The headstone had a simple inscription. “Hunt Stockwell, 1932 – 1989”.
Hannibal wondered if the birth year was accurate. You could never be sure of anything with that man. Putting a lie on his tombstone would be so… Stockwell.
He knew the year of death was accurate. More than two years now, and the memories were still as clear as if it happened last week.
“Hello, Colonel.” For a second, still lost in reverie, he heard it as Stockwell’s voice and started violently. He whipped around to see Face standing behind him. Hannibal hadn’t heard him approach. Either Face was still able to move as silently as he’d learnt to do in the jungle, or Hannibal’s hearing was going. It wouldn’t be surprising if it were; he’d been subjected to more than his share of loud bangs in his time. And of course he was getting… older.
“Face.” Hannibal hadn’t expected to meet any of the other team members here, but he wasn’t surprised now to see Face. Face stepped up to stand beside him. They stood for a moment in silence looking down at the grave. Finally Hannibal broke the silence, starting to feel uncomfortable.
“Can’t believe it’s over two years.”
Face didn’t answer for a long time. Eventually he just said, “Yeah, two years,” before going quiet again. Hannibal suffered the silence for another few moments then he turned and walked away leaving Face alone. There was a bench nearby beside a path and Hannibal sat down.
It was symptomatic, he thought. It was all too typical of the way things had been between them lately. Since Colombia. Oh, they had made up their differences with all the right words. But it was superficial. There was still a barrier between them. Hannibal longed to talk to Face, really talk, and help him deal with it. But Face just pushed him away, insisting he was fine.
And he seemed fine. Seemed. Face was always good as seeming. He watched Face standing by the grave, his hair blowing in the breeze. Then, feeling even this was too much of an intrusion; Hannibal closed his eyes and just enjoyed the warmth of the sun on his face. In a few minutes he heard the crunch of footsteps on the gravel path. Face came over and sat on the bench beside him. He looked a little less introspective now, smiled at Hannibal.
“Come here often?” Face asked.
Hannibal smiled at the question.
“First time,” he said. “Since the funeral.” He glanced over at the rise in the ground where they had stood and watched the funeral service from a distance. The only witnesses to Stockwell’s death. The only living witnesses.
Face nodded slowly. “I come here fairly often,” he said quietly, not looking at Hannibal. “Once a month maybe.”
“Why?” Hannibal asked.
Face turned to look at him. “I… guilt, I guess. I’m good at the guilt. Catholic thing, you know.”
“Do you bring flowers?”
Face smiled a little. Knew Hannibal was teasing to keep him from getting too morbid.
“I’m not quite that guilty.” He paused for a moment, and then went on. “And I wondered if he had anyone, you know, to visit the grave. I saw a woman here one time, but she left before I could speak to her.” He shrugged. “I figured someone should visit, that’s all.” He sounded slightly defensive.
“That’s nice, Face,” Hannibal said, not wanting Face to think he disapproved of the gesture.
“Few weeks ago I saw Farrell here,” Face said.
Hannibal felt the tension rise a little at the mention of Farrell, at the memories that invoked.
“How’s he doing?”
“Fine, he says. Though not so fine, I think. Didn’t look like he was sleeping much.” He went silent, bit his lip. The same memories that had painted dark smudges under Farrell’s eyes haunted Face’s nights too.
“He’s working for his father now, right?” Hannibal asked after a moment. Face nodded.
“Vice-President in charge of corporate mergers and acquisitions.” He shook his head. “I shudder to think of his methods. If we went back to the old job we’d probably run up against him inside a month.”
“Yeah, probably.” Hannibal said, slowly. But he was no longer thinking about Farrell. “If we went back to the old job.” Interesting that Face should say that. He chewed it over for a while.
“I hope he’ll be okay,” Face said. “What he saw…” His voice trailed off.
“You saw it too, Face.” Hannibal reminded him softly.
“Yeah, well, I’ve seen that sort of thing before,” Face said, seeming to dismiss Hannibal’s concerns.
“It doesn’t get any easier.”
“No, I guess not,” Face admitted. He gazed unseeingly across the manicured grass. In the distance a hearse and a convoy of limousines moved slowly though the cemetery.
“Face…” Hannibal said, wanting, needing to say something about this. It had been eating at him for a long time now. “I should have prepared you better for it, talked to you about that, about losing men under your command.”
“Prepared me?” Face stared at him, apparently amazed. “I don’t understand, Hannibal. How the hell do you think you could have prepared me for that?”
“Well, I’ve been through it, in the war, in two wars. I know what it feels like.”
“And could you have told me? Can you honestly say that you could have described it to me? And even if you could have, do you think that would have made it easier for me to hold Gonzales while he called for his mother? Made it easier to see…” his voice cracked, then he brought it under control. “To see Collins get his brains blown out?” Face shook his head. “I knew there was a chance it could happen, that I could lose men on that mission, and I was terrified of that. But there is nothing you could have said that would have made it easier for me.”
Hannibal was staring at him. Months of guilt about this and now Face was saying he didn’t even blame him?
“You were so angry.” Hannibal said. “At me.”
Face shook his head. “No, not at you. Well maybe, yes, partly at you, for getting us into that in the first place and, well, you screwed up royal on the rescue mission.” Hannibal winced at that but didn’t argue. “But I was angry at myself, mostly, for letting them down, letting everyone down. Felt like, still feel like, a failure.”
“No, Face, you didn’t fail. You had bad luck, even the best commanders can have bad luck.” Face didn’t argue the point. Hannibal didn’t try to claim bad luck for his own failure. He had indeed screwed up royal as Face said.
They sat quietly again for a while. The breeze felt quite cold now and Hannibal eventually said, “You want to walk for a while?”
“Sure.” Face said. They set off slowly along the gravel path, leaving behind Stockwell’s grave.
“So why did you come here, Hannibal?” Face asked him. “You don’t have any reason to feel guilty over Stockwell’s death. Hell, you killed the guy who killed him.”
“I guess the way I feel about him has changed a little.” Hannibal admitted. Face looked at him. “You know that saying, ‘don’t judge a man till you’ve walked a mile in his shoes?'”
“Of course. I always thought, ‘forget the judging, you’re a mile away and you have his shoes!'” He grinned. Hannibal stayed serious, sensing Face was trying to head off any deep discussion, uncomfortable with revealing any more than he already had.
“Well, I walked a mile in Stockwell’s shoes and it made me change my mind about a few things.”
“Those shoes didn’t suit you, Colonel.” The comment was still a little flippant, but Face said it more quietly, more serious now.
“I know that now.” He put his hands in his pockets, shrugging his jacket up on his shoulders. They walked on slowly for a few minutes.
“So what are the things you changed your mind about?” Face asked.
“Well, mostly the idea that he started out as an irredeemable bastard.” Hannibal said. “Oh, I still think he pretty much ended up that way. But I think I can see now how a man can get there, without having to start out that way.”
“But you didn’t, Hannibal. You had all the same temptations and you didn’t fall.”
“I was lucky. I had good friends, good advice. Maybe he never had that. Maybe he was on his own.” Hannibal shook his head. He knew now how easy it was to take the wrong path. And when you did how hard it was to turn back.
“And you’re a better man than he was.” Face said.
Hannibal laughed, an ironic edge to the sound. “Yeah, that’s why I took the job in the first place, to prove that.”
“Prove it to who?” Face asked, puzzled. “You know you don’t need to prove anything to us.”
“To him.” Hannibal jerked a thumb back the way they had come. “I wanted to prove it to him. That not only could I do his job as well as him, but that I could stay…” he cast around for the right word, “…ethical while doing it.”
“Hannibal, Stockwell was dead when you took the job.” Face sounded amused. “Which means you were basically in a pissing contest with a dead man.” He grinned. “Ever considered the tiny possibility that your competitive streak is a little out of control?”
Hannibal gave a slightly chagrined smile. “There’s a tiny possibility, yeah.”
Face looked back over his shoulder. Stockwell’s headstone was lost among hundreds of others now.
“He casts a long shadow.” Face said. He turned back to Hannibal. “When you think of it, so much that we’ve done since has been because of our involvement with him.”
“Yeah. I guess. Even once he was dead. Like you say, being competitive with a dead man led me to taking that job. Not that I admitted it to myself at the time. I really believed what I was telling myself, about doing good.”
“I never doubted that, Hannibal.” Face said.
“But I let them flatter me into taking it, Face. I let them appeal to my vanity. They knew exactly how to work me, letting me think they believed I would be better than him at the job. That first contact they made, they told me how impressed they were with how I handled the coup attempt in Qumar. And I just sat there and swallowed that whole, like it was all down to me. I forgot there were other people who shared the credit for how things turned out.” He smiled a little and added, “You for one, Lawrence.” Face grimaced at the ‘Lawrence’, but then smiled too at the memories.
“It hasn’t all been bad.” Face argued. “We’ve done some good, made new friends, because of the things we did as… well as Stockwell’s men.” He frowned a little at the characterisation, but Hannibal knew it was something they had all accepted they would never escape now. Their names and Stockwell’s would be linked forever.
They reached the gates of the cemetery. Hannibal glanced across the road at a café.
“You want to get a coffee?” He asked.