“Come on, kid. Wake up,” Hannibal tried to restrain the young man who was thrashing around in the bunk. Even in the darkness, the colonel could sense the look of panic and fear distorting the handsome features of the blond lieutenant.
“NOOOOOOO!!!” Face wailed as he twisted in Hannibal’s grip.
“Fuck!!! Not again” came a distant voice, one of the marines at the other end of the barracks.
“Shut that guy up” came another yell from down the barracks.
“Face, wake up,” Hannibal said in the most soothing voice he could manage. “It’s just a nightmare, kid. You’re safe now.”
At the sound of the words, Face jerked forward so he was sitting straight up. His blue eyes snapped open, reflecting the dim light coming in through the windows. They were wide and full of panic.
“Are we gonna have to hear this crap every night?” called another exasperated marine.
Face jerked at the sound of the voice and, though still trembling, began to quiet. After catching his breath, he turned to Hannibal and asked soberly, “Another nightmare?”
“I’m sorry . . . I didn’t want to wake you,” Face answered in barely more than a whisper.
“You don’t have to apologize, Lieutenant,” Hannibal replied softly. “These things happen. Just try to go back to sleep.”
Hannibal watched as the young man fell back against the bunk and stared up at the ceiling. The colonel brushed away some matted hair off Face’s forehead and just watched as he slowly drifted off to sleep. The lieutenant slept fitfully, trembling and twitching in his dreams, but he did not cry out.
“Not gettin’ any better ain’t it, Hannibal?” The colonel jumped at the low, but quiet rumble from behind him.
Hannibal had no answer to the question. As he sat in the darkness, Hannibal wondered, not for the first time, whether his team would survive.
They woke the next morning to the grumbling of the eight marines who shared the barracks. The team understood how the marines felt. Hannibal had tried to get the team assigned to the Air Force Base quarters, four men to a room, but space, even on a base as large as Cam Ranh Bay was at a premium. So they had been forced to share barracks with various units being shuttled in and out of the field on a temporary basis. For the time being, that meant they were sharing their quarters with the annoyed marines.
“How’re you feeling this morning, Lieutenant?”
Face looked up wearily. He knew he looked like hell and felt guilty about causing another sleepless night. The night before last, it had been Murdock’s screams that woke the marines.
“Okay, I guess . . . We’re not making a lot of friends though,” he added guiltily.
“Don’t worry about them, kid. Deep down, they understand. It probably just scares the hell out of them.”
Face laughed quietly. “Join the club.” He looked across the room to where Murdock was perched on the edge of his bed. “How’s Murdock?”
Face knew Hannibal was only playing along with the attempt to deflect attention, but the colonel answered. “He’s been talking with President Nixon all morning. They had a long talk about Checkers this morning.”
“Checkers?” Face asked. “I thought Murdock hated the game.”
Hannibal laughed at the question. “Nixon’s Checkers speech?” Seeing the blank expression on the younger man’s face, Hannibal laughed again. “I guess it was probably before your time, kid.” Hannibal sometimes forgot how young his lieutenant was. Was he even born in 1952? “Nixon saved his career by giving a speech about his dog.”
Now Face looked even more confused.
“Nixon was accused of accepting money so he went on television and denied it. He said the only thing he ever received was a little cocker spaniel for his kids and he wasn’t going to give up the dog. Didn’t they teach you anything in school?”
Face shook his head. “I learned a lot of prayers . . . So Murdock was talking to Nixon about a dog?”
“Yeah. I guess Billy is a cocker spaniel, too.”
The lieutenant thought long and hard, before he spoke again. His voice had a quiet, timid tone that sounded foreign to him. “Murdock shouldn’t be here, Hannibal. I’m not sure he’s going to make it.”
In his mind, though, the lieutenant knew his colonel was wondering the same thing about Face.
“Colonel Smith? Can I have a moment with you?” The marine lieutenant stood at the edge of the table where the team was silently eating breakfast. Actually, Face helped Murdock eat, but the blond man barely touched his own food.
Hannibal studied the marine. He was a typical leatherneck down to his dark crew cut and chiseled features. The soldier was the platoon leader for the marine unit sharing the team’s barracks. Then Hannibal noticed a second marine, a hard-faced, blond-haired sergeant with a long scar running down the side of his face, standing behind the lieutenant. The scarred man stood, fists clenched, glaring at Hannibal’s team.
Deciding to diffuse the tension, Hannibal nodded to the lieutenant. In turn, the marine motioned for the sergeant to return to the other side of the room where the rest of the marine unit was seated.
Hannibal rose and followed the marine lieutenant to an empty table out of earshot. As they sat down on benches on opposite sides of the table, Hannibal already knew the topic of conversation.
“Permission to speak freely, sir?” Just once, Hannibal wanted to say no, but he just nodded to the jarhead.
“This can’t continue, sir. My men have been out on LRRP and they’ve been cycled down here for a little R&R. They’re already pissed that they didn’t get sent to Saigon or Hawaii, and now they can’t even get a little shuteye because your guys spend all night screaming.”
The lieutenant should have noticed the way Hannibal bristled, but the soldier was either too caught up in hearing his own voice or too stupid to catch Hannibal’s not-so-subtle warnings.
“If your guys can’t hack it, they should get Section 8s and get out of here.”
Hannibal rarely let loose on another officer, but it was all he could do to stop himself from ripping out the younger man’s throat.
Teeth bared, Hannibal lurched across the table and grabbed the lieutenant’s collar, pulling him from the bench. “I said you could speak freely, Lieutenant, but don’t you dare insult my men. You have no idea what they went through in that camp. Better men than you died in there.” He let go of the soldier’s collar with a shove, sending the dark-haired lieutenant sprawling backwards over the bench and onto the floor. Not even noticing that the entire mess hall had become completely silent, Hannibal rose, walked around the table and leaned over the jarhead. Glaring icily, Hannibal growled, “If you ever even think about my men like that again, I’ll rip your head off.”
“That wasn’t too smart, Hannibal. Tossin’ that grunt like that.” BA stared over at his C.O. as he spoke. Hannibal was looking out over the clear, blue water that filled the bay. Following the colonel’s gaze, BA marveled at how beautiful this part of the country could be. The white sand beach and ocean might rival Hawaii, were it not for the Navy vessels and supply depots that littered the area.
“I know, Sergeant. He just got me so riled up. He had no right to talk about Face and Murdock like that.”
BA did not know exactly what the marine had said, but the sergeant probably did not have to. “Hannibal, have ya thought that mebbe he was right?”
The colonel spun around, his pale eyes filled with anger. “He was wrong, BA.”
The way Hannibal spoke left no room for discussion, but BA was not going to let the issue drop. “Mebbe ya don’t want to see it. But look at them.”
He pointed down the beach where Face stood, staring blankly out at the water. Murdock was lying flat with his head sideways against the sand, and was chattering excitedly to no one in particular. At one point, Murdock raised his head in Face’s direction and said something. Without turning, the lieutenant moved his mouth, undoubtedly saying an absentminded “uh huh” or “yes” as Murdock returned to his private conversation with the sand.
BA watched Murdock’s antics with a sad grimace. Though still thin, Murdock was starting to regain a little of his physical strength, but that was not his biggest problem. The time in the camp had messed with the captain’s mind. Not that it was so great before the camp. Murdock was always driving BA bonkers with his fool antics. But even though BA often hated the way Murdock cracked jokes or played silly games in the most serious situations, the sergeant had always recognized that the pilot was attempting to lighten the tension. Yeah, he seemed crazy, but BA sometimes doubted whether Murdock was truly crazy. BA thought the craziness masked good intentions and might have just been pretend.
BA did not doubt anymore.
According to what BA had heard from the other men in the camp, Murdock had retreated into a fantasy world almost immediately after arriving. Since their rescue, he had stayed there almost round the clock. In that state, he was barely addressing what he had faced, not consciously at least. BA had no doubts about what Murdock saw in the middle of the night when he started screaming in Vietnamese.
Yet, somehow, Murdock’s behavior did not scare BA as much as Face’s. Like the captain’s, Face’s physical transformation was startling. Unlike the captain, though, Face had barely gained any weight in the months since their rescue. The sergeant doubted that Face weighed more than 130. His ribs showed through the t-shirts he wore to cover up the more obvious signs of abuse. And, as far as BA could tell, Face barely ate enough to stay at his current weight, let alone to regain his strength.
Still, it was Face’s mind that worried BA the most. When they had first escaped the VC camp, Face had seemed okay. The sergeant remembered how Face had virtually carried Murdock onto the Huey that flew them out of the camp. That had been BA’s and Hannibal’s first sight of the two young officers in more than three months. The first time since they had been tossed into different parts of the camp. Though concerned about Murdock’s condition, the sergeant remembered his excitement at seeing that Face was okay. At the time of their rescue, the lieutenant was barking out orders to the prisoners under his command and acting every part the leader. At the time, BA suspected that Face had held things together in Hannibal’s absence.
But almost immediately after their escape, Face began to deteriorate. Within days, the spark left Face’s eyes. He spent most of their recovery time gazing blankly out the windows of the hospital. BA did not know what the blond man saw, but it tortured him. Face stopped eating, stopped sleeping, pretty much stopped living.
Even now, despite Face’s periodic attempts to crack a joke, he still spent most of his time in silence. This brooding man was nothing like the brash, young officer who had joined the team just a few months before their capture. BA could still picture the kid whose glib mouth and angelic features were both his saving graces and worst enemies. BA did not know the broken figure standing on the beach with the sunken cheeks and vacant gaze. Instead of running scams and seeking out willing ladies, this Face kept to himself, really only coming out of his shell when Murdock needed someone to lean on. Then the connection kicked back in.
The sergeant did not fully understand the connection between the two young officers, but it had not escaped his notice. BA thought back to a trip to Hong Kong the team had taken when Face scammed a flight out. On a lark, Face had pulled Murdock and BA into a storefront where an old, Chinese man had said that Face and Murdock were like the yin and yang, forces that “balanced” one another. BA had not fully understood the whole thing, but he remembered that Face had taken it seriously. Murdock, on the other hand, had joked, repeatedly quizzing the old man about which of them was the “dark, feminine” force.
BA still did not know what to make of it. He never really thought much about philosophy or religion. Religion was for Sunday church-goin’ with his mama, not much for thinking about. But regardless, BA did not deny that Face and Murdock went together.
Hannibal’s loud sigh shook BA out of his thoughts. They both knew that the army had made special arrangements for the team in the hope that the four men could regain the form that made them the most successful a-team in Vietnam. The sergeant and colonel had been together for four years and never questioned returning to the field. Both had used the month at the hospital and this “recuperation” time at Cam Ranh Bay to regain their strength and to try to put the thoughts of the camp behind them. It was just the way they handled things. Move on. Don’t dwell on the past.
BA knew Face thought differently. And Murdock? Well, who knew how the crazy fool thought?
“I should have sent them home, BA, shouldn’t I?” Hannibal asked. It was the first time BA had ever heard his commander question himself.
“Ya thought ya was doin’ what was best for them. They didn’t wanna leave.”
“Yeah.” Hannibal sounded sad, another first. “I should have pushed for physical discharges, but the doctors told me they would recover . . . I thought all they needed was a little more time . . . And I couldn’t send them home with Section 8s . . .”
As Hannibal struggled with his words, BA saw Face turn his gaze from the water and crouch over where Murdock was listening to the sounds coming through the sand. The blond man put a hand on Murdock’s shoulder and slowly said something, though the vacant, haunted look never left the lieutenant’s eyes. Murdock lifted his head and began to climb to his feet, using Face for support. As BA watched the sad scene, Hannibal continued to speak.
“Maybe Murdock could have handled it; everyone thought he was pretty crazy anyway. But I couldn’t do that to Face. It would have killed him . . .”
BA understood what Hannibal meant. A Section 8 could plague a man forever. For a smart, handsome kid like Face, a psych discharge would have destroyed any chance for a future. BA turned to the colonel and saw the worry that creased his brow. For some reason, the sergeant felt he needed to ask the question that both were mulling in their heads.
“This any better?”
Since he had been a child, Face had loved the calm of the ocean. Not the hustle of the crowded beach, but the steady, peaceful roar of the waves. Watching the blue waters of the bay, he thought back to the days he would sneak out of the orphanage and take the bus to the ocean. He had no money to spend on the boardwalk or the pier, but he would walk for miles until he found a quiet cove and would sit for hours watching and listening to the pounding surf.
People used to kid him that he looked like a surfer, but Face had felt no desire to conquer the waves. The waves were part of something too vast, something far beyond anything the boy he once was could envision mastering. There was no point, he had thought. He knew he could never conquer the ocean, so he had never tried. Why fight against something when you could never win?
He stared at the small waves striking the beach in Cam Ranh Bay. Had they once been the same waves he had watched as a child? Had the waves traversed the globe so they could come back to laugh at the kid he once had been . . . and mock the broken man he had become?
They were talking to him. The bad men. Then they were screaming at him in a language he once knew.
There were other voices. In his own language. These voices begged, pleaded with him.
He heard Face. “Stay with me, Murdock . . . We need you to keep it together . . . We need you . . .”
But he could not stay. He heard Face’s voice again. “Please . . . Don’t leave me . . . I’m not ready . . .”
But he had left. He had left them all. He had left Face.
The other voices came back. He heard the demands and the screams in a language he no longer understood.
And then there was Face’s voice again, closer, drowning out the harsh voices. Murdock lifted his head from the sand and looked into his friend’s face.
“Facey, you look tired. Why don’t you sit and let Uncle Murdock tell you a bedtime story? I’ll stay with you until you fall asleep.”
Face said nothing, but smiled back. When had Face gotten so thin? Murdock did not remember Face being so thin. Had Face been sick? That must be it. Right, Face had been sick. Murdock remembered the doctors, remembered Face in a bed. Face was sick.
Because he had left Face alone.
Murdock dropped his head back against the sand. He didn’t want to hear Face’s voice anymore. He would rather hear the harsh screams in that other language than his sick friend’s pleas.
Murdock felt a hand touch his shoulder and looked up into his friend’s sad smile.
“Come on, Murdock, we need to catch up with BA and Hannibal.”
Murdock tried to shut out the voice. But he rose anyway and leaned heavily against his friend.
The friend he had left alone.
Hannibal looked at the two figures slowly moving across the sand and tried to remember what it had been like to be so young.
In two “real” wars and various secret “incursions” into jungles, deserts and mountains throughout the world, Hannibal Smith had learned to never doubt his command decisions. That lack of self-doubt stood as the very reason he was able to do what other soldiers could not. If he had questioned himself, he would never have been able to convince himself and his men to “go through the front door” or perform a half-pincer movement. Even when his maneuvers did not go according to plan, Hannibal’s self-assurance and strength of will were usually enough to convince his men that they could prevail in whatever improvised plan the colonel cooked up.
Even in the camp, Hannibal had used that self-assurance to cajole and hearten the other prisoners. Now, staring across the water of Cam Ranh Bay, he wondered whether things would have been different if Face and Murdock had not been separated from Hannibal and BA.
It was only a different pen, he reminded himself, but to the two younger men it might as well have been another continent. As the superior officer, Hannibal had immediately taken command of the soldiers in his part of the camp. Technically, Murdock was the highest ranking officer in the other pen and should have taken command, but then the rumors started. Murdock had broken during questioning. He had gone nuts and spent his time babbling incoherently. That left Face, the only other commissioned officer, responsible for the group.
Hannibal recalled how every decision he made in the camp tortured him. Each time he decided to talk back to Chao or tried to intervene to protect his men, he risked the lives of everyone around him. One mistake and Chao might make an example of another soldier with a savage beating or a bullet to the head. Hannibal had made his fair share of mistakes, but he recognized that it was part of the uncertainty of the situation. Twenty years in the military had taught Hannibal that he could not plan for every contingency. Twenty years of training and experience had prepared Hannibal for the camp. Twenty years had taught Hannibal that soldiers died and leaders moved on.
His young officers did not have those twenty years. They never had a chance.
A few hours later, Face led Murdock across the base toward the landing strip. It had become one of their regular activities; the lieutenant dragged the captain over to watch the planes take-off and land. Every day, Face begged and cajoled Murdock into coming and, every day, Murdock resisted. Once there, of course, the roaring planes instantly captivated Murdock who would stare at the sky with wide-eyed wonder and a giddy smile across his face.
“Nonononononono. Don’t wanna,” Murdock tried to pull out of Face’s grasp.
“Come on, Murdock. You like to watch the planes.”
Face spun toward the sound of the voice and found himself facing three of the marines from the barracks. In front was the scarred marine sergeant who had glared at the team during breakfast when his lieutenant had asked to talk to Hannibal.
“Yeah, Peck, we mean you,” the marine sergeant spat. He grabbed Face by the shoulders and pulled him down a small walkway between two buildings. The other two pushed Murdock down the walkway and then turned to stand lookout, facing the open part of the base.
Face did not struggle against the sergeant, who shoved the lieutenant against the wall. The other soldier outweighed him by a good 100 lbs., and the two marines keeping watch did not look much smaller.
“What do you want?” Face answered meekly. The tone of his own voice surprised him, but it was the best he could manage. Face tried, but he could not make himself look the other man in the eye.
The larger man laughed, causing the scar that ran down his face to take on even more prominence. “So this is one of the big bad members of Smith’s a-team. You look like a pussy to me.”
“L-l-l-leave him a-alone,” Murdock stammered as he came towards them.
No. Damn it. That was the last thing Face wanted. ‘Keep Murdock out of this,’ he thought. ‘Don’t let him get hurt.’ Without thinking, Face issued an order, “S-stay back, Murdock.” Again Face hated the way his voice sounded. Why had he been able to talk calmly to General Chao, yet now he couldn’t even sound strong when surrounded by garden-variety bullies?
At least Murdock responded to Face’s order. The pilot backed away, taking on a slack-jawed, yet wide-eyed look that Face had seen before.
“Don’t worry, pussy,” said the jarhead. “We’re not going to hurt you or the nutcase. Not yet. We just want to have a little talk. You see, we’re a little sick and tired of your little shows at night.”
Face braved a wan grin. “You too . . . T-that’s good. I’m sick of them, too.”
“Shut up, pussy. We’re being nice and giving you a warning. We don’t want to hear a peep out of you tonight. If we do, we’re not going to be very happy tomorrow. Trust me.”
Without thinking, Face replied, “You know, I’ve been known to have trust issues.”
The fist to his gut told him it was a stupid thing to say, but, as he sank to his knees and watched the marines race away, Face allowed himself a pained smile. It was the first thing he’d said in a long time that made him feel like himself and it had served its purpose. Murdock was safe. For the moment.
“F-Facey? Are you sick again?” Face was hunched over on the ground, so he must be sick. Murdock watched as Face waved a hand, telling the pilot to move away.
“No, Murdock, I’m not sick. I-I’m just trying to catch my breath.”
It had been like before. In that other place. The bad place. Murdock had just sat there, seeing, hearing what was happening.
The voices yelled in his head. That other language, fast and harsh, rang in his ears. The American voices were there too. And Face’s.
‘Don’t leave me . . . I’m not ready . . .’ echoed in his head.
Face sounded so afraid, but Murdock could not remember why. He knew he had left, but he could not remember why. Not that it mattered. Murdock had left, retreating into a special place where he could play with Billy and Fluffy and all of his other friends. He was safe in that place. Nobody could hurt him there.
The safe place had helped during the bad times. Just like now, when those bad men had wanted to hurt Facey, Murdock had gone to his safe place. Oh, he knew what was happening in the bad place; he saw and heard and wanted to help Face. But in the safe place, Murdock could not be hurt. Like before. Like in the other bad place.
The harsh foreign voices yelled in his mind. Then, he heard Face’s voice again, arguing or begging, sometimes both. Murdock saw Face near the wooden bars, his back turned. Murdock could not see Face’s face, but he could see the back of his head shaking and could hear his voice. Face was mad. He was saying something to the bad men who yelled back in that harsh language Murdock no longer could understand, and he knew Face needed to stop. He needed to stop or something bad would happen.
‘No, don’t do that,’ Murdock begged in his mind. But he said nothing out loud. Did nothing. Murdock was in his safe place.
Murdock wished Face could come to the safe place? Murdock was safe there. If he left, he would not be safe.
The cacophony of voices in his head swirled. More American voices, Face’s, the others’. Louder and louder. Then there was a loud bang. Murdock flinched and shut his eyes. Opening them, he saw Face again.
Blood. There was so much blood. Face was covered in so much blood.
But not his own. Someone else’s.
Now Murdock could see Face’s eyes. It wasn’t his blood, but Facey was hurting too.
‘Oh, Facey,’ Murdock thought. ‘Why can’t you come to my safe place?’
He wondered why other people didn’t have a place like he had. Somehow Murdock knew that most people did not have their own special place where they felt safe. That was probably why everyone thought he was crazy.
Murdock knew everyone was right. He was crazy.
But being crazy made no difference, did it? When Murdock went to his special place, he got to see Billy and Fluffy, but he left the others, left Face, behind. Face had said he wasn’t ready for that, but Murdock had left him. Where he could be hurt and covered with blood.
Now Face was hurting again. Not sick. Hurt. And it was Murdock’s fault, because he had left Face again.
“I’m not gonna leave you again, Face,” Murdock pledged solemnly to himself. He looked down and saw that his friend was slowly rising to his feet, one arm clutched to his stomach. Murdock reached out with a hand and wrapped it around Face’s shoulder, stabilizing the smaller man. Murdock said nothing, but he knew Face was grateful when leaned heavily on the pilot’s shoulder as they began to walk to the barracks.
As they stumbled across the base, Murdock repeated his pledge. He might be crazy, and he might have a safe place to go, but he would stay here with Face. As long as Face needed him.
BA watched as Murdock helped Face stagger into the barracks. The laughter from the marines at the other end told the sergeant what had happened. He began to rise from his bunk with a growl, but stopped when he saw the raised hand from the lieutenant.
“Don’t, Sergeant. They just voiced some concerns about the noise level on this side of the barracks at night.”
Face winced as Murdock helped him sit on his bunk. BA could tell that the youngest member of the team was hurting.
“Why not, Faceman? I’m gonna bust some heads.”
“What? One against eight? Even I’d bet against you at those odds.”
Even though it was nearly masked by the pain, Face’s grin gave BA some hope. The sergeant couldn’t help but smile back; it had been so long since the lieutenant had made a joke.
“I ain’t gonna jus’ let ‘em beat on ya, L-T.”
“I appreciate your support, BA,” Face replied with another wince. “I think, for the moment, though, Murdock and I are not going to be much of a help in hand-to-hand combat, so why don’t we try something a little more subtle.”
Face closed his eyes and a pensive expression crossed his face. BA recognized the look. It was the one that Face used to get when he puzzled out a particularly difficult scam. BA waited apprehensively until Face opened his eyes and turned to Murdock.
“Murdock, do you still have those sleeping tablets the medics gave you?”
“Whatcha wanna go to sleep for, Faceyman?” The captain’s response made BA start. It was probably the most lucid thing Murdock had said in months.
Face smiled softly. “I don’t want to go to sleep, Murdock. But why don’t you find me those tablets you’ve been hiding around the barracks. Just don’t let the marines see what you’re doing, okay?”
Murdock grew quiet. “I don’t know where they are, Facey.”
Face thought for a moment. “I’ve got an idea, Murdock. You know what a truffle is?”
Murdock looked quizzical so Face answered his own question.
“A truffle is a special type of mushroom. They grow in the ground and truffle-hunters use dogs to find them. I bet those sleeping tablets smell just like a truffle to a dog and Billy could find them.”
Murdock pondered the suggestion for a moment and then smiled broadly. “Billy will be the best truffle-pill hunting dog around.”
Face gave a quick smile in return. “Good, Murdock, but just don’t let anyone know about your hunt. See, other people might try to steal what you find. You can’t tell them what you’re doing, okay?”
“‘Kay, Facey.” Murdock stood up, adjusted an imaginary leash and affixed it to the invisible dog. He then began moving back and forth between the bunks.
“Ya shouldn’t encourage him, Faceman,” BA said. “Ya only gonna mess him up more.”
Face just shook his head and spoke quietly, “You might be surprised, BA.”
They watched as Murdock meandered about, following the imaginary leash. Periodically, he would stop by a wall or crouch next to a bunk and mutter as if he were talking with the invisible dog. After a brief conversation, the captain would pat the invisible dog and stuff something in his pocket. Then he would grin gleefully in Face’s and BA’s direction.
“How ya know the fool wasn’t takin’ his meds?” BA asked Face.
Face chuckled slightly. “I didn’t. I just figured it would be easier to check with Murdock before trying something more drastic . . . Now here’s what I need from you, BA.”
As he listened to Face’s instructions, BA studied the blond man. There was a glint in Face’s eye, so much like the look Hannibal got when he was on the “jazz” it was scary. Seeing it, BA could only smile.
When Face had finished with his instructions, BA stood up to begin the task. Before leaving, he turned back to face the young officer. “Hey, man, welcome back.”
Face looked up soberly. The glint in his eye disappeared, and he drew his lips in a tight line as he tried to suppress a slight shake of his head. Despite the younger man’s attempt to hide it, BA knew what exactly what Face was thinking, ‘No, BA, not yet.’
Face stared at the ceiling, listening in the darkness, to the random snores and snorts of the others in the barracks.
Because he had been awake, he had been the first to reach Murdock when the captain’s nightmare started and had quickly calmed the other man. None of the marines had woken. Well, that was hardly surprising, considering Face’s earlier precautions. The marines would sleep through the night and, at least, they would not hurt Murdock. Face had no doubt about what they would do to him if they figured out that he’d spiked the beers BA had retrieved.
Face knew he should take advantage of the drug-induced slumber to get some sleep himself. But, as hard as it was to admit, he was afraid to fall asleep. And it had nothing to do with angering the marines. He feared closing his eyes, because he knew the visions would return. At least awake, he could find distractions from the accusatory stares that he saw in his mind.
Turning his head to the right, Face saw the colonel lying still on the mattress close by Face’s side. It was a nice gesture. Hannibal slept in the bunk next to Face’s in case he needed to be woken from a nightmare, just as BA slept close to Murdock in two bunks directly across the room. Face wondered what they would do if they knew that Face’s nightmares extended into the day.
Giving up on the possibility of sleep that night, Face sat up and pulled on his pants and boots. Silently, he made his way past the sleeping figures of the marines and walked outside into the night.
“This seat taken?” Hannibal watched as Face nearly jumped off the stairs at the question.
After watching Face silently creep out of the barracks, Hannibal had followed. This seemed as good a chance to talk to the lieutenant as any.
Face looked up in surprise. He obviously had thought the colonel was asleep. Lowering his blond head again, Face quietly mumbled, “Go ahead.”
Hannibal sat down on the top stair next to his second-in-command. In the dim light hanging over the porch of the barracks, Hannibal could have been mistaken for a father having a heart-to-heart with a teenage son. A young, teenage son at that.
Sitting down, Hannibal lit one of the cheap cigars he had become accustomed to and looked at the younger man. The vacant stare was back. Only a few hours earlier, the colonel had been so hopeful in his belief that things were improving. Admittedly, Hannibal was surprised when he entered the barracks and saw the lieutenant playing bartender to the marines, but it did not take the colonel long to figure out Face’s game. Still, at the time, Hannibal had entertained hopes that his second-in-command was returning to his normal state.
“You know, kid, there’s going to be hell to pay when they wake up and realize that wasn’t just beer you were serving.”
“What the hell were you thinking?” Hannibal’s tone sounded harsher than he intended.
Face seemed oblivious to the harshness of Hannibal’s question. “They would have hurt Murdock if he’d woken them.” He paused before he continued in a soft voice. “This way is better. If they want to take it out on me, at least they’ll have a reason. At least I’ll know why.”
“Damn it, kid. You think it’ll be better if they beat the crap out of you?”
Face sat in silence. His blue eyes reflected the smattering of light from the flourescent bulb and he tried to keep his thoughts hidden. But Hannibal knew what the younger man was thinking – that the correct answer was “yes.” Face believed it would be better if he died protecting Murdock.
Hannibal also knew that it wasn’t just survivor’s guilt; there was more going on in his second-in-command’s troubled mind. Through a fluke, the camp had become Face’s first command and he was trapped by his memories. Not only was he constantly assaulted by the fact that he had lived while others died, but the colonel knew that Face probably was replaying every agonizing decision, trying to figure out what he could have done differently as a leader. Hannibal knew that, in the past replaying in Face’s head, he tried to figure out how he could have protected the others. In the present, Face tried to atone for the fact that there was nothing he could have done.
“Face, you can’t protect Murdock. You couldn’t in the camp; you can’t here. And you can’t kill yourself trying.”
“You didn’t see it, Colonel.” Face’s words should have been anguished, but they came out flat and even. “You have no idea what they did to him. . .” The rest was unspoken, but Hannibal knew Face was really thinking ‘what they did to me.’
“You’re right about one thing. I wasn’t there. I was experiencing my own hell. But you’re wrong about what I know. I read the medical reports, I know what happened. And you are not to blame. For Murdock or anyone else.”
Hannibal waited through another long silence, thinking that the younger man had not heard the words. The colonel had expected a quick response. Face would demand that his leader give details, so that Face could argue that whatever Hannibal had gone through did not compare. As if Face would emerge the victor in a “who-suffered-more” sweepstakes. It really did not matter, because Hannibal was not going to let this become a debate. That was not Hannibal’s style. In any event, it was a moot point because Face did not ask.
Finally, after several minutes, Face turned his head and the blue eyes stared up at the colonel. Even before Face could ask the question, Hannibal knew from the young man’s eyes what he wanted to ask.
“Kid, there was nothing you could do. A lot of men died in that camp. You weren’t responsible.”
Face shook his head. “That’s not true. I was ranking officer, so I was responsible.”
“No, Face,” Hannibal insisted more sharply than he intended. “Murdock was the ranking officer. You wound up in charge by default.”
“So you’re saying that it’s Murdock’s fault that he broke?” A flash of anger crossed the lieutenant’s face.
Hannibal groaned slightly. This was not about Murdock, but Face was trying to change the topic to avoid dealing with the real issues.
“No, kid . . . that’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that it was no one’s fault. In war, in prison, men die. It’s the way things are. Whether it was you or Murdock in charge wouldn’t have made a difference. . . . But there’s more than that . . .” Hannibal could no longer control his frustration. “Christ, kid, what are you? Twenty years old? If even that? You’re just a damn kid, and no kid should carry the blame because men died in that camp.”
“My age shouldn’t count . . . or Murdock. For whatever reason, I was in command, Colonel. Fifteen men depended on me, and only eight came out.”
Hannibal was about to tell Face that those numbers were not much different from the colonel’s side of the camp. But he knew if he said that, Face would begin nitpicking the numbers. Instead, Hannibal sighed, “Lieutenant, you can’t dwell on the ones you lost. If you’re going to feel responsible, take responsibility for the eight men who survived.”
Face shook his head again, trying to deny what Hannibal was saying.
Hannibal continued. “Look, you can’t spend your life thinking about how you’ve failed. You’ve got to focus on what you’ve done right. Face, think about what you do well and do that. It’ll help you through this.”
Face snorted derisively. “That’s bullshit, Hannibal, and you know it.”
Hannibal was taken aback. The kid rarely swore and, then, mainly restricted himself to a few “damns” sprinkled about. It had always been something that Hannibal found amusing about the lieutenant – despite his larcenous and licentious streak, there was still something of the Catholic schoolboy in the younger man. Hearing Face curse was just another reminder of how troubled the kid was. Still stunned, he was unable to reply as Face continued his calm rant.
“Focus on what I do well. Let’s see . . . I’m good at killing people and conning them. Those are really skills that are going to help me.”
Hannibal did not know how to respond. Face was good at lots of things. But Hannibal knew if he said that, the younger man would demand a catalog and would then argue that the colonel was wrong. Hannibal had no real clue how to deal with this. He was a soldier. His job was to give orders, carry out missions, fight the enemy and, if necessary, die. He was not a nursemaid who coddled the men under his command by helping them come to terms with their failures.
Soldiers did not talk about failures. If you messed up, everyone knew it, but nobody ever said so. There was no discussion. It was understood that you went back into battle and either did not mess up again or you died. You climbed back up on the horse, if you will. Maybe at night, when you were all alone, you thought about it a little. But you kept it to yourself. Always.
That probably was not enough to console the kid, but it was the best Hannibal could do.
With a sigh, Hannibal put a hand on Face’s leg. “Face . . . I may not have all the answers, but my experience counts for something. If you keep thinking about what went wrong, you’re going to drive yourself crazy. You have to put the past where it belongs and keep your mind on the present.” Hannibal knew he did not have to say anything about the future. Even in Face’s present condition, it went without saying that soldiers did not talk about the future.
Face studied his commander carefully before he quietly asked, “So that’s the solution? You just don’t think about it, sir? So you’re telling me that you don’t think about their names? See their faces? Hear their screams?”
The colonel looked away from the young man and toward the darkness of the base. For a moment Hannibal debated answering truthfully. Yes he saw and heard them in the back of his mind, but Hannibal focused on the here and now and did not allow them to trouble him. But he knew that answer would lead to more questions. So he turned back to the kid.
Neither man said another word as they sat and watched the darkness.
BA woke with the first light to the continuing snores and grunts of the still-sleeping marines. Whatever was in Murdock’s pills was still doing it’s job.
‘Dang, Faceman, I hope ya didn’t kill any of ‘em,’ was all BA could think.
The sergeant looked over to Murdock’s bed and was surprised to see the pilot’s brown eyes wide open. Crawling out of his bunk, BA whispered, “Come on, Murdock, we’d best be gettin’ outta here ‘fore someone figures out that the beer was spiked.”
Confusion reigned in the pilot’s face, but he eventually nodded and crawled out of the bed. Silently, the captain pointed across the aisle to the empty bunks belonging to Hannibal and Face.
“Don’ know, Murdock,” BA answered the silent question. “Let’s go find ‘em.”
The task was not difficult. Silently slipping out of the barracks to avoid waking the marines, they found Hannibal and Face seated on the front steps. Face was leaning heavily against the colonel, who had an arm wrapped around the younger man’s shoulders. Hearing BA and Murdock step through the door, the colonel looked up and placed his index finger to his lip.
“He just fell asleep about an hour ago,” Hannibal whispered.
BA motioned back to the barracks. “Don’t ya think we should be outta here when they wake up?” The sergeant had no doubts that the colonel knew about Face’s stunt the night before.
Hannibal nodded and shook the lieutenant softly. “Come on, kid, time to wake up.”
Face woke with a start and quickly overcame his confusion about being on the steps of the barracks. For a second, BA could almost see Face recalling whatever had happened the night before with Hannibal. The lieutenant looked embarrassed, and he lowered his eyes to the ground as if in shame. But almost as soon as the look had come, it was gone, hidden behind the mask and vacant eyes that Face had worn so often since their escape from the camp.
“Come on, Murdock,” Face said as he rose from the steps. “Let’s get you some chow.”
BA watched the two officers walk away and noticed that Hannibal was doing the same from his perch on the step. With a sigh, the colonel stood up, but his eyes never left Face and Murdock.
“Did ya get anythin’ worked out with the Faceman last night, Colonel?” BA asked.
Hannibal turned his head towards the sergeant, who could see the worried look in the other man’s expression.
“I thought I’d gotten through to him, BA, but now I’m not so sure.” Hannibal paused for a long time. “I’ve made a decision, BA.”
BA looked at his leader expectantly, but waited silently for Hannibal to continue.
“We have to see if there’s any chance for the team to recover. We’re going to get back to what we’re good at. We’ve spent too long dwelling on what happened.”
“So what does that mean, Hannibal?”
“For starters, we’ve got to remind that our supply officer about what he’s good at.”
“And what about the fool?”
Hannibal looked out at the two figures moving towards the mess tent. “First things first, BA. Let’s deal with Face and then we’ll see about Murdock.”
Was Hannibal nuts? That was all Face could think as he entered the supply depot. Face had been staring at his powdered eggs trying to figure out how to escape a major beating by the marines, when the colonel suddenly announced that the team was going to begin physical training again. Face had immediately protested, pointing out that Murdock was barely able to complete the team’s walks to and from the beach. Unstated in Face’s complaints was the obvious fact that he was in even worse physical shape.
As always, Hannibal had let Face voice his objections and then responded with a glib smile. And, as always, Face began carrying out the orders. Hence his present assignment.
“Ahem,” he cleared his throat to get the attention of the supply clerk.
She turned from the file cabinet she had been placing some documents, and gave him a little smile as she crossed over to the door where Face stood. “What can I do for you, Lieutenant?”
“I . . . um . . . was hoping you could help me fill this order.” Without much thought, he handed over the requisition order.
She studied it briefly before raising an eyebrow. “Rope, pulleys, two-by-fours, cargo netting, tires, smoke bombs, barbed wire? Care to explain?”
“My C.O. wants to set up an obstacle course.” He flashed her his best con artist smile, at least what he thought his best once looked like.
The clerk gave him a strange look, but nodded. “Well that explains the zip lines and the wooden barriers.” She paused and looked in a notebook before continuing. “Okay, I’ve got some of what you need, but I won’t have the tires ‘til tomorrow at the earliest.”
“Don’t rush it,” he replied. In his mind, he tried to picture himself on an obstacle course and placed an imaginary bet that he would be able to avoid throwing up until after he the wall. Then he hedged the bet. He wouldn’t throw up until after the wall if the wall came before the hurdles. Ruefully, he figured that he had better plan on additional running. In his current physical condition, the only way Face would avoid coming in last is if he shoved Murdock off the zip line.
“Hey, Lieutenant.” The supply clerk’s call from the other side of the room startled Face out of his unpleasant thoughts. She motioned to a door at the back of the room. “Follow me and give me a hand with your order.”
“Sure, Captain . . . um . . .” Face realized that he had not caught the supply clerk’s name.
“Reynolds, Lieutenant,” she replied giving him a sly smile. “Come along.”
Had Face thought about it as he crossed the room, and had he not know better, he probably would have thought she was flirting with him.
“Man, what’s takin’ Face so long?” BA complained while he reclined on his bunk.
Hannibal looked up from where he was resting, trying to recover slightly from his sleepless night. With none of the marines around and Murdock getting a check-up from the medics, the barracks were mercifully quiet. The colonel just grinned back at his sergeant.
“What’s so funny, Hannibal? If Faceman’s late, you’re gonna make us do that course through dinner.”
“Oh, don’t worry, BA. We’re not going to be doing the course today. And I wouldn’t spend a lot of time waiting for Face to hurry back.”
Seeing the even-larger grin on Hannibal’s face, BA grew extremely nervous. In his most solemn tone, he demanded, “Whatcha do to the Faceman?”
“Me?” Hannibal asked innocently. “I didn’t do anything. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Captain Reynolds is enjoying our lieutenant’s company.”
BA remembered Hannibal chatting briefly with the brunette captain from the supply depot at breakfast. The sergeant sat bolt upright and glared at his commander. “What did ya say to her?”
“Oh nothing much. I told her I was going to be sending my lieutenant over with a requisition request.”
“And?” When Hannibal didn’t answer, BA pressed. “What else did ya say?”
“Umm . . . I might have let something slip about Face’s . . . umm . . . prowess with the . . . umm . . . ladies.”
He should have seen the set-up from the beginning. ‘God, Face, you’re are completely out of practice,’ he thought as he recalled how the clerk had led him past the supply shelves and into a small back room. Hell, he had not even realized what was happening until she had propped herself on the desk, pulled him against her and asked if his reputation was “well deserved.”
He was not completely sure what she meant, but he sure as hell was not complaining. Nor, for that matter, was the woman who was writhing on the desk beneath him.
Face groaned with pleasure at the sensations coursing through his body. He had forgotten how it felt to be with a woman, the warmth of her body, the softness of her skin. Nothing like the rough hands he had come to know . . . ‘No,’ he screamed in the back of his mind . . . That was the past, and he would keep it there . . .
He forced himself to concentrate on the present. He moved slowly, gingerly, wanting to savor every moment. Now, with each slow thrust, he could hear the woman’s moans grow in fervor. And with each moan, he responded in kind, moving ever faster, hoping that in his weakened condition he could hold out long enough for her.
“Oooohhh” came the long moan from his partner at another of his thrusts. Face leaned down and ran his lips along the crook of her neck, tasting her salty skin and breathing in her musky scent. His senses threatened to overwhelm him and he knew he was coming close to completion. He felt his heart racing, pounding against his chest and he began to grow dizzy with the strain.
He momentarily thought about when he had last felt a woman’s touch. Months ago . . . the night before the chopper crash . . . the capture . . . the camp . . . Unable to stop them, the voices and faces began to press forward, invading his consciousness. ‘No!!!’ he screamed inwardly. Fighting the visions and screams that assaulted his mind, Face struggled to tear himself away from the horrors that assailed him nightly.
A sudden jolt of electricity ran up his spine, and he recognized it came from the woman’s soft touch. He felt her hands caress his chest. The images and sounds of the camp retreated, replaced by the sight of her body and the sounds of her cries. And despite his momentary embarrassment as he thought of his emaciated condition, he was grateful for her touch. Face felt a tear run down his cheeks as he realized that her touch had pulled him from the brink of a nightmare. And, in gratitude, he slowed his movements and fought to stave of his own release until she reached hers.
He reached out with his right hand, ran it down her side and moved it across her thigh. Her sharp gasp and surprised look told him that he had found what he was seeking. Then, moving his hand in time with his lower body, he began to thrust rhythmically. In moments, he felt her tense and cry out as the spasms wracked her body. Her arms wrapped around his shoulders as she shuddered and moaned, each contraction sending new shockwaves through him.
Sensing that he had achieved his goal, Face gave up his struggle against his own needs. His thrusts came shorter and faster. His heart pounded faster and he was sure he would soon pass out. In his ears, he could hear her own ecstatic cries and his own wordless moans. Her scent overpowered him and her touch sent more sensations careening up his spine. And when he thought he could bear no more, his body flooded with waves of pleasure and he found release.
His heart pounding and dark spots flashing before his eyes, Face collapsed forward against the woman. Completely spent, he gasped for air, unable to move. He lay still for what felt like an eternity as his body struggled with the effort of trying to breathe.
“Hey! Are you okay?” The woman’s voice sounded. Face lifted his head, dizzy from the lack of air, and stared into her wide, panicked eyes. “You’re not having a heart attack or anything?” she asked in a panic.
Face shook his head as he finally began to feel some air entering his lungs. “I’m fine,” he whispered as he nuzzled the side of her neck. “Sorry I scared you . . . I-I’m just a little out of practice . . .”
He felt her body shake with silent laughter and looked up into her eyes. She met him with a coy look and a sly smile.
“How ‘bout you find me when we’re off duty and we can see about getting you some more practice.”
All Face could do was smile.
The smile was still there when Face slipped into the barracks, his arms loaded with supplies.
Hannibal looked up, unable to resist. “So, kid, your virtue intact?”
Suppressing his laughter at the deep, crimson flush that spread across the lieutenant’s cheeks as he dropped the supplies, Hannibal rose and placed an arm around Face’s shoulder. The colonel was not sure why he felt so pleased that this plan had worked. He just felt that something in the kid was different. He just knew that Face had made a step, a small step perhaps, but a step nonetheless towards recovering.
Hannibal glanced at his watch and saw that it was nearly time for lunch. “Hey, Face, you barely ate any breakfast. How ‘bout we get some chow?”
Face responded easily. “Sounds good. I’m hungry for the first time in a long time.” The smile never left the kid’s face, but in his eyes as he looked up at the colonel, Hannibal could see something that had not been there in ages – hope.
Hannibal smiled back. “That’s great, kid. Come on, BA. Let’s get to the mess tent.” Turning back to the lieutenant, Hannibal threw his arm around the younger man and chuckled, “You know, kid, I’ve got to get you laid more often.”
The colonel instantly regretted his words when Face stopped short and tensed. Face mumbled something inaudible and the smile disappeared from his face. The lieutenant shifted slightly and stared at his feet.
BA immediately saw Face’s discomfort and excused himself by saying he had to check something outside.
“I was kidding. I didn’t mean anything, kid,” Hannibal said.
Face looked sheepish. “I know. And I know why you did it, sir . . . and, umm, I guess, umm. I’m . . .”
The colonel looked in Face’s eyes, trying to make it clear that the other man did not have to say anything else. The hopeful glint was now mixed with confusion and shame. Hannibal clasped Face’s shoulder tightly. “We’ll never speak of it again, kid. Besides, all I did was drop a hint. The rest was your doing. And I’m sure you didn’t make a liar out of me. Right?”
Face smiled then, a sly smile that only met the edge of his mouth. “A gentleman never tells, Hannibal. But I will say that I have a date tonight.”
Hannibal chuckled in response. “Okay, kid. But we’re gonna have to set a curfew one of these days. . . Come on, BA’s waiting.”
The started to move toward the door, but Face stopped again. “Hannibal?”
Face hesitated and then turned slightly. For the first time, Hannibal noticed that Face was still holding a small, wooden box. Face offered the box to his commander with both hands. The lieutenant spoke then in a quiet, shy voice more akin to a child’s.
“Thanks, Hannibal.” With that, Face moved to the door, leaving Hannibal inside.
Hannibal looked at the box that he now held and opened it gingerly. Pulling one of the fine, Cuban cigars from inside, he stared thoughtfully at the door.
“Yes,” Hannibal murmured. “It’s a step.”
“Here Billy, Billy.” Murdock punctuated his calls with whistles. ‘Where did that little guy go?’ he wondered as he scanned the base. He tried to remember when he had last seen the dog. Right about when Face drove off in the jeep. Realizing that Billy must have jumped in the jeep with Face, Murdock had wandered off in the direction of the supply office. But when he had not found Face there, the pilot had begun to wander about the base.
“Hey, Dummy,” a voice called out and Murdock felt a strong hand clamp down on his shoulder. The pilot looked up into a stone-faced visage with the long scar running down the side. It seemed vaguely familiar. By the uniform, Murdock could tell the man, like the two other men behind him, were marines. The pilot could not remember if he knew them.
“Dummy,” the hard-faced marine said again, poking a finger into Murdock’s chest. “We want to ask you a few questions.”
Murdock squinted back at the jarhead and mumbled, “I’m not a dummy.”
The scar-faced marine laughed and grinned at the two other soldiers. “He’s not a dummy.” He glared back at Murdock. “Show me. Tell me what you and your friend was up to yesterday.”
“Umm, ‘were’ . . . what we ‘were’ up to.’” Murdock discovered that correcting the marine’s grammar was not the smartest move as he found himself lifted by his collar with his feet dangling off the ground.
“Yesterday,” the leatherneck growled, “You were running around the barracks with that invisible dog of yours . . .”
“Billy,” Murdock interrupted excitedly. “Do you know where Billy is?”
The marine gave a quick glance at the others and then turned his head back to Murdock. He lowered Murdock to the ground and grinned. “Yeah, I know where your dog is . . . But you have to answer my question first . . . What were you doing in the barracks yesterday?”
Murdock looked at the ground. “I’m not s’posed to say,” he murmured.
The marine jerked Murdock off the ground again and hissed, “I don’t think you heard me. I know where your dog is. And if you want to see him again, you’ll tell me what you were doing yesterday.”
“But I promised I wouldn’t tell . . .”
“Dummy,” the marine grinned evilly. “Do you know what people in this country do to dogs? Do you want Billy to be the main course at some gook party?”
“No,” Murdock cried. “Please, tell me where he is.”
“So tell me what I want to know.”
Murdock thought briefly. Facey had said not to tell anyone what Billy and he were doing. But that was yesterday. Face had not really made Murdock promise never to tell. And Billy was in danger. Face would understand.
“H-hunting for truffle-pills,” Murdock answered in a near whisper.
One of the other marines groaned. “I tole ya he was crazy. What the fuck’s he talkin’ ‘bout?”
The marine holding Murdock’s collar pressed his face forward so that he was nose-to-nose with the captain. “‘Truffle-pills’? And what did your friend do with them?”
Murdock looked down. “Don’t know,’ he mumbled.
“But you gave him the ‘truffle-pills’ you found, right?”
Murdock nodded and begged, “Please, tell me where Billy is.”
The marine looked at his friends. “That son-of-a-bitch drugged us. I’m gonna rip his fucking head off. Tell me where he is.”
Murdock vigorously shook his head. He could tell Facey was in trouble; he didn’t want Facey to get hurt anymore. “Nonononono.”
“Then I guess some gooks are gonna to have Billy stew tonight.”
“No. Please,” Murdock begged. “Don’t hurt Billy.”
The marine jerked Murdock’s collar, forcing his head back. “Where’s Peck?”
“Dunno,” Murdock answered defeated. “Please . . . Please tell me where Billy is?”
The marine laughed and, with a shove, let go of Murdock’s shirt. The pilot fell roughly to the ground and looked up at the scarred man.
“I don’t have your fucking dog, dummy. But thanks for your help. I’m sure we’ll find Peck around somewhere.” The other two soldiers joined in his laughter and they headed off, leaving Murdock standing all alone.
Hannibal and BA had returned to the barracks after lunch. Both men were in a good mood after spending their lunch watching Face eat and talk animatedly for the first time in months. Neither man kidded himself about this being a permanent temporary victory, but still any sign of healing was welcome. Besides, it had been fun watching Face flush when they teased him about his sudden need to “keep up his strength.”
They had left Face outside the mess tent when he joked that he needed to pick up a few things for his “date” and, now, Hannibal and BA were sitting on their bunks when Murdock tore into the barracks.
“Come quick,” Murdock yelled in a panic.
Despite their shock at the captain’s words, the colonel and sergeant needed only one look at Murdock’s face to realize what was happening. The three men were racing out of the barracks before Murdock could say another word.
They heard the sounds of a struggle before they reached a distant building. Turning the corner, Hannibal saw Face on his hands and knees, trying to protect his ribs from the vicious kicks of the scarred, marine sergeant who had glared at the team during breakfast the day before. Two other marines were standing over Face, alternating between cheering on their sergeant and adding to the abuse with their own boots.
In an instant, BA leaped forward, spun the marine sergeant around and pulled him away from the prone lieutenant. Surprised by the intrusion, the other two marines hesitated before they began to advance on BA.
The marine sergeant raised both his hands. “You ain’t involved in this, sergeant. Or you, Colonel. This is between us and Peck.”
“Yeah,” BA growled. “Don’ wanna fight anyone who kin fight back. Three-on-one against a kid half your size ain’t right.” BA stopped when he felt a hand on his arm.
“BA’s right, Sergeant,” Hannibal interjected. “Why don’t you try something closer to a fair fight.”
“We’ve got no beef with you, sir. Just with the lieutenant here for spiking our drinks last night.”
Face’s pained voice rose from the ground where he was struggling to rise from his hands and knees. “You said you wanted some sleep.”
Hannibal grinned at his lieutenant’s audacity. “Haven’t you heard? Lieutenant Peck is a supply officer extraordinaire. He even supplies things like a nice, uninterrupted sleep.”
The sergeant was seething, but made no attempt to move closer to Face. “I’m gonna get you, you son-of-a-bitch. Nobody fucks with my unit.”
Hannibal stepped in front of the sergeant and gave him an icy glare. “You want him, you’ve got to come through the rest of us.” Hannibal’s fury slowly turned into a brash smile. “You know what? Since your pea-size brains probably won’t understand otherwise, I’m going to make it easy for you. 1700 hours outside the barracks. Your unit against mine. Until then, hands off.”
The sergeant stared back at Hannibal in shock. “You’re as crazy as that fruitcake pilot.”
Hannibal answered with another grin. “Maybe. Let’s see at 1700 who’s crazy. By the way, that’s when the little hand is on the five and the big hand is on the twelve, just in case you missed that part of kindergarten.” Hannibal watched the bug-eyed marine back away, and then turned his attention towards his own unit. “Guys, help Face. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Face staggered to his feet, tried to hide the obvious pain in his ribs and shot a look of fury in the colonel’s direction. He shrugged away from BA’s attempt to assist. “Go away, sergeant. I can take care of myself”
“And a hell of a job you were doing of it, Lieutenant,” Hannibal commented.
Face stalked towards the open part of the base, but the colonel raced after him. He cut the lieutenant off, grabbed his shoulders and held him firm. “Now you listen to me, kid,” Hannibal growled, trying to keep his voice low and inaudible to the rest of the team. “I know what you’re trying to do and it’s not going to work. We fight these battles as a team and no one member is going to take the fall in order to ‘protect’ the others.”
The younger man looked down at his boots, but said nothing.
“I told you last night, kid. You can’t protect everyone, so stop trying.”
“Just leave me. That way none of you will get hurt,” Face whispered.
“We’re not leaving you, Face,” Hannibal answered more forcefully. He was sure that the closely approaching BA and Murdock could hear the conversation now. “We’re not going to let you get killed because you’re afraid we might get hurt.”
BA scowled and put a hand on Face’s shoulder. “Hey, man. That what’s goin’ on? You think we need protectin’ li’l brother?”
Face did not answer, but gave a slight, almost embarrassed nod.
BA laughed in response. “BA Baracus don’ need no one ta protect him. Specially not an underweight, pretty boy like you.” Despite the mocking words, everyone understood the sergeant’s affectionate tone.
Face did not respond, instead turning his attention back to Hannibal. “So what now, Colonel? How are we going to fight off an entire marine unit?”
Murdock watched the exchange guiltily. Face wanted them to leave him, to abandon him. But Hannibal wouldn’t allow it. Hannibal said they were a team. A team didn’t leave its members.
But Murdock had abandoned Face. Before when the foreign voices called. Now when he told about the “truffle-pills” to that soldier who had attacked Face. Twice, Face was hurt. Because Murdock left Face.
Murdock had broken Hannibal’s rule. Murdock could not be part of the team.
He wondered where he would go. He would find Billy, then run away. He didn’t mind so much that the voices in the language he did not understand were roaring in his ears. They were better than the voices he understood.
“Go away,” he hissed.
“Murdock?” He recognized the voice as Face’s. It cut through the harsh screams of the foreign voices.
A hand on his shoulder made him jump, and the voice came again. This time it sounded concerned. “Murdock, are you okay?” Then it pleaded. “Talk to me.”
The pilot turned and saw Face standing there. “Come on, Murdock Talk to me.”
The voices grew louder. Vietnamese. Murdock suddenly recognized the language. The Vietnamese yells mixed with the painful screams and begging of the American voices.
Murdock flinched and raised his hands to his ears, trying to drown out the cacophony radiating from inside his head. He twisted back and forth in a vain attempt to escape the noise. He wanted to go back to the safe place, but he had said he wouldn’t.
Then the other voice, Face’s voice, cut through the noise. “Don’t go away, Murdock. Please. We need you here.”
The words were the same as he had heard in his mind, but they were softer. He looked at his friend and watched and heard Face repeat them. “Don’t go, Murdock.”
Murdock turned his head away, unable to look his friend in the eye. But the words escaped before he could stop them. “I-I’m sorry, Facey . . .”
Face grabbed Murdock’s arms roughly. “You’ve got nothing to be sorry for, Murdock. Snap out of it.”
Murdock shook his head. “I’m sorry, muchacho . . . I left you.”
“What are you talking about, Murdock?”
“You needed me, Facey, and I left you.”
BA watched the exchange between the two younger men. Face looked confused and panic-stricken, while Murdock kept repeating the words “I left you” as if were some kind of chant.
Finally out of frustration, Face shook Murdock arms and stared the fool straight in the eyes.
“Listen to me, Murdock.” The lieutenant’s voice sounded forceful and demanded Murdock’s attention. When Murdock tried to pull away, Face grasped both sides of Murdock’s head. “Look at me, Murdock. You’re here. Right now, you’re here. You haven’t left me.”
BA watched as Murdock’s protests slowed. The pilot again tried to shake his head, as if he was refusing to listen to Face.
“No, Murdock. You’ve done nothing wrong.” Face’s voice grew quieter and BA could barely hear what the blond man said. “It’s my fault, Murdock. I should have protected you better.”
BA felt a sharpness in his chest that took away his breath. That’s what this was all about. Guilt? The fool was guilty about cracking up. Face felt guilty about bein’ unable to stop it. Didn’t they know none of it was in their control?
The sergeant could see that Murdock was equally surprised by Face’s statement. The fool just stared dumbfounded at the lieutenant.
BA remembered the words of the old Chinese man. Face and Murdock were a balance. Without one, the other could not exist. But BA understood something that the old man’s religion didn’t recognize. This wasn’t some stupid book or proverb. These were people. And when the balance was lost, each man looked inside for the cause. Drove themselves crazy in the process.
Murdock suddenly jerked back in terror, breaking out of Face’s grip. Covering his ears with his hands, the pilot spun and ran in the direction of the barracks. Face watched Murdock run, but said and did nothing.
That was enough of this crap, BA decided as began to grow angry. He was going to tell the two fools to end this craziness. He started to move toward Face, but a hand grasped his arm. BA turned to his right and saw Hannibal slowly shaking his head.
“You can’t fix this, Sergeant. I know you want to, but this is between them.” Hannibal’s eyes shone cold.
“An’ if they don’t, Hannibal?”
“I don’t have all the answers, BA, but I have a plan. Go find Murdock.”
BA found Murdock hiding behind the mess hall and dragged him back to the barracks. There, despite Murdock’s kicking and screaming, Face had concluded that he needed the captain to carry out Hannibal’s plan. Face had a feeling that Hannibal knew that too.
As they approached the airstrip, Face grew nervous about that decision. “Are you sure you understand what to do, Murdock?” the lieutenant asked for about the hundredth time.
“Follow your lead, follow your lead, follow your lead,” Murdock chanted.
Well, at least Murdock had the mantra down. Face had no clue whether the captain actually understood it.
He had really debated bringing Murdock along, but the scam needed two men. Face had to play the good soldier and he needed someone else to play the “eccentric specialist.” BA could never carry it off and Hannibal was too busy studying the field of battle. So that left Murdock, who, under normal circumstances, would be perfect for the role.
“You got it, Murdock? Flowers. Think flowers.”
“Perennials or annuals?”
Face stopped. “What?”
“I said ‘perennials or annuals,’” Murdock repeated. “You know, ‘perennials’ which last more than one season or ‘annuals,’ you know, one-year. Of course, there are two types of perennials, but flowers are herbaceous. But there are woody perennials like shrubs and trees. You know, if I’m a gardener, I probably need to know something about shrubs and trees.”
Face wondered how loose his jaw was hanging. At least he now knew that Murdock had been listening. Of course, Face had no clue how to answer the question and simply tossed up his arms in frustration.
“I don’t know, Murdock. Flowers, shrubs, trees. It doesn’t matter what type. We just need water. And the water is in the tanker.”
It was not Face’s smartest move. Seeing the exasperated gesture and hearing the sharp tone in Face’s voice, Murdock shrank back. Face immediately stopped his movements and adopted a more soothing tone.
“Murdock, I didn’t mean it like that. I just don’t know the answer.”
Murdock’s response was a whimper. “You’re mad at me.”
“I’m not mad at you.”
“You’re mad at me for breaking the rules.”
Now Face was confused. “What rules, Murdock?”
“For leaving you. I left you, so I shouldn’t be on the team.” The words all came out in a rush.
“Murdock, I told you before. You didn’t leave me. You’re here, right now, so you didn’t leave me.”
Face watched as his best friend silently shuffled his feet, shoved his hands deep in the pocket of his uniform pants and studied his combat boots. The lieutenant wanted to grab the other man, to prevent him from running again, but Face was afraid that would have the opposite effect. He knew they did not have time to deal with this. Hannibal needed the tanker, even if Face did not know precisely for what.
“You couldn’t have stopped it, Facey,” Murdock whispered.
“What?” Face had barely heard the quiet statement.
“You couldn’t have stopped it. I knew I was going to lose it the instant we were captured.” Murdock hung his head in shame. “I should have held out longer or warned you, but you can’t blame yourself for that.”
“Murdock . . .”
“You can’t blame yourself,” Murdock said more loudly and insistently. “You did what you could and you did your best. You are not responsible. Not for me . . . or for any of the others.”
A wave of anger swept through the lieutenant. Murdock had spent his time petting his dog and singing camp songs. He had no clue about what Face had to deal with.
“You weren’t really there, were you?” Face shot back.
Face instantly regretted his words when he saw the pain reflected in the pilot’s brown eyes. Damn it, Face thought. Every time I try to help him, I just make it worse.
“Murdock, please, I didn’t mean that.”
“Yeah, you did, Face. But it’s okay. You’re just being honest.” The pain in Murdock’s voice was plain and Face cursed himself again. “I left you, Faceman, and went to the safe place. And you weren’t ready.”
That puzzled Face. “What do you mean?”
“You weren’t ready,” Murdock repeated. “You said so.”
Face searched his mind. What was Murdock talking about?
“In the camp. You told me you weren’t ready, but I left you anyway and went someplace safe.” The pilot hung his head in shame.
Face’s blood ran cold as he remembered when Murdock was brought back to the pen. The pilot was not only bruised and bloodied, but was rambling incoherently. Face remembered how he had begged and pleaded with Murdock not to crack.
‘But you weren’t really thinking about Murdock, were you?’ Face heard the accusatory voices of the dead men speaking in his mind.
‘No, that’s not true. I wanted Murdock to get better,’ Face’s own inner voice responded.
‘But not for Murdock. You wanted Murdock to get better so you didn’t have to be responsible. You were a coward who wanted to hide behind a crazy man.’
His inner voice started to deny it, but stopped. Face knew the accusations were true. His body trembled as the shame and the guilt filled him. It was true. He had tried to stop Murdock’s breakdown because Face was terrified by what would happen if he was in charge. When simple begging had failed to get a response out of the captain, Face had admitted his cowardice. He was afraid to take charge, because he knew he wasn’t up to the task. Face knew that other men would die because of him.
“You weren’t ready for it, Face.”
Face silently cursed again, ‘Damn Murdock for knowing what’s going on inside my head.’
“Murdock, you don’t understand.”
“I think I do, Facey.”
“No, you can’t know. Those men died in that place. They died because I screwed up.”
In his head, Face replayed the scenes. The VC shooting a marine in the head when Face had argued about getting medicine for Murdock. Their captors beating an army private to death when Face had tried to prevent the VC from torturing a man who was not going to survive another interrogation session. General Chao personally disemboweling some poor kid whose name Face never even knew after the lieutenant attempted to interfere, hoping that he, not anyone else, would be selected for torture. That last tactic had worked sometimes and Face had to shut his eyes to prevent the onslaught of memories from overwhelming him. But it had failed too when Face did not know when to stop. As a result, men had died. Because of Face.
“They never would have died if not for me.”
“Facey, I may be nuts, but I’m not blind and deaf. Even where I was, I could see what happened. You were trying to protect us, and you couldn’t do it. Yes, they died. But you’re not to blame.”
“Then who is to blame?!?” Face yelled loudly. In his anger, he barely noticed that they were attracting attention from passing soldiers. “I can’t blame you, Murdock, but I need to blame someone.”
Face was surprised by the speed of Murdock’s hands as they grabbed his collar and jerked him forward. In the dark eyes and red face was an anger that Face had never seen Murdock display.
“Blame the fucking VC, Face. Blame the shit-for-brains REMFs who sent us on that mission. Blame this whole goddamn war. But for Christ sakes, don’t blame yourself. Some of us were going to die in there no matter what. You did the best you could, tried to save as many of us as possible, but you couldn’t save everyone.” Murdock let loose of Face’s shirt with a shove and the smaller man fell to the ground and rolled to his side.
The force of hitting the ground took away his breath. Gasping to recover, Face stayed on the ground without looking at the pilot.
Murdock’s voice came quieter now and directly from above. “Face, you’re just a man. You didn’t have the power to choose who lived and who died. You just did what you could and we all understood that. Nobody blamed you when things went bad.”
Face could feel himself shaking as he felt the months of terror and pain trying to escape.
“Face, you have to stop blaming yourself.” Murdock repeated.
Maybe that was true, but it hurt so damn much. He felt tears forming in his eyes, but he fought them. Damn it, he didn’t have time for this. He had a mission to complete. Besides, he was not going to start sobbing in the middle of the base in front of complete strangers. Slowly, he pushed the tears away and regained control. His body stopped trembling and his breathing returned to normal. From the ground, Face looked up at the gangly captain looming over him, composed himself as best he could and cracked a small smile.
“Why didn’t you tell me that a little earlier? Maybe we wouldn’t have been called crazy so much.”
The color drained from Murdock’s face and Face knew the other man didn’t believe the fake smile for an instant. But Murdock lowered his hand and helped the lieutenant to his feet.
“Face,” Murdock replied matter-of-factly. “You’re not crazy. You’re just hurting and it’s gonna hurt for a long time. But I am crazy and you’re gonna have to get used to that. I don’t think I’ll ever be all right. Fact is, I probably should be locked up in some loony bin back in the World. Maybe I’ll ask the docs to do that.”
“Don’t even think of it.” Face felt his anger returning. What the hell was Murdock thinking? “Look, Murdock, even if you are crazy, you can still fly a slick and do what we need. We’re a team, remember? We don’t leave each other and we don’t let one of our own push us away. So I’m not going to let you leave that way.”
He watched and waited for Murdock’s response, but the pilot merely shrugged.
“Besides, Murdock, you’re the smartest, most insightful crazy man I know.”
Face had hoped that would elicit a laugh, but Murdock simply nodded. Then he said quietly, “‘Kay . . . So what now?”
Face looked around. His head was spinning and he debated returning to Hannibal without the tanker. The lieutenant could manufacture some excuse for why the scam had failed. But he looked at Murdock’s expectant gaze as the other man waited for some instruction.
“Murdock, are you up to doing this?” Face asked softly. “Can you stick with me?”
The pilot grew pensive for a moment before he answered. “Yeah, Faceman. I’m with you.”
Face couldn’t prevent his lips from forming a grin. “Okay, then. Now we worry about flowers. Or shrubs if you’d prefer.”
Hannibal looked over the supplies for the obstacle course. BA was already stringing the barbed wire and placing the wooden hurdles in rather inconvenient spots. They were setting up a gauntlet between the a-team’s barracks and a neighboring one. Now if only Face could manage that truck. That was the last piece of the puzzle.
“I’m not so sure ‘bout this, Hannibal. This is a terrible plan.”
“It’s brilliant, BA,” the colonel replied with his natural confidence. “The marines will never expect this.”
“Yeah, cause they expect M-16s ‘n’ M-60s.”
“We can’t exactly go around shooting up American soldiers, BA.”
“I know that.” BA groaned. “But Hannibal, they’ll have at least eight guys, maybe more. And Faceman and the fool ain’t hardly in shape to take out even one of ‘em.”
Hannibal had to admit that BA was right. But if the truck worked, Face and Murdock would be out of the line of fire. And if the truck didn’t work, it wouldn’t make much difference. He looked up at the roof of the barracks and gauged the distance between the two buildings.
Maybe there was another piece to the puzzle after all. It would require reworking the plan slightly, but it would still work.
“BA, get me that zip line.”
“What ya got in mind, Hannibal?”
Hannibal grinned. “How about some air support?”
“Excuse me, ahh, Corporal.” Good, Face thought, he needed an enlisted man if the scam was going to work. An officer would not be intimidated by a loud-mouth lieutenant, even if he was “General Simonds’ personal aide.”
The other soldier, a young airman, snapped to attention and saluted. “Yes sir.”
“At ease, Corporal . . . umm . . . Williams?” In the back of his mind, Face recalled that his scams always worked better when he threw in personal touches.
Slowly, Face moved away from the soldier and began perusing a tanker truck standing behind him. Deliberately, Face ran his eyes up and down the truck and circled it.
“Why, yes, I think this will do nicely. Very nicely, indeed,” he added for emphasis. Was that how it worked? It had been so long since he pulled something like this off.
“Nice? I’m sorry, sir, I don’t understand,” the confused corporal stammered.
“Understand,” Murdock thundered with some oddball accent that Face could not place. “What is there to understand?”
The corporal jumped back, thoroughly startled at Murdock’s appearance. How the hell had the pilot found elbow-length gloves and hedge clippers in the five minutes since their argument?
Murdock snapped the clippers in the direction of the astonished airman before Face interceded.
“I’m sorry, Corporal,” Face said in his smoothest voice. “You’ll have to pardon Captain Delacourt.” Turning toward Murdock, Face said, “Now, Captain, why don’t you put those away and allow me to talk to the nice airman and explain our business.” With his back to the soldier, Face stuck his arm out behind his back as if he expected the corporal to shake the back of his hand. He had a dim memory of claiming that the “trick” of a scam was never to make eye contact. “My name is Lieutenant Stephen Christopher. I’m the personal aide to General Simonds. Captain Delacourt is the General’s personal gardener.” At this point, Face’s recollection of pulling scams told him to turn, pause and then add in a conspiratorial whisper, “Actually, really the General’s wife’s personal gardener, if you know what I mean.”
The corporal stared at them bug-eyed.
“I still don’t understand. . .”
Face reached out and put an arm around the corporal’s shoulder, turning him away from Murdock. This was the key moment. The instant that would make or break the scam.
“Look, corporal, I have here a requisition order.” As he spoke, Face pulled some hastily forged documents. “The order is for one water tanker truck. This here is a water tanker truck. So why don’t you give me the keys and we’ll be on our way.”
The corporal looked askance. “I can’t do that, sir. This truck is needed to put out fires in case a plane crash lands.”
Face paused, momentarily uncertain of how to respond. It had been so long since he had to scam someone that he struggled to remember what to do with a resistant mark. Suddenly it came back to him.
“Look, Corporal. I understand the bind that you’re in. But you have to understand. Some jarheads dug a trench outside the General’s residence and cut the irrigation to his wife’s flower garden. The engineers promise it will be fixed in a couple of days, but his wife is insisting they need water this afternoon.”
“But. . . But . . .” the soldier stammered. “This is Vietnam. It rains all the time . . .”
“MORON! IMBECILE!” roared Murdock. “These are prize Japanese lilies. You have no idea the importance of timing in the growing cycle.”
The corporal stared wide-eyed at Murdock and looked to Face for help.
“Don’t look at me, Corporal. I’ve got a black thumb,” Face said. “But I can tell you that you do not want to be on General Simonds’ shit list. And his wife is even worse. Last guy who refused to obey one of the General’s requisition requests got sent out on long-range recon.” Turning to Murdock, Face queried, “Captain, where did they find the body?”
Without waiting for the answer, the corporal grabbed the requisition request and quickly signed it. Then he dug in his pocket and pulled out some keys.
“You’ll return it when you’re done with it?”
Face flashed a smile. This was easier than he remembered. “Absolutely, Corporal. You have nothing to worry about.”
The honking of a horn startled BA so much that he nearly fell off the roof of the barracks. Fastening the last part of the zip wire, he yanked strongly to ensure that it would hold. Satisfied with his handiwork, he glanced down at his watch, 15:45.
‘Hope Faceman don’t have no piece of junk. Don’t have much time.’
Climbing down from the roof, BA gave the tanker a once-over. Though he was generally pleased with Face’s procurement efforts, he was doubly pleased that this truck was not leaking water, oil or any of the other types of liquids trucks leaked. Of course, the fact that Face had scammed this from a working airstrip and not out of some rice paddy probably helped.
“Well, Sergeant?” Hannibal chewed on his cigar as he surveyed the lieutenant’s handiwork. BA normally hated the scent of the cigars, but even he could tell that the colonel was suddenly smoking better quality ones. And for once, the smell did not bother the sergeant.
Seeing that Face was beaming proudly from the driver’s side of the truck, BA could not suppress a grin. “Ya did good, Li’l Brother.” BA saw Murdock leap down from the back of the truck carrying a set of hedge clippers. “You too, crazy fool. Now why don’t ya two stop grinning like idiots and help me with the intake valve and the hose. We don’t got much time.”
With BA barking instructions, they quickly set up the hose and nozzle and moved the truck into position. Hannibal ran through the plan and then pulled Murdock aside.
“Got something special here for you, Captain.” Hannibal picked up a box, handed it to Murdock and then pointed to the roof. “Use it wisely.”
From his hiding place at the back of the alley, Face waited. This was not exactly a firefight in the middle of the jungle, but the same type of adrenaline was coursing through his veins.
“You okay back there?” came BA’s voice from the inside of the truck. Face could hear fear in BA’s voice. Face knew that the sergeant was not afraid for himself; the fear was reserved for the two younger men.
Thinking about Murdock, Face looked around for a sign of the pilot. Nothing. Face felt his blood run cold and said a quick prayer that Murdock could keep it together long enough to take care of the goons.
Hannibal’s voice abruptly sounded in Face’s ears. Though the colonel was on the far side of the barracks, he spoke loudly so the rest of the team could hear.
“Welcome, gentlemen. I’m glad you could join us.”
Less loud, but still audible, was the cold voice of the marine. Face thought it was the voice of the lieutenant who had tangled with Hannibal in the mess the day before.
“Where’s your team, Smith?” The mocking in the voice made Face grow furious. No one spoke to Hannibal like that. “Maybe they really are pussies like my sergeant tells me.”
“Unlike you, who brings ten men to take on four. Four recent POWs, I might add.” Face grinned at the way Hannibal emphasized the number ten to alert the rest of the team about the odds.
“You’re all stinking cowards who wouldn’t know honor if it smacked you in the face,” Hannibal taunted.
Face could not hear the marine’s response.
“I could take on all of you yellow-bellied, buckets of pus on my own.” Hannibal’s words and the condescending tone nearly made Face laugh. He tensed and waited for the colonel’s signal. Still nothing.
“Aww, now I get it. You fuckin’ jarheads can’t get it up unless your sister’s are jacking you off.”
No question that was going to provoke a response. The angry yells and the sound of Hannibal racing for the alley merely confirmed that.
“Wait, BA,” Face ordered. In his head, he counted to five. “GO!!!”
The sudden movement of the truck nearly pitched Face over the back end. Hanging on to the hose for dear life, he pulled himself back into position just as the truck reached its position at the end of the alley and Hannibal safely reached the corner.
“NOW, KID,” Hannibal yelled as he slammed the switch on the side of the tanker.
Face again nearly lost his balance as the force of the water surged through the hose. Struggling to hold it in place, he barely managed a glance at the ten marines that had raced without hesitation into the alley. A few had even managed to leap over the first of the wooden hurdles when Murdock released the cargo netting, which cascaded down from a zip line strung between the two barracks. The netting now completely blocked the mouth of the alley that the marines had just passed through.
At the same instance that the marines discovered that their retreat was blocked, the water from the high-pressure hose struck its targets. The redneck lieutenant was the first to fall as Face aimed the stream of water directly at the man’s sternum. The marine slid backwards, until he struck one of the wooden hurdles and lay still.
Seeing that his first target was no longer moving, Face directed the hose in the direction of four marines at the left side of the alley who seemed frozen at the sight of the tanker truck slowly moving toward them. The impact of the water knocked them back and to the ground.
Suddenly, Face’s attention was diverted by a loud cry and a burst of smoke. Murdock had reached the cable BA had strung between the buildings and was now sliding in a small, wooden cart-like contraption strung along a rope and pulley system across the middle of the alley. From his position, he could lob smoke bombs into the leathernecks’ position. Every few moments, the pilot tossed another smoke bomb, increasing the confusion on the ground.
“READY, BA?” Hannibal yelled. Face looked down and realized that the truck had stopped. It didn’t matter; the powerful hose could strike anyone in the alley from where the truck now stood. Face saw the colonel and sergeant rush to the front of the truck. They began pummeling the four wet marines Face had previously struck. The enemy was still shocked from the force of the water and unprepared for the fists that struck rapidly amid the smoke and confusion.
While BA and Hannibal took out their anger and frustration on the jarheads, Face aimed the water to the other side of the alley. The forceful stream pinned down three additional marines, who huddled against the cargo netting. When a fourth leatherneck began climbing the netting in a frantic effort at escape, Face took aim. The impact of the water knocked the soldier loose and he collapsed to the ground.
“GUYS!!!” Murdock’s voice suddenly cut through the chaos. Looking up, Face saw that the pulley was coming loose and Murdock’s cart was about to fall. Looking back down the alley, Face saw that BA and Hannibal had finished beating the living daylights out of the first four marines and had turned their attention to the four on the right side. Actually, three, Face thought. The marine who had failed in his escape attempt still lay motionless, as did the marine lieutenant.
Dimly, Face tried to do the math. The lieutenant, four on the left, four on the right. Nine. Didn’t Hannibal say there were ten?
Before he could ponder the question any longer, Face heard the pulley break loose and saw the wooden contraption, Murdock still inside, fall to the ground. Unfortunately, at that same time, Face got the answer to his math question. The tenth man, the scarred, marine sergeant that had attacked Face earlier, came roaring out of the smoke in Murdock’s direction. Even worse, just as Face trained the hose on the marine, an alarm sounded and Face realized the truck was out of water.
“RUN, MURDOCK,” he screamed. The yell had the desired effect. Murdock looked up from where he had fallen and, seeing the angry sergeant bearing down on him, began scurrying down the alley. However, instead of running toward the waiting fists of BA and Hannibal, Murdock scampered in the direction of the truck.
Glancing at the far end of the alley, Face saw that BA and Hannibal were still putting the finishing touches on their opponents. There was no way to even know if they were aware of Murdock’s predicament.
“Get in the truck,” Face called. If Murdock could reach the door, he might be able to climb inside and lock it before the furious sergeant could catch him. Apparently hearing the order, Murdock raced for the truck, but, in his current condition, he was not fast enough. The marine tackled the pilot from behind, driving them both forcefully to the ground. Getting to his knees, the larger man swung a wild punch into Murdock’s ribs.
Face did not hesitate for a moment. Climbing up on the top of the tank, he raced down the length of the vehicle and leaped off the hood. Despite his slight weight, the force of his impact against the large soldier knocked the man to his side. Face began raining blows along the marine’s face and ribs.
Sensing also that Murdock was free of the marine’s weight, Face issued an order between blows. “Get out of here, Murdock.” Face knew it would only be a second before the sergeant recovered and began pummeling the lieutenant, but he did not regret leaping into the fray for an instant. Murdock would escape unscathed and that was what mattered.
Face’s advantage lasted even more briefly than he anticipated. A sudden right cross sent stars whirling before his eyes. Falling backwards, Face struck the ground. Then a weight pinned him and he began feeling the large fists of the marine striking his rib and chests. The lieutenant looked up into the scarred face of the jarhead just as the man’s fist rose over his shoulder and began its descent toward Face’s jaw. He closed his eyes and braced for the impact.
There was a sound of the blow, but Face felt nothing except the weight that pinned him to the ground give way.
He opened his eyes.
There above him was Murdock. Under his left arm, the pilot held a two-by-four. In his right hand, Murdock held the hedge clippers, complete with pieces of a dangling marine uniform.
“I didn’t leave you, Facey.”
“Come on, kid. Wake up.” Hannibal shook Face gently, trying not to jar him awake.
It did not help. Face came awake with a startled yell, his entire body shaking in terror.
“It’s okay, kid. You’re okay. Calm down. Just a nightmare.”
The trembling slowly subsided as Face began to recover. His eyes darted, unfocused, around the small room. BA and Murdock were watching from the bunk bed they shared on the other side. At least since their transfer to the four-person room in the Air Force barracks, only the team had to deal with Face’s and Murdock’s nightmares.
“Hannibal?” Face’s voice still sounded terrified.
“I’m here, kid. We’re all here. We’re all safe.”
Face visibly relaxed. “I’m sorry.”
“Nothing to be sorry about, kid.”
A hand touched Hannibal’s shoulder and he spun his head. Murdock was standing there.
“Why don’t you take my bunk and let me talk with Face, Colonel.”
Seeing the somber look on Murdock’s face, Hannibal nodded, crossed the room and took a seat on Murdock’s lower bunk. BA had climbed down from the top and sat down next to the colonel. Murdock was speaking so quietly to Face that neither of the other men could hear what the pilot was saying.
“It’s gettin’ better, Hannibal,” BA said.
Hannibal said nothing, but he nodded. Things would never be the same as they were before the camp, but the colonel knew his team would survive. The fight in the barracks proved that. Even with their problems, Face and Murdock had hung together in the fight and, as a team, they had emerged the victors.
Things were definitely getting better.
The nightmares had not ended, but they would subside over time. Hannibal looked at the two young officers again. No, things definitely were not over. But Hannibal knew the answer to his questions.
The team, his team, would survive.