On A Winter's Evening


BA sat at the desk in his room. If anyone looked in, he might be writing to Mama. But, although he did in fact write to her every week, that wasn't what he was doing tonight.

His room overlooked the grounds, and he was looking out into them, into the evening. The night. It was only seven, but it had been hard dark already for more than an hour now, which was how you knew it was winter. Dark, and cold. Well, cold for Virginia; BA, being from Chicago, didn't find it all that cold, though he couldn't say he missed the cold all that much. Or snow, which there wasn't any of yet, either. December already, and not one flake. That was just wrong, even if it was nice. Made Virginia feel like California... Snow was part of winter, after all. Folks around here said when it snowed it would be in January, or February, winter hadn't even started yet. Hannibal, being from New Hampshire, tended to agree with BA: Winter was more than cold and dark, especially when it wasn't all that cold, really.

But dark it was, as dark as you could want. Any car driving up to the house would light up the grounds; BA wouldn't be able to miss it.

He just hoped the Corvette showed up soon.

Face had called yesterday and said they'd be gone until this evening. He was perfectly aware that for Hannibal "evening" stopped at around eight, so they'd better be getting back in short order. At least if they ever wanted to go anywhere again, which BA assumed they did. Unilaterally changing the rules to stay away thirty-six hours - that was a risk on Face's part as it was. If he pushed Hannibal, things could get said that would make everyone unhappy. Face had to know that... He was pushing it as it was; BA knew the general wasn't pleased. The first time they'd gone Face had finally called nearly four hours after. Hannibal had been out of his mind with worry, though BA had pointed out that Frankie wasn't going to run - he was tied different but maybe even tighter. By the time Face had called the colonel had had him dead in a car crash; he'd been short and angry, and Face and Frankie had been five more hours getting back after the call came in.

Hannibal had been beside himself, half angrier at the lieutenant than BA had ever seen him, and half terrified that they weren’t coming back at all. Very fatherly, though BA had had the sense not to say so. Instead, he’d just pointed out that the Faceman wasn’t built for staying inside the same four walls, even – especially – when he was told to.

"You know how he was in New York," BA had said.

“That was a long time ago,” Hannibal had said quickly. What he hadn’t said, though BA heard it, was that the boy wasn’t in that bad shape any more, which was true, except for the “boy” part. But it had put Hannibal in the right frame of mind, and when Face and Frankie had finally shown up, even Hannibal had spotted that it was more than a few drinks that had relaxed them both, especially Face. It was being off the leash. The Faceman needed to be on his own and on the loose from time to time.

Reminded of that, Hannibal had come down rationally; he’d known it to be true, in fact he’d even said it later, when Stockwell had complained; he’d told the general to let it be, otherwise (facing his worst fear) Face might vanish one day. Lock him up in Virginia, and he’ll slip away in Germany, Hannibal had said. Being cooped up in a cage doesn’t suit a hawk… BA had watched Hannibal come to that conclusion that first time (because the more often they came back, the easier it was for Hannibal to be amused, which is what he’d been with Stockwell) and he’d been real relieved when Hannibal had reached it. And when they had come back, finally, no later than this but on a warm June evening still light with early summer’s long days, Hannibal had tacitly given them permission to do it again.

"Next time," Hannibal had said, "you better call sooner, and you better get back on time."

Next time. .. They had. Both – called and gotten back when they’d said, both. And the next time, and the time after that …

But they hadn't stayed all night.

BA moved restlessly in his chair and then stood up. He wasn’t going to go down to the workout room, but no reason he couldn’t do a little light lifting: the trunk at the foot of his bed was about a hundred pounds, just right to take off a little edge. Because he’d be lying if he said he was really as calm as he’d let on to Hannibal he was. This time it was possible that Faceman could talk Frankie into leaving. This time Frankie might listen. This time it was all different.

The rest of June, all of July and August, when they went out, which they did five or six times, they took off in the morning and got back by dark. Until Faceman got shot. For one week he’d hung on the edge of dying, and then the rest of them had been on the edge of killing him. It was part of the whole complicated package: he loved what the colonel called pampering, loved it when you did what he wanted and catered to his whims, but not when he needed it. When he needed to be taken care of he hated it. Hated needing, and showing he needed, and he always had, all the way back to Nam. BA didn’t know did he get so obnoxious to drive you away so you couldn’t see how bad he was, or to find out whether you wouldn’t go. It didn’t matter, of course: either way, you didn’t want to be in the same building as him.

So when Frankie had come to talk, BA had wondered if Faceman had gotten so bad that Frankie, too, had finally lost his patience. One of the reasons BA hadn’t minded going off, and running Murdock off when it became necessary – and it did pretty often, because Murdock felt guilty and that made him hover, which was awkward all things considered – one reason BA didn’t mind leaving Face alone was because he knew it wasn’t alone: Frankie would always be there. His patience with Faceman’s crotchets was amazing. Hannibal said it was because Frankie felt guilty about letting Face get shot. It wasn’t really his fault, of course, but once they’d gotten over the immediate fear that Face was going to die they’d both realized that Frankie was definitely in what Mama called “a state”. But Hannibal didn’t know the half of it. He thought Frankie was feeling guilty, like Face would – was, to be honest – or like Murdock was, and of course he knew that Frankie and Face were friends. But BA knew better what was going on in the young man’s mind. He’d dealt with too many young men, even if that was more than a decade ago now. Frankie wasn’t like the Faceman, looking for guilt that wasn’t his; you had a hard time making Frankie take guilt that he’d earned.

So Frankie being in a state had nothing to do with him feeling guilty and everything to do with the way he felt about Face.

BA approved of Frankie for the Faceman. To be honest, he’d approved of Frankie pretty much just plain, at least once he’d gotten over being mad at him. Which he had, after a couple of weeks. The man had been in a hard place: his daddy was in trouble, and you had to help your folks out. Frankie’d made the hard decision and dug himself in deep with the general, and BA respected that. He’d also respected Frankie’s intelligence and willingness to learn. In that, at least, he was like a good recruit, and BA had kind of missed that, working with green kids.

He wasn’t going to turn Frankie into a good officer, of course, or even a good NCO. He wasn’t cut out for it. Just like those smart-aleck draftees, the ones who didn’t even want to be there in the first place. The smart ones, the ones who made you itch to get your hands on them, do something with them, make something out of them. But it never worked out; they didn’t want anything to do with the army. At least the smart ones knew enough to realize that their usual attitude needed to be dialed back if they wanted to live. Frankie was like them. Too smart to believe everything he was told, too clever (BA distinguished clever from smart and didn't much like clever) to shut up and do what he was told. He’d do it, of course, but he’d never shut up…

But Frankie was good for Face. Especially since Murdock had spent most of the year pulling away. BA didn’t think Face had many friends. When they were in LA, Faceman had had people he knew (and pretty much took advantage of), but that wasn’t the same as having friends. It was better than nothing, of course, which was what he had in Virginia… Sure, he had Hannibal, and he and BA liked each other, but they weren’t friends. Those were different relationships, important ones, but different from friendships, and always had been. What Face had always done, to use a figure of speech he’d approve of, was invest all his emotional capital in Murdock. BA hadn’t quite been able to figure if the return was worth it, but Face had thought so. And now… now everything there was different. So when the Faceman had taken to hanging with Frankie, BA had been pleased. There were some emotions a man could have would make you worry, but adoration wasn’t one of them. Adoration wasn’t going to hurt Face.

BA decided against lifting. Instead he walked over to the window and looked out at the estate grounds. Maybe there wasn’t snow, but it looked cold outside, all the trees bare and the sky clear, the moon nearly full and making things bright and crisp and somehow icy looking. Hannibal was surely downstairs wanting the Faceman to come in out of that cold, but BA figured him to be feeling warmer wherever he was right now.

BA had known since Mexico. He’d known about Frankie forever, well, almost from the beginning. Hannibal had danced around the subject at first, saying things like “light in the loafers”, but BA had told him it hardly mattered, and Hannibal had relievedly let it go. He didn’t like to think about such things, so he didn’t, but BA could’ve cared less. He’d known plenty of soldiers in Nam who were like that, and they’d been good men anyway. It was between them and their God, BA figured. And he also figured that if their God was like his God, He had other things on his mind. Like feeding the hungry and healing the sick and visiting those in prison... “Look after God’s children and God will look after you,” his daddy had said.

So when Frankie had come to him, he’d been a bit surprised, and a lot worried. If Face had driven off Frankie, he was in a bad way for sure. But Frankie had surprised him.

“I want to take Face away for a day or two,” he’d said. “He’s going crazy here, especially since we went on that job.”

That was true. And the idea was good. He’d nodded in approval and asked where to. Frankie didn’t know. Somewhere else, somewhere he could be where he could be as obnoxious as he wanted, if he wanted, or relax, or whatever… A hotel somewhere, maybe Baltimore, the Inner Harbor… “That’ll cost,”” BA had pointed out.

"I know.” Frankie had paused. “I’ll need IDs, cash… I don't know how to tell Johnny."

Now that wasn’t a good idea. Hannibal needed to be told after they’d gone. BA would take the flak for it, if there was any, but they didn’t need to give him the chance to say no. The rest of it, though…

“C’mon.” BA had taken Frankie into the study and opened the safe. He didn't think Hannibal had told Face the combo - afraid he'd make bad use of it. This probably counted, but Hannibal didn’t have to know just yet. BA pulled out the box in the back and leafed through the envelopes until he’d found the one he liked least. Either Stockwell or Carla thought they had a sense of humor, but they didn’t. Jamaal Ahamet Mousavi: there was no way he was going by a name he’d couldn’t even pronounce, and he wasn’t no Black Muslim, either. And why would he be traveling with someone named Isaac, for that matter? He grunted at the packet and then tore it open. “Here,” he said, pulling out the DC driver’s licenses and the charge cards that went with them. Frankie’d be stuck with José Maria, but at least Face probably wouldn’t complain too much about Peter Paul. “These’ll do for most anything. They’re platinum cards. Just remember they will have to be paid off or they’ll trip some alarm with Stockwell’s people.”

“Don’t worry about that,” Frankie had said, tucking the cards away in his worn leather wallet.

“Keep them when you’re done,” he said. “Tell Faceman you give ’em back to me if he asks, but you hang on to ’em. You might need ’em again someday.”

Maybe Frankie had used them since then, before this time. BA didn’t know. The cards had a PO Box for the bills, and he knew Face had money squirreled away. They mighta been putting their bar tab on those cards every time they went out, building credit for the fictional Rivera and Howard... Last night though, they musta put a hotel on it. Motel, maybe, more likely, he supposed. Didn’t matter, really.

That first time they’d been away over night – the only time till now – musta been the first time they’d been together, too. BA had always seen it in Frankie, and he’d known from early days that the new lieutenant had an eye for a good-lookin’ man, even if he didn’t know it his own self. But Frankie wasn’t the kind you had to worry about, even if Face wasn’t capable of handling things. If it happened between them, it would happen, and nobody’s business but theirs. Though if it did, BA would be happy for them, especially for Face, who needed somebody to fill the hole Murdock had left.

Not that BA blamed the fool, exactly. Well, not much, anyway. He’d never been crazy, but he figured it had to be hard to adjust to being normal again, assuming that Murdock had ever been normal. And it didn’t help that the general didn’t want Murdock around, or at least didn’t want to have to lay out a penny for him; sure didn’t mind using him, even planning on him, like that last job. BA supposed Murdock didn’t want to fall back into his old patterns, figured maybe the man hadn’t ever felt the way it seemed he had, the way Face had. Still did. And that was okay, because BA wasn’t sure Face’s feelings would survive the changes in Murdock; wasn’t even sure that Face’s feelings were still real given how long he’d had to do absolutely nothing with them but shove them down and keep them buried. Couldn’t be otherwise, a man in Murdock’s condition… And now that he wasn’t in that condition any more, it was plain that he wasn’t interested in holding Face close any longer.

Which was okay, and Face could deal with it, and it was probably for the best. But it was tough on the Faceman, being cut loose so hard on top of everything else that was going on in his life. Frankie was filling a hole Face didn’t want to admit was even there, that was how BA saw it, and then he was giving him something he’d never actually had. And he liked it, that was obvious. Because Face was selfish to the bone, and yet BA had seen him worry about Frankie in a way that was different from the way he – all of them, really – worried about Murdock. Still worried about the fool, out of habit now maybe, but still. Frankie didn’t need it more than most folks, and so Face’s worrying was something new, something important. Something Face needed, something BA was glad to see in him.

Frankie was starting to teach him how to be a whole person, one who cared about others, after that woman, and that father of his, and life in general had taught him to look out for himself. It wasn’t going to be easy, but Frankie clearly meant to see it through. And Face? Face was eating it up even if he didn’t know what it was.

And then after Face had got himself shot, Frankie had clearly ended up filling a hole no one had known existed, though BA didn’t think he’d ever put it exactly like that again even to himself. But he’d taken an angry, irritating, even jackass Face away and brought back one who was still in a cranky mood, of course, but clearly happier with himself, them, and the world at large. So big an improvement that Hannibal had forgiven BA for giving them permission to go.

But it was in Mexico that BA had been sure of what was going on. He had wondered, watching Face with the woman, but in the morning there’d been no room for doubt. He’d seen their cab pull up, seen them get out, Face sliding over the seat to get out on the same side as Frankie though they were pulled up in the hotel’s drive-through, not in the street. He’d seen Frankie’s eyes glide over Face, the way they always did, and he’d seen Face’s hold on Frankie, which was kind of new. And then they’d turned to come inside and seen him, and he’d seen them, the flare of panic in the Faceman’s blue eyes, quickly put down, and Frankie’s dark ones going flat, a giveaway in itself if you knew what you were looking at – a man hiding his real self from those who didn’t want to see it. And then the Faceman had stumbled around trying to ask a question, "Don't you want to know … What are you …" and if there was any way he could have betrayed himself more obviously than not being able to frame a coherent sentence, BA didn’t know what it was. Standing in the door and watching the elevator not go up to Frankie’s floor had been unneeded confirmation.

BA leaned on the window sill. Lights were slashing through the darkness, headlight beams lighting up the trees for a moment as a car curved up along the drive, moving slow. The white Corvette… He sighed as he let go of a worry he hadn’t even known he was holding. They were back.

And sure, he’d told Hannibal they would be; sure, he’d said Frankie wouldn’t go, but now that things were different, now just maybe he would. Because he did adore Face, would do pretty much what he wanted, would – no matter what people might say – maybe leave his father to his aunts and follow his heart. And if they went, BA would understand, though it would hurt – him and Hannibal both and Murdock too even the way he was acting, and the colonel most of all. But BA had told Frankie after that first time they’d gone away, just for that long drive back in June, told him: “You take care of him,” and Frankie had promised he would. BA trusted him to keep that promise.

But taking care of Face might mean taking him someplace a lot further than Baltimore.

BA watched the Corvette park and its lights go out. The men inside didn’t get out right away, but when the doors did open he straightened up and headed for the door. One day, maybe not so soon now but one day, they might not come back. He knew that, and he knew he was – fancy army word for it – facilitating it. But he couldn’t do any different. When the Faceman had started stumbling through his question back in Mexico, BA had cut him off, told him that since he was back BA didn’t have anything to tell Hannibal, told him, “you safe, and that really all that matter.” That was the truest thing he’d ever said, far as he could remember.

He’d go downstairs now and run interference between them and the colonel if it was needed, try to delay the coming day, because when it came it would upset the colonel a helluva lot. And BA was the colonel’s sergeant. But he was the lieutenant’s sergeant, too, though that was different. It wasn’t easy doing what they both needed. But in the end it was simple: Hannibal would get over it in time if Face left them, while he wouldn’t if Face self-destructed. So BA’s main job was to keep things steady until Hannibal decided that it was time for them all to go.

Because sooner or later, go they would. If not together, then one at a time, though that wouldn’t be good for any of them, but better than staying put here and dying inside if not in the flesh. But now BA was hopeful that when they did, it would be together. He wasn’t much for long-range planning, but he knew what was a good outcome, what was the way it should be.

He had that hope to steer by. No matter what life threw at him, he had that hope. And steer by it he would.


The End


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