/ Language: English / Genre:thriller / Series: WW III

South China Sea

Ian Slater

On the South China Sea an oil rig erupts in flames — as AK-47 tracer rounds stitch the night and men die in pools of blood. The SOSUS underwater network catapults news of the attack to Washington-while ChiCom troops mass on the Vietnamese border. Ten divisions of Chinese shock troops blast their way south, overrunning the U.S.-U.N-led Emergency Response Force. But the West's best warriors fight back. U.S. Special Forces, British SAS, and the legendary Gurkhas, their Kukri knives drawn, go toe-to-toe with the invaders. Tomcats and F-18s pulverize the jungle. And the Military Sealift Command hurls Aegis cruisers and Wasp-Iwo Jima, and Spruance-class attack ships — spearheaded by Sea Wolf subs-into the South China Sea. From Japan to Malaysia, the Pacific Rim is ablaze — in a hell called… WORLD WAR III

Ian Slater

SOUTH CHINA SEA

PROLOGUE

North Carolina

At the Emergency Response Force training area at Fort Bragg, one of the recruits was puzzled when told in no uncertain terms that he had to take his dog tags off — put one around his neck, the other in his boot.

“Why my boot?’

“Because,” the sergeant said, “if we ever go into combat, you might get decapitated. Then we wouldn’t know who you are — correction, were.”

“That’s nice. Thank God we ain’t at war.”

“Sonny,” the sergeant said in his southern drawl, shaking his head, “we could be at war anytime. The new world order is disorder. Since the Berlin Wall came down, since Russia’s shake-up, we got more flashpoints poppin’ up than you can shake a stick at.”

* * *

Thousands of miles to the east, in the Pacific, west of the Marianas, the USS Enterprise was in its prelaunch mode. High up in the carrier’s island in Primary Flight Control, the yellow-jerseyed air boss issued the command for all hands on deck for an FOD, or foreign object damage, walkdown. A dropped pencil or, in the case of the female sailors aboard, something as outwardly insignificant as a bobby pin, could be sucked in and destroy a jet engine or take out the eye of a deck or air crew member.

The FOD walkdown, usually a tedious business with a string of sailors stretched from side to side on the flight deck, heads all down, was fast becoming a more popular duty — with females to walk with and bump into. The air boss didn’t like the new Pentagon order assigning women aboard all naval vessels except submarines. Quite frankly, he was afraid a male sailor’s downward gaze would soon shift from a deck to a bosom and miss something.

“What are you doing tonight?” a gunner’s mate, Stevens, A., head down, asked Able-Bodied Sailor Elizabeth Franks, who was a “grape,” a purple jacket, a refueler. They couldn’t help but brush up against one another, the line was so tight.

“I think I’ll watch a movie,” she replied. “You?”

“Ah…” said Stevens, a man she’d never seen before. “Think I’ll watch a movie too.”

“You know what’s on?”

“Don’t care what’s on,” he said, shooting her a knowing glance.

“How come?” she asked.

“Oh,” he said, “I come pretty much the same as any other guy. Only better.”

“Sheesh! Can’t you guys ever get your mind out of your shorts?”

“Nope.”

“You’re married,” she said, seeing his wedding band.

“So?”

“Hey, you two!” hollered a bosun. “Less talk, more walk!”

Stevens complained under his breath, “This is gonna be one hell of a cruise. See you later.”

Stevens would see her later — in the South China Sea— and it would be one hell of a cruise, but for reasons none of the five thousand aboard the mighty carrier could possibly imagine.

* * *

Amid the white and gold elegance of the White House’s East Room, the President of the United States sat in the center front row, listening to a string quartet playing Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” The music of fall passed into the bleakness of winter, and in that moment he felt the full weight of his office. Politically, the change from the cold war to the new world order had, ironically, meant more disorder than ever before, and with the collapse of the Soviet Union, America alone was the superpower.

But superpower or not, it could not be the world’s policeman. It could not be everywhere at the same time. Hard decisions had to be made. Involvement in the Balkans and what used to be Yugoslavia — no; Somalia — yes; Haiti, yes. And every time the President made such a decision, it involved American lives — the world now so volatile in the absence of the Soviet-U.S. balance that trouble could and did start anywhere. Sometimes a place the President had never heard of before suddenly erupted in violence and was emblazoned across the world’s headlines via the vast electronic net of CNN.

In the music there were the stirrings of spring, but winter still held sway, and while the President of the United States listened to promises of spring, thousands of miles west of the East Room, Danny Mellin was still deep in an American winter….

CHAPTER ONE

Oklahoma

One glance southward and Danny Mellin knew he was in trouble, the advance winds of the twister coming his way having already dropped the temperature to minus thirty. But he wouldn’t stop drilling — couldn’t stop. Besides, they’d reached 3,600 feet, and at $11.50 a foot and already in the hole with the bank, Mellin figured he didn’t have much choice. His sturdy five-foot-nine-inch frame stood out against the oil rig as he watched the derrick hand fifty feet up the hundred-foot-high rig swing out and help bully a new sixty-foot stand of pipe into position over a massive block, snow-dusted and black around its eye, looking like some enormous predatory head bent on battering the rig to pieces. Beyond, everywhere Mellin looked, the scene was an endless expanse of snow.

Danny, forty-five but looking older, was stamping his feet by the lazy bench, the relief crew warming up in the tin doghouse whose loose roof panel kept flapping in the wind. The bit was going through the Oklahoma rock beneath the barren, snow-flat landscape at just over three feet a minute, and Danny started arguing with himself — the logical, reasonable half of him telling him to pull ‘er out and wrap it up, not to tempt the storm, before they got to the four-thousand-foot level. The seismic maps told him he’d probably have another two hundred feet to go before he could hope for a good enough layer that might yield production—if there was any oil there at all.

Everyone who wasn’t a roughneck, even some of the “worms”—the apprentice roughnecks — thought that all an independent like Danny did was stand around the doghouse worrying the hole, and that when he wasn’t at the hole he must be wheeling and dealing in the taverns — that it was all booze and pussy talk. But Danny had spent most of the week on the phone calming down a landowner who said that the mud and drainage pit Danny had drilled last summer hadn’t dried properly before being “dozed” over.

Then there was the lease on the equipment. With the Mideast situation as dicey as ever, everyone who had a truck and rusty pipe was trying to make a buck Stateside, sending the rentals cost sky-high. Price of crude had shot right through the roof, and it meant drilling for wells in country that would have been ignored a year before because of cheaper oil. And it had brought out cowboys, along with the roughnecks, guys who were dreaming of a repeat of the big boom of the early eighties and who didn’t think about the bust that could follow. Already half a dozen guys, all of them over fifty — most repatriated from the Clinton cutbacks in the armed services after the Iraqi War — had lost a hand or a finger in the quick chain wrap as they’d tried to put on another thirty-foot pipe.

This hole was Rummer Number 6, Rummer being the name of the landowner. The first five holes had been dusters, as dry as an Oakie’s throat, so the crew had dubbed this one “Bummer Number Six.”

“What’s the mud doctor say?” the foreman shouted in the rising wind.

“Same dose as yesterday,” Danny answered. The truth was, he hadn’t had the rock fragments from yesterday analyzed by a geologist for the best cooling mud, figuring from his own observation that the rock layer they were going through was the same as yesterday’s. He could be wrong, but the geologist had been held up by the snow and Danny wasn’t going to wait. Every hour with a payroll of fourteen put him further in the damn hole. Besides, you never knew when the next sucker could be your opener for a million-barrel well; then it’d be Hawaii and cold cans of Coors from daylight to dark.

“The shit it would be,” his foreman said. “You’d start drilling Waikiki, Danny.”

“Yeah, I reckon,” Danny admitted. He cupped his hands and shouted across the ice-crusted platform, “What are we now?”

“Thirty-six twenty,” the foreman shouted back.

“When we get to ‘fifty, better start doing a drill stem.” Glancing at his watch, then at the vast, bruised sky, Danny added, “Wiley said he’d be here ‘round ten.”

The foreman raised his thumb to show he’d heard. Wiley was a “kiosk” geologist with a fold-down, fold-up portable lab, but analysts aside, Danny believed it was as much a matter of sheer luck. You had to be in the right place — a few feet either way and you could miss the pocket, rock reservoirs of oil formed in the waves of sedimentary layers.

Danny wasn’t looking for hundred-foot jets of black gold shooting up in the air — that was all Clark Gable and Gary Cooper crap. All he wanted was enough pressure to tap the sucker. And Rummer was no dummy dirt farmer. With his computer, he knew the market almost as quickly as the hustlers on Wall Street, and had insisted on one in six barrels before he’d signed to give Danny drilling rights. Everybody was upping the ante. And some of the cowboys, the Johnny-come-latelies, were rushing in to make their fortune, urged by the government with new tax breaks to drill fast and deep. In Kansas they were even unzipping some of the “stripper” holes— marginal wells of 110 barrels a day that they’d previously plugged. Danny had been in the game for twenty years after ‘Nam, and claimed he could smell oil-impregnated rock even before it was separated from the coolant. Anyway, the cowboys’d be sorted out in the first month or so. When they didn’t hear anyone yelling “Eureka!” they’d fold with the overdraft. That’s when you had to have balls, Danny told himself. In hard times you dig deeper. All the easy oil was gone. Didn’t mean there wasn’t a million-barrel field around, but you had to hang tough.

There was a hoarse-throated roar from the diesel engine, coughing dirty, coal-brown smoke into the virginal white of wind-driven snow, and everything started to rattle and shake, tiny ice splinters falling down and hitting his hard hat like rock candy as the crew began hauling up pipe for the drill-stem test. Danny put another stick of gum in his mouth, the gum so stiff with the cold it broke like a board. It would be hours before the test results came in. “For cryin’ out loud,” he said, rolling the gum’s silver foil wrapper between his grease-stained gloves, his eyes squinting in the direction of a battered Cherokee pickup, snow blowing off the back of it like icing sugar. It was Rummer, the farmer who owned the land. He had every right to “visit” under the terms of the contract, but in Danny’s twenty years, a well had never come in whenever the landowner showed up. They were plain bad luck.

“Danny!” the foreman called out

“Yeah?”

“Mud bags are frozen up.”

Danny was already holding Rummer responsible for the lack of oil. “Well, unfreeze the fuckers!” he yelled back at the foreman, adding that if Rummer 6 didn’t come in today, he’d pack it in, the whole shebang.

“Listen,” the foreman said encouragingly. “Maybe old Rummer’s different from the rest. Maybe he’ll bring us luck, Danny.”

Danny walked down from the platform, smacked his boots together, knocking off sticky mud-colored snow, and asked the drill tester, “What’s it look like?”

The tester made a face like his mother had just died.

“Shit,” Danny mumbled, then seeing Rummer walking over from the pickup, the wind and freezing rain sounding stronger by the minute, he put out his hand, smiling broadly. “Hi, Mr. Rummer. How ya doin’?”

“Fine. Yourself?”

“Terrific,” Danny lied. “We could need hulls here any time.” He meant the sacks of cotton wool used to soak up the oil if it came up and slopped out over the derrick’s deck. One of the roughnecks, warming his hands in the doghouse, shook his head, looking over at one of the two “worms” on the crew. “We could have fuck-all here, that’s what we could have.”

Danny had lost a worm once when a tornado, screaming out of Missouri, had hit one of the derricks, sucking the sixty-foot pipe stands up high, as if they were straw. He’d told the kid’s parents their boy’d been killed while changing pipe. Danny had found that when you told parents that their son had died on a rig, they didn’t feel as bad if they heard he was actually working at the time rather than just standing around. Having been a Special Forces type in ‘Nam, Danny knew how he, his parents, and his wife Maureen had felt when the Army told him that Angela, one of his two sisters in ‘Nam, a nurse, was missing. The other sister had been killed off duty in a Medevac unit by so-called “friendly fire.” Danny wished they’d lied and said the Viet Cong had killed both. “Missing” meant a ninety-nine percent certainty that Angela was dead, but there was always that one percent that made some nights hell for him and his family.

* * *

There was nothing unusual about the hurricane. It came in as most do, off Cuba, northwest up through the gulf, laden with evaporated seawater, slamming into the Texas coast then pivoting halfway between Corpus Christi and Galveston, gusting at over two hundred miles per hour. It immediately lost some speed and heat energy — enough to generate Houston’s electric supply for years — and though it hit the mainland, there was still enough fury left for the Midwest.

As the hurricane tore into the southeastern corner of Oklahoma, gusting to 140-plus miles per hour, long, bruised spirals of tornadoes peeled off from the hurricane’s eye wall, a darker vortex already swirling purplish-black with rain and dust and debris about the calm core. The spiral heading toward the rig was one of a dozen stalks of tornadoes formed in the same way, howling with the bloodcurdling wail that mixed with the thunder and the rattle of an express train roaring out of control. Swirling tunnels of wind and rain preceded it, smashing into the tin-roofed doghouse, tearing it apart, sending the roof spinning high into the vortex and casting it down again, a section of roof whirling faster now, slicing off one of the roughnecks’ arms, the bloodied limb sucked up and lost in the maelstrom into which several sixty-foot-high barrels from the pipe stand had also vanished — to come down a quarter hour later, strewn over southwestern Arkansas.

The roughneck bled to death. Most of the other dead the tornado left in its wake — fourteen — died when the hurricane’s surge, a towering wall of water over twenty-one feet in height, slammed into the Texas coast east of Corpus Christi. Danny Mellin and the rest of his remaining five-man rig crew barely escaped with their lives.

It was the closest he’d come to losing his life since his days in Vietnam, where he was taken prisoner and spent a year in the “Hanoi Hilton.” So right then and there, throwing up as he saw the mangled body of what had been one of his workers writhing in the snow, Danny Mellin decided he’d had enough of Oklahoma. He’d work for someone else for a change, somewhere he’d be paid a lot for his experience, somewhere someone else had the responsibility for the crew, somewhere he wouldn’t have to worry about a crew or making payroll, or freezing in the bone-chilling winds of a midwestern winter.

He decided he’d work for one of the joint U.S.-Chinese oil exploration companies operating in the Spratly Islands. Big pay and warmth. His wife wasn’t happy, but he promised her he’d stick with it for only a year.

And so it was, that like the American in the 1930s who had decided to escape a depression-racked America for a more simple, peaceful life on a South Sea island called Guadalcanal, Danny Mellin chose to work in the tropics on a drill ship in the South China Sea. No heavy gear to wear over there. “Hell,” he told friends, “all you’d need is your hard hat, a pair of swim shorts, and suntan lotion. Paradise.”

CHAPTER TWO

South China Sea

Beneath a tropical copper sky, day was ending, a current of heavy swells coming down south from Palawan Island in the southern Philippines, curving westward through the Spratly Islands and on over 1,800 kilometers across the South China Sea, toward the lush green coast of Vietnam.

The drill ship, a half-Chinese, half-Californian oil venture, the MV Chical 1, known to its crew as simply Chical, rose and fell with the swells. Her antiroll tanks minimized the pitch and yaw of the ship so that her drill rig would remain as perpendicular to the sea’s surface as possible, the drill column going straight down through the moon pool where the Chical’s interior midships was open to the sea like a huge, bright, floodlit swimming pool.

Down below there was the mystery of the coral reef and sedimentary layers as yet unexplored by the drill. They might hold treasure, if the profile gained by seismic shots was promising. Explosions of sound sent down to penetrate the subsurface layers reverberated back from folds or fault lines along which oil may have pooled or natural gas been enclosed. If the drill ship, as opposed to a drill platform, didn’t find oil over one reef, it could sail on to the next site amid the archipelago’s more than two hundred reefs, cays, and tiny islands. What the Chical lost in the stability of a fixed platform, it gained in more seabed covered.

It was purely by chance that one of the Chinese roughnecks working on the weather deck amid the forward port-quarter pipe rack saw the junk, the Ling Chow, in the fading copper sea. But he couldn’t claim credit for seeing its flag— Vietnamese, a yellow star on a blood-red background — which was flying upside down, the universal distress signal, which meant its radio must be down, or perhaps it had none. The man who first recognized that the flag was upside down — two of the star’s five points on the bottom instead of at the top— was Danny Mellin, working a hundred feet high from a monkey board and safety harness up by the derrick man’s console and upper racking arm and carriage.

Danny pulled out his walkie-talkie, its aerial snagged for a moment in a strap of his Mae West, and told the pilothouse where Chical’s Chinese captain could get a fix on the damaged junk. The Chical’s captain, seeing the junk’s minisail shredded, ordered several Chinese and American roustabouts to go starboard amidship to lend a hand bringing the junk alongside. Of course, there was always a risk involved in the South China Sea, infested by modern-day pirates who, among other outrages, had preyed so mercilessly on the Vietnamese boat people trying to escape. While the Chical helped the Ling Chow, drilling would have to be suspended for a while as the extra pitch and roll of the disabled junk, its bamboo sail battens or stiffeners creaking in the wind, would only add to the swells, sloshing against Chical’s starboard side.

The sick man they brought aboard the MV Chical was strapped down but nevertheless thrashing about in great pain, his face drenched in sweat. He jabbered incomprehensibly in a Vietnamese-Chinese border dialect, and the first aid man aboard the drill ship, a roughneck called Perowitz from New Jersey, was sent to have a look-see to calm him down. Apart from possible fever — Perowitz pressed the automatic thermometer’s green button and stuck it in the crewman’s mouth — there seemed to be no serious internal problems. Perowitz asked the man what he’d eaten, and his fellow seaman said some rice and fish. Had the rest of the junk’s crew eaten the same?

“Yes,” a man who seemed to understand a bit of English replied.

And had they all had something to drink? “I mean, drinking the same stuff?” Perowitz pressed.

One of the men who set the stretcher on the drill ship’s deck nodded urgently. “Yes, yes, Tsing Tao.” It was the Chinese beer that everyone drank on the Chical as well.

So the best Perowitz could suggest, seeing how much pain the man was in — the man indicating a lot of gas, his hands arcing over his belly in the shape of a huge balloon — was perhaps a good shot of Pepto-Bismol. A couple of minutes after he had given the man the dose, it looked as if it was working.

“Ah, you’ve got a bellyful of gas — that’s all.”

Unknowing brown faces looked at him in the twilight

“You know,” Perowitz said, now in a pantomime mode. “Gas!”

“You drill for?” one of the junk crew said.

“What?” Perowitz laughed. “No, no — not gas like we drill for. You know — uh, fart!”

They were still looking blankly at him when he bent forward and made a fart noise with his mouth. Their immediate recognition was hailed with raucous laughter and a splash off the stem. Mellin could hear the splash from high up near the derrick man’s console, since they had stopped drilling. He radioed down to the well deck foreman. “Hey, Randy?”

“Yeah?”

“Somebody threw something over. You tell those junk boys not to dump any of their garbage. Could get caught up in our gear under the moon pool.”

“You got it,” the deckhand said, and made his way over to the Chical’s starboard side.

Only one or two of the dim figures he called out to understood what he meant, and the captain of the junk said it wouldn’t happen again. “Sorry.” And that impressed several of the Caucasian crew aboard Chical, because they’d always believed Asians usually couldn’t handle the r sound. At that moment oil began rushing up, spilling out like a fine spray as if it was a signal — when in fact it was pure coincidence. The rickety bamboo gangway leading to the Chical was suddenly covered in crew from the junk, and Perowitz fell — shot through the head — the crew from the junk running past his body, the twilight spiked by the barrels of their AK-74s.

The first stutter heard by Mellin came from the radio shack just aft of the wheelhouse. The operator, another American, was dead even before his bullet-riddled body hit the deck. His blood made the decking slippery for those who quickly ran to the pilothouse, spraying its glass. Then he finished off the three men on watch once inside. One of the junk men’s AK-74s jammed as the Chical’s captain, revolver in hand, emerged from his cabin aft of the port side of the wheelhouse. He got one shot away, hitting an attacker, who fell while another brought a short broadsword down hard and fast in a sweep, disemboweling the captain.

Even with all the noise going on, the engine room crew of the Chical didn’t hear a thing, the chief engineer checking the generating room gauges and making sure the tension on the stabilizer anchor chains wasn’t excessive, the chains helping to hold the ship as near one spot as possible. The first engine room man to know anything was wrong was a Virginian, Gary Sales. Having just emerged from a forward hatch onto the well deck, he was struck on the head by a short broadsword, as the captain had been. It split his skull, his grayish brain oozing out beneath the bright deck lights as his body slumped and fell back down to the generating room with a sickening thud.

Danny Mellin was already on his two-way radio yelling a warning. Hearing it, several men working on the aft well deck around the pipe rack dropped what they’d been doing and retreated toward the galley. But they were slaughtered en masse by a dozen of the junk’s crew who had climbed up the stern ladder and then, taking over the heliport, raced down the gangway to the living quarters to butcher over twenty more Americans and Chinese asleep or resting off watch.

Now, in the darkness, Mellin understood the splash he’d heard: one of the junk’s crewmen had probably jumped off into the water prior to boarding the Chical aft of the living quarters and galley. But then why hadn’t he heard more splashes? And it suddenly occurred to him, as he heard the zing and whack of 5 .45mm rounds spitting up from the deck, that they were climbing up the rig, toward him.

He had only one way to go: not up higher into the rig— they’d keep climbing or firing until they got him — and he couldn’t go down. He’d have to jump the hundred feet into the sea instead. But it had to be timed right, when the Chical rose and shifted from port to starboard on a long swell; otherwise, if he didn’t get enough angle, he wouldn’t clear the ship’s deck. He heard another burst of AK-74, a sound which, along with that of the older AK-47s, he’d never forgotten from his days in ‘Nam, and he heard the perspex in the derrick man’s console splitting apart as it was raked by automatic fire. Then the deck lights went out. Red tongues of fire spat up into the derrick, ricocheting, zinging, and whining about.

As the Chical rolled to port, Danny clicked the safety harness release button and, as hard as he could, pushed himself off, jumping out into the darkness that smelled now of cordite and salt air. He hit feet first but at an angle, his lower back slapping the water like hard rubber on concrete. He thought he’d broken his spine. Sighting the spray of phosphorescence as he splashed into the water, the junk crew members fired into the general area, a hail of hot, sizzling 7.6mm and 5 .45mm splattering about him.

Mellin began a slow breaststroke away from the ship, refusing the temptation to pull the C02 cartridge on his Mae West. An inflated vest would keep him afloat but would prevent him from swimming, leaving him totally at the mercy of the current, which was flowing away from the coast of Brunei beyond the rig, back farther west toward more of the Spratlys. He’d wait and dog-paddle as long as he could, until the junk had cast off, then maybe he could swim against the current and back toward the drill ship.

It was hopeless and he knew it. The current was too strong to swim against, and he was swept slowly but inexorably out to sea away from Chical. His only hope now was to be picked up by one of the Chical’s weatherproof life rafts, which could hold up to sixteen men.

This too was a vain hope, for back aboard the Chical the junk’s crew was systematically destroying every Beaufort life raft canister and lifeboat on the drill ship, mainly with grenades. Out of the sixty-four men, from geologists to cooks and drillers, roughnecks and roustabouts, crane operators and mud loggers, welders and motormen, fifty-three were dead, leaving only eleven — including Mellin — who had made it off the drill ship before the junk crew could get to them. And now only six of these were still alive, the other five already taken by sharks. The predators, attracted by the turbulence of ship bumping against ship and the smell of blood in the water, killed the five — all Americans — in a feeding frenzy around Chical’s stern.

Now almost a quarter mile away, Mellin could hear the heavy-throated chugging of the junk under way, and nearer him he could dimly make out the jagged outline of oil-smeared planks.

In the North Sea he would have been dead already from hypothermia, but in the warmer waters of the South China Sea his death would be a lingering one, dying of dehydration in a world of water, unless he were taken by sharks.

Then he saw a high cone of roiling fire, its orange tongue curling hundreds of feet high, immediately followed by the thunderclap of an explosion. The wellhead had been blown, just as Saddam Insane had blown the wells in the Middle East. It didn’t make sense. What did they want?

Now he heard popping sounds, the junk crew using the madly dancing reflections of the wellhead fire on the water to take potshots at the Chinese and American bodies floating about the Chical, the junk men making sure mat all were dead. And in the strange penumbra of firelight, Mellin could see the black scimitars of shark fins cruising just below the surface.

Danny thought of his wife Maureen and promised God that if he were saved, he’d go back home and never leave the United States again. He hadn’t been this scared since ‘Nam, and he began to pray again, “Our Father…” for if nothing else, that would keep him awake, something in his gut telling him that if his fatigue passed into sleep, it would be the sleep of the dead.

Now the Mae West light went on, the salt having activated it, doing what it was supposed to. Immediately Danny cupped his hand over the bulb, cutting himself somehow on a nail in the loose raft of planks, leaving blood in the water. He jerked the C02 cord and the Mae West inflated, but he kept his right hand over the bulb lest the junk crew spot the pinpoint of light in the vastness of the sea and come to kill him. He remembered a prayer he’d always said with his two daughters when they were children:

… tender shepherd, hear me…

Through the darkness be Thou near me,

Keep me safe till morning’s light.

Beneath his hand, held over the light as if he was taking the oath of allegiance, he could feel me pulsing of his heart. It was so faint that for a moment he thought it had stopped.

* * *

The sound of the wellhead explosion — traveling at least four times faster in water than in air — raced up east of the Palawan Trough over the two thousand fathoms on the eastern edge of the South China Basin, through Luzon Strait past Taiwan and west of the Ryukyu Islands Trench, where it was heard by a Sound Surveillance System listening post on Taiwan’s east coast and another on the southernmost tip of Japan’s southern island of Kyushu. From the SOSUS listening post on Kyushu the message passed through the chain of command from the Seventh Fleet’s command ship, Blue Ridge, the message marked immediate to CINCPAC–Commander in Chief Pacific — copy to Pentagon, Secretary of Navy, Secretary of Defense, and on to the President as Commander-in-Chief.

1662 HOURS RECEIVED SUBSTANTIAL SONAR BLIP STOP ESTIMATE SOURCE SPRATLY ISLANDS STOP LATITUDE APPROXIMATELY 9 DEGREES NORTH LONGITUDE 115 DEGREES IO MINUTES EAST STOP SONAR TRACE INDICATES MAN-MADE EXPLOSION NOT VOLCANIC STOP MESSAGE ENDS

CHAPTER THREE

The White House

The message had merely mentioned an explosion, and they’d have to wait till morning Brunei time to find out exactly what was involved, but the mention of the Spratlys had Admiral Reese, Chief of Naval Operations, already off and running. The suspected explosion, if it was manmade, could be sabotage on one of the oil rigs or drill ships. If so, it opened a hornet’s nest of geopolitical significance.

“Mr. President,” CNO Reese said, “there are two consequences that directly resulted from the earlier administration’s defense cuts and lack of strategic overview in East Asia. Number one, they cut the budget first, as usual, then tried to figure out strategy. Back to front.”

“Stern to bow, Admiral,” the President joshed.

Reese allowed himself a brief smile in return, but his mood was too braced for relaxing this day. “The second point, Mr. President, is that because of our cutbacks and our loss of Subic Bay and Clark Field in the Philippines, we are perceived by the East and Southeast Asian countries no longer as ‘stayers.’ I mean by this that our loss of a solid base from which to move into the South China Sea, despite the Seventh Fleet’s berthing facilities in Singapore, creates the perception in these Third World countries — and not only in them — that this is not a United States determined to stay for the long haul. And in that mode of uncertainty, we have individual countries starting an arms race in the region. They figure if the U.S. doesn’t have a firm foreign policy — or rather, a policy determined primarily by strategic responsibilities instead of budget deficit considerations — then they have to look after themselves. Can’t say I blame ‘em.”

The admiral turned to a wall chart on naval growth in the Pacific. “China makes no bones about the fact that she wants blue water capability. She’s been hankering for it for a long time. She hasn’t got it yet, but in our perceived absence she means to have it as quickly as possible. SIGINT tells us that the Chinese plan to be ready with carriers, the new Luhu guided missile destroyers, and the new Russian Kilo derivative submarines by 2007. That’s not far away, Mr. President. We had hoped we might continue to cut the U.S. deficit by selling them some of our used carriers and other warships. Problem is, Russia is offering bargain-basement prices in China and Southeast Asia. Most importantly, potential buyers know the Russians can establish ‘through-life’ support and maintenance, because the Russians, ironically, keep building them while we’re cutting back and are unable to promise any kind of ‘through-life’ warranty.”

The admiral’s assistant flicked over the China chart to one of Japan. “A further measure of these Asian countries’ independence is the fact that the Japanese Defense Force, for example, now has the best ship-carrying air defense system.”

“In Southeast Asia?” the President interjected.

“No, sir,” the CNO replied. Maybe he was getting through at last, he thought. “The best in the world.”

“Could I cut in here?” asked David Noyer, director of the CIA.

“Please,” the President invited.

“Mr. President, in addition to what the admiral says, the agency is convinced that Japan has a three- to four-month capability to develop nuclear bombs.”

The President tried not to show any surprise, but his assistant, Bruce Ellman, spotted the telltale push of the leather-bound blotter atop the desk, where he was glancing at the cable from the SOSUS posts.

“In twelve to sixteen weeks,” the President said, “you’re telling me Japan could field nuclear bombs?”

“Yes,” Noyer replied. “In November ‘ninety-three they began importing over twenty tons of plutonium for their fast breeder reactors. At least that’s what they told us it was for. They already had over five hundred pounds of the stuff by the late eighties.”

“That shipment from France?” Admiral Reese put in.

“Correct,” Noyer confirmed.

Reese shook his head disgustedly. “Those damn Frenchmen’d sell arsenic to their mothers if they could.”

The President ignored George Reese’s well-known Franco-phobia, which stemmed from France’s refusal to let the U.S. Air Force fly through French airspace en route to bomb Khadafy in Libya years before.

“And,” Reese added, “more to the point, I’ll warrant that our intelligence agency isn’t the only one that knows of the Japanese capabilities.” He looked at Noyer. “No offense to the CIA, David.”

“None taken, Admiral,” Noyer assured him. “You’ve hit the proverbial nail on the head. Ever since Shinseito — the conservative New Life party in Japan — gained power over the socialists, they’ve helped push the Liberal Democratic party majority in support of a more active role for the Japanese Defense Force.”

“The Japanese offense force,” the President posited.

“Well, whatever they want to call it, Mr. President, I don’t think you can fault them, with that maniac North Korean within nuclear- and Scud-hitting distance of Tokyo.”

“No,” the President agreed, “you can’t, but if I get your drift, gentlemen, you’re telling me that because of our lack of a firm foreign policy — compliments of the previous administration — Japan as well as the Southeast Asian countries we’ve mentioned in the area feel more vulnerable because of our withdrawal from the Philippine bases. So they’re seeking the capacity to defend themselves should North Korea or anyone else start a war. They also see Japan rearming in the face of increased Russian presence in the East China Sea, and know North Korea probably has nuclear weapons. In any case, I seriously doubt that their Southeast Asian neighbors’ intelligence agencies don’t know about Japan’s nuclear ability too — and that alone would frighten the bejaysus out of any of Japan’s neighbors.”

Noyer and Reese nodded in unison, with Reese turning to the next info chart “Exactly. Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, China were all attacked by Japan in World War Two when her oil and raw materials ran out after FDR’s embargo. And if this Spratly Islands issue blows up and there’s a shooting gallery in and around the trade routes from the Middle East that pass through there, then Japan couldn’t last very long without acquiring new oil and raw materials that come through to her via the South China Sea.”

“So now,” the President said, “we have North Korea, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia all rearming as fast as they can.”

“Yes, sir. Even the Aussies and New Zealanders are upgrading.”

“Why?”

“They’ve got a defense pact with Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei, but Indonesia’s presence in West Irian, or what used to be called West New Guinea, is the Australians’ big worry. You think we have human rights problems with China vis-à-vis our trade and most-favored-nation clause. You should look at Australia’s Joint Intelligence Bureau report on what the Indonesians are up to in West Irian and Timor. It’s take the villagers out and shoot them on the spot. Besides, Indonesia’s population is 175 million, Australia’s is barely fifteen, and it’s only a half-hour hop from New Guinea to Australia. All the Aussies have up there in the north are crocodiles and Darwin. Most Australians are crammed into the far southeast comer.

“We’ve got some damned important defense radar and communications sites up there,” Reese concluded.

“They wouldn’t last long,” Noyer said, “if the Indonesians really wanted to get them. But I’m not concerned about the Aussies for the moment. It’s all this strutting in the Southeast Asian states over the Spratlys that’s got me worried.”

“Yes,” the President said, cutting in. “We’ve got to run this Spratly incident to ground — if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor — before the accusations start flying, giving every one of those countries the national justification for rearming. Nothing like a nice little war, gentlemen, to boost the ruling parties’ fortunes at home.”

“Good point,” Noyer conceded. “We’ve got our finger on the pulse with regards to that one — our military attaches, et cetera — but it’s difficult to see the whole picture at any one time. Too many players.”

“Too many or not,” the President continued, “we’ve got to get on top of this thing. And I want the American public informed because if, God forbid, I have to send American boys over there, I don’t want it done on some damned flimsy bit of evidence.”

Noyer sighed. “It’ll be difficult. I mean, the American public isn’t used to thinking about Southeast Asia. Now, if it was Europe—”

“Well, they’d better start,” the President said unequivocally, “because we all know, gentlemen, we’re on the threshold of the Pacific century. Europe’s only going to constitute six and a half percent of the world’s population, and in any case it’s going to have to fix its own business. But if we’re to look after our business — and I don’t want to put this thing just in terms of dollars and cents, but the dollars and cents are there nevertheless — we need those Asian trade routes more than most, and we need them open all the time.”

“Agreed,” Noyer said. “I think we had better start some position papers for selected congressmen.”

“Not for selected congressmen, David, for all congressmen. That’s another thing I don’t want going on around here. If it leaks out that we’re only giving the information to certain congressmen, it’ll look like what it is — selective feeding. I don’t want any part of that. Not in this situation. I agree, you’re right, the foreign policy of this country’s been a basket case due to the previous administration. But now’s the time — and I hope to God it isn’t too late — that we can send out the message that we do not want, nor will we tolerate, another Yugoslavia in Asia.”

“Mr. President,” Noyer said, “I wouldn’t be honest with you if I didn’t tell you that that’s exactly what we might end up with.”

“Initially,” the President conceded, “we may not be able to prevent that, but my point is that if it starts, we’re not going to have a grannies’ conference here and take six months to decide what we’re going to do. I want the information about what’s going on down there confirmed and reconfirmed, and I want a U.S.-led U.N. multilateral strategic and tactical plan on my desk within seventy-two hours. That will tell me what we are in a position to undertake and, perhaps more importantly, what we are not in a position to do at the moment.”

“We’ll do the best we can, Mr. President.”

“Another thing, David,” the President warned Noyer, “I don’t want any CNN reporter scooping me on the ‘Larry King Show.’ Got that?”

“Yes, sir.”

“How did they do that in Iraq? I mean CNN getting all that stuff out of Baghdad?”

“Used what we call a four phone, Mr. President,” Noyer explained. “You take a small umbrellalike antenna, beam it up to the satellite, and bounce it off right to home base. Very expensive.”

“Well, I don’t want any four phones popping up with anything we’re not ready for, understand?”

“I understand, sir, but they’re a determined lot.”

“Then you be more determined.”

“Very good, Mr. President.”

“And notify the U.N.’s secretary general about this Spratly situation as soon as you have details.” The President turned his attention to Admiral Reese. “George, I assume the Navy’s already on to this, trying to find out just what happened to that drill ship.”

“Yes, Mr. President. I’ve contacted COMSUBPAC in Hawaii and we have an SSN sub, the USS Santa Fe, west of Borneo and the Spratlys in the Sulu Sea. It’s part of the Enterprise battle group and is being dispatched via Balabac Strait between the Philippines and the Malaysian part of Borneo.”

“Surface or submerged?”

“Surface through the shallow straits and submerged once we get into the Spratly area, but we can’t get too close to the drill ship position because the bottom is relatively shallow around those coral reefs, et cetera.”

“Then how are you going to get anybody in there, at least without advertising the fact?”

“The sub, Mr. President. It wasn’t the closest, but it’s one with an SDV aboard.”

“SDV?”

“Swimmer Delivery Vehicle. Can carry up to half a dozen divers, and they can exit the vehicle quickly. It’s a separate container behind the sail of the sub.”

“So we’re sending in frogmen?”

Reese couldn’t hide a smile of amusement. “I haven’t heard that term in thirty years, Mr. President. The swimmers will fan out and gather what evidence they can.”

“You think they’ll find any?”

“They’re the best we have, Mr. President. And COMSUBPAC has notified our British liaison officers with the Royal Brunei Army. British Petroleum naturally wants to know what’s going on as well. Apparently the rigs and drill ships are equipped with safety video units in cradles high above the deck. It’s designed — the video unit, I mean — to be easily scooped up from a chopper.”

“All right. Let me know as soon as you have something.”

“Yes, sir.”

CHAPTER FOUR

The reflections of flames danced madly in the blister-shaped cockpit of the Brunei army’s BO-105 helicopter as it sped out like a dragonfly across a flickering orange sea in response to the U.S. Seventh Fleet’s request. It sped toward the enormous flame shooting high above the drill ship’s rig, one man in the chopper safely harnessed and ready to extend his reach down after steadying himself on the starboard strut to extract the videocassette from the high stanchion above the well deck mast by lifting a bamboo hoop attached to the camera unit.

While maintaining forward flight, the pilot lowered his lever, using the stick and pressing his rudder pedal to hover over a spot he’d selected below, on the well deck’s forward hatch, the fuselage rotating slowly about the main hub’s axis. The bamboo hoop, video camera, and cassette in their all-weather plastic sheath had sensibly been painted phosphorescent red, and showed up clearly in the frenetic shadows cast by the fire whose roar was now so loud that the pilot and his observer in the harness could hear it above the near-deafening sound of the four-bladed rotor engine. Now the cockpit bucked violently and the pilot could feel the increasing torque as he fought to keep the helo steady in the waves of superheated air which, above the sea’s cooler, denser air, created savage and short-lived convection currents and wind shears that buffeted the helo.

The Bruneian pilot wrestled for control. Five times the helo rose and fell abreast of the stanchion, each time getting a little closer, until the Bruneian in harness could reach out and grab the “hula hoop” and yank the attached video camera assembly out of its weather-protected cradle.

A sudden gust blew the helo toward the stanchion, and the pilot immediately moved to counteract it. But he was a split second too late, one of the rotors striking the stanchion, the helo dropping like a stone toward an enormous shadow of itself on the ship’s deck, sliding the full length of the stanchion and crashing into the well deck. One of the rotor’s spars cartwheeled and sparked across the well deck and then into the derrick that was red hot from the roaring flame. The spilled gasoline from the helo instantly became a river of fire that quickly raced back to the helo’s fuselage, engulfing the shattered cockpit and the two men. There was an explosion which sounded like no more than a pop beneath the steady roar of the gas fire still flaming unabated hundreds of feet up into the night sky.

* * *

Though at a state dinner for the British ambassador, His Royal Highness the Sultan of Brunei was informed immediately of the situation. He was the richest man in the world, and every Bruneian citizen had one of the highest living standards in the world — all because of Brunei’s oil, from offshore as well as onshore. His Royal Highness immediately put his tiny but superbly equipped 4,657-man armed forces on high alert, ordering Brunei’s three Waspada-class fast patrol boats to sea with two surface-to-surface Exocet missiles per boat, but with express orders from the sultan to search, rescue where possible, and identify but not to engage unless attacked.

Within ten minutes the three Bruneian patrol boats had six radar blips on their screens, indicating anything from four junks to other commercial shipping, including what looked like an empty supertanker off the coast of the Brunei coastline heading south from the Malay state of Sabah in Northern Borneo and past the stricken drill ship’s position.

No survivors were found in the surrounding waters, but the patrol boat nearest the drill ship was close enough to see, in the spill, of light created by the fire of escaping oil and gas, bodies, some of them blackened, strewn about the well deck and the stern near the galley. Aboard the patrol boat a British army observer, Captain Owen, from one of the thousand-man Gurkha infantry battalions — one of three British battalions stationed in Brunei to help protect British petroleum interests— volunteered to go aboard the drill ship. He and two of the patrol boat’s crew were shortly on the well deck, but the heat was so intense that they could feel it through their Vibram soles, paint on the well deck already blistering and flaking.

“We’ll have to go back!” Owen shouted. “Hose it down first!”

For the next ten minutes, while the two other boats headed farther out to sea, the patrol vessel with Owen aboard used its fire hose to drench that part of the well deck immediately beyond the drill ship’s ladder, the paint blisters now washing off like great gobs of wet newspaper, revealing spots of the red antirust primer below.

“Why do you wish to go aboard?” asked the boat’s skipper, a spruce young Bruneian in his late twenties. “There’s not much to see. I mean, nothing more than you can see from here.”

“I’d still like a closer look,” Owen said. “Five minutes is all I ask.”

“Very good,” the boat’s captain said in impeccable English. “We’ll keep the hose spraying the well deck.”

“Right you are,” Owen responded.

Once on the deck, however, he could still feel the heat through his boots. He looked about quickly but could see no weaponry, only the casings of expended 5 .45mm and 7.2mm rounds. Owen also saw that to get near the bodies of the dead Americans and others, let alone remove them, was impractical at the moment, many of them so badly burned their flesh had melted into the deck. So he left the drill ship none the wiser.

“Until that cools down, we can’t do much here,” he told the patrol boat captain.

“Who’s going to shut it down?”

Owen shrugged. “One of the companies who stopped the fires in Kuwait, I expect”

“But they weren’t at sea.”

“No,” Owen agreed, “no, they weren’t.” His expression in the raging firelight was one of mounting anxiety. Even if the fire was extinguished, if they couldn’t cap it, it would be the biggest oil spill the world had ever seen — a spill that would make that of the Exxon Valdez and Penchara River look tiny, a spill that would spread out and surround all the joint ventures spread over the South China Sea and beyond.

* * *

In the cylindrical dry-deck housing riding piggyback on the SSN Santa Fe, the swimmer delivery vehicle Mark XV was being checked over by two Navy SEALs. The combat swimmers were making sure that all systems were go aboard the flat SDV, which measured twenty feet long by seven wide. With its horizontal stern stabilizer and two vertical control fins, the Mark XV resembled a big Formula One racing car shell, minus the wheels, mat had been squashed into a long rectangular shape. In its nose, a blunted triangular housing, was a state-of-the-art obstacle avoidance sonar.

The SDV was also equipped with a computerized doppler Inertial Navigation Subsystem — which would take it to the Chical via its silent-running, nickel/cadmium-battery-powered motor. Its normal external component of two fourteen-hundred-pound torpedoes, a 331-pound warhead on each, that once launched from the SDV could run at twenty knots plus, was removed so as to raise the normal five-knot speed to ten knots.

The two SEALs chosen for the look-see mission were ready to flood the piggyback housing to equalize the inside and outside pressure in preparation for launching their craft. They could have disengaged from Santa Fe a half hour before, but they were waiting to take advantage of promised bad weather. Via infrared cameras, satellites had picked up a bank of anvil-shaped thunderhead clouds stretching from Sabah, past Brunei, to Sarawak, a sure sign of thunderstorms building on the west coast of Borneo. And so the SEALs who would man the Mark XV waited, the Santa Fe meanwhile trailing her long VLF, or very low frequency, aerial, receiving burst message updates on the weather.

In the Santa Fe’s combat information center the captain ordered silent running. Among other measures, sandwiches would be prepared in the galley so as not to run the risk of any noise from the big food mixers that might send out telltale vibrations, no matter how small. Even so, unlike a diesel electric boat, a nuclear sub like the Santa Fe could not be absolutely silent, as the pump needed to keep the reactor cool could not be stopped. But the Santa Fe’s captain was confident that the sound of his boat would not be detected by any potential “hostile,” given the noises of other South China Sea mercantile traffic. Also, once the weather worsened and thunderstorms began, the surface hiss of the torrential downpour would help hide the sound of Santa Fe’s water pump, and the heavy, cooling rain would also allow the SEALs to more comfortably board the hot drill ship.

* * *

When the torrential rain began, the SDV was only a half mile from the Chical, and within forty-five minutes the two SEALs had left the SDV and were climbing up the ladder aft of the drill ship’s galley housing. The flames still roared high, but the downpour was now so heavy that the decks, if not cool, were only moderately warm. The derrick’s steel, still hot, was turning the rain instantly to steam. In their rubber suits and front-mounted Draeger rebreather systems, the two SEALs moved cautiously through the hot fog as if through a giant sauna, which covered the ship in a ghostly pink light.

One SEAL carefully, and mostly by feel, made his way down the aft galley ladder to the engine room. There, with the help of his waterproof flashlight, which cut the steam in a sharply defined roiling beam, he saw the first body. The dead man’s white boiler suit had blended so well in the hot steam now pervading the ship that the SEAL didn’t see it until he was almost upon it. He found a half-dozen more bodies strewn about in the engine room and, as he had with the first, carefully searched the dead men’s clothing, wrists, ears, mouths, and chest areas.

Up on the forward well deck the other SEAL also found bodies, difficult to locate in the shroud that now covered the ship, though the flame from the fire was still vomiting skyward As he got closer to the well deck’s forward hatch, he found over twenty corpses in and around the paint locker and, like his colleague, searched every one as carefully as time would allow.

The heavy rain-peppered swells looked like great ominous walls closing in until they passed beneath the anchored drill ship, the strain on the four anchors obvious from the crack and splitting sounds of chain and cable.

Once back aboard their SDV, docked aft of the drill ship, the SEALs compared notes. In all, they had searched forty-one bodies, the remainder of the drill ship crew either shot while in the water or, like the two bodies found wedged and floating by the prop, most likely killed from concussion after jumping overboard in panic and striking their heads on some part of the ship during midroll.

The two SEALs immediately sent their findings to the Santa Fe via their VLF transmitter:

BROOD ONE TO MOTHER STOP DRILL SHIP’S WELLHEAD AFIRE STOP ALL BODIES EXCEPT THOSE IN WATER DEVOID OF VALUABLES STOP AM RETURNING STOP MESSAGE ENDS

This transmission was quickly relayed through the chain of command up from the Seventh Fleet’s Blue Ridge to CINCPAC to the Pentagon, and finally to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The implication of the message was clear: everyone aboard Chical had been robbed. Only those wedged near the prop, which was difficult to get to, had retained wedding bands, wallets, necklaces, watches, and the like. As with the boat people years before, anyone with gold fillings or gold bridges had had them ruthlessly removed by pliers or whatever else would do the job.

“So you were right,” the President told his assistant, Ellman. “It was nothing more than a damn pirate raid.”

Ellman nodded. “Set the wellhead aflame to occupy us — to cover their real intent.”

“Vicious bastards,” the President said. The thought of having gold fillings ripped from your mouth, even if a body was dead, was so barbaric it made his gut turn. Still, better a gang of pirates than a clash of nations, one country’s sovereignty breached by another. Ellman’s press assistant suggested it could have been both, but Ellman shook his head. “No. I think it’s clear that this is the act of a bunch of cutthroats, plain and simple.”

* * *

That possibility was to become a certainty on Chical 7, another joint Chinese-U.S. venture platform already in production in the Paracel Islands, five hundred miles southeast of China’s big island of Hainan. The Paracels, lying east of the Gulf of Tonkin, were claimed by both China and Vietnam. The rig was afire and deserted except for the dead bodies picked out by a carrier plane’s reconnaissance infrared-sensitive cameras. Again the message originated from the Seventh Fleet — the overflight made by F-18s aboard the U.S. carrier Enterprise— and was relayed through Blue Ridge up the chain of command to the White House.

“Jesus Christ!” the President blurted. “Would someone tell me what in hell is going on?” His angry surprise became outright alarm when he was told that while Chical 7 was southeast of Hainan, it was also effectively in the Gulf of Tonkin, two hundred miles off Vietnam.

“Vietnam” and “Tonkin Gulf were the two places in the world that no U.S. President wanted to hear about ever again, but by now over sixty-five Americans working in the Paracels and Spratlys had been murdered. And CNN — nobody knew how they’d found out so quickly — wanted to know why, and what the President was going to do about it. Already the White House phones were jammed with calls.

“This was a leak!” the President thundered, his clenched fist banging the desk. “A goddamned leak somewhere along the chain of command. And I want to know who—”

He was interrupted by Ellman, who seemed in shock. “Mr. President.”

“Yes?”

“Sir, we’ve just heard via CIA’s Hong Kong station that China’s moving an additional three PLA divisions — over forty thousand men — to the China-Vietnam border.”

“Where on the border?”

“Ah—” Ellman looked quickly at his notes. “—within striking distance of a Vietnamese place called Lang Son.”

“Has Beijing made any statement?”

“Yes, sir. Apparently the move is to signal Beijing’s displeasure toward, and I quote, ‘the warmongering Vietnamese imperialists who are blatantly attacking Chinese possessions in the South China Sea.’ “

“Call the Joint Chiefs and whoever has the China desk at State.”

“Yes, sir.”

Ellman gave the task to his junior while he himself called the Secretary of the Navy. “Mr. Secretary? Bruce Ellman, White House. Sir, we’re in damage-control mode re this business in the Spratlys and Paracels, and the media are clamoring. Are you up for the ‘Larry King Show’?”

“No.”

“It has to be this week, sir. Otherwise it’ll look like we don’t know what’s going on.”

“Do we?”

“No, but we’re trying to—”

“No.”

Ellman knew he was on his own.

CHAPTER FIVE

In Ho Chi Minh city — once called Saigon — the night was filled with the sounds and smells of scooters and vendor stalls, for even with galloping inflation, enough of the 4.5 million Vietnamese in the city had been able to buy the three-thousand-dollar, two-stroke-powered motorbikes, no doubt sacrificing much along the way. To own a scooter in Vietnam was like owning a car anywhere else.

Despite familiar odors of gasoline fumes mixed in with the pungent smell of cooking and spices, it was still nothing like Saigon used to be. It lacked the excitement and zest of the old Asian “Paris” nightlife. Still, even though it was more than twenty years since Vietnam’s defeat of the Americans in ‘75, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam had failed to kill the entrepreneurial wiles of beggars and ladies of the night. It was simply more organized. Many of the beggars in good health had been sent to reconstructive labor battalions, a move that U.S. Army captain Ray Baker, assigned to the U.S. legation office, endorsed as he walked through the dimly lit city with a mixture of nostalgia and anger.

It had been difficult enough to accept the defeat. Every American alive at the time — and not only those who had fought in ‘Nam — had that picture frozen in their memory: the sight of a lone chopper poised atop the American embassy, a string of frantic people falling from it, trying to board, those already aboard shoving them off — everyone for himself. Americans and South Vietnamese in panic. And then there was the sight of Huey choppers heading out from the delta over the South China Sea like so many angry gnats dotting the sky, fleeing, again in panic, landing atop a Seventh Fleet carrier, and once the human cargo had been disgorged, not going back again but being pushed overboard — three million dollars a pop. And when the carriers couldn’t provide any more deck space, the helo pilots cut off the engines, coming down in a semi-controlled crash, pancaking on the sea with about thirty seconds to escape before the doomed chopper began its slow then sudden dive to the bottom, bodies floating up and swimming soundlessly beneath the noise from the six-thousand-man carrier, as many on deck as possible — against orders — just standing there, witnessing the historic humiliation and debacle of me awesome American defeat.

This evening Ray Baker wanted to evict that image from memory, but the more he tried, the more persistent and nagging it became, and for a moment he was glad it was nighttime, as if the darkness could somehow hide his private sense of humiliation. But on second thought, what the hell did he have to be ashamed of anyway? He’d done his bit, hadn’t he? Or was he unconsciously harboring the secret torment that if he’d done that little bit extra during the war — if enough of them had done more, gone that extra mile — it might have been enough to turn the tide? For some vets who had fought in the Iraqi War, a full measure of self-respect had been reclaimed, but Baker had not been with Schwarzkopf’s winning team. While many of his buddies had been racing over the desert destroying Saddam Insane’s armor and closing on the Republican Guard — when the most terrifying phrase for the Iraqi combat pilots was “Permission to take off!”—Ray Baker was sweating in the shirt-clinging tropical climate of the Mekong Delta, still trying to find out after twenty years what had happened to all those unaccounted-for MIAs and POWs who some believed were still held prisoner deep in the jungles of the north.

Tonight he was going out to meet yet another “lead,” the follow-up to yet another informant’s phone call about yet another POW-MIA tip — another 100,000 new dong, ten U.S. dollars — just for the meet. Another ten for whatever his informant told him, even if it was bullshit — otherwise the informant might not come back if he did find something more concrete at a later date.

At the U.S. legation office they told Baker he was wasting his time, and he knew they were probably right, but if after all these years he could bring even one American out, bring one American home, it would be worth something. For himself, yes — for the man’s family it would be everything. It was worth doing.

He lit another cigarette and made his way toward the heart of Cholon, the big market district largely populated by Chinese, once a thriving capitalist community but now much less so, after the anti-Chinese purges of the late 1970s. Now and then amid the gasoline fumes of the scooters, Baker could smell the freshly made French bread, croissants, and coffee from the sidewalk kiosks. There were dozens of them, the people of old Saigon refusing to give up the habits and civilities that had once made this vital part of the old city one of the busiest capitalist enclaves in all Asia. The Communists had realized their mistake in ostracizing so many Chinese, and were now letting many of them back to revitalize the ancient city of French Indochina, but many had already escaped through Hong Kong or been killed by pirates who boarded the boat people’s sailboats to steal, rape, and murder.

Baker walked down an alley lit by Chinese lanterns, heading for Hung Vuong Boulevard. He passed the electronics market, with radios blaring, turned onto Ngo Gia Tu Boulevard, and passed the Nha Sau Church. Although he was over a quarter mile from the Kinh Tau Hu Canal to the south, he could smell its garbage mixed with gasoline and dust, and the odor of more baking in the hot, sticky air. Still, he would rather meet whoever had made the phone call here than at 28 Vo Van Tan — in the War Crimes Museum — where the last Vietnamese who supposedly had a “hot tip” had insisted on meeting him. Baker had been compelled, then, to see the black and white photographs of atrocities by American “imperialists,” specifically the American photo of the My Lai massacre and Lieutenant Calley, and some fuzzy shots of “China’s imperialist aggression” against some of the “Vietnamese islands” in the Paracels and the Spratlys.

“Chao.”

It was a softly spoken hello, filled more with apprehension than warmth.

“Chao,” Baker replied.

“Toi,” the Chinese urged, leading the way. He was a man in his late thirties, Baker guessed, no more than five feet two at the outside, and looking furtively around as they passed one of the sidewalk stalls, its wooden plank shelves bent with glass jars full of pickled cobras, the old woman in the stall busy cooking rice. The Chinese man told Baker that it wasn’t far.

“What isn’t far?” Baker asked, not bothering to hide the irritation in his voice. “Where are we going?”

“Not far,” the other man said, and Baker realized that he was probably just a go-between and would cost him another 100,000 dong.

“If this turns out to be nothing,” he told the man as he walked more quickly, now passing stalls smelling of fried rice and spices, “you get nothing. Understand? Zero. Zilch.”

“Co, phai,” the man assured him. “Co, phai… yes, yes. I understand.”

“Good,” Baker said.

They made a sharp right turn onto Nguyen Tri Phuong Boulevard, heading toward the canal. Down by the waterway, the Chinese pointed to a sampan with an old man aboard, among dozens of others, then held out his hand.

“Not so fast,” Baker told him in English. “Let’s hear what grandpa has to say.”

“I go now,” the man said urgently, his hand outthrust.

“Well, off you go, buddy,” Baker told him. “But you don’t get one dong until I hear from Uncle Ho here.”

The elderly chin-bearded Chinese on the sampan gave no indication that he knew what was going on. He merely stared out from the boat at the black water.

Baker touched his cap as a sign of respect for the elder and said, “Chao.”

The old man nodded, the white taper of his beard barely visible for a second as he turned to watch a police boat chugging by, its searchlight darting here and there, momentarily illuminating the scores of sampans and other houseboats.

“Parlez-vous français?” the old man asked.

“No,” Baker replied, getting more irritated by the second. Why in the hell was he wasting his time by the fetid canal when he could be enjoying a good drip coffee and croissant back at his office?

The old man raised his head in the direction of a younger Chinese nearby — perhaps his son — indicating that he should go away. The young one didn’t like it and said something sharp to the old man, who in turn barked a quick rejoinder and waved him off. The young man walked sullenly along by the canal, and in the habit of the Chinese, paused for a long spit, standing there, letting it dribble down his chin before he moved on, casting a faint shadow on the lanterns’ silken reflections as they undulated over the wake of the passing police boat.

“I know a secret,” the old man said.

Baker said nothing.

“A bad thing has been done,” the old man continued, in no hurry to explain himself.

Baker took out a Gitane and lit it, its pungent odor floating about the sampan, shrouding the old man momentarily in a dark fog. How many times had he waited like this for information, Baker asked himself, for the merest suggestion of some of the 2,434 MIAs who were either buried by now or had been kept as prisoners until they were of no more use to the “Black Pajamas,” as the Viet Cong had been known to the Americans? How many times had he waited for one decent lead?

“The gangsters in Beijing are in charge,” the old man said. “Li Peng’s gang.”

“They’ve always been in charge,” Baker said impatiently. He remembered the words of the historian Bo Yang: “With each new dynasty and each new reign throughout Chinese history, the throne has never changed, only the ass that is on it.”

“But not so much when Chairman Deng was alive.”

“Deng,” Baker answered, “was as bad as the rest of them. Who called in the tanks at Tiananmen Square?”

“But Deng understood how far to go.”

“Did he? I wouldn’t know. You should ask the students who were run over.”

“Still,” the old man said, “there must be order.”

Baker had had enough. “Do you know anything about Americans still being held — POWs, MIAs?”

“Yes.”

“What do you know?”

“That Li Peng’s gang have done a bad thing.”

“You mean some MIAs have been taken across the border into China?”

“Possibly, but I mean this giving money to the pirates.”

“Look,” Baker said exasperatedly, “do you have something to tell me about our MIAs or not?” With that, the American straightened up, ready to leave, adding, “There have always been pirates. They made a fortune smuggling cigarettes, liquor — plundering the boat people. That’s not news.”

“But this,” the old man said insistently, making the point with his left forefinger bent, crooked down like a fishing hook, the shape of Vietnam, “this is to make Vietnam look like the aggressor.”

“What are you talking about? What aggression?”

“Against the disputed islands.”

Baker didn’t know too much about any disputed islands. China and Vietnam were always arguing about some offshore reef or such, especially now with the promise of big oil and gas deposits beneath the South China Sea and with oil accounting for more than a third of all Vietnam’s exports. But though Baker’s concern was MIAs, he now sensed there was something bigger at hand. It wasn’t the old man’s chin wagging about Li Peng’s gang, but rather his tone. It was the voice of a man who was too burdened, who had heard something in the sampans or the stalls and had to share it. At first Baker wondered why the old man, a Chinese, would be bad-mouthing China, but if there was something China was doing — or about to do — that might bring down the wrath of the Vietnamese on the Chinese Vietnam community, like the pogrom of 1978-79 here in Ho Chi Minh City from which so many Chinese fled, some taking to the open sea, he could appreciate the old man’s concern.

“How will Beijing make Vietnam look like the aggressor?” Baker asked.

“The pirates are to use the Vietnamese flag.”

“For what?”

“For attacking disputed islands. The flag is to be upside down.”

“Distress signal?”

“Yes. It is to get in close.” The old man looked at Baker with a face the color of ancient parchment. “How long have you been here?”

“In Vietnam? Five, going on six—” Then Baker fully understood. It was like looking through a microscope, suddenly seeing a blurred slide jump into focus. “You mean the Chinese pay pirates to use the Vietnamese flag so everyone’ll think it’s Vietnamese attacking?” But why was the old man telling him this? “Because,” Baker continued, answering his own question, “it would cause trouble between China and Vietnam again, and when there’s that kind of trouble, the Vietnamese take it out on you.” He meant not only the Chinese in Cholon, but all over Vietnam.

The old man nodded. “We are the Jews of Vietnam. But all we want is to live here in peace and harmony.”

“You want me to tell someone in Washington that Vietnamese Chinese aren’t involved? That it’s Beijing behind the attack on the islands?”

“Yes. Beijing will deny it, of course.”

“Let me get this straight. You say Beijing is doing this— attacking the oil rigs.”

“Yes,” the old man said, “to give Beijing an excuse to seize all the islands in the South China Sea.”

“You think Beijing’s so corrupt,” Baker went on, “that it would use pirates to attack two of its own rigs, kill its own—” Baker stopped. It was a foolish question. These were the men who had run over hundreds of their own students. A few dozen oil-rig workers wouldn’t faze them. “But wouldn’t this put off American investors as well?” he asked.

“Not if Beijing and some American investors know the truth of it.”

“But that would mean an American company would have to go along with…”

The old man smiled. It wasn’t a smile of joy, but rather one of wry amusement at the American’s naïveté—to think a U.S. company would not secretly side with Beijing, and to think Beijing would be concerned about a few Chinese workers, was to be in a kind of kindergarten of politics. What were a few lives to Beijing if they could use the attacks to bring the world against Vietnam in Beijing’s push to claim all the islands as theirs?

All Baker could respond with was to say that Americans would never do such a thing — stage an incident, kill their own to frighten away the competition, in this case, Vietnam.

“You Americans,” the old man said confidently. “You hold the individual so sacred. Here we are but grains of sand in the ocean.”

“But won’t the Vietnamese twig? I mean, won’t the Vietnamese suspect the raids were to blame them?”

“Of course,” the old man replied. “But for the Vietnamese to retaliate against China would be an act of war. It would be to risk international sanctions against Vietnam, and it has taken Hanoi over twenty years since the Vietnam War, since the American defeat, to build relations up with the U.S. again. It’s only a few years since the U.S. embargo on trade with Vietnam has been lifted.”

“Then China is free to keep hitting whatever claim they like?” Baker asked. “Be their own agents provocateurs? Frighten everyone off the islands, then say they’ll have to garrison them with troops for self-protection?”

“Yes.”

Baker shook his head worriedly. “But without proof, I can’t go anywhere with this. We’d have to have proof that—”

The old man was astonished. “But you are an American officer,” he said, as if that explained everything. “If you tell your government what I have told you, surely—”

“They won’t believe it. Or rather, they might believe it but they won’t do anything unless there’s proof positive.”

“But you are an officer. A—”

“I am a grain of sand,” Baker said. “Besides, why should I believe you — with respect. This could be a Vietnamese ploy to attack their own islands in the Paracels to make it look as if the Chinese—”

“But I have told you the truth,” the old man said, his head rising in indignation.

“And where did you get it?” Baker asked.

“From people of my blood — who were offered gold to sail with the pirate junks.”

Baker could see he’d deeply offended the old man. “I’m sorry but — I mean, I’d need proof. Otherwise it’s just another story in a sea of stories that one hears—”

“Dalat!” the old man said. “Near Dalat.” Dalat was a temperate city in the central highlands, and during the Vietnam War there had been an unwritten mutual agreement that it was a no-fire zone. Both sides had used it for R&R in one of the stranger aspects of that long-ago conflict. The weather in Dalat was always good. At the coldest, it would rarely fall below 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and at its hottest, wouldn’t rise to much more than 73 degrees. A place of gardens, of tranquility, it would be pleasant to visit if for no other reason.

“What about Dalat?” Baker pressed.

“To show you I am a man of the truth.”

Baker, nonplussed, waited impatiently. It had become cooler, a waist-high mist covering the canal, creeping toward the congestion of sampans and other river craft.

“In Dalat there is an MIA.”

Baker felt his heart thumping. “Where in Dalat?”

“I will tell you if you will tell your government what I have told you.”

“Yes,” Baker said, “I’ll send in a report.”

“The MIA is in a village near Lang Bian Mountain,” the old man said. “North of Dalat The people of Lat village will help if you give them this.” He took a small scrimshawed shark’s tooth pendant from around his neck. “When will you leave?”

Baker gave the old man twenty dollars, to be shared with the go-between. “In the morning.”

Afterward, Baker sent a message to the Pentagon about what the old man had told him concerning the attacks on the oil rigs, but he cautioned that it was only one old man’s story amid so many.

* * *

When morning came, Baker did nothing about the MIA— there was nothing he could do until he got special permission from the Vietnamese. Lam Dong province, in which Dalat was situated in the central highlands over 225 kilometers north of Ho Chi Minh City, had been closed again to United States citizens, who were still being charged by the Vietnamese with covertly supporting the FULRO — Front Unifié de Lutte des Races Opprimés — United Front for the Struggle of the Oppressed Races — guerrillas in the highlands. The CIA had long denied any continuation of funneling arms, but now and then FULRO rebels would stage another ambush or shoot up one of the supposedly secret Vietnamese reeducation camps, which, rumor had it, were still run for some U.S. POWs and MIAs.

In the evening, Baker went down to the canal to talk again to the old man, to get more details, but he was gone. Baker found him near midnight in a sampan that was bumping among the bridge pilings, his throat cut. He guessed the old man had been killed for what he’d known either about Dalat or about the pirates’ attacks in the Paracels and Spratlys.

What Baker hadn’t banked on was the Vietnamese response to the very first attack in the Spratlys, but then again, the Vietnamese had had dealings for a thousand years with the Chinese, and they decided to react immediately rather than let their traditional enemy think he’d gotten a toehold in Vietnamese waters. Hanoi headquarters ordered the Haiphong base to attack, and within the hour, with an efficiency that, after the Vietnam War — or what the Vietnamese had called the Second Indochina War — was among the best response times of any Asian coastal navy, two Soviet-made Osa-class missile craft armed with four surface-to-surface N-2 missiles raced out into the Gulf of Tonkin, ready to attack anything Chinese.

The flag behind each of the missile boats, that of Vietnam, fluttered furiously as the Osas’ bows lifted and the brown water boiled in urgency, the Vietnam missile boats picking up speed, heading southeast to the Chinese-occupied islands in the Paracels. The boats’ crews, however, were under no illusion, for they knew that they were heading toward the People’s Liberation Army’s new navy, which Beijing had boasted was nothing less than “a great wall of iron.”

Ten miles from the nearest Chinese-claimed island in the Paracels, one of the Vietnamese boats’ radar picked up two blips advancing from the east at thirty knots plus: two Chinese Huch’uan-class fast-attack hydrofoil boats. A Vietnamese Osa fired its starboard forward SS-N-2 missile, the Chinese hydrofoil immediately going into a defensive “weave” pattern.

Closer now. the Vietnamese Osa fired a second missile, its backblast on the stern immediately raising the Osa’s sharp bow so that she gained a knot or two. The Vietnamese captain saw one of the Huch’uan-class hydrofoils leap into the air and crash down again, its portside foil shattered along with the midships and cockpit — now a crushed pile of smoking metal.

The Chinese hydrofoil had turned hard astarboard as the orders were given by its skipper to abandon ship. The second Chinese hydrofoil fired its starboard twenty-one-inch-diameter torpedo from its large, corrugated housing, and now its 12.7mm machine-gun stations opened up against the fast-turning Vietnamese boats which, suddenly slowing near the site of the injured and sinking Huch’uan hydrofoil, machine-gunned all those Chinese in the water.

“Great wall of iron!” snorted one of the Vietnamese skippers, motioning toward the detritus of wreckage and bodies. The second Chinese hydrofoil had already fired its torpedoes, but they were easily avoided by simply opening the throttle, allowing the Vietnamese Osas to skid in wide thirty-five-plus-knot semicircles. There was some stray machine-gun fire from the Chinese—12.7mm tracer playing about the Osas, hitting the Monkey Island, or clear-weather bridge, on one of the Vietnamese boats, but doing no more damage than that.

* * *

Hanoi now broadcast to the world via an accommodating CNN that Vietnam had “punished Chinese aggressors” in Vietnamese waters.

In reply, the Chinese vehemently denied that they had violated Vietnamese waters, but stated that “the peace-loving People’s Liberation Navy” had been patrolling, as was its right, within two hundred miles of its coastline, which included the big island of Hainan, and from Hainan it had every right to patrol another two hundred miles, as Hainan was indisputably Chinese territory. Beijing immediately requested a meeting of the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions and other disciplinary measures against the “imperialist aggressions of the Republic of Vietnam bandits.”

Vietnam followed suit and asked for U.N. sanctions against China. The fear on both sides of the dispute — and well-founded fear — was that the issue would be ponderously delayed while no action would be taken. In the meantime, both Beijing and Hanoi were accusing each other of violating the other’s zone of ownership. It was a very capitalist argument, as seen by the Wall Street Journal:

In New York today, a U.N. meeting of Southeast Asian and East Asian nations called to decide who owns what in the oil-rich archipelagos of the South China Sea ended in uproar as the Chinese and Vietnamese representatives came to blows over ownership of the disputed islands.

As well as being rich in oil and natural gas deposits, the islands, the Paracels to the northwest and the Spratlys in the southeast, are also strategically vital to naval and mercantile routes to and from Japan and the United States.

The U.S. State Department is closely monitoring the talks, which it hopes will resume on Monday. Moscow and Tokyo are also watching the talks closely, as the outcome could have serious and wide-ranging geopolitical implications for all island disputes, particularly the so-called “Northern Territories” islands in contention between Russia and Japan.

CHAPTER SIX

Japan

It was 11:55 p.m. — 2355 hours on the clock at the Japanese Intelligence headquarters in Tokyo — and Henry Wray of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency sat quietly enjoying a cigarette, something he couldn’t do in Langley, Virginia, because of the strict no-smoking laws. His two Japanese hosts lit up as well. At 11:57 he watched his Japanese counterpart turn up the volume of the Sanyo shortwave receiver. At 11:58 two officers of the JDF, Japanese Defense Force, entered the cork-lined room, bowed to the civilians — four in all — from Japanese intelligence, and took their seats, the red light of the tape machine signaling it had already begun. At precisely twelve midnight the transmission from somewhere in North Korea began — four-digit numbers until 0020, when the code abruptly finished.

“All we need now,” Wray said, “is their onetime pad.”

“If that’s what they are using,” his Japanese host replied.

“Hmm… it’s what I’d use,” Wray told them. “You people are so far ahead in computers, I wouldn’t run a network on computer digitization. I’d be afraid you’d descramble it in a couple of weeks.”

“We’ve been trying for months, Mr. Wray.”

“Call me Henry.” He turned to the two officers from the JDF. “How about infiltration of the Chongryun?” It was a large expatriate pro-North Korean organization in Japan that raised millions of yen for Pyongyang. Nearly ten percent of all North Korea’s urgently needed foreign exchange was from Korean workers’ remittances abroad.

“It and others,” the Japanese said. “Problem is, we have no idea how many North Koreans they are broadcasting to.”

Whatever the number of agents listening, the CIA and Japanese Intelligence knew that by now there must be a large organization of illegals, as well as those who had immigrant or visitor worker status, in the pay of Pyongyang. Should hostilities ever break out, either domestically in Japan or between Japan and North Korea, the Chongryun’s association of North Koreans and deep cover agents would come out en masse like ants from a nest to sow confusion aimed particularly at Japanese transport and communication networks.

CHAPTER SEVEN

The Chinese invasion of Vietnam began at 0300 hours, the first crossings made on a four-mile front through a marshy area ten miles north of the Vietnamese town of Lang Son and on the left flank at the border town of Dong Dang. All three divisions used in the attack, about 41,000 PLA ChiCom regulars, had already traveled from Nanning in the Chengdu military region by rail to Pingxiang, near the Chinese-Vietnamese border. In the Vietnam War it had been a favorite staging area for NVA regulars to take possession of Chinese-shipped arms and munitions. Now, in this latest chapter of the long border battle between the two countries, Pingxiang once again became the jump-off point for one country’s invasion of the other. The Chinese forces were intent on overrunning the jungle-covered hills before Lang Son and the plains beyond, which ran down to the Red River delta and the Gulf of Tonkin seaport of Haiphong.

The Chinese were asked by the Secretary General of the U.N. “to disengage and withdraw immediately” from the border areas. But China, citing the “pirate actions of the Vietnamese imperialists” against a Chinese-owned oil rig and drill site in the South China Sea, insisted that Vietnam’s actions amounted to nothing less than “an act of war.”

The U.N. Secretary General’s office pointed out to Beijing that in fact both Chinese-U.S. venture sites were not within the two-hundred-mile economic zone of China. China disputed this, replying angrily that several joint Chinese-U.S. ventures in the Paracels were within two hundred miles of the coastline of the big Chinese island of Hainan, and that MV Chical 7, while beyond the two-hundred-mile zone, was historically owned by China, as Chinese fishermen a century ago had been there first to fish and to use the islands and reefs in the South China Sea for repairs and the like. “Furthermore,” a statement from Beijing added, if the “imperialist Vietnamese” did not remove their equipment and men from all the islands in the South China Sea, these would be seized by the PLA, as they “historically belong to the peace-loving Chinese people.”

Hanoi retorted that this “is typical of the warmongering imperialists in Beijing — who arrogantly aggrandize the territories by intimidation and threat”—and that if China did not recall its three divisions back to Chengdu, the Republic of Vietnam would have no alternative but to “repulse the Chinese with all available forces.”

Suddenly the President of the United States and his advisers, with help from the State Department’s China and Vietnam desks, realized an uncomfortable truth — the island dispute was centuries old, “like a fight between neighbors — the Hatfields and McCoys,” the President realized. Who had actually attacked whom was, in the final analysis, irrelevant. What was relevant was that the Chinese claim to own all the islands in the South China Sea was preposterous by any measure, and with the Chinese and Vietnamese on the brink of all-out war, the only consideration was how to stop it before it became general war in the Asian region. Because of this clear and present danger, and the catastrophic effect it would have on the U.S. trade-driven economy, the U.S. might have to intervene, albeit under the auspices of the U.N.

* * *

The Chinese attack south on Dong Dang with two divisions was led by General Wei. The other prong — an attack of one division, thirteen thousand men, on Lang Son — was led by General Wang. The assault on Dong Dang was made up almost exclusively of infantry brigades with one armored division leading the thrust south down the Pingxiang-Dong Dang road and railway. The road ran more or less parallel with the rail tracks, allowing Wei to move twice as many troops as would have been the norm on the road alone. Once Dong Dang fell, it was hoped by Wei that Wang’s forces on his left flank coming down east of him from Zhilang in China to Lang Son in Vietnam, a distance of about thirty miles, would be able to quickly sever the rail line running south from Lang Son to Hanoi, eighty miles away, thus cutting off the rail line the Vietnamese Army would need to rush reinforcements to the north. But the Vietnamese Army, already having explosive charges set at Ban Re, seventy-three miles north of Hanoi, blew both the rail line and the road at Ban Re. This prevented the ChiComs from capitalizing on their sudden attack south of the border and halted General Wang’s troops before they could press the attack farther south toward Hanoi.

* * *

To the north of Ban Re, at Dong Dang, General Wei had better luck, being able to reach the Na Ann junction, thirteen miles west from Dong Dang. There, Wei’s infantry and armored battalion, equipped with T-59s — upgunned T-55s— managed to sever two roads, the one leading northwest from Na Ann junction to Quinh Son and Na Nien, the other running south to Phu Lang Thuong, thirty miles northeast of Hanoi, the Chinese-Vietnamese border itself barely a hundred miles from Hanoi.

The two prongs of this 41,000-strong Chinese pincer attack, however, were not so much strategic as tactical in design. The Chinese did not intend to stay, but merely to shell and destroy as much of Lang Son and Dong Dang as they could — as they had in 1979—and then withdraw. It was, in short, meant to be a military punishment for what the Chinese were calling “blatant unprecedented Vietnamese attacks” against the Chical drill ships in the Paracels and Spratlys. In any event, neither General Wei nor Wang wanted to penetrate much farther south. As it was, they lost over four hundred casualties to minefields the Vietnamese had laid down after China’s 1979 incursions.

Vietnamese forces, despite the fast Chinese attack, reacted swiftly. From the Vietnamese garrison at Na Sam, seven miles northwest of Dong Dang, and from Loc Binh, twelve miles southeast of Lang Son, a two-pronged counterattack was launched by four regular infantry divisions well seeded with “Viet Cong” veterans who as young men had fought in the south against the Americans during the Vietnam War. Wei’s and Wang’s forces, in danger of encirclement, began to withdraw, but by Day Four after the initial Chinese invasion, the Vietnamese troops had cut off the Chinese retreat from Na Ann and Lang Son. Only those ChiComs from Dong Dang were able to withdraw with only light casualties.

Beijing had only two options now: to give up those infantry battalions of Wei and Wang that had been surrounded and thus trapped by the Vietnamese regulars, or to send in more Chinese troops to release them, Beijing realizing that the defeat of their incursion would be a singular loss of face in a part of the world where “face,” and therefore the nation’s standing in Southeast Asia — indeed, throughout all Asia — was at stake. Accordingly, Beijing ordered an all-out invasion, not merely to rescue their embattled infantry divisions, but to widen the war and gain a buffer zone of territory, militarily shortening the distance between Hanoi and the old border from a hundred miles to something much closer. If this was achieved, then in the future any Vietnamese hostility aimed at China could be quickly punished by massive retaliation against what was hoped would be a much closer target, namely Hanoi, which might in turn be ringed by Chinese-planted minefields and surface-to-surface missile batteries.

Meanwhile, the Vietnamese raced to reinforce the border zone between and around Dong Dang and Lang Son.

CHAPTER EIGHT

Ellman told everyone in the Oval Office that the last thing they needed was indecision based on a lack of coherent foreign policy “which we inherited from the previous administration. We have to avoid giving mixed signals, a foreign policy that’s cut from the cloth of the moment, an ad hoc way of proceeding which will make the U.S. look indecisive and weak — visionless. This would have adverse effects for us all over the world — trade deals suddenly put on hold, et cetera. And an overseas lack of confidence would have a direct effect on the dollar and so on, so that pretty soon we’d see a domestic downturn in the economy, the direct result of those overseas having lost confidence in a firm American position. You can bet your life that all the major oil companies and the subsidiaries which form their infrastructure, et cetera, are watching what we do over these attacks in the South China Sea.”

Noyer cut in. “Ellman is absolutely correct. Whoever started this row wouldn’t have dared to stir up trouble were it not for our hitherto wishy-washy foreign policy. The Chinese saw what we didn’t do in Yugoslavia — not what little we did in Haiti — and why shouldn’t they risk it? They can always pull back, though I don’t think they will unless forced to — loss of face, you see.”

“Yet,” the President said, “can you imagine the response if I were to go on TV and announce that we are unilaterally going in to support the Vietnamese — the Communist Vietnamese?”

“You could limit the support, Mr. President,” Ellman charged, “by providing what the Vietnamese need most — air support. Limit our action to sending in a carrier battle group to operate from the South China Sea.”

“And the Chinese air force?” the President asked.

“Minimum threat to our battle group,” Reese said. “I’m not saying it’d be plain sailing, and the Chinese do have some squadrons of Fulcrums. MiG-29s. We’d lose some of our aircraft, but we’d beat them — no question.”

The President was looking intently at the CNO as if he wanted more. “What about their submarines?”

“A bit dicey,” Reese replied. “They don’t have anything like our capacity, but some of their seventy-four diesels — whose props are superanticavitation-treated due to that bastard Walker selling us out — could sit still and it’d be hard to find them.”

“Yes, but they’d have to come up sooner or later, Admiral.”

“Yes, sir, but almost certainly at night.” The admiral could see the lines of consternation on the President’s face. “I don’t think there’d be any problem in the end, Mr. President,” he added. “I just want you to know that the opposition might have a trick or two up their sleeve that we don’t know about, that’s all.”

“So,” the President said, leaning forward over the blotter, doodling and summarizing, “you all agree our policy should be as coherent in the South China Sea as it is in the Mideast. If you invade a neighbor, you’ll risk having the eagle swoop.”

“Especially,” Ellman added, “if you risk fouling up the sea routes and oil supply — in this case through the South China Sea.”

“Trust me,” the President assured them. “I won’t dodge the oil issue and dress it up as anything else — I’ll say unequivocally that the Western democracies need it, especially Japan and the U.S., and if the flow turns to a trickle, the eagle will more than swoop. At the same time, however, our intervention can’t be purely economic. We are, as the leading and most powerful democracy, going to put it on record that we are against the Communist invasion of one country by another. We’ve got to stabilize the region, goddamn it! We want a new world order, not more disorder.”

“Ironic, isn’t it,” Ellman commented, “that since the Berlin Wall came down, we end up having more wars around the world than ever before. I’m not saying we should go back to the bad old days of the cold war, but at least you knew the rules — this is our side, that’s your side, and don’t walk on the grass. Can you imagine that butchery in Rwanda in ‘ninety-four and ‘ninety-five happening if the Soviet Union had still been strong enough to exert its influence?” Ellman paused. “Still, if we put ourselves on record now as opposing the invasion of one country by another, we’ll be accused of assuming the role of the world’s policeman.”

“So be it,” the President said. “Besides, as you suggested, we don’t have to commit troops. Air and naval interdiction— cruise missiles included — would pack a sufficiently large wallop to disincline any would-be bullies on the block.”

“We’ll be called the bully,” Admiral Reese commented.

“Nevertheless,” the President said, “tonight I go on record by saying that we will not stand for any more Yugoslavias or Rwandas, and we can set up air and naval blockades. In any case, we won’t be impotent in the face of challenges to world peace.”

“A Pax Americana,” Noyer said. He, like Reese, wanted to know how far the President would be prepared to go.

“If you want to call it that — yes,” the President conceded. “Well, we sure as hell can’t leave it up to the Russians. And I don’t mean to exclude anyone who wishes to help, Lord knows. Canadian peacekeepers, British troops from Brunei, Australians perhaps, because of their interest in Southeast Asia.”

“I agree. The more the better,” Noyer said.

“And,” the President said, “if we can’t beat China’s veto on the Security Council, we could still rally a force of friends in the General Assembly so we’re not seen as acting just on our own convictions.”

“Where will Taiwan stand in this?” Admiral Reese asked. “It’s tended to favor a Beijing-Taipei fifty-one, forty-nine percent split on any oil and gas find in the South China Sea.”

“Taiwan’s a wild card in my view,” Ellman said. “It could go with us, but God help us if it goes with Beijing.”

The President was noticeably struck by the danger of this possibility. “Good God, we’ve equipped the Taiwanese.”

“We have,” Reese confirmed. “Ever since Truman and Cash My Check.”

Suddenly it seemed as if all the steam had gone out of the President’s stance of no exceptions to his idea of the rule of geopolitical stability. That is, if the Taiwanese joined China in the island dispute, it might very well bring the United States in against one of its oldest and staunchest allies. The President’s hands were clasped tightly, his skin blotching. “This is a decision, gentlemen, that Taipei’ll have to make. Is its potential oil split of fifty-one, forty-nine with Mainland China worth wiping out all its good relations with the U.S.?”

“But Mr. President,” Ellman began, “that’s a risk I wonder—”

“Yes, yes, I know, Bruce. It is something you would like to have an idea about first. All right, we’ll sound out the Taipei representative here right now. But the point I’m making is that my job and my intention is to lead this country, not to prevaricate, trying to court every single congressman over to our side. I want their support. I’ll ask for it, but in general terms. I’ll not plod through this one hoof at a time. If you do that you end up with a mishmash of conflicting policy statements.” He paused. “Look — over sixty-five American citizens have been murdered. Murdered! If we sit back and talk this one to death, how safe will any American feel anywhere around the world? No, I’ll go on TV tonight and tell the country I’m moving the Seventh Fleet into the South China Sea for possible interdiction pending the withdrawal of Chinese troops.”

Noyer waited till everyone else but he and the President had left the Oval Office. Then he said, “Mr. President, wouldn’t it be much easier for your just-stated policy if China didn’t come to the Security Council meeting you’ll be calling for in the speech? I mean, they’re sure to veto any criticism of themselves, let alone any action that might be taken against them.”

“Of course it would be better not having them there, but that’s highly unlikely.”

Noyer nodded. “Yes, it is. You’ve asked the Secretary General to call a meeting for nine a.m. tomorrow.”

“Yes — what are you suggesting? I change it?”

“Yes, Mr. President.”

The President sat back, surprised. “Earlier or later?”

“Later. Around four o’clock in the afternoon.”

“What on earth will that do to help us?”

“Probably nothing,” the CIA director conceded.

“Why four?” the President asked, intrigued.

“Four is a very unlucky number in Chinese. Nine is a very lucky one. Besides, four tomorrow afternoon instead of nine a.m. will give us more time—” Noyer paused. “—to prepare.”

The President eyed Noyer for a few moments before he spoke. “Ah… I don’t think you and I should say any more, do you?”

Noyer agreed and made for the door. “Good luck with your speech, Mr. President.”

CHAPTER NINE

Coughing relentlessly on his raft — or rather, the jagged-edged wood planking that had been part of the oil rig’s crew’s quarters — Danny Mellin was thanking God for the temperate water of the South China Sea. Perhaps if the plan of attack from the junk had a weak point, he thought, it was that the attackers had chosen dusk to make their move, which meant that if anyone else had survived the attack and the blast, then darkness might have prevented them from being picked off by the junk’s crew. Then again, darkness provided the junk with cover also, which was probably why they had decided on a dusk attack in the first place.

He had no doubt that the explosion would have been picked up by one of the microphones in the U.S. underwater sonar system. Hopefully, U.S. ships and/or subs of the Seventh Pacific Fleet had already been dispatched as fast as possible to investigate the massive explosion. Mellin could still see the smoky column that was, or rather had been, the joint Chical venture. But now it appeared to him not as a roaring inferno shooting hundreds of feet into the air like the Kuwaiti oil fires, but the size of a candle flame, the currents having moved him away from the coast and any immediate assistance.

After a while, in a wash of moonlight, Danny Mellin saw something in the water that he hoped he’d mistaken for the dorsal fin of a dolphin. Its ominous circling of his ever-weakening raft, however, suggested otherwise. Soon he saw a wave breaking on something that didn’t seem to move, and he guessed he was near a reef or one of the lonely islands that rose only a few feet out of the water and began to paddle toward it, the fin keeping up.

The rock was Louisa Reef, known in Chinese as Nantong Jiao. It was all of three feet above the sea. He felt the raft being taken away by the current, and once more paddled hard, until he thought his arms would break. He remembered, as if it was a dream, reading in “The Story of San Michele” by Dr. Alex Munthe, how Guy de Maupassant pressed Munthe to tell him what was the most terrible form of death at sea, and Munthe had replied — to be at sea with a life belt to keep you alive during the hell of dehydration. The next morning de Maupassant threw all his life belts overboard.

His hands bleeding from the coral and barnacles clinging to the rock, Mellin hauled himself and his small, broken plank raft up on the reef and hoped it was already high tide. Exhausted, he could do nothing but pray that by morning someone would find him.

It began to rain. He lay on his back, his legs dangling over the edge of the rock, opening his mouth to let the rainwater revive him. He looked around for the fin, suddenly lifting his foot as he did so, but now he could see nothing but the turbulent gray sea all about him.

CHAPTER TEN

The President of the United States began his address to the nation about the situation in the South China Sea by calling for a meeting of the U.N. Security Council at four p.m. He pointed out that regardless of claims over ownership of ocean resources, the United States of America would tolerate neither attacks against Americans nor any closure of or other interference with the vital sea lanes through which Mideast oil traveled to the United States and Japan. And for this reason he had ordered the U.S. Seventh Fleet into the South China Sea.

The violence of the long dispute, he pointed out, had spilled over into border clashes before the current invasion of Vietnam by China. China must recover her troops, he said. Failure to do this within seventy-six hours would leave the United States no alternative but to support the position of the People’s Republic of Vietnam, which had once again, without warning — and here he referred to the 1979 and 1982 Chinese incursions — been invaded by its neighbor to the north.

“It is not only in our own economic interest to take this action,” the President added, “but in the interest of world peace.” It was time to extinguish the spark before, “fanned by the winds of old hatreds and intolerance,” it ended up with a brushfire which could engulf all of Southeast and Northeast Asia. By Northeast Asia he meant a possible clash between North Korea, South Korea, Japan, and China, and the Japanese-Russian dispute over the Northern Territories islands.

After the speech, taking off his throat mike, he confided to his wife, “I liked that bit about ‘the winds of—’ “

“Excuse me, Mr. President…”

“Yes?”

It was an aide, very tense, armed with a fax just in from the National Security Agency. NSA had SIGINT — Signal Intelligence — of transmissions along the Kampuchean border that showed incursions by Khmer Rouge Communists on Vietnam’s western flank. The President handed the fax to Ellman.

“Bastards!” Ellman said, then apologized in front of the First Lady, adding, “Beijing is obviously behind this. They’ve supported the Khmer Rouge for years.”

“Whether or not Beijing’s behind them,” the President commented, “an air strike or two over the area should cause them to think again. The Khmer Rouge…” He paused. “You know, Ellman, if someone has to test the mettle of our foreign policy, it might as well be the Khmer Rouge. They’re as bad as the Nazis. The genocide they’ve committed is unspeakable. I’ve ‘never forgotten those shots of the pyramids of skulls they made… and to start the world over, dating their calendar the year One. They’re psychopaths. Suck up to the Chinese because of Beijing’s support. Beijing sees it as an extra army on the Vietnamese flank. I can’t think of a better target than the Khmer Rouge. And remember what the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese fought about after the Vietnam War with us.”

“What? Islands?”

“Islands in the Gulf of Thailand. I tell you, these damned offshore islands have caused no end of trouble.”

“It would have to be a carrier strike, Mr. President-against the Khmer Rouge.”

“Why not B-52s?”

“Too big, given our lack of runways, and because of our allies, like Japan, who fear upsetting the Chinese. No one’ll give us landing or refueling rights in Southeast Asia. They’re all scared stiff of the Chinese, not only in China proper, but within their own populations. Singapore has seventy-six percent Chinese. Brunei is too small to take the heat. Malaysia has thirty percent Chinese. Indonesia won’t help us. So without airfields, we’d have to use shorter-range fighter-bombers off a carrier.”

“How about the airstrips at Okinawa?”

“No. Essentially it’d be the same as launching from the Japanese mainland. Tokyo won’t give us the go-ahead. They’re probably right, strategically speaking. Beijing would go ape, and like North Korea, Beijing can scud Japan.” Ellman paused. “I suppose we could launch Tomahawk cruise missiles from one of our subs.”

“Yes,” the President responded, “but I’d favor the carrier aircraft option over that. And I don’t mean an attack by stealth, I’d want this on CNN. If we’re going to stop a full-scale war started by the Khmer Rouge or China before it gets out of hand, I want the world to see American foreign policy straight and simple in action. No hide-and-seek on this one, and like I said, if it comes to kicking ass, I can’t think of a better target than those Khmer sons of bitches.”

“If air strikes don’t do it?” Admiral Reese asked.

Ellman interjected. “We could alert Second Army’s Emergency Response Force at Fort Bragg, Mr. President. Do you want me to write up the—”

“Christ, no!” the President cut in. “For God’s sake don’t anyone notify that—” The name escaped the President for the moment.

“Douglas Freeman,” Ellman put in. “He’s a good man, sir. In my opinion our best for—”

“I agree,” the Present said. “But damn it, if he gets the bit between his teeth before we’re ready to move, it could be a media relations disaster. Haven’t met the man, but State tells me you put a microphone anywhere near him, it explodes into controversy. I don’t doubt he’s one of the most brilliant commanders we have — possibly the most brilliant — but they say he’s another Patton. Can’t keep his mouth shut.”

“Yes,” Reese said. “He even looks like George C. Scott.”

“Anyway,” the President continued, “we want to try to contain this with naval and naval air action alone.”

* * *

At the urging of the United States, the U.N. Secretary General called the special meeting of the Security Council. Problem was, as Ellman reminded everyone, the Chinese, like the other four permanent members — Britain, the U.S., the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States, and France — had the power of veto over any Security Council resolution.

“We didn’t have it in the case of Korea,” Ellman pointed out.

“Then how did you manage to get a U.S.-led U.N. force in there?” Ellman’s aide asked. The aide, Ellman realized, would not have been born when the Korean War of the early fifties broke out.

“Well,” Ellman explained, “the Soviet representative at the time had stormed out in protest over the failure of the U.N. to grant Communist China a seat and left town in a huff. So when North Korea invaded the South and the emergency meeting of the Security Council was called, the Soviet rep was unable to make the meeting and the remainder of the Security Council voted unanimously to send in a U.S.-led police action. That’s how we got to get our troops in to throw back the Communists.”

“If China started this,” the President noted, “as the Pentagon and this Captain Baker in Saigon — I mean in Ho Chi Minh City — suspect, then it’s another Gleiwitz.”

“I don’t get the analogy,” Reese said.

“Gleiwitz,” Ellman explained, “was a German radio station on the German-Polish border. It was attacked in ‘thirty-nine by German political prisoners dressed in Polish uniforms so the Poles would be seen as the aggressors.”

“So that Hitler’s invasion of Poland,” the President added, “could be seen as a response to Polish aggression.”

“Yes,” Ellman put in. “The analogy now is China having used the Vietnamese flag — in distress — to get close to the rigs.”

“Pity China wouldn’t walk out of the U.N. now like the Russians did in ‘fifty,” Admiral Reese’s aide commented, unknowingly speaking for all present — from Ellman and the CNO to CIA director David Noyer.

“Yes,” the President concurred, “but that’s highly unlikely unless we said something offensive enough to make him leave the chamber.”

“We could call him a turtle,” Noyer said, knowing that “turtle” was an extraordinarily rude thing to call any Chinese.

The President nodded. “Perhaps we could switch place names at the round table. Instead of ‘People’s Republic of China,’ we could put up ‘PROT — People’s Republic of Turtles.’ “

It was a joke that eased the tension, but only temporarily; the stakes and the danger of general war in the area all around the South China Sea rim were too pressing, for the rim touched not only China and Vietnam, but Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Sabah and Sarawak, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Taiwan, and had enormous implications for Japan, now the last U.S. stronghold in Asia. The joke, however, had given the CIA’s Noyer an added incentive, one he could not present to the President, with or without the others present, but he immediately made a note to pull the People’s Republic of China embassy personnel file when he returned to Langley.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Fort Bragg, North Carolina

“Mason,” General Douglas Freeman said to his senior meteorological officer, looking down at the map of the “mysterious MV Chical incident,” as reported by The New York Times, “what’s the weather like in the South China Sea this time of year?”

“Right now,” Mason assured him, “it’s calm, General.”

“Well, Mason, I have a hunch the political climate around there is not going to stay damn calm. I smell a big fat commissar in Beijing pulling the strings on this one.”

“We don’t know that for sure yet, sir.”

“No, but I’ll bet my boots on it. Who the hell would send in an identifiable ship to blow a drill ship sky high? Obvious as the nose on your face that it’s the Chinese trying to do the dirty on the Vietnamese.”

“Sir, that’d mean killing their own.”

“Mason, you’re a damned good meteorological officer, but in matters of what the individual means to the Communist state, you don’t know squat from a hill of beans. One of our generals in the Vietnam War told us that individual life isn’t as highly prized in Asia as in the West. Of course, every fairy and do-gooder liberal from Florida to Montana started squawking about how human life is as valuable to an Asian as it is to us. I tell you it isn’t. They’d have a nine-year-old walk into some village with a grenade. Use their women too.”

“So you say the Chinese would’ve easily sacrificed some of their own to…”

“To make it look like the Vietnamese did it. Yes. And when I’m proven right—” He turned to his chief aide, Colonel Robert Cline. “—we’re gonna have to kick ass. And Second Army’s Emergency Response Force is just what we need. Hell, we could be in and out of there and drop a few eggs on Nanning before the bastards knew what hit ‘em. So, gentlemen—” He addressed his headquarters staff, or rather, those of his headquarters staff who had been hastily assembled in his office. “—I want contingency plans for a full EMREF ground attack against selected targets in southeastern China, Chengdu province — attack plans from both sides of the border. In China against Guangzhou’s Fifteenth Army and Chengdu’s Fourteenth — and I want RECs — religious, ethnic, and cultural— profiles of all countries laying claim to the Spratlys and Paracels.” He paused. The excitement in his eyes was as clear as his next message. “And anybody in this outfit who talks to the press, I’ll have his guts for garters. That clear?” There was silence in the tension-charged air. “Very well. Dismissed. Mason?”

“Yes, General?” the meteorological officer said.

“South China Sea’s calm now but it’s about to enter the monsoon season, correct?”

“Yes, General.”

“All right. I want you to give me the worst possible weather scenario for that area — maximum typhoon wind strength, wave height, et cetera. You got that?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then send it to me.”

As Mason left the general’s office, Douglas Freeman steered Robert Cline over to the map table to show him what he thought would be the order of battle, and strategic and tactical maps of Guangzhou and Chengdu provinces and the Vietnamese-Chinese border area.

“Yes, sir,” Cline said, “but what if it was pirates? Could be Vietnamese or Chinese or—”

“Bob, you have to take the long view. It’s only old ladies and fairies in State who worry about who threw the first punch. The long view — the overview — what happens, is the main thing we have to worry about. We don’t see Israel getting all uptight about who was the first to throw a rock in a damn street brawl. They assume it’s the Arabs because the Arabs have been their enemy for centuries. And for us the question is, Who is the biggest danger? And that’s China.”

His arms swept across the map of the South China Sea and all the countries around its rim. “Look at the Chinese claim. It’s not just the Paracel Islands it claims, but everything in the damn South China Sea, hundreds of miles beyond any legal economic zones and right in the path of our sea routes. Can’t put up with that bullshit — doesn’t matter if we find out it was a damn gorilla started it. The point is, we’re the major power in the world, and we’ve got to contain this brawl before it gets out of hand — for our own sakes if not for anyone else’s.”

* * *

With no call from the Pentagon, and boiling with impatience, Douglas Freeman called his old colleague, General William Lynch, of the Joint Chiefs.

“Bill,” Freeman explained, “you’ve got to let me go in with the EMREF.”

“Sorry, Douglas, the White House is handling it.”

“They’re not handling anything. What’s the matter with those jokers? They scared?”

“Of letting you loose, Douglas? Yes,” Lynch replied. “They’re apprehensive. Ellman suggested you to the President, apparently, but quite frankly, Douglas, there are those here who think you’re far too — belligerent.”

“Too what?”

“Belligerent.”

“For Chrissake, General, what you need now is the most belligerent son of a bitch in America — and no offense to the late George Steinbrenner, but that’s me!”

“We need something bigger than the EMREF,” Lynch replied, quickly estimating the Chinese strength, but basing it on the strength of U.S. divisions. “We’re talking here about three million strong and tried ChiCom army troops — a hundred and fifty divisions—”

“Two hundred and fifty,” Freeman corrected him. “ChiCom divisions are only twelve to thirteen thousand tops — but they’re all teeth. And I agree with you, Bill, we need something bigger than EMREF. But right now you need a seasoned siege-buster like me to plug the hole — to push the bastards back north where they belong and off those islands, and to hold the line while our Second Army boys mobilize in Japan. The EMREF can leave within—”

“Douglas, you’re not listening. The White House is sure that the mere disembarkation of a Japanese-led U.N. team this afternoon and the urging of the General Assembly in the U.N. might be enough to settle the ‘dispute’ on the islands and—”

“General,” Freeman cut in, “the U.N. can do fuck-all unless they agree to go in to fight as they did with Schwarzkopf in Iraq. And you’re telling me all they’ll do is send in observers. Congress suggested it after hearing the President’s speech. Goddamn it, Bill, observers are no good now. What we need are—”

“Douglas, it’s no good reaming me out — it’s the White House’s call and that’s that. It wasn’t my idea to send in observers. At least I would have sent them in by air to Hanoi, but the President feels that a U.N.-flagged ship to Haiphong will give the Chinese time to ponder and save face. That’s important to Orientals.”

“How ‘bout us? We could lose face.” There was a pause at the other end of the line, and Lynch waited for the explosion. It never came.

“Well, thanks for taking my call, Bill,” Freeman finally said. “I guess all we can do now is hope that the White House sees reason and can douse this thing before it gets out of control.”

“Amen to that,” Lynch said.

* * *

But “amens” and “seeing reason” were to have no effect, for as in all wars, chance and misunderstanding were at large. Two hundred miles southwest of the Japanese island of Kyushu, and three hundred miles south of Tsushima Strait, between Korea and Japan, its government outraged at the idea of a Japanese-led force, a North Korean Russian-made conventional diesel-electric sub lay quietly waiting in the relatively shallow seas about Tokara-Retto, one of the Ryukyu chain of islands that threaded their way in a gradual south-north crescent between Taiwan and Japan.

The sub’s silence was absolute, its five-bladed screws still, the sub on a sandbar off a reef in water deep enough to hide the three-hundred-foot, 3,500-ton Tango, but not too deep for its search periscope, allowing its captain, Commander Kim Yee, to survey the sea’s surface for miles about him. As Captain Yee made it abundantly clear that anyone who broke the silence would be severely punished, Lieutenant Commander Jeon maintained his position just beyond the periscope column as officer of the deck. Further safety for the sub lay in the fact that the Tango was such a ubiquitous class, with eighteen having been made and four sold to swell the coffers of a foreign-exchange-hungry CIS. In short, a Tango could belong to any country.

* * *

David Noyer’s meeting with China’s representative to the U.N., Lee Chow, took place at a suitably subdued but crowded reception for the new ambassador from Thailand. Here, a polite nod and a few words to one another on Embassy Row would not have to be accounted for in the way they would have been had Noyer, albeit unofficially, suggested they meet.

Noyer waited until Lee had finished consuming his fourth hors d’oeuvre. “Mr. Lee,” Noyer said, smiling, extending his hand, Lee accepting it while still chewing. “We have a few photos of you.”

“Yes,” Lee said. “So…”

“You’re in various compromising positions,” Noyer said, still smiling, “with a beautiful redhead.”

Lee swallowed the last of the shrimp and Ritz cracker. “Boy or girl?”

It caught Noyer by complete surprise. “I didn’t know you were bisexual.”

“I’m not,” Lee replied in impeccable English, “but you Americans can do anything with photography. I particularly enjoyed that ‘Forrest Grump’ movie.”

“Gump,” Noyer corrected, vying for time. “It was Forrest Gump.”

“Yes. well, whatever. The scene of him meeting John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, though we know both men were dead many years before the film was made… Correct?”

“Is that what you think?” Noyer responded in an incredulous tone. “We faked the photos?”

“Why not? If you can do it with a movie, the opportunity of monkeying—” Lee paused, considering whether he had used the correct word. “—yes, monkeying with stills, must be what you Americans call ‘a cinch.’ “

“Why don’t we let Beijing decide?” Noyer offered.

“What is all this in aid of?” Lee Chow asked.

“We were hoping you’d be too busy to attend the U.N. this afternoon,” Noyer said.

“In return for the photographs?”

“Yes — including the negatives.”

“I’m not interested in your photographs,” Lee Chow said.

“We could still release them. The redhead’s no fake.”

“Release them?” Lee Chow challenged. “To what purpose?”

“You’d be recalled.”

“Possibly.”

“Definitely.”

Lee Chow turned his back on Noyer.

Noyer felt dirty and cheap. The Chinese ambassador had called his bluff. But would Chow back down at the last moment and not turn up at the U.N. Security Council? Noyer doubted it, but it was possible that the Chinese ambassador might retreat, given a night to think about it and of the effect public knowledge of his extramarital affair would have — if Noyer released the photographs — not only on himself, but on his family, and the utter disgrace of a recall to Beijing.

* * *

Protecting the U.N.-flagged U.S. ship — the nearest available for carrying the U.N. team having been a U.S. T-AGOS 1, a Stalwart-class ocean surveillance ship — were two of Japan’s ten 250 feet long by thirty feet wide Yushio-class diesel electric submarines. Each was capable of 27,220 short horsepower, their engines able to drive the subs at a submerged speed of 20 knots, one Yushio on each flank, the 14-knot convoy preceded by two U.S. ASW armed sonar dipping Sea King helos. But now all their sonar mikes were picking up was the thundering noise of the U.S. T-AGOS 1 and the quieter engines of the two escorting Japanese Yushio subs.

Aboard the waiting North Korean Tango-class sub, four torpedoes were “warm”—ready, each tube flooded, outer doors opened. The navigation officer plotted the vectors and Captain Yee gave the order to fire. The torpedoes streaked out in a fan pattern toward the American ship.

Just moments after the hiss of air and tubes flooding, the passive sonars of both Japanese Yushio-class submarines had the range and position of the attacking submarine, but aside from the two Yushios knowing one another’s position for safety reasons, neither Japanese sub could be sure of the nationality of the enemy sub. Even if the sonar operators aboard the Yushio subs could have ascertained by the noise of the hostile that it was a Tango class, which they could not, they still would not have known whether the sub was Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean, or Russian. Their hesitation to fire was not so much a failure of naval discipline, but a result of an official JDF policy of extreme caution and a lack of combat experience dating back over fifty years, to August 1945 when the Second World War had ended for Japan. A long policy of appeasement followed, including Japan’s refusal to be involved in any military action with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Insane.

The Yushios’ hesitation allowed the Tango to leave its point of attack and on quiet battery power to move a half mile then settle where it once again fell silent. The Yushios could have switched from passive to active sonar, sending probing sound waves out in the hope of rebound from the hostile after it had fired on the U.N.-flagged ship, but this would have immediately betrayed their own position, an invitation for a hostile to fire torpedoes at them.

The fact that the T-AGOS 1 was an ocean surveillance ship didn’t help, for it was well known, at least among the intelligence community, that the partly civilian-manned twelve ships in the class with their SURTASS, or surveillance-towed array sensor, and their superstructure bristling with communications gear, were in effect spy ships.

The fact was that whether the White House had known this or not, the T-AGOS 1, normally operated by the Military Sealift Command, was clearly sailing under a U.N. and not a U.S. flag. For the first time in many years, an old and hitherto firmly held assumption that the U.S. would at all times know precisely where all non-U.S. submarines were and would know what countries the subs belonged to was proven to be wrong.

Hit amidships, the T-AGOS 1 never stood a chance, the enormous implosion of water sending her down in minutes, with only three of her complement, one Japanese observer and two American seamen, surviving.

* * *

Presidential adviser Ellman, the White House’s point man on damage control, was now on the “Larry King Show,” trying to explain why, if the President knew that a T-AGOS 1 was a spy ship, it was used in the first place. Or was the civilian-manned ship used because its maximum speed-from eleven to thirteen knots — was relatively so slow that the President hoped that by the time it reached Hanoi’s port of Haiphong the China-Vietnam clash would be over? In short, King wanted to know, was it a cynical, vote-getting political move on the part of the administration for the White House to look decisive while hoping time would cool Vietnamese and Chinese tempers?

“No, certainly not,” Ellman replied. “It was a U.S. ship that had the kind of sophisticated communications gear the U.N. would need to monitor the situation and report back to its headquarters. Also, in view of Japan’s reluctance to become too involved with the situation, it was the best available vessel.”

“You know what I think?” the first phone-in caller began.

“No,” King said. “You have a question for Mr. Ellman?”

“Well, I think you people at the White House knew what the hell it was. You just told the President what the Pentagon told you, and the Pentagon — am I still on?”

“Yes,” King said. “Hurry it up, ma’am.”

“I am hurrying it up. I think the Pentagon didn’t tell the President it was a spy ship because the hawks over there want to get us in another fight. Reminds me of the Gulf of Tonkin—”

“Sorry, ma’am,” King said, cutting her off. “Time’s up.” He turned to Ellman. “Well, how about it, Bruce? Did the Pentagon come clean? Do the hawks want a fight?”

Ellman was either shocked or good at affecting it. “I don’t know of anyone, hawk or dove, who wants a ‘fight,’ as the lady put it.”

“But you knew it was a spy ship — right?”

It was Ellman’s face turning a salmon-pink that gave him away. “We, ah — we were informed that an American communications ship was, er, ah — available.”

King and millions of viewers were on to it. “You didn’t know it was a spy ship?”

“Not at the time.”

“Well, when did you know?”

“Ah, I can’t recall exactly, but—”

“After or before the ship was sunk?”

Viewers could see Ellman exhale, almost in relief.

“After. The President certainly didn’t. The President didn’t — I mean it was the Pentagon — to be more exact, it was, I believe, the job of the MSC—”

“What’s that?” King cut in.

“The, ah, Military Sealift Command.”

“So you didn’t know—”

“Not until later.”

“After it was sunk.”

“Ah — yes. That’s right.”

The second caller was irate. “I’ve been waiting half an hour—”

“Your wait’s over, sir,” King told him. “What’s the question?”

“You guys in the media make me sick. You’re tryin’ to make it look like the President’s fault. How about who started it? First we lose, what, twelve Americans on that oil drill ship, and now we lose a whole crew. How many I don’t know. What we should be asking is what are we gonna do about it? Sit on our fannies while some Korean egomaniac—”

“We don’t know it was a Korean sub that hit it.” King turned to Ellman. “There was some talk of the possibility of a mine.”

“Ah, mine, shine,” the caller said. “What’s the difference? We got Americans dead all over the place, and you guys in Washington are doing nothing but talking. We’ve got to let these tin-pot dictators—”

“Out of time, sir. Have to move on. Good question, though, Bruce. What’s the U.S. response going to be now?”

“Well, the Joint Chiefs’ll be meeting with the President this evening.”

“Uh-huh. But you know, Bruce, we’ve had a couple of good questions here tonight. Isn’t there a larger picture here? I mean, let’s see…” King picked up a news clipping. “New York Times asks, ‘What kind of message is our apparent inaction sending worldwide?’ And you know the Times was one of the papers to advise caution in the first instance — in the, uh, Chical business.”

Ellman was visibly relieved. “And that’s exactly what the administration is doing.”

“Yeah, but that was in the first instance. Now it and — well, you just heard from the callers — a lot of people — I should say, a lot of Americans—are asking, What are we going to do now that the T-AGOS 1 has been sunk?”

“We’ll still move with caution. This administration isn’t about to commit the lives of young Americans without duly—”

“ ‘Scuse me, Bruce, but isn’t the point this — that you are now being criticized for precisely the kind of thing you people criticized the previous administration for—”

“No, I don’t think we—”

“Sorry,” King cut in, “but we didn’t clear one point up. How many Americans have now died in this sinking and the attack by whoever it was on the Chical—wasn’t it Chical?’

“Yes…”

“Yeah, and on the Chical drill ship?”

“Forty-one, I believe. But Larry, let me just say something here. We’ve already ordered the Seventh Fleet into the general area, but we still don’t know who it was that attacked the drill ship or — and I must emphasize this — or the T-AGOS 1.”

“I understand, but isn’t it a bit late for who started what? I mean, China has invaded Vietnam. And everyone — and by that I mean mainly the other countries — is disputing these oil-rich islands. Who are the others, by the way — besides China and Vietnam?”

“Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei,” Ellman replied.

“Well,” King continued, “isn’t the danger here that if we— the United States — don’t make up our minds quickly on that, that all these countries could be at war? The South China Seas trade route to Japan and the U.S. could be a war zone.”

“I, ah — possibly. That’s why I think it’s prudent to be careful.”

“Nobody’s denying prudence, Bruce, but isn’t it true that the longer we wait, the more the danger of it spreading? I mean this war between Vietnam and China.”

“I think it’s more likely that the other countries will want to see which way the wind blows.”

“You mean go with whoever wins the war?”

“Possibly.”

“All right — last caller. From Oklahoma.”

It was a woman’s voice, strangled by sobs. “My husband is one of those missing in the Chical attack — I mean, the attack on the Chical…

There was a long pause.

“Take your time, ma’am.”

“He’s one of those missing…. He fought in Vietnam…. His sisters served. They were lost. He was decorated twice. I just want to know, is Washington doing anything to—” She couldn’t finish.

“Bruce.” King’s tone was more solemn now. “What do we tell this lady? Is there a possibility that Americans may have to fight again in Vietnam, only this time with Vietnamese to repel China?”

“Yes — if that’s the way we have to go to stabilize the region as you suggested we should.”

“Wait a minute, I didn’t suggest that. I merely asked what the administration is prepared to do.” King then returned to the caller. “You still there, ma’am?”

“Yes.”

“Ma’am — and I know this is an awfully hard question — but you’ve seen your two sisters-in-law… Were they in combat support roles or—”

“Yes, they were nurses.”

“Uh-huh. Now, you said they were killed?”

“One was, the other’s been listed as MIA.”

“Uh-huh. Ma’am, if we — if the United States had to send troops again into Vietnam — this time to fight with Vietnamese, both North and South, against Communist China — what would be your response after the pain and the suffering you’ve—”

“I… oh, I’m sorry…”

“No — take your time, ma’am.”

“I think a bully has to be stopped.”

“You mean China, right?’

“Yes.”

“You’re one brave lady. Thanks for calling.”

“Whew!” King said. “Some lady. Bruce, thanks for coming at such short notice.” King turned to his worldwide audience, which, among dozens of other capitals, included Beijing and Hanoi. “Don’t go away. Next — the Mongrels talk about their new album, Struttin’ Stuff.”

CHAPTER TWELVE

Tokyo

Jae Ghong, carrying a brown shopping basket, emerged from Shinjuku Station in west-central Tokyo. He walked a mile south, past the Meiji Shrine in Yoyogi Park, then caught a cab to go a mile east to the National Stadium, where he was part of the huge crowd watching Osaka’s Hanshin Tigers beating Tokyo’s Seibu Lions. After the game he caught the subway to the Ginza district, where he walked down past ritzy stores and viewed the Western-style mannequins with a mixture of envy and contempt. He wished that he could afford the clothing he saw — to buy something for his wife Mia back in Pyongyang. He could work for a year and still be unable to afford anything in the Ginza.

All the money he earned, less what it cost him to live in the far outskirts of Tokyo, went back as a remittance for his wife and two children. They all had to make sacrifices if North Korea was to become a great nation. Without many products to export to earn vital foreign exchange, the remittances of Chong and all other North Koreans living in Japan were vital to North Korea’s economy. But the Great Leaders — first Kim Il Sung and now Kim Jong Il — were correct: everyone had to make sacrifices if North Korea was to take its rightful position as Communist leader of Asia.

The new decadence of Japan was everywhere. The young Japanese particularly were a spoiled race. While their parents, the post-World War II generation, subscribed to Yamato damashii, the Japanese determination to succeed against all odds, the young Japanese, despite their commitment to the shiken jigoku, or hell of examinations, upon graduation from the universities became part of the moyashiko, the bean sprout generation — because, like sprouts, they grew up fast but were in the dark. They had no staying power. More and more they wanted more leisure time, and soon. With such weaklings in power, the great Japanese giant must falter and stumble, and then North Korea would be ready to strike.

Of course, there were those who said the Japanese were too powerful a nation to falter, let alone fall, but Chong believed the great leader Kim Il Sung’s prediction that capitalism’s decadence, its immorality, would undermine its industrial achievements, and his, Chong’s, job was to help expedite this “historical process” by whatever he could do as a member of the North Korean expatriate organization, the Chongryun. What made it easier for Chong to believe in Kim Jong Il’s prediction was the way in which the Japanese treated the Koreans as second-rate citizens. The Koreans did all the low, menial, dirty jobs, but were not accepted into Japanese society. How to redress such a situation, how to deal with the humiliation that assailed you like the death of a thousand cuts, one slight at a time? The only way Chong knew was to strike back, and not on their terms but your own, to shatter their Japanese spirit, their sacred and exalted Yamato damashii.

Chong stood in front of a store window that sold expensive electronics, and gazed at the mirrorlike reflection to check those who were passing him and anyone who paused at the window. Two schoolgirls in uniform stopped to look at the range of portable compact disc and tape players and to watch one of Sony’s latest HDVs, high-definition video screens which, instead of having the normal U.S. standard of just over five hundred horizontal or scanner lines, had more than a thousand, and made for a dramatically sharper picture. Chong also watched the TV screen, for its camera was outside the store, taking pictures of passersby.

He knew what the American agent looked like: five-foot-six, 150 pounds, brown hair, blue eyes, smaller than the general run of American agents. The CIA presumably had started recruiting smaller men. In Asia they would blend much more quickly in a large crowd like that at the ball game. But Chong could see no Caucasian nearby, and if anyone was tracking him, he had not been aware of it in the taxi on his way from National Stadium, and a taxi would have been sure to flush the agent out — unless the American had radioed the taxi’s number ahead and a tail had been taken over by some Japanese agent from the JDF.

Chong, feeling fairly confident that he was not being followed, moved on down the Ginza back toward Hibiya Park, nearing the Chiyoda-Ku district and the Imperial Palace. He walked down by the moat, looked up at the eye-pleasing greenery that nestled the palace, and then made his way across to Tokyo Station. He could smell himself, having walked so far — about two miles in all — in an L-shaped route that he broke out of by going into Tokyo Station and catching the subway, now full of raucous revelers from the Lions and Tigers game, north a few miles to Ueno Station. Here he bought an iced tea, doing it without putting down his brown paper shopping bag, and made his way by foot another mile eastward to Asakusa Park, his destination the Buddhist Asakusa Kannon Temple.

He was looking forward to its serenity, though he did not believe in Buddhism, another religion of the weak. He made his way up to one of the incense stalls, bought two sticks, and placed them in the holders by the shrine. It was now 9:36 p.m., dark, and in twenty-four minutes, at ten o’clock or as near to it as he could get, depending on the line for a phone booth, he would ring one of his friends in the Chongryun. He walked around to the other entrance to the shrine and, head bowed, quickly scanned the entrance he’d just been in. He was sure no one had followed him. A small child jostled him to get a better look, banging into the bag. The woman began to bow in apology until she saw he was a Korean.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

The USS Enterprise at its center, the carrier battle group of the U.S. Seventh Fleet proceeding west from Guam in the Philippine Sea was well protected. There were twelve ships about it: two Aegis-system-equipped antimissile cruisers flanking it within the twenty-mile-diameter circular zone; two more cruisers; three destroyers; five frigates, for antiship protection within a two-hundred-mile-diameter zone; and an SSN nuclear attack submarine at a 230-mile forward position from the carrier.

In addition, the battle group was preceded by an E-2C Hawkeye early warning plane and a Viking antisub plane in the outer zone with two CAPs, or combat air patrols, of two F-18s each in the outer defense perimeter. The defense ceiling of the CAPs extended to sixty thousand feet plus above the battle group. Admiral Rawlings, C in C of the battle group, was sure that nothing would get through the formidable protective screen of ships and aircraft.

* * *

Tazuko Komura was a beautiful twenty-six-year-old Korean woman with an hourglass figure who worked in Tokyo and hated it. Ever since she could remember, she’d been aware of the subordination of women in her country, and her childhood resentment of the fact had passed into teenage anger that had culminated in an adult rage she found almost impossible to contain. She loved modern American movies, for in them there was comparatively little of the utter subservience of women. Of course, she knew not all American women were like the ones she’d seen in the films, but for all they might have to put up with in American men, the American women were free birds compared to their Japanese counterparts.

Tazuko had two brothers, and all her parents’ attention seemed to be taken up by them. She knew her parents loved her too, but in education especially she had seen the two worlds — one for men, the other for women. And at twenty-six, unmarried, she was called a “Christmas cake,” something whose value plummets after December 25. Her schooling had stopped after her high school graduation, and all the money the family had was devoted to the education of her two brothers.

She worked for a time in one of Japan’s largest clothing stores along the Ginza, where only the very rich shopped. She was one of thirty girls who, dressed exactly alike, every morning received instructions for the day, eyes straight ahead like so many robots, and who then spent the day bowing fifteen degrees and saying, “Irasshaimase”—”Welcome”—to thousands of shoppers. A thirty-degree bow would be necessary for introductions, and a forty-five-degree bow for an apology. Unlike her coworkers, every time she bowed she resented it, and could only get through the day by cursing inwardly. She had made the mistake of confiding once to one of the girls, a paato, or part-timer, about how much she loathed bowing and scraping to everyone who passed through the department store’s doors.

“Why don’t you quit?” had been her coworker’s response.

“Because jobs aren’t easy to come by, that’s why.”

Her coworker had called her wagamama—selfish.

“Yes,” Tazuko had replied, shocking her coworker even more. “I want more than a husband, two children, and a lifetime of drudgery.”

“You should not talk like that.”

“No, I shouldn’t,” Tazuko agreed with an overtone of sarcasm.

After that incident she had not complained anymore. She had decided to act. In time she became an agent for North Korean Intelligence. Whatever else the Communists might be, Tazuko had become obsessed with their promise of equality for women. At times her inner voice told her that the Communist world was no Utopia. But whatever its faults, Tazuko believed that at least its women were treated differently — more like men. Pyongyang told her to keep her job as a greeter — it was perfect cover. Who on earth would suspect someone so subservient, bowing low to the holy customers who passed her as if she were a stick of furniture?

* * *

Aboard the Nimitz-class carrier USS Enterprise, two FA-18 Hornets were readying to take off to relieve the two F-18s now on combat air patrol over two hundred miles in advance of the battle group. The fighters were armed with four heat-seeking, Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, two radar-guided Sparrow air-to-air missiles on the wingtips, and a six-thousand-round-per-minute 20mm cannon. In addition, each plane, capable of acceleration from 850 to 1705 kmh in less than two minutes, carried 375 extra gallons of fuel.

The flight deck at first sight seemed a confusion of terrible noise, astringent fuel smells, steam bleeding from the starboard catapult, and groups of men in different colored jackets: red for firefighters and ordnance, green for maintenance, red crosses on white for the medics, white for safety supervisors, blue for aircraft handlers, brown for each plane’s deck captain, green for catapult and arrestor gear crews, grape-vested for refuelers, and yellow for aircraft directors. In front of the water-cooled blast deflectors, a Hawkeye early warning aircraft roared to full power, its twin turboprops twin blurs. As it took off, the F-18s moved into position.

In primary flight control high in the carrier’s island, anticollision teams worked diligently under pressure. Their job was to know and account for the position of every plane coming in, taking off, or parked, the handler closely watching his “Ouija” board, on which there were tiny models of the ship’s planes. The deck was clear, the landing light red, the captain pushing the button for the harsh-sounding warning horn while a quarter mile out to sea the orange rescue Sea King chopper hovered.

Through the blur of rising steam, sea spray, and backwash of exhaust heat, the pilot of the first Hornet prepared to take off and watched the yellow-jacketed catapult officer, his hand up and open, signaling him to go to afterburner. The pilot saluted, then the catapult officer’s left hand dropped behind him, his left leg fully extended at an acute angle to the deck, his right leg bent and his right hand thrust forward, wind speed and temperature and weight already in the belowdeck computer. The deck edge operator pressed the button, and a deck below, the catapult controller let her go, hurling the plane aloft in a cloud of steam — from zero to 150 miles an hour in less than three seconds.

As each of the Hornets climbed, one of the pilots saw a glint of reflected sunlight amid the carrier island’s cluster of air, surface, and target acquisition radar masts. The pilot took it as a good omen, and the next second both Hornets, climbing, disappeared into the base of a huge cumulonimbus cloud, its ice-cream whiteness already bruising with rain.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

The Vietnamese divisions fought hard, but Wang and Wei’s PLA infantry and artillery outnumbered the Vietnam regulars. As the pincer closed about Lang Son, the Vietnamese began a tactical retreat, the air full of the whirling and shuffling noise of artillery rounds overhead and the massed stuttering of heavy machine guns and T-56s, the Chinese version of the AK-47s, as the Chinese pressed their advantage.

In Washington the unexpectedly rapid Chinese breakthrough sent shock waves through the Pentagon. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way, and it created a new sense of urgency in the White House. Bypassing the Security Council, stalemated as it was by a Chinese veto, the President, through his ambassador to the U.N., appealed to the General Assembly for assistance in forming a U.N. coalition. He made it clear, however, that if such assistance was not forthcoming, then the United States would act unilaterally and send in troops to assist the Vietnamese, in the interests of preventing a general war in Asia.

It was a sensation, more so because the American offer was carried by CNN to an audience of over 100 million, topping the 94 million who had watched the O. J. Simpson story and the Oklahoma bombing in the mid-nineties.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Whitehall, London

The American offer to send in troops came as no great surprise to the British Foreign Office. The Minister of Defense, Richard Tyler-Jones, had been told by the White House to expect some sort of declaration from the President pertaining to the Chinese-Vietnamese clash.

Tyler-Jones, looking out the window down Whitehall, spoke to his deputy minister, Ronald Nash, without looking at him. “What to do, Nash?”

“Well, I expect we should say something positive. Washington is clearly, however reluctantly, prepared to do battle with the Chinese because they realize that if the Chinese succeed, they’ll not only occupy the border areas between the two countries, but they’ll claim all the oil islands, the Paracels as well as the Spratlys.”

“Not to mention what all the Chinese in Vietnam and Malaysia might do. We could have another Communist insurgency in Malaya, and who would stop it? Apart from that, it would turn the whole of the South China Sea into an Asian Yugoslavia.”

“Ironic,” Nash commented wryly. “The Americans are prepared to send in troops to help a Communist power.”

“Not at all,” Tyler-Jones said tartly. “They helped Stalin— worst Communist of all — a thoroughly nasty piece of work. We helped him too, remember? Besides, without Uncle Joe as well as Uncle Sam, we could have been in a rather sticky situation.” He meant England would have lost the Second World War.

Tyler-Jones sat down and took up his letter opener, a cassowary bone dagger from an old patrol officer who had once journeyed up New Guinea’s Fly River. The weapon made him think of another dagger, the famed curved Kukri knife of Britain’s legendary Gurkha troops. They were fierce fighters, especially renowned for jungle warfare. Late in the 1980s, during a recruitment replenishment drive for just over sixty men, more than sixty thousand men applied. The Gurkhas took only the best of the very best.

“How about we offer them a Gurkha battalion and a squadron or two of SAS?” The Special Air Service commandos had carried out the lightning raid in London against the terrorists in the Iranian embassy in 1961 to rescue British hostages, and had performed sterling service behind the lines in Iraq.

Nash, though deputy minister of defense, couldn’t recall how many men were in a squadron of SAS.

“Varies,” Tyler-Jones told him. “Around seventy-two. I suggest we send two or three squadrons, and have a battalion of our Gurkhas in Brunei on standby — ready for deployment. Not many as far as numbers go, I agree, but top drawer all the same.”

“And we should offer them without strings attached,” Nash asked.

“Not visible ones anyhow,” Tyler-Jones replied cagily. “I’m seeing the Prime Minister at Number Ten this evening. Don’t do anything until I give the green light.”

Nash looked surprised. “You don’t think the P.M.’ll raise any objection, do you?”

“I shouldn’t think so,” Tyler-Jones answered. “You know, England and America — allies in two world wars, Korea, et cetera — Iraq. Our ‘special relationship’ and so forth.”

“Some of the opposition don’t think there’s a special relationship anymore.”

“They may be right to some extent, but there are the ties of blood Winston spoke about, despite the fact that we are separated by a common language.”

Nash forced a smile. It was a very old chestnut but one that the minister still thought amusing. “Quite,” he said. “I won’t draw up the offer beyond a rough draft.”

Tyler-Jones glanced at his watch. “Ten minutes? If so, I can take it around to the P.M. myself.”

“It’ll be ready, sir.”

“Good… Tuesday, isn’t it?”

“Ah, yes sir.”

“Oh, God — the P.M. and his one-main-course dinner. An example to the nation in hard economic times. Tuesdays, Nash, are corned beef, cabbage, and white onion sauce — none of which I can abide.”

Nash’s eyebrows rose. “Surely, Minister, the menu isn’t as predictable as that?”

“Alas, it is. Our beloved leader, Nash, has not one of the more discerning palates in government. It’s rumored — no, it has been confirmed—that he likes those awful American hot dogs.”

“Perhaps there’ll be a change in the menu — in your honor, Minister.”

“Perhaps,” Tyler-Jones replied, though his tone was not one of conviction.

“One could simply order the soup,” Nash proffered with a smile.

“Yes,” Tyler-Jones answered wryly. “And one could end up on the back benches. No, Nash, I shall do my duty, and you do yours.”

“Yes, sir.”

As Nash reached the door, Tyler-Jones, looking over his reading glasses at the deputy minister, said, “You see how much I trust you, Nash.”

Nash glanced at the very rough draft of Great Britain’s offer, one England could just afford, but one he was sure the Americans would like. However, if it were to get out before the P.M. had seen it…

Tyler-Jones, his hands forming a cathedral, was shaking his head. “No, no, not the offer of troops, old man. The bloody cabbage!”

“Oh — yes, Minister,” Nash said, smiling.

“You mention a word of that and I’m for the high jump.” He meant, for hanging.

“Don’t worry, sir. Mum’s the word.”

The minister, his hands still in the prayer position beneath his closely shaved chin, merely nodded.

* * *

“Mr. Tyler-Jones, Prime Minister,” announced the secretary at 10 Downing Street, and then, withdrawing in utter silence, deftly closed the door to the P.M.’s study.

“Richard,” the P.M. said, smiling, taking off his reading glasses and extending his hand in greeting.

“Prime Minister,” Tyler-Jones acknowledged.

“Sit down, Richard. I’ve been going over these budget figures again. And your department is one that we’ll have to trim.”

“We’ve trimmed to the bone, Prime Minister. You may have noticed that we’ve reduced the number of our Gurkha battalions significantly. We’ve gone from eight thousand men to two and a half thousand.”

“Yes,” the Prime Minister interjected, “I realize that. It’s not a criticism of you, Richard, but I’ve been wondering — do we really need them at all?”

Tyler-Jones was flabbergasted, and fought against his natural urge to respond sarcastically. “I think we do — need them, Prime Minister. Their fighting ability is legendary. Perhaps, sir, not being an avid student of the military, you might not realize the extent of their reputation.”

“I realize full well, Richard. They are very very good soldiers. My father used to regale us as children with tales of their unquestioning loyalty and ferocity. That knife they carry, the—”

“Kukri.”

“Yes.” The P.M. smiled. “Sounds like something one would use in the kitchen, don’t you think?”

“Perhaps, Prime Minister,” Tyler-Jones said. “The Gurkhas use it to hack their way through jungle and to cut off their enemies’ heads.”

“Yes, Father did mention that, but can’t they be replaced by British troops? I mean by that, of course, home-based troops?”

“Hardly economically viable, Prime Minister. All in all they’re a bargain, and their morale — well, what can one say? In the Falklands War when the Argentinian units heard the Gurkhas were on their way, it caused mass panic — a ‘withdrawal in force,’ I think the Argentinians called it.”

“Mass desertion?” the P.M. proffered.

“Just so,” Tyler-Jones responded, adding, “Of course, during Mao’s cultural revolution they also proved invaluable.”

“Really? How?”

“Difficult to know where to begin. In any event, when the Red Guards let loose by Mao spilled over into Hong Kong and caused massive riots, we sent in the Gurkhas — had ‘em draw their Kukris. Once they draw the big knife, you see, there’s an imperative to use it before they can return it to the scabbard.”

“Oh,” the P.M. said. “That I didn’t know.”

Tyler-Jones saw his opportunity, and the moment the P.M. finished speaking, he added, “And I thought that if Beijing wants to foment more trouble on the Vietnamese-Chinese border, we might be able to assist our American cousins with Gurkhas.”

“Very good, Richard,” the P.M. responded, unwinding, both arms outstretched for isometric exercise, pushing hard against the edge of the desk. “Very good indeed. And of course the Gurkhas, black chaps and—”

“But Asian in appearance. They come from Nepal.”

“Quite. That’s what I meant. Asian-looking. And in Asia, Asian troops on our side would look much better than— Good.” The P.M. was plainly pleased with himself, as if it had all been his idea from the first. “Excellent.” A light on his console blinked silently. Not bothering to lift the scrambler phone, the P.M. spoke into the small intercom. “Very good. We’ll be out in a moment.” He turned to Tyler-Jones. “Dinner,” he announced. “You’ll stay to partake, Richard?”

‘Thank you, sir.” Any meal with the P.M. was a feather in one’s cap, particularly when one had been instrumental in putting the P.M. in such a good mood.

“Corned beef, cabbage, and white onion sauce, Richard. How’s that sound to you?”

“Delightful, Prime Minister.”

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

The dot in the distance looked like all the others, seabirds of one kind or other, some lazily gliding about a crinkle of white as turquoise swells broke upon a barely submerged reef like the one Mellin had drifted onto. Though his legs had been lacerated by the reef, he owed his life to the rocky outcrop. Mellin knew he could have lasted days without food, floating in his Mae West, but could not have survived without water, and in the higher depressions of the rocks, those not flooded by seawater at high tide, he found a few pools of rainwater from the downpour that had followed the attack on the drill ship. It wasn’t much water, but it was enough to prevent what would have been a fatal dehydration. As for food, he’d forced himself to eat and swallow a slimy sea urchin from one of the tidal pools, and had almost thrown up.

Soon Mellin could discern another ship close to the dot, and then he saw that the two seemed to cohere and were now one. Several seconds later he could see it was a speedboat, most probably a patrol boat passing the almost completely submerged reef in the distance and coming toward him. Now, after the days and nights of hoping and waiting, he was suddenly afraid.

Would it be a rescue or a killing? He guessed the vessel, whoever’s it was, would reach him in about twenty minutes. Then it occurred to him that maybe the boat wasn’t Chinese or Vietnamese. Perhaps it was a speedboat coming westward from Brunei. It also occurred to him that although the reef wasn’t large, only thirty to forty yards long and ten to twenty wide, he could, if he wanted to, hold on to the edge of it as one would grasp the edge of a swimming pool, all but his head submerged, to somehow hide and see them before they could see him.

* * *

Hanging behind a piece of coral that jutted out from the reef like a small peninsula, Mellin now realized how absurd it was to think that it mattered whether they saw him first or he saw them. The reality was that unless he wanted to die on the reef, he would have to go with them, whoever they were. He saw the flag of the Red Chinese — its five stars representing China proper, Manchuria, Mongolia, Sinkiang, and Tibet — fluttering from the stern of the ship, not a gunboat, but a frigate, its bow, a quarter mile from Mellin, slicing through the light swells with an effortless grace that belied her purpose.

On the frigate’s bridge, an officer walked out to the port wing and, binoculars in his hands, began to peer more intently at the reef. Mellin knew they had to spot him. After thirty seconds or so it struck him that the ship might in fact be on a routine patrol of the Spratly Islands and reefs to check that no foreign structures or markers had been placed there, the Chinese and Vietnamese having had confrontations about such claims, and on several occasions firing upon one another. In one incident several years ago, in the early nineties, over fifty Vietnamese had been killed by the Chinese. In a way, Mellin was relieved to see the Chinese flag, signifying that it was a PLA naval warship, rather than a fast patrol boat of the kind some pirates used in drug runs across the South China Sea to the countries that lay on its rim.

Now the ship leaned hard astarboard, turning away from the island. Suddenly Mellin was yelling out as loudly as he could, raising his voice above the slap and smash of the swells along the hundred feet of rock and coral.

The officer of the watch, however, had seen him, and the ship was merely coming about to better launch its rubber boat. It was with a mixture of gratitude and apprehension that Mellin saw this taking place. He could hear an outboard motor coughing, spluttering, and dying. Chinese maintenance, he thought, and grew more anxious now, not because of the temperamental outboard — he knew they would get him somehow — but because of what appeared to be spikes — rifles sticking up from two of the four men aboard. The outboard now sounded like an angry wasp as the Zodiac’s bow rose, slapping the crest of a wave then disappearing for a second or two before reappearing again, the blue-and-white-striped shirts of the sailors standing out against the sea, now a gunmetal gray beneath a big cumulus that had obscured the sun.

The first thing that struck Mellin after they took him aboard was the stiff attitude of the four PLA navy types. Every face was solemn. The petty officer at the control console pointed to the middle of the boat and said in Chinese, “Sit there!” Mellin didn’t know much Chinese, only what he’d learned as a POW in Vietnam, where he had been guarded by Vietnamese Chinese.

“Xie xie ni.” Thank you.

No one answered him, two of the four using their rifle butts to push the rubber boat away from the reef, where it could easily capsize should a sudden swell rise high above the reef’s edge then just as suddenly drop precipitously onto the coral below. Steadying himself in the middle of the Zodiac, he thanked them again. The unsmiling bosun, a rather sorry sailor, said something to him gruffly and pointed to the rest. The bosun waited till the water lifted the rubber boat high, then turning the wheel sharply to starboard, he gave full throttle and they were heading back at about eight knots toward the frigate.

The bosun pointed impassively toward the reef and again said something just as grumpily as before. Mellin couldn’t understand the tone. As far as he knew, the Chinese and U.S. had cordial relations due to joint Chinese-U.S. ventures. It then occurred to him that even if they could have understood what he said, they might not know about the attack on Chical—or had they been part of it? There had been reports before, particularly in 1994, about pirates in PL A uniforms telling foreign vessels to stop, whereupon the pirates had proceeded to ransack the ship’s cargo.

They were nearing the ship now, and Mellin made one more attempt at conversation. “Shipwrecked,” he lied. Maybe it would be better for him to stick to a shipwreck story and say nothing about the Chical. None of them responded as they reached the netting ladder just forward of the bridge. “Well, you’re uncommunicative bastards,” Mellin said, smiling, “but thanks for picking me up anyway.”

“Get up the ladder!” the bosun ordered in clipped but perfectly understandable English.

Mellin had a distinct sinking feeling.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Fort Bragg

General Douglas Freeman was in his tiny kitchen, emptying the last of his coffee around his aspidistra plant — an aspidistra was able to take anything and thrive — when the phone purred. It was the Pentagon telling him that the Emergency Response Force was to be activated for immediate deployment. Freeman knew it was for Vietnam, and a shiver of excitement rather than apprehension passed through him.

“Yes, sir,” he answered crisply. The irony of Americans returning to the country where they had suffered their first and most humiliating defeat in the twentieth century was on his mind, and he knew it would be at large among the EMREF’s troops; if not the British SAS contingent, then certainly among the rest of the force. But he welcomed the Pentagon’s decision, for whatever the American troops’ apprehension, Freeman saw it as an opportunity to exorcise once and for all the stigma that had been the legacy of America’s Vietnam vets.

The Pentagon’s view, however, was quite different. Its hope was that the very announcement of the American-led EMREF being activated, via Hawaii, would send a timely and clear message to Beijing — to stop the fighting and to withdraw its troops from Vietnam.

* * *

Within the closely guarded and vivid red-lacquered gates of Beijing’s Zhongnanhai, the government’s VIP compound, reaction was swift, with a message to Generals Wei and Wang to hold their positions at all costs, that “decisive” reinforcements were en route from Nanjing military district to the border. In fact, the Vietnamese supply line from Hanoi eighty miles to the south had been cut again, this time by PLA MiG-29 Fulcrums, so that Hanoi’s ability to resupply its troops south of Lang Son and Dong Dang was even further impaired, inviting a fresh Chinese attack, with Generals Wei and Wang eager to seize the moment and press farther south.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

THE ADVANCE PARTY of the Emergency Response Force, a mixture of 2,150 Marines and three squadrons of 216 British Special Air Service and 200 Delta Commandoes, left Britain and the United States by air ahead of Second Army. Meanwhile, General “George Scott” Douglas Freeman was busy in the cavernous interior of the lead L-100-30 Super Hercules.

In addition to the 127 other combat troops in the first Hercules, another twenty of the aircraft would fly into Hanoi with the remainder of the advance party, which would chopper eighty-five miles north into the area around Lang Son. The advance units of Freeman’s Second Army and all its material were already on their way from Japan aboard the fast 20-knot vessels of the Military Sealift Command, including amphibious assault ships, helo- and Harrier-carrying ships from the 40,500-ton Wasp class, a 39,300-ton Tarawa, and an 18,000-ton helo-carrying Iwo Jima class. They were escorted by 30-knot Burke-class and Spruance-class destroyers, two Ticonderoga-class Aegis cruisers, and two combination SSBN/ SSN Sea Wolf submarines with cruise missiles and torpedoes.

* * *

Tokyo

At 9:55 Chong moved away from the temple of Asakusa Kannon to the phone booth nearby and dialed Tazuko Komura’s contact number. When she answered, he knew she would be wearing white gloves. He asked for a Mrs. Yoshi. Tazuko Komura told him he must have the wrong number, there was no Yoshi living there. He rang off.

Before Chong had made his phone call, six JDF intelligence officers had been milling in the crowd around the Asakusa Kannon — the minimum needed to follow anyone. All of them had seen Jae go into the phone booth and dial. Immediately, two of the closest agents made their way to the phone booth, one of them rudely stepping in front of a woman waiting her turn to enter the booth.

“Excuse me,” she said, “but I am going to use the phone.” The agent said nothing. “I am going to use the phone,” the woman repeated.

“No you’re not, mother.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Be quiet,” he said, “or I’ll arrest you.”

“Arrest me?” she said, surprised. “And who are you, please?”

The agent was losing it. Amid the murmur of the crowd around the shrine, their voices couldn’t be heard, but if the old woman kept on nagging at him…

He would have to get the rare one, he thought, a woman who thought herself equal to men — the man they were watching, still in the booth, might hear them arguing as he came out.

“And who are you, please?” the woman repeated.

The agent had seen Jae dial four of the six numbers, but not the last two. It was something, but not enough. They’d have to feed it into the computer and have it print all the possible combinations of numbers.

“And who are you, please?” she said once again.

“Be quiet!” the agent hissed. He couldn’t hear what Jae was saying.

The agent walked away as Jae hung up.

“I thought you were in such a big hurry,” the woman called after him. “Did you hear him?” the elderly woman challenged the person lining up behind her. Jae came out of the booth. “And who is he? He’s a lout, that’s what he is. A shrimp brain!”

The person she was addressing, another woman, but much younger and prettier, smiled weakly but obviously didn’t want to get into it.

“Moyashiko,” bean sprout, the old woman said as she made her way into the phone booth.

The agent joined his companion, and both of them sought out the American agent, Henry Wray, who was waiting in one of the surveillance cabs. The Japanese agent lowered his eyes in a sort of obeisance. “I only got four of the numbers,” he confessed.

“Did you?” Wray said, but the American’s tone was more a hearty declaration than a question. “Well, we got the whole six!”

The agent’s mouth was agape. “The truth?”

“The same,” Wray said. “JDF boys had a bead on him the moment you saw him waiting. It’s a number in the north of the city, in Kita-Ku.”

“Do we pick him up?” the agent asked eagerly.

“No,” Wray said. “He’s just a messenger. We can get him anytime. What we want are the soldiers — who he calls — the action boys. Besides, we pick him up now, his friends soon know, the cell disbands, and then we’re back to square one.”

“But we still tail him.”

“Your boss and I think that’s the best way to proceed.”

The agent nodded. Whether or not he agreed, it was impossible to tell. “Will we pick up the contact?”

“We’ll do that,” Wray replied, indicating the other four agents in the car.

* * *

Tazuko Komura, after walking away from the public phone, made her way back to her apartment block, and in her tiny, boxlike kitchen, which smelled of pickled cabbage and fish, she sat down and turned on the news. The yen had risen again, worrying Japanese business about the resultant high price of her exports relevant to other countries. Tazuko was struck by the irony that the Japanese yen — because it was one of the strongest currencies in the world — was now giving Tokyo a headache with millions at stake in exports.

She handled the TNT-based compound carefully but confidently, each malleable plastique piece of grayish-white C4 looking like a rectangular bar of putty except for its inverted-V-shaped bottom. Next Tazuko pushed in two aluminum blasting cap tubes, out of which came the detonating cord that would be started via a small, tubular, battery-operated electronic timer, its top resembling the rotary dial of a telephone except that instead of each hole moving ten spaces from operator to 1, the ten-holed rotary dial of the electronic timer was marked from one-quarter minute to forty-eight minutes. She would, of course, use the 48 setting, giving her ample time to walk away.

Now on the news, the CNN feed was showing the massive sea lift of the U.S. Second Army from Japan, each of the two corps making up the army of 108,000 men. But for every man at the front, several were needed in support functions, so the actual number in combat would be no more than 27,000.

Tazuko turned up the TV volume and heard that the American general in charge was someone called Freeman, but whether or not he was with the task force, they didn’t say.

* * *

An hour after Jae had made his call, U.S. CIA agent Henry Wray and his Japanese colleagues arrived at the phone he’d rung. It was another public booth.

“Clever,” Wray said. “I thought it’d be a residence. Should have known better.”

“Yes,” one of the Japanese agents said, but he quickly made it clear that this was not a slight against Wray, just an admission that they had all thought it would be residential.

Wray looked about him up at the forest of apartment blocks and exhaled heavily. “Where?” he asked of no one in particular. If they couldn’t find the person who answered — and it didn’t look as if they would — then they were, as Wray had said, back to square one.

The most senior of the Japanese agents spoke to the others, and just in case Wray’s Japanese was a little rusty, he explained in English, “We’ll dust the phone booth for prints. You never know.”

Henry Wray nodded, his tone more one of resignation than expectation. “Might as well.”

* * *

Next morning, Tazuko made herself a picnic lunch of sushi, and also packed a small bottle of mineral water. Normally she preferred to eat from one of the side-street stalls in Tokyo, but this day she didn’t want to go into any shop, because afterward they would be looking for anyone who had been carrying a shoulder bag large enough to transport the explosive. It was highly unlikely they would find her, she thought, but it was best to avoid any contact with anyone. It was a bright, sunny day and Tazuko took this as a good omen. And from a purely practical point of view, it meant she could wear her sunglasses, which of course gave her more cover.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

“Here!” the people’s Liberation Army bosun ordered, pointing brusquely to the portside entrance to the Jianghu frigate. On the bridge Mellin saw an officer immaculately dressed in white uniform and dark blue-banded white cap, a captain’s gold insignia on his collar tabs and shoulder boards, the red star in the middle of his cap. He was a small man but carried a quiet authority about him.

“Why are you on this reef?” he asked Mellin.

Mellin was astounded by the question, his earlier moments of reverie when he knew he would be rescued now supplanted by a perplexed mood. Why are you on this reef? Surely a child could see he’d been cast upon the reef. What did the Chinese think — that he was just passing by on a ship and suddenly decided, Oh, I’ll go and sit on a reef? Anyway, who in hell were they? Did they think they owned the damn reef?

As he was to find out, that’s precisely what they did think— that they owned it and many more like it in the South China Sea among both the Spratly and Paracel islands, and it was not at all uncommon to have them station two PLA soldiers on a reef next to a lone four-to-six-foot-high marker claiming this or that particular reef was Chinese territory. If the published photographs of two hapless-looking PLA soldiers on duty atop a reef, unable to keep their feet dry, seemed humorous to others, they were deadly serious to the PLA. The two soldiers armed with AK-47s were ready to shoot anyone who tried to land.

“Where is the marker?” the officer asked.

Mellin looked from the officer to the bosun and back again. “What marker?”

“There was a marker on the island, proclaiming it to be the property of the People’s Republic of China.”

Mellin’s throat was so dry he found his tongue sticking to his palate, and his first attempt to answer was garbled. The Chinese officer, still looking disapprovingly at the American, said something to the bosun, who disappeared and reappeared with a worn enamel mug of water. Mellin nodded, gulped it down, handed the mug back to the bosun with a nod of thanks and told the officer, “I don’t know anything about a marker.”

“There was a marker there,” the officer said angrily.

“Look, I’m grateful for you picking me up, but I never saw any marker. Want to search me?”

“Do not silly man,” snapped the officer, unaware of his grammatical mistake. Mellin, however, knew better than to show even the slightest amusement. This officer was not one for joking, the security of the marker amid competing claims for oil and minerals obviously his responsibility. Now Mellin understood what the Chinese who had taken him off the rock had so assiduously been looking for. Where had the marker gone?

“There is no sign of it,” the officer said. “Did you use explosives?”

“Listen, Captain—”

“I am not the captain. I am second officer — Lieutenant Mung.”

“All right, Lieutenant Mung. Look, I don’t know anything about a marker. And if it’s explosions you want to talk about, I have a few questions of my own. First of all—”

“You speak too much in haste.”

Mellin slowed down. “I was on—” Mellin stopped. Whoever had attacked the Chical hadn’t wanted to leave any witnesses alive. “I was on a fishing boat and it sank a few miles from your reef.”

“This is Chinese territory,” Mung interrupted. “All the Spratlys are Chinese.”

“But it’s hundreds of miles beyond your two-hundred-mile limit,” Mellin said.

“Like your Hawaii,” Mung said. The bosun thought that this was very smart, and a smug smile took him captive.

“Hawaii,” Mellin began, “has been U.S. territory for more than—”

“So too with the Spratlys. Chinese were there long before anyone else.”

“I don’t believe that,” Mellin said simply.

Lieutenant Mung spoke rapidly to the bosun, who then told Mellin, “Come with me.”

A guard joined them as the bosun quickly led Mellin down below and forward to the paint locker and told him he would be given food shortly. Then the bosun slammed the door and left. Suddenly, Mellin was in utter darkness. He began to hyperventilate in sheer terror, his claustrophobia so intense that he thought he would go mad, his panic heightened by the overwhelming, cloying smell of paint, which caused his sinuses to all but close down, making it difficult for him to breathe. Within minutes he was drenched in perspiration, his clothes sticking to him like Saran Wrap, and all the while his anxiety heightened by the unknown. What were they going to do with him? The brusque way they had treated him, it was as if China and the U.S. were at war.

* * *

The fingerprints they got from the public phone in the Kita-Ku district were not helpful. The prints were smudged, and it was the forensic technician’s guess that whoever had held the phone in response to the call from the Asakusa Kannon Temple had probably worn gloves. Besides, it had taken them an hour to get to the booth — many people could have used it by then — and so forensics was at a loss as to why they had been asked to take prints at all.

The best they could do now, Wray thought, was to stake out the phone booth and run a security check on everyone who used it In lieu of this long, tedious surveillance, Wray and his Japanese colleagues were tempted to bring in Jae, but they held off for fear of making an arrest that would not stick. A crime had to happen before they could act on their suspicions that the Chongryun were up to no good. Meantime, there had been no letup in the coded radio messages from North Korea, and it was generally agreed among Western intelligence agencies that in Pyongyang the “great new leader,” Kim Jong Il, like his father, the “great leader” Kim Il Sung, was about to turn up the heat.

They were wrong. Pyongyang had already sent its instructions for her mission to Tazuko Komura via Jae weeks before. The communication from Jae had been the final transmit.

CHAPTER TWENTY

For most of the men with “George C. Scott,” Douglas Freeman, the first sighting of Vietnam from the lead Hercules, a line of deep green broken here and there by palm-shaded beaches, was not particularly memorable. Only Freeman and a few others were old enough to really remember the Vietnam War, let alone to have fought in it. For most it was one of many wars America had fought, and America’s defeat had not marked them as it had Freeman and others who could still recall Walter Cronkite entering their living rooms every evening to tell them the state of the war and, always, like a football score, the body count.

In any case, the predominant emotion in the plane was fear — fear of the enemy and fear of showing it. These were not conscripts, but well-trained professionals, some who had seen action in the Iraqi War and some in the invasion of Haiti, and so knowledge of both desert and jungle warfare traveled with them. But most of the 127 in the EMREF spearhead had never been in battle, and they feared that unknown. Already in the vast interior of the plane, the smell of perspiration was heavy in the air.

There was a flash!

“What the hell—” Freeman began, seeing it was one of the two reporters he’d allowed to accompany the EMREF spearhead into action. He’d chosen a CNN reporter because he knew that way he’d get a story out if he needed it for strategic reasons. The other was a photojournalism a woman, Marte Price, from the little-known midwestern Des Moines Register. He disliked seeing all the big networks get all the scoops.

“I’m sorry,” she began, blushing, “I didn’t—”

But Freeman cut her short. “Ma’am, last thing we expect in an aircraft is a flash popping off — looks like a damn flash-bang grenade. Lucky someone didn’t shoot you.”

“I promise I won’t do it again, General.”

Freeman nodded and mumbled something about how there were going to be enough surprises to contend with once the EMREF had reached Hanoi then headed north to do business with the “red dragon,” as he collectively called the Chinese.

“Huh,” grunted Martinez, a Marine, formerly an auto mechanic, who hailed from Los Angeles. “That flash sure as hell frightened me. Damn near shit myself.”

“You and fifty others, mate,” a Brit said, nodding, his cockney accent reminding Martinez of Mr. Doolittle, Eliza’s father in My Fair Lady. The short, stocky Englishman’s accent was a bit hard for Martinez to understand, but the man’s eyes and gestures told most of the story. Martinez felt comforted by Doolittle’s frank admission of fear, especially since the Britisher wore the simple but coveted beret of the Special Air Service, among the toughest of the tough. To be SAS was to be as handy with a parachute as with the Heckler & Koch 9mm submachine gun, to run miles with a heavy pack, to be able to live off the land from grass shoots to rats — raw, uncooked, for fear of the smell alerting the enemy — and then you had to pass the hostage exam.

The SAS were so tough that the U.S. Delta Force based their training on the English elite, who had worldwide and enduring fame not from the wars they’d stopped and Communist infiltrators they’d killed, from Aden to Malaysia, but because of the stunning raid they had mounted in full view of the TV cameras on the Iranian Embassy in London in 1961. They had all worn black, including balaclavas, to protect their identity. And then they’d melted back incognito, some of them to the regular units they were assigned to, their absence usually covered by compassionate leave or some other such conventional excuse. The Delta Force and the Green Berets didn’t hop into a phone booth and do a “Clark Kent.”

Both the U.S. and British phrase “Special Forces” covered all three — Delta Force, Green Berets, and SAS — in this operation, as Freeman thought equally highly of all of them. He’d fought with all of them before at different times and had admired all three, but as the Hercules crossed the coast heading for Hanoi, the ETA less than ten minutes, he had something else to tell them — not because of the common bond they shared with one another, but because they would soon be fighting against a common enemy, China’s People’s Liberation Army, an army which Freeman’s and his men’s forebears had fought back in the Korean and Vietnam wars.

“What I want you boys and ladies—” He smiled at Marte Price. “—to remember is that it isn’t so strange to be asked to fight on the same side as the Vietnamese. A lot of your grandfathers fought with the South Vietnamese, and besides, two hundred years or so ago your ancestors and mine were fighting one another in the War of Independence, and we, the United States, lost more men in the fight between the Union and the Confederacy than we did in both world wars. So you see, as times change, old enemies become comrades in arms. It is the position of the United States of America and Great Britain that this Chinese attack on Vietnam threatens a hell of a lot more than Vietnam. It threatens, if it goes unchecked, the whole of Asia. And we’ve learned from history, if we’ve learned anything, that if you don’t stand up to bullies in the first instances, you only encourage the sons of bitches to take more and more.”

ETA Hanoi was another five minutes. Douglas Freeman saw Marte Price tucking strands of her short-cropped red hair into her helmet, but not even her camouflage fatigues could totally hide her figure. Freeman told her that once the plane landed in Hanoi the only pictures allowed would be “sans flash.”

“I’m not that stupid, General,” Marte said.

“Didn’t say you were, ma’am. It’s just that along with the truth, I don’t want you to be our first casualty.”

“In that case, thanks.” She paused. “This is my big chance. To…”

She left the sentence hanging in the air. Freeman finished it for her. ‘To break free from the pack — be your own—” He paused, “—person.”

“Yes.”

“General, ETA seven minutes,” Bob Cline told him.

“It was ETA five minutes — three minutes ago!”

“Yes, sir, but we’ve had to swing south before turning north. Captain’s afraid the Hanoi triple A might let fly, mistaking us on radar for Chinese swinging west after hitting Haiphong harbor.”

“Very well,” Freeman said, then, turning to Marte, said, “Ms. Price?’

“Call me Marte, General.”

“I prefer Price.”

She looked surprised. He hadn’t struck her as the formal type.

“Ms. Price,” he began again, “don’t take any photos till you establish where you are vis-à-vis headquarters.”

“Where will that be?” she asked, nonplussed.

“Me,” he said. “Stick with me, and whatever story you write, don’t put anything about anybody saying ‘over and out,’ ‘cause that’s a contradiction in terms. Only those movie jokers in L.A. who rarely get out of bed write that guff.”

“ETA four minutes,” came the pilot’s voice in the cavernous interior, the sound of the Hercules more thunderous than before, shaking more, but everything seemed to be going all right. As soon as they landed they would be met by the French charge d’affaires, whose staff would direct them to camouflaged trucks already painted with the outline of a black triangle signifying a U.N. truck. Likewise, all the men’s uniforms — both British and American — also sported the U.N. symbol on helmets and both shoulder patches.

“Man,” Martinez’s friend Johnny D’Lupo confided, “I hope those fuckers see it!”

“Balls,” Martinez said. “You don’t want ‘em to see it. If they can see it they can shoot it.”

“Bloody right,” enjoined Doolittle, whom the others had dubbed “Doctor.” “I hope they don’t see me but I see them.”

“Sir,” Martinez called out to the general, his élan with a superior officer easy not only because he was American, but because he was one of the elite whose forebears’ battle honors went back to the Halls of Montezuma. “Sir, how long you think we’ll be goin’ in the trucks?”

“Twenty-five miles from Hanoi to Thuong,” Freeman said. He meant Phu Lang Thuong. “Roads are pretty bad and we’re coming in on the leading edge of the rainy season. I guess about forty-five minutes to an hour. No time to dip your—” He fell silent, and this was greeted with an assortment of catcalls, whistles, and cheers.

“What were you going to say, General?” Marte inquired.

“You’ll have to excuse me,” he said, mumbling something about conferring with the captain.

Marte asked Martinez what the general was about to say.

“It’s kinda crude, miss.”

“C’mon,” she pressed, her notebook out, camera slung over her shoulder and her moving awkwardly in the seat belt H harness.

“No time to dip your wick,” D’Lupo put in. “No leave.”

“Oh,” she said, and smiled. Farther down the row, D’Lupo turned to Dr. Doolittle, his voice hardly audible above the roar of the engines. “I’m in love with her, Doc!”

“You and everybody else, mate,” Doolittle responded. “I’ve had a hard-on ever since we left the States.”

“Yes,” D’Lupo said.

“Well, don’t worry, old son. Sooner we clean this lot up at Thuong, sooner we’ll ‘ave time to spend wiv young Marte.”

They both knew it was bull, Martinez, like everybody else aboard except maybe Freeman, scared about going in. Only a few had seen sustained combat in Iraq — and hell, that was in the desert. In any kind of jungle, they knew, you couldn’t see an arm’s length in front of you.

“Well hell,” D’Lupo said, “we won’t be going in till the rest of the EMREF arrive.”

Doolittle didn’t know whether this was supposed to mean they’d have more time to ogle Marte Price or have more time to collectively steel their nerves. But then Doolittle and every other man aboard the Hercules was discovering once again that the company of your fellows could only go so far in comforting you — ultimately you were alone.

* * *

In the U.S. battle group, with the carrier USS Enterprise at center, steaming into the South China Sea, an echo was picked up by one of the Sea Kings’ dipping sonar and relayed to the sub Santa Fe by advanced warning aircraft. The commander of the Santa Fe prepared to dive the boat.

“Officer of the deck — last man down — hatch secured,” came the seaman’s report.

The executive officer moved to his position as officer of the deck and in turn reported to the captain, “Last man down. Hatch secured, aye. Captain, the ship is rigged for dive, current depth one two fathoms. Checks with the chart. Request permission to submerge the ship.”

“Very well, officer of the deck,” the captain responded. “Submerge the ship.”

“Submerge the ship, aye, sir. Dive — two blasts on the dive alarm. Dive, dive.”

The alarm wheezed twice sufficiently loud that every crewman aboard could hear, but not so loud as to resonate through the hull. A seaman saw to the vents and reported, “All vents shut.”

“Vents shut, aye.”

For any visitor to a sub, the obsessive litany of the dive seemed to be unnecessarily repetitive — almost comical — but there would be nothing comical about it if a single order was botched and the ship were to dive too deep too fast. Within seconds it could be below its crush depth around three thousand feet, and the next minute would be hurtling down unable to reverse its course, the quickly mounting pressure of thousands of tons per square inch driving it in excess of a hundred miles per hour to hit the bottom like a bomb imploding, its giant frame no more than flat-pressed metal scrap.

A seaman was reading off the depth. “Sixty-two… sixty-four…” and a chief of the boat reported, “Officer of the deck, conditions normal on the dive.”

“Very well, diving officer,” acknowledged the OOD, who in turn reported, “Captain, at one forty feet trim satisfactory.”

“Very well,” the captain said. “Steer five hundred feet ahead standard.”

The OOD instructed the helmsman. “Helm all ahead standard. Diving officer, make the depth for five hundred feet.”

The captain glanced over at the ethereal blue of the sonar room and its half-dozen green video screens of yellow lines, each line in the “waterfall” a sound source from the ocean, a world not of silence but a cacophony of noise, from the frying sound of schools of shrimp to the steady deep beat of a submarine’s cooling pump.

“Anything interesting, Sonar?”

“Negative.”

“Maybe it’s a diesel they heard. No pump.”

“Could be, sir.”

The captain knew he could go active, but then his own position would be betrayed. “We’ll wait.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

* * *

The Chinese frigate was now in rough water, and Mellin, alone in the fume-laden darkness, was violently ill. He had experienced seasickness twice before — once in a friend’s sailboat off the California coast near Big Sur, the other time during a ride up from the Mekong Delta aboard one of the U.S. riverine patrol boats. It was the most terrible sickness he could imagine, and he’d seen hardened combat troops humbled by the ordeal. And whereas normally the eyes became adjusted to darkness, the darkness of the paint locker was so absolute that he could not make out anything but the hard bulkhead as once more the ship’s bow rose hard astarboard, shook as if it were coming apart, then fell through a gut-emptying space, colliding with the sea.

He heard a noise and prayed it was someone coming to let him out.

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

High up in the Hong Kong tower that he owned by special agreement with the People’s Administrative Committee of Hong Kong, Jonas Breem of Caloil surveyed Victoria harbor and the clustering of high-rise apartments and business offices, and imagined what it might be like ten years hence. Breem, gesturing with his large scotch and ice to his concubine, Mi Yin, said, “Beijing will make a mint.”

“Maybe not,” proffered Mi Yin, a diminutive five feet, the sheen of her black hair catching a reflection from Breem’s opulent bar.

Breem didn’t turn his head, but kept looking out the enormous tinted plate-glass window, swirling the ice in his drink. “And what the shit would you know about it?” he said. “You’re paid to fuck, not forecast.”

She shrugged, apparently not bothered by his vulgar outburst. “I was just thinking,” she said matter-of-factly.

“Well don’t,” he cautioned. “Get your ass over here.”

She got up from the couch, the midnight blue qi pao she was wearing amply split at the thigh, revealing a brown slash of flesh that Breem always found enticing. His drink in his right hand, he steered her in front of him with his left, unzipped the qi pao and slid his hand around, following the line of her bra, cupping her breasts, squeezing them tightly.

“You like that?” he asked.

“Yes,” she lied, and wondered how it was that such a man had risen to the top of the heap in his cutthroat business yet was so stupid about women as to think a woman liked having her breasts squeezed tightly. Maybe he knew very well they didn’t like it, but he kept doing it anyhow, control of any situation being his nirvana.

Breem called her just one of his Hong Kong “fringe benefits,” though he knew she was highly intelligent as well as beautiful, her sense of irony as subtle as her perfume, her timing deft as a lover of long experience. He was also sure Mi Yin was an operative of the Gong An Bu, the Chinese secret police — sent to keep tabs on him — her “accidental” meeting with him no doubt carefully arranged by Beijing. Well, he’d screw her on behalf of the people, he resolved, and she wouldn’t get any more out of him than he wanted to give. He was convinced that after she’d taken off the sexy, thigh-split qi pao and made love, and he lay back snoring, she’d be quickly checking his briefcase for the seismic and drill reports he received daily by fax from the various drill sites scattered throughout the countries of Southeast Asia. In one of those quirky war situations not known to the general public, the Chinese had taken over all the drill sites, moving all the American experts to a concentration camp, yet the daily drill reports from the skeleton-staffed Chinese drill site crews were still faxed to Breem in Hong Kong as the head of Chical Enterprises and Caloil.

“Why, I wonder?” Mi Yin had asked. “I mean with America and China fighting—”

“For Chrissake, you can’t—” He began unclipping her bra and peeling, sliding the qi pao down over her shoulders and buttocks. “—be that stupid.”

“What d’you mean?” she asked like a petulant schoolgirl.

“China’s one of the biggest goddamn investors on the Hong Kong exchange. That’s one reason why they don’t want this war to drag on. They’re looking for a knockout punch early in the game to show the Vietnamese who owns what.” He slid his hand down inside her magenta pink panties. “It’s one reason they don’t want to upset the agreement between Caloil and Beijing. C’mon, let’s get into the sack.”

“How about all the Americans from the drill ships?” she asked. “The ones taken prisoner.”

“Hey, what the fuck is this — an interrogation? Since when do you give a shit who’s taken prisoner? Anyway, the guys that came out to work the Caloil sites knew what the fuck they were doing. They got extra money.”

“You don’t care about them.”

“Much as I care about you, sweetheart,” which Mi Yin knew was not at all. “C’mon,” he commanded. “Take off your drawers.”

“Close the drapes,” she said.

“Why? I want the whole of Hong Kong to see us fuck.”

He was bluffing and she knew it. As chief executive officer of Caloil, he had to obey, at least publicly, the social mores of Hong Kong. He had to toe the line a bit more regarding sex. But even that didn’t faze him because in the end, when the party’s political purists, the cadres, had their say about good socialistic behavior, it would be the same old story — all a question of money, in this case Hong Kong dollars.

“C’mon,” he said, “go down on me!” She sat on the huge water bed, its surface undulating like a small sea as she pulled her hair back and reached across his hairy body for a condom on the bedside table, her breasts brushing his face. He bit at her nipple.

“Ow—”

“C’mon, you beauty — you love it, right? Or would you like to be having it off with all these saps?”

She cocked her head prettily, like some rare and beautiful bird of paradise. “Saps? What does it mean?”

“You serious?”

“Yes,” she said unapologetically. “I don’t know what ‘saps’ means.”

“Losers,” he said. “All the losers the Chinese are putting in that camp.”

“You really don’t care about them,” she said again, looking puzzled — or was she just putting on a Miss Goody Two-Shoes act? he wondered.

“No, I don’t care,” he answered. “Why should I? They’re all over twenty-one, sugar. They don’t know what makes the world go around by now, it’s tough tit for them — right?”

She shrugged noncommittally.

“What do you think of that?” he asked, looking down at his erection. “That’s what makes my world go round. That and money. Right? You don’t do it for free, do you?”

Mi Yin didn’t answer.

“You love me?” he asked. His laugh was hard and scornful. “You’re a hooker, Mi Yin — an expensive one, but you’re a hooker, right? But listen,” he said, propping himself up on an elbow, grabbing her wrist, “just remember you’re my hooker. Bought and paid for. Right?”

She nodded.

He fell back on the water bed, causing a wild wave in the water bed, which shivered before it started settling down. “But man, are you built.” He grabbed her ponytail down over the front of her head and pulled her down on him. Her mouth was too dry. He reached out and poured from his drink.

“Now—” He laughed, struck by what he thought was a terrific pun. “—have a scotch on the cock!”

The things she did for Beijing — the safety of her parents in the balance.

So let her go through his briefcase, he thought, checking the seismic and drill reports he received daily by fax from the drill ships, making sure that he wasn’t pulling a fast one — drilling, finding gas or oil, but giving Beijing a different seismic profile from somewhere else in the South China Sea, where there was little if any promise of gas or oil. The trick was to give them a seismic profile made in the same depth as where you’d found good promise of oil, and to return to the true position of the find later on, until ownership of all claims in the South China Sea islands had been settled either by the international court in The Hague or by what busy law professors were calling a “prevailing military presence”—which meant, CEO Breem had told his EOs, “which army in the area has the biggest fucking guns.”

Those that might be involved besides the Vietnamese and the People’s Liberation Army were Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, all of whom claimed part of the islands and reefs scattered over the 35-million-square-kilometer South China Sea, nearly four times bigger than the United States, including Alaska. Breem dismissed Malaysia and the Philippines. The Malaysians didn’t have the balls to start anything with Beijing, not with thirty-six percent of Malaysia’s population being Chinese.

Then there were the Philippines, but Breem thought they had enough trouble at home trying to handle their terminally ill economy. Besides, they’d kicked out the Americans from the big base at Subic Bay and the American jets from Clark Field. “Stupid!” Breem had told his executives. No, the fight, if there was to be any, would be between the big military muscle in the region: China and such traditional rivals and enemies as the Vietnamese and the Taiwanese, with North Korea always a wild card.

Then again, it wasn’t clear whether Taiwan and Beijing might not subsume enough of their differences to team up, making a joint claim for the islands, so rumor had it, along a proposed fifty-one, forty-nine percent China-Taiwan split.

And now the ex-Soviet republics were having a basement sale of everything from the upgraded MiG-29s to submarines, the PLA was modernizing, and part of the ex-Soviets’ sales ploy was throwing in pilot training for the MiG-29s to sweeten the deal. “Smart move,” Breem told his executives, noting that the Vietnamese navy was strictly brown water — coastal patrol — but since China had started purchasing more submarines from Russia to go blue water, so had Vietnam. With the forced withdrawal of U.S. naval forces from the Philippines, Breem said, “The whole region is a goddamn powder keg!” But he was sure he’d backed the right horse. China would win.

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

“Stand up!”

It was said with the same bullying tone as the first time Mellin had heard it years ago in the Hanoi Hilton, the POW camp during the time some Chinese-speaking Vietnamese had helped staff the jail.

Mellin could hardly stand, his legs shaky from both dehydration and the continuing violence of the ship’s peculiar corkscrew motion in the heavy seas. The Chinese sailor stepped back sharply, almost tripping over a hawser. The smell of the paint locker combined with that of old rope, sweat, and vomit hit him with the force of a physical blow. The sailor yelled something at Mellin, to which Mellin, whey-faced and unsteady, nevertheless answered, “Well, how the hell d’you think I like it, you bastard?”

The man struck him sideways with a closed fist, sending Mellin crashing through the doorway onto the deck, momentarily concussed, blood running from a scrape on his cheek. Suddenly, the foredeck and gun housing seemed to come alive with amplified sound as the officer on watch in the ship’s bridge harshly reprimanded the crewman who had just hit Mellin, telling the crewman to help the American up. The man made a motion to help Mellin, but the American pushed the offered hand aside. “I can get up myself, you bastard!”

He saw the Chinese face flush with anger, and Mellin knew if it hadn’t been for the intervention of whoever it was up on the bridge, he most probably would have been sprawled out again on the deck. The man grunted and, motioning roughly for Mellin to follow him, walked off, his legs perfectly balancing against the yaw and crashing of the ship, Mellin barely able to stand, his legs still feeling rubbery. The next minute he was left staggering like a drunk against the remainder of a huge wave that had hit the ship hard amidships, heavy and billowing spray draining off the superstructure and running down the scuppers like a flash flood. But unexpectedly, Mellin felt much better for the bracing, drenching water. The combination of cold water and fresh salty air partially revived him, and though he still felt woozy, he could feel his whole body benefiting. For the first time in hours, the sinus-stuffing stench of paint and associated odors left him.

Along with the rush of fresh air, he felt more confident, his determination returning, whereas in the stinking forward locker his seasickness had been so acute that all thoughts of the future, let alone hope for it, had vanished. He wasn’t proud of the fact, but then he’d never felt that ill before either. And it was a matter of conditioning. When he’d been a young man in Vietnam as part of the U.S. Special Forces, member of an elite team whose élan was the best possible, he was in top physical condition, and as the rigorous training had toughened his body, it also toughened his confidence.

No matter how hard life had been in the oil business, from the deep freeze of an Oklahoma winter to the sweltering days high atop a deck in the South China Sea, life in the Special Forces had been tougher. And it was this that Mellin was harkening back to — imagining, if only momentarily, he was with his old team in the Delta and that they were watching him now.

Inside the ship he was taken to a small cabin aft of the mess. The cabin was crammed with supplies — cardboard boxes of cans — leaving room for only four men, one wooden stool, and two plastic chairs. The first thing Mellin noticed was how much better the ship was riding amidships than in the gut-wrenching paint locker forward. Though the chairs and the two men in them, both junior officers, threatened to tilt every time the ship rose to meet a new onslaught, the two officers remained all but motionless, letting their feet and legs adapt to the roll and pitch of the ship. The fourth man stood at the door, legs well apart, arms folded, his face larger than most, fat lips tight together, eyes staring. His whole demeanor was a threat, all but daring Mellin to make a try at getting out, though where he could go if he did break out Mellin didn’t know.

“Why,” began the older of the two junior officers, “were you on our reef?”

“Your reef?” Mellin countered.

“All reefs are ours,” said the younger officer, a thin, short, intense man, probably in his mid-twenties.

“All the reefs in the world?” Mellin said.

“In the South China Sea,” said the older, mid-fortyish, and stouter man, whose tone was not nearly as excited, but nevertheless more menacing in its carefully measured cadences, doing battle with the scream of the wind and crashing seas. “We have traditional rights to all the reefs. Chinese fishermen here long before anyone else.”

“Is that right?”

“Yes.”

“How do you know it’s the truth? Could have been any of a dozen nationalities.”

“Chinese were here first,” the older man said.

“So you believe?”

“So we know.”

“So you’ve been told.”

The older man, without turning, said something in Chinese, but Mellin could tell it wasn’t meant for him. He understood the word “now”—they were always telling you “now” in the POW camp. When the older man finished speaking, the heavier man guarding the doorway came quickly to attention and left the cabin. The stout man took a packet of cigarettes and offered one to Mellin.

“No thanks,” Mellin said. The younger, thinner one eyed the pack of cigarettes — Camels — and when he saw his fellow officer take one then put the pack back in his jacket, he took out his own, a red packet of Fight for the People! cigarettes, and sullenly lit one.

“Who,” the older man asked, “discovered America?”

“Christopher Columbus,” Mellin said, nonplussed.

“Huh—” the older man said, blowing out the smoke at Mellin. “So you believe. It could have been any of a dozen nationalities.”

Mellin said nothing.

“Yes, yes,” the younger officer cut in, full of enthusiasm and victory. “Red Indians! Yes. Ah-ha! Yes, Red Indians!”

The door opened and the guard reappeared with a coil of rope and stood behind Mellin. The older officer took another long drag on his cigarette and asked, “What were you doing on the reef?”

“It looked a nice day for a swim. I was shipwrecked — as if you didn’t know.”

“What ship?”

They seemed so intent on knowing the details, Mellin intuitively felt that his refusal to give them answers might be his only chance of survival, remembering how easily the lives of those on the rig had been snuffed out. “Am I under some kind of arrest? If I am, you’d better—”

“You,” the old man said suddenly, “were aboard the drill ship Chical.”

“Was I?”

“Yes,” the younger one chimed in. “On the drill ship Chical.”

Had there been no other survivors? Mellin wondered.

“The drill ship for Chical,” the older officer repeated. “You were working on her — yes?”

Mellin said nothing, and the older officer sighed, nodding at the guard standing behind the American, who now tied Mellin securely to the chair. The guard’s right hand bunched into a fist, and he backhanded Mellin so hard the left-side legs of the chair came off the floor, the whack echoing in the small cabin.

“Were you on the Chical?” the older officer pressed, his creased forehead making it evident that his impatience was mounting. The guard struck again, the blow leaving Mellin with a ringing in his ears so loud that it smothered every other sound. In that moment the point of information as to whether or not Mellin had been on the Chical became academic, the quest for information now becoming a test of wills. The older officer looked tired, the guard watching him attentively, waiting for the order to hit the American again. But instead the older man rose, the younger one following suit, the guard bitterly disappointed.

“Take him back,” the older man ordered, in a tone of finality.

With the younger officer in tow, he left the cabin. The guard untied Mellin as roughly as he could, but left the American’s hands bound behind him and jabbed the prisoner up off the chair.

“Follow me,” the guard ordered, and made his way forward out the door onto the well deck, his lean compensating for the sharp pitching of the ship, the fact that he allowed his prisoner to walk behind instead of in front emphasizing his contempt. The very thought of being taken back to the paint locker churned Mellin’s stomach, his anticipation of the heavy fume-laden locker enough to worsen the pounding of the headache he had from the guard’s blows to his head.

At the door of the paint locker Mellin stopped and turned, waiting for the guard to untie him. The guard merely grinned and shoved Mellin forward, the sill tripping him, causing him to fall headlong into the semidarkness among half-used cans of paint, dirty cleaning rags, and vomit, the nose-plugging smell rising all about him, making it difficult for him to breathe. The dampness above his right eye, blood from a cut, now began to sting, and his body convulsed as he threw up from the nausea brought on by the overwhelming stench of the oil-based paint and urine. He was sure the guard was leaving him tied up contrary to the older officer’s intent but he could do nothing about it, or at least everything that had happened to him conspired to convince him nothing could be done.

He had never felt so low — not even in ‘Nam. There, at least, he could fight back. But here in the rolling, pitching darkness of the tiny paint locker, he felt absolutely abandoned. Mellin thought of his sister, Angela, who had been posted all these years as MIA, wondering if her final moments had been like this — utterly alone — or had she had it worse than he? Was she perhaps still alive? A prisoner? Or was she dead? He clung to the idea she was still alive, as if somehow he had unfinished business, her unknown fate something to be settled, something to concentrate upon in his own abandonment, something to hold on to. Why? he asked himself as he lay sick on the cold, metal floor. Why were the Chinese so bent on finding out whether or not he’d been on the Chical? Had they been behind the attack? What made the Chinese authorities so interested in him?

* * *

The truth was, they weren’t interested in Danny Mellin. The ship’s officers’ Neanderthal interrogation of him was merely the result of them carrying out Beijing’s orders; orders which, in the seething bureaucratic maze of the Chinese capital, had now been forgotten in the sudden avalanche of paperwork occasioned by the war.

The activation of China’s twenty Main Force divisions—300,000 men, nine hundred planes, over a thousand T-69 tanks, and fourteen hundred pieces of artillery, much of it self-propelled — required a massive bureaucratic effort. An army of clerks in the Great Hall of the People and beyond, who, from the ministerial level of arranging finance through Beijing’s holdings on the Hong Kong stock exchange, to the more than twenty clerks required for each soldier at the front, complained that there were not enough computers to help reduce the task.

In fact, even Schwarzkopf’s HQ with all its computerization still required no less than thirty million phone calls for the bombing offensive against Iraq alone, and still needed three hundred Americans behind the lines for every American soldier at the front.

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

The moment the massive tires of the Hercules touched and screeched on the runway at the Gia Lam airfield southeast of Hanoi’s center, the plane came under sniper fire, several rounds penetrating the fuselage, a ricochet striking and zinging off an EMREF trooper’s helmet. “How rude!” Doolittle said.

“Jesus Christ,” D’Lupo said, ducking. “Thought this friggin’ place was supposed to be secure.”

“Settle down,” Freeman intoned coolly over the PA system, not showing his own surprise. “Bound to be a few Chinese insurgents — take a potshot in hopes of shaking us up, then trot off home to bed. Right?”

“Fucking shakes me up,” D’Lupo told Martinez, the latter agreeing, gripping his rifle tightly. Doolittle meanwhile watched the photojournalism Marte Price, quickly jotting down notes, stopping for a moment to push away a wisp of hair beneath her helmet.

“General,” she asked Freeman, “how about a shot of the EMREF spearhead just before they deplane?”

Freeman nodded. “All right, boys, Ms. Price wants a photo of you heroes. Smile — and that’s an order.”

Marte Price was annoyed. What she didn’t want was a photograph of 126 troops grinning from ear to ear. The flash seemed to illuminate the whole plane. One soldier asleep — the tension having already drained him — suddenly sat up. “What the—”

It was good for a laugh, and Marte Price was satisfied. A startled soldier was a good pic for the next edition of the Des Moines Register. But already, even as the huge plane was coming to a standstill, she was feeling dishonest, somehow corrupted, knowing full well that the Register’s editor, unless told otherwise, would run the picture as one of a soldier in a moment of high combat stress. As such it would be taken off the wire by most major papers in America, particularly given the fact that apart from CNN, Freeman had excluded any major media network.

Two of the aircraft’s crew stood by as the massive rear door/ramp was lowered and two Humvee “scouts,” each armed with a TOW missile launcher and.50 caliber machine gun, rolled off onto the tarmac. They were followed by the two lines of troops, none of whom were below the level of E-7 Sergeant First Class when they volunteered for EMREF duty. The sniping had stopped.

“You figure this is worth fifty-five bucks a month?” D’Lupo said, referring to the Airborne’s hazardous duty pay.

“No way,” Martinez responded.

Freeman saw two Vietnamese, one a cadre — a political officer — coming toward him dressed in traditional black pajamas and lion-tamer hat, the other a senior military officer dressed in the camouflage green khaki of the new Vietnam uniform.

“General Freeman,” the cadre said, smiling. “We welcome you and your troops to Vietnam.”

“Cam on,” Freeman said, extending his hand first, though he didn’t like it, to the political officer and then to General Vinh.

“What’d he say?” D’Lupo whispered. “ ‘C’mon!’?”

“No, you fucking wop,” Martinez said. “It’s gook for ‘thank you.’ “

“You speak it too?” a surprised D’Lupo pressed.

“Yeah. Me and the general do our homework, see?”

“Oh yeah,” D’Lupo challenged. “All right then, what’s ‘fuck off’ in Vietnamese?”

“Easy,” Martinez said. “Chuc ngu ngon!”

“All right, smartass, so you know gook.”

In the penumbra of light about the ramp, D’Lupo saw a woman in Vietnamese uniform, then another carrying baskets toward the plane. D’Lupo couldn’t take his eyes off the woman. It seemed as if her whole leg was showing. She was walking toward Freeman, who was politely but firmly telling his Vietnamese host, through an interpreter now, that he was given ample assurances by Hanoi via the Pentagon that the Hanoi airfields were secure and that if there were sniping around Gia Lam Field, why the hell didn’t Hanoi tower divert the American Hercules thirteen miles north of the city proper to Noi Bai Airport?

Through his interpreter the cadre assured the general that the Gia Lam Airport was secure. There had been only one sniper, an ex-NVA regular who, the cadre explained, was mentally unstable, so that when he saw an American plane, and a huge one at that, as big as one of the B-52 bombers that had attacked Hanoi in the Vietnam War, he had had a false memory — the cadre meant “flashback”—and shot at the big plane.

“I believe,” the cadre added, “that you have similar problems with veterans in the United States?”

“Yes,” Freeman replied, tempted to say that as he understood it, Marxist-Leninism would make a balanced personality impossible, but realizing the cadre’s explanation was an olive branch being extended. Freeman accepted it. “Yes, we shot up one another quite a bit, didn’t we?” After the interpreter had finished, the cadre smiled, shaking Freeman’s hand again.

By now almost every one of Freeman’s 127-man spearhead had been given a lei of welcome by one of the female V.A. regulars, CNN already bouncing it off a satellite, beaming it back to the States, and Marte Price busily taking shots of the cadre and the two generals meeting, each handshake a polite but not overly warm gesture of willing cooperation. Once he realized the CNN camera was rolling, Freeman — the first note of anxiety present in his voice since he’d left Hawaii — called his aide over. “Bob, for God’s sake make sure CNN gets a shot of the British SAS boys. Emphasize that this is a U.S.-led U.N., I repeat U.N., action, and that other countries will be making their contributions to the U.N. force within a matter of days. And make sure those—” He stopped, unable to think of the right word for a second.

“Gurkhas,” Cline said.

“Exactly,” Freeman said, slapping him on the shoulder. “And mention the Aussies, New Zealanders, South Koreans…” He steered Cline away from the Vietnamese general and cadre and toward his heavily loaded troops, his voice subdued. “But Bob, for Chrissake don’t say anything about the Japanese support — not even logistical support. These jokers in Hanoi, like much of Asia, hate the Japanese — figure the Japs still haven’t made amends for atrocities.”

“How about our My Lai?” Cline asked, reminding Freeman of the massacre of a whole Vietnamese village by U.S. troops.

“Bad as it was, Bob, it doesn’t start to compare with the widespread rape and pillage perpetrated by the sons of Nippon — sons of bitches traumatized the whole of Southeast Asia. And Bob…?”

“Sir?”

Freeman’s voice was friendly enough as he smiled back at the Vietnamese general and cadre before saying quietly to his aide, “Bob, coming down the ramp I heard some joker use the word ‘gook.’” Now Freeman was smiling broadly. “You tell ‘em if I hear any disparaging remarks about our U.N. allies, I will personally cut the offender’s prick off. You got that?”

“Yes, General.”

General Vinh asked in heavily accented English how long Freeman wanted to rest his troops before moving up to the snake — the name given by the Vietnamese Army to the winding front line that snaked its way up, down, and at times around the base of the hills north of Hanoi.

“Rest?” Freeman responded. “General, we didn’t come here to rest. Vietnamese people are being attacked by China, the U.N. sent us to help, and that means now. We can move out the moment my boys finish relieving themselves. Main body of Second Army in—” He almost said Japan. “—is already assembling for airlift. First planeload’ll be here in a matter of days.”

General Vinh understood most of it, except for the part about “relieving” themselves.

“Gia ve sinh,” the interpreter explained.

“Yes,” Freeman cut in. “Gia ve sinh,” adding, “Thunder box!”

When this was explained to General Vinh, he uttered an “Ah…” of recognition, smiling broadly. “Toi—Come,” he said, motioning to a line of ten three-ton trucks — all American made — looking the worse for wear, their engines spitting and coughing in two lines beyond four portable toilets that had been rolled into the apron of light about the Hercules.

As the trucks, their “blackout” headlights mere slits of light in the enormous darkness, rolled north from the Gia Lam airfield, Freeman’s spearhead troops, whose main function now was to carry out a recon in force for the benefit of Second Army, heard the sound of clapping in the darkness. Through their infrared goggles, against a soupy green background, they could see lines of Vietnamese civilians clapping here and there and waving tiny U.S. and U.N. flags.

“Ain’t that somethin’?” D’Lupo said, taking his infrareds off, as he, like others, was prone to severe headache from the goggles if he left them on too long. “Gooks welcoming U.S. soldiers. I’m gonna tell my grandchildren ‘bout this one.”

“You’ll tell nobody, D’Lupo,” a Delta first lieutenant said, “if you keep callin’ ‘em gooks. Remember what the general said — he’ll cut your prick off!”

“All right,” D’Lupo riposted. “I’ll call ‘em ‘Charlie.’ “

“Shit,” Martinez cut in. “You tryin’ to sound like a vet?”

“Listen, dick brain, I figure in a coupla hours we’ll start being vets.”

“If you last that long,” Martinez said.

“Thanks a lot, Marty,” D’Lupo charged. “You’re all laughs, you know that?”

Dave Rhin, a black man from Chicago, flicked up his IR goggles. “Man, there are thousands of ‘em lined up. See ‘em plain as day.”

“Yeah,” D’Lupo said in the rough camaraderie of soldiers. “Well, they’re gonna find it hard to see you, Rhin.”

“I told you,” Martinez chimed in, “to use that fuckin’ sunscreen, Rhin!”

“Hey, dick brain,” Rhin retorted, “they gonna see you honkies all right. They don’t need no IRs to see you, man.”

“Oh,” Doolittle said to his fellow SAS troopers in the truck, “isn’t this nice? We’re on our way to a punch-up wiv Charlie an’ these blokes start a fuckin’ race riot. Lovely, i’n’it?”

“Can’t understand a fuckin’ word you say, limey,” Rhin said.

“No matter,” Martinez joshed, flicking up his IRs. “Brits are full of shit anyway.”

“You’ll get yours, mite!”

“All right,” the first lieutenant said on the cellular. “Pipe down. We’ll be in enemy country before you know it. General wants you all quiet as of now.”

The silence was deafening. Freeman had permitted them to let off steam on the way in from the Gia Lam Field. But now that they were past the Ho Tay — West Lake — approaching the Song Hong, or Red River, and Thang Long Bridge, a prime target for U.S. bombers during the Vietnam War, every one of the 127 men, including Freeman, was alone with his fear.

Marte Price had wanted to stay in Hanoi to cover the war, but the CNN crew of three had decided to go to the front, and being the only woman reporter, she felt she would lose face not only for herself but for all the women in the armed services if she didn’t go with Freeman’s spearhead recon group. Someone had joked she’d decided to go “all the way,” but there were no laughs.

Sitting in the second armed Humvee behind the vehicle carrying Freeman, Cline, and the two Vietnamese, Marte Price was sick with fear. She found, to her astonishment, that one’s teeth really do chatter in the face of a danger so overwhelming that she felt a shortness of breath — a rapidly rising surge of panic that momentarily convinced her she was having a heart attack.

* * *

Southwest of Hanoi, in the Vietnamese People’s Army indoctrination center at Xuan Mai, Vietnamese militia and reservists were being told once again that it was not the American people in the sixties and early seventies who had declared war on the freedom-loving peoples of Vietnam but the “imperialist criminals” Kennedy, Johnson, and McNamara. The fact that the U.S. had never actually declared war, attested to by the Pentagon’s insistence on still writing about the war with a lowercase w, was not mentioned.

The American people, continued the cadre, had had their own civil war and a war of independence against the British imperialists. Very few of those listening were paying much attention to the cadre’s harangue. All they cared about was that in Vietnam’s never-ending struggle — the first Indochina War, the second Indochina War, and the wars against the Chinese— war had been the way of life. Peace was the abnormal condition.

This time it was again China, which had had its eyes on the lush Red River Delta since two hundred years before Christ. The Vietnamese soldiers didn’t need a cadre to tell them the obvious: their country was again under attack by the Chinese. No one bothered raising the theoretical contradiction of one Communist state waging war on another Communist state, for everyone understood that this was a war not of ideology but for territory, the rich deposits of oil beneath the hundreds of offshore islands from the Gulf of Tonkin to Borneo. In any case, the Americans had helped the Vietnamese once before, giving them arms and money to fight the Japanese in Vietnam. War was the way of life.

The militia and reservists were told that should it become necessary, they might have to fight side by side with the Americans to plug any gaps the Chinese attack might open. Most of the subdued talk among the young militia and reservists, many of them women, was of how anxious they were to fight with the Americans. Most of them were too young to have fought in America’s undeclared war against North Vietnam, and the same would be true for many, though not all, of the Americans. Besides, it was a well-known fact that Americans had everything, and there was a collective craving among the Vietnamese militia and reservists for American cigarettes. Not only were they the best cigarettes in the world, but in many transactions throughout Southeast Asia they had become the currency of exchange, a prime cargo for the South China Sea pirates.

The indoctrination session ended with several militiamen dozing off, the general belief being that there would be no further Chinese breakthrough, that their Vietnamese regular army would soon counterattack and with the help of American bombers force the Chinese back from the Lang Son line across the border.

* * *

The arrival of the EMREF recon spearhead was known to Beijing within half an hour of the Hercules landing, CNN having beaten the transmissions of Chinese Vietnamese agents who radioed the news to the Chinese capital. But CNN, as part of its “deal” with Freeman, hadn’t disclosed it was only one Hercules, and had it not been for the agents’ transmissions, Beijing would have been under the impression that the total EMREF force of several thousand had already arrived in Hanoi.

In any event, the news jolted Beijing, and within minutes the HQs of the Chengdu and Guangzhou military regions had been notified that the gains made so far by Generals Wei and Wang must be consolidated as soon as possible on both flanks of the Lang Son front—before the American genius for logistical buildup could be exercised.

“It is like,” General Wei’s cadres explained to his troops, “attacking a loaded bullock cart — kill the bullock driver first before he can unload his weapons and ammunition.” In this instance, Wei explained to his HQ personnel, the carts — the U.S. air supply line — might not be stopped by the Chinese air force, but the lead driver, Freeman, was already here and could be killed.

The Chinese general announced that any PLA unit wiping out Freeman’s advance spearhead would receive a “thousand commendations from the people.” This phrase was officialese for the fact that any unit that wiped out Freeman’s spearhead force would receive a monetary reward — one thousand dollars U.S. It was a small fortune, and on the black market it would buy many American cigarettes. Some senior cadres objected that this was unworthy of the people’s army ideology and was a “capitalist corruption” of the troops, to which Generals Wei and Wang responded that they were responsible for the military tactics and that the cadres, with all due respect, should keep out of it — it was a military not a political matter. A senior cadre continued to object, and Wei told him in very unpolitical terms to perform a sexual act on himself with a pointed stick.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

A thousand feet below the surface of the South China Sea aboard Santa Fe, a sonar analysis confirmed the earlier Sea King’s contact as a “Sierra Four,” or probable enemy surface vessel.

“Possible hostile by nature of sound, bearing one four six! Range eighteen miles!”

“Very well,” the captain said calmly, already at the control room’s attack island. “Man battle stations.”

“Man battle stations, aye, sir,” a seaman of the watch repeated, pushing the “yellow” button that sent a pulsing F sharp slurring to G throughout the ship.

The captain turned to the D.O. “Diving officer, periscope depth.”

“Periscope depth, aye, sir.”

The captain quickly, quietly, took the PA mike from its cradle. “This is the captain. I have the con. Commander Rogers retains the deck. Up search scope.”

“Ahead two-thirds.”

“Scope’s breaking,” reported one of the watchmen. “Scope’s clear.”

The captain and the search scope’s column became one, moving about, looking for a dot on the flat metallic-colored sea.

Now the sub’s sonar had picked up the cavitation, or sound of water bubbles caused by the turning propeller of the unknown ship. At first it was suspected that it might be one of the destroyers of the carrier battle group, but within seconds the noise, having passed through the acoustic spectrum analyzer, suggested the craft was either a fast 32-knot Luda-class destroyer or a Jianghu-class frigate. In any case, her speed was now 23 knots, the details on the computer screen quickly giving the two classes’ dimensions and armament, both equipped with antisubmarine depth charges, surface-to-surface HY2 missiles and mines. The ship was now on a heading not for the Santa Fe, whose presence she had probably not detected, but in the direction of the Enterprise carrier battle group, an enemy mission that clearly fell under the Santa Fe rules of engagement and within the parameters of the sub’s mission orders to protect the CVBG.

“Make the tube ready in all respects,” the captain ordered.

“Make the tube ready in all respects, aye, sir.”

The Luda class had now increased her speed to 25 knots.

The sub’s captain stopped moving the scope. “Bearing. Mark!”

“Range. Mark! Down scope!” He heard the soft whine of the retracting M-18 search scope equipped with infrared. “I hold one visual contact. Range?”

“Seventeen point two miles.” On the green “waterfall” of the display screen the target’s sound was represented by a vertical white line. Forward in the torpedo room, 650 pounds of explosive in the nose of a Mark 48 advanced-capability torpedo, equipped with twenty miles of control wire — capable of 67 knots and a range of twenty-five-plus miles, and known by Santa Fe’s crew as “heavy freight”—was loaded and ready in number 7 tube on the port side.

“Range?” asked the captain.

“Seventeen miles — decreasing.” Every man on the boat went about his business with a deft, quiet approach to everything, including the placing of the compacted garbage container into a freezer. Any ejection of it could immediately have signaled the sub’s position to the enemy, and the captain did not know if the Chinese ship was alone. There could be another one lying silent, its cavitation not yet picked up by Santa Fe’s passive sonar.

“Torpedo in port tube one, sir.”

“Very well. Angle on the bow,” the captain said. “Port, three point five.”

“Check,” came the confirmation.

“Range?” the captain asked.

“Sixteen point seven miles.”

“Sixteen point seven miles,” the captain repeated. “Firing point procedures. Master four five. Tube one.”

“Firing point procedures, aye, sir. Master four five. Tube one, aye.. solution ready… weapon ready… ship ready…”

“Match bearings and shoot.”

The Mark 48’s ram jet shot the torpedo into the sea. At 65 knots, given the varying salinity of the water and the relative speed of the two ships, it would take the torpedo plus or minus fifteen minutes to reach the target.

* * *

Now, in the predawn darkness, the Vietnamese welcome seemed as if it had never happened. Gone were the lines of villagers, whether sent out by the Hanoi government or not, and in their stead there were only the flitting images of the night, a constant stream of misbegotten shapes that, with a little fear and imagination, could be anything and everything, from a Chinese T-59 tank to a squad of PLA moving up ready to fire. But except for the noises of the aging trucks, it was a quiet ride for the EMREF spearhead for whom the only indication of battle was the occasional thump of distant artillery from the direction of Lang Son.

“This is far enough,” Vinh’s interpreter told Freeman, who quickly alighted from his Humvee, the first two vehicles in the following ten-truck convoy also slowing to a stop. Tail boards were lowered rather than dropped, as quietly as possible, and now what was called the “great humping” began, as each soldier prepared to “saddle up” for the reconnaissance patrol to probe the Lang Son line.

General Vinh’s intelligence reports, as good as they might be, hadn’t provided Freeman with enough information for any confident and immediate deployment of Second Army once it arrived. And as Freeman told Robert Cline, he couldn’t afford a mistake because of something lost in what the interpreter might or might not say. He had to find out for himself, and so eighteen miles northeast of Hanoi, just before the town of Ba Ninh, the 127-member spearhead of the EMREF task force company split into four platoons of thirty men each. Freeman’s intention was to proceed toward the Lang Son front in clover-leaf pattern, seven-man patrols from each company constantly moving out on the flanks, circling to prevent ambush as the whole company of four platoons, one behind the other, moved forward. A five-man radio and rifle squad remained with the trucks already helping the Vietnamese drivers and guards to camouflage the vehicles, mainly against the possibility of Chinese recon planes from the border area seventy-eight miles away, beyond Lang Son.

Vinh introduced Freeman to a group of five Vietnamese guides before he shook hands with Freeman and stepped into a Long March staff car to take him back to Hanoi, from whence he’d rejoin the battle on the western front.

In one of the strangest verbal exchanges in his career, General Freeman was engaged in a whispered “shouting” match with Marte Price of the Des Moines Register. “General, give me one good reason for me not going — a reason you can give that CNN cameraman and that CNN reporter.”

“Ms. Price, I don’t have to give reasons to the press. You stay with the trucks. You should have gone back with Vinh, goddamn it! I’ll have you disbarred from the press pool.”

“There is no pool, General.”

“Goddamn it, you could get shot!”

“I know the risks.”

“You certainly do not.”

“General, when you said, ‘Stay by the headquarters group,’ I assumed that was all the way up to the front.”

“Well, you assumed wrong, goddamn it.”

“Give me one good reason, General, and I’ll stay behind.”

“You’re a woman, goddamn it!”

“You’ve used women chopper pilots before, and I wish you wouldn’t keep saying that.”

“Well, you are a woman — aren’t you?”

“I mean saying ‘damn it’ all the time.”

“All right,” Freeman said. Major Robert Cline thought the general was about to give in, but Freeman took a breath and said, “You smell!”

“I what?’

“The Vietnamese guides,” he said, nodding in their direction, “have complained that you’re a hazard to the operation, and I agree. They told me they could smell your perfume before the first truck rounded that curve a hundred yards back. Chinese regulars’d sniff us coming from a hundred yards away.”

For a moment Marte Price was lost for words, but then suddenly she knew she had a counterattack. “General, I can smell cigarette smoke, and none of your troops are smoking now. Ever walk into a motel room where there’s been a smoker? You can smell it right away.”

“I’m not in the habit of going to motels,” he replied grumpily. But she had him and he knew it. Despite all their instructions in training Special Forces like the Delta Force and SAS about not using deodorant and so on, a smoker carried the stale smell of cigarette or cigar smoke wherever he went.

“All right,” Freeman said, more fiercely than before, and in an uncharacteristic non sequitur that would become part of Second Army lore, he added, “Don’t blame me if you get killed! Goddamn it!”

“I won’t,” she said quietly, smiling, her features more distinct now as the predawn light stole upon the clearing in the black jungle by the road.

“I’ll rub mud in my armpits,” she said.

As Freeman turned to walk over to the Vietnamese guides, he confided to Major Cline, “By God, I hope the Chinese aren’t as tough as her. We’ll get our clock stopped.”

“PLA use women in combat, General.”

“We’re not the PLA. We’re Americans.”

“With some Brits and Aussies to come, plus the British Gurkhas—”

“Yes, yes, I know — we’re a United Nations force.”

According to lore, it was similar to what George Patton had said, Cline thought, when he complained about Eisenhower being an ally and not an American. The general liked everything his own way, and after Freeman’s spirited exchange with Marte Price, Cline had a sneaking suspicion that his intent to carry out a recon in force and return within four days was being done not just to better deploy Second Army, now arriving in Hanoi, but for some other reason, which no one, including the Pentagon, knew about. “Letting her come along with us, General, will win you a lot of kudos back home — and ‘round the world via CNN.”

“I’m not interested in kudos from the femisphere, Major. Far as I’m concerned, those rampant feminists—”

“I meant from the Pentagon, General. There’s been a big push for equal rights.”

“Damn it, Bob, the army’s not a democracy. Even the Chinese know that. After years of that comrade crap, they’ve now reinstituted rank—’different pay scales.’ “

“Maybe so, General, but my guess is having a woman reporter at the front’ll do you more good than harm back home.”

Freeman turned to Cline. “You make it sound like I’m running for office.”

“General Eisenhower did.”

“I’m not a political animal.”

“Maybe not, General, but I still say your decision to have Marte Price will raise your profile — promotionwise.”

“I didn’t decide. She did.”

“Even if she did, I don’t think you’ll regret it. It’s politically correct.”

“I don’t give a dog’s turd about political correctness and you know it.”

Cline knew it, but the general had an ego as big as an M-1 tank, and it enjoyed being refueled every now and then with a headline or a TV sound bite that would keep the legend alive.

The general pulled down his IR goggles to take another look at the topographic map between Bac Ninh and Lang Son near the Vietnamese-Chinese border, about thirty miles of it across part of the lush Red River delta and then into the hilly jungle country of the border range. First he’d send out one patrol along the sides of the road for five miles. There was no point “hoofing” it, as he put it, if he could use the trucks for another few miles or so. He was confirmed in this tactical decision after one of the Vietnamese guides got off the radio with Hanoi to say it had been reported that Chinese units were pulling back from the delta ten miles or so up the road toward Kep, only nine miles from Lang Son.

Freeman’s smile was a wry one, the kind he used when a colleague played chess with him and thought he’d baited a trap. Besides, part of the Freeman legend was “speed.”

“Well, I’ll tell you one thing, Bob. We’re going slowly up that road in cloverleaf. If the Chinese have pulled back that quickly, then it’s for one of two reasons. It’s because their attack into Vietnam has been so successful that they’ve outrun their supply line, or it’s a trap.”

“Think we should stay put awhile, General?”

“No, you don’t win wars by sitting on your butt. Either way, we’ll have to find out what’s going on. The thing is to be ready for whatever happens. But before we do send out a patrol, I want our flyboys in that Enterprise battle group to be ready for some TACAIR if we need it. We’re not going to get arty,” he meant artillery, “for a few days, until the self-propelled guns can get up here from Hanoi.”

“General!” Cline said in amazement.

“What? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. That Marte Price woman undid her blouse and stuck some dirt under her arm.”

“For Chrissake,” Freeman said.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

Aboard the Chinese frigate there was a rising sense of panic. The lookout had seen the wake of the American torpedo through his binoculars and given the captain a three-minute warning. With the torpedo coming midships, the frigate quickly began a standard “shake off’ procedure, turning hard astarboard to run parallel with the torpedo’s wake and then, as the latter changed direction, hard astarboard again. Next the captain ordered a fan pattern of depth charges off the stern’s starboard side.

The turbulence of the resulting semicircle of explosions bothered the torpedo’s advanced seeker head’s computer, but only for a second or two. And then, like a hound suddenly recovering the scent, the Mark 48 locked onto its prey. As the frigate made its last attempt to run parallel, its helicopter lifted off from the stem pad only seconds before the Santa Fe’s torpedo exploded starboard midships, lifting the bow high and dumping it, the ship’s back broken, fire already raging about the stern, orange-black flames leaping wildly, the sea about the stricken ship literally boiling white from the intense heat of the explosions and fires.

“Abandon ship!” the Chinese captain called, and within seconds a good quarter of the 195-man crew were jumping overboard, some of them accompanied by the white plastic drums of the Beaufort self-inflating rafts.

As the paint locker’s door opened, two crew were almost stuck in the opening, such was their rush to reach the life jackets stowed in the locker. Neither one, nor the crew members who followed, snatching life vests and running out again, gave a thought to Danny Mellin. Stunned by the concussion of the explosion, he wandered around, bumping into and pushed aside by the panicky sailors.

Eventually, blinded by the daylight, Mellin felt his way to the forward starboard railing by letting his hands follow the line of the bulkhead. His vision cleared enough for him to see the sea afire off the starboard side. He turned, made his way over to the port side, and jumped, hearing the screams of several men who either in their haste or panic had dived into the boiling caldron. The portside water was hot, but as Mellin used his hands to paddle himself away from the sinking ship, the water cooled rapidly. He kept pushing himself to get farther away from the frigate so as not to be dragged under when she plunged. All around he could hear men shouting frantically as an oil fire, having spilled through the gaping hole that had been the midships, began to spread.

* * *

The moment he’d taken off from its stern, the frigate’s helicopter pilot knew his landing pad on the Jianghu was gone. He now had one of two choices. He had fuel enough to go east and make the PLA navy’s base at Yulin on the southern coastof the big island of Hainan, or he could head south, following what was now a pale but nevertheless quite clear wake left by the super-fast American torpedo. He turned south along the wake, only meters above the sea with two of the latest homing Yenchow ASW depth charges. Their shadows skimmed over the water like two dragonflies, the torpedo’s wake broken here and there by different salinity patches racing up at the pilot in an endless blur on the wider blur of the cobalt-colored sea.

Now four hundred feet below the surface, the watch crew of the Santa Fe could hear the Chinese ship going down, her bulkheads popping as she sank farther and farther down to her sunless grave. There had been a second or two of celebration — the Santa Fe having done her job. But now all was silent in the control room save the sounds of the dying ship crackling and moaning over the sub’s PA. The captain turned it off. He could only imagine what was happening to the Chinese crew. He had taken his boat down fast after the explosion fifteen miles away, because some of the Chinese ships, like all surface navies, sometimes carried a Recon/ASW helo. Depth alone wouldn’t help him, but speed might, and now Santa Fe, without any discernible noise or tremor, had gone from 15 to 30 knots in an evasive zigzag and S-shaped pattern.

When the helo neared the end of the wake, or where the wake had been dissipated by the motion of the sea, the pilot didn’t drop magnetic homing mines, for he was aware that the Hunter/Killer sub would now be well away from its firing position. Normally following such a wake was risky business, for it was believed that the American and British SSN sensors now had the capability to pick up chopper noises if they were near the surface, where sound would travel up to five times faster in water than air, and that in this case the enemy could launch a surface-to-air missile either by torpedo tube or vertical launch tubes forward of the sail. But the pilot dismissed this from his thoughts, for he knew that the sub’s sensors, no matter how sensitive, would be overwhelmed and smothered by the sounds of the frigate breaking up.

The chopper pilot was now radioing his position to Zhanjiang, the headquarters of China’s Southern Fleet, and at the same time, while hovering a hundred feet above the sea’s surface, feeding out his dual magnetometer to sense any magnetic anomaly such as that caused by a ship’s metal and/or microphones. All he got on the dipping mike was the hissing of the sunken frigate’s oil fire still raging amid a slurry of flotsam and debris. The magnetometer showed a fairly consistent reading of seabed magnetics for the area. He reeled in the dual magnetometer/mike unit, which looked like a three-foot piece of pipe suspended from the end of the cable.

As the helo darted forward to continue its dipping, it looked for all the world like a dragonfly hovering one minute then skimming, hovering over another spot, the pilot receiving radio confirmation that two PLA air force Ilyushin-H5 light ASW torpedo bombers with an intensive torpedo/bomb load of 2,205 pounds were approaching the area, escorted by two Shenyang J8s, versions of the Mach 2, MiG-21 upgraded by the purchase of U.S. avionics. The Shenyangs were armed with three NR 30 30mm cannon and air-to-air missiles on wing hard points. They would not save the helo, as for every new dip the helo pilot made trying to locate the Hunter/Killer, the lower he was getting on fuel.

The best he might hope for would be to ditch after giving his last position and maybe get picked up by a PLA navy patrol ship. But unlike the extraordinary lengths that the Americans and British would go to to save a downed pilot, the PLA — navy, air force, or army — would do so only if it constituted no more than a minor alteration in course.

The Enterprise’s forward air combat patrol was notified by the Enterprise group E-2 Hawkeye advanced warning aircraft of all radio traffic between China’s Southern Fleet HQ at Zhanjiang and of the dot on the AWAC’s radar screen, which could only be a helo. Computer translation took fifteen seconds longer than usual, but it was quite clear that the Chinese ASW bombers were coming out from Yulin to search for the Santa Fe, and the Enterprise’s team of two F-18s were now put on an intercept vector to first meet the two Shenyang fighters.

* * *

The sharks of the South China Sea were no different from any other of their breed — they would not attack unless they were hungry. But blood in the water was an attraction they could not ignore, and Mellin, exhausted from hauling himself onto one of the rubber rafts, saw that the predators were now among the survivors of the Chinese frigate, ripping and gulping, turning the roiling waters crimson.

Mellin and the two oilers in the raft with him lay exhausted. One of the men’s breathing was so strained from his lungs being covered in oil, Mellin could hear the rasping sound he made above the cries of terror as crewman after crewman thrashed in sheer panic, in frantic efforts to reach a raft, anything that would hold them. Mellin could see dozens of dorsal fins cruising about amid the material and human flotsam. Now and then a dorsal fin would suddenly move much faster as another shark in the school made its sudden attack. Not far from the raft he was on, Mellin could see one of the Chinese crewmen in a Mae West, his right arm unable to move because of burns, trying to make for the raft. Mellin reached out to him, but the current and turbulence of the water kept widening the distance between them.

“Oars!” Mellin yelled to the two others in the raft. “Where are the damn oars?” The two Chinese looked at him in bewilderment. There were no paddles. “C’mon,” Mellin yelled, using his right hand to paddle, his head indicating the man in the water. “Paddle! Paddle with your hands! C’mon!”

One of the Chinese unenthusiastically joined Mellin. The other, covered with oil and still wheezing, did nothing. The man in the water — the sailor who had beaten Mellin aboard the ship — kept drifting away toward the frenzied, scream-filled cauldron that was the shark attack. Mellin took off his life jacket and slipped over the oil-greased side of the raft, striking out in a breaststroke toward the badly burned crewman. He grabbed the collar of the man’s Mae West and, turning about, struck out for the raft. When he reached the raft he told the two crewmen aboard it to help him. They didn’t understand English but they knew what he wanted. The one covered in oil did nothing. The other man started to panic, yelling and shaking his head. It was clear that he thought if Mellin tried to drag the burned crewman aboard, the raft would capsize.

“Grab his arms!” Mellin yelled, near exhaustion himself. “Now!”

The man aboard the raft was terrified, shaking his head. “No, no!”

In utter exasperation, Mellin heaved the burned man up against the raft’s gunwale, the man’s weight already tipping the raft as he slid back into the water. Out of the corner of his eye Mellin could see several fins coming his way. With a last Herculean effort he pushed the burned crewman up against the raft. The able-bodied crewman in the raft, out of sheer fright that if he didn’t help, the raft would capsize, hauled the burned crewman as Mellin, still in the water, pushed. Next Mellin tried to haul himself aboard. But he was out of breath, his strength momentarily drained until he felt something pass him and touch a leg. The next thing he knew he was aboard the raft, water pouring off him, the rescued man flat on the bottom of the small craft, his reluctant co-rescuer screaming hysterically at Mellin at the near capsize. Mellin couldn’t have cared less. All he cared about was the next breath.

When he recovered a few moments later, he looked at the guard who was stretched out beside him and moaning in pain. “Should’ve let you sink, you bastard!” The man covered in oil was dead, the remaining Chinese talking excitedly, pointing skyward where he could see two H-5 Ilyushin bombers, and high above them, the glint of two fighters, the jabbering crewman in a reverie of anticipation for now they were sure to be rescued. Several men in other rafts, floating among the limbless dead, were also cheering.

* * *

The frigate’s helo had skimmed a few miles west and dipped the magnetometer/sonar, registering a magnetic anomaly. It could be unusually strong metallic deposits on the seabed, or it could be a submarine. The pilot dropped two depth charges, went higher, waited for the sea to erupt into two mushroomed columns of greenish-brown water, didn’t see any signs of a hit and so dropped two floating orange marker flares for the Ilyushin bombers to see. He then headed off toward Yulin, the PLA’s naval base in southern Hainan, dropping a purple parachute flare over the thirty or so crewmen from the sunken ship, some of them waving to him as he glanced anxiously at his fuel gauge.

Sitting up now in the raft, Mellin could see the thin spirals of orange smoke marking the spot where the helo pilot had dropped the depth charges, and he said a prayer for the sub that the Chinese were now searching for. Despite the sub nearly having killed him, it had told Mellin that there was war with China, and now at least he knew where he stood.

* * *

The dogfight between the two Shenyangs and the two F-18s of Enterprise’s air combat patrol was short and stunningly unequal.

“Tally Two! Tally Two! Afterburners!” came the first American pilot’s voice, indicating he could see both Shenyang fighters. “Five miles. Select Fox Two. Four miles… three miles… lock ‘im up… lock him… shoot Fox Two Fox Two.”

The Sidewinder missile took off from the American plane, streaking out toward one of the enemy, the other American plane also firing a Sidewinder. Within seconds of one another each missile found its target. There were two orange flashes, one many times the size of the other, as the second Shenyang’s fuel tanks went up.

“Splash one!” came the excited voice of the first American pilot, “Splash two!” following only seconds later.

Aboard the carrier’s combat information center there were shouts of jubilation. “Good kill! Good kill!” the air boss said, echoing one of the pilots’ exultations. “Outstanding!” The pilot of the lead F-18 acknowledged the congratulations from the carrier. The other pilot said nothing, part of him exhilarated by the kill, the other half feeling sorry for the downed Chinese pilots, only one having a chance to eject. In a way, attacking the two Shenyangs, whose maximum speed was 957 mph, with two F-18s at 1,190 mph, was a little like Mario Andretti’s Formula One chasing a pickup. Unless the Chinese fighters happened upon F-18s with complete surprise — highly unlikely, given the F-18s’ multimode air-to-air and air-to-surface tracking radar — the Shenyangs didn’t stand a chance, despite their having jettisoned “hot spots”—magnesium flares — to decoy the U.S. missiles.

But if the two American pilots from the Enterprise had good reason to be supremely confident of their aircraft’s ability, they gave the Chinese pilots top marks for courage. Neither Shenyang pilot had run from the fight, but had kept coming head-to-head to do battle. Both American pilots and those back in the Enterprise’s CIC knew how different the outcome might have been had the Chinese sent out their MiG-29s — the Fulcrums — now being purchased at bargain basement prices by China from Russia and other republics within the CIS.

The Fulcrum, with a maximum speed of 1,518 mph, was faster than the F-18s by 328 miles per hour and was considered by many, particularly by the modern German Luftwaffe pilots, as the world’s preeminent fighter. Without the Shenyangs as cover, the two H-5 bombers were embarrassingly easy for the two F-18s to shoot down, one exploding in air, the other afire and in an uncontrollable spin, one crewman ejecting, his white chute blossoming against the blue expanse of sea and sky. For some reason the spiraling H-5’s two 23mm nose cannons kept firing, their aimless bullets striking the sea like errant pebbles scattered over the water.

“All right!” Danny Mellin said as the H-5 smashed into sun-glinting pieces as it struck the sea in excess of 500 miles per hour. The Chinese crewman who had refused to help Mellin rescue the guard, who was only now coming around, looked at Mellin with an expression of sheer hatred for the American. He said something to Mellin, but despite Mellin’s basic knowledge of Chinese from his POW days in ‘Nam, he couldn’t understand, though he guessed it was some kind of insult. The Chinese crewman repeated himself, this time jabbing his finger at Mellin. Danny, his eyes squinting in the harsh glare of the sun on water, nodded as if he understood. “Yeah, well fuck you too, Sheng.”

“Sheng,” the first thing that came into Mellin’s head, means one liter, and the Chinese crewman was utterly perplexed.

“Sheng?”

“Oh Sheng fuck!” Mellin said, not feeling as cavalier as his tone suggested. He knew for sure that once he fell asleep, the crewman would push him off the raft. He had to stay awake, and so a deadly waiting game began. The guard, alternately coughing and moaning, still lay in the fetal position on the undulating floor of the raft.

“Sheng?” the crewman said.

“That’s right,” Mellin replied, both men watching each other as intently as two cats with territory in dispute. The raft should have had several liters of water as part of its supplies, but the only thing attached to the gunwales was an ancient packet of hard crackers and salt tablets. Mellin looked about for other rafts to hail, but the half dozen or so he could see were too dispersed, several bodies — or rather, what was left of them— floating up and over the swells, which were growing in intensity and height.

* * *

A Chinese container ship, the Wang Chow from Shanghai, en route to San Francisco via Honolulu when hostilities broke out, had been turned back by a U.S. Navy destroyer northeast of Maui. The destroyer escorted the Wang Chow back to Honolulu, where its cargo, mainly cheaply made cotton clothing destined for the American market, was impounded and its crew of thirty-two interned.

That evening produced one of the Hawaiian Islands’ legendary sunsets, an incandescent orange turning to a crimson, the streaked high cirrus clouds giving the promise of another splendid day in paradise as the USS Madison, a combination Hunter/Killer/Ballistic submarine of the Sea Wolf III series, egressed out of Pearl Harbor past degaussing ships — the magnetic signature of the ship “wiped,” lest an enemy pick up the signature and file it in its threat library.

Had the Madison been in any foreign port, no matter how urgently she was wanted elsewhere, her departure would have been delayed until four divers — it used to be three — had “swept” her acoustic-tiled hull and declared her “clean.” But given it was in COMSUBPAC’s home port, and the urgency of the situation in the South China Sea, the USS Madison set off promptly.

Once having cleared the safety nets in Pearl, she headed up the channel, her sleek shape, more like a cigar than a teardrop, slicing through the water as easily as any behemoth of the deep. The explosion took place at 1109 hours as she was preparing to dive, shattering the hull underneath and forward of the fairweather or sail, ripping out the torpedo room, water tank, forward trim tank, and Tomahawk vertical launch system. It also ruptured two of the three forward starboard-side ballast tanks, whose implosion doused some of the forward sub’s fires, but not all of them.

Within a minute firefighting teams had donned their white asbestos-hooded Nomex fire suits, some strapping on the emergency air breathing apparatus hose, others the more portable OBX, oxygen breathing apparatus. Temperatures were already 52 degrees Celsius and climbing, fire control crewmen trying desperately to make their way through choking, dense smoke with their infrared thermal imagers. Had it not been for the quick action of a Charles F. Adam-class destroyer nearby, with her fire hoses and her bravery in coming alongside despite the acute danger of the torpedoes in the Madison blowing, the whole sub and its crew might have been lost instead of the sub being badly damaged with thirty-three of her 132 crewmen reported killed.

It had been a torpedo attack right off the mouth of Pearl Harbor, or more precisely, it had been a mine, a U.S. acoustic Mark 6 °Captor mine — in effect a long, tubular sheath housing a Mark 46 torpedo, its computer control programmed to lie in wait for certain classes of sub with their telltale cavitation. Upon sensing this, the torpedo would be let loose from its housing.

From now on, as directed by the CNO, all U.S. submarines, including all deep-diving submergence rescue vehicles, had to be swept, along with egress lanes, whether in a home or foreign port.

The extent of Madison’s damage would keep the boat in dry dock for at least three months, as well as necessitating an undersea and an evaluation center test. The Chinese ship Wang Chow was soon swarmed by SEALs and other underwater demolition teams, and they’d found brackets for a half-dozen Mark 6 °Captor mines underneath, set into her hull.

“Thank God they didn’t sink it altogether,” a petty officer said. He meant the Madison.

“Might as well have,” an ensign said. “It’s going to slow down one hell of a lot egressing out of Pearl — sub or surface vessel. Damn Chinese might just as well have sunk her.” Two of his best buddies had died during the mines’ attack. COMSUBPAC’s naval intelligence confirmed from serial numbers on remaining U.S.-made Mark 6 °Captor mines that they had been among those purchased and then resold in East Asia prior to hostilities by a South Asia Industries owned and operated by a Mr. Jonas E. Breem.

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

While Tazuko Komura was packing some food and juice in her kitchen, she thought about a man in the phone booth she’d seen the night before below for what seemed an unusually long time. Through the small telescope in her tiny, three-room apartment she’d been able to see that the man wasn’t using the phone, but was dusting it with a small brush. It both frightened and reassured her — frightened her, because it meant police or JDF agents were closing in, altogether too close, but reassured her because they were dusting for prints. Obviously they didn’t know who had used the public phone. And what would they have heard when they tapped it? A man’s voice asking for a Mrs. Yoshio, and a woman’s voice, hers, answering that there was no Yoshio “living here.” And anyway, the police who were following up the call couldn’t possibly know it was the signal for her to act, to do what her cell of three had spent months planning.

Even so, Tazuko knew she would be in grave danger the moment she stepped out on the street. If anyone searched her shopping bag, they might find the explosive. Or would the way she had camouflaged it fool them? As she finished her coffee she noticed her right hand was trembling, half from fear, half in excitement. She knew she must control it, and in order to do that she first had to lose control. She was wound up tighter than a spring.

Tazuko lay down on the carpeted floor, placed a pillow beneath her head with her left hand and slid her right hand under her skirt and taut, white nylon panties. Very soon she was moaning softly, moving ever so slowly at first but then increasing the pressure until she was rolling back and forth in her mounting ecstasy. Suddenly her back arched, and it was as if she was suspended in time, her free hand clutching the air.

When she woke fifteen minutes later, she felt drained of all tension, her nerves calmed for the task ahead.

* * *

In the South China Sea, approximately halfway between the Spratly and Paracel island groups, the helo from the now sunken Chinese frigate ran out of gas and dropped like a stone into the sea.

* * *

Naked in his recliner, belching after draining another scotch on the rocks, Breem farted, told Mi Yin to “get the fuck outta the way” of the TV, and switched from the local Hong Kong station to CNN, where they were showing more shots of the PLA herding prisoners they’d taken from various “liberated” oil and gas rigs into a makeshift POW camp “somewhere” in China.

“More fucking losers,” Breem proclaimed, taking a handful of beer nuts, trying to pop them in his mouth one at a time and missing now and then, some of them rolling down into his crotch. “Fetch them, baby. Go on, fetch!” This was followed by laughter that rippled through his belly. “Hey hey hey!” he said, abruptly sitting up. An ABC “scoop” window was superimposed on the lower right corner of CNN pictures of the Chinese destroyer picking up “victims” of a “warmongering attack” in the South China Sea by what was believed to be an American submarine. Breem zoomed in on the superimposed ABC window, the New York anchor reporting that a “Sea Wolf SSN/SBN had been sunk off the Hawaiian island of Oahu by what naval sources were “unofficially” describing as an American-made Captor 60 mine or mines. It was suspected that the mine or mines that had gutted the U.S. sub had apparently been laid by a Chinese merchantman, the Wang Chow, en route to the U.S. West Coast when hostilities broke out between China and the United States. Now ABC’s “Nightline” was reporting over forty crew aboard the 132-man submarine had been killed, due largely to a subsequent fire-created explosion in the forward torpedo room.

“More fucking losers!” Breem proclaimed, his mouth half full of beer nuts. “Oh well, more yuan for B.I.” He was talking about Breem Industrials, listed on the Hong Kong exchange as one of the South Asia Industries group.

“How come?” Mi Yin asked.

“Come any way you like.” Breem thought this bon mot hilarious and laughed so hard, scotch and beer nuts sprayed the carpet. He tossed Mi Yin the empty glass. “Ice, my little juicy fruit. More yuan for me, my lovely, because who is the biggest seller of marine munitions — among other things — in the Near East?”

“You are,” Mi Yin said, handing him a glass of crushed ice turned golden with Johnnie Walker.

“ ‘Course,” he added, “manufacturers of Captors, et cetera, don’t know I’ve cornered the market. They only sell through ‘legitimate’ firms. Saps!” Breem knew he was drunk and that he was talking too much. “But hey, Juicy Fruit. What fuckin’ good is success if you can’t share it, right?” He meant “flaunt” it.

“Yes.”

“Right!” he bellowed.

“Right.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

Danny Mellin couldn’t walk properly. Conditions on the PLA navy destroyer that had picked him, Sheng, and the guard from the raft along with other survivors of the torpedo attack against the Jianghu frigate had been so crowded that his right leg had gone to sleep. As he walked, or rather limped, down the gangplank toward the waiting POW trucks, he had little sensation in his right leg. He didn’t know where he was except that it was a Chinese naval port, given the number of destroyer frigates and fast-attack patrol boats moored there. As they parted company, Sheng said something to him, laughing at him, dismissing him with the contempt of a man who had been down a little while before but who was now clearly on the winning side.

“You prick!” Mellin said. “Should’ve let the sharks—” The next instant he was down on the dockside, his head numbed by the blow, blood oozing from the left side of his face. A PLA soldier clubbed him again with the AK-47’s stock, this time in the stomach.

Somebody, an Australian by his accent, helped Danny up. “Easy does it, mate. These jokers ‘ave no bloody sense of humor at all.” The same guard pushed the Australian in the small of the back. Both Danny and the Australian kept quiet, half climbing, half pushed up the tailgate of one of the three-ton trucks loaded with an assortment of captured rig workers. Two PLA navy guards, including the one who’d just struck him, rode at the end of the two benches of about ten POWs each, the AK-47s unslung, ready to fire. As the truck took off with a jerk that jarred everybody aboard, the Australian held up his hand. “Hey, Thumper,” he called out to the guard who’d just clubbed Mellin. “You got any water? Me mate here,” he indicated Mellin, “looks pretty badly dehydrated.”

“Up shut!” yelled the other guard. “You up shut!”

“All right,” the Aussie said. “Piss on you too.”

Mellin could see the guard starting to move toward the Australian, but the ride was so rough the guard stayed where he was, glaring at them, holding on to one of the truck’s two high roll bars. The Australian waited till the truck was climbing a hill, its engine in a high scream, the guards glancing at some peasant women walking along the roadside.

“Name’s Mike Murphy. What’s yours?”

“Mellin, Danny.”

“You a rigger?” Murphy asked.

“Yeah. You?”

“I tease Chinese.”

“Yeah, well, be careful.”

“Not to worry.”

“You been—” Mellin’s mouth was so dry he could barely talk. “—interrogated yet?”

“No,” Murphy said, and for the first time a shadow of alarm crossed the Aussie’s face.

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

Tokyo

CIA Langley’s fax to its Tokyo field agent, Henry Wray, was to the point: EXPEDITE SONGBIRD IMMEDIATE STOP MESSAGE ENDS.

Wray asked his JDF colleagues to bring in the Korean prisoner, Jae Chong, “and put him in the paper box.” It was three feet square, two feet high, and made of slotted cardboard that could be dismantled and reassembled in seconds. The suspect or prisoner had to squat in the middle of the square, and God help him if he moved.

“We may have to wait a long time till he talks,” one of the JDF agents said.

“We can’t wait too long,” Wray countered. He thought of the danger that one person, one mishap, could have on the complicated and vital logistics tail of Second Army that would stretch from Japan to Hanoi. “Give him an hour on his haunches,” Wray suggested. “If he hasn’t talked by then, beat the shit out of him. No bruises.”

“Hai,” agreed the youngest of the two JDF agents. He didn’t like gaijin—foreigners — including Americans, but he especially disliked Koreans, particularly those from the north.

That afternoon at a quarter to three they picked up Chong from his job as a janitor for an apartment complex not far from the Ginza strip. The timing was important for Chong, who knew that sooner or later they would get him. But had they arrested him an hour earlier, he probably would not have withstood the beating until the 2:38 departure of the Joetsu Shinkansen, bullet train, from Tokyo’s Ueno Station to Niigata on Honshu’s west coast, over two hundred miles away. As it was, by the time the beating started, the 2:38 to Niigata was well on its way across the Kanto Plain north of Tokyo, speeding toward the fourteen-mile Daishimizu tunnel, which would take Tazuko Komura from Japan’s “front” or the omote Nihon, to ura Nihon, the “inner Japan” beyond the alps.

Before she had moved to the frenetic glitter of Japan’s east coast, the west coast around Niigata had been Tazuko’s home. In its own way, Niigata was as flashy and as fast as Tokyo, but not far from Niigata you were in the small villages of Japan, hundreds of years old. It was a Japan in which having a life of yutakasa—of great value — was not measured in yen or worldly possessions, but in the spirit of harmony one experienced with the rhythm of the seasons and the wisdom of traditions passed down from one craftsman to another.

For Tazuko, it had still been a land in which she was one of the gaijin, but its affinity for things rural and old captivated her. Her nostalgia, however, was a fantasy, at odds with the often harsh reality of modern industrial Japan, with the kind of industrial wealth Pyongyang wanted to emulate. But Tazuko felt no such contradiction, and knew if she was to give her life to help thrust North Korea onto the stage of major world powers, then she would give that life. And should anyone doubt her courage, then they would soon doubt no longer.

At first she hadn’t planned anything even remotely heroic, but heroism, if it meant self-sacrifice, had more or less been forced upon her by the stringent security carried out by the automatic rail “scout” machines that constantly monitored the tracks of the bullet trains. Had anyone wanted to put the sausage-shaped explosive on the rail tracks or supporting structures, they would have had to do it in darkness, for the moment they used a light, their position would have been immediately identified by the infrared track cameras. Besides, the way to inflict the most damage on the Japanese psyche was not to blow up part of the track, but to stop the train itself, to puncture their much vaunted and worldwide reputation for speed, safety, and quality. Also, if they expected an attack, it would be on the southward Tokyo-Hakata line, where U.S. and JDF troops would most likely travel as part of the buildup of force in Vietnam.

* * *

“Tell him,” Wray said, lighting another cigarette, “that if he doesn’t tell us the name and whereabouts of his contact, he’s going to have an accident — a fatal one.”

“I’ve already told him,” the JDF agent replied.

“Maybe he thinks we’re bluffing.”

“No,” the JDF agent assured Wray. “He knows.” The other JDF agent indicated to the American that they should go outside.

In the hallway they talked about how far they really wanted to go. Wray said he didn’t want to kill the son of a bitch, but with the segmented air/sea Second Army supply line stretching from Japan to Hanoi over 2,200 miles away, any sabotage would be disastrous for what the U.N. hoped would be Freeman’s counterattack against the Chinese. The JDF agent said he didn’t mind beating the crap out of the North Korean — it would be a message to the Gong An Bu, Chinese Intelligence, that if they insisted on using gaijin to do their dirty work in Japan, this is what would happen to their agents.

Wray, now that his bluff was being called, wasn’t so tough. He said the trouble with killing the little bastard was all the fucking paperwork involved, but what he really meant was “killing the little bastard” was a contradiction of what they were supposedly fighting for — inconvenient stuff like habeas corpus. Without wanting to sound weak, Wray wanted to convey this to the JDF agent. “Chinese’d just take him out and shoot him in the neck if he was one of ours.”

“We don’t have to shoot him,” the JDF agent said. “There wouldn’t even be a bruise.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Wray said. “But like I said — too much friggin’ paperwork.”

“It’s up to you,” his Japanese colleague said amicably.

“Well, stick a barrel against his head and tell him to tell you who he contacted and why — I mean their specific target.”

The JDF man made a face. It was a question. What happens if he still doesn’t answer? You’ve lost all credibility. Right?

“Try it,” Wray said. “I’ve got a hunch the little bastard’ll sing like a bird.”

“Do you want to try it?” the JDF agent asked. What he meant was, You lose face if you want to, Wray-san, but not me.

“All right,” Wray said. “I’ll do it. Give him another fifteen minutes to think about it, then call me.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

On the point of Freeman’s recon patrol, D’Lupo’s squad of seven men from the first platoon had moved out to the flanks and back again in cloverleaf pattern, a rifle platoon between them and the HQ section behind them, the warm jungle dampness causing their shirts to cling to them like Saran Wrap under the Kevlar bulletproof vest, each man wearing a patrol harness, pistol belt, two ammo pouches, one smoke and two fragmentation grenades, and a K-bar knife, in addition to bandoleers of machine-gun bullets, a poncho, C-rations for the ninety-six-hour probe of Chinese positions, a claymore mine, and a collapsible shovel. But all this mountain of gear, except for his M-16, was ready for instant jettisoning if necessary by a quick ruck release strap, leaving the grunt as free as possible to fight.

Behind the HQ squad of General Freeman, Major Robert Cline, Marte Price, the radio operator PFC Rhin, and the two CNN crew, was a weapons platoon led by Martinez, made up of SAS and Delta veterans. They were a rear guard, but moving as cautiously as the men on the point, lest they get caught in an ambush, should the enemy try to sucker them in by allowing the point, the HQ and rifle platoon, to pass before springing a trap.

The haunting night sounds — thousands of birds and some of the millions of bats from caves like those around Lang Son— filled the darkness with such a flood of noise that was both unnerving and reassuring, since neither side would hear the other in the middle of such a racket, unless the Chinese tried to move tanks or self-propelled heavy artillery units down the road.

The noise of the bats and the general confusion they’d caused in the undergrowth amid a variety of animals, from wild pig to small deer, serow goats, and flying squirrels, seemed to cease almost as quickly as it had started. Then it began to rain, a deluge dumped on the jungle, immediately washing off much of the insect repellent on exposed flesh. In ten minutes the downpour too had ceased, and now masses of insects, mainly mosquitoes, buzzed, and rain could be heard plopping from the trees into pools and onto the canopies of broad-leafed plants as the soldiers unavoidably brushed against them.

There was a dull thump, followed by another, then another.

“Mor—” But the mortar rounds had already landed, splitting the air, their explosions throwing up earth in huge, dark convulsions of undergrowth and fire — men screaming all around, the frenetic chattering of machine guns opening up — another scream and the purplish veined explosions of grenades, the crash of more grenades, mortars — the air hot, coming in bursts whose concussion stunned and whose shrapnel lacerated the thick vegetation like hail.

Though the farthest ahead, D’Lupo’s squad was only now coming under attack, the trap being sprung, men yelling on the perimeter, “Two o’clock — five five!” and another explosion, the air acrid with the stink of cordite and muddy earth. Hunkered down, Freeman was calling back to the trucks for a relay message to Hanoi for TACAIR from wherever he could get it.

It came, but not quickly enough. By the time four Tomcats roared in from Enterprise as dawn broke, their ordnance bristling on hard points, their vapor trails sculpted golden by the early sun, the fighting was over, the enemy had withdrawn, and Freeman’s recon force was left with nine dead and about an equal number wounded. Medevac choppers now appeared like black bugs descending. As Freeman stomped about, Marte Price, badly shaken by the attack, moved behind him from corpse to corpse. She could see his eyes moisten, but whether it was from suppressed rage, compassion, or both, she couldn’t tell.

“Goddamn it,” he said to no one in particular. “For Second Army to get mauled like that first time out in ‘Nam—”

“Excuse me, General,” Robert Cline interjected. “It’s hardly Second Army. I mean this recon force is only—”

“Numbers aren’t the point, Bob, goddamn it! I was led to understand that our approach to the snake — as our Vietnamese colleagues call the front line — would be—”

He heard a soldier moan but couldn’t see him. One of the Delta contingent had given the soldier, or what was left of him, a shot of morphine, but it couldn’t hold the pain. He was lying in the cool morning shade of a hardwood tree, his head hidden in a triangle of leaves. When Freeman neared the man and saw what was left of his face, he clamped his jaw muscles so tightly Marte Price could see them bulge. Freeman took another couple of paces toward the man and knelt beside him, gently pulling away one of the broad leaves that had acted as a curtain. The man’s face was gone, from the bright bloody pulp that had been his nose to the deep purplish red of where his eyes had been. The miracle to Freeman was that the body was still alive, its lips, lacerated, moving like some obscene puppetry. Freeman put his right ear near the man’s mouth, and he could smell the rusty metallic odor of blood and a vile stench of excrement. He nodded, looking to Marte like a priest listening to the confession of a bedridden believer. Freeman took the man’s limp right hand in his and squeezed it slightly, nodding his head. “Yes,” he said to the soldier, and with that unclipped his side holster and pulled out his .45.

“Medevacs,” Marte said. “In a few hours the wounded’ll be—”

“I know,” Freeman said without looking up. “Would you go away now — please,” and he let the .45 slide back into his holster. “Go away,” he told her, still watching the mash of bone and raw flesh. “Now!” He heard a click — a camera — and Bob Cline took her by the arm.

“My God,” she told Cline, reluctantly following him away from the tree. “For a moment there I thought the general was going to shoot him.”

“He was,” Cline said matter-of-factly, “but it would’ve panicked everyone and given our position away to any—”

They heard a scuffle behind them. “Don’t look,” the major said, but she already had and clicked her camera again. “Oh my God—”

Freeman had cut the grunt’s throat, the blood bubbling out, the man’s legs kicking about with such force they were splashing the mud up and about what was now the corpse. It wasn’t that uncommon in combat, and seasoned correspondents had seen more than one mercy killing, but it was something Marte Price hadn’t seen before, and it was always terrible to see.

Grim-faced, Freeman walked over to her. “You use that and you’ll end my career.”

Now reports were coming in from D’Lupo’s men on the front of what had been the cloverleaf formation, and from the second and third platoons, of the number of enemy killed— fourteen, and five wounded prisoners.

The terrible shock of that morning, however, didn’t fully occur until one of the four medics in the EMREF, having done all he could for his wounded buddies, moved on to help the enemy prisoners. The first was bleeding badly from shrapnel-caused lacerations to the arms and chest. The medic bandaged the wounds and gave the soldier a shot of morphine. It was only when he saw the second prisoner, the man’s upper right leg hit by an M-16 round, that the medic realized he wasn’t treating Chinese. Freeman was called, and arrived just as Cline was having a look at the wounded man.

“What’s up?” Freeman asked curtly, his face still creased by the strain of having put one of his own men out of his misery.

“General,” Cline replied, looking up from the wounded prisoner, “you’re not going to like this.”

“Like what, damn it?”

Marte Price’s camera clicked and whirred as it advanced the film. Freeman turned on her. “Goddamn it, lady, can’t you use a quieter gadget than that? You can hear it whirring from thirty feet away.” Marte Price said nothing — she was watching Cline exchanging a worried glance with the medic. Cline straightened up. “Sir, I think we ought to get one of our Vietnamese guides over here.”

Freeman looked down at the corpse, grimly adding, “So he doesn’t look Chinese. Probably from one of the hill tribes near the border. Chinese have Vietnamese sympathizers from the border regions. I—” He stopped, as if he’d just run out of breath. “A lot of PLA sympathizers were probably wearing those goddamned pajamas. Peasant garb. Could even be from the Laos-Vietnam border.”

The HQ phone crackled and a hushed voice from the third platoon told Freeman and his force that there was movement in the heavy underbrush at eleven o’clock, four hundred yards off on the left flank behind them and coming from the direction of the Hanoi-Lang Son road, a creaking, metallic noise.

“Tanks?” Cline asked.

“Freeman! General Free-man!” It was a high-pitched woman’s voice piercing the heavy jungle growth, but there was no reply, the EMREF’s reconnaissance force having gone to ground the instant they’d known of an approaching force. It was an old Vietnamese ruse — to learn someone’s name on the opposing force, particularly that of the commanding officer, and to call out the name, giving the impression they knew a lot about you. Even among battle-hardened veterans it was a nerve-racking experience, for no matter how many times you might be reassured by your own commander, the fact was that somehow they had discovered your name — somehow they were getting inside information and had found out exactly where you were.

“General Freeman!” The voice was coming from about a hundred yards back. “General Vinh is here.”

“Yeah, right!” D’Lupo whispered. “And I’m fucking queen of the May.”

“General Freeman. Do you hear me?”

In the HQ platoon Freeman, via radio, ordered his first platoon to swing around hard left in a cloverleaf patrol, while the remaining three of the four platoons settled in defensive posture. “Okay,” said first platoon’s sergeant quietly, turning to D’Lupo, “you take the point, queenie,” and the patrol moved out.

“General Freeman!” The woman’s voice on the left flank of the HQ platoon seemed closer now, and seven and a half tense minutes later the HQ radio crackled to life, a report coming not from the left flank but from D’Lupo’s platoon up ahead. “Alpha One to Mother Hen. We’ve got a white flag fifty feet in front of us.”

“Alpha One,” Freeman ordered, “do the same. Fly a white flag.”

D’Lupo was watching the woman. She looked Chinese. At first sight she appeared to be alone, but now that his eyes had been fixed on her for several minutes, D’Lupo and others in the squad left and right of him also saw the two men materializing on either side of her, one of the AK47s looking for all the world like a stubby branch of a tree.

Slowly D’Lupo, wondering why Freeman had been so ready to answer a white flag with a white flag, reached up to the elastic khaki band about his helmet and felt for the field dressing package, the only ready white material in his kit. “Cover me,” he whispered, hoping that the two of his men nearest him on the flanks about thirty feet away from each other and either side of him had heard him. They didn’t, but they saw D’Lupo rise slowly, the white bandage wrapped loosely around the end of his M-16.

The woman, her hands held high in surrender, advanced slowly toward D’Lupo, and now the two Vietnamese guides moved forward, stopping by the four dead Vietnamese men in the black pajamas. There was a short, rapid exchange between the guides, its tone more revealing than any translation, telling Freeman that his worst fear — any commanding officer’s worst fear — had been realized. It had been a “blue on blue,” the innocuous-sounding phrase the Army used whenever there had been a clash between “friendlies” or “allies.”

The wounded men in the black pajamas were now talking rapidly at the guides, confirming that they were part of Vinh’s men, not part of the Chinese army. The Americans had fired upon their allies — or had it been the other way around? Whatever, the failure of one side or both to properly identify the other had led to the disaster of twenty-nine Americans and Vietnamese killed and fourteen wounded. To make matters even worse, Vinh’s force on the Americans’ left flank, which the Americans had thought was the creaking noise of PLA tanks, was in fact a Vietnamese relief column moving along the Hanoi-Lang Son road, riding their bicycles — some with tires punctured, riding on the rim.

“Malaya,” Freeman said, his tone terse.

“Malaya?” Cline asked, nonplussed.

“After the Japs hit Pearl Harbor,” Freeman answered, “they drove south on the jungle roads through Malaya. Get a flat tire — they’d just keep going on the rims. Sounded like armor on the move to the Aussies and the Brits. Scared the hell out of ‘em.” It was a throwaway comment, but it reminded Captain Boyd, Freeman’s press officer, just how encompassing and particular Freeman’s knowledge of military history was.

* * *

Marte Price was having a war of conscience about whether or not to file her fax report on Freeman’s mercy killing and his use of “Japs” instead of “Japanese,” when she saw the two Vietnamese guides talking fast and gesticulating wildly, looking down at and up from the dead men in the black-pajamas-cum-uniforms. She knew, then, she had a really big story: two legendary old foes — the United States and Vietnam— represented by Freeman and Vinh, both commanding “specialist forces,” had screwed up.

Marte Price’s story about “friendly fire” would be avidly picked off the wire service by hundreds of newspapers in the U.S. But it was CNN, with its four phone and “umbrella” antenna, that almost instantly sped the pictures of the American dead to its billions of viewers all over the world via satellite.

Both Freeman and Vinh refused to be photographed for what they both — Freeman vociferously, Vinh less so but just as firmly — referred to as propaganda for Beijing. And they were right. The blue on blue or “friendly fire” episode that had killed the four Vietnamese gave way to charges by GIs that yet another Army situation was definitely FUBAR — fucked up beyond all recognition.

Other mild pejoratives, courtesy of CNN, rained down from U.S. soldiers and Chinese alike, and for the first time since the terrible tank battles at Skovorodino in another U.N.-sanctioned intervention, General Douglas Freeman, though still not knowing who had fired the first shot, took full front-on responsibility for the debacle. In private he was fuming, knowing that his overall command of the U.S. forces in Vietnam was in jeopardy.

The only good news he received that day was the ringing endorsements of his corps commanders of Second Army, now en route to Vietnam from Japan. Many of them had been with him at Skovorodino in Siberia, where his armor was lured into a trap by “false” tanks that U.S. aerial reconnaissance had spotted, and those in Second Army who remembered the humiliation also remembered Freeman’s audacious comeback in some of the largest tank battles since Kursk.

In Washington there were congressional calls for his, Freeman’s, removal as C in C of the U.N. force, but the President and Joint Chiefs held firm. All of them knew the pitfalls of command — particularly the huge psychological bridge that had to be crossed by old foes, such as Vinh and Freeman suddenly having to form a coalition.

Vinh was hardly criticized at all by the American left, the latter’s venom directed almost solely on Freeman, whom the left saw as a warmonger who “must surely harbor old antagonistic feelings toward the Vietnamese people.” General Vinh immediately came to Freeman’s defense, saying that mistakes had no doubt been made “by both sides,” adding that the fault lay with the “aggressive imperialist” policies of Beijing, whose determination to “steal” Vietnamese territory in the Spratly and Paracel islands and whose claim of ownership of the whole of the South China Sea started the conflict in the first place.

And in one of the strange paradoxes of modern politics, General Vinh — who had fought so hard as a young man against the Americans, in particular the American Division in the Vietnamese War — was now welcomed aboard by Rush Limbaugh and others on the political right of the media, and within days Vinh’s defense of Freeman was used to batter the democratic left into virtual silence. But Greenpeace complained that the U.S. transport ships carrying Second Army toward Vietnam were flushing out their bilges at sea and thereby endangering the delicate sea life ecosystem in the waters off the China coast.

Freeman, who was clearly meant to be cowed by this second public salvo against him, responded via Marte Price, that Greenpeace’s complaint sounded like a lot of “bilge” to him and that Greenpeace might better occupy itself with concerns about the “delicate ecosystem of human beings in and around Lang Son” who lay dead and dying as a direct result of the worst pollution of all — invasion by what was now over ten divisions — over 130,00 °Chinese shock troops.

“How do we know they were shock troops. General?” press officer Boyd asked afterward.

“Because,” Freeman replied, “they gave us a hell of a shock, that’s why.”

“Yes, sir,” said Boyd.

“Another thing, Captain Boyd.”

“Sir?”

“I want you to find a few good stories about the flagrant Chinese violation of the environment laws — in particular the violation of the law prohibiting the killing and or transport of wild animals. You know the sort of thing I mean. Believe eating crushed-up tiger’s balls’ll give ‘em a dick big as a tiger’s.”

Boyd blinked. “Ah… I mean, sir — you sure about that?”

“ ‘Course I’m sure. Anyway, you can flesh out the details. Make sure it gets on CNN. Get the bastards working for me for a change — instead of all those damn fairies and Commie fellow travelers in State.”

“Ah, General, the Vietnamese are Commie—”

Freeman waved the objection aside. “Not like the Chinese they aren’t. You get that story out, hear me? I want those animal rights people raising shit, with Greenpeace moaning about the damn fish our supply line ships are supposedly traumatizing. Take the heat off us.” He winked at Boyd. “Can you handle them?”

“I think so, sir.”

The general smiled. “Do so, Captain — or I’ll fire you. And Boyd?”

“Sir?”

“I want that report in an hour.”

“Yes, sir.”

CHAPTER THIRTY

Tokyo

Henry Wray wouldn’t have beaten the North Korean prisoner — at least not as badly — but the man had said “Migook!”—American — and spat at him. With his overtime robbing him of sleep, and contrary to all the rules and practices for self-control he’d learned at Langley, Wray snapped and punched the Korean off his haunches, the man falling over, crashing into the two-foot-high wall of cardboard that had formed the “disciplinary square” about him. At this, the Japanese interrogator went wild, kicking the man in the head twice before Wray, his hands trembling with the strain of the war between the anger and common sense raging inside of him, yelled, “That’s enough!” at his JDF colleague. But the North Korean spat again and Wray lost it. Besides, what was it that detective used to say on “NYPD Blue”? he thought afterward. At some point in the interrogation room you take off your belt and leave the Constitution outside.

Wray and the JDF agent had gotten each other going, and once or twice their blows coincided, they were so frantic to give it to him. Little bastard was probably holding the key to an attack on the Second Army convoy, which was now out over the Macclesfield Bank, 350 miles east-southeast of the PLA’s Yulin naval base on Hainan Island.

“Who did you contact?” Wray yelled. “Who did you call?”

The North Korean either couldn’t or wouldn’t talk.

That night, Wray signed out and faxed Langley that he was ill and would have to be relieved from — in effect taken off— Songbird.

He went home and opened a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label, an expensive escape in Japan, and drank long into the night, occasionally flipping channels but mostly watching CNN for up-to-date news of the war. He saw a raging argument going on among demonstrators of various political stripes in the front of the White House, then a zoom shot showing the state of play between a Greenpeacer and an animal rights advocate. The animal rights lady, who looked remarkably like a cat — where did CNN get this stuff, he wondered, from some casting agent? — was complaining loudly about the barbaric practices of the Chinese, their crimes against animals, and the Greenpeacer was arguing just as loudly about how Greenpeace was for animal rights too, but that the animal rights issue was a red herring put out by the fascist administration in Washington to divert all attention away from the real war — against the environment.

“If this was a fascist administration—” said the woman.

“It is,” the Greenpeacer charged.

“If it was,” the woman replied, “the police would be dragging you away right now.”

“They’ll be here. You wait.”

Another demonstrator, an unkempt redhead, shoving her way into the fray proclaimed, “It’s not the Chinese who started this — it’s the Vietnamese. They’re the real aggressors.”

“Bullshit!” someone called out.

“Yeah — piss off, lady!”

Wray didn’t know which lady was being referred to — the animal rights one or the redhead. Now there was a special news bulletin reporting that there had apparently been some “naval activity” in the South China Sea. Wray grunted in drunken disgust. It was about as helpful as saying there was a weather disturbance somewhere in Texas. The nonspecific nature of this newscast upset Wray much more than it normally would have. He was a perfectionist, and vagueness about anything irritated and at times disturbed him, especially when he’d been drinking heavily. On top of this, there had been the day’s dismal failure of not getting anything out of the Korean, and on top of that, of losing his cool and the unspoken, maniacal encouragement he’d given the JDF man. Which made him, Henry Wray of the CIA, no better than the North Koreans, he told himself. Worse.

He finished his scotch and walked over to a map of southern Japan, surprised there had not yet been any kind of attack on U.S. and Japanese shipping by North Korea. Maybe the Korean had made contact about something else? But not knowing what it was, even what it might be, filled Wray with a despair, despite all his years with the firm, made infinitely worse by the booze — a plunging feeling deep in his gut, his conscience telling him that he had stood far too long at the edge of the abyss, and now it was staring back at him — that he was out of control. He reached inside his jacket, took out the 9mm Beretta automatic, and fingered it like a blind man for a few minutes, as if it was something he’d lost touch with, as if he was reacquainting himself with an old friend. Then he put it atop the TV.

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

Dalat, Central Highlands

It was near dusk when a policeman pulled up to the American visitor by an alley off Duy Tan Street and asked for identification and the special permit to be in Lam Dong province. Though the American lifting of an embargo against trading with Vietnam had meant better relations for several years, old habits died hard among some of the highlanders who, as young men, had fought the Americans in the Vietnam War. The American, Captain Raymond Baker from the U.S. legation in Ho Chi Minh City, was dressed in civilian clothes. He presented his passport with three ten-thousand-dong notes — about three U.S. dollars — sandwiched in the middle. The policeman moved back a few paces into the alley, said nothing, took the money, handed back the passport and began walking eastward down Duy Tan Street. Baker slipped the passport into the waistband money belt he wore and called out to the policeman, “Which way to Lang Bian Mountain? They tell me the views are—”

“Bac,” the policeman answered. North. His thumb jerked back over his shoulder. “Twelve kilometers. You must hire a guide.”

Baker didn’t know whether this was official policy or simply well-meant advice. In any event he decided he would hire a guide. The policeman had already seen that he was a cultural attaché at the U.S. legation and might therefore already suspect him of spying around Dalat, though now with the U.S. and Vietnamese allies against the Chinese, it was difficult for Baker to imagine what military mission the Vietnamese policeman might think he was on. Unless the policeman had guessed that he was up here possibly searching for MIAs. The discovery of an MIA would be highly embarrassing at the moment, not only for the Vietnamese, but for their American allies as well. A hitherto MIA suddenly turning up would prove extraordinarily damaging to the U.S. public’s support for U.S. assistance against the Chinese invasion, rekindling memories of the interrogation and treatment of U.S. POWs during the Vietnam War.

It was too dark now to start out on the twelve-kilometer journey to the five volcanic peaks of Lang Bian Mountain that rose to over six thousand feet above lush countryside, and Baker went instead to the nearest mid-range hotel, booked a room for the night, and asked if he could hire a guide from there to go to his ultimate destination of Lat village near Lang Bian.

Co, phai—yes,” the desk clerk replied, “but first you must buy permit.”

“Who from?”

“Dalat police.”

Baker wondered why the policeman who had stopped him hadn’t told him about the permit. “How much?” he asked.

“One hundred thousand dong. Ten dollars U.S.”

Baker nodded and started up to his room when the clerk called after him, telling him that he had to leave his passport at the desk for security. Baker brought out an expired but unpunched passport that he kept specifically for such purposes. It wasn’t his first time looking for an MIA. He knew they wouldn’t bother looking at the date, so long as it had a lot of the right-looking stamps.

Tiredly — it was unusually warm for the central highlands— Baker made his way up to the second floor of the People’s Palace and spread out a local tourist map of Dalat on the mattress atop the old, creaky French-colonial style, wrought-iron bedstead. The map was poor in quality and seemed to have no scale, but he did discover that Lat village was in fact not a single entity, but consisted of a half dozen or so hamlets. Which hamlet had the old man on the sampan meant? Perhaps Lat village had been the only description the old man had been given. Most of the villages were inhabited by the Laks, the others by Kohos, Mas, and Chills, and so now he saw more sense in the hotel clerk’s advice about a guide. And given what were bound to be the different dialects of the villagers, he might need more than one guide.

Already his mission to ask about any possible MIAs in the village was becoming complex, and there was no early bus from Dalat to Lat, so he would be obliged to hire a car. He suddenly wished he’d stayed in Ho Chi Minh City. His colleagues at the legation there were probably right — the MIA tip was probably a waste of time and Baker knew he wouldn’t get any encouragement from Washington now that the Americans and Vietnamese were allies against China. A live MIA still being kept as a POW would be embarrassing all around. On the other hand, Washington had enough on its mind with the war that MIA search policy had more or less been forgotten about.

Baker estimated he’d need at least a week to visit the hamlets alone, for though he spoke Vietnamese, he wasn’t familiar with the dialects of the central highlands. He reflected momentarily on the only hard evidence he’d ever unearthed about an MIA — two sets of dog tags and a pile of bones which the U.S. Army forensic lab had determined were human. But he still remembered the phone calls, then the letters, of the two GIs’ parents.

And while more and more the question of MIAs—2,392 of them — from the old Vietnam War was receding and being shunted aside, Baker knew that if a young soldier of about twenty had been taken and was still being held, he would now be in his late forties or early fifties, and that the pain of his loved ones, like that of the parents of any missing child, would still be there.

He unpacked his suitcase, took out a glass jar of boric acid, and like someone marking a tennis court, tapped out a line of the white powder until the rectangle he made about the bed was complete.

Around midnight he thought he heard someone outside his door — or was it someone in one of the next rooms? He sat up and listened. The noise ceased and all he could hear in the background was the faint tinkle of a radio — probably from one of the rice stalls in the street below.

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

Susan D. Basehart was an American who had tired of having most of her money invested in small-yield blue chip stocks. Diagnosed as having inoperable cancer of the bowels, her life expectancy at most a year, she had decided — along with other American and Asian investors — to gamble most of her money on a new stock in ASAM Industries, a firm sold on the promising research carried out on the feasibility of highspeed maglev: magnetically levitated train travel on commuter routes. With tests of banked speeds up to 250 mph and 1,000 mph on straightways, the commuter run from Penn Station in New York to Union Station in Washington, D.C., averaging 300 mph, would take less time than it took to take a limo from Manhattan to La Guardia. And you could move hundreds of passengers at a time, no matter what the weather. ASAM shares jumped from ten dollars to $86.50 within a month of being issued. At a hundred dollars, fourteen percent of the shareholders sold, but Susan Basehart held on, sure it would very soon climb to over a hundred dollars.

As the Tokyo-Niigata express raced through the countryside at over a hundred miles per hour, Tazuko Komura took care not to look in the foreground that was receding in a dizzying green blur of fields and supporting trestles of the fast-line track. Instead she looked beyond at the steadier scene of long, variegated rectangular sheets of newly dyed kimono linen stretched out on the green fields to dry. They looked like strips of exotic flags. The train was now on the flats going in excess of 100 mph. She pressed the button.

The flash of the explosion could be seen for miles, the sound of it now rolling thunderously across the countryside, like thunder, the forward section of the train split in half as if struck by some enormous cleaver, bodies incinerated, the rear sections of the bullet train telescoping into one another in excess of 100 mph, then shooting off the elevated rail ten meters above a field into mangled tubular heaps of smoking metal and upholstery that were giving off columns of toxic smoke. There were no survivors, body parts strewn across the field and among the trees of a small wood outside Sanjo.

NHK, Japan’s national network, got to the story first, then CNN. Within forty-five minutes of the crash Susan Basehart’s stock in ASAM industries tumbled. She lost over $350,000 and was effectively wiped out.

Subsequent media investigations pointed out that sabotage had almost certainly been the cause of the catastrophe in which all 372 passengers and crew were killed, and that bullet-train railway technology was markedly different from that used in maglev vehicles. But these reports had little or no effect on the stock markets of the world — confidence in supertrains had crashed with the Tokyo-Niigata express. As Susan Basehart’s health grew worse, exacerbated by the shock of her near financial rain, she was told that due to medical bills, only some of which were covered by her health plan, she would spend her last days in a public ward at Bellevue.

* * *

The effect of the bullet train disaster in Japan was to produce a chilling recognition among the Japanese public, and in particular in the Japanese Defense Force, of just how vulnerable rapid transit movement of supplies and people was to terrorism. In the interrogation room of Tokyo’s JDF offices, the North Korean agent Jae Chong was shown a video of the train wreck and given a single sheet of paper by one of the JDF agents, who told him that if he didn’t start writing down contact names and numbers, he would be beaten again.

“It’s no good protecting the bastard that blew it up,” the JDF agent told Jae Chong, acting on a hunch that because of stringent security on the bullet trains, and with no package being allowed to stand unattended, it had probably been a suicide bomber.

Jae Chong sat there immobile, only the muscles in his face and the blinking of his eyes giving any indication of his nervousness. He slowly took up the ballpoint pen and then just as slowly put it down.

“Bastard!” the JDF agent yelled, and punched him in the temple, knocking him off the stool. A call came through for the JDF agent from CIA agent Henry Wray.

“What’s the story?” Wray asked. He sounded drunk.

“Nothing yet.”

“I just saw the Shinkansen wreck on the TV.”

The JDF agent waited — was he supposed to say something?

“Well,” Wray said, “has our songbird started to sing?”

“No.”

“I’ll come down.”

“I will send a car for you,” the JDF man said.

“No — I’ll be all right. Grab the chikatetsu.” The JDF man thought quickly — that’s all he needed, the American half pissed on the subway, turning up downtown. Reporters had already staked out Tokyo police HQ, pressing for news about the Shinkansen wreck. “Please let me send a car, Wray-san.”

“All right,” Wray said. “You’re paying for it.”

* * *

Wray took the Beretta off the top of the TV. Now that so many people had been killed on the bullet train, he felt justified in having told the JDF to smack the North Korean around. “Hell!” he said, talking to himself in the tiny hallway’s mirror and grabbing his hat from the rack on the second tray. “Should’ve beaten the prick earlier — fuck the cardboard box!” It only gave a suspect more time to think — to weasel their way out of it. Well, Henry Wray was going to put the 9mm’s barrel right against the son of a bitch’s head, and he’d better start talking.

* * *

“Over three hundred people,” Wray said, hands in his pockets. “Almost four hundred — men, women, and kids — were killed on that Shinkansen, you little prick — so you’d better start writing, Chong. Understand?”

The JDF agent could see that Wray had the Beretta in his shoulder holster so that Chong would get the message.

“Understand?” Wray repeated.

“Hai,” Chong answered, nodding.

“Good.”

Chong bent over the small table in front of the stool. His shoulders slumped, then with a sigh of defeat he began writing down a phone number. “I don’t know the name,” he said. “I just call the number — somebody answers and I leave a message.”

“If you don’t have a name,” Wray said, “what happens if you misdial — get a wrong number?” The JDF agent was impressed. For someone half hungover, the CIA man was on the ball.

“Whoever answers,” Chong said, using his sleeve to wipe off a trickle of blood running down his chin, “says the number. Then I leave my message.”

“Huh!” Wray grunted, leaning forward to pick up the paper. Chong’s left hand hit him in the face, Chong’s right hand pulling out the Beretta. He fired once before it cleared the holster, the shot hitting Wray’s heart at point-blank range, the second shot lodging in the JDF agent’s stomach — again at point-blank range — throwing the agent back against the wall, streaking it with blood. The Japanese’s legs buckling, he slid down to the floor, blood spurting out from the gut wound. The interrogation door swung open and Chong fired again, dropping another JDF agent, others scattering in all directions.

Chong ran out firing two shots at random, clerks and other agents diving for cover behind desks as Chong reached the elevator. It wasn’t open. Immediately he ran for the stairwell, where, taking a terrorized woman hostage, pressing the gun’s barrel against her neck, he made his way out into the street. It was now dark and raining, the Ginza strip’s neons coming to life as he walked down the street. Suddenly releasing her, he made a dash down an alley and disappeared into the nighttime crowds of shoppers, the wail of police and ambulance klaxons filling the air.

Chong’s escape and the three men he left dead in the JDF building provided a field day for the press and a nightmare scenario for those officials responsible for the Japanese end of the logistical supply trains that were to provide the American Second Army in Vietnam with vitally needed supplies. The JDF now knew that as a hunted man, Jae Chong had nothing to lose. There was no doubt that he would be recaptured, but the question was where he and/or other North Korean agents would strike next.

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

North of Hanoi along the road to Lang Son, General “George C. Scott” Freeman, to his acute embarrassment, found it necessary to halt his advance recon cloverleaf patrol because of lack of information about where General Vinh’s forces were.

To make matters worse, the Chinese Fourth Division had penetrated the Vietnamese Army positions along the fifteen-mile Lang Son-Loc Binh front, pushing Vinh’s regulars back along the Lang Son-Ban Re railway, creating the possibility of widespread confusion between the EMREF’s advancing reconnaissance patrol and the retreating Vietnamese.

For now, Freeman and Vinh decided to have the EMREF recon force withdraw sixty miles south to Phu Lang Thuong along the hundred mile Lang Son-Hanoi road so as to avoid any further blue on blue incidents. One of the deciding factors in the U.S./U.N. Vietnamese decision to have the American and U.N.-led force pull back was the lack of good radio communication between dispersed Vietnamese positions, creating the ever-present danger of a unit of withdrawing Vietnamese running into allied or their own units in the thick jungle.

Freeman could have easily rationalized his forces’ pullback, as press officer Boyd advised, by pointing out the inferior Vietnamese communications ability, which posed the greatest danger of a blue on blue. Instead, Freeman, in a CNN interview that night, explained the pullback as a joint tactical decision made by him and General Vinh. It was a face-saving gesture for the Vietnamese which General Vinh would not forget. Freeman’s pullback of his EMREF spearhead, however, received less than fair treatment in most of the world press. It became an opportunity for all those who either disliked and/or were jealous of Freeman’s reputation as one of the most, if not the most, aggressive U.S. field commanders since George Patton.

“Will you be withdrawing any farther south, General?” a British news pool reporter asked. With Vinh looking on, Freeman hedged his bets. “We may find it necessary to regroup to Bac Ninh, ten miles farther south, but—” He turned to General Vinh. “—I don’t expect anything more than that.”

General Vinh nodded his agreement immediately, which told Freeman the Vietnamese general knew more English than his interpreters had led the U.S.-U.N. team to believe. Freeman held up his right hand to signal that the press conference was over. “Cam on rat nhieu.”

Press officer Boyd, surprised, looked at Major Cline. “I didn’t know the old man could speak Vietnamese.”

Cline smiled. “There’s a lot you don’t know about the old man. He does his homework.”

“Well, do you know what he said?”

“Some form of thank-you, I think. But he sure didn’t like that limey’s question about maybe pulling back farther. Apart from Skovorodino, it’s the only time I’ve seen him pull back. It’s against his religion.”

“Which is?”

“His creed is Frederick the Great’s. ‘L’audace, l’audace— toujours l’audace!’ Audacity, audacity, always audacity!”

“Maybe,” Boyd said, “but he didn’t get off to much of a start.”

“Stick around,” Cline advised. “He’ll surprise you.”

“For instance?” Boyd challenged.

Robert Cline thought for a moment. “Freeman was in a winter battle once, leading U.S.-U.N. forces. One of the many wars that’ve erupted since the Berlin Wall came down and we got the ‘new world order.’ Anyway, Freeman gave the order to withdraw his armored corps of M-1 tanks — retreating from Russian-made T-72s. Everybody thought he was nuts— cracking up.” Major Cline paused to light a cigarette.

“And?” Boyd pressed.

“And,” Cline continued, “as the temperature kept dropping — minus fifty degrees, minus sixty — Freeman kept pulling the M-1s back. Until it got minus seventy with windchill factor — then he suddenly orders all the M-1s to stop and attack the T-72s.” Cline took a deep drag on the cigarette. He liked this part, wanted to tease it out a little, show how the Freeman legend had grown, that it wasn’t all bullshit like some of the Johnny-come-latelies thought it was.

“So?” Boyd said, anxiously awaiting the outcome. “What happened?”

“M-1s slaughtered the T-72s. Knocked out over ninety percent of them.”

“I don’t understand,” Boyd said.

By now Marte Price had come in on the fringe of the conversation. “I remember,” she said. “The oil in the Russian tanks froze at minus sixty-nine degrees, right? And the waxes separated out in the hydraulic oil lines — clogged the lines like lumps of fat in an artery. Russian tanks couldn’t move. Seized up, and Freeman’s tanks knocked them out.”

Major Cline blew out a long stream of smoke. “Thanks for ruining my story, Ms. Price.”

“Call me Marte.”

“All right. Thanks for ruining my story, Marte.”

“You’re welcome, Major,” she answered impishly. “You’re not the only one who knows Freeman’s a stickler for detail.”

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

The truck carrying Danny Mellin, the Australian Murphy, and a dozen or so other POWs, including several Vietnamese and Caucasian women, abruptly stopped, the prisoners told to get out by the two AK-47-toting guards.

Once down on the crushed coral road, the prisoners, despite some of them limping and showing other signs of wear and tear, were ordered to start marching down the whitish road toward a clump of trees from which the noise of construction issued forth, along with Chinese shouts. The stubby trees were more like tall brush, and soon through gaps in the trees the prisoners, most of them Vietnamese with two Australians and three Americans, could see a long line of men in black pajamas, about fifty or so, passing what looked like variegated stones on a fire-dousing line.

As Mellin and Murphy got closer to the gaps in the scrub, they could see that cement powder was being passed as well, and was being used to build hut walls about ten feet high.

Up to this point Mellin, like most of the other POWs, thought he was somewhere on the southern coast of China. But then, rounding a bend in the road, Mellin, Murphy, and the others were astonished to see an endless expanse of ocean.

“Jesus,” Murphy said. “We’re on a friggin’ island.”

“Up shut!” shouted one of the PLA guards, jabbing the Australian in the ribs with the Kalashnikov.

“Okay, mate,” the Australian said with a conciliatory smile. “Don’t get your balls in an uproar.”

The guard smashed him in the back with the rifle butt, sprawling the Australian on the crushed coral road, his arms lacerated and bleeding. Mellin bent down and, despite the fierce headache he was suffering from his earlier altercation with the same guard, helped the Australian back to his feet. “Be quiet,” he whispered to Murphy. “They’ll kill you.”

The next second there was what sounded like an enormous underground explosion, the crushed coral road beneath them trembling momentarily, and now the sound of the detonation hit them in a series of gut-punching waves. The guard who had hit them, and who would soon be known to the POWs as “Upshut,” was laughing, calling out to the other guard at the head of the line and pointing to the stunned disarray of the prisoners.

Mellin and Murphy, like the rest of the POWs who had been landed by the destroyer, would find out the next day, after spending a very uncomfortable night in the open, that the explosions, which were underwater and offshore, were part of the PLA’s plan to use the blown-up coral to add height to what was essentially a reef island, one of the many in the Nansha or Spratly Islands, which at high tide was covered with several inches of water, large parts of it becoming visible only at ebb tide.

But building up the island reef and maintaining it with a company of over a hundred PLA marines was only part of the PLA’s plan to occupy all islands in the Spratly and Paracel islands. A more pressing purpose was at hand, but it was one neither Danny Mellin nor Mike Murphy would discover until the sun rose on another perfect tropical day. It would be a day that would turn into a nightmare for all those taken prisoner by the PLA’s invasion and occupation of rigs and islands scattered throughout the two strategic groups of South China Sea islands, cays, and atolls.

For Mellin it was like being back in ‘Nam, and as he lay there beneath a bloodred moon, caused by the pollution of rig fires, he became disgusted with himself, for his hands were trembling and he feared that the guard’s brutality had not yet reached its peak. It was the only thing he was sure of; everything else — why they were here, for instance — was an open question and laden with anxiety. He’d given up smoking years ago, but right now he craved a cigarette, the stronger the better, to calm his nerves. Incredibly, next to him Mike Murphy was fast asleep and snoring, “to beat the band,” as the Aussie would have said, but then the Australian hadn’t been in a war before, and as yet hadn’t suffered the soul-breaking loneliness of the POW in solitary. Perhaps the PLA wouldn’t separate them — and perhaps when you’d finished doing whatever they wanted you to do, they’d shoot you in the neck. He heard a prisoner urinating and the never-ending crashing of the sea on the reef.

* * *

After Jae Chong’s escape — during which he had killed two JDF agents and Wray of the CIA — the ambulances raced through the city to help those injured by flying glass during the melee. In the JDF’s HQ there was special consternation among the staff. How was it that the American, Wray, was permitted into the room while he was still armed, a direct contravention of internal JDF regulations? Someone was going to get it in the neck for that violation, and never mind about the possibility of the families of the deceased suing, even though the JDF officially had no office of Intelligence.

In all the confusion of how to word the official report of the shootings that would have to go to the minister, it was a junior clerk who found what looked like a phone number written on a piece of paper that had been lying, blood-soaked, in the interrogation room. He gave it to his section chief, who immediately punched out the number on his computer, waiting for the number/address correlation listings. It came up on the screen as a local number for Kentucky Fried Chicken.

“Very amusing,” the section chief said, decidedly unamused.

The headquarters staff got the distinct impression that the chief was more interested in recapturing Chong for ridiculing him than for killing the two agents and the American. To be on the safe side, the chief ordered a stakeout of the Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet. It wasn’t beyond the range of possibility, he told his staff, that the gaijin Chong had written down an actual contact number — that some other gaijin working for the KFC outlet was in fact a spy.

For a few days, however, the chief’s loss of face could be measured in the number of chicken and cock-a-doodle-doo jokes doing the rounds of the Japanese Defense Forces HQ. That is, until the funeral of the two agents and the return of Wray’s body to the United States, reminding everyone that Jae Chong, the uncooperative comedian, was also a killer, and a killer who now had nothing to lose as one of the biggest manhunts in Japanese history got under way.

CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

Taipei

“You turd!”

“You’ve been looking in your mirror, you asshole!”

This edifying exchange was not unusual. It merely signified that yet another day of “debate” had begun in the democratic life of the Li-fa Yuan, Taiwan’s legislature, between the Nationalist and Democratic Progressive parties. The subject of discussion was whether or not Taipei would contribute any of its well-equipped and superbly trained armed services to the U.N. force under the command of General Douglas Freeman. Taiwan, as the congressman, Shen, from Kaohsiung in the south put it, was caught between a “rock and a hard place” about what to do in the conflict between the U.N. — in effect, the United States — and China. If Taiwan did not contribute to the joint U.N. force, Congressman Shen pointed out, then Washington would be angry, but if Taiwan did furnish troops and materiel to the U.N. force, then Beijing would be furious. Indeed, Beijing had already cautioned Taiwan about getting involved on the American side. “Remember,” the Communist Chinese had warned them, “after the war you’ll still be there and we’ll still be here — only a hundred and sixty kilometers away. We can wait. Fen-shen-suei-ku—we will break your bones.”

A member of the Nationalist opposition party rose and suggested that if the government was too “gutless” to throw Taiwan’s hand in with the Americans, who, during the hard times of the fifties, had contributed enormous amounts of aid as well as putting the U.S. Seventh Fleet between Taiwan and mainland China to thwart a Communist invasion, then the very least Taiwan could do was contribute money to the U.N. cause.

“Like Japan!” a Nationalist party member charged, springing to his feet. “As gutless as Japan in the Iraqi War. War by checkbook!”

“You talk of war by checkbook! You, the ardent followers of Chiang Kai-shek!”

The joke was a pun on the English phrase “Cash My Check,” the name Harry Truman had given to Chiang Kai-shek. That such an aside could be made in the Li-fa Yuan, no matter that several legislators wanted to punch Mr. Shen in the nose for making it, was a measure of just how far — or, for the Nationalists, just how low — Taiwan had come in its surge to a multiparty democratic system.

“We’ll break your bones!” shouted another legislator in warning that there was a dire risk of war with the mainland should Taiwan assist the U.S. or the U.N. In any case, another warned, the Americans wouldn’t want a war on two fronts— Vietnam and Taiwan.

“On three fronts,” another legislator said. “Don’t forget the Spratlys — Beijing certainly hasn’t.”

In addition to risking war with the mainland, Taipei had another serious matter on its mind, namely the fact that because Taipei had prohibited direct offshore investment in the mainland economy, which would constitute a de facto recognition of Beijing, the only way in which Taipei businessmen could do business with the burgeoning entrepreneurs of the mainland was to either become petty smugglers or, if they were big investors, to funnel their money through middlemen in Hong Kong, such as Jonas Breem, within his South Asia Industries Group.

* * *

When the Taiwanese noninterventionist decision reached the White House, there was disappointment on the part of the President, but not surprise. Americans had not had to live under the guns of the PLA for almost half a century. However, among the Joint Chiefs of Staff there was resentment in view of the fact that U.S. forces and billions in foreign aid had helped Taiwan develop into one of the powerhouses of Asia with one of the highest levels, if not the highest level, of personal income per year. CIA chief David Noyer helped put the situation in perspective when he advised those present at the morning intelligence briefing that despite Taiwan’s official refusal to become involved in the U.N. stand against the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of China could still be helpful in maintaining and, where possible, activating its covert network on the mainland and in the South China Sea.

“Submarines?” the President inquired. “They only have four, and none of them are nuclear.”

The Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Reese, was impressed by the President’s recall of Taiwan’s status in the military balance of power.

“No, not subs,” Noyer said, “though I’ve no doubt they could prove useful in helping us with guarding our Japan-Vietnam convoys, and Beijing’d have no physical proof of their intervention. But what I mean, Mr. President, is their clandestine operations on the mainland — saboteurs. If they could help sabotage the Ningming-Lang Son railway in the south, we could sever the head of their logistics line.”

“For how long?” Ellman asked.

“Depends on what kind of job the Taiwanese agents can do. However long it is, it’ll help Freeman’s force.”

“Fine,” the President said. “But what if the Taiwanese are captured and talk?”

Noyer shrugged. “Beijing’s hardly going to go to war with Taiwan over that. Besides which, Taiwan’s agents on the mainland are mostly mainland Chinese. For most of them it’s not a matter of ideology — it’s just another way of making money.”

“Like the smuggling,” the President said, “that goes on between Fujian province on the mainland and Taiwan.”

Ellman suppressed a grin. The President was showing off. Fair enough — it wasn’t a bad idea now and then to let the Joint Chiefs and Noyer know that he knew more than he told them in his briefing papers. “And besides,” the President continued, “there’s already a tremendous amount of jealousy in China between the north and the more prosperous south. The northerners are seen as snobs in power, while the south is prone to much more capitalistic-type economic drives. And there’s one hell of a lot of resentment by the minority groups and the non-Mandarin-speaking groups against the north.”

All right, Ellman thought, that’s enough — we read the State Department memos too.

Even so, Noyer appreciated the President making the point. It was surprising how few congressmen fully appreciated the fact that there were serious divisions within China, which, if handled adroitly by agencies such as the CIA, could help the fight against the PLA.

The President turned to Noyer. “Have we enough operatives of our own in China?”

“No, sir. That’s why it would be good to have some liaison with Taipei on this.”

“We already have liaison with them,” CNO Reese cut in. “Unofficially, of course.”

“Yes, Admiral,” Noyer replied. “But I mean at the highest levels.”

“Such as?” the President inquired.

Noyer decided to press a little. In the firm it was called covering-your ass. “I mean, sir, that if we had the chief executive’s authorization to negotiate a deal with Taipei.”

The President was doodling on his desk’s leather-bordered blotter. “All right,” he replied. “You have the chief executive’s go-ahead, Dave, but I caution you that if it’s screwed up in any way, no one in this room’ll remember anything about authorization.” He looked at Ellman and the Joint Chiefs. “Is that understood?” They nodded their assent.

“We’ll be discreet,” Noyer put in. “I have just the person in—”

“No!” the President cut in. “I don’t want to know whether it’s animal, vegetable, or mineral. Nothing! Nada!”

They all smiled in agreement. They were the President’s men.

“Of course,” the President added, his tone much lighter now that the serious decision had been made to help foment trouble in South China — or anywhere else along General Wei’s and General Wang’s supply line—”knowing you, Dave, you’ll probably have one of their goddamn pirates representing us.”

There was hearty laughter except, Ellman noticed, from David Noyer, who merely smiled politely. “The main thing,” the President said, grasping Noyer affectionately on the shoulder, “is that we help Freeman. Until he gets up to proper strength over there with men and materiel, he’ll need all the assistance we can give him.”

It was the understatement of the year.

CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX

The Chinese were pushing south all along the fifteen-mile Dong Dang-Lang Son front, with follow-up divisions from the Chengdu military region’s Fourteenth Group Army pouring through the hole punched out by artillery at Lang Son. Troops spilled down into the patchwork quilt fertile valley southwest of Loc Binh, eleven miles southeast of Lang Son.

Here they were joined by forward elements of several divisions, 34,000 men, from Guangzhou’s Fifteenth Group Army of 56,000 men. The remaining 22,000 troops were split between an infantry division of 13,000 and an airborne division of 9,099 officers and enlisted men and kept in reserve in and around Lang Son to help repulse any breakthroughs in what the PLA commanders knew would be the inevitable American-led U.N. and Vietnamese counterattack.

The two commissars — the political officers — of General Wei’s and General Wang’s armies had joined forces and convinced Wei of their argument to keep pushing south to Hanoi. Wang, however, was arguing that both group armies, while still north of Hanoi, should pivot eastward near Phu Lang Thuong, and instead of worrying about Hanoi, should head for the vital port of Haiphong, thirty-five miles to the east.

One of the political officers interjected, “Comrade, your plan to turn east toward Haiphong is most commendable militarily-”

“Commendable?” Wang cut in. “It is in my view essential.” His fingers jabbed at the map of northern Vietnam. “Haiphong is the tail of the American supply line. If we capture Haiphong, we can prevent supplies from Japan from ever reaching Freeman’s troops.”

“I have already said, comrade, that militarily this is sound — as far as it goes. But Hanoi is the capital and is only twenty-five miles from Phu Lang Thuong. The capture of the Vietnamese capital would be of major psychological significance. Once the capital falls, morale collapses.”

“That,” Wang replied, “is a hypothesis, comrade. Haiphong is a fact.”

“Only another twenty-five miles south, comrade.”

Wang pointed to the map. “Twenty-five miles, comrade, can be a life’s journey. Yes, we have done well so far — because we have had the element of surprise — but now that is gone, and the Americans will soon launch an attack.”

“If we keep striking south, General, we will overrun Hanoi, and then the Americans will withdraw as they did once before, when Saigon fell. They will flee like rabbits, and Vinh’s Vietnamese will withdraw ever southward.”

“Will they?” Wang asked, his skeptical tone indicating quite clearly what he thought of the political officer’s conclusion.

“Yes,” the political officer answered, his confidence as evident as Wang’s skepticism. “The Americans, comrade, have no more stomach for another long war in Vietnam.”

Wang shook his head. “The Americans have no stomach for another defeat in Vietnam — or anywhere else, comrade. Iraq revived their confidence. And Haiti.”

“Haiti,” the other political officer responded, “was nothing. Our young Communist pioneers could have taken Haiti.”

“I disagree, comrade.”

“I am not interested in Haiti,” the political officer said.

“But I’m interested, comrade,” Wang replied, “about your—” Wang thought carefully. “—your preoccupation with Hanoi. Is this truly your view or is this Beijing speaking?”

“I am with the party on this,” the political officer said.

There was a long, tense silence. No one wanted to lose face. Wang lit a cigarette, offering the packet around, the other three accepting graciously.

“I will go this far,” Wang proposed. “I will keep attacking south with General Wei’s army group on my right flank. If we meet strong resistance at Phu Lang Thuong, I will turn east toward Haiphong, calling on our reserves of the Fifteenth Group Army to reinforce my spearhead. I will use armor to race for the port and destroy the Americans before they can organize a full-scale counterattack. We will move at night and rest during the day, as General Giap did, and the North Koreans in their civil war — to avoid American air attacks.”

The political officers conferred. A compromise was reached: the generals would have ten days to take Hanoi. If they did not succeed, they would accede to General Wang’s strategy, and support him in a drive east to Haiphong. Wang was not satisfied, but it was two against one, with General Wei ready to follow whatever would be best for his career prospects.

“All right,” agreed Wang, “but I wish to draw your attention to the Americans’ industrial capability. I was a very young man when my grandfather told me stories about the American devils in Korea. They were all but driven into the sea, and for their Marines trapped at Chosin reservoir, it was the longest retreat in their history. But they counterattacked, comrades, and drove us back across the Yalu. Their industrial capacity is—” He thought for a moment. “—something which has to be seen to be believed.”

“They had this capacity in the Vietnam War, General, and they were driven out.”

“The American public was not with them then.”

It was the political officer’s turn to be skeptical. “You think it is with them in this war, General?”

“The U.N. lackeys are with them,” Wang replied.

“Perhaps,” the political officer said, “but that can evaporate overnight. Is the American public with them?”

General Wang conceded the possibility that the American people’s support might be only transitory at best, that it might vanish overnight if he could inflict unacceptable casualties on the Americans — kill as many of them as possible in the shortest time. That was an aim both political officers and both generals could agree on. Wang was heartened by this thought — the fact that while the PLA had sustained 26,000 casualties in the three weeks of the 1979 war with Vietnam, the American public would simply not tolerate such losses. Finally, in the matter of numbers, China would always win. Every day in China another sixty thousand babies are born.

CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN

Pulling back from where the blue on blue had occurred, D’Lupo’s seven-man point squad, the first rifle platoon HQ, and three other platoons behind them — including Martinez’s Special Forces group and the retreating troops of General Vinh — ran into some isolated sniping but managed to establish a half-moon-shaped defense perimeter. It was about three hundred yards in diameter, its edge just beyond a V-shaped gully formed by a creek bed which the PLA would have to cross before climbing fifteen feet at a forty-five-degree incline if they were to attack the allied force. Behind the half-moon-shaped perimeter there were the burial mounds of a deserted village. The villagers, terrified of the PLA, had left, heading south for Phu Lang Thuong well before the retreating advance patrol of the EMREF and Vinh’s troops had arrived.

On the lip of the gully, EMREF’s Special Forces had planted antipersonnel, puck-sized disk mines. Using K-bar knives, they’d gently lifted patches of grass, not cutting out the patches but lifting them up carefully from one side, as one would gently prise up a scab, then scratching out a two-inch hole beneath the grassy trapdoor, placing the disk mines, and covering them with the patch. Farther back from the gully’s lip, members of the two rifle platoons placed claymores, just as cautiously laying the trip wire. Johnny D’Lupo ordered some claymores on the flanks and in the rear.

“You think they’re gonna get behind us?” Dave Rhin asked.

“What d’you think, man?” Martinez, from the Special Forces platoon, replied. Rhin was on the field phone to HQ platoon, reporting that everything was set up and confirming that, in their capacity as the advance patrol for the EMREF, they were now in contact with Vinh’s forces, who had joined the defensive line above the southern side of the gully. After further consultation with Vinh’s English-speaking operator, the HQ squad ordered the flank mines to be dug up lest either of Vinh’s flanks gave way under a PLA attack and were forced into the American perimeter. Instead, the mines were to be placed on the Vietnamese flanks, several hundred yards away from both EMREF flanks.

“Shit!” one of D’Lupo’s seven-man squad complained. “Nothing I like better, man, than to dig up mines we just laid.”

“Right,” D’Lupo agreed. “Some fucker oughta thought of this ‘fore we started laying the fucking things!”

“Stop your whinin’, man,” Rhin advised. “Go take the fuckers to the Vietnamese flanks. They’ll love yer for—”

There was a high, whistling sound followed by the crash of an explosion, then another and another, men screaming, scrambling for cover as more explosions of red earth and undergrowth vomited skyward. The soil fell like rain for several seconds after the first mortar salvo, the smell of cordite and freshly uprooted vegetation pungent in the hostile air.

Some of the EMREFs who had been digging slit trenches lay unmoving, dead now, one beheaded, another sitting quite still, the victim of the tremendous force of the concussion and perhaps shrapnel as well. D’Lupo dived behind one of the loamy burial mounds, an 82mm Chinese mortar round landing close to the lip of the gully, sending shrubs and sticks into the air. Immediately, he moved to a mound in front of him that had been hit dead center, D’Lupo noting that there was an advancing pattern of small, mortar-made craters in front of him. He now dived into a burial mound, the peak of its cone blown off, the incoming round he’d just fled landing ten yards behind him. To his amazement, as he came up for air, he noticed his arm covered in blood.

He had no recollection of being hit. Despite the explosions of incoming and the steady Bomp! Bomp! Bomp! of outgoing 81mm rounds from the Special Forces platoon, D’Lupo pulled his bleeding arm quickly from the protective burial mound. He was staring at a completely emaciated skull, a sandy-white loam spilling over it like sand in an hourglass, the skull’s teeth red where D’Lupo’s arm had scraped them as he’d dived for cover.

As suddenly as it started, the heavy mortar barrage ceased, only to be replaced by the tearing tarpaper sound of light and medium machine guns using not only the heavier 7.62mm ammunition of the old Type 68 assault weapon but also that of the newer 5.6mm CQ automatic rifle.

Following the blare of a Chinese bugle, someone on the west U.S.-Vietnamese side of the gully shouted, “They’re coming!” Rhin cussed like the trooper he was, disgustedly releasing his radio pack, which was now so much junk, the only thing intact being the handpiece, which he now tossed away. Through the undergrowth, they could see Chinese regulars, whose “piss-pot” helmets were covered in camouflage netting, branches of leaves draped from them, and whose black-green-brown combat uniforms were so difficult to see against the background of the gully’s bush-lipped opposite bank.

Even knowing that his platoon was cut off from HQ— they’d have to use runners, if necessary — Rhin was impressed by the Chinese assault. No sooner had half of them, fifty or so, been chopped down by the American and Vietnamese fire than the remaining fifty, having rushed across the shallow streambed, were out of sight, now at the base of the forty-five-degree-angle dirt cliff. The ocher-colored dirt cascaded down like a waterfall as the Chinese, without stopping, immediately began scaling the steep incline of loose soil by running up as far as they could go with supporting machine-gun fire from the bank behind them, from which they’d descended.

At the apogee of their climb, unable to make it alone up an almost vertical dirt face of ten to twelve feet, they took hold of long, arm-thick pieces of bamboo stilts shoved up to them as an assist from the men below.

Up and down the creek a hundred yards in either direction, more and more Chinese began scaling the cliff. Those first up to the edge were machine-gunned immediately and fell down amid their comrades at the base of the cliff. But without a pause, others took their place on the cliff and held ground, helped by a rain of stick grenades being flung up and over the cliff’s edge, lobbed amid the forward American and Vietnamese U.N. troops.

The explosions and concussions of earlier mortars had set off many of the antipersonnel mines. One Chinese at the middle of a ten-man-line charge tripped a claymore, and all ten were killed either outright or fatally felled by the ball bearings that had exploded toward them in a steel curtain at supersonic speed. But the Chinese kept coming and dying. D’Lupo and Martinez’s Special Forces knew that unless the Chinese resupply of troops could be cut, numbers alone would soon overwhelm them. Some of the USVUN machine guns were so hot, rounds were cooking off.

D’Lupo and Special Forces platoon were firing flares down into the gully, knowing that some of the units behind them must have gotten through to U.S.-Vietnam-U.N. troops headquarters at Kep or Phu Lang Thuong, and they hoped that despite the poor visibility in the low ceiling of stratus, TACAIR would be on the way. D’Lupo, by prior agreement with TACAIR’s forward air controller, had an understanding that should radio contact be lost, the enemy position would be indicated by a white/red/white flare combination.

Early in the Vietnam War, such arrangements were often made on the spot via radio contact between pilots and the men in trouble on the ground. But “Charlie,” as the enemy was then known, had often listened in on the U.S. radio messages with English-speaking radio interpreters, and would quickly fire the flare sequence onto American and ARVN positions, creating a blue on blue.

Now D’Lupo’s forward squad fired a white/red/white sequence into the gully’s eastern sector to the right of them. TACAIR, if it was on its way, should make visible contact in plus or minus two minutes, coming in beneath the blankets of the gray stratus.

Down in the gully, the Chinese immediately began a barrage of small-arms fire, shredding the flares’ chutes so they fell faster, giving the Chinese more time to pick up the unburned section of the smoke flares and, having cut their chute straps, lob them into the brush beyond the western side of the gully. Nothing like this had happened in Iraq, where, not surprisingly, there was no bush.

Some of the Chinese, already ensconced in dugouts along the lip, kept up a sustained fire into the American positions, making it impossible for the Americans to rush forward and secure the flares, now burning furiously, supposedly marking the enemy position to be bombed. As a result, two Intruders sent in from the Enterprise dropped their ordnance, including two free-fall pods of napalm-jellied gasoline, within forty-three seconds killing sixteen Americans in the EMREF’s advance recon force. Nine of them were burned to death, running torches of fire in the brush, setting it afire before they collapsed, or throwing themselves onto the earth in futile attempts to smother the fire with soil. Friends used their cupped hands, digging with spades, whatever, to save two men who were so horribly burned they now wished they were dead.

At least three of the stricken men had made a rush toward the gully to try to extinguish themselves in the water holes of the gully bed. They were cut to pieces by Chinese small-arms fire before they got beyond the lip, falling, rolling down the steep red dirt slope, Chinese troops immediately stripping them of what weapons they could, some of the Americans’ flesh sticking to their M-16s like melted cheese.

The remainder of the USVUN were also hit by napalm, and seconds after the terrible beauty of an enormous orange flame rolling through a backdrop of green fields and brush, five Vietnamese had been burned black with five U.N. soldiers, including two from the British SAS contingent. Only their badges, “Who Dares Wins,” were recognizable after their own ammunition packs exploded.

By now the forward air controller had seen the Chinese rush the gully, realized about the flare balls-up, and redirected the Intruders. This cleared the gully nicely, an even more devastating attack than upon the USVUN line, since the sharp-angled sides of the gully made it a natural conduit for the flame that raced like a flood of molten hot steel from a furnace down the gully floor. Over two hundred Chinese assault infantry were incinerated, and the presence of the American planes ready to bomb again had dissuaded the PLA from any further rushes, the air filled with a stench of burned chicken.

To further dissuade the PLA, the planes on another run dropped napalm pods a hundred yards in from the gully on the PLA side. The screams of those caught in the swath of burning gasoline attested to the pilots’ having guessed right that the next wave of PLA assault troops had been assembling not far from the gully’s edge. The hesitation this caused the Chinese, along with the fact that much of the underbrush had been set aflame, thus denying troops cover close to the gully, saved the USVUN force, which had pulled back after several units found themselves badly mauled and their positions untenable, though in numbers lost the Chinese had suffered considerably more than the USVUN.

For Douglas Freeman, the retreat was a decision he abhorred. His intuitive reaction was to hold ground and take the gully while TACAIR kept the Chinese pinned down with napalm and rocket fire. But he was too good a soldier to pretend he could hold the gully against the PLA if he had no backup and/or no support from the flanks. He’d trusted the Vietnamese to fight if they were ordered by General Vinh to hold. But it was systematically built into the Communist cadre, as it had been in the PLA by Mao Zedong in his Little Red Book, to attack only when one had overwhelming strength, to withdraw when the odds of winning dropped. You struck where you thought the enemy was weakest, but withdrew once the maximum amount of damage had been achieved and before the enemy could rally in force against you. Though he knew this tactic well enough, Freeman hoped that Vinh’s troops would stay and assist his own men in securing and holding the gully while more USVUN troops could be brought up on the Lang Ro-Lang Son road.

Vinh disagreed. “No,” he explained through the interpreter, “the Chinese main force would come south down the Lang Son-Lang Ro road, so it would be unwise to withdraw USVUN troops from there to come here. It is vital,” he continued, “for the Chinese to take the road if they wish to move supplies quickly to feed the head of their snake.”

Major Cline asked whether he might not have a word with General Freeman.

“What is it, Major?”

“Sir, with all due respect, we’ll get nowhere if you argue with Vinh, particularly in front of his political commissars. He’ll lose face and then he won’t agree to anything.”

“Of course,” Freeman said, nodding, beaming at Vinh and his advisers. “I have full confidence in the fighting ability of the Republic of Vietnam’s armies—” He deliberately left out the Socialist before Republic. “—they’ve proved themselves in battle against us many times.” He paused, then smiled politely. “All I want to be sure of is that if we commit ourselves to an overall strategy, we stick with it till we have a touchdown.”

Vinh and the others were unsure about this term, and the translator had to spend some time imitating the huddle, et cetera. “Ah!” Vinh finally said, nodding and smiling. “Football.”

“Right,” Freeman said. “No good agreeing in the huddle, then having some joker suddenly decide it’s not for him — ruin the whole goddamn play. Right?”

There was a huddle of Vietnamese advisers while Freeman explained softly to Cline, “Point is, we’ve got to have the will to stand ground and use it as a launch pad from which to direct our heavy stuff — arty and TACAIR. For that I need those around me to hold the goddamn perimeter and not suddenly decide to retreat ‘cause we’re taking heavy fire. I meant what I said, Major. These Vietnamese troops are first-rate, but this constant hit-and-run business could suddenly leave me with a flank in name only.”

“We agree,” General Vinh said in heavily accented English, “but…”

Here the interpreter took over. “The general,” he told Freeman, “agrees but wishes to point out that what the Americans might think is a good strategic move, the Vietnamese might see as a simple tactical move in a local battle and therefore wish to break off if casualties are too high.”

Freeman could have spit wood chips. “Please tell the general that he and I must first agree on the overall strategic plan. My strategy is simply this — to pulverize the border area around Lang Son and Dong Dang by bombing, and then to roll forward along the road with arty until we clear the area once and for all and reestablish the correct political line between the two countries.

“Christ,” Freeman said in an aside to Cline, “I’m sounding like one of their damn commissars!”

The interpreter begged the general’s pardon, but what was the meaning of this word “arty”?

“Artillery!” Freeman replied. “Pound the area flat— reestablish a cordon sanitaire — hopefully secure a DMZ.”

Vinh nodded agreement but asked whether the other USVUN forces would agree to it or not, given what, in time, would have to be their countries’ postwar relationships with China.

Freeman was getting annoyed with what he perceived to be the Vietnamese preoccupation with minor players, and he told the translator straight, “You tell General Vinh that there are really only three players on this field: his forces, mine, and the PLA.”

“You have no respect for your allies?” Vinh asked.

“I have respect,” Freeman replied honestly, “but I won’t always have time to consult with my South Korean allies or the Japanese, for example. I know what I can expect from the British and Australian troops. Besides, their numbers aren’t high and they’re integrated with my command.”

Vinh understood Freeman’s underlying concern and brought the conversation to an end by saying, “I am not against nonconsensual decisions or massed fixed battles if they strategically make sense.”

Freeman smiled. “You mean the battle for Khe Sanh?” The Americans had dug in, in and around the airstrip, ringed as it was by Vietnamese artillery, and aided and abetted by U.S. airpower, had won by breaking the siege.

“No,” Vinh said without a smile. “I meant Dien Bien Phu.”

Vinh extended his hand, and Freeman, a sardonic look on his face, as if to say, You old fox, took it in the spirit it was offered.

Vinh bowed and said, “We will try to agree in the ‘huddle.’ A consensus. Yes?”

“Right,” Freeman said, thinking that Vinh would make a hell of an adversary.

Press aide Boyd looked, puzzled, at Major Cline. Boyd had noticed that this general agreement to work together on one plan rather than two had somehow been sealed by the mention of this Dien Bien Phu.

“Who’s this Phu anyway?” Boyd asked Cline.

“You dork,” Cline said good-naturedly. “Don’t you know any history? It’s a place—a valley ‘bout 230 miles west of us — near the border of Laos. During the French-Indochina War in ‘fifty-four, French were always bitching about the Viet Minh’s hit-and-run tactics, never being able to fight a one-place pitched battle with them. Well, the Viet Minh decided on just such a battle, and General Giap ringed twelve French battalions with more than thirty of his own. Viet Minh had brought in artillery — and I’m talking 105mm and triple A — a lot of it piece by piece on their backs through the jungle. French commander called for reinforcements, and six battalions of paratroops were flown in. The French were dug in, and the Viet Minh dug miles of tunnels around the French firebase. Often they came right up to the wire, fired a burst, then disappeared before the French could get a bead on them. French were finally overrun. Over twelve thousand Frenchmen were killed or taken POW. Absolute disaster. Put an end to all the crap about the Vietnamese not being able to win a set-piece battle.”

“What’d it cost the Vietnamese?” Boyd asked.

“Well over twenty thousand. Some on both sides were never found — blown to bits by the artillery.” Cline paused, glanced at Vinh and Freeman and explained to Boyd, “That’s why old Vinh mentioned Dien Bien Phu. He was telling Freeman that he can play it either way — hit-and-run or dig in. He’s flexible.”

“Well,” Boyd said, adopting an air of authority beyond his years, “they’d better agree on something pretty soon. All we’ve been doing so far is falling back.”

CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT

It was difficult for reporter Marte Price to know who was more surprised by the Chinese breakthrough south of Lang Son: General Vinh or Freeman. Both commanders were well practiced in their ability to keep their innermost thoughts to themselves, and while Freeman was less inhibited about acknowledging defeat to a press conference than was the Vietnamese general, he, like Vinh, was not about to cause a plummeting morale in the U.S.-led U.N. forces.

Vinh, a veteran of the Chinese- Vietnam border clash in February of 1979, during which the PLA suffered more than 25,000 casualties in just three weeks of fighting, did say, however, that the PLA advance was “somewhat unexpected” by Hanoi, given what he described as the “corruption.” Beyond that he had nothing to say to either Marte Price, the CNN reporter, or to any of the other news correspondents who, under pressure from the U.N. to allow a larger press pool, were now flocking into Hanoi. Given General Vinh’s reluctance to elaborate any further, several reporters turned to Freeman to explain the Vietnamese general’s terse charge of “corruption.”

“Several years ago, in 1979 to be exact,” Freeman answered, “the Republic of Vietnam defeated the PLA in a border war. The Chinese premier, and thus the commander in chief of the PLA — which includes, by the way, the Chinese navy and air force — told the PLA that it had better get leaner and meaner. He reduced the force size by almost a million— that still left him with plenty — and he told the PLA chiefs of staff that if they wanted to upgrade their capability, they’d have to find the extra money themselves.”

“You mean,” an obviously surprised British reporter asked, “that the Chinese generals were told to go into business?”

“That’s exactly what I mean,” Freeman answered. “It’s long been practice for many of the PLA armies to grow most of their food, but now they were being told to get busy making whatever would bring in hard cash.” Freeman paused. “And it wasn’t only growing and selling excess vegetables on the open market that they got involved in.”

Freeman had anticipated a knowing chuckle or at least a nod from some of the more senior correspondents, but none came, and he realized, from the frantic scribbling in his audience, that for many in the press pool this background information he was giving was something new. For a fleeting second or two Freeman had an uncharacteristic moment of anxiety as he wondered whether he was revealing information he’d gotten from classified intelligence sources. It was a professional hazard. Then, just as quickly, he realized that the information he was giving out was the result of his own “homework,” and that he wasn’t revealing anything the Pentagon had on its secret list.

“Problem was,” he continued, “that many of the PLA armies, particularly those who, with the government’s blessing, got involved with the making and selling of arms to make money, also got involved with a lot of kickbacks and the like. From privates who were making ten times as much money as an ordinary private’s pay to officers who were getting brown envelopes under the table from middlemen in the arms sale business, there was one hell of a lot of corruption.”

The CNN reporter had his hand up. “General, you mean that because of this so-called corruption, you underestimated the PLA’s ability in this war. Thought they’d gone soft?”

“Soft?” Freeman’s tone could barely conceal his anger. This son of a bitch was trying to ambush him. If he said no, he hadn’t thought the PLA had gone soft, his spiel about corruption wouldn’t be believed, but if he said yes, the PLA had gone soft, then the next question from the monkey gallery would be, Well, if the PLA has lost its combat readiness, General, what are your troops doing retreating south from Lang Son?

“I never said the PLA was soft — nor did General Vinh. Why, the PLA’s one of the toughest outfits in the world. Their training is hard, their morale is high, and they keep coming at you — ask anybody who fought in Korea. No, they’re sure as hell not soft! What I think my distinguished colleague had in mind in referring to corruption was that the PLA soldier has been corrupted politically by a lot of propaganda about his neighbors to the south — that their political leadership is ‘corrupt.’ “

Freeman pulled out his retractable pen-sized pointer and moved it in a huge semicircle, starting from the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, going west, north up to Russia and then east to the Siberian republic. “In the Spratlys, Vietnam, Burma, India, Tibet, Russia, all the way to—” He almost said, “Black Dragon River,” the northern border between Siberia and China, but Black Dragon was the Chinese name, and instead he used the Siberian name. “—all the way to the Amur River and to Vladivostok, the Chinese have been fighting neighbors for years. Now we’ve had enough, and we won’t put up with it anymore.”

“Who’s we. General?” the CNN reporter asked in his follow-up question.

“We are the United Nations.” Cunning bastard, Freeman thought, but at least he’d got them off their damn fixation with Vinh’s remark about corruption.

Press officer Boyd and Major Cline were likewise impressed, and after the press conference congratulated the general on his adroit handling of what could have been a loss of face, for Vinh.

“General, sir,” Boyd inquired, “why did the Chinese manage to push us back down the Lang Son road?”

Freeman telescoped the long pointer back into its pen’s sheath, simultaneously looking about him to make sure no reporters were within hearing range. “Because, Captain,” he answered, “we got the shit kicked out of us. Because General Vinh’s boys, tough as they are, like our boys, haven’t been in a major battle for years. For them it’s been since 1979—not counting the naval battle they had over one of the Spratlys in ‘eighty-eight and again in ‘ninety-two. Meanwhile, the Chinese have been keeping in practice in Tibet and all their other border disputes. But don’t worry. Second Army’ll be up to combat strength very soon, and then my boys’ll kick those Chinese asses back across the border beyond Dong Dang where they belong.”

One of the reporters, a Frenchman, Pierre LaSalle, now well back in the room, couldn’t suppress a smile. For a few American dollars in Manila on a stopover en route to Hanoi, he’d bought a pickup mike, one of those that advertisers boast can capture a whisper from thirty feet away, and he had Freeman’s answer to Boyd on tape.

The Frenchman, who had always resented American presence in Indochina after the French had lost it all at Dien Bien Phu in ‘54, didn’t want a French paper to have the tape. They could easily trace it back to him. No, he thought, the North American market would be best. The only problem for LaSalle was how long he should wait. It would be nice to get ahold of that photo the American woman, Price, was said to have taken of Freeman. No one could tell him exactly what the photo was, but it was rumored to be pretty embarrassing for the American general.

* * *

The next explosion that Mellin, Murphy, and the other prisoners heard on the island was followed at dawn by the agonized howl of a mobile claw crane, its tracks in several inches of water, its long neck stretched out beyond the edge of the partially submerged reef. Its claw brought up huge lumps of coral that had been blasted out by underwater dynamite charges, then swung inland and deposited the coral and sea bottom mud on a pile on part of the reef that was now submerged beneath a few inches of water in the high tide.

Dozens of variegated fish — grouper and red snapper among them — some stunned, some dead, a few sharks and hawksbill turtles as well, lay floating on the sea’s surface. Several PLA soldiers who, apart from thongs on their feet, were stripped naked — despite the presence of three women among the thirty POWs — were wading out to gather up the fish, one soldier carrying an AK-47 over his head to make sure of the sharks. Quietly, Mellin, his temples still pounding from the headache he’d suffered as a result of a PLA guard hitting him with the rifle butt the day before, nudged the Australian. “See all the heaps of coral they’ve dredged up?”

Murphy was looking to the west. “No,” Mellin told him. “Other way — east of us.” When Murphy saw them, he could also see a line of what he thought might be prisoners, all clad in peasant-style black pajamas, passing baskets of coral from one of the heaps along the line, several of the black pajamas emptying the broken coral on a part of the reef covered in a few inches of water. The mud, or rather sea bottom ooze, was being carted away by another line of black pajamas to one main heap a few hundred yards inland, amid the scrubby and stunted bushes.

“How big d’you reckon?” Mellin asked. “The island?”

Mike Murphy shrugged and a guard saw it. “ ‘Bout half a mile long, maybe less, five hundred yards wide.”

“Up shut!” shouted the soldier.

Murphy saluted the guard. “Sorry, shithead.”

“Jesus,” Mellin murmured, looking away from the guards. “For Chrissake, shut up, Mike.” But Upshut seemed impressed by Murphy’s elaborate show of obedience and the snappy salute.

Now Mellin could see several pairs of the black pajama figures leaning, straining forward like beasts of burden, pulling cement rollers behind them over the coral that had been spread out over the tidal pools.

Upshut and his cohort were looking away from Mellin, Murphy, and the dozen or so other prisoners in their charge when Mellin heard a soft and distinctly British woman’s voice — one of the other rig prisoners — whispering to them to be careful, that Upshut understood more English than the American or Australian realized.

Mellin checked out the guards. They were talking to one another at about a hundred decibels, pointing at the fish dinner provided by the latest explosion. It was the Englishwoman doing the translating.

“You know a lot of Chinese?” Mellin asked the woman.

“I speak Mandarin, a little Cantonese,” she said. “I was radio operator on Chical 3.”

Mellin nodded. As far as he could remember, Chical 3 was a rig — or at least what had been a rig — off Livock Reef about a hundred miles northeast of the island they were now on, one of the more than 220 island reefs, cays, and shoals that made up the Spratly, or, as the Chinese called them, the Nanshan, island group.

“What’s your name?” Murphy asked in a low tone, looking not at her but rather at the two guards she’d warned them about.

“Fortescue,” she answered. “Shirley Fortescue.”

“Well, Shirl,” Murphy responded. “Thanks for the tip.”

Danny Mellin could see the woman, in her mid-thirties, didn’t like the Australian’s easy familiarity with her name. “Shirley,” she corrected Murphy.

“Righto, luv,” Murphy said, smiling. “No problem.”

Mellin watched the Australian eyeing her more closely now, taking note of an hourglass figure which even the drab black POW pajamas couldn’t hide. “Things could be worse,” he told Danny with a wink. There was a growling sound nearby — one of the other prisoners’ stomachs complaining of hunger.

“Hey, Shirl,” Murphy whispered. “How ‘bout using a bit of the old Mandarin and asking Upshut when we get a feed? We’re all bloody starving.”

“No,” Danny said quickly. “Don’t let them know we’ve got someone who can understand their lingo. We might find out what—”

Upshut swung about. “Who talks?” he shouted. No one said anything, and for a moment there was silence between the sounds of the dredge claw bringing up more dislodged coral, water, and kelp streaming from it, and dumping it. One of the prisoners, a Vietnamese, got up and, holding his hand up like a child in class, asked, in what Shirley Fortescue could tell was a border dialect of Cantonese — the Chinese spoken in the south — when they would be getting some food and drink.

Upshut’s cohort gave a long, loud answer, after which the Vietnamese who had asked the question sat down desultorily, shrugging his shoulders.

“What’d he say?” Murphy asked.

“I think,” Shirley Fortescue said softly, “that the guard said we’ll get some water but no food until we finish our work.”

“Work?” Murphy said. “What fucking work? Ah, sorry, Shirl, but I’m not working for these assholes.”

Upshut was coming straight at him, clicking the fold-out butt of the Kalashnikov to use the AK-47 as a club.

“Sorry!” Murphy said, quickly raising his hands. “Sorry.”

The Australian’s raised arms stopped Upshut, who made a show of folding the butt, shortening the weapon, and grunting, pleased by the Australian’s surrender, nodding his head as if to say, That’s better, now you know who’s boss.

CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE

Generals Wei and Wang were pleased by their armies’ southward offensive but were by no means complacent. The Vietnamese Army had given them a bloody nose in ‘79, no matter what Beijing told the Chinese people. And neither general wanted a repeat of that performance — when the supply line had simply not been able to keep up with their own advance units, so entire battalions went without water for several days and were as much in danger from dehydration as from the Vietnamese.

Another factor that the PLA generals had to take into consideration was that what had begun with a four-mile-wide front spearheaded by the Fourth Division of the Nanning army had now spread out to a ten-mile front. The two PLA generals were concerned that if Vinh’s Vietnamese divisions managed to launch a concerted counterattack, they would be able to punch a gap in the PLA line and do a “breaststroke.” That is, the Vietnamese spearhead would first punch a hole in the PLA front, then divide into two arms, both swinging back southward like the arms of a swimmer doing the breaststroke, first cutting off elements of the PLA’s Fourth Division, then encircling segments of the advance Chinese troops in a “scissors handle” maneuver. They would isolate the PLA troops for piecemeal destruction and rush more Vietnamese north from the Hanoi military region.

Despite this risk, elements of Wei’s army heading south on the eastern flank of the ten-mile front knew they must push forward down the valley beyond Lang Ro to capture and/or render the airstrip at Kep inoperable, then swing eastward to Haiphong, the port for Hanoi in the Red River delta. But here lay another possible bone of contention between the PLA’s military commander and their political officers. Generals Wei and Wang had their political officers, equal in rank to the generals, and both political and military officers had to come to an agreement about strategy — right down to the tactical level— before the troops could be given specific orders. The Vietnamese Army under Vinh, as Freeman had discovered, was run in much the same way.

At first sight Westerners were unimpressed by the system, so cumbersome, so different from their own. Or was it? Freeman asked his staff as they prepared the plans for the deployment of Second Army, whose supplies were now being unloaded at Haiphong.

Freeman, to the consternation of his aide, Major Cline, answered his own question about the similarity of the PLA command structure and that of the West. Typically, he overstated the position by pointing out how General, later President, Eisenhower had ordered General George Patton to halt what Freeman called Patton’s “magnificent end run” into Eastern Europe in 1944, and how Dee had not wanted the Americans, British, and Canadians to beat the Russians to Berlin, so that “the goddamned Russians’ noses wouldn’t be out of joint.”

“That, gentlemen,” Freeman said, “was nothing less than a political decision by Ike. Another thing — it was Harry Truman who tied Doug MacArthur’s hands behind his back when the general wanted to cross the Yalu in Korea and hit the red bases inside China — another political decision. Don’t look so stunned, gentlemen. I just want you to know that we have our own commissars in the West. We just put ‘em in the State Department and call ‘em experts!”

Cline and Boyd had been equally startled by the general’s analogy.

“Jesus!” Cline told Boyd. “If a reporter ever heard him say that, the shit’d really hit the fan.”

* * *

It hit the fan anyway, but for a different reason. Someone, somehow, had gotten hold of what the general had said to Cline and Boyd immediately after the press conference. A highly profitable and thoroughly disreputable tabloid in the United States used its morning edition to scream via a four-inch block headline, in capital letters:

USVUN FORCE IN DISARRAY

‘WE GOT THE S-T KICKED OUT OF US!’—GEN. FREEMAN

Soon the general’s remark had been carried via cable network news to every country in the world. Anti-American sentiment was buoyed by the U.S. embarrassment, which caused red faces from the Pentagon to the White House, whose “spokespersons” were pressed by a media frenzy to explain why the advance elements of the over two and a half thousand U.S.-led U.N. emergency response team had bungled their first engagement in Vietnam. Were they exhibiting the same deficiencies that had afflicted an earlier generation of Americans in Vietnam?

It was like a spark to a powder keg of emotion as American Veterans of Vietnam and others, from as far away as the Korean and Australian contingents that had fought alongside the Americans in Vietnam, rallied to the defense of their younger compatriots, most of whom, outside Freeman’s emergency response team, had just arrived in Vietnam and had not yet engaged the “Great Wall of Iron,” alias the PLA.

Freeman was furious with both Boyd and Cline, reminding them that they were the only ones to whom he had made the remark that was now drawing fire from “every son of a bitch liberal in the country!” Both men assured the general they’d had nothing to do with it — hadn’t said a word. Cline was brave enough to draw the general’s attention to the unpalatable fact that the cries back home for firing the general were not confined to “every son of a bitch liberal,” but in many instances were coming from the right wing because of his admission that the U.S.-led force had met with failure the first time at bat and that he had already, before this remark, personally taken responsibility for the action in which Americans were killed by “so-called friendly fire.” Also, several large evangelical groups loudly objected to the general’s use of “scatological references” in his speeches.

Within twenty minutes of the political storm breaking about him on CNN and the U.S. networks and their affiliates around the world, a phone call came into the U.N.-EMREF HQ now at Phu Lang Thuong, twenty-eight miles north of Hanoi on the Hanoi-Lang Son road. Captain Boyd’s face looked pale as he said, “Yes sir, yes sir, Mr. President,” and handed the receiver to Freeman.

“General.”

“Mr. President.”

“You know why I’m calling. I can’t have my military commander making public comments of this kind. Now, I don’t want to tell you how to do your job in the field, but I must remind you that I can’t very well support you being C in C of the USVUN forces when you go around — albeit unintentionally — undermining the American public’s confidence in the American army.”

Nothing had hurt Freeman in years as much as the President’s last comment.

“Mr. President, I apologize. I’d never willingly bad-mouth my men. That’s not what I meant sir. I was merely giving an off-the-cuff assessment, a military man’s assessment, of the Chinese breakthrough at Lang Son. S’matter of fact I was referring to General Vinh’s forces more than I was ours. Why, our men haven’t really closed with the enemy to any—” Freeman stopped. What was it the French said? “Lui qui s’excuse, s’accuse.” He that excuses himself accuses himself! “I’m sorry, Mr. President.”

“Well, I’m going to accept that, General, but I have to tell you that I’m under one hell of a lot of pressure here to fire you.” There was silence. “I wouldn’t want to do that, General, but I might have to. You must understand my position.”

“I do, sir.”

The President tried to end it on a note of levity. “Trouble is, General, you’re one heck of a good field commander, but I have people here from Defense as well as State telling me you’re another Georgie Patton — just great when it comes to getting the job done in the field, but you’re a bit, ah, bullish in a china shop when it comes to political nuances. Am I being fair?”

“I’m bullish on America, Mr. President.” It wasn’t meant to be a joke, but the President liked it anyway.

* * *

The next morning, under increasing political pressure, the President fired Freeman from his position as C in C Vietnam USVUN forces, relegating him to command U.S. Second Army on the ground but putting the U.N. task force under the command of U.S. General Dean Jorgensen, en route from Washington to Hanoi.

“By God,” Freeman said in conference with General Vinh when he received the news. “They’re sending me a commissar.”

General Vinh, with barely any emotion, said, “Welcome to the club.”

Major Robert Cline knew if he didn’t say what was on his mind to Douglas Freeman right now, he’d never have the guts to say it again. The major begged General Vinh’s pardon and asked Freeman if he could speak to him privately for a moment. Freeman, frowning — which almost destroyed Cline’s resolution — excused himself from Vinh and his party. “Yes, what is it, Bob?”

“Sir, can I be utterly frank with you?”

“Yes.”

Cline inhaled deeply and said, “General, you’ve got to be more — I don’t know — politically sensitive.”

“Politically correct you mean!” Freeman responded, glowering at the major, the general telling Cline that, “goddamn it,” he had been the first U.S. general in history to use women as chopper pilots.

“No, sir! I don’t mean ‘politically correct,’ I mean politically sensitive. General, that crack you just made about Washington sending you a commissar, and yesterday your remarks to the staff about there being commissars in the State Department — and we don’t know how that remark you made to Boyd about the Chinese kicking the shit out of us first time to bat got out — but if your comments about ‘commissars in the State Department’ leaked to the press—” Cline paused for breath, his shoulders tight with tension. “—you’d be ruined, sir. They’d fire you as field commander as well.”

Freeman was still glowering, his cheek muscles bunched up, his jaw set in a look of ferocious determination. “Are you finished, Major?”

“Yes, sir.”

For what seemed like an eternity to Cline the general stood there in the tent. Freeman’s head was nodding, the rest of him immobile. “All right, Bob, you’ve made your point. Oh, hell — I agree I’m not politically—sensitive—that the word you used?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, you’re right, damn it! I’ll try to be more—” He exhaled heavily, “—’sensitive.’ “

Cline smiled with relief. Boyd entered the HQ clutching a sheaf of faxes. Freeman turned to him. “What’ve you got there, Captain? More bad news?”

“And some good news,” Boyd replied.

“Give me the bad first.”

“Beijing radio is using your, ah, demot — ah—”

“Demotion.”

“Yes, sir. They’re using it as a sign that Americans will fail against the PLA the same as we did in Vietnam earlier — in the Vietnam War….” Boyd hesitated.

“Go on!” Freeman ordered.

“Sir, they said we’ll be crushed like beetles.”

“Did they?” Freeman said, raising an eyebrow.

“Yes, sir.”

“Well,” Freeman said, turning to Cline, “they’re being very insensitive about beetles, Major. You think we should make a protest on behalf of the beetles of the world?”

Cline shrugged and smiled. “They’ve probably got a beetle lobby on Capitol Hill, General.”

“By God!” Freeman riposted. “You’re probably right.” He turned to Boyd. “So what else are they going to do to us American beetles?”

“I don’t know, General.”

Freeman pointed at the pile of faxes Boyd was holding. “Well, what else do you have for me, son?”

“Messages, sir, from various veterans’ associations all around the country. Basically they’re all saying—” He looked down at one. “—It says, ‘Tell it like it is, General. Give ‘em hell!’ “

“Huh!” Freeman laughed. “Who? The PLA or Wash—” The word died on his lips, his right hand giving the stop signal. He smiled at Cline, then turned to Boyd. “Thank them on my behalf, Captain. Much appreciated.”

“Yes, sir.”

Freeman glanced over at Cline. “Is this century crazy or what? I’ve just been demoted for being politically insensitive — for telling the truth — and now Vietnam vets from our most unpopular war in history are telling me to hang tough and help the Vietnamese.”

“It’s the new world order, General.”

“Huh — in some ways I prefer the old. Least you knew what was what.” Freeman made his way back to the operations table, where Vinh’s staff were obviously impressed with the 3-D computer graphics of the terrain up north from the Red River valley and the high country about Lang Son, showing the last known disposition of Vinh’s army. But Freeman observed the graphics with a jaded edge. He knew how pretty it all looked, but he also knew that the computers were only as good as the information going into them, and right now the information had to be highly suspect, as Vinh’s forces and the advance elements of the U.S.-led U.N. force were fighting desperately to form a defensive line to somehow stop, or at the very least slow down, the PLA’s advance. And tactical air support from the carrier group was not yet possible because of heavy overcast curdling in from the Tonkin Gulf.

Even if the weather changed immediately, TAC support would have to be guided in to bomb pinpoint positions at night via infrared sighting, and at the moment all Vinh and Freeman knew was that their respective forces were in retreat. Until the situation stabilized, his airborne infantry and artillery now being deployed from Haiphong to Hanoi couldn’t be used effectively.

Most of Freeman’s staff, including Major Cline and Captain Boyd, were amazed by the general’s stoicism in view of what they, like many others, saw as a humiliating demotion, overall command being given to Jorgensen. But if Freeman appeared sanguine about his fate, it was in large part because he believed in destiny and knew that now he would be freer to do what he knew he was best at — fighting — directing and leading his men at the front. For Douglas Freeman, his demotion was to be seized upon as opportunity, and he thanked God for it.

CHAPTER FORTY

“ ‘Ello.” It was said with a distinct French accent followed by an offer of French champagne and two tulip-shaped glasses.

Marte Price had just finished using a gravity shower that a helpful Marine had erected outside her tent, and she was now drying off as the French reporter LaSalle poked his head farther into her tent. “Anyone ‘ome?”

Startled, not yet having dried herself, Marte stood draped in Army khaki towels. “What do you want?”

“Some company — yes?”

“No. Get out!”

LaSalle gave a shrug worthy of Maurice Chevalier. “But I cannot. The champagne, she is opened — how do you say? Ah yes, opened for business.”

“Well, I’m not,” Marte retorted. The Frenchman was handsome, no question about that, the archetype of the kind that women fell for — tall, lean, very physical in his movements, but with eyes sensitive to the slightest nuance. And he could see that she had seen the outline of his erection as he gazed at her sleek, long thighs before they got lost in towels.

“Very well,” he said accommodatingly. “I will leave the champagne for you and no offense. Okay?”

He reminded her of Hawkeye in the “M*A*S*H” TV show. “Look,” she said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be rude. Maybe another time?”

It struck her that LaSalle could give her some general background for her stories — after all, it had been French Indochina till 1954.

LaSalle shrugged, smiling. “ ‘Ow about in ten minutes? The champagne will ‘ave lost some of its bubbles perhaps, but—”

“All right,” she said, “but let’s keep it strictly business.”

LaSalle spread his hands as if asking what other possible motive he could be thinking of. “Certainement. Business, sure. But—” He wagged a finger at her. “No monkey business — I promise. Oui?”

“Oui,” she responded, adopting his friendly tone. As he left, she was still thinking about what she’d thought was his erection, or was it simply the way the crotch of his pants had bunched up? It was something that even as a young girl used to fascinate her — to think that women had the power to make it stand up like that. She toweled herself vigorously, throwing her hair back in abandon and feeling herself getting moist.

When Pierre LaSalle returned, she was much more hospitable, and her khaki uniform, meant to hide any feminine aspects, had failed miserably by making the size of her bust a tantalizing guessing game.

The champagne was poured, the stream of tiny bubbles ascending like chains of golden pearls winking at the brim.

“Cheers,” she said, raising the glass.

‘To peace,” he responded, neither of them meaning it and each knowing the other had said it merely as a social nicety. They liked war — not being in it, but watching it, being close to it, being in less danger than the front-line fighter but close enough to smell it; to be scared and exhilarated by the rumble of the heavy guns, by the threat of it, the way it had of putting everything else into perspective, of showing just how thin the thread of life could be, of how you might as well enjoy yourself wherever and’ whenever you could.

“That was a good piece you did,” LaSalle said, complimenting her.

“Which piece was that?” Had he read any or was this just bullshit too?

“The one about the difficulties of commanding a U.N. force. It’s hard to do, I know. No pretty pictures, and the editor always want to show the viewers, eh? Not tell them. Explanation is much ‘arder.”

“Isn’t that the truth?” Marte said appreciatively. She was weighing it up, considering the possibilities. No way was she going to let him in her, even with a condom. He’d have one, of course. With his looks, he probably ordered them by the gross. But even a rubber, which most men hated anyway, wasn’t any guarantee against catching something like AIDS, hepatitis B, syphilis, gonorrhea, or any of a legion of subtropical and tropical sexually transmitted diseases.

“What do you think of Freeman’s demotion?” LaSalle asked.

Marte took another sip. “I think it was a blessing in disguise — for the U.N.”

“Oh? You think this Jorgensen will be much better, then?”

Marte shrugged. She wasn’t going to let the Frenchman slobber all over her either. You could catch stuff that way too. “I think,” she said, “it doesn’t matter a shit whether Jorgensen is here or not. He’ll be Washington’s man, a figurehead — press conferences. Freeman’ll do the actual work, only now he’ll be able to do it without Washington and Hanoi breathing down his neck.” Now Freeman, she thought, was a man you could get laid with and not worry. She didn’t know why, but she intuitively felt he’d be safe. With young Pierre here, however— what was the expression the EMREF boys on the plane had used? “Dipping your wick.” Well, young, or maybe not so young, he had probably dipped his at every stopover between here and Paree.

He was filling up her glass again and saying something now about some sensational photograph he’d heard she’d taken.

“Of what?” she wanted to know, figuring that as she’d been drinking her champagne, he’d been only sipping his. She could read him like a book — didn’t want to get too pissed, then the old wiener would just lie there.

“Some picture of Freeman I heard about — somewhere near the Lang Son road during the—” The Frenchman sneered. “—the so-called ‘friendly fire’ incident.”

“Huh,” she said, affecting puzzlement. “I took some shots of him giving orders — that kind of stuff.”

He lifted the bottle again.

“Uh-uh,” she said, shaking her head. “You’ll get me drunk.”

“Not at all,” he said, pouring more champagne anyway. “So,” he went on, as if that piece of business was over. “You do all your own developing?”

“No,” she answered just as easily. “I send all my film to Hanoi Kodak. That way anyone who wants to see what I’ve taken can have a peek. You know, sort of supermarket — take what you like.”

Pierre LaSalle laughed. Was it a response to a joke or the truth?

“You want to embarrass Freeman — that it?”

“Oh,” he said with a Gallic shrug. “Don’t be silly. It’s nothing personal. You’re a good journalist. You know ‘ow it is. We get what we can.”

This time she put her hand over the tulip glass.

“Ah,” he said. “You think I’m up to no good. Yes?”

“Yes.”

Suddenly his whole tone, comportment, changed. “I want you, Marte. That is what I want.”

“So why didn’t you say so?”

He moved closer to her. “We French are more subtle than that.”

“So I noticed,” she said, “when you first came in the tent. Looked like you had a bazooka in your pants.”

“Marte!” He sat up, genuinely shocked.

“Well, didn’t you? Or did you just want to dance?”

“No — I mean yes, I was aroused.”

There was a pause as she let her hand trail along his thigh. “So was I,” she said.

“Oh, Marte!” He had his hand under her shirt, exploring, gently squeezing her breasts. “Oh, Marte!”

“You can’t go in me,” she said.

“I have a con—”

“Doesn’t matter. I’ll let you lie on me if you like, but no—”

“All right, all right,” he murmured, almost incoherently, unzipping her slacks, pulling them down.

“Mon Dieu!” She was wearing skintight scarlet lace panties. “Mon Dieu!” Still gazing at the panties, he took off her bra.

As they began to move together, his weight between her legs, his elbows propped to keep his weight moving on her there and nowhere else, she could feel him sliding against her with more and more ease. She joined him in the rhythm of it. There was an idiotic smile on LaSalle’s face, as if he was genuinely surprised, enjoying it more than he thought possible.

Soon her hair began to whip from side to side as the excitement in her mounted and he could feel her growing abandonment beneath him. His fingers started to pull down her panties. “No!” she gasped. “No,” pushing his hand away.

“All right, all right,” he said quickly, sensing mat if he tried the same move again, she’d stop. “All right,” he said. “Oh, Marte—”

He heard her whimper, felt himself going and, her back arching suddenly, they climaxed together, now as one, now as two separate beings, each enjoying the fishtail arching of their bodies, each in its own orgasm.

“My God,” he gasped. “That was wonderful. I never believed—” His mouth was too dry to speak. He watched her, eyes closed, her body still moving against him until finally she gasped, utterly exhausted, utterly spent, her eyes closed in a sleep of reverie.

CHAPTER FORTY-ONE

In Dalat, Ray Baker had been awakened by yet another noise, again outside his door. He quietly got out of bed to check, his feet crunching the dead cockroaches that had fallen victim to the protective line of boric acid he’d put around the bed, and opened his door. A small fleeting shadow was going down the exit stairwell at the far end of the hall — a huge, gray rat, one of the hundreds that staked out the moderate- to low-income hotels.

It wasn’t till Baker stepped back into the room that he saw the piece of paper, some kind of note written on the back of a can label. Even those who could afford it couldn’t easily get their hands on writing paper, one of the casualties of the Vietnam War and Agent Orange having created enormous deforestation of parts of the country. The note said, “MIA — come market.”

It told Baker that the ever-vigilant Dalat police force must still be at work regarding MIAs, that someone dare contact him only in this way, that despite all the officialese about more mutual understanding and more economic aid since the U.S. had lifted the postwar blockade, there was still reluctance among the lower regions of the Communist bureaucracy to aid Americans, or at least a reluctance to be seen aiding Americans seeking MIAs and those who some Americans thought might still be POWs hidden in the jungles of ‘Nam.

No one who wanted to help, it seemed — for a price, of course — would be seen lingering around hotels to make contact. It had probably been considered a great risk by the note writer just to try to get the message to Baker’s room. Baker slapped himself on the forehead. “Stupid!” He wasn’t properly awake. It wouldn’t have been the man who made contact who left the note, but a runner — a kid — one of those thousands left homeless by the war with those who had been their enemies and were now their allies.

* * *

Baker collected his expired passport from the front desk and went out in search of a good coffee and pastry, one of the better legacies of the French colonial era. He found what he wanted at a sidewalk café. He sat first enjoying his trai quit juice. He had no intention of squandering the U.S. taxpayers’ money, but damned if he was going to hurry. He’d been chasing shadows for years and hadn’t found one of the more than two thousand MIAs or POWs.

At the same time, because of his lack of success, his search to find at least one MIA or, less likely, a POW to justify all his efforts had now become an obsession. He ate the pastry, which was filled with fruit, and lingered over the remains of his coffee, watching the new Vietnam roll by.

At a glance nothing much had changed — the ever-present fish sauce smell, more scooters, more noise, only now the sound, instead of coming from jukeboxes, came from a jungle of video games emitting horrible screams of victory or defeat. So absorbed was he by the hustle and bustle of Dalat that it took Baker a couple of minutes to realize he was being watched intently by a boy of about twelve, in dirty T-shirt and ragged blue shorts, who even at this age appeared to be addicted to betelnut, now and then spitting out arcs of bloodred saliva on the sidewalk.

Whether it was the good weather, the pastry, or the rich, dark coffee he had lingered over, Baker was in no mood for a complicated day. He made a writing gesture to the waiter and at the same time with a dollar note he signaled the boy to come over to his table.

“You speak English?” he asked the boy.

“Sure.”

“Who are you watching me for?”

The boy either didn’t understand or didn’t want to answer. Instead he looked covertly at the dollar bill Baker was holding like a lure. “Who sent you?”

“A man.”

“Really,” Baker said. “Listen, boyo, tell me or no money.”

“Two dollars, okay?” the boy interjected.

Baker nodded.

“A man in the—” The boy couldn’t think of the word in English. “Cho.”

“Market?” Baker said. “There are a thousand people in the market. I want you to point him out to me.”

“Okay,” the boy said, holding out his hand.

“Khong,” Baker replied. No. “Not until you show me who.”

“One dollar now,” the boy said, spitting out another jet of saliva and betel juice, his smile a brownish gash, his teeth already stained by his addiction.

“Okay,” Baker said, and gave him a dollar. For any Vietnamese, it was good money — for a boy, a small fortune. As they walked past the Red Tulip restaurant toward the Mai Building, Baker wondered if they were being followed by either the police and/or the person who had hired the boy, who perhaps wanted to make sure that he, Baker, wasn’t being followed by someone else. As Baker followed the betel-spitting boy toward the market, he had no chance to double back or stop to see whether or not someone was following him. Just before they reached the market the boy glanced back at Baker, made eye contact, spat, and walked toward one of the stalls selling every kind of fruit from green dragon fruit, lychee, jujubes, and Chinese dates, to water apple. The boy leaned across the counter and said something to the woman serving the customer, her hands full of cherries she was dumping on the scales. She said something quickly to the boy, and he made his way back to Baker.

“You go now,” the boy said. “Ask her for chanh—lemon, you understand. She will tell you she has none but to come back tomorrow. She will have some. Other dollar.”

“What? Oh yeah. Here.” He gave the boy the dollar. “Am I to come see her tomorrow?” Baker asked.

The boy shrugged with an insolence that had broken out once he’d secured the second dollar, his shrug saying, How the hell do I know? “You go see her,” he said, spat once more— perilously close to Baker’s shoe — and melted into the crowd.

Baker asked the old woman for a lemon.

She promptly gave him one and held out her hand for payment. It had happened so fast, so unexpectedly, that he barely had time to think, but he immediately looked about for the boy. The woman repeated the price impatiently. The boy was gone.

“Damn!” Baker said, counting out the money and giving it to the woman. “Damn, I’ve been had.”

“Eh?”

“What?” He turned on the old woman, realized he was childishly taking it out on her. “Cam on”—Thanking you — he said, and walked back to his hotel, every youth he saw raising his ire. “Chia khoa phong!” he all but shouted at the desk clerk, who, despite the American’s bad temper, took his time getting the room key and sliding it across to Baker.

The room was a shambles, every drawer of the small chest pulled out, what few clothes he had strewn about the room, white streaks of boric acid all over the floor, the mattress upended and slashed open, its stuffing oozing out. Also strewn about the floor was the distinctively sweet smell, not at all stale, of an American cigarette, in itself signifying that whoever had hired the kid must not have been long gone. Had he or they left satisfied? Did they suspect him of having information on POWs or MIAs, or whatever it was that they could sell for a high price to more parents of an MIA, or were they looking for something else, or was all this mayhem among the dead roaches and boric acid simply for effect, a warning to quit his trip to the hamlets of Lat village below Lang Bian Mountain? As he looked out the window that framed the warm gold of morning light, Baker felt clammy and cold.

* * *

LaSalle, none the worse from the champagne he’d consumed, wanted to make love again. Marte Price didn’t. Once a night, she figured, was quite sufficient for any nice girl. Besides, no matter what all the sex manuals said, the second time more often than not proved to be a huffing, puffing affair— more a measure of fitness than passion — and plain wore you out, but not in that wonderful, satisfying, spent way. Besides, she was still languorous, in a warm, safe cave mood, and wanted it to last, and she told Pierre to leave her alone, she wanted to sleep. The Frenchman was happy to oblige, and rolling away from her, surveyed the tent with a more discerning eye, namely to see where she might hide her most prized photos.

Almost asleep himself, LaSalle had to concentrate hard to stay awake, his eyes searching the small tent, looking for something that would withstand the rigors of war. His gaze settled on a gray metal box about a foot square and a foot high. He’d seen that kind of box before. Usually they were asbestos-lined-and waterproof. Problem was, there was no key in the lock. The more he thought about it, the more certain he became that the photos he wanted to see were in the gray box. Or did she play the fox and keep the photos in some very ordinary place — her Army-issue passport side pouch that he could see hanging from a suction hook on the tent’s center pole? Easing himself off the bed, looking back to make sure she was still asleep, he took down the pouch and quietly unzipped the rear passport section. Apart from the passport, Army press pass, and a sheaf of two thousand dollars’ worth of American Express traveler’s checks in hundreds and fifties, there was nothing.

The second, smaller section of the pouch contained Chap Stick, lipstick, a two-pack container of tampons, a card of Midol capsules, Band-Aids, and assorted hairpins. The front section, which LaSalle left till last, it being no larger than a change purse, contained a hodgepodge of American quarters and tight bundles of red ten-thousand-dong bills, each bearing a flattering portrait of Ho Chi Minh, the man, LaSalle was reminded by the picture, who had started life as a waiter in Paris and ended up as the president of the republic. Then LaSalle saw a small safety-deposit-type key taped to the inside of the change pouch. In his eagerness to undo the tape, several quarters dropped out, clanging against the tent pole.

“Merde!” he hissed as he heard her moan and roll over toward him. He replaced the pouch.

“Pierre?” she called.

He was pulling on his pants. “Oui?”

Her eyes looked over at him dreamily. “I—” She yawned and stretched. “I thought you’d gone.”

“No, chérie. I fell asleep.”

“Hmm,” she murmured, happy that it had been good for both of them. “What time is it?” She yawned again.

“Eight o’clock, or twenty hundred hours if you’re military.”

“Christ!” she said, flinging the sheet off.

“What in—” LaSalle began.

“Freeman’s giving a press conference in half an hour.”

“I know — so?”

“So, mon cher, it takes us gals a little longer to get ready, especially after being violated.”

“Violated?”

“Just a joke, honey. I have to be ready for hookup in fifteen minutes. I’m doing a spot for CNN.”

“What’s wrong with their reporter?”

“Down with the runs. Too much tit.”

“What?”

She was dashing into the shower stall. “I wish you’d stop saying ‘What?’ every time I say something. Too much tit.”

He still didn’t get it, or at least if he did, he wasn’t saying anything.

“Banh bao,” she called out. “Pastry stuffed with veggies and meat. Looks like a boob — nipple and all. You must have had it.”

“Yes…” There was a pause as if he was thinking about it. “Probably.”

He was trying the key in the gray box. Bien! It fit, and he dropped it in his pocket.

“Probably what?” she called out above the noise of the gravity rinse that came in a torrent over her body.

“Probably I have eaten it, yes.”

She was out of the shower, and her nakedness aroused him again.

“Oh no, you don’t!” she said, throwing his shirt at him. His Gallic shrug told her there would be another time. “Probably.” She shrugged playfully in return. “Maybe.” He forced a smile.

CHAPTER FORTY-TWO

Nuoc — water—was the first word some of the more than a hundred Caucasian POWs learned. The water was tepid and tasted metallic, but at least it was liquid, and the POWs, on what they were by now grimly calling “Upshut’s Island,” drank it gratefully yet resentfully, realizing as they did so that their dependence on him meant that Upshut’s power over them had been tightened another notch. Even Murphy, the outspoken and garrulous Australian, was wary of the PLA guards’ displeasure, though they were now a good fifty yards away, and was wondering how he and his fellow prisoners could survive on the meager rations being handed out. Despite the ample supply of fish that was the result of the explosions in the coral reef, the Chinese were giving the prisoners only enough to sustain them, and not bothering to cook the fish, which they simply tossed among the POWs as if amid a pack of dogs.

“Bastards,” Murphy said, but quietly enough that the guards couldn’t hear him. “Hope none of these are bloody stonefish.” He waited for a response but none of the other nineteen prisoners in his group said anything, some frantically trying to figure out how best to deal with raw fish with your bare hands. “Stonefish’ll kill you in less than five minutes.” Only Shirley Fortescue balked at what lay in front of her. “Don’t worry,” Murphy said. “None of these are stonefish.”

“Why bring it up, then?” she said tersely. “You enjoy frightening people?”

“Don’t get your knickers in a knot, Shirl. Just somethin’ to say, y’know.”

“And I’ve told you before my name’s Shirley, not Shirl.”

“Piss on you, lady.”

“Hey, Mike,” Danny Mellin interjected. “Ease up.”

“No problem, Dan, just trying to pass the time.”

“Well, don’t,” Shirley said. “It’s going to be tough enough as it is. We don’t need your warped sense of humor on top of it.”

“Listen up, you two,” Danny cut in. “We’ve got trouble enough without you two starting another war.” Mike Murphy was using a sharp-edged shell to scale the rockfish.

“War’s already started,” Murphy answered petulantly.

“Yeah,” Danny said, “but we’re in the middle of nowhere—”

“We’re in the Paracels,” Shirley cut in. “Far as I can tell, somewhere near Pottle or Woody islands.”

“Whoopee,” Murphy said.

“Mike,” Danny said, “put a lid on it. What I was saying was that we have to start figuring a few things out because when they’re done building this airstrip, what are they going to do with us?”

“What makes you so sure it’s an airstrip?” Murphy asked, tearing hungrily at a piece of fish.

“Well,” Danny said, “it’s the wrong shape for a baseball diamond.”

Shirley Fortescue laughed.

“Yeah, well,” Murphy said, feeling foolish in light of Mellin’s repartee. “Why in hell would the Chinese be blowing up a reef and rolling it flat when there’s already an airstrip on Woody Island?”

“Because,” Shirley answered in as civil a tone as she could manage with the Australian, “Woody Island’s airstrip was wrecked by the Vietnamese in the first few days of the war. It was blown up and the island occupied by Vinh’s marines within a few hours of Chical 3 getting hit.”

“The rig you were on?” Danny said.

“Yes. We got the news on the distress channel from a few foreign rigs drilling offshore.”

“So now Upshut Island is to replace Woody Island,” Danny said.

“Right.”

“Ah, rats!” Murphy said, his tone trying for a jauntiness that he knew the others were either too thirsty or too hungry to share. “Your lot,” he told Danny. “Seventh Fleet won’t let ‘em build an airstrip here — middle of bloody nowhere or Paracels — whatever. Yanks’ll bomb the crap out of it.”

Neither Shirley Fortescue nor Danny Mellin said anything for a few moments. The Australian was indisputably brave, as his helping Danny earlier in their capture had demonstrated, and he was clearly intelligent enough to have been working on one of the South China Sea rigs before the war had started, yet he was surprisingly naive politically, as evident from his remarks about the Seventh Fleet bombing Upshut Island.

“Haven’t you noticed, Mr. Murphy,” Shirley began, “how many Americans, British, and Australians have been brought to this island?”

“Yeah, Miss Fortescue, I have. So?”

“You don’t see any reason for that — the fact that there must be over a hundred of us here?”

“All right, so they’re using us as bloody coolies,” Murphy retorted. “Wouldn’t be the first time, would it?”

“Mike,” Danny said calmly, “they’re using us as bloody hostages.” He paused. “As well as coolies. The President isn’t going to order the Seventh Fleet or any other fleet to bomb the ‘crap’ out of this speck in the ocean. Not with so many American and British and—” Murphy looked thunderstruck, so Danny tried to lighten it up. “They won’t even bomb Aussies!”

Murphy was still silent.

“Lookit,” Danny continued, “even when we bombed the crap out of Hanoi, our guys never went near the Hanoi Hilton.” Shirley Fortescue looked nonplussed. “Hanoi Hilton,” Danny explained to her, “was the POW jail in Hanoi. During ‘Nam.”

“Oh…”

“Bloody hell!” Murphy pronounced. “Then how the dick are we gonna get off this bloody island? I mean, I thought we’d at least be traded or something.”

“What do you suggest meanwhile?” Shirley asked. “We swim for it?”

“Very bloody funny.”

“Actually,” she riposted, “it isn’t bloody funny at all.”

“Hoy! Hoy!” It was one of Upshut’s guards jabbing his Kalashnikov at the prisoners, indicating that they should get up and back to work hauling great loads of coral, then straining on the ropes of the cement rollers to flatten it.

CHAPTER FORTY-THREE

Tokyo

If it had been handheld computer games that had taken Southeast Asia by storm, then in Japan it was the craze for karaoke, patrons of bars singing to recorded music. And this night Jae Chong was foot stomping and humming along to a raucous rendition of country music, including a tub-thumping version of “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” Jae ordered another drink, and though several other people had their hands up ahead of him, he was the one the waiter decided to serve first. The waiter, Jae thought, probably despised him for being Korean, but he was a Korean with money, and that made all the difference. For more yen, the waiter would treat him like royalty, and Jae was spending big. Why not? He was convinced that by now every police station in Japan had his photograph or artist’s likeness and yellow sheet.

The only thing keeping him off Japanese TV’s “Most Wanted” program was, ironically, the very press that had been so vocal in calling for the capture of all terrorists responsible for the bullet train wreck. For while it was widely known that there were Korean terrorists in the country, it was not known that the Japanese Defense Force had a CIA-type agency, and to keep the press off the scent, the JDF had to arrange a cover story for the killing of the three policemen, including the American agent Wray. There were Japanese constitutional restraints forbidding an intelligence agency from having links or even liaison with the U.S. CIA.

But Jae Chong was under no illusion. Once the JDF had its story watertight, then his photo would be flashed across every TV screen in the country as the Korean terrorist responsible for the murder of two Tokyo policemen and a visiting American specialist, ostensibly in Japan to “collect information on American gangs,” a growing problem in North America.

And Jae Chong knew that once his face went public, he’d be lucky to last a week. In any event, his cover was now completely blown. Whatever Pyongyang’s assurances to its agents in South Korea, he knew Pyongyang would make no effort to recover him, because, unlike Moscow’s rules in the old cold war, Chong and other “abroad agents” were considered expendable. There were only two Pyongyang rules, the first being that if you were caught, no recovery effort would be mounted. Second, if you talked, your next of kin would be shot. Not surprisingly, it encouraged North Korean agents to commit suicide when blown.

Jae faced the inevitable in a drunken stupor and a cloud of Lucky Strike, without rancor, without remorse. He hated the Japanese deeply for what they had done to his grandparents during the Second World War, and besides, to tell the truth, he’d enjoyed the relatively rich consumer life in Japan as compared to the hardships of home, where all the money possible had been drained off and funneled into North Korea’s nuclear program. Trust the U.S. President to have believed that a final “understanding,” in short, a financial buyoff in terms of U.S. aid, had caused North Korea to “deconstruct” its nuclear weapons program. True, the factories in question had now been effectively gutted of any nuclear potential, but with Pyongyang’s old ties to the Soviet Union still largely intact with Russia, the men who ran Pyongyang now had Russian and North Korean scientists going back and forth on mutually beneficial cultural exchange programs. Only one thing was needed — a conventional Soviet submarine with its nuclear missiles intact.

The problem now, with the old Soviet Union in disarray, wasn’t the price. There were a half-dozen admirals one could do business with. No, the problem for Pyongyang was simply one of procurement, and enough terrorism in capitalist countries like Japan to play havoc with transport systems, such as the bullet trains, that kept supplying the USVUN convoys that sailed from Japan to be used against Beijing’s soldiers. Whatever North Korea’s agents could do to impede the convoys would be gratefully, if not publicly, acknowledged by Beijing by according Pyongyang increased access to its nuclear secrets.

As Jae Chong contemplated his end, he included in his calculations the chance of pulling off one more coup — something maybe not as spectacular as the bullet train. To go out into the field with this in mind was foolish, of course. Transport police, especially, would be on the lookout for him. No, he decided he would do something less risky but equally devastating. He ordered more scotch and another packet of Lucky Strikes. Even the old tightwads who ran the Japan circuit in Pyongyang wouldn’t begrudge him having a bit of a party, in exchange for what he was going to do for good relations between Pyongyang and Beijing. Jae lit up another cigarette before one of the prowling bar girls giggled and pointed out that he already had one going. He lifted his glass to her and laughed. No, no, he didn’t want any company just now. He was so pissed, he said, he probably couldn’t get it up, but maybe she should come to see him in the morning.

“The morning?” She looked surprised. “That’s a bit odd, lover.”

Yes, he agreed, it was — about as odd as a Japanese twerp singing “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” and now the silly bastard was going to punish everyone with an encore, “The Streets of Laredo.”

CHAPTER FORTY-FOUR

“No,” the lethargic hotel clerk told Baker, he hadn’t seen anyone hanging around the hotel. And no betel-chewing youth either. Baker pulled out two dollars to help his memory. It didn’t, and the clerk didn’t seem as upset over a burglarized room as perhaps he should have been, but then maybe the new Republic of Vietnam, like everywhere else, was experiencing more crime than usual.

“You’d better call the police,” Baker said.

At this suggestion the clerk seemed to suddenly come to life, his alarm evident. The police would not be good for business. Besides, was Bac Baker sure he wanted to get involved with the police who, as Bac Baker must know, were often — he paused and looked about—”very difficult to deal with if you are a foreigner — and especially if you are American”?

“My understanding,” Baker said, “is that Hanoi has issued directives to this specific problem — that foreigners — potential investors, customers, especially Americans — who are here helping them fight the Chinese aggression are to be accorded all respect. Is this not so?”

The clerk spread his hands in the universal plea for understanding. “Yes, yes, of course,” he answered. Everyone knew about the official directives, but the police were sticky beaks, shoving their noses into all kinds of things that didn’t concern them.

“I don’t care if you call them or not,” Baker said. “Nothing of mine is missing, as far as I can tell.” The clerk seemed relieved. “How long,” Baker asked, “would it take me to get to Lang Bian and the nine hamlets that make up Lat village?”

“Ah!” The clerk was smiling, showing a row of dark brown stained teeth. “I can be of assistance. You cannot walk — is too far. You must take bus. Round-trip, you understand?”

“Never mind the bus. I’ll get a taxi.”

The clerk was shaking his head, eyes half closed. Baker sighed wearily. Couldn’t anything in this country be done simply, without either a bureaucratic hassle and/or money under the table?

“How much?”

“You will need a permit. This is fifteen dollars.”

Baker said nothing, waiting.

“Ah, yes. Twenty-five dollars for rental car. Bus take too long.”

“Who do I rent the car from?”

“Government office,” the clerk said, smiling. “Or you can ride bicycle.”

“Yeah, right,” Baker said. “Where do I get the permit?”

“Ah, Bac Baker. Here I can be of assistance.”

“I’ll bet.”

“No, no, no betting allowed. Strictly forbidden in—”

“How much?” Baker cut in.

“Forty dollars,” the clerk said, now the epitome of helpfulness, hastily adding, “Lat village very beautiful.”

“Where can I get the permit?”

“At police station. But you no worry. I can fix.”

Baker shook his head resignedly and paid half the total of forty dollars.

“You wait here, Bac Baker. I will arrange for car to come here.”

“The permit?”

“Permit also.”

“All right. But hurry it up.” The clerk was already on the phone. “Can I stay overnight in Lat?” Baker called out.

The clerk made a face. “Difficult, I think.”

“How much?”

“Twenty dollar. Maybe no stay is possible.”

“Then how come you know it’s twenty dollars?”

“Ha ha.”

“Ha ha,” Baker imitated. “You wouldn’t have a connection with a hotel in Lat, would you?”

“Ha ha.”

“Look,” Baker demanded, “stop screwing me around. Fix the police permit, fix the goddamn rental, and fix me up overnight.”

“Yes, yes, of course, but why overnight?”

“Well, you tell me. Lat village”—he pronounced it correctly now as “Lak,” as a way of showing “Ha Ha” that he was more familiar with Vietnamese practices than Ha Ha had given him credit for—”is very beautiful, you told me. Maybe I want to take the walk up K’Lang in the moonlight.” K’Lang was the eastern peak of Lang Bian Mountain’s five peaks.

“Yes, yes,” Ha Ha agreed readily. “Beautiful in the moonshine.”

“Right. Now I want all this fixed up—” He glanced at his watch. “—by eleven this morning or I’m out of here. Understand? I’d just as rather be back in Saigon.” Baker still refused to call it Ho Chi Minh City — a little private rebellion.

“Okay-you pay ten dollar more. Overnight stay.”

“No I don’t. I don’t pay squat till I see a vehicle, a permit, and anything else I need. Understand?”

“ ‘Squat’?”

Baker didn’t elaborate. After a few seconds Ha Ha had figured it out.

“I will fix,” he said, and went out.

“Good,” Baker said, but there was no enthusiasm in his voice. By now his obsession with trying to find just one MIA or POW from ‘Nam was waning, at least for this morning. It was unusually hot for Dalat, normally an ideal climate year-round, and the haggling one had to go through to get the simplest government approval seemed twice as oppressive in the heat. Officially, Hanoi had issued more of what amounted to “help American” directives, and while this was being practiced in the north with regard to the USVUN alliance, to the south there were still many old former North Vietnamese Army regulars and cadres who were either too corrupt or too resentful of their old enemies to be of much help. Right there and then Ray Baker vowed that if nothing turned up in Lat village or Lang Bian Mountain, he’d head back to Saigon and turn his attention to some other problem that was more satisfying, maybe helping with the American Vietnamese adoption agency.

When the clerk arrived, he came in beaming. He had everything Bac Baker needed, and was especially proud of the rental. It was a jeep, either U.S. Army surplus, or as the Vietnamese had done with all the helos the U.S. had left behind, it was made up by cannibalizing the wrecks of several jeeps. The fact that he was now hiring a U.S.-made jeep to look for U.S. MIAs and POWs captured by the Vietnamese who were now allies with Americans struck Baker as an irony that only Vietnam vets would fully appreciate.

“Four-wheel drive!” the clerk announced proudly.

Baker nodded. “So I hear.”

“Good luck.”

Baker thanked him, then immediately wondered what the clerk had meant. Good luck for what? Did Ha Ha know more about his reason for going to Lak village, or had he, Baker, let it slip somehow? Then again, there wasn’t anything particularly secretive about an American official investigating a report about U.S. MIAs and POWs. In fact, maybe Ha Ha could help him. “You know anything about American MIAs and POWs?”

“No, no, nothing,” Ha Ha said.

“I’d pay good money.” Baker held up a twenty, and could have sworn he saw the clerk salivating at the prospect of more American dollars, but the Vietnamese’s answer was still no.

It was odd, Baker thought, because the clerk could have made up any old story and taken the twenty.

CHAPTER FORTY-FIVE

USVUN HQ Phu Lang Thuong

“It’s about time we got a break,” Freeman told his HQ staff. He was referring to an intelligence report from one of General Vinh’s reconnaissance patrols that had revealed the reason so many Chinese had so suddenly appeared at the beginning of the war around Dong Dang and Lang Son. Vinh’s patrols, most of which were badly mauled, returning with only half their strength, were reporting that the exits of an elaborate tunnel complex had been found just south of Dong Dang and that Chinese regulars apparently moving at night through the tunnels had holed up in the caves around Lang Son, ready for the massive attack on the Vietnamese Army. And the same had apparently happened eastward near Loc Binh.

“ ‘Course, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to Vinh’s boys,” Freeman pointed out. “They’re probably the best damn tunnelers in the world.” He reminded his staff of the vast tunnel complexes, not only the maze of over a hundred miles at Chu Chi in old Saigon, but those that the NVA had dug in the north, tunnels that not even the bombs of the B-52s could penetrate or uproot, and the tunnels that honeycombed the earth beneath Beijing since the time when China had feared nuclear attack from the Soviet Union.

“We’ve been hit,” Freeman told Vinh, “with the old ‘one slow, four quick’ strategy.”

Vinh agreed, leaving it to the interpreter to explain the technique to Freeman’s HQ staff. “The method is simple, very slow at first and extremely effective. One slow means take time to plan logistical needs to the smallest detail, the amount of rice for each soldier, the number of rounds, amount of bandages, morphine, dried fish — everything needed for an offensive from battalion to divisional level. And practice, practice, practice for the attack — all the tunnels ending up in areas directly beneath the target. Once all is set, then the Chinese carry out the four quicks: mobility, attack, tactics, and withdrawal. It is a massive hit and run.”

“Only this time,” Freeman interjected, “there was no ‘run.’ They caught the Viet—” He stopped. “They caught the Vietnamese and U.S. with our pants down while we were trying to defend the Lang Son road. Coming up all around us. For all we know, gentlemen, our blue on blue with General Vinh’s force might have begun with legitimate fire from PLA gophers. They pop up here and there in the jungle long enough to draw our fire, confuse us with the possibility of an ambush, then disappear down their warrens while we’re still firing at anything that moves.”

Freeman stepped back to the Play-Doh mock-up of the area between Dong Dang and Loc Binh in the north down to the airfield at Kep. “One thing’s for certain, gentlemen. We’re going to have to retake what we’ve lost, but first we have to stop the advance, and then we’re going to have to engage the sons of bitches in the tunnels as we—” He almost said, “As we did in ‘Nam,” but with Vinh present, he thought it was more diplomatic not to say it. Major Cline couldn’t help a wry smile. Perhaps they’d make a diplomat of Freeman after all.

General Vinh said something, but the interpreter balked. Vinh, a chain-smoker, gestured to the interpreter to tell Freeman exactly what he’d said. The interpreter faced Freeman. “General Vinh said you are correct — that sooner or later you will have to rid the tunnels of the PLA, the same as you tried to do with the Viet Cong sons of bitches.”

Freeman looked at Vinh, the latter’s face in a cloud of smoke, nodded and, smiling broadly, extended his hand to Vinh. As they shook hands in the camaraderie of soldiers, both men’s HQ staffs clapped appreciatively. It was a rare moment in which old animosities were forgotten and only the task at hand mattered: to defeat the enemy.

Freeman circled the low country east of Ban Re and southwest of Loc Binh. “I propose sending in elements of First Division Air Cavalry along these ridges above the valley — a battalion westward to sever the Ban Re-Lang Son railroad and get enough artillery in there—” He bracketed the valley area between Loc Binh and Ban Re. “—to pour down fire into the valley. Give Wang and Wei something to think about in the north besides their main force advance. Meanwhile, General, your divisions can go in with my Second Division east of Kep. That way we’ll hit ‘em back and front.”

Vinh looked unconvinced and ventured a few words in English on the subject. “You like high ground, Americans?”

“We do,” Freeman responded.

“I remember.”

“So do I, General.”

Vinh now told Freeman through his interpreter that he thought the plan was sound and simple and he endorsed it, but he wondered if his battalions might be landed along with the Americans to deal with the tunnels. Otherwise what the Americans would win by day would be lost by night, the PLA using the tried-and-true method of Mao — of not attacking until one had overwhelming strength and retreating if one didn’t, a tactic that might tie down the Americans for weeks, particularly if the PLA, as the general was sure they would, retreated en masse to the labyrinth of tunnels. Why not leave the artillery and the lower, wetter regions of the valleys to the Americans and leave the infantry fighting at night to the Vietnamese?

Freeman was mulling it over. Vinh said something else to the interpreter, the latter telling Freeman with a tone of apology, “General Vinh intends no insult to the American forces who have so generously come to help stop the Chinese aggression, but in the unfortunate war between the Republic of Vietnam and the United States, many of the Viet Cong spent their lives in the tunnels, where there were first aid stations, ammunition dumps, kitchens, dormitories, wells — that these men lived in and operated from the tunnels.”

“Cu Chi,” said Freeman, and Vinh and his staff immediately showed pleasure in the recognition of Freeman’s knowledge of the Vietnam War, Major Cline explaining to the much younger Captain Boyd that the huge American base at Cu Chi had unknowingly been built on an extensive Viet Cong tunnel complex from which VC would emerge at night, kill, steal, and generally create chaos, then disappear back down the tunnels, leaving the Americans demoralized and their commanders puzzled as to how in hell the VC were getting through the base’s extensive razor wire and machine-gun-defended perimeter.

“Of course,” Freeman said, “don’t forget that our boys went down after — them.” He had almost said “after you.”

Vinh acknowledged the bravery of the U.S. “tunnel rats” but pointed out that the unfortunate war was now long ago, and he wondered whether the skill of tunnel clearance was still with the Americans. The Vietnamese, on the other hand, had been using the tunnel complexes almost continuously since that war against China’s aggressive forays into the Republic of Vietnam. Again Vinh explained that General Freeman must not take this as an insult, for the American tunnel rats had shown great bravery and were fearless despite the booby traps.

Freeman thanked the general for his suggestions, saying that he, Freeman, would welcome all the help he could get from Vinh’s tunnel clearers but that he thought it important that wherever possible, Americans and Vietnamese should work together with a view to better future relations between the two countries.

This met with general approval by the Vietnamese staff, who were eager to get their hands on some American equipment. It was especially welcomed by Vinh’s political officer, who was keen to keep improving Vietnam-American relations. After the details of the forthcoming operation, code-named “Tiger,” had been discussed from divisional, brigade, regimental, battalion, and company level, and things were wrapping up for the day, Major Cline complimented Freeman on his diplomacy.

“Diplomacy, hell!” Freeman said as he, Cline, and Boyd walked out toward the press pool tent. “I want Americans with them so I damn well know what’s going on. Their radio communications compared to ours are primitive, and I don’t want our boys in our arty batteries on those ridges left on their lonesome because Vinh’s boys are fighting a hit-and-run Maoist war.”

Captain Boyd looked worried about the upcoming press conference. Since Freeman’s demotion to field responsibility, General Jorgensen, recently arrived, was opening the press pool to as many as the tent would comfortably hold. And he was letting reporters fan out to battle zones for live reports. Hadn’t Jorgensen learned anything from Schwarzkopf’s tight field control of the press in the Iraqi War? Boyd complained to Cline that the press shouldn’t have been allowed as far north as Phu Lang Thuong. “Should have kept them in Hanoi,” he opined.

“Well, they’re here, Captain,” Freeman interjected, “and you and I are going to have to deal with ‘em.”

Boyd now looked twice as worried. “Sir, what if I’m asked about the tunnel rat business?”

“What about it?”

“Well, sir, I haven’t had much background in that area.”

“None of us did, son. All you had was a knife, handgun, and a flashlight. And down you went.”

Boyd nodded but seemed unconvinced. “Were they fearless?” he asked. “As General Vinh said?”

“Some. But very few. At first a lot of men ordered down refused to go. Those who did, often came up and told the squad leader there was nothing down there. So we had to create ‘tunnel rat’ units. Guys who volunteered.”

“You ever go down, General?” Boyd asked.

“Yes, I did. Not in ‘Nam but in another op.”

“Scary, sir?”

“Son,” Freeman said as he approached what he called the “bullshit” tent, “never been so friggin’ scared in all my life. Damn near shit myself, but I got the bastard-right in the belly!”

“What kind of booby traps were there?” Cline gave Boyd a back-off look, but the young press aide was too interested in hearing Freeman’s answer.

“Captain, do you want to have nightmares?”

“No, sir.”

“Then don’t ask me about booby traps and don’t go asking any of the troops. Most of them haven’t ever seen a tunnel, and I don’t want to spook their morale unnecessarily.”

In the press conference, the first such joint conference ever shared by a Vietnamese and U.S. general before so many reporters, Marte Price’s was the first question taken by Freeman. “General, there’ve been rumors going around about tunnel complexes occupied by the PLA in the border areas. Will our men be involved in fighting them?”

“We—”

“USVUN,” Boyd whispered.

“Ah, I don’t know where you could’ve gotten those reports from, Ms. Price, but it will be the task of the USVUN forces to engage the enemy until he withdraws his forces beyond the Vietnam-Chinese border. That’s all we’re here for.”

ABC had his hand up. “General Freeman, how do you feel being relegated to field command from overall command of USVUN forces?”

“Suits me fine. General Jorgensen is a fine soldier. This is like a football game. Coach can change anyone to any position he likes.”

Cline winced inwardly but outwardly looked unperturbed. The general, he knew, would be quoted by someone somewhere as comparing the war to a game.

A CBS reporter was identified. “General Vinh, this is a follow-up from a question asked earlier. Will U.S. forces be fighting in the tunnel complexes?” There was an audible murmur of surprise among the assembled press corps, the question being all but a direct accusation that Freeman was holding back. General Vinh’s interpreter took the question, waited for his boss’s brief reply, and announced, “We know nothing of a tunnel complex.”

“But what if there were tunnels?” Marte Price interjected.

“Then we’d fill them in,” Freeman said, smiling.

This got a laugh until Marte said, “You mean you’d just suffocate men without giving them a chance?”

“No,” Freeman said good-naturedly. “We wouldn’t do that.” He turned from the podium as another question about tunnels was addressed to Vinh. Still smiling, Freeman told Boyd quietly, “I want to see her in private, off-the-record.” His troops called it the George C. Scott look. Cold fury under a camouflage net.

Vinh spoke to the interpreter again, and the interpreter told Pierre LaSalle of French television that he knew nothing about tunnels.

Freeman announced the news conference was over. There was an uproar from the press.

Freeman was in a rage. “Boyd, you get Ms. Price here right now! This instant! You hear me?”

“Yes, sir!”

When Marte Price entered the general’s tent, he knew Boyd must have told her he was furious, and he made no attempt to hide it. “Against my better judgment,” he stormed, “I gave you clearance to accompany the EMREF, and the first thing you do is try to undermine my credibility — and General Vinh’s — let alone that of the entire USVUN force!”

“Off-the-record, General,” Boyd warned, in the bravest advice he had yet given the general.

“What — yes, off-the-record, Ms. Price. Can I tell you — can I trust you — with something off-the-record?”

“Yes, Gen—” She couldn’t finish, her throat and tongue dry as parchment.

“All right,” he thundered. “I know what you and those other—reporters—are after. You want to do to me what you did to our field commanders in ‘Nam. You want grisly descriptions of tunnel warfare so you can get on prime time and worry the hell out of every parent and family of our men over here. You want to serve up blood and guts for dinner and upset our boys’ folks so bad that they’ll be demanding we be sent home.”

Marte Price tried to speak, but he rolled over her like a monsoon.

“What you don’t realize, young lady, is that these boys are here because the most populous country in the world, and the only other world power militarily, is eating away at its neighbors like a goddamned jackal, and if they’re not stopped, they’ll be encouraged to war war instead of jaw jaw over every goddamn territorial claim they make. Hell, don’t you realize the Chinese have had wars with everybody anywhere near their fence — India, Pakistan, the Russians, Siberia, Laos, Vietnam. Now they’re laying claim to every goddamn island and reef— over five hundred of them — in the South China Sea. And what do you want to do? You want to do a goddamn liberal dance about our boys going down some goddamn tunnel because it makes good copy for your rag. Now piss off!”

* * *

An hour later General Freeman called on Marte Price. He couldn’t tell whether she’d been crying or whether she was being deliberately cold.

“I apologize for losing my temper. I apologize for telling you to — to ‘piss off.’ That was ungentlemanly of me and I regret it.”

“And the rest, General?”

“I don’t withdraw a word of it. It’s true. I wouldn’t trust you people as far as I could kick you.”

* * *

The road to Lat village, or rather the nine hamlets that constituted the population of just over seven thousand, was in bad repair following heavy rains, and Raymond Baker was glad that Ha Ha had got him the jeep for the seven-and-a-half-mile journey. He was stopped twice by police who demanded to see the required permits and who, in the second instance, argued that the date stamp on the Dalat permit was for tomorrow and that therefore he should not be on the road and should be fined one million dong, about ninety dollars U.S.

Exasperation barely under control, Baker told them about the clerk at the hotel and that perhaps what he should do is have the U.S. legation in Saigon ring the officials of General Vinh in Hanoi. That did it. Albeit grudgingly, he was allowed to proceed, and once in the first hamlet, in the early afternoon, he let it be known that he was looking for information about U.S. MIAs and POWs from ‘Nam, appealing to their patriotism, telling the village headman that “our soldiers and your soldiers are fighting side by side to repel the imperialistic ambitions of the Chinese,” and that therefore the Vietnamese people and all those who had been exploited by the Chinese no-gooders had a patriotic duty to help him find any missing MIAs or POWs from ‘Nam. Then they could rejoin their comrades in the fight against the Chinese invaders. Baker had particularly balked when it came to using terms such as “imperialist,” “no-gooders,” and “patriotic duty,” but then again, why not use anything he could? He added that there would also be a substantial reward for helpful information leading to any POW or MIA.

A lot of villagers on their way back from market stared at him as they had stared for thousands of years at barbarians who smelled like dog and often, to the Asians’ disgust, grew facial hair. But beyond that, no one took much notice, other than a crowd of boys who, despite the village’s relative prosperity, soon clung about him, their hands out for money or whatever he might have had to give. The only thing he wanted to give was hope to at least some of those parents back in the States who simply did not know for sure whether their kin were alive or dead. If they were dead, then at least they would know for certain, and the grieving could begin. Police, he noticed, were everywhere in Dalat, and suddenly in the beautifully rich, clean air that had followed the downpour he realized how futile it all was.

Who would dare approach a stranger with such information with policemen sniffing everywhere? Perhaps he could do better by forwarding a request to USVUN HQ in Hanoi, or was it now in Phu Lang Thuong? Baker wished he could give MIAs’ next of kin some idea of how frustrating it was trying to follow a single lead through the tangled web of bureaucracy. It always ended like this, despite the most optimistic beginnings. And who could blame the Vietnamese? What would he do in their position, with officialdom ever ready to swoop for some reason that might rest on nothing more than a petty whim or vindictiveness?

Baker decided he would return to Dalat in the morning if he failed to get anything that would substantiate the old Chinese’s claim, made on his sampan, that there was an MIA in one of the Lat villages. There was no hotel in Lat, but for the twenty dollars he’d given Ha Ha, it had been arranged that he would stay overnight in one of the village thatched-roof houses built high on stilts. Without knowing it, at least at that moment, the American was among people who, if they knew anything, would most likely tell him, for the Lat villagers were made up of old men who, along with other minorities, had helped the Americans in the early seventies.

The evening meal was rice and some kind of meat that they told him was pig — which he doubted — and black beans. They told Baker through a local translator that “you see the hill people, the Montagnards, were correct. They always said the Americans, the green faces”—they meant Green Beret commandos’ face paint—”would not desert them, that they would come back.”

“It’s been a long time,” Baker said by way of apology.

“What is time to us?” the family elder said, smoking his pipe at full blast. “The important thing is they came back.”

One of the younger men shook his head from side to side. “The important thing is, will they stay?”

“No,” another man said matter-of-factly as he held the rice bowl close to his mouth, shoveling with his chopsticks. “The question is, what will Salt and Pepper do?”

“Who cares what they will do?” the old man said angrily. “There is always one rotten banana in the bunch.”

“One!” the younger man said. “In this case there are two.”

“Who are they?” asked Baker. “Montagnards?”

“No, no,” the old man said, waving aside the mention of Montagnards. “They are rebels.”

“From what tribe, then?” Baker inquired.

No one spoke, busily eating and drinking tea, the silence growing heavier by the second. Baker felt his gut tighten as if he’d swallowed a slime ball along with his rice. Slowly he put down his bowl. “Are they Americans?” he asked quietly.

“Yes,” the young man said.

“Do you know where they are?”

The old man’s chopsticks waved in a wide gesture toward the peaks of Lang Bian Mountain. “Up there.”

“Why do you call them Salt and Pepper?”

The young man shrugged nonchalantly. “One is white, one is black.”

“You’re sure they’re Americans?”

“Yes,” the old man said, offering more tea.

Baker was simply lost for words. He’d come looking for MIAs and possibly POWs, not renegades. He blew on the hot tea. “Could you contact them?”

The old man shrugged. “I don’t know. Who wants to talk to such vermin?”

Baker conceded the old man’s point. Who would want to find two turncoats? He’d sure as hell get no thanks from Washington. The Chinese would of course relish the propaganda value, despite the fact that whoever this Salt and Pepper were, they must now be near middle age.

“What do they do?” Baker asked. “I mean, so they turned and ran for the other side — the Communists — but they can’t still be running against our men — I mean the U.S. has been long gone.”

“The U.S. has come back,” the younger man said. “The renegades will run with whoever runs against the U.S. — the Chinese or the Khmer Rouge. Sometimes they transport heroin from Laos into Vietnam.”

Baker felt himself sweating despite the cool air of the Lat village. The very mention of the Khmer Rouge from Cambodia — the Khmer Rouge being one of China’s allies in the south — filled him with the kind of fear and loathing some of his Jewish friends experienced upon hearing the names Auschwitz and Buchenwald — run by power-crazed madmen bent on genocide. China would welcome a Khmer Rouge attack against the Vietnamese anywhere on Vietnam’s western border.

“Have you heard any rumors of a Khmer Rouge invasion?” he asked.

“Yes,” the old man said. “Porters are being recruited to move ammunition and supplies along the Cambodian-Vietnamese border and the Laotian-Vietnamese border using some of the old Ho Chi Minh trails.”

No one spoke for several minutes, the only sounds those of the fruit birds from the hill country and the sipping of tea. Finally Baker, still trying to absorb the shock of the information and the implications of it for the war should the USVUN forces be hit on another front, determined that the USVUN field commander, General Freeman, should be advised of the impending likelihood of an attack on his left flank. But Baker’s thoughts immediately returned to the subject of the two American renegades.

“Do you know what rank they hold?” Baker asked. “These two?”

“No.”

“Have you seen them yourselves?”

“I did,” the young man said. “Once. It was a drug line moving toward Saigon.”

“Ho Chi Minh City,” the father corrected.

“Saigon,” the young man repeated, and Baker knew he had an ally. “I saw them for only a moment. They were in NVA uniforms with the big metal rings on their backpacks. Remember? The rings were for attaching camouflage — leaves and such — so that, unlike an American, an NVA soldier could move his head around without any camouflage moving. They had gone past so fast you could not see them clearly. But the white one was much smaller than the black one.”

“Would you recognize them again?”

“No, though I have heard they never separate and the white one is bigger than most Vietnamese. Sometimes they move from place to place by air, but it is said they only transport drugs on foot.”

Baker sat still, both hands cradling the cup, accepting the offer of more tea. Then he sipped the tea, and a crisis had passed because he had resolved what to do. The moment he got back to Dalat — hopefully tomorrow evening — he would send a message to USVUN’s HQ. He’d get shit for not having notified State first or the Pentagon, and not going through normal channels, but he took comfort from the words of Field Marshal Von Rundstedt, who once declared that “normal channels are a trap for officers who lack initiative.”

He thanked his hosts for the meal and went outside to bring in his sleeping bag from the jeep. Despite the fading light, he saw that all the tires on his jeep had been slashed.

“Vandals!” the old man pronounced. “Hooligans — from Dalat, no doubt.”

No matter who it was, Baker told them, it meant he would have to go back to Dalat by bus in the morning. “What time does it leave?”

“Seven.”

From habit, Baker unzipped his sleeping bag to make sure that no bugs or snakes had set up shop, then laid it down on the palm-matted floor, sat down and, by candlelight, wrote down a summary of all he’d heard that night. He folded it when he was finished, took his boots off, and stuffed it down his right sock until he could feel the square of paper under the arch of his foot. Then he quietly begged pardon and asked the young man who had said “Saigon” instead of “Ho Chi Minh City” whether it was possible for him to get a weapon — a pistol, anything.

The young man said this was possible; caches of arms had been buried by many villagers during ‘Nam, but Bac Baker must understand that this would cost money, not for himself, but for those who sold such things illegally. Two hundred American dollars.

“Traveler’s checks?”

“Sure, American Express or Visa, okay, fine.”

The young man soon returned and handed Baker a .45 service revolver and two full clips. Sure, Baker admitted to himself, he was feeling a little paranoid about it all, but it was just in case the tire slashers weren’t simply vandals after all.

There was a scream — the old lady who had come to clean up the kitchen. Someone had placed the chopsticks Baker had used upright in his rice bowl — since time immemorial a Buddhist sign of the dead.

Moving quickly, Baker removed his raincoat, flashlight, and what few other belongings he had in the jeep, and bunched them in his sleeping bag to resemble a body. He turned out his lamp, then sat in a corner of the room where he had a clear view of the open doorway, his ears straining for the least sound, the gun in his right hand resting on the left for instant use. All he had to do was stay awake till morning.

He tried to remember what they had told him on the firing range back in Washington, but all that seemed, and was, a world away. He thought about the chopstick sign. The message didn’t worry him so much as who’d done it. He’d heard nothing. Could someone have come up to the high house without making a sound? If not, it must have been someone in the family. Was the young man’s use of “Saigon” instead of “Ho Chi Minh” merely a ploy to build confidence in him? Was the young man an agent provocateur?

In any case, Baker hoped he wouldn’t have to use the gun— merely having it in Vietnam was highly illegal — and hoped the tire slashing and the sign of the dead were merely two unrelated incidents. Perhaps the chopsticks being put in the bowl like that — sticking up like incense tapers — was a nasty bit of teasing by someone else in the village. All right, Baker told himself, so it was a cruel prank by some spiteful neighbor and had nothing to do with him. The problem was still the stealth it took for someone to come up to the house, creep up the ladder steps, do it, and leave without being noticed by either him or his hosts. Which brought him back to the family again.

He heard a soft thud, like a rubber ball thrown in through the doorway. A grenade? He switched on his flashlight, ready to kick it out the door, and instead saw nothing but a slash of brilliant green slithering toward him. He fired with one hand holding the flashlight, the other pulling the trigger, until he’d emptied the .45, his hands shaking uncontrollably from his phobia of snakes, the snake having disappeared under the mattress. By now of course it was as if the house had been bombed, everyone running and talking excitedly, lanterns coming on and swinging through the hamlet.

Baker tried to talk but couldn’t. Instead he pointed the handgun at the mattress. Finally he could manage a few words. “Con tran!” he said. “Con tran!” It meant python, but he couldn’t remember the word for “snake.” “Con tran—green. You understand con tran?”

Sure, everybody understood. Who didn’t understand? Pythons, said one of the contemptuous teenagers, are known for their great flying ability! “Must have been a bat!” another said.

The young man, his host’s oldest son, who called Ho Chi Minh Saigon, carefully lifted up the riddled sleeping bag and straw mattress with a stick in one hand and a long knife in the other. There was no snake there, only a wild pattern of holes that the bullets had made after passing through the sleeping bag, mattress, and thatched floor.

Soon the rest of the villagers went home. They needed sleep for their work in the fields more than they needed stories of flying pythons from a mentally ill American. And in his city-bred panic, the American had totally lost face.

Yet the next morning, when a policeman arrived wanting to know who had been firing a gun last night, none of the villagers could answer him. They were all asleep, they told him. No one wanted trouble for the hamlet. Oh yes, they said, they’d heard shots coming from the direction of Lang Bian’s peaks, but Vietnamese had lived with the sound of firing for a thousand years. A poacher, perhaps. Everyone knew that since the Vietnam War deer, wild pig, and even tigers had begun to repopulate the area. “Saigon,” as Baker had begun calling his host’s oldest son, was apparently the only one who believed Baker that a snake, despite the height of the house’s stilts, had been in his room.

“What color was it?” he asked Baker.

“Green.”

“Then it wasn’t a python.”

“No — No, but I couldn’t think of your name for snake.”

Saigon asked, “What kind of green?”

“Very bright.”

“A bamboo viper,” Saigon said.

Baker didn’t want to ask the next question, but his need to recover face at least for himself after his outburst of panic forced him to. He asked Saigon if a bamboo viper was your ordinary elephant grass, nonpoisonous creepy crawly or what?

“Had it bitten you, you would have been dead within the hour. You had better keep the gun.”

In one sense, it was the last thing Baker wanted to hear, yet it reassured him to know that someone at least believed his version of what had happened. “Someone is after you,” Saigon said. “You’ve come too close, I think, to Salt and Pepper. I don’t think they are directly involved — otherwise you’d be dead. They are probably off west somewhere in Cambodia or Laos, but I think the slashed tires, the rice bowl and the chopsticks, this is all — how do you Americans say it? — ’low-tech.’ The word has been put out, but now with the Americans helping us in the north, no one wants to do it overtly—” He paused. “—to kill you in the open. They wish it to seem like an accident.”

“Slashed tires are hardly covert” Baker said.

“True. But that might have nothing to do with it. Teenage bad types.”

And why, wondered Baker, are you telling me all this? Is it you? Are you after me? Are you just telling me all this so as not to make me suspicious?

It was as if Saigon could divine what Baker was thinking. “I’m helping you,” Saigon said, “because you are here helping us. I wasn’t born until after the war. For me it is history. I do not dislike Americans.”

“Thanks,” Baker said. “I feel awkward with the gun. What if the Dalat police stop me? They’ll stop you because you’re breathing.”

It was the first time since last night’s meal that Saigon had laughed. “It is true. They would stop their grandmothers. Give it to me. You will be safe on the bus going back to Dalat. I’ll send someone to your hotel with it. I think you should have it.”

“You think I should pursue this matter of Salt and Pepper?”

Saigon shrugged. “This is up to you, but till you’re back safely in Saigon, I think you should keep the gun, I will keep the sleeping bag. If the police saw that, they would be suspicious.”

“Yes.” Baker walked a few paces, then stopped. It was six-fifty, and the first bus out would be in ten minutes. He took out a note he’d written about the existence of Salt and Pepper and of the possibility of a Khmer Rouge flank attack against Vietnam. He gave the note to Saigon, telling him that if anything should happen to him, Saigon should give the note to a senior cadre in Dalat to be passed on to USVUN HQ.

As the crowded bus began its bumpy journey back to Dalat, Baker felt the loneliest he had in years. In going to Dalat, he was running away from Lang Bian Mountain.

CHAPTER FORTY-SIX

It was an awesome sight even for seasoned chopper patrols: over two hundred helos carrying two thousand of Second Army’s Assault Helicopter Battalion and Airborne into battle, fifty miles north of Phu Lang Thuong to the edges of the valley southwest of Loc Binh. From a distance to the fighters and bombers already plastering the scrubby ridges around Loc Binh with H.E. and napalm, the choppers made it look as if the sky was full of gnats.

Marte Price had wrangled a ride on one of the helos. General Jorgensen, she discovered, was a much easier obstacle to work around than Freeman. Jorgensen, at pains to be politically correct, had also allowed several other reporters, including LaSalle, to be in the first wave. Marte Price now wished Jorgensen had refused permission. The noise of over two hundred helicopter engines and rotors chopping the thick, humid air, and the distant thunder of heavy ordnance being dropped to clear the ridges of the PLA, combined to fill her with a fear she had never felt so intensely.

The members of the nine-man squad she was with were mostly silent, all but two sitting on their bulletproof Kevlar vests instead of wearing them, fearing shots from below that could easily penetrate the skin of the chopper and hit their genitals. The minutes before deplaning were filled with apprehension, each man knowing that the PLA might well be ready to spring a trap around the landing zones, holding their fire till the helo’s soldiers were spilling out on the flats between the ridges and then opening up in a murderous ambush.

As the First Battalion of Airborne went in led by Colonel Smythe, Freeman was in the control chopper high above the swarm of helos below, with F-14 Tomcats from the Enterprise riding shotgun, making sure that the helos were properly dispersed to ensure the perimeter about a half mile across.

Normally a colonel or a one-star brigadier general would have been directing the local deployment, but this had been Freeman’s plan, and if he was going to take responsibility for it, — he wanted to personally direct it. Besides, like Patton, he was known as a front-line general, no matter whose plan it was. Furthermore, Second Army was his until told otherwise by Washington.

Then it happened. Bravo Company of the First Battalion were deplaning close to a dike running along the edge of a rice paddy when the field seemed to erupt in fire, the fusillade of bullets coming from a scrubby and partially treed ridge that sloped down to the valley floor of green fields. Even as a star, or six-point 105mm howitzer, gun position was being set on the ridges south of the landing zone, with 105mms slung under the bellies of an equal number of heavy-load Chinook choppers, the PLA infantry were laying down a murderous fire on the Americans.

How did the PLA know there would be a major force attempt to secure the valley as a hub from which to “spoke out” attacks against the PLA’s supply line between Lang Son and Loc Binh and the road between Loc Binh and Lang Duong? In fact they didn’t know. The PLA had guessed that Freeman, a general known for his “keep-moving” tactics, wouldn’t be satisfied waiting for a set-piece battle about Phu Lang Thuong. He wouldn’t wait for his enemy to come to him, but would probably try to leapfrog, overflying the PLA’s spearhead on the Lang Son-Phu Lang Thuong road, to hit Wang’s and Wei’s forces deep in their own territory. That would stop the Chinese supply line, splitting their forces and allowing two divisions from Second Army’s I Corps to close in from Phu Lang Thuong.

Wang and Wei, while having made spectacularly impressive gains so far, had not managed to take Hanoi. The U.S. artillery was too formidable. The Chinese generals now had to decide whether to recall those PLA elements to the south now wheeling before Phu Lang Thuong for the attack on Haiphong on the USVUN eastern flank. If these PLA regiments were able to reach the allied port of Haiphong, then the winding, seventy-mile-long Haiphong-Hanoi road, the allies’ vital supply artery, would be cut, and with that would come a bonanza of allied supplies for the PLA. And whatever the PLA couldn’t find dockside at Haiphong could be supplied along the southeast coast from the Chinese city of Mong Cai.

On the other hand, if the PLA regiments did not pivot before Phu Lang Thuong toward the Red River delta, but stood their ground to prevent the other units of Second Army’s I Corps from pressing north toward Ban Re and Lang Son, the oncoming Americans would soon meet up with Freeman’s Airborne, allowing the Americans in the north, now reinforced, to split into two spearheads, one swinging west to take Lang Son, the other right to Loc Binh.

The two Chinese generals knew they had the numbers, but also knew that if their supply line could be cut this far north, then Freeman’s Second Army I Corps would not only advance but would be constantly reinforced by Haiphong. Wei was still ready to go along with the two political officers and make an all-out assault on Hanoi.

“Imagine,” Wei said, “if Washington fell — the terrible effect on American morale.”

Wang arrogantly waved his comrade’s comment aside. “Washington did fall, comrade. The British burned it to the ground, and look at it today. If anything, its fall hardened American resolve to counterattack.”

“This is another time,” Wei responded.

“Exactly!” Wang retorted. “In any case, it was our agreement that if we did not take Hanoi by the tenth day, we would turn to Haiphong.”

“Yes, Comrade General, but we have been held up on the highway to Hanoi by American and Vietnamese saboteurs. We’ve not really begun our attack on Hanoi.”

“Enough of this wrangling,” Wang said. “I demand a vote.” It was two for going on to attack Hanoi, two for Haiphong.

“Very well,” Wang said. “Beijing must decide.”

“What do we do meantime?” one of the political commissars asked.

Wang’s knuckles rapped the map, his regiments red-flagged, the enemy’s blue. “I suggest we crush Freeman’s helicopter assault at Loc Binh.”

One of the political commissars had the temerity to point out that it would not be correct to report that the Americans were attacking with helicopters. This would give Beijing the impression that the assault was a gunship attack by American Comanche and Apache helicopters when in fact it was an infantry attack, albeit airborne.

Wang said nothing that would injure his career, but merely smiled at the commissar. The other three took this to be a sign of acquiescence. In fact it was a well-camouflaged expression of contempt for the tendentiousness of the political officers. B «t clearly, neither commissar detected his true feelings about them. He was glad they were deceived and was hopeful that Freeman’s forces were about to be equally deceived by his camouflage at Loc Binh.

Apache gunships came to the fore as those who had deplaned their troops flew westward of what were now being called the Loc Binh fields, the Apaches spraying machine-gun fire into the scrub and bamboo that came down to the edges of the fields. In a confusion of communications, some choppers got the order to withdraw with their full complement of troops so TACAIR could be brought to bear, while others still a few feet above the field, their blade wash flattening the elephant grass along the edge of the field/ridge interface, deplaned their troops into a maelstrom of small-arms fire directed at the troops just landing, their most vulnerable moment, the helos also drawing heavy fire.

Up on a ridge held by the Chinese, a battery of 12.7mm machine-gun-cum AA fired had already downed three choppers: one after its troops had alighted, the other two while fully loaded, approaching hovering position. Two Tomcats came in low, dropped napalm on the batteries, and rose quickly as an enormous, roiling orange-black ball of flame engulfed what just seconds before had been enemy positions.

But meanwhile the PLA were “walking” 82mm heavy mortar rounds across the fields, telling Freeman that the PLA crews must have had time to angle — prepare their trap. Then the walking would stop, the rounds hitting the Americans with “unison” rounds in which up to ten mortar rounds landed together, shrapnel whizzing through air, immediately followed by the screams of men being hit.

Freeman, seeing he was between a rock and a hard place, had to decide to cut and run or drop more men into the maelstrom of fire. There seemed to him a better than fifty-fifty chance that he could hold position with a stream of troop-carrying helos keeping up the supply of men and materiel into the LZ while its perimeter was being established. “We keep going,” he ordered. “Hold the perimeter.” Already more helos were taking off from Phu Lang Thuong.

Meanwhile Wang was on the phone with his Loc Binh field commanders, ordering them to commit several reserve battalions from the Chengdu military region — over four hundred men — down the ridge and into the fields, by which his commanders understood that he meant them to penetrate the perimeter. Wang put the phone down and yelled, “Weather report?”

“Clouding over, sir, but clear for helos below two thousand feet.”

“Then,” said Wang grimly, “he will keep pouring troops into the area until he pushes the perimeter uphill. It must have been a terrible shock for him to find us waiting, to have forecasted this probable landing site, but now that shock is over—” Wang was pacing anxiously. “—I think he will stay, at least so long as the cloud ceiling makes it possible to call in air support.” Wang ordered another battalion, another eight hundred, down the ridge into the fields to where PLA mortars had cratered an area of about fifty yards across, through which platoon-sized elements of Wang’s Chengdu army were penetrating.

By now several hastily emplaced U.S. 105mm batteries were opening fire, and Freeman’s men saw several volcanolike explosions of scrub bush and red earth. Still, the PLA’s mortars were proving the more deadly fire, screams of “incoming” causing the Americans to scramble to what cover they could find in the detritus of war, from empty ammo boxes to the dead.

Now it was hand-to-hand where the mortars had broken the Americans’ defensive ring, and D’Lupo, Rhin, and Martinez found themselves in a firefight through clouds of smoke grenades they’d tossed into the breach. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to slow down the PLA regulars rushing through the clouds of dense white smoke, their shadowy figures cut down by the U.S. infantrymen’s best friend, the “pig,” the M-60 machine gun.

“Two o’clock! Two o’clock!” Martinez yelled. D’Lupo’s M-16 fired and the figure fell. In a rush of three PLA soldiers through the smoke, one was unlucky enough to run across the field of fire of Private First Class Walter B. Sloane. Sloane had a twelve-gauge pump action shotgun and fired twice, the Chinese soldier’s head gone, his blood-splattered torso still running around. “Sit down, ya silly prick!” some GI yelled out, and that was it — Martinez, D’Lupo, and even a harried radio operator Rhin couldn’t contain their fear-bred laughter, Martinez laughing so hard he could hardly change magazines. Rhin could barely be understood by one of the following air cavalry companies coming in with priority landing status.

“What the hell’s the matter with you, soldier?” a major bellowed.

“We jus’—man, Sloane just blew his head off—”

“Now you listen to me, goddamn it. Get a grip on yourself, fella!”

Rhin told Martinez they were to get a grip on themselves, and Martinez, having just fired off a three-round burst, said, “What parta me would he like me to grip? Shit, man, can’t—”

Rhin only got under control when a mortar shell landed yards away. Miraculously, he wasn’t hit by any shrapnel, but the concussion knocked him to the ground, a large, ocher-colored sod of earth from the dike along the edge of the field hitting him in the stomach, completely winding him. He was gasping for air, unable to speak, so Martinez had to take the field phone.

“Identify your Lima,” a voice yelled. “Identify your Lima. Over.”

“Far as I can tell,” Martinez answered, “we’re at the northern edge of these fields. Lot of white smoke. Over.”

“There’s white smoke everywhere. Mark the LZ with purple smoke. Can you do that? Over.”

“Roger. Can do. Over.”

“Out.”

It was a terrible mistake for Martinez not to know that day’s prearranged signal for an LZ. As the Americans had the enemy wavelength and were using Vietnamese/Chinese interpreters, so too did the Chinese have the American wavelength and Vietnamese/Chinese/English interpreters. Within seconds of the transmission between the air cavalry major and Martinez, the helo pilot saw a purple column of smoke curling up from the swirling hell of shrapnel-infested white smoke and ground fire. He started to descend and saw purple smoke rising, this time in the northern sector somewhere farther east.

“Jesus Christ,” the air cav major said, “which fucker is ours?”

“I say we go in on the first one, Major,” the pilot said. “If it’s a PLA dupe, we gotta assume our boys were the first to lay purple.”

“Guess you’re right, Lieutenant. Take us in.”

“Yessir.”

The blades of dozens of choppers above them, the neverending cracks of small-arms fire and roaring machine guns around them, D’Lupo’s platoon was in a cacophony of sound and confusion. Farther east, unseen by their fellow soldiers on the ground, the helo with the cavalry major descended into purple, the purple smoke now buffeted away by the downwash, the helo no more than ten feet from the ground.

“Jesus!” the pilot yelled, recognizing two or three PLA regulars below him, rifles raised. It was too late. An 85mm Soviet-made RPG7 round exploded into the guts of the chopper. Aflame, it fell like a brick, its blades broken and spinning like a scythe through the field, the explosion of its gas tanks an enormous saffron cloud, the bodies of its crew and squad of air cavalry curling grotesquely into wizened black fetal positions. The small-arms ammo inside the fiercely burning shell of the helo was popping off, the smell of cooked flesh, oil, and burning gasoline wafting across the battlefield.

From this point on, no LZ identification procedures were to be given in plain language over the field phones, only prearranged phrases or strips of cloth that would confuse the enemy.

The men pouring out of following choppers were now doing so in the center of the field and running out to relieve and/or reinforce the troops on the perimeter. Freeman kept pouring men in. “Don’t let ‘em bear-hug you!” he ordered his commanders as he landed in some tall elephant grass growing along part of the dike.

“What’d he mean?” Marte Price asked a private who was busy seeing whether it was possible for a human being to melt into elephant grass by will alone.

“What’s he mean, bear-hug?” she repeated, only now noticing that the recorder in her hand was shaking uncontrollably. She dared not ask Freeman, his aide Cline, or even his somewhat — ironically — timid press officer Boyd.

“Bear-huggin’, ma’am,” someone with a southern accent explained, “is when tha enemy gets in so close to ya ya can’t use arty — that’s artillery, ma’am — as covering fire for your men, ‘cause if you do, you’ll kill as many of your own guys as the enemy — maybe more.”

Marte Price spun around and crashed into a soldier’s M-16 rifle, a hole and a large splotch of blood on her left breast.

“Medic!” a soldier near her shouted. “Medic! Reporter’s been hit!”

Freeman moved her as gently as speed would allow, the pain of it making her gasp, a medic barely out of a chopper by her side. He slit open her blouse, cut her bra off, and gave her a shot of morphine, then taped her with a thick wad of field dressing. Then, with Freeman’s help, the medic carried her to one of the relay choppers about to take off back to Phu Lang Thuong.

“I’m sorry,” she told Freeman, who merely patted her on the other shoulder, shouting, “You’ll be all right — a million-dollar wound!” She had heard him clearly despite the terrible confusion of the battle, and she vowed then that her wound would not be a ticket out of the war. She would get well and she would cover this war as she had first intended — at the front.

At the northern edge of the perimeter the fighting was hand-to-hand with rifle, knife, and bayonet, and the American artillery couldn’t help. But the perimeter was bulging here and there, no longer the circle of Freeman’s plan but larger in area, if only the bulges could hold and not be squeezed by the PLA. Here the American ability to reinforce and resupply with a speed unmatched by any other army proved the decisive factor, along with the fact that Freeman’s troops knew he was there. They also knew Marte Price was there, a woman whose very presence not only commanded their protection, but also meant that their performance would be reported that day.

But if, as well as the bravery and training of the Airborne troops, there was one weapon that turned the tide at approximately 1500 hours, it was the U.S. flamethrower, which not only arced toward the PLA it could see, but set a deep “pie slice” of underbrush afire, and soon the high canopy of forest on the hill and its ridges were ablaze, forcing the PLA infantry back, where they simultaneously became visible to Freeman’s Forward Air Controller, who, in his Cessna Bird Dog spotter plane, was now directing the heavy ordnance from three F-14 Tomcats from Enterprise right on top of the retreating PLA. On the next bomb run, however, the Tomcats couldn’t see any more targets for the fire’s smoke, and neither could the FAC. Freeman ordered the First Battalion into the burned-out pie slice that had now become a charred three-acre patch on the southern side of the ridge that slanted up from the wet, muddy fields, over which thick, white smoke was now pooling, having been blown away from the PLA positions. But neither the advancing U.S. infantry battalion nor the FAC or Tomcat pilots could see any Chinese on the far side of the ridge.

Freeman grasped the field phone and coughed roughly to rid his throat of “smoke scrape.”

“Now listen, Colonel, I want your boys to do two things simultaneously. First I want Alpha Company to get up to the ridgeline facing Loc Binh — watch for booby traps and dig in. Then I want rats from Bravo Company to go down after the PLA, and Charlie Company to stay in reserve so when those tunnel maggots come up for air after we smoke ‘em out, we’ll have reception for them. You got that? Over.”

“Roger. Alpha top of the ridge, Bravo farther down, and Charlie covers the rear. Over.”

“How many tunnelers you got there, Colonel? Over.”

“Half a dozen trained, General. Over.”

“Not enough. You grab anyone — Vietnamese or U.S. — under five-four and weighing under 145 and send ‘em down. Over.”

“I’ll do my best, General. Over.”

“No you won’t. You’ll flush those chinks outta there for us to shoot or I’ll have your ass. Out!”

LaSalle had made a special note of Freeman’s use of the word “chinks.” Mon dieu! If he could get that pic he’d heard about of Freeman finishing off one of his own wounded, along with this “chink” gaffe, he’d probably get the lead story for Paris Match. Then it suddenly hit him. What in Hades was he doing up here at the front while Marte Price was back at the first available field hospital, a first-rate opportunity for him to really search her tent?

He waited till he heard the next Medevac chopper come in, its prop wash dispersing the smoke as several medics loaded two badly wounded men on its side litters. The sergeant told the Frenchman he couldn’t ride this one out. They had several walking wounded with serious enough “bleeds” that he’d have to wait.

“No sweat,” he answered loudly as Alpha Company’s mortars pounded the top of the Loc Binh ridge. LaSalle waited. He didn’t care if they thought him a coward, bolting from the battle. Not if he could get time to really do a cinema verité, as it were, of the great American general, Freeman. LaSalle didn’t like Americans, never had. If the French were too proud, the Yankees were much too cocky. He planned to take them down a peg or two. He could see his prizewinning article now: “Pierre LaSalle at the Front! Exclusive!” LaSalle had never forgotten Freeman’s comments about the French unwillingness to let the USAF overfly French airspace during the bombing attack on Khadafy in Libya. “The frogs only care about the frogs. Their idea of collective security is to have a multinational force protect France, and to hell with quid pro quo!” The only American LaSalle liked was Jerry Lewis.

Battalion leader Colonel Melbaine had Alpha Company atop the ridge, as Freeman had ordered, and Charlie Company was spread west to east at the base of the slope, forming a backup line about three hundred yards long.

Several of the tunnel rats from Bravo Company, stripped to the waist, were preparing themselves with field-phone transmitting throat mikes and transmitter packs that nowadays obviated the need of spool wire trailing behind. In addition to the mike and 7-shaped flashlight, each rat went down with a .45, spare clips in side pockets.

Colonel Melbaine said he had only five qualified rats ready to go. He needed more to go down, but guys he’d thought were around five feet four and around 145 pounds had suddenly grown fatter — said they’d “love” to go down but, fuck it, they were too wide.

General Freeman turned to Major Cline. “Bob, get me a kit I’m going down.”

“General, Jesus, sir — pardon me — but you’ll get stuck down there.”

“Don’t be so goddamn rude. I’m in top physical shape.”

“But sir—”

“C’mon, Bob, don’t give me dance. Get me a flashlight, a .45, and a mike/transmitter unit.”

With the five other rats ready, he signaled the six of them to go down. A second later each man was down a hole in the fire-ravaged earth.

In the darkness, Freeman found the arched runnel, dug by the PLA for the PLA, as much a squeeze as Bob Cline had predicted, his heart thumping so hard that he felt sure the whole of Bravo Company must now be privy to his fear. He felt carefully in front of him, using his knuckles to rap the damp, cool earth, the PLA known to set punji sticks, razor-sharp angled bamboo that would go right through a man’s boot, the earthen top of such traps often built to support the lighter PLA troops but not the generally heavier-built Americans.

His flashlight fell on a Z-shaped corner, constructed to prevent grenade shrapnel or concussion from wiping out a whole length of tunnel rather than just a portion of it. “Twenty feet in,” came Freeman’s subdued voice, “passed a Z, going toward a U bend.” Like a bomb squad member or test pilot, he was recording everything for them. Should he get killed, the next rat down would know how far to go before he could expect anything new. He heard a crack like a stick breaking. One of his tunnel rats had made a contact, the shot echoing through the tunnel complex, but whether left or right of him, he couldn’t say. He was halfway around the U bend when he came across something he had never seen or heard about in the tunnels before — a saloonlike bamboo door.

Breathing hard, sweat breaking out on his neck, he took a moment to compose himself. Then he noticed another tunnel veering off to the right, so that he had a choice, either straight ahead into the tunnel or to veer off to the right. He heard a noise, the scurrying of some animal, and felt the wet rush of a huge gray rat along his side that caused his whole body to shiver. “Am at a bamboo door,” he reported to those topside. “Have probably gone in eighty feet. Another section of tunnel goes off to the right.”

Which way to go? Bamboo door looked fishy, as if it was inviting him to come in. Perhaps it was a PLA sign that beyond lay a dead-end storage area. Was that where the rat or whatever had scurried past him had come from? He turned the flashlight on and off just long enough for him to see that below the door there was some spilled rice. “Huh,” Freeman said gruffly, desperately fighting a growing sense of claustrophobia and the stench of rotten air. “Door definitely looks wrong. Ten to one you touch it and you trip a grenade.”

His throat was bone dry, despite the cool dampness of the fetid tunnel. “Will use white smoke to make vertical shafts visible if I find any. Am resting awhile before I move. Out.” It also gave Freeman time to listen for a few minutes to hear, despite the steady thunder and staccato of battle overhead, if there was any movement coming his way.

The door drew him toward it, but he resisted the temptation — it was a sucker’s trap if ever there was one. He took the right tunnel instead.

CHAPTER FORTY-SEVEN

The move of prisoners from Upshut Island to the mainland was as abrupt as it was unexpected. The South Chinese Intelligence Bureau had suddenly been apprised of the disposition of American naval forces in the South China Sea. It was impressive, with at least six Hunter/Killer Los Angeles subs within range of the island, which was merely another way of saying that if any PLA aircraft took off from the island against the U.S. Seventh Fleet, they would immediately be brought down by the Seventh Fleet’s surface-to-air missiles.

And so, in one report by the Chengdu Intelligence Bureau, the reason for keeping U.N. POWs on the island as hostages against the U.S. air attack no longer made any sense. What was the use of having allied hostages on Upshut Island to protect the runway from U.S. bombs if the PLA planes on the airstrip were rendered unusable because of the Seventh Fleet’s missiles? Much better, it was decided by Beijing, to move the POW hostages to a location where they could be of more use as hostages and/or coolies.

And so, in a stench of sweat and kerosene fumes, and as quickly as they’d been brought to Upshut Island, the American, Australian, Vietnamese, and other U.N. POWs were placed aboard PLA transports clearly marked with a red cross, blindfolded and handcuffed to the inside lugs on the plane’s fuselage, and flown north from the Paracel Islands, then east into Chengdu province. They were then taken to yet another airfield in the making, one not invulnerable to missiles such as the Tomahawk, but a field in China proper, not in the disputed islands of the South China Sea.

It was thought that though the Americans might drop bombs on their own if strategic considerations deemed it imperative to do so, the U.S. would not sacrifice the other POWs — the Australians, Vietnamese, and British. It would create an uproar within the United Nations coalition. In any event, the Americans would think twice for another reason. To bomb an internationally recognized “dispute island” was one thing, but to attack an airstrip in China proper would be an enormous leap into the political unknown. It would create the kind of political maelstrom in the offing when MacArthur wanted to cross the Yalu into China during the Korean War. The mere suggestion that, because of strategic and tactical considerations he was thinking about it, was enough to bring U.N. criticism, and led to Truman firing him. To be part, albeit the major part, of a USVUN force was one thing, but to allow U.S. airpower to cross the Vietnamese-Chinese border to hit inside China proper went way beyond the mandate Jorgensen and Freeman had.

Two F-14 Tomcats on combat patrol two hundred miles from the USS Enterprise were told by the carrier AWACS about the Red Cross plane, and the F-14s swooped down to have a look-see. “The Chinese have painted red crosses all over,” the patrol leader reported.

“Do not engage,” Enterprise advised. “I say again, do not engage.” That’d be all the USVUN would need — the downing of a Chinese Red Cross plane — though the Enterprise’s skipper was willing to bet a month’s pay the bastards were using it to ferry PLA troops back and forth from all the islands claimed by the PLA for the People’s Republic of China.

For those in the Chinese transport plane, a PLA C-46 made to carry forty fully armed troops but now jam-packed with ninety prisoners, the sleep-inducing drone competed with the anxiety of not knowing where they were going.

“Where the fuck are we?” Mike Murphy demanded above the steady roar of the engines, and trying to use his facial muscles to work down the blindfold.

“Well, we’re not in Hawaii,” Shirley Fortescue whispered.

“Well,” Danny Mellin said, “my money’d be on China. Somewhere on the southeast coast.”

There was a thud, followed by an agonized expulsion of air.

“Up shut!” commanded Upshut, and now from a slit of light Mike Murphy could see Lieutenant Mung, the interrogator aboard the destroyer. It looked as if they were moving from Upshut Island lock, stock, and barrel. Through his tiny window on the world, Murphy could get only a tantalizing glimpse — a trace of silver — that would be somewhere in the northern sector of the Gulf of Tonkin, if Mellin was correct.

Soon they began their descent. Ears began to pop, and some experienced needle-sharp pains in their sinuses, their faces contorted as they leaned forward in a vain attempt to get away from the rapid change in pressure, hands straining against roped wrists.

There was a banshee howl as the undercarriage came down and engaged, then a sharp bump, and a second or two when everything felt out of control.

A political officer was already aboard before the props stopped turning. “Welcome to Ningming. You will work hard and prosper!” the cadre announced, smiling.

Mike Murphy stood up. Lieutenant Mung wanted to knock the Australian down, but stopped when the commissar held up his hand. “Whaddya mean by prosper, mate? You mean you’ll let us go free?”

The cadre’s smile showed yellow-stained teeth. “Yes. When you work hard, you help fight American imperialists. This will help win war. Then you go home. Everybody happy!”

“Yeah, well, what if we don’t want to work — for you or any other bloody cadre?”

The eagerly nodding cadre was still smiling, his features thrown into gross relief by the flashlight he was holding. “You not work, you will be shot.”

“Yeah,” Murphy said sullenly. “Well, how we gonna work with our bloody hands tied up? Christ, you lot are straight from the bloody goon show-ya know that?”

“We do not understand this,” the cadre said.

“Back off, Mike,” Mellin warned.

“Well, shit, we aren’t prisoners of war, for Chrissake. We’re just a poor bunch of bastards picked up off the rigs.”

“You will have your hands unroped,” the cadre said. “In the morning you work — two hundred of you. You will help make Ningming large airport.”

“From which to bomb the USVUN forces,” Murphy charged.

“This,” the cadre conceded, “is correct, but first you will build your accommodations.” He said something sharp to Upshut, who unclipped the stock of the AK-47, walked over, and clubbed Murphy to the ground. With the Australian in a protective fetal position, Upshut kicked at his groin and missed, his boot crunching the Australian’s cupped hands. Next, Upshut walked about Murphy and started in on his kidneys, ending with a final vicious kick at Murphy’s face, catching the Australian on the right cheek, now bleeding profusely. Upshut handed his rifle to a soldier, still looking down at Murphy.

“Always big mouth. Never up shut! Always for girl, yes? For girl.” He pointed at Shirley Fortescue. “For her — yes? Yes?” he bellowed, and took his foot back for another kick.

“Yes,” Murphy said.

“Yes,” Upshut said. “For girl.”

He knelt down next to the bleeding prisoner. “You lose face, Australian. Next time you die. You understand?”

“Yes.”

“Tell me you full of shit.”

Murphy wet his lips, but before he could speak, Upshut stopped him, telling him that he wanted everyone to hear. Mung nodded, and Upshut kicked him in the base of the spine. Murphy groaned with pain. “Tell them!”

“I’m—”

“Louder!” Mung ordered, holding his hand out for the AK-47.

“I’m full of shit.” All the prisoners averted their eyes to lessen his humiliation, but in doing so they too lost face.

Ningming, a railhead with one airstrip, was thirteen miles from the Vietnamese/Chinese border, twenty-six miles from Dong Dang and Lang Son in Vietnam, and twenty-five miles from Loc Binh, where Freeman’s Second Army was waging war on the ridges south of Loc Binh.

CHAPTER FORTY-EIGHT

In Texas, Mrs. Mellin received yet another letter from the head office of the Veterans Administration in Washington, D.C.

Dear Mrs. Mellin:

Thank you for your letter of March 6 inquiring about the possible whereabouts of your husband, Daniel E. Mellin, who has been missing since the fire at an offshore drilling rig in the South China Sea. I fully empathize with your frustration at not receiving any solid information regarding your husband’s whereabouts beyond the information given us earlier by the Royal Bruneian Government that the fire at the scene was so intense that many bodies were burned beyond recognition. We are of course continuing to investigate the matter, but given the present hostilities between China and the USVUN forces, our inquiries to date have been met with silence.

On another front — that of the MIA status of Mr. Mellin’s sister Angela — there is the possibility, albeit a faint one, that increased contacts between the Republic of Vietnam and the United States necessitated by the USVUN coalition, will yield long-awaited information on some of the more than two thousand MIAs and suspected POWs still held in Vietnam.

The director has asked me to assure all those family and friends of MIAs and POWs that the department is doing its utmost in this matter. He has also suggested that public appeals through the media, phone-in shows, and privately written letters to the government in Hanoi tend to inhibit our inquiries rather than help. Rest assured, however, that we will not cease in our efforts to ascertain the whereabouts of Mr. Daniel Mellin and Ms. Angela Mellin.

CHAPTER FORTY-NINE

Not having heard anything for several minutes in the tunnel, Freeman, still on hands and knees, edged his way from the bamboo swing door into the first curve of what turned out to be an S and not a U bend. Somewhere above him he heard the faint stutter of what he guessed was an M-60, probably chopping down a PLA soldier who’d felt trapped on hearing tunnel rats coming for him from two directions at once. At the end of the S turn, Freeman came adjacent to an alcove about four feet deep, four feet high, and six feet long, containing two bunk beds of bamboo, and, set into a small recess, an oil wick candle. Beneath the bottom bunk were several dozen plastic hoops, known to the Americans as “Beijing hoops.” When twigs and leaves were attached to the plastic rings, a soldier wearing them could turn his head 180 degrees without the camouflage moving.

At the end of the bottom bunk was a small first aid kit. Freeman knew that whether your enemy had morphine was one way to tell how well-equipped he was. But to find out that bit of intelligence would have meant opening the box, which he didn’t do. Seeing a deep shadow off to his left about three feet away, he determined it was another alcove and made his way toward it. Its three walls contained rolls of curtainlike muslin that could be unrolled to form cloth walls insects couldn’t penetrate.

In the middle of the alcove, taking up about half its length, was a bamboo operating table with various instruments laid out, including forceps, suturing needles, scalpels, and clamps. There was a large light overhead, its socket set into the earthen ceiling. The wire leading from it went across the roof of the tunnel to a smaller alcove, no more than two feet deep, five feet long, and five high, where Freeman found an old Flying Pigeon bicycle on rollers. When pedaled, the turning wheels would produce electricity to light the small operating theater.

Seeing a cone of light ahead of him at right angles, the beam moving farther to his left, Freeman released the safety on his .45, lay flat, and held the revolver in two hands. The beam went out, its images still dancing on Freeman’s right retina, the general, from experience, having kept one eye closed. He opened it now, shutting the right eye. “Delta two!” he called.

“Lima!” came the correct response from one allied tunneler to another.

Freeman could hear his own sigh of relief. “Nothing is better than hearing a friendly voice down one of those godforsaken gopher holes,” he’d once told Bob Cline. He switched his flashlight on then off. The other tunnel rat did the same. Freeman could see he was approaching a T section, with the other soldier about to cross it. Though becoming more claustrophobic by the minute, he whispered, “I’ll take it, son. You head back. Make sure you let our boys know it’s you coming out.”

“Don’t worry,” the soldier whispered. “I will.”

Freeman patted the youngster, then crawled cautiously across the junction to cross the T and follow the tunnel to its end, and in so doing added to his legend, to the mystique of those commanders before and since Caesar whose men knew they would never be asked to do something by their commander that he would not be prepared to do himself.

When Freeman crossed the T and was alone again in the enemy’s subterranean world, an involuntary shiver passed through his body. He felt the claustrophobia worsening, the ever-present danger of suffocation so heavy upon him that he had to fight not to throw up. Combined with his own body stench, he smelled the damp mold of the tunnels themselves, and felt an overwhelming urge to go as fast as hell and get out. But speed, he knew, was as sure a killer as a hidden grenade or trip wire. “Carefully does it,” he told himself, and when he moved forward, felt the rush of gut acid up his esophagus and cursed himself for not bringing antacid pills — next to his .45 and knife, a tunneler’s best friend.

He felt ahead with the base of the flashlight in his right hand, careful of any traps. The ground was holding. Now he gave it the full weight of his right hand as he moved forward with his left. Suddenly the ground went from under his left hand, his body driving it down hard on the punji sticks. It was the first time anyone had ever said they’d heard Freeman scream. Two punji sticks, each tipped with excrement, had penetrated his left hand. Simultaneously he saw a shadow flitting ahead left to right. He challenged, got no answer, and fired two rounds that echoed eerily in the subterranean world. Freeman slumped for a moment, then regained his composure enough to back up out of the tunnel, his hand bleeding profusely.

CHAPTER FIFTY

It seemed as if the bus back to Dalat had no springs. It was certainly overloaded, and despite a sign — albeit a small one — warning of fines for expectorating on the people’s buses, Ray Baker could hear the loud guttural rumbles of spitters about to take aim through the open-air windows.

Some of the children in the back of the bus were yelling with glee as the vehicle bumped and rattled on its way to Dalat. It made Ray Baker nervous. All the noise and the disease of Saigon had spread to the north — ghetto blasters blasting everything within earshot, the sound amplified by the interior of the ramshackle bus. He suddenly had a case of déjà vu — a bright morning like this, bodies pressing up hard against one another, the smell of people jammed together, engine fumes and dust, kids squalling then screaming, an American collapsing in the aisle, eyes bulging, falling flat on his face, adults screaming, reaching for their children to get them away from him, the American facedown, a knife protruding from his back, no one helping him. Baker had been unable to reach him because of the stream of hysterical passengers pouring from the bus as it skidded to a stop, several passengers climbing out the open side windows. A stampede, no one but him wanting to help the American, no one wanting to get involved.

Suddenly, the flashback over, he turned around. A baby saw his face from less than a foot away and began screaming. There were only other children and harried parents trying to maintain some sense of order while balancing the various fruits, vegetables, and village wares they were taking to Dalat. It was then that he saw the boy from yesterday running by the bus, sending out a long crimson stream of betel juice and waving happily to him.

“Oh yes,” Baker said, smiling maliciously at him. “I want to see you too, you little bastard!” It was the boy who must have fingered him, or at least suckered him away to the market while they did over his room, whoever they were.

When Baker got out of the bus, the boy was nowhere to be seen. Then, on his way back to the hotel, he saw the boy nonchalantly coming toward him, not even pausing as he spat the next stream of betelnut juice onto the dusty street. Baker wanted to ask the youth a pile of questions, but all that came out was “Hi!” in response to the boy’s greeting. Only then did Baker ask, “Who are you?”

“Friend, Bac Baker. Friend of Americans. Okay?”

True, the kid had indirectly got him the info about a couple of MIAs, but how about the woman and the lemon? Baker confronted the boy: Wasn’t that just a dead end to allow whoever was paying him time to ransack his hotel room?

The boy didn’t understand “ransack,” but thought he understood after Baker had given him another dollar.

“I don’t know who did this,” he said.

To believe him or not? Baker wondered. He asked the boy who had hired him this morning, or did he just happen to rum up at the bus stop at that particular time? The boy was astounded by the question. Whether something had been lost in the translation or not, Baker didn’t understand. But in any event the boy said, “Same man yesterday, today. Same man, Bac Baker.”

“Yeah, all right, but who?”

The boy shook his head. “I tell you that, no more money. Bad for me. Okay? You understand, Bac Baker?”

“Yeah, yeah. So are you going to tell me why you’re here at the market, right now?”

The boy spat a long, crimson stream at a bug crawling on the sidewalk, missed, and told Baker, “He say to tell you Salt and Pepper be back.”

Baker felt a surge of exhilaration with an overlay of panic. “Salt and Pepper will be back?”

“No, be back.”

“You mean they are back.”

“Yeah, sure, that’s what I tell you. Okay?”

“Okay,” Baker said. He suspected the warning as well as the initial contact made with the note came from the villager’s son, “Saigon.”

“Tell whoever hired you, thanks.”

“Sure, okay.” Baker gave him another ten thousand dong. The boy snapped the bill and smiled, showing his brown-stained teeth.

As Baker walked across the pedestrian overpass from the Mai Building on a deliberate roundabout route to his hotel, he told himself to calm right down, as his mom used to tell him. “Just calm right down — don’t get so excited, all worked up.” Yes, it looked like the first solid info on MIAs he’d had in years, but it might be bullshit too. People everywhere wanted to make a buck and would tell you anything, right? But then how about the hotel room all messed up, and the damn snake in the village? All right, buddy boy, calm down. Call Saigon— not the guy, Ho Chi Minh City — tell them what you have, the people you’ve seen and so on.

He dialed 01-8, then moved his body so that Ha Ha, the good friend of the police permit department, on shift again behind the counter, couldn’t tell the number he was dialing in old Saigon.

“United States Legation. How may I help you?”

“Jean, it’s Ray Baker here. Got some info on MIAs.”

“Shoot!”

“I hope not,” he joked, aware of the .45 in his coat pocket.

“What?” Jean asked.

“Nothing. Listen, I might be a bit soft-spoken and oblique here, but try to follow me. All right?”

“Roger.”

“Two MIAs. No evidence, only verbal, but a bit of monkey business with yours truly.”

“A lot of business, Ray?”

“Not so far, but definitely business.”

“You want us to extend your personal liability coverage?”

“Let me see. Hmm… could you do that by tonight?”

“Might be difficult, Ray. We’re sort of busy up north.”

“Yeah, of course. Ah, don’t worry about it. I’ve got enough coverage for tonight.”

“You sure? I could always try our Hanoi rep.”

“Nah, I’ll be fine. I might even grab a flight down tonight.”

“I can tell you now they’re full — a lot of civil officials transferring south.”

“Okay. I’ll book tomorrow. I’ll be fine. Friends coming around anyway.”

“You sure?”

“Positive. One more thing, Jean. There’s been a complaint. Same two MIAs ran with the opposition. Now info is they’re guides for that movie The Killing Fields. They’re apparently doing a remake.”

“In their own studio?” Jean asked, right on the ball.

“Nah,” Baker replied. “Apparently they want to use the opposition’s.”

“Oh. So is that all?”

“No. They’re known as Salt and Pepper.”

“Oh?”

“One black, one white. That’s all for now. See you tomorrow night.”

“You sure about the extra liability coverage?”

“Yeah. ‘Bye.”

Yeah, sure he was sure about extra liability coverage. Like hell he was, but what did it sound like to Jean — scaredy-cat! Look, the .45 was in his pocket. What the hell anyway? There’d be enough damn beetles on the floor, you’d hear anyone tiptoeing in. Besides, he’d crush up newspapers and throw them about — they’d make a hell of a rustle if someone tried to sneak in. And he’d use the dead bolt, sit with the .45 in his lap — on the toilet too. No way he’d take a shower or bath.

After he walked up and put the key in the door, he took a couple of steps to the side so he was braced against the wall and pushed the door open with his toe. A few dead roaches, a couple of them live but stumbling. Everything looked normal. He did a check on the chest of drawers, having put a hair where the second drawer closed on the first before he’d gone to the village. The hair was still there.

He went into the bathroom and washed his face, surprised by how dark the bags under his eyes were. He put a finger under each eye and pulled out to the sides. It took at least ten years off him. Was he vain enough to get a face-lift? He had always wondered why people bothered, but now, in his early fifties, he had a different perspective on it. He was starting to go bald — not a lot, but he could tell the difference. Jean was going bald too, and right now she was his best chance for a relationship.

After a shave, a meal of cha ca—charcoal-broiled fish fillets with roasted nuts — salad, noodles, and fish sauce washed down by a bottle of Tsing Tao beer — the Chinese were being a real pain in the ass, but they sure as hell could make beer — he felt a lot better. The dangers he’d imagined during the day now seemed grossly overblown, and he contemplated the difference a good meal could make to one’s disposition.

He ordered coffee and started worrying about how much he’d already gotten through to Jean in his semiplain language code. He decided to book out on the earliest flight available— the next day at noon.

In his room, coat off, in his undershirt and trousers, Baker sat up on the bed as if on a desert island, ready to indulge one of his sins, and lit up a Camel no-filter, sucking the smoke in so he could feel it deep in his chest and see it flowing lethargically out in curlicue patterns, then watching it slowly dissipate above the land of the roaches. And if any creeps came through the door or from the side veranda, he would pump the bastards “so full of lead” that, in the words of James Cagney, when they fell they’d write!

Later, the night clerk said that the beer had probably made him sleepy. Whatever it was that put him temporarily off guard, by the time Ray Baker got off one shot, his throat was cut, blood bubbling from the carotid artery, his attacker having slid up from behind, coming out from under the bed. He was dead inside a minute.

CHAPTER FIFTY-ONE

The mash unit had to be especially cautious when attending to Freeman’s wounds, not because he was a general, but because his Medic Alert disk showed he was allergic to certain antibiotics. When they got his wound cleansed and his hand bandaged up, they put his arm in a sling, which he immediately dispensed with. He walked back to the armored personnel carrier he was using as a mobile HQ, which, along with an armored cavalry unit, had made its way north along the Phu Lang Thuong road, then been airlifted into the west-east valley between Ban Re and Loc Binh.

Freeman was worried about the fading light. Soon it would be dark, and the Chinese still in the tunnels would be able to exit within the USVUN area and create havoc. Freeman and Vinh knew that if this occurred, there were bound to be many more blue on blue incidents. But to withdraw from the hillside would simply mean giving up the territory, the high ground, that the USVUN had fought so hard for all afternoon, and going back to the fields from which they’d started.

Freeman, like Patton, said he never liked “paying for the same real estate twice,” and elected to hold the high ground. Vinh, however, cautioned that it was possible the Chinese might simply elect to retreat through the tunnel system on this side of the southern slope of the ridge to the ridge’s northern side. Freeman readily acknowledged the possibility. At least if the Chinese did slip out of the battle, he wouldn’t have to worry so much about blue on blue, but he would be faced with the prospect of more than five thousand PLA troops slipping north across the border, troops which — like those who slipped across the Yalu River in Korea — could not be pursued by his Airborne cav units because of the political decision in Washington and Hanoi that USVUN forces could not cross the Vietnamese-Chinese border, which was only a mile and a half north of the ridge.

Vinh suggested through the interpreter that perhaps there might be a way of the USVUN “having cakes and consuming them.” He meant “having your cake and eating it.” Vinh said that if TACAIR attacks from the carrier USS Enterprise could keep up a steady bombing of the northern side of the ridge, bottling Chinese up in the vast underground tunnel system that traversed the ridge, then at least they couldn’t exit.

“So they can’t crawl out and head north?” Freeman asked.

“Yes,” Vinh said. “Then tomorrow we smoke out the tunnels through the camouflaged entrances and exits we found on the southern side today.”

Now Freeman saw the extent of the Vietnamese general’s strategy: bottle their northern escape route overnight by ceaselessly bombing the northern side of the ridge, and in daylight man all entrances and exits you could find and smoke them out — with “white phosphorus” if necessary.

Freeman ruled out white phosphorus, but not purely on humanitarian grounds. After all, the USVUN forces and the Chinese were already using white phosphorus grenades. But a regular grenade was one thing, a phosphorus grenade was something else. You couldn’t pump white phosphorus down into a tunnel system when you weren’t sure where the hell it was going to come up. If it got on your own men’s skin, you might kill more USVUN troops than those of the enemy.

“Very well,” Vinh concluded, “we will use purple smoke. Blow that down, and wherever it comes up we’ll seal unless they agree to surrender.”

“What if they decide to backtrack?” Freeman asked. “I mean what if Wang decides to come back through the tunnels to the fields behind us?”

“Why go back to old ground you have lost?”

“To try and escape south,” Freeman answered. “We don’t know how far south the tunnels go, do we? Besides, they have two battalions at least from their Fourteenth Chengdu Army down there in Disney World. Around a thousand men— infantry and some engineers.”

“Why engineers?” Cline put in.

“Because the bastards know how to dig, damn it! General Vinh here’ll tell you. Hell, his boys had over two hundred miles of tunnels in the Chu Chi system down south during ‘Nam. And despite all our technology, we couldn’t rout them.”

“What makes you think we can do it here, General?”

“Because—” Freeman hesitated. He was proud of his Second Army and he was loath to take anything away from them. “Because, Major, the Vietnamese have been at it a hell of a lot longer than we have, and in the tunnels, they’re better than we are.” He held up his bandaged hand. “Capiche?”

Cline nodded. “All right, but meanwhile where’s General Wei?”

Vinh pointed at the map. “Last intelligence reports say he is still proceeding down the Lang Son-Lang Ro road three miles to the west of us. But our — I mean, the USVUN heavy artillery is lined up along Lang Son-Ban Re railroad and are pounding shits out of them.”

Freeman roared with laughter at the interpreter’s phrasing, adding, “By God, General, I hope you’re right. We don’t want our left flank penetrated.”

“No.”

That night the ridge became known as Disney Hill, not only to the men of Freeman’s Second Army and the USVUN forces, but by the pilots of the fighters and bombers preparing to take off from the Enterprise, even now before the sun went down. The great carrier was at the center of the battle group, along with other ships — submarines and combat air patrols included — pledged to the protection of the carrier as she turned slowly into the wind of the Gulf of Tonkin, her catapults already bleeding steam. She was ready to thrust her warplanes aloft, the aircraft a careful mix of A-6E Intruders, F-14 Tomcats, and F-18 Hornet fighter-bombers, loaded with everything from two-thousand-pound bombs and Sparrow air-to-air missiles to fuel air explosive bombs.

There were no laser-guided bombs on this mission, for while the north side, and not the south side, of Disney Hill was to be hit, it would not be pinpoint bombing that was required to either kill or trap the Chinese in the southside tunnels, it would be power bombing — brute poundage. This was to be excavation by high explosive.

Already in Primary Flight Control, the “handler,” PRI-FLY’s second in command, whose job was so complicated and many-faceted that it often could not be computerized, watched his models of the aircraft on his grid-crossed table. Nowhere is war as complicated as on the flight deck of a carrier when men and machines move in a rough ballet of hand signals amid a forest of constantly moving, different-colored jerseys.

Two of these, gunner’s mates, Albright Stevens and Elizabeth Franks, a “grape” who in her purple jacket was helping to fuel one of the F-18 Hornets with JP-5 gasoline, had been lovers ever since he’d taken her to the movie at the beginning of the voyage. Both of them had since found time together in some of the hundreds of nooks and crannies aboard the huge ship, which, as well as launching planes in any weather, had to feed and minister to over five thousand crew members.

“Lucky we ain’t on a sub,” Albright had told her.

“You’d find a way,” she’d said.

“Believe I would.”

But that was then, and now they were in the Gulf of Tonkin, not a happy place in the annals of American history, and around them they knew the PLA navy was determined to somehow penetrate the carrier’s protective shield.

CHAPTER FIFTY-TWO

Hopes by General Jorgensen’s Hanoi HQ that relief might come to Freeman’s USVUN troops through sabotage by proxy — by having Taiwan-run saboteurs hit China’s southern supply route on the Ningming-Dong Dang railway — began to fade as night fell upon the battle zone.

The vote in Taiwan’s Li-fa Yuan was close, with several nonpartisan or independent members swinging the slim majority to the side of the Democratic Progressive party against the “old ones,” the second-generation right-wing remnants of the old Kuomintang party of Chiang Kai-shek.

In one of the strangest ironies of politics, the Kuomintang on the far right agreed with the Communist party on the far left that Taiwan was still a province of China. But here the agreement between left and right ended, for while the Kuomintang supported the USVUN presence against the Beijing regime, the Communist party was vehemently opposed. The majority of votes swung to the left, crucial independents afraid that any Taiwanese support for the USVUN would not only infuriate Beijing but be the end of the “understanding” between Beijing and Taipei. The understanding was a promise from Beijing that in return for Taipei’s support for China’s South China Sea claims, Beijing would split certain oil concessions in the northern part of the South China Sea, with fifty-one per-rent de facto control for Beijing, forty-nine percent for Taiwan.

* * *

“We can’t wait,” Douglas Freeman said, “for the Taiwanese Chinese to make up their minds.” His HQ staff were looking it the red pins that stood for PLA positions on and around Disney Hill.

“But our State Department boys might be able to swing a few of the independents over to our side,” Cline remarked. Then maybe the Taiwanese’ll authorize some of their agents in China to blow the Ningming-Dong Dang rail line.”

“Huh!” Freeman grunted dismissively, his right fist punching the map of the southern China-Vietnamese border area. Too many maybes, mights, and what-ifs for my liking. By the time those fairies in State get off their butts, Chinese reinforcements’ll be trundling down from the Ningming railhead — in their goddamn thousands.”

“Sir,” his nervous press aide interjected, “it’s not, ah, politically correct to refer to people as fairies. And if you mean gays, I’d advise you to modify—”

“Modify!. To hell with political correctness. Wasn’t talking about gays anyway — long as they keep off one another and keep shooting at the enemy, they’re as good as any other soldier. The fairies in State I’m talking about are those dithering old farts who can’t make a decision. One desk jockey talks to another, and that’s all they do—talk—until it’s too late to do anything!” He slammed his fist against the map again, the Ningming-Dong Dang road shuddering violently.

Freeman paused, but only to get air. “All right, look, here’s what we do. We send in a Special Forces squad to blow the shit out of the Ningming-Dong Dang line, and I don’t mean just in one place, I mean at least three breaks west of Ningming proper. Then again at Xiash and Pingxiang. They’ll nave to mend the line in so many friggin’ places it’ll give ‘em a nervous breakdown!” Freeman turned to Vinh. “You concur, General?”

Vinh nodded and said something to his interpreter. “The general says this is a good idea but that Chinese nerves are very good. In 1979 they lost more than twenty-five thousand in just three weeks, and still reinforcements came through this area.”

“Well, maybe so,” Freeman answered. “I don’t underestimate them for a second, but chopping up their rail line’ll slow them down — give us a chance to secure the border here.”

“Why,” General Vinh asked, “cannot the American carrier planes bombard the rail yards at Ningming?”

“Politics, General,” Freeman answered. “The White House categorically forbids any bombardment in China proper. They don’t want to risk the war spreading any further than it has already.”

“Is that the U.S. decision or the U.N. mandate?” inquired Vinh’s political officer.

“Does it matter?” Freeman asked them. “Whoever’s mandate it is, I’d get fired if I authorized beyond the border bombing. Only thing we’re allowed to do is send out patrols when our positions on this side of the border line are threatened.”

The political officer looked nonplussed. “But the planes from your carrier, they are allowed to bomb the northern side of the hill. It is very close to the border.”

“Yes,” Freeman said. “But our flyboys’ll be able to drop their ordnance just where we want it.”

“And what if some bombs land beyond the border?”

Cline held up his hands. “One or two won’t start an international crisis.”

“Exactly,” Freeman concurred.

Vinh had such a determination about him that Freeman in private was starting to refer to him as the “bulldog.”

“What will happen if your Special Forces are discovered sabotaging the Ningming-Dong Dang line? That would be considered by your White House and the U.N. as ‘in China’ surely?”

“Our Special Forces won’t be caught,” Freeman reassured him. “USVUN teams I’ll send in will be made up of crack American and British commandos. Special Air Service from Britain, Delta Force from us. They’ll go in NOE — choppers, nap of the earth flying. It’ll be drop in, set charges, and get out. Low and fast, General.”

Vinh nodded. “And what about this—” He momentarily forgot the English phrase he wanted. The interpreter listened to Vinh intently, conferred with their political officer, and when there was agreement, told Freeman, “—these condiments — salt and pepper number two.”

Freeman looked blankly at Cline, who looked just as blankly at Boyd, the press officer.

“Condiments?” Freeman repeated.

“Salt and Pepper,” Boyd interjected suddenly. “Condiments — they mean Salt and Pepper, the two MIAs — that report that came to us from our legation in Saigon — I mean in Ho Chi Minh City — about the two American deserters, one white, one black.”

“Yes, yes,” the interpreter said. “But this name, Salt and Pepper, is taken from long ago when there were two other Americans who came over to our side. This is why we call these ones Salt and Pepper number two.”

“Call them bastards,” Freeman said, infuriated by the possibility, no, the certainty, of Americans who had crossed over. “They must be damn near old men by now — I mean if they went over during ‘Nam.”

General Vinh began to talk, but his voice was drowned out by the sonic booms of the planes from the northern side of Disney Hill. Vinh raised his voice. “What will you do about them if this report is correct about them leading the Khmer Rouge up from Cambodia to attack us on our western flank?” Before Freeman could reply, Vinh went on, “The Chinese would be very happy about this. Two Americans fighting against the USVUN.”

The political officer was nodding vigorously. This topic was obviously of far more importance to him than the immediately pressing military situation on Disney. He spoke rapidly and passionately to the interpreter, who explained the political officer’s position to Freeman and his staff. “Hanoi is very concerned about the Khmer Rouge infiltration across the Cambodian-Vietnamese border while we are fighting here in the far north of our country.”

Freeman was also concerned about a war on two fronts, but he’d also seen photos of the Khmer Rouge’s tortured victims piled high at Tuol Sleng extermination center. He had once told the reporter Marte Price that if anything like the mass murder at Tuol Sleng had happened to a white population, there would have been U.N. action almost immediately. “The Khmer Rouge are the scum of the earth,” Freeman had told her bitterly, “and if I’d had my way, I would have turned Khmer Rouge staging areas into a parking lot, but of course, politics. You see, that would have offended their great ally — China.”

“General Freeman,” Vinh said, his expression of bland noncommitment now replaced with the look of an old warrior who, as hard as he’d fought against the Americans in ‘Nam, had never hated a foe as much as he did the Khmer Rouge. Yet as he talked to Freeman — at times using the interpreter — he was putting this hatred aside. It was not hatred that led him to uncharacteristically plead with his American counterpart, but military prudence. “If the Khmer Rouge are not stopped crossing over into Vietnam, all kinds of insurgents from Cambodia and Laos will be encouraged to start yet another war against the new Vietnam, which will quickly demand more USVUN intervention.”

Freeman knew Vinh was right. It was like one of the old oil change ads for your automobile — a case of “pay me now or pay me later,” the inference being that later would be one heck of a lot more expensive in lives and materiel. Either Freeman stopped them now, or at least made a determined thrust into the Laotian staging areas as an unmistakable sign of the USVUN’s commitment to stopping the insurgency, or he would pay heavily later.

“You—” Major Cline began, then changed it to, “We can’t make that decision, General.” Cline had said “General” in such a way that it was impossible for either Vinh or Freeman to know whom he was addressing. In fact he was talking to both, but was being careful, trying not to offend either one. “General Jorgensen,” Cline continued, “is the only one who can authorize such a move out of our immediate sector.” Cline paused and looked at Vinh’s political officer. “In fact, as far as I recall, Jorgensen would have to confer with the Joint Chiefs and the White House for permission to—”

“Find two of our MIAs?” Freeman interjected, another idea already forming on how to bypass the Joint Chiefs. “American people won’t stand for any delay on that score, Major. Over two thousand POWs and MIAs still missing. You think the American people are going to stand still for one minute if we know where our boys are and we say, ‘Oh wait until we’re finished with the Chinese’? Hell, they won’t put up with that for a second.”

“General, we’re talking about two guys who went over.”

“For what reason?” Freeman snapped. “Those Khmer bastards could be holding dozens of our boys.” Before Cline could answer, Freeman’s voice had taken on a terrible urgency. “By God, Major, these two you’re talking about may have been forced to run with those bastards, for all we know. An old story, right? ‘You don’t help us, we’ll kill your buddies!’ “

“But,” Cline stammered, “you don’t know that, sir — with all due respect.”

“With all due respect, Major, you don’t know the truth of it either.” Freeman looked at Vinh. “Matter of fact, quite a few volunteers in your army were more or less there because of families or friends held hostage.”

The political officer quickly responded. “This was a political necessity — at the time.”

“Oh,” Freeman said, “I see. So that’s what it was.”

Cline obviously didn’t like the turn the conversation was taking. “Perhaps you’re both right,” he put in. “I mean, I see why it’s militarily important to send a strong message to the Khmer Rouge, some of our MIAs involved or not. All I’m saying, gentlemen, is that we’re going to have to go through Jorgensen and the President.”

“Jesus Christ, Major,” Freeman said. “Haven’t you been listening to what I’ve been saying? If those fairies in State and the Pentagon get hold of this, they’ll take forever. Meanwhile we could be taking body blows from the Rouge.”

“Then what do you suggest, General?”

There was a pause as Freeman looked at Vinh and then Cline. “Leave it to me. Meanwhile I want you to make sure our boys stay on the southern side of Disney. Don’t want them getting pulverized by our own TACAIR.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And remember, no one moves forward till 0600. Everybody stays down till dawn. Then we’ll smoke out those who haven’t been blown out.”

“Yes, sir.”

Freeman turned to his press officer. “Boyd, sink that coffee you’ve got and come with me.”

Outside, the darkness seemed to be vibrating as F-14 Tomcats and F-18s flew in low, dropping their loads amid curtains of red and white tracer crisscrossing the sky. The AA tracer was coming from those Chinese who had made it through the tunnel system from the southern side of the hill to the northern slope of Disney Hill, only to find their exits blocked by the bombing. Even so, several of them managed to hastily man what triple A they had managed to hide in the northern complex.

Meanwhile those Vietnamese regulars and the American forces nearest the hill’s summit began “walking” their mortars across the PLA’s triple A positions at a nice, easy, murderous fire of ten to fifteen twelve-pound 82mm shells a minute. To an outsider, the fact that the Americans were using 82mm rounds instead of their standard 81mm rounds might have seemed inconsequential, but Freeman’s decision, indeed his insistence, that all U.S. front-line units from Second Army in the USVUN line trade their standard-issue 81mm mortars for North Vietnamese Army 82mm mortars proved to be a brilliant tactical move.

Freeman had always been a keen student of past battles and Benjamin Franklin, how for the want of a nail the horse wasn’t shod and for the want of a horse the battle was lost. He had also remembered the lessons of Korea and of ‘Nam when, with American GIs running out of their heavy 81mm mortar rounds, they overran enemy positions to discover piles of unused mortar shells, but shells that were useless to them because that extra 1mm diameter of Russian, Vietnamese, and Chinese 82mm rounds would not fit into the U.S. 81mm barrel.

Now the mortar positions the USVUN forces had managed to capture or overrun on their way up from the rice paddies to the southern slope of Disney Hill provided the Americans with lots of extra “help-yourself’ mortar rounds, courtesy of General Wang’s retreating units.

* * *

As Douglas Freeman set out back down the hill with Boyd, giving him a running commentary on what they must tell the media pack, which had now exploded in size due to Jorgensen’s “come one and all — nothing to hide” policy, the press officer suddenly fell in the darkness. Freeman, crossing over so he could use his right arm rather than his bandaged left to help, heard Boyd moaning and cussing — unusual for the press officer. As Freeman reached down to help him up, he felt a sodden, metallic-smelling warmth, with the consistency of a firm sponge — the brain’s pulse, like a thing breathing, not yet ended. Freeman kept moving, hearing bullets cracking past him as he crouched low, wondering why in hell the USVUN’s bandages were all white instead of khaki.

Boyd’s death told him something else, something he didn’t like at all, that some PLA sons of bitches were still in the tunnels on this the southern USVUN side of the hill. Not only were they there, but they had the balls not to sit quiet but pop up, God knows where, and were conducting sniper attacks using the momentary but brilliant light of white phosphorus and fuel air explosive against which to silhouette their USVUN targets.

When he reached the rear MUST area — Medical Unit Self-Contained and Transportable — where several reporters were stationed, most wanting to go up forward, Freeman immediately reported that Boyd had been killed.

“I’m sorry,” said Marte Price, who was in the MUST, her flesh wound well on the mend.

Freeman said nothing, sitting down on a box near the MUST’s long, snaking hoses that led from the refrigerator-sized gas turbine unit, unraveling his bandaged hand, now soaked in blood, the wound having opened up as he’d run down the hill, his adrenaline pumping. “Look,” he told Marte as a medical corpsman came toward him. “You’ve been in the thick of it on the road up to Lang Son. You deserve a break.” The corpsman took a pair of L scissors and cut the dressing from Freeman’s wrist to his fingertips.

“You’ve got this dirty again, General, sir. I’ll have to—”

“All right,” Freeman said. “Do what you have to, but if you repeat what you’re going to hear now, I’ll have your hide. Got it?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Right.” The general waited for ten seconds or so to catch his breath, then told Marte Price that it had been reported there were American MIAs who’d been sighted in the south. She said nothing. She knew that there were still over two thousand MIAs unaccounted for. She took her notepad out.

“Rumor is,” Freeman told her, “that they’re yeller-bellies, crossed over, betrayed their country for preferential treatment.” Marte Price remembered reading about Korea, where dozens had gone over to the Chinese, so many that the government ordered an official inquiry. “How many?” she asked him.

“I don’t know. Two kingpins we know about and we want to get, but we’ve got a problem. Jorgensen.”

“Why’s he a problem?”

“You obviously don’t know Dangerous Dean Jorgensen. He’s a nice guy, but not too much in his top story. Career man. A yes-man. Pentagon sent him to Hanoi GHQ because he’ll do whatever Washington tells him, no matter how stupid it may be in the field. He won’t rock the boat.” Freeman paused for a moment. “I should tell him we have to go get these jokers, make an example of them. They’re supposedly helping the Khmer Rouge, trail finders on the Cambodian border, which means they were probably Special Forces, if they know the area’s trails that well. Might have been with the Montagnards — hill people — before they crossed over. I don’t know, but if we let ‘em lead those murdering Khmer bastards to hit our left flank, out of Laos, well, neither Vinh nor I want a two-front war. But if we stop them now before— Christ!”

The corpsman was dousing the punji stick wounds with iodine.

“Go on,” Freeman told him, then turned back to Marte Price. He could tell in the spill of light from the MUST hospital that she was excited by the story, her bosom rising and falling fast in the sweat-drenched khaki. He felt himself getting aroused.

“How many do you think there are, General — I mean MIAs?”

He grimaced as the iodine seeped deeper into the wounds. “I honestly don’t know. Two, two hundred, who knows for sure? But we have a definite sighting. A guy — liaison officer from Ho Chi Minh City — apparently picked up their trail in a place called Dalat — hill country a ways south of here.”

“General,” Marte said, “I appreciate the scoop — it’d get me on CNN — but I’m not some hick in from the sticks. You’re using me to bypass Jorgensen — and Washington.”

“Am I?” The corpsman was putting a new bandage on.

“You bet your sweet ass you are.”

“That’s no way to talk.”

“It’s what you understand.”

Freeman exhaled heavily. “All right, but it’s no game, Marte.” It was the first time he’d called her by her first name, and she didn’t need to make a note of it. “If we can get the green light,” he said, “to send a recon party to, say, the Laotian-Vietnamese border, we could kill two birds with one stone.”

Marte saw where he was going, a chance to actually find two MIAs while serving notice to the Khmer Rouge to stay in their own backyard. She also saw herself in her mind’s eye on the “Larry King Show” via special hookup with Hanoi. Just one MIA found would be one hell of a story amid the present inconclusive seesaw battle between the PLA and USVUN.

“All right,” she said. “I’ll run it if the networks okay it.”

“If? Pull the other one, Marte. MIAs found would be the biggest story since the Oklahoma bombing.”

“Think so?”

“I know so. And if you get the public demanding immediate action, our reconnaissance down there’ll send a strong message to Beijing, and the Khmer will hopefully stop a second front or at least prevent a fifth column from attacking us on our left flank.”

“One thing I don’t get, General. What’s in it for the Khmer Rouge?”

“What’s always in it for those psychos? More killing? Power? Those guys are on another planet.”

“Thanks,” she said quietly. “How’s the hand?”

“It’ll be fine. If I were you, I’d bounce your story from an unnamed source off the satellite right now.” She started walking away, and he caught a glimpse of her derriere in a residual stutter of flare light. He felt as hard as a rock.

She stopped, walked back to him, and spoke softly. “Is a dawn attack still on?”

He was hugely disappointed, for as she’d turned to come back, he would have sworn it was going to be to utter some term of endearment. “Yes,” he answered, “it’s on.”

“You think you’ll be able to push them back — all the way down the north slope?”

“Piece of cake,” he said, and gave her a smile she couldn’t see in the dark.

As she left, he berated himself for such an adolescent moment. But damn it, he hadn’t had a woman for — he couldn’t remember. And probably neither had young Boyd. It was ever a mystery why some men got hit and others didn’t. Freeman had never believed it had anything to do with God. It was a matter of pure luck and something he called survival know-how, which had to do with knowing what to do in the absence of luck.

CHAPTER FIFTY-THREE

As Jae Chong staggered out of the karaoke club into Tokyo’s Ginza district, the forest of neons became a blur of light, the cold night air that made his nose run doing nothing to sober him up as he made his way, smiling, through the crowds, which dutifully ignored him.

Ironically, it was the fact that he was drunk that allowed him to go unnoticed, as Japanese in general, while disapproving, were used to the outflow of drunks in the all-but-mandatory swill that up-and-coming young male executives took part in with their bosses after the working day. Chong, though he knew perfectly well he was drunk and had difficulty even reaching in his pocket for tissues, felt invulnerable. If any Japanese dare fix him with a disapproving stare, he was ready to stare back and stare them down. To hell with the lot of them. They had never conceded that the Second World War was their doing in the Pacific, all their revisionist historians busy writing tracts about how Japan was a victim. What they did in Korea was unspeakable. They deserved the atom bomb, and now the Americans were their friends. Well, sort of. Damn them all, the Japanese and the Americans and—

A policeman approached him, but Chong’s air of confidence stayed with him, there being no discernible difference in his pace or manner. The policeman pointed at the pavement behind Chong. “You dropped your keys.”

“What?” Chong said. Usually when they saw Koreans, they wanted to see ID. “Oh,” Chong said. “Thank you,” and he bowed before he bent down to retrieve the keys and two or three tissues that he’d dropped, wondering as he did so how it was that facial tissues always ended up in tight little balls in your pocket, and knowing instinctively that the cop was going to recognize him before they got much farther apart.

The air of confidence he’d had evaporated suddenly, and he turned right, into the first alley he saw, and ran down the dimly lit canyon. He turned right once more, stopping, slamming himself back hard against a cold brick wall, panting, fighting hard to slow down his heart, which was banging inside his chest so loudly he was afraid someone would hear it.

It was only a second later that Chong heard the whistle and the cop running. But would the cop turn into his ill-lit alley, or into the one on the left? He could hear the policeman stopping momentarily, could hear him breathing — or was it his own breath? Then the cop started running again. Chong saw the policeman’s shadow the moment he turned right. He leapt forward then, and stuck the knife in the cop’s heart. He wrenched it out, the policeman sliding down, his eyes bulging, his left hand clawing in the dim-lit air, his right trying futilely to grab the brick wall. Chong stabbed him again, leaving the knife embedded deeply in his chest.

Chong was half running, half walking, attempting to slow down his excitement. Plunging the blade into one of his persecutors had been one of the most satisfying things he’d done in a long time. But with it came fear too, gobbling up his earlier confidence, and he was afraid that when he hit the stream of pedestrians and late-night shoppers, he would have that hunted look that hunters so easily spot.

Relax, he told himself. Breathe the air deep into your stomach. That’s it. No, don’t force a smile or even a grin. Try to adopt that slouched, anonymous, expressionless look — meld into the crowd. Now he had two phone calls to make to confirm a rumor he had heard from the third agent in his political cell, the second agent having been Tazuko Komura, who had been killed along with all her other victims on the bullet train. The rumor he’d heard concerned the loading of supplies aboard the U.S. hospital ship, the SS Tampa—specifically, blood supply.

It was a common enough guide to impending war for a country’s intelligence community, especially NATO and the Warsaw Pact, to keep tabs on such things as the movements of VIPs in departments of defense and associated industries and on the present state of blood supplies, any sudden increase of plasma and blood supplies a sign that hostilities were about to take place. In the case of the SS Tampa, it was only natural that blood supplies would have been maximized before she had set sail for the South China Sea to serve as USVUN’s hospital, but Chong had wanted more telling information. Though he’d intended to make the two calls in the morning, after he had sobered up, the fright of his knowing that the death of the policeman, in addition to the JDF agents and the American he had killed, would be sparking the biggest manhunt in Tokyo’s history quickly persuaded him to risk using a public phone booth to make the confirmation calls under the guise of being a furnace salesman.

The first number rang until the message machine came on. Chong hung up, watching the reflections in the Perspex bubble of the phone booth. When he dialed the second number, one of the man’s children answered. No, her father wasn’t at home. Could she take a message?

“No, thank you,” Chong replied and hung up, conscious of two things simultaneously: that he was starting to get a pounding headache and that someone was standing behind him. He whirled about, only to frighten a teenage schoolgirl who stepped back a few paces and stared at him. He mumbled an apology and walked off, joining the crowd, where he became aware of people now looking at him, glancing down at his trousers. Holding his aching head, his gaze followed theirs and he saw a long streak of blood from his crotch to the knee of his right trouser leg. “Shit!” he groaned, and kept his eyes open for a drugstore. There, he took a plastic shopping bag to try to hide the blood, bought a package of acetaminophen gel capsules, and went over to the store’s fridge for a guava juice. The druggist had a good look at him, and when Chong left the store, rang the police.

* * *

The censors in General Jorgensen’s HQ in Hanoi knew they couldn’t stop the story of the MIAs getting out, but they tried, under Jorgensen’s instructions, in “the interests of security,” by which Jorgensen meant in the interests of the Pentagon MIA and POW office, to limit the damage. Jorgensen insisted that from CNN Center in Atlanta the satellite feed, sped all over the world to millions of viewers, would consist of a two-part story: first, that turncoat American MIAs from the Vietnam War had “reportedly” been sighted in Vietnam’s central highlands; second, that a column of fifty to one hundred Khmer Rouge had “reportedly” crossed the Vietnamese-Laotian border. In this way, Jorgensen hoped that in the viewer’s mind the renegade MIA story would be connected with the Khmer Rouge, so that any public demand to have the MIAs found would not automatically become a call to commit U.S. forces to fighting the Khmer Rouge — with whom the Pentagon had no intention of closing.

But Jorgensen had been too clever by half, as American viewers coast to coast were jamming Washington’s and CNN’s fax lines, clamoring for the return of the MIAs immediately, because if they had been turncoats in ‘Nam, weren’t they now “allies” with the U.S. against China? The spirit of forgiveness was across the land and the call was, “Bring ‘em home.”

It didn’t occur to anyone except Freeman, Marte Price, and a few others on the spot that “Salt and Pepper Two” might not want to go home. But Freeman didn’t care. In a roundabout and unpredictable way, Marte Price’s report had done what Freeman had hoped for. It galvanized U.S. public opinion to send in U.S. troops if necessary to bring out those two MIAs and the others the Vietnamese would now be hopefully willing to release — if they wanted to count on continued USVUN assistance in repelling the Chinese invasion.

Freeman immediately requested and received, albeit reluctantly, permission from Jorgensen to send in an “MIA reconnaissance force,” but Jorgensen insisted that Freeman change the name from “Operation Eagle” to “Operation Homecoming.”

“I don’t give a damn what it’s called,” Freeman said on receiving Jorgensen’s instruction. “It’ll be carried out by a Special Forces task force of about a hundred men, assorted USVUN commandos chosen mainly from the U.S. Delta, British SAS, and the British Gurkha regiment.”

“I thought you’d only need ten men,” Jorgensen countered on the secure phone, the explosions of U.S. TACAIR from the carrier and Chinese triple A in the background making it difficult for Freeman to hear the commander. Jorgensen waited for a lull in the bombing. There was none and so he shouted again, asking why Freeman was sending in so many men.

“We might accidentally bump into the Khmer Rouge,” Freeman answered.

“Now, Douglas, you listen to me. This is purely a recon patrol to find out about those two MIAs.”

“Exactly!” Freeman yelled, not bothering to duck as enemy mortar rounds exploded in the trees around the MUST tent. “It’s a reconnaissance in force!” Before Jorgensen could object, Freeman added, “I’m sure you’ll agree, General, we owe it to the folks back home to give it our best shot, to rescue any MIAs. Be a feather in your cap, General.”

“I don’t care about feathers in my cap, Douglas.”

“ ‘Course not, sir—” Suddenly the line was frying with static, and it was several seconds before contact was reestablished and Jorgensen made it clear that under no circumstances was his Special Forces group to engage the Khmer Rouge.

“That’s a political decision,” Jorgensen said, adding, “That’s Washington’s call.”

“Of course,” Freeman said, and they signed off amicably enough.

“What’s up?” Cline inquired.

“I’m sending a force west. We’re gonna kick ass, Major.”

“You heard what General Jorgensen said, sir?”

“It was a bad line,” Freeman replied.

“Witnesses,” Cline said.

“Our boys’d have no option if they were attacked.”

Cline paused and from habit looked about for the press aide. “If young Boyd was here, General, I think he’d point out—”

“Young Boyd was a good officer, Major. So are you, but you’ve got to remember you’re in the field. Here we’ve got a chance to teach those Khmer Rouge bastards a lesson. Leave it up to the politicos, and they’d wine and dine the sons of bitches.”

“It’s possible we could rescue some MIAs.”

Freeman looked exasperated, like George C. Scott with a cigar between his teeth. “What the hell’s the matter with you, Major? Some MIAs—you know as well as I do that by now most of those MIAs are long dead and buried or went nuts, paddled off upriver, and shot ‘emselves. ‘Sides, the only damn MIAs I’m interested in right now are those two shitbags running with the Khmer Rouge. By God, I’d like to meet those two — gentlemen.”

“We couldn’t allow them,” Cline began, “I mean, our reconnaissance force — to cross over the Vietnamese border — into Laos.”

“Who said anything about crossing over into Laos?” With a cigar in his mouth, Freeman gave Cline the impression that he was grinning.

CHAPTER FIFTY-FOUR

Marte Price had not yet returned from Hanoi to Second Army’s rear HQ in Phu Lang Thuong. Even so, Pierre LaSalle knew he had to hurry if he was to find the photo of Freeman shooting one of his wounded men. There was no doubt in LaSalle’s mind that such a photograph existed. There were simply too many rumors for it to be untrue, and LaSalle didn’t know a photographer in the world who wouldn’t keep such a shot. He’d had a duplicate key made from the one he “borrowed” from her purse in the aftermath of their lovemaking, and now he had it in the lock of the gray metal asbestos-lined box. In another second he had the lid open and was rifling through its contents: several nine-by-twelve brown envelopes filled with blowups and negatives, each print marked and numbered according to what roll of film it belonged to.

Even so, LaSalle could tell at once that there were considerably fewer photos printed than there were negatives. “Merde!” It would take him hours to examine every negative. There were hundreds of them. Like most professionals, she’d taken dozens of shots in an effort to capture a story she wanted to file. He was avidly searching through the box for some kind of master index but could find none, only a Sharp electronic organizer notebook. Excitedly he pressed the On button, but couldn’t access it, as it was asking for a password. “Merde!” The Frenchman heard a noise outside, a Hummer coming to a stop, then voices, hers among them, thanking someone for the ride.

“Anytime, ma’am, anytime!”

Quickly, LaSalle’s hands shoveled the contents of the gray box back in, closed the lid, took out the key and sat on her bed, grabbing a magazine from a small pile she had by the bed.

“What the — Pierre!”

“At last!” he said, rising from the bed, taking her hand and gallantly kissing it. “I thought you’d never come. So — how was Hanoi?”

“What are you doing here?” she asked, still in a mild state of shock.

He straightened up and looked at her with a surprised, quizzical gaze. “Waiting for you, of course. I hope you don’t mind. It was raining earlier on, so I let myself in.” He was still holding her hand. “You look — positively ravishing.”

She took off the Vietnamese-style cap and shook her hair loose. “Raining?”

“Oh,” he said, “just a little, but I have an aversion to rain.” He paused, took a step back and gazed at her with mock concern. “Oh dear, you are angry with me for letting myself in.”

“What? Oh, no, not really,” she said. “Just surprised, I guess.”

“Pleasantly, I hope?” he said, a grin passing into a wide smile.

She visibly relaxed and threw her cap over onto the bed. “I didn’t know you’re a fan of Cosmo.”

“What? Oh, the magazine.” He winked at her. “I only look at the pictures.”

“Hmmm,” she said, smiling. “I suppose you’re too sophisticated to read the love advice?”

He glanced down at the pouting beauty dressed in a tight gold lame dress and read aloud, “ ‘How to keep your man— once you’ve landed him.’ “ LaSalle shrugged. “I don’t need advice.”

“Oh,” she answered playfully. “Really?”

“Really. But that’s easy to say. Perhaps we had better put me to the test — yes?”

“Hmmm, maybe,” she responded. “I don’t mean to be unkind, but maybe you should give me time to shower. I’m perspiring like a—” She hesitated.

“Go on,” he said. “Like a what?”

She sat down on the bed, shucked off her Army-issue walking shoes, and began massaging her foot. “Let’s just say I’m sweating, okay?”

“Okay. I love it.”

“What — perspiration?”

“In a woman, yes. How do you say it? It turns me on.”

“You’re sick.”

“For love — yes.”

“Be a sweetie and come back later. I really am dog tired.”

“Dog tired?” He approved of the phrase but wasn’t quite sure why it involved a dog.

“Oh, gimme a break,” she said. “Let me shower and rest for a while. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Tonight?”

“Tomorrow.”

“I am—” He thought hard for a moment. “—devastated!”

“You’ll live,” she said, and changed the subject. “How are things on Disney?”

LaSalle gave a Gallic shrug, his bottom lip saying it all. “Who knows? They are bombing the turd out of—”

“The shit,” she corrected him playfully.

“The what?”

“They’re bombing the shit out of the Chinese.”

“No, out of the northern side of the hill to keep the Chinese in their tunnels till morning. Jorgensen is sure the Chinese will have had enough by dawn, that they will surrender in droves. Freeman—” He shrugged again. “—he’s not so sure. The ones not damaged by the bombing might come out fighting.”

Marte yawned. “So, can you give me a lift up there tomorrow?”

“Of course — but we won’t be allowed close to Disney.”

She winked at him. “I have ways.”

“I know,” LaSalle replied.

“Ah,” she said in mock disgust. “Don’t you guys think of anything but sex?”

“La guerre and sex!” he proclaimed, spreading his hands in the air. “What else is there, chérie?”

When he left, Marte began to undress, sniffing at her underwear to see if it would last another day unwashed and looking down at her khaki pants. She’d been walking through fairly tall elephant grass, yet there were no water stains on the pants. It must have been a short shower of rain Pierre had sought refuge from, or maybe he thought that being there, ready for her, she’d fall into his arms. He was a little conceited in that way. Weren’t most Frenchmen, thinking they were the best lovers? Of course, she admitted to herself, Pierre was no slouch. Hell, neither was she. And that bit about him saying he liked women perspiring was disgusting and deliriously naughty.

CHAPTER FIFTY-FIVE

Jae Chong sought refuge in a four-movie-theater complex off the Ginza strip, and in the flickering darkness he had time to think. The difficulty would now be how to get out and make his way home, let alone make the two calls about the blood supply shipment. He tried to remember whether there was a phone in the lobby, but he couldn’t recall. He’d been moving too fast for the clerk in the box office to look down and see the bloodstains on his pants.

Inside the theater the smell of the fake leather seats triggered a smell memory in him, and momentarily he was back during his first meet with the other two agents in his cell, eleven years before. Tazuko Komura was just fifteen then, and Chong recalled that the last time he’d seen her, only a few days before she blew up the Tokyo-Niigata express, her eyes were those of an old woman, weary and frightened that the next knock on the door or the person behind you was from Japan’s counterespionage service.

Chong had thought then that she wouldn’t risk leaving her bag — any piece of unaccompanied luggage would immediately raise suspicion, inviting the conductors to inspect it. No, he’d known then that she’d stay with the bomb till the end. And that’s what he’d do too. Only a crazy would think he had a chance, now that every cop in the Tokyo prefecture would be looking for him.

Maybe there was a phone in the rest room. The movie, which he hadn’t been following, now moved from a vast field of corn and blue sky into a dark passage. He eased out of his seat then and made his way out toward the men’s room, passing several teenagers and an elderly couple sitting down in the lobby waiting for the next show in the adjoining theater to start. None of them took any notice of him.

There was no phone. Another man entered, in his late sixties or early seventies, suit and tie, and stood at the urinal two down from him, trying to hit the piece of camphor ice with his stream. He’d do nicely, Chong thought, noting that the man was alone and about his size. The man had a paunch, but better too large than too small. Chong waited until the man was behind him, then struck out with his elbow, slamming him against one of the cubicle doors. Chong’s right foot followed, smashing the man on the right side of his face, the force of the kick driving him straight into the cubicle. Chong went right in after him, stamping on the flush ball set into the floor, causing the toilet to roar as the old man began to push himself back from the cistern. Chong hit him with a left. The man fell again, knocking himself out on the edge of the toilet. Chong heard the washroom door open. He stepped out of the cubicle, kicked the kid he saw in the groin and smashed his right fist against the boy’s temple, knocking him unconscious. Then Chong returned to the cubicle, pulled off the old man’s jacket and pants, put them in his plastic drugstore bag, and walked out. A teenager, a boy, was approaching the washroom.

“I wouldn’t go in there,” Chong said. “Drunk’s been sick all over.”

The kid, frowning in consternation, nodded and backed off, not quite sure what to do. Chong disappeared back into the theater. The damn cornfields were back again, but he didn’t mind; the light helped him find a seat in an empty back row, where he slipped off his trousers, put on the old man’s trousers and jacket, and walked out. It was only now that he felt the bump in the jacket’s left inside pocket. He took it out and saw it was thick with hundred-yen notes, a small fortune to a worker like Chong. The irony was that there were no coins for a phone. He’d have to break one of the yen notes.

* * *

Colonel Melbaine still had Alpha Company on the top half of Disney Hill’s ridgeline waiting for the TACAIR bombardment to stop before they could sweep forward and force the remaining dug-in Chinese to come out or die in the tunnels.

“I ain’t in no hurry,” D’Lupo told Martinez.

“Neither am I,” Doolittle added. “We’ve got a ringside seat, mate. Besides, far as I’m concerned, they can bomb till hell freezes over.” Just then they heard sporadic firing behind and below them.

“That’s a friggin’ AK down there,” D’Lupo opined, turning his head to look a hundred yards or so down the slope. Now, added to the explosions of the TACAIR bombs, they could hear the distinctive popping of USVUN M-16s, followed by the boomp boomp boomp of mortar rounds taking off, then the sound of a bugle.

“Fucking hell!” Martinez said, swinging his rifle from the top of the ridge, pointing it downhill instead.

“What the fuck’s that, man?” a greenhorn called from the next group of foxholes on their left flank.

“It’s a fucking Chinese bugle, man,” D’Lupo informed him. “That way they don’t have to use no radio.”

“They ain’t got no fucking radio,” Martinez said.

“What the fuck’s going on?” came another voice.

Then, whether or not it was a wild guess or whether he’d seen the outline of a PLA soldier illuminated by the burst of his Kalashnikov, Doolittle yelled, “Chinese!”

“Where the hell they come from, man?” a black soldier asked.

“From the fucking tunnels, you dork.”

“Must’ve crept down past us, man.”

D’Lupo had already switched off his safety. “Past us, crap, man. They’re coming out of the tunnels at the base of the hill, so’s they come right up in the middle of the fucking battalion, man, and behind us.” A figure came running at them from the direction of the bottom of the hill. D’Lupo fired and brought him down with the first shot.

“No — no — no!” came a frantic, screaming voice. “Americans! Amer—”

“Flares!” a platoon lieutenant from Bravo yelled, coming up on D’Lupo’s right. He didn’t want to illuminate his own troops, but with one blue on blue already, he had to chance it, yelling out “Flare!” again so that all those in Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie companies at the hill’s base could get their heads down and/or freeze to deny the Chinese any sign of movement. D’Lupo saw at least four or five PLA within a hundred feet of his nine-man section. Added to the noise of the air bombs there was now a cacophony of machine-gun bursts, purple and white flashes of exploding grenades, the firing of rifles, and amid them the crash of 82mm mortars, falling trees, and bushes blown sky-high, the fresh-smelling dirt from their roots coming down with other debris of stone and shattered wood on the helmets of the USVUN troops, most of whom were the Americans from Melbaine’s battalion.

In the dying and flickering gray of flare light, Martinez cut down two PLA rushing his foxhole from the cover of low shrub while the American that D’Lupo had shot was being dragged by his buddy toward the foxholes of D’Lupo’s Alpha Company squad.

“What the fuck you doing, man?” the buddy yelled at D’Lupo. “Oh, man!” The soldier was crying with rage. “You dumb bastards! You killed my buddy! You—”

“Shut up, man!” the black soldier said, reaching out toward the downed man’s body. The soldier released his buddy and let fly with a left that missed the black soldier, causing the puncher to overbalance and fall. The black soldier grabbed the man’s collar. “Listen to me, man. Your buddy ain’t dead. Still a pulse, man! Get a grip on yourself. Now git down and shut the fuck up! Medic!” he yelled. “Man down—”

Abruptly, he stopped shouting. One of the shots crackling overhead had hit the wounded man’s head, exploding his brain over other members of the squad. By the time the medic made it through the whistling shrapnel of a mortar round, the crying soldier’s buddy was dead, Martinez dragging the two bodies in front of him for extra cover. Martinez saw a Chinese fifteen feet away coming at him with a Kalashnikov look-alike, a T-56, on full automatic, its bayonet catching flare light. Martinez and Doolittle opened up, an M-60 tearing the air to the right of them, and they saw the Chinese soldier’s body stop, torso and legs lurching, an arm separating, the T-56 crashing to earth. Martinez, exhilarated by the kill, heart thumping in fear, cast a sideways glance at D’Lupo. “You all right, Lupe?”

D’Lupo was throwing up. Martinez put his hand on his buddy’s shoulder. “Fucking accident, man. We all thought it was Charlie.”

“Yeah,” Doolittle chimed in. “What’re we s’posed to do when the fuckers are amongst us? Ask for fucking ID? Son of a bitch shoulda yelled at us ‘fore he started running.”

“That’s right,” Martinez said. “Gotta put it behind ya, Lupe.” But Martinez knew that D’Lupo would never be able to put it behind him.

“Wish to Christ it was me,” D’Lupo said, his voice taut with anxiety.

“Aw, rats,” Martinez said. “Listen, I’ll tell the captain.”

Doolittle saw a shadow in flare light. Was it a tree or a well-camouflaged gook or one of his own? He fidgeted with his rifle, holding his fire. “We don’t have to tell anyone, Marty.”

“Yeah, we do,” Martinez said.

“Yeah,” D’Lupo said, his voice barely audible in the bedlam erupting all around them. “Yeah — we do.”

D’Lupo was right, not just about having to report his blue on blue, but in having quickly assessed what had gone terribly wrong amid the USVUN units on the long southern slope of Disney Hill. The Chinese, instead of fleeing north of the ridge atop the hill or lying low until the TACAIR bombardment ceased, had come back, streaming through the tunnels like so many ants erupting out of exit-cum-entrances at the base of the southern slope and in the middle of the Americans. There were more U.S. infantry killed by friendly fire in the predawn darkness than all those accidentally shot in the Vietnam War.

The Chinese showed no fear and no mercy, taking full advantage of the fact that, having burst forth from the tunnels— sometimes only yards from an American position — they were immune from the American artillery some miles south of the hill because of the well-known American and USVUN refusal to shell their own troops.

With dawn approaching and the end of the Enterprise’s bombing runs just north of Disney Hill, Freeman’s forces were in sudden danger of catastrophe if the Chinese came out of their tunnels on the northern side and counterattacked. The Americans and other USVUN troops would then be caught in a “crush” movement between the Chinese who’d poured out of the southern sections of the tunnels and those who might still be alive under the bombed northern section.

Major Cline opined that he didn’t see how anything could have survived the bombing on the north side. Freeman, who had been in an optimistic mood after having seen off the Special Forces, which were heading west on the mission to the Laotian-Vietnamese border, was now a man who knew Second Army and his career were a step this side of a military disaster if the Chinese counterattacked from the northern side. It was already a highly dangerous situation, with God only knew how many PLA already among his troops.

He had to do something — quickly.

CHAPTER FIFTY-SIX

From what he liked to call his eagle’s nest, Jonas Breem, in his wine-red velour robe, gazed down on the blue early-morning reaches of Victoria harbor, pouring coffee from the sterling silver pot and pontificating on the stupidity of the Russian inventor, Kalashnikov, who had designed the most popular assault rifle in history, with millions now sold around the world, without Kalashnikov receiving a single royalty.

“Now, if the doddering old fool had done business with me,” he told Mi Yin, who was just waking up, “he would have been one of Moscow’s millionaires. But no, with the mind of a peasant and true revolutionary, he gave the patent to the party, and some other old fool laughed his way to the bank.”

Kalashnikovs were on Breem’s mind this morning because he had just brokered yet another delivery of five thousand K-74s between Moscow and Beijing for the PLA, and was reveling in his latest profit in excess of a hundred thousand dollars.

Ironically, not all of the shipment had come from corrupted Russian factory managers, but from U.S. sellers who had seen the end of the U.S. market for the assault weapon following a congressional ban on the Kalashnikovs and others of their ilk. Breem was highly amused by the certainty that many of the rifles sold to him at bargain basement prices in the U.S. were now killing Americans, or “army suckers,” as he referred to them.

“You want to be a loser, Mi Yin? Join the army. All the racking same, babe. Nowheresville. Know what I mean?”

Mi Yin murmured something, but Breem, turning from the enormous grand-view window of his skyscraper, could tell she hadn’t heard, and when Jonas Breem spoke, everyone was supposed to sit up and listen. He picked up a tulip glass, still half full of champagne, and taking a step toward the huge, king-size bed, threw the silk sheets aside and emptied the contents on her crotch. “Hey, that woke you, eh?”

Her mouth open in shock, Mi Yin shot up in the bed, quickly clasping a pillow protectively against her.

“Oh, spare me the modest virgin bit,” Breem said, walking back to the table. “You’ve been gone through more times than — hey, what are you doing?”

“Going to the bathroom,” she said petulantly. “Do you mind?”

“Yeah,” Breem said. “Come here.” Tossing her hair back, the pillow still in front of her, she looked to see if he was serious. He was — he nearly always was.

“C’mon. Come here.”

She walked toward him, around the bed, trying to affect a nonchalant air of self-assurance, but she was still clutching the pillow.

“Put that fucking thing down.”

“I–I have to have a shower.”

“You have it with a pillow? For Chrissake—” He snatched it away from her and tossed it on the bed. “You stink like a wino. You know that?”

“If you say so.”

“I say so.” Holding a cup of coffee with one hand, he gestured toward the bed with the other. “Go on, spread out. I feel like a dawn breaker.”

“Can’t I shower first?”

“You don’t get it, do you?” He smiled maliciously.

She understood him all right. She was supposed to lie flat on her back and let him lick her.

He undid the robe and flung it away from him, pressed a remote on the bed stand and the drapes opened wider. He liked to imagine everyone was looking up at him performing cunnilingus, “pissing themselves with envy,” as he put it.

“Know what I’m gonna do to you?” He waited. “You know, babe?”

“No,” she had to answer, even though she knew very well what they were going to do. They’d done it enough.

“I’m gonna lick your cunt till it’s dry.”

“No,” she said.

He knelt over her. Suddenly his hand flashed out, slapped her hard on the cheek. Her face flushed with the pain and humiliation. “What?” he said indignantly. “What’d you say?”

“No,” she repeated.

“You little bitch!” He hit her again, so hard she began to cry.

“Hey, hey!” He suddenly became solicitous of her well-being, kissing her. “You’re all right, babe — it’s all right.” The next instant, he slid back down her breasts, her body, and buried his head between her legs, his tongue darting hungrily like a lizard’s inside her, his hands bunching the sheets up beneath her to get her higher. Now he began licking her, his slurping noises like a cow with a salt lick. He stopped his breathing short, excited. “You like that, babe?”

She knew yes was the answer he wanted, but he liked her to pause a moment as if teasing him.

“Yes,” she said. “It’s beautiful. Don’t stop.”

“Love — you, babe — I—” He couldn’t say all the words, he was so aroused. Panting, he raised himself onto his elbows, his head sinking beneath her shoulders like a wildebeest at water. “Know what — I’m gonna do now?”

“Yes,” she said. Oh God, she’d made a mistake, but before she could recant, he was raging at her. “You stupid bitch! What do I pay you for, eh? What—”

“No,” she said quickly. “No, I don’t know.”

“You don’t know what I pay you for?”

“No, no,” she said frantically. “I mean I don’t know what you’re going to do to me.”

“Ah…” He was on his feet, his tumescence already subsiding. She’d fucked up the script. It had to be perfect— goddamn it.

“You stupid bitch — go on, get! Into the fucking shower, you — incompetent whore!”

Mi Yin let the shower cascade over her, cleansing her, out of his grip for a few precious moments. The things she did for Beijing. She’d had enough. If she didn’t find out whether he was faking the well surveys, she’d tell Beijing he was anyway. The risk was they might want to see an original forged chart from which he’d made copies and on which potentially rich oil finds were hidden. It was a risk either way, but better be in the bad books with the party than stay any longer with this pig.

She could see him naked through the curved, bubbled, and transparent glass wall of the shower. She saw his hand on the handle, and so she quickly turned off the shower. “Turn it back on!” he commanded her. With the water falling on both of them, he pushed her against the glass-bubbled wall, and she stiffened as she felt him rubbing the bar of soap between her buttocks. He was hard again, pushing into her rectum.

“You like this, babe?”

“Yes.”

“You want it deep?”

She hesitated.

“You want it deep?”

“To split me,” she said.

“Atta girl.”

CHAPTER FIFTY-SEVEN

Chong rode the subway for the next two hours. Perhaps he could send the message to Pyongyang immediately on his own recognizance, assuming the rumor to be true. But his training told him otherwise. Like a good newspaper reporter, he had always operated by confirming such a rumor on the basis of two independent sources. And so, as he sat in the subways, his face covered by the pages of the Asahi Shinbun, the subterranean reflections flashing past him like memories of another life, he waited until eleven-thirty before he called the two agents.

One, an English speaker, was watching CNN’s transworld service. The other had already unrolled his bed mat when the phone rang. But both told him the rumor was correct, that Freeman had had large numbers of American soldiers, stationed in Japan, called to give blood for the USVUN hospital ship USS Tampa heading for the Gulf of Tonkin. This was normal in such war situations, but the Tampa had taken unusually large amounts of Rh-negative blood aboard. Chong again called the first agent, and worked the phrase “inclement weather” into his dialogue, an instruction to the agent to forward the information immediately to Pyongyang. In turn, Pyongyang sent a most secret, class one, number-for-word, onetime pad message to its embassy in Beijing.

There is no Rh-negative blood in China. If the American general was storing it up aboard Tampa, it could mean only one thing: he was prepared to strike deep into China proper.

North Korea secretly but immediately pledged troops to help China if this eventuality arose, knowing that China already had enough, with a professional army of over two million. The gesture from Pyongyang, however, would be greatly appreciated and might well secure what North Korea, after her forced agreements with the U.S., needed, or rather wanted, most: to have China share as much as possible nuclear technology and/or weapons with North Korea.

CHAPTER FIFTY-EIGHT

A mile south of Ningming, the barbed-wire enclosure Mellin and the other POWs had landed near was about two hundred yards long by one hundred yards wide. Rolls of German concertina razor wire formed another, inner perimeter five feet in from the outer rectangle. There were no buildings or tents, only ten-foot-high hills of cement bricks beneath blue plastic covers about a hundred feet apart, and between them a dozen or so pallets of bamboo either lashed or nailed together — it was difficult to tell from a distance — to look like long, fifty-by-twenty-foot rafts.

“Don’t like the look of this,” Murphy said. “No bloody cover. What if it starts pissing rain?”

“You’ll get wet,” Shirley answered.

“Yeah,” Murphy responded. “So will you, luv.”

“Don’t call me luv.”

“Sorry, Shirl.”

“And don’t—” She stopped. Upshut was looking their way. Danny Mellin noticed that the big barbed-wire enclosure to which they were being directed had been erected on higher ground above the marsh, and he commented to no one in particular among his fellow POWs that “we’re going to have to build our own accommodation. Sooner we do, sooner we’ll get cover.”

“I suppose now we’re bloody hostages for that friggin’ strip,” Murphy said, nodding north toward the airfield.

“Yes,” Mellin answered. “Well, let’s try to get along with them, Mike. Okay?”

“You serious? Listen, mate, if you think I’m going to cooperate with this fucking—”

“Lower your voice,” Mellin said sharply. The helos were taking off. He added softly, “No point in getting them riled up for nothing. B’sides, I don’t see we’ve got much option. They’ve got all the guns.”

“Yeah,” Murphy answered. “But we don’t have to bloody well kowtow to—”

“Be quiet.” It was Shirley, indicating Upshut and several other guards coming their way, dividing the POWs into squads of ten prisoners each. Suddenly the sun was swallowed by cloud, and the marshlands, the higher ground, and the airfield were cast in a depressing gray metallic light that took the sheen of the long elephant grass. It made the airfield, now caught in a shower of rain, look farther away than it really was.

A dark column of three-ton, khaki-painted trucks was coming from the airfield. When it pulled up at the edge of the marsh about three hundred yards from the POWs, an officer alighted from one of the trucks with a PLA flunky a pace behind carrying what looked like a soapbox, but which in fact was a depleted ammunition box of sturdy construction.

The major waited for the flunky to put down the box, then mounted it as if he were Alexander the Great. Though somewhat dated in his phraseology, his English was near perfect. “I am Major Chen. You are prisoners of the People’s Liberation Army.”

“No shit!” Murphy murmured.

“You are here to work. First you will be so good as to construct your accommodation. Thirty bodies will be in each brick house. You will be pleased to build your accommodation quickly and well. Guards will direct you.”

“I’ll bet,” one of the prisoners said.

“You will behave well,” Major Chen said. He pointed northward. “After, you will assist in enlarging Ningming airfield. Anyone, man or woman, who refuses to work will be shot” He waited some seconds for the last bit to sink in. “Questions?”

Murphy had his hand up. The major pointed to him. “Speak!”

“We’re not soldiers, we’re civilians. We shouldn’t even be prisoners.”

Danny Mellin added to Murphy’s comment. “Even if you do consider us prisoners of war, under the Geneva Convention you’re not entitled—”

“Quiet!” Major Chen shouted. “I want nothing about Geneva. You are in China. The Geneva Convention is bourgeois propaganda.”

“When will we be fed?” an Englishman asked. “We haven’t eaten.”

“Rice,” Chen replied, thinking the Englishman had asked him what they would be fed. “And some fish — perhaps.”

“Medical care?” another shouted.

“The same as our soldiers,” Chen said.

“That means sweet fuck-all,” the Aussie said. Someone told him to shut up. “Up yours,” came his response.

The major said, “Troublemakers will be shot!”

None of the POWs, including Murphy, said anything. A few of them moved uneasily.

“Build well!” the major urged. “Remember the three little piggies.” Despite the tension, a prisoner, unable to contain himself, burst out laughing.

The next instant the major was walking back toward the truck, his flunky trotting after him.

“What about the three fucking piggies?” Murphy asked no one in particular.

“Do you think,” Shirley Fortescue said angrily, “that it’s possible for you to utter one sentence without using the F word?”

Murphy screwed up his face. “Not fucking likely.”

“No speaking!” one of the guards shouted, making his way toward Mellin.

“It wasn’t him,” Murphy said. “It was me.”

“No speaking!” The guard lifted the butt of his Kalashnikov threateningly. No one moved. The guard, though still glaring at Murphy, lowered the rifle. Finally he turned to Mellin. “You boss number one squad — yes.” It was half command, half question.

“All right,” Danny agreed, not seeing any alternative. Then the guard, seemingly ignorant in all other respects, made a decision that, even though he couldn’t have known, was as brilliant as any that King Solomon made. He designated Mike Murphy as “boss number two squad — yes.”

“No,” Murphy said. “I’ve got no bloody intention of helping you—”

The guard didn’t understand all the words, but he knew refusal when he heard it in any language, and he kicked Murphy in the shin, then slammed the rifle into his chest, knocking the Australian down. “Boss number two — yes.”

“Yes,” Mellin said. “He’ll do—”

“He say!” the guard shouted, lifting his rifle menacingly again.

“Yeah, all right,” Murphy gasped, pushing himself up. “Boss number two.”

The guard gave a curt nod and grunt of approval before moving on and designating eighteen more squad bosses.

“Look,” someone said, nodding toward two trucks stopping at the edge of the marshy ground, steam rising from the covered rear of each truck. The first two trucks contained boiled rice for the guards, with a helping of fish paste. The prisoners received only a bowl of rice each from the last truck, and worn-looking red plastic cups of green tea.

“And about fucking time,” Murphy quipped out of the guard’s earshot.

Mellin moved over to Shirley Fortescue as they were lining up for the meager rice ration. “Shirley, look, I know Murphy rubs you the wrong way, but try to ignore his bad language.”

“Hmm,” she answered coldly, and stopped as Upshut appeared on the scene from one of the truck cabins with a twenty-six-ounce bottle of Tsing Tao beer. He was taking the top off with his teeth, and Shirley told Mellin, “It’s like trying to ignore a bad smell.”

“C’mon,” Mellin said. “He’s okay underneath. He was the only one with guts enough to help me when I was first cap—”

Upshut was now by the tailgate of the truck, arrogantly drinking his beer. It started to rain. Upshut went back to the truck’s cabin and through the windscreen watched Ningming airfield turn to a watery blur.

As Murphy’s turn came to receive his dollop of rice and mug of green tea, he said, “Thank you,” out of habit, and returned to where the other forlorn-looking POWs were huddled in the rain.

“You’re right,” a fellow prisoner said to Mellin, checking that none of the guards was looking in his direction. “Sooner we lay those bricks, sooner we get out of this damned rain.”

There was a low murmur of approval, except for Murphy, who commented, “Fuck the bricks. Where the hell are we? This Ning-bloody-ming — how far’s it from the Chinese-Viet border?”

“ ‘Bout fourteen miles,” another Australian said, “as the crow flies.”

“Yeah,” Murphy responded. “Well, I’m a fucking crow. Anybody else? Danny?”

No one answered. More guards were headed their way, shouting at them to get up and start working. “Quickly! Quickly!”

CHAPTER FIFTY-NINE

To an outsider, the incoming flight of Hercules helos, containing Freeman’s USVUN interdiction force — made up of volunteers from the U.S. Army’s Delta Force, British Special Air Services commandos, and Gurkhas — would have seemed uneventful. For some of the older men in the IFOR, however, the flight to Da Nang was a return to the old days of ‘Nam, that part of their youth that was among the most hellish and intensely felt experiences of their lives. A few among the helicopter pilots who would fly them to the Laotian-Vietnamese border would be using routes they’d used before, when Nixon had authorized secret strikes into enemy sanctuaries in Cambodia and Laos during ‘Nam.

Colonel A. Berry, chosen by Freeman to command IFOR, had distinguished himself behind enemy lines in the Gulf War against Iraq when Saddam Insane had invaded Kuwait. Berry was extraordinarily confident and well trained, like the men he led. He also had a prodigious memory. It was the memory of his great-grandfather schooling him in things military that came to him now, and despite the roar of the engines and the thump of the undercarriage, he could still hear the old man telling him of the French forces at Dien Bien Phu near the northern Laotian-Vietnamese border, 160 miles west of Hanoi.

The French, tired of the hit-and-run tactics of the Communist Viet Minh forces, had wanted a pitched set-piece battle, and they got it in one of the bravest and ultimately one of the most humiliating defeats in military history. The French were thrashed. Lesson one: Berry’s grandfather had told him to never ever underestimate the enemy.

* * *

The planned sabotage of the thirty-five-mile Ningming-Pingxiang-Dong Dang section of the southern rail line was called off on the express order of C in C, USVUN forces, General Jorgensen. He consulted Freeman, who in an unprecedented decision, considering his military career, agreed with the C in C that not even Delta Force or SAS, the two elite Special Forces of the United States and Great Britain respectively, should be used. No one could be used. Freeman had viewed the latest KH-14 spy satellite photos, which revealed evidence of the massive manpower of the China’s People’s Liberation Army.

What Beijing couldn’t do because it lacked the U.S. state-of-the-art technology, it did through what any economist or military strategist would call a labor-intensive operation. General Wei, drawing on reserves of the Chengdu province’s Fourteenth Sichuan army, had placed a PLA soldier every fifty yards along the thirty-five-mile rail line from Ningming to the border. In all, it came to 3,696 men, each with nothing more to do on an eight-hour shift than watch his fifty yards of track, with orders to shoot anyone who even remotely looked like a trespasser.

The first sequence of digitized satfotos relayed to Jorgensen’s USVUN HQ in Hanoi had picked up about twelve hundred dots which, on magnification, showed up as soldiers on rail-line sentry duty. But it was the second and third sequence of a section of track south of Pingxiang that showed up twice as many men, alerting USVUN’s HQ that there were three shifts of eight hours each during every twenty-four-hour period, so that each fifty yards of track effectively had three men assigned to it. They were not any of Wei’s crack front-line troops, most of them being from militia units, but they could shoot, and each man was armed with an AK-47. Rice trains came out of Dong Dang, Pingxiang, Xiash, and Ningming once a shift to feed and water the troops.

* * *

“Damn it!” Freeman complained. “I wanted that track blown up in at least three places.”

“No chance of bombing it?” Major Cline asked.

“Hell, no. The fairies won’t permit it. That’d be an ‘in China’ attack and might have ‘international repercussions.’ Besides, any pilot from ‘Nam days or any other war’ll tell you that a damn rail track is one of the most difficult targets there is. Even if the weather’s good, which it isn’t, and you do manage a pinpoint hit with a smart bomb, the sons of bitches’ll have it fixed and taking trains the next morning.”

Freeman picked up one of the satfotos and held it beneath the magnifier. “See these squares every few miles?” he asked Cline, but didn’t wait for an answer. “Their maintenance shacks have T wrenches and assorted tools. Providing the train jacks aren’t actually destroyed — which they aren’t in most cases, only the ties are busted — then they can re-lay the track.” He dropped the satfoto on the table. “Hell, with over three thousand men stationed along there, they’ve got the manpower to fix up a broken length of track in a few hours.”

“So what can we do?” Cline asked, fully expectant that, as usual, Freeman would have an alternate plan.

“I don’t know,” Freeman replied. “Meanwhile, we’ve got the PLA coming out of their holes all over Disney, bear-hugging it to death.” By “bear-hugging” Freeman meant that the PLA were pressing right up against and among his troops so that no American or other USVUN artillery could be called in against the hill without killing as many Americans as PLA, or even more. Meanwhile, the trains from Ningming kept coming, laden with troops and ammunition.

* * *

On Disney Hill the fighting was ferocious, with no quarter given by either side. Much of it was hand-to-hand, after ammunition supplies had dwindled or when the American positions on the southern side were overrun.

It was here that American technology met its Waterloo, for unlike the Chinese, who used AK-47s, most of Freeman’s troops were armed with the M-16 with grenade-launcher tubes, which won’t take a bayonet. This small but salient fact was in the end responsible for what looked like an impending USVUN-American defeat on the hill, for it meant that with bayonet attached, the AK-47 became an all but unstoppable lance in the hands of the Chinese.

Martinez and Doolittle were down to their last clips. D’Lupo was firing sporadically, hesitating every few seconds to double-check his targets in the flare light, and Rhin was down to his M60-E’s last two link belts of fifty ball rounds each when they, along with everybody else in the dawn’s early light, heard the chopping sounds of helos in the south, coming from the direction of Bien Dong. It was some Second Armored Cavalry helos heading in from as far away as Phu Lang Thuong, most of the fighter planes from the Enterprise now at the end of their loiter time and leaving. More fighters were coming in to take over the TACAIR support on the northern side of Disney, but there was little if anything the fighters could do to relieve the USVUN forces on the southern side, with Chinese and Americans in such close proximity.

Only the slicks, the helos, could help. Even so, as the Hueys, like so many giant gnats, descended in battle line, they were exposing themselves to terrible danger. The helos’ leftside gunners tried to pour concentrated fire from their pintle-mounted M-60s at pockets of Chinese troops, the helos on occasion themselves taking fire from some PLA troops near point-blank range as each Huey slick touched to unload troops, ammunition, and water.

Colonel Melbaine, commanding USVUN forces on the hill, seeing the situation quickly degenerating into crisis, was in brief radio contact with Freeman. The general, against every tenet of his “keep moving and never retreat” philosophy, concurred with Melbaine’s decision to pull the USVUN troops back down the southern side of the hill with the intention of regrouping at the fringe of the rice paddies and extricating them from the Chinese, so that U.S. artillery could pound the southern side of the hill. But Freeman, and especially Melbaine, on the spot, knew it would be one thing to give the order for his troops to withdraw and quite another to execute the maneuver.

In a microcosm of what was happening all across Freeman’s front, the withdrawal was a debacle, and in the dismal gray light of a rain-streaked dawn, confusion reigned, with General Wei’s PLA troops adapting more adroitly than anyone expected to the new situation. Showing no fear, their confidence surging with their successful and unexpected counterattack via the tunnels on Disney’s southern side, the Chinese stuck like glue to the retreating Americans and assorted USVUN troops.

The moment a squad of U.S. Second Army’s troops withdrew down the hill, the Chinese, rather than occupying and securing the vacated positions, kept pursuing the Americans and other USVUN troops. They were not only intent on driving Melbaine’s troops away from the hill but equally determined to stay among them so as to keep frustrating the attempts of Freeman’s artillery to scour Chinese positions on the hill. American casualties were mounting by the minute, over eighty men already killed, many more wounded.

However, through the bedlam of radio traffic at his HQ, Freeman kept his cool and, in an order that seemed eccentrically insignificant to Major Cline and others at the time, ordered more of his Vietnamese contingent’s mortars flown into the paddy area south of the hill where Melbaine was trying to consolidate his troops.

“Tell those helo pilots to land well back. I don’t want those mortars unloaded too close to this free-for-all on the hill. Tell them to loiter till they see a clear area from which they can pour suppressive fire.”

“Trouble is, sir,” Freeman’s TACAIR liaison officer said, “the chinks are staying with us all the way.”

“Then have the helos loiter farther back!” Freeman said in an overriding tone of exasperation.

“Yes, sir.”

“And alert I Corps Airborne. I want them ready when we need them.”

* * *

Things were getting worse on the hill, and D’Lupo’s squad was an example of what was going wrong. Rhin, who’d been manning the M-60 machine gun, which was now so hot it was cooking off rounds without the trigger being pulled, was hit in the left leg. It was possible for him to walk, or rather limp, but he was a man down, and Martinez was already calling in a Medevac helo. The pilot, with the exemplary courage of their breed, was coming in low while the remainder of D’Lupo’s platoon stopped their retreat to quickly form a defensive perimeter around a landing zone between sheared-off trees. The firepower of the pursuing Chinese seemed to suddenly center on the Huey. The helo, the wash of its rotors kicking up dirt, leaves, and other debris, was taking hits all over, the pilot forced to take off.

In a wind shear, the helo dropped ten feet and swung sharply to the right, its rotors colliding with a broken stand of timber. The helo rose sharply, as if by some giant hand, and then fell like a grenade to the ground, its broken rotors from the main shaft and tail cartwheeling. What was left of the main rotors decapitated an American from D’Lupo’s squad, chopped up a mortar squad of Chinese, and also killed a Vietnamese machine gunner. Amazingly, the pilot suffered no more than a broken arm and severe bruising, but it slowed everyone in D’Lupo’s squad.

Freeman then made a tactical decision that would not endear him to the men of Second Army, or the American public if it got out. He made it because, as he would later cryptically tell Marte Price, “That’s what they pay me for.” He ordered squads to keep moving down the hill. He didn’t want any more calls for Medevacs because every time a slick tried to come in, every American in that sector stopped moving in order to secure the LZ, and every time the retreat slowed, it meant more men were cut down and more helos destroyed. Accordingly, Freeman ordered Melbaine to tell any wounded who couldn’t be moved to stay put and do the best they could for the time being.

“We’ll get to them later,” Freeman promised. “By Christ, I’ll go in later and get those boys out myself. But damn it, right now we have to get our forces out of there or they’ll all be chopped to pieces.”

* * *