CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

June 7, 1972

1 Year, 4 Months, 5 Days

He shifted slightly, trying to get his face out of the mud, trying hard not to make any noise. Didn't work; one of them threw a rock; it bounced off the bamboo grille above him before ricocheting onto his arm. He winced, biting his lip. He heard them laugh, but no one came over.

A blessing.

They pretty much ignored him now. Left him alone in the small pit, throwing in food now and then, leaving him to drink the muddy water that accumulated with the rains. Not like when they brought him back. Stick kept yelling at him, and swinging that bamboo cane. Then he walked away, and Harry came over, grinning. Face always hated it when Harry grinned.

They were going to teach him a lesson. No one escaped from Stick and now one had gotten away and another had died, and it was all Face's fault. He'd made Stick look bad, look incompetent in his commander's eyes. Stick had taken it out on his men.

Someone had to pay for that.

When they'd first caught up with him, they'd tied his arms behind his back at the elbows. Tight. He'd walked all the way back to camp like that. If he thought that had been painful, it was nothing compared to when they cut the ropes. Then came the shove, and he landed face down on the hard packed dirt. He couldn't help the shout of pain when they grabbed his arms and pulled them up, tying them to the base of a tree a few feet from his head. His pajama trousers were literally ripped from his body, and his ankles pulled apart and tied, his body forming an upside-down Y. He stared up at Harry, who stood by his head. In his hands Harry held a thin shoot of bamboo. Face looked to the side; several other guards were similarly armed.

The first swing came from his other side, across the middle of his back. The next across his shoulders, then his thighs, feet...everywhere.

Over and over and over.

Over the next few days, he couldn't be sure how many, they would repeat their 'lesson'. Sometimes several guards at a time, sometimes only two or three. But always Harry. Face got to the point where he no longer felt the blows; he didn't feel the ants or mosquitoes either. Once in a while, they'd throw a bucket of water on him; whether to rinse off the blood and mess or just to wake him up, he didn't know. After a while, he didn't care.

Then late one night, when the camp was quiet, Harry came alone.


*****

February 12, 1973

2 Years, 10 Days

"Do you think he's there?"

"How the hell would I know?"

Murdock glared at the other man and turned back to the television. He had no idea what Kyle Hanson looked like, but he searched every face that came off the plane anyway. He tried to picture him the way Arnie described him, both with the long hair and beard and all shaved off, but then, it had been almost a year since...

He sat back from the television, staring at the ceiling, his fingers drumming fast and furious on the arm of the couch. Who was he trying to kid? These guys were all coming from North Vietnam. Someone had said a couple were from Laos, but there were so many rumors flying around the VA, who the hell knew?

And it wasn't like it was Face...

Suddenly he didn't want to watch any more. Yeah, it was great, all those POWs finally getting released, finally coming home. But there could've been one more. There should've been.

He wandered out of the day room, hands in pockets, and headed for his room. He wasn't supposed to. He was supposed to "mingle", be sociable. Open up. What bullshit. So he went back to his room, and stood by the window, looking out at the patients who had "outside privileges".

He'd lost his privilege again. He usually did. He could go out in what they called The Yard - a fenced in area where they were watched to make sure no one tried to go over the fence. But until he agreed, again, not to try and get to the bus stop, he couldn't go anywhere else on the grounds. Not by himself, anyway.

He sighed. He didn't know why he wanted to get on a bus. He didn't know where he planned on going. He just knew he wanted to go someplace.

Where Hannibal and the guys were.

Wherever that was.

He frowned, looked across the grounds to the street. Sometimes he was sure he could see MPs watching. He'd tried to tell the doctors that. Big mistake. Now he had paranoia added to the list. It was pretty stupid for the Army to think Hannibal would contact him, but they did. Came every now and then, asking if Hannibal had called, or written. Stupid.

He probably didn't even know where Murdock was.

Hannibal didn't know where Murdock was, Murdock didn't know where Hannibal was, Hannibal didn't know Face had been alive, didn't know Face was dead - no, he knew he was dead, he just didn't know he hadn't been when he thought he was.

Murdock slammed his fist against the sill. If only he'd known. If Murdock had known they hadn't actually seen him die, if he'd thought there was a chance, he'd have gone after him. He could've flown the area, looked for him, brought him home.

Even if it was to Bragg. It would've been better...

He should've gone to look for him anyway.

He should've.


*****

February 20, 1973

2 Years, 18 Days

He reached over slowly, cautiously. Watching. The guards hadn't even looked his way for a long time. But that didn't mean anything. They pretended not to see, but they did. Not always. But enough so he wanted to be careful. He stretched a little more. It hurt, but so did the gnawing in his stomach. His eye on the guards, he felt the soft pulp and quickly grabbed it, hiding it immediately behind him. He waited again, making sure the guards were otherwise occupied, before stuffing it into his mouth, swallowing it quickly.

He glanced at the pile of garbage. Anything else edible was out of reach, and later tonight they would bury it. He sighed, and adjusted his position. He wasn't allowed to stand, and he wasn't allowed to actually sit, so his knees were stiffening up; he could deal with that. Better stiff knees than another caning.

He looked again at the garbage. There was a small potato on top. Clearly out of reach, but so tempting. Then he saw the bit of fat, just on the edge. He reached over, slowly, watching. He grabbed it, gulped it down, dirt, ants and all, then smiled softly, triumphant. Then felt his face grow hot with shame.

He was glad Hannibal couldn't see him now.


*****

February 24, 1973

2 Years, 22 Days

"You're sure?"

"Yeah, I'm sure, Hannibal. He definitely went off his nut, and they sent him stateside almost a year ago."

"Damn!" Hannibal tossed the cigar over the balcony, stared down at the traffic below. "I should've found some way of getting in touch with him, let him know what was going on."

"Hannibal, it's not your fault. None of us wanted to get Murdock involved any more than he already was." Wiley stepped around so he could look at Hannibal straight on. "He had to stay in the dark, Hannibal. The less he knew, the less chance he'd be charged. You know that."

"I could've at least told him about Face. They were friends."

Wiley frowned. "Hannibal, Face wasn't friends with anybody. You know that. And Murdock would've found out before we could get to him anyway."

"Any idea where he is? Did they discharge him?"

"I don't know yet. It's tricky. He transferred over to the spooks, y'know. But Freddie's checking on it."

BA looked up from the couch. "Hope he ain't wanderin the streets, man. They wouldn't just dump him, would they?"

"No, I don't think they would, BA. I think the Army's going to take damn good care of him, whether the spooks care or not. And somehow, I don't think it'll be that hard for Freddie to find him." He turned and grinned. "After all, he was our pilot."


*****

March 20, 1973

2 Years, 1 Month, 18 Days

They had moved again. Every few days, a week at most, Stick would break camp, move them further south, further east. Face had been surprised, the first time, because he was taken along. Surprised, first because Stick hated him, and second, because the commander had allowed it. But then why not? They'd told him, months ago, that the Americans had fled, tails between their legs, leaving their criminals behind. Now the PL was taking advantage of the cease-fire with the government to build up supplies and material. No reason to keep useless prisoners. Face would have to work off his crimes.

On the trail, he carried supplies, staggering under the weight, desperate to keep up, not have the rope around his waist jerked viciously. Once they reached the new camp, he was taken out to gather firewood, roots, water. Kicks and fists were used if he went the wrong way, or wasn't fast enough. Once that was done, he would either be allowed to eat, or just tied to a tree for the night. If Harry was particularly dissatisfied with him, he would be tied hugging the tree, wrists and knees tightly bound on the other side. To pass the time, the guards would toss things at him, seeing who was the most accurate at hitting whatever body part they chose.

He found he could guess how long they would be staying in any one camp. If he was forced to dig a hole, just barely big enough for him to lie in, he knew they would be there for several days. He would live in that hole, with a bamboo grille secured over it, until they were once again ready to move on. If they were only going to be there a day or two, he was left tied to the tree.

They had been at this camp for almost four days now. He could hear a lot of activity in the camp, a lot of excited talking and shouting. He could see a little of the activity, as men passed by. Something big was going to happen.

He sighed, closed his eyes. He just wanted to sleep. It had nothing to do with him.

Hopefully.


*****

March 21, 1973

2 Years, 1 Month, 19 Days

"Hannibal, this is nuts, man!"

"Well, then you'll be in good hands, Wiley." Hannibal was looking out the windshield, a satisfied smile on his face. Wiley, seated behind him, glared.

"BA, talk some sense into him, will ya?"

"I give that up a long time ago." Nevertheless, he also glared at Hannibal. "What happens if Murdock don't keep his trap shut, huh?"

"I doubt there are any MPs hiding in the closet, BA. If he does raise a ruckus, I'm sure Wiley can talk his way out of it. Just remember," Hannibal turned to look at Wiley, and he was dead serious now, "you just find him, let him know we're okay, and that we'll be in touch. Then you get the hell out of there. No chit chat."

"Hell, don't have to worry about that, Colonel." Wiley took one more worried look up and down the street, and stepped out of the car. He straightened his suit coat, loosened his tie and marched up to the door of the Westwood VA. One last glare in Hannibal's direction, and he was in.

He stepped into the lobby, nervously looking at the people seated here and there, nurses and orderlies scurrying about. Took a deep breath, reminding himself, as Hannibal had told him, that this was just a different kind of recon. He stepped up to the desk, waiting patiently for the clerk on the phone. Finally she hung up and smiled up at him.

"Yes, sir, may I help you?"

No MPs in the closets.

"Yeah, I'm looking for an old buddy of mine. Mutual friend said he was here."

"Oh? What's the name?"

"Uh, Murdock. H.M. Murdock. He was a pilot."

"Just a moment." She pulled down a large book, started turning the pages. "Okay. He should be just down the hall, in the day room."

"Thanks." Wiley moved down the hall, trying to walk casually. Just another visitor. No MPs in the closets.

But only a phone call away.

Wiley saw him almost immediately, even though he was facing away from him. Hard to miss that jacket. He walked forward, whistling softly. The old tune; everybody who'd worked with Hannibal knew it. Knew it was 'reserved' for Hannibal's guys.

Murdock had been leaning against the windowsill, but as Wiley got closer, still whistling softly, he slowly straightened and turned. Wiley was surprised. Other than some pretty dark circles under his eyes, and a few pounds lost, Murdock looked good. He smiled, shaking his head.

"Murdock, Murdock, Murdock. Leave you alone for a few months and look what happens."

Murdock stood perfectly still for another moment, staring, and then jerked his head to the side. Wiley took a quick glance behind him, then followed him out of the day room. A couple minutes later they were in Murdock's room with the door closed tight. Then, and only then, did Murdock take a swing at him.

"Hey, watch it!" Wiley sidestepped quickly, raising an arm defensively. "What gives, Murdock?"

"Where the hell were you guys? You broke out how long ago, and you don't let me know what happened, where you are, if you're even alive..."

"Murdock, we couldn't! Okay? We didn't even know where you were until last week. I'm taking a hell of a chance coming here today. So lighten up, okay?"

Murdock didn't look like he wanted to lighten up, but he stepped back, dropping down on the bed. He glared at Wiley for a moment, then gave him a lop-sided smile.

"It is good to see you. You all together, or split up?"

"Together. Been moving around a lot. All over the damn country. Staying with friends, relatives - anybody we know won't turn us in."

Murdock nodded, solemn.

"I can't stay long. We just wanted to make sure you really were here, and doing okay. Let you know we'll try to stay in touch, now that we found you. You okay with that?"

"Hey, as long as I know you guys are around, I'm okay."

Wiley nodded, and glanced anxiously at the window. Murdock chuckled.

"Go ahead and skedaddle, Wiley. Drop me a postcard if you can't visit."

Wiley grinned. "Sure, Murdock."

Murdock stood suddenly and grabbed his arm. "I mean it, Wiley. I need to know. I just...need to know."

Wiley sobered, wrapped his hand around Murdock's wrist. "We will, okay? We stick together now. Just like before."

Murdock watched from his doorway, long after Wiley had left.

Not quite like before.


*****

March 23, 1973

2 Years, 1 Month, 21 Days

Face opened his eyes, looked blankly at the dirt wall. God, it was so hot. Like an oven. He must be hallucinating. He could swear he heard someone whispering. In English.

"Hey! C'mon, man, wake up."

He frowned. Turned his head, but it made him dizzy. He closed his eyes.

"Wake up! We don't have much time."

He opened his eyes again, and tilted his head. Stared up at the face leaning over the edge of his hole.

American?

"What's your name, guy? Your name?"

There weren't any Americans any more. They were all gone. Even Arnie. And...

He looked up again, trying to see in the moonlight.

"Kyle...?"

"Okay, my name's Ben. We're on our way to Saigon, so they say. Gonna go home. You coming, too?"

Saigon? Home? Yeah. Dao Quy was in Saigon. That was home, then. But he wasn't going. He couldn't even remember what she looked like any more. She wouldn't want him now, anyway. Suddenly, he remembered he was lying in a filthy hole, naked, smelling like shit and piss...

He turned away, tried to push himself into the side of the hole, out of sight. Then he was saved. He heard the guards, shouting, angry. Ben was gone.

He didn't care when the bamboo was yanked back, and Harry pulled him out of the hole by his hair. He'd be punished now, for talking. For being seen.

He didn't care.


*****

March 26, 1973

2 Years, 1 Month, 24 Days

He should have known things would change after Ben. He wasn't sure he hadn't imagined the whole thing, even after the beating. If anything, he was more unsure after that. He wondered, for a while, if Harry had done some damage upstairs. It was only that savagery that made him think maybe Ben really had been there.

That, and the fact Harry had dragged him out of sight of the camp to do it.

The next three days were a nightmare. Another lesson to be learned. He was made to wait on them hand and foot. If he moved too slow, if he moved too fast, if he didn't do things exactly the way they wanted it done...

Stick had been keeping things from getting totally out of hand. But he no longer seemed to care what the others did. Instead of being shoved in his little hole, he was leashed. A rope tied tightly around his waist, the other to a tree, long enough so he could wait on the guards, but not long enough for him to run from them. He ignored the softer things they threw at him; he tried not to run from the rocks, but that was near suicide. He decided he didn't care if it made them laugh. He ran from the rocks, this way, that way, inevitably forgetting the length of the rope.

The only time he'd felt relatively safe was at night, locked once again in his hole. Then last night, Harry had hauled him out after the camp had gone quiet. A couple quick hits with the baton reminded him to keep still.

He barely noticed when he fell back in. He heard something fall in after him, like metal. He held back until Harry had walked away, then threw up. Only when the heaving finally stopped did he even think about looking for the metal. He felt around, carefully, until he found them. There were several pieces, and he held them up to the moonlight, hands shaking. First one, then another, and another. Dog tags.

The dog tags Harry had collected.

That's when he got scared.