by Elizabeth Kent
"I could get used to this." Face sighed and stretched out his legs to rest his feet on the same leather ottoman where Murdock's sneakers were taking up most of the room.
"Me too," Murdock said. He flipped through one of the home decorating magazines that he took out of a wicker basket next to the sofa. "Nice and homey."
Hannibal was looking out a window into the small backyard, across a modest patch of lawn to a rail fence and the sand dunes that separated the house from a half mile expanse of sand and beach grass, then finally to the Pacific Ocean beyond. With the small window open they could hear the waves washing the shoreline in the distance. A lone seagull sat on a fence rail and engaged in a staredown with Hannibal, who smiled to himself at the bird's solitary vigil. Let the bird keep watch if it wanted. He and the guys were on vacation, more or less off the military's radar and ready for a couple of days of rest. They hadn't exactly found it. It had found them by way of a blown tire, a chance encounter with a friendly bed and breakfast owner at the local gas station, and four men exhausted from six straight weeks of back-to-back cases, sleepless nights, and risky maneuvers. But however it happened, it was good.
On the other side of the room, BA was playing solitaire with an ancient pack of cards at a table in front a lace-curtained window. This window looked out on the side yard where yellow roses, heavy with blooms and bumblebees, staked out their territory along the fence that separated the house from a vacant lot covered with beach grass and wildflowers. Driftwood logs were gathered around a firepit that they intended to put to good use that night. Murdock had already been to the store and back, bringing with him a bag of puffy marshmallows for each of them, several boxes of graham crackers, and enough chocolate bars to get them from one side of the country to the other. On foot.
"Is everyone comfortable?" A middle aged woman bustled into the room, her arms full of sheets.
Face stood immediately and reached for the sheets. "Yes, ma'am," he said. "As comfortable as we've ever been. Here, let me help you with those, Mrs. Grant."
"Thanks!" she said. "You can just drop them down the laundry chute in the kitchen, and they'll be waiting in the basement for me later. I've got clean sheets on all the beds, and your bathrooms have fresh linens. Thanks so much for waiting for your rooms to be ready."
"We're grateful you were willing to let us stay here, even without a reservation," Hannibal said. "My sons and I don't get to see each other all that often, and when we do, we like to get away somewhere where we can be alone and catch up."
Mrs. Grant looked around at the three younger men, her gaze resting longest on BA.
"We're adopted," Murdock said. "Pop rescued us all from a fate worse than death. He made us who are today. Didn't he, BA?"
BA looked up from his game, a flash of annoyance showing on his face. He didn't like to lie. "You was born a fool," he said. "Didn't nobody make you like that."
"Sibling rivalry," Face said to Mrs. Grant, rolling his eyes a little.
"I think it's wonderful, Mr. Harris," said Mrs. Grant, "that you've brought your sons here for a family vacation. Nobody else has made reservations, so you'll have the whole place to yourselves for the weekend. I'll just come in to make breakfast in the mornings, and the rest of the time the place is yours to do what you want." She missed Murdock waggling his eyebrows suggestively at Face, who pretended not to notice.
"Thanks," Hannibal said. "We'll enjoy just getting to sit and visit, right boys?"
"Right!" the others chorused dutifully.
"I wish mom could have lived long enough to come with us," Murdock said sadly.
Face threw Murdock a "don't push it" look, but Hannibal put his arm around Murdock's shoulders and gestured toward the ceiling. "Mom's with us in spirit, son, if not in body," he said.
"Do you think I should have bought her a bag of marshmallows?"
Vista Pacifica was a minor tourist town along the coast of Washington state. That meant warm days and cool nights and locals who didn't bother with umbrellas or raincoats even when the clouds rolled in. The town wasn't too far from a local bird refuge, and as Hannibal and the others walked downtown to find a place for dinner, they passed excited birders examining new binoculars and talking about what time they wanted to get up to grab an espresso and head out to catch the birds just waking up. "They say that like it's a good thing," Face grumbled.
Dinner was surprisingly good, most of the dishes made from locally caught seafood and organic vegetables. The prices were a little steep, Hannibal thought, as he swiftly calculated the tip and held his hand out toward Face for more money, but that was the way it was with tourist towns. You didn't go someplace like this to save money. Face reluctantly dropped another twenty-dollar bill into his hand then returned his attention to the raspberry-peach cobbler he was sharing with Murdock. BA was working his way through a slice of marionberry pie, so Hannibal tucked the money into the folder with the bill, pushed it toward the edge of the table, and sat back to nurse his coffee. It had been a long time since they'd had the time to linger over dessert, so he wasn't inclined to hurry them through it even though he really, really wanted a smoke.
While he waited, he studied the black-and-white photos on the walls. They ranged from grainy nineteenth-century photos of Native American fishermen in long, narrow canoes made of cedar, to later photos of steam engines on a now-defunct coastal rail line pulling car after car full of logs, to a series of identical panoramas of Main Street from the twenties, the thirties, the forties, and the fifties. Aside from the appearance of the Woolworth's sign in the thirties, the addition of traffic signals in the fifties, and the changing styles of cars parked along the street from picture to picture, he didn't see a lot of differences over the decades. A photo of an old sawmill spewing smoke into the air brought back the sharp, sweet memory of a family vacation in Oregon when he was a kid, and the heady aroma of sawdust and smoke that perfumed virtually every town they stopped in. He'd enjoyed that vacation, the last one they had had as a family before his father died. He remembered telling his parents he wanted to work in a sawmill, a desire they had laughingly encouraged even though his brother had insisted on calling his attention several times to the number of mill-town residents with missing fingers and telling him blood-curdling stories about unlucky mill workers who'd been sucked into the machinery and incorporated into sheets of plywood used to build outhouses in Alaska. Hannibal had believed that story until he was thirteen years old. By then, though, he'd decided on a career in the military. Now, after fifteen years in the army and another ten on the run from it, he'd seen enough horrors that even the thought of being chopped to bits in a sawmill didn't trouble him much. Even so, sometimes he still caught himself studying the pattern of the grain on a rough sheet of plywood for the outlines of body parts pressed into the board.
"You ready to go, Hannibal?"
Murdock's question pulled Hannibal out of his ruminations. The dessert plates were empty, and the others were looking at him expectantly. "Sure," he said. "Unless you think you need more to eat."
Murdock all but vaulted over the table. "Nope, I'm saving my appetite for s'mores," he said. "Let's go, Face, there's a little comics store down the street I want to look at before it closes."
"We'll meet you back at the house," Face said as he pulled on his jacket and hurried after his lover.
BA and Hannibal helped themselves to cinnamon-flavored toothpicks from the dispenser at the hostess station on their way out, and Hannibal acknowledged the hostess's, "Come back soon!" with a smile. He stopped just outside and finally lit a cigar, automatically scanning the street for MPs, suspicious cars, or anything that looked like trouble. So far, so good. He could just see Face and Murdock standing before a window display at the comic shop up the street, and he knew Face would be using the window to examine the reflections of passers-by while Murdock salivated over the collectible comics. He made a mental note to stop into the small grocery store at the end of Main Street and pick up a pint of whipping cream for Face's morning coffee. He drank it black when necessary, but he liked nothing better than two teaspoons of sugar and a splash-and-a-half of the rich cream. It was a small indulgence, and Hannibal thought it was the least he could do for him after the arachnophobic lieutenant had spent three long, terrifying days working at a tarantula petting zoo to get close to their last mark. He still all but jumped up on a chair every time anything with more than two legs moved into his field of vision. "I hope Murdock's not buying Spiderman comics," Hannibal said, moving out of the doorway and heading down the street. Behind him, BA laughed.
Evenings were cold this close to the water even though it was late July. The breeze coming off the water carried a chill along with a salt smell and the cries of gulls heading off to their nests. The light faded slowly from the sky, and it would be nearly ten o'clock before it was full dark. Standing near the small fire BA had built in the stone-lined fire pit, Hannibal enjoyed a last cigar and the crackle and hiss of burning driftwood. The grass was green here, greener than it was in LA by now. In Southern California, the hot sun had seared the grass anyplace that didn't have a sprinkler system, but up here in Washington, everything was still touched with spring color.
Along the side of the house, hollyhocks and long-stemmed iris bloomed in a cheerful riot of pinks and purples. Shasta daisies encircled the post that supported the mail box, and sweet-smelling peonies entertained hordes of tiny black ants in their bed by the back fence. "They're lovely in a bouquet," Mrs. Grant had said, "but it takes awhile to wash the ants out of them. I'd rather enjoy them from my rocking chair on the back porch." Some of the rhododendrons that shielded the house from the street still clung to their fading blooms, dark reds, purples, and pinks hanging on in bunches here and there. It was a nice yard, he decided. More work than he would have wanted to do, but he had to admit the place had plenty of curb appeal, important for a bed and breakfast during tourist season.
Winters brought storms, some of them fierce, in off the Pacific. High wind, driving rain, cold temperatures, and gray skies were the norm here four to six months of the year. But there was something about the prospect of braving those discomforts that he found bracing. What would it be like to get up every morning and have coffee in front of the big picture window that looked out over the dunes to the ocean? To build a fire in the stone fireplace not because you wanted to look at it, but because the house was cold? He was too used to the warmth of Los Angeles, long months of hot, sunny weather only briefly punctuated by fierce rainstorms that flooded streets and tied up traffic.
"Ready for s'mores, Colonel?"
A blackened lump of coal smoked on the end of the stick Murdock held toward him, bearing little resemblance to the fat, white marshmallow Murdock had impaled. It had folded itself around the end of the stick and was already hardening as it cooled.
"He don't want no burned marshmallow, fool!" BA exclaimed. "That ain't the way to do it." He held his own stick toward Hannibal. "Now this is how it's supposed to be." BA's marshmallow was only just warmed over, its outer skin just beginning to tan and wrinkle slightly. Holding a stick over a fire for the sake of one or two toasted marshmallows taxed BA's already-limited patience and got between him and the rest of his marshmallows, not to mention the stack of neatly broken graham crackers and chocolate bars on the picnic table nearby.
"Uh, no thanks, guys," Hannibal said. "I don't think marshmallows go with tobacco." He puffed his cigar again and blew a smoke ring into the air above their heads. "I think I'll just stick with this."
On the other side of the fire Face sat on his log and focused his attention on his own stick, carefully toasting two marshmallows on its forked end. He worked with the care and precision of a lapidary, having placed each marshmallow so its entire circumference could toast, turning the stick frequently and adjusting its proximity to the fire, carefully gauging the progress of his sugar jewels. They were nearing perfection, still holding their original shape but now a deep tan all around, like a beautiful woman after a week on the beach. It was the eating that Face would find hard. Pulling those gems off the end of the stick would mar their shape and create a mess, and Face hated messes. He didn't like s'mores all that well either. After one, he usually gave the rest to Murdock, who was too busy playing with his food to actually eat it. It was the process of toasting that Face liked, the competition against himself to make each marshmallow more perfectly-browned than the previous one. It was a good thing they'd already had dinner, or Face would starve himself to death trying to make the best of all possible s'mores while BA and Murdock inhaled the chocolate and graham crackers.
What a crew. Sometimes he looked at these three and wondered how the hell he'd ever gotten them all through Vietnam and more than ten years on the run. With BA and Murdock squabbling like a couple of adolescents and Face whining about just about everything, they sometimes grated on his nerves. But more often than not, they were brilliant at whatever task he set them to, resourceful when things didn't go according to plan, and good at watching each other's backs. He was proud of them, proud to have spent the last twelve years raising these three who'd been only boys when they'd gone to Vietnam.
All in all, they'd grown into pretty damn fine men.
The fire gradually died down as they sat there, the final sticks of firewood collapsing in a heap and coughing out sparks to glow briefly like tiny shooting stars before spraying themselves about the men's feet and burning out on the dirt. Hannibal sat on the log next to Face, who had abandoned his stick and was staring into the glowing embers. BA was dozing on the other side of the fire, arms folded across his chest, legs stretched out toward the fire, and red sneakers crossed at the ankles. Murdock had gone down to wander the beach in the dark and would probably come back soaking wet. Face had stayed behind, pleading exhaustion. "You've been unusually quiet, Lieutenant," Hannibal said.
Face only nodded. "Just tired, I guess," he said. "It's nice to just sit down for awhile and not have to think." He fell silent again, and Hannibal didn't break the silence. Face was just being Face. He grew melancholy sometimes. That was kind of an occupational hazard with all of them, anyway, but Face was probably the worst. Of them all, he was the one who had least wanted to go on the run in the first place. He had a longing for normalcy, something Hannibal couldn't give him, try as he might. Not that Face would ever give up the jazz completely. He was too much the conman for that. Even if they struck it rich, even if there were some kind of celestial pardon bestowed on them tomorrow, Face would still feel the need to manipulate and control his environment. But it would be Face in control, something he'd never been, not ever. Not even now, really. So he didn't begrudge Face his quiet contemplation of the dying fire or his wish to quietly soak in the ambience of an out of the way house with a yard, a nearby beach, a laundry chute in the kitchen, and a comfortable bed with fresh linens. Especially when it wasn't run by nuns or men in uniform. If he could give that to Face on a permanent basis, he would. But he knew it was out of his reach as well. Normal was not for any of them anymore. Not for a long time, anyway, and maybe not ever. But they could pretend once in awhile, and Face was almost as good at pretending as Murdock.
At some point, Face's Murdock radar must have gone off because he looked over his shoulder toward the dunes that separated them from the ocean. Hannibal saw and heard nothing, but moments later Murdock's silhouette appeared at the top of a dune, disappeared as he came down the dune, then reappeared at the fence. "Guess what I found!" he called as he opened the gate.
"I hope it's not a dog," Hannibal sighed.
Murdock bounded across the yard and stopped in front of Face, holding out his fist. As Hannibal had suspected, he was wet from the knees down. "Brought you something," Murdock said.
"That better not be a spider," Face said.
"It's not a spider."
Across the fire, BA opened his eyes and regarded Murdock suspiciously. "Better not be nothin' dead, either," he said. "You ain't takin' nothin' dead in my van!"
"It's not dead! It's as alive as you are, BA. It's beautiful."
Face made no move to reach for the object. "Go on, Faceman," Murdock said. "It won't bite."
With a sigh, Face opened his hand and Murdock gently put something on his palm.
"You brought me a rock?"
"It's not just any rock," Murdock said. "Look at it!"
"Thought you said it was alive, fool!" BA said.
"It is alive!" Murdock turned to BA. "It's part of the living, breathing fabric of the earth!" he said. "It's constantly evolving in reponse to wind, water, and sand. It has built huge cities, strong walls, and sturdy houses. Just think, BA, this rock might have been part of the Roman Empire at one time!"
"More likely it fell outta your head!" BA said with a snort. He climbed to his feet. "I'm headin' up to bed."
Face was studying the rock by the light of the fire, turning it over in his hands. Hannibal saw that it was shaped like a heart. It would dry to a rust color, but wet, it was deep red. The color of love, of passion. Murdock knelt in front of Face and closed Face's fist around the rock, and Face's fist in his own. "Maybe tomorrow we can find another one just like it," he said. "Then we'll have a matched set."
Face smiled and touched Murdock's chest. "We already have a matched set," he said. He stood up and pulled Murdock with him. "I think BA's right. It's time for bed."
Murdock answered with a saucy grin. Face turned back to Hannibal. "Good night," he said.
The melancholy was gone, Hannibal saw, replaced by...what? Love? Lust? Passion? Contentment? Whatever it was, Hannibal was grateful for it. That small, spontaneous gesture of love from Murdock, a perfectly ordinary rock, was all it took, at least for tonight.
As he watched the two men walk around the side of the house to the front porch, Hannibal stubbed out his cigar and got ready to extinguish the fire for the night. One more day here, then they'd be on their way back to LA and their usual routine. Who knew if this might be the last weekend the four of them ever spent together? When you had a job where every work day might be your last day on earth, you learned to cherish whatever days or hours of safety or leisure you could get. He was glad Murdock and Face had connected with each other, and that they were so much in love that a rock, especially one that might once have been part of the Roman Empire, was as good as gold in their eyes.
As he walked past the other guest rooms on the way to his own, he could hear BA shuffling cards and Face and Murdock conversing in whispers. For at least a couple of days, his men were safe, rested, and happy. For now, all was right with the world.
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