Face took a quick look at his watch. 7:21. Damn. Nine minutes to make it to the rendezvous. He flattened himself against the remains of the wall beside the hole Murdock had torn through it and sighed. Very nearly dark already. Twenty minutes… He’d known when Hannibal said it that it wasn’t going to be enough time. Five to get up there, five for Murdock to get gone, ten to meet the others… A half mile, and ten minutes was more than twice the time that would take. But that was on a road you knew, in the daylight, with no one shooting at you. Though maybe the shooting would make you run faster, he thought with a chuckle.
Still, it wasn’t enough time, and he’d known it. He should have held out for 7:45. He hadn’t, because he knew why Hannibal had cut it so close: didn’t want Murdock getting caught up and wasting time and running the chance of getting caught if the damn plane wasn’t flyable. Hannibal hadn’t wanted to give Murdock time to do anything but make the go/no-go decision. And that was a good idea, and he’d known that, too. Probably there was a bit of Hannibal not wanting him running around the camp, nosing out anything interesting – the way Hannibal’s mind works, that would run the gamut from Revere to Rosaria, and who knows what in between. In and out. That was what Hannibal liked – in and out, go/no go – and in fairness, Face had to admit that in and out was a good idea. But still – the sun was nearly gone and the Salvadoran night was coming on fast – he didn’t relish the notion of trying to make a half mile in the dark in nine minutes. Make that eight.
He should have held out for a full half hour. He knew why he hadn’t: he hadn’t wanted to get into a discussion of his health. So now you’re going to prove you’re not incapacitated by doing more than you would normally? Not the smartest thing you ever did. And standing around won’t make it any smarter. He took a breath and shook his head to clear it of extraneous thoughts. Introspect on your own time, Templeton.
Outside soldiers were still running through the gathering darkness as the explosions continued in the near distance. They couldn’t have missed the plane leaving, but whoever was out on the hill was still there, and so the guerillas were in confusion – only eleven, twelve minutes after all. Somebody would get them in order soon enough. Don’t stick around to see it.
He started to duck out the hole, and then spotted a cap on the floor and grabbed it. It might help him blend in and couldn’t hurt. He headed across the camp toward the main gate at a run, the Ruger knocking against his hip. Part way there, he broke stride; a Jeep was parked askew outside the office hut. For a moment he was tempted to take it – Jeeps didn’t have keys, after all – but he thought better of it. If the Team heard an engine, they’d take off, or set a trap, or both. But he didn’t need someone chasing him in it, either, so he broke stride long enough to draw his sidearm and shoot out a tire.
Then he was haring down the path toward the gate. One guy was there, looking towards the line of explosions. He turned towards Face as he heard footsteps crunching the gravel and hesitated, clearly unsure whether Face was reinforcement or enemy, but as the distance between them shrank he obviously came down on the ‘enemy’ side, bringing his rifle up and shouting, “¡Alto!”
“Not likely,” Face muttered, though he did in fact skid to a stop, raising his hands. The guerrilla lowered his rifle and started to speak; Face didn’t wait for two words before slugging the man on the jaw.
Or trying to; the guerilla pulled away and the blow glanced off. Face had to duck under the swinging rifle and close in, punching hard to the ribs. The guerilla doubled over, dropping his weapon; Face clasped his hands together and hit him hard in the back of the neck. The man went down and Face bolted on through the gate. He probably should have picked up the rifle, but he’d wasted too much time already to be heaving bodies around… Just run, Templeton.
A bullet whined past his ear. That had to be a different guy, no way he’d gotten up that fast. Maybe the fourth guy from the hangar. At any rate, reinforcements, which was another good reason to just run. And yeah, getting shot at did make you run faster, he was discovering. A second shot made him break stride, weaving to his left, and then back again. Serpentine! Peter Falk’s cry went through his mind as he wove his way from one side of the road to the other. The edge of the road gleamed in last dusk, curving away to the east. Face called the map to mind and cut off the road into the trees. If he kept straight at the right angle, he’d hit the road again about fifty yards from BA’s position.
What had to be the last of the diversionary blasts went off, quite close. He stumbled but saved himself from falling by grabbing a tree. He stood there a moment, catching his breath, and then shook his head to clear it and headed through the trees at a slightly more moderate pace. He didn’t want to trip over a tree root or hole in the ground in the darkness of the trees. He should make it there in time. If not … well, it probably wouldn’t kill him to hoof it another four miles.
The very thought made him speed up again.
As he came up on the road again, he stayed under the trees and paralleled it. He figured he still had twenty yards – and couldn’t see anything that far away in the rapid mid-tropics nightfall – when he heard shots. He stopped abruptly, looking down the road behind him as he unslung the Ruger. More shots and he realized they were coming from in front. Great. Well, at least it probably meant the guys were still there. Ill winds and all that, he thought as he began to make his careful way toward the sounds, pistol out and ready.
Four guerrillas were using a ute for cover, firing down the road. Face took a minute to be certain that it wasn’t the Team’s ute, and then he took his own cover behind a tree and fired a couple of shots, aiming low at the wheels. The guerrillas reacted by dropping to the ground or spinning around in obvious confusion. Face fired again, and this time the ute sagged on the left front. Now they had his location and were shooting at him, but fire from the Team (he thought. Hoped) pulled some of them back around. Face took a couple more shots, and then started making his way through the trees around the guerrillas.
When he figured it was safe he angled back towards the road. Sure enough, another ute was parked on the side of the road, three men behind it facing the guerrillas. Face laughed silently in relief and made sure he spoke up before they heard him and took a shot at him in the darkness. His choice of words was fueled by the adrenaline rush that accompanied the relief: “Nice of you to wait.”
“You’re late, lieutenant.” Hannibal’s sharp tone was fueled by relief as well, Face knew.
“Well, then, let’s not stick around.”
“We bein’ shot at,” BA said, “case you didn’t notice.”
“I did,” Face said. “But they can’t follow us; I shot out their tires.”
“Very good,” Hannibal approved. “Let’s go. Frankie,” he jerked his thumb over his shoulder, “in the back.”
Frankie nodded and headed for the back of the ute. Face followed him with his eyes, and then felt Hannibal’s hand on his shoulder, pushing. “Let’s go,” Hannibal repeated. “Before they get lucky and hit our tires. Or gas tanks.”
“Or us,” BA growled, already behind the wheel.
Face climbed on in, letting Hannibal have the shotgun position. Second time in the middle, he thought, wishing he was in the back with Frankie but knowing Hannibal hadn’t been ready to let that happen. He’d say he wanted to talk, but he was always a bit possessive when they’d been split up like this. It was probably just as well: it was a bit scary how much of that rush of relief had been because there’d been three men there. He didn’t want to explore the thought of only two, so he talked instead. “I thought we were going.”
BA seconded that. “Hannibal – get in. No wastin’ time.”
Hannibal grinned at them – the Jazz, man! – and turned to squeeze off a few more shots from his M16 before jumping into the ute. The engine was already racing and BA had his foot off the brake before Hannibal could shut the door. “You take too many chances, Hannibal,” he growled. Which was his way of showing relief.
Hannibal grinned at the both, wiggling his eyebrows. “We saw the plane take off. I presume Murdock was flying it?”
“Good. No problems, then?”
“None we didn’t handle,” Face answered, shifting the Ruger to a more comfortable position. “They weren’t as confused as we’d hoped, but nothing major.”
“Here, give me that.” Hannibal took the Ruger and laid it up against his M16 against the door. “You didn’t have to use it, did you?”
“Had to take a few shots, keep heads down,” Face said.
Hannibal leaned back. “A lot of that around,” he said. “Still, almost done. Once we get to the LZ, it’ll be about three hours till Murdock’s back.”
“If the Chinook is waiting for him,” Face said a bit sourly.
“It will be.” Hannibal sounded smug.
Face bit back his next statement; he knew he was just coming down from the high of the last hour. There wasn’t anything serious to his griping, and he didn’t feel like listening to Hannibal defend Stockwell, even if only half-heartedly. Instead he leaned back and looked at his watch. “So we should be back in Mexico before midnight. Sounds good to me.”
BA shifted beside him but didn’t speak. Face wondered briefly how Hannibal planned to get the big man onto the helicopter. He hadn’t said a word to Face about it, and he wouldn’t now. Presumably he and Murdock had come up with some routine while Face had been hors de combat; it would be interesting to watch. Hannibal interrupted the thought by pulling out a cigar, and Face reached into his pocket for his lighter. “Thanks,” Hannibal said, drawing on the cigar. “I love it – ”
“It ain’t together yet,” BA said. “We still got a long way to go.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Hannibal said. “But you’re raining on the parade.”
“I ain’t the rain,” BA said with a chuckle. “Just the weatherman.”
Face had to laugh at that, and so did Hannibal. Just for the moment it felt like the old days, just the three of them. Simpler days in so many ways… he was almost nostalgic for them. But only almost, because he knew what he’d be missing. Murdock whole. Frankie here. So he just leaned back against the seat and let BA drive and Hannibal smoke, all of them in silence.
Soon enough they reached the spot Hannibal and Murdock had settled on for the landing zone. BA slowed to a stop and Frankie jumped out of the back and came up to the window. Hannibal said, “We’ll leave a guard here, hour shifts. Frankie, you take the first one. Here –” he started to hand him Face’s Ruger through the window.
“Not that one,” Face said. “Take the M16, Frankie.”
“Good catch,” Hannibal agreed, passing the semi-automatic rifle out instead. “These bolt-actions take a lot of practice, that’s a fact. BA, let’s get off the road, down that way. Frankie, if anybody comes along the road, you just hide. Don’t start anything. If they look like they’re going to stick around, come get us. We won’t be far.”
“Right. Someone will be up to relieve you in an hour.”
BA put the ute in gear and slowly headed into the trees. About a hundred yards in he stopped again, and then backed and filled until they were facing the road. Then he killed the engine. After a few minutes he leaned forward to speak past Face. “Hannibal, I ain’t getting’ in that helicopter. I told you that.”
“Yes,” Hannibal nodded. “Yes, you did.”
“I meant it, too.”
“I know you did.”
BA looked at him, and then at Face, a scowl of suspicion on his face. “I mean it. It ain’t much more than 200 miles to Mexico from here.”
“I know. We can be there in two hours in the Chinook.”
“Once Murdock get here. Five hours if you lucky, more likely six, him goin’ there an’ back here an’ then back there. I can be there that fast drivin’,” BA said. “I made sure to put a gas can in back.”
“BA,” Hannibal said soothingly. “I’m glad you said ‘I’ there, because there is no way the rest of us are passing up a helicopter ride out of the middle of one civil war and across another one. But if you’d really rather drive across Guatemala, we aren’t going to stop you.”
“Of course not. Face, do you care?”
Face shrugged. He wasn’t sure why Hannibal was playing it this way, but he didn’t really care if BA drove back as long as he himself didn’t have to. BA’s flying phobia was real and Hannibal hadn’t said the first thing to him about how they were going to overcome the big man this time. Maybe they weren’t going to. Maybe Hannibal had started letting BA have his way when he could; maybe he was just trying to annoy Stockwell; maybe he figured BA would regret it… Whatever, Face was not up to fighting with BA. Hell, why not let him drive, if it came to that? Face honestly had no desire to do it, but he could sympathize with BA’s attitude. “I said so yesterday,” he said.
“Good.” BA said. He turned his head, and then whipped it around again. “You ain’t druggin’ me. Go on an’ get out now, and I’ll – ”
“You can’t leave before Murdock gets here,” Hannibal said reasonably. “You won’t know where to meet us. And I don’t see why the rest of us should sit out in the night cold till then. By your own call it’ll be another three hours or more.”
BA glowered. “I’m not stayin’ here for three hours, waitin’ for you to try somethin’. I’ll go relieve Frankie.” He got out, shut the door, and then looked doubtfully in the window. “You ain’t goin’ to mess with this engine, are you?”
Hannibal shook his head. “Now, BA, why would we do that? Either we’d be stranding you in the middle of El Salvador, and you can’t think we’d want to do that, or we’d have to tell you we’d done it, and you have to know we don’t want to do that.”
That made BA laugh. “Thanks, Hannibal,” he said. “I’ll send Frankie back.”
Face watched him disappear in the trees and then said, “Are you really letting him drive back to Mexico on his own? Then what? We all drive back to Virginia?”
“Of course not, Face.”
“Not what? Driving back to Virginia? Or him driving back alone? That’s not really safe, and I’m not going along.” Nor is Frankie, but he didn’t say that out loud, since he couldn’t imagine Frankie agreeing to it. Well, unless Hannibal put on some psychological pressure…
“Neither, of course. Well, maybe from Mexico. We might all from Mexico, depending on what the general’s laid on for us.” He stretched, and then opened the door. “Let’s go meet Frankie.”
“What?” And then he realized. “Frankie’s drugging him?”
Hannibal shrugged. “Murdock and I did it the last four times, so he was watching you like a hawk. It’ll get complicated again now, but this time it should have been easy.”
Should have… It took all of Face’s self-control not to jump out of the ute and tear up the hillside, yell at Hannibal, or both. He managed it, if only just; getting out of the ute he followed Hannibal up the slight slope towards the road.
Hannibal was still talking. “I’d hoped to put it off a while yet, we might have to give him another shot on the chopper.”
“He’s going to be mad,” Face predicted.
Hannibal snorted. “You think? Of course he will, but he’ll also be in Mexico. I had no intention of letting him drive back from here.”
“The time will come,” this prediction was more serious, “when he won’t forgive us.”
“I know it.” Hannibal stopped and looked at Face in the faint light – the moon was new and not helping – and asked by remarking, “You’re very negative today, even for you.”
“Sorry.” And he was, though for different reasons than he’d have been a month ago. “I’m just … I don’t know.”
“Tell me the truth, Face. Is your shoulder all right?”
“I’m fine, Hannibal,” he answered automatically, and then paused and answered more honestly. “It’s not bad, it really isn’t. I’ve been better, but it’s not a problem. I guess I’m just … out of practice.”
“I suppose you are, at that. Well, first time back nerves, I guess. Get hold of yourself; it’s all over but the shouting.”
“Don’t jinx it, Hannibal,” Face said. “There’s still a lot could go wrong.”
Hannibal laughed. “Back to normal already. C’mon, let’s go meet Frankie.”
Frankie was waiting for them where they’d left him. BA was leaning up against a tree, unconscious, and Frankie was heading back to the road when they got there. Hannibal called softly, and Frankie trotted over to them. “I got him when I gave him the rifle. He wasn’t expecting it,” he said, his tone adding ‘just like you said’.
“That’s good,” Hannibal said. He dropped to his heels and pulled up one of BA’s eyelids. “He’ll do nicely till we get where we’re going.” He stood up and pulled his glove back on. “I’d hoped to do this later; we’ll probably have to give him another shot. Well, can’t be helped.” He looked appraisingly at Face and then turned to Frankie. “Give me a hand getting him back to the truck. Face, you take this watch.”
Resigned, Face held out his hand for the M16 and then watched Frankie and Hannibal lug BA down the hill, Frankie holding his shoulders. He checked his watch: 8:45. About an hour and a half till Murdock showed – and he might get stuck with the whole watch, though he’d bet Frankie would remember. Oh well, at least, despite Hannibal’s remark to BA earlier, it wasn’t cold. Not really – seventy-five, probably. He took one last look down the hill, though they were out of sight, and then moved nearer the road.
He didn’t like the dark. The dark was full of memories and if you avoided those you ran into other things you didn’t want to think about. Like, why had he put Frankie and him off limits? When he got relieved (if) it would have been really … nice … to be able to steal a quick kiss. Or a long, promissory one. Feel Frankie’s hard, warm body, see himself in Frankie’s black eyes… Oh, stop it. You know why: you can’t hurt him.
It’s as simple as that.
Don’t hurt Franklin.
Don’t hurt him, and don’t lie to him…
So stop thinking about him, right now.
But that wasn’t a good idea, as it turned out, because the thoughts he’d already had had primed his body, and now, in a vicious feedback, his body turned his mind to the closest available thing. For a moment he saw again Rosaria’s tan body, felt her fingers on him hard enough to bruise, to scratch if her nails hadn’t been clipped short, heard her panting voice… He pulled away from that memory as quickly as he could and found himself in another dark place.
He’d already thought of Tommy Angel and the camps once today, which made it easier to fall again into that obscene mockery of what he was trying to avoid. Angel … He knew why Hannibal hadn’t let him kill him, but Hannibal didn’t know why, not the whole reason why, Face wanted to. He’d never told Hannibal, never in fact said a word to Hannibal or Murdock or anyone. Maybe BA. He didn’t know… He remembered BA caring for him, had one crystal-bright memory of Lin Duk Coo with two bowls in his hands and fear and pity fighting each other in his eyes; he remembered BA spooning one bowl down him (“c’mon, LT, swallow this, don’t make me hold your nose now”) and using an old torn t-shirt to daub the other one on him… He might have talked to BA, so much was hazy, because it was safe enough; BA wouldn’t talk back, wouldn’t ever say it… And it was true that, whether he had said anything or not, BA hadn’t ever brought it up.
After the camp, Face had taken the aggressive part of his own sexuality and chained it to the basement floor of his subconscious, and then put enough bullets into its brain to kill any monster, or at least he hoped he had. It had taken Father Engarry, and months, to sort though it all… Father, and Jill, not that they’d known each other even existed. Father had told him not to fear his desires, that all that mattered to God was love. “He doesn’t obsess over sex, not the way the Church so often thinks. Sex is even sacramental. What bothers him is when sex is misused… Don’t hurt people. Don’t lie to them. That’s what matters,” he’d said. And “When you do fall in love with someone, don’t worry what other people think. Just be kind to him. Don’t hurt him.”
“Him?” Face had asked.
“Isn’t that correct?” Father had said. “In English? Someone is ‘he’?” But though Father had been willing to pretend for a while, he had seen the truth even that early, he’d made that clear enough when he’d judged the time right. Taught Face how to deal with it. Taught Face a lot he’d needed to learn, in fact. Now Face wanted to call him – though God only knew if he was at the parish still… He might even be dead. That had been a long time ago, after all, and Face had made no particular effort to keep in touch, especially after Jill. Father knew too much. That he wanted to talk to him now only meant that he was afraid of falling back into that dark place. But he didn’t really need to talk to the Hungarian priest. He knew what he needed to do; he remembered the lesson: don’t hurt him. And he wouldn’t, no more than he had to. Keeping him away from the dark might make him feel excluded, but it was for the best. Frankie deserved to stay untouched by darkness… He’d never killed anyone, and he deserved to still have that be a terrible thing, just to start. And he deserved to have his love stay … pure was as good a word as any. In this darkness Face had remembered what he’d meant: Loving Face would get Frankie hurt, eventually. He leaned up against a tree and wondered why he was so weak.
He was a user, he knew that. Leslie had taught him not to be on the wrong end of a relationship again. But then Father had told him what to do to make one work anyway and Jill had showed him how, and in case he’d been in danger of forgetting why Leslie had shown back up with a reminder. He’d been so lost when Frankie offered to save him he’d forgotten what Father had said. But that didn’t excuse him from his responsibilities: to Frankie; to God; maybe even to himself, for what that was worth. And – he remembered, safely enough now, what had started this whole bout of introspection – it wasn’t as though taking care of Frankie would be without reward. He smiled into the dark Salvadoran night. No, Frankie would make it worth his while.
By the time Frankie showed up to relieve him, Face was back in control – of his memories and thoughts as well as his actions. “You and Hannibal have a good chat?” he asked as he handed over the rifle.
Frankie shrugged, his expression hard to read in the darkness. “We talked about the new Aquamaniac. Johnny thinks he’s lost the essential joie de vivre of the character.”
Face laughed. “He would. There have been people up and down the road, not many, but none have even slowed down. I expect it’ll stay quiet.”
“I can’t believe they aren’t out looking for us. Johnny says they probably just folded their tents and lit out.” That was almost a question.
“Probably. I mean, the plane’s gone. Catching us would have been nice, but they don’t know who we were. If we were Salvadoran troops, things could get nasty in a hurry.”
“Still seems strange.”
“And they might still come. But Murdock should be here in a half hour or so, if that plane was as fast as an F16.”
“I hope it was.” That was heartfelt.
Face was careful in his reply. “Me, too. Mexico never seemed so desirable a destination.”
There was a brief pause, and then Frankie said, “You’d better get back to Johnny. He said he didn’t want us chatting and forgetting to be vigilant.”
“Oh, I just bet he did,” Face said, not having to fake the annoyance. “Like we would. Sometimes he mother-hens just a bit too much.”
Frankie grinned. “I think he’s just afraid I didn’t give BA the right dose.”
That made Face laugh, which was a good note to leave on. Back at the ute, Hannibal was still nursing his cigar and looking at a map. BA was sprawled across the rest of the seat, so Face just made do with sitting on the floor with the door open, pulling the Ruger out to lean up against the ute’s side next to him. “Checking roads?” he asked jokingly after watching Hannibal for five minutes.
“Ummmm,” Hannibal said. “Driving back from Mexico won’t be a problem if it comes to that.”
“If we can find a vehicle,” Face said. “And if these papers are good for the border guys in Texas.”
“They would be. And if they aren’t, Stockwell would make them so.”
“You sound awfully confident of that.”
“Well, Face, whatever else Stockwell may want or not want, he doesn’t want us getting fingerprinted by the Feds.”
Face laughed. “I hadn’t thought of that,” he admitted. He put his foot up on the edge of the ute’s floor. “I almost wouldn’t mind a long drive.”
Hannibal folded up the map. “Me, either, kid.” He lifted his head. “Do you hear that?”
Face did: the glorious syncopated beat of a double-rotor helicopter. A lot of memories were tied to that sound, all right, but he was able to ignore them now. He stood up, shut the door, and said, “Let’s go.”
When they reached the edge of the LZ the Chinook – ghost gray in the darkness, no markings visible and running lights off – was just settling down. The ramp was let down and two guys jumped out; Face stopped dead, reaching for his sidearm. They held up, looking back inside the cargo doors, and then Murdock’s voice called out, “Come on, guys. They’re okay.”
Murdock himself came next, letting the rotors spin down as he ducked low, despite the Chinook’s height, and ran across to meet them. “Let’s get it loaded. Stockwell, said not to leave anything behind that might id us as Americans.”
“Not to worry, captain,” Hannibal said. “Everything we brought with us is in the back. Give me a hand with BA, somebody.”
Frankie shouldered Face aside, who let him. As he and Hannibal shifted BA out of the cab, Murdock was saying to the other men, who had come up by then, “Everything in the back goes on board. Let’s go. Sooner we’re loaded, sooner we’re gone.” He grabbed a box himself and headed for the chopper. Face figured it was the only box he’d carry, but the other two guys were already loading themselves up. He picked up the rifle case and headed for the Chinook himself.
Murdock took the case from him and slid it along the floor. Face started to say something, but one of the strangers – they had a Abelish look to them now he saw them in some light – was there and he had to move out of the way to let them hand over their loads. And then Hannibal was there with a bag saying, “Move it, lieutenant. This stuff won’t shift itself.”
That was true enough. Face headed back for another load. Hannibal and the two strangers pretty much ignored him as long as he was carrying something but Frankie gave him a disapproving look and took one of the cases off Face’s next load as he passed him headed back to the ute. Face started to say something this time, but decided to give it up as a lost cause. Besides, the aspirin was wearing off, and he wasn’t really loath to carry a lighter load, if the truth were told.
With five of them the unloading didn’t take long. Face climbed up into the Chinook next to Hannibal and watched Frankie bring the last box. Hannibal reached down and helped Frankie get it in, and then gave the Hispanic man a hand up. Murdock was giving the cargo the fisheye while the other two moved stuff around until he was satisfied. He started to head up into the pilot’s compartment but Face stopped him. He looked back and said, “What?”
“Who are they?”
“Couple of Stockwell’s men,” Murdock said. “He wants the Chinook and all his stuff back tonight. Don’t worry – he wants it, and they don’t look expendable.” He turned to head for the pilot’s seat. “Close ‘er up,” he hollered back over his shoulder. “Face, get settled. Let’s get out of here.”
And that was something Face could agree with whole-heartedly.
|Part One||Part Two||Part Three||Part Four||Part Five||Part Six|
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