’ with someone’s mind now.”
“I know that,” Face said sharply. “You can’t think I ever forget that.”
“No. I guess you don’t, at that.” BA blew out a heavy gust. “Then you know you gotta get your own head together, and fast.” With that, BA put the Cougar in gear.
“That’s it?” Face couldn’t help asking, though even as he did he wondered why. “For now,” BA growled, looking over his shoulder to pull out onto the road. “You got some time to think. We be days gettin’ back to California.”
Face moaned theatrically. BA laughed and turned into the motel parking lot. “I didn’t pick this car,” he said. “You did.”
Face didn’t bother answering that, just waited for BA to park the Cougar. Then he got out, pushed the seat forward and grabbed one of the bags.
“I got the others,” BA said. “Not that we know which rooms we in.”
But that wasn’t a problem; Murdock had apparently been waiting for them as he flung open the door, a rectangle of soft golden light in the dark. “Where’d you go for the food?” he demanded. “All the way back to Charleston?”
Ah, home, Face thought wryly. He handed one of the bags to the pilot and followed him into the room. Hannibal looked up from the newspaper. An eyebrow rose. “Good thinking, Face. We’ll look like real travelers with those.”
“And we can stay clean,” BA said. “Can’t hurt, as close as we gonna be this week.”
“Nice.” Hannibal stood up and took the bag BA indicated. Murdock had forgotten the food and was rummaging in the blue holdall BA had thrown at him. Hannibal put his down by the door, saying to BA
“We’re next door, sergeant. Murdock, put that down for a while so we can eat.”
Murdock looked up from the t-shirt he was inspecting and grinned. “Sure thing. You know I could probably eat a horse, not just a chicken.”
“Half a chicken,” Face said, taking the lid off the bucket and setting it on the little table next to the tubs of cole slaw and potatoes. He paused and shook his head. “No plates.”
“We don’t need ‘em,” Murdock said, pulling the little packets of plastic silverware and napkins out of the bag. “We can eat out of the containers; we’ve eaten with less formality before, after all.” He dropped the packets on the table and reached for a drumstick.
Hannibal laughed and pulled out a breast, and the others weren’t slow to join in. There was silence for awhile except the sounds of eating and drinking. BA broke it by asking how long they were going to be on the road the next day.
Face shrugged. “That depends, I guess. I figured we could make it to Memphis. That’s -”
“Graceland!” Murdock interrupted. “We can go to Graceland, can’t we? Pleeeeease, Hannibal?”
Hannibal didn’t like rock and roll, but he looked at Murdock benevolently enough. “We’ll see. It depends on when we get there, a few other things. How long a drive is that, Face?”
He shrugged. “Maybe nine hours, maybe a little less. More if we stop for meals.”
“I don’t think we’re in a hurry,” Hannibal said. “We can eat in a restaurant. Even if it’s only a Denny’s or whatever they have out here.”
“I agree, Hannibal,” BA said. “That’s a long drive.”
Face agreed, too, though for a different reason: the later they got to Memphis, the less likely they would end up at Graceland, which surely kept tourist hours. Murdock was eating cole slaw, but he nodded energetically. He wouldn’t want to be cooped up that long, Face knew – and Hannibal most likely did, too. So it was left at that. When they finished eating, Hannibal and BA took their bags and headed for the next room, Hannibal telling them to get some sleep as they’d be leaving first thing in the morning. Face tidied up the table, stuffing the bags full of trash and then the full bags into the trash can while Murdock took a quick shower. Face followed him in that; he usually showered in the mornings, but today had been a long, hard day, and he wanted to be clean.
When he came out of the bathroom Murdock was sitting up in the bed closest to the television bolted on the wall bracket, watching some black and white film. He paused a moment, watching a couple of men in trench coats and fedoras sneak around a dock in wispy movie fog, and then crossed over to the other bed.
“Face, will it bother you if I watch TV for a while? I’ll keep the sound low.”
Face, can I move the TV into the room I’m sleeping in? It’s just … hard to get sleep any more, when it’s dark and quiet.
“No, of course not. I can sleep as well with it on as off.” True enough as far as that went.
He slid under the blanket and turned on his side. The curtains at the window made the room dark despite the lights and the road outside, but the television, low enough that he really couldn’t follow the old movie, kept the room filled with low flickering light that played against his closed eyelids, but not enough to be a distraction. Various thoughts tried to surface, but he refused to let them. He had plenty of experience at not thinking under worse circumstances, and it wasn’t hard to stay in a state of near blank-mindedness if not quite sleep.
Eventually the low sound turned into the white noise of late night static and even later Face fell asleep.
|Chapter 1||Chapter 2|
|Autumn Afternoon | Ilya's Wedding | Something... | Last Corner | Morgans|
|Original Fan Fiction|
Star Wars |
Power Rangers |
Battlestar Galactica | The A Team
Space 1999 | Alias Smith and Jones | Jurassic Park III
|Go Back to List of Karen's Fiction|