Counting Crows


There were thirteen crows tumbling across the sky over the field, playing with each other - helps if you have wings and can't fall, Face thought. He watched them for a minute, since nothing was moving in the fields he was supposed to be watching.

Crows were one of the few birds he could recognize. He kind of liked them. Pigeons were like squirrels with wings - when people described them as rats with wings, he always immediately thought 'what about seagulls, huh?' And then there were robins, and cardinals of course, and mockingbirds. Blue jays - a new one, but pretty obvious. Sparrows he'd thought once, but then had been informed, rather snottily, that he was talking about a wren... Ducks, though there seemed to be lots of different kinds of ducks, which seemed like a bit of unnecessary detail.

But he could certainly recognize a crow when he saw one. And he did like them. Crows were crazy birds; most other birds were always so serious, looking for food all the time or singing, which as far as he could tell meant either "Hey, babee!" or "This is my turf, keep the hell out!" and both of those were serious enough occupations. But crows - they seemed to play with each other. Like this bunch - at least one of them was actually bumping into others as they flew. Made him smile to see it.

He had counted them automatically; he always did, because of that fortune-telling rhyme. Not that he believed in it – how would a random collection of crows know your future? And how would it be the same for everybody who saw them? – but it was a habit he’d picked up a long time ago, when the first lines had sounded so familiar to him that he’d just known he could add them to his small collection of poetry scraps his mother had been fond of. Thirteen. That was a bit of a problem.

He’d ‘known’ up to four, and he’d been startled the first time he'd heard them quoted as “one for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl and four for a boy”. Unacceptable variation, he’d thought, though he’d had the sense not to correct his ROTC commander. A little research had turned up a dozen variations before he’d quit looking; obviously there was no canonical version. Well, not for the rest of the world; for him, at least, the first two lines were set in stone. But thirteen crows was more than he could count for. He’d watched them fly westward (of course westward) until they were too far away to see, and then he’d started the rhyme and realized it didn’t go long enough. “Seven for a secret”, that was the end of it. He’d rummaged around in his memory and managed to come up with another two lines he could plug into the middle, pushing it to eleven, but there’s where it ended. Six lines, eleven crows.

One for sorrow, two for mirth; Three for a wedding , four for a birth; Five for sickness, six for dying: Seven for truth, eight for lying; Nine brings silver, ten takes gold; Eleven is a secret never to be told.
And then, because he didn’t have anything else to do – wherever Branson’s guys had gotten to, it wasn’t here – he’d found himself worrying the words over in his mind.

Sorrow... well, there was plenty of that. Okay, he admitted, ‘sorrow’ might be a tad strong, but unhappiness? Even if it was a mild version, it still filled pretty much every spare minute of every day. He didn’t like Virginia, he actively disliked their situation, and he flat out hated Stockwell. Good thing there hadn’t been just one crow; a prediction of more unhappiness ahead would have been discouraging. Of course, when did you ever see just one crow? Whoever’d come up with that rhyme was cheating a little bit – and just as well. Though mirth was as hard to come by as real sorrow, if he thought about it. Still, there was laughter nowadays, there was a lot to enjoy. He was, he’d had to admit to himself recently, content. Despite the downside – Virginia, the situation, Stockwell – he was, in fact, happy.

But there’d been more than two crows.

Three for a wedding ... he shook his head if only to himself. Once he'd have thought of Murdock for a wedding. Of course, in an earlier once he'd had notions of it himself, but that was all it had been, at least in retrospect. Part of his flailing around period. The better Murdock had gotten, the harder he himself had tried to create a lifestyle that didn’t need the other man in it. Since ‘better’ only meant Murdock was around more, not that he’d suddenly become available in any defensible way. What’s her name – he honestly could’t remember it, not off the top of his head – she’d just been a place to run to. There hadn’t been any truth in the relationship, and he wasn’t just thinking about the lies she’d told. They’d told. They’d both told. And as for Leslie...

He caught himself blowing out a deep breath. Everything would have been different if he’d married her. No army, no Viet Nam, no guys – no Hannibal pushing him to be better, no BA watching his back. No Murdock. No twenty years running. No killing. No camp. No... virtually anything that made him who he was. He’d have been some sleek lawyer, maybe politician – once he’d fancied Senator as a title – safe in some LA suburb, if not DC. He had to laugh at that. Northern Virginia – and he might have thought he liked it. Of course, the marriage wouldn’t have worked out, and not just because Leslie would have always resented him. Because of who she was, that he hadn’t realized until only a few years ago. And who he was, that he had realized even later... Yeah. And as for Hannibal, well, he was fond of that doctor, but he wasn't the settling down kind even if she was, which there was no indication of.

But Murdock, to get back to his original thought, had broken up with that pretty vet, Kelly, the one Face had thought would be The One. He didn’t know why; Murdock was unwilling to talk about it. Once he’d tossed off something like “It’d be hard to be out there with her and here at the same time,” but when Hannibal (not Face, he and Murdock weren’t talking like they once had, not anymore) had said the pilot ought to put his own life first, Murdock’s reaction hadn’t been that of a guy really putting his friends in front of his girl. Face figured he’d been dumped, though the few times he’d seen Kelly she didn’t seem like the dumping type... not now, looking back at it, realizing that most people weren’t like Leslie. He was sad for Murdock, who’d really liked Kelly – liked her a lot, and she’d taken his... eccentricities in her stride; Face had really thought they were going to make it. But she was gone and Murdock wouldn’t talk about it, and, well, he guessed if any of them was going to get married now it would be BA.

Once they’d got their pardons, of course. BA wasn’t likely to ask a wife to go on the run with him, and even less likely to abandon her. But then? Face could absolutely see BA with a tough, smart woman – a teacher, say – someone who’d appreciate his blend of tough, take-no-crap-stand-his-ground-ness and the gentleness that lay under it. Someone who would bring that smile to his face all the time… Yeah. He could absolutely see BA married.

And obviously a birth would be the same thing. If they were talking about the past, who knew? But in the future? It pretty much had to be BA. Face felt a big smile on his own face thinking about BA as a daddy, cradling a little mite of humanity in those big, gentle hands, being followed around by a couple of toddlers. The longer they'd been on the run the harder it had gotten for BA's essentially sweet nature to get a chance to breathe, but probably after they'd gotten their pardons and been able to settle down the big man would be able to revert back from being all bad attitude all the time... Still, Face swept the area with his field glasses one more unproductive time, there hadn't been four crows, either.

As for sickness, well, everyone got sick sometime or other. Especially if you expanded the definition a bit to include things like getting hurt somehow. Beaten up. Shot… He rubbed his hand on his jacket over the scars under his collar bone. They'd all been shot at least once, except Frankie. (He reached out and touched the nearest tree.) Five wouldn't have been bad.

But thank God there hadn't been six. Even if he didn't believe in prophetic crows (or touching wood, for that matter), six would have been worrying. Death might come to all men in the end, but Face wanted it pretty damn far away in the future, not close enough for a bunch of birds to be bringing it up. Branson's organization might well be domestic terrorists, members of the Aryan Nation, and if so they could easily kill somebody. And it wasn't exactly that he was scared of dying – it was that he had something to live for. Death would seriously inconvenience him. And he didn't want anybody else to die either. Yep, six crows would have had him looking all over for number seven.

And yet it was funny: it was a good thing there hadn't been seven, because in some ways being condemned to tell the truth wouldn't have been any fun, either. Telling Hannibal what was going on would be a huge mistake. BA? Hard to say; in Merida he'd implied a lot more than he'd said, and on the cruise ship he'd been ... helpful, but that could have been coincidence. Anyway, plausible deniability was always a good thing, and who knew what the sergeant might not feel he needed to tell the colonel if he actually knew it? And as for Murdock, well... he and the pilot were back in a good place, a functioning equilibrium so to speak, and it pretty much still meant there were things he didn't tell the other man. Truth had always been the heart of their relationship, but telling the truth? Not so much. And if that was a paradox, well, it was. Things got complicated. Things always got complicated around Murdock...

And there hadn't been eight crows, which was a good thing, too. Although lying was, as he'd just been reflecting, pretty much his whole way of life, especially with Murdock. Not so much what he said, what he didn't say. In the Latin of his childhood, peccavi nimis cogitatione, verbo, opere, et omissione – or the English they were using now, I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do. But a lot of that was necessary – truth, as he'd just admitted, could complicate and damage. But the crows were supposed to be predicting something new, not just same-old-same-old, and that would have meant they were predicting lies between him and Frankie. And that would have been bad.

One thing he could pride himself on was that he'd always been honest with Frankie. He'd never said he loved him – he loved things about the relationship, aand he said so (I love that, Franklin), but he'd never said 'I love you' and Frankie had gone into it knowing that. It was a different relationship than the one he had with Murdock; this one needed the truth. Lies would hurt, and he wasn't going to hurt Frankie; that was the key. 'Be kind to him,' Father Engarry had said, and Face meant to do it. No lies: that was the mantra. So a good thing there hadn't been seven or eight: both would have been disasters, destroying the most important things in his life.

If you believed in the crows, of course. Which he didn't. It was just a way to pass the time, considering how boring this stakeout was.

He looked around the fields again. Still empty. Road, still untraveled. Barn, still unvisited. Even the sky was now empty, just a solid gray from horizon to horizon. March, in like a soggy gray lamb. At least it wasn't raining at the moment. He could so easily picture himself standing out here in a thunderstorm. Or snow... Count your blessings, Templeton. Yeah. Counting crows was easier – you could actually see them.

It was too bad there hadn't been nine of them. Nine crows bringing money, he would take that any day. He wasn't really mercenary, even though he'd been accused of that more than a few time, or at least he didn't think he was. Sure, he'd always been careful to make sure they got paid, but that was just prudence, and it balanced out Hannibal's rather distressing tendency not to think about whether they were going to get paid at all. Made it possible for them to sometimes not get paid. And when you didn't have your army pension, or a 401(k), or anything else, you'd better be good at socking away some cash somewhere where it would grow and be waiting for you when you got old and gray.

Or older and grayer, he supposed, but even Hannibal wouldn't have been able to keep it up forever. And anyway, there were a lot of things Face knew he wouldn't do for money, a lot of jobs none of them would have taken no matter how much cash was involved.

So mercenary wasn't the right word. He liked money, or more accurately he liked the things money let you have, but if that made him mercenary most of the world fell into the category. Money was a useful thing – his money would keep Frankie's father if it came to that, would keep them both if need be. The money he'd hidden where even Stockwell couldn't find it would keep them all if they had to run. And it let you buy the things that made life more enjoyable – the boat, for instance. The place out on the Shore. The Corvette... So, yeah, he wouldn't have looked around for crow number ten.

Not that many people would, he thought, laughing a little to himself. That one meant you were losing money. Few people, even the ones who called you 'mercenary', actually wanted to lose it. And Face actually worried about that – sure, he didn't think Stockwell could find all of his accounts, or at least most of them, but he might find some. He might find more than some, more than the couple Face had deliberately left vulnerable... Some days, the fact that Stockwell hadn't found even those worried Face a lot. The general had shut down two accounts back at the very beginning and that was all. He hoped that meant the man didn't think there were others out there. He figured it meant Stockwell had found some and was waiting to shut them down till it would mean something (especially the ones Face left alone to grow slowly). That was a little insulting – it meant Stockwell thought he'd run and then go for his money. It also might mean that any movement on the accounts would lead to an Abel kicking in his door. Thing was, he knew he could move the money and be gone from Langley before anybody knew it.

Should things come to that.

He shook himself and made another lingering inspection of the area, finding no more this time than he had before. The money meant that if he wanted to, he could walk down to the road, find a phone, call a cab, and vanish into the gray northwest, slide over the border into Canada maybe or out into the islands. Disappearing wasn't as enticing a prospect as it had been a year ago. But it wasn't as repellent as he sometimes thought it ought to be. The money made it a possibility, and that possibility made it possible to stay. So yeah, no – he would have found another crow if he'd had to trap one.

Or more likely he'd have shot one, even it was illegal. Because eleven would have been a horrible number. Secrets. Which weren't the same as lies, but were like kissing cousins. And if there weren't any lies, or at least not many, there were secrets. Oh, God, were there secrets. Of course, they all had them, not just him. Probably even Frankie had some tucked away somewhere, though he did tend to tell Face pretty much everything, or so it seemed to someone whose first thought was not 'I have to share this', even with his lover. And the lesson there was, or appeared to be, that you should telll people things, but he figured that was simplistic. You could tell the right person the right things... But he had secrets he never would tell (just like the rhyme said), secrets that shouldn't be told. Secrets that were secrets because they were too dangerous, too destructive, or too dark to tell. He didn't, absolutely didn't, want to accumulate any more.

But that was just up to eleven. There had been more crows than that, so there was no need to stop there, on that ominous note. On the other hand, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t get further than that. The twelfth and thirteenth crows were nameless...

Hell, Face, he thought, make up your own. Why not? That's where the thing came from in the first place. God hadn't leaned down over England and handed down a stone tablet with six lines of doggerel on it. That's why there were so many versions. Somebody had thought it up, and after a while somebody else couldn't remember it - two for.... for joy, right, so the next line ... boy! Sure, that secret thing sounded like an ending, but so what? He could just make up two more lines. He could do nine and ten different, and keep the secret last... Or better yet, don't end on secrets. Don't make the crows be predicting secrets to the grave.

Twelve is... twelve is... what rhymes, anyway? Health and wealth - no, it's full of those already. Love. Love and ... dove? Please. There you go: pleasure. And ... treasure? Leisure? Yeah. And end on thirteen – eleven had already messed up the pattern, right? So... better than treasure? Trite. Maybe

Twelve is pleasure, thirteen's leisure - A life with both is filled with treasure.
Okay, not perfect, but certainly something he'd like to see in his future. He smiled to himself, old habits dying hard even if no one was there to see him and ask what was making him so happy; Frankie was definitely geared toward the pleasure part of it, and if the crows didn't deliver on the leisure he'd, well, he'd be pissed off at them. For what good that would --

The radio crackled, making him jump. "Face? You paying attention?"

"Yes, Hannibal, I am. There's just nothing happening."

"You didn't see a white panel truck?"

"No." He paused. "By which I mean, no white panel truck came by." He was sure of that; there was no dust and anyway, he'd have noticed it. He always noticed things he was waiting for, no matter how distracted he got. "No one and nothing has been by."

"Really? I wonder where they turned off..." Hannibal's voice trailed off; you could practically hear the wheels turning. He could see himself now, running five miles to meet up with the rest of the team. Neither leisure nor pleasure. But then, as he'd reminded himself before and did again while BA interrupted Hannibal to tell Face to come down to get picked up, the crows were predicting the future, not describing the present.

Not that he believed in the crows. At all.

But still ... As he jogged down the hillside to the road, to be met by BA coming from the north across the empty fields, he kept his eyes off the sky. He'd done all the crow counting he needed. And as the van slowed down and Frankie leaned out to offer him a hand in, he knew it.

All the crow counting he would ever need to do.


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