CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

March 26, 1973

2 Years, 1 Month, 24 Days

He slowly woke the next morning. He started to turn and immediately stopped as pain lanced through his body. As it slowly receded, he thought about the day ahead, and wished Harry had just killed him last night and been done with it. He felt the dog tags under his hand. He clasped them tightly, wondering again what it meant.

Vaguely he became aware of the noises from the camp. He frowned. Those weren't the typical morning sounds, the sounds as the men woke up, prepared breakfast, cleaned their weapons. It sounded more like they were breaking camp. He turned his head slowly and looked up. The sun was quite high in the east.

Why hadn't they gotten him up? Every time they'd gotten ready to move out before, Face had been brought out almost before anyone else, set to cleaning up the camp, gathering and packing up equipment.

He looked at the dog tags.

For the next hour or more, he listened as the men talked to each other, heard the sounds of tents being folded, utensils clattering as they were packed away, Harry and Stick ordering people about. And then the voices started fading away.

Silence.

He listened, holding his breath. They'd left? Just like that?

Left him?

Cautiously, afraid that maybe they were still there, waiting for him to climb out of the hole, waiting to spring their trap, he reached up and pushed on the bamboo grille above him.

Pushed again.

It wouldn't budge.

His arms dropped to the ground. He shifted, trying to see out. Above him, he could see a log over the end of the bamboo, holding it in place. Pushing his face up against the bars, he looked at the end by his head.

A second log, holding the other end.

He started shoving frantically against the bars, yelling out in a hoarse voice. Yelling until his voice gave out, pushing until his strength was gone.

In the newly restored silence, small animals crept into the abandoned camp, scrounging for leftovers.


*****

March 27, 1973

2 Years, 1 Month, 25 Days

"Well, Captain, that just about does it. We'll get a more complete report once you're back stateside. Give you some time to spend with your family."

"Yes, Sir, thank you, Sir. There is one thing - that guy at the last camp we were at. Any word on him?"

"Well, it's difficult." The officer flipped through his notes, frowning. "You only got a first name...Kyle, correct?"

"Yes, Sir. He didn't come back with us, but I just assumed..."

"Well, we'll certainly do our best to see if he's been returned. Possibly with one of the other groups."

"I'd appreciate it if you could check before I go, Sir. He, uh...he didn't look too good. I'd rest easier if I knew, you know, for sure."

The officer hesitated. It would take time to cross-reference their lists, more with only a first name. But looking at the captain, he decided it was little enough to do.

"I'll get someone on it. Kyle isn't that common a name, so maybe it won't take that long. I'll do my best to get back to you before you leave. Otherwise, well, it's irregular, but I'll forward any information I find to you."

"Thank you, Sir." Captain Ben Green saluted smartly, and stepped out of the office.

Major Fillmore watched him leave, shaking his head. Picking up his notes, he jotted a few items down on a separate paper before heading for his clerk's office. He dropped the paper on the desk.

"See what you can come up with on this guy, will you? ASAP."

"Yessir!" The clerk grabbed the paper, and immediately began going through his lists.


*****

March 28, 1973

2 Years, 1 Month, 26 Days

He stared up at the sky, sweat slowly drifting down his forehead. Watched as the sun slowly crossed the sky, beating down through the trees, baking the earth surrounding him. He wondered idly which would get him first - the heat or the thirst.

Or one of those things that he'd heard sniffing at the edges of his grave.

He swatted at the mosquitoes buzzing around his head. They were like a million pinpricks over his body. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't keep them off.

He turned on his side, wincing at the sharp little pains the movement caused. Looked down at the dog tags, laying in the dirt. Looked at the beaded chains holding them together. Frowned. He picked up one set, staring at the chain again. Looked up at the bamboo above him.

Chewing softly on his lower lip, he reached up, looping the chain over the bamboo. Taking one end with each hand, he slowly started running the chain across the bamboo. Back and forth.

Back and forth.

Softly crying as the flakes of fiber slowly floated down and settled on his face.


*****

March 29, 1973

2 Years, 1 Month, 27 Days

"I think we should take it, Hannibal. Let's face it. We can't keep living off other people, no matter how much they want to help."

Hannibal sighed. They'd gone through these discussions countless times over the last few months, and it always ended in stone-cold silence between them, sometimes for a couple days. Hannibal didn't like the idea of Wiley even contacting these people, let alone working for them. This time, he knew he would have to give in. Wiley was right. They'd been living off charity for almost a year. It was time to pull their own weight.

"Okay, Wiley. What's the job? And the pay?"

"It's a simple recovery op, Colonel. South America. One bunch kidnapped an official of the other side and his family, and we just go in and get them. Shouldn't take more than a week, maybe two."

That didn't sound too bad. "Whose side are our guys on?"

Wiley frowned. "Does it matter? We're not overthrowing a government, Hannibal. We're just rescuing a family. And we get five grand each for it, plus expenses. That would last us a long time."

Hannibal pulled out a cigar, looked out the window. They'd been staying with yet another 'comrade-in-arms' for the last week, and the guy was getting a little antsy. Happened, sometimes. Some places they could stay as long as they wanted; others wanted to help, but, like this guy, would just as soon put the war behind them. If, as Wiley said, they were only expected to get the family out, then maybe it wouldn't be so bad. He looked over at BA.

"What do you think?"

BA shook his head. "I don't like it any better'n you do, Hannibal. But what choice we got? 'Sides, kidnappin a family ain't right."

"So it's a go?"

"Yeah, Wiley. It's a go."


*****

April 2, 1973

2 Years, 2 Months

The bamboo gave a final loud crack and fell down, hitting him in the stomach. It hurt, but so did his arms. He was still for several minutes, catching his breath, letting the muscles in his arms and shoulders relax. Reaching up once more, he started to pull himself out of the hole. It took almost more strength than he had left, but after several minutes' struggle he fell onto the ground beside it. Concentrating, he reached over the edge, and scrambled for the dog tags. He'd broken two of the chains, and had been worried he would break the third and last before he finally cut through the remaining bamboo, but it had held. He'd saved that one for the last.

Kyle's.

Hands still shaking, he carefully undid the chain and slid the loose dog tags on. It seemed to take forever before he could get the catch closed again He looped the chain over his head, and tried to stand. It took some time, but he finally staggered up. Looking around, he could barely tell there had ever been a camp. He made for the river, down the hill from the site. He had to have water.

He was a few yards from the bank when his foot caught on a root. He fell, banging his way down the hill and rolling clumsily into the water. He lay where he was, gulping in the cool water, letting it wash over his body.

And promptly threw it up.

Shaking dizzily, he tried again, forcing himself to drink only a little at a time. It stayed down that time, and once the dizziness passed, he dragged himself out of the water, and sat, exhausted, on the bank.

He looked around. It suddenly dawned on him that he was totally alone in this wildness. He listened, eyes closed, to the sounds of the forest. Birds, animals.

No people.

None.

He stood, weaving, and made his way along the bank. A few yards further down he saw them. Tracks, at the very edge of the water. The only place the ground was still soft. Boots. Harry and the others had gone this way.

He looked around him once more.

Totally alone.

He turned, looking once more at the tracks, leading into the river.

He slowly waded in after them.


*****

April 6, 1973

2 Years, 2 Months, 4 Days

The nurse looked up from the desk. A young man stood there, late twenties maybe, in uniform. He smiled uncertainly at her.

"May I help you?"

"Uh, I think so. I'd like to see a Captain..." he glanced at a piece of paper held tightly in his fingers, "Murdock. Captain Murdock."

"Oh, I believe he's out on the grounds right now." She glanced around, spotted an orderly. "Jerry! Can you take this gentleman out to see Captain Murdock, please?" She smiled encouragingly at the young man as he hesitated.

"Is he...okay? I mean, he's not..." He blushed.

"No, he's not violent. And usually quite coherent. You'll be fine."

He nodded, and followed the orderly through the lobby to the back of the building. Once there, the orderly looked around for a moment before pointing to man in a leather jacket and baseball cap, sitting under a tree, reading. The young man nodded and walked slowly over to him.

"Captain Murdock?"

Murdock looked up from the book, squinting, then scowling. Not another military type. These guys just never learned.

"Yeah?"

"I'm Captain Green. Ben Green."

"Congratulations." He looked back down at the book. He'd been on the same page for almost an hour. He wanted to look at the cover, remind himself of what he was reading, but not while this turkey was here. He glanced up at him again, noticed he seemed nervous.

Maybe not CID, then. He put the book down on his lap.

"You want me for something?"

"Well, I think so. I, uh, I just got back from Nam a few days ago. I was a POW. Over in Laos."

Murdock dropped the book as he clambered to his feet, startling Ben. Startled him even worse when Murdock grabbed his arm and pulled him off toward the street, furtively glancing around. They stopped a few feet from the sidewalk.

"What about Laos?"

"Uh, well, maybe this is nothing, but...me and another guy were being moved, so we could get picked up for release. One night, we stopped at this other camp. I saw a fella there, in some kind of hole in the ground. Like a cell. I didn't have time to talk to him for long, but he said his name was Kyle..."

"He was alive?"

"Well, yeah, barely."

"Did they release him, too?"

"Well, no. I'm not sure why. There were a lot of guys lost over the fence that didn't show up on any PL lists, and nobody seems to know why, or what happened to them. This guy isn't the first I knew about. But, uh, the brass did some checking for me, found out who he was. Your name was mentioned in a couple of the reports they had on him, and since he didn't list any other relatives..."

"No family?" Murdock had tried but hadn't been able to get any information on Kyle.

"No, I guess his mother passed away a few years ago, and his father just disappeared after Kyle joined the Army. I figured some kind of falling out..."

"So you came looking for me?"

"Yeah. You and Matt Arnhold. The guy I talked to said you'd both put in requests for information. I already called Arnhold, told him what I knew. You were close by, so..."

"So he was alive when you saw him. How long ago?"

"Couple weeks. But, like I say, he was in pretty rough shape. I don't know if...well, I just wish I had more info for you, but..."

"No, I appreciate it. I really do." Murdock gazed off at the far buildings.

After several moments of silence, Ben cleared his throat, and awkwardly said goodbye. Murdock just nodded, continued staring off.

Kyle Hanson had been alive two weeks ago.

And that meant Face had to be dead.

Had to be.


*****

April 15, 1973

2 Years, 2 Months, 13 Days

It was Providence again, he was quite sure of it. Just like losing Harry's trail before he caught up with them, before he came to his senses. Providence.

The heat of the afternoon had driven him, like all the other animals, into finding whatever shade he could. He'd fallen asleep, waking suddenly sometime later. It was staring right at him.

Within arm's reach.

He held his breath, afraid to move. It turned, apparently satisfied, and started to slowly crawl away into a crevice. He waited until its head disappeared between the rock, and then grabbed the tail, swinging it hard, smashing the head and upper body onto the rocks. His fingers tore at the skin, desperate to get at the meat, shoving it into his mouth as fast as it was ripped out.

Snake-eater, indeed. Lizard was just as good.

For some reason, he found that funny. He chuckled, then laughed. Kept laughing.

It echoed across the valley, startling the other animals in its violence.


*****

April 27, 1973


2 Years, 2 Months, 25 Days

"Father?"

O'Malley put his book down and turned in his chair. "Yes, Sister?"

"There's a special delivery for you, Father." She looked pale. "From the Army."

"Oh, dear." He stood quickly, shaking his head and hurrying toward the front of the rectory. He had several young men in various branches of the military, and three of them were MIA, as they called it.

He signed for the letter, and noticed his hand shook, ever so slightly. He walked, more slowly, back to his study, smiling sadly at Sister Alice as he passed by. He sat back in his easy chair, placing the letter carefully on the small table beside it. There was no rush to read it. Whatever had happened was done with, and he wanted a few minutes to prepare himself before finding out whom it had happened to.

Jeremy had been missing for less than six months, somewhere near the DMZ. Roger, three months before that. Templeton had been gone the longest, over two years now, although the Army had told him of the possible sighting a little over a year ago.

A year ago.

O'Malley sighed deeply. Reached over and picked up the envelope, stared at it for a moment, and then opened it. Slowly. A short, cold summary of the circumstances, then the finality.

"Since no information has been received which would support a presumption of his continued survival, the Department of the Army must now terminate his absence by a presumptive finding of death. Accordingly an official finding of death has been recorded. We regret the necessity for this message but trust that the ending of a long period of uncertainty may give at least some small consolation."

The letter fluttered to the floor, and Father O'Malley stared again at the calendar.

A simple letter, and just like that, Templeton was dead.