CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE


February 3, 1971

They'd been steadily moving southwest for the last four days, moving higher into the mountains. Not the easiest route, by any means, but Hannibal had a plan. He wanted to move over the mountains while the men were still fresh, eventually coming down onto the plains on the western side. They would skirt the Thailand border until they got close enough to the DMZ and Quang Tri.

He wasn't sure what would happen when they actually got to Quang Tri. He still couldn't come up with a reasonable explanation for the radio. Something must have happened to change the plan, something Morrison couldn't have predicted, hadn't known was coming. Whatever it was, it was obvious to Hannibal that the team had become not only expendable, but also a liability. But there was no point thinking about that now. Whatever the military had planned, whatever cover-up they wanted to initiate about the robbery, he would go along with. As long as he and his men were in US hands, that was all that mattered.

He looked back at the guys, coming up the last leg to the plateau. He shook his head, frowning. That Russian guy was doing all he could to slow them down. He kept complaining about the cut on his leg, but everyone knew it wasn't that bad. The guy had been lucky - the gook in front of him had taken the blast for him. Wasn't much left of that guy, and this Dimitri had gotten off with just a few scratches. Big scratches, but...

He frowned as he watched Face reach back and give the guy a hand up. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but Face was spending a lot of time around him. Probably it was just finding another round-eye, and someone very different than he was used to. Yeah, that was all it was.

Just curiosity.


*****

Wiley was sorting through the small cans they'd found among the NVA packs. Remnants of C-rations. Talk about ironic. He wondered briefly if they'd been stolen off dead Americans, then dismissed that kind of thinking. It was food, it was familiar, it was better than those damn bananas constantly. They had enough to last another day, maybe two if they ate light. They'd passed by a couple villages, and BA had suggested doing some trading, but Hannibal wouldn't let them go in. They were probably friendly, as most of the Laotian hill tribes were, but then they had that Russkie and who knows what he might have done. Not to mention if the villagers hadn't seen them, they couldn't be 'persuaded' to tell anyone where they'd gone.

BA was guarding Dimitri, ignoring all attempts at conversation from him. Man, that guy could talk almost as much as Peck, once he got started. And, of course, it was all propaganda shit. Wiley was pretty sure Hannibal didn't like it much, but no one was paying attention to it. Not really.

Peck liked debating with him. That's what a college education got you, arguing politics and religion with the enemy. Hannibal didn't like that much either, Wiley could tell, but he didn't put a stop to it. He should have. But the only time he said anything was if they started getting loud. So they kept their voices down, but Wiley wasn't sure he liked that any better.

"You about done, Wiley?" Hannibal stepped over. "Never thought I'd be hungry for cold C-rations, but..."

"Yeah, know what you mean." He stood, holding a can spaghetti in his hands. "I'll run this down to the lieutenant. 'Bout time to switch watch, anyway." Hannibal nodded, tossing a can to BA. Dimitri would eat after everyone else was through, so there would be no distractions. Wiley was glad Hannibal knew better than to trust that guy with anything.

Wiley moved quietly down the hill, giving the signal as he closed in on Peck's position. Face grinned up at him, taking the can eagerly.

"Thanks, Wiley. Have a seat." Peck pulled a small opener out of his pocket and started working on the can. Wiley sat down on a rock off to the side. "You on watch next?"

"Yeah, when you're done there." He leaned his rifle against the rock, pulled his ammo pouch and checked it. "You got some extra ammo, Lieutenant? Just in case?"

Peck nodded, and tossed his own pouch over to Wiley. He opened one pocket and stared. Peck started laughing softly.

"Yeah, couldn't resist, Wiley. I mean, I couldn't pass up a deal like that, right?"

Wiley glared over at him. "Hannibal said..."

"Hannibal said it was up to each of us. I only kept what I thought would pay for a damn good party when we get back. Why not? A welcome home party, courtesy of Uncle Ho?" He smiled, but Wiley noticed the touch of anger in his voice. He thought suddenly of Saigon, and smiled back, opened another pocket. More money.

"Bit more than you'd use for a party, ain't there? What's that, service charge?"

Peck laughed, relaxing a bit. "Yeah, service charge. I like that." He smiled, and finished eating. Wiley took out what ammo he wanted out of the third pocket, and tossed the pouch back to Peck. He watched as Peck stood, carefully fitting the straps over his shoulders and adjusting the pouch, grabbing his rifle and the empty can.

"Let's just keep this between us, hey, Wiley? Hannibal would just get mad, and this way we can surprise the others when we get back."

"Sure, Face. Our little secret." Wiley smiled, and watched as Peck moved back up the hill. 'We'? Sure.


*****

Wiley thought about that money all during his watch. Not that it surprised him. Figured Peck would be the one to think of a loophole. And no way did he believe Peck was going to use all that money for a party. No way.

He knew pretty much what Hannibal would do when he found out. He'd either make Peck dump it or split it between them. More than likely he'd make him dump it. For some reason, he didn't think Hannibal wanted any of that money around when they got back to base. Wiley wasn't the sharpest knife in the rack, but he knew something had gone wrong with this job. Very wrong. And Peck keeping that money could only make it worse.

Peck must have realized the same thing. He wasn't dumb. So how had he planned on getting the money to the base? Stash it some place and go back for it?

Wiley shook his head. Damn Peck. Always had to complicate things. Even when they were already complicated.

When BA came to replace him, Wiley held back for a minute. He wanted to talk to Hannibal, but then again, the colonel had a tendency to get real defensive about Peck.

"Hey, BA, let me ask you something. Just...hypothetical."

BA scowled. Wiley was his buddy, but he liked to do that 'hypothetical' shit when he should just come right out and say something. But he also knew Wiley didn't go that route unless something was really bothering him. Deep down bothering.

"Go ahead, man. Just don't get all highbrow on me, okay? Had enough a that list'nin to Face and that Dimitri guy."

"Okay, okay. It's about that money."

"From the bank? Whatcha worryin about that for?"

"Just hear me out, okay? Now, suppose, just suppose, that not all that money got burned. And that Hannibal didn't know about it. What do you think he'd do?"

"With the money? Or the one that kept it?"

"Well, both."

BA sighed. "How much did Face keep back?"

"I don't know. Three, four bundles at least."

"How'd you find out?"

"Had it in his ammo pouch. He didn't seem uptight when I found it, though. Said he was gonna throw a big party for everybody when we got back. But..."

"You wanna know if you should tell Hannibal, or what he might do when you tell him?"

"Both."

"You gotta tell him. There's somethin goin on with this whole thing that ain't right, and he can't do nothin if he don't know what's happenin in the team."

Wiley sighed. "Yeah, I figured that. But..."

"What he does after that, nothin you can do about it. I figger he'll make Face get rid of it. But that's all for now. He'll wait for anythin else till we get back to the base." BA chuckled. "I bet Face'll think twice about skirtin round Hannibal again."

"Never stopped him before."

BA looked up at him for a moment, then looked out into the jungle. "Nope. Never did. Prob'ly never will. Not till he finally steps over the line."

"Think he ever will? Cross over Hannibal's line?"

BA shook his head. "Dunno, Wiley. Dunno."


*****

The pace slowed down considerably mid-morning. They stayed closer together, and had moved back to hand signals. They'd seen more and more signs of enemy activity in the area. Hannibal doubted they were looking for the team in particular; by necessity the team was moving into an area known to have a lot of NVA.

Dimitri was walking just ahead of Face, behind BA. He was slowing them down again, but more because it was harder for him to breath with the gag in his mouth. Hannibal hadn't liked doing that, but when it came to his prisoner's comfort versus the safety of his men, there was no contest. Dimitri had seemed to take the decision calmly; undoubtedly he would have done the same thing.

Wiley was on point, such as it was, with Hannibal close behind, when he saw something ahead. He immediately signaled the others, and the group came to a sudden stop, dropping down, nervously gripping their rifles. They sat, silent, as the voices of the enemy filtered through the trees, slowly coming closer. Dimitri's foot slid, and a small cascade of pebbles rolled down into the brush. Face poked him, hard, with his rifle.

The enemy soldiers passed by, only a few yards away. No one moved until the last voice faded into the jungle, and then they were up, crouched, scurrying through the underbrush, eyes as often on the ground beneath their feet as on the man ahead.

No one looked back.


*****

Hannibal kept them moving as much as possible. They were running into way too many patrols for anyone's comfort, and Dimitri's attempts to attract attention were only adding to their tension. After the third patrol went by, Wiley saw Peck lean over and whisper something in Dimitri's ear, then sit back, smiling. Whatever he said, Dimitri was a statue during the next encounter.

Wiley also saw how Peck's hand would feel the ammo pouch after each patrol went by, and it occurred to him that Peck would be in a world of trouble if the gooks found that money on him. He wouldn't be the only one. Was he that greedy, that he'd take that chance? Or that confident that Hannibal could keep them from being caught? Wiley looked over at Dimitri.

Or did he have something else in mind?

Wiley didn't like the idea of being the snitch, but BA was right. Hannibal had to know. For the good of the team.


*****

Hannibal was tired. It wasn't just another long day of hiding and running, when every fiber in his body was screaming at him to fight. It wasn't the constantly having to watch over the prisoner. It wasn't even the steep slopes and the high altitude.

He'd listened calmly as Wiley told him about Face and the money. Maybe too calmly, from the look on Wiley's face. He knew he would have to sit the two of them down when they got back, get this mess between them straightened out. He couldn't blame either one of them; they were from two different worlds. All he wanted was for them to come to an understanding.

In the meantime, he would have to talk to Face. He wasn't angry, really. He'd given them all a choice, and, quite frankly, he wanted to smile at the way Face found a way around the dilemma. Again. But he didn't dare, not with Wiley sitting there in front of him, worried and angry. He was right, of course. Face was taking an awful chance, not only for himself but for the entire team. At the same time, it wasn't his habit to take any of the guys down in front of the rest. So he nodded and told Wiley he'd take care of it. And Wiley went away, unsatisfied.

He'd get over it.

Hannibal waited until it was his turn to take over point for Face. BA, Wiley and Dimitri were several yards back, taking a much-needed rest.

Face started to head back when Hannibal nodded to his side, and Face immediately crouched, waiting, undoubtedly for further instructions. Hannibal didn't waste any breath.

"Why didn't you tell me you kept some of the money, Face?"

"Wiley's got a big mouth."

"Don't blame him. BA told him to tell me."

Face had the grace to blush, but didn't back down. "You gave us a choice."

"Face..." Hannibal stopped, suddenly remembering the party Wiley had told him about. Suddenly realizing that something was off about that. He wouldn't take a chance like this for a party. "What's it for, Face?"

Face looked down, saying nothing, picking up a stick and tracing in the ground. Hannibal waited him out, and finally Face tossed the stick aside.

"He had a little girl."

Hannibal sighed. He'd thought that was history. Face hadn't mentioned Cook since taking off for Saigon. He should've known that didn't mean a damn thing. Not with Face.

"I can't let you keep it, Face. If we got caught with it..."

"I figured if we got caught, it'd make a good bribe." He looked at Hannibal, smiling sheepishly. "Maybe not, huh?"

Hannibal shook his head, smiling softly. "No, I think they'd probably just take it anyway, Face. Bury it, okay?"

Face nodded once, and immediately stood and moved back toward the others.

Hannibal turned his attention to the jungle around him, wondering if he'd ever get a handle on that guy.


*****

Hannibal stood still, staring down at the valley below. It felt good. Very good. He looked back at his men, trudging up the last few yards. Felt a wave of grim satisfaction. It had been hard, coming over the mountains, but looking at them, he knew he'd been right. A few days of walking on level ground again were just what they needed. Before that last leg back into mountains, knowing that Quang Tri, and what passed for US soil, would be waiting for them.

One by one they came up beside him, and one by one they started grinning. This was what they'd been waiting for. All except one. Dimitri looked decidedly unhappy.

"Beautiful view, eh, Dimitri? You can see for miles. Right into Thailand." Hannibal laughed out loud at the grim look from his prisoner. No one had told him they weren't going to Thailand. That he had more time than he thought to make his escape. Hannibal thought it fitting revenge for all the trouble he'd been so far.

Later, and for many years after, he would regret that.

"Okay, guys. We still got a ways to go. Let's move out."


*****

It happened so fast, Wiley didn't have a chance to react. They'd just evaded another patrol, and were hurrying to get down a particularly open area. One minute he was reaching up to help Dimitri down a slope, the next minute he was flat on his ass and Dimitri was racing off into the trees. He saw BA immediately turn to watch their rear as Peck raced by Wiley after Dimitri. He clambered up, taking a quick glance at Hannibal, who jerked his arm the direction Face had gone. Wiley got a tighter grip on his rifle, scrambling to catch up with Peck.

A mountainous jungle in Laos is not exactly the place for a sprint. Wiley found himself slowing to a near walk just trying to get through tangled roots, rocks and branches. He could catch glimpses of Peck up ahead, barely. He must be closer to that damn Russian, because he was moving faster than Wiley.

And then he lost sight of him completely.

Wiley came to a sudden standstill, listening. Nothing. Started looking around, trying to find where the two men had gone through. It took several minutes but he found one trail of stomped on roots, leaves. Then a second trail converged. He followed, moving faster now.

He almost walked right over the edge of the cliff.

His foot slid off before he caught himself and got his balance back. Cautiously, he looked over the edge. About fifteen down, Dimitri was laid flat out, Peck kneeling beside him. He swung around, rifle up, when the stones Wiley dislodged fell, then scowled worse than BA.

"He dead?" Wiley didn't care one way or the other; he just wanted to get the hell out of there.

"No, but he broke a leg, maybe both. Better head back, get Hannibal and BA. It'll take all of us to get the son of a bitch out of here."

"Shit, man, we got gooks all over the damn place! We're gonna be lucky if they aren't on their way here as it is, as much noise as that bastard made."

"We can't leave him here, Wiley. We don't know if they're coming, and we sure as hell don't know if they'll find him down here. Now go get Hannibal!"

Wiley hesitated, then turned and started back. He didn't like this, not one damn bit. Those gooks couldn't be more than ten, fifteen minutes gone. They had to have heard all that crashing around through the bush; they had to. Hannibal and BA would be watching for them, but shit...come all the way out here, fix up that bastard, haul him out? And then what? Wasn't like they could call for a chopper. They still had a good week before they'd be anywhere near Quang Tri. And if they tried to carry him out...

But Hannibal would go for it. Wouldn't matter to him that this guy was the enemy. Not once he heard that Peck thought they could bring him out. Hannibal's biggest fault - he was stubborn as a fucking mule. If BA or Wiley suggested something, he'd think about it, but if it wouldn't work, he wouldn't do it. If Peck suggested it...no, that was the thing. Peck never suggested. Peck just decided. And then would look at Hannibal, daring him to say they couldn't. And Hannibal could never back down to that. Just like with that damn money.

And just like he wouldn't back down now. Peck said they had to take Dimitri, and Hannibal, no matter what made more sense, would do it. Just because he wouldn't want to admit he couldn't do something.

Stubborn. And reckless.

Wiley stumbled over a root, nearly fell on his face. He stopped, catching his breath, listening. He got his bearings; not far now to where he'd left the others. Not far and he'd have to tell Hannibal what Peck wanted to do. Put everybody in danger, just because of two men's stubborn games...

He whistled softly and waited for the response before stepping out of the underbrush into the small clearing where Hannibal and BA were waiting. He didn't see them at first, then both stepped cautiously out from behind a boulder.

"Where are they?"

Wiley looked at BA, who was uneasily looking around, before looking at Hannibal. He swallowed.

"Dimitri's dead, Hannibal. Went off a cliff."

Hannibal paled, but immediately recovered. "What about Face?"

Wiley looked down. "He took Peck with him, Hannibal. They're both gone."