"May I get you a drink sir?" The waiter's voice drew Colonel John "Hannibal" Smith out of his reverie momentarily.
"Sure, Scotch, neat. Thanks."
Hannibal took another draw on his quickly dwindling cigar. It was crappy, but what did he expect from Vietnam? Vietnamese were more enamored of cigarettes, as were their prior overlords, the French. Damn what he wouldn't do for a good Cuban or Dominican. He scanned the dimly lit bar filled with dark stained wood furniture and American soldiers in uniform. His own cigar smoke mixed with that of cigarettes and other cigars. Hannibal glanced at the door again, watching for General Walker to arrive. The conversation wouldn't be pretty, but the General was the one person who could salvage his career, which was notoriously and publicly in the toilet.
The waiter put the Scotch on the table. Hannibal took a swig and winced. Apparently, Saigon was not the place for good Scotch either. If he had a few more of these, he mused, he wouldn't care about the bad Scotch or his tanked career. He had noticed two fellow Special Forces Colonels at a table near the door when he arrived. Both had mumbled "Hannibal" before looking back down at their drinks. They didn't meet his eyes. Thinking about his moniker almost made him laugh. That shit needs to get cut off at the knees, he thought.
He was given the name Hannibal during a difficult operation in Korea. The enemy killed his CO and XO within five minutes and disabled three others with shrapnel from a grenade. The original plan couldn't be accomplished with only three men, but the brilliant young lieutenant came up with a work around and completed the mission with only himself and two others. He received a Silver Star, a fast track up the ranks, and a nickname that made him proud. Until now.
Hannibal's head jerked up. How could a man as burly as General James Walker have snuck up to him like that? Hannibal stood and saluted.
"As you were Colonel."
Hannibal motioned for General Walker to sit. From good Scottish stock, James Walker stood 6'2" and in his youth was often described as 'strapping'. He was still imposing. Walker and Hannibal's father were classmates at West Point, and served in World War II together, where the elder Smith had saved Walker's life. Hence the opportunity for Hannibal's second chance. The General believed he owed it to Hannibal's father, who died in Korea.
"John, I'm not a fan of bullshit or small talk, so I'm going to cut to it. The powers that be wanted to put you behind a big desk in a tiny office in Saigon pushing large stacks of paper. I talked them into the fact that you had more to offer. But you can't fuck this up."
Hannibal couldn't meet his eyes. "I appreciate all the trouble you went to General, but what makes you so confident I won't, as you put it, fuck it up?"
The General laughed. "Not filling me with a lot of confidence, son."
Walker became serious. "Look, John. I know how badly you want to stay in the field, and quite frankly, I agree that commanding a platoon from some rearward base or Saigon office is not the best use of your talents."
Hannibal nodded. He had commanded SOG teams before, but none of his choosing, and the missions were not what he would call overly challenging. He knew he could do better, and had pressed to recruit his own team, one that would push all the boundaries.
Walker pulled him out of his reverie. "You know, we don't use the term 'suicide mission' because that doesn't look good on a recruiting poster."
Despite his mood, Hannibal smiled.
"But that mission, was a suicide mission. The brass likes to point fingers at everyone but themselves, but I'm surprised anyone survived. The place was crawling with VC, hidden like they tend to be."
Hannibal considered that, but in his mind, he had designed his team for those specific types of missions. He wanted to live up to his moniker, to be Hannibal, to come back when no one else could. Yeah, he came back. And then there was one, Hannibal thought bitterly. Out of twelve. Wasn't the Captain (or Colonel, in his case) supposed to go down with the ship?
Hannibal downed the rest of his Scotch in one gulp, warmth creeping down into his stomach, enabling him to speak.
"While I appreciate your kind words, thirty men died because my team couldn't take out that bridge and the enemy positions and I couldn't warn them because, well, a round went through my one-two and blasted both him and the radio."
His body tensed as he relived the moment, then hung his head. "Maybe I should be more concerned with that and less about my career options," he said. The words caught in his throat. "I should have died with them."
The General refilled Hannibal's glass. "I read your report. You didn't say it, but I read between the lines. When it got tough, they all turned on each other, didn't they? Every man for himself."
Hannibal focused on the far wall of the bar, anything to avoid the raw open wound in his soul. "Yes," he said simply. His voice seemed far away. "I don't know why. I recruited the best and brightest: Top of their class at West Point, highest marks in Special Forces training, combat experience. I had worked closely with the Yards and Nungs so I knew they were solid."
Walker put his hand on Hannibal's arm, his voice soft but stern. "Look, last time you went balls to the wall picking your team with no input or direction. I'm hoping this time you'll amend that line of thinking," Walker started. "Having a Lt. Colonel at the helm, the structure of this thing will probably be different than normal. You'll need to adjust your thinking."
Hannibal drew on his cigar stub thoughtfully. The General handed him a fresh cigar, which Hannibal quickly realized was Cuban. Hannibal stared at it, knowing the missile crisis had shut down that pipeline.
"I had a few left," the General said smiling. "You're going to need all the help you can get picking this team. The Cuban is the least I can do."
Hannibal saw Walker watch him closely through the smoke of his newly lit cigar.
"My wife's father ran a very large and lucrative business," Walker started. "One thing he used to tell me is that the best men are not necessarily the best men for the job."
Suddenly interested, Hannibal listened with rapt attention.
"He would frequently ignore highly educated candidates in favor of 'street educated' ones if they had a specific talent. Race or gender made no difference; even a criminal record was okay if they had a desire to clean up their act. Not murderers or people of bad character, mind you, but people who were basically good but had taken a wrong turn."
Hannibal nodded. "Seems like a sound strategy."
Walker puffed on his cigar and took a swig of scotch. "He also likened a business to a baseball team. You can have the best pitchers in the world, but if all you have is pitchers, you don't have a team. You need good pitchers, but you also need catchers, first basemen, and outfielders. Any good baseball manager will tell you the best players are characters. They have strong personalities, and it's the manager's job to somehow get them all to work well together toward a goal. That manager can fill one player's weakness with another player's strength, and vice versa."
Hannibal mulled this over. "So basically, I picked a team full of highly educated great pitchers and as a result, I never really had a chance of fielding a team."
Walker smiled. "Pretty much," he answered. "There is one other thing you should consider."
Hannibal looked expectantly.
"You said the team turned on each other. Look, John, you are known for being a highly ethical, moral individual. You need to have men on your team who are the same way. You need to figure out how to gauge that when you talk to them. And you do need to talk to them. Just looking at their service jacket is not enough. Men like that, like you…well, they'll stick together when it really counts."
"The key, of course, is the Executive Officer. Pick the wrong one, and nothing will work right. I could…um…recommend one who I think will fit right in."
Hannibal ruminated on the General's offer as Ray Brenner walked into his office. Despite his conversation with General Walker, Hannibal was still loath to get help with the intimacies of choosing his personnel. On the face of it, this guy Brenner was exactly who Walker had tried to steer him away from. Top of his class at OCS, high marks in Special Forces school and a year under his belt "in-country" as a medic. Brenner saluted.
"At ease Captain," Hannibal said, and Brenner was. The Captain's mannerisms suggested an easygoing personality, but his record showed he could keep subordinates in line. An excellent choice for an XO, if the interview went well. Hannibal went over the basics: Brenner's record, why he had joined the military, and insights into the good and bad of some of his missions. The Captain had the right answer for everything. Now for the loaded questions.
"You know Captain," Hannibal started, "A year ago I lost my entire team, plus our failure was responsible for the deaths of thirty other soldiers." His stomach churned even after so long.
Brenner looked him in the eye. "Yes sir, I am aware sir."
Well at least he looked me in the eye, Hannibal thought. "I can imagine with your record you are on the radar of a half dozen other one-zeros looking for a one-one. In fact, I heard the brass wanted give you a team." Brenner's chest puffed out a bit with pride.
"Yes sir," Brenner said, as a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth.
Hannibal didn't question Brenner's taste in humor. The man obviously understood the irony of the situation. With so much promise, why doom his own career to be the XO of a failure?
"OK, I'll bite. Why are you here then? Why me? Why this team?" Either the guy was career suicidal, had a dark secret past, or he had lost a huge stake to General Walker in a poker game and was still repaying.
"Your reputation sir. At OCS, the instructors said you were the most brilliant tactician that had come through since WWII. That gives me a better chance of staying alive and going home to my fiancé' so she can become my wife."
Hannibal winced inwardly. He acknowledged his tactical genius on paper, but it had failed him in combat.
Ray continued, seemingly blind to Hannibal's doubts. "And, you are known for being highly ethical, and quite frankly, since I don't want to be on the butt end of bombing VC hospitals or schools, that's important to me. The men I know who have served with you…"
"You mean the ones who are still alive?"
Brenner sighed. "Yes sir, the ones who are still alive."
Hannibal continued. "I mean, while I appreciate your logic in theory, I did lose my entire team, so not sure why you believe being my one-one will make you live longer."
Brenner stayed the course. "Look sir, the men I know who served under you in the past said you were a good commander, hard but fair. You care about your men, don't expect your men to do anything you aren't willing to do, and you always go in first." A glint appeared in Brenner's eyes. "Of course, rumor has it there is nothing too dangerous in your book."
Hannibal grinned, and lit his cigar. "Still not seeing how this makes you live longer, but it's your funeral." He put out his hand and smiled. "Welcome to the team Captain Brenner! I look forward to working with you."
The Supply Officer
"You're kidding, right?" Discretion being the better part of valor, Hannibal had finally allowed his new XO to help him look through service jackets of potential team members. Sometimes, Brenner came up with some interesting options. This time, he was off his rocker.
"I'm not kidding," Ray said. "Look Hannibal, this guy can allegedly get anything, anywhere, anytime. He is also rumored to be so good looking and suave, people can't say no to him. Women, men, it doesn't matter."
"In that case, why isn't every CO trying to get this guy on their team?"
His XO looked a bit uncomfortable. "Well, he spends a significant amount of time in the stockade," Ray responded.
"Why?" Hannibal drew the word out for emphasis.
Ray, still looking sheepish, responded carefully. "He…sometimes…doesn't exactly go through the proper channels."
That being normal for supply officers in a war zone, Hannibal wondered how off the rails this guy went. He looked expectantly at his XO, who it seemed had read his mind.
"OK…he…ummm…uses false requisitions…sometimes…." Ray said haltingly. Hannibal continued to look crosswise at Brenner. "And…he runs some illegal card games where he…might, possibly…um…cheat."
"And then he uses his winnings to procure items his CO needs, correct?" Hannibal already knew the answer.
"Partially?" Hannibal asked, annoyed, although he expected it. "You know Ray, weren't you the one who wanted to be on my team because I was 'highly ethical'?"
His XO laughed. "I'll be dealing with the guy directly. I just have to keep you in the dark, and then you can't have a crisis of conscience."
"Wonderful," Hannibal replied. "You know if he gets caught, I'm going to have to man up. I can't let a junior officer take the fall for me."
Ray grinned. "He does get caught. Frequently. They just can't pin anything on him because he knows how to beat the system. Anyway, I'll bet he can get you some excellent cigars and good Scotch." Ray sweetened the pot. "His primary specialty is radio."
Hannibal nodded, knowing he would need a reliable one-two. "And where do we find this paragon of virtue?" Hannibal asked.
The next day they were on a chopper bound for Khe Sanh. Normally he wouldn't be allowed to fly all over hell to interview potential team members, but Rank Hath its Privileges, and General Walker had a lot of rank.
After they landed and checked in with the base commander, Hannibal and Ray went to the officer's mess to speak with Peck. When they arrived, fists and men flew everywhere. One group held back Lt. Gunthar, a huge Marine desperately trying to plant his meaty fist in Peck's face. Two second lieutenants put themselves between Gunthar and Peck at significant risk to their own well-being. Gunthar pushed forward, shouting "I'm going to punch your face in asshole!"
Peck seemed to think the whole circus amusing. "Na uh, not the face."
One of Peck's protectors, a tall burly blonde named Sorensen, argued for Peck's survival.
"Hey, come on Gunthar, he needs that face to get us shit. Lay off."
Hannibal and Ray looked around. Either the base had a separate mess time for senior officers, or anyone of rank Captain and above had wisely abandoned ship when the trouble started. Hannibal did not follow suit.
"Ten-hut!" Hannibal yelled sharply. Everyone froze, then came to attention. By this time, the MPs arrived and stood by for Hannibal's orders. "Can anyone tell me what led to this breach of military order?!" Hannibal's tone clearly demonstrated his authority. No one said a word. Hannibal kept them at attention, then went to Gunthar. "Lt. Gunthar!"
Gunthar stood straighter, if that were possible. "Yes, sir Colonel!" he barked.
Hannibal's voice cut like steel. "Can you explain to me, Lieutenant, why you were trying to punch a fellow officer?"
Gunthar glared at Peck, then said "The asshole cheated me out of $50 at cards. Sir."
Hannibal turned his attention to Peck, his voice stern. "Well, Lieutenant?"
"Colonel Smith, I have no idea what he is talking about."
Looking at Peck's sincere visage and baby blue eyes, Hannibal almost believed him, would have believed him if he didn't know better. Hannibal's eyes narrowed, focused on the two violators.
"You men do know, of course, that gambling on a military base, in a war zone, is a violation of the code of military justice?" Both men stood up straight, realizing they were going to end up in adjoining cells. Hannibal addressed the MPs.
"Take these two to the cooler." As if reading their minds, Hannibal added, "And make sure they are NOT in adjoining cells." The MPs saluted and took Peck and Gunthar away in cuffs. Peck glared at Hannibal as he passed. Not a good introduction. He decided to let Peck calm down before he sent Brenner in for the initial interview.
Three hours later, Brenner sat in the stockade with Peck. Hannibal arranged for Gunthar's release to give them privacy. This incensed Peck, angry that Gunthar could leave and have a beer. The young lieutenant seemed to realized Ray's relation to Hannibal, and developed an instant attitude.
"What the heck do you want?" Peck asked.
Ray smiled conspiratorially. "You know, the secret is to not get caught."
Peck looked annoyed. "I'm sorry, what?" he asked.
Ray pressed on. "If you don't get caught cheating or…using questionable methods to requisition supplies or…other items, you won't rain retribution down on your CO, or yourself for that matter."
Face looked at the Captain like he was from Mars. "Why are you here exactly?" Face asked.
"My CO is forming an Alpha Team. He wants to interview you as the one-two, and supply officer."
Face glared at Ray. "You do know I was kicked off two other teams because the CO didn't…well, let's say they didn't like my morals, or as they put it, lack thereof."
Brenner liked Peck despite the false bravado, or maybe because of it. He was skinny and young, but his scrappy attitude put people off and maybe kept him from getting pummeled daily.
Face continued, "Plus, wasn't Smith the guy who lost his whole team not long ago? I mean, that isn't exactly the survival percentage I'm looking for in a career choice."
Brenner laughed. "The world is full of irony, isn't it? You know, if you keep getting kicked off teams, they're going to put you in infantry, and that would not be good for your life expectancy."
Face looked hurt. "Yeah, OK, you have a point. What is this lunatic CO's name again? Something weird…"
Ray smiled. "Hannibal… like with the elephants." Brenner pulled out a set of keys and unlocked the lieutenant's cell. Face looked him up and down.
Ray put out his hand. "Ray Brenner, good to meet you Lieutenant. I hear they call you Faceman."
Peck shook his hand and said, "Most people call me Face."
Brenner nodded. "Well Face, I'll take you to my CO. He has some questions." Face muttered something under his breath. Ray couldn't hear it, but he thought it sounded like "Oh wonderful."
Hannibal waited for Peck seated behind a government issue metal desk. He couldn't fathom who would put metal in a moist place like Vietnam, but the rust attested to their mistake. He looked around him. The room seemed to double as a store room; shelves lined the walls, each holding boxes of various size and shape. He heard footsteps and smiled. Peck would have to work on his stealth. The lieutenant saluted and stood at hard attention upon entry, which impressed Hannibal. He didn't know Peck had it in him to snap-to like that.
"At ease, Lieutenant," Hannibal said evenly as he motioned Peck to sit. "People call you Face, right?"
Face nodded warily.
Hannibal had already hit Peck with his hard-ass persona. Now he was trying for personable and easy going. Hannibal had purloined a questionable bottle of Scotch from the officer's club along with two glasses, and he poured two fingers for each of them. Face looked at the drink suspiciously.
"You know Face," Hannibal said, "we all expect rules to be, let's say 'bent', in a war zone. But you can't be stupid." Hannibal looked pointedly at the lieutenant. "You do know that cheating a Marine at all much less one three times your size is stupid, right?" It was not a question. Peck had to understand Hannibal was different from his other commanders, outwardly strict but flexible enough that Peck wouldn't end up in the stockade every three minutes.
"I'm forming an Alpha Team. I need a one-two and supply officer. You're the best, or so I'm told."
Face laughed bitterly. "Yeah, the best at getting into trouble. Not sure why they haven't shipped me home yet."
Hannibal looked him in the eye. "Is that what you want?"
Face met his gaze, then looked down. "No, I mean I have no family or anything waiting for me. I really don't want to get sent home."
Something in the Lieutenant's eyes made Hannibal speak softly.
"Then start acting like it."
Face's head snapped up.
"Look Lieutenant, I understand the exigencies of competing for limited supplies in a forward area. I'm not trying to be an ass, and in jail, you won't do anyone any good."
Hannibal took a swig of scotch. "I need to know you are going to be smart. And, I need to know you won't jeopardize the team's interests in favor of your own. Especially that last part. Can you do that?"
Face looked at Hannibal and nodded. "Yeah, I can do that."
OK, that part was done, Hannibal thought. Now for the trick questions. False requisitions were one thing, but there were more pressing moral and ethical issues that could come up, especially in a place like 'Nam.
"OK Lieutenant, one more question." Face looked at him expectantly. "As an Alpha Team, part of our work is clearing enemy positions. We'll be expected to follow orders, no matter what they are. Can you do that?"
Face seemed wary. "What do you mean by 'no matter what they are'? I mean, I'm OK with dynamiting a bridge or knocking out enemy troops with a sniper rifle, but I'm not going to blow up an orphanage or anything like that."
Hannibal remembered from Peck's file that he had been raised in an orphanage. Hannibal pressed.
"Sometimes the VC hide troops or guns in places like orphanages or hospitals."
Face stood up fast; his chair clattered to the floor. Fire flew from his eyes. "Look Colonel, if that's the kind of team you are assembling, then I'm out! Let them put me in infantry. I'm ready. But I'm not going to kill kids just because some General thinks there's a rocket hiding there!" Face turned to leave, but Hannibal grabbed his arm.
"That was the right answer, Lieutenant. Welcome to the team." Face looked flabbergasted.
"You would be amazed at how many people I've interviewed were OK with 'no matter what'. I need men who will follow orders, but who will also keep the team on the moral straight and narrow."
Face nodded tentatively. "I think I understand," he said.
Hannibal knew Ray was outside listening to the conversation, and opened the door to invite him in. Hannibal addressed Face.
"Meet me and Captain Brenner at 0500 hours at the officer's mess. We're flying to Da Nang to interview some crazy pilot."
"You wouldn't happen to be talking about H.M. Murdock, would you?" Face asked.
Hannibal looked surprised. "Yes, you know him?"
Face laughed. "Oh, I know him. We did some hideous jungle survival training together." Face looked as if reminiscing. "Yeah, nothing gets two guys closer than getting dumped in a jungle with no food or water. Or compass, incidentally. Yeah, good times."
Hannibal and Ray laughed.
"Is he really crazy?" Hannibal asked.
"Depends on the minute. But he'll always have your back."
Hannibal clapped Face on the back; his grin could only mean trouble. Face and Ray rolled their eyes and they all headed to the officer's mess for dinner.
Hannibal, Ray and Face watched the Huey come over the trees, tail swinging wildly. A few hours earlier they had arrived at the base to interview Murdock, but the base commander said he was out on a run. Twenty minutes ago, the commander had come to tell them Murdock sent a mayday call, something about the tail rotor being shot out. The man had looked grim.
"That guy never EVER calls in a mayday. I've seen him limp a chopper in on no juice with smoke pouring out of the engine and not even a peep. This must be bad."
Hannibal hoped he was going to have a pilot to interview. He saw concern etched on his lieutenant's face. Rotors signaled the Huey's welcomed approach, but their relief was premature. The chopper swung wildly as sirens blared.
A warning came over the loud speaker. "All personnel clear the LZ! Repeat, all personnel clear the LZ!" As the Huey came in, people dove for cover. The craft came down hard on the ground, crushing one of the skids and making the chopper tilt to the side, main rotors still spinning. Finally, the chopper powered down and the rotors silenced. For a moment, everyone held their breath waiting for any sign of movement from within the helicopter. Suddenly, three men crawled out of the damaged side of the chopper, which touched the ground. Hannibal looked at the men, then looked at Face, who shook his head. Face scanned wildly for Murdock, at last seeing him pop out on the high side of the chopper as if nothing untoward had happened. Murdock lit up when he spotted Face. The pilot plopped to the ground.
"Face guy!" Murdock ran toward him in fake slow motion, then picked him up and twirled him around, like lovers in a bad romance movie.
"OK Murdock. Glad to see you too, but you're wrinkling the suit." Murdock cocked his head and looked at Face.
"You know Faceman, that's a uniform, right? I mean, you're going to be training in it and tromping through the jungle in it. Sheesh, and they say I'm crazy."
Face laughed, then chided his old friend.
"Murdock, you're not impressing the CO here. Try to act a little bit sane please." Murdock looked at Hannibal and Ray as if just noticing them.
Suddenly, he snapped to attention. "Captain Murdock, reporting for duty, Sir!"
Hannibal walked over and scrutinized Murdock with intensity, then suddenly relaxed and grinned.
"As you were Captain!" Hannibal told Murdock.
Face looked at Hannibal incredulously. "Wait, what? That's it? I mean, I got the third degree and he gets that…what the heck kind of grin is that anyway?"
Hannibal and Ray both laughed.
"It's trouble is what it is," Ray responded.
"Don't worry Face, I'll grill him too," Hannibal snickered. "And remember, we met you under…shall we say less than favorable circumstances, you almost getting pummeled by a Marine and all."
"Great," Face muttered.
Hannibal turned to Murdock. "That was quite the landing Captain!" he said, grinning from ear to ear.
Murdock looked at the aircraft with a combination of pride and disinterest if that were possible.
"That-well that is what I like to call relocating the aircraft with extreme prejudice. Sir."
Hannibal, Ray and Face all looked at one another, then at Murdock.
"Hey, I'm hungry. You hungry. I'm really really hungry. Come on Face, I know you're always hungry." Murdock blathered on about food until they got him to the mess hall, where the base commander intercepted them.
"I'll need to debrief Captain Murdock." Murdock continued his conversation about food and food groups and food he liked and food he didn't.
Hannibal interceded. "Sir, you'd better let him eat first. I'm afraid you won't get far with the debrief until he's fed."
The commander laughed. It apparently wasn't his first experience with the pilot's eccentricities.
"Very well, Colonel, send him my way when he's done. You can have him after that."
Two hours later, Hannibal sat behind a small dilapidated wooden desk in a trailer that seemed better suited for back woods living than an office in Southeast Asia. The one blissful benefit – The place had a small air conditioner. Hannibal basked in the cool air. Murdock, sitting across from him, barely seemed to notice.
Hannibal glanced surreptitiously at Murdock as he appeared to look through the pilot's service record. Hannibal had memorized it but wanted to observe the young pilot's body language. Several times, Murdock started to curl his legs up on the chair and stopped himself. Instead he hugged his chest.
"Very impressive record Captain," Hannibal told Murdock. "You've never left a man behind. I mean, you've gone out of your way not to leave people behind."
If Hannibal expected more from the pilot, it didn't come. Hannibal pressed on.
"That's very important to me. You'll be the lifeline of the team. I need someone I can count on. Would that be you?" Hannibal kept his tone soft and even.
Murdock looked pensive. Gone was the craziness he had seen earlier. Murdock seemed pensive, and his next words were highly coherent.
"I've never been on a team before. I've always been, well, you know, sort of a loner. Kinda like being a loner. Don't need to impress anyone but me. No one to let down."
Hannibal had dealt with this type before. The military seemed to attract loners, which was odd because the Army was all about team work.
Murdock's personnel file showed his mother had died when he was young, and his father was mostly absent. Armchair shrink came with the CO title, and Hannibal mused that Murdock was probably picked on as a kid, maybe using crazy or class clown as a defense.
For some reason he had formed a bond with Face. Hannibal had to use that because damn, this kid was the best pilot he'd ever seen. Hannibal wouldn't let him get away.
"You know, Face was really excited at the prospect of you being on the team. He considers you a really good friend," Hannibal said tentatively.
Murdock looked down. "I know. I mean, he is a friend, maybe my best friend. If," Murdock corrected, "If a loner could have a best friend." Murdock looked a bit sullen. "Anyway, he's got new friends now."
At first, Hannibal wasn't sure what he meant.
"You know, you guys. He likes you guys. I can tell."
Hannibal latched onto that. "Yes, because we're part of a unit now. Members of a unit take care of each other."
Hannibal got up, moved around the desk and sat down on the front corner, trying to meet Murdock's eyes. "Sure, we won't always get along, but we always have each other's backs. Face is part of that and he…we all want you to be part of that too. You can do a lot of good."
Murdock stared at the floor. "I don't want to let my unit down. What if I let them down?" Hannibal heard an urgency in his voice but hadn't seen anything in his service record that would indicate a reason for the pilot's upset. Incidents don't always make it into the record.
"Son, I've seen you fly. I've spoken to people who served with you, men who say you'll fly into a hot zone risking life and limb to save one soldier, even when everyone else has given up. That's not a man who's going to let anyone down, much less his team." For the first time, Murdock met Hannibal's eyes.
"I think," Murdock sighed, taking a deep breath as one might before jumping off a high diving board, or more appropriately, a cliff. "I think that I would be very honored to be a member of your team Colonel."
Hannibal grinned. "Welcome to the team Captain. Welcome to the team."
"You know Colonel, suggesting a quick trip to China Beach for some R&R was a great idea. A little team bonding is good for the soul," Brenner said, watching Face and Murdock sit on the sand and cozy up to two very endowed young women in bikinis. Hannibal laughed and nodded his head in the direction of the two men.
"I'm not seeing much team bonding going on, but a day to decompress can't hurt," Hannibal said as his eyes followed a pretty brunette who walked past. "Shame you can't partake Captain!" Hannibal grinned wickedly, knowing Brenner's fiancée Trish waited for him back home. Unlike some servicemen away at war, his XO would never step out on his lady.
Brenner laughed also. "I'm not really tempted. None of these women hold a candle to Trish. But I'm glad I'm not that guy." Ray pointed to a black serviceman who was center of attention for all the Vietnamese women on the beach. He wasn't tall but was incredibly muscular. The man did not seem to be enjoying the fuss. Hannibal absently wondered if his entire team could take this guy in a fight.
"Face would probably kill to be that guy right now," Ray smirked. Hannibal and Ray became engrossed in conversation, and before they knew it, the man disappeared.
The next morning the team assembled for the chopper ride to Pleiku to start training as a team. The base commander, Crimmons, walked up to speak with Hannibal, who frowned. Something about Crimmons' demeanor rubbed him wrong. Haughtiness, maybe, mixed with self-importance. Hannibal pegged him as a desk jockey who believed himself better than the grunts.
"Colonel, I hope you don't mind, but we have a supply truck headed for Da Nang and we'd like your team to be on it. There has been enemy activity on the route between here and Da Nang. You can get your flight out of there."
Hannibal nodded. "Not a problem." Suddenly, he saw the muscled black man from the beach come in their direction and stop in front of Crimmons.
"Sgt. Barracus, reporting for duty sir!"
The commander rolled his eyes. "Well Sergeant, I'm glad to see you can learn some military discipline after all." Crimmons' voice dripped with sarcasm. Barracus glowered at him.
Hannibal could almost see Barracus' thoughts, which likely included beating the tar out of the base commander and anyone who got in the way. Hannibal didn't plan on him or his team being those people.
Crimmons purposely didn't seem to notice. "Colonel, Sgt. Barracus will drive the truck." Crimmons turned his attention to Barracus. "You will not cause any trouble on this trip Barracus, or you'll find yourself someplace a lot worse than the stockade."
"Yes Sir!" Barracus said saluting, while he continued his barrage of glares.
"Barracus, go make the truck ready and verify the cargo. Dismissed!" Barracus' eyes bored into Crimmons one more time as he went off in the direction of the truck.
Face and Murdock appeared worried about traveling with Barracus; Hannibal and Ray less so. Hannibal looked at Crimmons, his eyes filled with questions.
"Oh, where to begin," said Crimmons. "The name on his dog tags is Bosco Barracus, but he is known as B.A. for Bad Attitude. He doesn't follow orders, and he likes to hit officers."
Hannibal's men would be traveling with this loose cannon in an area crawling with VC. He needed clarification. "If he is such a cancer, why is he still in the Army. I mean, war or no war, the guy should be dishonorably discharged."
The base commander laughed. "Oh, I wish. Unfortunately, the man is a mechanical genius. Despite his unfortunate discipline record, I have people all over Vietnam clamoring for him because he can literally fix anything."
Crimmons made a motion with his hands, as if using a wrench. Hannibal wondered if he knew a wrench from a screwdriver.
"Choppers, trucks, jeeps, you name it, he fixes it. If he doesn't have tools or parts, he finds some way to manage it. If I let him go, the place will literally fall apart."
"Any sort of special training?" Hannibal asked nonchalantly as he heard his men stifle groans.
"Well, yes. Surprisingly, he has completed Special Forces training without getting kicked out, probably because, well, you know." Crimmons winked conspiratorially.
"No, I don't know," Hannibal said. Crimmons glared at Hannibal but stayed silent.
Hannibal knew exactly what Crimmons meant. Apparently, the Army had been accused of not being diversified enough in higher positions and Crimmons believed black soldiers were recruited for Special Forces and pushed through to completion, whether they deserved it or not.
"If he completed Special Forces training, why isn't he in Special Forces?" Hannibal allowed his anger to show. He always believed in the inner worth of a man, regardless of his skin color.
Crimmons seemed flustered. "For one thing, he won't follow orders."
Hannibal started to believe that wasn't the whole story. "Does he have any other training you are wasting?" Hannibal didn't hide his distaste.
Crimmons clenched his teeth when responding. "Yes Colonel. He was trained in explosives and mines."
"Really?" Hannibal said sarcastically. "Interesting."
Crimmons pulled himself up to his full height. "You and your team are dismissed Colonel. Have a pleasant ride." The commander turned abruptly and walked off indignantly.
Hannibal grinned as he pulled out a cigar.
Ray shook his head. "You sure know how to poke the bear."
Face pointed at B.A. "Please just don't poke that bear."
Hannibal's grin grew wider. Face buried his forehead in his palm. Murdock moaned.
"Hannibal, you are not thinking what I think you're thinking," Face asked, looking shocked and resigned.
Cigar clenched between his teeth and a glint in his eyes, Hannibal replied, "Yeah, I am." He started over toward B.A., leaving the team to shake their heads.
"Sgt. Barracus. I'm Hannibal Smith."
B.A. didn't look up as he continued to check the truck's contents against a written inventory. "I know who you are. You the dude who lost his whole team first day out."
Hannibal had to expect these comments until he proved himself again, but they still stung.
"I am," Hannibal said. "I'm also the man who can get you doing what you were trained for, Special Forces, explosives expert. You shouldn't just be driving a truck. That's a waste."
Barracus glared at him with vitriol. "Hey man, don't you know I got a birth defect. Can't you see we different colors? This isn't just some suntan I got on China Beach!" The Sergeant had been marginalized for so long, he couldn't see how a white man wanted to help him or respect him.
Hannibal sighed. "Look Sergeant, I don't work that way. Yes, I did lose my whole team, and caused the deaths of many more servicemen by my failure. Part of that was because I picked a whole team of clean cut, white bread, top of their class soldiers."
Hannibal's eyes connected with B.A.'s. "That's great in theory and works for most COs. I run a different outfit, and not everyone can cut it in that environment. I'm not saying what happened was their fault. It was my fault. I'm the one-zero. I chose them. But I'm not making that mistake again."
B.A. stared at the ground and said nothing.
Hannibal took this as an invitation to keep going. "Look at my team. My pilot is pretty much crazy, and my supply officer has probably been in jail more than you have."
B.A.'s head snapped up in surprise.
"I'm not kidding. He likes to fudge requisitions. And cheat at cards."
B.A. shook his head. "Hey man," B.A. groused. "I don't like no one cheating at no cards. Or stealing stuff. Or cursing," B.A. added.
Hannibal looked crosswise at the mechanic. "But hitting officers and refusing to follow orders is OK?" Hannibal asked. His facetious tone caused B.A. to emit a low growl.
"That's different. No one tells B.A. Barracus to do nothing that's not right. When you tell me to do stuff that's not right, I say no. When I say no, I mean no. You try to put me in jail for that, I'm gonna hit you. Mama taught me not to do bad stuff, and I won't!"
Well this was an interesting development, Hannibal thought. "What did someone ask you to do that wasn't right?" Hannibal asked the clearly agitated Sergeant.
Barracus viewed him suspiciously.
Hannibal coaxed him. "I'm on your side, Sergeant. I don't tolerate things that aren't right." Hannibal glanced at Face. "Within reason," he finished.
"OK," B.A. said. "Some of the officers take supplies like ammo, grenades and explosives for themselves, then want me to say the stuff fell off the back of the truck, or that I was attacked on the way. I ain't doin' that man. That's wrong."
Hannibal had to admit that was worse than what Face did. At least Hannibal would take the fall for Face if necessary. The officers here would likely let the young Sergeant take the blame if caught. At minimum, he could end up in Federal prison for a very long time. That was not acceptable in Hannibal's book.
"We're not like that. I promise," Hannibal reassured him. B.A. looked at Hannibal and then at the other team members.
"Hey, we better not be blowing up villages with kids in 'em. I don't blow up no women or kids," B.A. said vehemently. Hannibal shook his head.
"I'm not like that. Neither is my team. We're with you on that." Hannibal looked at B.A. to see if his message had gotten through. "We cool?" Hannibal asked.
"Yeah, brother, we cool. I'm in," B.A. said with a smile. Considering what his scowl looked like, his smile was nice.
"Grab your footlocker. Once I have the paperwork processed, you won't be back here. Come meet the team."
Hannibal looked at his team and he couldn't be happier. I love it when a team comes together, he thought, a huge grin spreading over his face. His team groaned.
"You know Hannibal, we really need to come up with a name for that," Ray said.
Hannibal looked puzzled. "For what?" he asked. They all shook their head. The roller coaster ride was just starting, Hannibal realized. And it was going to be fun.
Fort Bragg, 1972:
"You have a visitor Smith," said the MP guarding his cell. "Go with Corporal Sanders. And no tricks Smith or it will go badly for your friends." The MP waved his hands in the direction of B.A. and Face.
Hannibal was in no mood for visitors, and too depressed for tricks. He couldn't bear the defeated looks on his men's faces. How did this happen? It overwhelmed his waking mind. At night, dark dreams of firing squads took over. He woke hoping they were still in Vietnam, this place the delirious ravings of an injured soldier.
"Smith!" The MP had lost patience.
Still a soldier, Hannibal obeyed and followed Sanders, who led him to a small room.
"Wait here!" Sanders ordered, then left and bolted the door.
Who the heck could want to see him? It wasn't their attorney. That guy came the day before and seemed highly uninterested in the truth. They were lucky if they saw him at all before they walked into a courtroom. Press? Maybe. Hannibal entertained several possibilities before he heard the bolt go on the door. He rose and saluted when he saw who it was.
"As you were Colonel," said General Walker.
Hannibal's heart raced as thoughts flooded his mind. Was he in on this whole conspiracy against them? No! Hannibal refused to believe that. Still….
"General, I…" Hannibal didn't even know what to say.
"As I mentioned during our last meeting several years ago, Colonel, I'm not a fan of chit chat or bullshit. So, I'll get to the point." Although the room sported a desk and two chairs, Walker didn't sit. Hannibal followed suit.
"Please do," said Hannibal as his mind settled.
"When I heard about your arrests, I knew something had to be wrong. I'm pretty good at taking the measure of a man, and my take on you is that your devotion to duty and your country is exceedingly high. Your ethics are unmatched. In my estimation, there was no way you would betray your country for money or any other reason."
The General's faith took him by surprise. Warmth flooded him. Somehow, knowing that even one person believed them gave him hope.
Walker met his eyes. "I stared making some phone calls, trying to find out what was going on."
"And what did you find out," Hannibal asked.
"Well, something very interesting happened. I got a call from my step-brother, General Jack Maitland."
"Maitland is your brother?!" Hannibal asked in shock. Maitland's goons were responsible for putting them in cuffs and shipping them to Bragg.
The General smiled. "Step-brother, yes, and he told me it would be 'better for my career' if I would cease and desist asking questions about the circumstances surrounding your arrest."
The words hit Hannibal like a bullet in the gut.
"Of course, I asked him to clarify what he meant."
"And what did he say?" Hannibal asked.
Walker smiled again. "He said that there are 'things I don't understand' and that there is a 'bigger picture' I'm not seeing. Then he told me that your trial 'wouldn't go well'."
"Wouldn't go well?" Hannibal could barely speak. His vision swam as he processed the implications.
"I asked him if I was suddenly living in Soviet Russia or China because here in the U.S. one is innocent until proven guilty."
Hannibal had suspected there was more to their arrest than met the eye, but hearing it presented so bluntly shocked him.
"And what did he say?" Hannibal shook with anger.
"He told me 'Not in this case' and said me if I didn't stop asking questions, I might be sharing a cell with you."
Hannibal slammed his fist against the desk. "So basically, you're telling me we are the scapegoats being used to deflect public attention away from something the Army doesn't want anyone to know about."
"That's my feeling." Walker stared at the floor. "Unfortunately, I can't help you."
Hannibal clasped Walker's arm, causing him to look up. "General, you don't…" he started, not knowing how to convey his gratitude. The General waved him off.
"Colonel, I can tell you one thing for sure. If you go to trial, you will be convicted and spend the next 40 years in prison at best. At worst, they will put you and your men in front of a firing squad. Technically, this is still wartime and you committed treason in a war zone. If they shoot you, you can't make any trouble for them."
The message processed slowly. General Walker was urging him to make a run for it. The implications staggered him. Blood pumped hard in his ears and his stomach clenched. No chance to defend themselves in court, no chance to salvage their careers. A life on the run, always watching over their shoulders. What would they even do? Hannibal's eyes met Walker's and that understanding passed between them.
The General spoke first, his voice soft. "Look son, whatever happens, you need to be true to who you are."
Hannibal wasn't sure what he meant.
Perhaps sensing that, Walker continued and paced as he spoke. "You went into the army for positive reasons…To defend your country, to help others like the South Vietnamese people maintain their freedom. Your country has turned on you. It would be natural to turn your back on those values, to go down a dark path."
Walker stopped in front of Hannibal and put his hand on Hannibal's shoulder. "But it isn't you. Stay true to who you are, who you have been. Stay on the straight and narrow, and maybe one day the tide of public opinion will make the Army change their mind."
Walker observed Hannibal as he internalized the information. "Just keep it in the back of your mind, that's all," Walker said, as he pulled a cigar from his pocket.
"I have a gift for you." Walker put the Cuban into Hannibal's front uniform pocket. "I've ordered the corporal on guard to make sure to light it for you," the General said with a twinkle in his eye. "Just don't smoke it all the way down."
Hannibal's eyes widened at the realization that Walker had put something in the cigar to help them escape.
"Corporal, take the prisoner back to his cell!" the General barked. Walker looked at Hannibal. "Good luck Colonel. Godspeed."
"Thank you General. For everything. I won't let you down," Hannibal said.
"You never have, son, you never have."