Time has a funny way of slipping away from me on autumn afternoons when I don't have to go to work. When I sat down to really have a go at the library book, it was somewhere around noon. Now, when I finish the last line and look up at the cat clock with the shifty eyes, it's half past six and what little sunlight remained is gone.
My stomach growls. These last few days eating has been just another mindless chore. I open my little fridge, sniff at a Chinese take-out box, and decide last week's chow mein is still fit for human consumption. Only when I dive into it with my chopsticks do I realize how hungry I really am. The cold noodles are gone in minutes and I crave more.
I could always ask the Ables to go pick me up some more. They may be guards, but they're also a valet service of sorts. I remember Face telling me not so long ago that he sent them to grab his dry cleaning.
More than even another order of Chinese food, I want to talk to him right now. Not just to hear the soothing sound of his voice, but to ask him a question.
What did I tell you about my time with the Company?
It's kind of weird to think of it that way. I should know; it's my life, not his. But what I do know is that there are many holes in the patchwork quilt of my memories from the time I stepped on the tarmac in Da Nang way back then to now. Holes that seem less like tiny tears in the fabric and more like yawning chasms. If anybody can help me remember, anybody who's available to me, it's Face.
I don't know when or even if I'll get to talk to him again. Stockwell's warning from earlier is still ringing in my ears. My phones are bugged and I'd never make it to the pay phone at the corner grocery without being seen. Aside from sending a smoke signal or a carrier pigeon, I have no way of reaching Face or the others.
As for my Sherlock Holmes act, it's going nowhere on a fast train. I've been through the library book and found absolutely nothing helpful. Just a lot of gruesome stuff about murdered prostitutes, missing kids, and Edgar Allan Poe fans who went off the deep end. Typical true crime garbage.
I pace the kitchen floor, wishing I had a violin to play or some more chow mein to eat. I hear the nagging voices of doubt that always start gabbing away when I'm frustrated. I am not a detective or a famed investigator or one of those forensic guys you see on TV now. I'm just a formerly crazy guy with a half-empty stomach and no evidence to go on.
But you know everything about reality, Murdock. You only choose to live in a fantasy world.
That's a voice I haven't heard in a long time. It's a voice I trust, and it immediately makes me stop pacing.
When you find yourself lost, why not start at the beginning?
The other day I asked one of the Ables to get me a white posterboard, the kind kids use at science fairs. He didn't ask what it was for and I didn't tell him. It's in the tiny living room, hanging over the mantle of the blocked-up fireplace. It is covered in my untidy scrawl along with clippings from newspapers, close-up photos of the dead Ables, and all manner of shorthand. My findings so far. I go to it now and look closely at the evidence. I feel like the guy who found the Rosetta Stone before he figured out what all those little squiggles and lines meant.
At the top of the white board, I've circled Stockwell's name. All these men and women are just players in a game he controls. Even me. I can't say I've ever liked him. I understand what Hannibal meant when he privately told me the General has a god complex.
"Hang on a sec…"
I'm talking out loud but I don't care. Something has just fallen into place. I'm not sure what, but the wheels and cogs in my head are turning faster now.
God complex. Control.
I grab the nearest writing utensil at hand, which happens to be a purple Mr. Sketch marker. The fruity scent of grape fills my nostrils as I begin circling furiously. There, underneath the morgue photos, is Dr. Penelope Spicer. I hadn't recognized her because, when I met her a long time ago, the hair was longer and had much less gray.
Bolting from the living room, I nearly run right into the narrow doorway on my way to the bedroom. Instead, one of my feet catches on the old brass umbrella stand I use as a doorstop. I yelp in pain and hop around for a moment, hoping nothing is broken. When only a dull throbbing remains, I'm able to hobble onward. It takes a few minutes to pry the floorboards loose and find what I'm looking for. An old Buster Brown shoebox with a single piece of masking tape bearing the letters "H.M."
How I've managed to keep it safe from Stockwell and the Ables, I'm not sure. They never bother to search that carefully. Mostly they just watch the place and make sure I'm not calling my friends. Like I'm some kind of teenager who's been grounded.
I breathe a deep sigh of relief when I find the box still full. Inside is a jumble of old photos, beer coasters, a rabbit's foot, and a dozen other little pieces of my life before. The one photo I'm looking for is toward the back. Looking at it, I smile in spite of myself. We're at Lucy's in Saigon having a surprise birthday party for Faceman during our R&R. Must have been in '70, I think, doing some quick mental math. The birthday boy is clearly drunk; he wears a goofy smile and several of those plastic Hawaiian leis over his greens. Hannibal is there too, caught in mid-laugh with a shot glass in hand. I'm right beside Face, my arm around him, grinning. I realize with a pang of sadness how much more hair I had then. B.A. must have taken the shot because he's nowhere in sight.
And there, right behind the jukebox, is Penelope Spicer.
She's a little blurry and out of focus, but it's unmistakably a younger version of the same woman I met two days ago. I remember now, running into her on one of several trips to the men's room that night, and her saying something to me that seemed completely strange at the time. Or I could have just been as drunk as Face had been.
"You are needed on Olympus."
I don't remember much else about that party. For all I know she could have been talking about some code, another off-the-record jaunt for the Air America boys across the border into Laos or Cambodia. It also could have been that I was on my sixth beer by then. But I remember so well now: her soft Baltimore accent, her long ginger curls, and the scent of camellias. And now I've just met her again, nearly twenty years later. Why? I stopped believing in coincidences a long time ago. With Stockwell pulling the strings, they just don't exist.
For a couple more minutes I dig through the shoebox, looking for more pictures from that night or any where the mystery woman might have wandered into the frame. Nothing.
When I look out the bedroom window, I see the black sedan still at the curb. My stomach lets out another growl and it gives me an idea. My phone line may be bugged, but I have ways of getting around that. First things first, though. I'm starving.
The Able picks up on the fourth ring. "This better be important." He sounds annoyed, like I interrupted him in the middle of listening to a good Orioles game on the radio.
"Do you think you could go grab me some Moo Goo Gai Pan and fried rice? See, I don't get paid until Friday, and the Shanghai Palace is still open…"
I hear a grunt. "I'm not your errand boy. Get it yourself."
I sigh, then decide to play the one decent card I have. "General Stockwell said you guys could help me out during my investigation. All I'm asking for is a little chow. C'mon, please?"
"This is coming out of your paycheck, flyboy. And I expect a tip."
Once I hang up, I know timing is everything. I have ten minutes, maybe fifteen if the Chinese place has other orders to fill. It's times like this when I'm glad I've managed to keep in shape.
The one "back door" in my fourplex apartment is the bathroom window. I'm able to slip out without much difficulty. My right foot is still a little sore from its encounter with the umbrella stand. After a quick look around, I'm satisfied that no one is watching, and I set off at a fast trot toward the 7-11 two blocks away.
Paranoia jogs alongside me. I know I'm taking a huge risk doing this, but I have to. For my guys, and more importantly, for my own sanity's sake. Stockwell could be on top of me in a matter of minutes. Maybe he'll sic those Dobermans of his on me. Bring 'em on, the wild, reckless side of me says. I could use a good fight.
Nobody, no Ables and not even the local wino, is around when I make it to the phone booth next to the brightly-lit store. I look down at my watch. Two minutes. Not bad for an ex-crazy guy with a bad ankle who's pushing forty pretty hard. I have to hurry. From my jacket pocket I withdraw a quarter.
It's times like this when I appreciate how Face likes to talk about himself. I remember him telling me how Stockwell had agreed to let him take his latest girl, a swimsuit model named Ilana, to the hottest French bistro inside the Beltway next Tuesday night. And tonight was Tuesday. All I needed to remember was the name of the place. Chez something?
My heart, already galloping along from my run and my paranoia, nearly stops when I hear the tap on the phone booth door. I look up and see only the disheveled wino.
"Got some change, buddy? I'm starving, see…"
I shoo him away with my free hand. He shuffles off, muttering under his breath. I almost feel sorry for him; as it turns out, there really are crazier people than me in this world. Then I remember that I have maybe five minutes to call Face.
Chez Paniche…was that it? I find the listing, Georgetown exchange, in the White Pages and dial. My pulse thuds double time now. It rings a third time, then a fourth. I'm just about to hang up when a man's voice answers.
"Bonsoir, Chez Paniche."
"I was hoping to speak to one of your patrons. Templeton Peck. It's a…" I fish for words. What had I expected to say? "A family emergency," I finish. Not entirely a lie, but I've done a lot better than that.
"Just one moment while I locate Mr. Peck for you." The hold music is as soft and French as the maitre d's voice. Debussy, I think. It seems to go on forever before someone picks up the receiver on the other end.
"Hello?" It's Face, for sure. He sounds out of breath, like he's been pulled away from something really appetizing. The way he described Ilana to me, that might very well be the case.
"Face, it's me. I have to ask you something important."
"Murdock…seriously? Remy said it was an emergency. I thought maybe someone died." I hear the relief along with the exasperation in his voice. Then, as if he's just now realizing the strangeness of me calling him on his dinner date, he asks, "How'd you know I was here?"
It's my turn to be exasperated. "No time to talk. What kind of stuff did I tell you about my time with the Agency? You know, back in Nam?"
A long pause follows. "Is this some sort of joke?"
"I'm serious. I need to know." I'd give anything to have him here with me right now, the way it used to be, not sneaking around and knowing Ables are watching and possibly listening to every word. I hate it, but it's the only chance I have to talk to him.
"Well…I mean, you never really talked about it. You always sort of shut down whenever anybody brought it up."
My shoulders sag. This is not what I'd hoped for. "C'mon, Face. I had to have said something to you. How long have we been friends?" I press.
"There was that one time, the time you came down with that bad jungle fever? You were going on and on about some Quonsets out in the middle of nowhere, and how the gods lived there. I just thought you were delirious, or maybe it was the anti-malarial drugs…"
I feel my breath catch in my throat. Gods again. This isn't the first time someone has told me about gods. "What else?"
"I don't know, Murdock." Face sighs, and I can tell now I've touched a nerve. "You were really fighting it. The doc figured it was best to let you rest and get your strength back…"
"When was the fever?" I interrupt, thinking I already know the answer.
He thinks for a moment, then gives me his answer. "It was '70. Right before my birthday."
The huge puzzle in my head has just had a few pieces added to it. The big picture, though, remains maddeningly blank. Just like my whole time with the Agency. Why can't I remember anything other than the basics? What does Stockwell have to do with all this? Who is Dr. Spicer, really?
"Murdock? You still there?"
"Yeah." I look at my watch again. Time's almost up, and I know I have to get back soon or risk getting caught. "Look, Face, can you find a way to…"
I never get a chance to say "meet me sometime, so we can talk," because the recorded operator's voice is nowtelling me that I need to insert another quarter if I'd like to continue the call. It's just as well. I'll need to sprint to make it back to the apartment and catch my breath. And my ankle has started to hurt again.
The wino is still standing under the harsh glow of the lamppost, staring, as I start back running.
The fourplex is in sight when I trip for the second time that night. This time I'm not so lucky. I sprawl forward and it's only my reflexes that save me. I feel the asphalt against my palms and the knees of my pants.
"Out for your evening constitutional, Captain?"
I don't have to look up to know who it is. And know how utterly screwed I am at this moment. "Don't you have anything better to do on a Tuesday night than follow me around, Stockwell?" I rise and try to regain a bit of lost dignity.
He stares up and down at me. How long he's been watching me, I have no idea. Behind those dark glasses, I see…what? Concern? Amusement? Since his idea of fun is seeing other people squirm, I'm not surprised in the least. Nor am I surprised when he smiles.
"It would seem not. Another of our Ables has been killed. I tried to call just now but it seems you've," he eyes my skinned knees, "been out of the house."
"I'll add it to my to-do list." I can hardly hide my relief. Does he honestly not know what I've really been doing, or is he just playing a game with me again? I can't take anything he says at face value. I have to assume the worst.
He pulls a phone from his suit jacket, then dials rapidly and says a few quick words to someone. I'm guessing it's the Able I sent out for Chinese food. "I hear you're using your security detail for home delivery now. I understand you're working, but I can't have you abusing privileges. Remember that the taxpayers are funding our endeavors."
I'm not sure why this last statement angers me so much. I'm tired, worried, and hungrier than a man ought to be. And I'm pissed. Pissed at Stockwell for all his stupid games and his lies. For using my team, my friends, as bait to make me do his dirty work.
For a brief moment I think about attacking him. Then I remember that I am not the only one whom the Agency trained in jiu jitsu.
"Your dinner, however, is the least of my concerns. It seems your investigation has suddenly become time-sensitive. You now have exactly forty-eight hours to produce tangible evidence. Otherwise, our original deal is off."
It's as if I've been hit by a truck. "Come again?" I say, aware of how stupid I sound.
"My superiors…and yes, Captain, even I have superiors…are impatient. Losing this many Ables is a matter of security, not to mention embarrassment. They are an investment. I dislike losing my investments." Damn, the bastard is smug about all this. He's talking like he wants me to pick up some bread and milk, not to solve a problem even he and his precious Agency can't.
"What the hell do you want? What's in it for me, Stockwell?"
He offers me the closest thing to a genuine smile as I've seen from him. "I told you before. A full release for you and your team, no questions asked. I'd have thought that was incentive enough for you."
I move closer to him. If I wanted, I could land a quick right hook, despite my throbbing ankle. "And what aren't you telling me? Why me?"
There's a pause. In those few brief seconds, I read his face. There is something he's keeping from me. But secrets are his stock in trade. He won't be giving any of them up tonight.
"If you are successful in getting me what I want, I promise to tell you what I can."
What I can. What a load of shit.
That's an Agency man for you. Lies on top of lies. I throw caution to the wind and take that swing after all.
With a fluid motion I wouldn't have thought possible for a man his age, Hunt Stockwell counters my wild throw and uses my own momentum against me. Next thing I know I am face-up on the asphalt, gasping for breath.
"Please call me when you have a relevant update, Captain. I apologize for the circumstances of our meeting, but I must be going now." Before I can struggle to my feet, another black sedan appears and my tormentor is gone.
The night around me is quiet, but inside me is a single soft, determined voice. I know what I have to do. I just have no idea how the hell I'm going to do it…or what it will cost me.
As I limp away, I'm aware of two things: the bruise that will surely cover my lower back in the morning, and how much I'm looking forward to a bowl of Moo Goo Gai Pan.
To Be Continued