by Elizabeth Kent
Warnings: a little bit of blood and a little bit of swearing
Author's notes: The A-Slash Yahoo Group had its 13th anniversary in 2013. To celebrate, we created a story challenge that had to feature 13 of something. This is my response. I hope you'll enjoy it.
Comments: If you wish to comment on this story, please send your comment to email@example.com .
Face walked into his house whistling. Well, not his house, exactly, but the house he was using, and for the time being, that made it his. He'd just been for an early morning run. Not too early since it was a rare day off between missions, but early enough to be cool. Face liked mornings in Southern California, especially mornings in October when the heat of the summer was beginning to moderate. Even at sunrise it was warm enough for just a T-shirt and shorts, and the seven miles Hannibal required daily were less of a chore. For all his incessant whining about it, Face actually liked running. It cleared his head and gave him time to think, to comb through all the mental detritus and sort each worry, each upcoming task, each step of each carefully-orchestrated scheme into its proper slot in his tidy mind. It gave him time to notice things, too...the sun rising over the hills behind his house, the morning routines and habits of his neighbors, whose ordinary workaday lives both attracted and repelled him, the trees and shrubs whose leaves either did or didn't change in Southern California's climate. Face prided himself on being quite the noticer, which was why he was so surprised to stride into his borrowed kitchen when he got home without having noticed that someone was there.
"Murdock!" he exclaimed. "What the hell?" His eyes swept over the clutter on his countertop. Two dirty bowls, a hand whisk, some measuring spoons, and half a stick of butter were piled haphazardly next to the sink, a few drops of yellow liquid dripping lazily from the end of the spoon onto the counter. "I thought you weren't coming till tomorrow!"
"You don't mind do you?" Murdock's hands reached for his baseball cap, his long fingers dragging it off his head and kneading it like he always did when he was trying to explain some totally random thing he'd decided to do on the spur of the moment. "I just wanted to help celebrate."
"Ah...." Face stalled for time. Celebrate? He didn't remember a celebration. Did he? He and Murdock had been an item for a long time, but it wasn't something they celebrated overtly. But Murdock would be hurt if this was something special about them and he didn't even remember it. That he'd bothered to scam himself out instead of waiting for Face to do it said something about the urgency of this celebration, at least in the way Murdock understood urgency, which was usually whenever he had an idea.
Egg shells were lined up on the window sill, and Face's practiced eye noted twenty-six halves, mostly evenly broken, each with a little dab of soil in it. "How, uh, how are we celebrating?"
Murdock brightened. "I made cookies!"
Face let his eyes drift back to the gaggle of chicken egg halves on his windowsill. "That's a lot of cookies," he said.
"I know," said Murdock, "but there's gonna be a lot of people at the party."
"Really," Face said. "That many? All there to celebrate, you know..."
"Bad Luck Baby's birthday!"
"Bad Luck Baby's...since when did you start celebrating her birthday?'
"She's thirteen this year, Faceman! Don't tell me you've forgotten!"
"Really, Face," Murdock tsked. "And after the rip-roarin' good time we had on her second birthday!"
"I remember the ripping part. And the roaring part, too. The good part kind of eludes me. I'm surprised you remember it at all."
"I remember a lot of it. Not all of it, I guess, but some of the good stuff."
"What was so good about having a house fall on you?"
Murdock shrugged. "I think it's because it's when I finally felt human again," he said. "When you made me make a decision. You trusted me."
"I did," Face said. "I knew you'd do the right thing."
"What if I hadn't?" Murdock asked. He sat down at the kitchen table, pulled a bowl of pink icing toward himself and dipped a knife in it, spreading it on a heart-shaped cookie. "It was so close..."
Face sat down next to Murdock and picked up another knife. "But you did do the right thing."
"If I hadn't," Murdock said, keeping his eyes on the cookie, "would you have hated me for it?"
"No, of course not!" Face put the knife back down. "I'd have hated myself for telling you to do something you weren't ready to do yet. But not you."
"I almost didn't."
"I know. But I knew you would. You, of all people, even at your craziest, would never let a kid die."
"I was pretty crazy back then."
"I think we were all pretty crazy back then," Face said. He picked up another cookie, retrieved his knife, and started spreading pick icing. "You were just more crazy than I was."
"And you were just more pretty than I was."
Face snorted but didn't deny it because he was, after all, the Faceman, and because Murdock had been undeniably crazy, and not in a good way, when they'd tracked him down. His condition had been far from pretty, and if Face hadn't really believed his friend and lover still existed at the core of that emaciated, drugged-up, delusional scarecrow, he would never have made that demand on him.
"Tell me the parts I don't remember, Face." Murdock said.
"You sure you want to know?"
"Yeah. Doc says it's time."
"Okay," Face said. "Man, it seems like that was ages ago."
It was just after Vietnam, just after their escape, when they'd found Murdock in an out-of-the-way mental hospital shot full of drugs and swinging at shadows with fists made bloody by repeatedly slamming them against walls. What a scene they had walked into! Surrrounded by nurses and burly orderlies who wanted to return him to his nice, quiet room, Murdock's eyes reflected no recognition at first, only panic and anger, especially when he saw three men in uniform joining the group. Hannibal had taken a step forward to try to calm Murdock and had gotten a black eye for his trouble.
It was Face who had slid in, ducking under a swing, and getting his arms around Murdock, hugging him and waiting for those flailing fists to stop beating on his back, molding their bodies together the way he did when all they had time to do between missions was to hold each other in a dark corner. Using his own familiar touch to remind Murdock of who he was and of what they'd had together, plastered against Murdock's so tightly that Murdock would be able to feel the rise and fall of his chest, smell the scent of his cologne over the stench of ammonia that permeated the hospital. It took a few minutes, during which Face simply held on and endured while Murdock wound down. There wasn't much strength left in Murdock's swings by now; he'd already exhausted himself. He finally slid his arms around Face, bunching Face's uniform jacket in his hands. "Oh, Faceman, Faceman," he moaned. "They told me you were never coming back. They told me you were gone forever."
"They were wrong. See?" said Face softly, rocking him, "It's all right. Everything's going to be all right now."
"Don't let them take me away again. Don't let them get to me."
"I've got you, buddy," Face murmured. "I've got you. You're safe. We're here. The Colonel," he was careful to say, using ranks instead of names in case any of the agitated medical staff had heard about the A-Team's escape yet, "the Sergeant, and me. We're here for you."
"You're here for me, aren't you, Face?"
"Always here for you," Face said softly. "Always."
"Thirteen," Murdock said softly as his knees buckled and he slid toward the floor. "Thirteen. I hate thirteen."
Face supported Murdock's weight and sank to the floor with him, still holding him close, until they knelt on the chilly linoleum. "Thirteen what, Murdock?" Face said. "Tell me. Thirteen of what?"
"Of them," Murdock said. "Triskaidekaphobia," Murdock moaned. "I got triskaidekaphobia again."
And as Face looked at the thirteen staff members surrounding them, waiting for an opening to move in and restrain their charge, Face understood.
"That was a long time ago," he said gently, even though by a long time, he really meant a year. "That's all over with. It's never going to come back again." He looked over his shoulder at Hannibal, whose eye was rapidly swelling shut, and Hannibal just nodded and pulled out the fake paperwork they had already prepared.
"Got an order for this man's transfer," he said. "We're taking him with us."
"Sir, he's dangerous!" one of the nurses said. "He needs to be restrained."
Hannibal gestured toward Murdock, whose face was buried against Face's neck, his arms clutching Face tightly while Face murmured soothing things under his breath. "Dr. Fuller has it under control," he said. "As you can see. And we don't have a moment to lose." He bent down close to the nurse's ear. "We'll sedate him when we get him in the ambulance," he whispered. "They're all ready for him at the VA. Just give Dr. Fuller a chance to work, and it will all be fine. He was treating Captain Murdock before this most recent...transfer...from military custody."
"They seem...unusually close," the nurse said.
Hannibal nodded. "It's a new therapy," he said. "Cutting edge."
"Seems to be working," she observed.
"Yes, it does," Hannibal said. "How about you and the others step back and give Dr. Fuller a little more space to work. We don't want the Captain to get agitated again when we...," he lowered his voice again, "remove him."
The nurse nodded and tucked the paperwork away in a pocket.She gestured to the rest of the group, who shuffled back against the wall to clear a space around Murdock and Face. Truth to tell, she was just as happy to see this troublesome man go. But this was the strangest therapy she'd ever seen.
"Time to go, Lieutenant," Hannibal murmured. Face nodded his understanding but didn't turn his attention away from Murdock.
"Thirteen," Murdock was repeating over and over. "It's all about thirteen."
"I know it is," Face said gently. And it was about thirteen. Thirteen was the number of times Murdock had been tortured in the POW camp. It was more than the number of times the rest of them had been tortured, though not by much. It was the number of innocent men who'd been shot in front of him, one by one, because he'd refused to give up the secrets the NVA believed he knew simply because he was a pilot...and which, as Face later learned, he actually had possessed. It was the number of weeks they'd been held before Hannibal had finally crafted a foolproof plan for their escape. And Friday the thirteenth...that had been the day the chopper had been hit trying to clear the trees around the LZ...the first day of their captivity.
Murdock had been stoic through it all...the torture, the murders, the scary, hungry days eating cockroaches, drinking muddy water, and pissing blood after the beatings. But after they escaped and had returned to base, he'd developed a phobia about anything in thirteens. It was Face who had gone out of his way to arrange everything he could arrange to allow Murdock to ignore thirteens in anything. If there were thirteen toilets in a latrine, Face got another one added. If there were thirteen beans on Murdock's lunch tray, or a multiple of thirteen beans (and Murdock counted them, Face knew), Face always sneaked a few more on there to make it not a multiple of thirteen. Through quick thinking and even quicker counting, and some finagling behind the scenes when anything needed to be done at thirteen hundred hours, Face had helped Murdock avoid the number thirteen for several months. Then there had been the screwup in Hanoi, the bank they'd robbed, and a contingent of, unfortunately, thirteen MPs there to arrest them when they had returned. It was the last he'd seen of Murdock until their trial. The man he'd seen in the courtroom that day had not looked like the man he used to make love to. He'd been gaunt, wild-eyed, and twitchy, and Face had known from the moment he'd seen him from his own seat that things would not end well for any of them. Now, though, he was going to make it right. From now on, it was always going to be right for Murdock, no matter what mountains he had to move to make it so.
"You know what day this is, Murdock?" Face whispered.
"What day is it?" Murdock said.
"It's Baker's Dozen Day. Do you know about Baker's Dozen Day?"
Murdock shook his head.
"I'm surprised you don't know," Face said. "We celebrated it all the time back at the orphanage. See, one day a week we got a baker's dozen of donuts. That's thirteen, you know, but thirteen in a good way because it's one more than you paid for. It's getting something extra for free."
"You like getting stuff for free, Faceman," Murdock said. "You always got me stuff for free."
"Yeah, like comic books. Remember all those extra comic books? Got those on Baker's Dozen Day. And that Cadillac? That was a Baker's Dozen Day score, too."
"Thirteen's bad, Faceman."
"Now that's all a matter of perspective, Murdock," Face said. "Like that thirteenth donut? That was always the one they put in a little paper sack instead of in the box, so then the icing didn't get all over the top of the box. See, you could turn the little bag inside out and lick off that icing, but we weren't allowed to lick the box. The kid who got that thirteenth donut was lucky. That thirteenth donut was special, Murdock, and it's not the only special thing about Baker's Dozen Day ."
"What else is special?" Murdock was quiet now, resting against Face, his muscles lax,.
"I'll tell you about it while we walk, okay?" Face said. He stood and pulled Murdock up with him, unresisting.
"Where we going?"
"Away from here," Face said. "To someplace nicer. You'll like it."
"Someplace with thirteens?"
"No thirteens, not unless you want them someday," Face said. And he intended to make sure the staff at the new VA understood about Murdock and thirteen. If he found out a fruit cup had been served to Murdock with thirteen of anything in it, there would be hell to pay, at least until he had had a chance to wean Murdock off this obsession. BA appeared with a wheelchair, and Face deposited Murdock in it. "I brought you something," he said as he arranged Murdock's unresisting feet on the foot rests.
Murdock was still shaking, his sparse hair sticking out every which way, sweat only just starting to dry on his forehead. Face pulled out a chocolate chip cookie wrapped in a napkin and handed it to Murdock. Murdock loved cookies, especially homemade ones. Hannibal pushed the chair while Face walked alongside it, his hand on Murdock's shoulder. BA led the way. As they strode down the corridor looking as purposeful and official as possible, Murdock began nibbling the cookie, working his way around the circumference, pulling out the chocolate chips and laying them on the napkin in his lap so he could count them. Face knew there were exactly 12 chocolate chips in it, just as he knew Murdock would count them. Every time Murdock so much as glanced up, Face made a comment about the cookie, successfully preventing Murdock from noticing that they were on the 13th floor, that there were thirteen doors between the room they left and the elevator, and that they took ten-times-thirteen steps from the first floor elevator to the back door. Never in the history of mankind had one cookie been the object of so much scrutiny and conversation on its way to the digestive tract, but if there was anything Face was good at, it was hiding things through conversation.
When they got Murdock down the ramp and out to the Ford Econoline van BA had acquired, Murdock perked up a bit. He liked cars almost as much as he liked planes. And as near as Face could tell, there weren't thirteen of anything in, on, or under the van. BA winced when Murdock reached out one sticky hand to caress the green paint but otherwise showed admirable restraint.
"Let's go for a ride, buddy," Face said.
They waited patiently while Murdock carefully gathered up the ten of twelve chocolate chips he had liberated, wrapped the napkin tidily around what was left of his cookie, and stood up. For the first time, he turned back and noticed the others. Hannibal had removed his hat and shrugged out of his jacket. For a few moments, Murdock just stared. "Hannibal?" he said softly. "You're here too?"
"We all here," said BA gruffly. "You think we'd ever leave you behind, fool?"
Murdock studied BA seriously then peered at Hannibal again. "You're hurt," he said.
Hannibal shrugged. "I ran into something," he said. "It's not serious."
Face noticed a local cop car drive into the parking lot, slow a bit to watch them, and then pull out of the lot, only to stop along the curb. "We'd better get a move on," he said. "We're attracting attention." He turned to Murdock and gestured through the open door. "Let's get in," he said. When Murdock hesitated, Face climbed in ahead of him and held out his hand. "It's safe," he said gently. "And it's just us...just the team, just like always." He smiled. "Come on, Murdock. Let's go home."
Murdock hung back a moment longer, but when BA started the engine and barked, "Get in, fool!" Murdock went ahead and grabbed Face's hand and scrambled in. That's BA for you, Face thought as he watched Murdock settle down on the floor in the back. Tough love.
Hannibal gave Face a worried look. They knew about Murdock's hospitalization, but they hadn't really expected him to be this whacked out. Murdock was in a bad way, though, and evidently reality and he didn't see much of each other these days.
Hannibal reached in and squeezed Face's shoulder. "Do what you can for him, kid," he said. "But be careful."
"He won't hurt me," Face said confidently as he reached for the door handle.
Hannibal nodded and picked up the ice pack BA had snagged for him on their way out of the hospital. He pressed it up against his eye. "Be careful anyway," he said. "Because I can't take you to a hospital."
That much was certainly true. They were going to have to attend to their own needs from now on, now that they were fugitives. Just another price to pay for freedom. He pulled the door shut and made his way back to where Murdock was sitting with his back against the side of the van, knees drawn up,
"Don't you want to finish your cookie?" Face asked. He sat on the floor and braced his feet against the wall so he could see Murdock's face. He rested a hand on Murdock's knee.
Murdock shook his head.
"It's too much."
"The cookie's too much?"
"The world, Faceman, the world. It's too much!"
Face thought fast. "That's true, Murdock," he said. "Probably too much for now, right?"
"Well, here's the deal," Face said. "We've rented you a room at the VA hospital in Westwood. Remember Westwood? Full of movie stars and mansions and all that?"
"We are Sons of Westwood, and we hail the Blue and Gold. True to thee our hearts will be, our love will not grow old," Murdock sang under his breath, his voice broken and rough, the tune barely recognizable. "UCLA, UCLA, Fight, Fight, Fight!"
"Yeah," Face said, "that Westwood." Right now, it did not sound like the UCLA fight song. It sounded like an animal, like a moaning, trapped animal singing its own death song. It made him want to cry.
"How are you two doing back there?" came Hannibal's voice.
"We're fine," Face said. "Aren't we, Murdock."
"Yeah," Murdock whispered. "We're fine. Fine and dandy. Just fine. Fine as..."
"He's okay," Face said. "What about the cop?"
"Went in the donut shop," BA said.
Face snickered. "See, Murdock?" he said. "Baker's Dozen Day. From now on, it's gonna be our lucky day."
They didn't have the money to stay in motel rooms, and if even they had had money, their escape was still too recent to take a chance on being seen too many places in public. Murdock didn't want to sit on the bench seat BA had installed in the van, and he didn't want to be separated from Face, so Face spread out sleeping bags, and he and Murdock camped out in the back of the van while BA and Hannibal took turns driving. They took back roads, ate at drive throughs, and only stopped long enough to gas up, stretch their legs, or pull over in some sheltered, out-of-the-way campground where Hannibal and BA could catch some much-needed sleep. They never left the van without a disguise of some sort, though their bag of tricks was somewhat limited.
Sometimes Face could almost believe Murdock was fine. When they lay on their sleeping bags in the back, Murdock let Face hold him. Face even woke once to Murdock pressing kisses on his eyelids. But the confident, self-assured Murdock he'd fallen in love with was gone, and Face wasn't sure he'd ever come back. He'd always been a little odd, a little edgy. Face had only seen him truly angry a few times, and when he was angry, he was even more scary than BA. What on earth could have happened between the time he dropped them off for the Hanoi job and the time he was shipped off to the psychiatric hospital to cause such a severe break with reality? And what would that break, coupled with the long separations Murdock's treatment at the VA would entail, mean for the two of them? Was it even right to still treat him like a lover? They hadn't talked about the future much. It didn't pay to think too far ahead in the middle of a war zone. Now here it was. Their future. Huddled in the shadows in the back of a van, running from the law and from their past while Murdock talked to himself, obsessed over thirteens, and needed more care than even someone who loved him could give him. Welcome back to the USA, boys, Face thought to himself. Thanks for serving your country.
They kept the radio on and listened to as much national news as they could get as they stayed off the major highways. Their escape hadn't been big news for very long. Who really cared that much about four guys who'd robbed a bank half a world away...especially the bank of an enemy? The reward for their capture would motivate some people, but Face thought there'd be a fair number of people who would give them the benefit of the doubt even if they recognized them. Still, they'd have to be cautious. As Hannibal had reminded him, they were no longer going to be able to take advantage of the goods and services everyone else did. Everything from banks to medical clinics were off limits to them now, and while Hannibal didn't mind taking a chance when necessary, he didn't take stupid chances.
Face did his best to keep Murdock occupied. He'd managed to get his hands on a stack of comics and puzzle books. He carefully followed Murdock's medication regimen even though he had some misgivings about some of the drugs. He hoped the docs at the VA would straighten things out. Face had hand-selected Murdock's doc...a man named Richter. He'd had little else to do during the months of their imprisonment. Face had been glad he'd worked so hard to cultivate and nurture a web of so many contacts both in the army and stateside. Most of them had stuck with him through it all, and it was through them that he'd learned what happened to Murdock. Through his contacts, he'd learned as much about the staff at the Westwood VA as he could, and he'd decided Richter would be a good fit for Murdock. The moment they'd broken out, he'd started creating a paper trail that would get Murdock out of the place he'd been stuck, probably for knowing too much about the team's Hanoi job, and to a real hospital where he could get treatment. It hadn't surprised Face to hear Murdock had needed psychiatric treatment, but it had surprised him just how far gone Murdock was. It wasn't going to be easy to leave him at the VA, but it was better than leaving him where he'd been. So he started talking up the VA, trying to get Murdock to look forward to his hospitalization and promising to come see him as much as possible. Murdock just listened and nodded, or didn't listen and nodded, and lost himself in his own world.
They were halfway through Kansas when their uneventful trip took a turn for the worse. Face woke from an afternoon cat nap after a sleepless night on lookout duty and checked that Murdock was fully engrossed with a pack of cards before he slipped to the front to look out the windshield. The sky ahead of them was a mass of greenish-black clouds, and lightning lit up the largely empty landscape. "That doesn't look good," he said.
"No," Hannibal agreed.
"I don't suppose we can head around it or anything," Face said.
"I don't think so," Hannibal said.
"What if we turn around and head back the way we came?"
Hannibal shook his head. "We may have been spotted awhile back," he said. "We noticed a cop following us for awhile."
"What, and you didn't wake me up?" Face said.
"Didn't want to disturb your beauty rest," Hannibal said. "I think he thought better of driving into this." He gestured out the windshield.
"Storm's headin' this way, anyway," said BA. "That cop probably want to find some shelter."
"Maybe we should think about doing the same thing," Face said. He looked back over his shoulder at Murdock, who was oblivious to their situation. A bolt of lightning blinded them momentarily and caused BA to step on the brakes as a tremendous crack of thunder rolled over them and the heavens opened up.
"Ain't nowhere to go," BA said.
"So we're just gonna drive right into it?" Face said.
"That's the direction the road goes," said Hannibal.
More lightning, another crack of thunder, and an onslaught of rain nearly brought them to a stop as the windshield wipers fought a losing battle against the water sheeting over them. Wind buffeted them, and BA focused all his attention on keeping the van on the road.
"Face?" The voice from the back was urgent. Maybe he wasn't so oblivious.
"It's okay, Murdock," Face called back. "It's just a storm."
"You'd better go back there, kid," said Hannibal. "Keep him calm."
"I'd kind of like to know if I'm going to be sucked out of the van," Face said, reluctant to turn his eyes away from the storm.
"I'll let you know if I see something coming," Hannibal said. "In the meantime, you might dig out your red shoes."
"Thanks, that's a big help." Face turned and made his way back to Murdock, who had forgotten the cards and was wringing his hands. He settled next to Murdock and tried to position him so he couldn't see out the windshield, thankful for once for the gloom in the back. "It's just a thunderstorm," he said soothingly. "We'll drive out of it soon."
Murdock shook his head. "Tornado weather," he said. "Green sky. Time to go to the root cellar."
"Right," Face said. "Well, we're on the lookout for one. I'm sure everything will be fine.' He tried to ignore BA's muttered curses as he swerved around trying to correct for the strong winds and the slippery road. "Why don't we...." He was interrupted by Hannibal shouting, "Watch out!"
BA slammed on the brakes, and Face and Murdock slammed into the back of the bench seat as the van slid to a halt. Murdock scrambled on top of Face and lay on top of him, his arms wrapped tightly around Face's torso.
"What happened?" Face shouted. "Hannibal?"
"Tree fell across the road," Hannibal said.
Face tried to move, but Murdock had a stranglehold on him and wouldn't let him go. "Murdock," Face said, trying to untangle himself, "I need to go see what's happening."
"Shh," Murdock said. "Keep still. They're out there."
Face heard Hannibal say, "Stay here," as he got out of the van.
"Who's out there?" Face whispered to Murdock.
Face shook his head. "Murdock, we're not in `Nam anymore. We're in Kansas. Remember Kansas? Dorothy? Toto? It's okay now." He got an arm free and stroked his hand across Murdock's cheek. "It's okay," he whispered, though with the nearly constant lightning and thunder, it felt as much like a mortar barrage as anything he'd experienced in Vietnam. He wrapped his arm around Murdock's neck and pulled him down. "It's okay," he whispered. "We're back home. Back in the US, remember? Everything's gonna be okay." But Murdock trembled against him, and Face wasn't sure he'd heard or understood.
Hannibal got back in the van. "Road's completely blocked," he said. "I saw a farmhouse about half a mile back. Let's go back there and see if we can at least get off the road till this blows over. Face?"
"Got my hands full at the moment," Face called back.
Face felt the van back up then turn around and head the opposite direction. As it did, Hannibal made his way to the back. He squatted down but stayed out of striking distance as he said, "Captain, I need the lieutenant. Can you let him go for awhile?"
Murdock looked at Hannibal and reluctantly eased his grip on Face. "Don't make him go out there," he said. "He can't go out there."
"He's not," Hannibal said reassuringly. "When we get out, we'll all get out together. Watch each other's backs. Okay?"
Face wriggled gently out of Murdock's grasp and straightened the sweater he'd pulled over his one remaining clean t-shirt. He patted Murdock's shoulder and turned his attention to Hannibal. He grimaced as hail pelted the roof of the van. A huge chunk of ice bounced off the windshield, creating a crack that snaked from one side to the the and prompted another string of muttered invective from BA.
"We'll see what's going on at the farmhouse," Hannibal said.
"What if they recognize us?"
Hannibal shrugged and made his way back to the front. "We'll have to convince them we're the good guys," he said.
"What if they aren't convinced?" Face grabbed at the bench seat as thunder boomed and another gust of wind nearly sent the van off the road. The tell-tale sound of the emergency broadcasting system over the static crackling through the radio coincided with the startup of emergency sirens.
"Tornado," said Murdock matter-of-factly. "Got to get to the root cellar now, boys."
The van turned again, sped up a bumpy road, and slewed to a halt next to a sign. Face did a double-take. The sign read "Angel of the Prarie Orphanage." They stopped in front of a large white farmhouse set in a tidy yard. Inside a small, fenced area near the house, stood a sturdy swingset, slide, and teeter-totter. The gusting winds blew the swings back and forth as if a row of ghosts were playing on them. The home was anything but modern, but it looked homey and comfortable, and Face experienced a twinge of longing for his childhood home and the priest who had treated him like a son, pushing him in a swing or catching him at the bottom of a slide, swinging him around in circles by his hands until he was almost too dizzy to stand up. Face had missed having a mother, but he could remember no other parent than Father Maghill, and he was all the father Face had needed. Sadly, the old orphanage was contracting these days as fewer foundlings showed up at its doorstep and more children went into the foster system.
The home's wide front porch sheltered a door that slammed open as a plump, grey-haired woman hurried down the steps, waving madly at them with one arm and holding a baking pan over her head with the other. Hannibal opened the van's front door as Face pulled open the side door and stepped out, holding tightly to Murdock's wrist. The last thing he needed was for a disoriented Murdock to get away from him and go running off across the prairie.
Hailstones the size of marbles gathered on the ground and bounced off a picnic table.
The woman made a strange sight with hailstones bouncing off her metal pan, which Face was not sure was such a good idea with all the lightning. "Thank God you're here!" the woman shouted. "I need help with the children!"
Even Murdock seemed to snap to at this. He stood up straighter and his eyes focused on the woman. Without waiting for an answer, the woman turned and ran back toward the steps, and the others dashed after her, with Hannibal in the lead and BA bringing up the rear, Face and Murdock between them. When they got to the shelter of the porch, the woman tossed the pan on a porch swing. "I've got babies in here," she said. "The rest of the staff is stranded up in Redstone," she gestured vaguely in the direction they had been heading, "with flash flooding and tornadoes. I need help getting the little ones to the storm shelter."
"Show us where it is" said Hannibal. He pulled the front door open and ushered the woman inside. The others followed, their eyes taking in the comfortable, but utilitarian furnishings, the row of high chairs, the basket of diapers abandoned on a table, and the cheerful playpens and cribs arranged in the livingroom, all occupied by babies and toddlers, not one over the age of three. Some of them were sleeping and a couple were playing with toys, but others were already crying, frightened by the booming thunder and the adults' anxiety. And Face couldn't help but notice, as he always did, that there were thirteen of them.
"The shelter's in the basement," the woman said. "Well fortified, but we'll have to hurry." She picked up the smallest baby, so young and tiny that it was still wrapped in a swaddling blanket, and headed down a long hallway to a door that already stood open, a dim light shining from the base of the stairs. The hallway was narrow and uncluttered, with only a linen closet, a closet for a water heater, a bedroom at one end, and the door to the basement at the other end.
Hannibal scooped up two toddlers, a boy and a girl, saying, "Hey, kids, let's go for a ride, okay?" He slung one over each shoulder, and they laughed as he bounded down the hall after the woman. BA lifted two babies in one strong arm and a toddler in the other. The toddler wasn't sure how he felt about being lifted by this huge stranger, but when BA smiled and said, "Hey, little brother, we gonna take a little trip!" the boy beamed at him and said, "Twip!"
What little light was coming through the wide windows dimmed even more as Face lifted two squirming babies out of a playpen. "Murdock, can you take these two?" He held the babies out to Murdock, who reached for them automatically.
"Get `em to the basement!" Face said as he picked up a frightened, screaming toddler who kicked and twisted against his grasp. "Come on, kid," he said, trying to keep his voice low and casual, but the child was old enough to know something was very wrong. It was no wonder the kid wanted to fend for himself.
Murdock turned without a word and ran for the stairs with Face right behind him. They descended the steep stairs as fast as they could without falling. The woman took the two babies from Murdock while Face put his combative toddler in a playpen that was already set up in a fortified safe room built into one corner of the basement. "Anyone upstairs?" he asked.
The woman shook her head. "I brought them all to the main floor when the weather started to get bad," she said. She started to head toward the stairs, but Face caught her arm.
"We'll get the rest," he said. "They need you down here." He nodded his head at the children who were crowded together into two playpens in the small space. Turning back, he and Murdock followed Hannibal and BA back up the stairs.
Two of the remaining children were in a playpen, one was in a crib, and the last, a sweet-faced Hispanic toddler with dark hair, dusky skin, and huge brown eyes, was still rearranging cereal pieces on her highchair tray. As BA and Hannibal headed to the playpen and Murdock to the crib, Face fiddled with the tray on the high chair. He'd dealt with lots of high chair trays helping out the nuns at the orphanage, but this one's mechanism was bent just enough out of shape to make it hard to work. The woman must know just how to work it to make it cooperate, but Face was wasting precious seconds.
The wind stopped suddenly, and Face's ears popped. "Hurry it up, kid," Hannibal said as he turned back to the hallway. "Murdock, help him!" BA reached out and took the baby from Murdock and pelted down the hallway after Hannibal.
Murdock reached out a hand toward the high chair then pulled it back. "Bad luck, bad luck," he said softly.
"No kidding. Seems to be our best friend lately," Face said. The hail had stopped, and for the moment the room was filled with an eerie silence. Face glanced out the window and his stomach clenched. "There it is," he said. The fast-moving tornado churned toward them, debris swirling around it. He'd seen a lot of terrifying things in his life, especially in Vietnam, but this was the most terrifying of them all. It was huge, the biggest thing he'd ever seen. Frantically, he bent and jiggled the tray some more while the little girl tried to stick cereal in his mouth.
"Bad luck baby," Murdock said.
"What?" Face asked distractedly.
"Thirteenth baby," Murdock said.
"She can't help it," Face said. "Come on, Murdock, snap out of it. I need your help."
A low rumble began and Face said, "Too late. Let's take the whole thing."
Murdock continued to hang back as Face lifted the whole high chair. Face had only taken a couple of steps when the toddler he had just deposited downstairs charged out of the hallway and made a beeline for the front door. "Crap!" Face set the highchair down and launched himself at the child, tackling him just before he made it to the door. A hissing sound filled up the room, and Face shouted, "Murdock, take her down!" as he wrestled the toddler. He could already feel the vibration as the tornado approached. He wasn't going to have time to get both the kids downstairs. The toddler was screaming and kicking, and it was all Face could do to hold onto him. "Murdock, take her!" he screamed as Murdock stood motionless. "Come on!"
Murdock looked at him, his eyes wide, hands trembling as they reached out toward the high chair but wouldn't quite touch it. Beyond him, the approaching tornado filled up the view through the window. "She's just a baby!" Face screamed. "For God's sake, Murdock, she's just a baby! Help her!" He clambered to his feet and headed toward them. "She'll die, Murdock!"
Murdock hesitated for one moment longer, then with an anguished cry grabbed the high chair and ran for the hall with Face and the toddler right behind him. They made it to the hallway but no farther before the windows in the living room blew in. There wasn't time to make it down the hallway to the basement door, though BA was holding it open. "Shut it! Shut it!" Face yelled as he fell on top of the boy next to Murdock, who had tipped the high chair face down and crouched over it. He spared only a quick glance at BA's anguished face as he followed Face's directions. Beneath Face the child was finally still, frozen with fear.
They huddled there in a heap protecting their charges, deafened by the roar of the tornado and the sound of glass breaking as the house was torn apart around them. Face frantically ran through his catalog of saints, trying to remember which one was in charge of weather emergencies. The hallway provided some protection, at least temporarily, from the maelstrom of debris the tornado brought with it as it tore into the house. Face was cognizant of the top half of the house just above their heads and hoped it wasn't just going to crush them all. He'd lived through a war, through a prison camp, through all the humiliation and stress of an unjust imprisonment, and he'd finally got his lover back...or at least what was left of him...and now he was going to be killed by a damned tornado. His whole fucking life was just cursed. As the wind howled around him, he flashed on one of his favorite Biblical metaphors...Elijah being taken up to heaven in a whirlwind...and hoped it wouldn't hurt too much.
The wind increased even more; he could feel the grit embedding itself in his skin as he wrapped himself as securely as he could around the child he was protecting, turning himself and the child just enough so that if something happened to him, his dead body wouldn't suffocate the child. The house groaned around them, then the ceiling above them collapsed. Debris slammed into him. Something fell across his legs and as something pierced the back of his thigh, he yelped in pain, heard Murdock call his name, but didn't have enough breath to reply. Time slowed to a crawl as timbers, drywall, and insulation rained down on them, but the tornado carried the majority of the wreckage with it as it moved beyond the house at last. Over the pounding of his heart, Face could hear the child beneath him crying. At least he was alive. They both were. He opened his eyes but could see nothing.
"Murdock?" There was no answer. He raised his voice. "Murdock? Hey, buddy, you okay?" He tried to move, to shift some of the wreckage that surrounded him, but his legs were pinned from the hips down. And damnit, it hurt. For a couple of minutes, there was nothing but the sound of the little boy crying.
Thank God. The saint had come through for him after all, whoever it was.
"I'm here," Face said.
"Did I crash the copter?"
"Tornado, remember? We're in Kansas."
"Right. Kansas, 1939. Dorothy, played by Judy Garland. Toto, played by Terry. The Tin Man, played by Jack Haley..."
Murdock was about to launch into a recitiation of the entire cast and crew. Face sighed inwardly. He had to keep reminding himself that Murdock couldn't help it. Minutiae had always fascinated him; perhaps now it had become his armor. And at least he was alive. "Right, Murdock. How's the little girl? Can you see her?"
There was a short pause, then Murdock said, "Can't see."
"Put your hand under the high chair if you can. See if you can feel her."
After another short pause and some grunting as Murdock shifted around a bit, he said, "She's breathing."
"Here, Hannibal!" Face called.
"Have you got the kids? Are they okay?"
"For now," said Face, though his charge was already showing signs of wanting to get up. And from the stench, he knew one of them had wet his pants. He just hoped it was the kid.
"What about you two?"
"I'm pinned," Face said. "Something's across my legs." Something that hurt like hell.
"Okay," Murdock said.
"All right. Hang tight," Hannibal said.
"Like we have any choice," Face grumbled under his breath. He could hear glass crunching and BA's voice consulting with Hannibal. The little boy he was shielding was tired of lying still and was starting to fuss. If the kid started to flail around again, there was no telling what he might jar loose. The little boy started to cry, and then the little girl under the rubble with them started to cry, too. It was the sweetest sound Face had ever heard. If she had enough breath for a good cry, she probably wasn't hurt too badly.
"Face?" Murdock said anxiously. "Bad luck baby's crying."
"You need to stop calling her that," Face said. "You'll give her a complex."
"Can't you make her stop?" Murdock was about to lose it, too. Good grief.
Face thought fast and flashed back to the nuns again and the way they always dealt with a cranky toddler. Of course, they had a rocking chair, which he didn't, but that wasn't their only trick. He took as deep a breath as the rubble on top of him would allow and started reciting nursery rhymes. He closed his eyes and conjured up the pictures in the books the children at the orphanage had shared and tried to remember how it had felt to be held in a nun's soft, squishy lap with a book and his teddy bear, the only toy that was specifically his, and listen to the silly rhymes until he fell asleep. As he turned the pages in his mind, he recited the poems, and the children calmed...all three of them. The crying stopped as Mary was contrary, Jack and Jill went up the hill, and Simple Simon met a pieman. With half his attention on the rhymes, the other half of his mind was free to concentrate on the sounds above and around him as Hannibal and BA moved around shoring up the hallway and removing debris bit by bit until finally a slender shaft of light fell across his back and he felt Hannibal's hand squeeze his shoulder.
"Few more minutes," Hannibal said softly from somewhere up above him.
"Okay." Face kept up the recitation, raising his voice just a bit to be heard over the noise the others were making as they lifted things off of Murdock and the little girl. He heard BA grunt as he lifted something heavy then a crash as it was dropped somewhere off to the side, then a hunk of wall was lifted, and he felt raindrops hitting his back. He was able to lift his stiff neck enough to see Murdock rising to his feet with BA's help. One side of his face looked a little sandblasted, and a trickle of blood trailed from his scalp, past his left ear, and along his jaw to stain the dingy white t-shirt he'd been wearing since they took him out of the hospital. Other than that, he didn't look too badly injured, but he was swaying a bit. Hannibal reached down to carefully right the highchair. Except for a scratch on her forehead and some scraped knees, the little girl was no worse for the wear. She smiled broadly and waved a piece of cereal she had somehow saved.
Murdock shook his head. "Lucky Charms," he said.
"Luckier than you know," Hannibal said. "The back legs of her highchair propped up the wall that kept the roof beam from falling on top of you guys. She saved your lives."
"See, Murdock?" Face said. "Told you thirteen was going to be our lucky number."
Murdock nodded like he'd always known it. "Lucky thirteen," he said. "Baker's Dozen Baby."
Once Murdock had found his feet, Hannibal handed the high chair to BA, who headed through the rubble toward the basement. Hannibal turned back to Face and said, "Can you lift up enough for me to get him out?"
Limited by the stuff still pinning his legs, Face raised himself up as much as he could, and Hannibal was able to reach in and pull the child out from under him.
"Phew! I hope that's his diaper," Hannibal said, wrinkling his nose.
"So do I," Face said.
Hannibal turned to Murdock with the baby in his arms. "Let me take a look at your head," he said. Murdock had been more or less cooperative so far, but he was still not crazy about people touching him, and Hannibal and BA had given him plenty of space since that first day. Murdock looked at Face as if seeking permission, and Face nodded stiffly. "You're bleeding a little," he said. "Better get it taken care of."
Murdock obediently turned his head, and Hannibal reached up to part his hair with two fingers. Murdock hissed but didn't pull away.
"Doesn't look too bad," Hannibal said. "I'll clean it up in awhile, okay?
"Okie dokie," said Murdock. ""Clean up on hairline four. Just a little blood. Nothing to worry about."
"Murdock, can you take the baby to the basement?" Hannibal said, interrupting the solilquy.
"Need to get him out of the rain," Face added.
Murdock considered that for a moment, then said, "Can do."
As Hannibal handed him off to Murdock , the child started to fuss, holding his arms out toward Face. "King Co'!" he cried.
"What do I do?" Murdock asked, his voice rising with anxiety.
"Tell him some nursery rhymes," Face said. "He likes Old King Cole..."
"Old King Cole," Murdock said.
"O' King Co'!" piped the toddler. "O' King Co'!"
"Was a merry old soul," Murdock said. "And a merry old soul was he." He looked once more at Face, who smiled as reassuringly as he could from under the rubble and inclined his head toward the basement stairs. Murdock started away, his voice fading as he carried the child away, carefully stepping over fallen timbers, insulation, broken furniture from the upstairs rooms, and bits of what used to be the walls and ceiling. Face looked up and saw the sky above him where the second floor used to be. The whole roof was gone, and the tornado had vacummed out the entire upper half of the house.
"Let's get you out of here," Hannibal said. "Can you feel your legs?"
"Unfortunately," Face said. He nodded his head toward where the rest of the house used to be. "What's it look like out there?"
Hannibal shook his head. "The whole house is wrecked," he said. "It's a miracle you two weren't killed."
Soon BA tramped back to help free Face. "Can't get the crazy man to shut up," he reported. "He tellin' everyone stories now `bout thirteen billy goats."
Face wasn't sure if that was a positive sign or not, but it would be nice if he didn't have to keep an eye on thirteens anymore. It didn't mean they didn't need to get Murdock to the VA, though. There was way more wrong with him than any of them could deal with. He sucked in a sharp breath as a timber shifted and whatever was in his thigh moved.
"Sorry, kid. BA, help me with this." The two of them struggled for a few more minutes with the pile of crap on his legs.
"You think our van is still out there?" Face asked, more to take his mind off the pain than because he cared that much.
"If by `out there' you mean somewhere in Kansas, then yes, it probably is," said Hannibal. "If you mean where we parked it, then I doubt it."
Great. Now he was going to have to go hunting for another car for them. He supposed it was too much to hope that someone else's van would be deposited in the yard in place of theirs.
Finally the last of the weight was lifted off his legs and he moaned in relief. It still hurt, but at least he wasn't being crushed.
"Don't try to move yet. Let me see what the damage is." Face lay still while Hannibal ran his hands up and down his legs then up his back and around to his ribs. "Nothing feels broken," he finally reported, "but you've collected a souvenir in the back of your leg I'm gonna have to dig out. Do you think you can stand?"
"I think so," Face said. He levered himself up on his elbows, but he needed Hannibal and BA to lift him to his feet. "Shit," he muttered as his muscles tightened around whatever was sticking into his leg. "That hurts."
"I know. Don't put any weight on it," Hannibal said as he slung Face's right arm around his neck. BA took the other arm and carefully kicked stuff out of the way as they maneuvered to the path they had cleared to the basement stairs. Every step was agony even without using his leg. Hail began to fall again and the warning sirens wailed as they approached the basement steps.
"Are we there yet?" Face quipped. "'Cause I think Mother Nature's gonna take another swipe at us."
"Slow and steady wins the race, Lieutenant," Hannibal said.
"Not a good day to be a tortoise, though," Face said.
Hannibal and BA obligingly picked up the pace as the hailstones grew larger and started to sting as they hit. Face gritted his teeth and forced the pain to the back of his mind. In the larger scheme of things, a giant timber forced into your leg wasn't that big a deal. Still, by the time they had swiftly and rather ungently negotiated the basement stairs and Hannibal had maneuvered him to the safe room, he was feeling a little queasy and light-headed. He could still hear the sirens, though their din was somewhat muted by the reinforced walls as BA secured the door. In spite of the fact that it wasn't a cold day, he began to shiver.
"Lie down before you pass out," Hannibal said, pressing him face-down onto the carpeted floor.
"There's not a damn thing you can do right now," Hannibal said. "There's nobody to fight. We just have to ride it out."
"Everyone's safe down here, right? Is Murdock here?"
Hannibal peeled off his own jacket and laid it over Face's back. "Yes, and yes," he said. "Besides, what are the chances of two direct hits?"
"Oh, don't say that," Face moaned. "Every time you say something like that, something terrible happens."
Hannibal chuckled and patted Face's shoulder. "We're okay here," he said. "Just rest awhile. I'll be back to take care of your leg in a few minutes."
Face raised his head and looked around. The safe room, dimly lit by a battery-operated lantern, was big enough to accommodate all the children and adults on staff and was stocked with some emergency supplies, but it was close quarters. In spite of their predicament, Murdock was in a corner looking about as relaxed as Face had seen him since they'd found him. Toddlers were crawling on him, and he was making animal noises and talking like Donald Duck. Someone, probably the owner, had given him a handkerchief to wipe the blood off his face. Bad Luck Baby had been liberated from her high chair at last and was curled up in a playpen with a stuffed animal. It was crazy, but it was a good kind of crazy for once. BA was holding a crying baby over his shoulder, patting her back and saying, "There, there, little mama, everything's all right."
Hannibal was with the owner, breaking the news about the condition of the house. She covered her face with her hands and Hannibal put his arms around her while she absorbed the information. She pulled away from him when the freight train rush of wind signalled the arrival of another tornado. She clapped her hands together once then gathered up a couple of the children who were within reach and held them to her as her eyes swept the small room automatically to count up her other charges. The wind howled, as Father Magill would have said, like a banshee. Face held his breath and watched Hannibal, who examined the shelter's ceiling critically, as if he could see through it. Murdock alone continued to play with the kids. It was interesting, Face thought, that when someone else was at risk, Murdock could shake off the worst symptoms of his illness and function more or less normally. He'd been withdrawn, caught up in his private fantasies most of the trip. But now, when it was clear there was a need, he could deal with it. That was worth keeping in mind.
BA crouched beside Face, still holding the baby safely in his arms, ready to shield them both if necessary. Finally the noise ceased. For several moments, even the little ones were quiet.
"Seems to be over," the woman finally said. "At least for now." She straightened up and released the children she'd been holding.
`BA and I will go up and see how it looks," Hannibal said. Cautiously, Hannibal opened the door and stepped out. BA handed the baby over to the woman and followed Hannibal out. Face closed his eyes and let his head drop. This seemed like a good time to catch a nap. But small fingers patted his cheek, and he opened his eyes to find his troublesome charge standing beside him. At least he smelled better. "O King Co'!" the little boy said.
Face sighed and dutifully took up the rhyme. When he finished and tried to move on to another rhyme, but the child shook his head. "King Co!"
"I'm out of verses!" Face said.
So Face made it up as he went along. King Cole called for everything Face could think of, from bread to zebras, and the child was highly entertained. He sat on the floor, put a thumb in his mouth, and regarded Face seriously. They were finally interrupted when BA and Hannibal returned. BA saw at a glance what was happening and picked up the child, diverting him with a slightly battered truck from one of the playpens.
"What does it look like?" the woman asked immediately.
Hannibal shook his head. "I'm sorry," he said, direct as always, "but there's not much left."
The woman's eyes filled with tears, but she blinked them back. "Well," she said briskly, "I guess that's what we have insurance for. We'll rebuild good as new."
"I'm sure you will, Mrs...."
"Chapman. Hilda Chapman. I opened this place with my husband, God rest his soul, thirty years ago, and in all these years, we've never had one bit of damage from a tornado. George was a meteorologist, and he always said storms were scared of him, but he made sure to build this shelter when we started taking in orphans."
"He did a good job of it, too," said Hannibal. "It saved your life today." He nodded at the children. "And theirs. And ours, too. We're grateful to you."
"I'm the one who's grateful," Mrs. Chapman said. "If you hadn't happened along, I'd never have been able to get all the chldren into the shelter in time. This is the first time in twenty years I haven't had at least part of the staff here to assist me. I guess it's just a good thing you happened along, Mr..."
"Smith," said Hannibal. "I think it's a good idea to stay down here for now. BA and I will go up and clean up some of the debris when the weather clears, and then you can come up and take a look and see if there's anything you can salvage."
Mrs. Chapman nodded then turned her attention to her orphans and what needed to be done for them. BA and Hannibal helped her tend to their immediate needs, but even so, she was as busy as only a mother of thirteen can be. Face grew exhausted just watching her. She relieved Murdock of his charges, and Murdock immediately came to Face's side and sat on the floor beside him.
"You're bleeding a little," he announced gravely. "Better get it taken care of."
"Yeah, I know."
"Doesn't look too bad," Murdock said, peering down at the back of Face's leg. "I'll clean it up in awhile, okay?"
" `S okay. Murdock. Hannibal'll take care of it," Face said. His tongue felt a little too big for his mouth, and he wasn't sure his words were coming out very clearly. It was cold in the bunker, and he wondered vaguely if someone could turn on the heat.
Then Hannibal was there, with BA at his side. "Let's see about your leg," Hannibal said. "Murdock, can you hand me things?"
"Sure, Colonel." So, Hannibal had noticed it, too. Not much got by him, though, so Face wasn't too surprised. This would keep Murdock busy enough and focused enough not to interfere even when it was obvious Hannibal was causing Face pain. "You ready, Lieutenant?"
"As ready as I'll ever be," Face said.
Hannibal opened up the first aid kit and pulled out some gauze and a pair of tweezers. "I'm probably gonna have to do some digging," he said, pulling out his pocket knife. "Got a light?"
"Of course I have a light." Face reached down into the pocket on his jeans and pulled out the lighter he always carried just for these occasions and handed it over.
Hannibal snapped it open and flicked it on, passing the knife through the flame several times. "BA will steady you," he said. By that, Face knew he meant hold him down, but they were all doing their parts to reassure a nervous Murdock that this was all for the best. Face steeled himself for the pain and told himself he wasn't even going to flinch.
He felt Hannibal reach down and tear the fabric of his jeans, exposing the wound. BA laid a hand between Face's shoulderblades, ready to press him down if necessary. "What's it look like?" Face asked.
"Looks like a piece of a roof beam, maybe," Hannibal said. "And a nail. When was the last time you had a tetanus shot?"
"When that Marine bit me on the shoulder," Face said.
"September 22, 1972," Murdock supplied.
"Uh, yeah, something like that," Face said.
"Good enough," said Hannibal. "One less thing to worry about." He rolled up a piece of gauze and touched Face's cheek "Better bite on this, kid."
Face broke out in a cold sweat as Hannibal tugged as gently as possible on the shard of wood, trying to decide how deep it had gone. BA shifted around and positioned himself at Face's head, holding his shoulders down. Face reached out blindly and felt Murdock grasp his hand, lending his own strength, such as it was, against the pain. It felt so good to have even this little bit of his lover back that Face almost cried. It was an innocent enough gesture. They'd all held someone's hand as they died or bled or screamed in agony while the medic tried, usually in vain, to save their lives. Nobody had to know it meant anything more than that. And maybe for Murdock, it didn't anymore. But for Face, it meant the world. With even this little bit of their love, he could endure anything.
Hannibal explained what he was doing as he worked, as much for Murdock's benefit as for Face's, and the operation was uncomplicated, if excruciating, except for the fact that Hannibal had to cut a bit deeper and dig around with the tweezers to extract the remaining slivers. Overcome with anxiety, Murdock started reciting nursery rhymes, pausing only to hand Hannibal whatever he asked for from the kit, then resuming his rhyme mid-line. Face gripped his hand, chewed the gauze into a soggy, frayed mass, and focused on his friends' voices. Murdock's was rough with anxiety, and the rhymes were not helping, but just the sound of his voice was music to Face's ears. BA murmured reassurance as he applied pressure to Face's shoulders, steadying him against the pain, and Hannibal's was confident and commanding as he operated as quickly and as gently as he could. Face felt hot blood running down his leg and thought it a shame to ruin the carpet like that, but before he could even finish considering ways to prevent it, he felt himself slipping into darkness.
He came to lying on his side, wrapped in blankets, with his head resting on Murdock's thigh. His leg throbbed, but it was a manageable throb, not much worse than he'd endured with a hole on either side of his calf from a VC bullet tearing through it. He still felt cold, but it wasn't too bad. It was dark in the shelter; they must have turned off the light to conserve the battery. One flashlight lay on a bench, casting a dim glow over the children who were huddled together in their playpens like puppies. He could hear Mrs. Chapman murmuring to one of the babies in the darkness as she changed its diaper.
"Faceman? You awake?" Murdock's voice was anxious again.
"I'm awake," Face said. He was pretty thirsty, too. He hoped they had something better than infant formula stashed down here. "What time is it?"
"Dunno. I think it's dark out."
"How do you feel?" Face asked. "How's the head?" Now there was a loaded question.
"I got a whopper of a headache," Murdock said. "I took some aspirin."
"Good," Face said. "Where's Hannibal."
"He an' BA left after they bandaged you up," he said. "They thought there might be some people to help."
"Did Hannibal leave any instructions?"
"Watch over the kids and the Lieutenant, Captain," Murdock said, sounding uncannily like the colonel. "Nobody goes out, and nobody comes in unless Mrs. Chapman can vouch for them."
"Sounds good," Face said. "Do you think there's any water down here?" He pushed himself up and sat up against the wall, his injured leg extended in front of him, and bit back a cry as a stab of white-hot pain lanced through his thigh. Bile rose in his throat, but he swallowed it back and focused on projecting calm to his worried friend. Damn, he was going to be pretty useless for awhile.
"Miz Chapman, you all got any water down here?" Murdock said softly.
"Just a minute, honey," Mrs. Chapman said. She rustled around a bit in the darkness, and then she appeared at his side with a cup.
"Thanks," Murdock said. He handed it over to Face, who drained it in one go.
"You want some more?" Mrs. Chapman asked.
"No, thanks," Face said. "I'm okay." There was no telling how long it was going to be before help got out here from town, and he sure as hell wasn't going to drink all the babies' water. "How are the kids?"
"Most of them are asleep," Mrs. Chapman said. "Your friends went out a couple of hours ago to check on the neighbors." The neighbors, as she called them, were no closer than a mile away, and Face was certain he'd seen one of those houses explode on the other side of a corn field as the tornado churned its way toward them. He hoped to God they'd had a shelter as good as the orphanage's or there'd be nobody left to help.
"Do you think the rest of your staff will be back tonight?" Face asked.
"Depends on the roads. They'll want to be here as soon as possible, but it's ridiculous to come charging out here in the dark without knowing what the conditions are like. I don't expect the police will let them out of town if it's not safe on the road."
Face relegated one corner of his mind to worrying about Hannibal and BA, another to worrying about whether the staff would barge in, recognize them, and go get the cops, and a third to worrying about Murdock, just because he always did, but the last corner of his mind was pulling him back down into sleep again. Propped up against Murdock's shoulder, he closed his eyes and let himself drift away.
He slept only fitfully as pain, anxiety, and the beginnings of a fever woke him again and again. Murdock wasn't comfortable, either, and Face knew he had to be as bruised up and hurting as Face himself was. Propped up against the wall and each other, they dozed off and on. When Face opened his eyes just after dawn, the shelter door was propped open to let in the morning light, but BA was sitting in the doorway to prevent escapees. Hannibal was back, too, helping Mrs. Chapman cobble together some food for the children, who would soon be waking up. At some point Murdock had toppled over sideways and was now sprawled in an ungainly heap on the floor, but at least he was asleep, which meant his headache must have eased some.
When Hannibal saw Face was awake, he came over with a cup of coffee he had somehow brewed. "How are you doin', kid?" he asked softly.
"Better," Face said, reaching for the cup. "When did you get back?"
"About an hour ago."
"Nobody we could do anything to help," Hannibal said, his face grim.
Face nodded his understanding. Hannibal had never left anyone behind he could help, be it friend or foe, soldier or civilian. Face knew it would eat at him for awhile. If there was anything Hannibal hated, it was unnecessary deaths, no matter whose it was. In certain respects he reminded Face so much of Father Magill. He wondered what it was that would take two men with essentially the same values and put one into the priesthood while the other became a career soldier.
Hannibal lay a hand on Face's forehead. "You're running a little bit of a fever," he said. "How's the pain?"
"Hurts like hell," Face admitted. "I feel like BA's punching bag."
"I'm not surprised," Hannibal said, "since you had half the house on top of you."
"I really thought that was going to be the end of me," Face said. "Of both of us."
"Me, too," Hannibal said. "You did good work, Lieutenant. Those kids wouldn't have survived if you hadn't protected them."
"Thanks." Face didn't want to tell Hannibal how Murdock almost hadn't been able to make himself grab the highchair. What mattered was that he had done it anyway and had done it in time.
"Let me take a look at your leg."
Face rolled onto his side and gritted his teeth as Hannibal's cool hands checked the bandages and rested briefly on the hot, swollen skin on the back of his thigh. When Hannibal helped him sit back up again, he said, "How does it look?"
"Inflamed. I want you to stay off that leg and try to get some more rest. I can't..."
"I know," Face interrupted. "You can't take me to the doctor."
"Luckily, I don't need one."
"Well, we'll see about that." Hannibal obviously felt the fever and swelling were more significant than Face did.
"You sterilized the wound didn't you?"
"Trust me. You don't want to know."
Face nodded toward Mrs. Chapman. "Has she seen the house yet?" he whispered.
"Yes," Hannibal said. "We went up at first light."
"Was there anything left?"
"Not much. We found a crib in pretty good shape out in the yard and a few boxes of diapers, but that's about it."
"We're gonna help her though, right?"
"How do you suggest we do that?" Hannibal asked.
"I don't know. Maybe we can help her rebuild?"
Hannibal shook his head. "We can't stick around long enough for that." He glanced meaningfully at Murdock. "Even if we didn't have to worry about being followed here, we can't waste any time getting him help. You know that."
Face did know that. But he'd just gotten Murdock back, and once he dropped him off at the VA, he knew it was going to be a good long time before he got to see him in person again. The MPs would be all over that place like white on rice. He wished he could delay the inevitable, even if just for a few more days, but Hannibal was right. Murdock needed what the VA could give him, and what the VA could give him was something that Face couldn't. No matter how much he loved him or how much he wanted to help him, he just couldn't. "Yeah, I know," he finally said. "Did you find the van?"
"Some of it," Hannibal said. "BA and I salvaged what we could of our gear, but it's a pretty small cache now."
Face sighed. "You know how hard I had to work to scam that van?" he said. "How are we gonna get another one out here in the middle of Kansas?"
"I'm sure you'll think of something," Hannibal said confidently, "while you're sitting here not using your leg." He handed Face a couple of pills. "Take these." He glanced at his watch. "I'll give you a couple more at 1100 hours."
Face took the pain pills with the coffee. Hannibal got up and went past BA and out into the sunlight. He could hear glass crunching under Hannibal's feet as he walked across the basement floor to the cement stairs. Mrs. Chapman brought him a handful of something. "You must be starving," she said, "but I'm afraid all I've got is these teething biscuits."
Face smiled. "It's all right," he said. "I'm sure they're delicious."
They were, in fact, a far cry from delicious, but to someone who had once eaten cockroaches to stay alive, they were just fine.
By midmorning Murdock was awake, but he still had a headache and was as littered with scrapes and bruises as Face was and was ordered to stay off his feet as well, so they were both nearly trampled by the contingent of anxious staff members who soon arrived and insisted on squeezing into the shelter to assure themselves that the babies really were all all right even though Mrs. Chapman had met them outside and told them so. They had arrived bearing supplies and food, and once Face turned a charming, if tired, smile on them and Mrs. Chapman had related their rescue of the children, neither he, nor Murdock lacked for company or edibles. Hannibal looked in on them, shook his head, and retreated, muttering something about extra orphans.
Face made sure to stay next to Murdock in case one of the staff did something to alarm him and caused him to lash out. But Murdock followed Face's lead, was as charming and polite as someone who was not quite in his right mind could be, and his sometimes peculiar responses to their conversation could be chalked up to his head injury and the trauma of being right in the path of a tornado. It wasn't long, though, before Mrs. Chapman was handing out assignments to the staff. Face and Murdock were supplied with warm blankets and pillows, and with Bad Luck Baby (whose real name, Face discovered, was Victoria) and Old King Cole Boy, whom everyone else called Bobby, curled up between them, they took advantage of the opportunity to get some real rest.
After the storms of the day before, the sun shone brightly in the afternoon. Hannibal and BA organized the staff who were not tending children into cleanup crews and used the time to clear up debris. Staff continued to trickle in throughout the day, so by nightfall they'd made a pretty big dent in the cleanup effort. The house had been scoured out almost to the foundations; all that remained was a dresser of old clothes that had been shielded in a far corner of the basement, a bathtub, and one crib. And, of course, Bad Luck Baby's highchair. It was going to take a long, long time to rebuild. Face wasn't allowed out of the shelter and up the stairs to look, but various staff members brought him up to date with descriptions of the destruction all along the tornado's path when they came in to rest from their labors. Some of the staff members were homeless now, and even those who weren't wore the haunted looks of people who had seen things they wished they hadn't. Face was familiar with the look and with Hannibal's "keep busy" approach to coping with stress.
By nightfall everyone was tired enough to sleep, which was just what Hannibal had had in mind. BA and Hannibal had used boards from the debris to cobble together a little lean-to on the other side of the basement so that the adults who didn't have homes to go back to or who were on duty didn't all have to crowd into the shelter to stay relatively warm. Face's fever abated and the swelling in his leg went down some, but he was still in some pain and didn't object to being nursed by the maternal females of all ages who fluttered around him and Murdock when they weren't tending children or flinging debris into a pile.
Having slept away most of the day, Face was awake when Mrs. Chapman got up in the middle of the night to feed the newborn. When she saw that Face was awake, she came over and sat down beside him. "Can I get you anything, dear?" she asked, just as another baby started to fuss.
Face shook his head. "I'm fine, " he said. "Why don't you let me feed her while you go take care of the other one."
"Are you sure?"
"I'm a pro," he said. "Trust me." And of course, she did. This was something he didn't need a leg for. With an ease born of long practice, he cradled the baby in one arm, automatically tested the milk's temperature on his wrist, then coaxed the nipple between her tiny lips, adjusting his grip as she latched on and began to feed. He felt a tightness ease in his chest and a sudden warmth bloom there instead as this tiny being opened her eyes and gazed up at him.
"That's our newest," Mrs. Chapman said, settling beside him with another baby to feed. "Her parents were in a terrible accident on the way to the hospital to give birth. Her father died at the scene, and her mother lived only long enough for them to deliver her." She sighed and offered the bottle to the little boy she was holding. "So sad. They were so looking forward to being parents. He'd just come back from the army, and they'd bought a little house in town. What a waste."
Face nodded. He'd seen a lot of wasted lives in Vietnam, lots of orphaned children, lots of mindless destruction. He hoped this child would find a home with parents to love her, siblings to fight with, and a dog to roughhouse with. "Mrs. Chapman..."
"You can call me Hilda," Mrs. Chapman said. "I think people who come through two tornadoes together can be on a first name basis, don't you?"
"Sure, Hilda," Face said. "You can call me Face." That was a nickname that probably wouldn't be in the papers yet as it was not part of his official records.
"Face. That's unusual."
"Yeah, I guess it is," Face said. He set the bottle down, flipped a rag over his shoulder, and hoisted the infant to his shoulder, patting her back gently until she burped wetly.
"You've done this before," Hilda said. "Do you have children?"
"No, ma'am," Face said. "I...uh...I grew up in an orphanage. I'm used to helping take care of the babies."
"You're very good at it."
"Thanks." The baby was ready for the bottle again, so Face resettled her in the crook of his arm and gave her the nipple. "Does she have a name?" he asked.
"Maria," Hilda said. "Maria Valentina Flores. It's what her parents intended to name her."
"So she at least has a name," Face said thoughtfully. "That's good."
"I agree," said Hilda. "It's the one thing her parents were able to give her. She'll always know who she is."
"That's important," Face said.
"Do you know who you are?" Hilda asked.
Face thought about that for a bit. "I know who I am now," he said. "I don't know who I was meant to be or what name I was supposed to have. But I was raised in a good place by good people, and I don't mind so much being who I am." Except for the being on the run part and the being accused of a crime he didn't commit part. And the having a lover who was secretly gay and openly mentally ill. Other than that...
"Whoever you are, Face, or whoever you were meant to be, you're a good man. I hope you won't forget that."
"I'll, um, try to remember it," Face said. "But I've been giving your situation some thought."
"So have I," Hilda said. "I have no idea what we're going to do with all these children while we rebuild. Everything has to be done a certain way to use this home as an orphanage."
"I know," Face said. "But I know someone that I think can help."
"The orphanage I grew up in has lots of room these days. I'm sure they could take in these kids while you rebuild. I bet some of your staff could even stay there with them and help out. Father Magill, the priest who's in charge, would be glad to help you out."
"Well, I'm not Catholic, though some of these children's parents were."
"Father M's not so much about foisting off his religion on you as some priests. I think he'd be glad to work out something so you wouldn't have to worry about the kids while you get this place back up and running again."
"That would be the answer to my prayers," said Hilda. "I can't imagine not running this place. How do I go about contacting this Father Magill?"
Face caught a movement out of the corner of his eye and looked toward the shelter door where Hannibal was standing, listening in and giving him a very clear "be careful what you say" look.
"Leave it to me," he said. "I'll take care of everything."
"God bless you, Face," Hilda said.
"I hope so," Face said. He smiled and then settled back to enjoy feeding Maria Valentina Flores. Maybe helping people out for a living would be a good thing to do since that nine to five office job he'd always planned on looked like it was winging its way out the window.
When the babies had fallen asleep, Hilda took them both back to their makeshift cribs. As he watched her put Maria down in an empty dresser drawer, he wondered about how fate had brought him right back to where he'd started. Maybe this was some kind of sign. There was a time in his life when the orphanage felt like a prison...regimented, strict, and demanding...and he'd longed for the day he would be emancipated and become his own man. And from there, where had he gone? Right straight to another place that was regimented, strict, and demanding, and again he'd wanted to get out. Then he'd met Hannibal...regimented in his own way, strict when he felt like it, and demanding as hell...and finally felt like he belonged somewhere.
When he'd ended up incarcerated, both as a POW and as a guest of Uncle Sam, he fully understood the difference between a strict home and a prison. And he'd finally understood, perhaps, that belonging had less to do with who you were born to than it did with who you chose to belong to and with. He belonged with the team, with Father M, and with Murdock, all in different ways, but all in ways that meant something to him, that he chose. Ways that made him feel cared for and about rather than like a prisoner. Sure, he'd thought he'd had that with Leslie what seemed a lifetime ago, but she was a distant pain now, and he realized that it was less about losing love than about losing an imaginary reality that he thought Leslie could bring him. Married life. Did he even really want it now?
Maybe he was too infected with Hannibal's jazz now, or Murdock's craziness, or Father M's sense of civic responsibility (which he'd be shocked to hear, as he'd despaired of Face ever being an upstanding citizen), or BA's passion for righting wrongs. Whatever it was, it had changed him in the last two years.
Hannibal slipped into the shelter and sat down beside him, sighing tiredly. Even in as good a shape as they all were, more than 24 hours without sleep took its toll on him. "What are you thinking about, kid?"
"Just a way to get them to California," Face said, "to stay with Father Magill until she can rebuild."
"You can't contact him. You know that."
"I know," Face said. "But she can. See, I'm thinking we get our hands on a schoolbus..."
"A schoolbus?" Hannibal interrupted, but in a way that showed he was at least entertaining the idea. "Then what?"
"Well, I'm thinking BA can fix it up, you know, so it's like a little traveling nursery, and Father Magill can fly out here and drive them all back home."
"We can't stay here for long. You know that."
"I know." He looked over at Murdock, who was twitching in his sleep. "I know that. But how long would it take if we all helped? They'd need beds, maybe a little stove to heat up food and formula, a toilet, maybe a little penned off area for the kids to play in, and enough seats for everyone. See? Piece of cake."
"Hardly, Lieutenant, and you're in no position to help."
"Oh, c'mon, Hannibal," Face said, gesturing at his leg. "This is nothing. BA made me a couple of crutches. Get me a disguise and a car, and BA and I can go scrounge most of what we need."
"The authorities are gonna be coming around here to check things out pretty soon," Hannibal said. "I'm surprised they aren't here already."
"We can't just leave her here with all these kids and have them all farmed out to God knows where," Face said. "Please, Hannibal, just give me a couple of days and we can have this taken care of."
Hannibal sighed and thought it over. Finally, he said, "Okay, two days. No more. Do what you can, and while you're at it, see if you can scrounge us another car."
"Right. Thanks, Colonel."
By the next morning, Face had presented his plan to Mrs. Chapman and gotten her blessing to acquire a bus and fix it up. He selected a change of clothes from the old dresser, shaved with a somewhat dull disposable razor from one of the staff's emergency kits, and washed himself in some ridiculously cold water. The staff had brought back the orphanage's station wagon, and Mrs. Chapman gladly handed over the keys. Murdock insisted on going with them, and Face feared he'd create a scene if they left him behind, so Murdock hopped into the back seat and stuck his head out the window with his tongue hanging out like a dog while they drove into town. They stayed on side roads as much as possible, but BA had a very good sense of direction and kept them pointed toward the town. As they drove along, they made frequent stops to pick through the debris strewn about. BA had readily agreed to the plan and had the layout and supply list all figured out before they ever even left the orphanage. They came in the back way on a little-traveled side road and immediately scoped out the school district bus barn.
As Face had hoped, a couple of the buses had been pretty badly damaged. It was nothing BA couldn't fix, but the buses would be totaled by the insurance company. Face limped in alone ready to present some paperwork to the receptionist, identifying himself as a tow-truck driver sent to haul off the worst of the worst. But the receptionist was on the phone getting some bad news, and Face didn't have the heart to add to her misery by laying a scam on her that her boss would eventually hold her responsible for. So he did the next best thing and told the truth...sort of.
"I'm Father Delaney from the Angels of Mercy orphanage in Los Angeles," he said, laying on as thick an Irish brogue as he could manage. Years of living with and imitating Father M had given him a pretty good handle on that. Glasses would be a nice touch, though, and a hat, too, one of these days. "I'm wonderin' if I can work out a deal with your boss to take one of your damaged school buses and use it to transport the poor, wee orphans at the Angels of the Prairie Orphanage to safety while Mrs. Chapman rebuilds her place. It would be a great service to the orphans and to the Lord if you could see your way clear to helpin' us out."
The woman wiped her eyes and peered up at him as if she didn't understand what he'd just said.
"Just got some bad news, did you?" Face said gently.
"My parents," she said, her voice trailing off.
"Ah, I'm so sorry," Face said, and he meant it. "'Tis a hard loss to bear."
"Yes," she said. "Thank you. But you wanted...?"
"A schoolbus, if you please," Face said. "We'll return it, of course, once the orphans are safely delivered."
"I'll see if I can find my supervisor," she said, making an effort to buck up.
She came back with an older man who was somewhat more suspicious, but when Face explained how he was there on behalf of an old friend of the late Mr. Chapman who had heard through the grapevine about the poor orphans' misfortune, even he succumbed to Face's charm. "We don't need one of the best ones," Face said. "We can fix up one of the damaged ones and make it good enough."
The man nodded. "I think we can find you something, Father. Let's go look."
Face ended up with a bus that had some damage to the back end and was missing a fair number of windows. "The insurance company will probably total this anyway," the man said, "so you can do what you want with it. I'll pull the paperwork together."
"Thank you, my son," Face said. "The Lord will surely bless you for your generosity in this difficult time."
As they returned to the office, Face got an approving nod and a thumbs up from BA, who was standing across the street with Murdock, pretending to straighten up some debris that had piled up against the building. The receptionist was still crying, though she was also trying gamely to type up the forms she knew they'd need. Just as he was about to leave, she said, "Father, please, would you pray with me?"
"Of course, my dear," Face said, thinking fast. "I would be happy to do that for you." Suppressing a groan, he got down on his knees, and she did the same while her boss quickly disappeared back into his office. He thought fast about what Father M would say to acknowledge her loss, bring her some comfort, but not sound too cheesy. He managed to create a serviceable prayer on the fly. When he finished, he hoisted himself stiffly to his feet and held a hand out to her to help her rise because after all, a priest should also be a gentleman.
"Thank you so much, Father," she said.
"You're welcome," he said. "And thank you," he held up his copy of the paperwork, "for your help."
When he returned to the others and held up the keys, BA smiled then said, "What took you so long?"
"Now, BA, you can't just do a deal like this without taking time to grease the wheels. You have to engage in a certain amount of chit-chat just to ease people's minds and..."
"And confuse `em with your jibber-jabber," BA concluded, taking the keys.
"Yeah. That too," Face said.
They quickly transferred everything they had scrounged along the way from the station wagon into the bus. Acquiring the bus presented another problem for Face: he couldn't drive. Not with his leg so stiff and sore. So BA had to drive the school bus while Murdock drove the wagon, a hair-raising experience that made Face feel like he was permanently trapped on Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. Murdock's animation almost made up for the terror, and Face was at least glad that they were in Kansas instead of Montana...there were no cliffs to drive off of when Murdock decided to follow a rabbit across a wheat field and then drive in smaller and smaller concentric circles at top speed to find the center of the universe. The best FAce could do was brace himself against the dashboard, shout at Murdock to slow down, and hope the bouncing around didn't tear his stitches. Hannibal would kill them both if that happened. When they finally got back to the orphanage and Hannibal met them in the yard, Face nearly fell out of the car in his haste to be on solid ground again. Hannibal caught him as his leg collapsed under him. Murdock vaulted out of the driver's seat, put his hands in his pockets, and whistled merrily as he started walking away across the prairie. Luckily BA was there, already back with the damaged school bus. Shouting, "Where you think you're goin', fool?" he intercepted the pilot and turned him back.
"How'd it go, Lieutenant?" Hannibal asked, but Face was pretty sure he could see the answer in his face.
"We can't let him drive for awhile," Face said shakily.
Hannibal propped Face up against the car and said, "Are you all right?"
"I will be when my stomach catches up with the rest of me," Face said. "Jesus, Hannibal, he's..."
"Crazy," Hannibal supplied. "I know. And being here instead of in the hospital isn't going to make him any better."
"What are we gonna do?" Face asked.
Hannibal sighed and lit a cigar...his last one, Face noted. "I suppose we could try to get our hands on something that would knock him out for awhile."
"We can't do that," Face said. "He's sick of being drugged out of his skull."
"But if this is how he gets when he's not drugged up, he's dangerous. We've got little children here, Face. And women."
"He'd never hurt anyone."
"Not intentionally," Hannibal said. "Not the Murdock we knew in `Nam. But this isn't our Murdock." He pointed to his eye, which still showed some yellow skin as the bruising faded. "Our Murdock would never have done this."
"I can keep him under control, Hannibal."
"He had to have been doing 80 miles an hour up that dirt road," Hannibal said. "And weaving like a drunk. He could've rolled that car and killed you both. If that's how you control him..."
"We have to keep the keys away from him," Face said. "You know how he is. It's like flying. He can't help himself. But with his feet on the ground, I think he's manageable."
Hannibal considered this as Face sagged against the car and tried to get his breath back. For one intense moment, he'd shared Murdock's manic joy, but it had rapidly transformed into terror when he realized that Murdock was hearing nothing that he said....shouted...screamed during that ride and that if there had been a cliff, he'd have taken them both right off the side of it.
Well, this took the edge right off his desire to keep Murdock with him forever. Now it was a matter of keeping him safe and under control just long enough for BA to finish fixing up the bus. Face wasn't going to give Hilda Father M's number until the team was ready to leave themselves. That way even if the phone was tapped, the team would already be well on their way. After this they'd probably have to detour north or south since it was probably obvious they were on their way west, but they were going to have to get Murdock to the VA and some help before he did something with terrible consequences for them all.
"Okay, kid," Hannibal said. "BA and I will work on the bus. Your job is to keep Murdock under control. I don't care how you do it, but he's your responsibility for now. Let Hilda and the others take care of the kids. The only kid you're responsible for now is Murdock. Fair enough?"
"Fair enough," Face said. "Thanks."
"Okay. How's the leg?"
"Pretty sore now," Face admitted. "I think I can manage, though."
"I don't want you to manage," Hannibal said.
"I want you to get Murdock over here on some pretense and let him think you need him," Hannibal said. "It might keep him occupied."
Face hated to do it, but Hannibal was right. If Murdock was worried enough about him, he'd stick by Face's side night and day and that would keep him busy enough to stay out of trouble. So Face stood up and called Murdock's name, taking a few exaggeratedly-limping steps toward him before allowing himself to sink toward the ground. As he knew would happen, Murdock was by his side in an instant.
"What's wrong, Muchacho?" Murdock asked. "You hurt?"
"Yeah, I think so," Face said. "Feels like my stitches are busted or something. Can you help me into the shelter?"
"How'd this happen?" Murdock asked.
Face stared up at him, trying to see if Murdock was joking. But, no, he seemed to have already forgotten what he'd done. Or maybe he just couldn't make the connection between the wild ride and Face's pain, which was only partially faked. "I...just was on it for too long, I guess," Face said. "Hannibal wants me to rest."
Murdock's brows puckered with anxiety. Face left his perfectly good crutches lying on the ground, slung an arm around Murdock's neck, and let Murdock lead him back to the shelter again. Once there, he manufactured a litany of complaints that kept Murdock busy comforting him while BA and Hannibal got to work. As Hannibal had predicted, Murdock was putty in the Lieutenant's manipulative hands. Face felt guilty but told himself it was like Santa Claus...a fiction you maintained because it was all for the best and made people happy, and by the time they figured out the truth, they were old enough to forgive you for it.
When Hilda shared her plan with the staff, they perked right up and started offering to help with supplies and labor. Within an hour, BA had a welding torch, a toilet, and enough extra hands to make quick work of his project. With lanterns supplying enough light, BA and his helpers worked long into the night. When Hannibal finally made them stop and get some sleep, the bus was well on its way to being Face's traveling nursery.
BA and his helpers put in another long day and night while Face kept up his fictional relapse and kept Murdock by his side. Murdock was drawn over and over to Bad Luck Baby ("Victoria, Murdock. It's Victoria!") while Face received repeated visits from Bobby and was allowed to feed little Maria from time to time. By the time the bus was ready to go at midmorning, Face was heartily sick of being sick. He had managed, though, to talk Hilda into letting them be responsible for driving the station wagon to LA for them and dropping it off at the orphanage, a favor she was more than happy to accept. All in all, he thought, it was a pretty darn good plan. When Murdock fell asleep and looked to stay that way for awhile, he went out and hoisted himself into the bus.
"What you think?" BA asked.
It was as if BA had read his mind. Everything he'd imagined was there...a secure play area to keep the kids corralled at night, seats that converted to beds, a small head, a little stove, even a tiny refrigerator they could stock with ice. There was room in the back for supplies, already stocked with water, sleeping bags, and boxes and boxes of diapers. It was an amazing transformation, and Face whistled and shook his head. "It's great, BA. Just exactly what they need." BA beamed. This was his genius. He could make anything, and when he made it, he made it better than anyone else.
Face made a remarkable recovery when Hannibal announced it was time for them to say goodbye and go. The generous staff pooled their resources to give the team money for gas, a few sleeping bags, and some thermos bottles. It wasn't much, but they didn't need much. Hannibal didn't insult them by saying the team could find its own water, sleep on the ground, or siphon most of the gas they needed. He just thanked them one by one, shook their hands, and let them load their offerings into the back of the wagon. It would make the trip easier on the team and would make the staff feel like they'd been able to give something back to the men who'd done so much for them.
Face, back on his crutches again and with Murdock firmly glued to his side, pulled Hilda aside and gave her a paper with a phone number on it. "Get to a phone today and call this number. Ask to speak to Father Magill, and tell him you were referred to him by (and here he put on Father Delaney's accent) "the troublemakingest troublemaker that ever made trouble."
Hilda laughed. "I'll bet you were his favorite," she said.
"Well, he certainly saw a lot of me," Face said. "Not always in ideal conditions. But we understand each other, and he'll know what to do. Tell him what happened here and that I suggested he might take the kids in for awhile. He's never turned a child away yet, and I know he won't do it now. Whatever you need help with, he'll take care of it."
Hilda was smart enough to know the team was keeping secrets and grateful enough not to ask what they were, so she hugged each of them as they left and thanked them tearfully for all their help. "You're a good man, Face, whoever you are," she said as put her arms around him. To the others she said, "If I can ever do anything for any of you, you only have to ask. We owe you our lives."
"Jus' take good care o' the kids, Miz Chapman," BA said, "an' tell `em when they grow up to do things for other people like we done for them. That's all we need."
"I will," Hilda said. "Believe me, I will."
Face got Murdock settled in the car with a pad of drawing paper and some pencils they'd found abandoned in the schoolbus then eased himself into the back seat next to him as the staff surrounded them to wave goodbye. As BA drove them out of yard and down the road, Hannibal said, "That was good work, you guys."
"Thanks, Hannibal," Face said.
"Yeah, thanks," BA said. "Felt good doin' something to help."
Hannibal turned around in his seat. "Murdock, you did good work, too."
Murdock nodded. "Lucky thirteen," he said. "Baker's Dozens Babies." Face looked at him then did a double take. There, arrayed on the seat between them, were thirteen pefectly-folded paper airplanes. He counted them twice to make sure, then he looked up at Murdock's face. "Yep," Murdock said, "told you thirteen was gonna be our lucky number."
Hannibal exchanged an amused glance with Face then turned back around and flipped open a map.
"And that's it," Face said as he finished piping a little white curlicue of icing around the edge of the last pink heart. "We got you to the VA and got the station wagon to the orphanage for Hilda to have back. Father Magill flew out to Kansas and helped them drive the bus back to LA, took in the kids, and even helped Hilda get funding to rebuild her orphanage. And we all lived happily ever after." Except for the part where Murdock clung to Face and wouldn't let him go when it was time for them to drop him off at the VA. That required some pretty fast talking, a string of promises he couldn't possibly keep, and pretty much just abandoning Murdock at the front door. But Murdock didn't remember that bit yet, and Face wasn't going to share it with him till he had to. That wasn't one of his own happier memories.
But in the end, it had all more or less worked out. They were more or less okay now, all of them, and Murdock was more or less sane now, depending on the day of the week. More sane than not, though. And Face would sometimes even let him drive.
Bad Luck Baby and Old King Cole Boy had been adopted by a couple of the staff members who had gotten married and opted to stay in California, trading tornadoes for earthquakes but not regretting the move in the least. Maria Valentina Flores had gone back to Kansas with Mrs. Chapman, who had adopted her herself. Face sent them all holiday cards and kept up with them through the mail even if he couldn't get out to see them in person. Maria was ten now, and Murdock told him that she was driving in with Hilda and a few other staff members and children they'd met so long ago to celebrate Victoria's birthday and remember the road trip they'd taken eleven years ago. It was going to be like a big old family reunion, Murdock said, and Face was looking forward to it.
"But first," Murdock said, springing from his chair, "we have to plant up these eggs." He gestured toward the egg halves in the windowsill.
"So what are we planting in them?" Face asked.
Face nodded. "For remembrance," he said.
"Because now you remember?"
"And because I already remembered that you never forgot me. And because I'll never forget that baby and the way you made me do the right thing by her. And because if I hadn't, I couldn't have lived with myself after."
They worked quickly, side by side, dropping a few seeds in each egg and dribbling a little water over the top. True to form, Murdock had created tiny little party picks, each a little origami airplane to soar above the baby herbs as they began to sprout. Then they stood back, arms folded, and admired Murdock's pink and blue squadron.
Finally Face scooped up the last of the pink frosting from the bowl on the tip of his index finger and held it up to Murdock's lips. Murdock's brown eyes twinkled as he closed his lips around Face's finger and made obscene slurping noises as he consumed the tiny dab of frosting.
"So, now that these cookies are done, we should probably go take a shower and get ready for this party," Face said, giving Murdock a coy smile.
"Party ain't till four o'clock," Murdock said. "We got lots of time to..." he lowered his voice, "get cleaned up."
"Shall we take this party upstairs?" Murdock asked.
"Do you remember the way?"
Murdock closed his arms around Face and pulled him close. "Don't matter," he said, "'cause I've got you to show me the way."
"True enough," said Face. "Follow me."
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