On April 11, 1880, General William Tecumseh Sherman addressed a crowd of more than ten thousand in Columbus, Ohio, and said, “There is many a body here today who looks on war as glory, but, boys, it is all hell.”
His lover—a member of the National Liberation Front—was trained to kill Americans. It was possible that she had already killed some of his people, but that wasn’t going to stop him from wanting more of her.
Ethan Card stared out the sunken pit of a broken window at the grounds of the former French colonial rubber plantation, which the South Vietnamese rainforest was reclaiming. Columns of mature, struggling rubber trees marched away from the dying house as if they were soldiers fighting a losing war. A patch of blue sky was still visible, but the rest was an angry blanket of dark clouds.
When the French ruled Vietnam, Ethan thought, this place must have been something.
He heard the distant popping of a firefight that signaled combat and wondered who was dying: Viet Cong, North Vietnamese, Americans, South Koreans, ARVN, or Chinese communists?
The scuttle of a tiny, hard-shelled monster on the gray, wood floor of the second-story room distracted him. He knelt and flicked the insect away; watched it roll into a ball then, slipping into a crack, disappear into the floor.
The house creaked and he shivered. Before returning to the olive-green GI blanket spread on the floor behind him, Ethan looked around warily. Something did not feel right, and he paid careful attention to his warrior instincts.
He sensed Tuyen’s movement and glanced at the blanket where she lay nude on her stomach—her face cradled on her arms. Her long, dark, glossy hair hid most of her features. She was French, Vietnamese and Thai. At least that was what she had told him. There were other indications, as well.
In the village where they met, a Vietnamese woman called her a French bastard behind her back. He was sure Tuyen had heard and ignored it.
Her height and aqua eyes were French, but the rest was Asian. She was tall for a Vietnamese with the slender body of a fashion model. Admiring her nudity, he knelt and traced a line between her shoulder blades down her spine with his finger tips, stopping just above her hips.
Her silky, warm skin excited him causing his heart to race and his breath to catch in his throat. The urge to make love again was tempting, but they had already been in the deserted house too long.
“Why you fuck woman that fight with your enemy?” she asked in broken English
“Because you told me you are not a communist,” he said. “Why are you fucking me?”
“Maybe you go home to America and replace me with other woman,” she replied.
He loved listening to her throaty, crude accented English.
“I am not a butterfly,” Ethan replied, “and, when I return to the United States, I’m taking you with me.” Otherwise, there wasn’t much for him in America but bad memories and a strict Evangelical Christian mother who often quoted Holy Scripture when lecturing him.
A loud creak sounded outside the shattered window. “What was that?” he asked, aware that discovery by either side would be disastrous for both of them.
A rumble of thunder shook the old house, and it started to rain. The fat drops pounded the leaky roof like a barrage of pebbles.
“It nothing,” she replied, as she rolled over on her back. “Only ghosts. This is old house.” Slipping an arm around his neck, she pulled him down on top of her.
Still, that creaking noise bothered him—it sounded as if someone had shifted weight from one foot to another. His combat sense warned him to listen closer, and when he did, he heard a rat scampering across the rotting attic floor above their heads.
“I think us together this morning too long,” she said.
“Maybe it is your Commie brother, Giap, spying on us.” He watched her features closely and noticed a quiver in her lips as heat climbed into her face at the mention of her half brother’s name.
“No,” she said, spitting her words out as if they were laced with cobra venom. “Giap recruiting in far village.”
Ethan knew that something dark and brooding existed between Tuyen and her half brother, but he couldn’t ask what it was. She had made it clear when the affair had blossomed months earlier that questions of her private life and family were forbidden. To cross that line could mean losing her, and she was his addiction—his opium.
Then as fast as the hate in her face had switched on, it vanished. “I loving you,” she said; then kissed him on the mouth. He felt a thrill shoot through his groin as her lips pressed against his. He should have stopped, but he couldn’t resist.
Victor Ortega picked up the pocket recorder from the windowsill and turned it off. He leaned against the wall and stared at the abandoned rubber plantation that spanned thousands of acres across hills where the jungle was still reclaiming the land. Raindrops from the swollen clouds pelted him. It was time to leave with his evidence.
A smile split his tanned, leathery face. Langley would not approve of him using his CIA skills to frame an innocent man. Ortega’s part-time business—the selling of weapons and information to the North Vietnamese Communists—had put Army intelligence on his trail. He needed a goat and Ethan and Tuyen fit the bill.
Ethan Card didn’t know it yet, but he was going to take the fall for Ortega’s illegal operations. Ortega had been watching several armorers, and because he had discovered Ethan fucking Tuyen, that link made him the perfect patsy. Card was having an affair with a member of the NLF who had a North Vietnamese Communist cadre leader for a brother. Who wouldn’t believe Card was guilty?
Using a miniature, silent camera, Ortega leaned into the window and took half a dozen pictures of the nude couple copulating for the third time.
Perfect! These photos would be the clincher. One shot had caught Ethan’s full profile and her face with eyes closed.
It was time for him to leave, and he had to be careful. Ethan was a recon Marine with a tiger’s senses. Ortega took a cautious step on the blue, rain-slick tiles of the veranda’s roof. He shifted his weight gently from one foot to the other. Then a crack sounded from one of the veranda’s tiles.
Icy fear shot through him galvanizing him into action. Moving quickly, he lay against the house below the window opening where the roof met the second-story wall. Holding his breath, he waited.
Ethan couldn’t dismiss the noise this time. He slipped from Tuyen’s embrace, rolled away from her across the floor and grabbed his forty-five caliber M3A1 submachine gun that he lovingly called his Greaser, because it fired four-hundred-fifty rounds a minute.
He waited until Tuyen had finished rolling the other way, picked up her AK-47 assault rifle and pointed it toward the offending window the sound had come from.
She nodded, and he darted toward the window to flatten himself against the wall next to it— his heart hammering from the rush of adrenaline.
Moving fast, he spun and aimed the Greaser out the window until he was flat against the wall on the other side. He stared at her and shook his head.
“We go,” she said, and gathered her clothing.
He watched her long, naked legs slide into black pants. “I can be here early tomorrow morning,” he said.
“Giap back. I no make it.” She slipped the black blouse over her head.
He was disappointed at losing sight of her naked body.
“We together in three days,” she said. “He gone again.”
He finished dressing, went to her, and placed a hand on each of her shoulders. They kissed.
They should have met in another time, another place where there was no war. He worried that someday what he had with her might end. That day would be a clusterfuck! There must be some way he could keep what he had with this lusty beauty.
Ortega, drenched from the rain and sweat dripping from his face, rolled down the veranda’s roof. He dropped easily over the side, twisted his body like a gymnast, and reached out to grab the edge of the roof above him. His brief grip with tiles slowed his momentum, and he landed easily on his feet. Turning right, he ran close to the house and sprinted for the trees.
An hour later, after driving miles through the rainforest, Ortega arrived at the United States Marine Corps recon base camp. Inside the fortified camp, he crept to the armorer’s van surrounded by stacked layers of sandbags.
The rain pounded the metal roof of the van, masking his entrance. Storage lined one wall of the long, narrow space and a workbench took up half the other wall. Shadows smothered the small desk at the far end of the van. To one side of the desk was a file cabinet that Ortega had searched a few times without Ethan’s knowledge. His eyes settled on Lance Corporal Wilson, Ethan’s assistant, who was bent over the bench working on a weapon. The man was an idiot; a fucking lowlife fool.
“Hey, man, did you pick up the fucking weapons at division?” Ortega asked.
Wilson yelped and jumped. “Asshole!” he said, and turned revealing the Ka-Bar he was holding close to his body with the blade’s edge facing Ortega.
Ortega laughed. “You’re such a fucking jerk.”
Wilson blushed and put the knife away. “They’re here.” He went toward the back of the van, returned with a crate, and put it on the bench. “It makes me nervous when you arrive this late to pick up the goddamned weapons. What if Ethan comes back early? What the hell would I say?”
“You worry too much, man.” Ortega reached into a pocket for a roll of South Vietnamese piasters, and threw the money on the counter.
“You bastard,” Wilson said. “I am taking all the risks. If Ethan find out what I’m doing, he’ll skin me alive. Do you know how crazy these fucking recon Marines are?”
“And do you know the strings I had to pull to get you, a regular piss-ant jarhead, assigned to this unit as its assistant armorer?”
Ortega stared with scorn at the lance corporal, and said, “Nothing will go wrong if you do as you are told.” He stopped talking and glanced at the wall clock behind the desk when a helicopter roared overhead. The thin metal roof of the van vibrated from the backwash. He knew it was the evening ass-and-trash flight to the division area at Chu Lai fifty miles away.
Once the noise of the slick was gone, Ortega continued. “You have nothing to worry about, alright, man? Soon, Ethan will be working for me.”
Wilson bared his teeth and pushed his face toward Ortega. “That’s easy for you to say. You don’t know the bastard. He lives by the rules.”
“It’s in the bag, man.” Ortega wrapped a poncho around the crate with the two M-60s in it. He shouldered the weapons and went to the door. “Now, cool it. Tonight I’ll make my pitch to Ethan. Then you won’t have anything to worry about.”
He left the van and went to his Jeep thinking he would have to kill Wilson soon. The man was unreliable and unstable.
Ethan returned from his business in Chu Lai to the recon base camp late in the afternoon. In his olive-drag Dodge M37 truck, he approached the steep narrow climb to the camp at the top of the orphan hill—an island fortress surrounded by rice paddies that in turn were surrounded by a dense rainforest.
A trailer-towing Jeep barreled down the dirt road toward him. Ethan automatically searched the paddies on either side for signs of life, hoping the demolition team had checked the road thoroughly that morning for buried explosive. Satisfied, he pulled his truck to one side, stopped, and waited for the Jeep to pass. His windshield wiper clicked back and forth clearing the raindrops from the glass.
He stiffened when he saw the man driving the Jeep. It was Ortega. The bastard had talked to him once—veiled, probing questions about weapons and how to requisition them. Ethan saw similarities between this man and members of Chicago’s Black P-Stone Nation street gang. As a teen, Ethan knew Jeff Ford, who had united the leaders of about fifty street gangs in Chicago and called the new organization the Black P-Stone Nation.
In fact, Ethan had run with one of the smaller street gangs that joined Fort’s organization, and when Ethan told his fellow gangbangers he was leaving for good, they jumped him and beat him ruthlessly. He’d arrived at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island bruised, limping and wearing torn and bloodstained clothing that didn’t impress the drill instructors. They rode him harder than the others for the next few weeks, but he welcomed the challenge and absorbed the discipline as if it were his salvation.
Ethan had been told that Ortega was a civilian liaison working with tribes living in the Central Highlands of Kon Tum Province, and that his job was to gain their loyalty to fight for America. However, the rumors also said he was CIA and had an army of Montagnards tucked away in the Annamite Mountains straddling the Laotian border with Vietnam.
Ethan inserted the M1911 Colt Forty Five’s new recoil spring as he finished reassembling the weapon, and then rubbed his hot, itchy eyes with the knuckles of his free hand. He had also replaced the barrel bushing to increase the weapon’s accuracy. The large wall clock showed three in the morning. He needed sleep, but there was too much to do. Lance Corporal Wilson was an expert at avoiding his job and seldom kept up with a day’s work.
Sensing movement behind him, Ethan reached for one of the twelve-inch throwing knives he kept on a shelf under the bench near his workstation. He glanced in a small steel mirror on the wall and looked at the face reflected in the polished metal.
“Shit!” He hissed. Putting the knife back, he picked up a rag and wiped his hands. “What do you want?” He faced Victor Ortega.
“We’re about to become fucking partners, man,” Ortega said.
“What the hell are you talking about?” There was something strange about Ortega’s voice. It sounded as though he had just smoked dope. Natasha, one of several girlfriends he had collected during his year in community college, had sounded that way after a few joints—something he never liked about her and one reason he dumped her before shipping out for his third tour in Vietnam.
Ortega spread half-a-dozen requisitions on the counter. “Take a good look at your name. These are fucking weapons you signed for, man.”
Ethan reached out, hesitating when the hill trembled from several artillery rounds going out. The roar of the mobile, armored one-hundred and fifty-five millimeter howitzers shook the hill and everything on it causing a thin haze of dust to rise from every surface.
When the battery stopped firing, Ethan took one of the papers and studied it. It was for two M-60 machine guns and the date was yesterday. “I never ordered these.”
“Of course you did. It’s your fucking signature. Look closer, man.”
The howitzers started firing again, and Ortega spoke louder. “I know for a fact that those weapons are in the hands of Viet Cong, and that there’s a bank account in Okinawa with your name on it. Check the fucking receipts in your file cabinet. They go back months. Some of those receipts are for weapons that have been found in the hands of dead Viet Cong.”
A cold shiver of disbelief invaded Ethan’s gut. His submachine gun was in reach, but the throwing knife was closer. “What the hell is this about?”
“These receipts say you’re going to fucking work for me, man. My customers want what you can supply. You are going to feed that demand. After all, the United States is a demand and supply economy. Anything for money. Say no, and I will hand these papers and others like them to Army intelligence. With your history as a member of a Chicago street gang, you’ll spend the next twenty years to life in a federal pen.”
Ethan couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He reached for his Greaser. “Wilson is mixed up in this, isn’t he?”
“Don’t be a stupid ass, man,” Ortega said, almost shouting to be heard over the roar of the howitzers. “I’m not in this alone, but I wouldn’t work with a fucking idiot like him.” The battery stopped firing leaving a sudden, shocking silence.
Ortega glanced behind him with disgust and lowered his voice to a near whisper. Instead of staring at the barrel of the submachine gun pointed at him, he looked into Ethan’s eyes. “Pull that fucking trigger and friends of mine will turn this evidence over to the Provost Marshall in Da Nang. It doesn’t matter if I’m dead. Your ass is still mine, man.”
Ethan tightened his finger on the trigger. It wouldn’t take much pressure to fire. “You’re bluffing.”
“Do it, man,” Ortega said, and rubbed the tip of an index finger along his top row of teeth. “Go ahead. You have all this fucking honesty and integrity to uphold.” His bark of laughter was chopped off short at the sound of troops running outside. Once the squad was gone, he said, “The people I work with are all over Southeast Asia. You want fucking power. You want fucking money. Join me and you will have both.”
Ortega moved closer to one of the storage racks and placed a hand on the barrel of an M-16. He caressed it as if it were a woman’s leg. “If the Army catches you moving the weapons, man, I’ll know it before they can get to you. When that time comes, I’ll set you up with a warlord in the opium trade in Laos near the Golden Triangle. That will put you hundreds of miles from Vietnam. The fucking Army cannot touch you there. That is a winning deal, man?”
“Fuck you.” But Ethan didn’t pull the trigger. “Maybe I should take you to the Colonel,” he said, “and give him these papers—let him hear what you want me to do.”
“That wouldn’t be smart, man,” Ortega said. “Do that and I’d tell him you caught me going through your files. The fucking rumors are true. I do work for the CIA. Who would they believe? You, a criminal that ran with street gangs in Chicago, or me, a career agent working to preserve democracy throughout the world?”
“I’m not going into business with you.”
“Well,” Ortega drawled, “there is the matter of a little Viet Cong pussy you’ve been banging. The way I see it, you love that slant-eyed snatch. The fucking Army will hear about her if anything happens to me or if you decide not to get with the fucking plan. She will look good sitting in that China Beach prison the ARVN keep for prisoners of war. Imagine what those South Vietnamese intelligence agents would do to her to make her talk.”
Rage pounded inside of Ethan’s skull, and he struggled to keep it under control. His finger twitched against the Greaser’s trigger.
The door creaked. Ortega slid into the shadows behind the door and vanished from sight.
Corporal Alex Smith stood in the opening staring at the submachine gun. With the night behind him, his face glowed as if he were a ghost. “Hey, Card, calm the fuck down and aim that thing away from me.”
Ethan’s friends called him by his last name.
“You work too hard. I went to three fucking places looking for you before I came here. I should have known. Belamy is putting the team together. We are going to Laos to pick up a downed Navy pilot. The air-rescue boys can’t get to him so get a move on. The slick flies in five fucking minutes.”
Ethan stared at him with a dazed look.
“Did you hear me?” Smith said. “Are you fucking shit faced or something?”
“I haven’t slept for forty-eight hours,” Ethan said. “Don’t worry. I … will be there.”
Smith nodded and disappeared in the shroud of darkness outside the van.
“When you have had time to think,” Ortega whispered harshly, “you’ll see how hopeless your situation is. Just remember, evidence is everything, and in a military court, you will be dead meat. I got you, man. You belong to me.”
Ethan looked at the silhouette of the man in the dark corner. “I’m taking you to the Colonel.”
“The Colonel ain’t here,” Ortega said. “He’s off to that ARVN ranger camp near Kon Tum. You’ll be going there when you return from Laos. That is, if you don’t get yourself killed first. The way I see it, man, you have only one choice.”
Ethan didn’t want to deal with this now. He grabbed his gear for the mission and left the trailer in a rush. The noise of a helicopter approaching the hill grew in volume.
The mission wouldn’t give him time to think about Ortega’s demands. Every skill he had would be called on to keep him and the team alive. There was no half effort in terrain controlled by an invisible enemy that wanted you dead. Maybe when he returned, if he survived, he would discover this was nothing but a nightmare—a joke or something. However, the anger and frustration filling him said Ortega’s threats were real.
After his confrontation with Ethan, Ortega flew in a Cobra gunship to the highland ARVN ranger camp.
Back in Puerto Rico in that fucking San Juan slum where he grew up, Ortega’s father had taught him how to read a person’s body language, and Ortega’s instincts said Ethan wasn’t going to cooperate.
He needed the Army to back off their investigation of the stolen weapons. Because Ethan wasn’t going to cooperate, Ortega decided to hand him over, and he would earn credit for solving the Army’s case, while staying in business.
He watched the sun splash brilliant colors across the horizon. The high mound of dirt to his right surrounded the camp and hid the bottom of the rainforest from his view. Logs and concertina wire ringed the top of the mound.
The tall, thin figure of Colonel Edward Price jogged into sight. Price, an African American, was in his forties with close-cropped dark hair peppered with white. Sweat soaked his camouflaged clothing.
“Colonel,” Ortega said, remembering that his old man taught him it was best to talk cultured when around people with money or power.
The Colonel stopped, but his legs continued to pump as he ran in place. Obviously, Price had been running for some time, and Ortega saw that he wasn’t the slightest bit winded.
“I thought it only right to let you know what one of your men has been up to.” Ortega took several forged requisitions and the photos of Ethan and Tuyen having sex and handed them to the Colonel.
Price’s legs stopped moving. His granite face remained expressionless as he studied the papers and the photos. “That’s Ethan Card,” he said. “Where did you get these?”
“Colonel, division will be contacting you today or early tomorrow,” Ortega said. “They want Ethan Card for selling weapons to the Viet Cong, and he will be court-martialed.”
“This cannot be true,” Price said. “Card is a good man.”
“General LaBourne in Da Nang feels differently. His people have been trying to find the traitor for months. Americans have been murdered by weapons Ethan Card sold to the Viet Cong. I recorded a conversation between Ethan and a Viet Cong woman that is his contact. There’s also a bank account in Okinawa in his name with too much money in it.”
Price lifted his gaze from the papers and pinned Ortega with his cold, gray eyes. “I know my men. I know Ethan Card. I don’t believe this crap.” He dropped the papers and the photos to the ground and resumed jogging without looking back.
Ortega knelt, picked up the evidence and smiled. He was pleased. The Colonel had reacted as predicted. With Price primed and angry, Ortega would now arrange through his contacts to make sure General LaBourne called the Colonel to Da Nang. The General was an Arkansas bigot. He and Price had a history stretching back to World War II. Once the two met, Ortega might as well order Ethan’s body bag.
WHERE TO BUY