CHAPTER SIXTY-FIVE

December 31, 1976

5 Years, 10 Months, 29 Days

He'd just wanted to take a walk.

He hadn't intended to get into any trouble. Call it a strategic withdrawal. Go out into the woods, away from any people. Walk it off. Run it off. Rip apart some damn bush. Anything to cut off that feeling before it got too strong.

Damned if he was going to do that with an audience. Especially not them.

So it was really their own fault.

He thought he'd been doing okay. He had been doing okay. To last this long, hearing those voices yelling - screaming - and not let it get to him... Seeing Harry stare at him from the woods and not go off the deep end... All this time without taking a swing at someone...

That was pretty fucking good.

Hannibal didn't seem to think so. Kept wanting to dig into things that were none of his business. Digging and digging, until sometimes it was hard for Face to remind himself why he stayed. Hard to remember the debt... He felt a twinge of guilt. If he was going to do this, he should just do it.

He stopped, looking back across the woods, the field, up at the open sky. Back to the house. He could still see the lights through the trees.

If Hannibal would just leave him alone, stop pushing. Like that church. Why the hell did he think Face would be welcome there? Would even want to go?

And BA. One thing to be there when Hannibal was pushing too hard. But why couldn't BA just give him ten minutes to himself without Face having to hide in that damn room to get it?

That room.

How he hated that room.

Every day it got smaller and smaller. And smaller. The walls, paper-thin. He couldn't keep the voices out. Every conversation, every word, every fucking noise came through. He would sit in there, trying to drown everything out, keep everything out. And just when he thought he had... the damn door would move. Not a lot. But he could see it. Could hear the knob turn. So quiet. So careful. He'd get up, ever so carefully, and step across the room. Watching for that fifth board. Every time he forgot and stepped on it, the fifth board squeaked. So he'd be careful, stepping across it, reaching for the knob, holding it tight while he checked the lock. Holding the knob tight while he turned it so slowly, so slightly, opening the door a mere slit to see who was out in the hall.

He knew who it was. Nobody else could be there one second and gone the next. Nobody else could slip past Hannibal or BA. Closing the door softly, then flinging it open, trying to catch him out in the hall. Never fast enough. Never quiet enough. But he knew who it was...

He straightened suddenly. The sound of a door banging open, slamming against the wall.

It hadn't been his intention to take off like this. He'd thought about that window many times. Leaning out, studying the porch roof, just out of reach. The ground below. When he knew no one was looking, he'd walked around beneath the window, checked for unexpected hazards. Even kicked a few rocks out of the way. Never thinking he would really use it. It was just good to know it was ready.

Then tonight... he'd really, really wanted to get away from them. He needed to get away from them. Just go out into the woods, alone. All alone. Work it out of his system, before it was too late.

But BA wanted to tag along. Yeah. Tag along. His keeper. And the anger at BA just made that... thing stronger. That feeling, like everything was dirty, or sick; like watching sick porno movies over and over. Like the whole world was filthy and he was stuck in it. Drowning in it. But it was more than that. Like there was nothing nice left. Hell, nothing left at all. And he was trapped in that nothing, that thick, sick nothing and the only way out was to destroy it. Destroy it or suffocate...

And he'd stared at the window as he leaned against the door. The door he'd locked and unlocked and locked again and felt the anger because he couldn't quit locking it, over and over and... and the next thing he knew he'd opened the window and slid out, dropping as silently as he could. Heading for the woods.

He hadn't intended to get into any trouble. But he'd seen the lights from the city and felt his heart beat just a little faster. A little louder. What could be better than a border town on New Year's Eve for getting rid of some pent-up... energy?

He looked back toward the house. There. Flashlights. Two of them, the beams slowly drifting over the ground under his window. Finding his trail.

He stood slowly, took a step back. He should go now. Just disappear into the woods, head into town, find some idiot to pick a fight with. Maybe find a car, take a drive...

He watched another moment. They'd come a few yards closer to the woods, then stopped. The lights bobbed around a bit, then went out. He waited, listening, cursing the breeze rustling the leaves. He needed to hear if they were talking. If they were coming, or just discussing whether or not they should. Whether or not they wanted to.

The longer he watched the dark woods below, the more incessant the thrumming inside him got, no matter how hard he tried to silence it. He glanced behind him, where the lights from the city glowed bright. So bright...

Where were they?

He crept further into the woods, trying to clear the noise. He couldn't hear his own steps now - how the hell would he know when they were coming?

And they would come. He'd realized that as he'd stood under the window, waiting to see if anyone had heard him. Hannibal could lie all he wanted, but Face knew. Murdock was in trouble, and it had something to do with Face. And that's why they'd come after him now, just like they'd come to Alabama. Murdock had started the whole thing. Whether it was guilt because he hadn't gone looking for Kyle back in the jungle, or some half-assed feeling of friendship with Face from before, Murdock had started it. So Hannibal was stuck with Face - had to keep Face on an even keel so Murdock could get better and get out of that place. As soon as that happened, Face was expendable again.

This was all about Murdock. Always had been.

That's when the idea had come to him. He still owed them, for the robbery. That was his fault, and he wouldn't forget that. But the days of subservience, the days of trying to fit into their world - those days were gone...

The flashlights came back on a little further into the woods. They'd lost his trail for a moment; not enough moonlight, too many trees. They were following fast now. Did Hannibal think Face was so far ahead of them he wouldn't see the lights? Or did he just not care, only intent on catching up? Dragging Face back to that house. That room...

He shook his head, moving quickly back into the woods. Unfamiliar terrain now; they hadn't come this far out during their little 'exercises'. That was okay. He was used to that. Knew how to deal with it. He didn't look back - he didn't care any more. He was focused on the lights. The city. The people...

A border town on New Year's Eve. Full of targets, just waiting for him.

He grinned as the thrumming inside grew.

Let the games begin...

*****

Hannibal took two seconds to indulge his futile hope Face was, of all things, hiding in the closet. Another two seconds to see if he somehow could have swung over to the porch roof, and was sitting there with a cat-ate-the-canary grin. BA was halfway down the stairs before Hannibal turned from the window. Moments later, Hannibal stood in the kitchen, checking his flashlight. He frowned when BA checked the clip in his pistol.

"You don't need a gun, BA."

"Maybe, maybe not. But you want him to get the jump on us like he did back at that truck stop?"

"I don't think - "

"Yeah, maybe that's your whole problem, Hannibal."

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

BA glared over at him as he jammed the clip in place.

"I mean if you'd'a been thinking instead just going along for the ride, maybe this wouldn't have happened. Maybe you'd'a seen he was getting more and more wound up. Maybe you woulda found somethin for him to do besides pacing around in that damn room. Maybe you'd'a found somethin for all of us to be doin besides sitting around waitin for the next blowup." BA shoved past, letting the screen door slap shut behind him. His voice floated back from the darkness outside. "You comin or not?"

With a set to his jaw that bode no good for either of his men, Hannibal grabbed his jacket and strode out into the back yard. BA was already shining his light under the window.

"Looks like he took off for the woods, all right."

Hannibal followed the tracks in the damp grass with his own light. Face must have been in one hell of a hurry; a blind man could follow that trail. Well, he probably was in a hurry. He knew damn well what would happen when they discovered he was gone. He could lose them easily once he was away from the house. If he wanted to lose them. He turned to BA, caught sight of the pistol stuffed in his waistband.

He assumed Face was heading for the woods, planning on losing himself in the wilderness. But maybe BA was right. He'd been doing too much assuming, not enough thinking. And Face had been pissed off royally this time. Who knew what he might be planning? Or if he was even thinking. Maybe that 'blind man's trail' was deliberate.

He took another look at the pistol, glad BA had the grace to look uncomfortable when he caught the glance. They'd take it slow and cautious at first, until Hannibal had some idea what Face was really up to. No point causing a ruckus unless they had to.

With a nod at BA, he started toward the woods. The going was easy at first, then as the trees blotted out the moonlight, the going got harder. It didn't matter how good the flashlights - they couldn't pick up everything. And Hannibal couldn't help the feeling Face was out there, watching. What else he planned on doing was anybody's guess.

They moved a few yards further in and the trail disappeared. BA moved up beside Hannibal, both slowly scanning the ground and lower branches. Almost in sync, they turned off their flashlights and stood, silent, listening. Other than the slight rustle of leaves from the soft breeze, the forest was silent.

"He's close." BA's voice was as soft as the breeze. "Ain't nothing moving."

Yeah. That was it. Shouldn't be this quiet. There should be animals scurrying out of their path. Night birds taking flight.

Yeah. He was close.

Hannibal flipped on his flashlight and moved forward slowly, looking for anything that wasn't the way it should be. BA walked a few feet to his side, slowly swinging his flashlight in a wide arc. They'd either find his trail or make themselves easy targets.

And then it came, echoing through the trees, between the hills. An almost defiant shout. It only lasted a moment, followed by the distinct sound of someone running through the brush somewhere far ahead of them, caution obviously tossed to the wind.

Hannibal didn't know what spooked him more - the brashness of the shout, or the pure joy that was in it.

*****

"We're never gonna find him. You know that."

BA didn't know if Hannibal was deliberately ignoring him or if he was too intent on checking out the guys outside the bar. But then he'd been staring at the bar for the last ten minutes. BA wasn't sure Hannibal was even seeing it any more. He tried again.

"How you know he didn't just sneak into Mexico instead?"

"Border patrol is out in full force tonight. He'd never make it."

"It's a shit piece of wire, Hannibal. Guy'd have to be comatose not to make it across that."

"He's not going to Mexico."

"How you know that?"

Hannibal didn't answer for a long time. But then he sighed and looked BA head on.

"He won't go to Mexico because he wouldn't have any reason to come back if he did."

"What d'you mean, no reason to come back? You think he wants to come back?"

"Yeah. He may not realize it, but he does. And if he goes to Mexico, he'd be free and clear of the cops and the Army - and us. He could lose himself down there."

"And that's why he won't go? Hannibal, that don't make any sense!"

Hannibal shook his head, pulling out a cigar and calmly lighting it.

"Think about it, BA. Remember how Jenny described him when he first showed up there? What he was like when we first moved down here?"

"Like I'd forget."

"Now he has a comfortable shelter, clean clothes, gets three squares every day - you really think he wants to go back to living like some kind of wild thing again? Living in filthy clothes, rarely getting a meal that isn't road kill, dealing with the elements? He may not like the company, but he's taken care of now. And he doesn't have to worry about getting beaten up or drugged or... or anything else. He doesn't have to deal with anything he doesn't want to. Right now, he wants that more than he wants his freedom."

"Well, if he's gonna come back, then what the hell are we - "

"We are making sure he doesn't get himself arrested, beaten up, or killed. That's why we're looking for him, and when we find him, if none of those things have yet happened, we are going to haul his sorry ass back to the house." The edge was back in Hannibal's voice, and he straightened in his seat. "We've been looking in the wrong places, BA. He's not going to want to mess with a bunch of drunken locals and wetbacks. He'll go for something more... challenging."

BA closed his eyes and shook his head before putting the van in gear. He pulled quickly into traffic, heading north toward Imperial Beach.

And the Navy's auxiliary air base.

*****

There were plenty of cops on the streets that night, but Hannibal had BA drive past any place that only had one or two sets of flashing lights parked in front of it. That was the kind of thing Face would've done back in Alabama, with a few yokels and the county sheriff around. But Face had been 'complacent' too long now, and if his hunch was right about that Naval station, Hannibal was looking for one hell of a donnybrook. And it didn't take long to find it.

Up ahead it looked like a Fourth of July extravaganza - red and blue flashing lights combined with the high-powered searchlights illuminated the otherwise dark street. Had to be five or six patrol cars already. He looked at BA, who silently pulled the van down a side street and parked it.

"Where do we start, Hannibal? He could be anywhere in that mess."

"They'll be holding the ones they've caught along the street there someplace. We'll check for them first. After that... hell, just look for the biggest bunch of cops."

BA shot him a look that spoke volumes, and got out of the van. With a nod, they split up, Hannibal taking one side of the street, BA the other. Whichever one found Face first would let out the shrill whistle they'd used in Nam - no way they could miss that signal. Of course, Face would recognize it as well, which may or may not be a good thing. Hannibal figured they'd cross that bridge when they came to it. At the moment, he had enough to do, working his way through the ever-growing throng of fighters, cops, onlookers... and the Shore Patrol.

As soon as Hannibal saw the first one, he knew he was getting close to the real action. He tried to look across the street, find BA, but there were too many gawkers and random fights breaking out. Hannibal wondered how many of these guys even knew why they were fighting. He shouldered his way forward, ducking away from a few drunken swings as he did. A row of people were sitting along the front of a store with police standing guard over them. He looked at the faces quickly, knowing Face wouldn't be there.

No way he'd be sitting quietly.

Then he saw the epicenter. A semi-circle of cops and Shore Patrol, slowly - and none too gently - working their way through a crowd of sailors and civilians, none of whom were surrendering quietly. He saw, almost immediately, a blond head - and then another, and another. No way he'd be able to pick out his quarry without getting right into the mix.

He stepped back and let loose with the whistle. The people around him jumped and glared, but he paid no attention. Seconds later he heard the whistle come back to him. He moved toward it and a few minutes later, he spotted BA, bloody lip and all.

They'd probably both look a lot worse before this was over.

*****

In the world of worst case scenarios, BA figured he'd found himself close to the number one slot. The only thing keeping him out of that slot was the fact he'd just hit a guy from the Shore Patrol instead of an MP. Shaking his head, he continued to slug his way through the crowd, not caring who went down ahead of him.

He'd given up watching out for Hannibal. He could take care of himself - he'd have to, because BA couldn't fight for both of them. He didn't even know if Hannibal had seen the LT yet. BA had and he wasn't letting him out of his sight. He wasn't sure what would happen when he actually got to him - but it wasn't going to be pretty.

Another cop went down, and two other guys - sailors or civilians BA neither knew nor cared. Someone grabbed his arm and he swung on him. Only Hannibal's quick duck saved him from sleeping on the pavement. BA glared at him before nodding toward Face.

"Yeah, I see him. Now let's get him out of here before - "

Hannibal ducked another punch coming from left field. BA took it on the jaw instead and staggered back as Hannibal rammed his elbow into the guy's stomach.

"Come on!" BA shoved the guy out of the way and lumbered forward.

They were within a few feet now, and the slugfest was getting more and more intense. BA could only catch a glimpse of Face now and then. Bloody and bruised, but still swinging away like a...

"BA!"

He looked at Hannibal, who had to shout to be heard only a foot away. Hannibal motioned him to go to the left while Hannibal went right. Yeah, don't let the LT see them coming at him together. Let him concentrate on just one, while the other... Yeah, and BA knew who was supposed to get seen first.

He waited long enough for Hannibal to get on Face's blindside before taking the bull by the horns. Shoving, pushing, slugging, he was like Moses parting the sea. He grabbed the last sailor between him and his target, stopping the man in mid-swing. Slamming him to the side, taking out at least two other guys, he turned to look at Face. It took a split second before recognition came into Face's eyes. Long enough for the shock to hit BA.

He had never seen the LT so... happy.


*****

January 5, 1977

5 Years, 11 Months, 3 Days

Hannibal looked at his watch, then down the hall. Face was still asleep, as far as he could tell. He and BA had decided to let the painkillers wear off today, deciding he'd had enough healing time. How the man had stayed on his feet at all New Year's Eve was beyond Hannibal's understanding. Pure adrenalin couldn't possibly account for it. Only after BA had gotten him in a bear hug and squeezed the daylights out of him as they pushed and shoved their way out of that riot had he finally passed out. Hannibal didn't know if the cracked ribs came from that or the fight, and BA made no bones about not caring. More than a few of his own bruises came from their lieutenant.

The route back to the van had been... interesting. They'd headed for the nearest side street, leaving a big impression on the Shore Patrol and the cops, whose numbers seemed to grow exponentially - as did their determination not to let anyone involved in the fight go their merry way.

How the trio managed to get to the van and drive away without at least one of them ending up in lockup, Hannibal would never understand. He could smile about it now - what they must have looked like, hauling a limp and bloody body between them, trading off hanging on to him while they pummeled the next guy in line, practically tossing the body between them...

Yeah, he could smile now, sitting in the cramped living room of their apartment, far from the sirens and lights and screaming headlines of the following morning's paper. And he had no doubt that their descriptions had been slowly making their way through the military's grapevine. You didn't take that many sailors out and not get remembered. So, after dealing with their own injuries, Hannibal ministered to their errant lieutenant's while BA had packed the van. Dawn was just making its presence known when they pulled out of the driveway for the last time, heading north for the relative anonymity of LA.

They'd bounced from motel to motel the first couple of days, until they'd finally felt safe enough to find an apartment. Cheap and not exactly clean, but the landlord didn't ask questions and rented by the month. They'd put Face in one bedroom, filled with as much over-the-counter painkiller as they thought was safe, and then looked at the one remaining bed.

"Well, I do have the birds, Sergeant." Hannibal grinned, almost hoping BA would actually fall for it. Instead, BA smiled back smugly as he pulled a quarter from his pocket, flipping it in the air.

Hannibal had settled for the couch philosophically. There were times to pull rank and times to remember BA's penchant for punching officers.

He looked up at the sound of a soft moan coming from the bedroom. BA stepped out of the kitchen, glancing first at the bedroom door, then at Hannibal.

"Give him another few minutes - or groans. Then I'll go talk to him."

"Yeah. You talk to him good, Hannibal. I ain't doin this again."

Hannibal had heard that a number of times over the past couple of days, and it didn't set any better now than it had the first time. But Hannibal had to agree with him. They couldn't go on waiting for the next blowup. And thinking back to the lambasting BA had given him when Face first took off, he also knew he had to come up with some kind of plan. Something that involved more than sitting around, trying to make Face talk about things he clearly had no intention of talking about.

Besides, they'd lost a good deal of money now, leaving that house and all the furnishings behind. Another two or three months and one of them would have to have gotten a real job. Now...

He stared down at the magazines in front of him. BA hadn't liked it one bit when he'd seen them on the coffee table; Hannibal didn't like the idea himself. He'd picked them up at a whim, never seriously thinking they'd go back to being mercenaries. They'd done it before, and, as Wiley had said then, it was what they knew. But the idea of fighting someone else's wars still didn't appeal to Hannibal. Then again, maybe it was whose wars they fought...

He looked at the bedroom door as another groan came forth, and shook his head. He could understand wanting to blow off steam, but... it was more than that. Something Ralph had told him, back at the farm. Everything Face did, no matter how weird or dangerous - it was all about control. Not being the victim. Fighting back.

He picked up the magazines and tossed them in the trash as he headed for the bedroom. Yeah. Maybe there was something they could do, together, that would bring in some money - and something more. Fighting wars for the right people. And kill two birds with one stone.

And smiled.