CHAPTER EIGHTTEEN


January 26 1971

11:00PM

Wiley looked cautiously around the corner, then leaned back, resting against the hard brick of the building. So far, so good. The streets were deathly quiet, the inhabitants still involved with their pre-Tet prayers and preparations. He reminded himself to apologize to Hannibal when this was over. If he hadn't pushed like hell the last five days, they would've been walking the streets of Hanoi in broad daylight, with thousands of North Vietnamese surrounding them.

And if he didn't stop woolgathering, they might still be.

He pushed cautiously away from the wall, and moved down the alley where the rest of the guys were waiting. He knelt down by Hannibal, knowing Peck and BA were close enough to hear.

"All clear so far, Hannibal. We gotta cross the street to get to the next alley, so that might be a little chancy, but everything's dark. The bank should be on the next street."

"Okay guys, one at a time. BA, you go first, get that burglar alarm taken care of. Wiley, you follow. I'll be right behind you. Face?"

"I saw a small truck just up the street, off to the side. Soon as the celebration starts, I'll hot-wire it and pull around back."

Hannibal nodded. "Remember - anything goes wrong, we split up and head for the rendezvous. Don't worry about breaking into a shop to hide - they'll all be closed for the next three days anyway. Whoever makes it to the rendezvous stays there until 0100 Monday unless it's compromised. If you can't make it before that..."

The men nodded. This was where they deviated from normal. Nobody got left behind on recons. But this mission was too important; it would, if successful, affect thousands of lives, not just the four here.

No individual was more important than that.

They moved closer to the street, the others staying back in the shadows as BA made his way across the narrow street. He slouched some, just in case, but otherwise he walked as normally as possible. Just someone crossing the street. That's all.

Wiley waited to a slow count of ten after BA had once again disappeared into the shadows, then moved out. He headed up the street, passing by a couple closed shops, before angling across. He stopped in front of a small cafe, pretending to read the sign in the window, and then made his way to the alley that passed by the back of the bank. BA was already there, working on the alarm, but Wiley waited behind some boxes for Hannibal.

Hannibal looked at Face before he started out. Both men wore the traditional cone-shaped hat to shield their light hair. They stepped out onto the street together, nodded as if saying goodbye, then went their separate ways, Hannibal soon joining Wiley in the alley, Face making his way toward the truck he'd spotted earlier.

Wiley and Hannibal joined BA at the back door. BA gave them a thumbs up when he finished disabling the alarm. Wiley hoped BA knew for sure it was off; sometimes he was a little too confident. But now it was Wiley's turn. He took a deep breath, and then started working the picks into the door lock. He never thought he'd be doing this again; the last time he had, he'd ended up with a choice - jail, or the Army. It had ended up being the best thing that had ever happened to him, even though he hadn't thought so at the time.

The lock was stubborn, and Wiley stepped back, wiping the sweat off his face with his sleeve. He had a fleeting wish that Peck was the one doing this; Wiley had taught him how to pick a lock on a dare, and he'd been surprised how quickly the lieutenant had caught on. Not that he'd ever tell him that.

Hannibal nudged his arm, questioning, and he nodded before starting back on the lock. He had to do it as quietly as possible; they knew there were at least two guards inside. Hannibal had suggested just knocking and grabbing the guards then, but even BA had vetoed that. Hannibal had scowled, but finally agreed. No telling whom they might call first?

Finally Wiley heard a very small but satisfying click. He grinned up at Hannibal, and then stepped back, pulling his pistol. Hannibal and BA already had theirs out, and Hannibal slowly brought up one, two, three fingers. They burst into the door...


*****

Face walked past the truck and casually slipped into the recessed doorway of a nearby shop. From here, he could easily see the truck, as well as most of the street. He didn't particularly like the looks of the vehicle; it seemed to be a conglomeration of various makes and models, with more than a fair share of it odd bits of shrapnel. But there was a grocer's sign on the door, so he figured it had to be semi-reliable. And it only had to get them to outskirts of the city. Once there, out of the streets crowded with NVA, they'd be able to dump the truck and make their way cross-country.

He glanced at his watch, a cheap knock-off that any North Vietnamese citizen might have. Ten minutes, give or take, and the Le Tru Tich celebration would start - people setting off fireworks, banging on pots and pans, making as much noise as possible to usher out the old spirits and welcome the new. Hannibal and the others would use that as the cover to blow the safe. Then it was just pack up the money, stroll out to the truck and drive away.

Piece of cake.

So why was he so nervous?

He knew he'd be able to hot-wire the truck. He'd had to do it with the Caddy when he first got it, and he and BA had gone over the process a couple more times on a Jeep at base before they left. That was not a problem.

He wasn't worried about being out in the population either. It was the middle of the night, after all, and making eye contact on a public street was considered a breach of etiquette anyway. He knew the lingo better than any of them, and if he did have to talk, he'd slur his words a bit so no one would notice his accent.

Piece of cake.

He winced when the first firecracker went off down the street. In a matter of seconds, he could hardly hear himself think, and the street started filling with revelers. He took a deep breath, and focused on the truck.

He stepped out into the street.


*****

Wiley was at the back door, held open just enough so he could keep an eye on the alley. He glanced over his shoulder, where he could see Hannibal, standing confidently by the two dead guards. That hadn't necessarily been part of the plan, but they had to make sure the guards didn't have time to raise the alarm. To Wiley's thinking, they were as much the enemy as any Charlie they met in the bush, and he wasn't about to let it bother him.

He saw Hannibal look at the front windows. They were staying far away from those - the last thing they needed was some gook glancing in and seeing them. At the same time, they didn't need to be caught unaware, either.

BA was off to Wiley's side, on the other side of the wall. The vault was there, and BA was placing the C-4 and detonators. Wiley looked at the clock on the wall. Only a few minutes now. He shifted, once again watching the alley.

He heard the first echoes of fireworks, off in the city somewhere. Hard to tell where. He looked at Hannibal, who nodded calmly. Wiley wished he could see BA. They'd let him know before the explosives went off, of course, but he'd like to see for himself that BA was done, that he was just waiting until the celebration was in full swing, that they wouldn't be heard, that...

Stop. Settle down. It would go as planned. One way or the other, it always worked. Always.

The fireworks were getting louder, other noises building as well. He could see people moving along the street.

Where was Peck?

Another look at Hannibal, who shook his head. They wouldn't set off the C-4 until Peck was in place. Wiley looked back to the alley.

Saw the truck then. Piece of junk but it was running. That was all that counted. All that mattered. Peck pulled the truck up within a few yards of the door, left it running as he stepped out and leaned casually against the hood. He didn't look at the bank door.

Wiley smiled softly, and turned to Hannibal, nodding. He closed the door and the three men moved to the far side of the bank's lobby, crouching behind a heavy desk. BA lit the fuse, and they waited.


*****

12:15AM

Face heard the explosion from inside the bank, but he knew it was only because he was in the alley. Anyone on the streets, where the noise level was almost deafening, would have thought it more fireworks, if they heard it at all. He smiled.

Moments later, he had very little to smile about.

Two NVA came wandering down the alley, laughing, smoking. He hoped they would keep moving on to the next street, but no such luck. They nodded at him, still smiling, and, head down, he gave them a quick smile back. To his horror, they leaned against the truck and started an animated discussion, apparently about the problems one was having with his wife. Just from what he could hear, Face knew this was going to be a long conversation.

Shit. He couldn't just stand there, waiting for the guys to come out with the money. They couldn't see the NVA from the bank door. They'd have no idea what was going on.

Unless Face wasn't there.

That was their signal. As long as Face was with the truck, everything was fine. So he just had to move down the alley, toward the front of the bank, and when Wiley checked, he'd know they had to wait.

But for how long?

Didn't matter. Not right now. He just had to make sure the guys did not come out of the bank.

He stood, stretched slightly, and started moving toward the street. One of the soldiers called out, asking if he was leaving his truck running. He turned slightly, mumbling something about a lazy son who could watch his own truck, and kept going. The soldiers laughed. And then did the unthinkable.

They climbed inside and settled in, continuing their conversation.

Face kept moving toward the street, hoping he could find another vehicle. And fast.


*****

"Check the door!"

Wiley nodded, dropped the money he was holding in the bag, and scrambled for the back door. There was a lot of debris strewn around the office now, and he tripped a couple times, cussing softly. He eased the door open until he could see the truck.

He frowned, puzzled.

Peck was stepping away from the truck, moving toward the street. He turned back and was talking to someone.

What the...?

And then Wiley saw the two gooks, stepping up to the front of the truck. NVA. Smiling, laughing with Peck. And then they got into the truck.

Waiting.

Wiley closed the door, ever so slowly. All it would take was a glance this way and everything'd be in the shitter. He heard the soft click as the door closed completely, and leaned heavily against it.

Shit.

He hurried over to Hannibal, told him what he'd seen. He didn't tell Hannibal what he was thinking. Not yet.

Hannibal rested his hands on his knees, head down. BA looked from Hannibal, to Wiley, then back to Hannibal.

Waiting.

And then Hannibal chuckled. Shook his head and chuckled.

"Hannibal! What the...?"

"Nothing to do, Wiley, so just settle down. They're out there, we're in here, and there's nothing we can do about it. So we just wait. Face will think of something."

"What if he's already done that, Hannibal?" Wiley couldn't help it. He was tired and he was wired.

Hannibal looked at him, a sharp glare that made Wiley flush. "You know better, Wiley. He'll get us out of here." He turned to BA. "Anybody looks in that front window, they're going to see our little mess here, so keep an eye out. If we have to, we'll take our chances with those guys out back."

BA nodded and moved cautiously toward the window, staying to the side. Hannibal looked back at Wiley and smiled.

"It'll work, kid. Don't worry so much."


*****

12:45 AM

Face moved as quickly as possible along the street, trying desperately to keep his head down and the damn hat on, all the time watching. Watching for a truck, a car, anything he could grab without a lot of fanfare. Anything that would hold four guys and several bags full of loot.

He finally decided to give up, go back to the truck and just take those guys out. The longer he was gone, the bigger the chance they would get curious about a running truck sitting outside the back door of a bank. The more chance the guys would get impatient. The more chance somebody would discover what was going down.

He was less than a block away when he saw it. Beautiful. An old Jeep, battle worn - and American. Obviously the spoils of war. Smiling ironically, Face made his way to it, watching to see if any possible owners were keeping an eye on it. He stood beside it for a moment, glancing about. No one paying any attention. He climbed in, waited a moment.

Nothing.

He reached down cautiously, grabbing the wires. Quickly. Quickly.

The wires sparked. Once. Twice. Then the engine coughed violently to life.

Any other plans Face had were yanked out of his hands.

There was a sudden commotion across the street, in front of the bank. People starting yelling, pointing at the bank's windows. He saw several police and NVA hurrying toward the crowd.

Cursing Morrison, he gunned the Jeep, hit the horn, and careened through the crowd, panicked pedestrians leaping out of his way. He ducked as the Jeep drove through the wall.

He saw the guys scrambling out of his way, then immediately leaping for the Jeep. He turned it in a half-circle, furniture disintegrating against the grill.

"Go, Face!"

He didn't have to be told twice. He rammed the Jeep back through the opening, ignoring the people in front of him. Then they were on the street, people pelting them with rocks, cans, sticks.

He didn't know, or care, how many people he actually hit. Didn't care how rough the ride - over sidewalks, crashing through vendor stalls, back on the street, into an alley...

He just drove.

The crowds thinned, the streets widened. He pulled the Jeep into a side street, and the men leaped out, grabbing the bags of money, running through the streets, left, then right, then left again, backtracking and then circling around again.

And then, almost without warning, they were running across a rice paddy.

Into the jungle.