"Y'know, there's not much a man can count on out here."
Sergeant Zeke Anderson squinted, puzzled, at his companion in the watchtower. He'd come up here to have some time to himself, look around at the green, verdant landscape, try to decide whether he loved it or hated it here. It was something Zeke tried to do every once in a while it helped a man stay balanced in the midst of all this horror.
But he hadn't bargained on finding First Lieutenant John McKay already camped out, slumped against the sandbags and pensively smoking cigarette after cigarette.
It had seemed rude to do either of the first two things that Zeke had considered; telling his superior to take a hike or backing hurriedly back down the ladder would both land him deep.
So, Anderson bit the bullet and resigned himself to spending quality time with Lt McKay. It wasn't so bad, what with the red warmth of the setting sun and the vague breeze sweeping high over the camp. Which was probably why he'd been so startled when McKay started talking.
"Not his rifle, not his morals, hell, probably not his superiors, either." McKay took a deep, harsh drag from one of the cigarettes before scrubbing it against the floor of the watchtower, stripping the butt of tobacco and pocketing the cottony end. "Just one thing a soldier can count on." He turned those poster-boy blue eyes on Anderson, who felt a nervous twitch-fit coming on. Philosophy? With McKay?!? It didn't bode well.
"You know what that one thing is, Sergeant?"
Anderson gave a one-shouldered shrug, smiling inappropriately, as he was wont to do when he got tetchy. McKay didn't seem to notice; he gazed out over the leafy treetops and sighed.
"Your friends," he said quietly. "Your buddies, your bunkies. Y'know who my best friend is?"
He asked this a bit more loudly than the rest of the conversation had been, and Zeke relaxed when a warm gust of whiskey-soaked air hit him. Drinking. If McKay had been drinking, this whole uncomfortable conversation made much more sense.
Besides, Zeke knew how to talk to a drunk man.
"Well now," he said easily, "that would be Lt Goldman, wouldn't it?"
"Yeah!" McKay huffed out a burst of mirthless laughter, slipping a little further down against the sandbags. "And he hates me! Goldman, Alex, Brewster...they all hated me. In fact, I can't think of one lousy person on this whole base who likes me one bit. Okay, maybe Smitty. But that's it!"
The sergeant didn't know whether to laugh at the tirade of self-pity or pat McKay on the shoulder. He settled for a quick shoulder squeeze and a grin. "Don't be too down on y'self, Lt. The men appreciate you always flying into hot LZs to haul our asses--"
"Appreciation and affection are two different things, Sergeant," McKay sulked.
"Yessir, they are." Zeke was undaunted. "But Lt you can count on the men of Team Viking. Anytime. We won't let you down."
McKay looked up at Anderson, and the childish hope in his clear eyes both touched and amused the older soldier. Johnny McKay, he mused, had "Spoiled-Only-Child" written awlllll over him.
"Thanks," he said, voice catching as he broke into a series of coughs. "Goddamn cigarettes! I don't know how Myron manages to chainsmoke a whole pack in one sitting!"
Grinning, Anderson hunkered down next to him and began his "therapy" by patting McKay on the back as he barked out smokers' coughs that would make his best friend Goldman proud.
The Huey blades chopped noisily through the air as McKay banked steeply to the left, trying to head for the tree canopy intsead of flying over this goddamned open field. His door gunner, Dawson, had taken a round in the chest; his bird was taking fifty-one caliber potshots all through it.
It wasn't as if McKay could hear the shots, because there was all the chatter of the radops back at Camp Barnett coming over the com, quickly dissolving into static and clicks. It was the smell of the bullets burning through the magnesium skin of the slick, ripping through her engines and her body like so much expensive paper, that alerted him to just how much damage was being done. Impossible, now, to secure the engines; impossible to autorotate safely down to a landing.
Impossible to survive.
And in less time than it took him to realize what was happening, the chopper was spinning crazily down to meet the ground, trailing acrid, thick black smoke behind her and taking John McKay down for the ride.
Team Viking had been bloody lucky yesterday 'lucky' being a relative term. Their luck meant no K.I.A.'s.
Charlie had hit them with everything they had; 60mm's, RPGs and mortar rounds, grenades, and their AKs, but the disciplined SOG men, outnumbered nearly thirty-to-one, held their own in skirmish after skirmish. By late afternoon they'd successfully destroyed a munitions cache and employed evasive maneuvers that got them out of a 'danger-close' situation, and had called in an air strike that rocked the jungle around them. One F-4 Phantom's drop was so close on their coordinates that the heat from the blast blistered skin.
Before the USAF gunships dropped their loads, a VC mortar shell had struck too close and Specialist 4 Alberto "Roo" Ruiz was lifted off his feet and slammed with such force against a tree that his shoulder was dislocated on impact. Flesh and meat were torn away, some of it clinging to the tree bark itself.
In excruciating pain, the Spec 4 lay where he fell for nearly a whole 45 minutes before anyone could get to him, so intense was the VC assault.
The morning of that mission, another Specialist 4, Daniel "Montana" Percell, had dug into his latest care package from home for a tasty home-baked cookie when his fingers curled around a little leather bible, a bit bigger and thicker than a deck of playing cards, that his mom had stuck in at the last minute. He thought of tossing it into his footlocker and forgetting about it, but, liking the feel of the smooth, soft leather in his hand, he instead tucked the little book into his breast pocket. He buttoned down the flap, feeling comforted by its weight against his chest right over his heart . . .
. . . He found himself flat on his back feeling like he'd just been kicked right in the chest by an ornery mule, had no idea where his weapon or helmet were and was trying to suck air into his lungs.
He'd been smacked in the chest by a lucky AK-47 round and now lay in incredible pain staring at the sky wondering if he was dead.
But when Specialist 4 Marcus "Sex Machine" Taylor's ugly mug floated into his field of vision, he knew he was still alive and still in-Country.
"Danny! Danny!!" yelled Marcus, hands and eyes roaming over his body, searching for a wound.
"My chest," gasped Danny.
Marcus ripped open Percell's shirt to find an ugly square bruise discolouring his well-developed pectoral.
"What the hell hit you, man?!" screamed Marcus over the battle surrounding them
"Christ if I know!" he growled, finally finding it a little easier to breathe and feeling the tips of his fingers starting to tingle back to life.
"Stay down, man! Stay down!" And with that Marcus grabbed up his M-16 and was gone.
Left lying there, Danny, hesitantly touched his chest and winced at the tender spot but was relieved to find no blood. He noticed the weight of the little bible lying against his arm where Taylor had laid his shirt open. He fished it out and rolled over onto his belly with a grunt.
Propping himself upon his elbows, he stared down at the little leather bound book in his hand in awe. The bullet from the AK-47 had burrowed into it, flattening as it entered, leaving the pages bulging around it. His little prayer book had saved his life.
"Oh, Jesus!" he whispered in his hoarse midwestern drawl.
After the dust and debris had settled from the deadly air strike, Sergeants Anderson and Johnson and Lieutenant Goldman counted heads. And fingers. And toes. And any other body parts that could be blown off. Everybody still had theirs more or less in one piece.
The worst of the wounded was Spc 4 Ruiz and the men all huddled around the little man like worried siblings.
By nightfall, the platoon had purposely found a location that, from a distance, seemed too small to hold a team of their size a SOG tactic proven effective on more than one occasion. The VC would not suspect that an entire SOG team could be hunkered down in a tiny thicket or stand of bamboo, and they'd walk right by without giving it and its occupants a second glance.
The jungle was quiet, but perimeter claymores and 'toe poppers' were set out. And with that to give them plenty of warning that the enemy was creeping up on them, the men slept like a litter of pups, in a pile of bodies, in a space meant more for four men rather than seven. Each man stretched or curled so close to the next they fit together like puzzle pieces.
SOG teams ate, slept, drank, trained, fought and cried together. Their camaraderie and loyalty was fierce, knowing any mission may be their last. You were there for your buddy and he was there for you.
That day they'd fought, run, killed and survived together.
Although, Spec 4 Ruiz thought he might have been better off if Charlie had killed him when their fever- and chill-riddled medic, Francis Thurmond "Doc" Hockenbury, attempted to 'relocate' the dislocated shoulder and was too weak from sickness to do it in one quick move, and only managed to grind the end of the bone against muscle and tissue while trying to get it back into its rotator cup.
Everyone was glad when Ruiz finally passed out. It was upsetting even for the seasoned vets to listen to him scream.
Finally Sergeant Clayton Ezekial "Zeke" Anderson had planted a boot against Ruiz's ribs, grabbed his elbow and wrist and with a grunt, a twist and a pull, everyone heard a wet, stomach turning pop as the shoulder bone went back into place.
Team Viking's young First Lieutenant, Myron "L-tee" Goldman, tore a strip off the feverish, swaying medic when the man admitted forgetting he had disposable morphine 'serettes' and should have administered a shot before they attempted the relocation.
An eerie silence hung over the jungle as the sun fingered its way through the dense vegetation, burning off the heavy ground fog that shrouded the sleeping soldiers.
Nestled protectively between two team mates, Ruiz cried out in pain as Marcus tried to slip his bony shoulder out from under his cheek.
"Oh, man, sorry, Roo!" whispered Taylor.
"Doc!" Anderson sat up wide awake, hearing Ruiz's cry, and nudged a snoring Hockenbury.
"Wha . . ? Huh?" He came awake blinking, fumbling with glasses gone askew during sleep.
"Check on Ruiz. Keep him quiet."
"Yes, sir," he answered through a phlegmy throat.
With over 15 klicks to cover to make the LZ in time for their extraction, the men were up and on the move before first light.
"Taylor," whispered Anderson hoarsely.
"Since Johnson's carrying the radio you whined about yesterday, you get to carry the Pig home."
Taylor couldn't think of anything witty to say to Anderson's beaming grin.
Percell adjusted his rucksack, trying to find a comfortable way to wear it. The bruising across his pectoral had radiated to its full extent over night, its discolouration spreading up as high as his collar bone.
"How you doing, Percell?" asked L-tee, seeing the soldier wriggling around in his gear.
"Alright, I guess, sir."
"Looks nasty," winced Goldman, taking a peek inside the man's shirt.
"Did you see my bible, L-tee?"
"My bible, sir. It saved m'life! I think it might have been a sign from God or somethin'."
" . . . uh, huh . . ." Goldman just stared at the man.
Percell, oblivious to the L-tee's hesitation to get into this conversation, pulled out the prized book and pressed it into Goldman's hand. "Go ahead, L-tee, have a look. A couple inches either way and I'd a been a goner," he spewed with an excited glint in his eye.
Goldman handled the book uncomfortably. "Wow . . . that was close, wasn't it," he agreed, running a thumb over the lump of metal wedged into the book.
" The men are ready to move out, L-tee," reported Anderson, coming up behind Goldman as he handed the book back to Percell.
"All right, Sergeant . . . You up to taking point, Percell?"
"Aw, sure, L-tee! I got me a guardian angel sitting right on my shoulder," beamed Percell.
"Uh, huh," answered Goldman, wondering about his man from Montana.
Percell spotted the source of the smoke they'd been watching as they moved closer to their destination, and raised a fist as he went down on one knee. He glanced, wide-eyed, over his shoulder as the men went down behind him and Goldman and Anderson trotted up the line to join him.
"What is it?" asked Anderson nervously.
But Percell didn't have to speak, they could both plainly see the smoldering wreckage of the American Huey.
"That's McKay's bird, L-tee!"
"Can't see any movement," said Goldman, scanning the charred clearing.
"We should go have us a look-see, L-tee," suggested Anderson.
"Okay. Let's check it out, but take it nice and slow, could be rigged."
The team moved in. They found the body of door gunner Edward "Bullseye" Dawson mortally wounded by an RPG that had torn through his flack jacket and left him with a fatal gaping chest wound.
There was no sign of the chopper's pilot, Lieutenant Johnny McKay,
Just erratic tracks and blood that trailed away from the crash sight.
"L-tee, no disrespect intended here, now, but we oughta start a search for Lieutenant McKay. The longer we wait . . ." started Anderson, pointing off in the direction the tracks headed.
"Look, Sergeant, I wish we'd have found McKay sitting here waiting for us as much as you, but we can't just run off looking for him . . . He may have been picked up by another chopper for all we know."
"But the tracks. . ." tried the Sergeant again patiently, holding his temper in check.
"We'll get Barnett on the horn see if he's reported in."
"I want to start a search," said Anderson adamantly.
"Anderson! . . . We sit tight until another chopper shows," he said flatly, meeting the older man's glare.
"He's out there, L-tee."
"We don't know that . . . We radio in and then take it from there . . ." he answered as he turned, motioning to Johnson, " . . . Johnson!"
Anderson looked off into the distance, contemplating something. "We'd be looking for you. . . Sir."
Johnson stopped in his tracks when he saw the expression on Goldman's face. He looked around nervously, afraid to go any closer to the two men. Goldman turned slowly to meet Zeke's challenging eyes.
"What did you say?"
"You heard me."
"You son of a bitch...." Goldman couldn't believe what Anderson was implying. " . . . Johnson! Get the hell over here!!" he yelled at the lanky man from Mississippi. He ripped the hand set off the radio pack. "Tennessee Base, this is Tennessee One-Zero. Over," he snapped into the receiver as he glared at Anderson.
~ "Tennessee Base, here. Go ahead One-Zero. Over." ~
Anderson let his impatience show as Goldman boiled. "Base . . . be advised that we are at our LZ. Over."
Anderson raised an questioning eyebrow.
"Base . . ." he looked at the men who were now openly watching the stand-off between their two leaders.
~ "Spit it out, One-Zero!" ~ came the impatient rad-op's staticky voice.
"Base, we've got a downed chopper here . . . has McKay surfaced back there? Over."
~ "Negative One-Zero. Went silent 0800 hrs this morning." ~
Anderson shook his head and walked away.
"Damn it!" mumbled Goldman.
"Stand by, Tennessee Base. Over," said Goldman before tossing the receiver to Johnson.
"Sergeant..!" he called out going after the man. "All right, you made your point, Zeke. We'll go and look for McKay. . . Together." He held Zeke's gaze.
"Anything you say, L-tee." And with that he walked away.
Goldman thought about going after him, ready to ask him where did he get off walking away on a ranking officer, but realized they both needed to keep their distance for a while until they could both cool off. He was still stinging from Zeke's insinuation that he didn't want to go after McKay if he was out there, and didn't want to give the smoldering old bear another opportunity to pass judgment on his loyalty to his men.
He stumbled and fell. Red sweat plopped from the dangle on his chin and onto his hand. The red sweat was thick and globular. It stained his hand. Trying to breathe the spongy air in deep, regulated breaths, he slowly crept back onto his feet, wobbling unsteadily for a little while. After a few tentative steps, he decided it was okay to be on his feet. He also decided to continue following where the voices were coming from. And even if they weren't voices, he'd follow them anyway.
His lungs felt terribly scorched and the acidic smoke from the crash still assaulted his senses. His eyes burned, but he refused to close them for fear of falling down again. He wished he could cry and soothe the burn. His mouth tasted like rotten grapes. His ears sweat red.
He began to walk; or was he already walking?
Again, time suddenly infused his body, surging and shoving him through the jungle so fast he lost track of how fast he was going and where. He tried to pause, tried to stop and clutch his dizzy head to stop the assault, but he was heedlessly pushed along. He was not in control anymore and he felt helpless and mildly alarmed. It all had to do with the rapid descent of the sun over the treetops, the slight shift of the weather which, if his skin wasn't as sensitive as it was, he wouldn't feel at all. He felt like he was being forced through the bristling brush, pushed through the trees, prodded through the muddy, slimy streams and he couldn't stop. When he finally got a moment's rest, he fuzzily focused on his watch. Time had passed; he wasn't sure how much, but he was sure it was a lot.
Then he remembered why it was not good to look at the fuzzy watch. The last time he did, he was stabbed with tide of memories that swept through his mind, and this time it was happening again. Faces crammed themselves into his head, faces he strained to remember because he knew he recognized them. As before, he was convinced that once he remembered the names, he would understand why he was here and what he should do. His head became more dizzy and he had to clutch it, trying hard not to utter a sound from his ashed throat. In the distance, a bird screamed.
Almost blinded by the pain, he staggered through the forest, straining to hear for the voices, which seemed to have gotten closer. As he walked, the pain subsided and he took the time to note the color of the jungle, for it wasn't a very jungle color at all. The trees and brush were more of a sticky grey. Now his lungs felt more burned than they felt before, and he gasped hoarsely as he struggled through the sinuous trees. Before he figured out why the foliage was such an odd color, he heard the voices this time, clear, strident, real he was sure of it and he began to march a little quicker.
The voices led him to a little smoking hamlet. The little smoking huts looked tarred and skeletal. The voice he had heard was actually more of a wail, a high, thin wail that he patiently followed to its source. He came upon a lump of small, dirty people who stopped quietly speaking amongst themselves to stare at him. They did not smell nice at all and he instinctively wrinkled his pointed nose in disgust. The people smelt like red meat frying. In fact, they did not look much like people, he noticed on closer inspection; they looked more like wax candles, skinny and dripping. Then wailing finally stopped and the little girl who was crying over a body squinted up at him with one eye and cringed. Only then did he realize that all the tiny people cringed away from him, their black eyes trained on his right hand. He looked down, and finally registered the pistol he gripped tightly in his hand. His index finger was cramped over the trigger. The handgun was cocked. His arm was raised.
Despairing slightly, he shoved the handgun into his pocket--he had dropped his warmed leather holster somewhere and focused in fascination on the young girl and her one eye. The other eye was a swollen velvety mauve and it remained half-closed. Beneath the eyelid, her eyesocket was a redness similar to a bitten strawberry. He used to eat lots of strawberries when his family visited his aunt's farm. Now it made him ill.
He looked to the little boy next to the girl. The boy clutched a wobbly baby, and, as he shifted the little one in his ropy arms, flakes of skin pulled off the baby and stuck to the little boy. The baby could only hiccup pathetically in protest, it was so weak. He felt a lurching in his stomach and fought to stay calm.
He surveyed the rest of the little people curiously and it all made him ill. The patches of cloth weave embedded into their gummy skin, the bilious effluvium that dribbled out of the dead body's mouth, the smell of hot, so hot, like smelling summer asphalt. It all made him sick.
His physical nausea was superceded by another onslaught of faces flickering through his mind, but this time, this time he remembered and he recognized. He stared at the little children crouching before him, he saw the faces in his mind and he recognized them all.
"Oh my god..." McKay whispered through blood-cracked lips, "The orphanage...."
Reverend Woodrow Blackwell stared impassively as the soldier fell onto his knees, pleading with the children to let him try and help them. The soldier he looked like a helicopter pilot desperately tried to press his field dressings into Mi Kua's little hand, but she squalled and tried to scramble away.
Blackwell had quietly watched for over fifteen minutes and he still saw no sign of any other soldier. The pilot then, Blackwell figured, must have come from the crash where he saw the smoke rising. Would anybody be searching for him on foot? Or would the army send a search and rescue chopper later in the day? The missionary sighed heavily and mopped the sweat from his brow. He supposed it was time to make introductions. Blackwell informed his assistants to remain in the hut and they studiously continued with their work. He deftly loaded a magazine into a Colt 9mm and, slipping it inside his painfully black robes, glided out of the makeshift hut and towards the defeated-looking pilot.
Goldman grimaced at the sky, stretching out the muscles in the small of his back. Sleeping piled on top of each other, marching endlessly through the jungle, the constant threat of enemy attack they were all starting to take their toll on him. *You're not the same energetic kid you used to be, Myron,* he reminded himself ruefully. Still, if a grizzled old war vet like Anderson could manage, he supposed he could, too.
"Find anything?" he asked Taylor, who wiped ineffectually at his sooty face. Determined not to go off after McKay half-cocked especially after having to give in to Anderson's notions Goldman had ordered a thorough search of both the chopper's remains and the surrounding area. The idea of "wasting" yet more time had pissed Anderson off, but when it came down to it, he wouldn't directly disobey his Lt. They both had too much respect for each other to let it get that far.
"Yeah," Taylor answered. "If Lt McKay did get outta the chopper, he sure wasn't in any state of mind to cover his tracks. Path big enough for a water buffalo over there."
"We better go after him, Lt," Percell said from over at the start of the trail. "If he's leaving a buncha broken-down grass like this behind him, Charlie'll be on him in no time."
Jeez did Anderson have the guys trained to agree with him or something? The lieutenant ran through all the possibilites and factors in his mind first before asking Hockenbury, "Think everyone's okay for a while longer, Doc?"
"Oh, yeah." Hockenbury blinked bleary eyes behind his glasses and rubbed his reddened nose. "Roo's arm is holding up fine in the sling, as long as he doesn't put any pressure on it, and Danny..." He paused for a few wracking coughs, finally spitting into the grass before continuing, shaking his head. "Danny's fortified by the love of God, or something like that. He doesn't seem to be feeling any pain."
"You think he's going around the bend?" Goldman leaned in closer to the medic, aware of Anderson sidling up to station himself at Myron's elbow. That was fine if anyone could spot a man sliding into jungle madness, it would be his twitchy, three-tour sergeant.
Hockenbury sniffled, pursing his mouth thoughtfully. "Naw. I think he's just still feeling the adrenalin, y'know? It's not every day a man gets shot and walks away bruised. And you know Danny always looking for something to believe in."
"Ain't necessarily a bad thing, LT," Anderson agreed. "Boy like Percell, he could do with a little religious conviction. It'll keep him going till we get back to Barnett, at least "
" and by then, we can keep an eye on him to make sure he's not getting delusional, right."
Anderson grinned quickly, scrubbing at his bristly hair with one heavy hand. "In the meanwhile, it can't hurt to have a soldier with a direct line to God, can it now? Strike some righteous Biblical fear into the heart of Victor Charles and all...."
Goldman pitched an eyebrow. "If it's godly vengeance you want, you're better off dealing with the Jewish version."
"Oh yeah. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, and all that Old Testament wrath. Haven't you ever wondered why I'm such a bloodthirsty killing machine?"
The sergeant managed to keep his face straight as he nodded solemnly. "Hell yes, sir. But I figured it was just because you're basically such a mean sumbitch."
Goldman grinned delightedly until a sneeze reminded him that Hockenbury was still standing there. Frowning slightly, Anderson asked, "You okay there, Doc?"
"Yeah, yeah I'm fine." Hockenbury waved a hand dismissively. "It'll take more than a lil' ol' flu bug to put me down, don't worry."
Johnson came trotting over, slinging his rifle onto his shoulder. "Nothing's missing from the chopper, Sarge, Lt and no sign of VC," he reported. "We found Lt McKay's helmet it's bloody and the medical kit's still intact, so we figure he must have a head wound and he's not thinking straight even though he can move around. But he's leaving a hell of a trail, and fast. I think we should get after him soon as possible."
"Good work, Johnson," Anderson said approvingly, shooting Goldman a significant look. Sighing, Myron hefted his rifle and waved toward Percell, who had already taken on point and was heading down the trail McKay had left.
He just hoped McKay hadn't run into any roving patrols of VietCong, or this whole impromptu rescue would likely be shot straight to hell.
The midday heat was nearly unbearable, making fifty-pound rucksacks feel more like a hundred-pounds-plus. Making combat boots feel more like furnaces. The VC fashion sense of loose fitting black pyjamas and simple rope sandals sounded quite appealing in this heat.
Despite their discomfort, Team Viking humped through the jungle. They'd had to retrace their steps at one point in their search when McKay's erratic trail led them into a growth of 'wait-a-minute' vines famous throughout Vietnam as the toughest, thorniest, and nastiest bushes on God's creation. Its thorns were sharp and long and once a soldier got tangled up in it, he could not move if his life
depended on it. Most of the guys left a few strips of flesh behind as they worked their way out.
Goldman made a mental note of its location for future reference as either a place to give a wide berth to, or a place to wriggle into and hide a recon team in for a night.
They picked up McKay's trail after a short spoked search and were off again, eyes alert, rifles ready.
"Sarge, L-tee," whispered Percell hoarsely.
The two trotted to the pointman's position. He gave up a blood-smeared leather holster to Goldman.
"It's McKay's," acknowledged the L-tee, scanning the terrain around them. Anderson poked a finger at a glob of blood and examined it.
"Pretty fresh, less than six hours I'd say, L-tee." He absently wiped the blood on his pants.
"It's empty," Goldman pointed out.
"Yes, sir." It was Zeke's turn to take a sweeping look at the moving light and shadows around them.
"Let's keep 'em moving, Sergeant," said Goldman, bundling up McKay's holster and sticking it in a patch pocket of his combat pants.
Anderson was hovering at Percell's 6 o'clock, keeping in step with his point man, when Percell glanced over his shoulder. "What's that smell, Sarge?"
"You don't wanna know, Danny. . . you don't wanna know." He dropped back through the line, advising men as he went to stay alert, keep their intervals and maintain silence.
"L-tee," he whispered close to the man's ear.
"What is it, Anderson?"
"There's been a Napalm drop close by."
"So . . ?"
"Ever see what Napalm does, up close, L-tee?"
Goldman shook his head, looking away, somehow feeling a lesser soldier for that shortcoming.
"Well, if my nose tells me right, we're gonna get a chance to see just that. Up close. Make y'lose yer lunch, L-tee, I swear." Anderson was growing jittery just anticipating what he imagined lay ahead of them. If they were lucky, the bodies would be burnt beyond recognition and their minds would not be able to process the carnage. If they weren't and there were still people alive, well . . .
He knew he wouldn't be able to keep even a swallow of water down if he saw again what he had in that tiny hamlet on his first tour in Pleiku.
"Is that what that smell is?" asked Goldman, trying to only breathe through his mouth. His eye caught Percell's stop-and-squat gesture and he motioned for Zeke to accompany him back up the line to see what was up.
"I hear voices, Sarge. Kids, I think," reported Percell, 'chawing' nervously at his ever present 'pick.
Anderson motioned the men to come in. Once they were gathered around him, he began.
"L-tee, no disrespect here now, but you said it yourself you ain't never seen what's left after a Napalm strike, so I just wanted to warn y'all that this could be bad...." The men exchanged nervous looks as Anderson levelled a stare at Goldman, "...this is gonna make what Lieutenant Beller and that Sergeant Carmichael did seem like a walk in the park, L-tee."
"All right, Sergeant, how are we going to handle this then?"
"We take it slow. Don't touch nothin', or nobody." He shuddered inwardly, remembering what had happened when he had reached for that little girl....
"Do not, no matter how strong the urge, light up a cigarette. And avoid firing your weapon."
"Any spark, L-tee...." he shrugged.
"Okay, guys. Put your safeties on, we're jumpy enough as it is. We don't need to ignite anything when we're right in the middle of it," said Goldman, thumbing his catch.
Their shadows were beginning to move across the ground ahead of them as they entered the ville or what was left of it.
It was as bad as Anderson had warned, and then some. They all prayed that their bombers never mistook them for gook targets.
A hootch-to-hootch search had produced a trembling and semi-conscious Lieutenant McKay sprawled on the dirt floor, muttering delusionally about the orphanage and Sister Bernadette.
Doc grew paler than he already was when he saw the state the officer was in. He was seriously concerned with brain swelling and coma.
"L-tee. He's in really bad shape! That knock on the head was a hell of a lot more serious than a simple concussion!!" he snuffled loudly.
"Can you give him a shot of morphine or something to settle him down?"
"That could kill him."
"Well, how're we suppose to move him?"
"Don't know, sir. All I do know is that if he doesn't get some real medical attention...." he left the obvious unsaid.
"Johnson!" Goldman barked at his radio man. He fished out the receiver and called 'home'.
"Tennesse Base, this is Tennessee One-Zero. Over."
"Go ahead, One-Zero," came the tinny response.
"Have found our downed 'hot dog', over."
"Roger, One-Zero. Can extract in four-five mikes. We're sending in a bird. Over."
"Negative, Tennessee Base. Last Lima Zulu's too hot. Am looking for one closer to our present vector, over."
"Gonna be too dark soon, One-Zero. Pick up will have to wait till the cock crows. Give me the co-ordinates, over."
Goldman thought a moment, a hundred options running through his head. "Stand by, Tennessee Base," he flipped open his map looking for the closest LZ, ". . . Landing Zone Emma's 10 klicks our Whiskey November, over." He read off the co-ordinates, hoping the bird would know where that was.
"10-4, One-Zero, Be at the bus stop at the crack of noon, over."
"Our 'hot dog' is critical, Base, have a medical team standing by, over."
"The prettiest RN's we can find, One-Zero, over."
"Roger, Tennessee Base. One-Zero, over and out."
He tossed the receiver to Johnson and turned to watch Anderson stroll up to him with a tall, balding Caucasian, in what looked to Goldman like a Friar Tuck robe.
"You find Robin Hood too, Sergeant?" he grinned at what he thought was pretty funny.
"Lieutenant Goldman, Reverend Woodrow Blackwell," announced Anderson somberly.
"Goldman, is it?" came Blackwell's syrupy response, Myron instinctively bristling at the question.
He struck his cockiest pose and gave the man a once over before saying, "Yeah. Goldman . . . Myron Goldman." His eyes flashed a challenge as Blackwell raised a disapproving eyebrow.
"I see . . ." said the Reverend, slipping his hands piously into his sleeves, feeling better as his fingers curled around the handle of his 9mm Colt.
"Look, Reverend . . . it's 'Reverend', right? We're spending the night and heading out at first light. We'll try and stay out of your way. You do the same."
"Lieutenant, it is Lieutenant...?"
Goldman nodded curtly, smug at having landed his jab first.
"Lieutenant, I'd appreciate it if you kept them away from the village."
Goldman and Anderson followed the man's look to see Taylor and Johnson standing across from them, talking to Ruiz and Doc.
"What are you...." started Goldman, when Anderson stepped in.
"Could I have a word, L-tee." He didn't wait for his answer, just shoved him ahead.
"L-tee. Settle down, now. Hear me out. He's an asshole, we both picked up on that right quick, but he's been saying that he's pretty knowledgable about the area."
"So!" whined Goldman stubbornly, planting his hands on his hips.
"He can get us to the LZ."
"We can get there on our own, Sergeant. I do know how to read a map."
"Yes, sir, I know you can, and may I say very well at that...." he liked to tease Goldman like that from time to time when he saw the man's short fuse starting to smoke. It usually settled the prickly officer down long enough for him to get his point across. "...He knows about trails we ain't got on our maps, L-tee."
"Does he, now...."
"Yes, sir. Says he can trim about five to seven miles off our hump to the LZ. I had Johnson scout it out a bit, and he says it looks like the ol' Reverend's telling the truth."
Goldman glanced over at the Reverend before saying anything. "That would give us more time. Be easier on Ruiz and McKay...."
"Can we afford to trust him?"
"Can we afford not to?"
Myron met Zeke's eyes a moment. Zeke patiently watched Myron's expressive face, knowing the answer before Myron had even spoken the words.
"Tell him to keep his 'opinions' to himself. And keep him away from ME."
"I hear that, L-tee," he grinned.
"I'll get the men to set up camp over in that tree line. Wouldn't want to offend the leader of the super race, would I...?"
Anderson just shrugged and smiled at the way Goldman could work himself into a lather.
As Goldman herded the men away from the ville--Diep Minh, it was apparently called--Percell trotted over to the Reverend. "Excuse me, Padre, sir . . ." he said nervously.
"Yes, soldier, what can I do for you?" he smiled warmly at the handsome, All-American, white soldier before him.
"I was wondering if I could talk to you for a minute."
"Of course, what is it?" He lay a comforting hand on the nervous grunt's shoulder.
"You mean he's not " Taylor took a generous swig of water from his canteen and looked around. "Oh, there he is. With the preacher."
Johnson nodded lazily and casually made his way over to Sergeant Anderson. "Sarge!" Johnson yelped, trying to put a little urgency in his otherwise sleepy voice. "Percell's still in the ville. He's flapping jaws with the preacher-man."
Anderson nodded. "He'll come over here when he's done." The sergeant smiled at Johnson and Taylor. "He's got some talking to do with a man a' God, I ain't one to go bother them."
"Too bad that 'man o' God' will only talk to crackers," Taylor huffed. "I'd like to make a few confessions."
Anderson shook his head and said nothing. It was always unnerving when Taylor's paranoias were not really paranoias at all.
"Saaarge!" Percell squalled from the ville. "Hey, sarge! LT!"
Goldman stopped short and spun around. "What the hell does he want? In fact, why is he over there?" He lunged towards Anderson, who had paused also and was itching to go back to Percell. "Getting saved by his bible doesn't give him rights to pour his soul out to the Reverend! Why aren't you controlling your men, Sergeant?"
Before the stunned Anderson had a chance to respond to Goldman's attack, Percell had jogged over to the pair. The rest of the team, feeling mildly belligerent and weighted down by the napalmed heat, paused and crouched in the grass, sucking on their canteens. Ruiz had come along with them, swallowing back the intense surge of continuous pain. No way was he gonna let the lieutenant down by remaining in the ville like an injured baby. Hockenbury hovered close by him while simultaneously tempted to run back into the ville to monitor Lt. McKay and curl up into a sneezing ball of runny eyes and a sore, sore throat.
Percell stopped in front of Goldman. He paused, then his eyes swung over to Anderson. "Sarge, the Reverend wants to talk to the both of you," Percell rasped, though he was not out of breath. "He says he "
Goldman shouldered the large specialist aside and began stomping over to the Reverend, who was waiting patiently in the ville like an oversized raven. "I'll hear what the Reverend has to say from his own face."
"Johnson, keep an eye on the men. Get 'em into the shade. Percell no Percell, son, you stay here with the rest of the team."
"But I want to "
Percell's pale eyes met Anderson's icy ones, and the defeated Specialist moved into the jungle.
"What did you need to ask, Reverend?" Goldman tried to ignore the fly buzzing around his forehead. Frenetic swatting would not add to his superior, angry demeanour.
"I....I simply wanted to..." Blackwell saw Anderson approach and immediately made eye contact with him. "Ah. I wanted to apologize for my...uncourteous behavior before."
Goldman felt his anger brimming; this was the second time in two minutes that someone had addressed Anderson in preference to him. He stepped in front of Anderson, who, thankfully, was silently waiting for his lieutenant to respond.
"So...." Blackwell distastefully eyed Goldman, "I wanted to extend my generosity to your team. You may spend the night here, in the huts."
"Oh we may, may we?" Goldman's voice rose. Zeke considered intervening to prevent a scene, but he couldn't think of any gracious way to cut in front of his lieutenant. The sergeant settled for a glowering look directed at the Reverend. "We'll be setting up a perimeter around the ville and we'll set up lean-tos, which'll be just fine. It's what we soldiers do." Goldman pulled his head back slightly in triumph. It sure felt funny to refer to himself as a 'soldier,' though.
Leathery face creased in a grimacing smile, the reverend nodded and turned aside from the lieutenant, steepling his fingers beneath the heavy black robe. "Typical Jew to torture his own men," he muttered softly.
Goldman blinked rapidly, his eyebrows edging closer to his eyes with every blink. He curved his body closer towards the Reverend. "What was that, Blackwell?"
Blackwell spun around, all smiles. "I said, lieutenant, what about Mr. Ruiz and Mr. McKay? The pilot is resting in the hut right now, you can't remove him. And your Mr. Ruiz is terribly injured. It's would be a crime to leave him out there when he could be more comfortable on a cot."
Myron gave him a chilly stare, trying to relax his bunched shoulders. "Yes. Well, I'm not going to remove McKay. And...."
"And I think it'll be better for Ruiz if he stayed here, " Anderson said softly.
"But I'm leaving my corpsman here with them," Goldman finished quickly, as if Hockenbury was the bargaining chip in the deal. The sneer was still on Myron's face as he turned and stalked away.
Anderson hustled after his lieutenant after he broke away from the Reverend, who was silently gliding back into a hut. "Y'okay, sir?"
"Okay," Zeke paused, then continued jerkily. " 'S just you seemed real angry with the reverend. You were so cold to him I swear I almost saw your breath!"
"I'm okay, sergeant." Myron felt his muscles relax and a smile play at his cracked lips. He slyly looked over at Anderson. " Are you okay?"
"I'm okay, LT," Anderson responded immediately, relieved and blithe.
Myron grinned, defeated. "There should be a book called that." He saw confusion spread over Anderson's face and quickly decided to change the subject. He came to a halt a few hundred yards away from where the team was resting. As Goldman expected, Anderson quickly zoned in on his lieutenant's wordless intentions. The sergeant pointed a grimy finger to the west of them.
"We can bivvie up there, LT. Good cover, on a slight incline. Since we only got six people--"
"Five. Hockenbury'll be staying with the injured. One-man sentry in a shell scrape twenty yards from the bivvie, giving a couple hundred yards from Diep Minh "
"Giving an excellent arc of fire towards the ville."
Goldman nodded, extremely satisfied. Though tired, hungry and frustrated, it was times like these, when he and his sergeant spoke to each other as one, that he had envisioned himself enacting when he was on officer-cadet at OCS. It was nice to see some of his expectations of himself in the war had actually developed.
As Hockenbury gathered his medi bag and helped a grumpy Ruiz back towards the ville, the others settled down for chow and, for some, a well-deserved tobacco fix after the Sarge had okayed it. The lieutenant occupied himself with setting up his own elaborate lean-to against a twisted, broken-branched tree upon which he smugly hung his webbing and ruck. Sergeant Anderson hunkered down beside his troops, settling comfortably between a very mossy tree stump and a slightly glazed-over Percell.
"Don't bother him, Sarge, "Johnson piped up, his mouth stretched back in friendly derision. "Danny's been transported like this for a while now. It's like, he can't think of anything else but how his life got spared."
"What makes it worse," Taylor urged, needing to put his two cents in, "is that he keeps on about that Reverend back in the ville. It makes me sick!"
Percell frowned at his buddies. "I can hear everything y'all are saying about me," he muttered. Anderson turned his bemused look to Percell as the kid continued. "And what makes me sick, is all them poor little children we saw in the village." Percell looked at the sergeant. "How are we gonna help them, Sarge?"
Anderson tried not to look too hard at Percell's agonized clear blue eyes. Sometimes, he swore, staring at the hope and trust in those Montana eyes was almost too much to handle in a place like this.
"Well, son, I suppose the Lt'll be calling in a medevac for Lt. McKay and Ruiz. The kids're small. We'll put them aboard as well. They'll be taken to a hospital, and everything will be fine. " Anderson smiled slightly, praying his answer would be enough to satisfy Percell. Apparently it was, and the specialist curled his legs closer to his large frame.
"Man, those kids..." Taylor puffed, staring down at his macaroni and cheese. "I'm not that hungry no more."
Hockenbury wiped his nose on his sleeve and slumped down next to Ruiz, who was secretly glad to be back in the cool dry hut. That didn't stop him from looking very annoyed when the Doc tried to adjust his field dressing.
"S' fine, Doc. You go check up on the Lieutenant. He looks like he needs some real care." Ruiz sat on the cot. Carefully, almost lovingly placing a tin of jellied meat between his knees, he tried to open the aluminum can with his one good arm. Hockenbury didn't bother to help. He knew all he'd get was a stern rebuff and a "I c'n handle it myself, Doc". Hock shuffled over to McKay, who was still sprawled out in delirium on a dirty mat.
"The kids....gotta save...the orphanage...." McKay opened his eyes slightly and his skinned hands flittled uselessly at his sides. "Sister Berna...zzzzzz..."
Hockenbury half-heartedly checked his pulse and his breathing. Everything seemed in order. Everything seemed in order. The medic took out a can of crackers and bit into one of the dry, salty things. There could be a hundred and one things wrong with the lieutenant--internal hemorrahging, fractured skull, loss of sight/balance/motor skills, intense psychological damage that could keep him awake ten years from now...but, yeah, sure, everything seemed in order.
Just wait till you get to the hospital and the real doctors get a hold of you, Hockenbury thought wryly. They'll rip me apart for forgetting to do this "check-up" and that "cursory examination"....
The medic scrambled up and, suppressing a sneeze, wandered cautiously out of the hut. It was getting a little more cool now, even though the humidity was still making his eyes sweat everytime he blinked; the sun was setting, a reddish, milky descent behind the hills.
Scanning the area, his eyes suddenly fell on a black figure that stood a few yards away from him. At first it looked like some creepy sorority-girl killer out of those cheesy B-horror flicks. Hockenbury jumped in his skin and nearly choked on the dry cracker then he realized it was just Reverend Blackwell. He spit out the undissolving mush in his mouth and, smiling slightly, he wandered over to the Reverend.
"'Lo there, Reverend," Hockenbury drawled, "Got any words of wisdom to share with me, like you did with Specialist Percell?"
"And where are you from, my son?"
"Memphis. Memphis, Tennessee." Hockenbury surprised himself with his immediate response. That question was begging for a witty retort, but all he could say was the name of his home. All he needed now was a couple of ruby slippers. He sneezed.
"Gesundheit." The Reverend yawned expansively. "I'm afraid I must retire for the night, my son. Have a good sleep, Mr. Hockenbury." Blackwell turned rather quickly and headed into a rubbled building.
Confused but too tired to really care, the medic went back into the hut to try and initiate some sort of conversation with Ruiz.
Blackwell shooed away the little girl with one eye as she tried to make him understand how thirsty she was. Squalling weakly, Mi Kua scampered back into the adjoining room, where the other children crouched together in sleep.
"Damn children. We should have killed them already." One of Blackwell's two assistants, John Thu, got up from his seat in the corner of the room and stalked over to the Reverend.
Blackwell gave Thu a look one would usually reserve for an autistic child. "If it weren't for the children, Mr. Thu, these soldiers probably wouldn't have even given this ville a second glance. The pilot found the children first, remember?"
"Yeah, I always thought they'd come in handy," yelled Toa Phuc Lan from the back of the building, where he was urinating in a bucket.
Blackwell winced in irritation. The fact that he needed these Vietnamese to help him was irksome, to say the least; they had to be handled delicately or their Oriental shiftiness might turn out the worse for him. "Mr. Lan, please do not yell like that. The medic soldier is in the hut across from us. He might hear you."
Phuc Lan re-tied the rope around his pants and swaggered in. "Sorry, Blackwell."
Another bone of contention the insouciant familiarity they used when addressing him. Almost as grating as those two niggers and the spic who'd sauntered around the ville with the arrogance that their weapons lent them; almost as ridiculous as that petty Christ-killer lieutenant. "Now. Did you two finish up the packaging?" The Reverend slipped the Colt out from his robes and placed it on the table in front of him, a gentle reminder of who was in charge. Eyeing it, Thu nodded and hefted up a couple of small leather trunks.
"It's all in there, Blackwell."
"Let me see it."
Thu opened one of the trunks, moving aside the folded clerical robes and Communion chalice to expose small, elaborately-tied plastic bags of heroin. Blackwell, repressing a beatific smile, dug his hand to the bottom of the trunk, and pulled one bag out randomly. Carefully opening it, he tasted a bit of the drug. Satisfied, he handed the open bag to Phuc Lan to retie.
"Let me see the other one." Thu obeyed complacently, and Blackwell repeated the same procedure, sifting through and under piles of religious literature that covered the heroin bundles.
"Very good. Tomorrow, you will carry these trunks. I'll make sure you two get a place on the helicopter. And remember, tomorrow, you do not understand any English whatsoever."
"But if there's only one helicopter coming, how are we all gonna fit? I'm sure they'll be taking the children with them," Phuc Lan protested.
Really, when you weren't talking about their beloved money, these people were practically idiots. "As I said, I will take care of it. You two do your jobs, and you shall be greatly rewarded by the Lord."
"Sure. If we believed in him!" Thu chuckled.
The Reverend smiled thinly. He extracted Phuc Lan's knife from his belt and, robes rustling, gently slipped into the children's room, and softly beckoned the girl with one eye to come with him.
"I still don't like that racist honky any more than I did last night." Taylor squinted accusingly at the sun, shouldering his ruck onto his back. "And I sure as hell don't like the idea of humping through the jungle with his bigoted ass in the lead!"
"Watch your mouth, Marcus," Percell said roughly. "The Reverend's a man of God. Try to show a little respect."
Taylor stared open-mouthed after Percell as he trotted away. "Me try to show a little respect?" he repeated incredulously.
"You know what Danny's like, man." Johnson leaned against his friend as he wiggled a finger down into his boot, trying to ease up the pressure on a blister that was forming on his ankle. "He's got a lotta issues. And besides " he stomped his foot, settling the boot into a more comfortable position, " the Reverend's on the level. That trail he told the Sarge about checked out okay."
"Huh." Taylor still wasn't convinced. "Only reason I'm following him is 'cause if we go down, he's coming with us."
"Come on, guys." Goldman came over, rifle in hand, and waited patiently for his men to gather their trash. He'd heard Taylor's bitching, but for once he was inclined to agree. Blackwell was turning out to be a huge chafing thorn in his side a wound gouged deeper by the fact that he was going to be the one leading them to Landing Zone Emma.
The men had just started moving down to Diep Minh when they spotted somebody running towards them. One of theirs. Hockenbury.
Goldman's brows knit together as Anderson moved over to him. The medic wasn't motioning to them to hit the dirt, so it couldn't be an attack.
In tandem, they jogged to meet Hockenbury, who pulled himself up short, barely able to breathe through rattling coughs and whooping sobs.
"The...the kids...." he gasped, bracing his hands against his knees. "I was taking McKay...for a walk, and we found...." He stopped, shook his head, and tried again. "They're....they're...they're all...." Shudders racked his thin body, and Hockenbury dropped to the grass, burying his face in his hands.
"What?!" Goldman demanded, shaking the medic until his teeth clacked. Anderson, his face darkening like a monsoon sky, was already loping towards the ville, the rest of the men following, all gaining speed with the desperate need to forestall what they knew Hockenbury was going to say.
"He...he killed them, Lt!" Hockenbury managed to choke out before dissolving into another bout of throat-ripping coughs.
He sat there in the grass, rocking back and forth as Goldman raced down to the horrible wail that arose from the ville.
The children's skinny, malnourished bodies, already disfigured by napalm burns and scars, were further marred by spurts and smears of blood. Blood everywhere, Goldman realized bleakly as he stared at the pile of their lifeless little corpses. Splattered against the walls, pooling on the ground, dripping lazily from a tiny finger, trailing across a baby chin, thick and metallic in the hot, hot air.
"They were stabbed, Lt." Zeke's voice in his ear, low, shaking, murderously grating. Funny, how he could hear Zeke so well over the thrumming beat of his heart and his own harsh, torn breathing.
A broken sob echoed in his other ear and he turned, only slightly surprised to find McKay drooping against his shoulder, his face wrenched with impossible pain. "I couldn't help them," he whispered, over and over, as incessant as the flies who were already buzzing over the heap of dead bodies, busy sucking up the life oozing from knife wounds.
"It is always a shame when the young go first." Reverend Blackwell moved over to the three soldiers, who turned to look at him. "It is even more lamentable when it is one of their own people who sends them into purgatory before they even had a chance to be saved, for no reason other than pure madness."
"Spare me the sermon, Reverend," Goldman spat. "How do you know who killed them?"
"Because he confessed his sins to me before taking his own life." Blackwell's compressed lips twitched in a dark parody of a smile. "You don't believe me? His body is just outside my hut, hanging from a tree. His name is was Toa Phuc Lan."
Anderson darted from Goldman's side wordlessly, his gaze trained on Blackwell until he cleared the doorway. The rest of the soldiers, stationed outside, peeled away from the hut and followed the sergeant, leaving the only sounds McKay's agonized, hitching sobs and those hellish hungry flies.
Goldman blinked rapidly, his head spinning. He couldn't take his eyes from the dead children, couldn't stop cataloguing every small nauseating detail, couldn't stop burning this image into his brain. Behind him, Blackwell's sonorous, weaving voice rose and fell in brimstone-pulpit cadences:
"...and there shall be a great cry throughout the land, such as there was none like it, nor shall be like it any more...."
The force of the words, spoken in that sly voice, hit so hard that Goldman had to struggle to draw his next breath, rage flooding through him in a torrent, clenching his fists to keep from striking the man. How dare the sanctimonious bastard quote Scripture at him? How dare he equate this slaughter with the plague on the Egyptians? How dare he use passages that Goldman had solemnly recited as a child, holy passages, words dear to the Hebrew people that Blackwell loathed so much?
Myron's eyes narrowed as he turned them to the Reverend. "The enemy said," the young lieutenant grated, biting each word with vicious precision, "I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil; my lust shall be satisfied upon them; I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them...."
Blackwell made an amused noise and opened his mouth, but whatever preachy comment he was going to make was pre-empted by Anderson's return to the hut. "Man hung himself," he reported tersely. "Found the knife on him."
A tight smile stretched across the Reverend's mouth, and against Myron's shoulder, McKay continued to whimper.
"Oh God, oh please forgive me, oh please...."
The ceremony was quick, hurried, almost cursory.
The holy Reverend Blackwell performed the last rites as if he were burying nothing more important than goldfish. His hard face betrayed no emotion and he never slowed down, chanting the final commendation with a complete lack of interest. It was clear that he was anxious to leave Diep Minh, and the funeral was a minor annoyance along the way.
As soon as the burial was over, Blackwell was directing Thu, his remaining assistant, to fetch his leather trunks. The Reverend himself carried only a carpetbag, into which he stuffed his Bible and headed towards the the jungle.
Team Viking, mindless of the sun beating down on them, stood grouped around the mass grave, trying to come to terms. The massacre that Beller had orchestrated had been worse, in terms of numbers, but it's wasn't...children.
One by one, they slowly began to file away, some placing offerings on the turned-up dirt, others murmuring the rites of the dead to placate both the murdered souls and their own tortured minds.
"Yis'ga'dal v'yis'kadash sh'may ra'bbo...."
"We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord...."
"Ibae Ibae Ibayen Torun...."
Diep Minh faded away behind them, but the patter of small, bloody feet followed.
Book Two--Back at Barnett
"If I have to stay in this stinking place for one more day...."
Ruiz's moan filled the air for the thirteenth time already that morning--which, considering it was only the oh-nine-hundredth hour, was really starting to wear on his companions' nerves. At least, it was wearing on Percell; McKay seemed perpetually lost in some sort of self-condemning, mixed-up fog concerning the children of Sister Bernadette's orphanage and the children of Diep Minh.
Sitting up with the slightest of winces, Percell threw the "Spiderman" issue that Johnson had lent him at the whining soldier across from him. "Shuddup, Roo! You know they'll let you out the minute your shoulder's all healed up. They sure as hell don't wanna keep you here and listen to you bitchin' all day long!"
"Yeah, well easy for you to say, Percell." Ruiz sat up, easing his shoulder around in its socket. The pain was still there when he moved it a certain way, but at least it was feeling marginally back to normal. "You just got thumped in the chest. You didn't have Doc Hock pulling at your arm like a dog with a bone or something "
"That's 'cause you're the only one around here who looks like a pile of chicken bones, Roo." Johnson carefully shut the swinging door to the ward behind him, grinning at his friends.
"Uh-huh, and I guess you guys ain't missing "Chicken Bones" Ruiz when you go out in the field and some FNG's firing my M-60?"
"Aw, we miss both a'you. Even the Lt misses you."
"No way!" Percell took the opportunity to pick up the Spiderman comic and dust it off while Johnson's back was turned. "I didn't think the Lt would even notice!"
Johnson chuckled, but he was staring intently at McKay's bed. "Hey, y'all," he said quietly, "how's Lieutenant McKay doing? I hear he's real depressed about what happened in the ville and all."
The other two glanced over, instantly hushing their voices like kids in a library. "He ain't doing so good, man," Ruiz said, shifting uncomfortably. "Hardly talks, hardly gets up it's not like him."
"Reverend told the Sarge that Lt McKay didn't even know who he was when he stumbled into that village," Johnson told them, worry lines creasing the smooth dark skin of his forehead. "The doctors say he might dip in and out of reality or something like that. Some kind of head trauma. They're gonna take him outta dispensary and send him to another ward so he can get proper attention."
"Shit," Ruiz breathed.
"You said it, man." Johnson heaved a sigh. "If he doesn't get better, fast, they're gonna boot him offa being a chopper jock."
"Say, Johnson--" Percell tugged at his friend's slim hand eagerly, "where is the Reverend? I kinda wanted to see him "
"Took off," Johnson said shortly, but his eyes were sympathetic and he gave Danny's hand a quick squeeze before releasing it. "Pretty much soon's the chopper landed, him and Thu grabbed his trunks and didi mau'ed. Not even a thank-you."
"Too bad," Roo said, uncaring.
Johnson gave him a wry smile. "Yeah."
The two soldiers shared a dark-eyed, knowing look as Percell, dejected, sank back against his pillows.
After a most disagreeable helicopter ride that left him edgy and irritable from enduring the smell and sheer closeness to the filthy animals the Army called soldiers, Blackwell was finally home. He wasted no time getting off the Barnett base, slipping away as Team Viking herded its sick and wounded into the dispensary.
Sin City, as the American soldiers called it, was his domain, his kingdom. Where he reigned supreme. Where a simple nod from him could spell death.
He began to relax, smiling to himself as the local 'vermin' milled about him, eager to gain his favour. It entertained Reverend Blackwell to watch the Tu Do street traffickers and hustlers squabble, skirmish and jockey for positions of importance in the hierarchy when he came home to do business. He sipped a mild opium blended tea contentedly, as Mr. Thu, his second in command if you will, unloaded and set up 'distribution appointments' with their regular sellers.
Once back in camp for a few days, Doc's flu symptoms had just about disappeared and Percell's odd rectangular shaped bruise was fading to a sickly yellow, getting them quick discharges from the dispensary. And despite Ruiz's steady griping about his slightly longer stay, his shoulder was healing nicely.
Percell, a leg folded under him, sat beside Johnson on his bunk, as the two poured over one of Marvin's latest comic books. Doc, sitting cross-legged at the end of the same bed, busied himself writing a letter home. Although they had the entire barracks to themselves, they unconsciously stayed close.
The three looked up at the screen door as it banged open.
"Be careful, now! Watch the door. Take it easy. One more step."
"Taylor, lighten up, man! I'm alright, okay."
The three sitting grinned, watching Ruiz as he stomped into their quarters looking hen-pecked by the chirping, fussing Taylor who was very glad to have his little buddy out of the dispensary.
"Hey, Roo!" smiled Percell.
"Will you tell him I'm all right." Ruiz thumbed exaggeratedly over his shoulder at Taylor.
"He's all right, Taylor!" the three on the bed chimed in stereo.
Taylor paced around in front of Ruiz, driving his hands into his pockets to keep from helping Roo ease down onto his bunk.
"How's the shoulder?" asked Doc, with a pang of guilt.
"Number One, Doc. I'm going to be on light duty for a while but everything's okay."
"Good," nodded Hockenbury, gravely.
"Hey, stop worrying about it, Doc," beamed Ruiz in rare jubilance.
"This calls for a celebration...." Taylor slapped and rubbed his hands together, grinning at his friends.
"SIN CITY!!" they all hollered in unison.
"Your drinks are on me, Ruiz," declared Doc as they all poured through the hootch door.
The jeep inched along the crowded street as they all strained, looking for the right bar to blow all their hard earned MPCs at.
"There!" yelled Percell pointing and all heads swiveled around to look.
"Danny, that's the Tiger Bar. Are you sure?"
"I'll be fine with it, guys," he said with confidence. "Doc, pull in over there."
Doc and Taylor exchanged a hopeful glance. The Tiger Bar was notorious for its brisk trade in opium and heroin and they weren't sure just how 'fine' Percell would be in such close proximity to the stuff.
The five hopped out and piled into the bar, its blaring music spilling into the street for a moment before the door closed behind them. They commandeered a corner table and got down to the serious business of drinking and ogling boom-boom girls.
Ruiz sat bleary-eyed and grinning with a bottle forgotten in one hand and a smoldering cigarette in the other. Before them on the table stood a small army of empty bottles and overflowing ashtrays.
Taylor had a lovely young lady perched on his knee who was doing interesting things to his ear with her tongue. Johnson and Doc slouched quietly, nursing their freshest beers, lost in thought.
"Gotta hit the pisser," mumbled Percell drunkenly as he lurched unsteadily to his feet.
He weaved his way through the mingling crowd to the hallway that led to the washrooms. He stumbled blindly through the door straight ahead of him and found himself standing in the alley, and
stood a moment watching a scrawny cat chewing enthusiastically at something stringy and pink.
Screwing up his face in disgust, he fumbled at the door a moment before he managed to pull it open. Totally disoriented in the dim hall, his need to 'go' increasing by the minute, Percell headed for the door he saw a man exit from. He squinted into the shadowy room trying to make out details. As he stood in the threshold, the door behind him, across the hall, opened as a couple of grunts stumbled
into the actual john, spilling a wedge of light across his shoulder and illuminating the scene
before him in the room.
Bladder momentarily forgotten, Danny stared in horror at the naked form of Reverend Blackwell sprawled on a bed in a tangle of sheets, head thrown back in ecstasy as he sucked on an opium
pipe and an equally naked prostitute sucked on him.
The Reverend's assistant Thu, his name was was selling the white powder to a young Vietnamese girl in one corner of the room. In the other corner lay the carpet bag, its contents spilling out, and amidst the bible and the crucifix were small packets of heroin.
Feeling as if the very breath was kicked out of him, Percell inched slowly from the doorway and let the door click shut.
He moved like a zombie, brushed by a soldier as he entered the men's room, did what nature could no longer allow him to ignore and dragged himself back to the table in a daze.
Johnson gave Doc a tap on the leg, motioning at the change in Percell. He sat hunched forward, forearms resting on thighs, a hand clenching and unclenching around the neck of his beer bottle.
"What's up, Danny?" asked Doc, leaning into him, laying a hand on Danny's thick wrist.
"It's nothin', Doc."
"Don't look like nothing." He patted the solid arm and returned to his slouch, giving Percell time and room to formulate whatever it was that he would eventually tell them.
"Hey, Percell, want my little mamma-san to find a friend for you?" called Taylor, noticing Danny's funk.
"No," he snapped, still seeing the Reverend and what that girl was doing. He slammed his bottle down on the table, startling the guys, and headed for the hallway.
"Looks like trouble!!" shouted Ruiz over the music.
"Go get in the jeep, Roo," ordered Taylor, reluctantly dislodging the little cutie-pie from his lap and following Johnson and Doc, who were heading after Percell.
"Time to go, Danny. Whatever it is, it ain't worth it," cautioned Doc, grabbing Percell's arm.
Percell turned and shoved his spindly friend up against the wall with a thud. "Doc, you don't unnerstan'!" he slurred. "He's a man of the cloth. He shudn't be doin' what he's all doin'!!! Hell, he ain't no holy man. No Sir!!"
Doc met Johnson's puzzled look with one of his own.
"C'mon, man, let's didi outta here. This place is getting old fast," said Johnson, stepping in and leading Percell towards the exit. "You can tell us all about it on the way back to base."
"No, Johnson. Somebody's gotta stop him."
"Stop who? Doing what?" asked Doc, rubbing at his arms where Danny had grabbed him.
"That Reverend Blackwell, that's who," croaked Percell, pointing behind them. "He's back there sellin' dope 'n' fornicatin' and debauchin'. A man of the cloth, my ass! Excuse my French!" ranted Percell in a hoarse whine.
"I knew that sucker was a rat!' said Taylor.
"Nothing we can do about it, Percell," insisted Johnson.
"We could beat the crap outta him," offered Percell, letting the guys steer him from the bar.
"We'll tell Sarge and L-tee about it, see what they think," added Doc.
"I hope they wanna beat the crap outta him," grumbled Percell, climbing into the jeep.
"Where are the kids?"
"Hm? Oh, they, uh, they said they were goin' down into town. To relax." Zeke grinned goofily and swigged some whiskey from his glass.
Lt. Goldman nodded and drank deeply. Anderson eyed him, amused. "'The kids', Lt? You're barely older'n most of 'em."
Goldman grimaced, annoyed at being called on his youth. "Yeah, yeah, I know grandpa. But being in my position sure can age somebody."
Zeke nodded, deep in thought. They silently and now, moodily sipped their drinks as they sat in Goldman's room. Without McKay around to constantly pester Goldman, the lieutenant had actually been feeling a little lonely. He had called over his sergeant for a drink. Nothing wrong with a little nightly fraternization; if anyone asked, they were discussing the mission.
With the pause in conversation gestating quickly into uncomfortable silence, Anderson downed the last of his drink and stood up. "Well, I'm off for the "
"Sarge!!!" A brief knock was replaced by a pack of eager bodies cramming themselves all at once through the doorway of Goldman's barracks. Roo, being small, finally managed to pull through and he went straight to Anderson.
"Sarge! We gotta tell you something important!"
"And no, this can't wait until tomorrow," Johnson interjected just as Anderson opened his mouth.
"Awright. What is it?" Anderson leaned his heavy frame against Goldman's desk, and the lieutenant, slowly stood up from his desk chair, staring intently at Johnson. He knew that it had to be something very important if the guys came all the way from Sin City, to the sergeant's room, to finally their lieutenant's room to tell them something.
They guys elected Johnson to talk, as he held rank. "We went to a club called The Tiger Bar "
"The Tiger Bar," Goldman spluttered, interrupting. "Isn't that " he motioned haphazardly to Percell unconsciously.
"Yeah, lieutenant, it is a heroin bar," Percell said quietly. "But we only went there for some beers!"
"To celebrate Roo's health and stuff, you know," Hockenbury added casually.
"Yeah, and while we were drinking," Johnson continued earnestly, "Percell saw Reverend Blackwell in one of the back rooms. Sergeant, he was high on dope! And he said the Reverand was selling the stuff as well."
Anderson stared at them all, shocked. He could smell the beer on their breath, but he could see in Johnson's eyes that every word he spoke was the truth. What reason would they have a make up a story like that anyways? However, just to confirm...Anderson went over to the downcast Percell and took him by the shoulders.
"Percell, " Zeke said quietly, "I need you to tell me that you are sure, and I mean damn sure you saw what you saw. These are some serious things you were saying about the Reverend. Now are you sure you didn't stop into those rooms because you were tempted to "
"I saw it, Sergeant," Percell cut Anderson off with a teary vehemence. "Like I see you right here, I saw Reverend Blackwell, getting high, getting off, getting money." Danny's teeth began to grate in frustration. "I know what I saw and I don't like what you were gonna say about me!"
Percell tore away and fled. With the immediate concern of the person who is right by the door, Taylor jumped out of the room and after Danny.
Anderson swallowed his guilt and looked over at his lieutenant. Goldman surveyed the boys and then, looking back at Anderson, gave him a quick nod.
"All right--Percell and Taylor had the right idea, it's time for y'all to head back to the barracks. We'll deal with this in the morning."
Roo looked appalled. "But Sarge! We can't just go to bed!"
"Yeah, Blackwell might have moved on by tomorrow! We have to go back now and teach him a lesson! For Danny!" Johnson looked indignant.
"Look," Goldman held up his hand, not wanting to hear any more. "We can't just all go barging into the Tiger Bar demanding the Reverend's blood. This will be investigated and Blackwell will be punished but it has to be done properly. You don't understand how tricky these situations are, especially when you mix a civilian of the church and drug trafficking. To circumvent sabotage and a mis-trial, I have to make sure that the proper codes of discipline are employed to guarantee full penalties."
Goldman hoped his bush beating 'officer-talk' would be enough to send the boys to bed. Ruiz seemed to accept it fully, but Johnson and Hockenbury gave him wary looks as they turned to go back to their hooch.
"Danny! Hey, Danny, wait up!"
Percell slowed down to allow Taylor to catch up. He was trying furiously to keep his face dry, but the hot tears kept flowing. Taylor tried not to look at him. It was so damn hard to deal with crying guys, and Marcus always felt he always got stuck with that job.
"Look, Danny, Sarge was just trying to make sure." No response but for a sniffle. Taylor continued doggedly. "I mean, you were addicted to the crap, you should be thankful that he made sure. Shows he cares...and alla that."
"Yeah, I know." Danny mumbled. Relieved at Percell's response, Taylor was just about to guide him back towards the barracks when the specialist suddenly lashed out again. "But the Reverend, Marcus!! He was a man of God! And I believed him! I thought..." he laughed bitterly, "I thought at least I had one thing that was still pure, and good in this god-awful country. But now...now I don't think there's anything left in this place that can make me feel good."
"Look, I knew that bastard was scum the moment I laid eyes on him. But then, I could always tell a racist from a mile away." Taylor paused righteously, then got himself back on track.. " But regardless of that, Danny, I still thought he was a holy man too. I sure as hell din't think he was selling drugs or nothing." Taylor looked at Percell, hoping what he was saying was helping the poor hayseed. "C'mon Danny. Man, I was raised Baptist, you think I don't know what it's like to believe in preachers and who they are? What we gotta do now is stick together. You said you didn't have anything to believe in? Well, you got us, right? Us and Sarge. We haven't let you down before. So come on, let's go back to the barracks."
Percell nodded wearily. They started walking back.
"Baptist, huh?" Percell prompted.
"Yeah," Taylor said, almost defensively, " My grandmoms rose me up that way. Why, what are you?"
"Evangelist. My gran'ma told me Baptists are worse'n Catholics."
"You're Evangelist? Huh. No wonder you're so fucked up." Taylor grinned and playfully shouldered Percell. The shorter man grinned back and by the time they reached their barracks door, they were playfully shoving at each other like wolf cubs.
Anderson slowly settled himself back down on McKay's leather chair once the boys had left. He stared at Goldman, who seemed lost in thought...and anger.
"Goddamn Reverend!" Myron suddenly exclaimed. "Did you see the look on Percell's face? Total, total betrayal. This is not what that kid needs after suffering a heroin addiction."
"I hear that." Anderson paused, then added tentatively, "But I guess we'll wait until tomorrow and then report it to "
"Bull shit." Goldman jumped up and energetically strapped on his gun holster. "We're gonna get this bastard ourselves and we're gonna take him down and teach him a lesson."
Grinning, Zeke stood up and opened the door and Goldman pelted out. "Shouldn't we get the meatheads or somthin'?" He glanced at his watch. They had a bit of time before curfew hit; the boys had returned to the base early due to their encounter with Blackwell.
"We can do this without them," Goldman said. "We'll find Blackwell, make sure he's subdued, and then you can get the MPs."
Unconsciously echoing Percell's remark of an hour earlier, Zeke snorted, "I hope he struggles something awful."
Anderson and Goldman headed into Sin City.
"Boy those guys must've wanted to get drunk awful fast to bother with a place like this." Goldman squinted at the ramshackle front facade of the Tiger Bar, with its blaring neon sign advertising boom-boom girls, best rates. Even as Vietnamese bars went, this place was a dive.
"All that time holed up in dispensary makes a man jumpier'n mayflies on a sow's back," Anderson drawled.
"I'll have to take your word for it, Sergeant. Didn't run into many sows growing up Jewish in Queens."
Zeke grinned as they went into the place. "Well then, sir, you ain't lived yet."
Whatever Goldman had to say in response was lost in the blast of music that slammed against them. A precarious arrangement of speakers had been jury-rigged around the entire bar, deluging the place with whatever music happened to be on the radio. Which, from the sounds of it, was a particularly raucous Rolling Stones song.
"In the back!" Anderson hollered into his lieutenant's ear. Goldman nodded and they managed to wend through the tightly-packed mass of dancing, writhing bodies to a hallway leading away from the main bar area.
"Jeez," Goldman panted, leaning against the wall, "smelled like they were standing on a sewage dump!" He wrinkled his nose and waved one hand in front of his face, trying to clear the lingering odor of stale sweat and beer and numerous other fluids he didn't want to think about. "And I think somebody groped me!"
"Want me to go find her an' force her to make a decent man out of you?" Zeke asked blandly, trying not to laugh. Goldman glared at him and then, straightening his shirt, peered down the hallway.
"There's the door to the alley at the end of the hall. Now from Percell's account, Blackwell runs his deals from that room on the left, across from the john."
Anderson nodded. "Percell just saw one bagful'a drugs, though, Lt, and I'm willing to bet my pension that those two trunks we hauled outta that village weren't filled with bibles, either."
"Right. The major stash must be in one of those rooms at the back, then." Myron looked his sergeant up and down, slight worry finally starting to seep through the adrenalin. "You sure you'll be able to pull this off, Anderson?"
Zeke grinned, hoping it covered his own nervousness. "If I can't, we'll find out real quick now, won't we?"
Blearily, the holy Reverend Blackwell set down his opium pipe, feeling the swirling fog of the poppy inching through his veins, wrapping everything in a thin, soft padding of cotton wool. If he was high, he almost forgot that he was a failed missionary stuck in the most heathen corner of the world. If he was high, he almost forgot that these people stank and sinned and were too stupid to be any better. If he was high, he almost forgot that this hell was now his home.
But he didn't forget a face.
"May God be with you, Sergeant Anderson," Blackwell said, slowly and distinctly as he picked up his favourite Colt and aimed it at the soldier in his doorway. "I hope you haven't come here with delusions of heroism...?"
The man was slow-witted he'd noticed that back at Diep Minh but he seemed to be having particular trouble processing thoughts right now. Indecision was written all over that broad, plain, hillbilly face as obvious as the sun in the sky.
"Nossir," Anderson managed to mumble. Tongue darting nervously out. Eyes scrambling and roaming over the room faster than a fleet of horseflies. Thick, grimy hands twisting in on themselves and wrenching at the knobbly fingers. A thin sheen of sweat on that wide forehead.
Blackwell could hardly contain a smoky, opium-hysterical giggle. All the signs, all there, each more obvious than the last. And most telling of all, the look of shame shot through with eager hunger that every dope-fiend developed the first time the poppy sank its roots into you.
Still...it never hurt to be certain. Blackwell sat up a bit, still training the gun on Anderson. "What kind?"
"Corsican Gold." The words left the sergeant's mouth in a shot, like a secret he'd been keeping for years and was itching to tell. Blackwell raised one eyebrow, slightly impressed. Corsican was one of the prime opiums that passed through this place; its best customers were old warhorses and dopehead kids fresh from the States who grew up on heroin.
"Gold's expensive," Blackwell said, gesturing slightly with his pistol. Anderson gave a twitchy, sweaty smile.
"Old...habits die hard, I guess, Reverend."
Blackwell didn't respond right away. So Anderson knew his opium--it still didn't mean he took the stuff. And one could not be too careful about one's clientele in this heathen country.
"How do you want it?" he asked. "I have some hash cigarettes already rolled with Corsi--"
"And I'm sure that sells just fine with the kids, Reverend, but I'm kinda old-fashioned. I got no fear of needles."
A slow, oily smile cut Blackwell's rigid features. "Very well, Sergeant. I have only one rule when it comes to selling my product to servicemen."
Anderson blinked, tearing his eyes away from the opium pipe. "What's that?"
Fishing out a plastic packet of heroin from his carpetbag, Blackwell then reached into the small rattan cabinet next to his cot. He pulled out a tattered black leather case that looked as if it had been seasoned by generations of drug-users and held it out.
"You, my dear Sergeant Anderson, are lucky enough to sample the merchandise right here in front of me."
It wasn't as easy sneaking into the back rooms as it had first seemed.
For one thing, there seemed to be a constant stream of people going in and out of the toilets, so Goldman was forced to sort of wander up and down the hall, trying to seem drunk and hoping that they would just assume that he was lost. When a couple of GIs brought their girls into the hallway and began dancing, showing no signs of leaving, the lieutenant had to abandon any hope he had of darting into one of the rooms unnoticed.
Cursing under his breath, he swung out the back door, hoping to God there was a window or something facing the alley that he could use.
"Well, at least one thing's worked out right," he muttered to himself, dragging an empty beer crate across the alley to underneath one of the small screen windows that faced out from the back. Goldman made short work of climbing onto the crate and cutting out the thin wire with his pocketknife; the greater problem was how to fit himself through the high, tiny window.
A quick peek inside told him that this was the right room the two trunks Blackwell had taken from Diep Minh were against the far wall. He first removed his gun holster and lowered it carefully through the window, waiting to hear it thud gently against the floor. Finally, he stuck his arms through first and wiggled in, wincing at the scrape of the wire's cut edges along his ribs as he inched along, hanging halfway down to the floor by the time he managed to pull his legs in.
Landing facefirst in a heap next to his holster, Lieutenant Myron Goldman began to feel distinctly disgruntled with his role in this plan.
Anderson swallowed the knot of sick in his throat and stared at the leather case Blackwell was holding out to him. The Reverend slowly unzipped it, laid it open, revealing the syringe and spoon and tubing and all the paraphernalia of the heroin addict. A whiff of that burnt, bitter, salty smell.
He practically had to hold himself back from lunging for it.
"Now look here, Reverend," Zeke said urgently, "I've gotta go back to Barnett after buying this stuff, y'hear? It won't do me any good to show up on base gooned outta my tree on heroin."
"Sorry." Blackwell gave a greasy, one-shouldered shrug. "Those are my commandments, Sergeant. If you cannot abide them, you would do best to satisfy your cravings elsewhere."
"All right," Anderson quickly laid one large hand on the case, taking it from the priest's slack grip. As he slowly opened the plastic packet and painstakingly tipped a short hill of powder onto the dirty spoon, all he could do was hope that Goldman was having better luck.
Scrambling up from his unceremonious heap, Goldman went over to the two trunks, re-strapping on his holster. He unlatched one of the trunks and heaved the lid open, scattering aside the religious pamphlets and icons to reveal bags upon bags of powder and even a few blocks.
"Holy Moses," he breathed, sifting through the drugs. There was enough in here to supply a battalion for a month...and there was still the other trunk to go. Glancing nervously towards the door, Goldman popped open the other trunk. This one was much the same mix of religious items and opium, and the sheer amount of it boggled Goldman's mind. It was no wonder guys like Percell who were feeling the crunch ended up on this stuff--if drugs were this plentiful, the real surprise was that more of the guys didn't end up hooked. And the vulturous bastards like Blackwell who were selling this kind of poison to soldiers were the lowest slimeballs of them all, to be preying on a man's weakness when he couldn't afford to be weak. When the lives of so many other men depended on him. Goddammit, it was because of this filthy stuff that they were losing the war!...
Perhaps it was the blood coming to a boil that echoed in Goldman's ears; perhaps it was the thud and moan of the speakers in the bar that had been spasming deafeningly through him since they got there. Whatever it was, it kept him from noticing Thu slip into the room behind him and close the door.
With shoulder propped against the door frame of their barracks, Ruiz stared out over the compound, a smoldering cigarette wedged forgotten between his fingers.
"Hey Roo, guys, lets have a game of poker," called Doc, feeling the pent-up tension in the room. The men around him were all lost in silent thought. All thinking of the Reverend, he was sure. He also knew that they wouldn't be able to just sit by and let the scum slip through their fingers no matter what their Sarge had said.
"Danny . . ?" he leaned over and poked at the soldier's thigh, raising a questioning eyebrow.
"Nah, Doc, don't feel like playing nothin'." Percell grumbled and rolled off his rack to join Ruiz at the door.
"Nearly dark . . ." commented Ruiz absently, blowing out a lungful of smoke.
"Nearly curfew," mumbled Percell in frustration.
"Let it go, Danny," suggested a level-headed Taylor, working furiously at cleaning his M-16.
"I can't, Marcus!" spat Percell, spinning to glare at the man.
"Chill, bruthuh. I'm just looking out for your best interest, here, thassall," shrugged Taylor, nonchalantly, only his vigorous scrubbing betraying his true anxiety.
"Well, what about the best interest of the hundreds of soldiers that that stuff is going to totally mess up? What about the best interest of who knows how many men that the Reverend is going to be personally responsible for killing? What about that, Marcus?!"
"He's right, Marcus. That son of a bitch has to be stopped. No matter what," agreed Ruiz, pushing off the door to stand beside Danny.
"All right. . . Batman and Robin, what do you two plan to do about it?" asked Taylor, as the well oiled pieces he carefully slid into the rifle clicked neatly into place.
"Go into Sin City and get the bastard," declared Percell, his conviction to take some sort of action growing by the minute.
"How are you gonna do that, Danny?" asked Johnson cautiously, torn between dissuading and encouraging Percell.
"Steal a jeep . . ." Percell stated plainly. A little smile tugged at the corner of his mouth when he saw an answering smile spread across Ruiz's face as he began to nod in agreement.
Doc and the others looked up at the two of them. They all stared at one another in silence, the two standing waiting to see what sort of support they'd be getting from their teammates.
"We're gonna get into a lot of trouble," said Doc, laying aside his darning and crossing the floor to stand beside Ruiz and Percell. It looked like a makeshift ball game, with captains calling out players.
"Marvin?" asked Percell quietly, not looking at the man but straight ahead.
"Yeah, I guess. C'mon, Taylor. We're all in this together."
"In this together? What's it to me if a bunch of stupid cherries . . .."
"Marcus," threatened Johnson gently.
"Well's a good thing I've been cleaning my gun. All right, all right. How we gonna do this, Caped Crusader?" Taylor asked, strutting by Percell and the cluster of men around him to push fluidly through the hootch door (never one to pass up the opportunity to get into scraps with the boys for a good cause).
"I wanna drive, can I drive . . . ?" asked Ruiz as the band crowded through the door, all of them hoping for divine inspiration to pull off the jeep 'borrowing' and curfew 'dodging' they were about to attempt.
As the shadow fell across his shoulder, coiling instinctively, Myron began pushing to his feet, going for his revolver, but it was too late. He was knocked backwards against the open trunk by Thu's repeated blows, tipping it over as he went down.
He batted away cascading icons and packets of heroin as he vaguely saw his attacker coming in for a second volley and tried unsuccessfully to slither out from under them, his boots slipping on the scattered debris. A well-aimed swing brought the barrel of Thu's revolver down across the side of Goldman's face, opening an inch-long gash along the cheekbone. Myron let out a quick bark of surprise and pain.
Fumbling momentarily, Myron pulled his gun free of its holster and fired wide before Thu's first kick knocked the gun from his hand and his second got Myron full in the face, sending him sprawling on his back, blood welling out of a mangled lip. Thu then calmly hauled the disoriented Army officer to his feet, spun him around, and slammed him face-first into the wall, laughing happily as he watched the man leave a streak of blood down the wall as he slid to the floor in an unconscious heap.
Goldman's revolver discharge reached them over the pulsing music. Blackwell grabbed his revolver as Zeke tossed the hypodermic needle case aside and sprang at him.
The bullet bit deeply into the fleshy part of Zeke's shoulder, tearing through skin and muscle, knocking him off his feet to land hard on his ass with the wind knocked out of him. Zeke clutched at the chewed up flesh, heart racing, feeling the hot blood oozing between his fingers.
He looked up slowly to see Blackwell's pistol leveled at his face.
Johnson stomped on the brakes, bringing their jeep to a shuddering stop across the street from the Tiger Bar.
"That must be their jeep," said Doc as he climbed out, pointing at the vehicle parked on the side street.
"Let's go!" growled Percell, hopping out of the back of the jeep.
"Whoa, Danny! Take it easy!" warned Taylor, grabbing the man's arm.
"He's in there, Marcus!"
"We can't charge in there like the 10th Cav., Danny."
"Awwww, jeez, Taylor!!!" crabbed Percell, slapping his legs in frustration.
"Ruiz, you and Doc cover the alley," said Taylor, taking charge, ignoring Percell's impatience.
"Danny, we'll go in the front. You show us where the store room is, all right?"
"You sure you're okay about this, Percell?" asked Johnson.
"Yeah, I'm all right. Why does everybody keep asking me that? Can we just do this? Please." snapped Percell.
Johnson just shrugged, sighed and rolled his eyes as he backed off.
"Okay, Roo, Doc, get down that alley," ordered Taylor, not letting the sudden tension discourage them.
Ruiz and Hockenbury headed down the side street and into the back alley as the other three walked into the bar.
Blackwell scrambled clumsily to his feet, motioning Zeke to do the same. "Get up, Sergeant."
"You're not going to get away with this, Blackwell."
"That's where you're wrong. I've been getting away with this for years."
"You're killing people."
"Don't be so bloody self righteous, Anderson. These people . . ." the Reverend was cut off short as the door slammed open.
The two spun around, startled to see Thu step into the room with Goldman draped over his shoulder.
As Thu unceremoniously dumped the Lieutenant on the floor, Zeke sprang before he knew he was doing it. Thinking the L-tee dead, bullet wound forgotten, rage propelling him, Zeke charged at Thu,
intent on killing him.
Thu gracefully side-stepped the bigger, heavier American and cracked him across the face with the butt of his revolver, knocking him to his knees.
Smiling, Thu pressed the muzzle of his gun just behind Zeke's ear, execution style, and cocked the hammer.
"No! Thu . . !" cried Blackwell.
Thu's head swiveled on his neck as he gave Blackwell a challenging look.
"Not here. . . not that way . . . I have a more lingering death in mind for our Sergeant Anderson. We're going leave for to Cholon tonight. Get everything ready."
Thu smirked, pressing the muzzle of the gun hard behind Zeke's ear before easing up.
Fighting the dizziness that threatened to knock him over him, Zeke looked up at Thu then at Blackwell. "The MP's are on their way." Zeke managed weakly.
"Yes, of course they are . . . Mr. Thu, would you be so kind as to tie up our Sergeant here...."
"And this one?" Thu nodded, noticing Goldman beginning to squirm as he regained consciousness.
The Reverend looked down at Goldman like he'd just smelled something bad, then slowly grinned, raising his eyes to meet Zeke's.
"Bring him along. I"m sure the Sergeant would like to see how he's going to die."
"You don't have to do this, Blackwell," said Zeke, beginning to rise, but Thu reached out and sank his fingers into his bullet wound.
"Muther Fucker!!!" howled Zeke, jerking away from the blinding pain that left him incapable of fending off the hand that grabbed his wrist.
"Zeke . . ." cried Myron weakly, trying to get up.
The three in the hall heard the Sergeant's bellowed profanity.
"Shit. Sarge!!" And Percell charged. Taylor and Johnson exchanged a quick nervous look and followed.
Percell rammed the door open with his shoulder, diving and rolling into the room as he saw Thu's gun swing towards him. Taylor and Johnson slammed on the brakes and pulled their heads from the doorway as a bullet sank into the doorframe.
Percell came smoothly up on one knee, raising his revolver and pulled the trigger. Thu's head snapped as the back of it blew off. The body dropped heavily to the floor, lifeless.
"Daniel Percell!" the reverend barked to get the G.I.'s attention. Danny turned a icy glare at Blackwell.
"Put the gun down, son." said Blackwell in his best pulpit voice.
"Let 'im go, Reverend." said Danny, seeing Blackwell holding a gun on Goldman.
"I can't do that, Daniel."
"Reverend, let the Lieutenant go and we'll leave you alone." offered Percell, fighting to remain calm.
"This isn't a negotiation, Daniel." answered the Reverend as he squatted beside Goldman and yanked him up into a sitting position. "Lieutenant GOLDMAN, tell your man to back out of here slowly or I will kill the two of you, now!" he hissed at Myron and shook him once for emphasis.
"Go to hell, Blackwell." mumbled Goldman feebly.
Blackwell cocked the hammer on his revolver as he hauled the rubbery lieutenant to his feet.
"Daniel, get the fuck out of my way or I'll put a fucking bullet through the man's head right now!" screamed Blackwell, poking Goldman painfully in the skull with the barrel of his Colt.
Anderson slowly rose to his feet, hands held out in front of him. Blackwell waved his pistol about nervously; first pointing it at Percell then at Anderson then jabbing it into Goldman.
"Move away from the door," Blackwell whined desperately, hugging a less-than-cooperative Goldman to his chest.
"Give it up, Reverend," suggested Anderson, spotting Taylor and Johnson in the hallway.
"You try anything, I'll kill him. I swear!" he threatened weakly, circling the room with his back to the wall, making his way to the doorway.
"Go ahead, kill him," dared Anderson, shrugging nonchalantly, getting a surprised look from the other three men in the room.
"You don't think I will, do you?" As Blackwell pulled Myron into the hallway with him, Taylor and Johnson both lunged and grabbed for the reverend's gun. He refused to relinquish it, fueled by terror-strength, and the four went down in a jumble of limbs.
Without warning, the revolver went off in the struggle and the pile of bodies froze. Zeke and Percell rushed to the doorway and watched, breath frozen, as first Johnson, Goldman, then finally Taylor struggled out of the heap.
Blackwell lay motionless at their feet, a dark stain spreading over his chest. His open, blank eyes stared, emotionless as a shark's, as devoid of feeling in death as they had been in life. The music pounded relentlessly, vibrating the floor under the soldiers' feet as they silently stood over the body.
"Zeke . . . " still a little light headed, Myron pointed out into the hall as Ruiz and Doc hurried in in response to the commotion, respectively disappointed and relieved to have missed out on the action.
"The storeroom . . . full of drugs, just like Percell said."
Lieutenant McKay was miserable. Not because of the awful crash, not because of the amnesia, not even because of what had happened in that poor napalmed villiage. He was miserable because he was hot. And he was in his boxers. And the nurse had deposited him into his leather chair.
He squirmed uncomfortably, the leather refused to unsuction itself from his sweat-dampened skin. It stuck to him like napalmed clothes. Like napalmed clothes on a small, orphaned child.....
"Aw, no, c'mon Johnny!" he exclaimed loudly to himself, for there was no one else in his shacks.
" Dr. Samson told you not to think that way. Don't think that way." He tapered off into tiny mumbles. "You won't think that way."
Dr. Samson from Psychiatrics had told him a couple days ago that though his body was healed, it was his mind the higher-ups were concerned about. Would he still be able to handle a chopper? Was he stable enough to work under pressure? Would his trauma deteriorate his job performance? McKay was determined to prove that he was ready to be back in the sky.
So he couldn't think that way.
Instead he turned on the radio and poured himself another brandy.
He wished that nurse was still with him. She was nice, if a little horsey, but quite eager to please. She was the one who had convinced the doctors that it would be better for him to get out of Psychiatrics and come back to his quarters. McKay had been grateful, for he was looking forward to talking to Myron about what had happened.
When McKay had got there, though, Myron was nowhere to be seen.
In fact, everytime Johnny fell asleep, it seemed Goldman had popped into the room, changed, took a nap, took a shower or whatever and left before McKay had time to even say hi. It kind of hurt Johnny that the other Lieutenant couldn't pause in whatever he was doing just to say hi. It was kind of mean.
Over the radio, he heard about the morale-boosting drug bust two nights ago that was initiated by military police. Over a ham radio station, he heard the details of the lieutenant and his men who brought down a prominent drug dealer before the MP's even arrived on the scene. The lieutenant and his men who risked their lives to save the lives of others. The lieutenant and his men whose adventures would be talked about over every underground station for days.
He always missed out in the fun.
If he wasn't so nauseous, he would have considered getting out of the leather chair from hell and laying some abuse on the cheap air conditioner he had beside his bed. He settled for glaring at it, hoping his anger would shame it into giving him some cool relief. It didn't notice him. It didn't even seem to care.
Then, unceremoniously, Goldman burst into the room, groomed in his dress uniform. He stared at McKay as if he had just noticed him, as if the chopper pilot hadn't been in the room for two days already. Goldman smiled slowly, his eyes hooding.
"Hey. You okay?"
McKay bit back his instinctive response of noI'msonotI'vebeenherefortwofuckingdays
Instead, he smiled a superstar grin and said,
"I've never been better."