Later that day Face woke on his cot in the attic and thought, “Me and my big mouth.”
He sat up and stretched, trying to get the kinks out of his back from sleeping on the cot. It was a pretty good one as cots go. It had a decent mattress, and the whole attic had been converted into a comfortable living space. Still, it didn’t compare to that nice guestroom Amy had on the floor below.
Standing up, he mused that one day he’d write his autobiography and name it ‘Me and My Big Mouth’. He was famed for his ability to talk his way out of trouble, but people forgot to mention that he’d usually talked his way into it to start with. Just like he had now.
His curiosity might be piqued by the fake colonel, and he wanted to do his best for the clients, but volunteering? When did that become a good idea? As a man with a lot of experience with women should know – what seemed like a good idea in the dark often looked a lot worse in the daylight.
Too late to change his mind now though. The sun was already setting and they’d be heading out again in a few hours. Maybe the idea would seem better when the darkness came again.
Twenty minutes later, showered and dressed but not shaved, he was rummaging through the team’s rucksacks in the van, examining each one critically. Deciding Hannibal’s was currently the most battered looking of all of them, but still not quite battered enough, he emptied the pack and climbed out of the van. Lining it up carefully, he laid the flattened pack on the ground behind the back nearside tire and climbed into the driver’s seat. Reverse. Forward, reverse again. Then forward once more for luck.
When he got out of the van, he saw Murdock watching him from the door. Hands in pockets, Murdock strolled over as Face picked up the rucksack and examined it.
“Isn’t that Hannibal’s pack?” Murdock asked.
“You know, if you’re annoyed with him about something, you should just say so.”
“If I was annoyed with him I wouldn’t have taken his stuff out first. I need a pack that looks like it’s spent some time in the woods.”
“Is this for your undercover gig?”
“No, Murdock, the lived-in look is all the rage for luggage in LA this season.” Murdock responded to the sarcasm with a smirk. Face took hold of the fastener of one of the rucksack’s pockets and ripped it off.
“Come on, admit it – you are annoyed with him.”
“No more than usual.” Rummaging in a crate of general useful stuff in the van, Face found a ball of string. He cut a piece off, scrubbed it in the dirt with his foot then used it to tie the pocket closed. “How about instead of making wisecracks you help me out? I want all the most used looking stuff.” The pair of them started to rummage through the other packs, and the storage boxes, comparing the state of hunting knives, pistols, and other essentials for living in the woods.
“So, have you come up with a fake name yet?” Murdock asked. “And if you have, can I suggest an alternative?”
“You haven’t even heard it yet and you want to suggest an alternative?”
“Yes, because, let’s be frank – your judgement when it comes to choosing names is a little suspect.”
“Hey, I chose Templeton Peck.”
“So you see, we agree. Anyway, I was thinking something like Jase. Because it sounds similar to Face. So you’ll react to it if someone calls you that if you’re not already paying attention to them.”
Face nodded. He was familiar with the problem that arose when using a fake name – sometimes you forgot that’s who you were. Face was so used to working with aliases that he didn’t fall into the trap too often, but minimising risk was a good idea.
“Okay, Jase. That’s fine. Last name?”
“No last name.”
“What? I can’t have just one name. I’m not Madonna.”
Murdock grinned then shook himself. “Sorry, weird mental image. I don’t mean you don’t have a last name, I mean don’t give one. That will make you more mysterious.”
“And make them less likely to trust me. I’ll consider it,” he said, checking the stuff he’d put together now for his pack. It all looked suitably old and weathered. And talking of old and weathered…
“Murdock, could I borrow your jacket for this job?”
Murdock froze and stared at him. “My jacket?”
“Yeah, it’s just the right look I’m going for.”
“You mean this jacket I’m wearing now?”
“You have others?”
“Let me just be clear here. You’re asking to borrow this jacket?” He ran his hands over the cracked leather of his flying jacket.
“It’s… my jacket…”
“You can wear one of mine while I’m away,” Face suggested, in a tone that implied only a fool would fail to seize this rare opportunity.
“I just watched you run Hannibal’s pack over with the van, and now you’re asking to borrow my jacket. This jacket.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m not going to run it over. I think that ship has sailed. Anyway, the look I’m going for is survivalist, not bum.”
“Are you saving up your persuasive charm for later? Because you’re not helping your case right now.”
“Come on, Murdock. I’ll take good care of it.”
“That’s what you told Amy about her Le Car.”
“Which you were driving.”
“True,” Murdock conceded. An agony of indecision was written across his face, before he finally took the jacket off and held it out. When Face reached for it, Murdock pulled it back. “Just… okay, Face, you’re pretty much my best friend, right? We’ve saved each other’s lives too many times to count. You’ve always been there for me, through the best and worst of times.”
“Yeah, yeah. Is this leading to me getting the jacket or not?”
“I’m just saying, given all of that, let me make it very clear to you that if you lose or ruin this jacket, I will have to kill you.”
“Understood. So I can have it? Great. Wait – take any of your weird stuff out of the pockets first.”
Murdock rummaged in the pockets, removing a few items, then handed the jacket to Face at last.
“Take care of her.”
“She’s a she?” Face said, pausing as he slipped the jacket on.
“Um, no,” Murdock said, backtracking. “Figure of speech.”
“Right… She have a name?”
“Of course not,” Murdock said, not meeting Face’s eye.
Face adjusted the collar in one of the van’s wing mirrors. “You know, I think it looks better on me.”
They left before dark, repeating their actions of the previous night, except this time only Face was going to go out stalking. Making a note of the licence plate of the Jeep that the ‘colonel’ was travelling in, they followed until they found it parked off the side of the road. BA pulled over and Face started to gather his gear. He checked his pockets, and pulled out his walkie talkie.
“Hang on to this,” he said, handing it to Murdock.
“What are you doing?” Hannibal said, frowning. “You’re not going out there with no radio contact.”
“What if I’m searched?” Face said. “If I’m supposed to be living out here alone, why would I need a walkie? To chat with the bears?”
“And what if you get in trouble?” Hannibal said.
“I’ll be fine. We’ll rendezvous half a mile south of here when I’m done.”
“No,” Hannibal said. “I don’t want you out of contact like that.”
“We should have given him a tracker,” BA said. “Maybe we should wait until tomorrow night.”
“Oh, hang on,” Murdock said. He knelt behind Face’s seat and started rummaging through some boxes.
“BA’s right,” Hannibal said. “If you don’t have a radio then you should have a tracker. In fact, I’m not sure this is such a hot plan after all.”
“You think I can’t handle it?” Face said, his voice mild, but with a hard edge to it.
“I didn’t say that.”
“Here!” Murdock reappeared from behind the seats and slapped a bright orange plastic pistol into Face’s hand. “You get in trouble, fire one of those babies off and we’ll come find you.”
“Flare gun?” Face said. He thought about it and nodded. “Yeah, I think I can pull that off. Reasonable piece of emergency equipment for a guy to carry in the wilds.”
“Even a survivalist?” Hannibal said.
“I can pull it off,” Face repeated. He pushed the flare gun into his pack, burying it deep, until it was near the bottom. “Okay, I’d better get moving if I’m going to have any chance of catching up with my guy.”
Hannibal still frowned and Face wondered if that was what he looked like himself when they were about to put one of Hannibal’s plans into action. The boot was on the other foot now. He gave Hannibal a reassuring smile as he opened the side door.
“Don’t worry, Hannibal, I know I’m not as lucky as you. I won’t take unnecessary risks.”
“Just necessary ones.”
“Face…” But Face was gone, out of the door and into the woods.
Face made his way through the woods, heading downhill towards the river, and the words “me and my big mouth” chased around in his head again. Oh yeah, great idea, I don’t need a walkie-talkie, or any silly tracker. I’m the Faceman. What the hell was he trying to prove?
Or who was he trying to prove something to? Well, it had gotten under his skin, Hannibal suddenly having doubts like that. When it was his idea for Face to put himself in mortal peril schmoozing some murderous gangster, then Face’s perfectly reasonable qualms were dismissed. But when it was Face’s own idea – oh, then he got worried.
Of course, Face’s plans… No, he dismissed that thought. He wasn’t always entirely confident about his own plans, but this wasn’t a plan. This was a con.
After another twenty minutes, he’d caught up to the group he was following and was relieved to see his quarry with them. Now he just had to get the ‘colonel’ on his own. He followed them for another hour, without incident, before they split up again.
Time to start the con. Face followed the colonel until he was well away from his men, then got ahead of him. He moved fast as he did that and took less care than usual, not worrying about the trail he was leaving this time. When he reached a likely looking tree, he concealed his pack in a bush and climbed up into the lower branches of the tree. In the moonlight he was probably visible from the ground, but most people didn’t look up.
The colonel didn’t look up. He appeared a few minutes later looking at the ground and the undergrowth. Had he picked up the trail Face hadn’t tried to conceal? He started walking past Face’s tree.
He hit the man’s back, knocking them both to the ground, and there was a brief struggle before Face got the guy pinned, looking down into his furious face.
“Oh it’s you,” Face said.
He’d debated about how much to change his voice, maybe use an accent. But that could get very tiring over a long con and you always risked giving yourself away with a slip. So he’d kept it almost the same, with a hint of a rough edge, the hoarseness of someone no longer used to using his voice much.
The ‘oh, it’s you’ took the colonel by surprise, as Face expected. His fury changed to bafflement.
“What? Do I know you?”
Face didn’t answer as he got off the man, who sat up and reached around for his dropped weapons.
“Sorry about that,” Face said. “Thought you were one of the spics.” He made no attempt to stop the man picking up his pistol and scrambling up, pointing it at Face.
“Who are you?” he demanded, staring. “How do you know me?”
“Been watching you and your boys,” Face said, showing no concern about the gun.
“And what do you think you’ve seen?”
Face chuckled. “Bunch of fellas hunting coyotes.” He held out his hand to the man still pointing a gun at him. “Doing some good work.” He smiled. It took nearly ten seconds, even with the Smile at full power, but at last the colonel transferred the pistol to his left hand and warily took Face’s hand for a shake.
“Name’s Jase,” Face said.
“Erik,” he said, transferring the pistol back to his right hand. No last name either. Well, weren’t they a pair?
“Nice to finally meet you, Erik.” He stepped over and hauled his pack out of its hiding place, making sure his new friend got a good look at it. The pack of a serious woodsman, not some weekend hiker.
Erik looked suspicious again. “How long have you been watching?”
“Spotted your patrols a few nights. And I took a look at your base.”
Erik raised the pistol, which he’d started to lower. “You’ve been into the compound?”
“Not into it,” Face said, shaking his head. “That’d be trespassing. And I’d hate to get myself mauled by your dogs.” Funny how putting just the right spin on what was more or less the truth could work as well as anything made up. “Just took a look from outside. Impressive setup.”
“Yeah… But what are you doing out here?”
Face shrugged. “Prefer to hunt at night. Man’s gotta eat.”
Erik looked baffled again. “Are you saying you live out here? Where? I haven’t seen a cabin or anything.”
“I like my privacy. Well, you’ve got work to do. Guess I won’t hold you up any longer.” Still ignoring the pistol pointing at least vaguely in his direction, he turned and made sure Erik got a good view of the painting on the back of the jacket before he hid it under his pack.
“Wait,” Erik called and Face smiled. It wasn’t a ‘wait, where do you think you’re going when I’ve got a gun on you?’. It was a ‘wait, talk to me’. Face would be happy to oblige. He put on the impatient look of a man being dragged away from important business and turned back. Erik was no longer pointing the pistol.
“You’re a war vet?” Erik said.
“How’d you tell?” Face asked, a suspicious look of his own painted on his face.
“Your jacket,” Erik said, gesturing with his free hand.
“Oh.” Face laughed. “Forget that cat’s there sometimes. Yeah, I saw some action.”
He didn’t add the question Erik would expect: You? That struck a nerve. Erik looked embarrassed for a second at being so easily read, but then he met Face’s eyes again. That look in his eyes, the longing. Face knew it well. He’d seen it in the schoolyard and at the orphanage – in the eyes of other kids who wanted handsome and popular Alvin to be their friend, to talk to them, or even just smile at them.
Face had him. He adjusted the straps of his pack and started to walk away.
“Wait, Jase.” Face stopped and looked back at him, saw the desperation there as Erik tried to think of something to say to make ‘Jase’ stay. “Why do you live out here?”
“Might have noticed we didn’t get a hero’s welcome when we came home.” Face allowed a lot of bitterness into his voice. It wasn’t such a stretch. “Figured after a while that it was time for some peace and quiet.”
“But living out here alone? That’s kind of extreme.”
“Yeah, well, I saw some pretty extreme shit over there.”
“Can I ask what your rank was?”
“Left all that behind a long time ago.”
“Oh. I understand.”
He didn’t, but Face refrained from pointing that out, once again his silence telling Erik that Face could see right through him. He took out a pair of gloves, pulled them on, again looking ready to depart. Erik watched him with that mix of suspicion and longing. Come on, Face thought. Come on. I’m about to walk away and you’ll never see me again unless you say it.
“You should come by the compound,” Erik said.
Face hid his delight and instead he frowned, drawing away, invited pursuit.
“I’m not one for crowds.”
“I understand that,” Erik said quickly. “But just come for a meal at least. It would be an honour to have a war hero like you visit with us.”
Oh, so now he was a hero, not just a vet. This one was a romantic. Face could certainly use that. Part of him wanted to accept the invitation right away, but too much eagerness would be a giveaway. For now he had to play coy.
“I’ll think about it,” he said and before Erik could say anything else he turned and walked into the trees. Quickly engulfed by the darkness, he concealed himself in the undergrowth and watched Erik look for him for a while, before he left.
Face made sure he was long gone before breaking cover and climbing the slope back to the road. He found the van at the rendezvous point and climbed aboard, returning Murdock and BA’s relieved smiles.
“Report,” Hannibal snapped.
“Is the jacket okay?” Murdock asked, trying to examine it before Face could even take it off.
“The jacket’s fine,” Face said, fending him off. “Is there any coffee left?” He accepted a cup from Murdock. It wasn’t very hot any more, but he needed the caffeine. All this roaming about at night had started wearing thin.
“I made contact,” he reported, softening Hannibal’s impatient look. “The colonel’s name is Erik.”
“Didn’t get it yet,” Face said, taking off the jacket and handing it to Murdock.
Hannibal clicked his tongue and Face bristled. “Hey, a long con needs to be taken slow. What did you expect for the first contact? That I’d come back engaged to him?” He rubbed his eyes. “I got ‘Erik’ and more importantly I got an invitation to go and have a meal with them at the compound.”
“You got an invite inside already?” Murdock said, looking up from examining the jacket carefully for any new damage. “That’s great! See, BA, you owe me five bucks.”
“Nice to know you guys take an interest,” Face said.
“Why didn’t you go along right away?” Hannibal said. “Breakfast is a meal.”
“I’m playing hard to get,” Face said, stretching, then snuggling into his seat. “Come on, let’s get home. I’m hungry.”
The van sped through the night on the now familiar route to town. Face dozed in his seat until Hannibal’s voice woke him.
“I was just thinking; if you’re going to show up at the compound as a guest, you should take along a gift.”
Face nodded. Good idea. He had a few sweetener gifts stashed in the van for emergencies – on the rare occasions when the Smile alone didn’t cut it. But they were no use here. Where would ‘Jase’ get a bottle of single malt? At a convenience store run by squirrels? No, he needed something that fitted his persona. He smiled. He’d thought of just the thing.