CHAPTER TWENTY


January 30, 1971

They sat, quietly, not listening to the sounds around them. Not really. They'd hear what they needed to when they needed to. But not now. Now they didn't want to hear anything. Didn't want to say anything.

Didn't want to think.

Three days. Three days of running through rice paddies and rubber plants. Climbing, into the hills, then the foothills, on into the mountains. And hiding. Always hiding. Listening for what was coming behind. Watching for what might be coming ahead. Knowing, instinctively, when something or someone was moving in on their flank.

It had all been hiding. Running and hiding. Hiding and praying. No killing. Too many to kill, too much chance there would be more just around the curve, over the rise, around that tree. So don't kill any, don't bring any attention, hide.

Just hide. And put distance between them and the pursuers.

Different from before. On the way in. No one was looking for them then. Hunting them. Could at least take time to find something to eat, take time to eat it. Now it was snatch and swallow, whatever fruits or nuts were left. Traveling light then, easy. No sixty pounds of money riding on your back, poking, rubbing and scraping through the canvas rucksack.

But always, always that thought, that goal. Three days, four days tops, and they'd find the PZ and call for the choppers. Five days tops, and they'd be home.

Safe.

And they found the PZ. Where the radio was supposed to have been left by the Hmong. The radio they were to use to let Air America know they had made it, that they were ready for pickup.

But there was no radio. They searched, and searched again in ever widening circles. And finally accepted that there was no radio. There never had been a radio. There was no sign anyone had been in the area for weeks.

They'd looked at Hannibal, questioning, confused, angry. And Hannibal had looked back, calmly, but with a glint in his eye, and told them to make camp.

They would head out in the morning.


*****

Murdock stood off to the side, watching as the others sifted through the debris, boxing up what was salvageable, tossing the rest in an ever-growing pile to be bulldozed away later. He watched, lightly running his thumb over the butt of the pistol.

"Hey, Murdock!"

He jumped like he'd been shot as a hand was clapped on his shoulder.

"Sorry, man, didn't mean to wake you up." The sergeant laughed. "Hey, the doc's looking for you. Wants to check that cut on your noggin." He looked at the men going through the rubble. "Too bad about Morrison. We're gonna be hurting, now, him and Curtis gone..."

Murdock looked up sharply. He knew he hadn't been able to find the captain, but...

"He's dead?"

"Deader than a doornail. Found his body this morning. What was left of it. Hadn't been for the dog tags probably woulda never known."

Murdock felt sick. Dizzy.

"Yeah, him, Morrison. And now Smith and his bunch AWOL, we're out in left field, command-wise."

"AWOL? What? They were..."

"What? On a recon? Nope. They probably told you that just to catch a ride over to Thailand and disappear."

"No, no, they wouldn't take off. They didn't. That's..."

"Well, we wouldn't have figured it either, but Colonel Wrenn, he found some stuff in Smith's quarters. Looks like he figured the war was a lost cause, decided to take his guys over to Burma and then keep going. Funny, him leaving that shit there in his hootch. But I guess when you decide to take a hike, don't matter what you leave behind."

"I still don't believe it."

"Well, you'll have to take that up with Wrenn. He's acting CO now, and he listed them AWOL as of the 21st." The sergeant spit. "Damn, hope they send a replacement soon. Just between you and me and the wall, I don't trust that son of a bitch one iota. Hey, Murdock, you better get over to the doc's, man. You ain't looking too good."


*****

The men crouched around the small pit where they'd placed some C-4, heating some tubers Wiley had found. They looked old, wrinkled, and about a day from rot, but that didn't matter. They'd eat worse on the way home.

BA looked across the pit at Hannibal, and Hannibal knew he'd be trying to answer some hard questions now. The shock had worn off, not the anger.

"You think them Hmong took off with our stuff, Hannibal?"

"Nope. Anybody but them, wouldn't surprise me. Not those guys."

"So what happened?"

"Wish I knew, BA." He said it calmly, but he noticed Face watching him closely. He brushed it off. Face was just normally suspicious.

"So, we head south again in the morning? Head for Udon?"

Hannibal hesitated here. He might trust the Hmong, but someone had dropped the ball with that radio. Hell of it was, it was too big a mistake to be a mistake. And he didn't know who might be behind it. Those Air America guys were supposed to deliver it to the tribesmen, but they worked for the Company, and everybody knew it. No telling what those guys knew, what their plans were.

The only other people who knew, besides the big brass who'd okayed it, were Morrison and Curtis. He couldn't believe they'd have done anything to screw it up. Morrison had been too precise in the planning of it.

"Hannibal?"

"We'll head south, but not into Thailand. We'll stay in Laos." He shrugged at the surprised looks. "Last thing the NVA will be expecting."

"Wonder why." Face shook his head. "That's nuts, Hannibal."

"Well, prepare for something even nuttier, Face. We're gonna burn that money."

"What? Why?" Wiley was looking riled now.

"Wiley, c'mon. How far you think it is to Hue from here?"

Wiley scowled. "I dunno, maybe couple hundred miles."

"It's over three hundred miles, Wiley. That's going to take us, with lots of luck and busting our asses, well over a week. You really want to carry sixty pounds of paper on your back all that distance?"

"That's a lot of money to just destroy, Hannibal. Hell, down south I could get..." Face stopped, shrugged. "Well, it's just...a lot of money."

Hannibal didn't miss the glances at Face, or the way BA and Wiley wouldn't look at Hannibal. He knew what they were thinking. Hell, he was human - he'd thought about the same thing. Face was right - down south he could trade that ten mill for at least half again that on the black market. The four of them could go back to the World rich as kings.

If they only claimed to have destroyed the money.

If they could actually carry it that far.

If the NVA didn't catch up with them.

Hannibal also knew none of them, including Face, would be able to live with themselves knowing how they'd come by that money. It wouldn't matter if it was the enemy's bank or an American one - it would still be stolen money. He just didn't know if they realized it yet.

"Okay. It is a lot of money. Now, we can go through the next week or two the way we have the last three days, with the NVA on our tail, going through these mountains, grabbing what we can to eat on the run. Or we can dump it, and travel fast and light out of here. You can each decide for yourselves what you want to do. But I'm not slowing down for those who decide to keep their share; I won't put the rest in danger. Anybody that falls behind is on their own. So you decide. Is it worth more than your life? Your life, or maybe the life of one or more of the others?"

Hannibal reached down into the pit, grabbing the tubers and tossing them to the rest. "I'll take first watch. You've got until morning to decide."


*****

Colonel Wrenn had taken up temporary office space in the back room of the officer's club. Murdock made his way down the dark paneled hallway, practicing what he was going to say. He couldn't let the guys down on this. They weren't AWOL and he could prove that much. He could tell Wrenn that he'd been given orders to take them to Udon, and that AA had been expecting them.

Morrison and Curtis didn't even have to come into it.

He knocked on the flimsy door and waited. He was almost ready to knock a second time when Wrenn's clerk opened the door just enough to stick his head out.

"Yessir?"

"Uh, Captain Murdock to see Colonel Wrenn."

"Just a moment, sir." The door closed. Murdock was left cooling his heels for a full five minutes before he was finally admitted.

Wrenn was sitting behind the desk, making a show of reading some reports. He again made Murdock wait, before finally nodding to his clerk, who immediately left the office, closing the door tightly behind him. Wrenn looked up at Murdock. Smiled.

Murdock knew then he was on a fool's errand. He knew Wrenn didn't like Face, but he'd hoped that dislike wouldn't extend to Hannibal and the others. That smile told him it already had.

"So, Captain Murdock. I assume you're here about Colonel Smith and his team."

"Yes sir. I was told you had them listed as AWOL, and I just wanted to clear that up."

Wrenn raised his eyebrows, faking surprise. "Clear what up, Captain? They're supposed to be here, and they aren't. That's AWOL in my book."

"Uh, begging the colonel's pardon, but they're on a mission, sir. I took them to Udon, myself, sir. You can check with AA up there, sir, as it was their show from then on."

Wrenn again smiled, and it was even nastier than before. More sneer than smile.

"I've already done that, Captain. Strangely enough, they do have a record your landing there, with Smith and the others. And they also have you logged out the next morning, heading for Da Nang. But there's nothing about taking Smith anywhere. They just...disappeared."

Murdock knew it was useless, but he wouldn't just give up.

"Sir, there's definitely been a mistake. I watched them get on board an AA bird and get flown out of there. If you let me, I'll go up there and find the guy and..."

"Captain, I understand your wanting to protect the people you are obviously very close to. I really do. But I don't think it would do any good to go to Udon." He straightened up in the chair, resting his elbows on the desk. "In fact, I don't think it would do you any good to be involved further in this matter."

"What do you mean? Sir?"

Wrenn sighed. "It's one thing to fly when under orders, Captain. But, unfortunately, you got your orders directly from Colonel Smith, did you not?"

"My CO knew about it."

"He knew Colonel Smith had asked for you. He had no more idea what Smith had in mind than anyone else did. Anyone else who's still able to tell us, at any rate." Wrenn stood and stepped around the desk, stopping directly in front of Murdock. "I'll advise you again, Captain. Step back. At this point, you're just another pawn in Smith's plan to desert. I would hate to have someone accuse you of aiding and abetting."

"Sir, I..."

"Of course, I suppose one could take into account your mental state at the time. I've heard you've been having some problems. It's possible that the Judge Advocate would consider a Section Eight more appropriate than more...serious charges."

Murdock knew when he was licked. "Yessir, I understand, sir."

Wrenn grinned and clapped Murdock on the shoulder. "I thought you would, Captain. Look at it as a learning experience. Something other people failed to do."

"Sir?"

"Well, people like, say, Lieutenant Peck. He never learned who his friends should be. A mistake like that can be very...foolish."


*****

Hannibal had fallen asleep as soon as Face relieved him from his watch. Nothing was said between the two of them concerning the money, and that was all right by him. He'd meant what he said. Each one had to make their own decision.

He'd known he was wiped out, but it worried him when he finally awoke the next morning that he hadn't heard any of the activity around the camp. Wiley had apparently taken all the canteens to the nearby stream and filled them. They were stacked neatly by a moss-covered rock, sweating with cold. Face was slicing plantains, laying them on a large leaf, ready for a cold breakfast. Hannibal could see BA on the downhill perimeter, watching.

Then he saw the fire pit from last night. Three times the size it had been, and two small bits of C-4 settled in the middle. Stacked neatly around them were the bundles of money, the empty rucksacks piled beside the pit. Hannibal looked curiously at Wiley, who shrugged, then grinned. Hannibal grinned back.

Face didn't appear quite so happy about the decision, but as they lit the C-4 after their breakfast and laid the rucksacks carefully over the top, Hannibal noticed all four were there. He chuckled a bit, but didn't say anything, about his own share having been added to the fire for him.

There were limits to the sacrifices the guys would make on their own.

They left quickly after making sure the fire was going strong. The smoke would be held in check a bit by the rucksacks, filtering out in narrow ribbons, but it wouldn't take long before it was noticed. They wanted to be long gone by then. Hannibal made one quick check of his map. He wasn't worried about planning their complete route yet, just enough to get them moving in the right direction.

They kept hiking all day, stopping for no more than a half-hour here and there to catch their breath. It was during a late afternoon break when Hannibal went back to check on Face, who was rear guard at the time. He was back a bit further than he should've been, crouched down, frowning at the jungle behind them. Hannibal crept up carefully behind him, and whistled softly. Face didn't look back, but motioned with his hand for Hannibal to come up.

"Problem, Face?"

"We've got company. A ways back, but moving steady. They're quiet, but...seemed a little too coincidental that the birds were scattering along the trail we just covered."

Hannibal frowned. He'd known they'd probably pick up some company along the way, but he'd hoped they would have made more progress first.

"Size?"

"Small. Doesn't take long for the birds to settle down again. Exactly how small, I can't say. But we've got maybe forty minutes on them."

Forty minutes. Long enough.

"See if you can get some numbers for me, Face, but don't overstay your welcome."

Face nodded, still watching the jungle below. Hannibal turned and hurried back to Wiley and BA. They needed to find a good spot for an ambush.


*****

Dimitri Shastakovich did not like being out in the jungle. He did not like being in Laos. Then again, he did not like being in Southeast Asia. He had been in England, Israel, Saudi Arabia - they all had their negatives, but nothing compared to this. Especially since he, like other Soviet 'advisors', was not even supposed to be here.

It made things difficult.

And things like this, this robbery, made it even worse.

Americans. They messed up everything.

He should have known. Hadn't they themselves used Tet as the optimum time for 'surprises'? Of course he should have known. Which is exactly why he was out here now, tracking through these mountains, with an elite group of NVA, trying to catch up with the thieves. If he did not come back with them, he had no doubt he would be facing an assignment that would make this one look like paradise.

It had been harder to track them than he had assumed. He'd known, of course, where they were headed, where they expected to be picked up. They hadn't taken the expected route, instead had gone a more circuitous path, and they were very adept at hiding from patrols. Well, he'd known they were an experienced team. He'd actually felt bad when he learned who they actually were. It was a shame to waste such good men.

But then, good men were wasted in every war.

He was disappointed, but not surprised, when they came on the campsite. He had hoped to recover the money along with the men. But had he been in the same position, he would've done the same thing. The money was not worth spending the rest of one's life, however short it might be, in one of Ho Chi Minh's prisons. And for this offense, one's life would be short, indeed.

They went through the ashes, found maybe a couple hundred in bills that could be salvaged. He was surprised at even that. He ordered his men back on the trail. They were impatient now, and he didn't blame them. The Americans had a good start on them, and his own people would have to hurry.

But not too much. He remembered who they were after.


*****

Wiley, for one, was glad they'd brought at least twice as much C-4 as they thought they'd need for the bank. It was going to make for one big bang. Well, actually, several small ones. But just as deadly.

They'd moved further ahead after Hannibal came back from checking with Peck, looking for a good ambush position. Nothing too obvious, but nothing that would let any of their pursuers get away, either. The first volley from the C-4 had to take out most of the group; the team didn't have enough ammo to engage in a long battle. Wiley was just glad they'd stashed their rifles and what ammo they had in a very easy to reach place outside Hanoi. If they hadn't...

BA was at the mouth of the ambush area, waiting for Peck. Wouldn't do to have him set off the explosions. Hannibal figured they'd have about ten minutes after he got back to get set. Wiley just hoped Peck realized he couldn't cut it much closer than that. Hoped he wouldn't have to cut it much closer.

Peck had told Hannibal they had maybe forty minutes. Twenty-five minutes later, he and BA came around to their positions for the ambush. BA readied the detonator. Wiley took one last look around. They were all behind heavy boulders. When the blasts started in those rocks, there was going to be a hell of a lot of shrapnel flying around.

So now they waited. And waited. They hadn't made their trail any more obvious than it already was. That would've been a big tip-off. So they just had to wait and see how long it took these guys to follow it.

They were late. It took almost another twenty minutes for their point man to show up. Hannibal, at the far end, would take him out after he'd passed the ambush. Wiley glanced over where BA was, never moving his head. Didn't matter how concealed they thought they were; nobody moved before the ambush was set off. There'd been too many body bags because somebody forgot.

Then the main group started moving in. Wiley couldn't tell if they were looking for trouble yet or not. The team had laid a trail some ways ahead, so the point man would think they were still moving. Hopefully it was working. It seemed to be. The squad below them was cautious, but not paranoid. Then Wiley saw something that damn near made him blow the whole thing.

A tall white guy.


*****

Dimitri would blame himself afterwards. He allowed his men's impatience to influence him, let them move ahead faster than he should have. His XO thought the Americans would expect them to move at night, and would therefore plan a nighttime ambush. That was the usual way. Because the squad continued to follow in the daylight, they thought they had the element of surprise.

As he lay on the ground, watching calmly as the American bound up the wound on his leg, he realized he had been too confident of his men. He'd been told they were an elite group. Like a fool, he'd believed it. They were seasoned, but you didn't send elite troops after bank robbers, regardless of the political payback. It just didn't work that way.

He should've known better.

His only consolation was that the man behind him had escaped.