The Cold Never Bothered Me, Anyway
by Invisible Ranger (HBF), 2014
The A-Team and related characters belong to Universal/SJC. Just for fun and no profit. Enjoy!
I'm still not sure how I would up standing on a cliff, wearing a custom tux, not to mention eating Twinkies. It might have been that phone call I got. Yeah, I'm sure it was now. I never would have gotten the message anyway had I not forgotten my speech notes. And then I wouldn't have ruined my thousand-dollar tux and custom shoes. It was one weird chain of events. You see, I'd had to go back to the condo to get them, then I noticed my private number, which nobody but Hannibal or B.A. ever called, had a message on it, so I listened, and got back in the car, and…
Okay. I know how crazy all this sounds. Especially coming from me. You know, the guy who's always got it together? The one who's so smooth and confident? Let me explain. I'll start from the beginning.
Four Hours Earlier…
I still couldn't believe my luck. I'd been invited to the Lindie (Little Independent) Awards show and exclusive after-party. This was truly an occasion to splurge on some new clothes. Everybody who was anybody was going to be there. Well, maybe not everyone. All right, maybe some of the invitees nobody had ever heard of. But they were all up-and-comers in Hollywood. Like me.
Hannibal didn't just frown on my extra-curricular activities among the stars; he'd all but forbidden them. You're still a hot property, kid, and I'm not talking about casting agents and pretty starlets. You need to lie low. Like B.A. and I have. But hey, if you really want to get into the movie biz, I met some guy who's casting extras for Banshee's Revenge III. You'd be great in rubber, and nobody would ever know it was you.
He'd never have to find out about the Lindies. Besides, I didn't think Lynch or any of his goons were even aware of these kinds of events. It was just going to be a pleasant, intimate evening with me and three hundred of my close acquaintances. If I was lucky, maybe a few of them would be pretty, young, and available.
I studied myself in the mirror. The tux had cost me most of the money I'd scammed from the Canadian guy last week. It was worth it. It was powder-blue with black piping, it brought out the color of my eyes, and even my tailor's hard-to-please daughter had told me how much she liked it. I'd also spent a good bit on shoes; they subtly added a couple inches to my height. It never hurt to be an even six feet tall when it came to casting perfect leading men for new movies.
My watch told me it was just past four. The show didn't start until five-thirty and I wanted to be at least somewhat fashionably late. I also wanted to make sure a few of the red carpet photographers saw me coming. Of course, with the kind of show this was, I had no idea whether they would even be there. It didn't hurt to look good. I was going to be the best-dressed guy in the place. If there were paparazzi, I'd make the front page of Variety.
When I was satisfied every hair was in its perfect position, I grabbed the Mustang's keys from the dresser. It wasn't my car any more than this was my luxury condo. But, as it turned out, the owner, some big-shot producer, was on extended vacation in Greece. I happened to need a place to stay. I figured I'd at least thank him by looking after the place while he was gone.
Not to mention, I liked his car. So did the women.
I figured I'd grab a cup of espresso, freshen up, then make my grand entrance at the theater. If only the rest of the day could have been so easy. My first mistake was forgetting it was now rush hour in L.A., which never really ended anyway. I wasn't getting from Santa Monica to North Hollywood anytime soon. In all my life here, I'd never gotten used to the traffic jams.
My second mistake hit me almost as surely as the guy in the tailgating VW behind me. My speech. Of course. I'd spent a lot of time figuring out how I was going to introduce the Best Supporting Actress nominees. I could always fake it, but then it wouldn't sound sincere. Besides, I kept mixing up the titles of Aleutian Icicle with Ice Rhinoceros. I couldn't have that; I was going to have to go back to get the note cards. I swung the Mustang onto an available offramp and drove as quickly as I dared back to the condo.
By the time I got back, it was half-past. The sun was nearly down. I shivered. This January had been frigid by L.A. standards. The doorman had told me yesterday that it was the coldest he could remember in fifty years. It was the coldest I could remember, and I'd grown up here. I'd never bothered to buy a winter coat, but I needed one now. I'd have to run some other scam and have one made. Easy enough, but I'd have to go without for one night.
The notes were just where I'd left them on the nightstand. Something else caught my eye: my answering machine. I frowned. The red button, and not the green, was lit. That meant one of the Team had called; only they had that number. I put down the index cards and car keys and pressed the button.
A few seconds of static. Then, some weird noise in the background I couldn't identify. Finally, a voice I knew all too well.
"Faceman? Are you there? Please pick up." I hadn't spoken to Murdock in the whole month since he'd gotten settled into the Westwood VA. No news was usually good news when it came to him. If he was calling me on this line, it definitely meant something was wrong. I leaned closer to the machine. "Can you meet me at that one spot? Where we had the leave a couple years ago with that one purple sunset? I'm feeling lonely, and…" The noise again. I realized it was a strangled sob. "I really need somebody to talk to, okay?" A beep, then silence again. The machine had cut the rest of Murdock's monologue off.
I stood there, stunned. Last time I had heard Murdock was still in a closed ward. He wasn't allowed to make phone calls except under supervision. When I'd called the VA and pretended to be a doctor to get a status update, the nurse had given me a whole laundry list of problems of the howling mad variety: post-traumatic shock, delusional speech, and, most disturbing of all, indications of suicidal thinking.
That was the red flag. Murdock and I had already been through so much together. We'd both looked death in the eye and told him "Not today." Starvation, monsoons and malaria couldn't do us in. Why, after all that, would he be thinking this way? What could I do? Was he really suicidal or was it, like so many of his other ideas, just a fantasy?
I knew I had to find out. The hard part was figuring out the cryptic part of the message, the part about where we had leave. We'd been on leave a half-dozen times together: Honolulu, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Bali. All of them had stunning sunsets. But, I realized, none of those places was anywhere near L.A. There was only one place which fit that description. How had I not gotten that hint right away?
Kid, Hannibal's voice said in my mind, sometimes the best plans are the simplest ones. Don't overcomplicate things.
I snatched the Mustang's keys again, all thoughts of the Lindie Awards forgotten. A plan was already forming in my head. If I had good luck and drove five miles over the speed limit, I figured I had about an hour and a half to work all the kinks out.
San Diego, California
The guy at the park entrance wasn't buying either my con or my fake Forest Service ID. Of course, it didn't help that it was past closing time, and I was wearing a powder-blue tux and driving a flashy Shelby Mustang. In my haste to leave I hadn't thought to change into something more practical.
"You sure don't look like any agent I've ever seen. What did you say you were doing up here?"
I smiled broadly and turned on the charm. "This is top-secret business. See, the Navy was running a submarine test here off the coast, one of those nuclear jobs, and there was, well, a small leak." I actually knew very little about submarines and hoped this guy didn't either. "We don't want the drinking water of a million people to be contaminated. And we wouldn't want any whales to die. I'm here for, um, some readings." That sounded convincing.
"And they need a Forest Service guy for that? Not NIS or somebody?" He handed back the ID, which identified me as "Clayton Ritter."
"Yes. This is a park facility, not a military base." I was shivering again; the Mustang's heater wasn't helping very much with the window rolled down. "Now, would you let me through, please? Lives could be at risk here."
When he finally waved me on, I breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe the people of San Diego weren't at risk, but someone was. Someone I cared deeply about. The problem would be finding him. Murdock could be as tricky to catch as smoke on the wind.
I remembered his words from the recording. Where we had our leave. The place with the pretty purple sunset. I could only hope he was being literal, otherwise I'd have to do a lot of stumbling around in the dark looking for him.
It was nightfall by the time I parked the Mustang in the empty lot. The sky was velvety black over the vast Pacific, and a crescent moon hovered over the waves. On any other night I might have enjoyed the view. This park, Torrey Pines, was one of the last untouched places left in the sprawl of Southern California. Murdock had asked specifically to come here back in the winter of '70. The deep canyons, exotic plants and dusty trails were as wild and unpredictable as he was. I only wished I'd worn something more appropriate than platform shoes to walk its pathways.
On the way I'd briefly stopped at a Phillips 66 to buy a few things I knew I would need. One was a cheap flashlight; another, a twelve-pack of beer. Murdock's favorite, some weird brand from Guatemala I couldn't pronounce. He loved them almost as much as Twinkies, which I'd also bought. A whole box.
Over the years I'd done all kinds of climbing: up and down mountains in jungles, deserts, and badlands. None of it had prepared me for the unique challenge of sneaking around a steep trail while awkwardly carrying a case of beer and a box of Twinkies, though. While wearing two-inch platforms, no less. I only hoped Murdock was where I thought he was. I called out his name. No answer. If I'd read the map right, the spot I wanted should be somewhere just south. I kept going, sweeping the flashlight beam back and forth in my spare hand.
If a ranger showed up now, I wasn't sure I could come up with even a half-baked excuse why I was out here at night dressed like this. I'd just have to tell the truth. I was looking for my best friend. A guy who saved my life half a dozen times, and who would have gladly died for me. A guy who, despite his often trying idiosyncrasies and quirks, was the kindest and most loyal person I'd ever known. And I wanted to stop him from doing something terrible, something permanent.
"Murdock? Where are you?" I hissed.
"Oh, hey, you made it, Faceman! C'mon over and join the party!" His voice was nearby and sounded slightly drunk.
Murdock had always been able to see better in the dark than me. When I finally spotted him in the beam of light, my breath caught in my throat. He was sitting on a sharp cliff's edge, bare feet dangling into the void. His back was turned to me, but I saw he wore only a t-shirt and khakis against the cold night air. Apparently he'd left his A-2 jacket at home.
That was one of the many bizarre things I'd come to understand about Murdock. He never seemed to dress right for the weather. Short sleeves in winter; three layers in the heat of summer. The thought that he must be cold hit me as I looked at him.
If I move closer, is he going to jump? Could I live with myself if he did?
My instincts told me to stay put, and I did. "Hey, Murdock. I got your message. Um…what's up?" It sounded so trite, but it was all I had. What was I supposed to say? I hear you're thinking of killing yourself. You want a beer with that? That reminded me, though, of the load in my arms.
"I brought you something. Here," I said, awkwardly putting the beer down on the rocky ground. "You want one?"
He turned around to face me, sitting Indian-style. That was good. It meant he one step closer to safety over a fifty-foot ravine. His expression was hard to read at first. Was he angry? Depressed? Then he spotted the case and it was like a light switch had been flipped on. "My favorite! I never like to drink alone, muchacho. You grab one, okay?"
I took the invitation, moved closer, and sat across from him. This was the weirdest thing I'd done in a long time, and I'd done a lot of weird things over the years. A good many of them had taken place in Murdock's company. I could just add this one to the list. Someday, if I got lucky, I'd be telling my grandkids about the time their grandpa Templeton had sat on the edge of a cliff, wearing a tux and drinking import beer with his crazy friend, trying to talk him out of suicide.
Some truths were stranger than fiction.
Murdock didn't, as far as I could see, look like a man who wanted to take his life. He looked a lot like when I last saw him: skinny almost to the point of gauntness, unruly hair still growing back, pale skin with dark circles under his eyes. Lonely, maybe. Disoriented in his new home, traumatized, uprooted. Hungry. But suicidal? It wasn't a word I associated with such a wild, life-loving spirit. I decided to go with a light topic instead of the elephant in the room.
"I bet you're wondering why I'm dressed like this, huh?"
He sipped his beer and stared at me. It was uncanny how those dark eyes of his were able to peer deep within my soul. "I figured you were on a date. Did I drag you away from some pretty lady?" he asked, sounding genuinely sorry.
I shook my head. "No. But you're more important to me than anybody. What's wrong? You said you needed to talk on the message. Is there something I can do?"
For a moment he said nothing. And Murdock, I knew, always had something to say. Finally he spoke.
"Face, I'm really lonely in that new place. I don't know anybody, and the food is awful, and…" Murdock's voice shook. "The walls. They talk to me."
"Ah." This was one of those times where I didn't know if he was kidding, or else serious as a heart attack. With Murdock it was either one or the other. "Have you, um, talked to your doctor about that?"
"They don't listen, they just scribble stuff down on a notepad. Plus they want me to take all kinds of meds. Those things mess with your head, you know? Cause all sorts of things to start wobbling." He pulled at the last of his beer and immediately opened another. I decided now was a good time to open the box of Twinkies and tossed him one.
I'd never experienced what he was going through now. I didn't like doctors and avoided them save for my annuals. What I had was a penthouse, a sports car, a closet full of tailored suits, and the numbers of a couple dozen drop-dead gorgeous women. What did Murdock have? A fluorescent-lit place that reeked of ammonia and had iron grates on its windows. Not much better than prison, really. No wonder he was depressed.
"You know you can always call me. I hadn't heard from you in a month. Why?" It was my turn to be defensive. I had a right to know.
Yet another random thing about Murdock: he can, and often does, stuff a whole Twinkie in his mouth when he gets emotional. "I thought I'd be bothering you," he said through the sweetness, and I understood every word. I also saw the tears at the corners of his eyes.
I put down my beer…okay by me, since it tasted like what I imagined radiator fluid would…and moved to sit next to Murdock. "You could never bother me. After all what we went through? I owe you my life more than a few times over. That's a debt I could never repay." And I felt my own eyes stinging suddenly.
Murdock looked at me, then out over the ocean behind us. "It really is pretty up here, isn't it, Faceman?" he said. "You can see forever out there."
I was a little worried by this. Didn't the suicidal guys in movies always talk about stuff like that right before they jumped? "Yeah. Looks just like it was when we were here in '70, huh? Just darker," I answered. "Say, aren't you cold?"
"No. Cold never bothered me much. How about you? You look about as blue as that tux jacket."
So he had noticed. I'd been trying hard not to shiver. The wind blowing off the Pacific was cutting through my thin clothes like a sharp knife. "I'll be okay. But, Murdock? I'm worried about you. Seriously. You've been through a lot. You've just fought a war. I understand. I was right there with you. I know how hard it is to forget what you've seen. That stuff's never going to go away. When we were back in Hanoi, and some of the guys got a quick out while we were eating bugs and grass? I used to wonder all the time, why me? Why couldn't I be the one to die quickly, and why the hell was I halfway around the world fighting a bunch of people I didn't even know, when other guys from my fraternity were surfing and picking up girls in Venice? Why?"
The words came unbidden, forcefully. Here I was, trying to talk my friend out of killing himself, and instead, I was selfishly going off about how I once thought the same things. Still did, sometimes. Some help I was turning out to be.
"Hey. It's okay." I must have made an impact on Murdock, because he put down both his beer and his third Twinkie and sat next to me. His brown eyes were kind, and only a hint of the manic gleam remained. "I was right there with you, remember?"
"Yeah. I remember." How could I forget the time we sang old Pat Boone songs just to piss off the Cong guards, or the memorable party Murdock threw for my 21st birthday with the Vietnamese girls all dressed in my college colors? There were plenty of good times in there right along with the dark days. I decided to take a chance. "So you're not actually thinking of suicide?"
Murdock blinked. "Well, maybe sometimes. A little. But tonight was one of those nights where I just felt like getting away from it all," he said softly.
I couldn't blame him; a night alone on this quiet cliff overlooking the ocean, under the stars, was much more appealing than cafeteria food and electric shock therapy. "But are you okay for tonight?"
"I think so. I've got you with me, don't I?"
His words took me back to Hanoi again. That had been our mantra as a team during all those dark days. I'm going to make it…because I've got you with me. And we did. I realized my cheeks were wet, and it had nothing to do with this frigid January.
"You look so cold, Face. You wanna get back?" Leave it to Murdock to state the obvious.
I wasn't going to lie. I was freezing and it wasn't even eight o'clock yet. Somewhere in the back of my mind, behind the relief and the emotion, was a strange thought. Then I realized it. I'd missed my spot at the Lindies for Best Supporting Actress. Somehow it didn't seem to matter anymore. "Yeah," I said, my teeth chattering. I thought of the Mustang and warmth. Then another, crazier, thought hit me. "Murdock, how the heck did you get here, anyway?"
He grinned. There was the Murdock I'd come to know. "You didn't see it?"
"See what?" I was worried.
"Come on. I'll show you."
Leaving the half-empty boxes of Twinkies and beer, Murdock took my hand, making me promise to keep my eyes shut. What I was doing letting a guy who'd been committed lead me down a steep path, blind. I had no idea what might happen, but this was my friend. I had to trust him. When we stopped, and I hadn't fallen, I opened my eyes.
There, impossibly perched atop a rough mesa, was a little Robinson R-22 helicopter. It only could have gotten here one possible way. Murdock, despite his issues, had not and would never forget how to fly. I laughed despite my nerves. "You actually flew that thing down here?" There was no telling who it belonged to or how mad they'd be when they found it missing.
"Oh, it was nothing, old chap," Murdock said in his proper British voice. "Quite spiffing, isn't it?"
I didn't doubt it. I'd seen him make tougher landings than this while taking fire from all sides. There was just one thing that concerned me. Suicidal or not, Murdock had downed at least five beers. I wasn't about to let him hop back in that thing and fly erratically up the coast. But it did tell me one irrevocable truth, maybe the truth I'd come down here to find.
Murdock was, I was sure, going to be okay. Like all of us, he had his rough patches. Just a few more, and more colorful, than most people.
"Why don't I drive us back? We'll take the slow ride," I said, trying to hurry things up a bit, "and I'll buy us dinner. I'm still at the Santa Monica place; you can stay overnight if you want. I'll call the VA and make up something. Oh, and there's a great Italian place near the condo."
"They got pizza?"
Murdock's grin widened. That was one more thing I loved about him. He was always, without exception, a happy drunk. "Well, what are we waiting for?" And he took off running toward the parking lot, full tilt, in the dark. I followed at a more cautious pace, holding the flashlight.
If I could have looked in a mirror right then, I'd have seen that my new tux was covered in dust, my hair was blown all out of place, and that my Italian shoes were likewise ruined. I probably looked awful.
And I wouldn't have cared.
Author's Notes: There really is a Torrey Pines State Reserve in San Diego; I just went and it was the inspiration for this story. I also witnessed a helicopter rescue by the SDFD who are amazing at what they do (the pilot was a Murdock daredevil type.) The title comes from the song "Let It Go" from the movie Frozen.