CHAPTER NINE

October, 1969

Dao Quy woke that morning, unsure at first where she was. She looked up at an ornate ceiling, just visible in the early sunlight. Then she heard the sigh, soft, almost wistful, beside her. She smiled, remembering now where she was.

And who she was with.

She looked cautiously over her shoulder. He was still asleep; he would be for some time yet. She knew that, because she had been very careful when she dosed his drink.

She had nothing against the young American. No more than she had against any of them. But this was to be a long assignment, not just a ten day leave or even a weekend. She wanted to know who this man was.

She slid out of the bed, and moved casually toward the dresser. She didn't bother putting on a robe; she actually reveled in these stolen moments of freedom. And should the young man awake, it would seem as though she had only just gotten up herself. She stopped in front of the full length mirror. Though not vain, she did take pride in her appearance, and she looked at her reflection more with an assessing eye. She was not young any more, not by Vietnamese standards, but she was not unhappy with what she saw. And, with any luck, she would not have to worry about her looks for much longer.

She moved quickly now to the dresser, and began rummaging quietly through the various items on top. She didn't see a wallet, not on top and not in the drawers; her young man was smart, at least. She paused long enough to make sure his breathing was still even and steady, then crouched down and felt under the dresser. Smiling, she carefully peeled the tape away and pulled out her prize.

She immediately checked for cash - she wasn't a thief, but the amount of cash these Americans carried around usually gave her a good indication of how well she would be treated. She frowned slightly. A single twenty, but it was American greenback. She cocked an eyebrow. Not only smart, but apparently not worried about the authorities, either. Well, with his connections, he shouldn't be.

His ID only verified what she'd been told. Max Butler, with a business card from an American company. She sniffed derisively. Another one making money off her country's sorrow. Well, she'd known that. No point in getting angry about it now.

She was about to put the wallet back when she noticed the slight bulge in the back. One more glance at the bed and she carefully pried a fingernail into the small slit. She pulled out three more ID cards and frowned.

Templeton Peck, US Army, lieutenant. William Neufeld - another businessman? Darryl Kirkley, attaché to the American embassy.

They all had his picture on them.


*****

"They want what?!" Hannibal stared angrily at his CO.

"You heard me. A full investigation into the circumstances at the camp and the escape. And yes, your lieutenant is prominently mentioned." Colonel Darnell glared back at Hannibal.

"Platt? I can't believe..."

"No, he didn't bring it up. But those buddies of his at Cam Ranh Bay did. They weren't real happy about you breaking things up there."

"I was supposed to let a bunch of jarheads beat the shit out of a wounded man?"

"No, but Cook and Shipley were these guys' friends. Good friends. You can't blame them for wanting to lash out at something, and Cook did get killed saving Peck's ass. A lot was probably said to their CO that shouldn't have been listened to, but..."

"But Peck's got a rep."

"Now, don't get all bent out of shape. You know nothing's going to come of it. We've already gotten everyone's statements, and there's absolutely no proof Peck did anything he shouldn't have. And no way is the Army going to let those jarheads pull any bullshit."

"Then why go through the dance? You know what this could do to his career."

Darnell sighed. "It won't do it any good, but then again, I'm going to make damn sure his involvement with this Lin fella is just as prominent as any allegations against him. Hell, man, even the guys who brought the whole thing up said if Peck hadn't made the first move, you guys wouldn't have had a chance to get out. And you know as well as anyone there's no proof he collaborated, or even had plans to. Frankly, they should be giving the sorry bastard a medal."

"Instead..."

"Instead, some people he's not made too happy back here have come forward, with a few stories of their own to tell. Doesn't make him look any too pure, if you know what I mean."

"Stories. These other people have any proof?"

Darnell laughed out loud. "Hannibal, Jesus, I'm not stupid. You think I don't know what's going on in my own camp? I've heard about Peck's 'escapades' almost since he got here. If anyone had any proof, he'd have been in Leavenworth a long time ago."

"One of these people wouldn't happen to be Jim Wrenn, would it?"

"No, surprisingly, Jim hasn't said a word, one way or the other. And I'd leave that well alone." Hannibal raised an eyebrow, but said nothing as Darnell continued. "Now, I'm giving you your leave, so you go find Peck. Bring him back here if you need to, or leave him wherever the hell he is. As long as he shows up after his medical leave, I don't really care. This whole camp thing will blow over, but you tell that man of yours to watch his back from now on. A cat only has nine lives, and he's about used his up."


*****

When she first came through the door, he had almost told her it was all a mistake. She looked like a queen, haughty benevolence written all over her. She had looked around the room, and he could almost see her adding up the value of the furnishings. Did she know he didn't own any of it? What exactly had she been told? He felt his smile falter, and forced it back firmly in place. Remember what she was. And who he was - the client, the one she had to please. What was Lam Thanh had called her? Mia chao.

A rented wife. In it for the long haul, but without any promises from him. Her only function to serve him, make him happy. He knew what she was hoping for. If she pleased him, he might take her back with him when he left Saigon. Might even marry her, take her back to the World.

He blinked, startled. Pin had been introducing her, in that formal gook manner they had. Dao Quy. He looked at her more closely. Brown skin with a hint of gold, dark ebony hair, deep crescent eyes, lips that pursed without pouting. Delicate. Like her name.

Dao Quy. Precious peach blossom.

Remember what she was.

He realized Pin was waiting to be dismissed, and he nodded almost curtly. As the door closed behind the caretaker, Dao Quy had reached behind her and picked up a small valise.

"If you please, Mr. Butler, I shall put my things away. I will call for the rest of my belongings tomorrow."

Tomorrow. Of course. After he decided if she would be staying or not. After he decided if she was worth keeping. If not, she was gone and Lam Thanh would find him another. The deal was between the two men. She had no more say in the matter than he had had when Leslie...

"Sir?" She had been waiting for him. Where would she sleep? In his bed, of course. He had no choice in that. Anything else would surely get back to his 'benefactor'. Couldn't have that. The gooks were very conscious of such proclivities and he couldn't afford to lose the man's respect. He was well aware that they would be on even footing after this; to do anything...irregular would put him at a distinct disadvantage.

He nodded toward the bedroom. "You can put your things in the smaller dresser. We'll talk for a bit after you're settled."

Dao Quy had bowed slightly and moved into the bedroom. Peck headed for the bar, and poured two glasses of wine. When she came back out, he nodded to the glasses and maneuvered his way to the sofa. He had watched, approvingly, as she quickly brought the glasses over, carefully handing him the first glass.

He smiled at her, and they began to talk. He had coaxed her history from her, despite the typical Vietnamese resistance to putting themselves center stage. He was good at that. Always had been. He knew, of course, that there were details she'd left out. He didn't force the issue. Life - and the war - caused people to make practical choices, without regard to wants or wishes. He knew not to sympathize, but only to nod with understanding, acceptance.

If only she knew how much he really understood.

She began to ask about his life, his 'business'. Gentle inquiries, but he started getting anxious. He had his cover story, of course, but there was something about her, something that made him want to tell her the truth. She was practiced at this. She was a pro.

Remember what she was.

He was getting nervous. The more they talked, the closer he came to betraying himself. And yet, to end the conversation meant going from the frying pan into the fire. He had stood with some difficulty; sitting for so long had made him stiff. Immediately she was beside him, assisting, offering to massage the knee.

He'd sidestepped that easily. She must be tired, and he thought just moving around would loosen it up. He suggested she go to bed, and he would join her shortly. She had hesitated, then obediently left him. He took his glass and the bottle of wine, lacing his fingers around them as he moved, and sat on the patio, watching the lights of Saigon.

He wasn't sure how long he'd sat out there, drinking quietly, steadily. He was aware of her coming out, taking the glass, replacing it with tea. Delicious tea. He couldn't remember having had that kind before.

He remembered going into the bedroom, leaning on her shoulder, favoring the leg, and yet feeling a strange lethargy. He felt her removing his clothes; it felt somehow undignified, and yet he gave in. He felt the softness of the mattress, and the shifting as she climbed into the bed beside him. Beside him, but not too close.

That night, it was exactly where he wanted her.


*****

Dao Quy carefully replaced the wallet, and moved back to the bed. There was a chill in the air, and she was glad to move under the sheets. His body felt warm and pleasant next to hers. He was on his side, and shifted slightly, his arm bringing her close to him. Comforting

She mentally shook her head, and looked up at the ceiling. She thought she knew who her 'husband' was, but now...was he really connected with the royal family? And if not, did it matter? They were, after all, only figureheads now, even if many of her countrymen still honored them. But Lam Thanh was definitely within their circle, and it was he who had arranged everything. That was significant in itself. She knew of many mia chao, and most of them had had to worm their way into their soldier's life. For a man such as Lam Thanh to take the time and effort...

Whoever Max Butler really was, he was important. And for that reason alone, she would have to make him happy. She would have to be a good 'wife', for however long she was with him. If he was happy, perhaps he would keep her, although she wasn't going to pin her hopes on that. But his happiness apparently mattered to Lam Thanh, and Lam Thanh could open many more doors - better doors - for her than her current employer.

And if she couldn't make him happy, she at least had the knowledge of the wallet.

And knowledge is power.

Max - or whoever he was - mumbled softly in his sleep, and she shifted her attentions. She reached across his chest, and held him softly, but firmly. He would probably sleep another hour, maybe a little more. She wanted it to be a good sleep, and she wanted to make sure the first thing he was aware of when he awoke was her presence.

What would happen when he woke up, she wasn't sure. Even putting aside his many names, he was someone she didn't quite understand. Last night, he had seemed so confident, almost controlling. Until it was time to retire for the night. He became restless, and started complaining about his knee. She offered a massage, but he put her off. Very nicely, expressing concern that she, herself, must be tired, but she knew something was wrong. Rather than risk upsetting him further, she said no more, but quietly went into the bedroom, made the bed ready, and waited, seated on the small stool at the foot of the bed.

She'd waited some time before going to see what had happened. She found him sitting on the patio, a glass of wine held precariously in one hand. With a practiced smile, she took the glass, and went into the kitchen. It was then she made her "special" tea. She felt little guilt; she'd often used this tea when her patrons became too...boisterous. In this case, she had only one goal in mind. To relax him, get him to sleep, and thus ensure he wouldn't suddenly decide to cancel the entire arrangement.

It hadn't taken long before the tea took effect, and he allowed her to help him into bed. He made only a mild protest as she helped him undress, and she allowed herself the indulgence to discreetly look him over. Smiling with satisfaction as he drifted off to sleep, she had undressed and climbed in on the other side of the bed.

Now she waited patiently for him to awake, and wondered what would happen then.


*****

Hannibal stood by the jeep, staring absently at his duffle. This trip shouldn't be necessary. If he had just handled things differently that day, down in Cam Ranh Bay. If only...

It had been Hannibal's suggestion. He noted the hesitation, waited it out, and, as he'd expected, first Ray, then BA, and finally Wiley nodded their agreement. Ray was due to catch the Freedom Bird the next day, and it was only right, in Hannibal's eyes, that at least part of the celebration include Peck and Murdock.

Murdock wasn't in his room, and they all knew where to find him. He'd taken it upon himself to keep an eye on Peck, and his doctors were encouraging that. Hannibal agreed the pilot needed something to take his mind off what had happened, but he wasn't sure this particular project was best. Murdock had enough problems without being associated with Peck's as well.

Hannibal had heard the rumblings, the rumors. Seemed like half the base was ready to give Peck a medal and the other half wanted to lynch him. All depended on the uniform you wore. He hadn't known Platt and the others were Marines until they got to the hospital. Hard to tell anything about a man's service when they were all wearing those damn black pajamas. But he'd talked to Platt and Russo, several times, and though they were still angry about Cook, they didn't blame Peck. Could've been any of them.

But Platt and Russo had been there. Seen it first hand. Hard to describe that to someone who hadn't been there. Especially when you didn't want to. So a reluctant story got spread by bits and pieces, and details added to fill the gaps, and speculations from people who knew Peck's rep. Next thing you know, sides were taken. Didn't matter who knew Peck or Cook, didn't matter what they thought of the men themselves; Peck was Army, Cook was jarhead. The lines were drawn accordingly.

Hannibal wasn't aware how much, if any, of this had filtered through to Peck. He'd been to see the lieutenant a couple of times after the rest were discharged. He'd tried to shine Hannibal on, but it hadn't worked. That playful sparkle in Peck's eyes had changed to a hard glint, and any attempts by Hannibal to talk about what happened was quickly side-stepped.

Murdock was well aware of the tensions, however. People in the psych ward seemed divided into talkers and brooders, and the talkers liked to talk a lot. After a couple of days of listening, Murdock, the brooder, came out of his shell and demanded to see Peck. What the two talked about, no one could find out; Murdock refused to tell even Hannibal.

And that bothered Hannibal.

At any rate, when Murdock wasn't in his room, the men headed immediately for a secluded corner of the patio area, where they knew Peck would be. He had found a safe haven on a slab of concrete where a small radio tower was housed. It afforded him a view of the beach, inaccessible to him with his crutches, and at the same time, allowed him the privacy he seemed to crave. The men rounded the corner, expecting to see him stretched out on his lounge, with Murdock close by.

What they saw were the backs of at least a half dozen jarheads. Hannibal could see Murdock a few feet in front of them, fists raised. Just behind him stood Peck, leaning heavily against the wall, one crutch held like a baton, ready for battle.

It only took one glance between them, and the three burly sergeants waded into the wall of Marines. Hannibal stood back, and, outwardly calm, lit a cigar. Much as he would love to bash some heads, he knew better than to get involved in a non-com brawl. Instead, he moved cautiously toward the fire hose he'd seen on a near wall.

Despite the fact that his men were as well trained as the Marines, Hannibal knew they still weren't recovered completely from the camp, and neither Murdock nor Peck were in any condition to be of real help. Angrily wondering why the staff were so noticeably absent, Hannibal pulled the hose from the wall, and aiming it squarely at the mass of punching bodies, let it rip.

It took only a moment's blast to knock the men to the ground. He saw BA and Wiley get up first, landing a couple of coup de grâce punches to the Marines trying to stand. Ray stood, helping Murdock up, and then turning to Peck, who'd slid gracelessly down to the ground.

Hannibal dropped the hose and strode quickly to the nearest Marine, yanking him up. Glaring his best colonel glare, he made sure the Marine recognized the birds on his collar before speaking.

"You want to explain to me why six Marines are attacking two hospitalized men? Or would you rather explain to your CO?"

"It's all right, Colonel. There was no attack."

Hannibal switched his glare to Peck, who had the grace to at least look uncomfortable.

"No attack? What would you call this, Lieutenant? A welcoming committee?"

"It was just a misunderstanding, Colonel. Really. Uh, mistaken identity. They thought I was him, and, and I am he as you are he as you are me and I am the walrus..."

"That's enough, Captain." Hannibal was in no mood to humor Murdock, or put up with Peck's circumventions. He also knew that neither man was going to rat out the Marines. Murdock would back up Peck, and Peck apparently had his own reasons to want it dropped. Turning back to the hapless Marine in his grasp, he rasped, "You get your asses out of here, and if I see one jarhead anywhere near these men again, I'll come down on you so hard, you'll wish you were back in Khe Sanh!"

Now, as Hannibal dumped his duffle in the back of the jeep and drove south from Nha Trang, he wished he could say it had ended there. But his own anger at the Marines, and Peck's stubbornness, had carried him.

It had been right after that that Peck had disappeared.