CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE



December 3 1977

1 year, 1 month, 26 days

Face wandered slowly along the path, looking half-heartedly at the markers. He knew the chances Kyle had ended up here were outrageous; he also knew he could make a simple stop at the admin building and find out for sure. He'd rather pretend he was here, somewhere among the thousands of graves. Made him feel... better? Or just not so guilty? He'd never even asked if the body had been found, and Hannibal hadn't volunteered the info. Just like he'd neither confirmed nor denied that Murdock was behind their search for him. No - for Kyle.

They didn't really want you.

Damn it.

He glanced around; only a handful of visitors, off in the distance. No Harry. Just...

He sat on a stone bench, pulled out his notes, his map. He had time to go over the details one last time before hitting the VA, make damn sure he had it right. He still couldn't believe his luck - Hannibal suddenly deciding they needed to find a 'reliable' weapons supplier. And Face was apparently the guy who could not only find one, but make a good deal. "Don't worry about speed. Take your time, do it right." Yeah. As if Face couldn't locate some of his contacts from over there; Andy had already mentioned a couple of them to Hannibal, neither of them realizing Face had done business with them before. Yeah, he would have found a solid supplier for them, and before the end of the month. Hell, the end of the week. But he had his own plans. And by the time he got through with Wrenn, Hannibal and BA could go ahead and do whatever they wanted. As free men.

Which wouldn't happen if he sat here wool-gathering. A final look and the papers were carefully torn into confetti, drifting in the breeze. He took out another map, purchased on his way here, and carefully drew the route from a little private airfield in Henderson to an address he'd found, so easily, in the phone book.

In Paradise.


*****

"I don't like it."

Hannibal didn't bother to ask if BA was referring to the building or their absent teammate. He knew, the moment they'd pulled up by the warehouse, that it wouldn't work. And he also knew, from BA's even more taciturn demeanor during the afternoon, that his opinion of Face's part in this venture hadn't changed.

He chose to pretend it was all about the building, and pulled out the list he'd gotten from the real estate agent that morning.

"Okay, let's look at the next one."

"We oughta be lookin for Face. One of us shoulda been with him."

"BA..."

"No. I'm right about that and you know it. He's been cooped up for too long, been too... quiet. And he agreed to it awful quick. Somethin ain't right."

"He probably just wanted the chance to get away for a while." It sounded flimsy even as he said it. Face had not only been too quiet, but too easily distracted. He wanted to get away from the apartment, yes. Away from Hannibal and BA, definitely. But that wasn't it. Face had seemed surprised, but not alarmed at his new assignment. Hannibal had seen that glint in his lieutenant's eyes as he pretended to consider it, agreeing with a reluctance that the colonel should have known was faked. It was an act he'd seen too often in Nam. No, Face had something he wanted to do. Something he couldn't do if he was with the rest of them. But what?

Hannibal should've changed his plans, but he was caught again. Caught between keeping Face out of trouble and convincing him that Hannibal trusted him. Damn. He'd let enthusiasm push reason aside. Forgotten or ignored who he was dealing with. Again. Someone should've gone with Face. Just to be safe.

Maybe he should've gotten Murdock out...


*****

"Come on, Murdock. My 'brother' is back in town so you've got an overnight pass to see your former co-pilot. No big deal."

Murdock glanced back as the door to the VA swung shut. He had to hurry to keep up with Face, who didn't seem in the mood for either hanging around or long explanations.

Well, tough. If he thought Murdock was going to cover for him again, Face had another think coming. He made a quick grab for the keys before Face could start the car, and found his hand held uncomfortably tight.

"Problem, Murdock?"

"I want to know what's going on, Face. Like, where you're planning on dropping me off while you go do whatever it is you're planning on doing. And what lie you expect me to tell Hannibal this time."

"I'm not dropping you off anywhere, and Hannibal gave me his car to use - hence the keys instead of loose wires. Now, do you want to hear the job or not?"

"If you let go of my hand first." He smiled as he said it, but regretted that immediately when Face let go like it was a hot poker. Guy was definitely not in the mood for joking around.

"Sorry, Murdock."

The pilot stared in surprise. "Uh, what..."

"Look, Hannibal found out something about that guy that set us up at the park. He said you'd know who he was talking about - but he wouldn't tell me. So yeah, it pissed me off - but it's not your fault."

"Okaaay..."

"Anyway, we gotta take a run up the coast, do some recon."

"Why didn't Hannibal or BA come with you?"

"They're working another angle. Look, if you don't want to - "

"No, no, I'm cool. Anything to get out for a while, right?"

Face grimaced. "Yeah. So anyway, this could go very late, so that's why the overnight thing. We'll go back to the apartment when we're done - you can give BA some shit. I think he's been missing that."

Murdock laughed.

That was more like it.


*****

Fifteen minutes into the trip. Murdock hadn't shut up. As if Face cared about Eli getting released, or some nurse and intern getting it on in the maintenance shed, or the latest discussion group Murdock was wreaking havoc in. But he tried very hard to make the appropriate responses.

Penance.

He was worried Murdock would start asking questions about the "recon". Face didn't want to explain too much until they got there. What if Murdock refused to go through with it? What if all this chattering meant he was too hyped up to fly? Could Murdock be too hyped up to fly?

What if he crashed this plane?

You gonna fail. You know you gonna fail. You always fail.

Shut up. Shut up!

"You okay, Face?"

Shit.

"Yeah, I'm fine. Just... "

"I talk too much. I know. The doc says the same thing."

"No, no, it's fine. Fine. Really."

Murdock settled back in his seat, but Face knew he was watching him. He got so tired of them always watching him.

Soon be over. Plan A. Plan A. Get Murdock in that fucking plane. Pay that debt.

Then Wrenn. Get that son of a bitch dealt with.

And then he'd be free.


*****

"He ain't back yet."

"Didn't expect him to be."

BA glared as Hannibal calmly walked away from the van. He hadn't really expected Face to be back either; the people he would be looking for didn't work bankers' hours and it was just sunset. But Hannibal didn't seem at all worried. BA was.

Face hadn't called them. Hannibal had told him to report in, let them know where he was, who he'd talked to. Face hadn't liked that, arguing that if he hadn't made any progress there was no reason to report in. In the end, unhappily, he'd said he would.

And the moon was made of cheese...

They shoulda gone with him. At least BA shoulda. Nothing like having some real muscle along to make that kind of people think twice about pulling any shit. Face could take care of himself, but BA didn't want the police involved.

No, they sure as hell didn't need any more trouble, but he had a feeling they were gonna get it.


*****

Murdock sighed. He hadn't really been dressed for tramping around the foothills, and now, laying up here amid rocks and pokey shrubs, he was uncomfortable and bored. It was all right for Face - he had the scope. All Murdock could see were buildings and a handful of planes. Hannibal must have had some reason for sending them out here, but how Ackman was connected to Mugu he had no idea, and no way he was going to ask Face.

"Okay, move out." Face shoved the scope into his diddy bag and started scrambling down the hill. Murdock rushed, again, to keep up.

He really needed to start using the VA's gym...

Face, car already running, was tapping nervously on the steering wheel. Whatever came next, Face was obviously impatient for it. Murdock, not so much. He was starting to get a bad feeling about this whole thing.

"Uh, do we need to let Hannibal know what we found?" Whatever that was.

"No."

Back on the PCH, then a quick turn onto the road running along the perimeter of the airfield. They came to a sudden stop in the empty parking lot of a produce firm, just over a mile north of their target. A light rain had begun and Murdock half-expected Face to call off the recon. There was nothing to see here.

"Let's go, Murdock."

Murdock hadn't known anything about Point Mugu other than what it was; he now discovered it was surrounded by farm fields and marshes. It took only minutes until Murdock was wet, muddy, cold, and more than ready to call it a day. Face seemed not to care, moving in as straight a line as possible toward the fence ahead, diverting only when the mud got too deep to move. Even sloshing through that knee-deep stream didn't slow him for more than a few seconds. Damn...

Face finally stopped, laying on a patch of ground that, while wet, was at least more gravel and less mud. Murdock flopped down beside him, shivering. He saw a small security detail strolling along on the other side of the fence, now only a few yards away. There was a friendly exchange with another group, out of sight, and then they moved on, oblivious to the pair in the field. Deciding it was time to call it all off, Murdock turned toward Face. And stopped.

"Are you okay, Face?"


*****

By the time they'd found a spot on the hillside, Face had calmed down some from the drive. He forced himself to ignore that voice, and focus only on the mission. Plan A. That's all that mattered right now. Plan A. If he failed in that, Plan B died. He couldn't allow that.

The frustrations grew as he tried to watch the activity down below. These foothills were the only high ground anywhere near the airfield, and he had assumed he'd be able to see the entire operation from there, something he'd been unable to do on his earlier visit. To discover that there was no way to see the area where they would actually make their entrance...

Anger was putting it mildly.

"Okay, move out." Face shoved the scope into his diddy bag and started scrambling down the hill. He heard Murdock slipping and sliding on the rocks behind him but paid no attention. This was not about Murdock's comfort. This was about getting him in the fucking plane.

His tension rose even more when the rain started. He hated the rain. Hated being wet, no place to stay dry, mud everywhere, no food, no hearing them coming...

The car jerked to a stop by the produce building as he steeled himself. Remember the mission. Plan A. Don't think about that other shit. Plan A.

"Uh, do we need to let Hannibal know what we found?"

He almost laughed at that. No way in hell, Captain. Just shut up and do as you're told...

"No."

He got out, sited down the fence line in the distance, estimating where the gate was, and headed out. Farm fields, fallow now, then the marshlands in and around the game reserve. The smell hit him - pungent, fetid. Smothering.

Focus on the fence. Nothing else. Nothing.

...... His feet struck the water, and he sank into the muck up to his ankles. He forced his way across, listening as the villagers trailed closely behind him. They stopped at the edge of the paddies, apparently unwilling to cause further damage to their fledgling crops. That didn't stop them from throwing rocks and sticks at the intruder, stopping only when it was obvious he was beyond reach......

Stop it. Pay attention, you idiot.

He stepped to the side, trying to find firmer ground. Time was getting short; the sun had just gone down and though he knew Hannibal wouldn't miss him yet, there was still a lot to be done. Too much. Had to be gone from here before Hannibal came for him.

You gonna fail. You know you gonna fail. You always fail.

Fuck you.

Harry laughed.

Face forged ahead in the deepening darkness. As he got further, the lights from the airfield would be both a blessing and a curse. What if they were seen? What then?

He knew that creek was coming up; he hadn't liked it being there at all but there was no way around it. Wasn't sure how deep it was. What might be in it. Never knew what might be in them. And then he didn't see it until he practically fell into it. Got his balance just in time, but it was deeper than he'd expected, more than knee-deep. Don't slip, don't trip, you know what happens then...

He heard a splash and low grumbling behind him. Swift resentful look at Murdock. Just shut up and get a move on, asshole. You think this is hard? You have no idea. No idea.

...... By the time he reached the edge of the field, it was nearly pitch dark, and the villagers were inside, lanterns gradually lighting up the windows. He slid out of the water, and scurried to a small shed, taking shelter on the far side. He sat and began the process of methodically removing the leeches, concentrating on that to calm himself. He could feel them on his back......

Complete the mission. Find that damn gate. Get the fucking plane.

He heard rather than felt the gravel under his feet. Just outside the glow of the airfield lights. He dropped down, watching. Waiting. Heard the patrol coming. Talking, laughing. One of them hollered to a second group, somewhere on the other side of the runway. Heard a shouted reply.

...... He got across the first paddy and was crawling over the dike separating it from the next when he heard the first shouts. His only thought, his only instinct, to keep running. His breath was coming hard now, and his ribs and legs were aching. He didn't even see the last dike, fell over it and landed, half-submerged, in the next paddy......

"Are you okay, Face?"


*****

Hannibal stood on the balcony, listening to the rain on the canopy, slowly puffing on his cigar. He'd left the door open so he could hear the phone when it rang. He hated the waiting, although it was still early. He hoped Face had gotten some leads, maybe a specific name. It would be great if he'd been able to set up a meet. Hell, maybe he'd already met with someone, gotten a feel for him, knew enough so they could check him out tomorrow.

BA and Hannibal had had some luck themselves today. Found two buildings that could work. Just have to see what kind of deal they could make. Who knew - maybe they could have both a building and a supplier in another couple of weeks. Then they could start putting out feelers for jobs. Not like Neumann - smaller jobs at first. That was the plan.

The rain was starting to get heavier, the wind coming up a bit, blowing a mist onto the patio. Hannibal stepped inside, glanced at the phone.

Yeah. Learn better how things would work here in The World. Start small, get better, get bigger. Follow the plan. It would work.

But right now it didn't matter. Right now, Hannibal just wanted that phone to ring.

He just wanted to know Face was coming back.


*****

"Face?"

Murdock was beyond nervous now. Over Thanksgiving, Hannibal had had to admit that Face was "zoning out" more and more often. But not like this. Murdock hadn't seen him this bad since... He quickly surveyed the area. No guards. No one in sight.

"Face!"

The lieutenant jerked, looking wildly around before finally focusing on Murdock, confusion quickly replaced by embarrassment.

"You okay?"

"Will you quit asking me that!"

"When you quit acting like you're not." Murdock spoke softly, calmly. He waited, watching as Face took several deep breaths. The effort it took to calm himself down was obvious. "Now, you want to tell me what's really going on here? 'Cause I'm pretty Hannibal didn't send us out here."

Face looked at the fence, the ditch in front of them, his hands - everywhere but at Murdock. Finally sighed.

"Hannibal doesn't know we're here, no. This was my idea."

"Why? What's here?"

"Lynch's plane."

"What?!"

"Shhhh!" Face yanked him back down, glaring.

"Okay, okay." Murdock found himself trying to relax now. "So Lynch is back in town. And his plane is here. And...?"

"And I thought we could, well, take it for a ride."

"What!?!"

"God, Murdock, will you shut up?"

"Face, we can't just take off in his plane."

"I know that! Why do you think we didn't just waltz through the main gate? Jesus, Murdock..."

"But why? I mean, why come clear out here just to take Lynch's plane?"

"Because I didn't want to steal a civilian's plane. I'm already wanted by the military, and you're nuts, so we wouldn't get in any deeper this way."

"And?"

"And... well, I just... I wanted to show Hannibal I could do more than just follow orders, that I'm not just..." He shook his head, looked away.

"C'mon, Face, there are easier ways to do that."

"But not as good, Murdock! Think of it - getting into a military base, stealing a plane - and not just any plane - Lynch's plane!"

"But Face - "

"And you'd get to fly again! That was the beauty of it! It was like, like fate! Don't you see? We had to do this!"

Murdock didn't like the almost manic tone to Face's voice, or the "fate" thing. He'd heard that before, at the VA. He didn't like it, not one bit, but at the same time, he realized something else. Face had done this, at least in part, for Murdock. Done all this, chancing not only Hannibal's anger but getting caught by the military, and...

"Face..."

"Yeah?"

"Where were you, before? When you kinda... spaced out?"

Face didn't answer, and Murdock knew. Pushing through the marsh, the mud and the thick grass - he knew with certainty where Face had gone and what it must have cost him.

For Murdock.

"Well, if we're gonna get that little bird up in the air, we better get moving."


*****

"Still no answer?"

"No. He must have left the car somewhere. Why else wouldn't he answer, or at least call back? Damn it, I don't even know where to look, who else to call."

"How about some of those guys Andy found? Couple of em were pretty shady over in Nam, might still be."

"Yeah, like they'd admit being involved in that shit now, let alone if they'd seen Face."

"You try Murdock yet?"

"No, I didn't want to worry him. And why would Face go see him, today of all days?"

"Why does Face do anything he does? Hell, maybe Face called him, mentioned where he was. And if you don't sound all tense about it, Murdock won't worry. Call him."


*****

Face and Murdock moved parallel to the fence, keeping just out of the arcs of light. Face was watching for landmarks, his carefully drawn map solid in his mind. He didn't watch for the guards, leaving that to Murdock.

He didn't know why the pilot was suddenly so cooperative. He didn't think he'd been that 'silver-tongued' in their discussion, trying desperately to tell him only what might persuade him without giving too much away. He knew he'd rambled a bit; too much maybe. Didn't matter now. The Plan was working again.

They came to the gate. The tricky part coming - working under the full glare of security lights, moving from shadow to shadow, trying to avoid any guards or ground crews... Face felt the thrumming start even as he pulled the bolt cutter from his bag. He grinned as the chain split and they slipped inside.


*****

BA listened only long enough to hear Hannibal's explosive "What!" and headed out the door. Whatever had happened, he just knew they'd be traveling somewhere and the van better be ready.

"I'm sorry, Mr Bradley, I thought you knew. Mr Eldridge has taken the captain for outings before, and when he said his brother had come home suddenly and wanted to see Murdock, we saw no reason not to allow it."

"That's okay, ma'am. I was just... surprised. Murdock usually lets me know beforehand. I'll give Mr Eldridge a call, make sure everything's okay. Thank you."

He hung up the phone with deliberate care before moving into the living room. He'd heard the door close, and knew BA was prepping for Hannibal's next move.

If only Hannibal knew what that would be.


*****

"Oh, she's a beauty, Face. A real beauty." Murdock stared through the blinds, grinning from ear to ear. "How the hell did Lynch talk his way into that?"

Face grinned as well, tying the newly acquired boots. "I don't know, but I figure he'll be flying coach after this." He straightened up, getting serious. "You better finish getting dressed. I don't know when the next shift comes on, and I don't want to mess with that."

Murdock took one more look at "his" plane, and hurried over to the locker. It was good being able to change into clean, dry overalls, even if they didn't fit the best. He had to admit, Face had done one hell of a recon job, especially since he hadn't actually been able to get on the base. A few wrong turns, and god - he didn't think he'd ever get the smell of stagnant water out of his nose - but here they were, in a hangar just yards from their goal.

He'd been pretty nervous up until now, between watching out for Navy guys and watching to see if Face went off the deep end. Well, completely off the deep end. There'd been a few times when Face started snapping at Harry - those scared him. But Face had come right back to reality.

Murdock could almost the feel the energy coming from him, and the look in his eyes every time he got them to the next building, around the latest patrol - it was like he wasn't even thinking about years in prison if he was caught. He was totally in the moment, and loving every bit of it. Murdock couldn't remember the last time he'd seen that.

And now, seeing that plane, knowing it was Lynch's, knowing he'd be in that cockpit, not having to worry about any of the shit he had in South America... He'd have followed Face to hell and back for this.

"Ready?"

Murdock nodded, and they slipped out of the hangar door - right into the arms of a crewman. Scared the hell out of Murdock - not just meeting the guy, but making sure Face let go of him before doing permanent damage.

A reminder not to get too complacent.

A few minutes delay making sure the guy was tied up, gagged, and safely stowed away in a dark corner of the hangar, and they were on their way once more. A couple more guys passed them on the way, but paid no attention after a glance at the Navy overalls.

One last glance around and they were in the plane. Murdock chuckled - who the hell worries about security when they're parked on a Navy airfield? Hell, they'd even left the key in the ignition!

"You ready?"

"Buddy, I've been ready since I saw this! Um, where we going, exactly?"

"Don't worry. I've got the coordinates. We'll have a nice little flight, land at a nice little airport - and see if we can survive BA picking us up."

Murdock grinned as the engines roared to life. He'd have this baby in the air before anyone knew it was moving.


*****

"Colonel?"

Hannibal sighed. He'd been hoping it was Face or Murdock calling.

"Yeah, Andy - what's up?"

"I don't know if it's anything, but Casey called. He thought you should know 'cause of Lynch."

Instantly alert. "What about Lynch?"

"Well, more like his plane. Casey said the news spread like wildfire."

"What news, Andy?" He was quickly losing patience.

"Lynch's plane got stolen, right under the Navy's nose. I guess it was going down the runway before they knew it; last they saw, it was heading out over the ocean off Point Mugu. Couldn't even find it on radar." Andy hesitated, then, "I didn't know if it had anything to do with you guys, but..."

"How long ago?"

"Maybe an hour."

"Okay, Andy. Thanks for letting me know."

"No problem, but uh, well, I hate to do this, but, well, after that thing with Ackman, and now this, well..."

"Don't worry about it, Andy. You've been more than helpful. Consider yourself relieved of duty."

"Thanks, Colonel. And good luck."

BA was standing by the door, keys in hand. Hannibal gave him a quick rundown.

"You think it went in the drink?"

"Not if it was Murdock in the cockpit. They'd just stay below the radar."

"So where the hell you think they're goin?"

"I have a damn good idea where they're going. The only place Face would go to all this trouble for." He grabbed his jacket and headed for the door. "Come on. We have to get to Paradise."