It was winter in El Salvador, but that didn't mean much. No rain, of course - two days out of three it rained from May to October, according to the files, and only two a month the rest of the year - so there was that, but it was still warm. 74 now, and near 90 later on, Face figured, and dry, not humid, so it was bearable. Thank you, Captain Revere; you might be a traitor but you didn't do it in July.
Not that he'd had much time to do more than notice the temperature, or to get more than the most fleeting impression of El Salvador's new if small airport. They'd arrived just before dawn, thanks to the circuitous flight path they'd flown - DC to Texas to pick up this cargo flight which had also stopped in Mexico, instead of straight in. Not, Face had to admit, that straight in would have worked with all the stuff they were bringing; the government probably didn't appreciate them quite as much as Stockwell had implied, not enough to let them check boxes of guns and explosives in their luggage anyway. The transportation had worked smoothly and gotten them there in good order, all courtesy Stockwell. As were the two olive-drab utility vehicles waiting next to the hangar, nondescript utes that would probably run like Swiss watches. Of course, the forty minutes they'd had to clear customs, pack the two utes, and get on the road had also been courtesy of the general. He didn't expect to get much of an impression of Santa Ana, either. He'd lost track of how many places he'd been in the last year; they all blurred together. He wasn't a born tourist, but when he went somewhere he liked to know he'd been there, liked to be able to name something unique about it, something to make it into a viable entry in the How Many Places Are Like Home competition. Even though the answer was, always, None. But Stockwell's missions were always hurry-up-get-in-get-out... and this one more than most.
They'd had no help from BA, of course. Hannibal and Murdock had wrestled the unconscious sergeant out of the plane and into the first ute while Face and Frankie had fast-talked their way through customs, flashing fake passports and badges and a discreet amount of genuine colóns. Stockwell's prints were all over how easy it was, but whether he could buy bringing in a drugged-up whatever-they'd-think-BA-was was open to doubt. By the time anyone had looked at BA, he'd seemed to be okay behind the wheel of one of the utes, and none of the agents were really interested in hiking across the tarmac, or even making Face do it - and take his money with him. Unfortunately, their cooperation meant Face and Frankie had to shift their share of equipment after all - though it was as small a share as Face could manage to make it.
He was unearthing the camera case from under the bags where Hannibal or Murdock had stowed it when the former came over to them, Murdock trailing a step behind. "Are we about ready to get underway?"
Face shrugged, dropped the camera case on the hood, and held out his hand. Murdock put the clipboard with the checklist into it. A quick glance was all Face needed to collate it with his own. "Everything that should have been here waiting for us was, so yeah. We're ready."
"Good." Hannibal glanced around, checking the area one last time. "Next stop, Santa Ana, or points nearby."
"Breakfast in town, Hannibal," Murdock protested.
"I told you to eat on the plane."
Murdock made a ludicrous face. "C-rats? Hannibal, that's not food."
"The rest of us ate," Hannibal said implacably, and then added, "We'll get something in Santa Ana."
"In a hurry?" Murdock asked.
Hannibal fixed him with a cold blue eye. "Yes, captain. You heard Stockwell: they're moving the plane soon. It's at least two hours and maybe three from here. If we get there too late, there'll be much unhappiness, and I don't want any of it. Got that?"
"Got it, colonel. Burnin' daylight. Breakfast in Santa Ana. Let's saddle up!"
Face shook his head. Hannibal grinned. "That's the spirit. Let's go."
Face watched him walk back to the second ute and then turned and gestured at the driver's side door. "You drive," he said to Frankie. "You can read the road signs."
Frankie hiked an eyebrow - the first time he'd done that since they'd left the house in Langley. Face was glad to see it; once their hands had completely, genuinely by accident brushed when they were shifting crates in the ute and Frankie had backed away like he'd been burnt. Thank God Hannibal hadn't been anywhere around - he'd have been all over that. Face had to make sure Frankie understood they had to be normal, or what would pass for it. At least there was a long ride ahead of them to talk.
He picked up the camera case and turned to open the passenger door and stopped. Murdock was still standing there.
"What?" Face asked.
"I'm riding with you two."
Frankie leaned on the roof, looking amused. Face shot him a glance before turning to Murdock and shaking his head. "I think Hannibal's expecting you with him."
"Yeah," Frankie said, and he sounded amused, too. "He's not gonna have anybody to talk with."
Oh, don't say that; he'll suggest you go, Face thought, but Murdock didn't. Of course not, he knew how little either of them wanted that - Frankie or Hannibal. Besides, Face admitted, not only did Murdock actually like Frankie, of late he hadn't displayed any great desire to be alone with Face... Which was good. Really.
But Murdock didn't suggest Face go join Hannibal. Instead the pilot just shook his head and said, "True. But I don't want to be in that truck with BA when he wakes up."
Frankie laughed, and after only a moment Face did too. "I don't blame you," he said, and he didn't. Sure, BA had gotten easier to tranq for the outward bound leg of any trip - had to have, under Stockwell. But that didn't make him enjoy any of it any more, and in fact exacerbated things. Like the rest of them, BA was being coerced into doing things that he didn't particularly want - and with him, it was worse. Which meant he was liable to actually hit someone nowadays, instead of just threatening it. And considering that Murdock was the reason they were the ones going after this objective instead of some other government team, he just might act on the impulse to punch the pilot into next week, or at any rate through the ute's back window. Face would understand the impulse, too; it wasn't like the old days, when they were helping nuns or orphans or little farmers and shopkeepers. And for all that BA was, in the philosophical sense, absurdly patriotic, and though he hadn't said anything when Frankie and Face had sparred lightly with Stockwell, nonetheless he too was well and truly tired of mixing into other peoples' politics. That he had to fly to do it wasn't the only reason, or even the main one.
"Oh, no," Face said. "You can ride with us, but you're in the middle."
"Sometime this morning," Hannibal called.
Murdock heaved a huge sigh and then climbed into the ute. Frankie slid in next to him and started the engine. Face raised his hand in Hannibal's direction and got in, putting the camera case on the floor between his feet. Then he shut the door and closed himself into the cab with Murdock and Frankie.
He'd wanted to talk to Frankie but that wasn't going to happen now. On the other hand, Murdock would certainly prevent any awkward silences. Or unfortunate digressions. He looked out the window at the airport and then back at the ute following them. He was suddenly seized by a fierce wish that they hadn't come. It wasn't just that his shoulder hurt, which it did of course (he'd have to take something as soon as no one was watching); it was the whole thing. If BA didn't want to be here, he wasn't alone.
Frankie eased the ute out of the parking area onto the service road, Hannibal right behind him, and then turned north. Murdock leaned over and craned his neck to read the road sign on the other side of the road, naming where they'd just been. "Comalapa. That would be funnier if it were Coma-napa."
"Maybe," Frankie said, "but I don't think they were going for laughs."
Murdock shrugged, leaning forward again and looking around. "Face," he said after a minute, "I've been thinking about what you were saying."
"Good. Which thing?" he added.
"You know, about the plane and Stockwell. I don't think he's as creepy as you do, but he's creepy enough... Anyway, I don't want to die, so I was thinking. Hannibal's plan doesn't really change things. He can promise us a Chinook and not deliver one. Or rig it to crash."
"Yeah, I know."
"So, I was thinking. Maybe I could not go to Oaxaca."
"Wahaka," Face said and caught the flash of Frankie's grin on Murdock's other side. "And how would that help?"
"Carla didn't say it like that."
"I know. Carla mispronounces a lot of places."
"I suppose we all do," Murdock said. "Anyway, I thought I might land the plane someplace else and hitch to Oaxaca" - this time he pronounced it correctly - "and not tell him where it was till we were all back."
"Hannibal would not like that," Face conceded reluctantly.
"No. And anyway, I don't know where I could find to land that lady - she's special. I don't know exactly how, not yet, but landing at some little airstrip in Back of Nowhere, Mexico, might not be smart. Might not even be possible, depending on how much runway she needs."
"Plus," Frankie put in, "he'd probably find it."
"And if he didn't, and he lost it..." Face shook his head. That would not be good.
"He'd kill us," Murdock said. "So, I think we just have to figure that we're too valuable. And that you won't believe him if I don't show up."
Face leaned back against the seat. "You're right."
"We are, you know. Who else could he send on jaunts like this one?" He waved his arms, and the ute swerved slightly.
"Watch it," Frankie said.
"Sorry." He turned back to Face. "But we are."
"You better be sure. We're gambling your life on it."
"What's new, Faceman?"
What was new, indeed. Face sighed.
"Anyway, I'll be there with the Chinook." He patted Face's knee. "It'll be fine."
The ute didn't swerve but Frankie did accelerate pretty hard. Face felt an unfamiliar mix of amusement and warmth. "Watch it," he said. "You don't want to get pulled over for speeding."
"I won't be," he said, but eased off the pedal a bit. "Whoever supplied these trucks, they look too government for a cop to pull over, and the army wouldn't be worried about speeding."
"That's not that reassuring," Face said.
Frankie laughed. "You want reassuring? Here?"
"I don't want it. I'm just saying, that wasn't."
Frankie shook his head but didn't answer. Murdock looked from Face to Frankie and then shrugged and looked back at Face. "The way I see it, we don't have to worry until we get to Santa Ana and have to get onto the base. This is just a drive in the mountains."
"I expect you're right," Face said.
They were quiet for a few minutes, and then Murdock stared at something through the windshield, turning to follow it and almost squashing Face against the door. "Ohhhh, look!" he said. "Is that a condor?"
"No," said Frankie when Face didn't say anything except "Get off and sit down."
"Did you see it? It looks like a condor." Murdock was looking out the back window, twisting his body to get a better view.
"There aren't any condors in El Salvador," Frankie said. "They're mountain birds."
"These are mountains."
"Real mountains. Like the Andes," Frankie said. "That was a vulture, what you saw."
"Too bad," Murdock said. "I wanted to see a condor in the wild."
"Maybe you will, someday," Face said. "If they manage to breed them successfully, maybe we'll have some in California again one day." He paused. "And maybe Stockwell will send us to mess with Pinochet."
"Oh, don't even joke about that," Frankie said.
"Who says I'm joking? And Murdock, please sit still." That as Murdock leaned across him to look at the sky again.
"Face, let me sit by the window."
Face froze. Normally he'd let Murdock have the window, because he wanted it, and because if he had to ride next to Murdock then at least he could have Frankie on his other side distracting him from Murdock. But that - wanting Frankie against him - was new, and he'd spent most of the last year not wanting to be next to Frankie. But he would have let Murdock have the window anyway, probably, wouldn't he?
"This road is going to be mighty up and down and side to side," Frankie cut into Face's thoughts. "Let him have the window."
Face sighed mightily and pushed back against the seat. "He hasn't even eaten," he grumbled. Frankie just grinned and Murdock raised up and let Face slip under him while he moved sideways. As he'd suspected, the ute wasn't big enough for three to sit without contact. As he'd - what? feared? anticipated? - even through the olive drab fatigues they were wearing, he was vividly aware of Frankie's body. Oh yeah. This was going work so damned well. He looked at Frankie's hand - elegant, brown, long-fingered - as he changed gears for the first of what promised to be many hills and sighed internally. Then he pulled out the map. El Salvador had departments, not states or districts; they were in La Paz. He found Santa Ana (in Santa Ana, didn't that get confusing?). CA 1 - well, not California, obviously. Central America, he was going to assume, since it kept going across the border. So, take this - the 38, not a great road for the only way out of the airport, to San Salvador and pick up the 1 there -
"Is that a volcano?"
"Face, you didn't even look," Murdock complained.
"I didn't have to," he said. "There are at least twenty volcanoes in just this country, and four of them have erupted in the last century." He heard himself supplying far too much information but couldn't stop; at least he could do the intelligence and background checks, at least he could know stuff... "Where we're going there's one called Izalco that erupted for 200 years straight before it stopped, and then it erupted again about twenty years ago. So I'm sure you're looking at one." But he looked out the window, following Murdock's pointing finger. "Yes, that's a volcano."
"Is it alive?"
"How would I know? I'm not a volcanoologist. But I think they'd have signs up," he hastened to calm Murdock. "They knew weeks in advance with Mount Saint Helens."
"Crazy mountains, earthquakes," Murdock said. "You two must feel right at home."
"Not exactly," Face said, but it wasn't the complete truth. The landscape was familiar, somewhat. More exaggerated, of course, but the mountains here were the result of the same forces that had shaped California. Those lakes on the map were in the calderas of volcanoes, and his guidebook said that just two years ago there'd been an earthquake that resulted in 1,500 deaths, 10,000 injuries, and 100,000 people left homeless. That was a helluvan earthquake. Coalinga, back in '83, hadn't killed anybody, and Whittier Narrows, just last year, just three. An earthquake that killed 1,500 people? Maybe that was because it happened down here, where the infrastructure wasn't so good - the magnitude was about the same, after all. Whatever; Face really hoped they wouldn't have another while he was here. Earthquakes they couldn't predict as well as eruptions, after all.
Plate tectonics: Face could remember when that transformation of the way people looked at the earth had come about. The planet had suddenly gone from a world of unexplainable catastrophes to a living, breathing thing that shook with earthquakes and brimmed over with lava, building mountains and moving continents in accordance to natural laws. Face appreciated that. If you were going to get smacked around, it helped to know there was a reason behind it, something besides 'you made God mad...'. Of course, smart people stayed out of the danger zones... And yet Face was content to live right in the middle of one. Go figure... Danger. That was just another name for The Jazz.
Though Face was starting to think he preferred his jazz with a lower-case J. Must be old age, he thought wryly; time was he could get shot and not mind. Well, shot a little bit, anyway. He looked out the window past Frankie's profile and wondered just when he'd stopped being the kid. He wasn't old, but he was getting older. Well, aren't we all?
Still, Murdock had come surprisingly close to the mark. It wasn't the landscape, but with his lover on one side and his best friend on the other, he did feel almost at home... A new, pleasant, and somewhat scary feeling. Hopefully the scary would keep him from getting lost in the pleasant until the new wore off. Maybe he shouldn't have come along. Maybe he couldn't have told Hannibal he needed to get his emotional feet under him, that a month wasn't enough to be ready, but he could have blamed the injury, begged off... No. In the first place, he hadn't realized it, and more importantly he couldn't have stayed in Langley again, worried sick about Frankie, about Murdock, about all of them - Would you stop it, Peck? Not the time, not the place. He took a deep breath and focused back on the road map, letting Murdock's chatter wash over him and Frankie do the answering.
As they approached San Salvador Face reached for the camera bag. According to the map he might get a shot of a road sign for a souvenir. He pulled off the lens cap and focused, waiting. There: a road sign for Cuscatlán Department. He didn't even try to pronounce the town listed on the road sign - Cojutepeque, probably not Spanish - in his mind, since that road led out of San Salvador in the exact opposite direction they were headed in. Too bad for Frankie, he thought as he snapped a photo of the sign; didn't look like he'd get to see the place.
"What'd you take a picture of?" Murdock asked. "The road sign?"
He shrugged as he capped the lens again. "BA can have it for his scrabook," he said, strapping the case shut and putting it back down by Murdock's feet. When he sat up he found Frankie's dark eyes on him.
But though Frankie's voice was warm his words were neutral. "Coyote Mountain. Perfect choice - for you."
Face wasn't sure exactly what to say to that, but he didn't have to say anything.
"Cojutepeque," Murdock gave it a Tex-Mex pronunciation, coyote-pekeh, "that's Coyote Mountain? Peque is mountain? I thought sierra was mountain."
"Sierra is a range," Frankie said. "Montaña is mountain. But tepec is Nahuatl for mountain, not Spanish."
"Wait," Murdock said, his voice eager. "So it's not coyote-peque, it's coyo-tepec? Coyote's coyo?"
"A coyote is cojotl. The TL just means it's a plain noun. You lose it when it's plural, or possessive, or anything but plain. Coyotes is cojomeh."
"That's cool," Murdock said. He picked up the map from the dashboard where Face had put it. "So this, uh, Quetzaltepeque coming up after San Salvador is what, Snake Mountain? Quetzal is snake, right, like Quetzalcoatl?"
Frankie shook his head. "No. Quetzalcoatl is feathered serpent, all right, but coatl is the snake part. Quetzal means, uh, well it's a kind of bird, really. I think it means a long feather."
"So this Lago de Coatepeque up here is Snake Mountain Lake?"
"It would be," Frankie agreed.
"That's one of your volcanoes," Face decided to join the conversation. "In fact, they both are."
"But they're not near Santa Ana... That one's Ilamatepec?" Murdock craned his neck to look at Frankie, who obliged him with,
Murdock then looked at Face. "You said Izalco."
"Here." Face pulled the guidebook out of his pocket. Murdock seized it avidly and started thumbing through the index. Face regarded him a little warily. A few years ago this would have signalled Murdock's conviction that he was a geologist or something, and led to chasing him up a volcano. Now it just meant he was fascinated, either by the language or the volcanoes or maybe both, and it would probably lead to nothing more exciting than Murdock badgering Frankie into expanding his vocabulary. It was odd, still, not to have to worry about Murdock.
The silence wasn't absolute - Murdock was flipping pages and whistling every now and again, and the engine was anything but quiet - but nothing was making a demand on Face. He leaned back against the seat and closed his eyes for a moment. Only a moment, because he felt something on his wrist, brushing lightly. He opened his eyes and Frankie moved his hand back onto the steering wheel, while looking at Face's shoulder and asking a question with a nod and an expressive glance.
Face shook his head, but just barely, letting his eyes do most of it. I'm fine, was the message. Sure you are, was the answer delivered by an eloquent eyebrow. Face shrugged with his left shoulder. Fine enough.
Frankie gave him one last look, and then seemed to accept it and turned his attention back to the road. Face glanced sideways at Murdock; the pilot was absorbed in the map and not paying the other two any attention. Good enough. Face closed his eyes and leaned back again. Just for a moment.
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