COYOTES

By AEIU

The problem with invisible dogs, pondered H. M. Murdock as he leaned against the wall in his room at the V.A. Hospital, is you can't lie to them. The thing that caused most people to see straight through them allows them to see straight through most people and discern their innermost thoughts. Even knowing this to be true, Murdock felt the need to explain himself lest Billy, his invisible dog, got the wrong idea.

"I'm not jealous," declared Murdock under Billy's baneful eyes. "What type of person would I be if I was jealous that my best friend in the whole wide world wanted to spend some time with a long lost brother that he had just found? After all, if it wasn't for me, he might never even had known he had a brother."

To be honest he hadn't really been trying to find Face's brother. It had been a happy accidental discovery after a disastrous meeting between Face and the father who had abandoned him at birth. But he had helped Face engineer his first meeting with his brother. Okay, Hannibal and BA had called it a kidnapping and it had alerted Lynch and the army that they were in the area but it had ended well.

"I mean," Murdock continued, "Mark McCormick is a great guy. He's funny, friendly, smart, and an honest-to-goodness race car driver with a shiny red car that makes BA drool in his sleep. You should have seen how proud Face was when he was bragging about how Mark had sent Lynch on a wild goose chase to Florida. I don't know the last time I saw him smile so much. So I'm glad for him. I understand that they want to spend time together."

"Of course, Hannibal warned Face that spending time with Mark could alert the army of the connection between the two. And Mark is on a special indefinite parole program helping that judge convict bad guys that escaped on technicalities. He told Mark that he wasn't supposed to be having contact with escaped felons even if they were wrongfully convicted. So they really aren't supposed to be spending time together."

"You know," Murdock whispered confidentially, "I don't think the judge likes us. You should have seen how mad he was when he came to pick Mark up. His face was all red, his nostrils were flaring, and he had a real tight grip on Hannibal's neck. Of course, that gun he had pointed at Hannibal's head probably made him look a lot meaner than he is. Mark says he's a pretty okay guy once you get to know him."

"Anyway, it's not like Face has stopped spending any time with me. It's just that he wants to spend time with Mark, too."

"Of course," Murdock admitted, "it does bother me a little bit that Face insists that Mark only call him Templeton or Temp. But I understand it. I mean, I've talked to enough head doctors over the years that I can see how he might like having something or someone that belongs to Templeton Peck and not Faceman."

"So I am not jealous. I can't think of anyone else I'd pick to be Face's brother. Except maybe, me," he admitted. "But what kind of selfish, rotten, lousy, no-good friend would I be if I were jealous?"

Billy got up and walked across the room and lay at Murdock's feet and slowly wagged his tail as Murdock petted him.

"Good old Billy," Murdock said with a small smile. "You like me, even if I am a selfish, rotten, lousy, no-good friend."

Deep in self-recriminations, Murdock was unaware that he had company until he felt the hand on his shoulder.

Nurse Jennie Branch smiled down at the sad faced man who crooned quietly to himself as he petted the air by his feet. He was one of her favorite patients; normally very sweet and mostly sane with some interesting flights of fancy which made him oddly endearing. "Mr. Murdock," she said, "it's time to get ready for your outing."

"My outing," he asked as he looked up at her with a confused expression.

"Yes. I'm not surprised you forgot about it. It was okayed at the last minute by a Dr. Marcus Mann," Jennie said as she consulted her chart. "The Lower Los Angeles Veterans Appreciation Society is taking you for an outing this evening."

"Really!" Murdock said as hope began dawning in his eyes. "I mean, I remember now. I got a letter in here somewhere," he said as he gestured to a large stack of papers in the corner of his room."

"It's already been approved. They're here so whenever you're ready."

"Jennie, I was born ready. "Be a good dog, Billy, and I'll bring you a treat home," Murdock said as he leaped to his feet, donned his aviator's cap, and followed her out into the hallway.

Murdock found his excitement growing with every step he took. He knew it had to be Face. Face hadn't forgotten about him. He had planned a little spur-of-the-moment fun for his best friend. As he saw Face signing papers at the front desk, it was all he could do not to race down the hallway and engulf the man in a fierce bear hug.

"Hello, Mr…" Face hesitated as he pretended to consult the papers in his hand. "Murdock. I'm Robert Milton with the Lower Los Angeles Veterans Appreciation Society. Are you ready for this evening?"

"Am I ever! Let's go!"

"When will you bring Mr. Murdock back?" asked Nurse Branch as she smiled at the handsome blonde volunteer. If she wasn't already married she would have joined his organization in a heartbeat if there was a chance they could spend some time together.

"Well," Face said, "we still have to pick up a few other veterans, then we are going over to our recreation center, then we'll be having ice cream, etc. I think we can have him back by about eleven o'clock."

"So late?" asked Nurse Branch.

""I've already talked everything over with the doctor and he thinks it's a good idea," Murdock said. "Besides I'm really looking forward to that ice cream."

"Don't worry," Face said as he lightly grasped her hand and smiled into her eyes. "I'll bring him back safely."

"I'm sure it'll be alright," Nurse Branch said as a brief thrill went up her spine. "I'm working until midnight tonight so maybe I'll see you when you get back."

"I'll look forward to that," said Face before he turned his attention back to his friend. "Let's go, Mr. Murdock."

"Boy Face, if we could bottle what you got, we'd never have to work a day in our lives," Murdock said as they walked out the door. Even he could feel Nurse Branch's appreciative stare as it followed Face down the hallway.

"What can I say," said Face with a smile, "It's a gift."

As they climbed into Face's corvette, Murdock said, "So what's this etcetera. It sounds like more fun than the ice cream."

"Oh, it will be," promised Face. "I got a real surprise for you tonight."

Murdock was happy. It was already a perfect night. It was a beautiful California evening with a clear sky and a nearly full moon already shining in the sky. He was with his best friend and he knew anything was possible.

The grin on Murdock's face continued to grow as Face was maddeningly coy about the evening's plans. As they drove through the city, Murdock attempted to guess what was in store for the evening, each one more elaborate and outrageous than the one before until they were both weak with laughter.

"No, Murdock," Face chuckled, "we're not going to watch BA perform the lead in 'Swan Lake'. They couldn't find a tutu big enough, though I did hear that Hannibal volunteered to take over as the understudy."

"There won't be anything left but a pile of feathers if he gets on the jazz."

"Here we are," Face said with a smile as they pulled into a seemingly closed race track. As they neared the actual track, the lights came on and filled the night with artificial light. Murdock saw the spiffy red race car that Mark McCormick had named Coyote X parked inside the track.

"What's this?" Murdock asked as his smile began to waver.

"I was telling Mark about what you said about flying being better than driving."

"You talk about me to Mark?"

"Um, yeah," Face said hesitantly. "You're my best friend, after all." He paused. "Is it okay if I talk to him about you?"

"No, munchacho. No problem at all." Murdock's smile came back with a vengeance. He couldn't wait to go back to the hospital and tell Billy that Face still considered him his best friend.

"So," Face continued, "when I told Mark that you thought flying was a lot better than driving, he said that's because you hadn't ever really driven. And he had promised you a ride so we scored the track for the night."

"You mean I'm going to drive a race car," Murdock asked awestruck.

"Fraid not," came a voice from behind them. Murdock recognized Mark instantly. He was tall and a little on the skinny side with a head of curly hair. He was wearing a bright white jump suit and tinted helmet which made him look extremely cool.

"Here," McCormick said in a friendly manner as he handed a similar jumpsuit and helmet to Murdock. "Slip these on and get ready for the ride of your life."

Murdock hoped neither of the men noticed his hands slightly shaking as he took the jumpsuit. Despite his desire to like Mark, he felt too inadequate in his presence to fully relax. He was beyond happy that they were letting into what might be private time between them and he hoped he wouldn't so anything to mess things up.

As he slipped on the jumpsuit, he realized that he would never look as handsome as Face or as cool as Mark. It felt like foreign skin against his flesh. He tried not to look too uncomfortable as he waited for what was to come next.

Face had said that he had talked to Mark about him but he wondered what Face had actually said. He worried that if Mark knew that he wasn't really insane but stayed at the VA as cover while getting some treatment for the few problems that he did have dealing with the demons of Vietnam. He worried that if he allowed his control to slip, he might say something to freak Mark out or, worse, embarrass Face. Then Face might not want to hang out with him anymore and he desperately wanted to keep his relationship with Face, even if it meant sharing it with Mark.

Murdock watched as Mark smoothly jumped through the window of the vehicle and slid into the seat. He tried to duplicate the move but accidently smashed a delicate part of his anatomy as he fell into the car. He tried to pretend he didn't grunt but Mark only laughed and playfully punched him in the arm.

"Happens all the time," Mark said as the engine of the Coyote X revved to life.

From the moment Mark shifted the vehicle into gear, Murdock knew McCormick had been right; he had never really experienced what a car could do if given the chance. He had always believed that a plane could go much faster than a car but now he wasn't so sure. In a jet, with no reference points, you only had the instruments to gauge how fast it traveled but the intimacy of the race car allowed him to view speed through different eyes.

As McCormick drew more and more speed from the machine, the lights and images of the track began to blur into a colorful kaleidoscope. It was as if nothing really existed outside of the machine as it hurtled in deviance to space and time. It was an awesome exhilaration that he had only experienced a few times in the air; a special feeling of release from the constraints of the world which called to him and demanded an answer.

"Ahrooo…" Murdock howled was he threw his head and reveled in the physical sensations of the moment.

Mortified at his slip, he clamped his traitorous mouth shut. He wanted so badly for Mark to like him and to think he was cool; instead he had embarrassed Face. He was sure Mark would think he really was crazy and Face would be too ashamed of his behavior to want to bring him along when he would meet with Mark. Face might even be too ashamed to want to have anything to do with him ever. He wouldn't want to be his best friend anymore. And all because he had been too crazy to keep his mouth shut.

"Stupid, stupid, stupid," thought Murdock of himself. He swore he could still hear howl echoing throughout the car. He cautiously turned his head and hoped that somehow Mark had not heard him over the vibrations of the engine. His mouth dropped open, in surprise, as he looked at the driver of the car.

Though McCormick's helmet obscured his face, Murdock swore he could hear the faint echo of a similar howl coming from his best friend's brother's mouth.

"Sometimes you just gotta to howl," McCormick shouted over the roar of the engine before he let loose with another coyote wail to the night.

Murdock could hear the smile in his voice. Not a patronizing smile or a superior amused smile that someone gives to the brunt of their joke, but a real smile of friendship.

"He understands," thought Murdock as he answered back with another yowl.

McCormick finished several more laps before he pulled his pride and joy in for a break. Face watched apprehensively from the sidelines as the two men crawled out of the car. From the first moment he had ridden in his brother's car, he had known it was something that he wanted Murdock to experience. But as much as he wanted to make his best friend part of this new aspect of his life, part of him didn't want his current life as a military deserter/conman/soldier of fortune to taint the short almost forgotten part of his life as Templeton Peck. But in his heart he couldn't think of Murdock as something that would spoil what he was trying to find with Mark.

In fact, the more time he spent with Mark, the more he thought he and Murdock would like each other. Both had a wicked sense of humor, and a peculiar style of logic which bordered on goofiness. It had never been more evident than the night Mark had wanted to give him a tour of Gull's Way Estate but insisted that they do it after midnight with flashlights and camouflage least Hardcastle find out. He had pointed out to Mark that even the densest ex-judge had to be aware of their less than furtive movements throughout the estate particularly since the light to Hardcastle's room was shining brightly. Mark had only shrugged and explained that the judge knew what he was doing but didn't want to know what he was doing so he had told him what he was doing but not really told him what he was going to do so everything was okay as long as the judge didn't find out what he was doing. It was a line of logic worthy of Murdock.

The first thing he noticed as he walked up on the two helmeted men was they appeared to be enjoying a private joke. As they pulled off their helmets, he realized they seemed to be engaged in some sort of howling contest with the winner to be the yowl that was the longest in duration and loudest in sound.

"Okay, Murdock," Face thought, "What did you do?"

He knew his suspicions must have shown in his eyes as Murdock immediately started laughing harder and said "Not me. Turns out your brother is a howler."

Face turned his attention to his brother and asked, "Why are you howling?"

"Because it's fun, Face." answered Murdock.

"Because we can," added Mark.

"That's right," said Murdock, "and they can't stop us."

"I'll bet BA could stop you," answered Face.

"But that's the beauty of it. Even if they stop me from doing it out loud, they can't stop me doing it in here," Murdock said as he draped an arm around his friend's shoulder and tapped his chest with his other hand.

Mark draped his arm over his brother's other shoulder and added, "They can chase us, lock us up, order us around, and try to change us but they don't own us and they can't stop us from howling."

"Not the US Army," Murdock said with a small howl.

"Not San Quentin," Mark said as he added his own yowl.

"Lynch."

"LA Police Department."

"The MPs."

"Ex-girlfriends."

"Hannibal," Face said as he arched his head back and howled to the nearly full moon.

"Hardcastle," Mark said as the three of them let loose one final last yowl of freedom before the laughter of the absurdity of the moment over took them.

"So here we are the Three Musketeers," said Murdock as he flourished an imaginary sword.

"Well, I'm already Tonto and Robin so I guess I can add musketeers to my resume," laughed McCormick. "Which one am I?"

"You, my good man," explained Murdock, "can be Snap. I will be Pop, and Face can be Crackle."

"Gee," said Face still grinning," I always thought of myself as more of a Tony the Tiger kind of guy."

They spent the rest of the night talking sense and nonsense until the early hours of the morning. Later Murdock would tell Billy that it had been one of the best nights of his life and that Mark had promised to give him a ride in the race car as long as he wore a helmet and promised not to shed in the car.

It was nearly twenty-four hours late when a nervous Nurse Branch approached the on-call doctor at the V.A. Hospital.

"Dr. Bryan," she said, "I'm afraid I'm having a problem with Mr. Murdock."

"What's the problem?" Dr. Bryan asked.

"He's been acting perfectly fine all night but a few minutes ago he asked me what time it was. I told him that it was a few minutes before midnight. He thanked me, walked over to the window and started howling."

"Is he in distress or hurting himself?"

"No, just howling."

The doctor shrugged. "If he wants to howl, let him howl."

Nurse Branch nodded and returned to her duties as she hoped Murdock wasn't taking a turn for the worse. But she had to admit that he had looked happy as he howled at the full moon.

On the other side of town, Mark McCormick had just finished applying the last bit of black paint under his eyes. It wasn't like the camouflage and all black clothing were entirely necessary, as Hardcastle was more than likely already asleep, but it did make things more fun.

All the lights were out in the gate house as Mark silently slipped out and traveled to a quiet clearing behind a large clump of rose bushes. He paused a minute to enjoy the sweet smell of the flowers in the cool night air as he stared up at the same full moon that hung in the sky for Murdock and Templeton. He took in a deep breath, threw back his head and howled into the dark of the night.

As the minute hand approached midnight, Face couldn't imagine what he had been thinking the night before when he had agreed to this. It was completely ridiculous. They were miles apart so it wasn't like they would be able to hear one another. In fact there was no way, Murdock or Mark would even know if he did it or didn't do it. To make matters worse, Hannibal was staying with him for a few days while he looked for a new apartment after a neighbor got suspicious about his strange comings and goings. He knew he'd never be able to explain his nocturnal activities to the Colonel. Face knew it was a silly and immature thing to do but Templeton Peck already had his shoes on and was out the door.

High in the sky of the clear Los Angeles night, the many sounds of the city rose and intermingled into the air. Included in the midnight music were three primal calls of solidarity between friends and brothers to rage against the whimsy of fate and those that would seek to fit them into molds that were too small.

And in opposite sides of the city, two silver haired men who had more in common than either would like to admit, looked blindly into the darkness and tried to discern the culprit that had disturbed their slumber. Though neither knew the thoughts of the other man, simultaneously they muttered 'damn coyotes' as they slammed the window shut and went back to sleep.

THE END