(In-country Vietnam AU)
Disclaimer: The Magnificent Seven television series and its characters are not mine. Any profit from it goes to the rightful owners. I own nothing and write this for personal entertainment.
Warning: Character death, violence, obscene language, drug use and het in this one. There's some racism too. (I think I pushed every button. Yikes.)
Author's Note: An upfront warning. This story is unhappy. These men are flawed. Their personalities reflect the attitudes of their time period. In addition, there is a character death. If that isn't what you like to read, no harm, no foul, just don't read this. Don't blame my beta cobalt for this, she merely improved the grammar. Footnotes at the end of the story.
Small arms fire in the distance like the bark of lonely beast.
Not enough whiskey in the world, but he drank anyway. Taped music blared from a cheap sound system, crackling with static the way radio signals did when he called in from the bush, back before he was reduced to 'advising'. As long as he kept pushing piasters across the bar, the bar man kept the booze coming, and that's all Chris Larabee cared about right then. Getting drunk in a Saigon bar - or in Da Nang or Quang Tri or Phu Cat or whatever camp or firebase he found himself in between assignments - was what he did when he had leave.
It hadn't always been.
He couldn't even blame the Beyond. It wasn't the jungle that ate his life. He'd left them behind, back in the world, thinking they'd be safe, only to come home to ashes.
Not enough whiskey in the world to forget, but enough set up a hazy wall between him and his memories. Sometimes enough to let him pass out into the blessed blackness beyond the reach of all the dead - the ones he'd killed and the ones he hadn't saved.
Enough that he could look at his picture of Sara and Adam and pretend he didn't know they'd burned.
Sometimes the whiskey even washed away the greasy stench of smoke he could always taste at the back of his mouth.
Tasta Nha Gi had known it was hopeless. The Americans were pulling out. They didn't care what happened to the South Vietnamese, much less a village made up of mixed groups of displaced mountain tribes, deserters, draft dodgers and discharged cripples. The Theiu regime never had. To the Vietnamese, they were moi, savages.
He'd come all the way to Saigon looking for some answer, some way to protect their tiny haven from André's Ghost Legion and found nothing. Their fate would be lost in the larger conflict between the South and the Communists.
André would destroy their village trying to force the secret of the hidden temple's gold from them. The French madman would be disappointed, but Nha Gi thought there wouldn't be much satisfaction in that, since he and the rest of the village would be dead.
It was too bad the former Foreign Legion officer couldn't see how much he and his abandoned men were like the collection of Nung, Chinese, Meo, Bru, Rhade, and Montagnards that had gathered to build a new life near the ruins of the hidden temple. They were all lost, displaced and left with no way back to their old lives by the war. But no, that would never happen, Nha Gi realized. André still dreamed of Indochine, of returning Vietnam to French control.
A madman's dream, but a nightmare for Nha Gi's village. It would kill them.
His people weren't soldiers.
He sighed and gestured for the man with him to follow, turning into a bar, passing behind the grenade screen, wanting a drink and a moment to sit down in the dark, before they began their long journey back to the village.
Shit, he was going to die.
Nathan kicked and fought and still couldn't get away. It was four big fucking cracker GIs to one.
It was piss-poor way to go and that made him fight harder, but it was no use.
Josiah was always telling him it didn't help harboring hate or being bitter, but Christ on a crutch, a brother had a right when he got his ass drafted instead of going to medical school, had his folks offed by the KKK for helping other blacks sign up to vote, and then - instead of even being shot by Charlie - ended up lynched by a four redneck Georgia hicks because he caught them trying to steal morphine.
He'd been shat on from a great height and damn well knew it.
They'd kicked him into the stomach and the ribs so many times he couldn't breathe, but that wasn't going to be an option in minute anyway. They had the rope around his neck now and were dragging him over to the tamarind tree in the back courtyard. His boot heels scraped against the courtyard stones. One caught in a crack. His tightly tied boots threatened to wrench his ankle in two before the heel popped free again.
Nathan clawed at the rope, but it was already biting into his neck. He couldn't get his fingers under it. No slack. His vision was dimming, like the light going at dusk.
"On your feet, nigger," one his captors shouted.
Mulishly, Nathan stayed limp. The rope wouldn't reach of the limb of the tree with him on the ground. He wasn't going to help them kill him.
The tamarind loomed above him, leaves whispering, black against a night sky washed pale by Saigon's lights. Curfew in an hour or so. The city still rang with life, cars, cyclo-pousses, voices, music, horns, and an incongruous cock's crow mingling into a din that was unique to Saigon. Distantly, an irregular clatter of small arms fire punctuated the night. Right now, he wished the whole damn NVA would roll into Saigon and begin by shooting these four motherfuckers.
The courtyard behind Binh's Bar was eerily empty except for Nathan and his attackers. There were probably watchers, eyes in the shadows, but no one would venture to interfere with the Americans.
Two of them started to hoist him up. He managed to knee the closer one in the balls, making him yell and fold over, clutching his crotch. Nathan hoped he'd busted the bastard's testicles. He paid for it as another one of them slammed a fist into his back just over his kidneys. I'll be pissing blood... Unless I'm in a Glad Bag getting shipped home, he thought.
The fourth GI, a bulletheaded motherfucker with pale, piggy eyes picked up Nathan like a doll. He was even taller than Nathan and muscled like a prize bull. A roll of sweaty, reddened flesh rode between his darkened collar and the shaved bare back of his skull. He leaned his face close to Nathan's, so close the beads of sweat on his forehead could be counted, and breathed rancid beer fumes into Nathan's face.
"You're a big buck, boy, but down where I come from we know all about fixing uppity niggers. Gonna teach you a real lesson, you hear?"
Nathan tried to muster enough spit and breath to hawk it into the GI's face.
The rope attached to his neck was tossed over one of the tamarind's limbs. It jerked against his throat.
The grin died as the clack of the bolt snapping back on an M16 sounded.
Bullethead looked away.
"This ain't none of your business, hippy," he snarled.
Nathan rolled his head to the side and spied a slender man in civvies standing in one corner of the courtyard. He held the M16 with a casual assurance at odds with his long, light brown hair and tie-dyed T-shirt.
"Reckon you'd be happier if ya just walked away," he drawled, Texas as clear in his voice as a Lone Star brand.
One of the other men straightened a little. He had hold of Nathan's wrists and pulled them up, twisting Nathan's shoulders painfully.
"You think you can shoot all of us?" he asked.
"He won't need to, soldier," another voice came out of the darkness.
The man it belonged to strolled out from the back door of Binh's. Stray light gleamed off his short-cut blond hair and the major's oak leaves on his collar. He walked a little loose, like he was more than half drunk, but nothing could wipe out the aura that screamed 'officer' or soften the pale eyes that dominated his harsh angled face and said 'killer'.
His sidearm was still holstered. He didn't need to draw it to intimidate. Every man in the courtyard knew he would put them all down without blinking. If they didn't realize that, they were stupider than Nathan could imagine.
"Cut him loose."
At least one of the GIs came close.
"Who the fuck are you, asshole?"
The blond officer tipped his head, thin-lipped mouth shaping into a nasty smile.
"Fuck me," Bullethead breathed. He stepped back from Nathan.
"Major Larabee," Larabee clarified. "Now get out of here unless you want to get up close and personal with a tiger cage at Con Son."
"Come on," Bullethead told his three fellows. "The nigger ain't worth it."
Nathan was released abruptly. He dropped to his knees, the paving stones bruising and harsh beneath him. He brought his hands to his throat and began clawing the rope loose.
Larabee and the hippy with the M16 were looking at each other, coming to some silent understanding. The four GIs were easing their way toward the back alley. Bullethead was muttering to himself, but the jackass who had wanted to know who Larabee was kept looking back, lingering, like he still didn't recognize the name. Nathan watched them out of the corner of his eye.
Nathan saw the stupid honky pull out a standard issue .45 and start to aim it at the officer.
He dropped his hand from the rope, pulled the knife he kept sheathed in his boot top and threw it. The blade wheeled through the air and stabbed point first through the soldier's gun hand. He screamed and dropped the .45.
Bullethead took one look back, grabbed the wounded man by the collar and dragged him away at a run. The other two didn't pause to look before sprinting ahead of them.
Larabee looked at Nathan and gave him a nod.
Nathan got the rope off and tossed it to the ground in disgust.
"You okay, man?" the hippy rasped.
"Sonovabitch," Nathan complained. "Now I gotta find another knife with enough balance to throw. That's a beaucoup fucking pain."
The hippy shrugged and strolled over to Larabee.
Larabee tipped his head toward the back door of the bar. The hippy nodded.
"Where you two going, anyway?" Nathan demanded.
"Bar," they chorused.
He brushed at his stained and wrinkled uniform for a second then gave it up. Fuck it. He needed a drink. His throat still hurt.
He headed into the dark backdoor of the bar, through the red-beaded curtains and into the neon flickering interior after them.
Nha Gi stepped back and let the third man enter the bar after watching the confrontation. He glanced at his companion, Eban, and saw agreement in the dark eyes. These men would not hesitate or be intimidated by André and his men.
He stayed in the shadows and watched as the black man joined the two men at the bar. He watched them talk, realizing the three men, despite the risks they'd taken for each other, had never met.
He didn't know them either; these were the men he had been looking for he realized.
"We want to hire you."
Nathan looked from Larabee to the hippy and back to the graybearded elder that had approached the three of them. This day just kept getting weirder and weirder. He lifted his bottle of beer to his mouth and let the cool, almost bitter liquid wash down his throat. A drop caught on his lip as he set the bottle down. He licked it off, watching Larabee in the flyspecked mirror behind the bar.
Larabee was drinking whiskey. Drinking it with experience and dedication, the way a man does a job. He finished a shot and dropped the glass onto the scarred bartop.
"Let me get this straight," Larabee said to the elder.
What had the old guy said his name was? Not that Nathan cared.
The hippy was leaning back against the bar, elbows braced, and all that long loose hair hiding a sharp cut face that could have used a shave. Despite the tie-dye shirt and faded jeans, he didn't look stoned. He looked as wary and alert as a burnt cat. The man had blue eyes. Real blue. Those eyes had catalogued everything in the bar. He was ready for anything.
"You've got a village built on the ruins of some old temple and a bunch of French soldiers that've been out in the bush since before Dien Bien Phu?"
Tasta Nha Gi. That was the name.
Larabee raised his voice to be heard over scratchy tape blatting out The Animals' We Gotta Get Outta This Place. His words laid over the lyrics. "You need someone to protect you from these Ghosts?" In this dirty old part of the city...
Where the sun refused to shine...
Nathan sipped his beer and shook his head. Didn't these people have any goddamn sense? If a gang of soldiers with guns wanted their stupid village or hill or fucking temple, move the hell on. Wasn't like any of them had anything worth fighting for. Straw hooches and maybe a pig.
There ain't no use in trying...
"They believe the temple hides a cache of gold," the old man said reluctantly.
"Well, fuck me," the hippy drawled. "Why didn't ya say so?"
Larabee sent a quelling glare his way. The hippy appeared immune; a pretty good trick, Nathan acknowledged. Being around Larabee felt like holding a grenade with the pin pulled.
Nha Gi just smiled slow. His companion blinked, looking a touch sick, then did that thing the Vietnamese all did, the nervous smile of embarrassment.
"We can pay you," Nha Gi said. He waited a beat and his voice dropped lower. "In gold. 3500 dollars American."
Sure, sure, Nathan thought. If this bunch had gold it didn't come out of any temple to Buddha or whoever. Wherever their village was, it was up the river, and they were growing their gold.
The beginning of the journey that ended with the morphine those four assholes had been after earlier. That and the smack too many brothers were shooting up back home. Hell, it wasn't just the brothers. Poor white boys that got drafted and ended up in this shithole country had gone home with habits too.
Don't mean nothing, snake.
We gotta get outta this place....
When the men with guns come into your village and tell you to grow poppies, you grow poppies. When the men in sheets drive down your streets, you step to the back of the bus. Nathan didn't fool himself. These people had no way to stand up for themselves.
If it's the last thing we ever do...
Nathan rubbed his thumb along the sweaty side of the beer bottle.
He could use a little gold. He was going to get back to the World, get through medical school and be a doctor, just like he'd promised his momma and daddy. That wasn't going to be cheap.
Larabee poured himself another shot, swigged it back and slammed the glass down on the bar.
"So how many men does this André have?"
"Would twenty men scare you?"
Larabee looked at the hippy, who shrugged, then to Nathan. "You in?" he asked them. "$500 dollars."
The hippy smiled, a flash of white teeth. "Hell... I wasn't planning on dying with a broom in my hand anyway." He turned to Nathan and raised his eyebrows.
These two fools were going to need a medic. He didn't like colonialist French bastards anyway. For five hundred dollars, he wouldn't mind blowing a few them to kingdom come.
Nathan stuck out his hand to the hippy. "Nathan Jackson."
"You got that outta the way?" Larabee inquired dryly.
"Yup," Tanner replied tranquilly.
"We are going to need some more men."
"I think I know a man that can help."
Larabee accepted that and said, "I know one too... if we can get him out of bed."
Nha Gi and his buddy didn't look fantastically happy, but an envelope got handed over, along with a grid map with a marking for their village. They must have realized they'd need more than just the three of them. Nathan had an idea they didn't want anyone around they didn't have to have. There just wasn't any choice for them.
Nathan knew all about that.
If it's the last thing we ever do...
Buck Wilmington went along to get along. That was his theory of life. He'd rather have fun than fight, though he liked fighting fine too. He liked people. He never went anywhere without handing out ration packs, candy bars, and piasters to the street kids. He liked flying. He could handle anything from helos to fixed wing cargo planes the way Elvis could sing. He liked fucking. Women liked the way he did it. Flying for Air America, he got plenty of all the things he liked and he was happy.
If sometimes he missed serving beside his old friend Chris, all he had to do was remember the last time they saw each other. Standing over the fresh graves of Sara and Adam Larabee, the hot Indiana sun burning through his dress uniform, sick to his soul at their loss, he'd been unable to say a word as Chris hissed contempt and hatred at him. Chris blamed him for the death of his wife and son in that house fire. Chris never wanted to see his face again.
If Buck hadn't persuaded him to stay that extra night in Hawaii before flying home to spend the rest of their leave there, Chris would have been there when the fire broke out in the officer's family housing. Buck didn't know if Chris thought he could have saved them or just wished he could have died with them. It didn't matter. The fire that killed Sara and Adam killed their friendship too.
After that, Chris took compassionate leave and dived into a bottle. Buck headed back to Vietnam - managing to sleep with an air stewardess during a layover in Okinawa - then served out the rest of his hitch. He heard through the grapevine that Chris had taken a transfer to the Rangers, re-upped and received a promotion. He kept tabs on his old friend, but never saw him.
Neither one of them had been back Stateside since the funerals. Buck figured the only way either of them ever would return would be when they were buried.
He knew sleeping with a married woman was bad and sleeping with another pilot's wife was worse, but Buck figured there were a hundred worse things he'd done since coming in-country. Next week he'd be making rice runs into Cambodia again himself.
Some of it would be rice. Some of it would be hard rice. He expected to take in a few 'advisors' too.
He needed to relax in the meantime.
He rolled over and went back to tickling his bedmate. Barbara had come to Saigon from Vientiane to spend a little more time with her husband, but Art had ended up flying either into Cambodia or north to Quang Tri and along the DMZ virtually every day. He wasn't even earning hazard pay - none of the pilots had since the Paris Peace Accords were signed - but he was still getting shot at a lot. The pilot's wife was lonely without even the company of the other wives back in Laos. She'd invited Buck back to the apartment for an afternoon's delight.
Halfway through his favorite 'relaxation' technique someone began hammering the apartment door. Buck jerked his head up and Barbara gasped.
"Hey, you in there with my wife!"
"Oh, lord, that's got to be Art," Barbara breathed in sudden horror.
Buck gave her a dirty look as he climbed off and began scrambling for his clothes.
"I thought he was in Ban Me Thuot."
"He is. He was. Go."
Well, shit. If Art was anything like the other AA pilots he carried a .45. Things could get real ugly real fast if Buck didn't skidaddle. He dragged on his skivvies, grabbed his pants and boots and headed for the balcony. He'd skin down the drainpipe to the back courtyard from there.
He hit the ground an instant later and started tugging on his boots.
"Afternoon, Buck," a familiar voice said.
Buck looked up. He dropped his boot and almost fell on his ass.
"Chris," he exclaimed. He hardly believed it.
"Did I interrupt something?"
Buck brought his brows together. He looked up at the balcony of Barbara and Art's apartment. Chris couldn't have been the man at the door, but... "You sonovabitch!" He thought about slugging Chris. Decided to hug him instead, knowing it would freak his old friend out worse.
Chris jerked away. "Jesus. People will talk."
Chris jerked away while Buck laughed, standing in the open with one boot and his yellow polka dot boxers.
"Christ, put your clothes on, you pervert," Chris growled. "I've got a job for you."
Buck scooped up his pants and began pulling them on.
"They got ladies wherever this job is?"
"Probably got whores," a longhaired man observed while walking out of the apartment building and joining Chris.
Nathan led them into the Blue Rose Night Club[i] and toward the back, where a gray-haired man was talking intently to a slick, indolent younger man wearing a tan tropical suit and a white shirt. Vin followed along behind, while Chris and Buck stopped at the bar to get a bottle. He noticed how the younger man's heavy-lidded green eyes catalogued all four of them. A keen intelligence flickered behind the bored expression and Vin cautioned himself to take care around whoever this was. He reminded Vin of the spooks he'd run into working for the Phoenix Program.
They reached the table. The gray-haired man twisted around to see who his companion was looking at.
"Nathan," he rumbled.
Chris and Buck arrived at Vin's back. The green-eyed man inspected them with a careful disinterest. No introductions were offered.
His hands played with a deck of cards, shuffling and splitting the deck. A big turquoise ring circled one long finger. Vin made himself look away. It wasn't smart to stare at a man or any part of a man too long. But he couldn't help picturing those deft, clever hands moving over skin instead of cards and felt a warm tension gather at his groin. He willed it away. They were here on business, recruiting another merc if they could.
He had to control his physical reactions, even if the sudden attraction wouldn't dissipate as easily. He flicked his eyes up and caught that considering green gaze on him. Vin exhaled a stuttering breath, unable to read the man's face; it was a handsome mask, creasing into a dimpled smile that revealed nothing of his real thoughts.
Nathan clapped his hand on the older man's shoulder. "Looked for you at the orphanage first, then someone said you'd be here, Josiah."
Josiah Sanchez smiled at Nathan. The man had a wide, toothy, intimidating smile, like something having a laugh before it ate you. His graying hair was brush cut, just high enough a natural wave crimped it. He had coarse scrub of gray whiskers on a prognathous jaw. Ice-pale blue eyes measured Nathan and the rest of them while withholding judgment from under a shelf-like brow meant for frowning.
"Have you got a new donation for the orphanage then?" Sanchez had a hellfire brimstone preacher's voice, a muted profundo rumble of power.
Nathan shook his head. "Sorry, not this time, Josiah." He glanced at the green-eyed man and raised his eyebrows.
Green-eyes gestured gracefully.
"By all means, sir, join us," he drawled.
Funny accent. Sounded sort of southern, Vin thought, but sort of French too. He'd have to listen to him some more, but he'd wager Green-Eyes spoke more than one lingo and he'd been in Vietnam as long as or longer than anyone else at the table. The voice went with the rest of him; as nice to listen to as look at, layered and easy on the surface, promising secrets underneath.
Nathan pulled out a chair and sat, followed by Chris and Buck. Chairs shuffled and scraped over the floor. Beers were opened. One seat was left next to Green-Eyes. He smiled at Vin, nodding an invitation. Vin sat. Damn if he didn't like the wicked little gleam of amusement he saw in those pretty green eyes as much as he liked the man's hands.
Nathan said, "We've got a proposition for you."
Sanchez sat back and looked interested.
Vin went on studying Sanchez, liking what he saw. He was older than the rest of them, probably in his fifties. A plain gold crucifix hung over his black, short-sleeved shirt. No white dog collar around his neck though, only gray chest-hair curling out where the first two buttons of his shirt were open. Muscle still roped his frame. Nathan would be taller than him standing up, along with Buck and even Larabee, but Sanchez loomed like a bigger man, even in his seat. He reminded Vin of one of those heavy-shouldered, sullen water buffalo. A whole lot of bad temper and mean wrapped up under a placid exterior. A good man in a fight, providing you weren't in his way.
"Could use your help," Nathan finished. "Five hundred ain't much, but it's American. You can turn it into a lot of piasters for the orphanage. Plus, these folks, they're all displaced, refugees; they don't need to be run out of their homes again." He paused. "So, you coming with us?"
Josiah shook his head. "No. My penance is here, ministering to the children."
"Ain't saving lives part of your penance?"
Nathan had said Sanchez had been a soldier in Korea. He'd killed. Maybe he'd killed too many. Vin didn't know. Maybe everyone had a different limit. He just hadn't reached his yet and Josiah Sanchez had. He didn't think Nathan could persuade the man, no matter what he said. Maybe if you snapped and somehow made it back across the line you never wanted to risk it again. Maybe you spent the rest of your life trying to make up for how good it felt when you stopped caring what you did or who you did it to. Vin had been within a breath of that place a couple of times. Remembering it had been what made him step in when he saw Nathan being strung up.
Green-Eyes remarked quietly, "An admirable end, but Mr. Sanchez's god concerns himself with means, I think."
Vin said, "Can promise you a hell of a fight." He thought he knew the look of a brawler and Sanchez had it. He'd be a good addition to their bunch. Maybe it just took appealing to the devil inside instead of the man's better angels.
"Hell..." Sanchez sighed. "I've already been there."
Vin nodded. They all had. Even Green-Eyes there, all smooth and clean and so damn cool, had that look. He'd been out in it. It marked a man too deep to ever erase; Vin could read it there in that jade-green gaze.
"Think you'll change your mind?" Chris asked.
Josiah spread his big hands flat on the tabletop. Pressed them down hard so that each joint showed white through the skin.
"How many men?" he asked roughly.
"Nha Gi says twenty."
"The ville has no weapons?"
Sanchez didn't bother asking about fighting men. There would be none. Anyone of age would have been drafted, only the old and the crippled and the children were left in most villages. These were DPs; they'd have even less than most. Maybe not even many women.
"Nothing to speak of," Chris said. "Salvage. A few pieces dating back to World War II, probably. No ammo for what they do have."
"My, what a dilemma," Green-Eyes commented lightly. He tapped his finger against the side of his bottle of Ba Mu'o'i Ba beer. "It could be addressed, of course, for a... shall we say... sufficient price?"
Larabee glared at him. Green-Eyes smiled back.
Sanchez shifted and waved his finger at Green-Eyes in admonishment. "Now, son - "
Sanchez snorted. "You're not Catholic, Ezra, and as you so often remind me, you're no son of mine."
"Mother will be relieved."
Sanchez glanced at Larabee. "He can get you what you'll need for this little set-to."
"Blackmarket, I assume," Larabee replied.
Green-Eyes nodded with a smug smile.
"We're looking for guns and men. You interested?"
Green-Eyes cocked his head, studying them all. His smile widened. "Why not?" he said lightly. "I need to get out of town."
Sanchez chuckled. "Still having problems with the Corsicans, Ezra?"
"Uncouth barbarians," Green-Eyes said. "The VC have better manners."
Chris frowned but ignored the comment. "What kind of guns can you get?"
"For say... five hundred dollars American? AK-47s, Swedish Ks, M16s, some BARs," Green-Eyes recited. "A little C4, det cord, DH5 Claymores, smoke and frag grenades, blooper guns, a couple of mortars. Ammo, of course. C-Rats. Commo if you want it. Enough to equip six of us easily. Anything for a real force would take some time." He grinned and a gold tooth flashed. "And money. If your villagers have the money, really, anything is available."
So Ezra was part of the blackmarket. Vin wasn't surprised. It sounded like he could equip them with the loose leftovers out of a gunrunning operation. Sounded like he was wired into the underground, maybe even with ties to the North too. DH5s were Viet Cong claymores. Vin didn't care. He'd seen enough shit before Eli Joe framed him for fragging Captain Kincaid that he didn't waste time judging people on 'ought tos' anymore. What Ezra did and how he made it through the night weren't Vin's business.
Hell, it wasn't like anyone who'd been in-country more than a week didn't know Theiu's government was dirtier than a sow in shit, anyway. The Communists were winning because they were fighting and they were fighting because they believed. No one in the south believed damn all, except cover your ass and grab what you can while you can. Devil to the hindmost, Vin's grandpa would have said.
"I'm not going, Ezra," Sanchez interjected.
Green-Eyes - Ezra - shrugged fluidly. "As you say, Josiah."
"Sleep on it," Chris said. "We'll rendezvous at Tan Son Nhut in the morning. Oh dawn hundred at the AA terminal." He turned a nasty grin on Wilmington. "Buck's gonna get us a chopper."
Buck shrugged. "I gotta di-di, make some calls," he said before rising and wandering toward the door. "Ciao."
Ezra snapped his fingers. "Money up front for the gear and I'll have it waiting in a deuce-and-a-half at the airport tomorrow morning."
Chris pulled out his wallet and laid five one hundred dollar bills in Ezra's hand. "You run out on me, I'll kill you myself," he promised.
"I'll bear that in mind."
"Use a hand tonight?" Vin asked Ezra.
Ezra looked at him measuringly. A quirk of Vin's lips told Ezra exactly what Vin was offering. He figured the green-eyed man would be cool with it, even if he didn't ever jump the fence.
Ezra didn't disappoint him.
"As a matter of fact..."
Ezra ran the pad of his thumb up the neck of his beer bottle, sliding through the condensation to rub over the mouth in a slick circle that made Vin's mouth go dry. He drew in a deep breath. Damn. Denim didn't have much forgiveness when a man's cock sat up and got interested.
Beer bottles and sex shouldn't go together like that. He stared as Ezra took another swallow, pink tongue darting out to swipe a last droplet from the mouth of the bottle. His eyes flickered to Vin's for an instant, making a contact but not lingering. Not safe to linger, to send out a long, slow, sensual invitation because someone else might notice and decide to beat the fag bloody. Or just not cover him in a firefight.
Thinking of that allowed him to clamp down on his suddenly wide-awake libido. Nothing like the prospect of getting shot to distract you from the prospect of getting laid, even if living through made you want the laid part even more.
"Sanchez," Chris said. He pushed back from the table and stood. "Hope I'll see you in the morning." He met Vin's eyes briefly, nodded to Nathan, and walked away. Stalked. The man walked around with a black cloud of anger drawn around him. People drew back from that. Sensible people.
It didn't bother Vin.
"Ezra," Nathan said. "I know you get supplies for the orphanage sometimes. Think you can put together a medical kit for us?"
"Make a list, Mr. Jackson," Ezra replied.
"Better start with daily-dailies for all us. Dapsone too..."
"Dexedrine tabs. Five of us won't have much time to sleep."
Vin slanted a glance at Ezra's hands and thought that was a damn shame.
JD took his shot. His finger squeezed and the camera snapped the picture. He moved the film forward without conscious thought and took another.
The helicopter resting on the concrete assumed a blackened, insectile malignancy. Long rotors drooped under their own weight. Open doors along its sides looked like gaping wounds. The kerosene reek of fuel overlaid a thousand other smells.
Tan Son Nhut airport was lit with harsh lights against the pre-dawn gloam, leaching color from the pale pastel horizon.
Framed in JD's viewfinder, five men were loading equipment into the chopper. They moved at a steady pace seldom pausing to even speak. They made an interesting group. JD made the tall man in the Hawaiian shirt, Air America ballcap, cowboy boots and blue jeans as the pilot. He was the only one not ferrying boxes and packs into the helicopter. Instead he was inspecting it, walking around and consulting a logbook he'd pulled out of the cockpit.
The buzzcut blond man with the ramrod posture looked like the leader. He was checking things as they came off the deuce-and-a-half truck. When JD zoomed in, he noticed dark patches where insignia had been stripped off the blond's green fatigues.
A shaven-headed black man consulted with the blond over the contents of one pack. He inspected it and nodded, seeming pleased, then carried it to the helicopter and stowed it inside. His fatigues were crumpled and worn, US Army issue. A set of dog tags flashed silver on his chest. The blond noticed, reached over and snapped the chain holding them.
The black man looked surprised, but only shrugged.
The last two had arrived with the truck. A compact man wearing tiger-striped fatigues, the legs carefully bloused over shining parachute jumper's boots, who looked like a recruitment poster boy, had jumped down from the driver's side. He'd flashed a grin at the blond and waved.
The man from the passenger side had hair long enough to brush his shoulders. A bandanna was tied over it to hold it out of his eyes. He was slender compared to the others but moved with the same bone-deep assurance in his own body. Faded khaki fatigues, olive-drab T-shirt and canvas-sided combat boots made up his uniform.
Every one of them, even the AA pilot, wore sidearms. Long-hair stowed a sniper rifle and a shotgun in the helicopter first thing. The pilot had a .45 tucked into the back of his pants. When he squatted to examine a back landing strut, his garish shirt billowed up and revealed the dark grip of the gun against his spine.
JD didn't know where they were going, but he was determined to find out. Maybe they were part of the 'secret war' in Laos that he'd heard about from other reporters. Maybe they were flying into Cambodia and would drop into the Ho Chi Minh trail to conduct covert search and destroy missions. If he got some good shots, he could probably sell to AP or UPI. Reuters maybe. He could make a name for himself as a war photographer.
He kept snapping pictures without thinking about anyone noticing him, without noticing the pilot had disappeared, until a big hand clamped down on the back of his neck.
"What do we have here?"
"Leggo, damn it," JD yelped. He fumbled and almost dropped his precious camera. He'd bought the used Leica before spending the last of his Mom's savings on the plane ticket to Saigon. The hand on his nape pushed him forward and across the cracked concrete to the helicopter and the other men. "I ain't doin' nothing. I'm a reporter."
"Sure, kid, sure. So what are you doing here?"
JD clutched his camera to his chest and raised his chin, trying to outglare the mustached Air America pilot. Okay, he didn't have a contract with any particular news outfit. There were hundreds of freelance war photographers in Saigon. He wasn't in Tim Page or Dana Stone or Sean Flynn's league - not yet - but he was a damn good photographer. If he could get out where the action was, he could get the pictures. Someone would buy them.
"You're going on some kind of secret mission, right? I want to go with you," JD blurted out, not caring that he sounded like a stupid thirteen year old.
"Kid, you got no idea what you're asking to drop into," the big pilot told him. He sounded impatient and amused and tired. "Catch a ride up to the DMZ with some of the other reporters. Better yet, hop over to Bangkok and get laid."
"I hear you fellas are headed for a fight. My name is JD Dunne, and I can stay out of your way."
The four other men steadily loading items from a parked deuce-and-a-half truck into the helicopter on the pad by them paused long enough to laugh.
"Yeah, you can stay out of our way by staying here," the pilot said after snickering too.
"Real funny," JD said sourly. He straightened his shirt and glared.
"Come back when you're grown up, kid," the pilot told him.
"I'll follow you."
The man in the tiger fatigues drawled, "He can fly?"
A comfortable chuckle escaped the long-haired one.
The racket of a cyclo-pousse distracted them from further taunts as the motorcycle-drawn transport came to stop and disgorged a grizzled man with an AWOL bag in one hand. He climbed out lightly, paid the driver and strolled over.
"Glad you could make it," the blond commented.
"What changed your mind?" the black man asked as the new arrival tossed his bag in the helicopter and joined their efforts at loading.
"Crows? What's that mean?"
"It's a sign."
A long pause greeted that statement.
"Of what, chunk?"
"Josiah has a lovely sense of humor," Tiger-Stripes commented sotto voce to Long-Hair. "He's a lively conversationalist too."
"Sounds like a Jonah."
Tiger-Stripes shrugged. He walked away from the emptied truck and examined JD curiously. Then he raised an eyebrow at the blond.
"Go home, kid," the blond said.
"No," JD said stubbornly.
"Ah, hell, Chris, he's young and proud," the pilot laughed. "Take him. He'll find some way to get in trouble otherwise."
"You can carve it on his tombstone then," Chris snarled.
But he didn't object when JD clambered into the helicopter with the rest of them. A few minutes later, the rotors spun up and the helicopter took off with a shudder that made JD's stomach lurch.
"Too late now, kid," Long-Hair commented.
Tiger-Stripes offered his hand. "Ezra P. Standish, at your service," he declared theatrically. Some of JD's nerves eased. Standish gracefully continued the introductions. "And this fine fellow is Vin Tanner. The rest of our merry band of mercenaries are Major Larabee, our pilot Mr. Wilmington, Doc Jackson, and Josiah Sanchez. They're all in it to save the innocent from the evil, son. Me, I'm just along for the laughs."
"Uh, sure," JD muttered, uncertain how to take the mocking way Standish spoke.
"Indeed, this promises to be a laugh a minute," Standish concluded, subsiding back against several rucksacks stacked against the sidewall of the chopper.
JD managed a sick smile, wondering exactly what he'd gotten into by coming with these men.
Ezra sat back and closed his eyes, ignoring the deafening roar and rattle of the helicopter he rode in. The US Marines had a saying: Never stand when you can sit, never sit when you can lie down and never lie down without going to sleep. He'd been up most of the night putting together arms and kit for six men. Instead of getting back to his apartment and enjoying his comfortable bed, along with a lanky, blue-eyed bedmate, he'd ended up catnapping on top of a pallet of flak jackets.
His new friend Vin had disappeared for a couple of hours, returning with a battle-sighted sniper rifle in a special carry case and a sawed-off shotgun along with the web gear to carry it strapped to his thigh. A Bowie knife and a Browning pistol completed Vin's personal armament.
Ezra had smirked. He could have won good money betting that the tie-dyed hippy was no peacenik.
When he opened his eyes, he caught Josiah staring at him and sighed.
Josiah knew Ezra wouldn't be on this mission for a mere five hundred dollars. Ezra could sit down and win that in a half hour poker game. He dropped that in bribes in a single run up the river. He was a mercenary and blackmarketeer; he never did anything that didn't make him a good profit. That was just who he was, even if Josiah thought different.
The ex-priest had first approached Ezra when he needed supplies and antibiotics - Ezra had made him pay through the nose. He hadn't really believed the medicine would go to the orphans and he wasn't a charity; he'd been curious enough to check out Josiah's orphanage though.
That had been a mistake. All those skinny kids, with their huge dark eyes, fragile features and blinding smiles had got to him. He'd ended up carefully funneling supplies to the orphanage anonymously and kept sending things long after the initial sum Josiah had paid him was gone. Josiah had figured it out but had the grace to keep silent other than inviting Ezra to visit whenever he liked.
But a soft spot for kids did not translate into sticking his neck out without a big payoff in the balance. That was the image he had crafted for himself. Few people ever got close enough to question it and even if they did, they never came close to what else he was. To a great extent he had become the man he pretended to be anyway, living his cover twenty-four/seven.
Josiah was too sharp to miss exactly what Ezra seemed to be and what he was apparently involved in. He surely guessed Ezra had his own agenda in joining this little group of adventurers. Lord, he was no knight errant. More like a knave rampant, he thought to himself. Maybe that was why Josiah had invited himself along after all.
It made Ezra wish he could just find some dark hole, crawl in it and get stoned.
He smiled sourly to himself.
That bit of living his cover would just have to wait.
He wished he could have had that night in bed with Vin Tanner. It didn't seem likely to happen after this. Odds were the man would be dead in a day or two, the frisson of arousal Ezra felt just watching him collapsing down into a fading memory of something that never quite was. Or Ezra might be the one with a toe-tag of his own if his luck ran wrong. Even if he wasn't, Ezra didn't imagine the invitation would still be open after he'd finished his own mission. His life had never worked out like that.
"Twenty men," Vin growled. "Right." He scanned for movement through the Starlight scope he'd brought with his own gear. The scope showed the night in a flat green sight picture. Beyond the perimeter, a bare strip of churned dirt comprised a killzone under his gun sights. On the far side, the triple canopy jungle loomed like a black wall.
The dark seemed to rise up out of the jungle faster than a man could blink once the sun was down.
Beside him, stretched out on his belly, Ezra chuckled. "What did you expect? Everybody lies."
Vin had to agree. They should have expected something. Nha Gi wouldn't have been hiring mercs if it had just been twenty men in the Ghost Legion. Their little forlorn hope had repulsed the first assault, but it had been a near run thing. In the morning, the French renegades would come at them again.
If any of them had had any sense, they'd be exfiltrating the ville during the night, hoping they'd find the helicopter still hidden in one piece where Buck had put it down.
Buck had dropped a grenade into André's command vehicle just before dusk, killing the driver and wounding André, just before the Ghosts pulled back. It had been quiet since then. It wouldn't last.
He sighed, snuggling down into the dirt and keeping his eye on the treeline beyond the zone of churned up, bloodied earth where Ezra's command detonated claymores had stopped André's men on their first approach. First blood. But André hadn't been expecting resistance from the ville. After contact, the Frenchman had rallied his troopers. A long, ugly firefight had ensued.
The Ghosts had howitzers and once they had the range, they began dropping shells on the ville. One had hit the headman's hut. Another had destroyed the ville's unofficial casualty ward adding to the death toll. Others had burned.
Sometime during the first engagement the kid with camera had picked up one of the AK-47s and provided cover fire after Josiah was hit. It had probably saved Buck's ass. One of the Ghosts had made it through the perimeter and seemed set on gutting Buck. The kid put a round through the bastard's head.
They were all a little dinged up. Josiah had it worst, a bullet in his leg that Nathan was digging out now. Ezra had his shoulder dislocated by a close call while they were being shelled, but Nathan snapped it back into place. Buck had taken a couple of nasty slices before the kid interfered and was bandaged up under his stained Aloha shirt. Nha Gi's boy, who had deserted the ARVN to come back, was dead. So was Eban, the other man who had come to Saigon with the headman. Vin and Chris were the closest to healthy, just bruised from being thrown around by explosions and peppered with debris.
That was why Vin had first watch while Chris was covering the other side of the perimeter. Ezra had arrived about a half hour back with a canteen of water and bowl of rice with some kind of fish stew over it.
Vin liked the blackmarketeer. Ezra was educated and urbane and had demonstrated a sneaky streak of nastiness in his ideas for setting up defenses for the ville. The man knew how to set up a booby-trap or an ambush. He'd charmed the locals too, talking to the kids in Vietnamese and French.
"You been in-country a long time, Ezra?" he asked. "Hell, are you even American?"
"But you ain't been back since...?"
"Since I was about... thirteen," Ezra replied eventually. "Mother married the son of a French planter she met in Paris and we came here. They sent me to school in France later."
"Guess you don't care much about getting back to the States then."
"No," Ezra said in a low voice, "it's just another foreign country to me."
Vin fingered his scope and thought about that.
"Not sure I'll recognize it either." He laughed silently. "'Course, if I get killed here it ain't goin' to matter, is it?"
"Is that your version of looking at the bright side?" Ezra sounded amused.
"So, where'd you learn to fight? Can tell you were in someone's army."
"Ran away and joined the Legion d'Etrangere," Ezra said. "I ended up in Algeria just in time for the General's Putsch and the OAS campaign. Truly fucked. Saigon's quiet compared to the FLN and the colons competing to see who could blow up the most bombs in a day."
"So when you got out you came back here? You like it here?"
He heard a soft rustle, the sound of Ezra shrugging.
"Mother was in Vientiane. I decided to visit her and then drifted back to Saigon. It's familiar."
"You going to stay?"
Immediately Vin wished he hadn't asked. If Ezra considered Vietnam home, Vin reminding him that things couldn't go on like they were wouldn't be too welcome.
Ezra settled slightly and further but said nothing. Gradually his breathing evened into a slow, shallow rhythm. Vin let him sleep. Pointless to rouse him. Maybe Ezra couldn't sleep back there in the ville. Vin found his presence pleasant anyway.
Vin kept his eye on the perimeter, listening to the sounds of the jungle and Ezra's soft breathing. A warm sense of something right seeped through him prompted by Ezra's presence beside him.
It felt even better when Ezra shifted and the line his leg pressed against Vin's. Just a brush, but neither of them drew back. Two layers of fatigues between them, but Vin imagined what it would feel like with nothing. It felt right.
After half an hour, Ezra stirred. "I'm going back to the ville," he whispered. He touched Vin's back, fingers warm through sweat sodden cloth. His hand stilled there, sending a tingle along Vin's spine. After a heartbeat, his hand lifted away and he whispered, "Take care, Vin."
Ezra rose and glided away.
Ezra didn't return to the ville. He picked up the rucksack he'd packed and cached in place when they marched into the ville and quietly slipped past a couple of the villagers on watch. It was easy. He made his way through the jungle toward the approximate coordinates Brouchard had given him, eventually finding a narrow path that led to the crumbling face of an ancient temple.
A massive stone Buddha dominated the face of the temple, the stone cracked and stained. The calm face was lost in the blackness of the night, like the heavy vines and jungle plants that had overgrown the rest of the temple, hiding it from an overheard search.
One look told Ezra this temple had never been adorned in gold. Whatever priests and treasures that had belonged to it had gone long, long ago. He estimated it had been abandoned at least a quarter century before, maybe during the Japanese occupation of World War II.
He slid around a writhing twist of waist-thick vines that almost blocked the entrance. Dry leaves crunched under his boots, but he knew the sound wouldn't travel outside the stone walls. If it had, the vines and the jungle muffled sound. No one would hear him.
He trailed his hand along the wall, walking blindly into the absolute blackness of the temple until he came to a turn. Once around the corner, he drew a flashlight from his pack and switched it on. The bright light made his night-adapted eyes tear for a second.
When the afterimages had faded, Ezra proceeded deeper into the temple, searching methodically.
He flinched when he heard the signature sound of claymores going off. He'd left the detonator for the rest of the claymores with Vin. Triggering them meant the Ghosts were attacking again. Instinct and inclination both urged him to return and fight beside the other six men and the besieged villagers. He ignored both.
He continued searching instead, determinedly ignoring the thump of grenades and the mortar barrage that battered the ville, the punctuation of steady arms fire.
One more turn and his dimming flashlight found the crates. Exactly as Brouchard had predicted, based on the old legionnaire's testimony.
Ezra played the yellowing beam of light over the pallet, noting the rotting canvas sliding off the dark wood crates and the heavy layer of dust. He could just make out the stenciling on the crates.
Banque du France Indochine.
He walked over to the crates and set his pack on them, then the flashlight. Using his combat knife, he pried open one of the crates.
The gold ingots, each with the same Banque du France Indochine seal stamped into them, gleamed warm and solid, untouched by time. A fortune stolen in the last days of 1954, while the Viet Minh were fighting the French at Dien Bien Phu. The looted holdings of a French-owned, opium-financed bank, stashed by the soldiers that stole it when they were attacked. More than enough to finance a small army.
Nothing the French government wanted to come to light in the year of our lord 1973, with the Paris Peace Accords signed. Nothing anyone sane wanted falling into the hands of a man like André.
Ezra vaguely wondered if André really thought there was a temple treasure or if he had learned of the looted bank gold from another survivor of that ill-fated French platoon the way his own superior Brouchard had. It didn't matter. Like he'd told Vin, everybody lied.
He pulled out one of the ingots. He'd need proof for Brouchard.
He drew out a compass and his maps and calculated the UTM grid location of the temple, coming up with six digits that specified the location within 100 meters. The ingot went into the pack alongside the heavy PRC77 radio he'd kept hidden from the others.
It was time to di-di-mau.
He shouldered the radio pack, picked up the flashlight and began a hurried exit. The gunfire at the ville had ended. He grimaced. The villagers, the six other mercs, they weren't his responsibility.
Once out of the temple, he slid through the jungle like a ghost himself, not wanting to encounter any of André's men on patrol. He needed a high point to transmit from. When he reached one, he hurriedly assembled and installed the antenna that would normally have waved above the Monster, as the PRC77 was known.
He dialed in the frequency, hoping Brouchard's 'arrangement' with the CIA would be in place. The bored voice that answered took the grid coordinates Ezra relayed, promised Quebec Two Actual that his problem would be solved and advised he might want to remove himself from the area.
Ezra started toward the hidden Air America chopper. He hadn't offered to co-pilot Buck flying in since he didn't want anyone knowing he could handle any sort of aircraft. He'd anticipated extracting himself from the beginning.
Halfway up the trail, he stopped. He heaved a sigh.
"Then there's the third kind," he muttered. "Fuck me." He started back down the trail.
"What the hell happened to Ezra?" Vin demanded. Like the rest of them, he'd been efficiently tied up after they'd finally surrendered.
André's second in command seemed to have some scruples about killing round-eyes. They'd been herded into a small clearing and left with two guards. Only Ezra was missing. Ezra had been missing through the whole engagement.
When the breeze shifted, they could hear someone screaming in the ville and smell smoke, but they were deep back under the triple canopy of the jungle and could see nothing. The jungle smell of earth, greenery and rot mingled with the smoke and their own stench of sweat, fear, cordite and blood. Sunrise had started the temperature climbing again. Even in the shadows of the heavy overgrowth it felt like a sauna, but there was enough light to read each other's faces at last.
The other five men shook their heads.
"Haven't seen him since last night," Buck said. "Could be he decided it was time to di-di." No one had taken time to shave in the last four days and Buck's mustache was starting to merge with his beard.
Vin pressed his lips together. He didn't like to think it, but there had been something about the way Ezra left him the night before. Take care. That sounded a lot like good-bye.
Or maybe he'd decided that he had more in common with André's ex-Legionnaires than the Americans. He's said he'd been in the Legion in Algeria. Must have been bad enough, if he thought Saigon was quiet in comparison.
Hell, Vin didn't know.
"I should've stayed in Boston," the kid, JD, muttered. He kept squirming, trying to find a comfortable position with his hands tied behind his back and his ankles roped together. For a wonder, his camera still hung on a strap around his neck.
"Life's sucks and then you die," Buck opined. He listed to the side, resting his weight against Josiah, who groaned and shifted away.
"Not my bad leg," he griped at Buck.
Buck reluctantly sat up a little straighter. Nathan tried to inch forward so he could see Josiah's leg. Josiah jiggled it, grimacing at the pain, but dislodging Buck's weight. In contrast to JD, Josiah's crucifix was gone, whether lost or deliberately abandoned unknowable.
Gunshots rang from the ville. It wasn't hard to imagine the drill. The Ghosts would be dragging everybody alive out of their hooches, rounding them up in the center of the ville to wait under the guns of the guards and André's mad eyes. Old men, women, children and cripples - the broken detritus of over two decades of war - none of them fit to fight a gnat. The gunshots were just the beginning, a demonstration or two to encourage the rest to stay quiet and cooperative. Not that it would do any good if they were; they'd had the gall to stand up to André, cost the Ghosts casualties and that wouldn't be tolerated. Once André had what he wanted - or gave up on getting it - there would be another volley of shots. He'd raze the ville after finishing the massacre he'd threatened. No one would be left alive.
Vin was almost glad Ezra had bugged out. It was better than the possibility that his body was somewhere back there. Ezra could be dead and they just didn't know it.
Chris glared at their guards. The glare didn't have any effect on them.
The Ghosts fit their name. They were revenants of men, graying, gaunt shadows of the soldiers they'd once been. Their uniforms were ragged and filthy, hanging on them. Looking into their eyes was like looking into the flat, mindless gaze of a shark swimming through the coldest, darkest depths of the ocean. Nothing human left at all. One of them stared back at Chris, a stiff, unreal smile plastered over his hollowed out face, his eyes looking into some distance Vin never wanted to glimpse. The other one stroked his AK-47, murmuring to it, loading and unloading the banana clip the way a Catholic fingers a rosary.
The shot that killed him came in the half-second after the first guard crumpled, timed to the precise second the banana clip was out of the AK-47's receiver.
Ezra materialized out of the jungle, moving with grim speed and purpose. There were cobwebs and dust on his shoulders and in his hair, but he looked fine other than his grim expression. The K-Bar he pulled sliced through their ropes.
"You might want to get their guns, son," he said to JD as he cut him loose. It was the only thing he said.
He freed Chris next then moved to Nathan.
Chris stood up and looked toward the ville.
"They're all crazy," Nathan commented. He too turned toward the village. He rubbed one big hand over his wrist.
"We need to take out André," Chris said. "The rest of them will break if he's gone. We should have ambushed him coming in." He nodded at Ezra.
Ezra snorted a breath out his nose audibly, acknowledgement of his proposal of just that early on. Na Ghi and Chris had objected.
"Vin?" Buck asked. "You're the sniper. You think you could reach out and touch André?"
Vin shrugged. It wasn't anything he hadn't done before. Wasn't even like André didn't need to be taken out. From what he'd seen of the other men, all of them except JD had the skill to get close enough - it wouldn't take a sniper to manage a shot. He'd do it. Long distance killshots were what he did and deliberately shooting someone without warning carried a weight that returning fire in a hot firefight didn't. Some people couldn't handle it.
"We'll need some kind of distraction to get back in the ville and close enough," Chris said.
They were all free now. JD stamped his feet into the dirt, sending up puffs of dust onto his sneakers, trying to reestablish his circulation. Josiah stretched, the vertebra in his back popping audibly.
Ezra glanced at his watch.
"Fifteen minutes and you'll have enough distraction to waltz in wearing nothing but your birthday suit and a clown wig without being noticed," he declared.
They all turned and stared at Ezra. Vin felt a sinking in his stomach.
JD opened his mouth first. "How do you know - "
Chris held up his hand. "Not now. We need to move." He jerked his head toward the trail back to the ville. "Let's finish this."
Buck leveled a hard look at Ezra, but moved out behind Chris. Nathan shrugged and walked past Ezra, followed by JD.
Josiah limped over and touched Ezra's arm. "Thanks for coming back," he said quietly before continuing down the path toward the ville.
Vin stood and watched Ezra. He couldn't read anything from Ezra's expression. Couldn't see more than a gleam of his eyes.
"Well?" Ezra asked finally. "No comment?"
"Why did you come back?" he asked.
"I - I really don't know," Ezra replied softly, falling into step just behind Vin.
Buck heard them first. Being a pilot, he was geared to listen for aircraft. He knew the typical sound of them all, from a Chinook to a B-52. This was a familiar jet engine howl.
He glanced at his watch and whistled silently. Fifteen minutes on the button. He saw Chris's head jerk up as he heard too, followed by Vin and Nathan.
"Right on time," Ezra murmured.
"Buck?" Chris asked softly.
They were infiltrating the ville, trying to get a line on André.
"Fast movers," Buck breathed back. "F-4s."
The Phantoms streaked down over the jungle, nose down until they dropped their payload. The boom that followed them was lost in an ear-shattering explosion. The earth heaved under their feet as the bombs launched from the jets hit. Each Phantom dropped a pair of five hundred pound bombs. They detonated in a pinpointed volley.
The jets leveled out then accelerated upward and away. The familiar roundels painted on the tail identified them as US planes, probably flying out of Udorn, and whatever reason they were over Vietnam when officially the US wasn't conducting military ops anymore... they weren't hanging around to see the results of the airstrike. Afterburners lit and a minute later they were gone, dark dots disappearing against the pale glare of the morning sky.
Flames, dirt and shattered stone - along with shredded bits of jungle - smashed into the sky and tumbled down. Trees thick around as barrels were tossed into the air like snapped matchsticks.
Some of the villagers were screaming in fear, terrified the F4s' bombing run had presaged worse to come. The Ghosts were staring in the explosions' direction.
"Shee-it, yeah," Vin exclaimed, wide-eyed. "That'll distract 'em."
The F4s were already long gone, the destruction they'd wreaked complete. Buck scratched his neck, wondering what the target had been. No way were they lost, not when Ezra had predicted the bombing run to the minute. He gave Ezra a cautious look. The man was dialed in somewhere, running his own game; he hadn't called in a fucking airstrike to cover their asses.
Buck shrugged. So Ezra was some kind of black ops spook. They were a dime a dozen in this war. Hell, he flew for Air America - that made him the next thing to an Agency man. Didn't mean nothing when you were in the shit- all that mattered was if you could trust the man at your back.
"Fuck, Ezra, if an airstrike is your idea of diversion, I don't want find out what happens when you get serious," Buck joked.
Ezra smirked. "You might be surprised, Mr. Wilmington."
Buck rubbed the back of his neck and shook his head. "Nope, hoss, not anymore."
Chris interrupted. "All right, move out. Buck, you and the kid. Josiah with me. Ezra... cover Vin. Nathan, see if you can take out the guard where they've got the kids stashed."
The seven men met each other's eyes and moved forward to take advantage of the moment.
Vin snaked around the corner of one the surviving hooches, crawling on his knees and elbows, rifle in his hands. His job was to target André. The others would shoot as many of the Ghosts as they could. A pencil thin snake, green as a Granny Smith apple, slithered away from him and he froze until it was out of sight.
He reached his post and searched out André. The gaunt French colonel stood over Nha Gi's crumpled form. He held a pistol in his hand and screamed at the sky. His long gray hair whipped in the wind.
Vin snuggled the stock of his rifle to his shoulder. He thumbed the selector to single shot. He waited a five count, giving the others time to reach their places. They wouldn't open fire until he took his shot. He took a deep breath and set the sight on André's chest.
André was still ranting. He aimed the pistol at Nha Gi.
"Where is it? Where is the temple? Where is the gold!?"
Vin squeezed the trigger, smooth and steady, letting his body go loose to absorb the recoil. He fired again even as his first shot hit. André jerked at the double impacts. The second bullet had caught him in the throat and blood poured over his chest. Distantly, Vin was aware the others had opened fire too. He watched as André clutched at his chest, dropped the pistol, and finally fell.
Then unbelievably, the man clawed across the dirt, trying to reach the fallen pistol.
He just wouldn't die.
Vin put a bullet through his head.
Slowly, the gunfire eased up. One of the Ghosts scrambled over to André's body. He bent close for a moment then lifted his head and yelled in French, "Cease fire, cease fire!" Then in Vietnamese, "Dung lai, dung lai!" Stop, stop. He pulled a dirty piece of pale cloth from inside his uniform blouse and held it up. "Surrender! We surrender!"
Chris shouted next.
The other six had already paused, even before his order.
"Throw down your guns!" Chris commanded. "Throw down your guns and step away!"
The Ghosts obeyed.
Everyone waited in the awkward silence that followed. Then a ragged chicken flew squawking back into the center of the ville. As though that was the signal, everyone emerged from cover.
Josiah limped over to André's body and murmured, "The bastard just wouldn't go down." He crossed himself and began reciting a prayer.
Nathan joined him. "The way he was eating opium, he was probably too stoned to realize he was shot."
The others made their way out of cover to the open center of the ville. They watched the remaining Ghosts warily, but the old soldiers had set down their arms and seemed aimless without André to egg them on.
"The war's over!" Chris shouted at them. "Get out of here! Go home!"
Ezra leaned back against the bamboo side of a hooch and laughed, long and hard and bitter.
The officer that had called the cease fire spoke up.
"It's over. The colonel's dead. It's finished now." He glanced at Chris, nodded, and walked away.
Some of the Ghosts looked uncertain, but only a few hesitated before following the remaining officer into the jungle.
The villagers began creeping out of whatever cover they'd found during the firefight. They seemed dazed, but began picking up the wreckage, trying to put their home back together.
Nathan handed Nha Gi to his feet then hustled over to a thin teenage girl with a bloody gash across her face.
JD took a picture of the body in the bare dirt. He cranked the film forward to the next frame, but just stood looking down, the camera ignored in his hands. Finally, he let it drop back to his chest. He turned and looked at the smoke and dirt still hanging in the air the bombs had hit.
"Anyone know what the hell happened here?" he asked no one in particular.
"Ezra," Josiah replied. "But don't expect he'll ever tell us."
Chris glanced down at André's body, and then sent a sharp look at Ezra, who had slung his rifle over his shoulder and was doing card tricks for a gaggle of kids that had appeared out of nowhere.
"It all worked out in the end."
Buck strolled over and slapped Chris's shoulder. "Hey, stud. We got him."
Chris almost smiled.
"We got him."
They humped out of the ville on a trail that - just before sunset - took them close enough to see the bomb craters through the breaks gouged in the jungle foliage. Huge chunks of stone were tumbled over each other in a great pile of rubble. Gradually they realized they were seeing the remains of the temple André had been hunting. Sunset painted the rubble with scarlet light.
The seven men paused and stared.
The building was gone. Yet, curiously, one massive Buddha still loomed upright, serenely untouched by the devastation. A long crack ran down the stone face like the mark of a tear track.
JD snapped a series of pictures. The dust in the air looked like burning gold.
Vin touched Ezra's shoulder. "This what you were here for?"
Ezra flinched at his touch. "Something like that," Ezra admitted.
Sweat trickled down his sides from his armpits. Now they'd demand to know why the temple had to be destroyed. They'd want to know what was there... In the way of men, fallible, greedy men, they would want the gold too. He waited for the question and jolted when it wasn't what he expected.
"André?" Chris asked.
"That was the rest of it."
"Why?" Buck asked, sounding genuinely curious.
"There are still 15,000 French here," Ezra said quietly. "They'll still be here after the US is gone and the South falls. How would they be treated if André had gone on with his crusade?"
Buck finally nodded. "I can see that. But how'd you know the temple was really out here?"
Ezra smiled and didn't answer. He should have killed them all back there when he could blame it on the Ghosts. Then no one but he would have known where the temple had stood. He hadn't been able to turn his back and keep walking though. He looked at them, battered but still upright, imbued with a special pride that wasn't seen often in this place - the pride of having done right - and couldn't regret his choice. It wasn't a feeling a man like him was supposed ever to have, but he shared it with them today.
"Ask a dumb question," Vin gibed as he headed past Buck. They'd need to hurry to make the chopper's hiding place before full dark.
The others filed past.
Buck slapped the boonie hat JD had picked up somewhere off. "Come on, kid. I'd say we busted your cherry pretty good here. When we get back to Saigon, we'll find us some boom-boom and bust your other one too."
JD's outraged yelp was followed by Buck's laughter.
Ezra looked back at the Buddha a last time, knowing the jungle would reclaim it within a year, closing over the wound of the bombing until even the scar couldn't be found. Any of these six men could find it, if they wanted. They wouldn't.
He sketched a two-fingered salute to the Buddha and walked on.
Ezra had an apartment in a building on Tu Do Street, not far from the Blue Rose Night Club. It was three stories up in a French Colonial building. The plastered ceilings were high. French doors opened onto an iron-railed balcony from the main room and the bedroom. From there the river was visible. Originally, it must have been light and airy; the ceiling white, the walls an ivory yellow. But the paint had faded and cracked and a water stain that resembled the outline of Texas had formed on the ceiling. Everything looked tired.
The furniture was a mixture, spindly French chairs, a modern couch with sharp angles and burnt orange upholstery, little black lacquered tables that looked like a geisha should have come with them, and bamboo and rattan pieces with tattered cushions. A faded Persian carpet with the nape worn away at the center covered the floor. A record player sat on a chrome-and-Formica table shoved against one wall, cartons of records sat under it, a poster of Raquel Welch in a fur bikini tacked to the wall above it.
A polished teak tantalus at the opposite wall held an assortment of liquors, French brandy, Scotch, Tennessee mash, ceramic bottles of saki. The vodka was in the small refrigerator in the bachelor's kitchen at the back of the apartment, along with a silver monstrosity Ezra claimed was a samovar smuggled out of the Tsar's summer palace by White Russian refugees and pawned in Shanghai.
The apartment smelled like sandalwood, cigarettes, coffee and the fragrant memory of lemon polish. Underneath, like the whiff of corruption that couldn't be escaped anywhere in the country, was the faint scent of mold and gun oil. Periodically, it smelled like sex, but the scent dissipated out the open windows.
Four different fans balanced on piles of books through the rooms, stirring the somnolent air, humming and creaking as they oscillated back and forth.
Vin had teken to spending more time there than his own rathole rooms for many reasons, not the least of which being the safety factor. Ezra's connections insured no one would dream of breaking in to chance catching a man, even a deserter wanted for murder. Ezra never seemed to mind. He might spend days lazing about the apartment, then disappear for weeks, only to return without any explanation. Vin knew better than to ask questions; what Ezra wanted him to know, he told him.
He'd caught a ride back into Saigon with Ezra when they returned from Nha Gi's village. Neither of them had said anything. Ezra had just brought them back to the warehouse and then let Vin follow him back to the apartment for the first time.
Vin had pinned him against the door the instant they were inside. Ezra let him and Vin knew it, he felt the muscle under Ezra's clothes and knew he could have fought. He fucked Ezra there, fast and desperate, without doing more than shoving their pants down. When he was done, he yanked up his pants and got ready to leave.
Ezra gathered his own pants up and pushed himself away from the door, moving a little stiffly as he walked into the living room. "Well," he drawled, "did that take the edge off?"
Vin grunted. "Yeah. Guess I'll see you."
Ezra swung around. His eyes narrowed. "Oh, no. We're not done yet." He dropped on the orange couch and began unlacing his boots. When he had them off, he dropped his pants and boxers and stripped out of his T-shirt.
Vin froze, staring at him. "Wha-what?"
Ezra walked over to him, suddenly naked, unconcerned. He caught Vin's hand and tugged him into the room. "This time we do it my way."
Ezra's way was slow and delirious and addictive. After the first week, Vin stopped telling himself it was just sex, because it was more than he'd ever had with any other man. Better than he'd ever had with any woman, too.
Despite himself, he settled in. No words or promises passed between them, but he knew it was more for Ezra as well. They worked well together, them and the others. Between the strange jobs that took them into the jungle and across the border into Cambodia and Laos, they spent time together, growing comfortable, growing used to a companionship neither of them had allowed before.
Vin worried, knowing it wouldn't last.
Ezra's skin was fair and sleek and tinted with gold. He'd lie on the bed, the sheets kicked to the floor, ghost shadows moving over his back as the fans rippled the soft gray mosquito netting. Vin would stroke his fingers along that smooth skin, following the phantoms of light, tracing the dense muscle beneath, and Ezra would stretch under his touch. He'd murmur in French, soft incomprehensible words, languid and pleased as a cat.
"Vin," Ezra murmured quietly, "who are you hiding from?"
Vin went still.
"You figure I'm hiding?" he asked.
He'd told Larabee his story months ago, but not Ezra. He wasn't sure why. Ezra wouldn't use it against him. Vin knew that; Ezra had his own code. Not a code that most folks back in the World would have approved of, but one that worked in this time and place. Ezra didn't believe in country or ideology, just profit and pleasure, but he was loyal and equal parts mischievous and kind.
"Hmn," Ezra mumbled. He twisted his head to the side and opened his eyes to look at Vin. Pale cool jade eyes that were like no one else's. One hand slipped over the sheet and brushed along the line of Vin's neck. His lips turned up at the corners, but his expression was more melancholy than a smile.
"It's okay, Vin, you don't have to say anything."
"Ez - "
Vin's protest died as Ezra closed the distance between them. He opened his mouth to Ezra's, laid back and let his lover slowly - maddeningly - map his body with caresses while they kept kissing. Ezra's mouth was slick, welcoming and demanding, his tongue playing with Vin's, drawing him into the kiss until all else faded from his consciousness. Before Ezra, Vin's encounters with men had been fast and hard, hurried, ashamed, satisfying a need he knew he should keep hidden. Ezra liked to linger, to draw out the pleasure slow and sweeter than honey, and seemed to have none of that shame. Not in his body and not for his actions, not for wanting another man.
Closed away in the apartment above Tu Do Street, Vin forgot his own inhibitions too.
That was in the apartment. Because Ezra was discreet. Ezra was too cautious to be obvious; Ezra was full of secrets, hiding what he didn't want others to see, showing what he shared with Vin only with Vin out of self-protection. So he made it easy for Vin. He didn't ask to reveal their relationship to anyone.
Vin thought Buck might have figured it out. Buck was nosey and smart enough to figure it out and he had sex on the brain anyway. Vin laughed. If someone cut open Buck's skull they'd probably find one side of his brain humping the other. Nothing had been or would be said though: Buck didn't disapprove, not like the others might. Larabee in particular didn't and couldn't know; Vin wasn't prepared to risk that bad reaction.
Ezra's hands were as clever and smooth as Vin had thought the first time he saw him. They slid over his shoulders and down his chest, pausing once with a palm pressed over his heart. Ezra rippled his fingers over Vin's ribs next. Vin caught his breath, almost laughing, the sensation just on the verge of tickling, but not. As Ezra's hands trailed down, stroking over Vin's flank, the skin he'd passed over tingled. A flush heated Vin's entire body as his arousal strengthened.
Vin shaped his hands to cup Ezra's shoulders as he ducked down and began lapping at Vin's nipples. The skin over his body seemed to tighten everywhere, not just his nipples. A shiver ran through him as Ezra drew back and blew on one nipple, the contrast of hot breath on wet skin transforming it to cold. Then Ezra drew the nipple back into his mouth, scraping his teeth delicately over the areola then sucking. Vin's spine bowed as he pushed his chest closer.
He lost track as Ezra's hands slid lower, tracing patterns around his navel, then down again over his pelvis and inward.
"Ez," he gasped. "Ez, Ez."
Ezra didn't look up. His fingers traced the sparse hairs gathering into a line and followed, lighting Vin's skin on fire. The muscles in his thighs twitched. He spread his legs wider on the bed and the sheet under them slipped loose, a wrinkle catching under his calf. The sound of afternoon traffic echoed up from Tu Do Street. The tension gathered itself in his balls and he could feel his heartbeat in his cock. It felt almost too hard, as though the thin skin couldn't stretch any tauter.
Vin propped himself up on his elbows and watched avidly as Ezra slid down between his outstretched legs, tracing a path down the center of Vin's torso with just the tip of his tongue. His dilated eyes were turned up, watching Vin's face.
Vin bucked his hips, nudging his erection against Ezra's chin. Ezra chuckled. Vin moaned deep in his throat at the sensation of his cockhead slipping against the underside of Ezra's jaw. Ezra stayed clean shaven, but there was still the faintest, teasing rasp of beard against his glans. The sensation hovered between exquisite and unbearable.
"That's - that's - "
"Not as good as this," Ezra murmured wickedly. He bent his head, flicked his tongue against the slit then confidently took the head in his mouth. Just the head, applying the most delicate suction. Hell and heaven.
Vin groaned and fought the need to shove himself as deep into Ezra's mouth as he could go. It only got worse as Ezra began using his tongue.
"More," Vin choked out huskily.
Ezra obliged, taking Vin in deeply.
Vin clutched a handful of sheet in one hand. His other found Ezra's head. His fingers glided through the shiny strands of russet-tinged brown hair. It was shaved short at the nape, darker there, softer than velvet. Vin rubbed his fingertips there, making Ezra almost purr.
He let his hand move down and rest over the back of Ezra's bent neck, feeling the muscles move as Ezra swallowed, the feeling around his cock so tight and good he had to fight to breathe. His eyes closed for a second as he tried not to come right then.
"So good," he rasped out. "You're so good. Fuck. Fu -uck."
Vin managed to open his eyes again. The picture of Ezra kneeling naked between his outstretched legs - pale silk skin stretched over muscle and bone, ass round and lush and firm, the curve of his spine bare and erotically submissive - sent another stab of pleasure through him. God, it looked like he was a slave, like he was praying; those thoughts were all wrong, but they buzzed through Vin like an addictive drug.
"Take it," he demanded. "Take me all the way." Excitement made his voice harsh, the words fast with need.
Ezra played his hands up and down Vin's thighs, from knee to the crease between leg and groin. He teased Vin's balls with just the barest brush of his fingertips. Vin tried to thrust harder and Ezra pressed one hand down on his hip. Not forcefully - the touch was just a reminder. He laid his arm there, across Vin's hips like a bar. A vein along his forearm stood up in relief against the clenched muscle, the clearest indication that this wasn't just a languorous and vaguely pleasant activity to Ezra, that he was aroused and riding the edge of his own control. Vin pushed himself deeper into Ezra's mouth despite the weight of his arm.
"Je -sus, Je-sus, fu-uck," Vin panted.
He pressed his hand against the back of Ezra's neck. Ezra picked up speed, his mouth sliding up and down Vin's cock, tongue pressing up against the underside each time he drew back, lips tight over his teeth as his opened and drew Vin's shaft deeper each time, sucking, swallowing. Ezra let him sink in all the way to the base. He could feel the air from Ezra's nostrils exhale into the hair there. That tiny added sensation, the thought of what it was, the vision of Ezra's dark head there, of himself so deep in Ezra's mouth, pushed Vin past the edge.
His mind went white, streaked with blinding pleasure with each pulse as he came in Ezra's mouth.
Ezra pulled back just enough to swallow without choking, drawing out Vin's orgasm to the edge of too much. Then he pulled away as Vin felt his body unclench.
Vin looked at Ezra as he sat back up. His eyes were hot and dark, a thin ring of green left around his pupils. His mouth looked bruised and swollen. He was breathing harder than Vin, his entire body flushed pink, and his erection was wet and reddened with frustration and excitement. A drop of Vin's come had escaped the corner of his mouth.
Vin stretched his hand out and brushed it away, then caressed Ezra's lip slowly. His muscles felt too shaky to support him, but he caught Ezra's wrist with his other hand and drew him down beside him on the bed. Then he let go and found Ezra's cock with that hand.
He began stroking slowly. Ezra rocked his hips, showing him the rhythm he wanted.
"Please," Ezra whispered finally.
Vin felt his mouth curl into a smile. Ezra never expected more than Vin wanted to do, but he liked a good blowjob just as much as Vin did. He rolled onto his belly, turning crossways on the bed and rested his head on Ezra's belly. He kept his hand locked around Ezra's cock, rubbing his thumb over the slick head.
Ezra moaned and hitched his hips forward. Vin grinned and went down on him. Ezra's regular, breathless babble of French and Viet and who knew what other languages began. It was almost soundless, broken and incoherent and soft as Ezra's hand. Vin wasn't as talented at this as Ezra and Ezra was thick enough that his jaw started aching soon, but Ezra was close. Vin worked his arm under Ezra's back and stroked there, then down between his cheeks, feeling Ezra's muscles clench hard, and found the smooth skin just behind his balls. He pressed firmly. Ezra's body bowed off the bed and Vin pulled away, replacing his mouth with his other hand as Ezra came.
A stripe of come splashed his cheek followed by another painted over Ezra's abdomen and his hand. Vin stroked Ezra until he collapsed back against the bed, panting and spent.
"Merci," Ezra murmured.
"You saying thanks or asking me to go easy on you next time?" Vin asked.
A satisfied smile graced Ezra's features. He looked as relaxed and open as Vin ever saw him. He swirled a desultory finger through the wetness on his belly and laughed.
"Both. I'm a mess."
Vin pulled the loose sheet over and wiped them both off.
"Mrs. Po sees those sheets, you know," Ezra remarked.
Vin shrugged and got up, padding across the room to the doorway into the bathroom. The floor felt cool and slightly sticky beneath his bare, sweaty feet.
Mrs. Po was a widow who ran a laundry. She insisted on taking care of Ezra and Vin's things and even Larabee's uniforms. A contract engineer working for the government had shot her husband in a drunken rampage. No one had been willing to do anything to Senator James' son. Larabee had stood up to the man, backed up by the rest of their little group. Ezra had orchestrated a scam that resulted in Lucas James' arrest and the Senator paying for Mrs. Po's new business. Vin had no doubt the petite woman would figure things out about him and Ezra, but he knew she would never do anything to hurt Ezra.
Ezra knew it too. Otherwise he'd do his own laundry, menial labor or not.
He got the water running from the showerhead that had been added to the old-fashioned clawfoot tub. The plumbing dated back to the apartment building's original existence as a rich planter's townhouse. The water came on with a loud clank from the pipes.
Vin leaned against the wall and scratched his thigh, waiting for the water to heat.
Ezra joined him after the water had run long enough to warm and they soaped and rinsed each other off languidly.
Vin closed his eyes as Ezra washed his hair. Their bodies pressed and slid wetly against each other until they were both ready to go back to bed again, where Vin buried himself deep in Ezra.
The bedroom smelled of musk and arousal, the scent caught in the sheets, in the air, in the curtains of mosquito netting that blurred everything beyond the confines of the bed. In that enclosed world there was only the rustle of the sheets, the whisper of skin on skin, a suck, a sigh, and sweat slick slipping of flesh on flesh.
He stroked into Ezra over and over, hands tight at his hips, making him moan, beyond words, pushing back against Vin in the same rhythm. He pushed in and out, sweat running down his chest to drop onto the width of Ezra's back. He bit his lip as he came closer and closer, wanting to send Ezra over first, wanting that hot clench around his cock to finish him, and grunted gutturally as Ezra gave a harsh cry and came. He kept moving, grunting with each thrust as he rode out Ezra's long, drawn-out climax. As Ezra slumped face down into the sheets, Vin's orgasm burned through him. His body locked up then went limp in the aftermath.
He managed to withdraw from Ezra and flop over on his back. Ezra mumbled something into the mattress. Vin was too exhausted to care and let his eyes fall shut. Beside him, he heard Ezra's breath even out as he dropped off to sleep. Vin let himself follow.
He sprawled on the couch the next morning, sipped Ezra's good coffee and decided to answer Ezra's question from the night before. A radio played softly in the kitchen, the BBC news report. He'd pulled on a pair of jeans after rolling out of bed and nothing else. The morning sun splashed across his bare feet.
Ezra wandered in from the kitchen, already dressed in his tan tropical suit. He was neat, shaved, and carrying a cup of coffee along with a plate with a croissant picked up from the patisserie down the street. He handed it to Vin with a smile and sat in one of the Louis the whatever chairs, picking up the morning copy of Chinh Luan[ii] where it rested on top of the Saigon Post.
"You wanted to know, Ez?" Vin said suddenly.
Ezra looked up from the newspaper, faintly surprised. His eyebrows raised. "Oh." He shrugged. "I thought it might be helpful."
"Knowledge is power or something like that."
Vin tore a piece of croissant off, but just looked at it. "You want power over me?"
Ezra folded the newspaper precisely and set it beside his coffee cup. He didn't look at Vin. His shoulders were tense, but his hands were still and his face expressionless when he looked up. His harsh denial still hung in the air, embarrassing him and shaming Vin.
"Sorry, I know you don't," Vin blurted.
The look Ezra cast him couldn't be interpreted, beyond a sense of skepticism.
"Vin, I just - it's better to be prepared," he said.
He nibbled the piece of croissant and chased it down with the coffee.
Ezra looked at him, waiting patiently.
"Hell," he muttered.
"I have no interest in hearing anything you don't wish to share," Ezra stated.
The first crack had opened between them, a thin line that could widen into an uncrossable chasm. It was as simple as Ezra picking up the newspaper again and returning to his reading.
Vin set the plate aside. He stared at Ezra. "The Army wants me for murder. I wasn't letting anyone lock me up, so I deserted."
Ezra blinked at him while Vin waited.
Ezra licked his bottom lip. "Details?"
Vin snorted. He should have known Ezra wouldn't react to that. "You ain't going to ask if I did it?"
"If you did, you had a sound reason."
His stomach did a little twist and tumble. Larabee had accepted Vin's innocence. Ezra didn't care about Vin's innocence. He didn't know which reaction was more daunting.
"I was set up." He rubbed the back of his neck, thinking back on it. "Shit, you know what I do. Sniping. The Army had me working with a bunch of spooks out of Phoenix, including a guy named Eli Joe. I started seeing things that weren't right, started getting the idea some of the missions we went on weren't exactly on the up-and-up, so I went to my captain. Captain Kincaid started an investigation. Next thing I know, I get back in from the bush and some MPs are waiting. Someone rolled a grenade into Cpt. Kincaid's hooch. He was dead and they'd pinned it on me."
Ezra nodded. "Effectively ending any investigation of Eli Joe's activities while discrediting any testimony from you, yes?"
"Yeah, that's how I figure it," Vin admitted. "I slipped the MPs while they were taking me to Con Son Prison. Didn't figure I'd last long there. Been on the run since."
"I can get you papers, a passport in a new name," Ezra said. His expression brightened as he thought out the details. "When you get out, Mexico is the best bet. You can re-enter the US from there on another passport with a permanent ID. As long as you stay away from places where you're known as Vin Tanner, you'll never have a problem." He paused and chuckled. "It is Vin Tanner, right?"
"Yeah, and it's staying Tanner," Vin snapped. He got to his feet and stalked over to the French doors open onto the balcony in agitation. "My mama never had much, but she told me that as long as my name was Tanner I had something to be proud of. I ain't changing it. I ain't pretending to be anyone else for anything or anyone!"
"I wasn't suggesting you change who you are," Ezra said reasonably. "Merely that you assume a touch of protective coloration. A rose would smell as sweet were it called something else."
"Don't feed me that philosophical bullshit you like to shovel with Josiah and Nathan, Ezra," Vin replied. "You want me to use another name. You want me to run."
"I want to help."
"Asking me to become someone else ain't helping."
"You think you wouldn't be yourself just because you used a different name? You're stronger than that."
Vin just shook his head. Ezra didn't understand. He didn't understand Ezra. A man's name was too important to just toss away. He wasn't going to run and hide like a rabbit all his life. He'd find Eli Joe one of these days, get the truth out of him and clear his name. Ezra acted like he could just call himself something else and move on.
"I got my pride, damn it!" he snarled.
It made Vin angrier that Ezra hadn't left his seat. He just sat there, talking in his calm voice. A faint flush colored his cheeks, though.
"You certainly have that," Ezra replied. "It will be a great comfort when you're rotting in a military prison because you wouldn't let me help."
"What the hell can you do?" Vin demanded scornfully. "You going to find Eli Joe for me? Prove I'm innocent? You're too busy making money, Ezra. That's all you care about."
Ezra's lips parted, some sharp reply on his tongue, but he stopped. His lashes veiled his eyes briefly, lifting to reveal them cool and detached once more. "As you say, Vin."
He picked up his cup, carried it into the kitchen and returned. Standing in the middle of the living room he added, "I have a business engagement. After that there are matters I need to deal with in Vientiane. If you want..."
"Buck can leave any messages for me at the Purple Porpoise[iii]. I'll try to check in," Ezra finished without inflection.
"Yeah, whatever," Vin said. He felt tired and mad and frustrated because Ezra wouldn't fight with him. Worse, he didn't even understand why he wanted to fight with Ezra. "I'll - I'll be around. You might run into Larabee. He said something about doing sit-reps for the consulate."
"I'll watch out," Ezra said cryptically. He retrieved a briefcase from a locking cabinet, along with a snub-nosed revolver that went into a shoulder holster under his suit coat, then left. As always, he moved quietly and shut the door silently behind him.
Vin flopped down on the couch and stared moodily at the drying croissant and the coffee cup leaving an ugly, pale ring on the lacquered table. The newspapers had slithered off and lay scattered over the rug. The BBC gave way to music and he sighed as he listened.
'I watched you suffer a dull aching pain
Now you decided to show me the same
No sweeping exits or offstage lines
Could make me feel bitter or treat you unkind.'
Wild horses couldn't drag me away
Wild, wild horses, couldn't drag me away.'[iv]
"Look, Vin, I fly into Phnom Penh every day, I pick up the customer, I fly 'em wherever the hell they want, hope there aren't hostiles at both ends of whatever's passing for an LZ or an airstrip, then get out," Buck explained. "If I'm in a chopper, I cross my fingers nothing will take me over the Plain of Jars. I hit two places before lunch, then fuel up and keep going the rest of the day, before flying back to Tan Son Nhut. I haven't been through Wattay in weeks. The Mekong flooded and there's three feet of water on the runway."
"Yeah, I'd buy that," Vin agreed, "but I know you Air America guys just taxi right through it."
"So we've all got brass big ones, but that still doesn't change that I personally have not been through Vientiane in weeks," Buck agreed. His gaze wondered from Vin to the redhead he'd picked up out of the Hopewell fact-finding committee. Lucy. Louisa. Buck was completely enamored of her and no help at all.
Vin had no idea if Ezra had left any word with the ex-pat Brit who ran the Purple Porpoise.
With a snort of disgust, Vin left Buck and joined Larabee and Josiah at one of the Blue Rose's tables. Larabee poured him a shot from his bottle of bourbon and pushed it over.
"No luck?" Josiah asked sympathetically.
Vin grunted. "Who knows? He hasn't been there." He waved at the redhead. "Buck's too busy getting laid."
"Ezra can take care of himself," Larabee stated. He poured himself a shot and tossed it back.
Vin joined him, downing his shot. Josiah finished his beer and waved for another. Larabee emptied the current bottle into his and Vin's glasses. They'd finish another bottle, two if Nathan and JD joined them, before curfew shut them down. Vin knew Larabee would go home and work on whatever he had stashed.
They'd get drunk and back in the World, they'd be called drunks, but the booze made things bearable here. In the morning, they'd get up, swallow some aspirin and keep functioning. The only ones who didn't get plastered every night were Ezra and Buck - twelve hours bottle to throttle - or JD if he'd scored some hash.
Ezra preferred opium.
Which scared the shit out of Vin when he thought about it. Ezra might be in Vientiane - where it was legal - right now, zoned on opium and getting his blowjobs from one of the girls at Madame Lulu's Rendezvous des Amies. After Vin's cool farewell Ezra wouldn't be in any hurry to come back.
"Ezra will return when he's ready," Josiah said. "If he'd needed to contact you, he would manage it. He's very resourceful."
Vin fiddled with his beer. That was the problem. It had been four weeks. He was starting to think Ezra wasn't coming back. Or he was waiting until Vin left.
Josiah finished another beer, got unsteadily to his feet, and clapped Larabee and Vin both on their shoulders. He swayed. "Curfew coming, brothers. I have to get back to Cholon."
"G'night, Josiah," Vin told him.
Larabee managed a grunt and a nod.
When Josiah had gone, Vin spun his empty shot glass and asked, "You heard anything about Eli Joe?"
Larabee lifted his eyes from the scarred and stained tabletop.
"Fuck all, Vin. What pull I've got doesn't reach the Agency. You know they cover each other's asses, no matter what dirty shit they pull."
It was no more than Vin already knew.
"Don't mean we won't catch up with the sonovabitch," Larabee added grimly. "We'll get your name cleared." He laughed a little drunkenly. "Or die trying."
Vin wondered if it wouldn't be the latter. Every day the tension ratcheted higher in the streets. He figured if something didn't change, the south had another year before it collapsed. He didn't have any ideas about what to do if he was still in Vietnam when that happened.
The sweet reek of opium smoke filled the apartment when Vin let himself inside. He froze.
The sound of a gun uncocking brought his head around in time to see Ezra lowering his pistol. He stared.
Ezra looked awful and good. His skin was tanned, but he'd lost too much weight. His chestnut hair was too long; Ezra didn't wear it that way - but Vin liked it. There were no secret smiles in his eyes. The green looked mossy and clouded. A faint frown pinched his brows together. Vin wanted to smooth it away.
"Vin," he acknowledged. He flipped the safety on and set the gun on a side table.
"Hey." Vin swallowed hard. He wanted to step forward and take Ezra in his arms but something about him kept him standing in place. He waved his hand in the air, stirring phantom smoke. "Kind of thick in here."
Ezra merely blinked at him tiredly.
"It's just O."
"Yeah, I know," Vin said. "You never smoked it in here before."
Ezra flinched and opened his mouth to say something. The bathroom door opened and a girl walked out, legs bare under one of Ezra's olive-drab T-shirts. She was delicately made, barely developed, exquisitely expressionless as she observed Vin from dark, alien eyes and then dismissed him from her world. She walked unsteadily to the orange couch and sank down there. Her hands were shaking but practiced as she expertly drew a ball of opium from a small tin box sitting on the table before her, set it in the green glass ashtray there, and lit it with a stainless steel Zippo.
She leaned forward to inhale to smoke, long crow-black hair falling onto the table, black on black, two curtains to catch the smoke. Her eyes closed, long dark lashes laying over porcelain skin. She had a perfect, pale oval face - Cambodian or Chinese not Vietnamese - luminous with the fragility of a flame nearly burnt out. Her lips turned up in a dreamy smile as the smoke twisted sinuously up to her.
"Jesus, Ez," Vin murmured. The bones at her wrists and elbows threatened to piece the skin. "How old is she?"
Ezra gave him a tired look then walked into the kitchen. Vin followed. "Ezra?"
"Fourteen?" Ezra shrugged. "The man selling said she was sixteen." He opened the refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of beer, passing it to Vin and taking one for himself.
"You bought her?"
Ezra opened the beer and took a swallow. Vin watched his throat work, feeling a stir in his groin despite himself. It had been weeks. He watched as Ezra rubbed his bloodshot eyes with his thumb and index finger.
"I won her in a poker game."
"You fucking her?"
"She's a fucking kid."
"There's younger than her working the brothels."
"So?" Ezra said flatly.
"So why she's here?" Vin demanded.
"Should I have left her there?"
Ezra met Vin's gaze then looked past him through the doorway to the girl, who was swaying faintly over the ashtray. He looked detached and disappointed. He looked wistful.
"I don't even know where there is," Vin snapped.
"God, Vin, does it matter?" Ezra asked. He walked out of the kitchen.
"Yeah - no - what are you going to do with her?" Vin exclaimed angrily, trailing after him into the bedroom. The girl never looked up.
"Her name is Li Pong and she's hasn't got anyone or anywhere else to go. She's addicted to opium. I can get it for her... She'll die without someone to take care of her."
"No shit. Great." Vin sat down on the edge of the bed. "So that's it? I should just get out of here, right?"
Ezra had begun stripping out of his dirty clothes. He stopped and stared at Vin. "What?"
"Don't tell me she didn't offer," Vin said bitterly. "And don't tell me you didn't want to - "
Ezra dropped his jacket on the floor.
"I don't fuck children." He narrowed his eyes. "You think being a faggot makes me a child molester?" His voice didn't raise, but Vin shivered under its lash. "You've had your cock in my mouth and my ass, so what does that make you?"
"I ain't - "
" - What? You've never taken it up the ass so you aren't like me? Newsflash, Vin, you're a cocksucking faggot too."
"I never said - "
"You've never said a lot, Vin, but you've made what you think pretty damn clear," Ezra interrupted again.
"I ain't going to listen to this," Vin said dully. He got up. "I don't need it."
Ezra nodded jerkily. "No, you don't, Mr. Tanner. I suggest you leave."
Vin walked into the living room.
Li Pong was curled on the couch. One arm dangled off the edge, the other was tucked over her chest, her hand in a ball under her chin. He imagined her in bed with Ezra, touching him, her mouth wrapped around his cock and making him moan. A backwash of nausea rolled through him even as he knew it wasn't true. But the thought made him sick with jealousy anyway.
He headed for the door. To hell with the curfew, he would go back to his own apartment.
Behind him, Ezra spoke quietly.
"You're a hypocrite, Vin."
Vin opened the door.
"So long, Ezra," he said as he stepped through it. He didn't look back as he walked down the hall, not even when he heard the bolt on the door close. He didn't know why he'd acted the way he had, didn't like the way he had acted, but still, he knew he wouldn't take back any of it.
Maybe Ezra would forgive him if he apologized, but Vin knew he wouldn't do that either.
A Thousand Yards
War, children, it's just a shot away.[v]
JD. Jacked up like a jumping bean, so happy he could bust after selling a set of pictures he took up near Quang Tri to AP. Last week one of his pieces on a bunch of French nuns evacuating got picked up and put on the wire. The Eau de Vie Order was made up of ex-prostitutes; they tried to minister to their sisters that were still working the streets all over the world. The nuns had supported themselves running a restaurant Da Lat - Ezra had taken him there once.
Everything made Vin think of Ezra. He liked to eat pho - a Vietnamese soup - for breakfast. He'd ordered something French for Vin at the nuns' restaurant. Vin couldn't remember the name, just how much he'd been surprised that Ezra had known exactly what he'd like.
He hadn't seen him for two weeks. Not since he walked out of the Tu Do Street apartment.
"Yeah, I know."
Just a shot away.
A centipede or maybe it was millipede- it had a fuckload of legs - crawled over his arm. It was rust-red, all the little segments of armor flexing and shining as it moved along with freakish coordination. His stomach clenched, but he didn't shudder, he didn't move.
The jungle steamed, little wisps of ground fog coming off the black loam as the rising sun heated the rain soaked ground. A steady drip plopped onto the back of his neck from a elephant ear leaf above him. It ran under his collar and down his back, soaking in with the thousand that had fallen before.
He stayed still as the earth beneath him, sweat and rain running down his camo painted face. His only movement was the slow lizard blink of his eyes, clearing the moisture that beaded on his eyelashes away.
He'd been in place so long the jungle ignored him. He was part of it, another predator lying in wait. Other things were living and dying out there, little squeaks, chirps and growls chronicling nature's business. His business is the killing ground a thousand yards away.
The customized rifle is an extension of his will, another part of his body. A camo patterned waterproof tarp covers its length, liberally smeared with mud, a few fallen leaves stuck to it. A spider web sparkled like strings of tiny diamonds where the sun stabbed through the canopy. One side was anchored to the edge of the tarp. Only the muzzle of the rifle extended beyond.
He'd been in the sniper nest three days waiting for the target. He hadn't shifted once, pissing in an empty bottle and popping Dex to stay awake.
In the compound he was watching, people came and went. Eventually, his target would walk out into the open. The others didn't matter. Some were officers, others were government officials from the north, but there were white faces too. Broad Slavic-faced men in poorly cut suits that loomed over the slight Vietnamese. Pit bulls and fer-de-lances. Soviets, just like Ezra said, negotiating to retrieve equipment left by the Americans when the north stormed in and took over.
Don't think about it.
Don't think about him. Even though he was there somewhere, waiting the way Vin was waiting, ready to provide cover once Vin made his shot and had to pull out.
I tell you love, sister, it's just a kiss away.
It was the long hair that caught Vin's eye first. It was a nice blond, not peroxide pale. She was weaving through the central market and her hair stood out among the throngs of Vietnamese. She was taller than most of them, even though she was slight by American standards.
Vin was eating a candy bar, not really paying much attention, when he spotted the kid slice her purse strap and take off.
He stuck the last bite of chocolate and caramel in his mouth, extended one leg and tripped the kid. As he went down, Vin reached out, caught the purse out of the kid's hands, and grinned. It had been so easy and so right that for the first time in weeks, he felt good.
He took the purse back to her.
"Lose something?" he asked, holding it up.
She had a pretty face, made prettier when she smiled at him. "Thank you." She took the tan leather pocketbook back, brushing her fingers over his as she did so. The Australian accent came as a shocker but Vin liked it.
He held out his hand and she took it, shaking it with a comfortable grip. Her hand was small in his, softer even than Ezra's, and a wedding band gleamed on her ring finger.
Vin smiled at her, tipped a nonexistent hat and started to leave. There was a gleam of interest in her eyes, but she was married, after all. "Ma'am."
"Wait." She set her fingers on his forearm, stilling him. "Would you have lunch with me?"
Vin looked at her ring meaningfully.
"What about your husband?"
Charlotte waved a hand in frustration. "Will? Will's too busy playing big shot at the consulate. It's not like he'd have time to lunch with me... so why should I worry about him?"
She stepped closer and he caught a hint of her perfume, something pretty and floral. Female. Nice. He looked in her eyes and saw something he recognized too. She was lonely.
What would it hurt, he reasoned.
"Okay," he agreed.
Later, he told himself he never meant to start an affair with her. But by the end of the afternoon, they were both half-lit, checked into a hotel room that looked toward the river, and long past good intentions. He told himself he was in love with her.
Charlotte wanted to leave her husband. She wanted someone to run away with her. Vin fit the bill. That was closer to the truth.
Vin closed his eyes to that.
She wasn't the one lying; he was.
It's just a kiss away.
First drops hitting his cover.
Steady as it starts to come down. Never rained like this in Texas.
Pour. Sheets down, like standing in a shower, no like standing under a waterfall, water pushing at him until he was breathing it.
He ducked his head, tucking it down to create a faint space to breathe from.
The space filled with mosquitos.
He hated rainy season.
It's just a kiss away.
"He's got a girl living with him."
Buck. Of course, Buck. If it involved anything remotely female, Buck would have the lowdown and never mind if you wanted to hear or not.
Another beer might make it a little better. A little blurrier, at least. Yeah, barkeep, fill me up, keep'em coming, don't let this boy go dry.
"Little bitty thing, bird bones, a real China Doll."
He didn't give a damn what Ezra got up to with his China Doll. He didn't.
Feels like I'm drownin' on dry land.
"He told me."
"Yeah?" Buck's incredulity laced his voice. "Well, don't let your enthusiasm get away from you, Vin. There just ain't no reason to get so excited."
"Fuck you, Bucklin."
And leave me the hell alone or I'm going tear that damn mustache off your face and use to wipe out the fucking smile.
Buck laughed and slapped him on the shoulder. "Drink up, Vin." He shook his head. "Shit. You sulk as good as Larabee."
Just a kiss away.
Buck inserted them before dawn, setting the Pilatus Porter down on the short, dirt strip light as a leaf drifting on water. It was a black op, so there was no co-pilot beyond Larabee. There was no discussion once they were down, just the awkward drop out of the plane while weighed down with their packs and extra supplies. Everything had been gone over again and again.
Buck had the Porter in the air moments later as Ezra and Vin silently melted into the jungle.
Vin set a hard pace. Ezra kept up and didn't complain.
It surprised Vin a little, because he thought of Ezra as a city boy, but Ezra probably spent more time in the bush than any of them.
Ezra hadn't been in Vientiane for those four weeks he'd disappeared.
He'd been with a caravan delivering the latest opium harvest from the Shan highlands to a heroin processing lab at the 555 cigarette factory in Vientiane, making sure the KMT[vi] didn't slip over the border from northern Thailand and hijack the shipment. Somewhere along the way, he'd picked up Li Pong from a Meo mercenary. He'd also picked up a rumor about a hidden base where Khmer Rouge and NVA officers were receiving special training from renegade KGB officer.
The next thing Vin knew Larabee had accepted a job from a Russian wearing rubber-soled shoes, someone else Ezra knew. The money was good; the contract was to take out the KGB renegade, who had turned capitalist apparently. It just wasn't easy.
They couldn't go in with guns blazing. It had to be covert all the way.
Which translated into Vin and Ezra walking in on their own, setting up and waiting patiently until Yuri Shaparov walked out into the open again.
It was the rainy season.
It was a long wait.
The floods is threat'ning, My very life today.
"I need to know I can count on you."
Larabee kept loading packs into the jeep he'd acquired somewhere. He'd stripped down to his tank undershirt, laying out his uniform blouse to dry after coming into the warehouse. Rain beat a constant tympany on the roof. Beyond the open doors, opaque sheets of water broke against the pavement.
A few feet away, Ezra, Buck and their Russian customer were bent over a set of maps. The Russian was explaining something while Buck traced a route into Cambodia with his finger. Ezra commented periodically.
Beyond them, Li Pong perched on a crate of 7.5-mm ammunition, repeatedly shaking and staring into the snow globe Buck had brought back from Okinawa a week before. She was wearing a pink mini-dress and white knee boots, fashionable five or ten years ago in the States, and still popular in Saigon. Her long hair needed a wash.
Larabee's lean muscles moved under tanned skin as he worked. The air in the warehouse was sodden and sweltering. A dark sweat stain ran down his back. Vin wondered why he couldn't be attracted to Larabee. The man was handsome in a hardened, angular way. They had much more in common than he did with Ezra; they understood each other easily and without many words.
He'd never felt even a stir of interest toward Larabee. Nor would it have been welcomed. Larabee whored around when the urge hit him, but it was always with women and the women were never serious. The man wouldn't let himself let go of his memories of his wife and son. The whores were almost a punishment.
He wasn't happy with Vin.
"For how long?" Larabee asked, jerking Vin's attention back to the present.
"Long enough to get this job done," he snapped.
Larabee absently slapped a droning mosquito, leaving a smear of dark blood on his forearm. "Or until Mrs. Richmond crooks her little finger again." He shook his head. "Never took you for a man that would let his dick lead him around."
Vin narrowed his eyes.
"You've done a damn fine imitation the last few weeks."
"My personal business ain't got nothing to do with me being able to do the job," Vin insisted. He was irritated and defensive and his voice rose.
Ezra looked up from the topo maps on the table. Vin noticed the jade eyes watching him and Larabee. It increased his irritation. Ezra didn't have any right to make judgments about him. So what if Charlotte was married? At least he wasn't screwing an underage junkie! He turned his back and ignored the voice that whispered Ezra was only trying to take care of Li Pong.
He chose to ignore that he'd been too busy playing with Charlotte to answer any of Larabee's messages, leading to the rest of the team running a mission the month before without him. They'd come out alive, but from Buck and JD's stories it had been too close. They'd needed their seventh man.
Except Vin hadn't been there.
"Look, it's your life," Larabee said tiredly. "None of my business."
"It ain't because she's married?" Vin asked. "'Cause I reckon you think I'm in the wrong here."
"Do I look like a preacher?" Larabee shook his head. "I don't give a shit."
"This time. Last time you weren't."
Vin glanced Ezra's way.
"You gave Ezra a second chance."
Larabee pulled a crumpled pack of cigarettes from his pants' pocket and lit one. When he'd exhaled a long lung's worth of smoke through his nostrils, he answered.
"I did. Mainly, because I figured he'd be a useful contact - which he is. Some days I don't like the little sonovabitch, but some days I don't like Buck either, and Nathan's civil rights rants are enough to make me punch him. But I can count on them under fire. That's what matters."
He sucked another lungful smoke.
"You're a friend, Vin, but I can't let that get in the way of keeping the rest of us alive."
Vin looked away, swallowing hard.
"You got it?"
Yeah, he got it.
Gimme, gimme shelter.
His stomach growled. He ignored it.
There were two others with Shaparov, moving, talking, obscuring his sight-picture. They were walking across the sloppy mud of the compound toward another building. Shaparov was taller than them. The KGB renegade was blond like Larabee, but heavier and broader. Vin set the crosshairs exactly over Shaparov's ear.
Plink. Plink. Plink.
The sun had stabbed through monsoon clouds. The wind was dead. The air felt crystalline, washed clean by days of rain. Perfect shooting weather. Water still dripped from the foliage, a reminder this was only a respite.
His guts ached and his fingers wanted to tremble. Too many dexedrine tabs, though he had tried to sleep during the nights. There were chafed sores wherever his weight pressed down after lying in place so long. The wet clothes exacerbated the problem. He imagined he could smell the scent of infection and mold coming from his body.
One of the men opened the door into the second building and walked inside. Shaparov was left in the open. He turned away from Vin's location, seeming to concentrate on the third man, who wore a NVA colonel's uniform.
The black lines of the crosshairs rested on the back of Shaparov's skull, just above his neck, on the spine.
Squeeze. Slow and easy. Just like milking a cow, his shooting instructor had said, or playing with your girlfriend's tits. Don't grab and jerk or you're gonna get kicked. His finger took up the slack on the trigger, then the pull.
Shaparov's head exploded. Vin racked the bolt and took out the NVA colonel with a second shot. As soon as he had, he scrambled further back in the bush, donned his rucksack and slung the rifle over his back.
Time to di-di. Ezra would be radioing for Buck to pick them up after confirming from his observation post that Shaparov was KIA. They'd rendezvous at the LZ.
Or I'm going to fade away.
"She won't last long."
The tall black medic was a cynic to the bone. He got along with Ezra because they both saw the dark side. When it came to human nature, they were both pessimists. His gloomy, satisfied pronouncement startled Vin into looking over at him and Josiah.
"Brother, Ezra is not one to abandon a responsibility."
Nathan's shaved head gleamed under the blue neon-tinted light as he shook his head. "Didn't say that, did I, Josiah?"
Vin had good hearing. He could sip his beer at the bar and over hear Josiah and Nathan easy. Both men had deep voices that carried through the higher voices of the Vietnamese and the pounding music playing in the background. Somehow, English stood out from the cacophony anyway, always catching his attention.
"She'll OD sooner or later," Nathan said. His voice had turned sad. "She's shootin' smack now. I saw the needle tracks when I picked up a carton of antibiotics from him at the warehouse."
Josiah sounded surprised. "She was with him?"
"Can't trust a junkie on their own, 'Siah," Nathan told him. "Seen it enough times where I grew up. Ain't nothing a junkie won't rip off to get their next fix."
"Why doesn't it bother you he's supplying her?"
Vin listened, curious himself.
Nathan drummed his fingers on the tabletop. "Because it was too late for her before he ever saw her. He's just... Ezra knows the score. He can't get her off the dope and if he doesn't get it for her, someone else will. At least with him, she ain't whoring on the street for it."
"Just with him."
"If it don't bother her why the hell should it bother you?" Nathan demanded. "You think anyone else would be better to her than Ezra? He ain't taking anything she ain't offered."
Vin closed his eyes.
Nathan snorted in disgust. "Tell it to someone that ain't had a cross burned in his front yard, Josiah. At least he's giving her a little kindness in her life before it's over."
Vin sighed and went back to his own drink.
Fade away, fade away.
"Have you found the proper vantage point?" Ezra asked.
Crouched together in a cold camp in the black jungle night, it was the first time they'd spoken to each other alone since Ezra brought Li Pong to Saigon. Vin's rain poncho was slung over a low limb to keep the worst of the rain off them. Water poured off the edges. There was no light to read any expression on Ezra's face. His voice was placid. Professional.
That was how Vin would play it. Professional. They were just out here on a mission.
He nodded. "North side. Got a sight line on the center of the compound."
They'd reached the compound after a two-day hike in and Vin had scouted all around it, looking for the perfect sniper's nest.
"I'll set up on the south. If anything goes wrong I can fire on the compound and draw them in the wrong direction."
They were eating beans-and-dicks[vii]cold from the can, hungry enough they didn't care. Ezra nudged a can of peaches Vin's way. "Go ahead."
Vin finished a last bite of hot dog and started on the peaches.
"Thanks," he mumbled around a mouthful of sweet fruit.
The silhouette of Ezra's shoulder dipped. A shrug.
"Saw you at that Embassy thing," Vin blurted.
Charlotte convinced him to escort her to a reception at the French Embassy. He'd gone, only half unwilling, guessing Ezra might be there. He was. Looked like something from a picture book, wearing a white tuxedo. Ezra did the diplomatic round, playing the sophisticate as well as he did the gunrunner. He even knew Charlotte. She'd asked if Vin and he were acquainted, commenting that Ezra was always charming, the perfect guest, even if no one knew exactly where his loyalties were.
"Yes, I noticed you were there with Mrs. Richmond," Ezra acknowledged. "You seemed rather preoccupied with each other, so I didn't intrude." His voice was dry as dust.
"Guess you know her," Vin said.
"Her husband is an agricultural attaché with their consulate. I've met them both."
Vin slurped down another slice of peach.
"You do know she's married?"
"She is lovely, of course," Ezra commented. "I have no right to be disappointed."
"No," Vin growled. "He don't make her happy. Don't pay any attention to her. She needs someone."
Vin picked up the peach can and poured the last of the juice down his throat. Its sweetness didn't touch the sour taste at the back of his mouth.
"Least she's a woman," he said. "Least what we do is natural."
Ezra didn't speak. Vin thought he was staring out at the rain and the jungle. He opened his mouth to apologize twice, but didn't say anything each time. Instead he pulled his poncho liner tighter around him as he began to shiver.
He was drowsing, almost asleep despite the wet and misery when he heard Ezra's soft words.
"That's the way it is, Ezra," he said harshly.
It's just a kiss away, a kiss away, a kiss away.
"Yes," Ezra replied, "that's the way it is."
Saigon 1975 Tuesday April 22
All of them had gathered together for the first time in weeks, sitting at a sidewalk café, drinking café sua, eating croissants and thom xay - pineapple and crushed ice whipped to a froth - like this was any other morning.
But Josiah's age showed in his slow movements, in his unshaven chin, in the pain that had marked his eyes since the fourth, when a C-5A Galaxy full of orphaned kids dropped out of the sky into the rice paddies beyond Tan Son Nhut after its cargo doors blew out catastrophically. Josiah had been among the first out there. Buck had been there too, flying one of the Air America choppers in and out with survivors. All those little dead bodies, some in just pieces, had affected both men. Neither of them was talking about it.
JD looked bleak, fiddling with the black leather strap to his Leica, talking about what he'd heard among the other reporters at the Continental. "There's talk of a coup. Ky's been talking to some of the senior generals." His dark hair flopped in his eyes.
JD had become paradoxically hardened yet remained innocent. All the horror and ugliness he recorded with his camera, even picking up a gun and using it to kill, hadn't touched something basic in him; he still believed in people. He still hurt for them, but it was covered by a slick ice of cynicism now. It made him a strange mixture of boy and man.
A prototypical American, Ezra had declared fondly, sweet and merciless the way only the young can be.
"They won't do it. They're more concerned with getting out and they've been warned that the US won't welcome them if they side with Ky," Larabee said. He looked tired too. His amorphous position with the embassy and the Judge Advocate's Office meant he saw and heard a lot, but had little power to do anything about it. The frustration had been growing in him for weeks.
Ezra sipped his café sua and stared down the street. It was abominably early by his standards. The sun hadn't started heating the air yet and the streets still smelled pleasantly of flowers and damp. He was freshly shaved but hadn't bothered knotting the thin tie looped around his open collar. The fingers of his free hand drummed restlessly against the tabletop. His eyes felt bruised and burned. "The French want Big Minh."
"Fuck me," Buck said while he rubbed at his bloodshot eyes. He'd been flying non-stop every day since Da Nang fell and it was catching up with him. Even his mustache looked wilted.
Ezra snorted. "You're not my type." It was a weak jape, but Buck jumped on it.
"Yeah, I know, you like 'em skinnier. It's breaking my heart, Slick." He patted his chest, leaving his hand over the pink hibiscus on the gaudy Hawaiian shirt he wore over his gray Air America uniform. A heavy gold bracelet like most Air America pilots sported glinted in the morning light on his dark haired arm.
Ezra watched Vin swallow hard and wondered. Vin had to know it was no more than Buck and Ezra trying to lighten things up. He couldn't be jealous. He hadn't touched Ezra in months... but Ezra still wanted him. He hated himself for that. He thought Vin would hate feeling that way too, if he did - which his liaison with Charlotte Richmond indicated he didn't.
JD leaned forward and looked at Ezra earnestly. "He's really crazy about you, Ezra. All those women...? Just trying to forget how you broke his heart."
Buck cuffed JD's shoulder.
Ezra looked coyly at Buck and fluttered his eyelashes outrageously. All of them ignored Vin looking away, gritting his teeth and growling. He'd been as touchy as Larabee for months; they'd grown used to it.
"Why, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra drawled in an thick Southern accent, "I wasn't aware you cared. I swan, I am just overwhelmed."
JD and Nathan both began snickering. Josiah shook his head fondly. Even Larabee managed a tired smile at their antics.
Larabee waited until they were in control again. "Minh?"
Buck whistled. "Yeah?"
"He's nothing. Nothing. Duong Van Minh." Nathan shook his head. "They make him president and the North is going to roll into Saigon the next fucking day."
"Ezra? What the hell are the French thinking?" Larabee asked.
Ezra shrugged jerkily. "Do not ask me. I don't make policy. If the French had a good grasp of what works in Vietnam, they'd still be in power."
Buck chuckled. "Got a point there, Slick." He spread butter on his croissant and ate in three bites. "So, what do you think?"
Ezra scratched at his arms in an uncommon display of nerves. He stopped when he noticed Nathan watching. He felt like his skin wanted to crawl off him and knew what it meant.
"It's time to get out."
He met Nathan's eyes, saw the understanding there, and flinched inside. After Vin walked out, he'd let it go much, much too far. Living with Li Pong, having the opium in the apartment, had made it too easy to hide in the dreams it gave him.
Buck looked thoughtful. Ezra tried to concentrate on him.
"One of our kickers was visiting in Ban Me Thuot when the NVA rolled in. He had a radio and I was trying to get in, pick him up, you know?" Buck said. "He was transmitting in the open though and every time he broke squelch the other side heard everything, so he couldn't give me the coordinates. I couldn't fucking find the house. Had to turn back when the fuel tanks bingoed."
He shook his head. "Last I heard from him, he said tanks were rolling down the street."
Buck shook his head again.
"I asked him whose tanks. Shee-it. He says, 'The guys with red stars on their caps.' I didn't hear anything more from him. Ban Me Thuot had been giai phong[viii]."
"Sure glad I persuaded Kae Xi to get out already," JD said softly.
His quarter-French, quarter-White Russian, half-Vietnamese girlfriend had lived with her great-aunt and worked as a secretary for Royal Contracting, one of the American companies that put up buildings and roads for the military. Royal had pulled their contract workers from the country in early March. JD and Vin had tag-teamed Kae Xi and her great-aunt a week ago, browbeating them into going to France where there were some distant relatives willing to sponsor them.
Vin had borrowed the money to buy their tickets from Ezra. Ezra knew he'd never see the cash again, much less the interest Vin had promised. He hadn't cared, Kae Xi was a sweet girl, but he'd given Vin a hard time out of spite, calling Great Aunt Nataliya a crone.
"I miss her though."
"You'll see her again," Buck comforted JD.
Larabee looked toward the north as a plane droned over them. The flights were ceaseless, taking off from Tan Son Nhut every twenty minutes or so.
"Not much longer," Larabee said when the plane's engines had faded into the distance. Saigon was coming to loud, frenetic life as the morning progressed and he had to speak over the sound of a dog barking, a loudspeaker in the distance, and the idling diesel engine of a delivery truck. "Ezra's right. Everybody needs to be ready to get out."
"I'm staying for the story," JD insisted softly.
"Can't quit yet," Buck said. "They're going to need every bird and every pilot they can get pretty soon."
Larabee nodded his acceptance of that. Ezra knew Larabee would stay until the very last Americans pulled out. That was Larabee's way, even if he had had anything to go back to outside Vietnam.
"Josiah?" Larabee asked.
Josiah fingered his crucifix and shook his head wearily. "If I leave, what happens to the children?"
"What happens if you stay?" Nathan asked. "It might go better for them if you aren't there when the North Vietnamese take over."
"So many of them are half-American."
Ezra's thom xay was almost melted. He stirred a spoon through it mindlessly. "I'm still owed some favors. I can get you exit visas on Chinese papers for them if there's someplace to take them to."
"How much you going to charge for that, Ezra?" Vin asked contemptuously.
Ezra looked at Josiah, deliberately ignoring Vin. He'd taught himself to do that. It didn't pay to let yourself to get attached. That's why he'd stayed away from the orphanage in recent months, too.
He'd lost himself in a cloud of smoke, trying to dull the pain of losing Vin. It had hurt. He'd known better than to get involved, especially with a man who hadn't accepted wanting the things Vin wanted. He'd known, but Vin had taught him that lesson all over again. Vin could hate himself. Ezra had let that eat away at him for a while, but no more. He wouldn't destroy himself for Vin. Not when Vin had already walked away. No more opium, no more feeling sorry for himself, no more missing something that hadn't - except on his side - been real after all.
"There are twenty of them, Ezra," Josiah said slowly. "Can you - "
"There is a Catholic run mission in Chon Buri that will take the children until they can be placed," Josiah said, seeming to think out loud. "My sister is there. She's a lay worker. If I call her, she will have everything ready. Thank you, Ezra. This will work, if we can get a flight."
"Buck?" Ezra asked.
"Anything, Anytime, Anywhere," Buck quoted the Air America motto. His good humor faded a little as he thought it out, though.
"I can get you a Caribou. It's a piece of shit, but it flies. The paperwork's fucked though," Buck said. "Guy flew it out of Phnom Penh, looks like he owns it since the parent company went bye-bye when the Communists took over. He can't afford to fuel it up so it's just sitting. Got some dings and bullet holes."
"The Lord helps those who help themselves," Josiah said. "I'm not inclined to inspect your gift horse's mouth, Buck."
"You'll need some help with the kids," Nathan said. "Escorts."
"Are you offering, Brother?" Josiah asked.
Nathan flashed a white, white grin. "Sure. It gets me out of here without taking someone else's seat on another bird anyway."
Ezra dropped his spoon in the melted ice. "Then I shall take my leave. The preparations will take a few hours at least. I'll meet you at the orphanage, Josiah. You'll need to figure out how to get the children from there to the airfield too. Nathan, make sure you have your passport and papers on you at all times."
"You going to fly out with us, Ezra?" Nathan asked.
Ezra paused. He glanced at Vin. Vin's face was unshaven and set, closed to Ezra. There was nothing there to stay for. "Yes. I'll have Li Pong with me."
"See you at the orphanage then," Nathan said with a wave.
Larabee called out as Ezra started to walk away.
Ezra tipped his head and almost smiled at Larabee's discomfort. "Yes, Major Larabee?"
Ezra tipped an imaginary hat. Larabee couldn't express any affection or concern beyond that, but it was enough.
He didn't let himself look back.
Wednesday April 23
Past curfew, but Buck had a room in the hotel so it didn't matter how late he stayed in the bar, though he was only drinking iced tea. Larabee had a bottle of Scotch in front of him. Neither of them were sure why they'd chosen the Caravelle. There were some journalists, but they kept their distance. Larabee was in civvies and Buck had changed out of his Air America gray shirt and trousers after catching a shower in his room.
He was too tired after the long day to go out, even to the Blue Rose, so he'd gotten some sandwiches from the hotel kitchen and sat on the terrace while the sun slipped down in the west. Larabee joined him when he moved inside to the bar. Maybe he'd decided to avoid the night club too; it wasn't the same: Ezra wouldn't be there in the back, shuffling his deck of cards, making his backroom deals, while Miss Dubonnet sang. Miss Dubonnet had been gone for weeks. Ezra was off, wangling papers for those kids, and the Blue Rose was dark even before curfew.
They talked desultorily about what they'd seen during the day.
"So, Can Tho?"
Larabee grimaced. "You saw, Buck."
"Yeah, someone needs to get their head out of their ass at the embassy. Those guys at the consulate may be in deep shit if they're counting on being evacuated."
Larabee rubbed his eyes, looking exhausted. Buck could read his thoughts. He'd been in and out of Dodge City, trying to find out what the plan was, and come to the conclusion it was fucked. In Saigon, the American embassy was acting like they still had months to get everybody out. At the DAO[ix] facility, you could taste the desperation in the air.
"It's fucked," he said. "Two weeks more. Maybe." He sighed and opened his briefcase, handing Buck a stack of improvised forms. "Here, give these to the pilots with girls or kids. Send them through Dodge City. Moore's breaking up the big families, trying to make sure there's someone that goes and someone that stays that can take care of both groups. Jesus, I don't envy him."
"Thanks, Chris." His usual jovial expression was gone. "Lot of the guys have common law wives and kids, folks like that. These'll help."
"Yeah. Tell 'em to get out while they still can, before it ends up like the clusterfuck on the third day at Da Nang."
Buck cringed, remembering ARVN soldiers shooting people to get their places on the last choppers out. Hands clutching landing struts until their strength gave away as he took off.
"I'll tell 'em."
At least some of the Air America pilots would listen. They'd already had a glimpse of the hell that was to come. Things were tense. But many of them were hanging on, either not believing Saigon would fall or because of a fatalistic need to be around until the very end. Twelve divisions of North Vietnamese encircled the city and they all knew it; it was a matter of time, very little time too. The rest of Air America's operations were shut down or gone, nothing at Udorn, Vientiane, even the offices in Japan. Maybe it was pride holding so many of them in a dying city at the end of a losing war. The chances they'd take with their own lives weren't the same as keeping the families in Saigon, though; they'd use the laissez-passer documents Larabee had copped from Dodge City. Some of them would fly out with their families and not return, separated from the strange pull of the place common sense and the instinct to survive would surface, keeping them away.
Buck would stick as long as he could. The only family he had was the ragtag group of six other men and they weren't ready to leave yet either. Once he got on the Caribou and took her up with Josiah's kids and Nate and Ezra though, that would be it. He wouldn't come back again. No use pushing his luck past all limits.
Until then, he'd keep flying the AA missions and keep in touch with Larabee at the Caravelle's bar in the evenings.
Thursday April 24
Ezra walked into the apartment wanting only a shower and his bed.
He dropped the briefcase with the all important visas for Josiah's orphans by the door.
Things were snowballing fast. Da Nang was gone. Nha Trang had been abandoned a couple of days later. Qui Nhon was lost the same damn day. Chase Manhattan and two other American banks had closed their doors in Saigon, locked up and sent all their American employees out of the country. The consulate at Bien Hoa had been evacuated. The line of refugees winding down Highway 1 looked like something from the end of the world, the dead lying where they fell.
It was the end of the world. The end of their world for all those people, desperate to reach some sort of safety, desperately hoping the government or the US would some how swoop in and make everything right. But it was all falling apart and no one was going to fix things.
He stopped and leaned his head against the door. The air in the apartment smelled stale. Li Pong must have closed all the windows. She felt cold all the time now.
No one and nothing was ever going to be the same. For all that was wrong and corrupt in South Vietnam, Ezra still hurt when he thought of leaving. He'd been in Southeast Asia over half his life; it was home in ways the US and even France would never be. He hadn't thought he had any innocence to lose, but there had been that part of him that hadn't believed the North would win.
Something beautiful was dying... He rubbed the back of his neck. No, that wasn't it. The Pearl of the Orient had been tarnished long since. But something remained that had been beautiful, like an overblown and wind-tattered rose. The memory of its beauty was all that was still there, but destruction of even that phantom filled him with melancholy.
He ached in his bones, wanting to slide away on the dreams a pipe full of opium would bring him. Quitting was proving harder than he'd guessed; its hooks were set deeper in him than he'd suspected. He allowed himself aspirin and ginger ale when he could hold it down and had kept himself distracted until now.
A slick sweat broke out all over him. His legs and arms wanted to shake from weakness. It would be so easy to find Li Pong's supplies... He could kick the habit after they reached Bangkok. Right now he hurt, in his head and his heart and his body. He couldn't do what needed to be done feeling this way...
The stillness of the apartment reached him through his chaotic thoughts. His stomach tightened in on itself. He turned around. Empty rooms felt different than ones with someone in them. The air moved no matter how still and silent they were.
He found her on the orange sofa.
His breath caught and this time he recognized the first hint of corruption.
She was on her back, her head dangling over the edge of a cushion. Her hair, still black and long, but lank and tangled, touched the rug. One bare arm hung down too.
Ezra watched her chest for a moment, but there was no movement. He pushed away from the door and walked over slowly. Small details etched themselves into his consciousness. She was wearing little black slippers and one had come off, lying sidewise on the floor, the sole pale and scuffed. Her toenails were painted red.
She was wearing the pink mini-dress with the white cord trim again. Her favorite. It looked terrible against the burnt orange upholstery.
Her mouth was open, a string of foamy bile running down her face from the corner.
Her eyes, at least, were closed. He felt a detached gratitude for that.
The needle was still in her arm. Her hand was stiff, fingers curled into a claw at the last. The snow globe Buck had given her was lying on the rug a few inches away.
He crouched beside the sofa and checked her neck for a pulse. It was too warm in the apartment for her flesh to feel cold, but life and warmth were gone. She was in full rigor.
The pain his guts twisted and gnawed at him.
He picked up the snow globe and looked into it. A peaceful, perfect, little chalet nestled among green fir trees, warm yellow light in the windows. Snow on the ground, snow on the tree limbs, snow drifting in tiny, flicker-shiny white flakes down over it, all caught forever in a ball of glass. He wasn't sure Li Pong had ever seen snow. He stared until the last flake settled on top the miniature roofline.
Then he threw it at the wall as hard as he could, leaving a hole knocked into the plaster and a dark, viscous stain running down the wall, shattered glass along the baseboard.
Friday April 25
Sometimes it seemed amazing the phones were even still working.
Buck called from the flight line.
"Can't manage it today, Slick," he told Ezra, who had picked up the phone in Josiah's closet-sized office.
Josiah and Nathan were making up number labels to pin to the kids and match with their papers. Two Vietnamese Catholic nuns were helping the older children pack small bags to take with them. Ezra hadn't had the heart to say they might not manage that much.
Ezra leaned, one hand flattened on the desktop. He narrowed his eyes. The light and the heat were making his head pound, thumping behind his eyes on top of his churning stomach and the shakes he couldn't shake.
"What happened?" he rasped out.
He'd cleaned out the apartment, dealt with Li Pong's death and the Saigon police - a few hundred dollars American made any problem disappear - and taken a cyclo-pousse into the ramshackle outskirts of the Cholon neighborhood where Josiah's orphanage stood.
"Had to cut a deal with Mike, one of our mechanics. Couple of hydraulic lines got shot up, no way the plane would have made it to U Tapao or anywhere more than a hop skip and jump without getting her patched up," Buck said quickly. "Anyway, Mike made time to fix our baby in exchange for getting his girlfriend's two brothers out."
"I haven't got papers for anyone else," Ezra said dully.
"Just need something for the girl. The two boys, they got a lassie-pass from some high uppity-up," Buck replied fast.
A lassie-pass? All Ezra could imagine for a moment was an amorous collie. Then his aching head translated Buck's horrid French. "A laissez-passer?"
"Yeah, yeah." Buck hesitated. "Ez, can you fix up something for Mike's girlfriend?"
He stared at the carved crucifix hanging on the wall next to flyspecked calendar advertising Coca-Cola.
"She can use Li Pong's papers."
Buck was silent. The telephone line buzzed and clicked, then a burst of static assaulted Ezra's ear.
"I'm real sorry, Ezra," Buck's distant, tinny voice came through after the static.
Ezra let his head bow. There was no one to see.
"Josiah would say something about fate," he replied finally.
"Josiah can be a pain in the ass," Buck answered. "I got to get going. Tell Josiah to have everyone ready day after tomorrow, will you?"
"Thank you, Buck," Ezra said.
It was eerily quiet all day. No mortar fire, no rockets or artillery shells in the distance. The anti-aircraft guns were silent too, letting the military and Air America flights move in and out of Tan Son Nhut uninterrupted.
It rained hard in the afternoon. Sheets of rain, opaque gray and almost opalescent, heralded the beginning of monsoon season. The air smelled wet and alive.
Ezra sat in Josiah's office with the tall windows opened wide. The cool, damp air made goosebumps rise on his arms. He curled his legs up and wrapped his arms around them while staring out at water falling relentlessly.
He thought of walking out into it, wishing the rain could wash everything away.
He had to lock his fingers together to stop the trembling. He could taste bile at the back of his throat, but he'd already thrown up everything earlier.
The soft creak of the door behind him didn't make him look up.
The big, dark-skinned hand that set itself on his shoulder made him jolt and look up.
"Nathan," he said simply.
"Ezra," the medic replied. He set a bottle of water on Josiah's desk and studied Ezra carefully. "How are you?"
Ezra laughed raggedly. "Don't worry, I'll survive."
"I know that," Nathan said. He pushed Ezra's sweaty hair off his forehead and held his palm there, checking for fever the same way a mother does a child.
Ezra bit his lip as another wave of pain squeezed his stomach into a ball of lead. Tears sprang too his eyes. He rocked himself faintly, trying to ride it out. His nose was running.
Nathan's hand rubbed between his shoulder blades, steady and reassuring.
"You don't have to do it alone."
"Everyone's alone in the end."
"I can help."
He closed his eyes tight, gasping for breath. His muscles were cramping. He could barely think anymore.
"How?" he mumbled in a lull between the cramps and agony.
"Got a tea I learned to make from an old apothecary here," Nathan said. "Supposed to help clean the opium cravings out. It'll ease some of the pains; let you sleep through the worst part."
Nathan left him alone for a while. The rain slowly slacked off. It had stopped by sunset, when Nathan came back with a small pot of foul smelling tea. He wasn't sure how long it had been; it felt much longer than it had probably been. The room was dim. The rain had stopped.
Nathan steadied his hand and held the cup to his mouth. Ezra swallowed most of the cup's contents before he couldn't gag anymore down.
"That is nastier than anything I've ever tried," he managed to complain.
"Worse it tastes, the better is for you," Nathan said.
"God, then that should make me a new man."
Nathan patted his back, chuckling. He stayed there the rest of the night, holding a wastebasket when Ezra had to throw up, talking gently about his childhood in the Deep South. Not his usual civil rights, Black Panther, Malcolm X diatribes, just gentler memories of fishing on hot days, drinking root beer, going out on his first date with a girl named Wanda Jean. Ezra let the stories draw his mind away from the pain chasing its way through him until finally, sometime before dawn, he slipped into an uneasy sleep.
The last thing he heard, before Nathan tucked a blanket over him and left was a gentle admonishment.
"Get some rest, Ezra. You got through the worst of it."
Saturday April 26
Vin didn't like good-byes. He'd have preferred just walking away, but the message had been waiting with his landlord when he stopped into his rooms for a change of clothes. He couldn't ignore it.
He was surprised she was still in-country, but went by the house the Australian embassy had rented for the Richmonds and knocked at the gate. Like a lot of the villas occupied by foreign diplomats it was a walled compound.
She let him in herself. He followed her up the short driveway, wondering where the servants were. The front door was standing open, he noticed, and a set of suitcases sat by the trunk of a black sedan with little Australian flags flying at the front fenders. A radio played somewhere inside the house, James Taylor singing Fire and Rain. There were bombs going off southwest of town again. The music contrasted with the echoes.
He stopped in the doorway, looking inside the dark, cool foyer. The place felt empty. Charlotte's heels clicked on the bare floor. Every time he'd come before, there had been fresh flowers in a vase on a small table just inside. The table was still there, but the vase and the flowers weren't. A couple of boxes were taped up and pushed against the wall.
Charlotte stopped in the foyer.
"So, I guess you're going," he said inanely.
Charlotte nodded. Her hands smoothed over her hips in a nervous gesture. "I'm glad you came," she said quickly. "I tried to call you and then I went to your apartment a couple of days ago."
"I been in and out."
She bit her lip. "I'm going back to Sydney."
"Will already left. He said he'd let me file for divorce once we were both back home," Charlotte said. She sounded the way she had the day they met. Lonely.
"I've got two tickets for the flight. It leaves this afternoon."
Vin walked over and touched her cheek. Charlotte didn't cry, just blinked fast, controlling the tears. He was surprised she'd asked him, they'd already called their affair quits. She was kinder than he'd known, he thought now. She'd always seen his heart lay elsewhere.
"So, I guess you aren't coming with me?"
"No," Vin told her.
"I didn't think so," she admitted. She smiled slightly. "But we were... good together for a while, weren't we? I wanted to offer."
He wondered why people kept offering to get him out of Vietnam and he kept refusing. He wasn't going to find Eli Joe now. Time had run out. Maybe he should go with her.
It wouldn't be right. They were just two lonely people using each other. She'd do better without him. He'd face the music, go along with Larabee and hope something could be done to prove his innocence.
"You know it means a lot, Charlotte," he whispered. He leaned closer and brushed his lips over hers. She kissed him back, then patted his chest and moved away.
"I need to get to the airport soon."
"Take care of yourself," Vin said. He didn't say good-byes.
She waved. "Of course. You too, Vin."
He watched her another moment, admiring the length of her leg and the switch of her hips as she went back inside the house for something. He'd tried to convince himself he loved her, but it hadn't lasted. She was good company though and hadn't blamed him when he told her it wasn't working. He wished her well.
After another moment, he turned and walked back out of the compound.
That was it. The lyrics from the song replayed through his mind and he sang them softly under his breath.
"I've seen lonely days when I could not find a friend... "
Vin stopped, realizing he'd walked all the way to Tu Do Street and was standing in front of Ezra's building. He went inside and upstairs. But though he knocked more than once at the apartment door, there was no answer. He finally realized Ezra must have already gone to the orphanage in Cholon.
He thought of going there, but reconsidered. He didn't have any right. He'd made his choice. He'd told Ezra the way it was. He didn't get to say anything or change his mind now.
Sunday April 27[x]
The explosion threw Ezra to the floor. His head and elbow were hit with pieces of the cot he'd been sleeping on and the wall beyond it. Pain seared through him, roaring chaos deafening him as he went from sleep to confusion and heart-thudding fear. He bit his tongue and the sour metal taste of blood filled his mouth in the first seconds after the impact.
Everything remained dark at first as he scrabbled his way to his knees. The ominous red lights of flames broke the blackness soon, reflecting off the plaster and dust still suspended in the air.
Ezra's ears were still ringing as he blinked at the wreckage of the building around him. The crackling of the growing flames seemed distant and the other sound could have been sirens or the high, thin screams of trapped children. He staggered into the smoke as the world tipped and tilted.
He tripped over a body and fell again. The whole building had come down and all he could think was that a bomb had gone off. It made no sense to him. Then another explosion rocked the night and he identified it: 122-mm. rocket. The NVA were rocketing Saigon and the orphanage must have taken a direct hit.
His stomach heaved and his vision grayed out briefly. The smoke was getting thicker, choking him. He trembled and snatched one hand away from the broken, bleeding limb it had landed on. A stabbing pain in his side told him he'd at least cracked some ribs too, but his mind refused to function beyond the shocked realization that that little arm had been attached to nothing else.
Two big hands locked onto his shoulders and lifted him away. Ezra's head throbbed, vertigo hitting him. His eyes wouldn't focus.
Someone was yelling and shaking him. He clutched blindly at the hands holding him up. A gold chain caught under his fingers and broke, falling to the floor. The crucifix it had held flashed by firelight as it tumbled down.
"Ezra! Do you hear me!? Ezra!"
His legs kept folding under him. Crucifix, he thought numbly, and identified the man holding him up.
"'Siah?" he croaked. His throat was seared with dust and smoke.
"Can you walk?"
He shook his head in confusion. Walk? He couldn't even breathe.
An arm snaked around him. The pressure on his cracked ribs made Ezra cry out. He locked his hand on Josiah's shoulder as consciousness slipped away from.
Fire still licked through the blackened remains of the collapsed building long after morning came. Black columns of smoke rose over Cholon where the rockets had hit and started fires in the wreckage.
Nathan sat on the curb beyond the fire line. Down the street, little bodies were being loaded into the back of a deuce-and-a-half truck. Nathan carefully kept his face turned away.
He kept breathing through his mouth, trying to ignore the smell the way he was ignoring the photographers and news stringers that had straggled onto the scene after sun up. JD was with them. Doing his job.
Nathan didn't have anything left to do.
The Vietnamese were dealing with the bodies. Fire fighters were monitoring the building, letting the fire burn itself out and watching it didn't spread. The survivors Nathan had dragged out of the burning building after the rocket attack had already been trucked away - either to other orphanages or the hospital.
He was just sitting. He had nothing more to do. Couldn't get into the building and pull out any more bodies; it had all crashed down in a gout of flame around three in the morning, a couple hours after the rocket hit. Nowhere to go. He felt stranded, washed up on the shore of the morning.
He was exhausted. It felt like the fire had seared his soul along with everything else.
He let his head droop and stared into the gutter. His hands dangled between his knees. In a distant way, he realized they hurt fiercely; he'd burnt them as he searched through the smoke and flames for survivors.
"Christ," someone drawled from behind him.
Nathan twisted his head to the side and watched as Vin crouched beside him. Larabee was standing just behind.
"You okay, Nate?" Vin asked gently.
Nathan held up his burnt hands.
Larabee was staring at the burning shell of the building, his face drawn and pale.
"Where are they?" Larabee demanded.
Nathan's voice rasped and cracked, smoke damaged and raw. "I couldn't get them out. Couldn't find them. Just some of the kids."
Vin's eyes were so blue, sky-blue, and the color seemed too clear and clean as Nathan stared into them. He watched the pupils dilate and heard Vin's hard intake of breath. They were so close Nathan could count the whiskers on Vin's angular, unshaven jaw. He saw the color recede from Vin's face, the flare of his nostrils, and the muscle that jumped in the hollow of his cheek. Nathan saw it all and distantly reflected that Vin suddenly looked worse than Larabee.
He went on, "Ezra was trying to sleep in Josiah's office. He had a cot set up there. Josiah was dossed out in the kitchen. The roof came down between there and the front as soon as we were hit. I couldn't get back there."
"Any chance they got out the back?" Larabee asked. He sounded controlled. Detached.
That was the only way to deal with it, Nathan knew. It was what he was doing himself.
Nathan shrugged. "It was so fast... I pulled as many kids as I could find out. I never saw any sign of them. There were others helping, trying to put out the fire, taking some of the kids to the hospital."
"We'll check everywhere," Larabee decided. He looked down at Nathan. "We need to get you looked at. Then you're getting on a plane out of here."
"Lost my papers - "
"I'll take care of it."
Vin had turned and was staring at the burning orphanage. He rubbed at his arms like he was cold.
Nathan heard him whisper, "Ezra... Ezra."
Vin bowed his head.
Larabee helped Nathan to his feet, his hand strong and sure on Nathan's bicep. "I've got a jeep. Vin. Come on."
Vin stood up slowly, like a man sleepwalking. He looked at Larabee. His face was blank as stone.
"We get Nate on a plane, Larabee. Then I'm turning myself in."
"It's too late," Vin declared.
JD fell into step with them as they walked back to Larabee's haphazardly parked jeep.
"Guys. Can I catch a ride with you?"
"Sure, JD," Larabee replied.
Vin was too sunk in his own dark spaces to notice the younger man's devastated face.
Nathan had already acknowledged him when he arrived on the scene. He didn't even feel angry over the pictures JD had taken. The reporters were like vultures. They were drawn to the scene of death. JD didn't cross the line; he didn't unzip bodybags to snap a picture of a dead man's face. He helped when he could. He nodded at JD tiredly, obscurely reassured by his presence.
"I'm sorry," JD said. He fingered his camera. "I just - what else can I do?"
"We know, kid," Larabee said.
"I can't believe it," JD whispered. "I can't believe they're gone. Just like - just overnight. They weren't in the fighting. It was an orphanage, damn it."
JD scrubbed at his face, smearing soot over one cheekbone. Tears wet his lashes into dark spikes.
"Shut up, JD," Vin snapped in a tight voice. "Just shut up, okay?"
Larabee climbed into the driver's seat. Nathan stepped into the back and JD joined him. Vin took the front. None of them spoke as Larabee drove them away from Cholon.
Monday April 28
JD stood outside and let the rain soak him. Lightning flashed, followed by thunderclaps. The sound made him jolt. He'd been in-country long enough loud noises made him think automatically of incoming. It was the first storm of the season, but the rain had come down quietly before.
He was supposed to be reporting on the inauguration of President Minh. He figured there were guys from NBC and ABC and the wire services doing that, though. He just didn't care today.
Larabee and Vin had hit every hospital or aid station in Saigon. Neither Josiah or Ezra had been found. He'd rode in the back of the jeep with Nathan and waited with him while they checked the morgues too.
Nathan's dark eyes were dulled and blank. At the end of the afternoon, Vin had slumped down with his face in his hands, while Larabee leaned against the jeep's windshield and slowly smoked a cigarette. He looked like hell. They all did, himself included, JD knew.
"They're dead," Nathan said tonelessly.
Larabee exhaled a stream of smoke.
Vin's back rose and fell, but no sound escaped him. JD wanted to touch him, to comfort him, but he didn't. He wanted to slap him too, for screwing up so bad that there had been nothing but silence and sharp remarks between him and Ezra the last time they'd met. He'd guessed what the two of them were doing and figured Vin had screwed it up. Vin was the one who hooked up with a married woman afterward. Ezra just watched him and ignored his barbs. Now Ezra was dead and Vin felt bad. Well, fuck him, JD thought, fuck him even if he does feel bad. It was just too damn late.
He scrounged through his own pockets, finding rolls of undeveloped film, a .45 shell, a tin of Tiger Balm and two condoms before pulling out a crumpled pack of Gitanes. He didn't smoke as much as the other guys, but he'd developed a taste for Ezra's nasty brand. The cellophane crackled under his fingertips.
"Fuck," he whispered.
He pulled out one of the cigarettes and rolled it between his fingers. After a while, Larabee offered him a light. They smoked, sitting outside the morgue, until some unspoken period of mourning was done.
"Drop me at the Continental, would you?" JD had asked.
Larabee had done so silently, driving on to Tan Son Nhut with Nathan and Vin still in the jeep. JD hoped they'd got the medic on a flight for the States. He couldn't see any reason for Nathan to stay any longer.
He wasn't sure, but he thought he probably wouldn't see Nathan again. Yet he knew it was possible. Nathan would be there, in the World, alive. Better than the alternative, he thought bitterly. He tipped his head back and let the rain fall into his mouth, not caring how crazy he looked.
It plastered his clothes to his body, curtains of it moving on gusts of hot wind. In Cholon, it was soaking the black ash and running down the gutters in sooty streams. Debris tossed and tumbled on the winds. The horizontal propaganda banners that were strung all over Saigon sagged under the dark weight of the water. More thunder followed another lightning strike.
God's artillery. There was small arms fire in the distance too. JD barely noticed it.
Rain ended. JD wandered through downtown, past sidewalks crowded with stalls selling everything from cameras to Jack Daniels and American aftershave. His clothes dried on him. He took pictures because that was what he did. It was all as ephemeral as a spider's web; if he didn't record it who would?
By six fifteen he was looking at the Marines statue standing in its little patch of greenery in the cross street between Nguyen Hue Boulevard and Tu Do Street. The sun gilded the faded pastels of the old French buildings. The air was glittering clear. The pictures he took were going to be sharper than anything before.
JD turned slowly in place.
Anti-aircraft fire split the sky. Red tracers in brilliant lines against the still overcast sky. Small arms fire followed, echoing around the city, amazing in the heart of Saigon.
JD dived over the low metal hoops set around the statue's little green plot and crouched in the lee of base.
A plane was in the air above the palace. He gaped up at it, then raised the viewfinder of his camera, snapping picture after picture. Sparrows wheeled in the air in startled terror.
Artillery, the real thing this time not thunder, began thundering from the direction of Tan Son Nhut. The North Vietnamese were bombing it with A-37s.
People were running up and down the streets, no one knowing where to go. JD finished his roll of film. Heavy fire still rose into the air all around, bap bap bap bapbapbapbap, new streaks of red overlaying fading lines, and the sparrows were still flying.
He fumbled and loaded a new roll of film.
Toward Tan Son Nhut, the flashes were red and blue and green. He caught his breath and hoped Nathan's plane had already gone.
"Jesus," he murmured to himself. "Jesus."
The war had arrived in Saigon.
It seemed like there should be something he should do. In the end, he walked back to the Continental, ate a meal in his room, talked to Buck on the phone, and later watched along with the other reporters from the roof, flinching when the building seemed to move under them an hour or so later. A great bloom of fire and sound on the horizon accompanied the explosion. They speculated it had been the ammo dump at Long Binh going up. Smaller, secondary and tertiary explosions followed on its heels.
They shared whatever booze had been left by the smarter people who had already evacuated, smoked and joked, and fell into trance-like silences between the echoes of the bombardment.
Buck had managed to get a call through to JD's hotel room around nine. JD replayed that in his mind.
Buck was stuck with a bunch of other helicopter pilots at one of the USAID buildings.
"This is it, kid," he told JD. "You get out tomorrow or you don't get out at all."
"I know," JD acknowledged.
"I haven't been able to get through to Josiah. If you can find him tomorrow, tell him... shit, the Caribou's still down," Buck trailed off. "Don't know if there'll be anything left on the flight line tomorrow anyway. Those kids, I don't know how we can get them out - "
He'd realized Buck had probably been flying since sun up and hadn't heard about the rockets hitting in Cholon. Or at least, hadn't heard where they hit.
"They're dead, Buck," JD told him brutally. "Last night. A 122-mm. hit the orphanage directly. There's nothing left. Nathan made it and some of the kids, but no one knows exactly where they were taken. The Major put Nate on a plane out earlier today."
Buck was quiet for so long JD wondered if the connection had been lost.
"Fuck me, just fuck me," Buck finally said quietly. "I am just fucking done with this shit. I have had enough."
JD poured himself another shot of the Remy Martin someone had left behind and nodded to himself, remembering the rest of the phone call.
"Vin didn't take it too good," he'd said. "Nate looked like he was blaming himself. The Major... well, you know him."
"Wish to hell I could get drunk."
"I'm going to do it for you," JD promised.
"JD, I'll probably end up in U Tapao tomorrow, unless I end up taking a fixed-wing to Brunei," Buck said seriously. "You got the number I gave you? The one for the place I got in Bangkok?"
"You call me there. Something. As soon as you're out, as soon as you can. Promise me."
"I got to get some sleep."
"See you, Buck," he'd said into the phone, contemplating that he was probably lying as he hung it up. There was no guarantee even one of them would make it out of Saigon the next day. But if he did, he'd call.
"Good luck," he'd added.
He'd set the phone down and then packed an airline bag with a change of underwear, socks, a shirt, and all his undeveloped film. He had a good idea that if they did get evacuated, there wouldn't be room for carrying much of anything. Then he had meandered his way to the hotel's roof to watch the fireworks.
Just like looking over Boston Harbor on the Fourth of July - as long as the dying was out of sight.
Tuesday April 29
The first heavy bombardment hit Tan Son Nhut around 0400. Buck and the other pilots stuck at the USAID building rolled out of bed - if they were trying to sleep - and stood around watching the sheets of fire on the horizon. Rockets and mortars poured down on the airport, flares of color dyeing the skyline before the rumble of the explosions carried to where they were. Sometimes a fireball would open like an orange flower as a plane or fuel truck was hit.
Tan Son Nhut wasn't the only place hit.
Early rounds fell on the DAO and Dodge City, where thousands of 'sensitive' Vietnamese were still waiting for the US to get them out. One pounded through the roof of the gym where the evacuees were sleeping, tearing it apart and starting a fire. Another round dropped through the men's room, but it was a dud. Panic followed as people trapped inside tried to get out and others outside fought to get inside under cover. The fire was quelled by the DAO's fire squad before morning.
Buck watched as VNAF F-5s and A-37s took off as dawn approached. Instead of flying sorties, the planes turned toward Thailand and fled the bombardment, arms and external tanks jettisoned on the runways.
Not that every South Vietnamese turned tail and ran.
A twin-boomed AC-119 gunship took to the air as the attack began. It began firing flares and raking fire across the communists' positions around Tan Son Nhut.
"All balls," one of the pilots standing with Buck remarked.
"More like a first-class balls up," someone else added.
Two A-1s joined the AC-119. They cruised the perimeter low and slow, 'trolling' for the gunners in communist emplacements. When they were fired on, the AC-119 tracked back and laid down fire from its Gatling gun, the tracers like a veil of fire extending from the air to the earth.
Around dawn, the AC-119 had to set down to refuel and rearm.
The bombardment went on. It slacked off from the first, heaviest barrage of forty rounds an hour between four-thirty and eight, but would go on all day on and off. The fire was concentrated on the flight line and the fuel and ammo storage depots.
The fireballs were distinct shapes after a while. Buck would count silently. Ten or fifteen seconds after the flash a push of air would hit where he stood, the edge of the explosion surfing ahead of the roar of sound.
The AC-119 made it back into the air. Buck kept an eye on it, admiring the pilot's guts, guessing what would happen eventually.
His Rolex said it was just past seven when a SA-7 Strella surface-to-air missile finally arced up and hit the AC-119.
It spun lazily after it was hit and went down just east of the air base. The crash blazed bright enough to see even in the distance, but only briefly.
Morituri te salutamus.
To the north, heavier artillery boomed. The streets were eerily empty as the sun rose. Off the coast, thousands of boats fled toward the 7th Fleet.
Buck went downstairs and ate a bowl of cereal scrounged from one of the apartments they'd commandeered. Someone had made coffee. He drank that and decided to have a shower. Apparently the embassy was still in denial. One of the other pilots had a CB and word from the company's operations at the airport was for the helicopter pilots to sit tight. One flight controller was trying to negotiate the chaos. An idling F-5 had been abandoned just in front of the AA loading ramp. The pilots needed to stay where they were until a chopper could be organized to pick them up.
There was nothing to do but wait and hope they wouldn't be trapped before someone got their thumb out of their ass.
Just past eight-thirty operations sent a series of helicopters to ferry the pilots back to the airport. Coming in, Buck was struck by how bad everything looked. The AA control tower had been hit during the night. An Air Force C-130 had been hit and exploded with a full load of passengers. Live bombs had been abandoned on the tarmac. Abandoned equipment and crippled Vietnamese aircraft littered the runways. Artillery was still incoming regularly.
Around nine they started launching the fixed-wing jocks, sending them off every ten minutes or so after that, boarding whatever passengers were there, and getting the hell out. Refugees were coming over the fences.
Buck was already in the air with a chopper by then, skipping in to the rooftop landing pads that had been cleared and painted by pessimistic Air America employees earlier in the week. He was flying a Huey without a co-pilot; his co-pilot had taken the next chopper on the flight line when another round of shells hit as they were heading out. They'd taken off within split seconds of each other.
As the day progressed, he gave up on refueling at the airbase and started taking on fuel at the fleet, dropping off his passenger pick-ups there instead of the DAO or the embassy. The military was still waiting on word from the ambassador to begin their operation. Some people still held onto the idea of a fixed-wing evacuation. The AA pilots stayed in touch with each other over the radio, vectoring each other to pick-ups on makeshift pads, covering for each other when one helicopter would have to leave without everyone at a site.
They were ordered to set down and wait after a couple of hours. No explanation given. Buck dug a candy bar out of his shirt pocket and ate it. As bad as things looked right then, his gut told him the day was going to get much, much worse. He'd already taken fire from South Vietnamese troops twice and had to sock a couple of them when they tried to hijack the Huey. He guessed they'd turn on the Americans when they understood they were really being abandoned.
Though why they hadn't expected it, he couldn't figure. The Americans had run out of Phnom Penh. Now they were going to bug out of Saigon. And really, he mocked in his thoughts, why should Americans stick and fight when the South Vietnamese military had done nothing but run since the offensive began?
He sat for about half an hour and then decided fuck it. He was going to go back up. From what he heard over the radio, no way were they getting everyone out. He had to do something.
He kept flying until dark and ended up watching as his Huey was pushed off the decks of a ship in the US fleet, while the captain screamed, "OFF, OFF, OFF!"
As the helicopter, its rotors still in motion, hit the dark waters and churned them white, it finally felt like the end.
He didn't even care when a couple of Marines escorted him to a locked room and left him with several other AA pilots.
It was over.
JD decided that life had reached its zenith of bizarre. The journalists still at the Continental Palace sent down for and were served coffee and croissants and orange juice by Chinese boys still wearing hotel uniforms. Quietly, they were informed the hotel might shut down later in the day. Outside, there was gunfire and shelling.
Someone had figured out that a simple FM transistor radio could monitor the Americans' radio frequencies. They all listened.
Some of the journalists were still thinking about staying on. JD decided he'd heed Buck's advice. He caught a ride with the NBC van to the bus pick up point at the Grall Hospital. It was hot by then. The sweat slicked his palms and stung his eyes as they waited to board the bus.
Once on it, he heaved a small sigh of relief and sat with his airline bag perched on his lap.
The bus went from pickup point to pickup point for the next hour. Then they sat with the sun beating down on the roof for half an hour. One of the other reporters sat silently with tears rolling down his face. Finally, they started up again and headed for Tan Son Nhut.
As the bus joined the line of others on the road to the airport, the people of the city seemed to realize what was happening.
JD closed his eyes and tried to blank his mind. He did his best to keep it that way long after they reached the USS Okinawa and years afterward.
Nathan stared at the TV screen in disbelief. His hands were wrapped in white gauze and he was stretched out on the coverlet of his hotel room in Hawaii. It wasn't much of a room, just a cheap hotel single with a bed, a dresser, a TV and a bathroom with a shower stall. No one had put a lei around his neck when he stepped off the flight from Guam. It didn't matter. When he'd stepped onto the tarmac of the airport, he had felt rocked to his core. He was back in the World, on American soil. And now, eight hours later, he was watching as Saigon died. The images of the helicopters moving in and out of the embassy, the desperate crowds fighting to get inside, the boats streaming away from the prospect of communist rule, burned.
Chris couldn't swear how he ended up at the DAO with Vin in tow. Bad luck, good luck, he wasn't sure. They found themselves helping the State Department people keep the thousands of Vietnamese waiting there through the morning from panicking.
Word came at 1100 that the Fleet was sending helicopters, but the hours passed afterward in agonizing slow motion with no sign of them.
An Air Force colonel arrived at one point with a jeep full of C-rations and baby food for the people waiting. Most of them hadn't eaten since the day before. The first thropthropthrop of approaching deliverance didn't sound until 1400.
When the helicopters arrived and began loading, each sortie was fired on by South Vietnamese Airborne troops.
He stuck and Vin stuck with him, trying to keep people calm, separating them into groups to load into the choppers. A group of Marines were dispatched to deal with the disgruntled ARVN soldiers and the gunfire died down.
He had to snort as he heard a colonel comment, "Well, they're small enough aren't they? Form 'em up in groups of ninety. We'll see how that works." It was just so pragmatic and arrogant at the same time.
At one point in the day, he glimpsed JD sprinting with a group of journalists across the baseball field to the second landing point they were using. There was no time to say anything, just a sharp, brief stab of relief. The kid was going to get out. One of them would make it.
By nightfall all but a few hundred people had been evacuated from Dodge City, where Chris found himself, still with Vin in tow. A couple of Marines seemed to realize neither of them were military after all and herded them over to take the last chopper out of the location.
Someone had set fire to an old wooden barracks to give the helicopters a beacon.
They snaked through a cluster of trailers that had formed the officers' living quarters to the last staging area at the DAO movie theater. They went through the baseball field, the eyes of the prone Marines covering their withdrawal flashing white, their faces taut with adrenaline and fear.
When they boarded the chopper, they all fell silent. The wind blast from the helicopters landing and taking off all day had scoured his skin and left Chris's voice raw and whispery from yelling over the noise. It didn't seem like there was anything left worth shouting over the noise of the engines as they lifted off.
They headed east. Below, fires shone in the darkness encircling the city. Long Binh burned furiously.
When they reached the USS Midway, a man was waiting to place the handcuffs on Vin's wrists.
Vin sat in the brig. No one told him anything, but it didn't matter any more. He hurt in ways he'd never imagined and thought that he finally understood. This was grief, this was withdrawal: this aching need for something that had made him feel so wonderful, for something he needed, for something that had been taken away.
Nothing would ever get it back.
He laid down and turned his face to the wall.
The worst cages were the ones you built around yourself.
Josiah wiped the sweat off Ezra's forehead. They were in one of the backrooms of the French Embassy, courtesy of Ezra's friend Brouchard and the passports Ezra had insisted they keep on their persons at all times. According to those passports, Josiah was a French-Canadian named Josephe Sanchet, a contract worker for the French embassy, while Ezra was identified him as Edouard Simone.
Ezra slitted his eyes open. "You look worried, 'siah."
"I am, brother."
"We'll get out. Just let me do any talking. Your French is acceptable, but your accent is terrible."
Ezra had been unconscious and bleeding from the nose and mouth when Josiah carried him out of the burning orphanage. Josiah had carried him away from the scene, dazed himself, and let two firemen bundle them both into a truck that took them to the hospital. Ezra had come around while they were waiting, insisted he didn't need a doctor and persuaded Josiah to accompany him to the apartment on Tu Do Street.
They slept through most of the day, failed to make it out to Tan Son Nhut, and couldn't contact any of the others. Two ARVN soldiers had almost shot them as they tried to reach the American embassy. Luck had let them slip inside the French embassy next door, along with several journalists and various other foreign nationals that found themselves stranded or forgotten.
Brouchard had given them his office to rest in.
Softly, Ezra said, "Brouchard will arrange our exit, Josiah. He wouldn't want the North Vietnamese to learn some of the things I've done for the French. Not now."
"That's why you brought us here, isn't it?"
He nodded tiredly.
"They owe me."
"I still want to go to Chon Buri."
"Because your sister's there."
"In part. My penance isn't ended."
"It wasn't your fault, 'siah. None of it was your fault," Ezra told him.
Josiah knew he meant it. Ezra was too exhausted, too tired and damaged to maintain the masks that let him lie so effortlessly most of the time. Josiah disapproved of Ezra's games and manipulations and the cynical attitude he took about the world, but he couldn't deny the man had a kind side. It wasn't kindness alone that prompted the reassurance Ezra offered though; Ezra saw the darkness in men, including Josiah, clearly. He wouldn't hesitate to point out a fault he saw.
"I know," Josiah said. "I don't condemn myself for the lives I couldn't save, Ezra." His guilt went back much farther, to a cold day in Korea when he first picked up a gun and let his rage free. "I still have much to pay for, though."
He waited for Ezra to answer, but found his friend had slipped into sleep again. He moved restlessly and his face twisted in pain.
"We all have to pay in our own ways, brother," he said, laying a calming hand on Ezra's shoulder. "We'll all be paying the rest of our lives."
Someone I Used to Love
JD liked dark bars - dark wood, dark booths in corners, no windows, and not too many hookers. If he could find one that didn't have too many of his fellow reporters that was still within stumbling distance of his current hotel, he was a happy camper. He'd found one, a little on the classy side for a guy who tried not to wear a tie if he didn't have to, but if the T-shirt he wore under his sport coat didn't bother anyone else, it sure didn't bother him.
He was minding his own business, staring into the half-emptied depths of his tumbler of whiskey, when a familiar voice addressed him.
"Comment ça va?"
It was strange, looking up and meeting that green gaze in the dim depths of the bar. He'd spent the last eight years thinking Ezra was dead. Yet part of him had never been convinced. That made it easy to grin and invite him to sit down.
"You look good," he'd said after Ezra arranged for the bottle of expensive brandy to be delivered to their booth.
It was true. Time had treated Ezra kindly. His boyish features were leaner but still youthful. He looked healthy and the blue, tailored Saville Row suit he wore concealed a body that was still fit and strong. His hair looked a little longer, a little darker, and a streak of white marked where a scar snaked into his hairline. The special patina of success lent him a certain gloss; money, JD had discovered, did make difference you could recognize. The ones that had it possessed an ease and confidence that couldn't be codified or duplicated. Ezra had always had style; now he apparently had the money to support it.
"You look tired," Ezra had responded. He'd waved the two strong-arm types with him to wait at another table.
Bodyguards. JD had seen enough of their types to recognize them easily.
"Reporting on wars gets old after a while," JD admitted. It did. Since leaving Vietnam, he'd covered the Middle East, Central America, and a dozen brushfire conflicts in Africa. He kept a one-room apartment in New York just to maintain a US address, but lived out of a dufflebag in hotels and foxholes. Some days he couldn't remember what it was like to wake up in a country that spoke English.
"Even when you're as good at it as you are?"
"How do you know I'm good?"
"I see your name on the pictures and the articles," Ezra said easily. He smiled wryly. "You were easy to keep up with."
JD frowned. "Yeah, why is it this is the first time I've seen you? What about the others? Have you been in touch with them?" Suddenly he leaned forward. "What about Josiah? Where is he?"
Ezra's expression turned melancholy. "Josiah went to Chon Buri, they way we'd meant to," he explained. There was a sudden distance between them, the weight of eight years past tangible and present. "He stayed there a while, then his... penance... pushed him into going back into Cambodia. He was smuggling refugees out, mostly children, when a Khmer Rouge patrol caught him. They shot him." Ezra stopped and sipped the brandy. "He made it back across the border and died at the Vista City Mission. Infection."
Ezra shrugged fluidly. "I believe he felt some sense of peace, that he had redeemed himself. He brought an entire family out with him on that run. I think his debts were finally paid to his own satisfaction."
JD knew Ezra was letting his sadness show. Ezra had never let much show unless he meant to; he doubted Ezra had changed that much.
JD picked up the balloon glass of brandy and held it up. "RIP Father Sanchez."
Ezra mimicked his motion and they both drank deeply.
"So what are you doing here?" JD asked him afterward.
"Business," Ezra replied.
JD raised his eyebrows.
"Business like you used to do in Saigon?"
Ezra rocked his hand. "Comme deus gouttes d'eau." Another wry smile graced his features.
Well. He shouldn't be surprised. JD was still a reporter, still a vulture, as Nathan put it. Nathan himself was still balanced on his own knife edge between saving and taking lives, making his money as a mercenary while running his clinic in Watts. Buck still flew. So, no surprise that Ezra still played the game.
He smiled into the knowing eyes to take the sting out of his words.
"Secrets, guns and drugs."
"Oui. A little more information, a little less of the latter. I've never enjoyed working with fanatics, frankly." Ezra sighed. "Beirut was a beautiful city once. I'm going back to France soon."
"That's where you've been?"
"I spent several years in Australia," Ezra said. He hesitated and even looked away before straightening his shoulders. "I did try to discover what had become of Mr. Tanner... Leavenworth." He shuddered theatrically. "Despite his disdain for any effort I might make in his behalf, I only wish him the best."
JD nodded sympathetically. There it was. The reason Ezra had held himself separate from the rest of them for eight years was Vin Tanner.
"He's out, you know," he said.
Ezra raised his eyebrows.
"The Major finally collared that weasel Eli Joe and got enough evidence out of him to get Vin released."
"Major Larabee's determination was always extraordinary."
"Yeah, I guess. He's got a horse ranch down in Texas. Vin's there."
Ezra's expression took on a distant cast.
"You could surprise 'em," JD suggested.
Ezra shook his head. "No. No, I don't believe that would be wise."
Ezra tapped the gold band on one finger. JD blinked. Hunh. He opened his mouth to ask who she was and realized Ezra would have said more if he'd meant JD to know anything more. Instead, he just nodded.
Ezra offered a weak smile and got to his feet. He offered his hand. JD took it.
"It was good to see you, JD."
"Wait, just a sec - " JD fumbled and pulled a notebook out of his jacket pocket. He accepted the Mont Blanc pen Ezra handed him with a grin. "Nice."
Ezra laughed softly.
He scrawled his US address, phone numbers and the name of his agent on a sheet torn from the notebook and handed it back with the pen. "Here. Call me. Leave me a message. Just, you know, don't disappear, okay?"
Ezra made a heavy, embossed card appear with the same dexterity he'd honed with card tricks and handed it over. There was no name on it. Just four phone numbers in deep black script. "If you should need me," he said.
JD carefully put the card in his wallet.
Ezra paused. "JD."
"I hesitate to offer advice, but... stay away from the Marine Barracks. In fact, it would be wise to get out of Beirut entirely."
Ezra lifted two fingers to the brim of an imaginary hat, smiled, and left without answering.
Vin wandered through the gallery. JD's pictures were displayed on walls the color seafoam, a chronicle of war and misery and moments of surreal beauty. Some were black and white and all the shades of gray; some were in sharp, eye-searing color. They varied in size from a blow-up that covered half a wall to a series of snapshots no more than three by three laid out in an uneven line at a height that forced him to bend to look at them closely. They spanned the last fifteen years of armed conflict in an amazing display.
He was glad he'd let Chris persuade him to accept the invitation to the gallery showing of JD's work. Seeing a badly reproduced picture here and there in various newspapers or even in a glossy magazine article didn't convey the power of all it gathered in one place.
It had felt good to see Buck and Nathan again too. Buck had pulled him into a rough, joyous hug and slapped his back. Nathan had given him a white-toothed grin over Buck's shoulder.
They'd all greeted and congratulated JD together, before he'd been swept away by the gallery director to talk to a publisher who wanted to put together a book of the Morrison Prize winning photographer's work and essays. JD had caught his eye before allowing himself to be drawn away.
There was something sad in JD's gaze that made Vin wonder if he'd changed that much. He couldn't see it in the mirror, working the ranch and the horses kept him lean and strong, but sometimes he did think prison had left a mark on him. It was damn hard to keep from turning bitter when he thought of the years he'd lost because the system had screwed up. He tried to remember that Eli Joe had manipulated the situation, but that didn't always help during those five long years.
That left the four of them and Vin felt just a little awkward. After he got out of Leavenworth, he never wanted to be closed inside anywhere again. Sometimes, even being in a house or a car was too much for him. He'd slept in a sleeping bag out in the back pasture of Chris's ranch at first. He'd got over the worst of the claustrophobia after a year or so, but he stayed away from anywhere but the nearest town until lately and then he only went to the city for one thing. He hadn't gone to see Nathan's clinic in Watts. He hadn't seen Buck unless the man came by Chris's the ranch. The same with JD. His hermitish existence didn't provide much in the way of conversational material.
He left Chris reminiscing about something from their shared childhood in Indiana with Buck. He'd let those two old friends spend some time together without him hovering at the edge of the conversation.
Nathan was discussing something about drug licensing and foreign markets with a woman in a red sari. Vin watched for second and smiled. The woman was nodding while Nathan's voice got more intense, spiking on words like Third World and corporate marketing and experimental. Vin chuckled. Nathan always had to have a cause; it gave him something to gripe about.
He turned away and began examining the pictures. It was startling each time he found one that echoed something he'd known or been present to see. The pictures from JD's first year in Vietnam weren't as technically good as his later efforts, but they delivered a visceral hit.
A set of portraits grouped together froze Vin in his tracks.
God. There was Chris delivering that laser glare to a glass of whiskey, half his face in shadow, sitting at the booth the seven of them had appropriated at the Blue Rose. Jesus, the man had looked bad back then, meaner than a rabid rattler and ready to fight. He still wasn't exactly a bucket of posies, but the man had life in his eyes.
He had to grin looking at the next two pictures. St. Patrick's Day and Valentine's Day, respectively: Buck in shocking color with an emerald green leprechaun hat three-sizes too small perched on his dark head, dressed in a plaid kilt on a dare from JD, sitting in the door of a Pilatus Porter parked somewhere in the bush, laughing at the camera, and Nathan in a pink velvet 'pimp suit', bell-bottomed pants and pointy collared shirt, a huge hat dipped over one eye, still clutching the bottle of vodka they'd emptied into him before getting him into that outfit. Sweet Jesus, they'd all been drunk as lords that day, so sure there was no tomorrow.
The next picture reminded him it had been true.
It was Ezra caught in black and white, a half-smile on his lips, and it felt like being hit just looking and remembering. He recognized the location; Ezra had liked to buy the newspaper and a coffee at a sidewalk stall two blocks from his apartment. He'd sit and sip and read before the day turned hot, smoke a cigarette and talk with the street boys in his fluent Vietnamese.
Vin curled his hands into fists and shoved them deep in his pockets. He forced himself to take a deep breath. Maybe it was time to face up to some things. He'd been a coward. He still was, he supposed; he didn't bring his 'dates' back to the ranch, didn't even stay the night with them. After Charlotte and prison it had been all men. He wasn't proud of that because he had to admit that was what he'd always wanted. He hadn't been honest enough with himself to face that when he was with Ezra, so he'd latched onto the first excuse he could to wreck their relationship: Li Pong.
He'd always known Ezra wasn't sleeping with her. They never touched each other like lovers and Ezra, at least, had made his own preferences clear. Ezra had liked men. He may have loved Vin. But Vin had stomped all over that in his panic at having an affair with another man that was more than quick and dirty relief of a shameful urge. He'd done his damnedest to punish Ezra for not hating himself the way Vin did.
It was fucking pitiful. He'd even used Charlotte just as much as she'd used him. She was just a trophy to point to that proved he was a man.
He looked at the picture again. Ezra hadn't deserved the way Vin treated him. The man was a long way from perfect - he had an unholy fondness for money and a tricky set of semi-ethics Vin had never quite fathomed - but he'd never held anything back in bed.
"Sorry, Ez," he whispered.
Vin spun and stared at the man he'd just apologized to. Shock froze him.
"JD said you might be here."
It was impossible. Ezra stood there in front of him, looking slightly amused, and very much alive.
"You're a ghost," Vin accused.
"Reports of my death have been greatly ex - "
"You're gonna be a ghost!" Vin snapped. He crossed the room and slammed Ezra back against a wall. The picture mounted there rocked and threatened to fall. "You sonovabitch!"
He drew his fist back, ready to hit Ezra, and heard a gasp from the doorway. Footsteps raced away. Damn it. Ezra just looked at him, jade eyes unfathomable. The outrage and anger drained away. Vin's fist opened and he set his hand along Ezra's face as gently as he could. He drew in a deep breath and filled his lungs with the scent of cologne and Ezra. The skin under his fingers was warm and alive.
"Jesus, Ezra," he breathed as he stepped closer and dropped his forehead against Ezra's. "Jesus. I grieved for you."
Ezra's hands had come up to sit lightly on Vin's shoulder, the weight barely noticeable but burning through his jacket and shirt into his skin. He pulled back far enough to gaze into Ezra's eyes again.
"Did you miss me at all?" he asked in a croak.
"I began missing you long before you were gone," Ezra said softly. The mask slipped and all his sorrow played across his face briefly.
Vin took another step back. Ezra's hands fell away. Whatever he felt disappeared and he turned a composed and urbane expression toward the security guard who stepped into the room.
"Are you all right, sir?" the guard asked.
"Perfectly," Ezra answered in a bland voice.
The guard eyed Vin suspiciously but left.
Ezra straightened his suit coat, fussed with his cuffs, and didn't look at Vin.
"Ezra - "
"Perhaps we would be better served to conduct this conversation somewhere offering a greater degree of privacy," Ezra interrupted him. He raised an eyebrow and waited.
Vin nodded wordlessly. All he could think was how much he wanted to be somewhere private enough he could touch Ezra, touch him and make up for all the wasted years he'd denied what he really needed.
Ezra took him back to a hotel suite. There was no real reason for that to disturb Vin; he didn't know where Ezra called home anymore. But it was an anonymous hotel suite, not the intimacy of Ezra's apartment on Tu Do Street. Ezra wasn't going to replay the past with him. Maybe Ezra wasn't offering him a second chance.
Then Ezra offered him a drink and told him he'd been pleased when JD offered the news that Vin had been released from Leavenworth.
"When'd he tell you that?" Vin asked. He'd accepted a whiskey. Ezra had a tumbler of scotch.
"About seven years ago. We were in Beirut."
"He never said anything to anyone else," Vin said bitterly. "Just left us thinking you was dead."
Ezra shrugged fluidly. "I believe he mentioned me to Buck."
"Just not me and Chris."
"As matters stood, it was best," Ezra said.
Ezra raised his scotch to his mouth and swallowed some. He watched Vin as he did so. His throat worked as the liquor went down.
Vin wanted to trace his fingers down over Ezra's Adam's-apple. He wanted to pluck open the first button on the collar of Ezra's expensive dress shirt, slide the knot of his silk tie loose, and lean close enough to taste the skin in that little hollow at the base of his throat. He wanted to feel the flutter of Ezra's pulse there and the way his breath hitched. He wanted... everything. He wanted Ezra.
"Ezra," he said. His mouth was dry.
Ezra stilled, just watching him.
"Ezra, you said 'as matters stood'. Does that mean something's different now?"
"Yes and no."
Vin stood up and walked over to him. "Yes or no?"
Ezra closed his eyes.
"Ez, I still want you."
Ezra nodded. "Yes," he said. It wasn't an answer, just an acknowledgement. His eyes flicked open and he stepped aside, setting the half-empty tumbler on the sideboard with the liquor bottles. He began undressing, starting with his tie. Vin followed him into the bedroom.
He stripped out of his own clothes automatically, admiring the grace and care Ezra displayed unconsciously as he undressed and the sleek body was gradually uncovered. He couldn't remember if he'd wanted Ezra so much when he'd first seen him. It didn't seem possible.
There were new scars. Vin traced them with his eyes then his hands and tongue. Ezra opened himself to everything, letting him lead then letting him follow, until there was nothing they hadn't done, hadn't touched and tasted and learned all over again. Nothing, he knew, nothing and no one would ever make him feel the way Ezra did.
When morning came, he blinked at the light coming through the curtains and grinned. Ezra still slept beside him. Vaguely, he thought he'd have to come up with some kind of excuse for Chris. Chris didn't know about Ezra after all; he'd be worried that Vin had just disappeared from the gallery.
He'd have to come up with something, some story. It would have to fit into whatever they decided to tell folks about Ezra coming to live in Texas. It would look sort of funny if after so many years of staying at the ranch, Vin just moved out when Ezra showed back up. He wasn't worried though because he knew Ezra could think of something. Chris had never guessed when they were together before.
A faint change in the rhythm of Ezra's breathing told him Ezra was awake. He turned his head and smiled at the mussed, sleepy-eyed man beside him.
"Guess we got some things to figure out now," he said.
Ezra leaned closer and kissed him. It wasn't like their kisses during the night; there was no desire in it. It stilled something in Vin.
Ezra slid out of the bed and headed for the bathroom. "Not yet, Vin," he called behind him.
Vin admired the muscles in his back and backside as he walked away.
When the sound of the shower started, he rolled over and retrieved the phoneset from the table beside the bed. He dialed the number for his and Chris's hotel.
"Hey, cowboy," he said when Chris answered.
"Where the fuck are you?"
Vin opened his mouth to explain he'd been with Ezra. He started to tell the truth.
Then Chris laughed and added, "Buck swore you'd gone off to get laid. It's about damn time. You don't want folks to start thinking you're queer."
Vin sank back against the headboard of the bed. "Yeah," he said tiredly.
"So did you?"
"What?" he asked.
Ezra came out of the bathroom with a towel wrapped low around his waist. His hair was still dark with damp. He'd shaved in the shower too. The heavy heat of need began gathering at Vin's groin again.
"Huh? Yeah," he answered. "Yeah, I got laid."
Ezra raised an eyebrow.
"So, how was she?"
"Good," Vin said. "She was real good."
"I owe Buck twenty bucks," Chris sighed in his ear.
Vin barely heard him. Ezra was looking at him with all the sorrow in the world written on his face. He turned away from Vin and began drawing clothes from the closet.
"Look, Chris," Vin interrupted, "I gotta go. I'll see you later." He hung up the phone and watched as Ezra dressed hurriedly. His arousal had dissipated.
"Tell me something, Vin," Ezra asked as he buttoned up a blue dress shirt then tucked it inside the waistband of his slacks. He slid a slim black belt through the loops and fastened it. "What do you intend next?"
"Gotta figure a way for the two us to keep getting together back in Texas."
Ezra's sharp gaze examined him. Vin found himself wishing he'd got up and dressed too. He felt flayed open and didn't like it.
"Without telling Major Larabee, I imagine," Ezra remarked.
"He don't need to know what's between us."
"What us?" Ezra replied dryly. "I have no interest in spending any time in Texas, Vin." He'd finished dressing and now picked up his watch from the top of the dresser and slipped it over his wrist.
Vin looked at his reflection in the mirror.
"I got a good life going in Texas, Ez. I own half of the ranch with Chris now. I can't pick up and leave," he said angrily.
Ezra turned around and leaned back against the dresser.
"I don't want you to," he said flatly.
"I won't be anyone's dirty little secret. Not again."
"It ain't like that - "
"'She was real good.' Isn't that what you just said?" Ezra demanded.
"Last night..." Vin swallowed hard. "You know how much I want you. I know you want me."
"Not enough, Vin. Not enough."
"So what are you saying?"
"Just like that?" Vin exclaimed in disbelief. "Just like what we got together is nothing?"
"It was nothing," Ezra snapped. "It was sex. It was sex with someone I used to love, but you aren't that man anymore and I don't think you ever knew me."
He didn't yell and that made it worse. Vin couldn't yell and argue when Ezra wasn't. Ezra just laid it out, sounding a little tired and so damn disappointed.
"I knew everything I needed to know about you, Ezra."
"Did you know I was working for French Intelligence from the beginning? Did you know I would have quit for you, disappeared with you if that's what you wanted? Did you know I loved you?"
Vin ducked his head.
"Did you know I never lied about sleeping with men until you?"
"It's really amazing, Vin. All the dirty tricks I've pulled over the years, and you're the one that can make me ashamed."
There didn't seem to be much to say to that. Vin got out of bed, scooped up his clothes and marched into the bathroom. An overhead fan was running, but the small room was still steamy and warm. He adjusted the shower temperature to his liking, stepped into the water, and concentrated on washing himself. He didn't let himself think outside the physical task.
Afterward, he shaved with Ezra's razor and used the new toothbrush that had been set out for him. He dressed in his clothes from the night before.
Ezra was in the suite's other room. A carafe of coffee with an extra cup and saucer sat on the table. He silently gestured for Vin to help himself as he scanned the paper in his hands.
As he poured, Vin noticed something that hadn't been present the night before: a wedding ring on Ezra's finger.
"You're married," he accused bitterly.
Ezra lifted his head. He glanced at the ring.
"I was." He hesitated then explained, "That was part of why I stayed away, Vin. Charlotte and I never loved each other, but I did owe her my faithfulness."
Vin gasped for breath.
"Charlotte. My Charlotte?"
Ezra raised an eyebrow. "Charlotte." He shrugged. "I met her again in Sydney, a year or so after Saigon fell. Richmond had divorced her. She was in dire straits. We made a mutually beneficial agreement to marry."
"Did you sleep with her?" Vin asked. He felt angry and betrayed. Did you fucking fantasize about me when you were with her? Maybe you both did. Damn them both, they were supposed to care about him not each other!
"I married her," Ezra said. "Yes, we did sleep together. Often enough and well enough that we had two children, both of whom are at school here in France. Another reason anything between us is impossible."
"Fucking Christ!" Vin yelled. He brought his coffee cup down on the table so hard it shattered. Coffee spilled over the table and his hand. He snatched it back, shaking the hot liquid off. "Shit! Sonovabitch!"
He fought down his temper. Ezra waited patiently, unruffled by Vin's display. Or if not unruffled, then tightly controlled and hiding it.
Vin pointed at the ring. "You said you 'was' married? How come you still got that? Where is she?"
"I wear the ring sometimes to remind me of my obligations," Ezra explained. "To our children. Charlotte died in a car accident four years ago."
Vin couldn't hold onto the anger. What right did he have to it? He'd left them both. He'd made his choices without worrying about how anyone else would deal with what his pride insisted he do.
As you sow, so shall ye reap, his mama would have told him.
Ezra was blotting up the spilled coffee with a napkin, indifferent to Vin's sorrow and confusion.
"Ezra?" he said tightly.
Ezra glanced up.
"You know, I did love you, even if I never had the guts to say it."
Ezra looked surprised. "No, I didn't know. Sometimes I thought so."
"Have you got any pictures of your kids?"
"Vin, don't - "
"Okay, yeah." He wiped his hand off with the napkin Ezra handed over, not looking up. "It's just... Wish I'd done things different back then, 'cause it's too late now, isn't it?"
"I'm afraid so."
Vin nodded to himself and dropped the napkin on the table. "And you can't be sorry, not the way I am, 'cause you got your kids this way. " He managed a smile. "Bet they're a handful."
He got up. "Well." He held out his hand to Ezra, who took it and just held it, not shaking it. Vin tightened his grip slightly. "Guess it's time I got back to my hotel. We fly back home tomorrow and I wanted to see JD before we go."
Ezra let go first.
"Good-bye, Vin," he said sadly.
Vin groped for something else to say, but there was nothing. He let the momentum of that realization propel him out of the suite and down to the street, where he got a cab.
It was raining, he noticed. In the rain, in the morning, Paris was a gray, gray city without a hint of its famous charm as far as Vin was concerned.
He leant his head against the cold glass of the cab's window. Bitterness rose in him. Damn Ezra. Damn him for refusing to let Vin go on lying. Damn him for even being alive, because it was so much easier when Vin thought he was dead. There were no choices to make before he saw Ezra again; Ezra had made him face himself this morning.
It was a new day and he was still the same.
If you enjoyed this story, we're sure that Auburn would love to hear from you.
The musical soundtrack to this story goes like this: We Gotta Get Outta This Place, The Animals; All Along the Watchtower, Jimi Hendrix; Wild Horses, The Rolling Stones; Gimme Shelter, The Rolling Stones; Panic in Detroit, David Bowie; Someone I Used to Love, Bruce Cockburn.
[i] The Blue Rose Night Club is modeled very loosely on The Pink Night Club in the Hotel Catinat, both real places in 1975 Saigon. The Blue Rose's name is also a tribute to Peter Straub's Koko.
[ii] Chinh Luan was a well respected Vietnamese language newspaper, often critical of the South Vietnamese government headed by President Thieu.
[iii] The Purple Porpoise was a real bar in Vientiane, Laos where the Air America pilots, spooks, and other odds and sods hung out. The only people unwelcome were reporters and journalists.
[iv] Lyrics from The Rolling Stones, Wild Horses.
[v] Lyrics from The Rolling Stones, Gimme Shelter.
[vi] KMT - Chinese Nationalist Army.
[vii] beans-and-dicks - the GIs' name for military C-Ration beans and hotdogs.
[viii] giai phong - liberated.
[ix] DAO - Defense Attaché's Office.
[x] 'Shortly after midnight on Sunday, five communist 122-mm. rockets slammed into the capital. One scored a direct hit on the penthouse of the Majestic Hotel on the river. Three others landed in a crowded, ramshackle neighborhood of Cholon. The rockets themselves and the fires they started killed at least twelve people. The rocket attack seemed to be a pointed message to the Saigon politicians to stop their squabbling.' from David Butler's The Fall of Saigon.
Auburn, Sep 30, 2004 4:29:15 PM
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