Bachelor Pad Blues
by Mizhowlinmad (HBF), 2010
Dedicated: To A., who has been a pal in so many ways. I'm proud you're my friend.
The Wainwright Executive Charter Company had been depressing enough. This was worse. Much, much worse.
The flick of the light switch next to the front door revealed everything, or as much as a low-wattage fake chandelier could. The ad had said "cozy and inviting." Having heard rumors about how difficult it was to find a one-bedroom anywhere near the Beltway without selling one's firstborn child, he'd signed for it, sight unseen.
In the cramped combination living-dining area were his two sturdy Army-issue duffels, their air tags still neatly attached. How they'd gotten there, he had no idea. Maybe a few of the Ables served as rental agents, or couriers, in whatever spare time they had.
Had there been a couch, Murdock would have wanted to sink down on it and sleep for fourteen straight dreamless hours. The previous twenty-four had been a nightmare. Like a slasher movie played in slow-motion, only dubbed into a language he could not understand. He had to be still dreaming. When he woke, he'd be magically back in SoCal and it would be like the end of The Wizard of Oz, everybody gathered around him sofaside while he told them what a fantastic bender he'd just had…
He sighed. Rubbed at the too-big coveralls he wore, with the name "William" (someone whom, he'd assumed, had recently quit the job) stitched over the left breast pocket. He was now an official employee of the Fairfax County Animal Control and Care Unit. No dreams, no twisters.
He was also now an official resident of Merrifield, Virginia. More specifically, the Haversham House Apartments.
What little he'd been able to see as he'd gotten out of the cab and into the light fall drizzle was a huge, nearly decrepit old Victorian home, incongruous on a street of bland, newer townhomes. He'd been about to tell the cabbie it was the wrong spot when he'd spotted the sign. Haversham House, 1725 N.W. Baltimore Street. This was the place.
For lack of a couch, Murdock sat down on one of the plastic milk crates apparently left behind by the previous tenant and ran a hand through his thinning hair. God, am I tired.
He was also heartbroken. The one time he'd been able to get through to Stockwell on the phone, the bastard had answered all his questions in his typically aloof way. That was to say, by not answering them at all. Including, Murdock thought with a surge of anger, the one about whether or not he'd be staying with the Team at their new quarters.
"Captain, alternate arrangements have been made for you. My outfit can assist you with a living allowance until you receive a steady income. I'm afraid the reasons for this arrangement are classified."
"Classified, my ass. My guys need me, especially after all you put them through…"
A tense moment of silence. Then a click.
"Able Eleven, won't you put Captain Murdock in contact with Miss Traherne at Fairfax Property Management…"
That was the last he'd spoken to the enigmatic General. Able Eleven had indeed connected him to a rental property company. A few hours later, here he was.
My home. My castle. He absently fingered the door key with its red rubber chain advertising something called Dino's Casa de Pizza. It occurred to Murdock suddenly, violently, that he'd never actually had a place to call his own. Straight out of flight school in Texas, shipped halfway across the world, then back again to fifteen years behind locked doors. In all that time, he'd never once had the nice house, the grinning golden retriever, the wife and 2.4 kids to come home to at the end of the day. Having a permanent place was always Faceman's dream. It had never been his, not really…
A sudden image of a block of Tudor homes in the California suburbs being blown to smithereens danced across his mind, and he fought an ironic smile. That was different…and it had only lasted a few days. Who knew how long he'd be here? Days? Weeks? The rest of his life?
He decided not to brood over it. Brooding, Hannibal always said, just gave you a headache and deeper frown lines. Seeing that his 40th birthday was only a few weeks away, Murdock knew that was the last thing he needed. For the time being, what he did need was something to eat, and to empty his bladder.
The bathroom was miniscule. Even most of the officers' tent facilities in Nam had been bigger, and better-equipped, than this. Nevertheless, he wedged his lanky frame inside, did what he needed to do, and left the cubicle gratefully behind. Showering was going to be an exciting adventure.
Right across was the bedroom. Sighing, Murdock turned on the light. A hundred years ago, this had probably been a lovely little 10 by 12 sitting room for a lady called Mildred or Edwina. Now, it was a crypt with a blocked-off fireplace, peeling floral wallpaper, and one solitary grimy window looking out onto the alley.
Though he knew, with bitter regret, that he was released from the VA for good, Murdock mentally reminded himself never to complain about that facility again. By comparison to this little corner of hell, it was a palace.
I bet if I hang a few t-shirts in that room, it might be livable.
Cheered slightly by the thought, he went to check his duffels for inventory, but was distracted by the loud rumble of his stomach instead. How long had it been since he'd eaten? He thought. Unless he counted the stale package of Twinkies from the vending machine that afternoon (and he didn't), Murdock realized that his last meal had been the Salisbury steak the Ables had made him eat on the flight east. The one with the damn tranq in it.
He decided to try the small fridge to see if maybe the last guy had left behind a loaf of bread or some frozen TV dinners. No dice. Frustrated, Murdock slammed the door. It bounced open. He tried again. Bounce. It was just not his day.
Back to the milk crate. The next thing Murdock knew, his head was buried in his hands and he was gently rocking back and forth.
He wanted so badly to go home. More than anything. But this was home now. In all the ways that mattered, he'd never really had a home…tryin' to make a living and doin' the best he could, to paraphrase that old Allman Bros. chestnut…so this was as good a place as any. For 400 bucks a month, on his salary, what did he expect? Georgetown? A mansion with a uniformed butler and a personal chef?
Haversham House, he thought, was a little like Da Nang or Fort Rucker or Khe Sanh or Westwood. Just a place you stayed while you were getting ready to go somewhere else.
Maybe it wasn't forever. Hannibal also always said that you should never see anything as carved in stone.
First things first. He had to get something to eat or he was going to crash faster than a Huey with a busted Jesus nut. Since the cupboard was barer than Old Mother Hubbard's, and he had no idea where the finer dining was in greater Merrifield, he decided to call the number on the keychain.
"Dino's Casa de Pizza," said a teenage male voice. "What's it gonna be tonight?"
"Um, I'll have a large pepperoni and mushroom. You guys have thin crust?"
"Yeah, for a buck extra."
Murdock gave the kid his name, phone number, and address, and hung up. The silence was overwhelming in this place. Not even the sound of an upstairs neighbor's footsteps, or a dog barking. After so many years near hot LZs, in the cockpit, and living in institutions, he'd grown accustomed to all the noises. They'd even comforted him. Now, it was just scary how quiet it was.
He was deep in thought about how he was going to figure out the location of Stockwell's secret lair when the sound of the doorbell shocked him back into reality.
"Who is it?" Maybe the Ables had come back to give him a TV with a VCR. Or a Ms. Pac-Man machine.
"It's Pete with Casa de Pizza."
A look through the peephole revealed a middle-aged guy in a bright green polo and ball cap, holding a pizza box. Murdock opened the door for the deliveryman.
"Nice weather out, huh?" Pete joked. The brim of his ball cap was beaded with rain. "That's, ah, a large thin crust pepperoni and mushroom? Seven dollars even."
Aw, shit. Murdock knew, despite his fatigue, that he'd given the cabbie his last twenty earlier. He was literally broke.
"Um, look, this is literally my first day here…got some jet lag…I'm really sorry…" He felt like he was babbling. Worse, he felt stupid.
To his utter surprise, Pete just smiled. "You know what? It's on me. Some guy outside Langley gave me a huge tip earlier, and I'm in a good mood. Don't worry about it, pal. You seem like a nice guy." It was the third time a stranger had told him that.
Langley? He thought. I wonder…no, too much of a coincidence. But, with Stockwell, there are no coincidences. Probably bugged my phone already…
"I'll pay you back," Murdock said softly, feeling his cheeks go as red as the pepperoni. "Just started a new job today."
"Oh?" Pete was curious. "Where at?"
Murdock pointed to the company name stitched on his right chest pocket. "American Airlines wasn't hiring," he said, shrugging.
Now, Pete looked slightly embarrassed. "I hate to ask you this…no, wait, you seem all right…my kids lost interest in their hamster, and I've been trying to give the critter away. You wouldn't want it, would you?"
Murdock scanned his new apartment. Maybe 750 square feet, one bedroom. Too small for a dog, and a cat would stink up the place. A hamster, on the other hand, was perfect. It would also be some company for those times he wasn't walking the homeless canine population of Fairfax County.
"Yeah, sure. I love animals," he answered sincerely.
"Great," said the pizza man with a smile. "If it's OK, I'll bring him by tomorrow. Comes with a cage and everything."
"That sounds like a plan."
Pete left Haversham House, and Murdock was alone once more. The savory smell of the pizza greeted his nostrils. He began eating…one, then two and three, slices, disappeared like part of a magician's act. Before he knew it, only two were left. They'd serve as breakfast for tomorrow.
And tomorrow, thought Murdock in his breathiest Scarlett O'Hara mental voice, was another day.
He spent a few minutes unpacking, first a change of clothes which he was too tired to use, then the bedroll which would have to do until he managed to get some furniture. He'd slept enough nights under the stars half a world away; this was nothing.
Murdock's last thoughts before his eyes closed were of pepperoni, cobwebs, drizzle…and how he was going to see his team again, very soon.
Even if it meant breaking a few…or even all…of Stockwell's precious rules.