Face walked carefully down the centre of Stockwell’s executive aircraft and took a seat beside Murdock on the grey plush couch.
“How’s the big guy doin’?” Murdock said not looking up.
“He’s fine, fine. Frankie’s keeping an eye on him. And on Carla.”
“You know Stockwell. He’s disappeared into that private sanctuary of his. I’m sure we won’t hear from him til we reach Hong Kong.”
Murdock was familiar with Stockwell’s inner sanctum. A wall of glass and knock-out gas, but Murdock took some comfort in remembering the web of cracks spreading out in front of Stockwell’s face just before he’d passed out–if only he’d been able to get off one more shot. Perhaps things would’ve been different.
“Yeah, and then it will be ‘gentlemen, do it ~my~ way’,” Murdock said in a perfect imitation of the general. His attention was focused away from Face, his fingers–touching tip to tip on both hands –rhythmically flexing against one another in time with his breathing.
“But it’s better when you do ‘I Did it My Way’ ~your~ way,” Face said, trying to inject levity into the moment. Murdock’s dark eyes met Face’s with momentary confusion. “You know, Ol’ Blue Eyes, Chairman of the Board?” Face began to sing softly and slightly off-key: “I did it my…way….”
Murdock continued to stare back at him without the barest hint of a smile. His blue cap was pulled snugly around his ears, the familiar leather bomber jacket that had been the pilot’s constant companion through more years than Face could count was nowhere in sight. It was as if Face were sitting beside a stranger. The usually warm brown eyes were distant, dark and unreadable. Murdock turned away. Face sighed and settled back against the seat.
“Tough crowd,” he said softly. A pause. The steady rise and fall of their breath. “We’re all worried about Hannibal.”
A slight shift in body position, Murdock’s shoulder relaxing infinitesimally against Face’s. The barely audible response: “I know.”
Face slipped his hand lightly onto Murdock’s arm and squeezed. “This is Hannibal we’re talking about here. I don’t care what Stockwell says, he’s not dead. And we ~will~ find him.”
Murdock shifted again, stretched his long legs out in front of him. “I just don’t get it –why Hannibal even took the assignment in the first place. We’ve always done things together or not at all. Then suddenly Stockwell wants to split us up for missions, ‘better use of manpower’ and all that crap. Why would Hannibal agree to it? It’s just reckless.”
“Well, we’ve always known that Hannibal can be a little reckless, ‘specially when he’s on the jazz. There must’ve been something about this one that was worth going it alone.”
“Or something that he didn’t want to risk us getting involved in,” Murdock said sharply. They all knew that Hannibal would rather take a risk himself than put any of them in harm’s way. But going it solo hadn’t usually been an option before Stockwell came along. Proximity had dictated that it was all-for-one and one-for-all, whether Hannibal always wanted it that way or not.
“Maybe so, but we’re involved now,” Face said, “and whatever happens, we’re a team. You, me, B.A.. And Hannibal. Nothing’s changed.”
“Everything’s changed, Faceman,” Murdock said launching himself out of his seat. “Remember when you used to have to scam one of these babies for us? When’s the last time you had to do a real scam, Face? One where we needed something Stockwell couldn’t go out and buy?”
“And remember how we used to have to knock B.A. out with a 2-by-4 or drug his milk? Now all we have to do is slip him a quick tranquilizer. He doesn’t even hardly complain!”
“B.A. might actually see ~not~ getting hit in the head with a board as an improvement,” Face interjected, but Murdock was just getting started.
“And Frankie — he sold us out in the first place and we invited him along for the ride. We wouldn’t’ve done that in ‘Nam. And Hannibal wouldn’t’ve been going off on his own in ‘Nam.”
“It’s been a long time since ‘Nam, Murdock,” Face said with a sigh. He hated to admit it, but he knew in his gut that everything Murdock was saying was the truth. The world had changed since Vietnam, and they had all changed since meeting Hunt Stockwell. And not necessarily for the better.
“And I wouldn’t be sitting here like a goddamn passenger instead of a pilot,” Murdock said sitting down suddenly in one of the bucket chairs across from Face and dropping his head into his hands.
“On the up-side, we haven’t crashed lately,” Face said brightly. Murdock looked up and smiled unexpectedly. He could always count on Face to bring things back into focus. He felt some of the anger drain out of him.
“I never crash. But sometimes my aircraft experiences an unplanned encounter with the terrain.”
Murdock took his hat off and ran a hand through his thinning hair. He looked into Face’s clear blue eyes as he pulled his cap back on.
“Face, it’s just that everything’s changed this year, and you know I don’t like change. If anything’s happened to Hannibal…”
Murdock’s dark eyes flashed with an intensity that Face knew and understood. If anything had happened to Hannibal, they were out. Stockwell be damned. They’d made their way fine before he came along and they would again.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Face answered. “In the meantime, we need a plan. What do you propose, Captain?”
Murdock looked up at the use of his rank. Only Hannibal ever called him Captain and it could have just as easily been “Captain Hook” or “Captain Crunch” on any given day. Reluctantly Murdock pushed those thoughts aside. How easy it would be to slip into a character, let the worry and frustration drift away in some outrageous fantasy, but somehow he felt he owed it to Hannibal to stay serious. This wasn’t a game. The odds weren’t in their favour. And somehow he had to keep his sanity indicator flying straight and level through this one ’cause he knew if he went into a nose-dive chances were that he wouldn’t be able to pull himself out in time. And Face and B.A. needed him. So did Hannibal.
“You’re in charge, Lieutenant,” Murdock said pointedly, a smile hovering at the edge of his lips. This felt more like old times, closer to the edge and yet further away. His comfort zone.
“You outrank me, Captain,” Face said matter-of-factly. “Therefore–“
“Therefore, I’m putting you in charge.”
“Now wait just a minute,” Face said, mock-indignation entering his voice. He enjoyed this play. It had been a long time since they’d been able to tease, to relax, to settle back into old patterns. Maybe everything had changed, but at the heart of it all, the four of them hadn’t and that was really all that mattered.
Murdock reached across the space between them and slapped Face gently on the knee. “Thanks, muchacho.” Murdock stood up, grinning, and looked at Face. Face caught Murdock’s smile and felt a surge of nervous energy course through his body. He knew that look.
Murdock continued to grin, his smile widening as he nodded his head up and down. Yeah, this was much more like old times.
“What?” Face asked again. That look always ended up with them having to throw themselves through a picture window or with Murdock kissing him on both cheeks and proclaiming him to be a Baying Wolf, First Class. It was the same look Hannibal got when he told them something was going to be “a piece of cake.” That look always made Face nervous, but he could feel the jazz starting to tingle under his skin.
“I never did like being a backseat pilot,” Murdock said slowly, looking at the closed and locked cockpit door. “And I know B.A. would feel so much better knowing that I was at the controls rather than some of Stockwell’s lackeys.”
“I’m sure,” Face said shaking his head and standing beside Murdock. He withdrew his lockpick case from his jacket pocket, and darted a look towards the back of the plane where it appeared that Frankie was attempting to engage Carla in conversation. BA appeared to still be resting comfortably.
“You know, Murdock,” Face said unzipping the small black case silently and slipping a tool into the keyhole, “this is the point of no return.”
“And you know what Hannibal would say if he were here, Faceman,” Murdock said as Face carefully turned the knob.
“Piece of cake,” the two of them said in perfect harmony swinging the cockpit door open.