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Carrie Sanderson flipped open the revolver chamber and inserted six cartridges. Six chambers of retribution, her uncle had told her. Once the cartridges were inserted, the weight of the gun surprised her, making her, wonder even more if she would have the guts to kill her own father.
She looked at him in the armchair, eyes closed and dozing in a half-drunken stupor. The gun wavered in her quavering hand. Usually she had control of herself, but this was different. She poked him in the ribs, and his eyes shot open.
He stared into her eyes, trying to read her mood. Usually it was easy. This time he saw fear, apprehension and anger.
"Jesus, is that real?" he asked, his voice sounding steady and unperturbed.
"Very real." Her voice was soft and low.
"Then for Christ sake, keep it steady. It will take you ten shots to hit me, waving it around like that."
"You're not scared?" His reaction was not what she expected.
"No, you won't shoot. But maybe it would be a good thing if you did. I've thought about it a lot lately."
Her brow furrowed. "I'm not surprised after what I've just learned."
His eyebrows came together in a confused look. The steely glare he gave her as his mouth dropped open indicated his interest. "And just what the hell are you talking about?"
She looked at him and paused before saying, "I've just come back from Belfast."
"So? Nothing's happening there at the moment. The IRA has been very quiet."
"I've been to see my Uncle Kevin."
Tully eyed her viciously. "Is that prick still alive?"
"Very much so. He sends his regards."
His mind raced, but he couldn't resist. "I canimagine. How come you went there?"
"Four weeks ago, I received an envelope containing some photos of my mother and a note. They were from my uncle. He asked to see me."
Tully's curiosity was aroused. "What sort of photos, and why would he want to talk to you?"
"Because he wants me to kill you."
Tully absorbed her words before speaking. "Well, I knew you hated me, but I didn't think you would go to this extreme. You better explain."
His words brought a bitter taste to her mouth. Hate? Love? She didn't know which. A lot had happened over the years.
"Perhaps I'd better." She reached down beside her, took a large envelope from her bag, and handed it to him. He stared at it and slowly turned it over in his hand. Carrie glared at him as if daring him to open it. He slipped out the photos and peered at the first. Softness appeared on his face, and Carrie could see a tear gathering in his eye. It was a photo of a beautiful young woman, almost the clone of Carrie, with dark hair, soft but expressive eyes, and a smile that would flatter the Mona Lisa.
"That's my mother, isn't it?" she said, waiting for a response.
He looked up, still teary-eyed, then tried to put on a gruff, macho "I don't care" attitude. "Yeah, that's her. Beautiful, wasn't she?"
"Look at the rest." Her voice had a sergeant major sound, and her brow furrowed.
Tully looked at the second photo. It was a shot of him as a young man, hand in hand with Briony as they walked through a London street. He held the photo in his hand for several seconds as if he didn't want to put it down. He moved to the next photo where a very pregnant Briony held Tully's hand, with a broad smile on her face and Saint Paul's Cathedral in the background. It showed two very happy people, obviously deeply in love.
Dropping it on the coffee table, he stared at her. "Jesus, they'd follow you into the toilet if they could."
"Now, look at the last one," she said with venom in her tone. While the first three were in black and white, the last was in full colour and showed Tully kneeling over Briony, holding a gun. She lay on the ground, her side torn open, with what appeared to be blood running down her chin. His other hand was bloodied as he tried to push her intestines back into the cavity..
"Oh God," he said, his eyes now filled with tears and a look of anguish on his face. "I never wanted you to know about this."
"That's obvious, you bastard."
Tully looked down guiltily and then turned the envelope over to see the address. It simply said The Shamrock Hotel.
"Now, read the note with it." Again an order, but she, too, held back tears as she bit her lip.
Tully studied the note. It read, "Photos one to three are of your mother, the third when the bastard made her pregnant. The fourth is when your father killed your mother. It's time you knew the truth. My name is Kevin O'Rourke, and I'm your uncle. Her name was Briony, and she was just nineteen years old."
Tully sat up straight, his sense of professional ethics insulted. "So you just up and went to Ireland like some naive teenager. Christ, you're a first-class journalist. You've been trained to only listen to the truth." He reached for a now almost flat half-can of beer and took a sip.
"That's why I went, to find out the truth. Not for one moment did I believe it was true."
"Sure," said Tully unconvincingly.
Carrie pulled her lips tight. "I didn't just go to Ireland. I talked to Pat."
"So what did you want to talk to him about? He hasn't been to Ireland in over twenty years."
"Information. I asked him if he had come into contact with Kevin O'Rourke when he worked with Interpol."
"Christ, he hated O'Rourke as much as I did."
The weight of the gun made it hard for Carrie to hold it steady. "He asked me why I wanted to know. I told him it was important to me, but then he said O'Rourke was bad news and to keep away from him."
"Sounds like good advice to me," Tully grunted.
Carrie's jaw tightened as she remembered Pat's words. "Then he said he knew him. So did you. He told me that O'Rourke was an IRA terrorist and to keep well clear. I asked why he didn't want to talk to me about him. I've spoken to terrorists before. What was different about this one?"
Tully leaned forward as the conversation developed. "Pat was a very experienced Interpol agent. He knows what he's talking about."
Carrie continued. "He said that O'Rourke hates you and that he might want to harm me if he found out who I am. I asked why O'Rourke hated you. What did you do to him?"
"Shit, he didn't tell you, did he?" Tully's mood changed quickly.
"He told me that O'Rourke is my uncle. He said you and he didn't get along. I asked him why."
She had Tully's full attention now. Carrie was satisfied to see his drunken daze had disappeared.
"He told me I'd have to ask you. Pat said O'Rourke was a killer who got away with murder."
"Pat knew everything about him," said Tully, frowning.
Carrie raised the gun again. Plainly, it was making her arm tired. She lifted it higher, this time with both hands, and pointed it at his head. Her sight was now clouded by the tears running down her cheeks. She momentarily released one hand and quickly wiped them away.
Tully glared at her. "Look, if you're going to bloody shoot, then get on with it." Regardless of his 'I don't care' attitude, a cold sweat began to develop on his forehead. He stared at the cold steel of the barrel, now again moving from side to side.
"Not until you hear the full story. I asked him about The Shamrock Hotel."
"I've been there myself." He noted the gun wavered and dropped lower until it was completely back in one hand. He sucked in a breath. "You went?" asked Tully quietly, not liking what she might be about to say. His stare gave her the impression he was far away in another land in another time.
"And stayed in a five-star hotel," said Tully, grinning and seemingly coming back to the present.
She looked at the smirk on his face. "You think it's funny?" This was not how it was supposed to go.
Tully put down the empty can and sat back. "No, but it sounds exactly how it was when I was there twenty-seven years ago."
Tully's attitude confused Carrie as the gun again wavered in her hand. In the movies, men held guns as if they were toys, but this was not true in reality. When someone has a gun on you and threatens to kill you, most people are scared. However, Tully just stared at her blankly.
He could see she was nervous. He was troubled all right, but not for himself. He felt concern for Carrie, who seemed forced into what she was doing. He regretted those lost years, when he had missed her growing up: her first steps, her first date, her graduation from the university. All the things a father should have been there for. Now, it had come to this.
Carrie's heart kept thumping in her chest. She wanted this to be over, but not until he fully understood why he had to die. Her conscience gathered inside her like a festering sore. The dry feeling in her mouth didn't help. She couldn't just shoot him. Bang, bang, you're dead. She had to string this out as long as she could. Maybe something would happen to stop this tragedy; maybe he would confess and prevent her from killing him.
When Tully stepped off the plane in Vietnam, the humidity hit him in the face like a wet towel. Three American jets screamed overhead and disappeared into the horizon. The jets confirmed that he was now in a war zone. No friendly service from the ground crew; it was a matter of grabbing your bag and passing through a laughable charade of customs. An American officer took a quick look at his passport and gave him a thumb movement indicating the way out.
Tully had only been on the ground for five minutes, but sweat was already pouring from his skin. He hailed a cab and sat back, wiping his brow, as the taxi wove its way through the mass of people choking the narrow streets. Bicycles, motor scooters, army trucks and soldiers, it seemed they were all hurrying somewhere, in a desperate effort to get there. The noise sounded like Sydney in peak period as fumes of cars and trucks that needed a serious service filled the air. The pollution made it hard to breathe, and he felt grateful he wasn't asthmatic. The first thing to strike him about Asia was the smell. Not a bad smell, but a sort of pungent, steamy smell where the oppressive heat seemed to mix with the damp vegetation of the jungle.
Getting here had not been as easy it would be. His boss had kept him at home for more than four months, not convinced he could handle Vietnam, especially with his state of mind after Belfast. Eventually, his persistence won. Here he was, ready for action.
Richard, his boss, had told him to find Craig Cassidy at the Paradise Hotel. Craig was the Tribune's photographer and would be his working buddy and show him the ropes. An old hand as far as Vietnam was concerned, Cassidy had been here over twelve months. He should be able to fill Tully in on the "dos and don'ts" of correct wartime journalism.
Tully's shirt stuck to his back, and he would have killed for an ice-cold beer. The streets were full of GIs, most with an Asian girl draped on their arm, all looking for a good time. The experience of Asia was a new one for Tully. The hordes of people, the shops and streets, the marketplaces, even the dress of the people caught his interest. He laughed to himself when he saw a man on a small motorbike with his wife and three children, weaving his way through the traffic. Bicycles seemed to be a favourite form of travel, but then how could the Vietnamese afford the luxury of cars? Most of the vehicles were military and very conspicuous.
The cab driver dropped him at the Paradise Hotel, certainly not Saigon's top hotel, but a cheap, disappointing place where most journalists came and went in their frenzied race to get a top story.
Jesus, I've been in better flea houses than this, Tully thought as he stood outside the hotel. It had a French flavour, with a balcony around the first floor overlooking the street. Faded white paint on the outside seemed to confirm his first thoughts. Chips on the surface made him think they might have been made by bullets or even a bomb.
This is going to be fun, he thought as he entered.
At reception, he waited while an overweight Asian man wearing a brightly coloured shirt and rather dirty shorts talked on the phone while balancing a huge cigar in his mouth. It wobbled up and down so much that with each word, Tully thought the action would knock off the ash. The fumes almost choked him. At last, the man finished talking and gave Tully his attention.
"I help you, buddy?" The man obviously thought he was American.
"Yeah, I want a room for starters, and maybe you can tell me where I can find a bloke called Craig Cassidy."
"You Australian?" He gave a rather toothless smile. "I help you, cobber. I have nice room. You want girl?"
"Listen, mate, my name's not cobber. It's Tully Sanderson, and I don't want a girl. I want a bloody room. Preferably a room with working air conditioning."
"Maybe you want a girl after. You come see Charlie. I get you a nice, clean girl. Very cheap."
Tully rolled his eyes to the ceiling. "Do you know where Cassidy is?"
"Snaps? Him there at bar. Red hair man in crowd."
Tully turned in the direction of the bar where a group of people were drinking and laughing as if they didn't have a care in the world. Tully recognized several of them from news photo services. One of them, a Frenchman, reminded Tully of Santa Claus without the bushy eyebrows. His neatly trimmed goatee was in character, but the baggy shorts he wore looked as though they were supported by spaghetti sticks, a contradiction to his pot-belly. His yellow teeth matched his stained fingers, and when he coughed with an abrasive rasp the others leaned back. The square bulge in his top pocket gave evidence as to the cause of his complaint.
The Englishman stood like he had a broomstick stuck up his arse. Working as a butler couldn't have made him more aloof. Even in the humidity he didn't seem to sweat. He looked like a big game hunter with his bush hat and khaki shirt with short sleeves. His trousers were neatly pressed with sharp creases, although they seemed a little stained.
The American was easy to pick out. He wore a baseball cap with a Dodgers emblem emblazoned across the front of it. His cigar wafted smoke into the air, and there was a New York accent in his loud voice. He was young, probably only about thirty.
The Australian, a red-haired ferret of a man, wore a three-day growth of bright red beard. It clashed horribly with a dirty floral shirt hanging on his body but matched his freckles. He had long, straight hair hanging down over his forehead that gave him a larrikin appearance. His eyes were sharp and clear, however. Ginger Meggs! Tully thought of the cartoon character of long ago. The pale skin reminded Tully of his mother's rice pudding. Tully noted the Pentax camera hanging from his neck. It didn't take much work to figure out that this was his man.
Charlie tapped him on the arm and waited for him to turn. "Here your key. Room 11 on first floor."
Tully took the key, then ambled over to the group of men. Raising his voice, he got their attention. "Craig Cassidy?"
Craig's shock of hair hit Tully again. It was even longer than it had seemed at first impression. His eyebrows were a thick and bushy shock of the same red hue. Blue eyes sparkled at the sound of Tully's voice. White, even teeth flashed the friendliest smile imaginable.
Tully liked him instantly. Pausing mid-sentence as he heard his name called, Craig spun in Tully's direction, offering his hand all in one fluid movement. Not a drop was spilled from the bottle he was holding.
"Tully Sanderson, I presume. I've been expecting you. Welcome to Vietnam."
"Craig?" The Englishman laughed loudly and said in a charming, friendly accent, "Did anyone know Snaps had a proper name? It's really Craig?"
"Ignore this stupid Pommy bastard and the lanky Yank." Snaps grinned at the two men. "They're both useless pricks, but Frenchy here's a good mate. It's your shout, Frenchy."
It seemed like an exclusive men's club with few members, but then journalists respected each other in the dangers of the job they were in. The Englishman offered Tully his hand.
"Alex Franklin. The London Sentinel. This lanky Yank, as Snaps calls him, is Chuck Denver from the Washington News, and this is Pierre Montclair from the Paris Chronicle. I do hope you're a bit more refined than this Australian."
"I sure am, mate. My mother always taught me to be a gentleman and act with decorum. Now, which one of you dick heads is going to shout?"
"What will you drink, Tully?" Pierre pronounced it Tooly.
"I suppose an ice-cold beer would be out of the question?"
"Ze temperature of ze room only," said Pierre.
The man at the bar flicked open a bottle and handed it to Tully.
"So you're what they sent to replace Ken Hanson." Snaps took a swig from his bottle and made a horrible expression as if it was poison. "Shit, this is awful. It'll never sell."
"Never met him, but I guess so. Richard Harding just told me you were a man short. Had enough of the place, did he?" Tully sipped his beer.
"I suppose you could put it that way." Franklin's very English voice was quiet and modulated. "Poor chap got himself caught in a barrage. They sent the pieces home in an envelope."
Tully thought they were joking until he saw their faces. Each one had a silent, subdued expression. This was one of their ilk, and each knew they could be next.
"You're fair dinkum?" he asked.
"Of course, it's a damn dangerous place over here. This your first time in a combat area?" Franklin took another sip from his bottle.
"Apart from a short time in Belfast. They had the odd bomb blast, but it was not a war zone, nothing like Vietnam."
"Well, Tully," Chuck drawled. "My advice is to stick close to the soldiers and don't go wandering off on your own. The Viet Cong shoot first and ask who you are later. No one is safe, but you have to work the odds."
"He's right, mate," said Snaps. "You have to learn the ropes quickly here, or you don't survive."
"I'll be counting on you for that sort of help."
"My pleasure. Meet me back here at six, and I'll show you Saigon after dark. I think you'll find it an interesting place."
"Sounds like it. The first thing Charlie over there asked me was if I wanted a woman."
"There's plenty available. Most are supporting their families. It's the only way some of them survive. The Yanks spend heaps on them."
"What about you?"
"Shit, mate, I'm no virgin. You need something to drive away the horrors of this place. You'll find out."
Tully could see the others nodding in agreement and drank his beer in silence. He hated the place already.
"First thing we have to do is get you some decent clothes and boots. Cotton shirts and army boots are what you need. Something that will breathe," Snaps said.
"Where do I get them?"
"Leave it to me. I know where we can get you army fatigues. Just give me your sizes, and they'll be here tomorrow. You sew a press insignia on your sleeve, and you're in business."
Tully pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his brow. "Don't they have air conditioning here?" All he could see were two big ceiling fans turning slowly without much effect.
"Do you think this iz ze Hilton?" Pierre sounded amused. He slapped his thigh and gave a laugh.
"You get used to it, mate," said Snaps. "By the way, don't drink the bloody water."
"This is going to be fun," sighed Tully. "Is it safe to wash in it?"
"Cold showers in every room. Enjoy."
"If that's what's offering I'd better go and try it out. See you at six."
He left them to inspect his room. His air conditioning was comprised of a ceiling fan and an open window. The double bed wasn't too uncomfortable as he sat on it. When he took off his shoes and slapped at an insect the size of a matchbox, he understood why there was a net over the bed.
If Charlie supplied women, the bed had probably been used for something besides sleeping. There was a wardrobe of French design, but the polish on it had long faded. A small dresser alongside the bed was ample for his shirts and underwear. A coconut fibre mat spread across the floor in front of the bed. The shower was a simple recess in one corner of the bedroom with a chrome hoop around the top supporting a plastic shower screen. He quickly stripped off his clothes, looking for relief from the heat under the water.
After a somewhat refreshing shower, Tully rested a while and sorted out his belongings, then returned to the bar promptly at six.
"Are we going somewhere classy?" he asked, surprised to see Snaps dressed in neatly pressed white trousers and the brightest floral shirt Tully had ever seen. The flowers somehow seemed to scream at Snaps' red hair.
"The Orchid Bar. That's where you get good booze, pretty girls and, most important, no windows."
"What do you mean no windows?"
"It's semi open air. They have bamboo shutters, so if a grenade is thrown, at least you won't be cut to ribbons by flying glass."
"Charming," said Tully. "Let's go."
Tully had heard about the horrors of Vietnam, but nothing drove the point home more than what they saw as they walked towards the Orchid Bar. On reaching the American Embassy on their route, they noticed a crowd gathering.
"What's going on?" he asked Snaps.
"Probably another demo against the yanks. Let's stroll over and have a look."
"That's what I'm here for," he said, shrugging. Anything for a break from suffering with the oppressive heat was welcome.
Tully could see a flash of orange and heard chanting in Vietnamese, a language he had yet to master.
"He's a Buddhist monk, isn't he?"
"Yeah, you can tell from the orange garb they wear."
"So what's he saying?"
"Not sure, something about the war and the Americans. I haven't learnt their lingo properly myself yet."
Tully took note of the people watching. "The crowd seems interested. He's not going to burst out into song, is he?"
"I doubt it," said Snaps, laughing.
Tully looked at the monk, who was sitting in the middle of the road, rocking backward and forward in his chant. His bald head glistened in the fading sunlight from the sweat forming over his naked dome. Tully tried to estimate his age, maybe between twenty and forty.
"Come on," said Snaps. "We're using up good drinking time."
But something told Tully to wait just a moment. He grabbed Snaps' arm and pulled him through the crowd. Two American soldiers with rifles held across their chests began pushing the crowd aside, trying to clear a path for a car about to leave the Embassy grounds. The monk refused to budge. Instead, he pulled a small can from beneath his robes and poured a liquid over himself. Tully knew instantly what it was. The smell of petrol even penetrated the humid smell of Asia.
"Shit," he said, but Snaps already had his camera off his shoulder.
Before they could say another word, the monk produced a lighter and gave it a flick, immediately consuming himself in a fireball and driving everyone back another few paces. Tully couldn't believe it. The man should have been in agony instead of sitting quite still as the flames grew higher. The acrid smell was a forerunner of things to come, but it was something Tully would always remember.
Snaps took pictures while Tully stood spellbound. They watched until the figure turned into charcoal. A soldier rushing from the Embassy with a fire extinguisher tried to extinguish the flames, but it was too late. By the time he reached the monk, he was lying on the road like some barbecued carcass.
"Looks like you've got your first story," said Snaps grimly.
"Jesus, what a bloody start. The poor bastard didn't even move."
"It's a shit country and a shit war, mate. Get used to it."
Tully scribbled some notes into his notebook, just a heading he would type up later. Fiery protest ends in death. Jesus, he needed a drink even more now.
The Orchid Bar was just as Snaps had described it. Shutters were pulled up to let in the cool evening air and maybe to let out some of the smoke from cigarettes and joints. Several scantily dressed Asian girls, barely visible through the smoke haze, danced on a stage in the middle of the room. The place seemed filled with Americans, men and a few women, probably nurses. Music blared, and people talked, drank and laughed. It gave the impression there was no war on at all.
As soon as they found a table, a pretty young girl in an almost see-through dress with her nipples clearly showing walked over, giving them her most beguiling smile. "You like good time, Joe. Me give you good time. Cheap. Only twenty dollar."
"Piss off, love. Maybe later." Snaps moved her on before Tully knew what was happening. "She spotted you for a newcomer straight away. You could have her for ten dollars, no worries."
"Christ, she was no more than sixteen," said Tully, horrified.
"That doesn't worry anyone here. Look around."
There were dozens of girls in the building, some sitting at tables talking and drinking, some standing in doorways trying to entice people inside. Most were clad in cheongsams, but a few were wearing very short skirts with a scant strip covering their top half. Nearly all were the same age as the one Snaps had just dismissed.
Almost every American inside or seated at the curbside tables had at least one girl to absorb his attention and money. Tully noticed quite a few Australians looking for a piece of the action, too.
Tully took in the scene before him and shook his head in disgust. "Maybe I could do a feature on prostitution; it seems to be alive and well in Saigon." He pointed toward a girl going upstairs with two soldiers.
Snaps looked at him as though he was crazy. "No way. You upset the Yanks, then you won't get to where the fighting is. We rely on them for a hitch in one of their choppers. Upset them, and they might drop you off halfway."
"Christ, do we have to kowtow to the Yanks every time we see something distasteful?" This was against everything he knew about journalism.
"That's the way things work out here."
Tully had a disgusted look on his face. "How do you find out what's going on?"
"General Briggs of the American Infantry holds press conferences every couple of days. They give us bullshit about how well they're doing and lie like hell about their casualties. They only tell us what they want us to write."
Tully sighed. "What are the Yankee soldiers like?"
Snaps shrugged his shoulders. "A mixed bag. Most are real good guys, friendly and courteous. Some are your average arseholes, like some of our guys, and a lot are young kids who get stoned whenever the opportunity arises."
"How do you get to where the action is?" Tully knew he had a lot to learn.
Snaps gave him a grin as this was something he was used to. "Bribery works best. Most of the journos sit here and just report what the army tells them. The good ones, like the three you met, find their way to the front and get the facts first hand."
Tully rubbed his chin as he thought about the man whose position he had taken. This was not going to be any picnic.
"Is that how my predecessor left us?"
"Yeah, Hanson was like a bloodhound, a great guy and a bloody good journo. He didn't leave a stone unturned to get a story. He just ran into bad luck. How do you want to play it?"
Tully turned toward Snaps and grinned. "His way sounds good."
"Shit, I was afraid you would say that." Snaps feigned horror. "One thing, it relieves the boredom."
They spent the rest of the night drinking, talking and getting to know one another. Tully felt pleased to have Snaps as his photographer. He obviously knew the ropes, and his experience would be invaluable. When they left in the early hours of the morning, Craig purchased a bottle of bourbon on the way out.
"Haven't you had enough to drink, mate?"
"It's not for me. It's for the chopper pilot. It's part of the bribery I was talking about. We'll go to the base tomorrow and see what's happening."
"The Australian base?"
"Not likely. Some of the Aussies have already left. The bloody Yankee base. That's where all the orders come from."
Tully was embarrassed about suggesting the Australian base. It should be obvious, even to a newcomer, that everything revolved around the Americans. He'd just follow Snaps until he knew the layout. With his story typed up, Tully fell into bed wondering how he was ever going to survive.