"What do you mean, Wiley? Nothing against who?"
"Face?" Hannibal's jaw dropped, BA straightened and stared, and Murdock...Murdock stood so suddenly his chair nearly tipped over.
Wiley flinched. He knew he had to tell them, but it was so hard. They would hate him, but he had to make things right.
"What about Face?" Murdock's voice was low, too calm.
Hannibal impatiently motioned for Murdock to sit, and BA pulled him quickly back down. He glared at the other two, but kept his mouth shut.
"It's okay, Wiley. We're listening."
Wiley slowly shook his head.
"You listened to me too much already, Hannibal..."
Wiley stepped into the hootch and saw Peck sitting at Hannibal's desk. As usual. Hannibal never seemed to mind, as Peck was typically taking care of stuff Hannibal didn't want to mess with, but it irritated Wiley. The last guy Hannibal had for his XO was a captain, and he never sat at Hannibal's desk.
Peck looked up just then and Wiley noticed the slight hesitation before that smile was plastered on his face. 'Face'. Where the hell had Hannibal come up with that, anyway?
"Morning, Wiley. Hannibal will be here in a minute. Just finishing up some reqs for him."
Wiley nodded and sat down. He wasn't in the mood for chit chat. For one thing, he was nursing a hangover from the night before. He and BA had raised some hell over at Peck's club, gotten "asked to leave", and then gone into town. Peck hadn't been there, but Wiley was pretty sure he'd heard about it. And as soon as BA got here, Wiley was quite sure they'd hear about it.
Wiley was surprised to see Murdock come rambling in. He had assumed that whatever this next recon was, Murdock would be the pilot, but he generally went over his part with Hannibal and his own CO. Wiley looked at Peck, but he just nodded at Murdock and went back to his paperwork. Murdock, in turn, barely acknowledged Peck's nod, but he smiled briefly at Wiley and continued wandering around.
When BA arrived, Wiley knew for certain something was going on. BA looked as bad as Wiley felt, and plopped heavily into the chair beside him. Both looked over at Peck, expecting the usual lecture about behaving themselves, not taking advantage of his ownership of the club.
Peck was completely involved with his work.
Wiley looked at BA, who looked back and shrugged. Murdock finally sat down at the table across from them, drumming lightly on the table. Other than that and the drone of activity outside, it was quiet. Peck looked up once, frowning at Murdock's tapping. The pilot grimaced and put his hands in his lap under the table. Peck went back to his writing.
Wiley was about ready to start crawling the walls when Hannibal finally strode through the door. Peck immediately stood and stacked his paperwork before taking the last chair at the table.
The first thing Wiley noticed was Hannibal didn't have a cigar in his mouth. Nor was he grinning as he stepped to the head of the table. Wiley looked at BA, who again shrugged. Peck and Murdock just sat, watching Hannibal.
Something was definitely going on.
"Okay, guys. We've got a job, and it's big. It's also very hush hush. One word, just one little word leaks out and we are history. And I mean that."
Wiley couldn't help shooting a glance across the table at Peck, but he was still watching Hannibal. Did he know what this was all about?
Hannibal glanced at the open windows before pulling a chair up to the table. He leaned his elbows on the table as he sat, and looked at each one of his men before continuing. Wiley wasn't liking this one bit.
"Morrison has a plan that sounds too fantastic even for us. But if we can pull it off, we could put an end to this war months ahead of schedule."
"Yeah, like there's a schedule." BA snorted, shaking his head.
Hannibal frowned but continued. "This is going to be a bit different from our usual, guys. We aren't going into Cambodia, or Laos."
Wiley felt a sudden trickle of sweat run down his back. Like the rest, he found himself sitting up a bit straighter.
"This time, we're making a house call to Uncle Ho," Hannibal suddenly grinned, "and break into his piggy bank."
The sun had been up for some time already, and the guys were getting restless. They had a long series of flights ahead of them before the really hard work started, and they were anxious to get started. Especially with the timetable they had.
Wiley sat on a box by the hangar door, whittling. He never made anything, just kept scraping away until he basically ended up with a toothpick. Which was just as well, as he tended to chew on them almost constantly now. Dumbest thing in the world, quitting smoking while over here. Well, almost the dumbest.
He looked up the road. Still no sign of Hannibal. Damn Morrison. Always took his own sweet time about everything. Sometimes Wiley thought he did it just to irritate Hannibal. He couldn't figure that brass ass out. He knew Morrison respected Hannibal, and the team, for that matter. He'd heard that from any number of people. At the same time, the guy seemed to take every opportunity to screw them over in some way or another.
He looked over at the others. Peck was going over his checklist, as usual. Wiley knew that he'd read over several more times, then tear it up into little pieces and toss it. Guy was strange that way. Murdock was over by the chopper, going over his own checklist for the hundredth time. It would be a long haul for him, too, and then he had to come all the way back again. BA was dozing against his pack. Couldn't have been too comfortable; they were packing lean this trip. Real lean. They'd be living off the land after they hit the LZ. Wiley was surprised he could sleep anyway. After that last time Murdock got shot down, he'd been like a cat in a room full of rocking chairs when he had to fly. But he still got on board.
Wiley looked up the road again. Finally. He could just see Hannibal off in the distance. Walking fast, but walking. He had his habits, too. Never ride when you could walk. Probably why he could keep up with guys half his age.
He was about to let the others know when he noticed Peck had gone over to the bird, was talking to Murdock. Murdock didn't look any too happy about it, but Peck just kept talking anyway.
Wiley stood, stretched, and walked over to BA, giving him a little kick in the shins. He automatically moved back when he did it; BA was his best friend, but he could still knock your ass off.
"Hannibal's comin, BA. Open them beautiful brown eyes, darlin."
BA mumbled something about a duck and Wiley grinned. He took one last look around before grabbing his own pack and heading for the chopper.
Yessir, a good day to die. Wiley laughed.
Fuck that, John Wayne.
Wiley and BA tossed their gear in and took their places. Wiley noticed, with some apprehension, that there was no door gunner. Then he realized there was no crew chief either. Wiley shook his head. Maybe they were lucky Morrison had even gotten them a pilot.
Peck gave Murdock a slap on the shoulder and turned to greet Hannibal. Wiley caught Murdock's eye for a moment. He could've sworn Murdock deliberately looked away. What had Peck been telling him now?
"Got the official orders, Hannibal?"
"I've got them safely squirreled away, Face. As if paperwork ever bothered you."
"Hey, this is Morrison's baby. Damn right I'm worried about paperwork. I want every 'i' dotted and 't' crossed. In triplicate."
Wiley smirked at Hannibal's frown. Peck sounding like he was in charge again.
"Well, it's all there. And Captain Curtis was standing right in the office when Morrison signed the orders. So everything's cool, Lieutenant."
Peck still didn't look happy as he turned to get on the chopper and saw Wiley grinning at him. They all knew Hannibal didn't call him 'lieutenant' unless he was getting pissed at him. Wiley and BA always got a charge out of it.
Hannibal took the co-pilot's seat. Peck looked at both BA and Wiley, and smiled as he nodded at Wiley, then at the M60 hanging by the door. Wiley glared back, but took his position without saying anything. Somebody had to, but damn it, Peck didn't have to look so happy about it.
Murdock let out his customary war whoop, and Wiley automatically checked his harness. Some of these guys would just take off, expect a fella to hang on as best he could. And when they were loaded down the way the guys in the 281st would, it could get pretty damn bumpy before they got in the air.
The first leg, to Da Nang, was uneventful. Thankfully Murdock didn't go all out, to preserve fuel. But they didn't get shot at, and that made it all the nicer. BA had settled down for another nap; Peck just stared out into space. He did that a lot now; Wiley wondered if he had second thoughts about extending. After what seemed like forever, they got to Da Nang, and everyone clambered out and stretched. They took off again as soon as the chopper was refueled; they'd have to make one more fuel stop before getting to Udon.
Hannibal moved into the back of the chopper at Da Nang, and BA took over as door gunner. Wiley was relieved, in a way, but he couldn't help but wonder who would be there on the next leg. Hannibal told him and Peck to get some sleep if they could, and Wiley put his worry aside for the moment. He knew as well as the others that sleep would be a precious commodity over the next couple of weeks.
He was awakened almost immediately by gunfire. He should have expected it; they were flying over Laos now. Murdock was tilting like a carnival ride, trying to evade the barrage, and BA was firing the M60 in one long blast, twisting almost as much as the chopper in his attempts to quell the enemy. Wiley, like Peck and Hannibal, just hung on and tried not to get in BA's way.
It couldn't have lasted more than ten minutes, but it seemed like hours before the banging of the guns and the screams of the anti-aircraft shells stopped. Wiley could see bits of daylight poking through the skin of the chopper here and there.
Maybe BA wasn't so wrong about these birds after all.
The rest of the flight across Laos was relatively quiet, with only a few sporadic bursts coming from the jungle below, and they began to relax a bit. Murdock started singing up front, until BA pulled an empty cartridge from the bag and threw it at him.
Wiley and BA took to the bushes when they made their next refueling stop. They didn't have much choice. It was one of those places that was there for one reason and one reason only - refueling small aircraft. Wiley looked at the runway - a red dirt line along the edge of the jungle - and decided only gliders or choppers would even try to land here. Just two or three Thai soldiers, standing around gawking. Murdock did his own refueling, refusing to let them anywhere near his bird. Hannibal and Peck stood just off to the side, going over a map.
BA and Wiley exchanged glances when they headed up to the chopper a few minutes later and discovered Peck was strapping himself into the door gunner's position. Wiley looked over at Hannibal, who was practically glaring at Peck, and decided it was best just to keep his mouth shut.
Wiley sighed as he settled for the rest of the trip. Hannibal was changing. The team was changing. And he could practically name the day it all started changing.
The day Peck came back from Saigon.
They landed at Udon late in the afternoon. It was the end of the road for Murdock. He'd stay overnight at the base, and then make the run back to Nha Trang in the morning. From here, the team would be taken by an Air America chopper crew and dropped just over the far Laotian border. Wiley wasn't sure whose idea that had been, but he was personally glad. Murdock had been taking too many chances lately, and infiltrations at night were pure hell anyway - hard to maneuver when you couldn't see, hard to see without being seen, and having several men's lives in your hands at the same time...and this time, they'd be dropped, as Hannibal called it, in Uncle Ho's backyard.
They all knew Murdock was not happy about it. Once a chopper crew was assigned to a team, they 'belonged' to that team from the time they left base until they were picked up again, no matter how many days the team was out. Then, and only then, did the chopper crew move on to other duties or teams. With Murdock, Hannibal had requested him so often, he was practically a permanent part of their team.
Not this time.
They headed over to the base mess hall, and although they knew it would be the last decent meal they'd have for some time, none of them had much appetite. Afterwards they all wandered over to the hangar, waiting for the sun to set. Their new pilot was looking over his ride along with the crew chief and, thankfully, a door gunner. BA and Wiley double checked what equipment they were taking; neither one of them liked carrying C-4 that far, but it wasn't like they could stop at the local PX and pick some up. Hannibal and Peck were going over the maps one more time, comparing them with the latest intel Hannibal had gotten at the base headquarters.
Finally it was time to load up and take off. Murdock stepped back, gave them all a sloppy salute and smiled.
"See y'all on the flip side."
Wiley grinned and shook his head. No matter what Murdock was really thinking, he wasn't about to let it affect the others. And Wiley wasn't about to let it, either. Pessimism was not the same as realism. He watched from the open door as Murdock got smaller and smaller and finally disappeared as the canopy swept by below them. In a moment, they were surrounded by darkness.
"The day you brought him back, I could see it. How he was...different. You both were. And then we found out why."
Hannibal, standing by the window, looking out but not seeing, turned and frowned. "You knew?" He looked over at BA, at Murdock. "You knew but you didn't say anything?"
"What was there to say, Hannibal?" Murdock stood up again, moved restlessly to the dresser. "We just figured, you'd talk to us at some point." He looked up, and there was a hint of anger in his eyes. "You never did."
Hannibal looked back to BA, who shifted uncomfortably in his chair.
"Guys were...hinky around him. Then I saw one of them guys from that day at the hospital, and I..." BA almost blushed, "I was gonna warn him off, y'know? Make sure he wasn't gonna push that thing about Cook. But he's the one tol me. Only, nobody knew, see, who'd really done it. And they didn't know if maybe Face had some more of those kinds of friends up in Nha Trang."
"And neither did you guys." Hannibal shook his head and returned to his chair by the bed. "Damn."
"He went around, acting like nothing had happened. And you...you started taking more and more chances with your plans. Like you were daring him to challenge you. Only he didn't."
"He and I had plenty of disagreements..."
"To a point, Hannibal. But you could never push him far enough, could you? I didn't understand that until Bragg, when I had time to think about it. You were pushing him, trying to get him to really care about the mission, the team, anything. Care enough to put his foot down. But instead of challenging your decision, he challenged you. He'd show you that no matter how stupid the idea, he could make it work. And you fell for it."
Hannibal looked at Wiley, then slowly over to the others. The look on their faces told him all he needed to know.
"That's why it happened, Hannibal. It wasn't because I hated him. But I had to stop you. And the only way I could was to get him away from you. I didn't know..."