CHAPTER FORTY-ONE

October 2, 1976

5 Years, 8 Months

He woke suddenly, sitting up on the couch, pulling the blanket around himself. Not that it was that cold; there had been nights, up in the mountains...

He closed his eyes. Tight. His throat was sore, his face wet. He rarely had nightmares, rarely even had dreams that he could remember. This one was already gone, the only remnants the nearly overwhelming feeling of dread and...despair. He took a deep, shuddering breath before opening his eyes.

Ralph was sitting next to the couch, on that old campstool.

Waiting for him.

Ralph handed him a small towel, and as he shakily wiped the moisture from his face, Ralph started talking in that soft, low voice. Talking about things that didn't matter, things that didn't make you think, things that didn't worry, things that didn't hurt.

Maybe it was the words, or maybe it was more the tone of voice. Maybe it was little tales Ralph began telling about Korea. The Chinese. Not what happened, but how what happened made him feel. Then leaving those little silences, waiting to see if Face was ready, letting him take his own time, his own route.

At first, he hadn't responded. It was always like this with Ralph. Sometimes he wouldn't say anything, other times he would tell Ralph little things. Nothing that would take Face back there. Nothing...dangerous. He'd tried so hard to put it behind him...so hard.

Ralph was talking about the death marches, the camps. Hundreds of men deliberately starved to death. Scrounging for food wherever they could find it. Face nodded. He knew about hunger, all right. Remembered the garbage pile. The feeling of triumph when he'd sneak a bit of refuse right under the noses of the guards. Remembered the shame he'd felt as well. He'd never want the colonel to know what he'd done...

"You jus did what you had to, to survive. Jus like us. Jus like any soldier would. Ain't no reason to be shamed of that, boy. Ain't no CO would look down on you for that. Not one worth his salt, anyways."

He looked up, startled. He hadn't even realized he'd spoken aloud. He felt a slight tremor run through him, and he looked away, toward the shed. Ralph might think Face hadn't done anything wrong, but Ralph wasn't Hannibal.

Hannibal would never have degraded himself that way. Or any of the ways Face had, just to stay alive. It didn't matter that he had no choice in what they had done to him. He could've ended it. There were opportunities. Face had chosen not to take them.

Hannibal would rather have died than let those bastards use him the way Harry had used Face.

Hannibal was...Hannibal was everything Face could never be.


*****

They had driven through the town yesterday, almost four hours after leaving Dr Cleary. Although he knew both BA and Murdock were stressed from both the long trip from LA and the visit to the Army base, he elected to continue driving until they reached the next town. There they took a room at a cheap motel, on the edge of town, away from prying eyes.

And prying eyes would be a major consideration for the next phase of their search. Strangers stood out like sore thumbs in small towns, and, like it or not, BA stood out most of all. Hannibal hadn't even thought about it, until they'd stopped at that gas station miles back and he'd noticed the locals watching BA. Okay, so he was a bit more muscular than most people, but otherwise, there was nothing about him to make those guys stare. Then he remembered where they were. The land of Rosa Parks, freedom marches...George Wallace. Times were changing, but not very fast, and a black man traveling with two white guys brought up harsh memories. BA was also aware of it; Hannibal could tell by the way he gripped the steering wheel. One reason to get this over and done with, and get them all back to familiar territory.

The other reason was Murdock. Hannibal had insisted, and despite Murdock's glare, verified that he had his medications with him. Still, three days in a cramped van, with BA surly with worry over heading directly into "enemy territory", Hannibal concentrating on what small threads of a plan he had, and Murdock himself dwelling on Face and what Kyle might tell them - the pilot was definitely fraying a bit. He'd been spacing out more and more often, for longer and longer. Taking on characters with a bit too much intensity than mere boredom required. Normal annoyances became excuses for blowups.

And, if truth be told, Hannibal himself wasn't dealing well with the situation. He disliked the idea of impersonating Hanson's father once again, feeling the silent condemnation toward the runaway father from the people he talked to. And his concerns about wreaking havoc with their quarry were mushrooming with every mile they drove. He knew it was starting to show, just from the looks he was getting from the other two.

Definitely needed to finish this. Soon.

The inquiry noted in Cleary's file had come from the county sheriff, a Jethro Pough. Murdock had laughed at that, at first, but a look from both BA and Hannibal had sobered him. The last thing they wanted to do was antagonize the people with the Intel they needed. This might be rural Alabama, but that didn't mean these folks were to be taken lightly. No one, of course, liked the idea of contacting the sheriff. It seemed, however, that Kyle Hanson almost inevitably drew the attention of all the wrong people, his trail leading to either military or civilian authorities. It didn't lessen Hannibal's qualms about finding him.

If they even could.


*****

The sheriff hadn't allowed him to ride with Kyle, but Ralph noticed he kept the pace slow enough so the old pickup could stay close all the way to the jail in the neighboring county. What the sheriff had been expecting, he wasn't sure, but Kyle's response to being arrested, cuffed and placed in the back of the squad car had surprised Ralph.

Because he hadn't responded at all.

After Kyle had told him about the camp, and his colonel, Ralph had actually hoped that maybe he was going to open up more, start acknowledging and accepting the other things that had happened to him, whatever they might be.

That had been the toughest part for Ralph, when he got back from Korea. Just finding someone who could understand, who'd been there. But it was hard; too many of the POWs over there had supposedly "turned"; no one wanted to talk about it, fearing they would be branded collaborators or worse, even though they knew letting it fester would only cause more problems. Ralph had been lucky. Lucky in finding the right doctor, lucky in finding Mr B. And when Mr B told him about Kyle, he couldn't say no.

So it hadn't surprised him when Kyle wouldn't talk about it at first. It took a while before he would talk about Nam, and then a few "innocent" details about his flight from his captors. But nothing else. Until this morning.

But after that disclosure, about the garbage pile, he'd shut up. Drifted off into that strange world of his and this time he hadn't come back. When the sheriff pulled into the yard, Kyle had stood and waited, listened quietly as the sheriff explained the charges. Hadn't flinched only a smidgeon when the cuffs went on. The sheriff was on his guard, and Ralph wasn't exactly calm. Both were waiting for the explosion that never came.

And that bothered Ralph. A lot.

From everything Mr B had told him, Kyle was not someone who would go quietly. Not if he had any choice in the matter. The sheriff hadn't had his gun out, hadn't made any threats. Kyle could have taken the slightly overweight and older man easily. That he hadn't even tried...

Ralph watched through the glass door as the sheriff, flanked by two deputies, took Kyle's fingerprints. Sheriff Predmore was methodical, by-the-book without being dogmatic. He wouldn't go out of his way for Kyle, but he wouldn't make things any harder than he had to, either. As jails went in Alabama, Predmore's was one of the better ones. Kyle could've done worse.

Predmore stepped outside as Kyle was led away by the two deputies. Ralph watched until they turned a corner and disappeared, then turned to the sheriff.

"James?"

Predmore shook his head. "Got a little problem there, Ralph. Perris is kickin up a fuss. Your boy mighta done okay, since Alton went after him first. But he shoulda quit long before he did. DA's not happy about it. There's talk he might kick it up to felony assault."

"What? But I tol him maybe thirty days."

"Not if the DA goes ahead with this. Then he's lookin at stretch with the state. A long stretch." Predmore shook his head again. "If I was you, Ralph, I'd get that Mr Bellows on the phone pronto. Maybe he can talk some sense into Mr Perris, and that'd go a long way with the DA."

Ralph's shoulders sagged. "Can I talk to him?"

The sheriff frowned, but finally nodded. "Yeah, soon as he's processed. But don't take too long. I like my guys to get settled as quick as possible."

Some forty minutes later, Ralph was escorted into the jail itself. Gray walls, white ceilings, dark cement floors. Each cell they passed was enclosed by reddish brown metal bars, and had two bunk beds, a toilet and sink. No windows. It looked clean enough, in a run-down way, although it smelled as if it had been mopped with the same water for several days running. There were a dozen cells, all but three filled.

Kyle was in a cell by himself, sitting on the lower of one bunk bed, rubbing his hand slowly over the orange fabric of his new uniform. He looked up slowly when Ralph cleared his throat.

"Hey, boy. I'm afraid I got some bad news..."


*****

Hannibal had elected to wait until morning to see Sheriff Pough. He had several things that needed to be done first.

They had made more stops along the way than just that gas station - at other small towns, a couple of produce stalls along the highway, even stopped and talked with a farmer at the edge of his field. BA grumbled, and Murdock was impatient, but Hannibal insisted. He'd done all the talking, leaving the other two in the van. Always started out asking directions to an obscure little town he'd found on the map. Leading it to a discussion of tourists - and other strangers - passing through.

Hanson had been mentioned several times, although not always by name. Crazy, loco, dangerous were frequent adjectives. And not in the past tense.

He hadn't said anything to BA or Murdock. Just smiled and shook his head as if in defeat. For some reason he didn't quite understand, he wanted to keep this Intel to himself. Need to know basis. And right now, they didn't need to know the man they were searching for was, apparently, still in the area, and causing problems.

As they ate their takeout lunch in the motel room, Hannibal formed his plan. He needed to know the lay of Little Sweet, the town where Hanson had apparently taken root. But he didn't want to send BA there with the van; their one swing through earlier that day was enough. A second would definitely be too noticeable. He didn't like it, but he had no choice. After lunch he got a rental car and sent Murdock, after giving him strict, no-arguing instructions to look, don't talk, don't stop. Anything else and they would be headed back to LA. Period.

He knew Murdock didn't like the tone, and he also knew it surprised BA, but Murdock was too...flighty right now. He had to make sure the man didn't cause problems that would sidetrack them. Only the threat of terminating the mission would do that.

Now he just had to get rid of BA. He grimaced to himself at that, but it was only the truth. At least it was easy. The van, while in excellent shape from BA's ministrations, was still an old van. After being driven well over 2000 miles in just a few days, it undoubtedly needed some TLC. And, reminding BA that they were within a day's ride of several military bases, he sent him off to make sure their transport was ready for any quick and hard escapes. He didn't have to remind him to keep as low a profile as possible.

With the motel room to himself, he pulled the file Dr Cleary had 'given' him from his valise, laying it reluctantly on the bed. Cleary, of course, hadn't said anything about Face. Hannibal had to know if Kyle had mentioned him at all. And that would involve reading the whole report for anything that might have come out. So far, Hannibal had only glanced through it. He'd felt uncomfortable with even the idea of probing into details that were none of his business. But with what he'd heard from those roadside conversations, he had to have the facts. He had to know how to handle Kyle when they questioned him.

Or, maybe more realistically, how not to handle him.

He began by skipping over the first few pages. He doubted there would be anything in the intake reports about Face, and, again, felt any information he'd actually need about Kyle would come in later. Unfortunately, when he did start reading, there were so many references to the "initial findings" that he was forced to go back to the beginning. The first report was from the doctor at the Saigon Embassy. He was surprised immediately. Hanson hadn't been 'rescued', as Hannibal had been led to believe - he'd escaped. Hannibal's estimation of the man went up even more. Then he read the doctor's description of the sergeant as he'd first appeared at the Embassy.

It was hard to keep his professional detachment in place. Reading about Kyle...reduced to nearly an animalistic state. No idea how long he'd been in the jungle. Judging from his physical and emotional demeanor, at least a couple of months; if he'd escaped shortly after Green had seen him, possibly as long as eight.

That was the first place Hannibal had to stop. His memories of the escape from 'their' POW camp were coming back in waves. It was something he thought he'd safely tucked away, but apparently not far enough away. Thinking now of Face, and the suspicions they'd all entertained, it made him feel...small. And no matter how rough their trek had been, it almost paled in comparison to Hanson's. At least they had been in a group, with others to lean on and give support to in return. Hanson had been on his own. No wonder...

Sometime later, Hannibal stepped outside, bringing a cigar from his pocket, holding it absently in his hand. He'd finished reading. Despite his resolve to only look for 'pertinent facts', he'd found himself immersed in every detail. Coupling this report with those from Arnhold and Green, Hannibal had a sickening picture of what had happened to the sergeant. The least of what had happened. It was quite possible no one would ever know the full story, as Hanson was still refusing to talk when he'd disappeared. Maybe that was just as well.

Not for the first time, Hannibal felt the doubts creep in about this 'mission'. More strongly than ever, he worried about finding Hanson, what questioning him would do to the man. He'd been through enough. More than enough. Those bastards over there had nearly broken him, and the military had pretty much completed the job. Who was he, the great Hannibal Smith, to push him even more? Was it really that important to learn what had happened to Face?

Especially since he was no longer sure he wanted to.


*****

The jail was quiet now, except for the snoring that filtered through the cellblock The lights in the cells themselves had gone out long ago, leaving only the lights in the hallway to softly illuminate his own. He stared at the floor, thinking.

Ralph had started it. Talking about doing jail time. At first, his impulse had been to disappear, take to the road once more. Certainly there would've been more hazards involved, with the law looking for him. That hadn't bothered him as much as the thought of jail. He figured, on the run, the eventual outcome would be his choice. He wouldn't need to go to jail at all.

But that changed this morning, when he'd actually opened up, even that little bit, about the camp. Made him think, really think. He'd spent over two years with Harry. Another year and half locked up in that hospital. He could do thirty days. Ralph had said he'd stick with him. That was good. Ralph could help him keep on track. Keep that buzz under control.

And if things got too bad, he could always do something to get thrown into solitary. It would keep him from doing something worse, something that would add time to the sentence. The trade-off was dealing with his demons on his own, but he'd been doing that forever. The more he thought about it, the more he liked the idea of solitary. There had been too many people getting into his life lately. Too many people forcing him to think, act.

Feel.

So when the sheriff finally came for him, he was okay with it. The cuffs had bothered him; a little too much loss of control. But he could deal with that. They'd come off when they got to the jail. It wasn't as if they'd stay on. Just like the thirty days. He could do that. He could see the end. Like Ralph said, do as he was told and when it was over, it was over.

Then Ralph had come to the cell, and everything changed.

He hadn't really heard what Ralph said after the ten years part. Something about going to Mr Bellows. He knew that wouldn't work. Mr B may be the big man in Madoc County, but he didn't mean diddly-squat over here.

Ten years.

He didn't see Ralph leave. Didn't see the meal shoved under the door, or pulled back out later, untouched. Didn't really notice when the lights went out, and the cells got quiet.

He thought. He let his mind wander to places he'd forgotten, or misplaced. Not the dark places. He went to the light. The happiness.

Thought of Father O'Malley, and the nuns. Smiled as he remembered the stunts he'd pulled, the reactions, the inevitable grudging smiles even as they dished out the punishment.

Thought of Leslie. Not the way it ended, but the way it began. The way it grew. The ending didn't matter now. That's what Dao Quy had said. He remembered her voice, the softness. "But it doesn't matter, does it? In this time, this place?"

He sighed. Dao Quy. Playing house. At first. She had given him...so much. Even kept him going in the camp. He still blamed himself for her death. For Cook.

For Kyle.

He tried to back away from those thoughts, but it was too late. He had to let them in now. The mistakes he'd made, the costs. The things he'd wished he'd done. The questions he'd never get answers to.

He straightened, looked into the dimly lit hallway. All quiet now. Even the snoring had succumbed to the night. He stood, looked around the cell.

He could've done thirty days. He could have.

He turned then, and quietly began pulling the sheet from the bunk.