Larry Bond's Red Dragon Rising
Edge of War
By Larry Bond, Jim DeFelice
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2010 Larry Bond and Jim DeFelice
All rights reserved.
Josh slept through the bombing. He slept through the wail of the sirens. He slept through the rumble of the Plaza Hanoi across the street imploding. He slept through the strike at the new education ministry a half block away, and the collapse of the Vietnamese Private Commercial Enterprise Bank building a half mile away.
Josh MacArthur slept and slept, oblivious to the sounds of the war he had suddenly found himself in, a war that he was not only witness to, but a critical part of. He missed the grating har-ush of the Chinese jets as they roared overhead, the last-minute shriek of the air-to-ground missiles just before they struck, and the steady rattle of the antiaircraft guns, twin-barreled 23mm and the larger 57s and 85s, their shrapnel exploding in an irregular pattern.
He missed the glass shattering everywhere, panes breaking like the thin ice over a pond on a late winter's day. He missed the rumble of the gas lines as they blew up, muffled by the ground. He missed the sharp cracks of old wood splintering beneath the weight of collapsing roofs and walls.
What woke him was the light touch of her footsteps in the hall, passing in front of his room on the way out.
They belonged to the woman who'd rescued him, Mara Duncan. Against all odds, the CIA officer had found Josh behind the lines of the Chinese advance and pulled him with her through the jungle, across the hills to a rendezvous with American SEALs, who had brought him to a truck commandeered by two U.S. Army officers. Together, they barely managed to make it past the advancing Chinese troops, but managed nonetheless.
The adventure would have been unimaginable for most people. But for Josh MacArthur, a weather scientist of all things, it seemed as unlikely as it could get. Josh had come to Vietnam to study the effects of the weather on the jungle. Instead, he had become a witness to man's more immediate impact on the environment — the cold-blooded massacre of a Vietnamese village in the hills by the Chinese.
The Chinese had also murdered his own colleagues. He'd missed that by chance, complete chance — his allergies had woken him and sent him away from the tents, out of concern for his colleagues and their sleep. His sneezing had saved him.
He'd run when the fighting began. Except that it wasn't fighting; it was a massacre. The scientists and their support staff had been killed in their sleep, without any possibility of resistance.
The killers had chased him as well. He'd run for his life, lost in the darkness in a country literally halfway around the world from his home.
He'd been defenseless and alone, and yet running seemed like an act of cowardice, of weakness, as if he might somehow have made a difference.
It was a foolish notion — the Chinese soldiers outnumbered him greatly, and in fact had barely missed him several times before his rescue. Josh had killed several himself, including one with his bare hands. There was no question, or should be no question, of his bravery.
And yet that idea, that feeling of failure, woke with him in the gray light of the Hanoi hotel room.
Josh sat upright in the bed. The hotel had never been one of the city's best, nor a favorite with the international tourist crowd. The furnishings had been old and battered well before the war. There was only a pair of bare sheets on the bed. They hadn't been changed in days, not since the war began. Josh had found them covered with dust and small bits of glass from the shattered windows, blown out from the attacks on the first night of the war. Too tired to talk to the staff — and guessing it would have been worthless to try — he'd pushed the small shards off on the floor and simply collapsed in bed a few hours before. Now he found grime stuck to him, held to his skin by his sweat.
He put his hands on his chest, gently brushing downward, more to reassure himself that he was still there than to clear the clinging grit.
As unglamorous as it was, the hotel was a solid, squat structure, dating from colonial times and overengineered by its French architect. Its sturdy walls had protected it from the shrapnel when the building across the street had collapsed, and while nothing was truly safe against a direct hit by one of the Chinese army's larger weapons, the hotel was one of the safest buildings in the city still open to foreigners. And of course it was obvious that Josh and his friends were foreigners.
He swung his legs out of bed. They were creaky and stiff. Josh had considered himself both athletic and in fairly good shape — he had taken letters in cross-country and baseball in high school, despite the asthma occasionally provoked by his allergies — but his ordeal in the jungle had tested his body. Both knees were sore, his right calf muscle had been pulled, and his neck felt as if it were a bolt twisted too tightly into its socket.
Glancing at the gray twilight outside the window, he guessed it was roughly 5 a.m. His watch had been lost during the initial attack.
He walked slowly to the door, mindful of the glass. There were small piles of it along the front of the room, which faced a side street away from the hotel that had imploded. Someone had come in and swept the larger pieces into the piles, but neglected to come back and remove them.
Or maybe they had been killed before they got the chance. Several thousand civilians had died in Hanoi since the bombing began.
Josh undid the lock and pulled open the door. A large man stood in front of him, blocking the door. It was Jenkins, aka Squeaky, one of the SEALs who had rescued him.
"Hey, sir, where you going?" said Squeaky.
His nickname was Squeaky because his voice occasionally cracked, jumping a few octaves. He sounded like a teenage boy on bad mornings as his voice begins to deepen. There was no precise pattern to the squeaks; they seemed to occur a little less under pressure, the opposite of what Josh would have expected.
Squeaky was a big man, six ten and solidly built, stocky but not fat. He wore a pair of dungarees and a button-down shirt, in the Western style common in Vietnam's urban areas. The clothes were all black; they seemed to merge with his black skin, making him look like a dark spirit haunting the building, a hungry ghost looking for its ancestral offerings, as the local folklore would have it. He had an MP-5 submachine gun, and held it down next to his body discreetly, almost as if he were hiding it.
"I gotta use the john," said Josh.
"I'll walk you down."
Josh fell in behind him. Squeaky rocked a little as he walked, shoulders nearly scraping the walls.
"Hold on," the SEAL told him when they reached the doorway to the restroom.
He poked his head in, then reached back, took Josh's arm, and tugged him in. For a second, Josh thought he was going to stay — a problem, since Josh liked privacy — but Jenkins was just making doubly sure the place was empty.
"I'll be outside. Stay away from that window, you know?"
Josh nodded and stepped over to the commode. Fortunately, it was a Western- style toilet. But the water had been shut off sometime during the night, a fact Josh discovered when he tried to flush.
Squeaky was waiting outside.
"Water's off," Josh told him.
"Hate to be the next guy that uses it."
"I'll remember that."
They started back for the room.
"What time is it?" Josh asked as they walked.
"Oh-four-ten," said Squeaky, his voice cracking. "Why?"
Jenkins didn't say anything. Josh wondered if he was self-conscious about his voice.
"I heard someone walking in the hall before," said Josh when they reached his room. He suddenly didn't feel like going back inside. "Was it Mara?"
"You heard that?"
Josh shrugged. "What was up?"
"Ms. Duncan had to go out."
"I don't set her schedule, bro."
"What about M??"
"The little girl?" Jenkins's face noticeably brightened. "Sleepin' like a peach. Cute little kid."
"Yeah," said Josh.
Josh had rescued the little girl after her parents and the rest of her village had been massacred by the invading Chinese. She was six or seven years old — Josh wasn't sure.
"We taking her with us?" Josh asked.
"Decision's above my pay grade." Jenkins grinned. "Why don't you go get yourself some sleep? Cap'll be looking for you in a few hours. We got a long way to go. Rumor is no flights out of the airport."
"We flying out of here?"
"We were supposed to."
"Don't know how the hell we're getting out of here," Squeaky added. He smiled. "Swimmin', maybe."
Lieutenant Jing Yo knew better than to interrupt Colonel Sun Li when his commander was in the middle of a tirade. Neither patience nor understanding was among Sun's strong points under the best of circumstances, and at times when he was angry, like now, saying anything would only deepen his rage.
It was galling that Sun was bawling him out for failing to do the impossible. It was infuriating that the colonel's decision to ignore Jing Yo's advice had led to the very failure he was now complaining about. But making the slightest excuse would only lengthen the storm. The only solution was to weather it, as the young cherry tree weathers an unusually fierce winter, or the bamboo withstands the typhoon.
The metaphors were not strictly poetic. Jing Yo had seen both, time and again, during his time at the monastery where he had studied Shaolin. He had passed one particularly brutal winter night in bare feet, seated across from one of his mentors in a mountain pass they called Claw. Ostensibly they were there to help any lost travelers caught out in the storm. The unstated reason, Jing Yo was sure, was to test his dedication as a follower of the one true way, a walker along the path that has no name and no presence, and yet endlessly exists, without beginning or end.
That was what Shaolin was to him. The path of life. To others it was kung fu — the fighting way, the way of a monk warrior. Or an old, musty superstition.
"You are expressly ordered to kill him. Do you understand that?" thundered Sun. "Wherever you find him. Kill him. No matter the personal consequences to yourself."
Jing Yo tilted his head slightly. The colonel had jumped directly from his rant to the order. Jing Yo felt as if he had missed something.
"Colonel, if our spies say he has reached Hanoi," said Jing Yo softly, "how do you want me to proceed?"
"You call yourself a commando?" thundered Sun. "I have to outline everything for you?"
Jing Yo pressed his lips together. In truth, Sun was no more irrational than the monks had seemed when Jing Yo first came to the monastery. But in their case, the seeming illogic masked a much deeper sense and purpose. Sun's was chaos for chaos's sake — emotion, as those drunk on the surface of reality would perceive it.
"Our agents believe he is in the city already. You will be given instructions on how to contact them," said Sun. "And a briefing from intelligence. My advice to you is to leave as soon as you can. It will be more difficult to get into the city after dawn. Take whatever men you need. Here is a phone. Use it wisely."
Jing Yo took the satellite phone from Sun. It was a precious commodity. Even the army could not be trusted in the political upheaval roiling China.
"Do not fail," said Sun. He folded his arms. "You have tried my patience already."
The outskirts of Hanoi
Mara Duncan slumped in the backseat of the car, trying to make herself as inconspicuous as possible, even though it was the sedan, not her, that would attract attention. It was the only vehicle on the road that wasn't connected with the military.
Even before the war, Hanoi was generally deserted at four in the morning. Now it was like something out of a Dantean painting, the fires of hell burning around the city. The moonless night was tinged red by the flames, their glow occasionally clouded by black smoke furrowing from their center. The smoke threw vaporous shadows into the air, darkening the city beyond what seemed physically possible. It was as if Hanoi were at the epicenter of a black hole, its matter being pushed together into a mass that defied reason but was nonetheless mathematically correct. And Mara Duncan was a witness to it all.
"Train tracks, twenty meters," said Ric Kerfer. The SEAL lieutenant was sitting in the passenger seat, next to the driver, a Vietnamese man whom Mara had bribed to drive the vehicle. She figured that having a Vietnamese driver would help her cover story if they were stopped. She'd told him not to speak if that happened, and from the looks of his shaking hands, that wouldn't be a problem.
"Ði thang," Mara told the driver. "Go straight over the tracks."
The driver slowed and inched over the crossing as if afraid a train might materialize out of the darkness.
"Phai," said Mara. "Right. Here."
He found the narrow trail parallel to the tracks and started down it. The car, a two-year-old Toyota, bounced violently.
"Stop here," Mara told him after they'd gone about thirty meters. She opened the door. Kerfer opened his.
"No, you stay," she told the SEAL lieutenant.
"What the fuck would I do that for?"
"How about so the car's here when I get back."
"Slant-eyes ain't gonna steal it."
"You're so damn charming," Mara said, closing her door. "Stay with the car."
She slipped her hand behind her back and pulled her Beretta pistol from her belt.
There was just enough glow to see the track to her right. After thirty meters, she spotted a signal box. She stopped and looked around carefully. Then she resumed walking, glancing left and right and continuing to watch everything around her. After she'd gone another thirty meters, she stopped and dropped to her haunches, listening.
Every so often in the distance she could hear automatic weapons being fired, undoubtedly by nervous soldiers on guard duty. The real war was still some miles to the west. Hanoi was safe enough for now, except for the missiles and bombs.
And spies, which she expected China would have here by the dozens.
Satisfied that no one was nearby, Mara crossed the tracks and walked back in the direction she had come. She stopped when she was roughly parallel to the signal box, then walked into the weeds.
There was supposed to be a footlocker with supplies here. She didn't see it.
Mara moved forward slowly. There were many possibilities about why it might not be here, and she tried not to think of them. She also fought off her inclination to start composing a Plan B. There was no sense devoting her energy to it yet; better to make sure first that it was needed.
Besides, she was already on Plan Z, not B. She'd have to start the alphabet over.
Her foot kicked something. She stopped, bent to it slowly.
It was a bottle.
Mara straightened, walked again. There was no box here, nothing but weeds and a few stones.
Mara retraced her steps to the bottle and knelt down, patting with her hands in the weeds until she found it. It was a Coke bottle, an old-fashioned, hourglass-shaped Coke bottle.
And there were no other bottles in the area, or along the tracks now that she thought about it. Trash like that wouldn't be unusual in America, where railroad tracks were often used as open-air trash bins, but in Southeast Asia, northern Vietnam especially, trash was a valuable commodity. An intact bottle had dozens of potential uses.
Including, perhaps, a signal that the box was buried below.
She poked the dirt with her fingers. The ground in front of her was hard, but the weeds to her right came up easily.
They'd been removed, then replaced.
Her fingers scraped the top of the footlocker within a few seconds, but it took her nearly ten minutes to clear enough of the dirt away so she could lift the box from the ground. She stopped several times, listening, still afraid that this might be a trap.
As she reached for the latch, she hesitated again, worried that it might be booby-trapped. It had been left by a contact sent by the CIA station at the American embassy — a station she knew had been penetrated by Vietnamese spies. It was because of that breach that she had been sent to Vietnam in the first place; then the war had begun, and her mission morphed from routine to interesting.
Would someone who wanted to kill her go to the trouble of burying the box? He'd have just left it out where it would easily be found.
But burying it would make her drop her guard. Burying it might lull her into complacency. Burying it would be exactly the sort of precision, the exact attention to detail, to expect from a smart enemy.
There was no way really to know. Mara took her folding knife from her pocket and opened it, teasing the latch. She started to run the point around the edge — but what was the point? (Continues...)
Excerpted from Larry Bond's Red Dragon Rising by Larry Bond, Jim DeFelice. Copyright © 2010 Larry Bond and Jim DeFelice. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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