Kill Zone

Kill Zone

by Jim Silver


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780684842899
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 01/28/1999
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.44(w) x 9.56(h) x 1.03(d)

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Fourth Division A/O, II Corps, Republic of South Vietnam

It was called VC Valley by the American troops that worked it, the area south and east of Pleiku. It ran for twenty or so clicks north from Phu Nhon to QL 14, the eastbound highway connecting Pleiku with Qui Nhon on the coast. The valley was maybe half that distance wide, beginning a few clicks east of QL 19 and running south to Ban Me Thuot. It was a roughly rectangular strip of rugged deep ravines and valleys that blanketed the Central Highlands. It was also an enclave offering a haven for many of the indigenous Viet Cong guerrillas in the province, who staged individual sorties from its protection.

No one liked going in there. The only reason for going was for a fight. There was no other purpose. No one really wanted the ground there, least of all the Vietnamese who lived close to the two bordering highways. It was Montagnard country by tradition, and most of the VC operating in the valley were tribesmen.When MACV-Saigon wanted a body count, word went down the line to the Fourth Division's headquarters at Dragon Mountain, south of Pleiku, through the division's brigades and battalions, and eventually ended up as an operations order sending the next lucky company in. And they would get the body count. That was assured. VC Valley offered only that, for both sides.

It explained why any sane man would dread going in, especially if he had been there at least one time. Once was all it took to introduce the line troop, the grunt, to what the war in Southeast Asia was all about. No politics, no flag-waving, no mom and apple pie. This was the brutal, hand-to-hand killing.

If you had gone inm's trick to add an edge for that all-important goal: survival.

The usual machine-gun load was a belt of ball and tracer cartridges, mixed four of the former followed by one of the latter. This one was different. It was specially loaded with two hundred black-tipped armor-piercing rounds. Private Burris had seen to it himself. There was another bag right next to it, ready to go. The hardened 7.62 mm bullets would penetrate light metal, like the sides of a Jeep, or the front of an engine block. That was their target.

"Look, I'm OK," Aceto shot back, keeping his voice low. His dark eyes gazed from under the rim of his camo-cloth-covered steel helmet, staring down the opening in the brush hiding them, noting the gun's placement, aimed right down the road where it straightened out from the ninety-degree turn 130 meters away.

"I didn't say you weren't," Burris said back, meaning that of course, he did.

"Shut up, man," Aceto growled.

"Knock it off, the two of ya," Linet said. He was off a few paces to their right lying prone underneath the heavy ground cover, the captured AK-47 flat on the hard red dirt before him. He was the senior man, both in age and in rank, and squad leader for the eight of them. Linet was from Georgia, and his gray eyes were hard and depthless, and befitted a man twice his age. Jack Linet was barely twenty-one. Time there had aged him, as it had the others. Linet had extended the basic thirteen-month tour for the early out, discharged and free upon arrival back in the world at Oakland. Now he wasn't sure that had been such a great idea. He might not make it. He had the edge, the will, and the way. He knew the Nam better than most, and the rest of the squad knew it.

It was Linet's decision that started the discussions, but they all shared the same attitude. They were sick and tired of being fed into the meat grinder, watching their buds getting waxed, wondering who would be next to go. Nixon had announced the start of America's withdrawal from the war. The Fourth Division was slated to go home in July, only a few months away in the troops' opinion. They shouldn't be running any more operations. The war was winding down, and there was absolutely no good reason to go out there and get killed. Let the goddamn ARVNs run their own goddamn war. It was their job now.

But someone didn't care, someone didn't listen, someone still wanted the numbers, the body count for the five o'clock follies in Saigon. Someone still wanted to send their battalion home with the big kill ratio record. Major Ralph-Almighty-Longbaugh, the battalion's S-3 operations officer. He was the planner. The one who issued the field orders. He was the one they needed to stop. And today was the day.

"Just keep the gun ready," Linet said, reminding them. "You guys initiate the ambush. You gotta take out the Jeep in the first burst. You have to stop him in the kill zone."

Aceto nodded. They'd talked about it for hours, each of them committing himself to the deed. It was past time for reconsideration. "Piece of cake, man," he said, and settled down, sighting down the barrel, left hand over the top of the feed cover, right hand lightly on the black pistol grip.

"Piece of cake my ass," Roselli cracked, off to the left. Roselli was from New York, a real wiseguy with black curly hair and a Fu Manchu mustache. Much as he played the role of the hoodlum, he was from Long Island, not the City, and didn't have the connections. He wanted people to think he did, though. Paul Roselli was twenty, with eight months in-country. He'd made rank once, all the way to E-5, then had been busted down for popping an SFC. Now he was back to PFC, with the single thin black stripe on his collar where three used to be. Being busted had given him a real bad attitude. He thought he had found a way to pay some of it back, though, just a little.

"Yeah, I got your piece a' cake right here," Landau added with a smirk. William Landau, Princeton, class of '68, who had found out just how quickly the draft board acted when your college deferment ran out. He was educated, and smug about it. It made him feel a few steps above his squad mates.

Like Linet, he carried a captured VC weapon, an SKS carbine. It was important that they leave some shell casings behind indicating the ambush of the major's Jeep was done by the Viet Cong. It was 1970, and by now, many of the indigenous VC used captured American M-16s and M-60 machine guns, in addition to their own Soviet and Chinese gear. So it wouldn't be unusual for anyone coming after the fact to find such mixed evidence.

Two others carried AKs too: Max Perriman and Mike Madison, a couple of brown-haired, blue-eyed clones from middle America, sons of Illinois and Indiana, neighbors of sorts, mutual draftees spending their final teenage year humping a sixty-pound ruck in the heat and rain of the Central Highlands instead of running fast Chevys along two-lane blacktops back home.

Louis Archer, the squad's black RTO, shepherding the twenty-five-pound PRC-25, kept his M-16. It made for a good mix. He was another New Yorker, from the City this time, the Bronx actually, and damn proud of it , too. Black pride meant something to him. Tall, broad-shouldered, heavily muscled, eleven months in-country, Archer was counting the days left before he would join his brothers in the streets, taking them back from the Man. Now he had the skills, a natural-born killer, all paid for by whitey.

And there was Carlos Madrid, a thin, lithe eighteen-year-old Puerto Rican from Miami, wisecracking in words of four letters or less, accent thick enough to cut with a knife, which incidentally was his favorite combat tool. He carried a long one, the eight-inch Gerber with its elongated Coke-bottle-shaped blade, "Just like a woman's leg," Madrid often said. He had learned about knives on the streets of south Miami. The blades came with pushing grass and smack, the latter beginning to look like the coming thing in Florida.

But he liked his product too much, and he'd taken his habit with him into the service, and across the Pacific to Vietnam. There he'd found shit he hadn't dreamed of in Miami. He was already working on life after the war, planning to set up a line of distributors.

They looked like any regular line squad, with their heavy rucksacks stacked behind them in the bush. Their suspension harnesses were laden with extra ammo pouches, water, smoke and fragmentation grenades, and such. Late-afternoon sweat trickled out from underneath faded, graffitied, camouflaged-covered steel helmets.

Their jungle fatigues matched their attitudes, faded to pale green, old sweat stains ringed in white, newer ones dark green. They were weary and worn down from months of hard use. Some wore field-issue shower towels around their necks and shoulders to catch the sweat and ease the weight of the rucks. Those with th e Soviet guns had their issue M-16s or M-79s lying across their packs. They'd get rid of the enemy guns later, bury them where no one would find them again.

Besides the mixed collection of weapons, their feet showed they'd given the matter some thought. Each of them wore a pair of Ho Chi Minh sandals, the simple cut-from-a-tire shoes of the local VC. Their boots and socks were jammed into their rucks. The scene they would leave behind would prove to any moron that Chuck had done in the major. Ol' Victor Charlie had finally punched Longbaugh's ticket home. They had considered everything.

Perriman and Madrid were on point at the moment, up around the bend, watching for the Jeep. The major routinely drove down this stretch of the highway, just before 5:00 P.M., when he was up in Papa-Kilo, or Pleiku, the provincial capital. He did it without a shotgun rider, and always at five o'clock in the afternoon, prime ambush time. It was a cocky, gung-ho thing, as if he were untouchable, flaunting his invulnerability before the VC. The practice, now more of a habit, was clearly against posted regulations. But Longbaugh didn't give a fuck about that, nor about the Viet Cong. It said a lot about his character, this death wish. He never thought about the other threat, the real one on this day. He should have considered it.

It was Perriman's job to radio back the approach of the vehicle. Then he and Madrid would catch the major in a crossfire, adding their AKs to the firing from the rest of the squad. He had argued for using a couple of Claymore mines, command detonated, but had been talked down.

"Where the fuck is Charlie supposed to get a couple of Claymores?" Roselli had said.

"The same place they get o ur 16s and 79s," Archer had said, backing Private Perriman.

"Forget about it," Linet had said, deciding it. "It has to look like a legitimate ambush. The guns will be enough."

"Why don't we rig up a booby trap, like Chuck would do?" Madison had offered. He subscribed to Perriman's big bang theory. "Y'know, command detonate a couple of 81s, maybe a Four-Deuce."

"What, and you're goin' to hump those mothers out into the bush like that?" Roselli countered, unimpressed by his squad mate's suggestion.

"Too complicated," Linet replied, interrupting them both. "We need to set this up quick, do it, and boogie. Remember, we're supposed to be running a sweep some two clicks away. Somebody hears about the ambush, or finds the major too soon, and they might send a chopper out to bring us and the other squads back. We'd damn sure better be back where our last sitrep says we are. Unless you guys like the idea of LBJ, or Leavenworth."

The mention of LBJ, Long Binh Jail, sobered them.

"Why don' we just cut the motherfucker's throat, man," Madrid said, his voice soft but shaky. He'd been into the stuff a little too much lately, and they all could see it. He was wired, his eyes a bit too bright. He didn't look good, and the others wondered about him down the long haul. Some of them were partaking of the same stuff, but liked to think they had it under control.

Perriman caught their looks. "Stick with the guns," he had said, ending that discussion.

They waited in the heat and quiet, each of them attending to his own thoughts. Killing in combat was one thing, and they had all done that to some extent by now. But this was not the same. This was murder, plain and simple, and they all recognized the differ ence. They could all hang for what they were planning to do. But they were going ahead with it anyway.

The radio handset, hung off Archer's helmet next to his ear, clicked twice. Perriman had keyed his handset in the prearranged signal: Major Longbaugh's vehicle was entering the curve before the kill zone. The two-click message meant nothing to anyone listening in. It was used far too frequently on the net, and could mean anything. Besides, they had chosen a little-used frequency, completely different from any of the command pushes. But the NSA monitored all broadcasts in Vietnam, so they were told. They continued to take no chances.

"On the way," Archer said casually, and shouldered his M-16.

Linet glanced right and left, getting all of their attention, and waved once, then motioned straight ahead, down the length of the bare dirt roadway before them. They all hunkered down in the brush, thumbs rotating safeties on the M-16s off safe and around to full automatic. Those with the Russian weapons snicked off their safeties, the AKs making their characteristic loud double click in the sudden silence.

As one they sighted down their weapons and heard the whining approach of the Jeep first, even before it cleared the bend in the road. The engine note changed as the major shifted gears, accelerating up to fifty miles per hour. On this stretch of road it behooved anyone traveling it to go as fast as he could. They listened to the transmission climbing the scale as it came at them.

Linet tapped Aceto on the right shoulder, then held his palm there, a silent signal. The Jeep came at them, a dark black-green square with the faded tan of the canvas top highlighting it, a red-brown cloud of dust billow ing up behind it.

Aceto steadied the machine gun on the perforated steel legs of the bipod, centering the front sight blade on the flat grill, his finger resting on the trigger. The Jeep closed to one hundred meters, then seventy, then...

"Now!" Linet said quietly, and squeezed Aceto's arm. The M-60 went off, hammering out a long burst at 650 rpm. The effect was as expected.

The armor-piercing bullets struck the front of the Jeep, ripping through the thin uprights of the stamped steel, puncturing the grill and radiator, ricocheting off the heavier metal of the block. Steam exploded out of it in a gush, and the major, startled by the impact, jerked the wheel to the left.

Even before his reaction, Linet fired quickly, in fast, two-round bursts, his second burst lost in the sound of the rest of the squad as they all opened up.

The entire front of the Jeep dissolved in a shower of broken glass, shredded metal, and ripped flesh as their fire merged into the space behind the flat windshield where the driver sat. Fully a third of their shots, almost all delivered on automatic, missed the Jeep entirely. Something in excess of 180 rounds did find their intended target, though, and thudded into flesh and steel, killing the machine, and the man driving it.

The Jeep continued in its leftward curve, still going at speed, nosed down suddenly into the deep culvert ditch, and rammed against the off-side embankment with a loud bang, bouncing up in the air in a shower of red dirt, then jounced back down on its wheels, the two front tires flattened by multiple hits. It took just six and one half seconds to accomplish: the reality of a fire fight. Or a successful ambush.

"Madre de Dios," Aceto said, looki ng at the smoldering hulk of the shot-up Jeep only a few meters away.

"Fuckin'-A," Landau said. He was grinning as he reloaded the SKS.

Burris said nothing, listening to the ticking and metal groaning coming from the Jeep. He looked at Aceto and back at the Jeep.

No one moved. Then, as if on cue, they all rose and advanced carefully toward the wreck, stepping out of cover into the open space of the road.

They stopped a few paces away from the Jeep, all of them taking in the damage, automatically critiquing their individual performance. It was done reflexively, a trait of combat. Then they looked at the body.

The impact with the embankment had bounced the major out of the driver's seat, against the steering wheel, where he fell back to lie awkwardly between the seats. One booted pants leg stuck out through the shattered glass of the windshield, while the left arm was jammed in an odd angle between the gear shift lever and the passenger seat tubular metal frame. His head and face were behind the same seat.

Roselli and Archer leaned in, checking. The amount of blood and ruined clothing attested to the accuracy, and finality, of the ambush. Roselli said it for them all.

"KIA," he said.

"Groovy," Madison said, staring at the body with a strange light behind his eyes.

Madrid shouldered his way closer, his eyes taking in the spray of blood and gore across the back canvas, and splattered on the dash and seats. They'd really done it, he thought. He leaned closer, looking at the body's awkward position. "We killed you, man," he said tightly, but his face was animated. His had been the last burst, a full mag of thirty rounds. His face reflected the look of the others. They were pumped.

Arch er bent over the passenger's side, then reached down to turn the dead man's head around. His fingers slipped on the blood, and Archer grabbed the slack chin instead. Sightless eyes stared unevenly back up at him from the ruin that was his face. The body showed the impact of over two dozen hits to the torso and face. A couple of rounds had hit high on his forehead, blowing the top of the major's skull off. Bare bone shone white from the mess that used to be his right shoulder. Archer held the head for a few moments, looking back. Then he let go, and the head dropped back limply. "There's your fuckin' body count," he said contemptuously.

Linet came up beside him, looking in. "Get his weapon," he said.

Archer wiped his hand down a pant leg, then reached over and picked up the blood-spattered CAR-15 off the floorboard, then the bandoleer of extra magazines nearby.

"That's it," Perriman said, and looked around quickly. "We ought to get off the road, man," he added.

"That's a Rog'," Linet said. "All right, get your rucks and let's Di-Di. We'll bury the Ho Chi Minhs and the weapons later, per the plan."

They all hesitated a few seconds, still staring at the ruined body of the major, reluctant in the reality of their deed to leave it.

"Now, people," Linet said again, letting the command carry through in his tone.

One by one they turned then, and walked back into the jungle. None of them looked back. Linet remained behind, taking in the scene. He was satisfied with their work. They'd done it. Now maybe things would slow down for them. The killing was necessary. They had done it for all of them, hadn't they? The company, and the battalion. They had stopped the insanity, right?

"Damn str aight," Linet said aloud, answering himself, voicing his confirmation for them all. He turned, and followed after the squad, ignoring the cold feeling in the pit of his stomach.

Their nervous euphoria lasted five days. It came down to a handful of glassine bags, in the end, and that peculiar love of the blade.

Three days after the ambush Carlos Madrid had gone back down the convoluted alleys of the southeast corner of Pleiku, the provincial capital, visiting one of his half-dozen distributors. It had been late afternoon and Madrid had a couple of soldiers with him, new in-country, FNGs, the old hats called them, fuckin'-new-guys. They were looking to score something to take away the heebie-jeebies caused by the anticipation of things to come. Madrid was Mister Connection. He had the rep, the moves, and the network. He was flying on all of that, and of course, a little of the good stuff to keep the edge on. Which was why he hadn't been as thorough in checking the new guys as he should have been.

One of them wasn't so new. In fact, he had been in-country for eighteen months, was actually twenty-two years old, although he looked eighteen, and had worked at busting little dealers like Madrid since he'd been assigned. His real name was John York, and he was a staff sergeant in the Criminal Investigation Division of the Army, the CID. York had ten men waiting to take Madrid and his connections down, under the command of their CO, Captain James Manos.

But things had started to get hinky during the discussions. Greenberg, the other new guy, was a bit too nervous, a bit too quick to answer, and Madrid's radar had gone off. It didn't matter that the kid really was nervous, unsure, wondering what t he hell he was doing in this rotten part of the city. Greenberg had guessed that this little spic bastard was ripping him off, and he was big enough to tear his head off if wanted to. And right now he was ready.

Words were said in rapidly escalating tones, and a stupid move by the new kid started the ball rolling. There were no guns, Madrid had always been adamant about that. They were stacked outside the door, with one of his suppliers watching over them. But he had the Gerber in his boot, and it came out in a flash.

The blade punctured the new kid's throat, just a tick under his left ear, pushing its elegant tip up into the base of his brain, and Madrid never heard York's warning shout. The CID team literally kicked the door down, barreling in with CAR-15s locked and loaded. The next thing he knew Madrid found himself face-down on the floor of the corrugated tin shanty. And then his whole world went black.

Linet took the news in stride. He'd been expecting something like this about Madrid. The idiot had been all but advertising his dealing. "Where'd they take him?" he asked Landau.

"Last I heard was straight down to Long Binh," Landau said. He was plainly worried about Madrid's bust. Word had spread around the base camp at Dragon Mountain quickly. For the eight members in the squad, the news carried a special threat. "You don't think Carlos'd cut a deal, do you?"

Linet's look answered the naiveté of the question.

Aceto voiced what all of them were thinking, coming off his bottom bunk in the big platoon-sized tent back in their company area. The eight of them were the only ones there. Heat shimmers danced down the oil-soaked streets outside the open screen sides of the high-ceiling ed tent. "He was there, man. What d'you think he'd do?"

Landau knew better than to challenge the statement. Madrid had been getting flakier, all right. They all knew the stuff was eating away his brain. Now he could hang them all to save himself. "So what do we do?" he asked them all, but meant it for Linet. He was the leader.

"Move the guns," Linet said. "Right now. We go back out there, dig 'em up, and bury 'em someplace else. Just in case."

"What about our own 16s and the M-60?" Roselli threw in. "If Carlos rats out, and they pull rounds out of that Jeep, they can check ballistics."

"Ah shit, man," Archer said. "This ain't TV. They don't do that shit in the Nam."

Linet sent him a withering look. "What's wrong with you, Louis?" he said. "Don't none of you boys know this ain't no goddamn game? We lit Longbaugh up, troops. That's what us good ol' boys in Georgia call a hom-ee-cide." He pronounced each syllable separately, turning his head to take them all in. "Word gets out, and you can bet your sweet asses they'll do everything they can to pin it on us." His gaze came back to Archer. "Yeah, man, they'd check the ballistics, too. And they'd damn sure match up them rounds to our weapons."

"We have ta get rid of the guns, then," Roselli said, making the obvious point.

"Already done," Linet said, smiling for the first time. "That little rocket attack last night took care of that, remember?" They all paused at that, as each immediately knew what he was talking about.

The Viet Cong had sent the Fourth one of several going-away gifts the night before. Just after midnight eight 122-millimeter rockets had slammed into Dragon Mountain, totally at random. One of them had hit in the squad's com pany area, taking out a part of the tactical operations center, the TOC bunker system. It had also killed the three-man radio team on watch there. A second rocket had exploded amongst the platoon tents. A third had hit the company's S-4 supply tent, destroying several racks of weapons. They had all been down in the bunkers by then, though.

"Combat loss the gear," Madison said, his face showing relief.

"You got it," Linet acknowledged. "I haven't turned in our damage list yet. It looks like a few of our weapons were destroyed when that 122 took out the TOC and that tent." He pointed at Madison and Burris. "You two collect up the guns. Take them out into the country, wrap a couple pounds of C4 around 'em, and blow 'em in place. Bring the bits back here. S-4 will issue new ones, and what's left of the pieces won't identify us to jack shit. The rest of us will move the VC gear. Clear?"

"Yes, sir," Madison said. "Let's go, John."

"What about Madrid?" Roselli said, bringing up their other problem.

"Leave that to me," Linet said. "I know some guys at LBJ."

"Oh wow, man," Aceto said. "You goin' to ice the boy?"

"You know another way?" Linet fired back. "I don't know about the rest of you, but I ain't goin' down for no pillhead. You got that?"

Linet glanced around quickly, then motioned the men closer. "It's like we talked about before, people," he said. "We're all in this together, all the way down the line. All I want to do is walk onto the plane and get back to the World. We did some serious shit to Longbaugh. Now we got to get past it, you know? Either we all do it, or anyone who decides no, well..." He left it easy for them to complete the sentence. Then he drove the point home anyway. " And if that means taking out Madrid, then that's what it takes. His brain's all fucked up on that stuff he's been taking. He's likely to tell 'em anything to save his sorry ass." He held them with his eyes for a long count, making sure they understood. "Questions?"

There were none. He hadn't expected there would be. "Just be cool, people," he said. "Be cool, and we'll get through this." He gave them a wink. "We're almost home. Let's get there in one piece."

"Amen to that," Roselli said.

"Yeah, man," Archer chimed in, beginning to strut away. "Get down wit'cha bad self, brotha."

"That's the way, boys," Linet said, soothing them, letting his voice carry the idea home. He was their leader, and they knew it. He'd take care of them. That's what he always did.

Captain James Manos came into the interrogation room with the coldest smile on his face Madrid had ever seen on a man. The look said it all, even before he started talking. Madrid knew what was in store for him. He'd been in LBJ for all of twelve hours, and already he'd had a visit from a few of the righteous white boys running his little section of the jail. His face was swollen, his left eye still hadn't focused yet, but it'd take a few days before it opened anyway. The bleeding from the broken tooth had stopped, and his tongue seemed to work, but it hurt, too. The ribs on his right side reminded him with each breath about the parting kick he'd received. He didn't want to think about their next visit.

"Private Carlos Jesus Madrid," Manos began, slapping a thin manila folder on the gray enameled metal table. There were only two chairs in the ten-by-ten room. Madrid was sitting on one of them. Manos took the other by raising one foot up onto the seat, leaning his crossed elbows across his bent leg, staring down at Madrid. He was in tailored green fatigues, with only his name and U.S. Army patches over the slant chest pockets. There was no division patch on his shoulders, nor any rank or branch insignia on his collar tips. The only indication of that was the navy blue baseball cap he wore. On the crown were the silver twin bars of a captain, superseded by small brass letters, U.S. It was the unofficial uniform of the CID.

Manos studied Madrid as if he were a specimen on a slide. "You look like hell," he said finally. "Welcome Wagon call, huh?" Madrid nodded, and his neck muscles protested dully.

"Well, my friend, there's a lot of that goes on in here," Manos said. "But that won't matter. You won't be here all that long. The charge list against you was good enough to send you to Leavenworth for six years. Up until you stuck that knife into Private Greenberg yesterday. You just bit the big one, Carlos."

He had a look of satisfaction on his face, but there was disgust, too. "You're a sorry excuse, you know? You aren't a soldier anymore. From what I've seen, and know about you, you haven't been one for a long time. You're a punk, Carlos, that's all. A wiseguy dealing in some bad stuff. And it reached up and bit you in the ass, boy."

Madrid looked back, his mind whirling with the repercussions of his own stupidity. He had no doubt that what this arrogant captain was spouting at him was the truth. He was going to jail, if he survived this hellhole first.

"Uh," he began, and cleared his throat. It hurt to talk, and he remembered the fist slamming into the side of his neck the night before. "Can I say something here?"

Manos' s foot came off the chair, and he sat down behind the table. "You have the floor," he said. "They read you your rights when you came in, right out of the UCMJ. You remember signing the waiver?"

"Yeah, I remember," he said. He had a plan forming in his head. It took shape as he gathered his wits. If he told it right, there was a chance. "I know something," he began. "Something big, y'know? Maybe I could let you have it."

"What you got is nothing, Carlos," Manos said. "What I got is you, and you're history. You killed a man, Carlos. Kid was just another FNG, looking to dull the experience. You dulled it for him. They're sending him back to his folks in a new green bag inside an aluminum box. But he'll be stateside before you. You're going to spend a little time in this lovely vacation resort, tryin' to keep your ass from being the target of half the good ol' boys in here."

"No, man, listen. I got some information, and it's big information. I give it to you, and you cut me a deal. It's worth it, believe me."

Manos listened. He had heard it all before, a thousand times. This lowlife had nothing to deal with, he was sure of that, but he had to ask anyway. Sometimes things came out, useful things.

"Tell me what you think you know, and I'll listen," Manos said. "But that's all, Carlos. Your future is pretty well set, understand. No matter what you think I might be interested in, I've already got you. So talk away, boy."

"We fragged an officer," Madrid began, and it was the way he said it, and the look in the depth of his eyes, that alerted Manos to pay attention. By the time he was done, Madrid had told him everything. Manos sat there for a few moments, then pushed up from his chair.

" Stay here," he said unnecessarily. He walked to the door, opened it, and leaned out. He spoke with someone in the hall, but Madrid couldn't tell who it was, nor what was said. That part of it was answered when another captain came in a few minutes later, along with an enlisted type carrying a pad and a portable tape recorder.

The two new men joined Manos around the table, both of the officers standing while the enlisted man, a three-stripe sergeant, sat down and set up the recorder, checked the cassette tape, and quickly spoke into the small mike, giving the date, time, place, and personnel. It all happened quickly.

Manos spoke up. "Are you willing to tell me that story all over again, Private Madrid?" he asked.

Carlos looked at him, then at the other officer. The name Husta was on his fatigue shirt. Madrid figured he was on a roll, and also that this was his shot, his last chance. "Yeah, man. I'll tell it again. Whatever. We got a deal? You goin' to cut me a deal?"

"No deals, Carlos," Manos said. "Not yet. We have to check this out first. If it doesn't prove out, then we'll know you've been lying, perjuring yourself to buy your way out of a murder rap."

Madrid knew it was bullshit talking, for the record. He also knew what he knew. Let them prove it, then, he thought. "Fine then. You want to play your legal games, that's cool. I know you got to do that, OK? But you go out there, man, you check it out. Yeah, I'll tell it again. You got that thing runnin', man?" he said suddenly to the sergeant. "I tell you, you check it out, you'll see, Captain. I ain't lyin', man. Swear on my mother."

"Get on with it," the other captain said.

"Year, sure, sir," Madrid replied. "OK, here it is." And he told it again.

It would be the last time.

He was found late that evening, hanging from the bars of his cell. Madrid had apparently ripped his issue blanket into strips thin enough to use, anchored one end all of three feet off the floor, then sat down, securing the other end around his neck.

"I should have had him on a suicide watch," Manos told his partner, Captain Tony Husta.

"Yeah, well, there's no guarantees," Husta said.

"No matter," Manos said, taking it in stride. "Part of the story has already checked out. There was a Major Ralph Longbaugh killed in an apparent ambush in the Fourth's area of operations a week ago."

"It did have that ring to it, didn't it?" Husta said.

"Let's go find some killers," Manos said.

But Carlos Madrid's alleged confession, as good as it had sounded, quickly died along with him. It was simple rules of evidence, and Manos and Husta had none. The judge advocate general lawyer, USAF Major Carl Stanton, broke the news, though the two captains knew which way it was going in short order. They met in Stanton's office, located in a two-story brick building on the west side of Pleiku Air Force Base. It was an air-conditioned affair fully twenty by twenty-five feet, with real carpeting on the floors, and a mahogany desk. The Airedales knew how to live.

"Look, you guys've been around long enough," Stanton said from his swivel chair.

His starched camouflage fatigues had a nice crease on them. The U.S. Marine-style uniform was standard issue for the Air Force, while the real boonie-rats had to scrounge them, Manos noted wryly.

"It's open and shut, no offense," Stanton added.

"None taken," Husta said from his position near the wall-mounted air-cond itioner. "So why won't you recommend a general court on circumstantial evidence alone? We've got a body, and a confession, and you've seen the interrogation reports of the eight squad members."

Stanton sighed, then pushed back in his chair, tilting it, and laced his fingers behind his head. "Yeah, I read them. All eight of those beady-eyed little bastards tell the same story, which is basically no story at all. None of them have any idea what Madrid was talking about. Sure, they were out on a day-long sweep the same day as the ambush, but their sitreps show where they were all the time -- "

"No, they show where they claimed they were," Manos interrupted. He wasn't going to take being told no easily.

Stanton acknowledged his comment with a nod, but went on. "Fine, we can discuss semantics any time you want, but the radio logs are convincing. They put that squad two clicks away from the ambush site -- "

"Murder site," Husta cut in.

"Ambush site," Stanton corrected. He came down in his chair, his hands out in a plea motion. "No, gentlemen, it's an ambush site until you can prove, with hard evidence, that it is, in fact, something else. You have no motive to start with. The Fourth Division is standing down, going home. Why would anyone want to blow away the battalion operations honcho? What's the point?"

"You just said it," Manos countered. "No one takes chances that close unless they have to. But they were still running operations into the field, and that's a hell of a motive, when all you want to do is live long enough to go home."

Stanton's face clearly showed he didn't buy the argument. "You'll not convince a general court of that. What field missions were being run were equitably distributed amongst the brigades, and down through the battalions to company and platoon levels. Besides, VC Valley wasn't high on the repeat list. MACV-Saigon had ordered that left to the ARVNs."

Husta pushed off the wall, his features mirroring his frustration. "All well and good, but the Fourth was still going in there," he said. He fixed Stanton with his dark eyes. "The line troops hate the valley, Major. There's a reason for that. Have you ever been in there?" The question was rhetorical, they all knew, but it emphasized the point.

Stanton considered not answering, then shook his head. "No, Captain, I haven't. I understand your point, though."

"Do you?" Husta said. "With all due respect, Major Stanton, the court will have to understand, too. They'll have to crawl inside the minds of those grunts to appreciate the absolute fear and hatred they have for that place. And all of that emotion, all of that foreboding, was personified to them by Longbaugh. And that, sir, is motive."

Stanton conceded. "All right, fine. Let's say a general court believes the motive. Where's the physical proof?. You both went out there looking for the guns Madrid said they'd buried. You found nothing."

"It was an approximation," Manos interjected. He didn't like the way this was going. "We didn't exactly have a ten-digit map coordinate. Madrid's description was close, we knew that. But the guns weren't there, and we tore up a lot of ground with the engineers we took with us."

"And the squad's M-16s?" Stanton added.

"Conveniently combat lost in a one-twenty-two attack a few nights after the ambush," Madrid said.

"An attack in which three men from their own company died," Stanton said. "Hardly any premeditation there, gentlemen."

"What is it?" Husta said, seeing how this was going to end up. "What exactly do you JAG types need to prosecute eight killers? We know they did it, they know they did it. And you're going to let them walk?"

Stanton bore Husta's heated questions impassively. "They're going to walk because you have nothing to convict them on," he said. "Nothing but the word of a doped-up dealer, a loser with a bad track record of his own, who incidentally was trying to deal his way out of a murder-two rap. And when that didn't work, he hung himself."

It was clear by their returned gazes what Manos and Husta thought of Carlos Madrid's alleged suicide. Stanton stared back at the CID officers, sensing they'd arrived at a stalemate. Still, he felt obligated to drive home the statistics for them. "But you've got another problem here. Sure, there have been a few so-called fragging episodes in all four corps areas. The civilian press would like the public back home to think it's a fairly frequent practice nowadays, but it's not. The actual confirmed incidents are far below what's being portrayed on the nightly news."

Manos saw it coming and interrupted Stanton. "You're talking about the numbers, right? We've seen the reports, too," he said, pointing a thumb at Husta and himself. "We investigate fraggings, remember?" He didn't allow Stanton to reply. "In almost all circumstances of a bona-fide fragging episode, the perpetrator has been alone. Only in rare cases has there been more than one killer."

Stanton nodded slowly at the two of them. "That's it exactly, not to put too fine a point on it. You've got a nine-man rifle squad here, who you have to prove to a general court dis cussed, then agreed, then carried out together a premeditated murder of a battalion staff officer. Nine men," he repeated, his doubts obvious.

"We think we can prove it," Husta said.

Stanton shook his head. "I don't. And the JAG commander in Saigon agrees. OK," he said. "Off the record, I agree these assholes are guilty as hell. But what I think and what can be proven are two entirely different things. Right now, they're taking Lieutenant Bill Calley apart for killing almost four hundred civilians in a middle-of-nowhere hamlet. And they'll do it because they have proof. Irrefutable proof. You don't have that. No, gentlemen, there isn't enough here. They walk."

Manos had had enough. "This is crazy," he said.

"The whole goddamn war is crazy," Stanton shot back. "Why should this be any different?"

"So we have no recourse," Husta said. "There's nothing we can do to these men? We just let them go, knowing what we know?"

"That's it," Stanton said. "I don't care for it any more than you do, but it's the law, the same here as it is back in the World."

"You're right," Manos said. "It really is crazy." He shook his head with the thought. "Eight murderers go free. They probably had Madrid knocked off, too. But we'll never get 'em on that one either. Jesus, man, what's next?"

"Nothing," Stanton said. "Oh, sure, we can screw around with them a little. We can separate them, reassign them to different units. When the Fourth finally rotates home, those with time left on their tours will remain in-country. Anyone with time left on their enlistments we can ship to Anchorage or Panama, or whatever hole we can find. But that'll be the extent of it."

Manos exchanged looks with Husta. It was clea r between them how each felt. "I'd like to see them before they're released," he said to Stanton.

"What good will that do?" the major asked.

"No good at all, I guess," Manos replied. "I just want to remind them, so there's no mistake about it, that there's no statute of limitations on murder. Whether it's here, or in the States, it doesn't matter. If I find out anything, I mean freakin' anything that will let me nail these guys, I'm coming after them. I want them each to understand that. It won't matter how long it takes."

"Something always comes up with fuckups like these," Husta said, picking up on Manos's promise. "Maybe it'll do some good in that respect, leaving them with that notion. There'll be someone watching them, always. Always," he repeated.

Stanton looked at the two of them, his sympathies fully at odds with the system they were all part of. "Do what you need to," he said finally. "But the order's going out today to cut them loose."

"What about our investigation?" Manos asked, tapping his finger on the thick file folder on Stanton's desk.

Major Stanton looked at it for several silent moments, his eyes working with his thoughts. He reached out and nudged it toward Manos. "File it," he said. "It's over."

Manos picked the file up, weighing it in his hand, then stood up, motioning to Husta. "Is it?" he asked. "What about the family? What are you going to tell the major's wife, and his son and daughter?"

Stanton kept his eyes on the file, then slowly raised them. Manos saw the decision set in them.

"They'll be told Major Longbaugh died as a result of enemy action, specifically a Viet Cong ambush. Mrs. Longbaugh will receive his life policy payout as beneficiary, and his officer's pension."

"You're going to lie to them," Manos added, his tone hostile.

Stanton looked incredulous. "Lie to them! The whole goddamn war is a lie!" he shouted. "At the five o'clock follies we tell the press we're winning this war, when all we're doing is killing Americans...for what? We take a piece of ground and give it right back. Then we go back a week later and do it all over again. Half the country back home thinks we're all baby-killing goons, while the Vietnamese want our money and guns, but not us." He was angry, and his frustration drove his words.

"Vietnam is the biggest mistake we've made in this century. All we're doing is killing Americans, yet we keep trying to convince ourselves we'll win this one yet." He leaned forward on his forearm and kept his hot gaze locked on Manos. "You said we're going to lie to Longbaugh's family. You bet we will. What good will it do to do otherwise? You'd like us to tell them the major was murdered by a squad of miserable screwups, and by the way, we can't touch them for doing it? The man is dead, and his family will have to deal with it the best they can. Why make it worse?"

Manos held his stare, his own anger flaring in his eyes. But his voice was soft as he replied. "They deserve to know the truth. We," and he paused, underlining that he included the three of them in the office, "should respect them enough to give them that. The war may be a lie, Major, but somewhere the truth has to be spoken, even here."

Stanton sat back in his chair, suddenly tired of it all. "You want to tell Longbaugh's family the truth? You think they have a right to it? Maybe, one day after all this is history, and people start to forget, may be then." He reached out with a forefinger and tapped the tabletop, punctuating his words. "But not now. Not today."

"It ain't right, Major," Husta said, his disgust apparent.

Stanton looked at him, but didn't respond. His face said it all.

"It won't end here," Manos said.

"Don't push it, Jim," Stanton said. "Let it alone, all right?"

Manos held up his palms in surrender. "Yes, sir, no problem," he said. "But it'll come out, sooner or later. That's how these things go."

"Maybe," Stanton said. "Who can say?"

"In time," Manos answered. "As you said, it'll happen in time. It always does."

Copyright © 1999 by Jim Silver

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