CHAPTER EIGHT

October, 1969

"You mean, he's AWOL?"

The clerk almost cowered as he looked up at the three men standing in front of him. Both sergeants could've had him for breakfast, but it was the look on the colonel's face that scared the bejeezus out of him. And after what happened last week...

"Uh, no, no, Sir, he's not AWOL. He's still on sick leave, Sir."

"Then where is he? He's supposed to be in Cam Ranh Bay."

"Yessir, he was, but uh, well, being on leave, he could go just about anywhere, Sir. He just had to have the okay of his doctor. And I have that paperwork right...here, Sir." He pulled the forms from the file and handed them over to Hannibal, who had to restrain himself from yanking them out of the corporal's hand. He ran through the paperwork with a practiced eye, and it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what had happened.

"So, this doctor of his gave him carte blanche to travel all over hell?"

"Uh, if that's what the form says, Sir, I mean, not hell, Sir, I mean..."

This time Hannibal didn't bother with restraint. He slammed the papers on the corporal's desk and stormed out, followed closely by BA and Wiley.


*****

Saigon. "The Paris of the Orient". Peck smiled bitterly as he looked up and down the wide, tree-lined street, filled with fancy stores, fashionably dressed women, prosperous men. All slant-eyed gooks.

Paris, indeed.

He turned carefully away from the balcony, and moved back into the villa, trying not to catch the crutches on the numerous pieces of furniture. Apparently the owner was some kind of collector; the place looked more like a miniature museum than a home. But who was he to complain? It wasn't costing him a thing, and he'd gotten out of that god-forsaken hospital barracks. And everything else.

He settled carefully into the deep couch, absently grabbing a fresh peach from the bowl on the coffee table. The new owner of his Caddy, Lam Thanh, had been more than happy to drop a few hints to the owner, so when Peck called, "acting on behalf" of the old royal family, the villa had practically been handed to him over the phone. And the caretaker could hardly do enough for the guest of such a prestigious family. Yeah, Smith had done him a bigger favor than he'd imagined, making him give up that car.

Smith..

The fly in the ointment. The thought of whom tainted the whole goddamn thing.


*****

"So where do you think he's at, Hannibal?"

"All I know for sure is he couldn't have left the country. Even he isn't that good."

The three men sat around the table stuck in the far corner of the Delta Club. They'd spent a good share of the previous day searching Cam Ranh Bay, unsuccessfully. Hannibal would still be there if their current assignment hadn't demanded they return to Nha Trang.

"Hannibal..." Wiley sighed, looked across the table at BA. When BA nodded, he took a deep breath and continued. "Hannibal, do you really want to find him? I know, I know, he's good at scrounging, and he knows his way around the bush, but...do you really want someone you don't trust on the team?"

"Who said I don't trust him?"

But do I really? Hannibal sighed. This was not a discussion he wanted to have. Not now. "Why don't you two check around? Go grab Murdock, and see if you can find some of these guys Peck did business with before. Maybe they'll have some ideas, some place he liked to go, someone else he knew."

Wiley shook his head, and BA grumbled, but they rose from the table anyway. If Hannibal wanted to find Peck, nothing was going to stop him.

"Oh, and guys - watch it if you talk to any of Wrenn's people." At the look both men gave him, he just shrugged. "Chalk it up to professional jealousy. Can't have Wrenn finding him first, right?" He grinned, but knew he wasn't fooling anyone.

Hannibal ordered another beer after they'd gone. He had a lot of thinking to do.


*****

He felt naked. It was bad enough being literally hobbled by the bad knee, but having to go anywhere in Saigon unarmed made him jittery. The thought of depending on the White Mice for protection - yeah, right. Make every damn American a walking target to soothe the egos of the Saigon police in their spiffy white uniforms...

He waited now in the backroom of a side street store. He didn't like the look of the place. Not at all. If it hadn't taken so long to work his way through the local underworld network, there was no way he'd go through with this, and absolutely no way he'd have come in here without being armed first. He could only hope his connections back in Nha Trang still considered him a friend. If not, his goose was cooked.

The door to the backroom opened, and closed almost before he saw the man slip through. He tensed slightly, gripping the crutches. The man stopped a few feet away, apparently no more sure of Peck than Peck was of him.

"Phan Bao send?"

"Yeah."

The man nodded, pulled open a large drawer. Peck moved over cautiously, looked at the array inside. Picked up what he wanted, examined it. Nodded, pulling out two small boxes to go with his selection.

"You buy? You buy now?"

"Yeah. I buy now."

"Fifty."

"Twenty."

"Forty."

"Twenty." Peck started closing the drawer.

"Greenback only."

Peck sighed. Same old, same old. Pulled his wallet slowly, opened it wide so the man would see he had one twenty dollar bill. The man frowned, but took it eagerly, just the same.

"You go now. No come back."

"You got that right." Peck waited until the drawer was closed and locked. Nodding to the man, he exited as quickly as he could, stopping only to check the alley before heading out.

Tomorrow he had another trip to make. He didn't want to think about that one. Nor who it was for. But it had necessitated this little foray into the underbelly of Saigon, and that, in itself, turned his stomach.

Shaking his head, he hailed a cyclo. All he wanted to do now was get back to the villa, have as hot a shower as he could stand, and then fix a stiff drink. With real alcohol. He finally managed a small smile. Later tonight he would be greeting a potential assistant. Someone arranged by the caretaker, and her qualifications had been verified by Lam Thanh. A real physical therapist at a Saigon hospital until her father had come into disfavor with the government. Peck had never cared for the brothels around base, and hadn't really had time for, or interest in, a paid companion before, but now...His smile faded.

Who was he trying to kid?


*****

Hannibal didn't normally drink a lot. He'd noticed, and ignored, that he was breaking that bit of normalcy quite often of late. Well, once they got back into action, that would stop. It was this hanging around, not yet cleared by the brass to go into the boonies. Stuck teaching wannabe's at the Recondo School.

He ordered another beer, ignoring the look from the bartender.

Screw 'em.

He never should've let Peck go down to Cam Rahn Bay. He didn't care how over-crowded Nha Trang's facilities were; the lieutenant could just as easily stayed with the team while going through his therapy. But paper-shufflers were the same no matter what their specialty. Peck didn't exactly fight it, either.

'And that was my fault.'

Hannibal knew why the others were so mistrustful of him. Like Ray said, everything was a deal to Peck. He couldn't blame the rest for having their suspicions back at the camps. Hannibal wasn't exactly leaping to his defense, either. Not that he thought Peck would pull anything like Angel had, but he might have come close. Who knew what could've happened, if they'd been there much longer.

He sipped the beer, and grimaced. Remembered the "good stuff" Peck had handed him that night when they'd first met up. The first of many "treats" Peck had given him, and the team. And always managed to find something extra for himself, too. It had been a bone of contention between Peck and Hannibal. No matter how many times Hannibal told him to knock it off, the kid always found some way.

"I couldn't just walk away from a deal like that, could I?"

No.

No, he liked to think he was a good judge of character. Usually. Peck may have been trouble to the more regimented COs, but he'd done a damn fine job for Hannibal. Just like all the others on his team. And if it hadn't been for Peck making friends with Lin...

He gulped down the rest of the beer, ordered another.

Screw em.


*****

Peck heard the bell ring outside the gate. He moved to the window, standing just behind the drapery so his silhouette wouldn't be seen from the street. He watched, outwardly calm, as Pin hurried across the courtyard. He couldn't see who was outside the gate, but a moment later, Pin had unlocked it and was bowing, albeit somewhat aloofly, as he allowed the guest to enter.

Then Peck saw her. Her features obscured in the dim lights of the courtyard, he could see she was taller than most Vietnamese women. She was wearing the classic ao-dai, the long flowing jacket over pants. He squinted, looking more closely. A very expensive outfit.

He shouldn't be surprised. She wasn't just any whore, after all. This, ladies and gentlemen, was a courtesan, a woman belonging to important men, men of stature.

Men like himself.

Right.

As he watched her promenade (and there was no other word for it) across the courtyard, he felt a tremor run through his body. A woman of class. What would she say if she knew, if she had even a hint, that the man she would be sharing bed and board with was not a friend of royalty, was merely another Yankee pretender, not even of the same social class as her own family?

Worse yet, what would she do if he could not...

For a moment, he thought about sending her away. He could do those damn exercises without her help. And it wasn't as if he needed a woman. He'd gone a long time without one, ever since he met Leslie. He hadn't even had the desire for a woman since her. So why had he ever accepted Lam Thanh's offer?

Appearances. Pure and simple. Appearances were everything in his world. And now this woman, a real woman, not some street hooker, could find out this "very important person" she would be tied to was...

He heard Pin's familiar knock at the door. Turning, he took a deep breath and put on a confident smile.

Show time.


*****

It had been Wiley's idea.

"Think about it, guys. That Caddy was in primo condition, worth its weight in gold. No way Peck would sell it just anybody. Would you? You know Peck - he'd want to make sure he gave a good deal to the right guy, something he could trade in on later."

BA and Murdock were somewhat skeptical, but they had to agree, at least with the part about Peck using the car for later collateral. It was just the way he was - a deal was really a favor for a favor. Peck would've found just the right mark. And they certainly had had no luck with other avenues. Even grunts they knew had dealings with Peck claimed they'd never heard of him, or that they had only dealt with him in "official capacities". Peck's network was as tight as a virgin.

So it was that they had waited outside the night club, in the pouring rain, cold and miserable, waiting to see who would come out and head for the Cadillac parked in front of the building. Only the picture of Hannibal's face if they came back with nothing kept them from giving up.

Eventually, their misery was rewarded. A well-dressed man, accompanied by three or four equally well-dressed young women, came hurrying out of the night club. Before the group had a chance to climb into the Caddy, BA, Wiley and Murdock were on them.

Lam had proven to be as supposedly ignorant as all of Peck's contacts, but the guys were past any remnants of patience. Despite his continuing threats of dire consequences, Lam soon found himself being driven in his own car to the club where Hannibal waited. Only when he actually found himself inside a military establishment, with many curious and somewhat suspicious Yankees, did he assume a very calm and cold dignity.

It took Hannibal more than a moment to understand the combined explanations of his three men. When he did, he also recognized that his men, well-intentioned as they may have been, had just kidnapped a Very Important Person. Saying a silent prayer, he stood, somewhat wobbly due the amount of beer consumed, and solicitously led Lam to a corner table, motioning behind his back for the others to move away.

The trio of troublemakers moved to the bar and ordered drinks. They watched as Hannibal went into his spiel, and slowly the cold glare on Lam's face vanished, replaced by a speculative look. The three men relaxed, smiling and winking at each other. Peck may have been a master of the deal, but Hannibal definitely no slouch.

After nearly an hour of intense conversation, which included enough glances at the three cohorts at the bar to make them nervous, Lam and Hannibal stood, shaking hands. Lam gave them one last contemptuous smile before he left.

Hannibal stepped to the bar, ordering ginger ale.

"Well, Hannibal? You work out a deal?" Wiley winked, confident of his CO.

Hannibal smiled. "Oh, yeah. And you three are going to be very busy for the next week, tuning and cleaning a certain vehicle to the owner's satisfaction."

"Aw, Hannibal..."

"It's that or have a long talk with the base commander and the chief of police. Any more arguments?"

"No, sir."

"Good." Hannibal took a long swallow of the soda, grimacing as it met with the beer taste still in his mouth.

"Uh, Colonel? What about the lieutenant?" Murdock spoke hesitatingly. He could deal with the car if he knew it had at least given Hannibal what he was looking for.

"Let's just say, while you three are performing your community service, I will be taking a trip. To a certain villa in Saigon."