CHAPTER NINETEEN


January 22, 1971

Murdock hadn't slept much, if at all, the night before. Standing there at the airfield in Udon, watching that other chopper, that other pilot, taking his team away...He'd stayed right there at the hangar until that chopped came back. Dozed on a metal folding chair in the dark, waiting. Hours and hours. Waiting. Even when they'd landed, and assured Murdock the infil had gone without a hitch, he wasn't happy. But there was nothing more to do except bunk down with the other pilots, and wait to leave in the morning.

He'd been playing with his breakfast at the mess when the CO came over, asked him if he'd mind taking some guys to Da Nang. He had no problem with that, but it meant waiting a couple more hours, again with nothing to do except wander around the hangar, looking north.

And think.

He didn't like having that much time to think. Usually he was around the other pilots, or hanging out with Wiley and BA. Even if it was just sitting in the club, drinking themselves silly, at least it was something to do. Something to keep from thinking too much.

Hannibal was too confident about this whole thing. At least, he acted that way. But Murdock saw the little things. The way he snapped at Face. How quiet he'd been when they left Nha Trang. The way he went over every little detail with Face, over and over until they climbed aboard that bird and took off.

Wiley and BA were all right. Okay, a little quieter than usual. BA never let anyone know if something was bugging him. Not right away. Not until he turned around and slammed a fist in somebody's face. Then you knew.

Wiley being quiet was a little odd. Usually he was full of tall tales, stories about growing up in the Appalachians. He and Ray made a good pair, trading stories about hunting and fishing and all that backwoods stuff. Murdock had a few stories like that, himself, but shooting jackrabbits on the Texas plains just couldn't match up with tracking a buck through the mountains.

But Wiley hadn't had any stories to tell this time.

And then there was Face.

Murdock shook his head, looking once more to the north. That little chat they'd had before leaving yesterday. Murdock had been so mad at him, telling Hannibal Murdock was ready for the loony bin. Then Face comes up, starts apologizing, telling him he was just worried about him. Didn't want him being pushed too far. Pushing himself too far.

Face was "concerned" about him. For him.

Murdock felt bad enough then. Thinking Face was bad-mouthing him, when he was just looking out for him. Face had been misguided, maybe, but he wasn't being mean.

It wasn't until late last night, long after they'd disappeared into the dark, that Murdock had realized why Face had told him all that.

He wanted Murdock to know, in case he didn't get back.


*****


January 24, 1971

Murdock wandered away from Morrison's office, kicking a stone along the dirt path. He knew there wouldn't be any word from the guys yet, but he kept hoping maybe somebody had seen them, heard something. But once again, Morrison had reminded him that no one else knew where they were, what they were doing. Even the Air America guys only knew where to drop them, nothing else.

Need to know.

Need to know. That was a sticky point with Morrison. Hannibal wasn't supposed to tell Murdock what the real mission was. Murdock was only supposed to know they were going to Udon. That was it. But Hannibal had told him everything. Murdock knew why, too.

Hannibal wanted someone he could trust to know what was going down. So someone he could trust would tell their story if they didn't come back.

So someone would tell the truth.

Not that Hannibal didn't trust Morrison. Murdock was pretty sure he did. But they were talking the Army here, and the politicos back in the World.

Somebody had to know.

But Murdock didn't know what was going on now. And he didn't like it. Didn't like it at all. He couldn't sleep, not knowing. Not getting any answers. Knowing there weren't any answers. Knowing there wouldn't be until the guys called for their extraction in Laos. He didn't like it. He didn't like going out with other teams, when his was still out there, somewhere. It wasn't right. It just wasn't right.

And Morrison was acting strange. He was. He and that Captain Curtis. Now that was one son of a bitch he didn't trust as far as his nose. For one thing, he spent way too much time schmoozing with Colonel Wrenn. And even Face had told Murdock to stay away from that guy.

Definitely bad blood between those two.

Murdock shook his head, looked around. It was hot now. It was always hot, but today was really hot. Two more days, and things would get even hotter.

Two more days, it would be Tet.

Damn. He wished he was with them.

Wished he knew where they were.


*****


January 26, 1971

Murdock had gotten as far as the gates to the SF compound three times so far. Each time, he turned and walked away. Each time, beating himself up inside for being a coward, then arguing with himself that he had no proof.

But Morrison had to be told.

Murdock tossed the cigarette to the ground, and turned around yet again, forced himself to head for the compound, yet again. It didn't matter if he had proof. He didn't need proof. He'd seen it; he had to report it. Curtis was too close to Morrison; suppose Curtis knew about the guys?

He had to know about the guys.

So Murdock had to tell Morrison he'd seen Curtis talking to that guy. A guy Face had told him had connections up north. Face knew a lot of those guys, guys he wanted Murdock to stay far away from. Like Murdock was the dumb kid brother.

He had to tell Morrison.

Even if it was his word against Curtis'. Even if they decided he'd finally flipped his lid but good.

He nodded to the guys at the gate. They knew him, waved him through. Everything normal. Calm. No acting weird. Just going in to talk to a buddy, nothing unusual about that. Nothing unusual at all.

Normal.

The light in Morrison's office was on, but Murdock hesitated. Come on, come on, don't chicken out now. Morrison didn't know Murdock was crazy. Morrison didn't think Murdock was crazy. He'd just say Murdock was mistaken. That's all.

Just mistaken.

But the seed would be planted. That was enough, right? Just plant the seed, and watch it grow. Morrison would do some checking.

Morrison was good like that. Like Hannibal. Never dismissed anything, no matter how unbelievable.

Murdock paced, chewing on his thumbnail. He knew he was hyper. He should've gone to the doc, gotten something to help him sleep. He hadn't slept much the last few days. Not since the guys left. He knew better. But he wanted to be ready, in case he had to go out and get them.

He hated not knowing where they were.

Hated it.

He looked up at the window. The light was still on. He frowned. Squinted. Somebody was walking around in there. Two somebodies.

He jumped, startled, at the sudden explosions. Caught his breath. Tet. Yeah, that's right. Not an attack. Just the damn gooks celebrating the new year.

Dummy.

He turned, looked at the window, took a breath and moved toward the door. He stopped, just under the window, when he heard the voices. Morrison, as expected.

And Curtis.

Murdock moved closer to the window. The voices were low, but not quite low enough.

"He couldn't do anything about it, Colonel. He's been under surveillance and couldn't shake them in time."

"So as far as we know, the bank job is going down as planned - except for that one vital part of it."

"C'mon, Colonel, what are the chances Smith can actually pull it off, anyway? The bank's practically in the middle of Hanoi. No way they..."

"You forget who we're dealing with, Josh. If it were any one but Smith and that gaggle of misfits, I'd say you were right."

"So what do you want to do? Our guy's gonna have a shit fit when he finds out. And that's a hell of a lot of money for Hanoi to dismiss."

"We can still make this work. They've got a long ways to come yet, even if they make it out of the north. Maybe we can arrange a little accident."

"You know Murdock's gonna go after them, if they do make it across the DMZ. He won't let anyone else fly them."

"Well, Murdock's got to be taken care of anyway, and I'm not without resources in I Corps, Captain. You leave that to me."

Murdock couldn't believe what he was hearing. He stepped back from the window, and wiped the sudden sweat off his forehead. Stared at his hand.

Shaking like a leaf.

Dammit. He couldn't let this happen. He couldn't. The guys...Curtis...Morrison.

Shit.

The door suddenly opened. Curtis was standing there, talking to Morrison. Murdock stepped further back into the shadows. Curtis didn't notice him as he stalked down the path, shaking his head.

The light in the office stayed on. Murdock heard the chair inside squeak, a file cabinet opening.

There was only one thing to do now.

Murdock waited until he was sure Curtis was long gone, not coming back. Not for a while. Long enough. He pulled out his .45, made sure it was loaded, put it back in the holster, loose. He wasn't that great with a gun, but he could handle it well enough to make sure Morrison did what he was told.

He straightened his shoulders and walked up to the door. A sharp rap, no waiting for an invite, step inside.

Morrison was looking at him now, puzzled, before a frown of irritation took over.

"I haven't heard anything, Captain, if that's what you're looking for."

"It's not what you heard, Colonel. It's what I heard."

"What?" Morrison pushed his chair back, started to get up. Murdock pulled the .45, pointed it at him. Morrison sat down abruptly.

"What's going on, Captain? And you'd better have a good explanation!"

"Oh, I do, Colonel. See, I was coming to talk to you. Only I guess I got here a little too early for you. I heard you and Captain Curtis, y'see. Heard what you had planned for the guys."

Morrison paled, but his eyes never left Murdock's. "I think you must have misunderstood, Murdock. We have nothing planned for Smith and the others. Nothing that wasn't..."

"Shut up, Colonel." Murdock moved closer, holding the gun steady, although it was taking effort to do so. "I didn't misunderstand a damn thing. You and Curtis were going to make sure the guys got caught. Only it didn't work, did it? Your contact couldn't get through, could he? Left you and Curtis high and dry, wondering how to explain to Uncle Ho how you ended up with his money."

Morrison eyes narrowed. "You've finally gone off the deep end, haven't you, Murdock? I'd heard rumors..."

"Bull. You may be able to bluff your way for a while. But Curtis? Curtis is a coward. If he thinks he can worm out of a life sentence by spilling the beans, you know damn well he will." He moved closer, and Morrison pushed back further from the desk. Murdock moved quickly to stand behind him. He put the barrel of the gun against the back of Morrison's head. "Now, I wouldn't try anything, Colonel, 'cause I may not be crazy, but I sure as hell am mad.

"Now, real slow, you reach over and pick up that phone, and hand it to me. Real slow, okay? Then you dial the MPs. And if anyone answers besides them, you and I are gonna have a big problem."

Murdock hadn't wanted to stand behind him like this. He wanted to be able to see his face, his eyes, see if he would try anything. But his hand on the pistol was starting to shake so hard, he just knew Morrison would see it. Knew he'd try to take advantage of it. Murdock didn't want that. He wanted Morrison spilling his guts to the MPs, not zipped up in a body bag.

Not that he was sure Morrison, or Curtis, for that matter, would really confess. They had too much at stake. It could end up their word against his. And he knew what would happen then. Then again, when the guys got back, and told their story, the Army would have to believe him.

Wouldn't they?

He suddenly realized Morrison had been holding the phone up for him. He grabbed it, pushed the barrel of the pistol a little tighter against the colonel's head. Swallowed.

"Okay, call 'em."

Morrison reached over. The dial spun the first number.

Murdock glanced up. Those fireworks were sure getting loud now.

The second number.

Murdock licked his lips, trying to figure out what he would tell the MPs.

Third number.

Just enough to get them here pronto. He didn't know how long he could really hold this guy.

Fourth.

He heard the unmistakable whine coming. Not fireworks. The far wall burst inward, then the ceiling came crashing down. Morrison leaped up from his chair, Murdock jumped, the pistol firing, something hit him in the head, the gun went off again, and again, he felt heat on his face, across his body, he was choking on smoke and dust...


*****


January 27, 1971

He coughed. Tried to spit, but there was too much dust in his mouth. Way too much. He tried to sit up, but there was something across his shoulders. He pushed, harder, forcing his arms to straighten until he felt whatever it was slide down his back and fall away.

He would sure as hell feel that later.

He coughed a couple more times, found enough saliva to spit this time. Shook his head, tried to wipe the dust and grime from his face. His hand came away bloody. And something else was on it.

Gagging, he shook it off, wiping it on his pants, on the floor, anything to just...get it off. He pushed himself to his feet, staggering. Stared at what was left of the office.

Looked for Morrison.

Damn. It was so dark, just a little spray of moonlight here and there, shining down through the rafters. He could see some lights, off in the distance. It dawned on him there were still explosions, off in the distance, men shouting, out in the dark. Lots of noise now. Lots of it.

He tried to step around the debris, kept stumbling, tripping. He found the desk, a couple feet from where it had been. Or maybe he was the one that was where he hadn't been. Or something like that. God, his head hurt. His whole body hurt. He felt his way around the corner of the desk, feeling with his feet as he moved.

And then he found him.

Some things you just know. Like the difference between kicking a piece of wood and kicking a leg. And this was definitely a leg. He knelt down, feeling his way up, shoving boards and plaster bit out of the way as he came to them. He finally found his way to Morrison's neck, and felt frantically for a pulse.

Nothing.

He leaned back, using the desk for balance, staring down Morrison's back. He hadn't seen many dead bodies. Not close up. He'd seen a lot of them from the air, and he'd seen the body bags, but close up...

He slumped further against the desk. Morrison dead. He should feel bad, but all he could think about now was the team, out there, walking into a trap. He knew that if they made it back to base - no, when they made it back - they were in deep shit. Murdock knew, as sure as he was born, that there had been no clearance from the brass for this operation. Knew that it was all Morrison and Curtis.

He grimaced. He had to find Curtis. Maybe he didn't have Morrison any more, but Curtis had the same information. It would have been a lot easier if Morrison had been alive. Curtis would have told the whole story, if he'd been able to give up Morrison in exchange for a lighter sentence.

Dammit. Curtis would never give in now. His word against Murdock's. Dammit. Dammit. Murdock reached over, not even thinking, pushing the debris away from Morrison. The moonlight fell more fully on the body, and then Murdock saw it.

Them.

Two holes, staring up at him from the back of Morrison's head.

Murdock fell back, away from the desk, landing on the floor, still looking at those holes. If he hadn't known, immediately, what they were from, he wouldn't have noticed them. Not after the roof got done with the poor bastard. But Murdock knew.

It was only then that he realized the gun was no longer in his hand. He looked quickly around, moved over where he'd been when he came to, shoving debris wildly out of the way. He had to find that gun. He...

He stopped dead. Slid slowly to the floor.

He'd killed Morrison.

He had killed Morrison.