Major Peter Morgan, United States Army, leaned back in his chair and looked up at the almost impossibly young private who stood before him. The soldier, drawn up into a new recruit's ham-fisted attempt at standing to attention, stared fixedly ahead, his blue eyes oddly wide and strikingly youthful. Was I ever that young? Morgan wondered, and dismissed the thought instantly. As far as he remembered he had been forty all his life. It was unthinkable that he could ever have looked so green.
"Stand at ease, private, for pity's sake." Morgan relaxed slightly as some of the tension in his guest's shoulders eased, and the young man struggled to look as though he were not uncomfortable. The heat was a killer, but they were all acclimatising themselves, bit by bit. This kid would have to get used to it like everybody else. "Okay, Private... Smith?"
"Sir." The soldier was still staring ahead, and Morgan nodded. Now that he had been in the young man's presence for a little longer, he was starting to see beyond the innocence and the fresh faced exterior; or at least he thought he was. There was something else in those cool blue eyes. Determination, strength, and - rebellion?
"You know why you're here, Smith?" Morgan gazed down at the soldier's file for a while, and missed the look of amusement which momentarily replaced the mask of youthful naivety.
"Yes sir." This time there was the barest hint of an emphasis on the 'sir', and Morgan smiled inwardly. The boy had been hiding behind formality since he had entered his CO's tent, but was at last allowing some character to show through.
"Major Phillips thinks I'm an arrogant, insubordinate jerk, sir."
This time Morgan had to suppress an outward smile. "And what do you think?"
"Of Major Phillips, sir?" A grin passed across the private's face, and Morgan gave him a disapproving stare.
"Of his views about you."
"Oh, that." The private stiffened his shoulders. "I think I'm an arrogant, insubordinate jerk too, sir. But a charming one."
"Really." Morgan nodded, pretending to make notes in the file before him. He could see that his attempts at gravitas were doing nothing to impress this kid. Either he had no respect for authority, or he had his own ideas about who deserved it. Walter Phillips, the major who had lodged the complaint about Smith, was enough of a jerk himself for Morgan to feel inclined to sympathise with the private. He took another look at the file. Top recommendations from training camp and a report stating that he was a born leader from one officer, and a violent tirade from another, saying that Smith was the most infuriatingly useless cadet ever to pass through boot camp, and that he should never be considered worthy of anything other than being used as cannon fodder. Morgan noticed something else too.
"Smith isn't your real name."
"It is now."
"Not officially." Morgan frowned at the file. "According to this your name is..." He frowned. "Johannes... Johannes..."
"Szkarabjek," Smith finished for him obligingly. The name rolled with practised ease from his tongue, but despite how easy he made it look, Morgan had no intention of trying to repeat it. "My parents emigrated from Poland in the twenties."
"But you decided to drop the family name?"
"Too many people have problems saying it," the soldier told him, although Morgan detected some other, unnamed reason. "Besides, Johannes Szkarabjek attracts too much attention. No one gives John Smith a second thought."
"Do your parents approve?"
There was a silence.
"My mother died last spring, and my father has gone back to Poland. He doesn't have to know."
"So Johannes stays behind in America, and John goes off to Korea?" Morgan shrugged. "Well that's your affair. Might make things awkward when they try and find out about John Smith, and come up against a brick wall."
Smith grinned. "You found out about Szkarabjek. If they can't figure it out that's their problem."
"Being incognito is important to you, isn't it Smith?"
There was a silence, then; "Who wants the whole world knowing their life story?"
"You've got nothing to be ashamed of. Straight 'A' student, graduated with a first class degree at twenty. Your college wanted you to stay on and do a doctorate. Why jack it all in to join the army?"
"I wanted to see the world." There was a droll sound to the young soldier's voice, and Morgan frowned, trying to figure this kid out. He was twenty-one, with the blue eyes and blond hair that all the girls loved. He was good-looking, obviously highly intelligent, and yet here he was, signing up to go to Korea when he could have been anything that he wanted to be. With his academic record he could have made it to the top of the corporate ladder. Something flashed behind Smith's eyes, and Morgan wondered at it.
"Can I go now sir? I'm supposed to be peeling potatoes." There was a formal courtesy in the private's voice which did not quite fit. It did not sound at all genuine.
"I've detailed somebody else to cover for you." Morgan shifted his position in his chair, and allowed a smile to decorate his weather-beaten face. "One day won't hurt. You have peeled rather a lot a potatoes recently."
Smith smiled too. "I'm getting rather good at it. And it's a good way to avoid standing late watch."
Morgan could not stop his eyes from widening. "You mean - you've been deliberately rude to Major Phillips so that you have to peel potatoes?!"
"That's right." Smith gave him a broad, charming grin. "It means I'm otherwise engaged when the late watch starts, and I don't have to be patrolling the perimeter at three in the morning. I get to sleep every night. I'm happy with the arrangement."
Morgan began to laugh. He could not help liking this young soldier. He had a suspicion that the feeling was mutual, for the look of rebellion had gone from the private's eyes. Obviously he chose carefully who he was prepared to be polite to. Phillips had failed to gain his respect, which explained the bad reports.
"Okay Smith." Morgan sighed. "Here's what I'm going to do. I'm transferring you out of Major Phillip's company and into mine. You'll come under my direct authority, understand?
"Yes sir." Morgan thought that he saw relief in Smith's eyes.
"It's no easy option, private. I work my men harder than any other soldiers in Korea. I expect the best, and I won't take anything less. You understand me?"
"Yes sir." There was a hardness in Smith's face now. It was resolute, bold and strong. Morgan felt that he should still be stern, but he liked the kid. He had a feeling that John Smith was going to become something more than just a private in the years to come; if he made it through Korea of course. Morgan reached for a box on his desk and extracted a cigar; one of his favourite brand, which his wife had somehow managed to send to him. A thought struck him.
"Do you smoke, Smith?"
"Uh huh." Morgan bit the end off his cigar and lit up, gazing into the smoke with an air of intense satisfaction. "You should try cigars. You're officer material, kid, and there's no point in denying it, but you won't look the part while you still look like you're six years old." He took a second cigar from the box and threw it at Smith. The private caught it and grinned.
"Thankyou sir." He bit the end off, copying Morgan's actions carefully, and lit the cigar with caution. Morgan remembered his own first cigar well, and knew how it would be for Smith right now - the smell subtle, the taste unfamiliar, but likely not at all unpleasant. The kid clenched his teeth around the thick cylinder and grinned. It looked good, and it looked right too, in some odd way that Morgan couldn't explain. Smith's grin became broader.
"Nice," he said, with relish. Morgan smiled back. The cigar did not add much maturity to Smith's face, but it did lend him a certain extra hardness. His eyes glistened. Somehow, as he stared up at the young private, Morgan was able to see something else. Maybe it was the cigar, or maybe it was just the lighting in the tent, but for a brief moment he thought that he was looking into the face of a battle hardened veteran. The moment was gone quickly, and as Smith took the cigar from his mouth to expel a cloud of smoke, suddenly he was just a fresh-faced kid again. Morgan ignored the momentary illusion. He had other things to think about. There were manoeuvres to plan, things to be done. Smith would have to wait. Somehow Morgan got the impression that his transferral of this extraordinary young man was one of the most sensible moves of his career. He had the lights of leadership in his eyes. One day, Morgan thought, with a sudden flash of insight, he would be very proud of his newest recruit.
Captain John Smith, United States Army, leaned back in his chair and looked up at the young man before him. The private was standing in a manner calculated to cause anger, with practised, uncaring nonchalance in his every breath. Smith could feel the enmity in the air, filling the tent, and he frowned at the file before him.
"Okay... forging official documents, giving incorrect information, stealing army property, consorting with the enemy..." He looked up. "Insubordination, disorderly conduct and striking a superior officer. That's quite a record for a kid who hasn't been here five minutes."
"Yeah, well mark it up to natural talent." There was no rudeness in the private's tone; just amusement, and a total lack of respect.
"Your natural talents obviously don't extend to not getting caught." Smith frowned a final time at the information in the file, and then closed it. "You've already spent a month in the brig, kid. This time you're looking at twenty years. Do you want that?"
A frown blazed its way across the young man's face. "Don't call me 'kid'," he said, a note of warning in his voice. Smith smiled.
"Why? You object to that, private? According to these files you're not nineteen yet. You think you're an old man already?"
"Well you must be." Smith tapped the file. "According to this you have six months Special Forces experience, and training with an elite marine commando unit. You were still in boot camp six months ago."
"I'm a very fast learner." Cool blue eyes glittered back at Smith, who stared back, unconcerned.
"You're full of answers, aren't you kid."
"Then how about answering this? Why does a boy with no respect for authority, and no desire to follow orders, join the army? You weren't drafted."
"I wanted to see the world." The private grinned, and for a second Smith was struck by the image of raw youth before him. This kid didn't look like he belonged in a warzone. With his blue eyes, and the chestnut hair that had somehow managed to escape the regulation cut, he looked like a college student, or a model. He had the look of a playboy. There was something else there though; a hardness in the eyes, a strength in the jaw line. No matter what the surface suggested, he was a born fighter. Smith got the impression that the private didn't like people seeing beneath that surface. He frowned, remembering another raw recruit, twenty years previously...
"Look Peck. You're facing twenty years in prison. Hard years. You can't expect an easy ride. Why? Why the tough act? There has to be something going on here. Your reports from boot camp were excellent. You've been managing to fool everyone for the past six months about this special forces background. Surely that wasn't all for nothing?"
"I like a challenge." Peck had stiffened, as if an invisible barrier had drawn itself around him, and the Captain felt frustrated. His men had nicknamed him Hannibal, because he was the man that all other men would follow; he was supposed to be able to reach everyone with his charisma and his gentle persuasions. This kid was a real challenge though.
"Just tell me. Insubordination? Hitting a captain? Why?"
"I had my reasons."
"And what were they exactly? He call you kid too?"
For a second Peck smiled, and his handsome face took on a whole new light.
"Yeah, he did actually. But that isn't the reason." He shrugged, and the handcuffs on his wrists rattled softly. "We just had a disagreement, that's all."
"A disagreement? You fractured his jaw."
"Yeah. That was just a lucky shot." Peck looked uncertain for the first time in the conversation. "If you really wanna know, it was about a kid we ran into. In the jungle. His village had been torched, and everyone was dead. This kid was no more than fourteen, and Captain Forbes wanted to kill him. He said the kid was probably a VC, and he was going to gun him down right there. I couldn't let that happen, so I got in his way, and when he tried to get past me I decked him." He shrugged again. "That's the truth, Smith, I swear it. I know it's not what's in the file. It sure isn't what Forbes said when we got back to base; but it is what happened."
"Yeah, I know. I managed to get the truth out of another member of the patrol." Smith smiled lightly. "I just wanted to hear it from you. So how about telling me something else?"
"Such as why you stole all that gear." He consulted a list. "Food, medical supplies, blankets, fuel - I have to admit that you forged all the documents well. It must have been worth a lot to you, to have gone to all that trouble."
"Not really. Like I said, I like a challenge." The barrier was there again. Smith thought about some of what he'd read in the file. Peck was an orphan, who had grown up with an uncanny knack for falling into trouble, He was a loner, and always had been. According to his records, he had even spent some time living rough when he was very young. A real Oliver Twist, Hannibal thought, but he didn't smile. It could be really hard getting through to this kid. There was a lot going on beneath that careless, handsome exterior.
"So do I, Peck." Hannibal stared back at the private, his eyes hard. "And I have a reputation for winning."
"So do I, Smith." Peck mirrored Hannibal's tone and expression perfectly, and another echo from the past flickered across the captain's memory.
"Where did all that stolen equipment go?" he pressed. Peck stared back at him. There was open hostility in his face now.
"Are you ordering me to tell you?"
Hannibal considered the question, and decided to press a little harder.
"Yes, I am."
"Then that's hard luck, Smith. I have a reputation for disobeying orders."
"You think you're real tough, don't you kid." Hannibal lit a cigar and leaned back to stare at his captive audience. "I ought to hand you back to the MPs right now and let them throw away the key. You want that?"
Peck shrugged. "Why not? Beats getting my legs blown off like Johnny DeMarco last week. Or getting shot in the head by a sniper like Laurie Davis."
"And then what? Twenty years from now they let you out, with half of your life gone. What happens to all your plans then, Peck?"
Cold blue eyes stared down at Hannibal, with something akin to contempt burning within them. The captain could see that death at the hands of the enemy was the least of the private's concerns. He wasn't the coward he liked to pretend to be.
"Plans?" A humourless smile decorated the handsome face, giving it a maturity which had no place there. "What plans can you have when you come from nowhere, from nothing? I was eight years old when some LA city cop first threw me in the slammer, Smith. I'm a street kid. No cop that knows that is ever going to give me a fair start. No businssman's ever gonna give me a job. I used to want to be a cop. Can you believe that? Till I realised that they'd never let me on the force. That's why I ended up in the army. Nobody else ever gave me the time of day." He stopped, blinking in surprise at his own sudden fury, then abruptly retreated back into his shell. Hannibal could almost see the barriers slamming shut.
"Everybody else has given up on you, so you're gonna give up on everybody else. That it?" Hannibal tried to see through the cold barriers, and try to figure the kid out from the inside, but he couldn't get there. "You're a little young to throw your life on the scrap heap."
"I haven't given up on everybody." The words were barely more than a whisper, but there was real venom behind them. "There's more than you know, Smith."
"Then tell me. Show me you're not a dead loss."
"Why? Why have I got to tell you stuff? Like you say, I'm looking at twenty years. Are you going to overturn that? Talk the US Military out of locking me up? You got a private line to the White House, Smith?"
"No... But it hasn't got that far, and it doesn't need to. You know what a commando is?" The scathing look he received in reply made the answer clear. "Yeah, well this unit is setting up a number of commando squads, each made up of a few hand picked men, one of them a pilot. I've been told to command one of those squads. I have my pilot, and one other man. I need one more."
"Which is where I come in?" Peck looked amazed. "Me? You got to be kidding."
"Why? You've got the training, on paper at least, and I can soon make it for real. No COs except for me. You obey my orders alone. You don't even need to salute anybody else."
"And we get sent on the most dangerous jobs, go to the worst places, get shot at the most, right? Sorry, Smith, but I'm allergic to bullets, especially ones that come near me."
"Oh yeah? That why you ran through enemy cross fire to rescue Private Sam Morgan?"
"Huh. Shouldn't have bothered, He'll only get shot somewhere else, another day." There was another silence. Hannibal smiled, a soft, barely perceptible smile. He had no idea why this kid was so determined to appear like a coward, but the captain saw straight through it.
"Are you interested in the post?" he asked. Peck frowned at him.
"Am I interested in committing suicide? Signing onto a mad crusade of one way missions against VC terrorists? Getting shot up, or blown up, or probably both? Am I hell."
"Fine." Hannibal grinned brightly. "I'll sign you up right away then."
They had been training for weeks. Marching one way, marching the other, hurling practice grenades at each other and swinging from ropes that hung far above the ground. Major Morgan's men were getting restless, and he knew it. He watched a group of them being put through their manoeuvres by a young sergeant, and sighed. They wanted action; real action. They were all young, raw and much too eager. In a few weeks, when they had been here long enough to see what real action was like, they would be longing for repetitive drills again.
"Penny for them, Chief?" He turned, and saw Lieutenant Smith standing beside him.
"Hi, John. I was just thinking about things; the war, the recruits..."
"The lack of food, there being no new supply drops in a fortnight, the fact that we're running seriously low on good crossword puzzles..." Smith grinned. "Yeah, I've been thinking too. I figure that if nothing comes along soon, I'm going to have to do something drastic. Maybe write to the publishers, see if we can get their puzzle magazines sent out here direct."
Morgan laughed. Smith always knew how to handle a situation. It was Smith who saw to it that the lack of supplies did not disturb the men; it was Smith who kept the younger men moving with tales of action and adventure; and Smith who always seemed to have several jokes ready. It was also, Morgan thought, Lieutenant John Smith who had only just thrown off two separate charges of gross insubordination, following a regrettable incident in the jungle a few months ago. High ranking officers did not take too kindly to bright, individualistic young men who had their own ways of following orders. Insubordinate or not, Morgan would have chosen one lone Smith in place of a hundred more conventional officers. He remembered the day when they had first met, and his decision to take the young private under his wing. That had been a good decision, he reflected. It had saved mens' lives. Smith had taken to command like a duck to water, and men followed him willingly. His was the sort of leadership that inspired legends.
"Do you want me to go back to HQ?" Morgan was startled back to the present by Smith's question.
"HQ? Are you crazy? The enemy is supposed to have blocked every road for miles around. It'd be suicide."
"Nah..." The lieutenant puffed on a cigar, breathing a cloud of smoke into the air. Where the hell does he get those things from? Morgan wondered, not for the first time.
"You're not indestructible, John." Morgan grinned. "Although I wouldn't be surprised if the Koreans don't dare shoot you. You probably know their arms manufacturer, right?"
"I don't know. Who is their supplier these days?" Smith laughed lightly. "I could always try to sell 'em guns myself. I think I'd be good at that."
"You surprise me," Morgan shot back dryly. "Is there anything you don't think you're good at?"
"Er..." Smith looked thoughtful. "Nope." They both laughed.
"You're a clown, John, but I'm glad you're here." Morgan allowed his eyes to drift back to the men, still practising for the combat they were so anxious to see. "I thought it would be easy; a new command, a new bunch of cadets to train up. Instead we get stuck out here miles from anywhere, with half of the supply routes cut off, and Central Command apparently forgotten all about us. I think I'd have gone crazy by now without somebody around to take the heat off."
"It's nice to know I'm appreciated. The rest of the army seems to view me as something of an embarrassment." Smith puffed on his cigar, his blue eyes gazing at something that Morgan could not see. In the two years since he had met Smith he had come to accept that his subordinate moved on an entirely different intellectual plane to the major, and that there was a whole side of him that was always to be kept hidden. It created an air of mystery that did not improve his standing in the eyes of Central Command.
"I'm sorry about all that." Morgan shrugged. "I can't seem to persuade them that you're a good officer. All they're interested in is mindless robots who obey everything without question."
"Which puts me well out of the running for future promotion." Smith smiled sadly. "Still, life as a lieutenant isn't too bad. I get to shout at some people."
"Maybe you should give it all up." Morgan glanced across at his friend. "Go back to wherever it was you came from. You could get that doctorate. With your academic record I'm sure your old college would be happy to take you back." There was no immediate answer, and he glanced back at Smith. "Why don't you? Nobody could blame you for pulling out of all this. There are plenty of people in this world who would value your abilities, even if the army doesn't."
"Me, in a nine to five job?" Smith shook his head. "I don't think so. I'm the outdoor type."
"You could still go back to college. I'm serious, John. You've got a good brain. You can't waste it spending your whole life as a lieutenant, with the army yelling at you all the time for not being stupid enough."
"No. I'm not going back to college. Things have changed since then." There was a hard edge to Smith's voice. "Lots of things have changed since I was a student. I've changed."
"Your name has changed." Morgan smiled. "You could soon go back to being Johannes..."
"No." This time there was vehemence behind the syllable, and Smith rounded on Morgan suddenly. "No. Never again. I've told you before, Peter; Johannes is dead, and he's staying that way. I don't want any part of my old life back. None of it. It wasn't worth the trouble."
"Why? I thought you had a good childhood. You've often mentioned having a great time. Lumber jacking for your uncle..."
"Yeah." Smith sounded bitter. "Sure it was fun. My parents were the best, I did have a good childhood. I liked helping my uncle in the summer. College was good too - at first. Then I found out what the world really had to offer, and that's why I left; and why I'm never going back. It just isn't worth it."
"You want to talk about it?"
Smith smiled. He knew that Morgan's concerns were genuine, and it was only right that the major should be interested in the well-being of his men. He shrugged.
"You want to take a little walk with me, Chief?"
"Sure, if you like." They began to walk away from the others, strolling leisurely along as if surveying the perimeter. Smith was silent for some minutes before he began to talk, speaking the words slowly and carefully.
"You wanted to know why I left Johannes back in America, and why I don't ever want to be him again. Well it's simple. He had a few problems, of the kind that aren't easily solved." There was a silence, but Morgan did not push him.
"See... I was at college, and everything was going fine; that degree you seem so damned proud of; everything. Then I fell in love with a local girl, by the name of Sarah Harper. The most beautiful girl..." He frowned. "Sarah was black, and my frat brothers weren't prepared to put up with that. They warned me off; told me to stick to white girls. I wouldn't listen. Sarah and I were planning to set up home together somewhere; I had some crazy idea about being a writer, and Sarah was happy with that..." There was another silence. Morgan still did not speak. It clearly was not easy for Smith to tell the story, and he had no desire to make it any harder by interrupting.
"One night I arranged to meet Sarah, but I got a message saying that she'd cancelled, so I went home. Only the message wasn't from her. She turned up expecting to meet me, and found my frat brothers waiting there instead. They beat her till she couldn't stand up, and when I went to visit her in hospital, I couldn't even recognise her. I knew who was responsible, but nobody would listen. Everyone just kept telling me to go back to my college work, and be a good little white boy. Nobody gave a damn about Sarah; except me, and Sarah's brother, Paul. We met up one night to talk it over. Paul was different to Sarah. He'd already learnt that you can't trust a white man." Smith's face showed his anger. "Couldn't trust them there anyway. They were all the same. But Paul figured he could trust me enough - enough for what we figured needed to be done. We went to find the fraternity boys, just the two of us. There was a big fight. A real big fight. Paul was killed, and so were two of the fraternity members. Nobody could be sure how. One had killed the other by accident, trying to shoot Paul, but the other one... To be honest, I always figured I was responsible. I'd hit the guy. There was an inquest of course, and the deaths were both attributed to Paul. I tried to argue against it, but everybody told me to shut up. I was told to stay quiet, to stick to my own kind, and never mention it to anybody ever again. The town was all in it together; all wanting to shut it all up. They never even asked how Paul came to have been killed. There was no way I was gonna stick around there after that. Sarah didn't want to see me anymore. She was scared, for me and for herself. Hell, who wouldn't be? So I quit the college, and went to join up. What better way to get right out of that place for good?" He stopped walking, and turned around suddenly to face the captain. "That's the way things are, Peter, and that's the reason I am never going back to that place. Part of it's because I don't trust the old me not to take over, and go give those people what they deserve. Part of it's because I just can't face any of it. Them, what happened to my friends..." He sighed. "You're the only one that knows, Chief. Far as the army is concerned, I've always been just plain John Smith. Nobody else needs to know, and nobody else is going to know. Ever. It's better that way."
Morgan reached out his hand, intending to put it on his young friend's shoulder, but stopped halfway. Smith was staring off into the distance, his mind obviously preoccupied. He smiled a sympathetic, half smile, then turned away and left the lieutenant alone. He would come to terms with his memories in his own good time; and meanwhile, Peter Morgan knew that the subject would never be broached again. Certainly not as long as he lived, and probably not as long as John Smith did, either.
The rain fell in its usual, monotonous succession. Thick mud covered the ground, plastering itself over everything that moved, and most of what didn't. Everywhere was sodden, everywhere was hot. The sunshine had long ago parted, to make way for a dark, black night that hid everything except for the rain.
Captain John Smith, commando, United States Army, watched his men run circuits of the camp, slipping in ankle deep mud, the rain obscuring their vision, their heavy packs making them stagger on the difficult ground. He smiled to himself. They would keep it up no matter what the conditions, and that gave him a brief burst of pride. They were his men, after all; hand picked and trained personally. They took their orders from him. After years of struggling to make it past lieutenant; long years when the army had virtually turned its back on him; he had finally achieved some small command of his own. It hurt that it had taken another war before his superiors had seen fit to promote him, but such was life when you chose to be different.
"Okay, call it a day guys," he shouted across the compound. In a slithering of boots on mud the three men slowed to a halt and removed their heavy back packs. They made their way over to him, moving gingerly on the treacherous mud, and stood in a row in front of him. They were all exhausted, he could see that. Murdock's cap had slid to one side of his head, and his face was splashed with mud. BA was blinking through the curtain of rainwater that was pouring down his face. Peck looked tired too, although he was usually too stubborn to let Hannibal see that. Times were changing, though, the captain thought with an inward grin. The kid had even called him 'sir' once or twice.
"Go get cleaned up," he ordered them, and they turned round to shuffle away. BA headed off on his own, back to the mechanics section, and his beloved heaps of junk. No, not junk, Hannibal corrected himself, with a real grin this time. Baracus had hit the last man who had called them that. Pity that he had been a major. They were... what was it? Works of mechanical genius or something. The young corporal took more pride in his work than just about any other man in the camp, but there was no convincing the hierarchy of that. To them he was simply another troublemaker. A bad tempered fool who liked to clobber his seniors. To Hannibal, of course, he was a friend; maybe even more than that. Like with Murdock. The brass saw him merely as an unconventional embarrassment, who liked to talk to his helicopter, and called himself The Lone Murdock on official documents.
Whistling merrily, Hannibal strolled to the barracks, his mind busily working away on the next training session. He had in mind something involving rope bridges strung from the trees. It shouldn't be too difficult, although they might have to be a little more careful than normal about snipers. It might even be fun. He headed for the mess tent, wondering if it would be possible to get a coffee at this late hour. A shadowy figure moved past the tent, and Hannibal pulled back out of the light, trying not to be seen. The figure, with all the ease of long practice, slipped past the guard stationed at the edges of the camp and vanished into the trees. Hannibal followed it. It proved easy to get past the guards undetected, and he made a mental note to warn them of it. This mysterious figure could be anyone. It might be a VC spy.
The figure moved quickly through the jungle, soft and silent despite the bad conditions. The rain was lessening, and it stopped altogether as the pair drew further away from the camp. The visibility improved almost immediately, and Hannibal strained his eyes, trying to see who it was that he was following. As a patch of moonlight managed to get past the thick jungle canopy, he caught a brief glimpse of chestnut hair, and a young, muscular frame.
"Damn." Hannibal whispered the word to himself, anxious not to be heard. What the hell did the kid think he was playing at, sneaking about at this time of the night? It would hardly look good on Peck's already dubious record if he was seen by one of the guards.
The dark figure of the young private hurried silently through the trees, moving like a ghost. Hannibal had a hard time keeping up with the younger man, but his years of commando training stood him in good stead. He stayed well back, acutely aware of Peck's over-sensitive hearing. He wanted to find out what the kid was up to, and he did not want to be discovered in the process.
They walked for some time, twisting and turning about among the trees, until Hannibal was well and truly lost. Cursing himself for having come so far, he slowed and looked about. He did not recognise the jungle here, and could no longer hear the familiar sounds of the river.
"Damn," he muttered, for the second time that night. He could no longer even see Peck. That really made him lost.
"Having trouble, Captain?" Smith jumped, swinging around suddenly. Peck stood close by, almost completely hidden in the shadows. He was holding a gun in his hand, pointed casually at his CO. His blue eyes shone steadily, catching the weak light which filtered down from the moon. He looked dangerous, Hannibal thought, and for the first time he got a real look at the depth of character he had always known to be hidden beneath that careless exterior.
"Not really. I thought I'd take a walk. Looks like I wasn't alone."
"Looks like it." Peck weighed the gun in his hand for a moment, then put it away. "Sorry. Can't be too careful though. I hear talk there's a war on."
"I've heard similar rumours myself." Hannibal frowned. "Are you going to tell me why you're out of bounds? Or do I have to guess?"
"Get straight to the point, don't you." Peck shrugged. "I'm taking a walk, just like you."
"Yeah sure. And I'm the ghost of Lee Harvey Oswald. Nobody takes a walk like that one unless they're going someplace. So where were you going?"
"Maybe I was deserting." Peck grinned. "Yeah, that's it. I was running away. Trying to make it into neutral territory. I hear Norway is good."
"You're getting your wars confused."
"True. But I'd still like to go to Norway." He grinned again. "Are you ordering me to tell you, Smith? 'Cause you've tried that one before."
"I have, haven't I." Hannibal shrugged. "Sure, call it an order if you like. I'd prefer it if you just told me."
"Can't do that."
"Mind if I ask why?"
"Yep." The young soldier smiled. "See you around, Captain." He vanished into the trees.
"You think you're so damn smart, don't you, Peck." Hissing the words between his teeth, Hannibal set off in pursuit, turning all of his instincts and senses up to full. He kept his eyes on his quarry, moving as silently as did Peck, knowing that the other man was not aware of the tail.
They moved on together for another fifteen minutes. Hannibal saw the clearing before they reached it, and saw Peck move forward with an air of familiarity. He looked much as though he were arriving home. The captain saw a building, sloping against the trees, hidden by camouflage netting so that it was invisible to all but the sharpest observers. Peck walked towards it, and hesitated as he drew close. Hannibal saw his shoulders stiffen; saw his whole body tense; then relax suddenly. The captain thought he heard a laugh, although there was little humour in the scene he saw before him.
"Gone." Peck spoke the single word with an odd mixture of relief and sadness. "All gone."
"Who is?" Hannibal stepped out of the shadows. Peck swung around, drawing his gun with admirable speed, and froze when he saw the captain.
"Damn it Smith. What do you want?"
"I asked you a question." Hannibal moved closer, and Peck relaxed. The gun went away again.
"Sure. What's it matter now?" The young soldier grinned. "They're gone."
"The kids." He laughed. "All of 'em. Nobody can stop them now."
"Kids?" Hannibal glanced over at the building. It had been built out of planking and branches, and he recognised army stamps on the sacks which covered the windows and carpeted the floor. "This does not look good, kid. I see stolen military equipment. Lots of it."
"Sure you do. It's all on my record, Chief. You saw it. I was heading for the stockade, remember? Stolen building materials, food, blankets, medical supplies. You did ask me what it was all for."
"And you never told me."
"Well I'm telling you now. It doesn't matter anymore."
"You're saying you stole all that stuff for a bunch of kids?"
"Yep." He grinned, his face suddenly looking incredibly young again. "They were alone. Orphans. I found 'em hiding out by the river, with a red cross nurse looking after them. They didn't have anybody. So I stole them some stuff, fixed them up with a place to live. Helped them out."
"And you kept that a secret?" Hannibal was confused. "Did you think we wouldn't approve?"
"Who's we? You mean the army? Sure they wouldn't approve. When did the army ever approve of anything I did? Or you either for that matter. They'd have stuck those kids in a camp someplace, and they'd have ended up hating Yanks, just like all the other Vietnamese kids do. They didn't have anybody, Smith. I wasn't going to sell them out to the US Army. What good would that have done?"
Hannibal sighed at this outburst. "So you stole military property for them instead. If this ever gets out... You could be charged with supplying the enemy."
"Enemy? They were children. Listen, Captain - I don't know what kinda world you come from, but where I grew up, we stuck together. Against the police, against the authorities, against the army - it's all the same. They needed somebody to give them a chance. Otherwise they'd have ended up carrying guns for the VCs, or throwing grenades like the other kids do. Or ending it all by stepping on a mine. You think it wasn't worth the risk?"
"Don't look at me, kid. I'm just trying to figure you out." Hannibal sighed, and sat down on an upturned crate. He couldn't even begin to imagine how Peck had put this whole thing together, much less how he had managed to get all of the stolen supplies to this secluded spot. He was beginning to see for himself just how capable the kid was. "One minute you're shouting at the world, and the next you're risking everything to help a bunch of kids you don't know the first thing about."
"Don't compare the two, Smith. Let me tell you a story, okay? About a little boy named Lin who saw a pair of Yankee soldiers shoot both his parents just for being the wrong nationality. They tried to shoot him too, but he was too quick, and he got away. Next thing he knows he's out in the jungle, and he's all on his own, and he's got nobody. He's seven years old and he doesn't know which way to turn. Would you turn him away, Captain? Or hand him over to the authorities? All that the army means to Lin is death. They killed his parents. That uniform killed his parents. I found Lin, wandering out here one night when I was visiting the rest of the kids, and I gave him a place to live. I taught him to speak English. I gave him food and somewhere he could be safe, and you know what? He still jumped every time he saw me in my uniform. He still wouldn't go anywhere near me when I had my gun on me. Whatever I might think of the rest of the world, I'm not going to let a kid like that suffer. I know what it feels like, to be out there on your own, and it ain't pretty, Smith." He stopped suddenly, the fires in his eyes burning out. "So what do you say, huh? Are you gonna turn me in? Show the MPs where all that missing gear went? It's up to you, Chief."
"That's it? That's all I'm going to get from you? Some raving about injustice, and a challenge?" Hannibal shook his head. "If I was going to turn you in, do you think I would have bothered fighting the MPs to keep you out of prison in the first place? Damn it, Peck, you are one infuriating jerk at times, you know that? You're so angry at the world, you can't even see when somebody is trying to help you. You think I kept you out of prison for my own benefit? You think BA and Murdock try to help you out because they're getting something out of it?"
"Don't talk rubbish, Smith. Murdock's cool. We're okay, you know that. BA too, even if he is a little weird." Peck frowned. "I can't figure you out yet. I can't understand how come you're so desperate to figure everybody else out. What am I to you? Cannon fodder?"
"Don't talk like that." Hannibal's voice came out like ice, and Peck flinched. "Nobody is cannon fodder, damn it. You, me, anybody. Not your orphan kids, not any damn soldier. Don't ever think like that."
"Tell that to the generals, Smith. Not to me." Peck turned away. "Now if you'll excuse me, Captain, I have to get back. I'm due on watch at 0430. I'd hate to be late."
"Don't walk away from me, Peck." Hannibal stepped forward and caught hold of the younger man's arm. "I'm not through with you yet."
"So what do you want?" Peck turned around, making no attempt to break free from the other man's grip. "You want another explanation? What is it this time? You want to hear about the paperwork I forged for my kids to get them on a plane out of here? You want to hear about the foster homes they're gonna get in the States? I sent them there. I made up some real tragic tales about how their American soldier fathers got killed in battle, and how they've got nobody left for them over here. They shoulda taken off by now. Or maybe there's something else you're angling for. You want something else, Smith?"
"I don't want anything." Hannibal sounded tired. "All I ever wanted was to get through to you. I'm not your enemy. Nobody round here is. Why do you have to turn everything into some big fight? I'm trying to be your friend, Peck. I don't care if you want to forge documents to help some kids out of trouble. I don't care if you want to steal military supplies to help out every Vietnamese kid on the planet, if that's what you want to do. All I want is for you to turn some of these incredible skills of yours into something that we can all use to stay alive out here!"
There was a silence. Peck stood still, staring at the ground, his eyes unreadable, his face blank. Finally he raised his head and looked Hannibal straight in the eyes, his stare unwavering.
"I never meant to hurt you, Smith. Or Murdock, or BA. I mean that. But I just knew that if I told anybody about those kids, they'd be in some camp quicker than you could say Military Police; and I'd be back in the Stockade. I wasn't going to risk that."
"I understand." Hannibal smiled. "Just give me a chance, Peck, that's all I'm asking. I know it isn't easy. Hell, I'm not exactly flavour of the month with the guys at the top myself, you know. I know what it's like to be watched, but you did kind of bring most of it on yourself. Six months Special Forces training?!"
Peck grinned, a sudden, spontaneous grin which caught Hannibal by surprise. "Yeah. I guess that was being a little over-ambitious. You'd be surprised how many people fell for it though."
"No I wouldn't. Not with everything else that I've seen you come up with. I'm not even going to ask how many other little schemes you've got going on around here. All I ask is that you open up a little. Stop looking at the whole damn world like it's your enemy."
"Not the whole world." Peck smiled, a youthful, reflective smile that brought to Smith's mind an innocence that he himself had once left behind, in his own hidden past. "I just didn't know about you. You don't exactly open up yourself. One minute I'm sitting in some cell waiting to be shipped back to the States to start a twenty year stretch, and the next I'm running laps with a bag of bricks on my back. I mean, what is this Smith? Why me? What are you getting out of this?"
"Another member of my team. Somebody I can rely on to watch my back when I go into combat. Somebody who can see to it that my unit has plenty of supplies when they need them. Somebody who can give orders and have them obeyed."
"That's a lot in this game."
"And you're not going to turn me in?"
"What if I did?" Bright blue eyes stared coldly back at him.
"I won't go quietly," Peck told him softly. Hannibal nodded.
"I had hoped you knew me better than that," he said sadly. "Do you honestly think I could be angry with you for this?" He wandered closer to the house. He could see the work that had gone into it; tree branches and 'borrowed' wooden planking fixed together with rope and 'borrowed' nails. Peck had even taken some camouflage netting, to make his charges even more secure from prying eyes. Even so, it was a wonder they had not been found by someone.
"Why not?" Peck glanced over at the ramshackle building, obviously looking past its abandoned emptiness to how it had been when the children had still been living in it. "You got no reason to want to help. You never saw those kids, or thought about how they felt. You never knew that kind of loneliness."
"You don't know me very well."
Peck shrugged. "I read your record."
"I opened the filing cabinet it was kept in. I'm pretty good with locks."
"Sneak thief too, huh?"
"It's a hobby." He grinned. "You can add it to my record. You come from an ordinary family Smith. Middle class Americans. Middle class home, middle class school, middle class life. You never walked the streets with nothing to eat, got the stuffing kicked out of you because some bigger kid was as hungry as you, and figured you might have something he didn't. John Smith is just like a couple million other people. Safe and secure."
Hannibal nodded. He was glad that he had taken Morgan's advice, and doctored his files. It was better to have an official history behind his new name. False or not, it was true in its own way. He had had just the childhood Peck had described, even if it had ended cruelly in his secret college past.
"I'm not denying it, Peck. I just want you to know that I'm not the enemy. Just because nobody ever invested in you when you were a kid doesn't mean that nobody ever will. We're not all against you. Not all of us."
"I know." The young soldier shrugged, his expression showing some confusion beneath the usual certainty. "I just... wanted to know, Smith. You're not an easy guy to figure."
"Good. I should hate to be too much like the riffraff." Hannibal smiled. "Come on, kid. Let's get back to camp. We can discuss this another time. I think it's going to rain."
"You don't say. That'll make a change."
"It's Vietnam, Peck. What did you expect? A desert?"
"Sun-drenched beaches and bikini-clad women would be a start."
"Sorry. I can do rain-drenched jungle."
"What about the bikini-clad women?"
Hannibal laughed. "You'll have to make do with BA and Murdock in combat gear."
"It's not quite the same thing."
"Tough." They began to walk back towards the camp, and Hannibal cast his young companion a sidelong glance.
"Do you trust me, kid?"
"You? Yeah, sure. It's the rest of the world I'm up against." Peck smiled, a distant, secretive smile which told the captain that there was still a lot that he didn't know about his newest recruit.
"I see. Does that mean that you're happy to take my orders when I give them?"
"If it keeps you happy."
"Good." Hannibal smiled. "Because you're out of bounds without permission. You went behind my back and you were well out of order back there. You know what that means?" Peck stiffened, and Hannibal waited, wondering if he was about to get hit by another of Peck's outbursts, or whether the kid was finally learning to lighten up. The stiffened shoulders relaxed, and Hannibal saw a smile. He began to breath again.
"What does it mean?"
"Double fatigues, pal. You got a lot to make up for. Like six months non-existent Special Forces training."
"Hey, it was your fantasy, not mine."
Peck laughed. "Yeah. Slipped up there, didn't I."
"Not really." Hannibal smiled. "By the time I'm through with you, Peck, you're going to be the best damn commando this army ever produced."
"I doubt it." Peck grinned. "But I'll do anything, if it keeps me alive."
"I don't doubt it." They walked on a little further. "Maybe you're right. The best damn commando probably wouldn't be any fun anyway. I'll settle for the best damn con man in the forces."
"That'll do me." They both laughed, and as the rain began to fall again, they walked on together through the night.
"John? Can you hear me?" Speaking quietly so as not to worry his friend, Peter Morgan leaned close to the younger man's bed. "John?"
"I can hear you. Do you think I've gone deaf?" John Smith opened one, weary eye, and smiled up at his commanding officer. "What's wrong?"
Morgan sighed. He should have known that Smith would be alright. All the same, it was a blessed relief to hear his voice.
"What's wrong is that you've been in hospital for four days. I was beginning to think you had checked out permanently."
"Sorry. Only had a forty-eight hour pass, didn't we. Hope the boys up top aren't too angry." Smith tried to sit up, and found that he couldn't move. "What's the score?"
"Two bullets. One was in your right side, the other one pretty close to your spine. You're bloody lucky, John."
"You don't say." Smith managed a cocky laugh. "Of course, I always knew I was indestructible."
"Yeah, well give me some warning next time, okay?" Morgan relaxed back into his chair, trying to ignore the moans of other, less fortunate patients. "Look, I, er..."
"Forget it." Smith could hear the gratitude in Morgan's voice, and he wasn't interested in it. "You'd have done the same for me."
"Yeah, well I didn't, did I. You were the one in the driving seat, pal." Morgan smiled. "I have to confess that it's all kinda blurred, but I definitely recall you pushing me out of the way when the shooting started."
"I had to. You were carrying the beer, and I didn't want to see it wasted." Smith let out a long sigh, trying to ignore the pain in his back. Pain was good, he told himself. It meant that the reason he couldn't move wasn't too serious. He tried moving his head about a bit more, and discovered that he was in a large room which was little more than a tent. Something was holding him in place, so that he couldn't get up, and he glared at the offending straps. He hated confinement. He glanced back at Morgan.
"When do I get out of here?" he asked. Morgan laughed in disbelief.
"Not for another week or two, minimum. You were pretty badly hurt, John. I'd like to think you could stay longer, but the turn around here's pretty fast. Wheel them in, fix them up, send them back out. I reckon they'd have you back at the front tomorrow if they could get away with it."
"Fine by me." Smith yawned, suddenly realising how tired he was. "Say, do we ever get fed around here?"
"I have no idea. I've been getting some stuff out of the canteen, but I guess you boys have got to wait around to get fed by some pretty nurse."
"Yeah?" Smith smiled. "Er... Take a look around would you? If they don't look all that pretty, see if you can go get me something from the canteen."
"And what would sir like?" Morgan asked, wondering exactly how he was supposed to get anything past the rows of stern looking officers.
"Steak sandwich ought to do it. Maybe a side order of fried onions. A little mashed potato." Smith grinned up at him. "And beer. No, make that champagne."
"Sure." Morgan smiled fondly down at his comrade. "Look, John, I have to get back to the front tonight, so I might not be able to drop by at feeding time, okay? I'm sorry, but I lucked out. Only minor injuries."
"Oh." Smith shrugged. "Oh well. I'll see you when I see you then."
"Yeah, sure." Morgan grinned. "Er... Look, John. I really am grateful, even if you won't let me show it. Is there anything I can get for you, or do for you? Seriously this time."
There was a silence, then Smith frowned, looking truly serious for just about the first time since Morgan had met him.
"Yeah, there is something." Smith's hand reached falteringly for his wallet, which lay beside him. Morgan reached it first, determined that his friend should not exert himself too much.
"What am I looking for?" he asked. Smith stared at the wallet, a frown fading in and out of existence on his brow.
"It's... wrapped in oilskin," he muttered, his voice sounding tired and faint. Morgan flipped through the wallet. Almost immediately he found what he was looking for; a small packet, big enough for a sheet or two of paper. He held it up. Smith smiled and managed a weak nod.
"That's... all that's left of... of before," he told his friend, his eyes never leaving the packet. "I want it somewhere safe. You know?"
"It'll never leave my possession till the day you're out of here," Morgan told him. Smith shook his head.
"I don't want it back, Chief. I want you to keep it. I need to know it's somewhere safe, where nobody else is ever going to find it. This is important to me."
"Yeah, sure. I understand, John." Morgan tucked the packet away inside his shirt and stood up. "Although I have to confess, I think you're a little screwy about all this." Smith managed a grin. "Now you take care, okay? I'll see you soon."
"Sure..." Smith was already almost asleep. Morgan stayed with him until he had drifted off back into unconsciousness, then he slowly turned to leave.
Captain John 'Hannibal' Smith leant back in his chair and stared at the report on his desk. He read the words over and over again, trying to make some sense out of them; but somehow the sense wouldn't come. It was as if the whole damn report were written in a foreign language, and he couldn't comprehend the meaning of it all.
"Hey, Captain." Wandering into the room with his usual air of nonchalance, Templeton Peck flashed his CO one of his famously broad grins. "I made corporal. See?" He displayed the new rank insignia with an air of something between pride and disbelief. "Think I oughta get it in writing before they take these back?"
"Probably." Smith tore his eyes away from the report and smiled up at Peck. "Nice, Face. They suit you."
"Yeah, I know. Should be really useful for charming the ladies, too." The younger man noticed the distant look on Hannibal's face and sat down on the corner of the desk. "What's up, Captain?"
"Yeah right. And I'm the White House's biggest fan." Face rolled his eyes. "Sometimes you and secrecy just don't mix, Hannibal."
Smith smiled. After all the long months he had spent trying to make Face trust him, and all of the long hours spent wondering what it was going to take to get the kid to give a little of himself, here he was on the receiving end of a similar campaign. He leant back in his chair as far as he could go, and took one final look at the report on his desk.
"A friend of mine got killed at the weekend. Colonel Peter Morgan. He was my CO when I was a private, back in Korea, and we've been friends ever since." He smiled at a sudden memory. "He just got demoted six months ago for slugging a general." The tale made Face smile as well. Somehow he wasn't surprised that a friend of Smith's should do something like that.
"I'm sorry," he told his friend, although there was little real feeling behind the comment. They had both lost friends during the course of the war, and they both knew how little somebody else's sympathy really helped.
"Yeah, me too." Hannibal's smile turned sad, as he tried to remember the last time he had seen Peter. It had been nearly three years by his reckoning, and he had told Morgan then that it was time he thought about retiring. They had both laughed about it.
"You were pretty close, huh," Face observed. Hannibal nodded. Face nodded too, although a trifle more thoughtfully. "Got anything planned for a send-off?"
"His body will already be on the way back to the States, Face. I think I'm a little too late to say good-bye to him." Hannibal stared down at the report again, then swept it off his desk into a drawer. Face frowned.
"Maybe," he said. "But I've got a couple of bottles of Scotch, and I figure I could use them to persuade--"
"Forget it Face." Hannibal stood up, putting all thoughts of Peter Morgan from his mind. "I don't want to know where those two bottles came from, and I certainly don't want to know what you're planning to do with them." He gestured towards the door; a wordless dismissal. "I got a lot of work to do. I'm acting colonel at the moment, and I really don't want to blow it."
"Yeah, sure. No problem. " Face wandered to the door, whistling softly. Hannibal frowned. He might not have come anywhere near cracking all of the layers of secrecy that the young corporal had wrapped himself in, but one thing he had learned was that when Face was feigning innocence it was a time for all sane men to worry.
"Face..." he called. The young man glanced back, his blue eyes wide.
"Don't do anything I wouldn't do."
"Whatever you say, Captain." He was gone before Hannibal could say anything else, and the captain sighed. He really didn't want to have to worry about what Peck was up to this time. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his battered old wallet, tugging a photograph from out of the lining. He had almost forgotten that the picture was there, and he hadn't looked at it in years. It showed him and Morgan together one day on leave. That had been the time when they had run into sniper fire on the way back to base, and Hannibal had taken two bullets for Morgan. He still had a scar on his back as a result of that little escapade. He smiled at the memory, and remembered the nurse who had almost made the stay in hospital worthwhile. It was hard to imagine that the world was now without Peter Morgan. The only man who knew that John Smith didn't really exist. Smith remembered his old CO's words, when he had taken the little oilskin packet that contained the last hard evidence of Johannes Szkarabjek's existence. Morgan had told him that he was crazy. He was probably right. He wondered where the oilskin packet was now, or if Morgan had lost or destroyed it. He was doubtful about the former, and he had asked him not to do the latter; but that had been a long time ago, back in Korea. He had wanted to know that his old life still existed, at least on paper, so that the option would always be open to return to it. Just so that if, one day, the army with its rules he hated and its regulations he didn't agree with should prove to be too much, he could return to his old life, with his degree and his outstanding academic record. There were days, when he was taking flak for disobeying orders yet again, or when he was overlooked for promotion yet again, that he felt he could cheerfully abandon John Smith, just as he had once abandoned Johannes Szkarabjek. The thought almost made him want the little oilskin packet back.
Outside, Corporal Templeton Peck walked quickly away from Smith's temporary office, his face a mask of concentration. He was thinking hard. Two bottles of Scotch were worth at least a weekend's leave, and he had been saving them up for just that purpose; but the more he thought about it, the more he was sure that he had found a better use. After all, if he really needed a weekend's leave, he could forge the papers easily enough. He had done it before. He and Murdock had had a wonderful forty-eight hours in Saigon, and it had only cost them a hundred dollars to bribe the MPs into letting them off when they had found out that the papers were false... He grinned. Hannibal had gone crazy over that one, but Face had been unmoved. He still liked to exercise a little independence now and again, just to let Smith know that he was still his own man. Now was just such a time.
"Hey Face." Sergeant Tom Fuller, a bearded, barrel-chested football player from Brooklyn, waved a friendly greeting as the young corporal headed his way. Face flashed him a killer grin in reply and leant against the side of the jeep that Fuller was cleaning. Fuller was in charge of the motor pool, and he took as much care over his beloved mechanical charges as did BA.
"Hey sarge. I was thinking--"
"Then you can think someplace else. Last time you did some thinking, I lost fifty dollars in a poker game." Fuller picked up a bucket of water and went back to cleaning the jeep. Face moved aside quickly to avoid being soaked.
"Hey, come on, sarge. That was a fair game and you know it. I won that money straight."
"With you, Peck, there's very little that's straight." Fuller couldn't help smiling to himself. You couldn't fault the kid for persistence.
"I'm serious here, sarge." Putting on his best look of innocence, Face tried another grin, this time a more sincere one. "I've got a bottle of Scotch which has come into my possession through totally kosher channels, and--"
"Kosher? You?" Fuller began to laugh. Face persevered, a hurt look in his eyes.
"This bottle of Scotch is twelve years old, and it came straight here from Scotland. We are talking about one of the finest names in alcohol here, sarge."
"We are, huh?" Fuller sighed. "What do you want?"
Face grinned. Now he was making some progress.
"I want that jeep. Just for the rest of the day. I'll get it back to you tonight, I swear."
"Tonight?" Fuller frowned, thinking that he really ought to say a firm no and walk away, but something in Face's eyes made him hesitate. The kid really did look sincere, with the kind of expression of open honesty that just couldn't be faked; could it? He sighed. "Okay kid, you got it. But I want this jeep back here by midnight, you got that?"
"I got that, sarge. Don't worry." Face jumped into the jeep, starting her up before Fuller could protest. The sergeant jumped back, amazed.
"Hey, you can't go now, I'm still--"
"See ya!" Gunning the accelerator, Face roared away, vanishing before Fuller could finish his sentence. He sighed. Why did he feel like he was making a really big mistake here? He kicked the bucket of water he had been using to wash the jeep, then headed back to the motor pool. He had to look for something to take his mind off Peck, and whatever it was that the kid was up to this time.
Face roared down the dirt track, looking as relaxed as he might have been were he taking a spin in a convertible in California's sun-drenched beach side. He fished a pair of sunglasses out of his pocket and slipped them on, grinning happily to himself, and already beginning to plan ahead. The remaining bottle of Scotch equalled a way in to see Ben Tuk-Li, and then a little soft-soaping ought to pave the way ahead. Tuk-Li was the local king-pin, a man who operated on both sides with equal freedom, and who could be called upon to come up with anything that the situation demanded. Face had a pocketful of forged papers which ought to win him the man's co-operation. Tuk-Li would be only to pleased to help the aide of a bona fide White House representative, and by the time he found out the truth, Face would be a long way away. He grinned to himself, beginning to relax more and more. With the money he still had from a couple of his more inventive scams, plus the proceeds from his last poker game, he should be able to turn Tuk-Li's head. If things went according to plan he wouldn't need to spend a dime of it. Tuk-Li was sure to allow a White House man to take what he needed on credit. He mulled over the more important items on his shopping list. Beer, naturally; vodka if he could get it; hopefully some food that was just a little superior to what they usually got. He had heard that Tuk-Li had waylaid more than his share of supply trucks in the past, which should mean that he had something a little out of the ordinary. Caviar was probably a little out of the question, but not too far off base if everything Face had heard about the man was true. He smiled to himself. Tuk-Li sounded like his kind of man.
The drive lasted until well into the afternoon. Face glanced at his watch, mentally ticking off the hours until midnight. There should be plenty of time. He straightened his collar, wishing that he had had time to change out of combat fatigues, and strode up to the bored looking guard standing outside the ramshackle building which housed Tuk-Li's 'offices'.
"You want something?" The guard asked him in Vietnamese. Face answered in the same language, glad that he had taken the time to learn it. It paid to be able to speak to people in their native tongues.
"I want to speak to Tuk-Li," he told the guard, who frowned at him, surprised both by the direct reply and the language that it came in.
"Why?" he asked, a note of belligerence in his tone. Face grinned.
"Because I have a proposition for him. Tell him that my name is Simon Wetherford, and I'm from the White House. I represent the government of the United States of America, and I believe we may be able to do business."
"You do?" The words were in English, barely accented. Face turned, surprised to see a small, ageing Vietnamese man coming up behind him. This had to be Ben Tuk-Li.
"Ah, Mr Tuk-Li." Face held out his credentials, deciding that the brisk and businesslike approach would be best. "I'm here on behalf of General George Garrison, head of supplies. Could I have a word?"
"Talk on." Tuk-Li was apparently happy to speak outside, so Face continued cheerfully.
"I'll be honest with you, Mr Tuk-Li... The American government is not finding it easy to get the supplies that it needs to keep its men here fed properly. We are... prepared to look into alternative ways of getting those supplies. Do you understand?"
"I understand." Tuk-Li turned the documents over in his hands, eyeing the official stamps and the collection of famous signatures. He liked the look of one name in particular; Lyndon Johnson. He had seen the signature before, on other documents.
"Good." Face felt in his pocket and brought out a sheaf of bills. There was two hundred and fifty dollars precisely, and he spread it out to make it look rather more impressive than it was. "This is only a small fraction of what we're prepared to pay of course..."
"Put your money away, Mr Wetherford." Tuk-Li smiled broadly, leading the way into his office. "Tell me what I can do for your fine government. I'm happy to oblige."
I bet you are, Face thought, seeing plenty of evidence that Tuk-Li stood to gain little from a communist victory. "My chiefs have in mind a little test; that's if you have no objections."
"Of course not. I can understand that you wish to protect your investment." Tuk-Li grinned widely, revealing at least three gold teeth. "What is it that you have in mind?"
"Well... It's General Garrison's birthday in a few days. We'd like to be able to throw him a party, but there's little to celebrate with." Face offered Tuk-Li his best businessman's grin, with just a little innocent enthusiasm thrown in for good measure. "Do you think you could handle something like that? If I could take something back with me, to impress the general on his birthday... well I'm sure he would be convinced that you're the man for us."
"I see." Tuk-Li looked thoughtful, and gave the documents another glance. "I think I can give you what you want, Mr Wetherford." He clapped his hands and two men appeared. Smiling all the time, Tuk-Li gave them rapid orders in his native tongue, then turned back to Face.
"Did you follow all that?" he asked innocently. Face smiled.
"Afraid not," he lied, seeing satisfaction on his host's face. "I take it that we have a deal?"
"We certainly do, my friend. Perhaps you will share a drink with me to cement our relationship?" Tuk-Li walked to a cabinet and took out two glasses, opening Face's bottle in the same smooth movement. "You brought the right gift for me, Mr Wetherford. Whisky is my favourite drink."
"Really?" Face put the right amount of surprise into his tone, accepting the proffered glass. He drank the strong liquid back quickly, trying not to look too much as though he were unused to it. Beer was far more in his line. Out of the corner of his eye he saw that Tuk-Li's two assistants had returned, and he glanced towards them.
"Your jeep is ready," Tuk-Li told him. He smiled.
"Oh, right. I'll be back in... call it three days. I hope I'll be bringing you our first order, and we can talk money then."
"My favourite subject." Tuk-Li grinned broadly again, and Face spied at least two more gold teeth. He smiled back.
"Goodbye for now then."
"Goodbye, Mr Wetherford." Tuk-Li followed him to the door but did not accompany him out. Face threw him a brief wave as he climbed into the jeep and started up the engine. He ran a quick eye over the boxes arranged beside him. He could see tins of ham, some bars of chocolate, jars with all kinds of interesting labels, and best of all a large crate of beer. He wasn't sure that he could remember the last time that there had been anything to eat back at camp besides bad stew and tasteless coffee; although admittedly the tasteless coffee was better than its precedent. He noticed something else too, resting against the back of the passenger seat; a small box containing three bottles of sherry. Hannibal would like that, he told himself, extremely pleased.
The drive back was slower than the drive out. Face was in high spirits, and allowed his mind to wander, imagining that he was really driving through California, the thick jungle on either side of him becoming tall green palm trees in his dreams. He liked the idea of driving through Frisco or LA, the wind in his hair, his sunglasses completing the image of a rich young businessman, or a conquering war hero. The last time he had driven through LA it had been in a stolen car when he was sixteen, and there had been no glamour in that. There had been bus rides, and numerous excursions in the back of police patrol cars too, but that was hardly glamorous either. He liked to think that it would all be different, next time he was there. Next time he would be in his own car, secure in the knowledge that, for the first time in his life, the police weren't watching him for some reason or another. That, at least, would please Father Magill.
So wrapped up in his dreams was he, that Face almost failed to stop when he saw the jeeps up ahead. He slammed on his brakes in the nick of time, amazed to see five large men in combat gear standing before him. He climbed out of the jeep, wishing that he had brought something to cover the supplies up with, and smiled at the men. They were all big, and made him feel decidedly nervous.
"You going somewhere special, boy?" one of them asked. He smiled.
"Special assignment, yeah. Got to get these supplies back to base. We've got some bigwig general coming up for an inspection."
"Really?" Another of the men stepped forwards, eyeing the goods with a greedy eye. "Well you can tell the general that I've done the inspection for him." He reached out with a large hand, grabbing the crate of beer.
"Hey." Face knocked the man's hand aside and climbed back into the jeep. "This stuff is army property. You're not taking it."
"Aren't we?" Another of the men grabbed him by the collar, hauling him out of his seat and on to the road. "How are you going to stop us?"
"Any way I have to." He pulled free, at the same time catching up the rifle lying on the floor of his jeep. It was unloaded, as he knew only too well, and wouldn't have worked even if he had had the ammunition for it. It was a World War Two relic that Fuller kept as a good luck charm. "Stand aside."
"Guess again." Taking no notice of the gun, the biggest of the men pushed the weapon aside. It bounced across the mud road, skidding to a halt against a tree. "Now be a good boy and turn your back while we relieve you of your load here. I think you've exceeded the legal weight limit for your vehicle."
"I said don't touch that." Face pushed forward, but found it suddenly impossible to move. A huge pair of arms encircled his torso, pinning his arms to his sides. He struggled fiercely. "You'll be sorry if you touch that stuff. I got it from Ben Tuk-Li, and when he finds out you took it--"
"Ben Tuk-Li, huh?" Another of the men wore an easy grin on his face. "Really. Well that doesn't cut much ice with me, kid." He heaved the crate of beer out of the jeep, a determined look on his face. Angry, the young corporal forced himself to stop struggling, trying to relax and look suitably defeated. He heard the man holding him give a short laugh of triumph, and the grip around his chest weakened. He grinned.
With the speed of sudden lightning, Face tore free from his captor and hurled himself at the nearest of his foes, using the bonnet of his jeep as a springboard. He crashed into the man, sending him tumbling to the floor, and snatched up the fallen crate of beer. It didn't even look as if any of the bottles had been broken. Leaping behind the wheel he made a grab for the ignition - and found the keys missing.
"Looking for these?" Climbing to his feet, the man he had attacked held up the ignition key, dangling it tantalisingly from one finger. "Sorry kid. It just isn't your day, is it." He pulled Face from the jeep, hurling him against the side of the vehicle, looming over him threateningly "I don't like people who get in my way." Face stared up at him, a feeling rather akin to a deep sense of foreboding beginning to fill his heart. He managed a weak smile.
"Guess that rules out a deal, huh?" The fist slamming into the side of his head was his answer, and he fell sideways, stars dancing before his eyes. Somewhere he heard a strangely disembodied laugh, then he was hauled upright again.
"I hope you brought a spare set of ribs, boy," one of the men told him, although he wasn't sure which of them had spoken. He tried to focus his eyes, and raised his fists defiantly, but there were too many of them, and they were already closing in.
"You okay, kid?" The voice came from far away, and John Smith opened a weary, swollen eye to look towards its source. He saw Peter Morgan, and grinned.
"Hi boss." Morgan glowered.
"You're a damn fool, Smith. I was starting to think maybe I was glad I transferred you into my unit, and now you go and do a dumb thing like this. What the hell were you playing at?"
"I don't know." Smith tried to sit up, found that he could provided he didn't mind the world spinning around him, and blinked up at his commanding officer. "Look it all happened in the heat of the moment, okay? I thought I could handle them."
"Yeah well next time count them before you make your move." Morgan sat down on a nearby chair and looked the young private over. Two black eyes, almost too swollen to open, torn lips, a cut cheek; and those were only the visible injuries. Beneath the easy grin and the relaxed stance there were at least three cracked ribs, and probably one or two broken ones. "Who threw the first punch?"
"I did." Smith stretched uncomfortably, and winced at the resulting wave of pain. "They were jerks. They deserved it."
"Did they." Morgan sighed. "Listen kid; I don't know if you realise this, but I've got rather a lot riding on you. You know how hard it is for a man like me to get anywhere in the army? You think it's easy getting passed over for promotion all the time by kids? With my reputation, anything that isn't in the rule book is like a death knell, and I broke a lot of rules taking you on. If you don't clean up your act pretty soon, I'm going to be in a lot of trouble." He sighed, angry with himself. He hadn't meant to let all that lot come out, but it was too late to take it back now. "Sorry, kid."
"No, I'm sorry." Smith relaxed back onto the bed, glad that the time for pretences was over. "They were saying dumb things, and I let myself get angry at them. It was a stupid thing to do. I always said that I wasn't going to let that happen again." He smiled up at Morgan. "I'm sorry." He looked older all of a sudden, and Morgan felt something inside of him give way. He smiled back, suddenly seeing through the carefully erected veneer of military stiffness. He hadn't made it past that barrier since that first day in his tent, back when he had met Smith for the first time.
"It's alright," he said, feigning a grudging sense of acceptance. "Do me a favour and think next time. I've got plans for you, kid."
"Me too." Smith grinned, wincing at the strain it put on his cut lips. "Just don't expect me to be like the others out there, boss, because I don't think I can deliver."
"Smith... If I thought you were just like them, I'd never have transferred you into my unit." Morgan grinned. "Take it easy, kid. I'll see you later."
"Sure." Smith closed his eyes, gazing up at the ceiling. It had been a long time since he had trusted anybody; not since he had been at college, and had still believed that everybody believed in the same things he did. It felt good to know that he had a friend again, and that somebody here understood him. Beside him, Morgan smiled at the sudden look of youthfulness which had returned to Smith's face. He was sure that he was doing the right thing by not reporting this latest incident. Smith was going to be good, he knew it. He just hoped that he could persuade the US Army to share his faith. Somehow he didn't think that was going to be easy.
"So, er... how did you know where I was?" Trying to look as though speaking didn't hurt, Face folded his arms and stared down at Hannibal with his usual air of calculated disrespect. The acting colonel stared back, determined to make it through the barriers this time.
"I just set off in the direction Sergeant Fuller told me you'd driven in. Lucky for you that I did, wouldn't you say?"
"Maybe." Face glanced over at the pile of boxes in the corner of the room. It looked as if everything was there. "Did you arrest them?"
"No. They drove off as soon as I came around the corner." Hannibal surveyed the pile of loot. "What's it all for, Face? I mean, what is it with you? You steal a jeep, you take off without permission, you get a load of stolen stuff from a known criminal, and you're found beaten unconscious and with a pocketful of forged papers. What's the scam this time?"
"No scam." He sounded young, and dangerously mutinous. Hannibal sighed.
"I ought to let the MPs take you away this time."
"Then why don't you?" It was a direct challenge, the voice quiet and cold. Hannibal stared into the bright blue eyes of his young subordinate and frowned.
"Because I really don't want every other officer for miles around saying 'I told you so'. I thought we were getting somewhere, Face? I thought we'd agreed that there are certain rules that have to be followed? Now tell me; what is all this for?"
Face sighed, his shoulders actually seeming to slump. He looked away, gazing back at the supplies, looking painfully young. All pretence at innocence and attitude seemed to have gone.
"It was for you," he said finally, his voice soft. "So you could say goodbye to your friend. I wanted - well I know what it's like to lose somebody. We all do. I figured we could do with the change."
"You what?" Hannibal stared over at the stores. "You went through all that for me?" He stood up, wandering around the table to stand in front of the young corporal. "Do you have any idea how dangerous it was, going to Ben Tuk-Li? Those men who attacked you; they worked for him. It's a known trick of his to steal stuff back after he's sold it. If they hadn't been his men they'd have killed you; and there are plenty of renegades out there who aren't on his payroll. You could just as easily have run into a group of them. What kind of an idiot are you?" He found himself suddenly unable to hold back the grin any longer. "Hell, kid. I'm glad you're on my side." There was a pause, then Face looked back at him, the rebellion burning in his eyes once again.
"So what happens to the stuff?" he asked. Hannibal picked up a bottle of sherry, turning it over in his hands.
"We keep it," he said. "There's no way I'm going to send it back. I'm grateful for what you did, Face, but it was a damned stupid thing, and I don't want you doing anything like it again. Understand?"
"Sure." There was such a total lack of honesty in the single word that Hannibal had to laugh. He was beginning to realise that there was nothing that could stop this kid from doing what he wanted. There were times when Face reminded him so much of himself that it hurt. He shook his head, turning away.
"What?" Standing suddenly straight and tall, Face sounded as though the conversation had never happened. If it hadn't been for the bruises, he would have looked as innocent as the day was long. Hannibal smiled at the sight as he turned back to face the young soldier. It was moments such as this one that reminded him of how they had come up with the kid's nickname.
"I wanted to say... thanks, kid. And listen... I'm sorry I yelled at you, and I'm sorry if I've been pretty rough on you, but... hell, you deserved it."
Face grinned. "Sorry, Captain. I really do appreciate the second chance, honest. Listen, I've got this bottle of port, recently come into my possession, and--"
"Forget it! I don't want to know." Hannibal sighed, deciding that he was definitely glad he and Face were on the same side. At least... he thought they were on the same side. He thought back to the barriers, that routinely cut him off whenever he tried to get close to the kid. "Look, I, er... Well I wanted to suggest a fresh start. No secrets, nothing. Friends, right?"
"Sure." Face shook the proffered hand, a strange look in his eyes. If Smith didn't want any secrets, fine. Face was an expert in allowing people to see what he wanted them to, and if Smith wanted no more barriers, he would get no more barriers, in appearance at least. That didn't mean they wouldn't be there. What was the point in telling him everything, and letting him see everything? What good would it do to tell him about the reasons why he never trusted anybody, or never allowed anybody to get close? A man with Smith's background wouldn't understand the way it felt to get beaten up because of who or what you were, or where you came from. He wouldn't understand how it felt to have cops knock you around simply because they could. All of that he would keep to himself.
"Thanks Face." Relieved to finally see some openness in the kid's expression, Hannibal smiled. Of course the openness only went one way, as far he was concerned. He couldn't exactly tell Face the truth about himself. He wasn't planning to tell anybody about the other identity, and the violent way in which it had come to its end. He still hadn't come to terms with all of that himself. And what would this kid know about prejudice, and the sometimes violent ways in which it could manifest itself; or about how high up the chain of authority it could go?
"See you, Captain." Face turned to leave, failing as always to ask for permission, or to salute. That was the way Hannibal liked it to be, and he took great pride in the sense of independence he had instilled in his men. Of course, some needed less instilling than others. He grinned as he watched Face walk away, feeling as though he had truly achieved something; and something which made him feel even closer to the man who had once given him the same sort of break he was giving Peck now. He felt for the photograph in his pocket, and saw it again in his mind's eye. He owed a lot to Peter Morgan.
"You're making a big mistake there, Peter." Colonel James Sanford puffed idly on his cigar, and watched as Corporal John Smith walked away. "I'd never have recommended that man for promotion. He's trouble. He doesn't obey orders, he doesn't have any respect for authority, and he'll never listen to a word you say. You mark my words."
"You're probably right." Morgan smiled, aware that Smith could hear every word that he said. "He is trouble. He doesn't obey orders, and he has one almighty attitude problem."
"Then why promote him?" Perplexed, Sanford turned to stare at his companion. Morgan laughed.
"Because he's the best damn soldier I've seen in years. You keep an eye on that man, James. Twenty years from now, he'll be grabbing headlines. You'll see. He's gonna be famous."
"No doubt. But famous as what, exactly?" Sanford turned and began to walk away. "He's trouble, Peter. Don't ever forget I told you that."
"I won't." Peter Morgan laughed, watching as Smith wandered out of sight, and finally out of earshot. Whatever the brass told him, he saw a great future ahead of the young soldier. One day, he would be extremely proud of the kid. One day there would be lives that had been saved, all thanks to Morgan's decision to take him on. He knew it with a kind of certainty that he had never known before. Smith was going places; but on reflection, thought Peter Morgan with a grin, it was probably best that he didn't know in advance where those places were, or he might find himself siding with Sanford. He laughed at that, and headed off back to his duties. He didn't regret a thing, and he never would.
John 'Hannibal' Smith stared at the small metal strong box that had been delivered to his office that morning. The key had come later, by a separate courier, and the level of security in that amused him. He toyed with the key, finally putting it in the lock and opening the box. A small oilskin packet stared back at him; the only thing in the box. Gently he took it out, opening it up and staring at the two sheets of paper. A birth certificate, and the certificate of his degree. He smiled at them both. With these, he could leave the army and get a good job somewhere. He could bow to convention and get himself a proper career, and a life. A family. He could leave all the frustrations of military life, and the endless reprimands for disobeying orders. He could go back to all that he had once been. He smiled. There was a certain freedom in being Johannes Szkarabjek that he hadn't known in a long time. A place with no wars to fight, no bullets to dodge, and no endless anger at the stupidity of narrow-minded superior officers. But there was something else too. There were people and events that he would rather forget, and a whole way of life that he had turned his back on in disgust. He leaned back in his chair, lighting a cigar, and gazed at the two certificates for a little longer. He read the name and the place of birth, read the words on the degree certificate. He thought about what it would be like, going back to the real world again, and never having to worry about whether he was going to make it through the day alive, or which of his friends he was going to lose tomorrow. Never having to salute another jumped up idiot who thought he was better because he had one more pip on his collar; and he thought about his team. He grinned. Without the slightest feeling of regret, he took the cigar from his mouth and placed the burning tip against the two certificates, watching as they blazed into an inferno of flame, before drifting into a pile of broken ashes on his desk. He laughed, and clamped the cigar between his teeth, grinning around it in blissful satisfaction. He was committed now, for better or for worse; there could be no going back. Despite his earlier conviction, he wondered for a moment if perhaps he might one day come to regret so conclusive a gesture; but as if in answer, as he scraped up the ashes and dumped them into the bin, he heard the voices of his team outside the door. The doubts flew from his mind, and he left them behind with the smouldering ashes of his past. Now resolute, beyond all shadow of a doubt, he went to greet them; ready to lead them into whatever was coming. There was so much that was still uncertain; so much that he could never be sure of - but he knew that whatever did come, he and his team would be facing it together.