Armed with only a camera and iron determination, thirty-year-old photojournalist Molly Drake arrives in modern-day Cambodia to cover the U.S. military search for the remains of an American pilot shot down during the Vietnam War.
In this eerie wasteland pockmarked with human bones and live land mines, the people hold more secrets than the landscape, from aging archaeologist Duncan O'Brian to John Kleat, a caustic vet hunting for his long lost brother. When Molly's camera captures a flight helmet buried among Khmer Rouge victims, diplomatic powers force her and her civilian comrades off the dig.
But just as a typhoon looms offshore, the outcasts learn of an even bigger find. A mysterious expatriot guides them into the ruins of an ancient city, where they begin a harrowing search for the remains of an entire patrol of GIs that strayed in combat thirty years ago.
With storm winds hammering their jungle fortress, Molly discovers that a war she never knew never died. Her survival comes to depend on her journalistic skills to solve a forgotten murder among these warriors left behind. In the end, her only hope for salvation is to redeem the lost souls that surround her.
As stylishly written as it is suspenseful, The Reckoning is a thriller that illuminates the fragile thread between life and death, knowledge and ignorance, hope and horror. Bringing readers ever closer to enemy territory, it is a hair-raising journey into one of modern history's darkest periods and an intense look into the hearts still haunted by it.
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About the Author
Visit his website at www.jefflongbooks.com.
Read an Excerpt
Prologue: Cambodia, 1970
They fish him from the Mekong like a long, pale dragon, shouting and prodding him with bamboo poles, full of dread. He thinks his white skin scares them, or his loincloth made from the last strips of his American uniform.
Babies cry. A dog won't come close.
A village. He laughs at his good fortune. Home free.
"Food," he demands. "America."
They scatter at his voice. Their fear gives him heart.
He is mostly blind by now. His legs are too heavy to move. He can barely lift his head. He lies there like Gulliver in the gray rain.
After a while some brave soul sneaks close enough to tie his ankle with a vine. They leave him in the mud on the bank above the flood, tethered like an animal. This sobers him. He must appear very weak or they would bind him properly. But he seems to have some value or they would kill him or feed him back into the river.
As a Boy Scout, he was taught when lost to follow water downstream. And so for over a week he has been on the move, fording creeks that became muscular tributaries, climbing down around waterfalls and rapids, swimming, and finally drifting on a huge gnarled ship of a tree down the river. Evading and escaping, he'd thought.
He remembers emerging from the forest and its dark shadows, and working through seas of grass, following the water. He expected to descend into light. But as the waters mounted, so did his darkness. When it wasn't raining, monsoon clouds covered the sun. Day by day, his eyesight has decayed. He blames the water. The river is filled with parasites. Or the rain is driving him blind.
Before losing his compass, his course was reliably west by southwest, away from the savage borderlands. Away from the lotus-eating madness infecting his comrades. Deeper into Cambodia.
But the farther he traveled, the more things seemed to melt from him. His paper map dissolved the first day. His clothing flowered with fungus and blue moss and fell apart. His web gear and rucksack vanished. Possibly animals stole his boots in his sleep. Thinking it was his rifle, he carried a tree limb for miles. The illusions nibbled him away. Now they have him.
The men sit at a distance, out of the rain, watching him. He can hear their whispers and smell their tobacco pipes. Raindrops patter on his eyeballs. He can't shut his lids anymore. It should hurt, but it doesn't. He stares into the rain drumming on the bones of his head.
Like every prisoner in a foreign land, he clings to his exceptional circumstances, his singularity. He is young, just nineteen. If he could stand, he would tower over his captors. He has a girlfriend waiting for him. He can throw a football, do algebra in his head, and play "House of the Rising Sun" on the guitar. His folks have the Chevy he rebuilt parked in their garage. If only he could explain. Coming here was not his doing. Somehow the currents brought him to this point in time. The war was somebody else's idea.
At last his captors feed him. Out of caution or because of the rain, they don't light a fire, so there is no rice or cooked food. They give him a little fruit, plus insects and water creatures. By this time, after so many weeks subsisting in the forest, he knows some of the tastes and textures. Crickets have a nutty flavor. The beetles crunch more. The shrimp still wiggle. He is so hungry.
They can't bring enough over the coming days. As his sight fails, he grows more ravenous. He chews grass, tree buds, even clay, anything to slake the hunger. While he can still crawl, they let him forage, moving his tether when he has consumed everything in a circle.
Floating on the great tree in the river, he dreamed of being carried out to sea. Peasant fishermen would find him, or sailors or pirates who would ransom him. Or the U.S. Navy would gather him in. He would be saved.
On the third day, guerrillas arrive. With the last of his vision, he realizes that he has traded one set of shadows for another, the shapes in the forest for these gray phantoms. The world has blurred, but he can still see that they wear black. He recognizes the banana clips in their rifles. The only mystery is their red-checkered scarves. They are a whole new species of enemy to him.
They speak in whispers above him. He can't understand a word. They seem afraid and uncertain of what to do with him. He lies among their legs, stranded in the tonnage of his body. He despises them. He despises himself. In their place, he'd waste him. But all they do is wait.
The men in black pants and red scarves are the last sight he sees. Soon after their arrival, his blindness completes itself. He can't tell day from night anymore. Time slows. The rain comes and goes, thick and warm as piss.
Maybe two more days go by. His limbs grow heavier, heavy like the earth. He listens to the river. Occasionally someone touches his eyes with a twig. That and the rain, like flies he can't kill. He is losing his mind.
Then one day, or night, a man speaks to him in English. "Are you awake or asleep?" he says. His voice is close to the soldier's ear.
The soldier thinks it must be a dream. He hears men murmuring nearby. "Hello?" he calls.
"Look at you," the voice says, clearly shocked. "How has this happened?"
The young soldier fills with hope. "Thank god," he says. He would reach for the man's hand, but can't lift his arms. "I prayed. Who are you?"
"A passenger, like you. They sent for me. I came to help." He sounds like a Frenchman. He could be a colonial, maybe a doctor or a priest.
"Can you save me?"
"I will do what is possible. But time is short. You must tell me everything."
Like holy confession. A priest, he decides. The soldier calms himself. He has to play this right. "Whatever you want, Father. I'm blind. My arms are like stone. I'm eating dirt. What's happening to me?"
There is a pause. "Let us talk."
"Something's wrong with my eyes, Father."
"Yes, your eyes. Can you see?"
"Nothing real. Only a dream, the same one. I'm in the forest again. There are giant heads, and spires with monkeys. I need medicine, Father. Can you get me to the Americans? They'll pay you."
The stranger evades his plea. Not good. Whose side is he on? "Where did you come from?" the stranger asks.
"Chicago, Father. America."
"Yes." The man is patient with him. His voice is kind. "You mentioned a city, where this curse began."
A curse, exactly. That's what this was. "You mean the ruins?"
A silence, then, "You found the city?" The ruins excite him. He seems to know them, or of them.
"On a mountain, Father. Right when we needed it. An old place surrounded by walls. Wild, you know, unreal."
"The wars have not injured it?"
"It's untouched, like a thousand years ago. There was no sign of anybody. It was empty."
More silence. The man asks, "Do you remember the way?"
What way? Water flowing into water? But this could be his ticket home. "Absolutely. I can show you once I'm better."
"And the rest of your men?"
The soldier could deny their existence. He could hide them. But now he has mentioned "we," and he is desperate. "They're still there, all of them. I told them to come with me. But they chose a fool over me. We followed him onto the mountain. He led us wrong, then told us to stay. So he died for his sins. And the rest of them will, too."
His interrogator is quiet a minute. He doesn't ask how many Americans are left, nor their unit or any military information. His only interest seems to be the ruins.
"Âme damnée," the man finally murmurs.
The American has no idea what that means. "Yeah," he says, "like that."
"Fallen angels," the priest says. "And yet you escaped."
The soldier grows wary. "I warned them. We were coming apart at the seams. Everyone was afraid. We were lost. There were voices at night. No one knew who to trust or what to do. It was every man for himself. Finally, I left to get help. They won't last long up there. I followed the water. The water brought me here."
"Are they fossilizing as well?"
The young soldier can't cut through the accent. "What?"
"Your eyes," the priest says.
The soldier grows quiet. "What about them?"
"You have not touched them?"
A hand hoists his heavy wrist and guides his fingers to his face. He feels the familiar shape of his cheekbones and forehead, but avoids his eyes. He doesn't want to know.
"Touch them," the voice says.
"I, too, am maimed," the priest tells him. Mayhem-ed, it sounds. "There was a bomb. This was a year ago. For a time, I could not bear to see what was left of my body. But at last it was necessary. I had to touch the wounds. Do you understand? We must accept our fate."
The soldier feels his dead eyes. "Oh lord, help me." The lids are peeled back in wide round circles. His eyes are as hard as polished jade. He knows from the ruins what they look like, the green jade eyes. They don't belong in his face.
His hand is returned to his side. It settles upon the mud, like an anchor. His fingers sink into the earth.
"Father? Don't leave me."
"What will happen to me?"
"The people are afraid. They want you to go away."
"Put me on the river. I'll go. Far away."
"I will put you on the river," the man promises.
Relief floods the soldier. Even blind, he has a chance. "Thank you, Father. Tell them thank you."
"Don't come back to their village, that's all they want. Put this place out of your mind."
"But remember the city. It is punishing you. I think you must return to there someday."
Not in a million years. "Yes, Father."
Then the soldier hears a sound he knows too well, the drawing of a knife. It is done softly, but there is no mistaking the linear hiss. The murmurs stop in the distance. "What are you doing, Father?" he whispers.
"Releasing you," the voice answers, "so that you can finish your journey."
The soldier's heart thunders in his chest. He waits for a tug at his ankle, for the vine tether to be cut. Instead a hand grips his forehead. His throat is bared.
From the start, he knew this was no priest. But he couldn't help but hope. He still can't. "Forgive me, Father," he says. "I was only trying to go home."
"Be brave." The voice is kind. "The dream goes on."
Copyright © 2004 by Jeff Long
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Ambiguity can often be a fun and tantalizing element to a novel. Unfortunately too much ambiguity leads to confusion and lack of cohesion. That¿s exactly what happens to this novel. Having read a few of other of Long¿s novels (Year Zero, The Descent and Deeper), I was familiar with the kind of story he weaves; one of deep mystery and unanswered questions. Fortunately in those works we got enough of an explanation for things to keep the story moving and plausible inside the bounds of fiction. No such adequate explanation for the supernatural events in The Reckoning is given and we¿re left to draw our own conclusions based on very scanty ideas or facts and it works poorly. Overall it is well written enough and Molly doesn¿t stray too far into caricature. Sure, she¿s tough, but she¿s not so single-minded as some heroines, neither does she carry a huge chip on her shoulder as so often portrayed. She¿s grateful for the help she receives and isn¿t above giving a little back. The men around her act within their assigned spheres well enough, too. No sexual entanglements to shift the story and make it an unbearable soap opera. Long¿s characteristic creepy bits keep things juicy and delicious. This combination isn't enough to boost it up a couple of rungs from adequate into a very good book though.
First of all, I recommend this book to any reader of horror that wants something beyond what you can find at the grocery store. There aren't a whole lot of answers here, but this one of of the creepiest ghost stories I've ever read. It is a very cerebral type of horror novel rather -- not like most of what is on the horror shelves these days. And now it is being developed as a movie -- yay! This will translate well to the screen if they don't screw it up.In the acknowledgments section of his book, the author begins by saying "The Reckoning takes history for its haunted house." And indeed it does. The story begins as Molly Drake, a young photojournalist who has made it into the big leagues and is working for the NY Times, arrives in Cambodia to do a story about a group of US military personnel who are trying to find any remains of a pilot shot down during the war with Vietnam. Among the group is a veteran, John Kleat, looking for his dead brother; an archaeologist, Duncan O'Brian; Samnang, hired by the American recovery team to run the dig, and who also went around collecting indigenous folk songs when he wasn't digging; and a person they call the Gypsy Man, who hides out in the shadows watching the group dig. Molly is there to take pictures, however, when she discovers a flight helmet buried under the bones of victims of the Killing Fields, the military takes her and all civilians off of the excavation. Just when Molly is ready to admit her mission is over before it starts, and just before returning home to New York, she is met in a restaurant along with John Kleat and Duncan by the Gypsy Man, whose name turns out to be Lucas Yale. He tells them of a mysterious place he can take them where they will find remains of US soldiers, and offers proof in the form of several dog tags. As it turns out, the dog tags are from the unit that Kleat's brother was in during the war, so they along with Samnang and three brothers take off to the jungles of Cambodia. There they find a hidden city where they find more than they bargained for.I can't reveal much more without giving away the show - suffice it to say that it will hold your interest and keep you reading for a few hours.Recommended
I love Jeff Long's writings. He always sucks you in with details and imagination fir a wild ride. The Reckoning was no exception. Even if you haven't the faintest interest in Vietnam, this story will enthrall and open up your curiosity.
The war's been over a long time but the memories seem like yesterday.
This is a good book at the bargain price for a hardcover. Good archeology and ruins with ghosts and action. Came up a little short on the suspense aspect but good for the price.
The New York Times assigns Photojournalist Molly Drake to accompany the U.S. Army as they retrieve the bones of a pilot who went missing in Cambodia. However, they find no sign of bones or dog tags until Molly sees through the lens of her $10,000 camera the remains of a mass grave. With the monsoon about to begin, depart, their mission failed. Once again, Molly uses her camera lens to find a cache of bones in a well. The Cambodian government allows them one week to find what they seek but Molly, archeologist Duncan and Kleat, who is looking for the thirty-year-old bones of his brothers are ordered off the project. One of the people who watched the dig shows her a dog tag and tells the group there are nine others; he will lead them to it. Unable to contain their excitement, Molly, Duncan, Kleat and their guides follow Lukas to a deserted ancient city thought to be two thousand year old. Molly sees and experiences things that can only be attributed to the supernatural as she discovers the truth about her path. THE RECKONING starts as a thriller and metamorphosis into a supernatural tale. Cambodia, a place where legends and myths are closer than most people ever experience, works its magic on the visiting Americans, especially Molly, who sees and hears things the other¿s don¿t. There are very few people, who could cope with what Molly experiences and stay sane, but she is a strong woman and it will take a lot to break her. Jeff Long has written a thrilling chiller in which the natural and the paranormal world collide with fantastic results. Harriet Klausner