It was only ten miles to the Guatemalan border as the crow – or Chinook – flew. That was about four and half minutes. To be safe, Face waited seven before he relaxed, allowing for some zigzagging. He’d tried to hide it, but Hannibal leaned over and yelled at him, “We clear now?” He had to yell over the sound of the rotors; one of the other men had handed them those yellow spongy earplugs, so Face could just make out the words. Any real conversation was impractical at best. He looked across the roomy interior; the Chinook was made to hold 50 troops or 28,000 pounds of cargo and so was empty with five men (one was up with Murdock) and a few boxes. Frankie was sitting next to BA and couldn’t hear anything, but he was watching them. Face nodded, gave a thumb’s up, and leaned back against the shaking wall and watched the stranger.
Face hadn’t relaxed all the way, of course. He didn’t have to worry about some rebel with a shoulder-mounted surface-to-air missile now, and hopefully no one in Guatemala would take exception to a helicopter. They hadn’t annoyed anyone in that country, after all. But there were still two strangers – two Stockwell-provided strangers – in the helicopter, and he could all too easily imagine a scenario that started with pistols – no, tranq guns – and ended with bodies in the Gulf of Mexico. He had absolutely no intention of mentioning it because it was paranoid even for him, as Hannibal would say. But though the scenario was unlikely it wasn’t impossible… He stayed watchful, his eyes flicking from Frankie to the stranger to Hannibal and around again. On one trip he caught sight of an incongruous pile of luggage: around a dozen suitcases, mismatched, stacked up beyond the last of the folded-out seats.
Nudging Hannibal, he pointed at them. Hannibal raised his eyebrows; across the way, Frankie looked as puzzled. The noise prevented them discussing it, but maybe, Face thought, maybe they’d be driving back after all. That might assuage BA’s wrath somewhat. As long, he reflected, as the car was good enough.
The Abel (had to be) was wearing a headset and sitting in the stolid way Stockwell’s people had, probably with a totally vacant mind. At least, as the minutes stretched away into a second hour Face began to think there might not be anything on it, like a plot. He began to wonder actively about driving; nudging Hannibal again he pointed at the map the colonel had stuck in his shirt pocket. When he got it he began looking at the roads north from the Oaxacan airstrip he assumed they were headed for. Dark as it now was, there wasn’t any point in getting up and looking out one of the chopper’s few windows; he wouldn’t know where they were going in the daylight. But planning gave him something to think about.
About ninety minutes into the flight, the Abel pulled the mike down and spoke briefly. Then he unbuckled and made his way up toward the nose where the pilots sat. After a few minutes Murdock came out into the cargo compartment, moving easily through the piles of boxes and crates. He got even with Face and Hannibal and shook his head at them. Dropping on his heels, he opened a case and tossed a headset across to Frankie before handing two more to Hannibal. As soon as they got them on, the pilot smiled widely and said, “We’re all set and copacetic, Colonel.”
“Where are we going?” Hannibal asked.
“More importantly,” Face said, “who’s flying?”
“One of the guys. We’re in Mexico now, he can handle it.”
“Where’s he flying us to, captain?” Hannibal asked again.
Murdock smiled and looked at Frankie. “You should be happy.”
“Chichen Itza?” Frankie grinned back.
“Ish,” Murdock nodded. “Merida, actually. There’ll be a car. And then a hotel, and tomorrow –” He paused and looked at his watch. “Yeah, it’s still today. Tomorrow there’s a boat, to Miami. And then a train back to DC.”
“A train?” Hannibal asked.
It hadn't really been a question. Murdock shrugged. “Or a car, if you insist.”
Hannibal smiled, and that probably settled that.
“A boat from Merida?” Frankie asked skeptically.
Face wasn’t sure of the reason but he knew Chichen Itza wasn’t on the coast. Probably Merida wasn’t, either.
Murdock wasn’t put out, though. He just laughed and said, “No, from someplace called Progreso. There’ll be a hotel car to the dock. We’re picking up some cruise ship back.”
“Didn’t you see the luggage?” Murdock pointed at it.
“We saw it,” Hannibal said. “We just didn’t know what to make of it.”
“Stockwell sent it,” Murdock said. “Without me saying anything, I might add. It was on board when I got there. He must’ve meant us to take this boat the whole time.”
“He’s bribing us,” Face said sourly.
Hannibal laughed. “It’s not a bribe, Face. It’s more like a bonus.”
“Yeah,” Frankie chimed in. “He hardly needs to bribe us.”
Face had to agree. “When you put it like that,” he said. “I guess so.”
“I wish it was a bribe,” Murdock said. “I wish we were bribable.”
“You are,” Face couldn’t help pointing out.
Murdock laughed. “Oh, Faceman, long as you guys are stuck, I am too. And a cruise ship isn’t a bribe for me, anyway.”
“What’s the idea there, anyway?”
“Well,” Murdock gestured widely in the general direction of the luggage, “all the tickets and stuff are in there. Which reminds me – those passports we used in San Salvador? We need to leave them on board. Seeing as how you don’t need passports and such on cruise ships. The story is, we got off another one to spend time at the ruins and are going back on this one… I guess Stockwell’s paying a lot to fill some empty cabins.”
“He probably has something on the line’s directors,” Face said, and then added, “But it is a good idea. Back in Miami in a couple of days, no customs to worry about…”
Hannibal had been watching them, and now he nodded cheerfully. “I’m glad you approve.”
“What’s to disapprove of?” Face asked rhetorically. “A night in a good hotel – it is a good one?” Murdock nodded. “- and two on a cruise ship. Nice.”
“Three more driving back,” said Frankie. “Unless we stay in a Motel 6.”
“Three? It’s only fifteen hundred miles. That’s three long days, not four.”
“Hannibal, the five of us in one car? We’d better be taking long breaks,” Murdock said. “It’s not like we have a deadline.”
“We’ll see,” Hannibal said, in that tone that said it was all he was going to say. Considering that BA was going to have quite a lot to say about it, there probably wasn’t any point to talking, anyway.
Face looked at his watch. It wasn’t ‘today’ any longer – midnight had come and gone. Something occurred to him. “Isn’t Yucatán further than Oaxaca?”
“Facey,” Murdock was reproving, “didn’t you notice the extra fuel tank?”
“In the dark?” he riposted, but the truth was he probably wouldn’t have in broad daylight.
“Well,” Murdock relented, “it’s a small one, we’re only doubling the range, not tripling it. ‘Cause you’re right – the triangle is longer than just down and back.”
“So,” Hannibal said, “we’re not almost there?”
“Two hours to Mexico, but Mexico’s big.”
“Oh, right,” Murdock nodded. “No, closer to three. So –” he looked at his watch again “– about forty minutes yet. And I should get back.” He headed front again,
The Abel came back and sat in the same forward seat as before, looking at the same nothing and ignoring them. But the headset he was wearing meant he’d heard the whole conversation with Murdock – Face quickly reviewed that and found nothing he wished unsaid – and would hear anything they said now. Hannibal knew that; it was probably why he’d shut down the talk about their return trip, come to think of. But Face looked across the cargo compartment at Frankie, tapped his headset on the earpiece and shook his finger. Frankie cut his eyes toward the Abel and then nodded, leaning back and crossing his arms.
Forty minutes of silence. He didn’t have any logistics to think about – a car ride, another car ride, a boat ride? Planning for after Miami was pointless; he rather leaned toward a train himself, Amtrak ran to Boston and beyond. But Hannibal wasn’t crazy about trains; whenever you brought them up, Hannibal complained about them being coops, traps, dead-ends, not to mention considerably less than private. So they drove, or they flew, and flying would be out this time. But planning for it was self-evidently pointless; BA’s input would be required. So the next forty minutes stretched out before him, empty and needing filling. To keep himself from thinking, Face unstrapped and found the rifle case. He pulled it into the center aisle and opened it, and then reached for his Ruger. Hannibal raised his eyebrows.
“We won’t be taking these onto a cruise ship,” Face pointed out.
Hannibal nodded and handed him BA’s M16. Face broke them both down, cleaned and packed them, and then Frankie’s as well. Though he felt their (he hoped) different gazes on him, neither Hannibal nor Frankie offered to help him, which, as was apparently obvious, was how he wanted it. Idle hands, as the nuns had always said.
He managed to stretch the task out until the Abel spoke. “We’re coming in to land; you’d better strap in, Mr. Peck.”
He pulled a final strap tight and latched the case. Putting it back in place, he clipped it in and sat down in the nearest seat. Murdock set the Chinook down gently and throttled back, but left the engines and rotors turning. They unloaded the luggage, two bags for each of them; the Abels and the driver of a big car which was pulled up by the side of the road gave them a hand. Then Hannibal and Frankie unbuckled BA and hoisted him to his feet. He reacted slightly when they did, and even stumbled a bit as they walked him down the ramp. “Let’s get him in the car,” Hannibal said. The driver opened the door for them and then jogged onto the helicopter.
Face watched them settle BA inside, and then he turned to watch Murdock talking briefly to the pilot. Murdock patted the side of the helicopter fondly before he came to join Face, watching the ramp close up. He put a hand up to hold his baseball cap in place as the twin rotors spun up and drove a blast of air at them. Face’s hair blew in the false wind and he staggered slightly before regaining his footing. Murdock turned when he reached Face and the two of them stood shoulder to shoulder watching the Chinook lift away and vanish into the dark sky.
Hannibal joined them. “BA’s waking up,” he said. “I think we’ll wait till he does.”
“Yeah,” Murdock agreed. “Wouldn’t want to be driving when that happens. Good way to have an accident.”
“You know where we’re going, then?” Face said. “Since the driver took off?”
“That way,” Hannibal pointed. “Six miles to Merida, and there’s a map to the hotel in the car.”
Something was niggling at Face, and now it hit him. “Frankie! Get away from there.”
Frankie, who’d been leaning against the side of the car, jerked upright. “What?”
“Come over here, idiot. You think he won’t remember who drugged him? Stay out of his reach.”
“Good idea,” Hannibal said. “Face and I will talk to him.”
Face sighed. “If he punches somebody, I hope it’s you,” he said.
“You duck if he swings,” Hannibal said. “We don’t need you in the hospital again.”
“Don’t worry.” But in fact he deserved to get punched if BA woke up swinging; he’d known there was no way Hannibal meant what he was saying, and he’d let BA think it. On the other hand, that was the way it always went… and he was the least guilty of them, so he wouldn’t have any trouble ducking and letting BA get the others first. He trailed Hannibal to the car, but before they got there BA was sitting up. And angry.
They trotted the last few feet. “BA,” Hannibal said. “Glad to see you up.”
“Where are we?” That was menacing.
Hannibal didn’t dance around it. “Mexico. Yucatán. You know I couldn’t let you drive –”
“You drugged me – Frankie drugged me?”
“Don’t get mad at him.” Face said.
“I ain’t. He just do what he told.” A brief pause, and Face was beginning to think BA was still too groggy to do anything, and then the big man erupted through the open door and swung at Hannibal.
Hannibal clearly had had the same idea as Face, as he didn’t even duck. BA’s fist caught him on the jaw and sent him sprawling. The big man didn’t wait for him to hit the ground before turning toward Face, who backed up a couple of steps. “BA, I did not know –”
“You knew somethin’,” BA said. “You knew he didn’t mean it.”
“I didn’t know,” Face said a bit desperately. “I guessed it, okay, but that’s all.”
BA took a deep breath. “I ain’t gonna hit you, Face. Might hurt you bad if I did. But I’m mad, and I ain’t gonna forget it.” He turned to Hannibal, who was, wisely, sitting on the ground instead of getting to his feet. “You lied to me, Hannibal.”
“Yes, I did. But I couldn’t let you drive through Ecuador, BA, that was never going to happen. And you know it – you knew it.” He rubbed his jaw. “I knew you weren’t going to like it, I admit –”
“I don’t like to fly, Hannibal.”
“I know. Unfortunately, there are times we don’t have a choice.”
“We?” That was scornful.
“We,” Hannibal repeated. “All of us are having to do things we don’t want to do.”
The pause was long enough that Hannibal began to gingerly get to his feet. BA offered him a hand, which he took, also gingerly. But once he was up BA didn’t let go of his hand. Face took a couple of steps toward them, aware that Murdock and Frankie were also approaching.
“This is Mexico. I’m not flying back from here,” BA said.
“None of us are,” Hannibal assured him. “We would drive if that was the option. But it’s not. We’re sailing.”
“What kind of boat?”
BA thought about that and then he nodded, smiling at last. He let go of Hannibal’s hand. “Okay, Hannibal.” He pointed at him. “This time.” He stretched his arms, working out the kinks. “Where is it?”
“We catch it tomorrow night, at Progreso. But we’re spending tonight –”
“What’s left of it,” Murdock put in.
“- in Merida, which is six miles away. So we need to get on the road if we’re going to get any sleep, or dinner.”
“Get in,” BA jerked his head. “I’m starving.”
“The luggage,” Frankie said.
“Luggage? We got luggage?”
“It would be hard to be on a cruise without it,” Face said, relieved that it had been so easy.
“Awright, then,” BA got into the car and popped the trunk. “Load it up.”
Face started to say something, and then shook his head. No point in arguing. Frankie and Murdock had brought six of the suitcases over already, so while they loaded those into the trunk he grabbed the last four suitcases and headed for the car. Murdock and Frankie both reached for one but Face pulled away. Dammit, he could carry some suitcases thirty yards. They fell back, exchanging a glance. He shook his head and ignored them as they followed him to the car, where he wedged the bags into the trunk. They just fit. Of course, Stockwell had known how much trunk they’d need. Damn, damn, damn… a convenient cage was worse than a jagged one. He slammed the trunk shut with more force than necessary and looked up to see the other two getting into the back seat, on the same side, Frankie first.
He shrugged and headed for the other side, only to see Hannibal there. “Front seat, kid,” the colonel said with a grin. “BA doesn’t want us there.”
Face grinned – there was going to be a little fallout for a while yet – and opened the front door.
“Just get in, Faceman, and don’t say nothin’.”
“Easy enough,” he nodded and got in. BA waited until he shut the door and then pulled away into the night.
Six miles isn’t very far. Until they reached the edge of Merida, they didn’t talk. Then BA shoved a tourist map at Face, who navigated them through the town to the hotel. As he pulled into the parking lot, heading for the rental car spaces where their instructions said to leave it for pickup, Frankie said, “You know, maybe we should have changed?”
“Hmmm, yeah,” Face said; he should have thought of that. “Five – okay, four,” he nodded at Murdock, back in his bomber jacket and khakis, “guys in fatigues might make the front desk nervous, no matter what Stockwell’s told them.”
“True. Frankie,” Hannibal turned to him. “You and Face sort out those suitcases. Find everybody something suitably touristy; just a shirt should be enough. We’ll dump these later.”
BA popped the trunk, and he, Murdock, and Hannibal watched as Face and Frankie pulled out the suitcases, opened them, and found in the smaller ones IDs and tickets. That helped them parcel out the bags, and get everybody into something casual or, for BA, bright red and sleeveless. The olive drab trousers were subdued into something that would pass casual muster, at least. Face checked his ID: Robert Selden. Could be worse… “New names,” he said.
“Make sure you use the right ones from here on,” said Hannibal. He checked his. “Jonathan Norwood… that’ll be easy enough.”
Estéban Vega for Frankie, and Murdock was William Hope.
“Billy,” Face said and wished he hadn’t.
“Yeah,” said Murdock. “I don’t know if Stockwell knows enough for that to be a joke or not. How about you, big guy?” He plucked the driver’s license out of BA’s hand and read the name out. “Bosco Washington. Now that is a joke.”
“Ain’t nothin’ funny about it.” BA snatched the card back. “At least it’s a real name.”
“It’s a fine name,” Hannibal said.
“It’s just that it’s yours,” Murdock tried.
“You ain’t calling me that.” BA brandished the license. “It’s Bosco Antwan.”
And that was funny, but Face didn’t laugh.
“All right, let’s go,” Hannibal said, picking up his bags. They followed him across the parking lot into the large, tiled lobby and up to the front desk. “Norwood and party.”
“Ah, yes, sir, Mr. Norwood,” said the clerk. “Welcome; we were beginning to worry. Your rooms have been held, per the fax. We weren’t able to get all of them on the same floor; I hope that won’t be a problem?”
“No, of course not,” Hannibal said expansively. “Where are they?”
“Two on the fourth, together, two on the fifth but on opposite ends of the hall, and one on the third. Will that be satisfactory?”
Hannibal nodded but didn’t say anything; apparently he was waiting for the clerk to parcel out the rooms according to Stockwell’s instructions. Face, a little more familiar with reading situations like this, realized that Stockwell had actually said ‘five rooms together’ and the clerk was waiting for input. Instinctively he gave it. “Mr. Norwood, why don’t you and Washington take the two on the fourth floor? I’m sure he’d prefer that… Vega can be on the fifth with me –” self-serving, that, now come up with a reason “– so he’ll be handy if someone calls from Caracas –”
Hannibal interrupted. “He’s not a business tool, Selden.” They’d been doing this so long it was second nature to them both, making things up on the fly. “William, you take the other fifth-floor room. Selden, you can have the one on the third floor.”
The clerk, studiously poker faced, handed out the keys. Face took his, happy enough with the way things had turned out, and waited till they had all signed their new names. That done, they headed for the elevator. Face dropped his bag on the floor and stretched.
“Tired?” asked Hannibal.
“Yes. Hungrier than tired, though,” Face answered. “But the first thing I’m doing is taking a long hot shower.”
“That does sound good,” BA agreed.
Face was drying his hair when someone knocked on the door of his room. He went to the door and called through it. “Who is it?”
“Me,” Hannibal said.
Face opened the door and let him in, glad he had a towel wrapped around himself.
“You coming down to dinner?”
“I thought we’d be lucky to get room service; it’s nearly two.” He went back into the bathroom and picked up the blow dryer.
Hannibal laughed. From the sound, he was leaning against the wall outside the bathroom’s open door. “Face, this is no cheap hotel. Plus it’s a resort. And Stockwell’s spending money, so the kitchen is still open. It’s a party.”
“A party,” Face repeated. “I’m starting to have the feeling that Stockwell knows this was tricky but intends to pretend it was run-of-the-mill when it comes to our indentures.”
“Starting?” Hannibal said. “We’re a valuable asset and the man doesn’t intend to let us go a minute earlier than he has to. It’s going to have to be considerably more complicated than getting a plane back, however special –”
“Special?” Face cocked his head and decided his hair would do for a Mexican hotel he’d never be back to. He slotted the hair dryer back in its holder and went out into the room.
Hannibal was continuing. “– for him to let go. We’ll make it, but this isn’t the kind of mission that will do it.”
Face snorted. “If saving the Attorney General isn’t enough, I’m not sure I want to know what would be.” As soon as he’d said it, he wished he hadn’t. He knew: all the strings Stockwell had had to pull with the DC cops, the FBI, the hospital, the therapists … It all added up. He really hated thinking that his screw-up had actually put them deeper in the hole.
“Stop it, Face.”
Face froze, his hands holding the trousers he’d pulled out of the suitcase. “What,” he tried, “it’s a bad color?”
“You got shot. It caused problems. But you need to stop beating yourself up over it.”
“I mean it. The situation was a mess, and your getting shot complicated things, but don’t fool yourself: there was never any guarantee that Stockwell would have behaved any other way. After all, that wasn’t a mission; it was on our own time. The man’s more than capable of saying it didn’t count against our agreement. Get dressed, Face. Dinner’s waiting.”
Face pulled on the trousers. “My getting shot didn’t help.”
“That’s true,” Hannibal agreed. “But stop thinking we’d be gone if you hadn’t been.”
Face randomly grabbed a shirt. Pale gold polo, it would do. Hannibal’s words were welcome, even if he didn’t believe them one hundred percent. (Then again, what did he believe one hundred percent?) But they eased the twin-edged guilt that pricked his conscience a few times … every day. Hannibal only knew the half of it.
But that was all he needed to know. Face pulled his shirt on and then sat down to put on his shoes and tried to think of something to say. But Hannibal didn’t wait for his answer. Instead, he asked:
“What do you talk about?”
“You know, you and Frankie. If it’s not the missions.”
“Oh, you know,” Face said. “Women. Cars.” He paused and looked over at Hannibal. “Los Angeles.”
“I love LA, Face,” Hannibal grinned. “Look at that mountain –”
Face pointed at him. “Oh, no, Hannibal. You’re from New Hampshire. You do not get that song. Because, well, you don’t get it.”
Hannibal shrugged, still grinning. “Fair enough.” He was quiet for a moment. “I’m actually glad to hear it.”
“That you don’t get LA? I’ve said that before.”
“No.” He leaned against the wall and looked across the room at the vibrant, Maya-themed artwork. “That you’ve got someone to talk to. Because I know you hate not being there. I know it makes it harder for you than if Stockwell had set us up in California.”
Face’s laugh was short and incredulous. “Don’t believe it. We could be in the middle of Wilshire and I’d still hate it non-stop.”
“No, you wouldn’t. There’d be whole ten-minute chunks where you’d be content.”
“I doubt it.” What difference did it make where the cage was? At home it might even be worse…
“Maybe not,” Hannibal was conceding. “Even so, you’d be happier. So I’m glad you and Frankie discovered you can get along.” Then he laughed. “I’m surprised you talk about women.”
“Why?” he asked; Frankie hadn’t really hidden anything, but he wasn’t out to Hannibal, either, and it probably wasn’t a good idea.
“He’s not exactly in your league. In fact, he’s barely out of Single A.”
Face laughed. That was safe enough. “Come on, Hannibal. Just because someone’s no good at something, it doesn’t mean he’s not interested in it.”
“Well, that’s true enough. He take notes?” Hannibal laughed. “C’mon, Face, I’m starving.”
|Part One||Part Two||Part Three||Part Four||Part Five||Part Six|
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