Hannibal pulled up in the Jeep, staring at the people and equipment moving hurriedly around the site. Still staring, he climbed out and headed toward the nearest building, finally forcing his attention away from the activity outside and looking for a certain lieutenant.
Stepping inside, he was amazed at the number of people scurrying around, all with very determined looks on their faces. No goldbricks here. Hannibal shook his head. Figured. Only one person could get these guys to work this hard during a stand-down.
Then he spotted his quarry, across the room, conferring with a big, burly sergeant. He was going to call out, but was cut off by two soldiers carrying a huge painting past him. He stared at the subject for only a moment before stepping around them. The lieutenant was just heading out the back door. Grimly, Hannibal made his way through the mess and followed.
He saw him again, heading over to the side, where the forklifts were waiting, their drivers smoking as they chatted and gestured. At the rate he was moving, Hannibal would never catch up.
He saw it then. That very slight but noticeable jerk. Still, after almost two months. What Hannibal wouldn't give to have that afternoon chat back, to find some other stupid nickname to saddle him with. He could see, as if it were happening right in front of him, the look in Peck's eyes when they first got back to Nha Trang.
Murdock was the first to see them pull up in front of the hootch. He'd come racing out, followed closely by BA and Wiley.
"Faceman! 'Bout time you got back!" Murdock stopped in his tracks when he saw Peck's injuries. "My God, what...?"
BA and Wiley were down by the Jeep by then, both obviously puzzled.
"Hey, man, where's the little woman? What happened to you guys, anyway?"
Hannibal had hesitated, waiting to see how Peck would explain. Even knowing how Peck had acted in Saigon, he was shocked.
"She stayed in Saigon. Her, uh, brother didn't take kindly to an American stepping in." Peck laughed, gesturing to his bruises. "Rather strong opinions on that, as a matter of fact."
"But, Hannibal said you got arrested." Murdock looked from one to the other, and Peck shot a quick and angry look at Hannibal.
"Just a...misunderstanding." Murdock opened his mouth but Hannibal cut him off. "No trouble, Murdock. Really."
"So, you just gonna let her brother..."
"Guys, I appreciate the concern, but, uh, right now I'd just as soon get unpacked and go have a beer, okay?"
"Sure, Faceman. Sure." BA and Wiley stepped back from the door, now looking warily at Hannibal.
Peck turned to look at them. "Uh, what's with the 'Faceman' thing?"
"Hannibal decided you needed a name 'sides Peck. Fits, don't it?" BA actually grinned.
"Yeah, yeah, sure does."
It was obvious to Hannibal that what he had planned on being a bit of a joke had, to his lieutenant, become an act of betrayal. And Hannibal didn't blame him one bit...
"You want something, Hannibal?" Face had come trotting up, and looked harried.
"Just wondering what the hell is going on here. I mean, I know you were putting up an officer's club, but..."
"No, no, that's changed. Now it's just a club for servicemen, period. The DMV Tennis and Racquetball Club. Nice ring to it, don't you think?"
"Uh, yeah, but what's going on over there?" Hannibal pointed to where the forklifts were now starting to move.
"Oh, uh, that's the swimming pool. Or will be, very shortly."
"Lieutenant, I don't recall any discussion of a swimming pool. And where the hell did you get it?"
"Well, it was just kinda...sitting there. At the airfield, in an old storage shed. I guess it was one they were going to put in back in '66, and then, for some reason, it never got done. So..."
"So you decided to put it in."
"Well, sure. I mean, it was just..."
"Sitting there, yeah. And who authorized these guys to put it in?"
"They volunteered. I mean, everybody gets to use it, so, why not?"
Hannibal looked at Face. A sleeping baby couldn't have looked more innocent. Hannibal shook his head and headed around the building for his Jeep. If it kept him occupied...?
He just hoped Darnell didn't come around for a long, long time.
"Hannibal, I don't think this is a good idea. We've already hit this guy three times."
"Yeah, and each time we found out a little more about how he operates. I think we know enough now so we can take him out for good."
Face looked at him, skeptical. BA and Wiley just stared at the ground. Murdock started whistling softly.
Hannibal frowned. "Okay, so what's the problem?"
"For one thing, we just hit him two days ago, so he's going to be on alert. Second, we don't even know for sure this is his camp. And third, the last time we just barely got out in one piece."
"One, he's not going to be expecting us to him again so quickly, and definitely not from this direction." Hannibal pointed to the map. "Second, this bunch is heading north, and where else would a VC general run when he's been hit so often? Third, we aren't exploring this time; we know exactly what we're going to run into."
"I told you it wasn't a good idea."
Face glared up from the bed at the field hospital. Hannibal looked from him to Wiley, sitting on the stool next to him, to BA, standing by the next bed where Murdock was having his forehead stitched.
"Okay, so it wasn't the greatest of ideas. But it worked, right?"
"Yeah, that's why Faceman's got a slug in his leg, and Murdock's bird is back in the jungle. Worked just fine, Hannibal." BA's glare was almost as baleful as Face's. He was sporting a large bandage on his upper arm.
"Yeah, Hannibal, we shoulda quit when we was ahead. We had the general; didn't need to go after the captain, too." Wiley shifted, trying to keep his wrapped ankle straight.
"Okay, okay, so we took a couple hits. But nothing serious, right? I mean, yeah, Face's going to out for two or three weeks, and Murdock's grounded for a bit," here he received the third hard glare of the day, "and Wiley's gonna be a little stiff, but otherwise, it's just...a few scratches. Right? Right?"
"I don't like it. They shoulda been back this morning."
"They'll be fine. BA can wire explosives in his sleep. And Hannibal knows his way around Cambodia like nobody else."
Wiley looked at him over the bar. Face was leaning back on a stool, carefully checking a glass for spots. He frowned and started rubbing it with a towel.
"Damn it, Peck, you act like that fucking glass is more important than Hannibal and BA!"
Face looked up. "What?"
"They missed their extraction! Anything could've happened. They could be dead, you son of a bitch!" Wiley slammed his glass down on the bar and stalked out.
Murdock looked over from his seat, watched as Wiley slammed out of the club. He frowned at Face, who was passively watching the door.
"He didn't mean it, Face."
"Sure he did." He went back to wiping glasses. "Wiley never says anything he doesn't mean."
"Oh, hell, Face! He knows you're just as worried as the rest of us."
"Am I? Worrying doesn't do any good, Murdock. Either they come back or they don't. That's the way it works in a war."
"Face! Jesus, man, this isn't just anybody. This is Hannibal and BA."
"Does that matter? Is God going to watch out for them any more than anyone else? Grow up, Murdock."
"I don't get you, Face. Hannibal's gone out of his way to look out for you, and the rest of us have tried to make you feel like a real part of the team - and you don't care, do you? You really don't give a damn."
Murdock pushed away from the bar, the chair toppling over on its back as he stalked out of the bar. He stopped, blinking, in the afternoon sun, and then saw Wiley up ahead, kicking a can along the path. He hurried to catch up. Wiley looked up angrily.
"Don't give me any of that 'Peck really is a nice guy' bullshit, Murdock. I don't wanna hear it."
"Hey, you won't get it from me." Wiley stopped, staring. "Okay, I know I've been in his corner since the camps, but, shit, maybe your instincts were right all along. I mean, he just told me...hell. I don't think he does care, man. We're just another bunch of grunts to him."
"I told you, Murdock. If he hadn't been in hot water with Wrenn, no way he'd've switched over to us. The guy's just looking for whatever unit will suits his needs. If Hannibal hadn't let him open that damn club, he woulda found some other CO to take him on, let him do what he wanted. The only thing he cares about is money."
Murdock frowned. "Well, there was that girl..."
Wiley snorted. "Oh yeah, right. Cared so much for her he took off when her brother beat the snot out of him. Wouldn't even fight for her."
"Yeah, maybe. I think there was something more to that. Even Hannibal was acting strange when they got back."
"Hannibal mollycoddles him."
"C'mon, Murdock. He's got Hannibal wrapped around his little finger and you know it. If Peck's worried at all, it's because he's afraid his meal ticket might be out the window."
Murdock sighed. "Hannibal does let him get by with shit no one else would."
"When they do get back, somebody better set Hannibal straight. That's one LT that's just waiting for a fragging, man."
"Wiley! Don't even say that, man!"
"Hey, it won't be me. But he's gonna piss somebody off once too often, Murdock. Believe it."
Face finished wiping the glass, placing it carefully on the shelf with the others, adjusting it so it was lined up perfectly. He limped around the bar, picked up the chair and set it carefully up against the bar, adjusting it so matched the others perfectly. Moving back behind the bar, he picked up a damp towel and started wiping the down the bar, making sure every water spot, every sticky spot, disappeared. He worked his way slowly down the long surface. It was a beautiful bar, really. A friend of his in Saigon had found it, gotten it for him in a really sweet deal.
He stopped at the far end of the bar, the towel moving in a smaller and smaller circle until he was barely moving it. Then he stopped completely, and stared out the open back door, the door that opened out to a small field and then the jungle beyond and then the mountains beyond that.
And over those mountains was Cambodia. And Hannibal. And BA.
"I tol ya we shoulda..."
"Yeah, I know, BA, but it worked. And we got a nice little present for the fellas in Fat City."
"And almost got ourselves caught taking that gook, too."
"But we didn't, right? C'mon, Face, how about another round? On the house," Hannibal added, wryly.
"You guys are going to put me out of business." Face smiled as he said it, and started pouring more drinks.
"You'd just find some other scam."
There was a sudden silence at Wiley's tone, then Face laughed and nodded. "You're right, Wiley. I've got a list as long as your arm, just waiting for the right time."
The rest of the men laughed, but it was a brittle laughter. Hannibal had been watching his men. Face was acting like he always did. And Hannibal knew it was acting. But he wasn't sure what was going on with Wiley and Murdock.
Wiley had actually started mellowing toward Face after he got back from Saigon. As much as Wiley ever would, anyway. Oil and water, those two. But the truce they'd apparently come to seemed to have vanished in the three days Hannibal and BA were gone.
But Murdock really puzzled him. Of any of the guys, Murdock seemed to be the only one who'd formed any kind of friendship with Face. No matter how much Face pissed off the others with his off-duty behavior, Murdock was always there to find an excuse for him, to smooth ruffled feathers.
But now, Murdock just sat at the table, quiet. No joshing around, no placating. Nothing. Hannibal didn't think Murdock had said one word to Face the whole time they'd been in the club.
What the hell had Peck done this time?
Suddenly, Hannibal felt tired. He downed his drink in one swallow and stood. The others looked up in surprise.
"Okay, guys, I'm going to have a ton of reports to do tomorrow. Face, I'll see you first thing in the morning. And I mean, first thing."
He nodded to the others and walked out. Within a few minutes, the others followed, leaving Face tending to his other customers.
He poured himself a short drink and waved the glass in the direction of the door.
"Welcome back, Hannibal."
"Quite the set up you have here, Lieutenant. Very nice."
Face looked up, startled, from the table where he'd been playing poker.
"Colonel Wrenn. Haven't seen you for a while."
"I was stateside for a bit. Now I'm back."
Face threw in his cards and excused himself from the table. "Let me buy you a drink, Colonel."
The two men moved to a table in the back corner of the club. One of the cocktail waitresses, a young girl from the nearby village, brought their drinks at a signal from Face. Wrenn watched her, smiling, as she returned to the bar.
"Yeah, very nice set up, Peck. Must have taken some doing to get this going."
"I had some help."
"I'll bet you did." There was a coldness to Wrenn's voice that Face knew very well. "I haven't forgotten that screw up in Saigon, you know."
"No, I didn't think you had."
"What happened? Exactly?"
"Got double-crossed. Happens with people like that."
Wrenn took a sip of his drink, played with the glass. "Won't happen again, will it?"
"What? The double-cross or the deal?"
"Don't play dumb, Peck. And don't think because I was out in the world I don't know what was really going on down there."
Face's eyes narrowed. "And what would that be?"
"A couple of Marines. I've got enough clout I can do some major damage there, Peck."
Face chuckled. "You don't have enough clout to spit, Wrenn. Not with the people you'd be dealing with. Besides, I'm twelve days and a wake-up. You don't have time to do a damn thing."
"Maybe not. Then again, there's always Smith."
Face almost dropped his glass, but held on and calmly set it down on the table.
"What's Smith got to do with any of this?"
Wrenn smiled. "Smith's got a long time to go over here, Peck. If he's lucky." Wrenn stood, still smiling. "But it's a tricky thing, this war. Never know where the enemy might show up."
"Wrenn, you son of a bitch..."
"If I were you, Lieutenant, I'd consider extending. This place is a real land of opportunity. For you - and your friends." Wrenn turned and sauntered out of the club.
"I don't understand this. Why?"
Face shrugged. "I just barely got the DMV club going, Hannibal. Doesn't make much sense to walk away and start all over back in the States."
"You don't have to worry about getting your head blown off in the States, Lieutenant."
"I don't understand the problem, Colonel. Now you don't have to worry about some cherry coming in, or replacing the best damn supply officer you've ever had."
Hannibal sat back in his chair, smiling despite himself. "I'll admit I was concerned about finding a decent replacement. At the same time, I'm not sure you're giving me the real reason. I'm not even sure I want to know."
"So we're square, then, Hannibal?"
"Sure, Face. Welcome back."
Hannibal sat for a long time after Peck left, knowing full well the return of Colonel Wrenn figured into this sudden turn of events.
It had to.
"So what are you going to do, Murdock?"
Murdock shrugged. He'd been with the 281st for so long, he couldn't imagine going to any other unit. But the thought of going back to the World, working for some airline or crop duster, just didn't appeal to him. Besides...
"I've been talking to the guys over at the 134th. Seem like pretty decent guys."
Hannibal nodded. "Yeah, I've heard really good things about them. But are you sure you don't want out? I mean, you've been over here a long time, Murdock. Maybe...too long."
Murdock's head shot up and he glared at Hannibal. "You think I'm nuts, too?"
"No, I'm not saying that, Murdock. But every day anybody's over here lessens his chances of going home. You've been pushing the envelope for a long time."
Murdock stood, paced the length of the hootch before once more flopping down in his chair. "Colonel, I know that Face has been talking to you. About me, I mean. And I know I do some strange things up there - and, okay, on the ground, too. But it's just letting off steam, no matter what Face thinks. That's it. But...I've heard the rumors about you and Morrison, too."
Hannibal straightened. "What rumors, Murdock?
Murdock squirmed then. He knew no one was supposed to know anything, but...
"Just that, well, he's got something really big planned. Something he picked you and the other guys for. Specifically you guys."
Hannibal kept looking at him, expression blank. "And?"
"And so, if it's as big as rumors have it, you're gonna need a pilot you know. One that knows how you operate. One that won't get rattled when you change plans."
Hannibal sighed. Someone in Morrison's office had a big mouth. He'd have to talk to the colonel about that. Not even the team had the whole picture yet. But Murdock was right. They needed someone they could count on, someone they trusted. Someone who'd be willing to take the risk right along with them.
But what if Face was right? What if Murdock was becoming unstable? What if he didn't have control of things the way he claimed?
"Colonel, let me transfer over to the 134th, and fly this mission with you guys. After that, if you still want me out, I'll go. But I just...I just got this feeling..."
"Okay, Murdock, okay. I'll talk to your CO, see what I can do to help out. But, Murdock..."
Hannibal hesitated, but he had to say it. "Just...keep it together. Especially around Face. He's not as willing to be gulled as I am."
"You got that right, Colonel."
Hannibal frowned as Murdock walked out. He believed Murdock; at least, he believed him enough to think the pilot would pull back if he thought he couldn't handle it.
Face was another matter. He'd come to Hannibal a couple of times over the last few weeks, concerned about Murdock's erratic behavior. Hannibal had tried to brush it off; the rest had all noticed it since the camps, but Face had been gone...
And now Hannibal knew that Murdock was aware of it. He truly believed that Face was concerned about Murdock, but would Murdock believe that?
He shook his head. Things used to be so simple.
Before Peck came on board.