CHAPTER FORTY-THREE

October 5, 1976

5 Years, 8 Months, 3 Days

BA wasn't bored, exactly, but he was getting a little restless. They'd arrived at Ralph's cabin hours ago, and as yet, Kyle Hanson had barely come up in conversation. Once Ralph found out Hannibal - Ronald Hanson - had been Korea, there was no going back. And Hannibal, for some odd reason, indulged him.

Or maybe it wasn't so odd. Hannibal rarely talked about Korea. BA didn't think it was because of bad memories as much as none of the rest of them knew much about it. Hard to talk about memories, good or bad, when the guys around you didn't even know where half those places were. What it was like.

So, after the tour of the place - apparently mandatory in these parts - BA had gone over to look at the tractors. He didn't know much about farm machinery, but engines were engines. It only took a few minutes before BA realized that Ralph was a decent mechanic. But no genius. Ralph, with Hannibal and Murdock in tow, had mentioned a couple problems he'd been having. That was all it took.

Murdock had wandered along during the tour, and then sat down on the couch on the porch as the gabbing began. It didn't take long before he lost interest, as well. Ralph did have an odd way of talking; soft, slow, relaxing to the point of almost putting you to sleep if you weren't really listening to what he said. And Murdock wasn't listening; BA knew it wasn't just because of the subject. They didn't have the scale of air war in Korea they'd had in Vietnam. If it wasn't flying, Kyle, or Face, Murdock lost interest real quick.

BA had called to Murdock when he saw him glancing inside the cabin. He shook his head as the pilot ambled over to the machine shed. Sometimes it seemed like he had no sense of privacy, or manners, any more. Even back at Kyle's camp, he'd just made himself at home. BA didn't like that. Didn't matter to him if it was a fancy house or a piece of tarp, a man's place deserved some respect.

BA kept Murdock occupied handing him tools and grease, although most of the time BA was having to explain what he wanted in a lot more detail than he figured was needed. But it kept Murdock out of trouble, and let Hannibal relax with Ralph. And Hannibal needed to relax. He hadn't seen the colonel that tense since...hell, who was he kidding? Hannibal had been on edge ever since Wiley got sick.

Hannibal came wandering over just then; BA looked up to see Ralph disappearing into the cabin.

"So?" Murdock hardly waited for Hannibal to light up. "What'd he say about Kyle?"

"Nothing, yet." Hannibal frowned. "He's an odd one. Doesn't surprise me he and Hanson got along, though. He's going to fix some lunch - said he hasn't had a lot of company, and he likes to cook." He raised his hand as Murdock started to protest. "He told me we'd talk about Kyle after we'd eaten. I think he was trying to decide if we were 'worthy' before." Hannibal chuckled. "He's definitely not as 'country' as he seems."

After a lunch that proved Ralph not only liked to cook, but was damn good at it, BA had mentioned he had some things to finish on the tractor, and Hannibal pulled Murdock inside with him for KP. Ralph walked with BA, and watched quietly as he worked.

"I appreciate what you all are doin for Kyle, goin to all this trouble to find him." Ralph stared out at the peanut fields. "And after all this time, too."

BA stopped his work for a moment. "Yeah, well...his dad was pretty set on it, and he was a good friend..." Damn, he hated lying like that.

"Yeah. His daddy..." Ralph chewed on his cheek a bit, then spit. BA kept working. "Musta been real young when he had that boy. Real young. Funny, too, 'cause it'd be awful hard to get through West Point, trying to provide for a family he weren't sposed to have."

BA stopped working then, and frowned at Ralph.

"Yeah, I know he ain't Kyle's daddy. Now what I want to know is why you really tryin so hard to find him. And I figger you're the one's gonna give me the truth." He held up his hands, placating the outburst before it came. "Not callin the other two liars. Just...not as worried about skirtin the truth. That's what officers are trained to do, ain't it?" He winked.

BA hung his head before smiling up at Ralph. "Yeah, that's officers." He sobered then. "But we don't mean any harm to Kyle. That's the truth, man. He was with our LT in the camps over there, and, well, the LT didn't make it. He, uh...he shouldn't' a been there. Kinda our fault he was. Murdock's kinda... "

"Stuck on that?"

"Yeah. We just tryin to find out what happened. More'n the Army can tell us."

Ralph frowned. "I understand what you all want, but I don't know. That boy's got a heap of trouble on him right now. Has for a long time. I don't know that he'd tell you anything. And I don't know that I'd like to see him pushed."

"We ain't gonna push him. The colonel made that clear. I think, even though he's never met him, he respects him. Respects what he did, what he's been through. Guess we all do. I think what he's really hopin is it lets Murdock settle down some, just findin him. If he can't tell us nothin, that's okay. Leastways Murdock will know we tried."

Ralph nodded, and looked up at the cabin. Sighed.

"Okay, then, BA. Let's go talk."


*****

October 6, 1976

5 Years, 8 Months, 4 Days

Mr Bellows came into the kitchen that morning, poured a cup of coffee, and, instead of going into the dining room for breakfast, leaned against the counter and watched Jenny as she stirred the eggs. She looked over at him, smiling softly. He returned the smile, but there was something forced about it.

"Something wrong, Dad?"

"I got a phone call last evening. From the sheriff over in Walmouth County."

Jenny stopped stirring and turned, spatula dripping egg onto the floor. "Kyle?"

"Kind of. I wanted to talk to you last night about it, but you were...occupied with those folks."

Jenny blushed. "I'm sorry, Dad. But..."

"No, don't apologize. I know you wanted to know how their meeting with Ralph went. I imagine Mr Hanson had a lot of stories to tell about Kyle, as well." He looked at her, frowning.

"Well, no, not really. I guess he traveled a lot...but what about Kyle? Is he all right?"

Mr Bellows turned and set the coffee cup on the counter, then stared at the floor for a moment.

"They took his fingerprints, you know. Sent them off to Washington, just procedure."

Jenny frowned, but said nothing.

"The FBI called the sheriff. They compared those fingerprints to the ones the Army had on file for Kyle Hanson." Mr Bellows looked up, almost sadly. "They didn't match, Jenny. Your friend isn't Kyle Hanson. They don't know who he is."

Jenny went almost white, and Mr Bellows straightened suddenly. She shook her head.

"I'm all right, Dad. I just...I don't understand..."

"Well, nobody does at this point. But until the FBI and the Army figure it out, they've decided to keep Kyle, or whatever his name is, up there at the hospital. It's the one thing everybody seems to agree on, at least for now."

"What do you mean?"

Mr Bellows ran his hand over his face, sighing. "I mean the real Kyle Hanson was at the Army hospital in Mobile, and walked away, in one piece, from that halfway house. That's the last anyone saw him. Then this fella turns up with Kyle's coat..."

"They can't think he...no, there's no way he..."

"Look, Jenny, let's just calm down now, all right? Nobody's coming right out and saying he did anything. There's just a lot of questions that have to be answered. A lot of questions..."


*****

Face slowly opened his eyes, looking blearily around him. He'd been moved out of the infirmary earlier that morning, placed in what he assumed was a ward. There were dozens of beds, many of which, like his, were bereft of linens. Some people were lying on thin mats right on the floor. Occasionally he saw a nurse hurry past the door; otherwise he'd seen no one that looked remotely like a doctor. Most the people in the ward did as he had - slept their time away.

Something had awakened him. He sat up, carefully. His head still ached, and his neck was stiff. It had been a dumb thing to do, he knew. But he also knew, given the chance, he'd do it again. Given the circumstances, why wouldn't he? Only this time he'd plan it better.

Then he saw what had awakened him. The noon meal. Or maybe it was supper. It was cloudy outside, and even with the large windows, difficult to tell what time of day it was. He only knew he was hungry, and assumed that the big trolley with the five-gallon milk can on it meant a meal.

He watched, puzzled, as the orderlies tore bread slices and tossed them into the can. They then stuck in a ladle and brought out some kind of soup, he assumed, and poured it into bowls. Each patient got a bowl and spoon; he took his gratefully, only to realize that it wasn't soup at all.

Milk, with chunks of sopped bread in it.

Lukewarm, at that.

He watched as the trolley moved past, stopping at each bed. Woe to the patient who wasn't awake; the bowl was placed next to their bed, and any other patient close enough grabbed it as soon as the orderlies moved on.

Face slumped down, began eating slowly.

Welcome back.


*****

"So I guess that's it, then."

Hannibal pulled a cigar and lit it, dropping back against the back of the couch. BA, standing by the window, shook his head and stared out at the street in front of the motel. Murdock looked from one to the other, brow slowly furling into anger.

"What, you mean we're just gonna walk away? I thought you liked this guy, thought we were gonna help him out?"

"Murdock, this isn't even the right guy. We've been on a snipe hunt. God only knows where Kyle ended up - probably in some goddamned ditch between here and Mobile."

"Maybe. But maybe not. This guy has Kyle's coat, Hannibal! He's got to know something. Maybe they were friends, y'know, and Kyle gave him the coat. Maybe he knows where Kyle went. Maybe..."

"Maybe nothing, Murdock! Kyle didn't have friends. He didn't talk to people, he didn't relate to people." Hannibal stood, hands on his hips, glaring back at Murdock. BA stood back from the window, watching them both. "There's no point in taking this any further, Captain. It's done, over! There's nothing more we can do here. Nothing more to learn about Face. He's dead, and nothing is going to change that."

"But, but, what about Jenny? She doesn't care what this guy's name is. She's his friend! She wants..."

"Murdock, Jenny doesn't even know his real name. He's never told her anything about himself, where he came from...everything she knows about him is a lie. Other than the fact that he's obviously violent if anyone crosses him. What would've happened if she'd said the wrong thing?"

"He wouldn't hurt her. I know it!"

"And just how do you know that?" Hannibal shook his head. "No, Murdock. We've carried this as far as it can go. I feel for Jenny, but it's no longer our problem." He sighed, softened his tone. "I know this isn't what you wanted. I know you - hell, all of us - wanted...something more. But that was just because we couldn't accept what happened. The way it happened. But what's done is done, and we all did what we thought was right at the time. We can't change it; we just have to learn to live with it, put it in the past where it belongs. I'm sorry, Murdock."

He turned to BA, surprised to see him tensed, ready to move into action. "It's okay, BA. Let's get loaded up. The sooner we get back to LA, the better."

"No! I'm not going back there yet. Not until I know..."

"There's nothing more to know! Damn it, Murdock, we have no idea where Kyle is, or if he's even alive. And he probably wouldn't have been able to tell us anything we didn't know anyway." Hannibal sat back down, abruptly, staring at the carpet. "I shouldn't have dragged us out here to begin with. I think I just wanted to do something, anything, to come to terms with it, to make up for it...to live with it. Or maybe I just...used Kyle. To hide from Face. From what I did to him." Hannibal's shoulders slumped. "It's over, guys. Over. We leave the ghosts here."


*****

October 7, 1976

5 Years, 8 Months, 5 Days

He sat in a large room. Windows lined one wall, but they hadn't been washed for a while. The sun coming in was muted, like through a lampshade. He didn't complain. He didn't say a word. He did what they told him.

And waited.

He heard a noise, off to the side. Not one of the noises he'd gotten used to - mumblings and shufflings. He'd even gotten used to the crying and yelling. Ignored them. Amazing how quickly the habit returned. He hadn't quite found his way out of the noise, though. No calling on Dao Quy this time. Jenny wasn't...no. Jenny wasn't.

He heard the noise again. Kind of a plunking noise. A voice, just after. Not really a word, just a voice, making another noise. He looked to the side. Nothing there at first. Just some guy, strapped to a chair. Lot of those around here.

He sighed, closed his eyes, leaned back against the wall. He'd found a quiet corner, away from the rest of them. Most of them. One guy kept wandering over and looking at him. Face paid no attention. He knew that look. Vacant. There'd been a couple kids at the orphanage like that. Slow. Scared him at first, until he'd been around them for a while.

He heard the plunk again. Looked up in time to see the rubber ball bouncing across the floor. Watched as one of the orderlies retrieved it, and went back to the other side, where two others were sitting, laughing. Face watched as the first guy threw the ball again. It bounced off the kid in the chair.

The three orderlies laughed when the kid hollered.

Face's vision blurred. He felt the tremor go through him. Felt the heat, the rain. The rope tied tightly around his waist, the other to a tree...ignoring the softer things they threw at him...ran from the rocks, this way, that way, inevitably forgetting the length of the rope.

Hearing the guards laughing. Always laughing...

He slid up the wall, bracing against it. Everything in him screaming at him to ignore the orderlies, ignore the kid. Seeing Jenny, offering him a drink, giving him breakfast. Ignore them.

Ignore them.

Jenny...


*****

October 7, 1976

5 Years, 8 Months, 5 Days

BA swerved, slamming on the brakes so suddenly Hannibal nearly went headfirst into the windshield. Murdock landed with a thud on the floor. BA ignored their protests, glaring at each of them until they were silent.

"I'm tired of listenin to your fightin and arguin. Don't matter bout Kyle, don't matter bout Face, don't matter bout anything any more! Nothin! Face is dead, Murdock! Dead! Ain't nothin gonna bring him back, and you whinin and mopin ain't gonna do a damn thing to change that!

"And you..." BA turned his glare to Hannibal, "you don't hafta act like some damn dictator. Only reason I'm takin anybody back to LA is 'cause it's time. Not cause you issuin orders. Once we get there, the two of you can rip each other to shreds and I won't give a damn, but in my van, when I'm drivin, you both shut the hell up!"

Satisfied only with their silence, BA turned his attention back to the road, pulling off the shoulder and back into traffic. He didn't think he meant everything he'd said, but damn near. He'd tried real hard to be patient with Murdock yesterday; Hannibal should've handled that different. They could've waited a day, let everything sink in, brought up goin back slowly. Murdock might've come around then. He knew they were all hurting, but damn...

The weather hadn't been helping, either. Thunderstorms, heavy rain, fog when that let up. Seemed like they were just creeping along the highway. And all the time, them two sniping at each other. Enough to drive a man to drink. He knew their silence wouldn't last forever; probably not more than an hour, if he was lucky. But maybe they'd take the hint and keep it down some.

He glanced at the gas gauge, shaking his head. The van was a good runner, for the most part, but it sure ate up the gas. He started looking for signs of a gas station, and within a couple miles was able to pull onto an exit. The station was in a little town about a mile off the highway.

While he worked the pump, filling the near-empty tank, Hannibal headed into the little shop next door to get supplies. Murdock stalked off for the men's room. It took a few minutes before the tank was full, and BA shoved the nozzle back on its hook. He went inside, paying for the gas and coming back out just as the rain started in again. Hannibal was already in the van.

BA got in, and looked in the back seat, frowning.

"Where's Murdock?"