A PLACE TO DIE
"Preacher, Preacher wake up," the voice demanded. At the same time that I heard the voice, I felt hands shaking me. The hands belonged to Big Jim. He knew enough to shake me from a distance, and to make damned sure the Bowie knife was out of my reach. Waking up any man was dangerous in the Nam. Waking up a man who had been in a firefight the night before was almost suicidal. I awoke with a jerk, and a bleary eyed stare.
It took me a couple of minutes to recognize the man, then to place myself inside the bunker. Inside the bunker it was always night, which for me made sleeping in the daytime easier. The daytime heat was bad but for me it was bearable.
"Come on Preach, they got a table full of hot chow waiting for us." he said.
"Then the choppers made it in today?" I asked.
"Yep, it is so quiet they made enough trips to bring in real food." Big Jim was all smiles as he spoke.
"I would usually kill you for waking me up, but real food is worth losing a couple of hours sleep."
"Especially since you don't have to go out tonight," he said with a grin.
"Yeah, not sitting in the dark, stinking night waiting to die, God I am going to miss that." I said it with what passed as a smile, I hoped.
"So, where you going on the R & R?" Jim asked it as I sat on the edge of the cot lacing my boots.
"I done told you a dozen times Jim."
"I know, but tell me again. I swear I still don't believe there is a place with American hookers." Jim was grinning again at the thought.
"Jim, you were there when we pulled the Air America pilot out of the bush." I replied.
"Yeah, but just because he is CIA don't mean he is for real. I mean who ever heard of that little town? I would expect them to be in Saigon or Bangkok maybe, but not NaKomPanom. Hell I looked it up when I was in NaTrang. It only has a small Air Force base, and that little detachment of Air America." Jim looked out at the wire as we walked toward the chow line.
"Well Jim, you heard him tell us that he made sixty thousand a year flying those birds. I expect the Air America boys can afford round eyed hookers when nobody else can."
"Yeah, but they could make a killing some place else," he said seriously.
"Make just as much there, and work a lot less," I replied. "Or so he said."
"So you gonna go by to see this pilot dude?" Jim asked the question as we took our metal trays through the line.
"I doubt it. I got the address of his house up there, but I think I will just check into that hotel he recommended. The one where the hookers live."
"Damn Preach, they got roast beef and mashed potatoes," Jim informed me even though I could see for myself.
"Yeah my favorite," I replied seriously. It must have been the easiest meal to travel with. We got it about every time the choppers made a hot meal call on us.
Jim and I sat at the edge of a fighting hole to eat. Neither of us spoke much until the trays were empty. Uncle Sugar tried to get the food choppers in once or twice a week. If the weather and Charlie cooperated that was. Otherwise it was cold k rations unless you heated them yourself.
I saw the skipper from a hundred yards away. He wore no bars, and he certainly didn't look any different than the rest of us. He did manage to moved differently. Something to do with his authority I think. Actually he was probably the most likely man on the base to find a live grenade under his bunk. He was a real prick, but then probably no worse than the others. No matter what else, he was my squad leader. His was a lousy job since our squad was used for all the night ambushes.
"What you reckon the prick wants?" I asked Jim.
"Beats me, but it don't matter to you. Nobody has to go into indian country the night before they go on R & R, it is a rule or something." Jim said it seriously but with the hint of a smile.
"I guess," I replied. I had also heard the rumor that men were excused from hazardous duty the night before leave. It had to do with endangering the other troops I expected. A man headed out would have his head up his ass, or so the popular thinking went.
"You two get all the rest you can. We are going back out tonight," the young Lieutenant suggested.
"Hey Lou, the Preacher is on R & R tomorrow," Jim informed him helpfully.
"I know, but we need two advisors and we are short a couple. Preacher sorry, but you got to be with us." The Lieutenant didn't look sorry at all. He was almost smiling. I guess since he had three months to go before he was eligible for R&R it made him even more of a prick.
I just nodded. I probably should have acknowledged him but I didn't. He turned and walked away without another word. Big Jim, gave him the finger.
"Preach, you ought to go to the CO. He would never allow that," Jim suggested.
"Wrong, he would tell the Lieutenant never to do it again, but he would not countermand another officer's order. Jim you know that. Then that sorry prick would be after me forever. I would still have to go out tonight, plus catch every other crap detail that came along. Nope, I will just go out and try not to get me or anyone else killed," I replied.
"Especially don't get me killed. Fuck them ARVN assholes," Jim said it with a huge grin.
"That is a promise." I said it smiling up at him. "Now let's go get the mail." I knew there would be mail because the mail was always loaded on before the food. The mail was of a higher priority than the food anyway.
I spent the afternoon first with a letter from my mother, then with a cheap novel from the Red Cross box. They sent a box of books and games every month. The book had only been read by fifty men before me. Worst of all the cover had been ripped off. That was always the case with USO books. Some book store in the states send all its unsold books to the Red Cross, but only after it removed the covers for a refund from the publisher.
I was sleeping again when the word came down. "Time to grab what you got and get ready to leave," Jim demanded from a few feet away. He couldn't get the Bowie knife out of my hand without waking me so he stayed far away. If he stood too close when he woke me with the pig sticker in my hand, he was likely to get gutted. The words were enough anyway. I was instantly awake.
"Give me a minute to brush my teeth," I said it as I headed for the door once my boots were on.
The squad formed on the small helo pad. It was a stupid place to form up. We could have done it in a bunker. The bunker would have been a damned sight safer. The stupid Lieutenant wanted to check rifles every night. The real purpose I suspected was to look for drunks. A lot of ARVN troops drank too much before a bush trip. Even if they stayed awake on the ambush, they were off relieving themselves way too often. Sometimes they even took it on the lamb when things got hairy.
Word among the ARVN troops was to never run on me. I had emptied a 30 round magazine into one fleeing back when I first arrived. It got me in all kinds of crap, but if they all bugged out it would have gotten me killed. I figured the rep was worth getting busted.
"Okay Preacher you take the point. Go straight down the road about five clicks then head into the bush. Find us a trail to set up on." The road was our name for the wide trail we had made. I touched Jim's arm so he wouldn't say anything.
I didn't answer. I simply began to head to the opening in the wire. It was dark enough so that Charlie probably could not see the path we took. That is unless he had a man watching to observe our comings and goings. Which by far seemed the most likely case.
After we cleared the wire, it was hump down the road in the dark. I hated the road at night. Charlie could set an ambush on it at will. Hell he could set it in broad daylight for that matter. Once the road turned away from the ARVN camp there was nobody to see him. Well at least nobody who would give a damn. Every night I expected to get ambushed. So far we had been lucky.
"I had told the Lieutenant several times we needed to get into the jungle sooner, but he wouldn't hear if it. The man and maybe all the others officers were idiots. Charlie had to know we used that trail after dark. One night we were all going to die out there. It would be just to add a half hour to our time at the ambush site. It was a possibility nobody liked to think about, let alone talk about. That night the walk down the road was uneventful as every other walk in the dark had been.
After a couple of miles we moved into the undergrowth. We moved as quietly as possible through the dense vegetation. I was again overwhelmed by the smell of rot.
The Lieutenant had what was supposed to be a recon map of the jungle. The map came from God only knew where. Those maps were almost always wrong. We found a trail about a half mile into the jungle. We had also made enough noise to alert anyone within a hundred miles. That noise was probably the reason our ambushes were rarely successful. If we stayed quiet when we settled in, we might get a couple of stray Cong or a couple of farmers moving about late at night.
Three hours later we had settled in and had been quiet for two and a half of those hours. I heard the clanking of metal from down the trail. Something man made was moving along the small jungle path. It was usually a small group of Cong preparing to set up a dawn mortar attack. Their plan was always the same, to lob a couple of rounds into the compound before anyone was up and moving about. If they did it early enough, it would be before the patrols were ready to react.
Lying in the jungle, in the middle of the night, it was hard to stay awake. I just hoped the Vietnamese troops had heard the metal sounds. There was no way to warn them without giving away our position. It was just a matter of waiting for the Cong to walk into the ambush. When they did the sound of the night would change dramatically. Those of us who had heard them would be throwing grenades into their formation. Formation now there was a joke, they would be walking along in single file pushing bicycles filled with ammunition and mortar tubes.
Those ambushes were productive and not especially dangerous. It was ambushes like the one the night before that were going to be the death of me. The cadre of Viet Cong had a North Vietnamese officer with them. He managed to regroup his troops and attack us. What occurred was a firefight not an ambush.
There were no choppers flying at night to collect our wounded. The Cong were in such close contact that the routinely was useless. That one had come down to grenades and carbines on the jury rigged automatic setting. In the end the twelve of us put down enough fire power to force them back into the jungle. At least what was left of them. We had counted eleven bodies laying about the trail. The rounds from the .30 caliber carbines and the grenades had made a pretty good mess of them.
We had two of our own down. The Lieutenant took a look at them then said, "Well get a litter ready. We have to get moving." It was a nice thought, but Harley wasn't going to make it back alive no matter what. Willy on the other hand would be fine. The shoulder wound would get him at least a few days off. He was losing blood, but not enough to put him into shock. At least I hoped not, there were only ten of us left to carry the litters, not to mention mount a rear guard action if necessary. We didn't need Willy on a litter.
Three hours later we slipped through the wire carrying the stretcher made of shirts strung over green bamboo poles. We had been carrying a dead body most of that time.
Even after all that they had us back out again on the last night before my R&R. It made no sense to me at all. Of course very little about Vietnam made any sense to me.
All those thoughts passed in a split second as I continued to listen to the sounds drifting over the thick jungle air. Air you were forced to swallow, since breathing it was almost impossible. The sounds became voices whispering in a sing song rhythm.
Terror built in me as the voices moved inside the ambush site. I waited in the dark alone with my fear. There seemed to be too many of them. I could only hope the Lieutenant was smart enough to let them pass. I silently fingered the grenades since I knew he wasn't.
Sure enough when the noise seemed to be in front of us, with some still down the trail he tripped the flare. The flare lit up the night like nothing else could have done. Images were captured freeze frame in the starkest of contrasts. While the white phosphorus flares grew in intensity the Lieutenant also triggered the four claymore mines. The hundreds of metal balls sprayed through the enemy dropping many of them instantly. Screams filled the night air.
All that took place in the blink of an eye. The men of the squad began throwing grenades just as fast as possible. Fifty or so small explosions seemed to thin the enemy's ranks even more. After the last explosion I heard a sound which both surprised, and frightened me. I heard a whistle like the ones traffic cops use. The sound of it reminded me of my father training bird dogs.
The sound was terrifying because it meant a North Vietnamese officer was in charge of the detachment. Everybody knew that they north supplied and trained the Cong. It was news to us the day before that the Cong was being led by North Vietnamese Regulars. I feared it meant these guys were not going to run off into the jungle to lick there wounds. I was afraid we were in for a firefight. It also looked as if we might be outnumbered.
I almost shot Jim as he slipped in beside me. "Damn Preach, they got one of them NVA officers with them. This don't look good. I saw about thirty or forty of them head off into the jungle. We need to bug out." Jim said it quietly and calmly.
"No doubt about it. Just hope the Lieutenant is smart enough to do it." I replied.
"Me too, what do you think?" Jim asked in a hushed voice.
"Not a chance in hell, the prick wants to be a hero." I suggested. Jim nodded his agreement.
"Well tighten up preach, I do believe I hear that damned whistle." He indeed did hear it. The sharp blast of the whistle was followed shortly by a raking of lead over my head. I waited until the Lieutenant fired the second flare before I threw my final three grenades. I began to fire my rifle, but not on rock and roll. I set the selector for a single shot at a time. I tried to pick out individual targets as they moved toward me. I fired until they were very close then I switched the magazine and fired it on full automatic. I emptied a couple of the thirty round magazines before the black clad figures began to move back.
Just as soon as they broke contact the word got passed down the line. "Bug out." The command was late, but better late than after I was dead. That thought crossed my mind as I moved backward.
The squad formed up a few yards behind the ambush site. "Preacher you and Big Jim take the rear guard." On my last night before R & R, the ass gave me still another dangerous job. It seemed he wanted to get me killed, just to keep me from having any fun. More likely it was because no one trusted the ARVN troops as rear guard.
Jim and I listened for the next attack while the others began withdrawing. I guess it was just a matter of luck because the attack was too late when it came. Jim and I were a hundred yards away when I heard the popping of the mortars. Charlie had mortars so it was a group headed for a morning attack in strength against the base. How large the unit was I could only guess.
Jim and I would fall back a hundred yards and wait. When no one came we would almost run back another hundred yards, then set up again. We did that four more times, then just began trying to catch up with our unit. I expected them to be waiting somewhere along the trail. I was wrong.
The Lieutenant had beaten a hasty retreat to the wire, leaving me and Jim to fend for ourselves. The truth of the matter is that I was just as happy. Jim and I had no contact with the enemy again that night. If we had made contact, it was my firm intention to bug out early and leave them to shoot up the jungle.
We reached the wire while it was still very dark. Jim and I began looking for the squad. They were supposed to settle down until daylight before going into the compound. If they tried to slip in the listening post might well alert the guards. Then with a little bad luck the squad would wind up fighting itself.
If you trusted the radio operator to be awake, and to forward the message to the guards, and if it was understood by everybody down the line, you could slip into the wire safely at night. Still it was better to wait for daylight, especially if you had no radio. Without a radio the safest thing to do was to find a spot near the wire and wait for daylight. It was the only thing Jim and I could do.
Before the sun actually rose the light was good enough for us to be recognized so we moved to the wire. I was pretty sure we had passed a listening post on the way in. I just hope the Vietnamese soldier recognized us as Americans. He must have recognized us or been asleep because we were not met with gunfire. We were met with a voice challenge.
"Mighty?" the unknown American voice challenged.
"Mouse," I replied. That was a phrase not likely to be known by a Vietnamese peasant. It wasn't likely that even an exchange student would have been watching Saturday morning cartoons. Jim and I slipped past the sentry, and into the compound.
Once inside Jim said, "I am going to shoot that damned Lieutenant in the back during the next firefight."
"Easy big guy, that kind of talk is stockade time even if he gets shot accidentally. If you are going to do it, just do it." I said it quietly. "Now, if you think he has had enough time to fall asleep, we should report in."
"Oh yeah, we need to let him know we are safe. I expect he will be sleeping in the command bunker." Jim said it with a grin. Reporting in, with as much noise as I planned, would wake the company commander as well. He would not like the fact that the Lieutenant left us He would hate being awakened in the early morning hours much more. With a little luck he wouldn't take it out on the whole squad. Either way, it didn't matter. It was our plan to wake everybody up. After we made our report in that boot camp way. Something no one ever did after leaving training camp by the way, we turned to walk away.
"Preacher. I want you on the first chopper out today." The voice belonged not the Lieutenant, but to the company commander. His voice was filled with anger. I was not sure exactly who the anger was directed toward. I said, "Yes sir," then saluted.
I had just enough time to wash the stink off me before the chopper landed. The flat green colored bird landed in the compound. The waiting soldiers quickly off loaded the supplies, then reloaded it with our one wounded ARVN troop from the ambush the night before.
"Hey guy, you got room for a passenger on the return trip?" I asked the warrant officer pilot.
"Come on aboard." He was one of those pilots who didn't care what he carried so long as he wasn't overweight, and got the hell out quick. He didn't ask to see my orders. It wouldn't have mattered, since I had them in my shirt pocket. I carried no luggage at all. I had spent most of a monsoon day with the CIA pilot. I knew what to carry to Thailand. No GI stuff at all was the order of the day.
"Thanks," I said to the pilot as I slipped from the Huey onto the runway at NaTrang Rang Air Force base. As I walked away the Airmen were busy off-loading the wounded soldier behind me. Since there was only one and I knew he was only scratched, it didn't bother me to see him go. If he had been an American it would have been a five hundred dollar wound. Not the million dollar going home wound, but a couple of days in a clean hospital kind of wound. In his case I had no idea what he would get.
Fifteen minutes after I arrived on the base the Air Force blue shuttle bus deposited me in front of the small P.X. Inside I found a very small supply of civilian clothes. There were too many tailor shops outside the base to bother carrying a full line of clothing. I found a few pairs of cotton slacks that almost fit me then a couple of shirts. Hell I even bought new underwear for the trip. After buying a razor and other such things I was ready to move on to the liquor store. Four fifths of Jack Daniels old number 7 in the black labeled bottle prepared me for my trip back to the air strip.
Two hours late I was on a C130 turbo jet headed for Thailand. One stop an hour later and I was on a different C130 headed for the air base at NKP. By lunch time I was on a bus on a bumpy road headed into the town. I knew the name of the hotel, but couldn't pronounce it well enough. The town had only a few blocks of businesses. The only way I found the hotel was by taking a cab about a half block. The driver charged me a quarter but showed me the hotel.
It was the only masonry building on the block. It was two stories of very poorly made bricks. It looked as thought it had been there a few years, so I felt confident it wouldn't fall in on me.
I carried the new bag into the lobby which was very small. It was probably the size of a regular hotel room in the states. Since the hotel catered mostly to Americans the clerk spoke english sort of anyway.
"Ah, can help you GI?" He put a nasty emphasis on the GI. The pilot had warned me to expect that sort of thing.
"Solly Chalie, no GI," I replied looking like I thought he might be disappointed. The silly accent was a surrender to the smart ass in me. "Looking for a room until my hooch is finished." It was the explanation I had been told which would most likely work. Most of the Air America guys had to spend a couple of days in the hotel until they could find the right housing deal. Usually there was a woman included in the housing deal, or so the pilot told me.
"Ah vely good," the clerk said turning the register to me. I didn't figure lying on the register would get me shot, so I didn't put grunt under occupation, instead I put load Master. I feared I didn't look like the pilot type.
"Room tlenty five," he said handing me the key. It had 25 written on a tag hanging from the end.
"Could you hold onto this?" I asked pointing to the bag. "I want a beer."
"Bill hab it sent to your room," he said as he nodded his head downward.
"Fair enough," I said. "Now where can I get that beer?"
"Patio," he said pointing to the door across the small room.
I stepped through the door expecting oppressive heat. There was heat all right but not as oppressive as I would have thought. The patio was a large wooden deck built almost entirely over the slow running river. The river was large enough to fill the air not only with the slightly offensive smell, but with a coolness only running water can provide.
I stood outside while my eyes readjusted to the bright sun. I took a quick look around the tables. They were all empty save one. Sitting at a table by the rail was a very tall, thin, attractive European woman. She was a little older than me, Ten years or so probably. She was also a knockout. I mean, I hadn't seen a woman of any kind for a couple of months. I had not seen a woman with round eyes during the last six months. Even if all that were not the case, the woman would have been beautiful in her own right.
My very first thought was that styles had changed in six months. She wore an outfit that screamed hooker, but she didn't truly look at home in it. Her hair style screamed little girl, but she as far from that.
Her hair stood out from her head in unruly curls. Not exactly curls, but something akin to curls. I could see that her eyes were startlingly green even from across the deck. Her nose was a little long, but very straight. She caught me staring and smiled. She had beautiful teeth under slightly puffy lips. Like I said that would have been enough to make her a knockout but there was her clothes.
The woman wore a black knit top very tight and barely long enough to cover her bra. Of course since it was obvious she didn't wear one, it merely covered the top of her smallish breasts. The bottom of the outfit was a very tight pair of black slacks which were also very low cut. The material was soft. I knew when I got close that I would see her panty lines, if she wore any. I had the impression based on the way she held herself that the slacks and short top was all she wore. All in all, she was definitely a remarkable looking woman no matter what she wore.
All that would have made me interested even without the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Something came over me when I saw her. I shrugged and whispered to myself, "God you getting turned on by the first woman you see with round eyes. You are pathetic." I did however say it with a satisfied smile.
The woman's slightly warm smile convinced me to sit near her. I seated myself two tables away and in front of her. It was close enough that we could speak, but not so close as to make her think I was hitting on her.
"Herro," the voice of the young Thai woman commented.
"Hello yourself, could I get a beer please. Budweiser would be good." I said it forcing my attention from the dark haired beauty. I attempted to return my attention shamelessly back to the woman who smiled coyly. She seemed to know something I didn't. I found out quickly why she was smiling.
"No sell Merkin beer. Hab Thai and Phiropine beer."
"What ever you have that is cold," I replied smiling but not at the waitress. The smile was for the lady who sat by the rail. I noticed for the first time that she was drinking something fruit looking.
"That any good?" I asked pointing to her drink.
"Yes, but you wouldn't like it. It is just fresh pineapple juice straight," she replied still smiling.
"Then you are right," I smiled back. "So you live here?"
She smiled that warm coy smile again. "Just visiting."
"To bad, I am going to be here a week," I replied.
"Why don't you bring that over here? We have something to talk about Deacon." She said when my beer arrived.
"Sure, but I am no deacon." I said it as I moved to sit at her table taking the beer along. I smiled as I tipped the beer to my lips. They might not have Budweiser beer, but the Sing Hi tasted remarkably like it. I noted it was made in Thailand. Their local beer was as good as that in Vietnam.
The woman waited for me to finish my first swallow. I had time to think that she must be a hooker while I drank it. Why else would she call me over. I decided for no reason at all really that I would be a smart ass. "So lady what's your name and your price."
"Oh Deacon, don't tell me you have started already?" She didn't seem offended just amused.
"What is this Deacon, some kind of slang in the states now. You are from the states?"
"No it is not slang, and yes I am from the states," she replied still smiling at me.
"Okay then, why do you keep calling me Deacon?" I asked it trying to figure out what exactly was going on. I didn't like feeling lost and vulnerable.
"Well it's your nickname, or at least it will be in a few years." She studied me closely. I suppose to judge my reaction. I tried to stay non-committal.
"Oh you see into the future?' I asked skeptically.
She laughed then said, "Yeah you might say that." Her answer was vague enough to make me curious. I almost continued but thought better of it.
"Since you didn't tell me your name or your price, I presume you are not a hooker." I looked out toward the river as I spoke.
"Not even close," she replied. "Deacon, who do you think I am?"
"Would you please not call me Deacon." I saw the curious look on her face. "It is a little disconcerting. You see my friends call me Preacher. Deacon is a little too close to real, to be coming from a mysterious stranger."
"Oh well, I don't guess you and I could have a real conversation?" she asked.
"Sure, but could we do it in my room?" I asked it with a leer.
She looked at me and shrugged. "Why not," she replied.
It was when she reached for her purse that I noticed the ring. "So you are married," I asked.
"Yes I am," she replied.
I led the way back into the hotel, then up the stairs to the room with the number 25 on its door. I held the door to allow her to enter first. She was so mysterious it bothered me. If she had a surprise waiting for me, I wanted her to spring it. After I followed her in I looked around the room. The bed was one of those plywood things with a cushion over it. Well so much for a first rate hotel. I thought to myself, if those Air American guys are making so much money, what are they doing staying in a dump like this one.
Once inside after I made sure there were no surprises, I turned to kiss the stranger. She allowed me to kiss her. At first she didn't respond, after a few seconds she allowed the tip of my tongue to part her lips. I moved it around ever so gently across her lips. I felt her shudder as she leaned into me.
The kiss grew in intensity until we were moving against each other in a very suggestive manner. She broke the kiss which had become almost hypnotic. She stepped back to allow herself time to recover.
"What?" I asked.
"I can't do this." She saw the angry look cross my face then disappear.
"Okay," I said.
"No you don't understand Deke. I love you. No, I guess I mean I am going to love you."
I was lost and it showed. "When are you going to love me?" I asked not having a clue what she was talking about. I suppose the look told her I was going to be a skeptic. "Let me go change into something not quite so tight," she suggested.
"Why don't you just take that off?" I asked.
"Deacon how can someone as impatient as you are now, become so wonderful?" she asked with a smile.
"What the hell are you talking about?" I was lost and it showed all over me.
"I will be back in a few minutes," she suggested.
I nodded as she left the room. I expected her to return with a half dozen men with guns to rob me. I waited with the Bowie knife at the ready. Fifteen minutes later she knocked on the door. As she promised she was wearing a loose fitting sun suit that tied at the back of her neck.
I allowed her inside then reached around to hold her from behind. I crossed my arms so that my left hand covered her right breast, and my right hand held her left breast. I was gently kissing and licking here neck when she turned to me. She kissed me deeply and seemed lost in it. She felt marvelous even though her breasts were a little smaller than I would have liked.
"So what is this going to cost?" I asked.
"Nothing and everything," she replied with a very cryptic grin. "So do you like kinky?"
"As in what?" I asked still a little cautiously.
"I want to tie you to the bed and torment you for hours," she admitted.
"I don't know, you are a stranger," I suggested as I looked at her trying to gauge her emotions. The only thing I could see was the lust in her eyes. She was a great actress or she was turned on as much as I.
"I don't know," I replied skeptically.
"Hey I am just going to use the light scarves - you can break them I am sure," she said it while looking me in the eye. Her voice had dropped a few decibels too.
"Okay," I felt compelled to say.
"Good, now take off your clothes and lie on the bed." She said it still looking me in the eyes. It was very disconcerting.
"You first," I managed to say. It was a struggle not to just give in to her. Something about those green eyes framed with that chestnut hair. The eyes seemed almost to glow with passion.
"Not a problem for me," she said undoing the sun suit. With the top loose three wonderful things happened. Her two breasts came into view, and the fabric all fell to the floor. "Now your turn."
I reached for her but she moved back. Then allowed herself to be pulled close for a kiss. The kiss again started only a little more passionate than the first one. It quickly moved past the first one into virgin territory. I could not believe the affect it had on me. She was like a drug. I hardly noticed her opening the buttons on my cheap cotton shirt. Before I knew it I was standing very still while she pushed the new tee shirt over my head.
"Nice," she said looking at my flat stomach. Six months on mostly cold k rations and sweating every minute of every day and night will do that. I looked at her and said, "God you are beautiful."
"Well why don't you just get out of the rest of your clothes and lie on the bed." As she said it she played with the scarves. The smile on her face was impossible to read. I thought she was massively turned on. Looking back it was probably just that I wanted to think that.
Reluctantly I lay on the bed and waited. As she reached across me to tie one hand to the headboard, her breasts were close enough for a quick lick and tug with my lips. I watched as she tied my legs to the bed as well. She was completely naked as she worked. I was expecting something to happen when she finished. She could tell my feeling by the look on my face, and the affect she had on my body. I watched her sit on the side of the bed then take a deep breath. I could tell she was trying to calm down.
"Now we have to talk," she said reaching for her purse. From it she removed a razor blade wrapped in cardboard.
"What the hell?" I asked pulling against the silk scarf. The silk held tight.
"Don't worry Deke, this is not for you. It is for me."
"What are you going to do slash your wrists and make me watch?" I asked it angrily.
"Lord no, this isn't to kill me, It is to save me," she replied seriously. "I do have to admit, I am tempted to make love to you first. You said you were a hell of a man back then, or now I guess. Anyway this is to keep you alive, lover."
"Keep me alive?" I asked.
"Yep, Now I can either just do it or explain it to you. It is your choice." She sat naked and patiently waited for me to decide.
"Is there a third option?" I asked.
"Could you change your mind about making love to me?" I smiled at her. I could not believe that after all that, I still wanted her. Hell, I wanted her more than ever.
"Who knows what I will feel after the change. You are pretty sexy now. Afterward you might be more than I can resist."
"What the hell are you talking about?" I was curious and frustrated. I was also testing my bonds.
"Deacon, you are going to come home from here, go through some tough times and then some good times. Actually I don't know about the tough times now. But then, I don't know for sure what would have happened if I hadn't come back."
"What the hell are you talking about?" By that time I was feeling anger bred of frustration.
"So, where do I start?" She obviously was not asking me since I did not have a clue. "Deacon it is not 1966 to me. It is 2000 to me."
She saw the way I looked at her. "Deacon, I am not crazy. This is hard to explain, much harder than I thought."
"Why don't you start at the beginning?" I asked. "Oh yeah, could you toss that sheet over me."
"You know this is both the beginning and the end." She looked me in the eye and smiled. "As for the sheet, I don't think so. You have a really nice body you know?"
"Not really, I am not one of those weight lifter types," I replied.
"Well the muscles are okay, but that is not what I meant," She had a very wicked look in her eyes.
"Well in that case put away the razor and let's party." I said it, but it didn't ring true even to me.
"Deke, stop worrying about the razor. I told you it isn't for you."
"I really don't want to see you cut up either." I was a little surprised that I actually meant it.
"How sweet, but I do have to shed a little blood. It has to do with the magic you see." She said it as thought any idiot should have known what she meant. Of course I had no idea. Then again I wasn't just any idiot. I was the idiot who let a strange woman tie him up.
"Which magic would that be?" I asked.
"The only kind of real magic of course. I know you don't understand and you won't for some time yet. Still you have to come in." she said it just as if she were giving me the football scores back home. Flat, no real emotion at all.
"In where," I asked.
"Into the circle of course, but then you don't know about the circle. Deke, I don't know how much I should tell you. I probably should just do it and leave."
"No, don't leave," I was looking at her gorgeous body while she looked at me thoughtfully. She must have noticed.
"You know I really should get dressed. Then again why get blood on that new sun dress. It really is very attractive don't you think?" she seemed to be perfectly rational the whole time.
"Yes it is a nice wrapper for a beautiful package." I said it hoping to get her on my side, if she weren't already.
"Now there is the Deke I know and love. I am glad to see a glimpse of the man you will become. Actually there is a lot of that man ahead in you. You seem to have no emotions at all." She said that with a curious look on her face.
"Sure I do. I am terrified," I said it smiling the whole time. I hoped she would find it amusing.
"Oh you are the charmer even now. Okay Deke where was I?" she asked.
"You refused to cover me and decided not to get dressed. So I guess that leaves telling me where you are taking me?"
"Not taking Deke, bringing you. I am going to bring you into the circle." She seemed to smile warmly at the thought.
"What circle and why?" I asked patiently.
"The circle of magicians, and the reason is simple, to save me." I looked hard and determined that she was dead serious.
"Gee, what is this circle of magicians, and how will me joining that save you?" I asked it more to buy time than for information. I had long ago decided she must be a nut case.
"God Deacon, you make this hard. It all sounds so unbelievable when you ask questions," she admitted.
"Okay, then just tell it to me," I suggested.
"Good, then be quiet love while I explain as best I can." I nodded as she began. "Thirty four years from now in the future I am going to meet you on the Internet."
"Wait, what is the Internet?" I had no idea what she was talking about.
"Deke, I can't tell you the details. For one thing I don't understand them all myself, for another I can not give you enough information to change anything in your life. If I do you won't be there to save me.
"So how am I going to understand, if you don't explain?" I thought it a fair question.
"You are just going to have to trust me. The net is how people talk in the year 2000. It is kind of like a giant party line. You don't need to know this." She paused, stood and began to walk. In spite of the fact that I was tied to a bed, by a woman with a razor blade, I could not help but notice her breasts. I guess because they were not excessively large they were extremely firm appearing. I am ashamed to say it turned me on to see her walking around the room nude.
"Anyway Deke, I was on the giant party line because my husband was bored with me. I had become something of a drag after my second child. I have to admit I was boring."
"A woman who ties men to beds, and holds a razor over him is hardly boring," I remarked with a charming smile.
"True, but this is not who I was before I met you," she replied. "I was a frumpy little house frau." she laughed before she continued. "I would never have worn anything like this before I met you." She said that while holding the little sun suit up for me to appreciate again. "And going without a bra would have been shameful not to mention the panties."
"Oh hell, let's mention the panties," I replied. She seemed to be enjoying it, so why shouldn't I?
"Yes, I can see you in yourself. God that sounds weird. Anyway, I would have swallowed a bottle of pills if I hadn't met you. Sure I was a long way from it, but I was headed down that road."
"So, what did I do for you to turn you around." I was curious in that, I don't believe this crap, kind of way.
"Deke you discovered the magic in me. You also taught me how to use it." She was looking into my eyes and speaking slow and low. There was something hypnotic in her voice. "Most of all you taught me how to live here," she said that pointing to her head.
"Okay I save your life down the road, then you are a time traveler?" I asked with a laugh.
"God you can be a real ass. But then maybe that is why I love you. I don't know anyone else who could be tied to a bed, with a woman talking nonsense, and holding a razor, who could still laugh.
"So you admit this is a strange thing to be happening?" I asked.
"It must be to you, actually it is for me as well. I mean I love you as a fifty-five year old man. Then again here I am naked with you as a twenty-one year old. I have to admit that is a pretty strange set of circumstances."
"Let's forget the naked part for a minute," I suggested. "Tell me why you think I need saving. That is what this is all about, right?"
"Yeah, I have to give you the magic. I know the magic will protect you."
"Okay," I replied. "But if you love me at fifty-five what makes you think anything happens to me here?"
"The wall," she said it lowering her eyes. At that moment I knew it was no gag, at least not for her.
"What wall?" I asked it getting into her story despite myself.
"After this war is over the country is going to do some shameful things to you guys. One day we will wake up and build a memorial to the dead. It will be a black wall with the names of everyone who died here."
"So you are telling me that my name is on the wall. It must have been a mistake. I mean, if I was alive at fifty-five then I didn't die here, right?" I asked it trying to be reassured I wasn't going to die any time soon.
"Well you never went to the wall. You always wanted to go, so I went after you died. I was going to find the names of the people you told me about to honor you I guess. Anyway I almost fainted when I found your name on the wall. Best I can figure you are going to die here unless you get the magic." She was looking into my eyes and speaking very slowly.
"Okay, so how do I get this magic?" I asked.
"You told me you got it from a woman. You gave me her name and all the details. I think you were mistaken, I think you got it from me. She just taught you how to use it. I think I came back here before. I don't know why I do, but I just believe it."
"Okay so how do you give me the magic?" I asked it just to go along.
"Blood," she said simply.
"You mean like blood brothers?" I asked.
"No I mean like you drink my blood," she looked me in the eyes as she said it.
"Let me see if I have this right? I drink your blood and I get this magic. If I get the magic then I live forever?" I asked it knowing in her mind at least the older me was dead already.
"Not forever, but nothing outside God, or nature if you will, can bring you down. No other human will do it." She was still looking right into my eyes. It was a most disconcerting thing.
I had worked the bindings loose but not enough to break away. I was close when she sat on my stomach. Her sitting there naked was enough to make me lose any thought of escape. She smiled warmly as she pricked her wrist with the razor. The cut was small and bled only a little. She pressed the bloody spot to my mouth I tried to turn my head but she pulled me by the hair. She pulled my hair hard until I opened my mouth. At that point she pressed her wrist against my open mouth. I tasted the copper taste of fresh blood.
"Drink my love," she said in a sexy voice. I couldn't believe it turned me on to taste her blood. I could feel her hips begin to move ever so slightly. Dear God, I thought. This woman is getting turned on forcing me to drink her blood. Worse still so am I. In my case it could well have been just the proximity to a woman. I hadn't been near one in a long time. I tried to wiggle her down, but she wouldn't budge.
"You know, I never made love to you for real. I wonder what it would be like." She lifted herself and was moving to either lower herself on me or to get off me completely. Suddenly one of southeast Asia's giant cockroaches ran across my chest.
She screamed and quickly stood. "Sorry love," she said with a laugh. "The mood is broken and I am a seriously married woman."
Just as she bent to kiss me with that brotherly peck, I managed to get a hand loose. She probably thought she was in pretty good shape. I was in much better shape. I pulled her to me while she struggled. I held her down with one hand while I kissed her deeply. She struggled for several minutes then surrendered to it. When she did I freed my other hand. I was trying to decide what to do with the woman I held in both my arms when she broke the kiss. She struggled to stand. Despite myself I allowed it.
"I can't do this Deke. I never could do it." She said it sadly thinking I was going to let her go that easily.
I was removing the ties from my legs and acting pretty unconcerned while she spoke. I sat on the edge of the bed while she picked up her dress. "You don't think you are going to do this to me then leave do you?" I asked with a grin.
"Yes, I am going to do this to you and leave. Do you know why?" she asked smiling at me.
"No why?" I asked it more than a little surprised at her confidence.
"Because you love me and could never hurt me. This would hurt me deeply." As she spoke she slipped into the white sun suit. I could hardly believe I allowed her to do it. I watched as she walked to the door. She had it open turned to me and said, "Got you again Deke." She quickly slipped from the door. I heard her laughter all the way down the hall. I could have rushed out naked I guess. But instead I just sat on the bed with a wicked smile.
I met plenty of women on that R&R. Something I hear that is very unusual. Only one was a hooker, the others were wives of Air America flyers. "I did the rest of that tour without a scratch. Not even a close call. Things just seemed to work out exactly right as they never had before.
\ul One Year Later\ulnone
I was sitting perfectly still and still the sweat dripped from my nose. The air conditioner was broke in the waiting room. It was a common problem throughout Vietnam. Nothing ever seemed to work completely as it should. The air conditioners were the most likely to fail since they ran wide open around the clock. I glanced over to the glass enclosed VIP lounge. The people waiting in that lounge didn't seem to be sweating at all. I couldn't help but wonder if the air conditioner in the room worked, or if VIPs didn't sweat like the rest of us. Could be that is what made them VIPs, that no sweat attitude.
"Preacher," the voice came from the door of the VIP lounge. "What the hell are you doing here?"
"Same as you Lonie, meeting the plane from Saigon," I replied. Lonie was the press liaison for the Military Assistance Command Vietnam or MACV as it was better known.
"Damn Preacher, come on in where the air conditioner works for god's sake," he demanded.
I would have refused had it not been for the hangover. Since I did have the celebration hangover I moved slowly but gratefully into the lounge. I shook Lonie's hand before I noticed he did not introduce me to the other waiting men. He especially did not introduce me to the one Caucasian woman standing alone by the window overlooking the loading and unloading gate.
He didn't have to introduce me. Everybody knew the half dozen round eyed women in town. The NhaTrang City wasn't Saigon after all. The woman would have been reasonably attractive back in the world. In the Nam she was dynamite. If all her time hadn't been taken up with the General, she would have been a busy and wealthy young lady. I never forget a body, but her name escaped me.
"Lonie, you reckon I could have a cup of your coffee?" The coffee wasn't his but it was in the lounge where I wasn't supposed to be.
"Sure Preacher, we occasionally let the peasants have a cup." Lonie was not smiling at all when he said it. I knew he was an enlisted man with only his boss' authority to be in the lounge himself. "Preacher, you look like hell?"
Since it was really a question I answered, "I know, too much celebration last night. I celebrated with a couple of the guys passing through on their way back to the world. We were at it a little too long."
"Damn, that Peabody was over a month ago. How long you going to celebrate it?" Lonie was grinning for the first time. The gap in his front teeth was prominent.
"This celebration was for my new job," I replied. I knew he had heard. Hell it was the talk of the town.
"Oh yeah that AP job thing." Lonie didn't look happy. I wasn't all that surprised. I was not the most popular guy in town. They probably had danced in the office when it got around that I had been fired. 'Peabody in May, on the street in June,' was the word going around. Too bad the AP picked me up otherwise they would have had a great story for the FNGs.
"So Lonie, what is legs doing here?" I asked it over the Styrofoam cup.
"Who knows, she usually is over on the military side of the field meeting some visiting Generals for MACV. That is her job you know?" Lonie was grinning again.
"I heard," I said it more than a little amused by the lengths Generals went to cover their asses. It would never do for it to be known they had a round eyed mistress while their grunts were making do with the local whores. It looked too much like rank has its privileges. "Lonie, what is legs' real name? I know I heard it I just can not for the life of me remember."
"Damn Preach how could you forget it. Her name is Gwendolyn."
"What a god awful name for a place like this. A fairy princes in hell, no wonder I can never remember it. Geese when I write my great novel about the Nam I am gonna call it that." I said it as I shook my head.
"Your novel will be right after mine and a thousand other guys. Anyway, I think anyone who knows her calls her Gwen." Lonie appeared happy to impart that little piece of information. It appeared that he thought it would raise his stature in my eyes. I had no idea why he thought it or why my opinion of him would even matter. No matter what I thought he obviously wanted to impress me.
I nodded as I looked past her. "Lonie isn't that what's his name that Senator's aide. You know the one they told us to look out for."
"Who told you to look out for him?" Lonie asked.
"The A P bulletin that came last week. He is supposed to be setting up a visit or something." I turned my attention back to Lonie.
"Yeah that is him all right, chief of staff to the junior senator from California. His name is Wilson White. He comes and goes around here. Don't know nothin' 'bout no visit though. Just don't get him started on Viet fucking Nam. He is an expert." Lonie said it knowing how I felt about all the experts.
"I still wonder how you can be an expert on this war from a Washington nightclub." It wasn't a question.
"Preacher, I do not want to hear your opinion any more than I do his." Lonie seemed to be suddenly upset. Fortunately he didn't hold a grudge. I saw the passenger corridor begin to fill with family and friends of the Vietnamese on board the plane. To fly inside Vietnam, if you were a civilian, you had to have money with a capital M. It explained why the people in the corridor were better dressed than the average person on the street. The men were, without exception, dressed in suits. The women for the most part were in western dress or the latest semi western Chinese hooker styles.
I watched as the passengers left the plane. The VIP lounge began to empty. I joined the herd in their outward move. I stood by the wall waiting for an American or Brit who was not being met by any of the others. That man would be Tracie Amos my new partner. The most I understood from the cable I held in my hand was that I wasn't going to be responsible for the writing any longer. My writing was evidently not up to AP standards. Evidently a Peabody for the photograph was up to their standards. I was just cynical enough to think the Charlotte Observer, the paper who sent me to Nam, had decided to trade me to the AP for a year's free wire service and a reporter to be announced at a later date.
There was a single round eyed woman among them but she was immediately pounced on by a couple of Americans. She shook her head before catching Gwendolyn's eye. The two of them calmly walked toward each other then hugged one of those women hugs. I should have been watching for Tracie Amos but I was riveted on the two European women. Gwen put her arm around the other woman of only fair good looks. More whores in disguise I thought. The Nam was gonna be over run with them.
I continued to search the corridor as the crowd began to thin. From the corner of my eye I saw Gwen move to speak to Lonie. Then for some reason Lonie pointed to me. I felt very uncomfortable. Hell I was on the edge of paranoia. In the Nam paranoia was a good thing.
After seconds that seemed like minutes I scanned the crowd again. Still no one who looked like an Amos. The two women walked toward me. Since I was standing between them and the exit I was not surprised. They seemed to be looking at me so I looked back.
"So you are Preacher Burke?" the woman, who was not Gwen, asked.
I was in shock when I answered. I am afraid I sounded a bit of a dolt. "I am." Well it was the best I could do at the time.
The hand came toward me so I took it. "Tracie Amos. I should have called but there doesn't seem to be much of a phone system here. Gwen called me last night at the hotel. I didn't know she was in Na Trang City. Anyway I don't need the ride after all."
I nodded, since I was still pretty much lost. Not being able to fully understand it might have been sad, if I had been straight. Since I was hung over I just let it slide. "Okay but we need to meet later," I managed to get out.
"Sure, come by the office tomorrow morning," She handed me a card with an address printed on it. With that she turned to leave with Gwen.
"Wait a minute," I demanded. "You are with the AP?"
"Yes Preacher, and that is the address of my office. I haven't seen it yet but I expect you can find it."
"Since when did the AP have an office here?" I asked.
"Since about five minutes ago. You look a little bewildered?"
"More than a little," I replied. "I was expecting to find a writer on the plane." I shook my head at the thought of a boss. I had expected to be more or less free to do as I pleased. No one had promised, I just expected it.
"Sweetie, I am the best damned writer you ever met. I might be the only one judging from what I have read of your work. But Preacher, this is not the time or place to go into all that. Just come by the office at nine." She and Gwen breezed out before I could object. Hell, I didn't have time to do much of anything but stare open-mouthed at the two of them. I watched as their hips swayed past me.
I had a couple of hours to kill before the press briefing. I wondered if the new Office Manager planned to be there. Maybe, since she was a woman, she planned to play secretary while I went out to do the work. That would be okay. I hated the damned paper work even for the small town newspaper. I had been looking forward to a writer as a partner. I hated trying to write. I was a pretty good photographer. Hell I was a great photographer. I was just a lousy writer.
"So Preacher, I guess you and Gwen were here to meet the same woman." It was Lonie talking from behind me.
"Seems so. What are you doing here Lonie, if you are not meeting anyone?" I asked it from natural curiosity.
You know how it is, once in a while we get bad information. I was expecting a whiz bang from the states. You know Walter Cronkite type of dude, but he didn't show. Well I better get back. I only got a few minutes to write the boss's press speech." He laughed as he began to turn away.
"Lonie, if you really write that crap you are a better man than I. I would never be able to look at myself in the mirror again."
"That, Preacher, is why you wear a beard I expect. You can not look yourself in the face because of the crap you write."
"I might write crap Lonie, but I don't know it's crap. That stuff Henderson comes up with is garbage. Even you have to know it. Tell me that Henderson does not believe any of it."
"Can't tell you that Preacher. I don't know what El. Supremo thinks. Besides you are the only one who knows it is crap. He fools all the others. Hell, most of them eat those numbers up."
"Well Lonie, I think it is garbage. One day this is all going to come back to bite you guys on the ass." I said it, but the words were hollow.
"You know Preacher, everybody thinks Westy said, 'It ain't much of a war but it is the only one we got'." Well it wasn't. It was a guy from CBS. Westy just heard it and liked it. You guys are driving this war you know. It's gonna get bigger cause it is big news in a world in need of a big story."
"I don't know about that Lonie, but I think it is going to get bigger. We just don't know when to walk away from a bad bet." I said it to his back, he was already walking away. Rude prick I thought.
I caught the Air Force shuttle bus over to the military side of the airport. Hell, it was a military airport with a tiny little building for civilian air services. The strip was definitely all military.
I went into the enlisted men's mess for lunch. Hell, it was my breakfast but they had long since quit serving eggs. I could have gone to the officer's club for lunch . I didn't because I got better information from the grunts when I could find one who knew anything at all.
Roast beef and a green salad was my lunch. I tried to keep my weight down, so it was a rather simple diet suggested by a doctor. I ate only meat and salads almost exclusively. I drank Bourbon not beer. It seemed to work. Not only had I lost the ten pounds I gained while eating my mother's cooking, I also dropped a couple more.
I hung out on the porch of the dining room while I waited for the afternoon press briefing. I only planned to attend the Air Force briefing because I was on the base. I would never have made a special trip out for it. All they ever told you was how many planes dropped how many tons of bombs the night before. I wondered if anyone of any consequence would be at the briefing. Oh, for sure the stringers would be there. They had to file something everyday to get paid. Their livelihood was hanging around the bases for the briefing. Hell, they made the Army at Camron Bay in the morning and then the Air Force in the afternoon. They also filed exactly what the military gave them. They added almost nothing and took nothing at all away. It was at least one of the reasons nobody at home understood what the hell the Nam was all about. To them it was simply bomb tonnage and body counts. They seldom saw the real drama of the war. When they did see it the story or photograph was awarded some prize and quickly forgotten.
After the briefing I too had the figures from the night's bombing. They were impressive but of course meant nothing. As I was leaving a stringer from a Chicago paper wandered over to me. "So Preacher, what you doing at this thing. I thought you looked down your nose at those of us who attend the Air Force briefing?"
"I do Les. I had to be on the base for another reason. I hoped they would tell me something interesting for a change."
"Well did they?" he asked.
"Not a damn thing," I replied.
"You wanna split a cab back to the hotel?" he asked.
"No thanks Les, I moved out of that dump last week." I hoped he would leave me alone after he heard that.
"Really, where did you move?" He asked it with true interest. How the hell where I lived could be of any interest to him was something for me to marvel about.
"Moved to Mama Leu's compound. She had a house and I needed a place to stay. I got tired of all the drunks wandering into my room."
"Mama Leu's is a whorehouse." It came out almost as a question so I nodded. "Preacher, it just don't fit your image."
"Les, it is a name not an image. Look I got to get moving." I said it as I hopped the shuttle bus to the small Army supply detachment's compound. Most supplies came in by ship to Camron Bay but some came by air. Those supplies arrived by plane in Na Trang, then were convoyed by truck over to the Army base at Camron bay. Camron Bay was mostly a supply base because of its port. Still enough came in by air for the Army to keep a compound inside the Na Trang Air Base. Convoys ran from the air base to Camron at least twice a day.
The Army loved to cooperate with the press at that time. I got a ride in exchange for the promise to mention the driver's name in an article. I usually kept my word, but not always.
Usually the convoy to Camron Bay was a boring forty-five minute ride. Sometimes however it got a little exciting. It rarely happened but once in a while a truck would hit a mine in the road. Some nights Charlie slipped down to plant them. "The night belongs to Charlie" was not a joke. The Americans for the most part pulled back to their base at night. That, in effect, gave Charlie the night uncontested.
Even more rarely an RPG would light up a truck or two. The convoy escort would then charge up to run off or kill the shooter. Damage was usually slight unless you counted the driver and guard. When they died it tended to be more than just an inconvenience. On that drive, on that day, neither happened. We arrived in Camron in the mid-afternoon.
I expected to grab a ride back that afternoon before dark. If I couldn't catch a ride i could always bunk in a transient tent. I got the driver to drop me in front of the headquarter's company building. I slipped inside one of the three office hootches. I found the information officer's desk in the rear corner of the open room. He didn't even rate partitions. Of course you had to be a field grade officer to get a partition. The information officer for Camron Bay was a first Lieutenant.
"Hello Lieutenant," I said as I greeted the man. It did cause him to look up.
"You better not be a soldier dressed like that," he replied.
"Come on, Lt. Bryson, you know me," I suggested.
"Yes Preacher, I do. The action report is on the desk over by the wall. Same place it always is."
"So you are telling me just to go look from now on. I don't have to ask first?" I knew that would trip his trigger.
"You are fucking A - you have to ask ? You press whores think this war belongs to you." I watched his face turn red. Then he suddenly burst into laughter. "Read the fucking report then get the hell out of here, Preacher."
"Good to see you too, Lt." Bryson actually was one of the better officers.
I walked to the desk where stacks of four page action reports were stapled together. I picked up one. I scanned it not seeing anything of particular interest. I took the copy, folded it neatly then slipped it into the rear pocket of my jeans. I left the headquarters building then began walking toward the supply building. Supply was housed in several large tents as well on one large indigenous style building. Inside the air conditioned building sat Spec. Four Willis.
"Willis, how the hell are you?" I asked.
"Preacher," he said as he extended his hand to me. "What the hell you doing out in this heat? I thought you news whores only worked on cool days."
"I know ,but you know how it is. The bosses just changed so I have to look busy. " I switched the subject. "So Willis,any interesting orders." Supply was the key to any action being tipped. If Charlie just showed up at you door, it was do as best you could. Those surprise attacks were impossible for a news whore to cover. However if you were expecting a visit from Master Charles, the skipper laid in all kinds of ordinance.
"What you got for me Preacher?" he asked.
"Damn Willis, you are an evil, conniving man." I grinned as I tossed the white cardboard box onto the counter. The blue and red print advised everyone that it was a harmonica. "Present from Uncle Deacon," I stated with a grin.
"The man knows soldiers," Willis said slipping the instrument into his shirt pocket.
Uncle Deacon indeed knew soldiers, but he also knew people - which was far more important. Deacon knew how to get things done. He had gotten me back to the Nam after he noticed that I was so miserable at home.
"Okay Willis, spill it," I demanded.
"Lima ordered this," he replied, handing me a requisition. I read it carefully. A large number of rounds for the M16s, the 30 cals, and even the 50s. Lots of razor wire, claymore mines and foo gas. "Damn Willis."
I removed the action report from my jeans. "They got shelled last night."
"Yeah, I figured they been getting a stray one now and again. For some reason the commander up there is expecting the dance to come to him."
"You reckon some kid has gotten overly worried? I mean everybody gets a shell now and then, even you."
"Man did a tour about the time you were here. If he cries wolf, take a shotgun on your next hike," Willis informed me.
"I don't suppose you know the weather?" I asked. Willis and I both knew Charlie would do it at night for sure, and in the rain if possible. He liked to come at you when your gun ships were down.
"Dark of the moon tomorrow and Friday. Rain possible Friday and Saturday," he said it with a grin. "Preacher, book your flight early."
"I'll do that Willis," I was not smiling when I left the building. It was time for me to check my courage again. All I had to do was ignore the information. If I did that, I could spend the weekend in the arms of some NaTrang whore. If would have been different had I not known what the hell it would be like inside Lima. Hell, I could write the story without even going up there. Most of my peers did exactly that. The TV crews were the worst. They would chopper in the moment the place was secure. Then they would act as though they had been in the fight themselves. They were the true whores. At least I earned my money, which made me a better whore than the others.
I left the camp by truck headed back to the air base before dark. The truck dropped me just outside the main gate. Two steps from the spot sat about a dozen tiny taxi cabs. I chose a beat up old Honda, hoping to bargain him down to just double the rate for dinks. I got him down to fifteen cents for a ride into town. The cab dropped me at the old dink hotel converted to Mama Leu's bar and whorehouse.
I by-passed the hotel as I entered the courtyard behind the building. There sat my little hooch just inside the walls of the compound. The hotel building was older than the walls or the hooch. The walls had been added by the French during the Viet Ming period. Hell, Vietnam's history was divided into periods by which enemy they were fighting at the time. As far as I could tell the French left only two things to the country - walled compounds and the recipe for bread. I lived inside one of its walls and I could eat a loaf of the damned bread by itself. The butter was even optional to my way of thinking.
Since I could use the PX on the air base my little hooch was pretty comfortable. By comfortable I mean it had an electric fan and a gas cook top. It came equipped with a native refrigeration unit - which was no more than simply a giant ice chest which got filled once a day. The cost of the ice was only a dime. If I was gonna be out of town I told Mama. She arranged to have the ice delivery stopped that day. She always paid the man anyway. I just paid her whenever I got around to it. I am sure my ice cost was considerably less than a dime. I was a little surprised that I was not paying her ice bill as well as my own. The bar in the whorehouse probably used fifty times as much ice as me.
I opened a can of hash that night. I ate it with about half a loaf of bread. It was plain food but I enjoyed it. I resisted the urge to go into the bar for a drink or two. The drinks were pretty much free since everyone brought their own bottles. Mama did charge for the coke and ice. I couldn't get her to buy ginger ale no matter how hard I tried.
I awoke the next morning. I got a full night's sleep - something unheard of for me. I showered as best I could with the cool water. It was no more than a quick wash off that passed for a shower. I dressed in clean, well worn jeans. Over my naked and hairless chest I pulled a gray sweatshirt with cut-off sleeves. It would be soaked within an hour but it felt good. The soaked shirt kept my body cool and damp. I picked up the backpack containing my cameras on the way out the door.
I took a cab the quarter mile to the address on the card. The address was right in the heart of town. Most of the buildings were no more than two stories tall. The building at the address on the card fit right into the neighborhood. It was small, frame, and two stories tall. I found the new Associated Press office to be on the second floor.
I realized on entering that the office had that deserted feel to it. For one thing there were four desks in the outer office - none seemed to be occupied. At the rear of the large room was a partitioned off area. I presumed that belonged to Tracie Amos. I still hadn't figured out exactly what was going on. I did have a feeling I was about to find out. I heard the click click click of typewriter keys coming though the open door to the office. Since the door was already open I walked in.
She looked up then spoke, "Give me just a minute. I need to finish this piece on the plane ride over here." She returned her eyes to the page of notes.
"Are you actually writing about a plane ride when you are in a combat zone?" I laughed before I realized how bad it sounded.
"Well Preacher, it is like this. I am going to file a story a day from this office. Since I doubt you brought one in, it is going to be about my plane ride." She went back to her typing.
I lit a cigarette while smiling. "Would you mind not smoking in here?" She was serious I could tell. My response was to walk out the door cigarette in hand. I passed through the larger office on my way to the hall. I stayed in the hall until the cigarette was finished. Actually I was pretty comfortable in the hall. Someone had placed a small sofa and an ashtray in the small vestibule. "Probably the bitch," I whispered to myself.
I lit another cigarette to give me an excuse to spend some time thinking. My number one problem was her statement that the office would file one story a day. If she was going to write about plane rides, she might expect me to do the same. "Oh crap," I mumbled aloud.
When I could stand it no longer I returned to the office. I again stood in her doorway. She had obviously finished the article. I watched her stare out the window for a few seconds, then I asked, "Would you like to explain all this to me? I am at a real loss here. Nobody told me anything except to expect a writer."
"Preacher, this is typical AP crap. They didn't bother to tell you everything when they hired you. They told you just enough to get you on board."
"It does seem they left a couple of things out. Like I thought the FNG would be my assistant," It was a mirthless laugh that escaped my lips. "And of course I expected a man."
"I can understand all that. Would you like for me to tell you how it is really going to be?" She really did want to know before she went on.
"Sure, let me know where I stand, please," I replied.
"The Peabody was for photography. You are good I expect, but you write like shit." From her the expression seemed a bit coarse.
"Well that is being pretty blunt," I said it with about as much smile as possible under the circumstances.
"Well I can try to sugar coat it if you like, but blunt is my style." She looked as though she wanted me to state a preference.
"Blunt is fine. So let me be equally blunt. I do not want to be a great writer. I do not even want to be a great photographer. I am an adrenaline junkie. I am here for the rush of it all." I said it trying to be honest, but all the time wondering if I were cutting my own throat. It also sounded a little like John Wayne, which was definitely not my style.
"Well I guess I can handle that as long as you try to do a good job while you are here. So there is an Australian unit about fifty miles from here. I want you to hitch a ride over to it. I want you do a piece on them. I need it by Monday." She looked up to gauge my reaction.
"Well it will have to wait until next week." I expected that she could tell I felt it on a par with her plane ride.
"I'm sorry Preacher. I must have heard you wrong. I said I wanted you to do it. It was not a request." She was trying to put steel in her voice. She had the command presence I guess, but she lacked the voice to carry it off. Her voice was just too ladylike.
Smiling was probably the wrong thing to do at that point. "Here is the problem Tracie. I am pretty sure there is going to be a small battle on an artillery base either tomorrow or Saturday. I am going to head up there when I leave here."
"Well Preacher, I know for sure there is an Australian unit about fifty miles from here. So go do the Australian piece," Her voice left no room for doubt that she was serious.
"Look Tracie, the pussies will be there on Monday. If nothing happens over the weekend I will go up there and write the piece." I thought it was a reasonable offer. She might have sensed I would never have made it up to the Aussie compound.
"Preacher, I have no idea what you are up too. Maybe you are trying to win another Peabody, but not on my time."
"Would you just forget the damned Peabody," I snapped at her.
"Good, it is a second rate award anyway." I could tell she regretted saying it. "I didn't mean that, Preacher."
"Why, sure you did Tracie, and you are right. I am after a Pulitzer now." It was a lie and she knew it. If I had been, she probably would have helped me. She knew I was after the thrill of combat. There was no other place I could feel so alive. I didn't have to be killing. I just had to be where the bullets were flying. "Where life was lived on the sharp end of a bayonet", as my Uncle Deacon used to say.
"Well Preacher, do it with the Aussies." She tried to smile as she said it.
"I am going up on the Z. I will do the Aussies when I get back." As far as I was concerned that was the end of it.
"If you are not in that Aussie compound tomorrow, then just hand in your credentials." She knew full well that without those papers I could not hitch a ride,
I wanted to tell her to stick it up her very ordinary ass. The cute little British accent didn't make her harsh words any easier to take. I hated giving her the satisfaction of seeing me back down, but I knew I had no choice. "This is just plain stupid, but if you insist then you insist."
"Good. Do the Aussie bit tomorrow and we will talk," she said. I could tell she wasn't all that sure of herself.
"Well, I guess I will get going. Who is developing the film" I asked it because I had heard the AP in Saigon had a film lab.
"Who does it now?" she asked.
"I have no idea who did the AP writer's film here before." I said it hoping she wouldn't ask it but I knew she would.
"No - who did your film before?" she asked.
"I did it myself." I knew it was going to cause me a problem.
"until I can get a lab set up here, do it yourself and I will get the money from somewhere to pay you."
"Sure. The lab is still set up at the hooch." I didn't bother to explain that it got to be over a hundred in the little room when I did film. film. Untilntil she got a lab set up with dinks doing the processing, I would not be shooting much film.
"Good, it shouldn't take too long to find a Vietnamese to do the processing." I noted her very polite way of speaking about the locals. It was the habit of almost all newcomers. They tried to like everybody. A very dangerous American trait. In those days the Cong were operating in the towns. They used women and children as cover. Sometimes the women and children were more than cover. Sometimes they were the bombers. Be very careful of things women and children hand you on the street. It was a warning I got on my first day. I was lucky nobody had ever handed me a steel pineapple. I had friends who were not so lucky.
"Well, I guess I better be moving along," I said as I stood to leave.
"Then I can expect the Australian piece on the desk by Monday?" Tracie looked happy to have it all worked out. She had probably been afraid i would refuse to work for a FNG - especially a woman.
"Sure, you can expect it." As I headed out the door I mumbled to myself. "You can expect anything in Vietnam. All you ever get is heartbreak."
On the cab ride to the air base I did not make a note in my expense book. I figured my days on expense account were over. I was not headed for the Australian compound as I had promised. I was headed to fire base Lima.
I walked up to the desk in the air traffic operations office. Naturally it was located in the base operations building. "Hey Bill, got anything going to fire base Lima today?"
"Hold on, I'll check." He removed a clipboard from the wall. "Preacher, you in luck. Two hours from now we got a C130 headed out to resupply three fire bases. Lima is number two."
"Any chance I can get a ride?" I asked.
He looked over the cargo manifest before he asked, "What you weigh these days?"
"One seventy, is it gonna be that tight?" I asked.
"Nope, I was just curious. Of course it is that tight. Lima is re-stocking everything it appears. Now tell me why you want to go to that dump?"
"Make some pictures for the folks back home. You know how it is Bill. Everybody wants to see the war... just not too close."
"Well, be back in and hour and a half." Bill said it as he turned to a Lieutenant who had called his name.
I left with a nod of my head. I rode the shuttle to the enlisted men's dining room. There I had gray mystery meat with a green salad. It was actually pretty good. Immediately after lunch I caught yet another shuttle for the waiting room beside base ops. I checked in with the airman in charge. He looked up the schedule then informed me I had at least a ninety minute wait. I sat in a corner chair, leaned against the wall, and fell sound asleep.
I awoke only when the airman shook me. "Hey Burke, the 130 is loaded and ready to go. It is right over there." He pointed to a Hercules painted with that large camouflage color scheme which guaranteed it could be seen from below where the fire came from. It might be a mistake for jungle from above but the VC did not have an Air Force. At least not in 1966. What they did have was a hell of a lot of anti-aircraft artillery. They should have painted the planes shy blue and white.
I picked up my backpack, then walked out the door and onto the plane. It was pretty much loaded but there was always room on the outside edges where the seats were located. The load Masters tended to keep the freight in the center of the plane. The aluminum frame with the canvas sling used by the Air Force as seats on its planes was very uncomfortable.
Since Lima was the second stop I expected a long flight. The first drop was less than an hour after take off. We were on the ground in less than ten minutes. It seemed the pilot did not like the thought of a mortar round up his ass. I approved by the way. They tell me the most dangerous time for a transport pilot was landing and taking off. The plane was moving slowly and over indian country. The Air Force did it's best to counter with the assault landing and take off.
It replaced the long slow glide into the field with a gut wrenching drop straight down, then leveling off just in time to lower the wheels before the controlled crash. Take-off was full military power and just as straight up as possible without stalling the craft. Controlled terror was what I felt each time I got in a plane in the Nam.
"Hey," the load Master said. "They must be expecting trouble in Lima. They got enough crap on here to start another fire base."
"To tell you the truth," I shouted, "I expect so." No sense lying to him. He had been there before.
"They are going to have a dance with Charlie? What the hell are you doing?" He had a serious look on his face. I expect if he could he would have had me committed. It was that kind of look.
"Gonna go down and make some heroes," I said as I pointed to the backpack.
"What?" he shouted above the noise.
"Reporter," I replied.
"What the hell you doing going in before the battle? I thought you just went in after it was over?"
"You got the TV actors mixed up with real reporters," I said it with a grin.
"Update your will," he said that as he walked away. I nodded to his back.
Ten minutes later the plane was headed for a crash when it suddenly pulled and then landed. I got out more thankful to see the ground than I had ever been before. Choppers scared hell out of me but that Hercules plunging to earth at what seemed like full throttle was more than I could stand.
I left the plane just as soon as the door was opened. I wanted to toss my lunch but managed to keep it down. It was probably going to be the last real food I would get for a while. I made it from the strip to the command area without too much trouble.
"Hey Top, I am a stranger in your land." I smiled as big as I could.
"Who the hell are you, and why are you dressed like some beatnik?" He did not look happy to see me.
"Preacher Burke," I said extending my hand. It takes a real man to refuse to shake your hand. I mean we are all brought up to take the hand. He pointedly ignored mine. "I am a reporter with the AP."
"What the fuck," another voice added from the office behind him. "Get your ass in here news whore."
"Hi there Captain," I said it noticing his bars.
"Burke, what the hell you doing here?" He seemed to know me.
"Thought I would come up to look at a fire base," I replied, trying to place him.
"If that's all you want you came at a bad time, son." Being about five years older I guess gave him the right to call me son. Five year in the Nam was a lifetime. "I need to get you on the next thing leaving here. I can't spare anyone to baby sit a news whore."
"Cap, I don't need no baby sitting," I replied, trying to look tough.
"Oh really, you ever been in a firefight?" he asked.
"One or two," I replied. I removed the patch from my pocket then tossed it on his desk. I had kept it for just such an occasion. Actually I had bought a new one. Mine got tossed when I left the Nam almost a year before. The patch was a small black thing no more than a half inch wide and four inches long. In small letters it read, "Advisor MACV" The patch was pinned to a small green and white ribbon worn on a military uniform. It was the Vietnamese service ribbon. The difference was mine and their's was that mine had the small metal attachment with the dates the French had fought in the Nam. When I was a solder in the Nam it was what they had left over from the Viet Ming days.
"You a snake eater?" he asked.
"No sir, I was just a grunt," I replied. "Do you speak dink?"
"Some," I replied.
"How strong is your stomach?" he asked.
"I no longer torture people, if that is what you are asking," I said it with a very serious expression. Best to get that out of the way right up front. Everyone knew what went on in those early days.
"Too bad, we get a prisoner once in a while," he suggested.
"So Burke, why should I let you stay?" he asked.
"Hell skipper, I can make you famous," I smiled as I said it. I saw him grin. I knew I had him, but I went on anyway. "And I am a passable gun hand."
"Well if we dance, we can use all them we can get. Top" he shouted.
"Yes Captain," the old sergeant replied.
"Get this man a bunk and get rid of that shirt. He is gonna make anyone near him a target."
"Can do," the old sergeant said. By old I mean thirty or so. "Come on kid."
Once we were outside the bunker the sergeant asked, "So you were here before the buildup?"
"Actually during it," I admitted.
"So what the hell you doing back here?" he asked.
"How many years you been in Sarge?" I asked it hoping he would get the point.
"I get your point. 'Course, I could tell you it is just a job with me," he looked thoughtfully about the small patch of earth. The one he was about to risk his life for. "Then again I would be lying."
"I know. I wanted this, but I didn't want the military crap that went with it." I said it as we approached another underground bunker. Once inside he flipped on a light switch.
He noted my surprise. "All the comforts of home." He and I both knew the electricity was the only comfort. "Find you a battle jacket in that pile over there."
I nodded as I looked through the pile of cast-off clothing. I knew where it had come from. No soldier in the unit would have wanted a dead man's clothes. Not if you knew the man anyway. Bad bucking karma I thought.
I gave some thought to picking up a flack jacket but decided against it. Less protection, more mobility I thought. I did not go for the trousers. I was extremely happy with my faded jeans. If Charlie saw that part of me, it meant I was up and running. If I was running, I was as good as dead anyway.
I managed to get some shots of the men laying more wire before the sun started down. I also made a few shots in the bunkers. After that it was too dark to do more than load with TriX film and hope for the best. I had learned a couple of things from the Army's combat photographers. Tricks to make the exploding artillery shells and mines light the pictures. Not to mention the ever present flares which did a fair job of lighting up the sky. They did little for subjects on the ground. Still, there would be something on the film. What there was would be in the hands of God.
GI rations from a can was a memory I could have done without. I still had my original folding can opener on a key ring. I needed nothing more than the cardboard box with the cans inside. I got lucky. I pulled the beans with pork bits. Much better then the other choices. Cheese and crackers and purple drink mix completed the menu items. If I had been a grunt again I would have saved the pecan cake in a can to trade for something else. Since I wasn't hungry enough to eat the heavy sugary bread I gave it to a Marine standing nearby me. I chose to ignore the purple drink. I didn't need the runs. Considering what combat did to any man's bowels I went for the cheese and crackers.
I was sitting on the edge of a trench with my legs hanging over when the squad leader came to me. I was in a hole in his area. I guess he felt responsible for me.
"Marty," he said, not extending his hand to me. I nodded.
"Preacher," I replied.
"Am I going to have to watch my language?" he asked.
"Not for me," I replied smiling.
"Good, you want a weapon?" he asked.
"Sure why not," I replied.
"You are going to leave it when you go?" he asked.
"What possible use would an M16 be to a reporter?" I wasn't smiling as I asked it.
"Preacher, the skipper tells me you been here as a grunt. You could find a use for it I imagine. Just like you gonna use it tonight."
"Tonight, I hope all I use it for is a teddy bear," I suggested.
"No you don't. If you felt that way you would be in Saigon getting plastered. You can write this from the action reports tomorrow. If there is a report."
"But you can't make pictures from Saigon," I replied.
"Nobody ever made pictures of a battle from inside it," he replied.
"They have, but nobody knows about it much. Most of the photographers died if they got really good shots."
"So are you planning to get killed? Or get not so great pictures?" he asked.
"Great pictures and the devil takes care of his own,"' I replied smiling at him.
"In that case I am gonna stay real close to you. Meantime break that 16 down. If that bitch is dirty you gonna die with it jammed." He looked at me seriously.
"Too bad we don't have the AK. That bitch will fire in a fucking mud hole," I suggested.
"I know but you can't hit shit with it," the sergeant informed me.
"You could have fooled me," I replied.
"Come on Preacher, throw enough metal jackets in the air and somebody is gonna die."
"Which is the beauty of the AK. It just fills the air with metal." It was time to shut up so I did.
"So Preach, you want the trench with the riff raff or share my hole?"
"Depends. You have the detonators for the gas and claymores?" I asked seriously.
"You know the squad leader does. So what?" He asked it with a grin.
"So, if you have had a ARVN officer or enlisted man, or a wash woman, or little girls selling Pepsi in this compound, I want to get as far from you as possible." I was serious and he recognized it.
"Nobody comes on this base but U. S Marines and you news whore," he said without a bit of humor in his voice.
"In that case your hole is my first choice. I will know when the gas and the claymores are going up."
"If I can remember to tell you. I will try but I will probably be too busy, if I need to do it."
"I will probably know when you are going to fire them," I replied. "About the time you look terrified."
He laughed, "That would be the time all right."
He left me alone with my thoughts while he went down the fighting trench. The thoughts were simple. The place smelled of fear. Men with the fear of death on them have a peculiar smell about them. Hell, that smell could have been coming from me and not the men at all. I was sure as hell afraid.
The sergeant just seemed to be visiting with the men. It was a good management tool in a factory. Hell, it probably worked in the trench too. I was just too keyed up to be sociable. I just wanted it to start. "Damn Preacher, you are a sick puppy," I mumbled to no one.
The first hint that the dance was about to begin was the whine of a mortar round. I went to the ground while shouting incoming a second before the explosion. The round hit somewhere down the line from me. I had no idea what damage, if any, it had done. That round was followed by about ten more before I heard the real indication of what was to follow. The next sound made my blood run cold. A neat trick for a man soaked with heat and fear-sweat.
It took me a second to realize what it was and another to realize the significance of it. The bugle call was followed by the sound of our mortar tubes popping. About a second later the shells burst in front to the wire. I stacked a couple of spare sandbags up to make a soft tripod. I opened the camera's shutter then allowed the mortar shells to be my light source. I had no idea what if anything I was getting. I fired the camera about a dozen times then switched to the M16. I had to switch back when the first flares went off. I sat back and watched as the night was lit in an eerie light. It was somehow a black and white world for a while. The image of terror in the night was a couple of hundred men rushing toward me. Each with only one thought on his mind - that I had to die. The sight put a terrible gut churning fear into me. I had experienced it often. I could only imagine what the young Marines felt. For most it would be their first
dance. For some if not all it would be their last dance. The figures were not in black. They were in the uniforms of the North Vietnamese Army. There was also that Chinese bugle call. Hell had come to Lima for sure that night.
My heart pounded and my mind flew. It was fear mixed with excitement. I prayed I handled myself well. It was the prayer of every soldier since time began. To live and not let his comrades down.
The Marines were holding their fire while the enemy soldiers ran through the mortar shells raining down on them. The men in the enemy uniforms must have reached some magical point. All at once the rattle of the 16's began. The deeper sounds of the heavy machine guns followed. I was surprised to find that I was firing the weapon I had been given only hours before. The Squad leader made it back to the hole somewhere around the second magazine.
He slipped in beside me, then began hammering away with the sixteen. How anybody lived through all that metal in the air I have no idea. Charlie stumbled but he did not fall. I had been frightened with the first bugle. I was terrified as Charlie reached the wire. Marty blew the claymores immediately.
I had somehow remembered to switch to the camera. I thought I might have a reasonably good shot when the foo gas went up. All the ball bearing from the claymore and the burning of the gas couldn't stop them. The little brown men in their baggy uniforms were in the wire struggling to get through it. I was firing magazines just as fast as the 16 would spit out the hot metal slugs. The enemy soldiers were dying all around me but they kept coming.
"They are in the compound," the sergeant shouted. I noted he had a radio pressed against his head. "Get in the bunker."
"I ain't going no where," I replied. "I come for the dance. I am not going to die cowering in a fucking hole." The voice was not mine. It came from my body but it belonged to someone else.
The sergeant had a way with words. He shoved the 16 in my belly. "Get in the fucking bunker."
I rolled from the hole to the trench. Then ran down it followed by the sergeant. "Is that everybody?" the Captain asked.
"Skipper, we don't have time to check. Charlie is all over this place." It was the First Soldier who said it quietly.
I had no idea what we were doing in the bunker. I didn't question it. I moved to share a gun port with a shaking Marine. I realized I was shaking maybe even worse than he. I was dumping the contents of a thirty round magazine into the night filled with uniformed blobs when I heard the Captain speak.
"All right First sergeant," he said to the man who had spoken. "Button us down. Then, into the radio he said, "You better be fast puff, we have been overrun."
The radio's speaker came to life for what was the first time since I had been in the bunker. "Keep your head down Marine."
Less than a second later the noise began. It was like the sound of a hail storm. The thuds were a little louder but it had the sound of something an angry God might send down on the exposed soldiers outside. The Marine pushed me away as he quickly filled the gun port with a sandbag. I was again surprised to find that I had somehow switched from the rifle to a camera. I had shot about ten seconds of mass death from the sky.
The gun ship was better known as Puff The Magic Dragon. It was a C47 aircraft converted to a gun ship. It could put a chunk of hot metal on every square inch of ground in its path and do it in less than a second. Puff swept the compound and the fire zone around it clean. It did its thing in less then three minutes. Hell the whole firefight had taken slightly over fifteen minutes.
Once the sandbags were removed we viewed the remains of the battle through the gun ports. There were bodies everywhere. I first fell to the ground inside the bunker. I wanted to shout for joy and I wanted to cry. Mostly I wanted to vomit. I began to shake with an even greater terror than anything I had felt during the fight. I hadn't had that feeling since my last time in the Nam. Not even the ambush that won me the Peabody had come close to the feeling that night.
In the ambush we were in control right to the end. On Lima Charlie had won control and was about to massacre us all. If not for the Puff, I would have been a dead man at that moment and I knew it.
I sat in the hole with my thoughts as my only company. Even if the squad leader had been there it would have still been me and my thoughts. Like everyone else I waited for the sun. When the sun came Charlie would for sure be gone. Until then it was still possible for us to see him again. Not likely but possible.
With the sun came the first sergeant. "Okay, lets go out and clean this place up," the First Soldier said. There was steel in his voice but it was brittle. We were all shaken. Anyone with any sense knew we all should be dead.
I spent ten minutes photographing bodies. I did not expect any of the film to be worth a damn. It was still too dark. I did it to control my hands. I hadn't been at it long when the squad leader, the same one I had shared the hole with, came to me. "Preacher, how about giving us a hand. We want to make sure all these guys are dead. We already got our people out of the holes.
"Why do you want me, Sergeant?" I asked.
"Frankly to make sure you don't start getting an attack of conscience." He wasn't smiling at all.
"No problem." I picked up the 16 and went from body to body. If the little soldier twitched or even if I thought they did, I put a .223 metal jacket in his skull. It was a nasty bit of work but like the man said, "No witnesses, just participants."
I refused to lug bodies out of the compound. I absolutely would have nothing to do with it. I might not have made any friends by refusing, but fuck them all. I was there to report - not be a grunt again.
I collapsed back into the hole. I could have gone to the command bunker but I had no desire to face anyone at that moment. I was still sorting out my feeling about the first really major action I had been in since my return. I decided that the terror was no more than an ambush when the enemy launched a counter attack.
Still the amount of fire power was awesome. I was still trying to sort it all out so that I could write about it when the squad leader came to the hole. "Preach, choppers will be here in five. Some of them are from the Bay, you wanna go out now or wait until tomorrow?"
"No, Charlie wont be back. Puff broke his back last night." I said knowing somehow that it was true.
"From your mouth to God's ear," the short man exclaimed. "You will need to go out with some wounded. Either that or ride out with body bags. There are going to be too many to leave you a seat. You will have to sit on the bags." He grinned a truly sadistic smile at me.
"I think the wounded," I suggested.
"Would have been my choice too," He agreed.
It took all day for me to make it home. The choppers went to two other bases before they could drop me on the landing pad at NaTrang. Even then the nightmare didn't end. The shuttle bus broke down leaving me and about a dozen other passengers to walk to our various destination. Then the usual spot where a dozen taxis waited was empty.
When I finally walked into the living room of my two room hooch it was almost six. I dropped my pack then walked to the hotel/whorehouse for dinner. The kitchen served just enough real food to keep me alive. Fried rice with some kind of shredded meat on top was just barely edible. I should have eaten on the base but the walk to a dining hall just hadn't seemed worth it. That is until I sat looking down at the fried rice dish.
Not only was the food barely edible but I had Tracie Amos on my mind. If I didn't come up with an Aussie story and pictures by Monday morning I was going to be out of a job. I had two days to do the piece - which would ordinarily be more than enough. My problem was I hadn't slept in 48 hours. I knew for a fact that just as soon as I choked down the rice I was going to collapse for at least one day. I had no idea how hard it would be to secure a ride to the Aussie camp.
I was wrong of course. I did not sleep all day Saturday. By noon I was moving around. I processed the film then went to eat while it dried. I bypassed Mamma's hotel for a restaurant that specialized in serving GI's. I managed to get a water buffalo burger. I am convinced to this day that when a water buffalo died from old age he got ground up for the stupid Americans to eat. Probably mixed in was all the road kill from the night before. I know for a fact there was no such thing as a stray dog in the Nam.
After lunch I took a quick look at the negatives. There were pictures on most all of them - what they were I couldn't really tell. I decided to print them all.
Two hours later I was sitting at my desk looking at the horrors of the night at Lima. The pictures were beautiful. I am sure that was true only if you were a truly warped individual. I put them in an envelope. I almost trashed them but instead decided to give Tracie a chance to see what a firefight was like. She might have the balls to use them, but I doubted it. Even the Cong hanging on the wire burning like a torch was a bit tough to take over breakfast.
The pictures drained me. I opened a can of beans then went to bed. The night passed without nightmares. That made three nights in a row, but I didn't count the night on Lima since it was a nightmare come to life.
Sunday I hitched a ride on a chopper to the Aussie camp. He hadn't been going there but he went close enough to drop me. I spent the day with the Aussie equivalent of the first sergeant. He showed me around and I talked to some of the troops. They seemed to be doing more or less garrison duty. Going out on patrols in a secure area. Like I figured it was mostly Press Relations stuff at that moment. I lost track of them so I have no idea what they actually did while they were in the Nam.
The story I wrote and the pictures I took were all pretty weak. Hell, how excited can you get about a base camp? I tried to wave the flag a bit but I expected even then that it came off poorly.
Monday morning I stood in front of Tracie Amos' rather rickety looking desk. I laid both pieces on her desk. I went to the coffee pot even though it was already over eighty degrees. The coffee was old and thick but I was young and stupid so it didn't matter.
"So Preacher, you went to the dance without permission. I am going to have to lock you in your room I see." She had only a wisp of a smile.
"Look Amos, I covered the story you ordered me to do. Doing the story from Lima did not hurt your propaganda piece."
"Why, you arrogant son of a bitch! What makes you think it was my piece and what makes you think it was propaganda?" She didn't look as though she wanted an answer so I didn't bother. I waited until she took a deep breath. "Okay, both pieces are really trash but I can save them. You are a terrible writer Preacher. You do have a feel for photography but mostly a feel for being in the right place at the right time."
"Hey, surely that wasn't a compliment?" I suggested.
"No not really, you are just lucky." She was smiling that time. "Go get us some lunch while I red-line this piece - then you can fix it."
"I thought that was your job," I said a little more snappish than I wanted to.
"Oh no Preacher, there are no rewrite people here. It goes from my desk onto the wire service. You have to learn to write if you are going to stay with us."
"In that case I will correct the stories but I warn you I will be rethinking the AP as a profession."
"If I were you, I would be doing the same thing. If you want to stay I will teach you to write. If not I would just as soon not waste my time."
"That was pretty blunt," I admitted.
"I thought you were a tough macho kind of guy. So I just laid it out straight for you."
"Well, I like my liquor and my talk straight so I got no complaints." I knew then that I was going to be out of a job very soon. How soon I did not know, but then it didn't matter much either. I would stay as long as the AP and I could stand each other. When it ended I would probably be ready to head home.
For the next six weeks I spent a day researching a story, then a day writing and rewriting it. Amos had hired a drink to process film for us. It took awhile to trust him but in the end I did.
During those six weeks I tried to learn something about Tracie but never could get close to her. She continued to live with Gwen. For I while I thought they might be lovers but decided such was not the case. There seemed to be plenty of Army and Marine officers coming and going from their apartment. They spent many late nights as well, I assumed. She came to work plenty of mornings looking like the walking wounded.
For a while I thought it was drugs. She wore long sleeves in Vietnam for a couple of days. There were no needle marks but a couple of really nasty bruises. Those I saw when she finally gave up the practice. Somebody had put their hands on her hard. She didn't ask for any help and I didn't offer any. As you might guess Tracie and I were not high on the buddy scale.
Working with Tracie was no fun. In fact the stories she forced me to do were so weak I thought of moving on. I considered going freelance for about ten minutes, then decided a return home might not be a bad idea. I was almost at the point of checking flight schedules. In fact, I had it on my list of things to do that very morning.
I might have even done it had I awakened naturally. Instead I awoke to a loud banging on my door. Since Charlie never knocks I opened it without much fanfare. I found a couple of cops on the porch.
"Dave Burke?" the soldier in plain clothes asked.
"They call me Preacher but yes. What's wrong?" I asked it, knowing at four A.M. something had to be wrong to get these guys out of bed.
"Why don't you come with us?" he asked.
"Sure," I said.
"Do I need to tell you to leave the piece?" he asked. It didn't matter much how he phrased it he had just told me. The piece was a .22 magnum copy of the Colt Pacemaker. It had been a gift from my Uncle Deacon. It came with the instructions not to bring it home. That told me there was a pretty good chance it was hot. A hot weapon was not something I cared to enter the police station with in my hand or on my hip either. That made the warning totally unnecessary.
I shook my head. I had no plans to talk until I knew at least a little about what was going on. I walked down the steps to a Ford Falcon with flat green paint. I got in the back seat alone. The very first thing I noted was that the door handles were missing as were the window cranks.
"So guys what is the reason for the early morning visit?" I asked it, not really expecting an answer.
"We gonna do a lot of talking in a few minutes Preacher," the burly one replied.
First we passed the turn for the air base. That didn't particularly surprise me as I knew these guys could easily be working from the local police headquarters. It did not speak well for me however since there were no rules of fair play in a Vietnamese police station. I expected it was a lot like the Gestapo headquarters in WWII Germany.
We drove within a block of the station but kept going. The Ford pulled to a stop in front of the former French residence hotel. It was a grand enough old place which had fallen into a slow decay. Still it was a premier residence location for diplomats and the like.
"So what the hell are we doing here. The ambassador want to give me an exclusive?" I asked even though I knew the ambassador wouldn't be caught dead in the place. Or maybe he had been caught dead. The thought caused me to smile. I could just see the headline.
\b "U.S. Ambassador found dead in Secretary's apartment."\b0 It just struck me funny enough to chuckle quietly. Not quiet enough it seemed.
"What the hell can you find funny about being picked up in the middle of the night by the murder cops?" the thin one asked.
"So that's who you are. I suppose I must know the victim." Then without another word being said I knew who the victim was. Somebody must have offed Tracie Amos. I almost asked for confirmation before I realized I should be asking who was offed.
"So who got zapped," I asked more seriously.
"Shut up Preacher," the heavier one replied.
I figured the man had a good idea. So I stopped talking until we pulled up outside the apartment building. I didn't even speak as they led me up the stairs.
"Is the elevator broke?" I asked sarcastically.
"'We figured you could use the exercise," the smaller one suggested.
"Damn guys, what floor are we going to? One more and I am going to need oxygen." I asked that after we passed the second floor landing.
"Shut up Preacher, all you do is bitch," the larger murder cop said. He did lead me into the third floor hallway. The doors opening into the apartments no longer wore a room number. At that time they were designated by letters. A small attempt it seemed to change the atmosphere. Since a dink in a police uniform stood outside apartment 2D I felt sure it was our destination. None the less I waited for the murder cops to confirm it before I entered.
"Damn it Preacher, go on in," the thin one said as he gently nudged me forward.
I had to admit I was surprised to find a 1950 Ozzie and Harriet living room dropped down complete in Vietnam. There was not a single item in the room to remind one that they were a half world away from the world. Everything was so damned American it was ludicrous. It wasn't even Holiday Inn American. It was my mom's living room. I stood in the middle of the room for only a second to make all those observations.
I noted a small sergeant with a large Grafex camera come from the room on the left. It looked as though the apartment had once been a suite with God only knew how many rooms scattered through the converted space. There had definitely been doors cut where there had not been doors before. The layout just felt clumsy.
"You through Ed?" the heavier cop asked.
"Yep, all done Dwight. You guys can call whoever you want to take the body," he replied.
"Okay Ed, we got somebody here to take care of that. Preacher, step into the Master bedroom please." He had suddenly gotten nice to me. Seemed witnesses did that to all cops.
I stepped through the door to the bedroom. What I saw should have made my blood run cold. It might have, if I hadn't seen so much violent death. Tracie's body seemed almost ready to stand up and bitch at me. Well, not really. I guess she seemed less dead since there was no blood around.
I hope it was the reporter in me, not just morbid curiosity, that made me take the hard look at her body. Tracie was naked so it might have been just curiosity. She was also tied to the bed. The straps seemed to be leather, but they also seemed likely to be belts since none matched. I didn't know what to make of it. She was blind folded but with a real blindfold, not a handkerchief. Possibly strangest of all was the long blood red scarf tied around her neck. One end was tied around her neck - the other was tied to the headboard.
Tracie had a very pale body I noted. Pale everywhere except where the skin had been exposed to the almost equatorial sun. In those places she had been burned brown even in the short time she had been in country. I could not help but notice that the black hair which should have covered her body was missing. It seemed Tracie shaved more than her legs. I tried to take in everything before the cops started to question me. I tried to force every detail into my memory as I knew I would be writing about the scene later. I forced even tiny unnamed details into my mind.
"Is that Tracie Amos?" the smaller cop asked.
"Yes Dwight," I said it, using his name just to see what his reaction would be. His reaction to that would go a long way toward explaining my position in the investigation.
I watched as he made a note in his folding memo pad. He also looked at this wrist watch. "Just for the record, where were you tonight?" the larger one asked. It didn't seem to be a just for the record type question when he asked it.
"To tell you the truth it is pretty boring. I was in Mama Leu's bar drinking Bourbon and Coke until at least midnight. By the time I wandered off to my place I was so drunk I could hardly walk." I must have looked badly enough for them to believe me because they didn't pursue it.
"So what do we do with the body?" Dwight asked.
"Hell, I don't know. Call the AP in Saigon. Jerry Bliss should know who to contact. Hell, didn't Gwen know?" I was surprised that I thought of Gwen for the first time.
"We would if we knew where to find her. Gwen is missing too. We are not sure if she is a witness, suspect, or another victim." The heavy cop didn't seem to approve of Dwight giving me that bit of information.
At that point I decided to start acting like a reporter. "Tell me what do you make of all this?" I waved my hand to encompass the bed.
"You can leave now, Preacher. We will call this Bliss guy for a decision on the body. Meanwhile since she is an American we will take her to the air base for storage in the freezer there." He told me that I guess so I wouldn't worry about Tracie's body. Hell, it would do for him to know how little I cared about her remains.
"Do I get a ride home?" I asked it not really expecting one.
"There are plenty of cabs and cycleos out there," the larger one suggested.
I knew he was right so I walked to the elevator. I rode it down just to prove I could. They had brought me up like a servant. I rode down like a guest. I stood in front of the building just a second when a tiny green Honda whipped in front of me. Even for a taxi the driver drove like a madman. I considered waiting for another cab. I didn't feel the need for a madman at that moment.
The front passenger door opened and the voice which definitely did not belonged to a cab driver demanded, "Get in Preacher and hurry."
I almost asked, "Gwen." I didn't only because she leaned over the passenger seat and I got a glimpse of her. Gwen had a head full of wild unmanageable red hair. That and the legs I couldn't see were her claim to fame. I had my doubts about the red hair since she didn't have that sickly white skin associated with a redhead. I also noticed for the first time that her eyes were brown. Also not the mark of a true redhead. If you forgot her legs you wouldn't have thought much of her. Not unless you saw her cleavage when she leaned over to open the door of her tiny green Honda. Gwen was much larger in the chest than I had remembered. I had also never seen her in a fancy low cut dress either. The few times I had seen her she had been working , if you can call escorting visiting wheels work. It was a job her 'friend' the General had found for her. She was well known as both his girlfriend and the NhaTrang City hostess. I tried in vain to remember the name of her General.
All that flooded though my mind as I slipped into the tiny car. I didn't know what to say so I just sat quietly as she pulled into the almost deserted street. I sat quietly as I observed her face. Gwen's face was a little too long and her mouth a little too big to be considered gorgeous. She was attractive enough anywhere but in the Nam she was a knock out. Not many to compare her too. There was Tracie. Tracie I learned that night was even flatter chested than I had thought. Laying on her back caused her smallish breasts to all but disappear. Gwen was also softer looking than Tracie. Tracie was all hard and sharp-cornered. Gwen was much softer and rounder. Gwen was what a perfect woman was just before she put on any more weight. Just at the edge of being comfortable looking. If Gwen had ever been chic, she would never be again.
My thoughts were interrupted by her excited but soft voice. "Preacher, what is going on up there?" she asked, trying to sound innocent. It just didn't wash. She would hardly be out riding around at three A.M. unless she knew. She would also never speak to me, let alone give me a ride. So her playing dumb wasn't going to fly for a second.
"You tell me Gwen," I tried to sound comforting but she would have none of it.
"What do you mean? I got home and found cop cars everywhere. I cannot afford to be involved in anything with cops. You do know how things are with me?"
"How long have you been practicing that line Gwen? It sounds real good honey, but I am not going to buy it. If you don't want to tell me the truth, just let me out where I can get a cab." I wasn't about to let her play me for a fool. Well, actually I probably would have, if I were sure she was not a murderess. Men are like that the world over I expect. Sex is one thing. Waking up dead is quite another.
"I don't know what you mean. I also resent your insinuation that I am lying." She did manage a straight face. I was beginning to waver. The memory of Tracie's body tied to that bed brought me back to reality just in time. I had seen the same scarlet scarf tied around Glen's waist at a downtown restaurant one afternoon.
"First taxi stand you see will be fine Gwen. And I wish you luck with the cops," I didn't know if I could get the truth from her or that I even cared to get it. I might be just as happy to pack my bags and heading home. Maybe the firefight at Lima had cured me of my need to stare into the abyss. Hey it was possible.
"What do you mean luck?" she asked.
"You know the way the game is played. Your General is not going to be a target. They are going to want to solve this one before it makes the papers back home. Which will be in about two hours. So you better get ready to wear a prison suit. I wonder if they have those here?"
"I didn't kill her Preacher. I found her and called the General. He got the American cops assigned to it. He told me to get out of there until he had time to think."
"That all makes sense but why did you come for me?" I asked.
"I have been sitting here watching the cops come and go. I have also been thinking. You are right you know. The General, or any of the others, are going to throw my ass to the wolves." She looked suddenly very sad and vulnerable. Gwen couldn't have been more than twenty something. Tracie was probably the same.
"Gwen, you better start at the beginning," I said that without thinking. She was within five blocks of Mama Leu's hotel. "How do you know where I live?" I have no idea why, but I flashed on the fact that she was headed to my place.
"Tracie wanted to know so I found out from the press officer. She and I rode by one afternoon while you were in the Aussie camp. You aren't mad, are you?" She asked it in a frightened voice. I expect she had about all the people after her she could stand.
I wanted to ask which day cause it was possible I was dodging bullets at the time. But then what difference did it make. "No Gwen, I am not mad."
"Preacher, we are almost at your place. Can I just tell you there. I don't want to kill us both trying to explain this while I drive." It seemed to be a logical move.
"Sure Gwen," I replied as I watched the small closed shops and the always open bars slip past us. Sometimes I thought all the neon in the world was likely to find its way to Vietnam. Even the street three or so miles from downtown was filled with neon lights. Most of those lights burned all night.
Hell, even Mama Leu's place had a neon sign. Even in Vietnamese it did not say whorehouse. The sign read guest hotel, or so I had been told. It was the old sign from earlier days. The sign was in Vietnamese but the hotel probably was built at the time of the French occupation of Indochina. Indochina had been partitioned for years by the time I got to Vietnam.
From neon to French Indochina my mind was sailing. I supposed it was to avoid remembering the body of Tracie Amos. I hadn't much liked Tracie but I also didn't care much for the way she had died. Why would anyone tie her to the bed then kill her without torturing her first. For that matter, what could she possibly know worth her being tortured? None of it made any sense. Still, Gwen seemed to know what it was all about.
When we arrived at Mama Leu's hotel/whorehouse it was after five A.M. The whores would not be up and about for a few more hours. They tended to sleep as late or later than the GIs who were their customers. We slipped through the lobby unnoticed. The only human we saw was the lounge bartender. He was face down on the bar snoring. I just glanced at his figure through the open door.
Gwen and I passed through the lobby and into the courtyard. Across the small courtyard sat my little shack. It was actually a bit more than a shack but not much larger. I unlocked the door then stood back allowing Gwen to pass through. If she noticed the major differences between her apartment and my little shack she didn't mention them. She sat on the black plastic sofa with the torn cushion without making a face. She was either to upset to notice or too much a lady to point it out. My vote was upset...after all she was living with a married General. I know it was a stupid thing to think but I was young.
"You want a drink?" I asked.
"No thanks, unless you want me to make some coffee?"
"If you want to all the things are in the kitchen. If you want coffee make enough for two, if not don't bother." I suggested it even though I had little desire for coffee.
Gwen either wanted the coffee or something to do with her hands. She went into the kitchen which should have been a walk in closet. She lifted one of the gallon bottles of sterile water then sat it on the sink. The sink did not have a faucet just a drain line. I never understood the reasoning for it but hell, it worked for me since I would never consider drinking the water.
While we waited for the water to boil I asked, "So what the hell is going on Gwen?"
"Jesus Preacher, you can ask the dumbest questions. That is not what you want to know. You want to know what got Tracie killed." Gwen was staring into the glass tea pot waiting for the water to boil.
"Okay, what got her killed?" I asked.
"I don't know," Gwen replied.
I was furious but I swallowed it. "Tell me why you ran?" I expected no better answer.
"I told you, the General told me to get out while he thought things over."
"You know that makes you look guilty as hell?" It wasn't much of a question.
"Well hell Preacher, they find her strangled with my scarf, in my bed - what can I expect?" she asked.
"Your bed. What the hell was she doing in your bed?" I asked.
"It has the stronger headboard," she was actually smiling. I was amazed that she seemed to think that remark amusing.
"What the fuck does that mean?" I asked. I had expected the word to shock her. Instead she simply began pouring the water into the plastic funnel filled with ground coffee.
She finally spoke. "Preacher, I didn't take a good look at Tracie. Tell me was she tooled up?" She did not lift her gaze from the brown liquid draining from the funnel into the clear pot.
"What the hell do you mean, tooled up?" I asked it completely at a loss.
"You know... did she have anything inside her body or laying around the room?" Gwen asked it but wouldn't look at me.
"What the hell are you talking about Gwen?" I was trying like hell to figure it out. What would a dead woman have inside her body.
"Come on Preacher, you do know what a dildo is?" I was more than a little shocked. The idea never even occurred to me.
"Of course I know," I replied, embarrassed beyond words.
"Well, was there one or more?" she asked, pressing me.
"More?" I asked it still in shock. It dawned on me what she was talking about. "Okay Gwen, you need to thoroughly explain this to me."
"Maybe it would be better if you didn't know," she replied.
"If you thought that you would never have started down this path." I looked hard at her back as she fumbled with the already completed coffee.
"You know, my mother used one of these stupid coffee makers. I am surprised to see one this far from home." Gwen said it trying to stall. I could have forced her back to the issue but chose to give her a break instead.
"My Uncle Deacon sent it to me," I replied. "Seems he knew good coffee was hard to find here."
"Ah, the Preacher's famous Uncle Deacon," What would have been a chuckle any other time passed her lips.
"What does that mean?" I asked.
"Tracie was extremely impressed with your Uncle Deacon. Hell ,according to her he was the ultimate Dom." Gwen looked at me. She was trying to judge my reaction. "You don't know what a Dom is do you?"
"Not a clue," I replied.
"That is what I thought. Preacher, some people call the whole S&M scene perverted. Do you know what S&M is?"
"I assume it is not a sugar coated chocolates," I replied. She shook her head gently. "Something sexual?" It was a simple guess since the reference to tools.
"You really don't know?" She asked it again with a curious look.
"Honey, where I am from people don't even make love standing up. They are afraid people will think they are dancing." I had hoped for a smile. The one I got said, 'mildly amusing'.
"Have you ever been with a woman who would do anything you asked?"
"Sure Gwen, there are about ten of them next door... they are called hookers." I said it trying to understand but I was again lost.
"Tracie was no hooker. Hell, not that she wouldn't have been a great one. No, Tracie did it just for fun. Preacher, why do you think she wore long sleeve tops in this heat?"
"To hide the bruises. I saw them a couple of times. Hell ,come to think of it, her body had several bruises tonight. They looked old though."
"Most likely two weeks old," Gwen interjected.
"Gwen, I am still a couple of steps behind. What is really going on? I thought she just had an abusive boyfriend." I asked it, struggling to understand.
"I am not sure you can call it abusive. She goes with the ones who do it. She knows what will happen." Gwen had begun examining that coffee pot again.
I took a couple of minutes to think before I went on. "Gwen, you mean Tracie liked to be beaten as part of her sexual foreplay? Masochistic, I think it is called." It made Tracie strange but hell I always thought she was a couple of pegs off center.
"Honey, it isn't just the beatings. There is a lot more to it. Damn Preacher, this all sounds so sick right now. Believe me, it isn't really. Most of the time it is just fun."
"So you are part of it?" I asked. I had known almost from the start. It was just hard to imagine the beautiful woman playing such games. The next step was worse and I didn't want to take it.
"Longer than Tracie," She replied. She opened the one cabinet then removed two cups.
I took the cup of coffee from her. "So how long have you known Tracie?"
"We met about five years ago in London. Jack was sent there...Temporary Duty to attend some anti-guerrilla school. Some higher ranking General thought he could learn something from the Brits' handling of their little campaign in Malaysia. We met Tracie at a club there."
"I presume you don't mean the Officer's club?" I asked it with a little sarcasm in my voice.
She gave me a look which said, "I am going to ignore that, but it had better be the last one." She went on to say, "The place was called "Elmo's Fire". It was in the basement of an old apartment building. I have no idea if there were really apartments above it or just rooms to rent. We just went for the show."
I wanted to encourage her but really had no idea what to say so I asked, "How was the show? Or rather what was the show?"
"Preacher, this is not for your sexual pleasure you know. The show was typical audience participation crap. Tracie was part of the audience. She declined at first but the Domme convinced her somehow."
"Wait, what is a 'Domme'?" I asked it trying to catch a log floating on the unfamiliar water.
"Damn it Preacher talking to you is like trying to teach Algebra to a retarded child. Let me see if I can at least get the foundation laid for you. It is the same in all nature. Do you know anything about puppies?" She asked it as one might ask a child if he had learned his letters.
"Of course, my dad trained dogs," I said it hoping I had picked up enough to at least relate to her.
"Okay in all litters of pups there is a dominant puppy. Usually a male but it can be a female." I nodded my understanding. "Okay, we call men like that Dom for dominant. If the dominant person is female we call her Domme."
"Okay, I got that part. But who are the ones like Tracie?" I asked.
"Okay - in that same litter of puppies most are just average but every once in a while you get one that is extremely submissive. Just wants to please. Hell, that puppy will do anything to please. That my dear is what Tracie, and to a lesser extent, I am." It is called Sub or Subbie for submissive.
"So let me see if I got it. The woman at the club was a Domme. She was directing the show. When she went for Tracie, who is subbie, she naturally went along?"
"Not naturally Preacher, a Subbie can say no at anytime. He or she is never forced to do anything. At least they shouldn't be."
Gwen said it with a look that made me ask, "So there are times a subbie is forced to do things against their will?"
"Yes but usually it is in the heat of play. You know it kind of builds up to a point where the subbie says no, but the Dom does not want to hear it. So they don't." Gwen brought the coffee pot over to refill my cup.
"Please, go on with how you met Tracie," I suggested. Instead she began to cry. She choked as she began to laugh.
"What the hell?" I asked it with a smile though I had no idea where it came from.
"My life has gone from kinky to crazy in five hours," she replied with tears. "I called the man I have been in love with for all my adult life for help. He tells me that he will have to see how it will affect his career before he can help me. I find a good friend stripped naked, blind folded, tied to my bed and strangled. The only person who can help me is a suicidal Preacher with a blood lust." She began to cry and laugh at the same time again. It was eery but not so eery that I did not want to know more.
"Where did the suicidal bit come from?" I asked, pretty sure I knew.
"Tracie of course told me. Then then General verified it for us. Unofficially of course."
"What did Tracie tell you?" I asked.
"You didn't really think word about Lima wouldn't get around?" Gwen asked it with a surprised look on her face. "Preacher, every grunt in Nam has heard the story by now. You standing up in that damn hole emptying the 16 and laughing like an insane man. Then there is the story that you shot prisoners so the grunts wouldn't have to."
"Damn these stories take on a life of their own. Is that why Tracie kept me on those nothing stories?"
"Yes, she didn't want to be responsible for your death. She somehow felt she would be. Something about not helping a crazy man kill himself." Gwen wasn't smiling.
"I understand. If you want to look for a more sane person to hide you be my guest." I was just a little upset by it all.
"Are you going to hide me?" she asked.
"I thought that was the idea?" It was a question and she knew it.
"Well not really. I really want you to find Tracie's killer. It is the only way I can get back to my life." She looked very sad but I didn't think it was for Tracie.
"Then let's get back to London and the show," I suggested. I still felt I needed to understand Tracie before I went looking for a killer.
"What? Do you expect to get off on the details?" She seemed angry. It was an improvement over self-pity.
"I expect to find out what the hell was going on in 'your' bedroom." I said it pretty short-tempered myself.
"Okay, I don't think what happened five years ago will help any. The woman took Tracie's hand. She forcefully led her onto the stage. She moved away leaving Tracie standing alone in the spotlight. Preacher, are you sure you want to hear this?"
"Why, is it that bad?" I asked.
"I don't think so, but you might," she replied.
"Well you tell it anyway you want. I can deal with it, I expect." I said it thinking I could deal with anything.
She nodded then began. "The Domme walked to our table. She whispered in the General's ear. He nodded his agreement. She then handed me the microphone. "You do it honey." I looked at the General for his approval."
She stopped to sip the coffee. "Preacher, I am going to try to be honest with you. I would like to say I was not looking forward to what I was about to do. The truth is it excited me more than I had been excited in a long time. That is the beauty of S&M, it is never truly the same from one time to the next. Not like ordinary sex which can get almost routine I am told." She looked at me for some kind of conformation.
"I wouldn't know. I don't have any kind of sex all that often."
Gwen nodded then continued. "Is this your first time at the club?" I asked Tracie.
"Yes it is," she replied.
Do you have a Master? I asked.
"I do not," she replied.
"And what is your name, little one?" I asked.
"Tracie," she replied.
"Tracie, my name is Mistress Gwendolyn. Would you please call me Mistress or Ma'am. It is the custom here and a sign of respect. You do respect me, do you not?
"Yes Mistress," she replied vaguely. I wasn't sure she understood what was happening.
"Tracie, you do know what this is, do you not?" I asked it to be sure she was not drugged.
"Yes I do," she replied still in a bit of a daze.
I knew if she were not drugged she was in a state of self-induced brain fog. It happens when you lose yourself in most anything. She had slipped into the role she was playing, I thought at the time. That is what is required to do for some of the things Doms ask of you. You have to be submerged in the game, as it were.
Tracie's dress was a strong contrast to the woman who had pulled her on stage. The Domme had worn a black dress all silk and shiny, which was ankle length but slit up the side all the way to her hip. There were buttons all along the slit allowing her to choose the length of the slit.
Tracie on the other hand wore a green mini skirt of some wool looking material and a silk blouse. The blouse was almost blindingly white in the harsh spot light. Even though the Domme stood nearby Tracie, she was invisible in the darkness.
"Tracie, unbutton the top button of your blouse for me please," I asked it, watching her closely to judge her reaction. If she ever had any doubt what was going to happen, that demand was a shot across the bow for her.
She stood without moving for a moment. "Tracie, did you hear me?"
"Yes," she replied.
"Remember our talk Tracie? You should call me Mistress. Now pleased undo the button." I made my voice firm and demanding. She looked lost for about a second then unhooked the button. With her skinny little body, nothing happened. The important thing was not that her body jumped out, it was that she had obeyed me. The first step was taken.
"Now Tracie, are you ready to go on?" I sat at the table just as eager for the answer as any man in the audience. She lowered her eyes to the floor then she nodded her head.
Speak up Tracie, I didn't hear you. I waited for her answer.
"Yes Mistress,' she said in a quiet voice." It was enough so that everyone heard, so I went on.
"Very good child, open the next button for me please."
"Yes Mistress," she said opening the button without hesitation.
Getting all the buttons open was no problem after that. When I asked her to remove it she said, "But Mistress, I am not wearing a bra."
I replied, "That is okay child, I do not mind." The blouse came off. She was standing in the bright light naked to the waist. Under the harsh light she was very pale. Her breasts were small. The one thing she did have were very large nipples for such small breasts. I swear Preacher they looked painted on."
She paused a moment then went on, "Getting her out of her skirt and panties was almost anti- climactic. It seemed as though she wanted to undress for us."
"Okay, I get the picture. Just tell me this, how rough did it get?" I asked it to stop the detailed explanation she seemed to be enjoying so much.
"Well what do you mean by rough? If you mean physically abusive, no. If you mean did she do things, then the answer is yes. It was all done with tools though. No man or woman touched her."
Gwen seemed to run out of steam so I asked, "So what happened next? I mean you had to do something after all you became friends."
"Tracie kind of attached herself to us. After she got dressed she asked to sit with us. We began finding out more than either the General or I wanted to know. She had come to the club to do an article on the 'Life'. The General at first was terrified that she might expose him. Hell, he even swore to stop the whole thing. That lasted less than a week."
Since I didn't want to hear all that I put her back on track. "So you two became fast friends?" I smiled as I said it. It must have been more a leer.
"Not that way, Preacher. The three of us became friends. I introduced Tracie around to the unattached Masters."
"Wait, Masters?" I asked it a little confused.
"Master is what a submissive calls her Dom. Most Masters have only one sub at a time but some have more. Tracie was dying to try more. I told her not to mention the story or they would run. Of course in the end she found an egotist." At that point Gwen laughed at herself. "Okay, a Master with an even larger ego than the rest. He not only explained it all to her, he demonstrated it. Tracie seemed to fall in love with it all. Some of the things she liked I wouldn't do."
"The beatings?" I asked.
"No I actually like a little pain. It was some of the things she did for her Master." Gwen said.
"You mean like oral sex?" I asked trying to figure out what they were doing.
"Preacher, everybody does oral sex these days. Probably your mother and dad did it in the forties. No, not any sex act with the General, or if I had another Master not even him. It had to do with her willingness to make love to three or four other men while her Master watched and sometimes even filmed."
"How about women?" I asked.
"Are you asking me if I would do a woman, or if Tracie would do them for her Master?'
"Both I guess." I said it while watching her face. She stood, then walked to the coffee pot on the two burner gas hot plate. She poured herself a cup then turned to me.
"No Preacher, I do not do women. The answer to your real question is that I was not doing Tracie." She looked very serious as she spoke.
"Okay, who was doing Tracie. I guess I am asking did she have a Master over here?"
"Preacher, Tracie could not survive without a Master. Usually she had the one and one on hold." Gwen smiled as she spoke. "Tracie could be an awful tease. When she did not have a Master like when she first got here, she whined and cried to everyone at the club. She would even ask strangers to collar her when she got drunk."
"Hold on again, what is 'collar'?" I asked.
"In the 'Life' a collar is a commitment, a symbol almost like a wedding ring. It is a mark of ownership but also a tool of control. Tracie craved the whole thing, every part of it."
"So Gwen, do you think it was someone from her other life?" I asked without much hope she would say no. Hell, I was out of my depth and I knew it. If it had been a simple robbery, murder or even a case of her boyfriend killing her, I might know where to start. That kind of killing was totally foreign to me.
"You mean someone she was playing D/s with. I would bet on it. The body tied to the bed and the blindfold is classics. My guess it that it was a Master or somebody who knows enough to make it look that way. Either way it is somebody in the 'Life'.
"So Gwen, can you give me a list of people she might have been playing with?" I asked it expecting her to come up with at least a few names.
"No Preacher, I can't." She said it avoiding my eyes.
"What you really mean is you won't," I suggested.
"Both, I can't give you all them anyway and I won't give you my friends." I was amazed. She was on the run, but still wanted to protect her friends. I had a hard time understanding her wanting to protect the General. I surely could not understand her wanting to protect any of the others.
"Okay then Gwen, you want me to find her killer. So that I can clear you and the General. You also want it, I assume, for Tracie and her family is that right?" I watched her face as she answered. She lowered her eyes again.
"Yes Preacher, but I cannot give you names. It just isn't done." She looked up as if expecting me to say or do something. I wondered if I was supposed to force it from her.
"Can you tell me where to start looking for answers?" I had no idea what her response might be. "Or is that something else that isn't done."
"Try Madam Lacrosse tonight," she suggested.
"Who the hell is Madam Lacrosse?"
"She is a half French-half Vietnamese Mistress who runs a club called Lay Vampier." Well that was how it sounded to me.
"What the hell is that - French for 'The Vampire'?" I asked.
"Yeah, do you speak French?" she looked as though I had scored a point.
"Not at all. I know a lot of things here have French names and it kind of sounds like vampire. So is it?"
"Yes," she replied.
"And this Madam Lacrosse is a Mistress?" I was proud that I remembered my earlier lesson.
"She sort of she rules over all the Doms and subs who go there. No Dom would ever allow another man to intimidate him. She is a woman with a couple of martial arts bouncers. She can do it and they come back for more.
"So are vampires big with the D/s set?"
"Oh you bet, the ultimate domination you see. Makes every subbie hot and ever Master envious."
"So where is this Lay Vampier?" I asked.
"Right in the basement of an old apartment building within a block of the US consulate. Also about three blocks from the British mission here. 'Very convenient for the boys from foggy bottom and those faggy Brits. So says the General." Gwen actually smiled at me.
"So I will just go down to see this Madam Lacrosse. She will be able to help me you think?"
"Yes she can. Whether she will or not I do not know," Gwen replied.
I looked out the holes in my walls. "Those holes served as windows. "Well it will be light in a couple of minutes." I could remember sitting in a hole in Lima a few weeks before praying for the sun. There I was waiting for it again after yet another night with no sleep. The smell of death filled the air again. It might have been just one death but one closer to me somehow. Tracie and I seemed to hate each other for sure. I was not sure how I felt about her lifestyle. Nonetheless I knew I didn't like the way she died.
"So are you going to stay here?" I asked.
"If you agree, I am going to stay here until the General gets them off my ass." She again looked at the floor.
"Well if you do, stay inside. If they declare you a fugitive, I do not need to be caught with you here. For now at least don't go outside."
"Okay Preacher, but I am starved. Do you have any food in this dump?" Gwen was amazing. Her mood changed every other minute. She was no longer looking at the floor. She looked me in the eye.
"Not much but I will bring you some from the PX when I come back. Make me a list." I was moving to the cabinet as I spoke. I opened it. I began moving cans and bottles around. "There is some corned beef hash in here and I can get you a couple of eggs from the hotel kitchen."
"You mean the whorehouse kitchen," she was at least smiling.
"Yeah that kitchen," I replied with a smile.
"You knew I was gonna ask about all this," she said it opening her arms to encompass everything around her.
"Everybody asks sooner or later. So what do you want to know?"
"The name and how you came to live here. Aren't those usually the questions?" She was smiling. Gwen went from sad to smiling in a split second. It was a bit disconcerting.
"The name is a family joke kind of thing. I told a friend when I was here as a grunt and the name stuck. I just brought it back with me. I guess I associated the name with the Nam."
"So tell me the joke Preacher," Gwen demanded, smiling again.
"My grandma wanted one of her kids to be a Preacher. Drug his butt to church every week. Went all the way with it even got him hooked on the idea. People in the neighborhood got to calling him Deacon. Deacon went into the Army and came back a bit of a black sheep. Grandma kind of decided if her sons wouldn't become a Preacher, I would. From about fourteen on she called me Preacher. Hell, she had no idea Uncle Deacon was undermining her right and left. Hell, she had me baptized at fifteen. Uncle Deacon gave me my first drink at sixteen. It went on like that until I came to Nam. I guess when I left for the war she just gave up on me. She probably figured I would come home like Uncle Deacon. When I got home I was worse of course."
"Okay, I understand about the name. Now how the hell did you wind up living in a whorehouse?" She actually gave an audible chuckle.
"That one is easy. One night some GIs got rowdy. I was in the bar drinking and waiting for a woman. I calmed him down. Mama Leu thought it would be nice to have an American who was not a soldier hanging around the place. So she offered me this place for a reasonable rent."
"So, do you still have to pay for the whores?" Gwen asked.
I almost answered before I realized it was a joke. I never was very good with dry humor. I left her with a smile on her face as I went to buy a few eggs from Mama Leu. I was in the kitchen with the cook when the owner of the hotel came in.
"Pleachel, men come looking for you. What you do Pleachel?" she asked.
"I didn't do anything," I replied, smiling at her. Everybody knew me as the slightly nutty American. Her believing I was into something was just fine by me. "Did they say who they were?" I was a bit curious since I had been with cops all night. It dawned on me then the murder cops would have gone to the hotel bar to get directions. 'How could I have forgotten them?' I asked myself.
"Oh yeah, a couple of guys came round to the house," I replied.
"Cops, I no like cops here. You be good Pleachel," she demanded seriously.
"Hey Mama, I am very good, ask anyone," I smiled even though I knew she wouldn't get it. Broken English kills a wisecrack faster then a .223 in the head kills a wounded dink.
"Okay Gwen," I said upon my return. Gwen was not to be found. I moved into the bedroom to find her fast asleep in my bed. I also found that Gwen slept naked. At least when she wasn't home. Sad to say she also slept on her stomach. The sheet was wadded up over her butt. There was a lot of skin showing and it naturally turned me on. Even though the best parts were hidden she made such a wonderful picture. I was tempted to pull out a Lieca. Something inside me from my childhood would not let me violate her that way. I chuckled silently. It was Gwen in the bed after all. I had a feeling she had been violated much worse. Still the decision was about my conduct, not hers.
I left the eggs on the counter by the hot plate before I left for the office. I had no idea what I would do there. I decided I needed to at least call the Saigon office manager.
Once on the street I remembered Gwen's car. I drove it back to her apartment building then parked it in the basement of her building. The cab ride from her building to the office was uneventful. Why I even noticed that was strange. I mean hell, I rode a cab there almost every morning. The lack of any excitement had never crossed my mind before. I found that my senses were on edge just like in a firefight. My eyes darted around and my mind raced. It seemed that death in any venue heightened my awareness.
I gave that some real hard thought. I decided if my own life was in danger, I was even more in tune with it. It seemed that even working on Tracie's death made me feel alive. More than I had since the firefight at Lima. Lima was by far the closest I had ever come to dying. At least the closest lately. I smiled to myself with that thought. I had become one sick puppy. I wouldn't even deny it any longer.
Once I finally got through to the Chief of Operations Saigon, I found that the cops had already informed him of Tracie's death. "So Chief, what should I do now. Seems I can't be trusted to cover the stories I want to cover. So you gonna send me another babysitter?" It probably wasn't the best time to be rattling his cage. Tracie's death gave me the answer as to why I had been assigned to cover the arrival of troupes in Nam rather than the war.
"I want you to cover this investigation. Keep those cops on it. I want whoever killed her found. If not, murdering reporters will become a habit. The military brass do not like us telling the public what is going on over here. Do what you have time for otherwise, but stay on this."
"Thanks Chief, I had planned to do just that unless you sent somebody else to do it," I admitted.
"Oh I am sending somebody else, but you are the one who knows everybody in NhaTrang City. Just stay after it."
"Chief please, no more women," I was almost begging.
"No Preacher, no more women. Hell, you done got one killed. Round eyed women are too scarce to be using up like that." He didn't have much levity in his voice even thought the remark should have been funny.
"Well boss, I think I will get back to reporting." With that I dropped the phone in the cradle. Instead of doing anything I had a really strange thought. I had seem more naked American women in the last twenty-four hours than I had seen in the last two years. Too bad half of them were dead.
Tran, the film processor came in after ten. It was the time set for him to begin work. I had to tell him about Tracie. I left out the way they had found her body. I figured the dink didn't need to know. I wasn't sure I needed to know but I did.
I went out to the official briefing at the air base. Something I had been doing since Tracie had begun to assign me stories to write. When I got there the press briefing was underway. It took me several minutes to catch up. The Army was planning a new type of operation. Something called Search and Destroy. It promised to be an exciting campaign.
The Army planned to chase Charlie out of the Ahsha Valley. The plan was to chase him until they forced him to stop and fight. Along the way, destroy any and all supplies they found. Charlie would fight for his supplies. At least make the GIs pay in blood for them. Clearly I wanted to go along. I was trying like hell to work it out in my mind when Lonie come over.
"Preach, nice to see you again. You ain't been around in a while?" It was a question but I recognized that he knew the answer.
"I been around Lonnie, you ain't." I said it because I knew what he wanted. He wanted me to give him details. It seemed that rumors traveled very fast in the Nam. Then again Tracie was part of the family so to speak. Every family might have its secrets but not from each other. Still, I did not plan to confirm anything for him.
"Lonnie, I been to the briefings and keeping busy writing about hospitals and other such things. The war seems to be less important than who is from where. Do I sound bitter?" I asked it with a laugh I knew Lonnie would recognize.
"So now that the cat is gone are you going on the S&D mission?" Lonnie was still probing.
"Who knows, Lonnie," I replied walking away. I went to the coffee pot before I began the long walk back to the gate where I could get a cab.
"Preacher." I turned to the two cops. "The dink at your office told us you would be here."
"Well let's get away from all these damned news whores." I said that as I turned to the door leading into the parking lot. On the porch of the native wooden building we had our little talk.
"Preacher, we got a pretty good idea why she was tied to that bed. You want to hear?" He asked but I was sure he planned to tell me anyway. He probably wanted to judge my reaction.
"Sure, why was she tied to the bed?" I asked.
"Some kinky sex thing," he replied.
"Did you figure that out by yourself or did you get some expert to explain it?" I said it sarcastically even though it had to be explained to me. Still they should have known more than I. Cops swear they have seen it all. A naked bruised body with a blindfold tied to a bed and strangled should shout, "Kinky Sex Murder."
"Well since we are working on the kinky sex murder the woman she roomed with is off the hook. If you know where to find her, tell her she can go home now."
"If I knew I would. Don't you at least want to question her?" I asked.
"No, we have decided she is not a suspect." I could tell something was eating him but he didn't want to talk about it. Cops don't give information unless it suits them to do so. Why it suited them I didn't know for sure but I had an idea. Gwen was the General's girlfriend. He might not have the cops under his command, but odds were good he knew whoever did. The field men would not be happy about being bridled.
"So I guess I am no longer a suspect?" I asked it, expecting my status was not high enough to get me a buy.
"No Preacher you are still a suspect. Matter of fact you might be out best suspect." He did smile slightly but I was not sure that it meant anything.
"You mean the only suspect right now you dare pursue?" I said it and it got the response I expected. He jabbed me quickly in the stomach. Too bad cops are not combat soldiers or he would have just killed me. I am not even sure he saw the flash of steel. If I hadn't suddenly gotten the message my brain was trying to process he would have been gutted like a catfish.
"You get one fucking buy, cop. Next time you come for me, plan to kill me. Cause I am damn sure going to kill you. I am not some damn Private you can scare. I am from the forth estate and I will burn your ass. Now get the fuck out of my sight or arrest me."
The larger one who had hit me wanted to commit suicide but his partner held him back. He was content with saying, "I am going to hang this on you Preacher."
"Don't matter that I am innocent, does it? You are just going to hang it on me 'cause you don't have the guts to hang it on the real killer." I said it without having any idea who the killer was.
"You give me the proof Preacher, and I will hang it on anybody who is guilty." He said it but I didn't believe him.
"Of course you will. Now if you don't mind I need to get into town." I walked away. Yes, I did have a pain in my gut, but I stood straight and tall as I walked away. They even passed me in their Ford Falcon. I noted they did not offer me a ride. I would never again get in a car with them unless I was under arrest. The temptation would be too great.
I suddenly remembered the PX just as I reached the front gate. I caught a shuttle bus to the PX. There I first purchased a fishing net made into a basket. Then went up and down the aisles filling it with cans. I even picked up snack foods which I never allowed myself to have in the house.
The whole bag rested beside my desk an hour later. I was on the phone to our Saigon office at the time. I was trying to get permission to drop the Tracie story. I wanted to go on the Search and Destroy sweep.
"Preacher, you or the cops will find Tracie's killer soon. There will be other sweeps." The Saigon branch manager was most insistent. I put the phone down with a curse. The only thing I really learned was that the new reporter to cover my stories was on the way.
"Tran, we have a new man coming in. I am going to meet him at the airport this afternoon. Why don't you just take the afternoon off." I watched as he gave me a sad little dink look. "Don't worry it will be with pay." I was surprised when it didn't seem to make him feel better.
"Should I develop her last interview film?" Tran asked.
"Yeah, but not today, I don't have her story to match it to. Just do it when you have the time."
I left Tran to lock the office while I caught a cab to Mama Leu's place. I almost made it through the hotel before I got stopped by Mama Leu herself. "Pleachel, you keep that woman out of my hotel. If she seen here the GIs go clazy."
I just waved as I passed through. I opened the door to my house to the sound of Gwen raising holy hell at me, "What the hell is going on? I went in looking for some water and that bitch started screaming at me. Preacher get me out of this dump." It was all said at least twice as loud as necessary even to make a point. Gwen was a bit of a shrew it seemed.
I put the net carrying basket on the one counter in the room I used as a kitchen. I turned to Gwen. "You will be happy to know you can go home now. The cops came all the way to the air base to inform me that you were no longer a suspect. Seems the General wants you home again."
"Do you think he sent them?" she asked it with a look of surprise on her pretty face.
"If I had ten bucks I would bet twenty on it. The cops would hardly drive all over hell looking for me just to tell me on their own. Why the hell would they care where you slept. The General made sure I got the word. If you don't move back you will be getting the word personally."
"What do you mean?" she asked nervously.
"He might not think I told you. He will make sure you are told that you are not a suspect. I expect it has to do with you moving home as well as keep you from spreading those names around. I have a feeling he is not eager for any of that to get out."
"That I can agree with." She looked way too happy at the prospect of going home. I was tempted to dump some rain on her parade.
Instead I asked, "You want to eat before you head back?"
She took one look at the net filled with cans. "No, but thanks for the offer, Preacher. I am going to get ready, then catch a cab for home."
When she emerged from the bathroom she somehow looked younger. She definitely had her composure back. I asked it just to be courteous. "You want me to ride to the apartment with you?"
"Would you Preacher? I didn't want to ask, but I sure would appreciate the company. No telling what I will find there." She did look worried.
"Sure, let's go out the garden gate. No sense going through the hotel." I smiled
"You are a strange guy, Preacher. From what Tracie said I expected a psycho but you aren't at all. You a genuinely thoughtful man."
"Not really Gwen, I am pretty much a psycho." I did smile when I said it.
"Okay then I guess I have misjudged psychos all my life. I thought they were evil."
"Depends on you psychosis I expect," I smiled at her as I said it. It was my comforting smile. From out of nowhere she kissed me. It was no more than a meeting of the lips. It was probably the shock of it. I felt a spark like the one you get when you drag your feet across the carpet. "What was that for?"
"For being a psycho with a desire to help a lady in distress." She walked out the door leaving me to collect myself. I caught her before she reached the garden gate.
The cab ride was less than uneventful it was down right boring unless you had noticed the green motor bike following us. I of course didn't notice. Those damn Honda bikes were everywhere. Hell, Tran even had one.
I rode the elevator up. My entrance was far different from the last time I was in Gwen's apartment. For one thing the door was locked. The place was empty when we entered, for another. Of course most importantly, the remains of my boss were not laying in Gwen's bed. At least I presumed they were not as I stood at the door.
"Preacher would you come in with me, please? I would really like to have someone around while I take a look at the place."
"Sure Gwen, I have the afternoon off. Just have to go meet a new reporter at the airport. But that isn't until six." I followed her inside. I thought I would wait for her in the living area but of course that wasn't her plan at all. I led the way through the apartment as I checked for whatever ghost Gwen feared. When we got to the bedroom where Tracie had been tied, Gwen almost pushed me into the room ahead of her.
I noted the cops hadn't taken the sheets. I was a little surprised. Hell, I was a lot surprised. I knew a little about cops and how they worked. I knew for instance that there was likely to be hairs from the murderer in those sheets.
That is when it struck me. The General's hair was most definitely going to be in those sheets. A damn good reason for a cop under his command to 'forget' them. Even if they ever found out who did it, they were going to play hell proving it to a jury. But then, we were in Vietnam. I had no idea who would try the killer or how justice would be handled.
All that took only a second. I felt Gwen take hold of my arm. I turned to her in time to catch her as she began to fall. Her eyes were open but the pupils were not visible. Gwen had fainted. I held her in my arms like those pictures of marathon dances where one partner was unconscious. She was about a hundred and twenty pounds of dead weight. The bed was the closest place to put her but somehow that seemed like a lousy idea. I dragged the unconscious Gwen to the living room sofa. I struggled to get her on it then went in search of water. Too early for Brandy even though it was right in the living room on a very fancy rolling bar.
Unlike mine, her kitchen, though compact, had everything. I found a bottle of Evian in the refrigerator. I poured it into what I presumed to be a clean glass since it was stored in a cabinet. I also ran a dishtowel under the faucet in the sink. I carried both into the living room. I knelt on one knee to put the cloth over her head. She jerked awake with a start. After a second for her to realize where she was I gave her the water to sip.
She sat up a little to drink the water, then seemed to return from some other place. She took a good look at me before she spoke. "Sorry Preacher, I am spoken for." She smiled for the first time since entering the place.
It took me a second then I understood. On one knee like that I did look like the cliche of a man proposing. "Good cause I was only kidding," I said that trying to match her smile. There wasn't much chance she seemed far too lighthearted. Then it struck here again whatever it was.
"Preacher, I am not staying here. Can I stay with you one more night. I will find a new place tomorrow, but tonight I do not want to be alone." She suddenly seemed much older and much more worldly.
I almost asked why not stay with the General when I suddenly got a sudden flash. She thought he might be the killer. If he was, her life might not be as important to him as his own. I knew I was going to have to ask her why she suspected him. The cops were doing all they could to keep him clean, but that didn't prove anything. They could be throwing the investigation because he was guilty, or they could be doing it to keep him clean because he was innocent. Either way scapegoats were in the offing. That could mean me or Gwen, but most likely me. Then again Gwen knew where the bodies where buried. You didn't get to be a General without being willing to sacrifice friends' lives.
"Let me ask you this - are you afraid to be seen with me?"
"Why would I be?" she asked in return.
"Just wondered if it would cause you a problem with the General?" I looked into her eyes when she spoke.
"The General will not mind. At the moment he is busy burying his crap." She was not happy, that was for sure.
"Sorry, what do you mean?" I asked.
"You said he sent me the message and I believe you. I am not sure that he doesn't want me alone. Look Preacher, I don't have any friends of my own. Everybody I know in Nam is his friend or at least in the military where he can get at them. You are the only one I know that he cannot get to."
"What make you think he can't get to me?" I asked.
"Preacher, if you ain't afraid to die, what can he possibly do to you?" It was the ultimate question.
"Who said I ain't afraid to die?" I replied.
"Tracie. She said you were just looking for the right place to die. She also said the Nam wasn't it. You might be the only one left alive at the end of any firefight but you would always be there to shoot the wounded."
"She didn't like me much, did she?" I asked it laughing.
"Are you kidding? She would have raped you if you hadn't worked for her. The images of you standing in that hole emptying the 16 over and over, then shooting the wounded. Hell, Preacher that puts you next to Dracula for a subbie. Vietnam is paradise for us. So many strong men," Gwen added.
"Gwen, most of us are just terrified and not strong at all," I replied.
"You are right, most of them are. Are you though?" she asked.
"Of course I am," I admitted.
"But not enough to stay away?" It was a question I didn't want to answer.
"I haven't eaten all day. How about we stop at a restaurant before we go to the airport?"
"I would suggest the China Palace but you are not dressed for it," she suggested.
"I doubt you are either," I replied.
"Yes but I have a closet filled with clothes. I doubt you own a tie."
"I do not, and if I did I wouldn't wear it."
"You are about the General's size. I have a couple of his suits and things. Would you put them on just for me, Preacher?" she asked almost shyly.
"Sorry Gwen, not my style," I had no idea why she smiled so when she heard the answer. She looked pleased that I had refused. Women, I thought.
She packed a couple of bags before we left. The cab dropped us at a much lower scaled restaurant than the China Palace. The one where we ate had an American menu. The steak was chewy and the potatoes too soft but it was better than rice. Gwen almost ordered the salad but I talked her out of it. Never eat uncooked veggies in a restaurant. It was a rule learned during my grunt days. The list of possible diseases was endless.
Two hours later the plane pulled to a halt. We had used most of that time eating, talking and dropping Gwen's bags at my place. Some of it we spent waiting for the plane Thanks to Gwen's status we had waited in the air conditioned VIP lounge. I even had a cup of fresh coffee while we waited. A few heads turned of course. I thought it might be a serious problem. No doubt the General would know within minutes that his little lady was with me. That might not be a good thing.
The tall thin man probably ten years older than I came through the door. He had smart assed news whore written on his face. Gwen and I went into the corridor to meet him. He was met by the crew from CBS. He was the only newsy type on the plane. The other passengers were either dinks or diplomats. I looked up in time to see Lonnie pointing me and Gwen out.
"Gwen, do you know that guy with Lonnie?" I nodded my head toward them so she would know where to look.
"Never seen him but he is not one of the consulate people."
"How do you know?" I asked.
"The suit is too cheap. He must be your man." She smiled as though she enjoyed my concern.
"God no, he is forty at least. Look at those glasses coke bottles. Surely he is not a war correspondent."
"How would I know Preacher. I just know he is no diplomat."
"Hey, you Janson?" I asked. He looked at me through those glasses.
"Why yes I am. Are you the one they call Preacher? He asked it looking at a list of notes he carried.
"That is me. I guess that makes you the new writer." I suggested, trying not to laugh at him.
"Yes, the Saigon office said you would help me find a room for the night. I can look for a place tomorrow."
Gwen looked at me with the most evil smile I have ever seen on a woman. I expect it came with being a pervert. Gwen was a pervert in my eyes but god she was beautiful too.
"Preacher, get him a room in your hotel," she suggested.
"I could do that but it isn't very fancy," I admitted.
"Anywhere Mr. ah Preacher. I could sleep on a board. Long as it is horizontal."
"Okay. It is the easiest place I know anyway," I admitted.
The cab ride to the hotel was cramped. Janson and Gwen shared the rear seat. His bags were everywhere. Even the tiny trunk as well was tied on top. It took the driver fifteen minutes to tie them to Janson's satisfaction. When we got to the hotel he did not even remark on the number of women in the lounge.
"Mama Leu, this is Mr. Janson. He needs a room for the night."
"With or without?" she asked.
I looked at Janson trying to determine which. He looked like a without kind of guy. "Without I think," I replied.
"What are you talking about?" he asked as we turned away.
"Did you want a whore with the room?" I asked.
"Of course not," he replied.
"That is what I told her," I replied.
"Of all the silly," he said as he headed to the stairs following the bartender/bellhop.
"What a funny little man," Gwen said as he walked up the stairs.
"Yes, but he is a war correspondent," I replied with a grin.
"Yeah, just like you." I noted with much satisfaction that she was grinning a complete idiot grin. She saw how funny it was. To bring that clown in as a war correspondent was ludicrous. He would get his glasses dirty then his ass shot off.
Gwen and I went to my place for a talk. She didn't know the reason for the quick trip to my house. If she had she might not have gone along. I handed her a tall metal cup filled with Pepsi before I asked. "Okay Gwen, you have to answer my question so I know how much trouble we are in."
"I told you Preacher, I will not give you names," she replied.
"You might have to later but now I want to know about her and the General. Just tell me the truth about them. Could he have been the one there last night. Damn, was it just last night?"
"Yes to both. He stood me up for dinner. His driver took me home where I found her. When I called he came up with some last minute meeting story."
"Look, you know what I meant. Have they ever played this game you guys play?" I saw her face darken.
"Preacher this is not a game we play. Well it is to some people maybe, but not to me and my friends. This is a life style choice, nothing less. We are usually pretty monogamous
"You said usually and I know for a fact you said Tracie wasn't monogamous." I said it trying to judge her reaction.
"Since you know most of it, I will tell you about Tracie and men. Other women's men I should say. Tracie always wanted Doms who belonged to someone else. The grass is greener thing I guess. She has been hitting on the General off and on since I have known her. I would not be surprised to find they have been having sessions. He has been acting distant since she arrived. Well not at first, but lately he has."
"If the cops know it was him then it would explain why they are hot to pen this on me. Hell, he got you out from under so you wouldn't tell. It could go that way."
"Yes, but it could go many other ways. Preacher, they gonna do an autopsy?" Gwen didn't look worried, just curious."
"I am sure they are," I replied. I had no idea, but I would insist on one now I thought.
"They are going to find she is pregnant." Gwen looked away.
"This just gets better and better," I replied. "So who is the father?"
"I don't know but it was somebody here. Don't ask me how she knew but she knew the first missed period. She was trying to get rid of it. So who knows? The father might not have even known."
"Yes, or it might have been the motive for murder. Shit Gwen, it could be the General's kid."
"It could be just a new man that went wrong too. Hell, it could have been any one of a half-dozen men she has played with since she got here. Why do you keep coming back to the General?" She didn't look as though it were a mystery.
"He was pulling strings. The only question is why?" I made it a question so she would have to respond.
"I don't know Preacher, but it could be harmless." She didn't believed what she was saying. "Preacher, you are going to look at some of the others, aren't you?"
"Of course I am. If you would tell me who, I wouldn't have to go to that club tonight." I looked at her with a question in my eyes.
"No way Preacher, I am not going to be the one to help you ruin innocent people's lives. You are going to expose us all, aren't you?" She didn't seem to be very upset by it all.
"Truthfully Gwen, I don't know what I am going to do. So what should we do until time to go to the club?" I asked it harmlessly.
"What did you have in mind?" Her question didn't seem nearly as harmless.
I knew it was just my mind remembering the feel of her body as I carried it across the room earlier. Then too, there had been the touch of her lips in the morning. I shook my head to clear it then said, "I got a deck of cards around here. You what to play gin?"
"Damn Preacher," She shook her head and giggled. "Sure, why not. Now I know where you really got the name." She continued to giggle.
I hung my head in embarrassment. I knew what she meant, but I didn't know how to get back to the earlier spot. I knew the moment had passed. I made a note not to let it happen again. The two hour gin game took on a flirting atmosphere. Gwen laughed more than I could remember her having done since I first saw her months before. My first sight of her was at the airport as she met dignitaries. I had been told then by Lonie that she 'belonged' to the theater's General officer. A paper pusher, I thought with contempt at the time. Nothing I had learned from Gwen made me like him any better. We ended our game around nine.
"Well Preacher, it is time for us to leave," Gwen said. I was glad to note she seemed almost disappointed. Maybe with the ending of the game or with the prospect of going back to the club. Either way I approved. "You do not have to wear a coat and tie but you cannot wear the sweat shirt and jeans either." Gwen did smile at that. I could tell she had been waiting to tell me the jeans and sweat shirt had to go.
"Don't laugh, but I have a 'war reporter's outfit' back here in the closet." I rummaged around in the bedroom until I could get to the canvass bag in the rear of the closet type piece of furniture. From the bag I removed a hanger containing a faded tan outfit. The outfit consisted of a pair of slacks and a battle jacket.
"Preacher, my god that looks like a television news whores outfit," Gwen said with a giggle. She had been giggling a lot that day. Nerves I expected.
"Stole it from Walter Cronkite," I replied.
"The hell you did. You need to get me a razor blade. It still has the Aussie patches on the shoulders." She broke into real laugher - "What did you trade this time, a switch blade knife or a harmonica?"
She seemed to be enjoying so I answered. "Neither, Aussies are not music lovers and the switchblades are all gone. I had to give the bloke my Bowie knife. Damn thing had been with me since my first time here."
"Yeah but Uncle Deacon has one in the mail to you, right?" she asked.
"Not yet, but as soon as he finds another one like it, yeah," I said it grinning. It seemed like half the people in NhaTrang City knew of Uncle Deacon. I didn't bother to ask her again how she knew so much about my uncle. I watched for fifteen minutes while Gwen patiently removed the patches from my bush jacket. When she finished the jacket had no patches. It did however have the reminder of them. The spots under the patches had not faded evenly with the other parts of the jacket. I pointed it out to Gwen.
"Well it does fit your image," was her only response other than that smile again.
Gwen disappeared into the bedroom to dress for the evening. When she returned I was surprised to find her in a long black velvet dress split way up the side. She wore open toed sandals with a very high heel. In her hair she wore a red sash similar to the one I had seen the night before wrapped around Tracie's neck.
"Dear God Gwen, in that dress you are pure C-4" I suggested.
First she laughed then asked, "What the hell does that mean?"
"C-4 is an explosive a thousand times more powerful than dynamite," I replied smiling. She just smiled and lowered her eyes. She didn't say a word but the thank you was in the way she held her body.
"Okay beautiful Gwendolyn, it off to the ball for us," I noticed her smile disappeared. "What did I say?" I knew I had said something to offend her.
"My daddy used to call me that," she was almost in tears.
"I do hope it is okay that I did. If not I apologize." I had no idea what else to say.
"It is fine Preacher, just a momentary lapse in time," She didn't laugh, she just smiled. My stomach did one flip then I forgot it.
We picked up a roaming cab outside the hotel. Gwen handed him a card. "What was on the card?" I asked.
"The name and address of the club. I speak hardly any of the language," she replied.
It had been dark in front of the hotel, but it was really dark in the industrial area surrounded by closed shops where the cab dropped us. I was about to make him stay when I noticed a pool of light appear then disappear. Gwen didn't seem worried so I went with it.
Once on the side of the road I noticed a wooden bridge built over the open canal. The canal was for drainage and god only knew what else. If I fell in I would go immediately for a tetanus shot and anything else they had available. In the dark night there did not appear to be anything on the far side of the large ditch.
Without warning a pool of light appeared in the dark. Someone stepped quickly into the light. Just as suddenly the pool of light disappeared. The man who passed while giving Gwen a very hard look was European or American. I could not be sure which.
I followed Gwen across the wooden foot bridge. When we got close I could tell the building which housed Lay Vampier was a metal building left by the French Army. It was one of our old Quonset huts. A building designed in a half circle so it needed no roof or walls. This particular one was painted flat black so it was invisible in the dark. It did not even reflect the moonlight. The building would be all but invisible in the light of even a full moon.
When the door opened the pool of light seemed harsh. We walked passed an oriental gentleman in a quilted robe. "He is one of Mistress Lacrosse's bouncers. You do not want these guys throwing you out. They sometimes take pleasure in their work."
"I will remember that," I smiled at her. Gwen did not smile back.
I almost giggled at the sight of several Vietnamese women shackled to the walls. They seemed to be enjoying it, so I tried to get into it but failed. It wasn't erotic to me, just comical.
I followed Gwen to the bar. I noted that the bartender was a woman in not much of anything at all. She looked up at Gwen's approach. "Hello Lady Scarlet, is the General coming later?"
"I have no idea, sis," she looked at the bartender who looked at me. I noticed the bartender was Eurasian. "So you gonna introduce me to the newby?"
"Sis, this is The Preacher," she said quietly.
"Not Lady Tracie's Preacher?" the bartender asked.
"One and the same," Gwen's smile meant something to the bartender even though it meant nothing to me.
"Lady Scarlet, may I get the Mistress? She would like to meet him I am sure," The bartender was off as soon as Gwen nodded.
"What is this Lady Scarlet," I asked when she had gone.
"It is the name the General gave me. It is my subbie name." Her answer sent a chill through me. I had forgotten she belonged to someone else.
"Oh yeah, I had forgotten," I replied. From my tone she could tell I was not happy but to her credit she ignored it.
"Did you notice her accent Preacher?" Gwen asked to change the subject I expect.
"Very British," I replied.
"Swiss boarding school British. Most of the employees are from upper middle class families. They are well educated." She saw the question in my eyes. "They can make more money working here as waitresses and bartenders. No Eurasian is allowed to sell herself. They can give it away but not sell."
I saw the woman walk up as Gwen spoke. She was no more than thirty. She was also very beautiful. She had her mother's eyes, hair and skin color, but here father's genes gave her the very European style body. She was dressed very Oriental. It seemed all the women in the 'Life" loved slit skirts.
"So you are The Preacher. God, if all I heard about you is true, we need to have a talk." Her laugh was no more than a tinkle.
"Not to worry. Tracie exaggerated," I replied.
"You may call me Mistress Lacrosse," she suggested.
"If you don't mind, I think not. I prefer not to have you walk on me with those high heels." I was referring to her six inch stiletto heels.
"I see you have a sense of humor as well. So did Tracie finally ask you out?" She seemed to be smiling too broadly to be faked.
"Tracie was killed last night." Yes it was brutal, but I wanted to see how she reacted.
"It was an accident I hope." The remark was after some thought. She was obviously trying to decide how it might affect her business.
"Looks like she was murdered. Possibly by someone she met here." I suggested that for shock value as well.
"Then Gwen should give you the names. She and Tracie were here together almost every night." The dark beautiful woman looked Gwen right in the eye.
"She has refused." I said it with what I hoped was a leading smile.
"So you came here hoping I would tell you?" she asked.
"Something like that," I suggested.
"I think not Preacher." She looked to see how I would take it. Obviously Tracie had led them all to believe I was psycho.
Before I could answer the door opened behind me. Gwen looked down then asked. "Did you call him, Mistress?"
"I had no choice, little one. He can put me off limits and ruin me. I am sorry child, but it is the way life is." With those words she walked away.
"I presume that the General just arrived?" I asked it quietly.
"Yes and his weasel aide Eddy," She turned her back to them.
A moment late a youngish man in a business suit came to stand beside her. "Gwen, the General is here and he would like to speak to you."
It was her move and we both knew it. "Eddy, please tell the General I came with this gentleman. My mother taught me to leave with the man who brought me."
The weasel put his hand on her forearm. I reached around her to grab his shoulder. I had it with my fingers pressing into the joint. "Eddy, I assure you I can dislocate you shoulder like this. You need to leave the lady alone."
"Back off soldier. I represent the Theater Commander," he said with the pain showing in his eyes and voice.
"If you fucking call me soldier again, I am going to pop your fucking arm out of joint. Now be a good lad and go back to your General. Inform him that I am a writer for the Associated Press. Ask him how he would like to be standing in front of the Army's Chief of Staff next week. He would be explaining the article I am about to write on this club, and the Commanding General's actions in it." I waited until he moved toward the table before I released him. A moment later Mistress Lacrosse came back to stand across the bar from me.
"You need to leave," she said shortly.
"I came for names. When I have them I will leave."
"If you do not leave I will have you ejected." she said slightly louder.
"Lower your voice," I demanded. "If you plan to have me ejected make sure you do not care for the people you send."
She whispered, "I am going to have my bouncers throw your ass out. Surely Gwen has informed you of them."
"Oh yes, surely Tracie informed you of me." I opened the bush jacket to reveal the Colt replica hanging upside down inside my shoulder holster. "Madam, there are two things I am not going to do. I am not going to leave until I have those name, and I am not going to allow some dink to kick my ass."
"I do not care that much for them," she said with a nervous laugh.
"Then I will kill you first. In for a penny in for a pound as you say." She obviously believed me.
"Colonel Meyers, Edmonds of the consulate, Thomas from the American Library, and I hate to do this Gwen but your General. There was one other recently a couple of times but I never got introduced. He was here for a while then he was gone. He came back a few nights ago. That is all - now leave."
"Gwen, is that all of them?" I didn't move until Gwen answered.
"Yes, I didn't know for sure about the General or at all about the, one who came and went. The others are right."
"Well, if you are ready, Gwen," I stood to allow her room to stand.
"Preacher, when Gwen and the General get back together, and they will, come by. Hell, you will be the first man I ever bought a drink."
"So the way to your heart is to pull a gun on you?" I asked it as Gwen and I turned toward the door. I expected it to be the last thing said.
"No sweetie, just act like a man." Her laughter followed me outside.
When I passed through the door I shivered. The temperature had dropped. It was the damp chill only possible in a subtropical climate when the monsoon is about to start. Fifty degrees in the Nam was like ten in the States. I know it was silly but the velvet dress Gwen wore was very appealing to me at that moment. I guess it was a combination of its warmth and what was inside it.
Gwen's thoughts must have been or Tracie or the General. Hell, they may have been on Tracie and the General together. Anyway she sniffed a few times. I put my arm around her and pulled her to me. During the cab ride I felt her warm body pressed against me. I felt her sobs against my chest. I am not sure to this day if it was her warm dress, her warm full body, or her sobs that melted my heart, but something did. I had the great desire to protect the woman. Somehow we began to kiss gently during the ride. The ride ended way to soon for both of us.
Gwen sort of led the way into the house. She stopped just inside the door. I wrapped my arms around her from the rear feeling the soft warm velvet in my hands. I suppose I held her a moment too long because she took my hand in both of hers then led me to the bedroom. She turned on the small tinny sounding radio. 'The Armed Forces radio DJ came on. I ignored him. She immediately turned her back to me. I wasn't sure exactly what she wanted.
"Zipper," she said in a much older woman's voice.
My hands shook and I fumbled as I worked her zipper down. I gasped a little at the sight of her naked back. She moved away from me with the dress still on her body. She began to move slowly to the music. She swayed to the music seemingly lost in it. She moved catlike to stand suddenly in front of me. She kissed me but stood back from me. I was surprised until I felt her tugging at the buttons on my bush jacket. A scant moment later it slipped from my shoulders. She again moved away as she slipped the dress from her shoulders. She moved again to the music but naked to the waist at the time. It was with some pain that I noticed she was extremely well endowed. I remember thinking, no wonder the General wants her back.
She held her eyes locked on mine while I removed the pistol and shoulder holster. I kept my gaze on her eyes even with the distraction of her breasts swaying in time to the music. I removed the tee shirt next, also leaving me naked to the waist. I reached for my belt buckle but she shook her head no. I wasn't exactly sure why until she danced over. She swayed in front of me as she unbuckled my belt, then unbuttoned the button under it. She lowered my pants and shorts in a single motion by lowering herself to the floor. She seemed to be waiting for me to do something so I lifted her to a standing position. Then I kissed her gently. Gentle did not seem to be what she had in mind.
Gwen placed her hands behind my head. She pulled me into what I can only describe as a painful kiss. Then she pushed me. I wound up sitting on the edge of the black wrought iron bed. The bed's three arches suddenly reminded me of church windows. I didn't have time to reflect on it. Gwen was again dancing using the red sash from her hair as a prop. She wrapped it around her breasts then around her waist. Without warning she slipped the long-legged black silk panties to the floor. She stood naked except for the black garter belt and stockings. To remove them she sat on my one straight chair. She lifted her legs one at a time to peel the stockings. She turned so that I could see every detail of her body as she removed them.
The very first thing I noted was that like Tracie she was hairless. Then I noticed the opening into her body. Her lips were thick and seemed to be puffy. She suddenly stood, changing my point of focus. She danced around a few seconds then move to me. Again I was not sure what I should do.
She sat down in my lap with one leg on either side of my closed legs. She held the red sash in both hands. She moved one hand on either side of me, pushing the sash against my neck. Oh course the thoughts that ran through my head were not sexual any longer. The first was simple, was she going to try to kill me. Had she found out that the General was the father of Tracie's child? Had she then killed her in a fit of jealous rage? That crossed my mind but it could not overpower the raw sexual feeling I had for the woman in my lap. I felt a dampness on my legs which pushed me over the edge. I flipped her onto her side.
I knew I should just take her but I felt I had to explain my lack of expertise. "I am not sure I know how to do all the things that you do, Gwen. I only know how to make love to you as a man who does love you." Before she could answer and spoil it by being sophisticated. I pressed my lips to hers.
I had learned to kiss in high school from a very experienced girl a couple of years older than I. I slipped just the tip of my tongue between Gwen's lips. I traced their shape with it. I felt her naked body respond. I slipped my tongue deeper. I began to massage the roof of her mouth with my tongue. As I did I ran my hand down her spine. When I reached her butt I pulled her tight against me.
I felt the air in the room heat at least ten degrees. The kiss seemed at some point to melt her. She suddenly pressed against me. It seemed somehow she was not trying to be talented. She just became hungry. I felt her body pressing against me trying to get me inside her skin. I know I was grinding against her for the same reason.
I had just about decided to roll on top of her when she pulled my lips away from hers by pulling my hair. Her eyes I noted where closed. She pulled me back against her beautiful neck. I knew what she wanted instinctively. I began to lick and kiss her neck. Her moans were all the encouragement I needed. I might again have changed the direction but she had her hands full of my longish hair. Her body seemed to vibrate as she pushed my head to her breasts. I gently made wet circles around her nipples with my tongue. I bit the tip very gently when she moaned I bit it harder. I expected her to pull me away. Instead she forced my mouth hard onto her breast. I opened my mouth allowing her to force her breast deep into my mouth. Her breast was so deep in my mouth that her enlarged nipple was in my throat. I swallowed. I felt her shudder at the sensation of my throat muscles tightening on her.
She pulled me from one breast to the other. I knew what she wanted so she removed one of her hands from my head. She used the free hand to capture my left hand. I allowed her to move it as she willed. She seemed to be in a lover's fog. She placed my hand on her smooth mound. Them somehow led me to a small button of flesh. When I moved my finger on it as she obviously desired me to do her hips began to move up and down, then grind into the bed. I felt her body tense under me then she suddenly went limp. I had been with a couple of women in the states. I knew she had just had an orgasm. She seemed to still be high on endorphins as I rubbed her absentmindedly.
I felt her climb again as her body moved to a rhythm of its own. I moved to lean over her. I supported my larger body over her on my hands. She reached down to help me enter her. I moved inside her very slowly. I thought it was because it felt better to me but I realized it was because Gwen seemed to be in the throws of another orgasm. Of course I had never heard of such a thing but it still seemed that way. As I moved in and out of her slowly I felt her body clutch at me. Suddenly her arms went around my neck. She pulled hard forcing me down on her smaller body. Her body seemed to move all over the bed. She had me chasing her around the bed it seemed.
When I had an orgasm it seemed to come from my toenails and even my hair. My whole body was racked by it. I tried to move off her but somehow she held me locked inside her. Her muscles were so tense it seemed she was as hard as a board. The suddenly I heard her sobbing.
"Get off me," she said angrily.
I rolled off her thinking my weight might be hurting her. "I am sorry Gwen, did I hurt you?" I asked it thinking I couldn't have hurt her unless it was my weight.
"Shut up, Preacher," she said it turning her back to me. I wrapped my arms around her despite the fact she tried to get away. I held her close while she sobbed. From some where a little girl's voice asked, "Where the fuck were you five years ago?"
I knew she did not want to hear the answer, so I kissed her neck instead. I held her like that until she cried herself to sleep. When her breathing turned deep and rhythmic I began thinking about the men in Tracie's life. I did it pretty much so as not to think about the men in Gwen's life. I had a feeling I wasn't going to care much for what I learned over the next couple of days. I had managed to make love to Gwen without finding out what she did with the General. I wasn't sure I wanted to know even though my mind kept picking at it.
The sunlight came through the window casting a single beam onto the floor. That beam highlighted the dust particles floating lazily about on the air currents. At the time I was still nailed to the bed by Gwen's body atop my arm. I gently moved it hoping not to wake her. She simply exchanged my arm for the thin pillow under her head. She clutched the pillow to her breasts as she had done my arm.
I slipped into a pair of cut off jeans before putting the coffee water on to boil. The cutoff jeans were my household uniform. After the water was on the gas hot plate I quietly left the house for a quick dash to the hotel next door.
No matter what time of the morning I arrived, the fresh bread and rolls were in the kitchen. I bought just what I wanted for the day since someone delivered them early every morning. That morning I bought a half dozen breakfast rolls. I didn't bother with the French bread as I had half a loaf from the day before. I opened the hotel's refrigerator. It took a quick search but I found the tin of butter. I used the dinner knife to cut a large pat which I wrapped in heavy brown butcher's paper.
When I arrived home I found Gwen still sleeping. The water was boiling hard so I slipped it off the burner. Most mornings I loved the labor intensive coffee maker. It allowed me to stop and think in the morning. Something I might not otherwise do. That morning I was in a hurry to make the coffee. I wanted some excuse to wake Gwen. For some reason known only to God I wanted to sit across the Formica and metal kitchen table from her. Just to look at her and make small talk. Okay, I know it was silly, but it didn't change the way I felt.
Before I could finish the coffee I heard the knock on the door. I pulled the door shut on the sleeping Gwen. I opened the front door without looking first. Something I would never do after dark. I was half expecting cops or the General's lackey. What I saw surprised me.
I had forgotten all about Janson. The little man with the coke bottle glasses stood with his back to the door. He was looking back at the hotel.
"Janson," I said as a greeting. I spoke softly and held my finger to my lips as a sign for him to do the same. I give him this. He got it instantly, but then hell he was a newspaperman. We were supposed to be smart.
"Preacher," he whispered. "How about I ride down to the office with you?"
"Sure," I replied quietly without thinking. "Have you had breakfast yet?"
"No, just coffee," he replied.
"Come on in, I am about to have some French Rolls with jam. They are actually very good. However, if Gwen wakes up you are going to have to go back inside to buy more for her."
"I am really not hungry. Having a little tummy problems I am afraid," he replied.
"Didn't they warn you in Saigon not to drink the water or eat uncooked vegetables." If they hadn't warned him they were guilty of a real sin. Dysentery could, on rare occasions, be fatal in Vietnam.
"Yes and I don't think I did. Anyway I am just a little queasy."
"Damn Preacher, first you keep me up all night then you wake me at the crack of dawn." Gwen said it but then smiled, moved to me, then kissed me good morning. The kiss was long, deep and wet. I had to rearrange my clothes when she finished. I know watching it must had a similar effect on Janson. After all Gwen was wearing one of my cut off sweatshirts, and the sweat shirt was all she was wearing. Not only that she had to stand on tiptoes to kiss me. Janson got a hell of an image to carry with him that day for sure.
The three of us sat around the small kitchen dinette table. Gwen and I with the French rolls butter and jam. Janson drinking coffee and looking green. Gwen and I spoke little but looked at each other often. I know we were foolish but I truly thought it was love and I think for at least one moment she did too.
"You two chat while I take a quick shower," I suggested.
"Sure Preacher," Janson said smiling at me. I was about to make a wisecrack but caught myself. I didn't know either of them well enough. I was in the bathroom for only a few minutes, When you showered in my bathroom it took the whole room since the shower head was mounted into the tiled wall. The drain was built into the center of the floor. When I finished I traded the cutoff jeans for a clean, but badly faded full length pair the house women had returned.
"So what is our plan for today?" Gwen asked.
"Janson and I are going into the office. Sometime today I have to find at least one of the men who Tracie was playing with. The only one I am sure I can find is the General. All the others could be anywhere. Vietnam is not a small place."
"Preacher honey, I know where the diplomat is. The others you can find somehow I am sure. Hell Preacher, you can do anything." She smiled so I knew she was kidding.
"If I might be of assistance Preacher," Janson said it quietly. "I was the researcher for the Saigon office. I can find anyone so long as they are not hiding in hell. But, you must promise me, this is the only time I have to do research. I came to Vietnam to be a journalist."
"Janson, you find me these four men and I will guarantee you that you can do anything you want after."
"Fair enough," he replied.
"Well Gwen, you want to go back to bed or come with us?" I asked. I was not at all sure what she would do.
"Back to bed for me, Preacher." She walked around the table, planted herself on my lap, kissed me again the said, "You better get your butt back here. I got plans for you."
"Oh you can count on it." I said it grinning at her then at Janson.
Janson and I got a cab for the office. He was still on travel per diem so I let him pay the quarter fare. Janson was as good as his word. He had the Colonel located within an hour. He even contacted him while I wrote a quick story about Tracie. I did it to keep the Saigon office off our ass.
"Preacher, I found your man. He gave me this message for you. Made me promise to take it down word for word and read it to you."
"Okay, lets have it." I replied.
"Tracie told me you were some kind of big bad psycho killer. Well if you want to talk to me, have you ass on the tarmac at NaTrang air base at 1600 hours loaded for bear. We are going hunting and I am going to see what exactly it is you got."
"What does he mean?" Janson asked.
"It means the Colonel is a nut case like me. He is doing an airborne assault tonight. Probably the most asinine thing you can do over here. Problem is it looks so damn good on the newsreels these hero types can't resist it. Well if I want to talk to Meyers, I have to go play psycho."
"What does that mean?" Janson asked.
"You don't want to know. See if you can find the others while I am gone. And Janson, if anybody tries to take Gwen away tonight don't let them." I looked at him very hard so he would know I was serious.
"Preacher, don't let the glasses fool you." He suddenly had a look that gave me a new respect for him.
"You want me to leave you a pistol?" I asked not sure what his answer would be.
"Do you think I need two?" Janson was getting to be a wise ass in only one day. I liked that about him.
When I arrived home to pack for my overnight trip I found a note from Gwen. "Preacher, I am going in to work for a while. I have lots to do I am sure. I will be back here tonight so be thinking about dinner."
I loaded an old duffel bag then grabbed a cab. I had it drop me at the Military Assistance Command Office. I found a young soldier willing to point me to Gwen's office. When I entered I found a very different Gwen behind the desk. The Gwen sitting there was the self-assured Gwen. The one I remembered from before Tracie's death. At first I thought Tracie's body had shaken her, but I realized Gwen was two different people. When she saw me her face changed. She went from very hard business person to a very soft very feminine woman. It was almost a miracle to see her change.
"One moment," she said into the phone. Then to me, "What are you doing here. Not that I am not glad to see you."
"I am going to be in the field tonight. Janson is going to look after you." After I said it I noted a strange look cross her face.
"What do you mean by that?" she asked.
"He is going to make sure nobody takes you away against your will. That is all he is going to do." I wasn't sure why but I felt I needed to add that last part.
"Oh Preacher, I am sorry. I didn't understand." She dropped her eyes avoiding mine.
"Honey, I am completely lost here. Have I don't something wrong?"
"Don't worry Preacher, it is me not you. Everything is fine. So, you going out to interview that Colonel?"
"I sure am. I should be back sometime tomorrow." I wanted to kiss her but knew better. It was her office not mine. "So I guess I better be going."
"Just a minute," She walked passed me, closed the door. When she got close she kissed me. Not only did she kiss me she slipped her hand between us and took hold of me. I was surprised. I was just as surprised when she spoke. "Just so you don't forget me." She kissed me again then laughed a small laugh. I turned to the door wondering how I would get out of the building without anyone noticing.
I gave my name at the desk inside the small metal building being used as a flight operations center. "Yes Mr. Burke, Colonel Meyers left word that if you showed to assign you to his chopper. It is the one with the flag painted on the side. Just go on over. You did know you will not be going to a base? This is an operations mission. He was looking at the duffel.
"Oh I know," I replied.
When I got on the tarmac I found men wandering all over the place. They were milling about seemingly with no purpose. I noted with some satisfaction that they were armed to the teeth and nervous as hell.
"You Burke?" a very rough looking man in his late twenties asked.
"That would be me," I replied.
"Am I gonna have to get you a rifle. The Colonel said you would come armed."
"No I can manage," I replied reaching into the duffel. I removed the Winchester Automatic 12 Gauge shotgun. I sat it against the side of the chopper then removed the two bandoleers of shells. One bandoleer held waxed 12 gauge shells filled with .00 buck shot. The other bandoleer held brass shells of a slightly larger size. I removed a bloop gun from the duffel then finally the pistol belt containing the Colt replica. I threw the empty duffel into the chopper. "I want that back," I said to the soldier who had been watching me.
"You know that shotgun is a violation of the Geneva Convention?" he commented.
"Yeah, so is shooting prisoners but both sides do it," I replied. "So is Charlie gonna kill me twice?"
"Well Preacher, I want to see if you are as nuts as they say," The voice came from behind me.
"So do I," I replied. "You ready to answer my questions now?"
"When we get back, if we get back." He enjoyed saying that.
"I don't know about you, but I am coming back. I would like to know before Charlie guts you."
"Then you better keep me alive," he suggested.
I took a look at the three men who stood around him. All of them were very hard looking. "It appears you have enough body guards. Don't suppose you would care to loan me one?" I asked it with both of us knowing I had no desire to be safe. If I had, I would have refused his invitation. The grins were all over the place and they did not make me feel any better.
Chopper rides scare the hell out of me. My first one did and my last one will I am sure. A chopper ride into combat is the worst of all. You just hope you get onto the ground in one piece.
The Colonel signaled we were heading down. I moved to the open door. I hung the M70 grenade launcher over my neck then got ready to jump out the door. "We are going in with the assault?" I shouted above the rotor noise.
"Fuckin A," one of the body guards shouted. "Old man leads from the front - not hiding in the back."
"Good," I said. I could hardly see him, my eyes were clouded. Fear, I thought to myself. I sure hope I can get my ass out of this bird. I do not want to be a coward now. This is not the time to lose it.
The bird was not heavy on the sled when they began jumping. I followed them out the door. The chopper was a good foot above the rice paddy. I went in up to the ankles of my paratrooper boots in stagnant water. The troops were all firing into the jungle in one direction. They were either wasting ammunition or they saw something I didn't. I was about to think it was a dry run with the first mortar landed. I might have climbed back in the chopper but it was gone. Nothing more lonely than standing in a rice paddy watching your chopper fly away.
Training from the old days kicked in. In the bad old days when the war was starting up there was no artillery to speak of. There were no helicopter gun ships at all. I had taught RVN troops to run toward the enemy. The rule in the old days had been get out of the kill zone and close with Charlie. I slogged off through the rice patty headed for the jungle where the soldiers where directing their fire. It was a good thing Charlie did not stick around to follow up on the mortars. I was in the open and the only target. The GIs went to the ground. Laying in the disease-ridden water.
I was out there alone and getting really worried. I kept my head down waiting for the others to catch up. I heard the choppers. I didn't understand until I looked up to see the streaks of white in the sky. When I did understand I really tried to disappear into the grass.
The earth began to rock and to roll as the rockets tore into the trees. The fragments of the jungle and the hot metal cases of the rockets flew by my head. The heat of the explosions seemed to overwhelm me. By far the most frightening thing was the noise. It was like being inside the bass drum of a rock band. Hell, it was like being the whole drum set with some insane musician beating the hell out of me.
As suddenly as it started the rocket attack ended. I looked up to see the American soldiers coming slowly through the rice paddy. I waited for them to reach me, then I joined the front rank. The Colonel I noted had slipped a little behind the front rank. Lead from the front, but not quite all the way in the front.
I went into the jungle with the first element. We found a few bodies mostly blown all to hell. Charlie generally took his dead home. Kind of like the Marines. Once I was sure Charlie had withdrawn I let the soldiers pass until I was standing beside the Colonel.
"So what is the plan?" I asked.
"We chase his ass back to Hanoi," he replied.
"You are not seriously going to chase the NVA through the jungle at night?" I asked it because I could not believe even an Officer could be that stupid.
"We are and we are going to kick his ass all the way," he replied.
"You are going to get a lot of men killed is what you are going to do," I replied. One of the body guards took a very combative stance. I swung the shotgun toward him but kept it pointed down.
"Preacher, if you are scared you can leave," he replied. "Oh that's right, you can't leave." He laughed a nasty laugh.
"Colonel, tell you what - why don't you and I walk point. We can spring the ambushes you are walking this command into."
"If you were a soldier I would have you shot," he replied.
"If I were one of yours, it might be preferable to waiting all night to die."
"You idiot, why don't you give us any credit. You news whores think you know it all. You of all people should know better."
"Why don't you tell me what the hell you are going to accomplish by walking your men in the jungle all night." I waited for him to tell me. I didn't think there could be any answer.
"If we keep the NVA moving they will not be able to patrol in advance of their movements. About dawn they are going to walk into one hellatious ambush. We are driving them into the arms of the Air Calvary." He looked way too smug.
"You are assuming they will go the direction you want them too."
" If we stay in contact with them, we will know where they are going to be in the morning.
"They are going to bleed you all night," I said.
"Sorry Preacher, it is the only way," he replied. "They can't ambush a force this large. All they can do is leave a delaying force behind. We will lose some men but we can roll over the ones they leave."
"What are you going to do if they decide to stand and fight as a unit?" I asked.
"Slug it out until the sun comes up. When it does we will have air support."
"Damn I am going to hate myself for this," I said it as I opened my notebook. Did you ever see this done. It is an old French counter ambush technique."
"The Frenchies lost the war. I am not sure I want to see anything they did," he replied.
"Good, then go out there and slug it out with a larger force, on his home ground, in the middle of the night. It should make an interesting story."
"Show me your frog drawing. I showed him the tactic. Oh hell Preacher, we are going to do that. I went to the war college to learn that and you knew it all along. Damn what a waste. So where do you want to be?"
"Not hiding back here with you, that is for sure." I said that with a laugh.
"You prick, I would rather be with you. So which?"
"Group Two, of course," I replied.
Two group set off ahead of the main unit. The first one was about ten men. They were the ones who got the ambush sprang on them. When the shooting started the second group trailing behind rush up to flank the ambushers. In effect it ambushed them. At least it would work a couple of times. The command was going to take casualties for sure, but if you had to do it at least you had a chance.
It was just after sundown when the first ambush sprang. I was standing beside a second Lieutenant squad leader when the night silence was shattered by gunfire. We rushed up the trail then into the bush. We actually caught sight of the NVA before they could run. I emptied all five rounds of the shot gun. I was pretty sure I put down at least two. As they fled I fired three of the M70 HE shells at them.
On the second ambush they waited for the second group but the first ground circled them. I unloaded the shotgun into what appeared to be NVA troops again. It looked as though we annihilated them.
By morning I was dragging. I was hot, tired and dirty. I smelled so bad the enemy could tell I was coming a mile away. It didn't matter much since the NVA company ran into the Air Cavalry unit awaiting them. I am told it was a massacre worthy of the name Cavalry.
Just as soon as we went into down mode I found the Colonel. "Okay Meyers, you did your damndest to get me killed, but I am still here. Now I want to know about Tracie."
"I wasn't trying to get you killed. If I wanted you dead, you would be dead. I just wanted to know what all the hype was about. Had to know if you were for real."
"Makes no difference, I still want to know about Tracie," I replied.
"Hey guys, how about giving us a couple of minutes." Meyers said it to his goons. When they had gone he continued. "Preacher how old are you? Twenty three?"
"Twenty-five," I replied. I had a feeling he was going to call me son next. If he did I might have just gutted him.
"Okay, I am forty-two. Tracie was thirty-one. I was taken with her, I admit it. She had some kinky ideas about sex. I went along with her. I even admit that, but I sure as hell didn't kill her.
"Meyers, before you answer this let me tell you I have the sheets from the bed where she was killed. The FBI can match hairs from those sheets. Tell me were you ever in that bed with Tracie." I gave him a chance to get out of it. I just wanted to see what he would say.
"Preacher, I tied her to that bed and I screwed her. That was over a week ago. I am pretty sure the sheets have been washed since then.
"Meyers, I have seen bruises on her. Both before and the night the cops found her dead. Do you have any idea how she got them."
"I told you Preacher. She had some strange ideas about sex. I did what she wanted."
"So you are not really into that kinky shit?" I asked it trying to lure him along.
"Not as kinky as Tracie was, no. Hey, I play at being a Dom some, but I am a family man. I can't get involved in all this shit."
"My guess is you are going to be right dead in the middle of it. Everybody else is higher up than you. You might be the fall guy."
"I think if you had died today, you would have been." He smiled at me.
"Now why do you say that?" I asked.
"I was told to invite you along and to let you do anything you wanted. Your name is David isn't it?"
"Yes," I replied.
"The David and Bathsheba story in reverse. In this one Bathsheba's boyfriend tries to get David killed in the war."
"I get the picture. That don't let you off. I want you to tell me what you and Tracie did?" It was not a question but a demand.
"Why Preacher, does it turn you on?" He was looking down his nose at the peasant.
"No Meyers, but it will go a long way to help me questions the ones who might really have killed Tracie."
"Then you don't think I killed her," he asked it confidently.
"Not at the moment," I replied. "But that is subject to change as I learn more about her so tell me what you know. I don't have time to come back into hell again."
"Hell, what crap, you love this shit Preacher just like I do." He saw the look on my face. He must have decided not to press it. "Okay, she liked to do it kinky Preacher. She loved oral sex. She liked to do it as much as have it done to her." Again he must has seen the question in my eyes. "Preacher, she got off doing it. I mean she could orgasm just doing that to me. Hell the woman could orgasm at the drop of a hat and carried one with her." He was pleased with his little joke until he saw that I was not amused. "It wasn't about having an orgasm with her, it was about how intense the orgasm was. Some things just made them 'better' for her. Hell, I'm a man. I never understood how one could be better than another but she assured me they could be for some women at least. Those are her words, not mine."
"So the bruises were part of giving her a 'better' orgasm?" He recognized it as a question.
"Sure, you don't think I enjoyed hurting her, do you?" He saw me turn to look at the body bags piled up in the LZ. "Come on Preacher, this is war."
"But you love this shit, remember?" I didn't smile I just looked hard at him.
"Well Preacher, you are just going to have to trust me on this. I do know the difference between this and sex." He looked me hard in the eye.
"I wonder," I replied. There was no sense dragging it out. He had a great alibi. He was in the field with about a hundred guys to back him up. He had answered my questions only because all the guys in his alibi were under his command. Their testimony would always be suspect. After all he had access to about a hundred choppers.
I flew out with the wounded. I was forced to stop at the area hospital before being dropped on the tarmac at NaTrang air base. A quick cab ride found me outside Madam Leu's hotel/whorehouse. Since I wasn't surprised to find Gwen gone, after a lukewarm shower I slipped into bed.
I was half asleep when a thought occurred to me. It passed without making a permanent mark on my brain. It was therefore lost in the vapor of sleep. I am not sure exactly when I realized there was a warm body beside me. It was sometime in the night I expect. I cuddled to it, then returned to sleep.
When I awoke the body was gone. It was almost as thought I had dreamed it. That idea was quickly dismissed when I heard the female voice. "Preacher, I found where you get the rolls. I have them and the fresh fruit on the table so get your butt out of bed." The voice belonged to the beautiful Gwen. She was already dressed for work which disappointed me greatly.
"Oh all right. Did anyone ever tell you that you were a cruel Mistress." She looked at me with a strange look. She seemed to realize after a second that I had meant it differently. I guess it was the lunatic smile I wore.
"Actually they have. Now get out of that bed or I will get my whip," she grinned wickedly.
"Hell, just get back in instead," I replied.
Suddenly she got serious. "Preacher, do you need for me to?"
The fun was suddenly gone. "What do you mean do I need for you to come to bed?"
"Some guys, when they get back from the bush, need to have a woman. It is a life-affirming thing. If you do, I will gladly come to bed." She could tell I heard but didn't understand. "That look answers my question, Preacher. Now get your ass out of bed."
I slipped out of the bed. Then into the cutoff jeans. I managed to get myself into the kitchen where she began pouring water into the filter-lined funnel. I stood behind her with my arms spread around her for a couple of seconds before she said, "Damn it Preacher, go brush your teeth, then come back here and kiss me."
The offer was way too good to pass up. I quickly did my morning thing. I even managed a quick shower. My reward was a long wet kiss before a steaming cup of coffee with French rolls and jam. The fruit was easy for me to pass up. I did managed a piece of the melon but the oranges were not a morning food to me. If looks could move things she would have been naked. I tried to stare her blouse off, that much was for sure.
The knock on the door stopped me. I hadn't thought Gwen noticed until she spoke as she moved to the door. "Saved by the knock." She was laughing gently. "Come on in, Janson. He was here when I got home from work."
"Janson, have some coffee and a roll," I suggested.
"I sure as hell hope you have a story written. They called from Saigon. I told them you were in the field. Seems they knew about a battle shaping up. They guessed you would be covering it."
"Damn, I almost forgot to make any pictures of it. I got some of the guys before and after but we were moving too fast when it happened. I can write you a piece when we get to the office."
"Preacher, I seen your stuff. No offense but tell me what happened and I will write something." He was all smiles. The problem was he directed them at Gwen. I was jealous, then realized if he did it in front of me there was no need to be jealous. So I forced myself to smile.
"Write it and put your name on it then. I will do a first hand account of the battle that you can rewrite and I will take the byline. Is that fair?"
"It is very fair. I can interview you just like I would anyone else," he suggested.
"Exactly," I replied. Gwen smiled at me. She seemed to be reading my mind. I always paid my freight. "Did you go to the briefing yesterday?"
"Yes I did," he replied vaguely. "Then do what Walter Cronkite does. Make something of the information you got there."
"Yes, I can see how that is done," Janson replied.
Gwen came to stand behind my chair for just a second. She touched my shoulder as she poured coffee for Janson. That touch cause a shudder to run though me right down to my bones. I lifted her hand then kissed the palm of it. I have no idea what got into me. When she smiled as she pulled her hand gently away, I felt almost foolish.
When Gwen was seated I asked, "So what are your plans today, Gwen?"
"Preacher, I never know from one day to the next. The damndest things come up when you are a gopher. Wilson White has been in country about a week now and is driving everybody nuts. He is demanding all kinds of information about the war. I have been on the phone constantly asking people questions."
"So you are his personal researcher?" It was Janson who asked.
"Me and two others," Gwen replied.
"Would you like to tell us the kinds of things he is asking?" I decided to join in at that point.
"Nothing you would be interested in, Preacher." she assured me.
"Okay, but we are interested in all kinds of things, aren't we Janson?"
"We are. For instance, who the hell is Wilson White?" I am sure Janson felt foolish since his personal researcher comment had begun it all.
"White is some kind of staff member for a Senator from California. You know what loonies they are." I said it without asking where Janson or Gwen were from back in the world.
"Actually honey," Gwen said with a smile, "He is Chief of Staff to the biggest loony of them all."
"I expect Janson and I will be writing all day as well as going to the press briefing. What time will you be home for dinner?"
"Preacher, ordinarily I don't eat dinner, at least no more than a sandwich at my desk. For you I will make an exception, but it will be late."
"Okay, then we will have to do something special to celebrate your first real dinner away from the office," I smiled sweetly.
"Preacher, I have had dinners other than at my desk. I just usually eat them there. Plan on me being here at eight." It was a little later than I expected but hell, I was not about to argue. I was the one who had been away a full day. She hadn't shouted or thrown a fit, she just let me know that she had missed me. The least I could do was not be impatient with her.
After our breakfast the three of us shared a taxi. We dropped Gwen at her office first. We then continued to the small space Janson, Tran, and I occupied several blocks away. Tran greeted us at the door.
"Mr. Yansen, there was call for you from Saigon. I tole them to call back." Tran said the words looking us both in the eye - something a lot of Vietnamese would not do. I always figured Tran was VC. It was my suspicious nature I suppose.
"Thank you Mr. Tran," Janson replied. How very formal, I thought.
"So Janson, how did you do with the other two names?" I wasn't sure but I had a feeling the diplomat would be easier then the American Library guy. I had a pretty good idea the American Library was a front for the CIA's operations.
"Edmonds agreed to see you but only after I threatened him a little. Hope you don't mind I told him his name was linked to Tracie." Janson actually looked to see if I would be angry. The man was good ten years older than I. Not only that, I expected the office in Saigon expected him to take charge as Tracie had done.
"Tell them anything you have to, Janson. Hell, lie like a Press Officer if you have too. I really do need to clear this up. The Military cops are looking for a scapegoat and I am not too happy with their choice."
"Who are they looking at?" Janson asked.
"Me. Seems Tracie and I did not get along. Can you imagine anyone not getting on with me?" I smiled as I said it.
"Well the cops are probably going with the fact that people who cross you seem to wind up not breathing so well." He did laugh at his little joke.
"Not true, I hardly ever kill anyone who is not trying to kill me. It does however seem that an awful lot of people are trying to kill me these days." I went on to explain the David and Bathsheba thing to him.
"Sounds to me like the General is our man," Janson suggested.
"Not really, I think that was to get me away from Gwen. He doesn't really strike me as the murderer type. But then who knows? These people all seem to be a little out of plumb."
"Does that include Gwen?" I could tell from his tone Janson was trying to probe a little. It was the sign of a good news whore and also why people hated us.
"Because we work together I am not going to answer that. However, on the upside I am not going to punch your lights out either." I smiled a comrade smile. Hell, I thought it was.
"Good, but Preacher, again, do not let the glasses fool you." He had a very confident look. I decided there and then that Janson would do.
Janson went to the news briefing that day. I prepared for my afternoon meeting with Edmonds. It was after lunch that I finally made my way to the American Mission in NhaTrang City. Unlike the Embassy in Saigon, the Mission had no walled compound. It was simply a house almost in the downtown. It had a Marine guard on the door but that was the total security. I guessed that minor diplomats weren't considered a great loss.
"Preacher Burke here to see Michael Edmonds," I explained to the solitary Marine guard. He simply nodded as he picked up the telephone. He repeated my statement to someone inside. We both settled in to wait.
After only a couple of minutes he put the phone down after saying, "Very well."
"Sir, someone will be down to escort you to Mr. Edmonds' office." He kept a close eye on me for the next five minutes.
It was a young Vietnamese woman who came for me. "Mr. Burke?" she asked, extending her hand to me.
"Yes, that is I." I admitted it with a pleasant smile. Of course I did check her hands for weapons.
"Walk this way, please." As the old joke goes I could never walk that way. In her case it wasn't because she was sexy. Rather because she moved very gracefully like a dancer. She led me into the house, then up the stairs. It was obvious that the house had been some Frenchman's villa. It was far too western to have been a converted Vietnamese house. No Vietnamese would have wasted as much space on the stairs as the builder had allotted.
Edmonds' office was in what had been a smaller bedroom to be sure. His position was such that he had no adjoining bath. He was a 'walk down the hall to pee' diplomat. Lower level all the way. He was however a tall thin man who seemed to be in pretty good shape. When he spoke it was with the Boston accent suddenly so popular in the government. A hold over from the Kennedy days.
"So you are the famous Preacher Burke." He extended his hand. "I have certainly heard a lot about you recently."
I was a little surprised but not at all taken in by his bullshit. "You might have heard the wrong things, Edmonds. I am looking into the death of Tracie Amos. You did know her, didn't you?"
"Preacher, you don't mind me calling you that, do you?" I shook my head. "I have been getting calls for the last couple of days warning me you would be coming to see me. They are also telling me you are a straight shooter. I figure the best thing I can do is to cooperates with you. I do want you to know I don't give a damn about the publicity. I am a diplomat, not a soldier. We don't have to look lily white just now."
He stopped for air. I thought it might be time to deflate him a bit. "Then you don't mind being compared to Burgess or McClean?" I was pretty sure it would wake him up.
"I haven't sold secrets, damn it," he said that quickly and angrily.
"No, but kinky sex sure makes you a suspect these days. I picked up the family picture from his desk without permission. What I am trying to say Edmonds is just tell me the truth and I might keep you out of it. Lie to me and I will hang your ass. So I guess you do have reason to worry no matter what you think."
"You are just what I expected - the worst of both worlds: a news whore and a military type. I was warned about you."
"Who would warn you about me? Certainly not one of those military types you hate so much. Could it have been Mistress Lacrosse? I expect I am going to have to pay her another visit. I will be sure to mention why I am there. I expect that will make you real popular with her."
"Okay Burke, what do you want to know?" He was pretty much deflated.
"I want to know what it was exactly that you and Trace did together."
"So it is the details that turn you on, Burke?" he asked.
"You guys really need a better line than that one. I have not been embarrassed to ask the others. Why the hell would you think it will embarrass me now?"
"Very well, Tracie and I had a couple of sessions. It was mostly verbal abuse with a little flogging thrown in."
"Exactly how did you have sex with her Edmonds?"
"I cannot believe you find the details anything but salacious."
"Edmonds, how come you can do it but have difficulty saying it?" I asked it not sure what he was going to say even though I acted as if it did.
"Tracie and I always did it anal." He was defiant when he said it. It took a second to register with me.
"So you beat her and you did her anal. Oh yeah, you called her names. I suppose you did all this while she was tied to the bed?"
"Or a wall," he offered.
"Where were you the night she was killed?" I asked it not even interested in him as a suspect. I just asked to be thorough. He didn't seem the type to murder her. Still, if he did not have an alibi accidental death was still a possibility.
"To tell you the truth I was with a woman from the club." He was still looking me in the eye.
"So, a hooker, or a true believer?" I tried not to sneer but it didn't come out that way.
"I paid the lady to be a believer for a while," he replied. He was still looking defiantly at me. I had the alibi though it wasn't much of one. If she had sex for money, lying for money would be a snap. Still I needed to check them all before I started challenging any of them. I actually hoped the cops would solve it before I did. I just didn't want the task of deciding what to do about a killer.
"I will be seeing you again," I suggested to Edmonds as I left. He looked nervous but did not speak.
I nodded to the Marine as I waited on the curb for a taxi to pass. I waited for a few minutes. There was never a cab when you wanted one. I was about ready to start walking toward the more active street a couple of blocks north when I heard a beep behind me. The beep was the Marine guard and his Sergeant waiting to exit the drive.
"You need a lift, Preacher?" the Sergeant asked.
"At least to a busier street," I replied.
"That I can for sure do. Get in the back."
I was seated in the back of the jeep as it pulled out. The Marine on the door started it. "If I tell you something do you have to say where you heard it?"
"So far there has never been a reporter forced to give up a source. I pretty much doubt I would be the first." I meant it when I said it too.
"You was talking to Edmonds about the woman, weren't you?" he asked.
"Yes I was. What can you tell me?" I was waiting for an answer. He looked over to his Sergeant, who nodded his approval.
"Edmonds has whores come to the Mission during the day sometimes. I don't know what he does or where he does it but they look mighty bad sometimes."
"How do you mean 'bad'?" I didn't want to put words in his mouth.
"Like they had been beat up. Preacher, I mean really beaten, not punched. Do you know what I mean?"
"I think so. You mean they did not have broken bones or black eyes. They just looked like the victim of a whipping." I looked at him for his agreement.
"Yeah, like a dog looks after you whip it. That kind of look on their faces. Then too, they would be draggin' ass, if you know what I mean."
"Yeah, I think I do. A beating takes a lot out of you I expect.
"Yeah, that is what I think," the Sergeant said. "Now you gonna forget where you heard it, right?"
"Heard what, Sarg?" I asked.
When I got back to the office Janson and I wrote articles until five. We were about to leave for the day when I asked, "Janson, you a big time researcher?"
"The biggest. Why?" He was suspicious that I was about to stick him behind the desk again.
"Can you get me some really scientific articles on the S&M stuff?" I looked at him but not very strongly. If he had refused I would have dropped it.
He moved to his desk. He then opened the top drawer, removed a stack of papers direct from the teletype machine. "Synopsis of the articles, if you want the whole thing I can write and have them mailed."
"This should do," I began looking at them while we waited for the cab. Then in the cab I finished my quick once-over.
The cab dropped us at Mama Leu's hotel/whorehouse. We walked through the lobby."
"You want to come to the house for a glass of tea?" I asked it to be neighborly.
"No thanks, I am going to get some sleep. I might come down for dinner in a couple of hours."
"When you gonna find a place?" I asked because he hadn't mentioned it since the first night.
"I thought I would just stay here a while." He looked at me, then said with a grin, "Don't let the glasses fool you." With those words he walked into the lounge, took a girl by the arm then up the stairs they went. I grinned as I walked into the courtyard.
When Gwen arrived home she disappeared into the bedroom. The air was cool and damp again. Everyone in the Nam was preparing for the rainy season. The rainy season was almost a time to rejoice. The fighting would die down for a month or so while all of southeast Asia got drenched. That night though, the rains hadn't started.
Gwen came into the living room from the bedroom dressed in a long skirt with a very warm looking sweater. Where she kept getting the clothes was a mystery since she had packed only two small bags. I certainly was not curious enough to ask the beautiful woman.
Gwen and I walked the short distance to the beach, fishnet bag in hand. The picnic consisted of fruit, cheese and wine. Mostly it consisted of wine consumed beside a roaring bonfire of driftwood. On the South China sea at the time the driftwood was mostly pieces of packing crates used to ship war materials into Camron Bay. Fortunately for us there was plenty of it lying around. The picnic would have been impossible without the roaring fire.
I was sitting on a log when Gwen came to me. I wasn't sure what she had in mind until she rearranged her clothing, then mine. She sat in my lap facing me. I was trapped inside her while she rocked gently on me. She lifted her sweater. Then pulled my head to her breasts. She held me captive as she rocked on my lap and held me close.
The passion came for her in small bursts as she moved. Finally it happened for me. She held me for only moments longer. I noticed again in the light of the fire that her eyes appeared damp. I tried to speak. She prevented it by kissing me passionately. When the kiss ended I had forgotten what I planned to ask.
Later that evening at home Gwen gave me a couple of lessons in lovemaking. It was done in a loving way so I never felt as if I had disappointed her previously. It was all strange to me but not alien. I had heard the stories and rumors that people did those kinds of things. I just assumed they were not my kind of people. I was learning about the kind of person I was all of a sudden. It seemed I wasn't all that different. If enjoying Gwen's idea of love made me perverted I had suddenly become a Class A pervert.
Gwen slept in my arms that night but without the tears. She wiggled her butt against me while she slept. Holding her in my arms while trying to sleep was not easy since it was a strange sensation It was not however an unpleasant one.
The next morning Janson caught us in the kitchen drinking laboriously created coffee. We all had breakfast together again. It was a pleasant way to begin the day.
"Well Preacher, I didn't want to tell you at the office yesterday. I was afraid you would just take off again. I found your Librarian."
"Where?," I asked since he mentioned taking off again.
"He is on a mountaintop in Laos," Janson didn't even smile when he said it.
"What the hell are you talking about? What would he be doing there?" I had a feeling something was not going to be good in his reply.
"Did you know the CIA had an Army over here?" Janson seemed to enjoy enlightening me.
"I had no idea. I did know they had an Air Force. So Thomas is some kind of shadow warrior?"
"Yep, an advisor to the Montenyards. Those, my dear Preacher, are historical enemies of the Vietnamese. The CIA is equipping and leading them against the Ho Chi Min trail. That is how most of the supplies for the Army makes it south."
I thought for only a second. It was all the thought needed to figure it out. I had to go to him unless he was coming down anytime soon. "I don't suppose he is in NhaTrang City, is he?"
"Sorry Preacher, he has gone back to the mountains." He truly did look unhappy giving me the news.
"So I guess I have to find me a Air America flight?" I said it looking unhappy at the prospect. I knew those guys from my last tour. They were crazy.
"I can get you on a military C130 to Thailand. Then a C123 to Vientiane. From there it is some kind of wacko thing they call a STOL."
"Yeah I know," He looked surprised. "Short Take Off and Landings. They use them on small under-developed runways. I knew a couple of Air America pilots once." I tried not to look at Gwen as I asked, "Can you get me the authorizations?"
"Yes, I already have. I just wasn't sure when you wanted to leave." Janson also did not look at Gwen. "Can you give us a couple of minutes."
"Sure, I wanted to go out for some air anyway." He said that as he finished his coffee. I watched Janson walk out the door.
"Honey, you know I have to go do this. I really do hate to leave you but soon we will have all the time in the world together." I put my arms around her from behind. I felt her stiffen. Come on Gwen, I have to do this but it will be over soon."
"I know," she said sadly.
"What? When it is over I promise I will stay home more." I hoped it was true.
"I am going to be late for work," she said as he began collecting her things.
"Gwen please," I said it to her back. She didn't even look back as she answered me.
"Preacher, it is okay. I know you are just being you." With those words she opened the door. I could either follow or not but she was gone for the morning. She didn't even kiss me good-bye. It was a good thing I wasn't planning to get killed. She would have felt terrible sending me off to battle without a kiss good-bye.
I hung the 'new' duffel bag with the shotgun and M70 over my shoulder. My old duffel bag was somewhere in a chopper belonging to some Cavalry unit somewhere in Vietnam. I met the two of them in front of the hotel. The little Honda taxi was stuffed. My duffel filled the trunk and the three of us filling the seats. The little yellow thing struggled to get us first to Gwen's office, then to the AP office.
Janson confirmed the arrangements then rode with me in a cab to the air base. He went off to the morning press conference. I caught a shuttle bus to the operations office.
When I arrived at the operations office what I can only describe as my day in hell began. I was informed first thing that the flight to Thailand was late. Engine trouble I was told. It was always comforting to know, the plane you about to take over enemy territory had engine trouble but is on the way to get you.
I spent two hours in a plastic chair that bore no resemblance to the shape of my butt. When the plane did arrive I spent another half hour in a seat made of canvas stretched over an aluminum frame. It was even more uncomfortable then the plastic chair in the waiting room. The flight to Thailand lasted only a short while less than a half-hour for sure.
Again I waited in a matching plastic chair for an hour. Finally when my butt could take no more they called me for the flight to a small base in the north of Thailand. From that base I could get a STOL into the bush.
The STOL did not leave for six hours so I found my way to the Officers Club. I had little in common with the pilots. I had even less in common with the administrative types who mostly hung out in the O club. I drank watered down Bourbon alone at the bar for most of the six hours. When I arrived it was late in the afternoon. The STOL was the dispatch plane. It went to all the outposts delivering the mail. If I missed the dispatch flight that night it would be a cargo plane the next day. The cargo plane did not stop. It flew over at about twenty feet. The Load Master kicked the cargo pallet out the rear drop door.
I did not think I would like the sudden landing so I was determined to make the messenger flight. Air America flights were notorious throughout the theater for leaving on a whim. The plane had not arrived when I showed up at the operations building. The operations building was no more than a desk inside a hanger on the "native" side of the strip.
The hanger contained planes with about every possible markings. Some had the bulls eye patch of the Thai Air Force. Others the elephant of the Laotian Air Force. Still others the star of the USA. I would not have been surprised to see the NVA flag on some. After checking in I sat in another very uncomfortable plastic chair waiting for the messenger plane to arrive.
I should not have been surprised to find the aircraft not much more than a Piper cub, but I was nonetheless taken aback. The plane could carry maybe four people, or two and the mail bags. The pilot looked to be about nineteen years old. I am sure he was older but he sure looked like a milk drinker to me.
He killed the engine just inside the hanger. I watched him walk to the operations desk. The old man behind it spoke a few words. The pilot walked over to me.
"You the Preacher?" he asked.
"That would be me," I replied.
"Some kind of missionary huh?" he asked.
I smiled inside if not outside. I wondered if it was just a name mistake or if Janson had used that story to get me a seat on the plane. Reporters sure wouldn't be very popular up there. "Something like that," I replied.
"What brand," he asked.
My childhood kicked in at that point, "Baptist. So what faith are you?" I figured the question would shut him up and it did. He mumbled something I didn't understand then led me to the plane.
I had been wrong. No Piper Cub ever had an engine the likes that one. The whole front of the airplane was one massive throbbing coffee grinder. The prop had three blades which created a hell of a slipstream. I climbed into the passenger seat feeling slightly ill. I figured by the time the plane began to move I would be tossing the Bourbon into the air.
"Hang on Reverend, these takeoffs and landings are a bit hairy," the pilot shouted over the engine noise. I knew from experience exactly what he meant. Even so I was not prepared for the take off. No matter how hard they tried a giant C130 could never do an assault take off like the STOL. The damned thing seemed to go straight up. I was on a rocket ride as we climbed to clear any possible ground fire.
"You okay Reverend?" the pilot asked
I nodded since I didn't trust my stomach enough to open my mouth. Once we were at altitude the flight was pretty good really. I got the best aerial views I ever had of the area. Somehow I never took a look around in a helicopter. The feeling of being about to crash at any minute didn't lend itself to rubber necking.
The plane that afternoon was flying with the sun behind us as we headed toward the base camp with no name. The pilot motioned for me to put on the headphones. A second after I did his voice came through them.
"We should be at your destination in about an hour. Got to make a stop on the way." He seemed to enjoy my reaction to being in the air an hour. He waited a minute before he continued. "We won't be up all that time. It isn't much longer than usual. I have a little errand to run on the way is all."
"Personal?" I asked.
"God no, I do not mix business with pleasure. It is a good way to get killed here. Keep your mind on the job and stay alive." It seemed as though I was supposed to get some great insight from that. I didn't.
The sun was still above the trees when we dropped like a rock onto a small strip at the edge of the tree line. When we were down, but not shut down, about a dozen men came running to the plane. They removed several bags of rice then replaced them with bags of god only knew what. I knew better than to ask.
We were in the air five minutes later. The pilot did not explain and I did not ask. We flew for about thirty minutes in silence. I was lost in the beauty of the landscape. I even thought, God, it was so quiet and beautiful up here and so deadly down there.
"There it is," the pilot said, motioning to the small grass strip. At one end there were several small houses. On first glance I knew it was a prefab village. It was not a native village but one some government had built. It looked too much like a suburb in the States. Not that the houses did, they just all looked alike. It was not the way twenty individuals would build houses.
The airplane dropped even more steeply than it had the last time. The pilot seemed to get off on scaring hell out of me. I think they all did. It was a game to see who could make the most non- pilots toss their cookies. I held onto mine but barely.
The plane was meant to be on the ground only minutes. The pilot seemed impatient as I struggled to get myself and my duffel bag from the plane. I made it to the ground before he taxied off. I barely made it out of his way. When the plane pulled passed me I noticed what I thought was an American standing with the dispatch bag in his hands.
I waited for the roar of the revving engine to subside before I spoke. "Name is Preacher Burke. I came to see Aaron Thomas," I shouted it without a reason. It was the roar of the engine still in my head.
"You don't have to shout old man, I am not deaf," came the reply in a very clipped British accent.
"Sorry, I still hear that damned plane in my head," I smiled but he did not.
"What you want with the boss?" he seemed to be more than curious. I supposed it was battlefield comrade.
"Personal," I replied.
"Not much personal here," the man replied. I realized then that he was a good half a head taller than my six feet. He was also about twenty pounds heavier. I suddenly regretted not having worn the Colt replica.
"Well this one is," I replied, not backing down an inch. If you back down from a warrior, he will never stand beside you in a fire fight. It is a respect thing.
"Okay mate, just follow me." I fell behind him as we walked through the main street of the little village. I was not surprised to see women outside the huts cooking and washing. In the kind of war these people fought the whole family was involved. They were engaged in the most basic of warfare. For them it was kill or be killed twenty four hours a day. Not like the Americans, who walked out five clicks to fight the enemy most days. These people fought on their own land everyday.
I walked behind the Brit. He climbed five steps into a hooch and I followed along right behind. When the man finally stepped aside I saw what had to be Thomas. He was sitting at the desk but he seemed to fill the whole room. He looked up at me for a couple of seconds, assessing me before he spoke.
"So Reverend, you came to save our souls, did you?" he asked in a booming voice.
"You guys have me mistaken for somebody else. I came to talk to you about a dead woman in NhaTrang City."
"What dead girl?" He seemed to be as surprised as I would have been had I not known it myself. It was a good sign I decided. Taking him out of that place might be damned near impossible.
"Tracie Amos," I replied,watching his reaction. Again he seemed to be genuinely surprised.
"I am surprised but I can not say totally. Tracie played some really rough games." He looked at me with new interest. "Hell, you aren't a Preacher. You are 'The' Preacher." He laughed as he stood to offer me his hand. "I sure have heard a lot about you."
"Seems our girl Tracie had a big mouth," I replied, taking it.
"She did. She also loved to put down the half-assed Doms. Doms are like coffee. They come in all strengths. The really strong ones she could get off on. The ones who just pretended to be tough to get a blow job she humiliated. One of them must have offed her."
"How did she humiliate them? It might help me figure out who killed her." I said it so that he knew I had pretty much dismissed him as a candidate.
"Well I only saw her do it once, but I know she did it often. Some half assed Major was telling her about his battle actions. You know, the real hero type. He got really pissed when she laughed at him."
"Pissed enough to kill her?" I asked.
"Not him, he went out and got zapped the next week. Anyway, she laughed. She told him she knew the baddest mother fucker in the Nam. She informed him that the baddest worked for her."
"What makes him so bad?," the Major asked.
"Cause he done a tour here and it wasn't enough. He came back as a reporter and still won't stop it." She then went on to tell the story of fire base Lima. That asshole Major just wouldn't give it up so she went into your grunt days too. In the end everybody in the place was almost as impressed with you as they were with her. Tracie could make you feel like a king or a fool. It seemed that she chose on a whim."
"So she traded the blowhard Major for you?" I asked.
"She did. For about a week we spent a lot of time together. Preacher, I stopped seeing her mostly because they finally got this place built. We moved a whole village here to make it harder for the Cong to retaliate against these people."
"Frankly Aaron, I don't care about these people. You said mostly. Why else did you break it off with her?"
"She was a little far into the masochist bit for me." He saw the bewildered look on my face. "She liked to be hurt. Her rule was do not hit me in the face and break no bones otherwise I am game for anything. Frankly Preacher, I walk away when we have to torture some Cong. I just couldn't get into her thing."
"Got any idea who might have killed her?" I asked it not hoping for much.
"How did they find her?" He asked it with a look of curiosity on his face.
"Tied to a bed, no tools around her, the bruises did not look fresh," I suggested. "She was strangled with a piece of silk."
"Then it was not in play. I have been with her. There should have been dildos and blood. Not a lot of blood but some. I don't know about anybody else but we never played with choking. I know some do, but we never did."
"So who would you guess?" I was hoping for more names.
"Gwen or the General," Thomas said evenly.
"Why do you say that?" I tried to hide my surprise at Gwen.
"Well, the General because he was playing with her. He would not like her to tell Gwen. She would leave his ass in a minute. Her because if she found out she might just do it in anger."
"Would Tracie let Gwen tie her to a bed?" I went on trying not to think about what he had just said to me.
"They were more than just friends you know. Preacher, I am not sure how much more but they were."
I was suddenly ready to go home. I had brought the weapons in case I decided to go out with the Montenyards but I had no desire at that moment. I was feeling a little ill. "So when is the next plane out of here?"
"Ah, Preacher did you look outside? It has started to rain. You might be here a long time. The messenger plane does not fly in this weather. The cargo drop will go on but I do not think you can run that fast or jump that high."
"Then I guess I have to beg for a dry spot to sleep."
"Sorry Preacher, no passengers on this train. However, if you were part of our little band of gypsies, we could find you a spot."
"I suppose your gypsies fight in the rain?" I knew the answer. I had a hell of a time getting the ARVN troops to fight in the rain but when we did we always were successful. No soldier likes to fight when he is wet and cold. The aggressor has all the advantages. The question was really would there be any targets in the monsoon.
"We have been known to set an ambush or two." Aaron Thomas smiled.
"Okay, I will go along to observe. So when do we go for our little hike?" I asked it hoping for a day's rest before it happened. From the bedroom with Gwen to the jungle was quite a leap in one day.
"About midnight," he replied.
"One more thing. Where are you and the one who met me at the strip from. The accents are hard to place. Brit, Canadian or Aussie?" I asked.
"Damn, you Americans are so provincial. South Africa. We have years of experience fighting these kinds of wars. I have to admit your book is a great help."
"My book?" I asked it with a great question mark since I had never written a book.
"This one." He tossed a soft bound manual on the desk. It was dog eared from overuse.
'"The American Advisors in Vietnam"'. Catchy title but it will never make the best seller list." I said it grinning.
"I know but it is fascinating. Most of the ambushes are very well explained in it. As a matter of fact I have been dying to try the company strength floating ambush. Now seems like the ideal time. After all we have an expert here."
"Sorry, I was never involved in one of those. I was small unit tactics only. My group could never find enough Cong to make a decent fire fight."
"Ah Preacher, you are way too modest. Your 201 file betrays you," Aaron Thomas laughed out loud.
"How did you get my 201 and more important why did you get it?" I wasn't at all angry. There was nothing in my old Army personnel records that bothered me. Not even the investigation into the death of an American squad leader.
"Let me see...as to the how, I am with the CIA. We can do damn near anything we want. Why?Frankly after Tracie I was curious. Do not be surprised if someday someone offers you a job."
"Tell them not to bother. I like the one I have," I admitted.
"Yes, but Preacher does it like you? I know you got a Peabody, but it ain't the Pulitzer is it? Tracie says, er said, you were a terrible writer."
"You know I hear that so much I am beginning to believe it."
"Then you should give the Company some thought," he suggested.
"If the offer ever comes I will think about it. Not much job security though," I suggested.
"Are you kidding? There is always a war somewhere," he laughed as he spoke.
"So can I get a meal and a nap before midnight," I asked it seriously.
"We only eat native here and there are no deodorants or after shaves allowed."
"Well give me an hour asleep in this heat and the deodorant will be gone. That sweet smelling shit is for pussies," I replied. "I am not crazy about native food but it will not be my first one. Just tell them to skip the puppy."
"We don't eat puppy. Preacher, that is the Viets. Montanyards would not be caught dead eating a dog. They are too civilized. Go on out and pick a stew pot you like. You can find a sleeping mat in our hooch. We can even find you a GI blanket. It is gonna be cold tonight.
Midnight came way too early for me. I could have slept two more hours at least. I stumbled outside to the sounds of the night and not much else. The Yards were well trained in noise discipline anyway. It was a real task to train anyone to keep quiet but Aaron had somehow done an excellent job.
Forty or so men stood waiting for Aaron. I stood on the porch of the staff hooch unpacking, then loading the Winchester with the polychoke on the end. I crossed my chest with the bandoleers of ammunition. The belts were filled with shotgun shells, double ought buck ,and twenty m70 high explosive rounds. The m70 hung across my back diagonally.
"The name is Steve," the large man I had met at the airstrip suggested as he walked onto the porch. "You gonna lead an ambush team I hear. If you fuck up and get a yard killed I will eat your liver." He walked off the porch.
"Nice meeting you too," I replied.
"Where the hell did you get a green shotgun?" Aaron asked as he took it from me.
"Got me. My uncle found it somewhere," I replied.
"Do you want to sell it?" Aaron asked.
"Don't think so," I replied.
"If you ever do let me know," He suggested as he stepped off the porch. He turned back. "Did Steve tell you the plan?"
"Just that I was to lead an ambush and then something about his strange choice of food."
"I see," Aaron was smiling. "Well, we are going to try the floating ambush. I thought you might like to lead one of the ambush teams."
"Hey, it is your ball. I just came to play." I was trying to keep all my body functions going as they should. Terror seems to reverse their normal condition. Things that stay in tend to want to come out at the worst of times.
We walked quietly down a twisting trail until we reached the valley below. I did not see the sentries but I knew they had been there. We walked for hours before we were deep enough in the jungle. Aaron sent for me.
"Steve, you and the Preacher will each take five men. I want you to set up about a half click down the trail from me and each other. Preacher, you be on the north end. Make sure you let enough of them get by so that Steve has some bodies in his kill zone. Hit them hard - then you know what to do."
"So Steve, you like being bait," I asked it with what I hoped was a smile.
"All in a days work for the worm," Steve replied. He just stared at me. Not a hint of a smile.
I nodded. Just so the home team could have the final word. The larger body of men dropped off in a slightly less overgrown area. Steve and I walked on to the trail. I could tell when we got close. The tension in the Yards grew. There was even less noise as the twelve of us moved through the bush.
I saw the opening in the jungle which marked one of the many trails known as the Ho Chi Men trail. Actually there was movement on the trail. We knelt in the jungle until it passed.
"Okay hero, give me some targets before you begin." He didn't look all that happy with his position at the moment.
"Do your Yards know how to spring an ambush?" They obviously knew or they would all be dead. I couldn't help asking though.
"They will follow your lead. Just make damn sure you do it right." Steve did not like me much. I couldn't blame him. I was a stranger suddenly elevated to his equal. I wondered if he knew it was very, very temporary.
Steve and his men actually went onto the trail to move down it. There was a chance he would happen on traffic headed north on the trail but most of it was north to south. Steve probably wouldn't mind the fight. He looked like the type who was dying to one up me.
I set the four Yards to be left behind, then the squad leader, who spoke some English, and I moved carefully to the edge of the trail. There we set the claymore mines. The claymore was a container of ball bearings. You set it above the ground then set it off with a switch. The ball bearings spread into a mushroom pattern killing everything in the way. I set them low to the ground. The Yard looked questioningly toward me.
"Injures most of them. Takes the legs out. They are no threat to us but somebody had to take care of them, or kill them. Bad for moral to shoot your own men." Without any further explanation he grinned his understanding.
We set the mines ten yards below our kill zone. Our kill zone would be hand grenades first, then we would rake the trail with our rifles. In my case the shotgun would be blasting. After the fighting died down we were to make plenty of noise withdrawing. With a little luck they would follow us in strength. With a little more luck before they over ran us we would be inside the larger ambush. It was meant to take out the largest possible number of the opposition. Give them all the firepower we could then disappear since they had the numbers.
It was hard for me. It would have been impossible for the Yards and maybe even Steve, but I let two small groups pass. A few minutes after four in the morning a long line of men and bicycles passed us. They seemed to go on forever. It was pretty obvious each had an AK47 slung over the bike. I waited until the lead elements were down the trail far enough. Then I sprung the trap. The claymores took out a large number. I heard first the explosions then the screams. Just a second later I was throwing grenades as fast as possible. Most of the gunfire from the NVA soldiers was concentrated on the area where the claymores had gone off. The grenades did not give him a direction to fire.
When the grenades were gone we raked the trail with the rifles. I fired the M70 since the shotgun would do little good through the brush. I tapped the squad leader and he went from man to man tapping them. When everyone was alerted we slipped into the jungle at our rear. I withdrew about fifty yards then set up another ambush site. No claymores and no grenades meant it was going to be a fucking gunfight. Not good for the guys on the downside of the numbers. That, unfortunately, was my side.
I could sense them moving toward us and I wanted to run away. I wanted that more than anything. They stumbled when the shooting began from the lower site. It was closer so they must be on their second ambush site down there as well. Without warning I saw the first of the NVA soldiers appear ahead of me. He was very close. Not as close as I would have liked but they were definitely on to us. I expected there to be a flanking action at the same time.
I opened with the shotgun on him. I had forgotten to move the choke so he took a full load in the chest. The shot lifted him, then tossed him backward into a tree. A small stub of a broken-off limb pierced his back coming out just under his rib cage. He was in effect nailed to the tree.
The contact was very short. Everyone emptied a magazine or two then we took to the jungle again. The company had floated up to us so we passed through their ambush site within seconds. I noticed Steve was already waiting for us. He had been a second or so earlier on the second ambush.
The NVA had figured the strength of the ambush team. They had decided to rush the small ambush team, thereby finishing the fight quickly. They rushed forward with everybody moving fast. First they ran into the claymores of the full ambush company. They kept coming, still not knowing what had happened. Suddenly they found themselves almost surrounded by Aaron Thomas' full command of Yards. It was a slaughter for about five minutes. The NVA staggered back to regroup. Aaron Thomas and his band of gypsies were long gone when they ran forward screaming. Nothing worse than the feeling of a battle cry with no battle. Unless it is shooting your own wounded. Which is what happened. We listened to it as we walked back up the mountain.
When we entered the base camp I dropped to the porch of the command hooch. I lit a cigarette with hands shaking so badly it took both of them to hold the light steady. "Baddest man in the Nam begs for someone to hold his hand steady so he can light a cigarette," I whispered to myself.
Aaron walked up before I finished the cigarette or got myself composed. "What the fuck did you do out there?" he asked angrily.
"Not now Aaron," I snapped.
"I am the fucking commander. You do not tell me when I can talk to you." He was standing too close to me to talk to me like that.
Since he was standing and I was sitting on the floor, I jerked his muddy boot forward. He was suddenly on his ass. I rolled on top of him pulling the Colt replica as I went. I had the barrel in his mouth when I spoke. "You just will not fucking listen, will you? I told you to get the fuck away from me." I didn't even think I thumbed the hammer back.
"Enough, Preacher." I looked over my shoulder to see Steve. If he had been armed I would have killed his boss. He wasn't. He was just standing in the rain. The same rain I had been killing in all night. "He ain't worth it."
I rolled back to my spot sitting with my back against the post. I held the Colt loosely as I lit another cigarette. I was happy to note that my hand did not shake that time.
"You get on the first plane I can get to come in here," Aaron said as he walked away.
"You know he was just asking about the Cong you nailed to the tree. The Yards will be talking for years about the Preacher who crucified the Cong. Don't worry about Aaron, I will calm him down."
"Thanks Steve but I wasn't worried about him at all," I replied.
"No, I guess you weren't." he replied.
Everybody gave me a wide berth for the next couple of days. I wasn't invited on the next ambush. The Yards did smile at me with a childlike smile as they passed. It is very hard to find anything to occupy your time in a village with about a hundred people who do not speak your language. Well not enough for you to say exchange more than a word or two.
On the third day the rain stopped. At least long enough for the yellow airplane to slip in. It left to the waves of the Yards and probably the finger of their Commander. It also left with me aboard. In my duffel bag along with my other weapons I carried a crossbow which I had become quite proficient with over those three days.
The dispatch plane dropped me at the air base in Thailand where the weather socked me in again. While I was stuck on the base I had a machinist make me fifty bolts for the crossbow. He made them from aluminum rods. The rods were used as reinforcing for airplane wings. Which airplanes I did not know or care.
He wasn't the one who paid for the rods. The only labor required was simply the cutting of the rods at a very sharp angle. The angle not only separated them, it gave them a point of sorts. All in all he got the better deal. I got the rods which cost him nothing to make, and he got my last harmonica.
I finally got home after spending a night sleeping in a plastic chair which did not fit any part of the human body. I was in a terrible mood when I arrived at the hotel entrance. I was looking forward to a tepid shower and a real bed. I was pretty sure Gwen would be at work but even without her the bed would be nice.
Mama Leu took one look at me then began to jabber something or other. Actually I got a couple of words. She was trying to tell me something about Janson. I wasn't exactly sure what she was saying.
When she finally ran out of jabber talk, I tried to ask, "So what are you trying to tell me about Janson? Did he kill somebody?" I asked it smiling.
"No Preacher, Yansen is dead," She said it slowly to make sure I understood.
"What do you mean dead?" I asked it thinking he finally went out to see the war and got a chunk of burning lead for his first story. I was about to get angry at his stupidity.
"Military Porice came looking for you. They found his body on the beach."
"Where is Gwen?" I asked.
"Rady go work," she replied.
"When did they find Janson?" I asked.
Mama Leu worked at it a minute. "Thlee day ago."
I shook my head. It hadn't been that long after I left. What had he done to get himself killed I wondered. I dropped the duffel bag on the floor of my house before I went back for a cab.
Ordinarily I would not be caught dead in the NhaTrang City police headquarters but I had no choice. Just inside the door was a Vietnamese cop in a silly blue dress uniform. He even had the white gloves on. I hoped he at least spoke English.
"I need to speak to someone about one of our correspondents - Mr. Janson. I have been told he was found dead on the beach a few days ago." I asked it loud enough for anyone who spoke English in the building to have heard.
"Wait here please," The man said in a perfect British accent.
"We meet again," the large American cop said as he came through the door. Strange Preacher, you seem to be around way too many of murders. So what do you know about this one?"
"Just like Tracie I am baffled. What happened to Janson?"
"Come on in," he demanded, going back into what I assumed was his office. I followed along behind. I noticed his attitude had changed some.
"So what, you decided to be nice to me because you know I am innocent in the Tracie thing?" I asked it hoping to learn something. "You got a suspect now?"
"One murder at a time Preacher. I hear you were out of town when Janson got it?"
"I'm not sure. I don't know when he was killed. I have been gone for five days."
"We found him three days ago. He hadn't been dead all that long. So how was Laos?"
"Not bad, but how did you know where I was?" I asked.
"We talked to Gwen. Very sweet girl," he said with a leer. I didn't know his game but I knew I wasn't going to like it.
"I think so," I replied.
"You and the General," he suggested.
"So what does that mean?"
"It means you are sure getting into a lot of crap Preacher. Since you are proving so hard to kill, if I was you I would watch the people behind me."
"So now you think the General is the killer?" I asked it hoping it was true.
"No, he is not even a suspect in Tracie or Janson. If you get killed, he might be though."
"So what happened to Janson? I asked.
"Best we can tell he went to meet someone about a story. I sure would like to talk to whoever he met." The cop really did look as if he was at a loss. "You wouldn't happen to know, would you?"
"Not a clue. Did you ask Tran? He might have mentioned it to him."
"Yes I asked, and no, he did not mention it to Tran."
"Then I do not have a clue. Wish I could help you." I was deadly serious. I did wish I could help. I had liked the studious Janson. I added him to the list of reasons to keep going.
"Well, I wish I knew who he went to see. It is just too large a coincidence to think this isn't all related."
"I agree. When we get it all worked out it is going to all be the same man."
"I think so, too. Janson had to be onto whoever killed Tracie Amos."
"How was Janson killed?" I asked it to see what, if anything, I could make of it.
"That is what is interesting. He was strangled but he was not tied to a bed. He was garroted. Looks like a piece of cloth same as Tracie. We didn't find it though. Don't suppose your lady friend would know?"
"You don't really think for a minute she garroted Janson?" I am sure the expression on my face was one of total disbelief.
"Probably not, but you never know," the heavy man replied.
"I get it. Now that she is with me she is fair game. Even though last week you couldn't touch her. Damn, you guys are something." He obviously wanted to hit me. I have no idea what stopped him. If I were in the frame of mind to flatter myself, I might think it was my warning to him. I was in his house, so to speak, but he hadn't searched me. He might still remember the feel of that knife against his ribs.
Preacher, you are a complete ass. I am however going to let this one slide. I think you are at the center of all this. Don't worry, our day will come."
"It does seem to be happening all around me, but I am not pulling the strings."
"Have you talked to them all yet?" he asked.
"All I can find. I am still short the mystery man." Just as I said it I flashed on a couple of things. Then for some reason they just slipped away. The only one that stayed was Tracie had done stories on all her lovers. Or she made love to all the men she wrote about. Hell, I had no idea which, if either, was true. I knew in my heart Janson had somehow found out who her last story was about. The one I hadn't been able to get a thing on. I knew without a doubt it had been the cause of his death.
"Well, if you are through with me..?" I didn't think the sentence needed to be finished.
"Yeah, but Preacher don't leave town."
I turned, not believing my ears. I found the cop with a huge grin. I walked away. As I reached the desk on the way out I asked the cop on duty there. "Tell me something. With that accent you must have gone to school in England?"
"I did," he replied with those clipped tones.
"So how come you are directing people in to see American cops. Surely you should be teaching at the university or something?"
"I did teach at the university. I came here to make twice as much money with about half as much work. Seems all the money in my country belongs to the Americans these days." I nodded, thinking I should walk away to ponder what he meant. He stopped me by continuing. "Before you, the French had all the money." He sounded only slightly resentful. He could have hidden it from almost anyone else. I felt it more than heard it.
"That," I told myself, "is why we can never make a difference in the outcome of this war." In phase one of a Guerrilla war the people were fighting a corrupt government with ideals that sounded good. Especially if you were hungry and saw your leaders getting rich, or if you were living on the land while the townspeople seemed rich. In other words it was the poor against the middle-class. If from the very beginning the government had cared about its people the first phase might have never happened. Oh, the civil war that followed probably would have happened. It was a war of ideals that we walked into with too much money and too many western values.
The people hated us because we were different. They also knew that instinctively we saw them as inferior. Guys like me running around shouting dink at them didn't help much. Especially since it was my choice to be in Vietnam.
In the taxi I ran it all over in my mind. It still came out that Janson found out who Tracie's killer was. The only way he could have done that was to find her notes. How could he when Tracie prided herself on writing from memory. She took no notes whatsoever. I was paying the taxi driver when I had another flash of understanding. I remembered something Tran had asked me the week before. Did I want him to develop Tracie's last roll of film. I had told him when he had nothing else to do he should, but not to hurry since I didn't have a story to put with it. Well he must have gotten around to it without my film to process.
Tran was sitting behind Tracie's old desk. It was also the desk Janson had occupied before I left for Laos. "Herro, Mr. Preacher," he said as I entered.
"Hello Tran, what's up?" He had the look of a man wanting to make an announcement.
"I am taking over for Mr. Janson," he replied. He seemed proud of it as he should have been.
"Good for you, How about telling me about Tracie's film?" I waited patiently as he finished what he was doing. I wanted to take him by the throat but I was determined not to. I had just come to the shocking conclusion during the cab ride that it was their country. I knew when I stood looking down at Tran that I was finally on my way home. Gwen and I could find something to do back in the world.
"What do you mean?" He went from being confident in his new position to looking worried in a single heartbeat. That look told me more than all the words he could come up with. I didn't know exactly what he was up to but I knew he was in it more than just accidentally.
"Where is the film you processed for Janson? The roll Tracie shot of her last story." I looked down at him without a lot of emotion. He did not know me well enough to know how close he was to dying.
"I never did develop that film." He was a terrible liar even for a dink. When the dink lied to me I knew something was up.
"Tran, what would you be doing if I were not here?" I asked it to see how sharp his mind was.
"Do you mean you personally, or you the American Army?" He was smart enough to know what I had in mind or at least to suspect it.
"The Americans period. What would you be doing if there was no war?" I tried to ask it in a conversational voice, but I don't think I pulled it off.
"I would be at the University," he replied softly.
"A little old to be a student, aren't you?" I watched him closely as he answered.
"I would be a Professor there," he replied.
"Literature?" I asked.
"Yes, how did you guess?"
"You are sitting behind the desk of a writer and it looks as though you are at home. I would say the AP just promoted you. If they did you had a better background than a simple photo lab technician See how easy it is to reason?"
"Yes I do see."
"Now see this - it is just as obvious that you developed the film. You gave it to Janson and he got killed for it. Now I want to know what was on that film."
"I gave it all to Janson. I do not know who was on the film."
"Then we need to go search the darkroom. There might be some trash to help us. If not, you are going to come up with something else." I continued to judge his reaction. He was hiding something. My patience was running low. He stood and I followed him into the darkroom.
"I told you Preacher, I gave all the prints and negatives to Janson."
I didn't even bother to answer. I slammed him against the wall. I reached on the counter to pick up the stainless steel thermometer. The thermometer had a pointed stainless steel shaft with a round dial on the opposite end. I pressed the pointed end against his right eye.
"You may or may not know me, Tran. You should know this much though. I will blind you. There are very few things a blind dink can do to make a living. Now give me those negatives and the extra prints you made." He didn't answer me so I began a slow steady pressure against the bottom of his eye. He was wondering if I would do it. I tried to make the doing unnecessary by letting him know I was serious. I had just decided to take the eye in a swift move when he spoke.
"In the negative file, I will get them." He obviously figured it was serious.
After he got them with me right behind him I asked, "How about prints? Do you have any?"
"The contact sheet is here," he said that going to a second drawer. I was surprised he had begun to cooperate suddenly.
"Why were you hiding them?" I asked it trying to decide what to do with him.
"Mr. Janson said not to show you. He said you would do something rash. We were trying to keep you out of trouble Preacher." It sounded like Janson, but way too much for the dink. I had other suspicions but I let it go for the time. Fry one fish at a time would have been the advice of my Uncle Deacon. The dink would be around when I got to him. He wasn't about to run off.
The contact sheet was no more than tiny little pictures. So tiny I had to use a magnifying glass to glean their secrets. Even then the shots were extremely small. There was also the fact that Tracie was a piss poor photographer.
"Print this one," I demanded of Tran. It was a shot of the man in front of the American Mission in NhaTrang City. It looked as though it might be the best for identification purposes.
I stood behind Tran in the dark while he printed the picture. He spoke not a word as he went about the almost mindless task. When the print had been in the stabilizer long enough not to blacken in the light I took it. I didn't need it to dry. I recognized the man in the picture.
Well at least the mystery of the last man made sense finally. I put the print back into the fixer to finish the chemical process to make it permanent. "When that dries Tran, I want it."
Tran did not speak. I was tempted to rattle his cage again but held my temper. Part of my more understanding approach to the dinks, I told myself. I left the dark room without the print. I sat at my desk making phone calls. I found the mystery man staying at the most American of the Vietnamese hotels. It was a Holiday Inn by a different name. Tran put the picture on my desk none to gently about fifteen minutes later.
I looked at the picture then spoke to it. "I wonder what you are doing in Vietnam so often?" No sense asking the picture when I could ask him, I decided. Since his type loved publicity I figured I could arrange an interview with him. I also figured it would wait until the next day. A chance meeting might be better, if he had the guts to go back to Lay Vampier.
I made one more phone call. I spent ten minutes. First I argued with the man on the phone. Then we laid plans. The plans included a small black bag from my house. He agreed to have it retrieved and ready for me at his office.
I took a taxi to Mama Leu's hotel/whorehouse. I went through the garden gate as I did not care to hear the jabbering again. The house was empty at three in the afternoon. How so much had happened in so short a time was hard to figure. Most days in the Nam nothing at all happened.
I was far too tired to muse about it. I fell exhausted into the bed. The next conscious thought I had was of being swallowed up in something warm and loving. I moved from deep sleep to twilight sleep slowly. In the twilight sleep I realized the something warm and tender was Gwen. I gently pulled her up so that I could wrap her in my arms. There was a slight stale taste in her mouth as I kissed her wetly. I drifted back off to sleep again.
When Gwen woke me at ten it was with a demanding grinding of her butt into my groin. I changed the angle by moving my torso away from her back. I managed to insert myself into her. I moved slowly because it was hard to keep the angle right. I felt her gasp with every stroke. Finally she tensed then moaned several times. When she finally relaxed I removed myself, then wrapped her in my arms again.
"Oh Preacher, you are becoming a most ungodly lover," she giggled like a school girl.
"I never was much into the God thing after puberty. My mother was but not me. Since I got here I am not sure he exists." I didn't mean for the words to sound so serious.
"God might exist Preacher. I just don't think he can find his way to Vietnam. Too much evil here." With those words she absent-mindedly placed her hand over mine. She moved my hand to her breast. Upon reaching her nipple she forced me to pinch her hard. So hard that she winced in pain.
"I am sorry," I whispered in her ear.
"Why?" she asked. It was clear she was not being anything but confused. She had no idea why I would be sorry for causing her pain.
"Nothing," I replied. I couldn't think of a simple explanation. All the real answers were far too complicated for an 'in bed' discussion. I took a look at the Seiko watch I had bought from the PX on my last visit to the Nam. The hand position told me it was time to get a move on to visit the Lay Vampier.
"Gwen honey, we need to get dressed," I said it knowing she would have no idea what I meant.
"Why Preacher? Are we going somewhere?" she asked it with a frown. I think she wanted to stay in bed a while longer. I knew for sure I did.
"Yes Gwen honey, we are going back to the club."
"Surely you do not mean Lay Vampier. I think you would be killed on sight." She gave it some more thought then amended it. "No, not killed.
Mistress Lacrosse has other plans for you." Gwen smiled.
"I am sure she has something extremely painful in mind," I said in agreement. I was also smiling as I found it all of amusing.
"No doubt," Gwen replied with an edge in her voice.
"Jealous? I like that in a woman." I probably should not have said it but I really couldn't help it.
"Of course I am jealous - it is in the nature of a subbie. It is also the nature of a Dom to roam."
"I am not a 'Dom', dear." I have no idea why I snapped it at her.
"As you wish, Preacher," she replied with a smile which I didn't understand in the least. Gwen slipped out of the bed still smiling. I had a feeling she thought the Vampier was for play. Looking back I am sure she thought I was moving toward the 'Life'.
I hoped Gwen would wear something warm since the chill of the monsoon was still with us. It had also begun to rain again. The nights would be filled with torrential rain squalls. Expecting to be wet and chilled was about the best prediction you could make for the next couple of weeks, possibly a month.
From my bed I watched Gwen dress with great pleasure. She began when she returned from the tepid shower naked. Gwen's hips might have been an inch or two larger than perfect, but she had a great body. Her small tummy added to her appeal. Her breasts were large and pendulous. Gwen was in short a Madonna with a very wicked streak. She was also every man's fantasy lover. An attractive woman to squire around town, yet one who was comfortable to the touch. She was in no way lady-like, but still had the good sense to know when to flaunt her sexuality. She was the most wicked of lovers. That in itself would have been enough for most men. I counted myself more than simply lucky to have her in my arms or in my bed.
Gwen skipped over the underwear. She went directly for a red 'Susie Wong' dress. An oriental tiger decorated the knee length scarlet dress with a very deep slit. The slit was much higher than the dresses I had seen before. Even the ones on working girls in the many NhaTrang City bars. Gwen would have put them all to shame in a burlap sack. In that dress she was going to have me beating men off her. I didn't mind at all. Something about Gwen made me want to take care of her. The more outrageous her actions the more I wanted to take care of her. At least it was how I felt that night. Gwen had a clear plastic raincoat over her arm as I slipped from the bed.
Dressing was simple for me. After a very quick shower I pulled a clean pair of well worn jeans over my shorts. A dingy white shirt covered my hairless chest. I did not wear the shoulder holster. Still, I did not plan to go unarmed into the den filled with men and women who had overactive imaginations. It could prove to be a dangerous mistake.
I did something no man in his right mind would do. I lowered my jeans and shorts. I wrapped an elastic bandage around my hips. Inside the bandage I slipped a .22 mag derringer. It seemed my Uncle Deacon had gotten it from the same can as the Colt Peacemaker replica. It was also a replica pistol but of a gambler's hold out piece. With the pistol secured in a spot I seriously doubted would be searched, I pulled up my jeans tucked in my shirt, then added the bush jacket.
"Damn Preacher, I love watching you dress. You are such a dangerous fucker." Before I could comment Gwen was in my arms kissing me deeply. "You are such an exciting man." The comment was a whisper.
"Not really, but if it turns you on to think so, good. You ready to go?" I asked it knowing she was.
There was a longer than usual line of cabs outside Mama Leu's. It had to do with the rain. The customers were not going to be walking anywhere. The cab drivers were not going to be picking up anyone by cruising on a night like that one. Everything lent itself to cabbies waiting by the door in large numbers.
The tiny Honda delivered us to the club within minutes. The price for the ride went up about twenty percent that night. I guess the driver didn't think I would complain. He was wrong of course. I gave him the correct change for the non-monsoon priced ride. He jabbered as Gwen and I ran for the door. He didn't have any choice in the matter. He hadn't negotiated the price before the ride. I simply ignored him.
The club employee on the door must have recognized me from the week before. He made noises so I opened my coat. He was almost satisfied until Madam Lacrosse came to the door. She spoke to him in Vietnamese. Then she turned her attention to me.
"Preacher, I am so glad to see you. You do not mind if we check your pockets. I would not like another incident like the last one." She smiled sweetly through it all.
"Not a problem, I expected it. I left the piece at home." I stood calmly while they patted me down. As my Uncle Deacon predicted, no man wanted to reach in my crotch for a weapon's check. I had no plan to use the piece, but when in indian country one should go about armed. It was my saying, not Deacon's.
After the pat down Gwen and I were allowed inside the club. Just as before I was taken with how dark the inside appeared, the bar was lit in pools of light. Each table likewise was inside its own spotlight. Gwen and I sat at the bar, much to Mistress Lacrosse' chagrin. We drank Bourbon while we waited. Actually I drank more coke than Bourbon.
The man I expected arrived an hour or so after Gwen and I. He moved past us with a group of others of the same ilk. They were a little drunk and a little loud, but not so obnoxious as to be ejected.
Gwen seemed to notice my interest in them. "Preacher, I do not like the way you are looking at those men. What do you know?"
"Nothing for sure but I am going to find out. Did you ever see any of them with Tracie?"
"Preacher, I told you I would give you no names." She didn't even try to soften it with a smile.
"Hell Gwen, I can give you the name Wilson White, Chief of Staff for the Senator from California. Just tell me if you ever saw him with Tracie."
"Yes, once when she first got here. I think they met right in this club. Tracie hung out here a lot at first. She was desperate for a Dom. She whined about it all the time. I think she and Wilson played at it some. The General swore he was too wimpy to be real Dom. More like a subbie trying to be a Dom. Men have a hard time being subbie I think." It was a lonf speech for Gwen.
I talked with Gwen while running my hand up her leg. Yes, I did enjoy it, but it was mostly for show. My attention was riveted on Wilson White. I did hope it was not too obvious. He waited at least an hour before he left his table headed to the men's room.
"Wait fifteen minutes then get a cab home. Gwen, do exactly as I say. This is serious." I left Gwen at the bar. If she noticed that my departure was prompted by Wilson White's actions she did not mention it. I followed White into the men's room. He was inside the partitions while I opened my pants to remove the Derringer. I slipped it into my pocket then pretended to wait for the toilet. Wilson eventually opened the partition, squeezed past me then stood at the sink. If he saw me in the mirror, he did not show it.
I moved to stand behind him. I pressed the Derringer against his neck. "That is a .22 magnum Derringer against your neck, White. If you do not do exactly as I tell you I will empty both barrels into your neck. The slugs will either kill you instantly or at the very least put you in a wheelchair for life."
"Dear God, you are the one they call 'Preacher'. What the hell do you think you are doing?"
"I am about to find out if I need to kill you. See Wilson old man, this is indian country. I can kill you then shout VC. You will be dead and I will get away with it."
"Why the hell would you do that?" He didn't appear to have the right attitude. I turned him quickly. While he was off balance I bitch-slapped him twice. I then wheeled him back to the mirror. Men do not like being slapped. It makes them feel even more violated.
"You killed Tracie Amos, you piece of crap. You think you are going to get away clean because you are a politician. Guess again. You are dead wrong, but mostly just plain dead."
"I do not know what you are talking about. I didn't kill anyone." He sounded about half convincing.
"Okay Wilson, I want her killer, not just anybody. So I am going to find out for sure. You and I are going to take a ride." I forced him from the bathroom then out the rear door of the club. We walked through the downpour to the mouth of the alley. A taxi suddenly appeared from nowhere. Not all that surprising to an onlooker. Taxis tended to do that.
I pushed the Congressman's ass into the rear seat. "Where to?" the voice asked in clipped English tones. The Vietnamese looked familiar to me. I smiled as I gave him the street address. When White attempted to speak I slapped him hard across the face a couple of times. It had the shocking and humiliating affect I expected.
The cab driver saw or heard it. I am not sure which. "Hey G.I You and your girlfriend want to fight fine, but not in my cab." He laughed. I thought it a nice touch. I had to fight to contain my smile. It was raining so hard that even if I had allowed White to struggle no one would have noticed. The streets were empty which helped when I hustled him from the tiny Honda into the rear door of an office building. The building appeared to be empty.
Once inside I opened a door off the hallway then pushed him down a flight of stairs into a basement room. He caught the handrail to keep from falling down the steps. When he reached the bottom of the steps I spoke. "Sit in the chair, asshole." He knew which chair I meant.
It sat alone in the middle of the concrete floor. There was a drain in the floor under it. Only an idiot could miss the purpose of the drain. He looked up at me terrified.
"So asshole, how do you think you are going to like the real thing. "Sit down." I punctuated the sentence with more slaps to the face. Quick slaps designed to break him down. The slaps backed him up to the chair where he almost fell. Since the chair was made of heavy timbers and bolted to the floor it did not move. I wasn't even holding the pistol on him while I shackled him to the chair.
My stomach turned at what I was about to do. I couldn't eat for days every time I did it. I had spoken to my Uncle Deacon of it. He told me sometimes the song would work as well. It was what I hoped would happen that time. It the song didn't break him then the dance would begin.
I turned my back to him as I opened the old familiar case. The case looked pretty much like a small briefcase. When opened it looked like a simple set of repairman's tools. A closer examination might change the opinion of an informed man. The knives were too delicate. Some were surgeons' tools. Some were wood carvers' blades There were even surgical steel knitting needles.
The five different-sized and oddly shaped pliers were stainless steel. Not many repairmen would invest in so expensive a tool kit. One set of the pliers was obviously a dental tool. Obvious to anyone who ever had a tooth extracted anyway. The jaws were bent at a ninety degree angle. There were four different sizes of diagonal cutters with very sharp jaws. They were also stainless steel. I stepped aside to be sure White saw the contents of the case.
"So, I understand you like to play at torture. Well Wilson, you are about to experience the real thing." I smiled as wickedly as my rolling stomach would allow. "Before we begin let me assure you there are some people who enjoy this kind of thing and some who do not. I would like for you to understand I am one of the sick perverted ones who enjoys seeing an asshole in pain. I will stop when you start to tell me about Tracie. Until you do we will slowly raise the level of pain until you decide to talk."
"Let me assure you that you will talk. The only question is how much you will endure first. No one has ever failed to talk when I interrogate them. By the way, no one will come to save you and no one will give a damn that the Viet Cong tortured you before they killed you. See, this is the land God forgot. I can do anything then blame it on the Cong."
I turned from him to the case. From it I withdrew a long thin knitting needle. "I think we should begin with this one. Since you are into torture you will appreciate this one. I slip it between your ribs. Makes a very small entrance wound. Once inside it can be moved along your ribs. I am told the pain is excruciating. If you survive this, you might want to remember some of these."
"Any time you want you can start talking." I figured he was calling my bluff. The cops probably wouldn't allow me to do much to him before they rushed in. I knew the tape recorders were going to start only when he began talking.
"I am telling you Preacher. I do not know anything about a Tracie Amos. I never met her, let alone killed her."
I tossed the picture of him on his lap. "Tracie took that during her interview with you. Please don't say another word. I prefer to just get this over with." It had become crunch time quickly. Maybe I hadn't done it right but Deacon's song didn't seem to work for me. I reached down to rip his shirt open. I pressed the knitting needle against his skin. It slipped easily between his ribs. He screamed.
His screams echoed in my ears as I moved the needle over his rib. Scraping a bone must hurt like a bitch. I would not sleep for a while, I knew that.
"God please, no more. I will tell you." It hadn't taken more than to convince him I would in fact do everything I told him I would do. Once he knew I was not playing he began to talk.
"I met her when she interviewed me. She took me to that club. I had never been anywhere like it. Then she and I played games."
"What kind of games?" I asked it for the tape recorder.
"You know what kind of games. I pretended to be her Master. She did whatever I told her. When I ran out of things to ask she just did things."
"This was the first time you met her?" I asked it finding it hard to believe.
"Yes, the very first time. I didn't see her again during that trip. Frankly it scared me that I enjoyed it so much. I thought about her the whole time I was home. I arranged this trip more to see her again than anything. She invited me to her place and I went. She wanted me to choke her until she came. I guess she didn't tell me to stop for some reason. Anyway, when I came I noticed her for the first time in a while. She was dead. Since she was already tied to the bed, I just walked away from her.
"So you are going to go with the, 'it was an accident defense'?"
"Preacher, it was an accident. You got to believe me. Now that you see there is no need to call the cops."
"What about Janson?" I watched his reaction.
"Who is Janson?"
"The last guy who showed you a picture."
"Nobody showed me anything. This is the first I have seen of any picture." He sounded desperate for me to believe him. I could understand why he didn't seem to care much for pain. Hell, I was a damn sight tougher than he was and I hated pain. Hated to give it but especially I hated to be on the receiving end of it.
"You mean to tell me nobody has talked to you about Tracie until now?" I asked it, picking up a scalpel. He could hardly answer he was so terrified.
"Preacher, I swear on my mother's life I did not talk to anyone about Tracie but you." I have no idea why but I believed him. I would have to give that some thought. Somebody killed Janson for some reason connected to all this. I just knew it in my heart.
"Well White, even without Janson you got a big problem."
"I know. I am sorry about your friend. She was a special lady but honest to god Preacher it was an accident." White was getting whiny again.
"It might have been Mr. White, but in this country it is manslaughter." The voice belonged to the cab driver.
"Oh thank god Officer, arrest this man." The cab driving police Sergeant was in uniform by that time. "I want to press charges - he has been torturing me.
"Well gentlemen it is time for me to pack up my toys." Those were my last words. I cleaned then replace the items I had removed from the bag.
"Aren't you going to do something? The man has been torturing me!" White was livid.
"Mr. White, I do not see anyone. I do have a tape recording you made voluntarily to me." The tape the police Sergeant played was actually very good. White's voice was very clear. He hardly sounded in pain at all.
"That tape will not hold up in court. Everybody knows you cannot use tape recordings in court. Besides, it was made under duress."
The police Sergeant smiled at me as he said, "Mr. White, I do not care what you were wearing at the time. The courts in Vietnam will accept a tape recording, if the one who made it testifies it has not been tampered with."
He turned his attention back to White. "Let me see, you are an American trying to get your countrymen to run out on my country. I think ten years in a prison here is going to be very unpleasant for you."
"Dear god, what kind of justice do you have here?" he asked angrily.
"The kind who values the life of a young woman," the police Sergeant was standing on the high ground and he knew it.
"But it was an accident." Wilson White was begging and on him it looked awful.
"Hey, ten years is minimal. I hope you have friends who will bring you food in jail. We feed a very simple diet. Families usually supplement it."
The Sergeant turned to me. "Preacher, do you think the people form Club Vampier will help him out."
"Play that whiny tape and they will run from him. They all think they are tough guys. My guess is Wilson White will be a shadow of himself when he gets out."
"Ah, he can probably sell his ass for food." The police sergeant had a truly evil side. I decided I liked him a lot.
"Sergeant, do you believe the accident thing?" I asked it seriously.
"Preacher, there was no skin under her nails. Nothing to indicate she fought it. She just laid there and accepted it. So yeah, you could make a case for accidental death."
"That is what I have been saying," White suggested.
"White, shut up you asshole. I am trying to save your ass. Every time you open your mouth it gets harder." Wilson White, Adviser to the US Senator from the state of California shut his mouth. He hung his head but listened carefully.
Look Sergeant, how about giving him a chance to write a real statement. Then if it sounds okay to you turn him over to the American Military authority. You can do that, can't you?"
"I could, but why should I?" It was a loaded question. I think even White was on to the game by that time.
"I could help you in Congress. I could get this whole funding thing moving again." White looked hopeful. He almost expected it to go his way again.
"I think not, Mr. White. Write me a statement telling exactly what happened. I will turn it in and you over to the Military Police if the statement is like the tape."
While Wilson White wrote his statement the Sergeant and I stood in the corner whispering. "So what will happen to him?" I asked it seriously. I did not want him to get away with it.
"Manslaughter - three of four years in a plush prison somewhere," the Sergeant said.
"Long as he didn't kill Janson I can sign off on that," I said it, smiling at the cop.
"Who gives a fuck if you sign off or not Preacher? I should arrest you for assault."
"Now you sound like him." I pointed to the almost teary eyed Wilson White.
"If I were you, I would leave and forget all about this," the cop suggested.
"Forget what?" I asked, picking up my case.
He caught himself before he answered. "Good one Preacher. Now go find the lovely Gwen before she finds someone else."
"Or as likely someone finds her. Take good care of out little Dom." I couldn't help the evil laugh.
"Sorry I can't drive you home Preacher, but there will be cabs out front I expect. Not even cops like to walk in the rain." He smiled at me then turned a scowl on Wilson.
I left them in the basement of the police station. I had no idea what, if anything, would be happening to Wilson at that moment.
How very odd that I remember the color of that cab. It was a yellow color about the color of a sick child's excrement. I don't think at the time I even noticed. That whole night just seemed to get gouged into my memory like the carving on a tombstone.
I went through the hotel lobby at three a.m. It was quiet finally. All the whores were in bed with their very temporary lovers. I was too far into the adrenaline cocktail to sleep. I almost went into the bar to calm down. In retrospect it might have changed my life if I had. Then again probably not.
Instead I went to my little shack. I opened the door quietly so as not to wake Gwen. I slipped into the bedroom to undress. The bed was bathed in moonlight. It was also empty.
I went from room to room turning on lights. There was no Gwen. Also no indication Gwen had been home since I left with her the evening before. I first thought she might have been in an accident. I was about to start running all over hell looking for her. I might have if I hadn't taken the deep breath. The adrenaline suddenly left me. In its place a dark, seemly bottomless depression set in. I knew it was both a physical and emotional thing.
Instead of assuming the worst, I assumed the most logical. Gwen was out somewhere with someone else. I think I would have preferred her in the hospital with only minor injuries. I found a pack of her Marlboro cigarettes, then took to the porch. I leaned against the entrance arch then lit a cigarette.
I thought, "God, I love cigarettes." The only reason I did not succumb to their many charms was that on the battlefield it could be a deadly habit. However I did not have battlefield problems that night. I gave some thought to the crossbow resting on the floor of the bedroom. I really didn't want to kill Gwen, no matter what she had done.
I finished four of the sin cylinders before Gwen stumbled into the courtyard from the hotel. I watched as she seemed to stagger slightly as she negotiated the path. She didn't seem to notice the tip of the burning cigarette. I assumed she had too much to drink.
"Need some help there?" I asked it as she got close.
"He threw me out. The son of a bitch threw me out." Her voice was shaky but not slurred. I wasn't sure what emotion her tone was meant to portray. It wasn't exactly anger. It was more amazement and possibly hurt even.
"Who threw you out?"
"The General," she replied.
"Do you want to talk about it?" I asked it , surprised by the calm in my voice. My gut was twisting yet my voice remained steady.
She had a far away look in her eye when she asked, "Do I have to?"
"Not at all. But if I don't understand, one of us is going to move out tomorrow. I am not at all sure that when I understand, it won't still happen. I just know if I don't understand, we are quits for sure."
"Preacher, I am not sure telling you what happened is the same as making you understand. You are going to think I am sick either way."
"Are you sick, Gwen?" I asked it, still struggling for some kind of understanding.
"It depends on whose yardstick you use, I guess. If you put a simple little country boy's scale on it then I probably am. If you use a complete slave's measurements then I am pretty healthy.
"You just lost me. I did not understand any of that." I was not sure I was trying to understand her dancing around it. "Just take it slow and simple for this country boy."
"I don't know that there is a way to explain it slow enough for you to understand."
"Well you can try or not as you wish. If you don't this," I said it as I made a gesture to encompass her. "Just tied a can to my ass."
She was way too calm. She had already resigned herself to the inevitable. "Preacher, I am going to try to explain this. Not because I think it will make any difference. I expect you have already passed judgment on me. Nonetheless let me try to explain."
She sat down across from me. We both stared out at the rain. I noticed that the tight dress rode up exposing just about all of her. I could see the red blotches on her thighs. I almost mentioned them but I decided to let her try to explain. My blood ran cold at the thought of those marks and how she had gotten them.
"Preacher, in this 'game', as you call it, there is more than one kind of woman. There are Mistresses, submissive, and slaves. The submissive makes a conscious decision every time as to whether she wants to play. She sets her own standards of what is acceptable and what is not. She is a willing participant in every way. The slave has no will of her own. She will do anything the Master or Mistress demands no matter how vile or dangerous. The slave is miserable without a Master. If she can function at all, it is barely. A submissive is just empty but functions otherwise fairly well. On some level the sub understands it is not real. The slave thinks there is nothing else but the 'Life', or 'game' as you call it.
A slave's idea of heaven is to sit around naked at his, or her Master's feet wearing a dog collar. He can loan them out to anyone and he or she must accept it as their fate. They can be made to do the most vile things."
"Why in the name of God would anyone do that?" I just could not get a handle on it.
"I thought I had a pretty good understanding of myself, but I really don't know anymore. I thought I was doing it for the kicks. Preacher the orgasms are more intense than you could imagine. The feeling of being loved afterward is unbelievable. I thought it was because of their silly code."
"What code?" I asked.
"A sub needs a bit of romance since there is little romance in the sex itself. So they work out these elaborate lifestyle sayings. All very romantic you know."
"Give me an example since I have no idea what you are talking about?"
"Okay, a sub gives her blind love and devotion to her Master. In exchange her Master loves and protects her. He is always there for emotional support."
"Sounds pretty much like the perfect marriage." I suggested.
"Yeah, a hundred years ago. In a D/s relationship the sub is forever under the Master's thumb but some women like that. Hell, I did."
"You mean you did before you met me?" It was a hopeful question, not one I really expected to receive with the wished-for response.
"No Preacher, I am sorry even with you I was hoping. I stopped hoping tonight."
"What happened tonight?" I asked.
"I found out all that is bullshit. The men don't want a loving relationship. They want total control of the woman. I found out what I always feared I would. I am not a submissive. I am a slave."
"Oh come on, you are not a mindless automaton." I said it but I really wasn't sure at all.
"Oh, but I am Preacher. It seems I have been programmed that way since childhood. I knew it from being a submissive. At first I told myself the General brought me into the Life. It is true. I might have gone through life without any of this if I hadn't met him. Then I might have just taken a bottle of pills instead. This is all just a way of coping with who I am, Preacher."
"I still do not understand any of this." I said it because it was the only thing I could say.
"Geese, I know, Preacher. It doesn't make a bit of sense unless you were there during my whole life. Things happen when you are a child. Things that shape the rest of your life. I have some issues with my father. Those issues set me up for the General."
"Okay, I can see that. I guess the older man thing." I said it struggling to understand, but not really understanding.
"Oh Preacher, how can I make you understand? You just have no idea how some lives get wasted before they begin. Preacher I am from a small town. My dad worked in a factory there. Mom was the prefect church lady. They looked like your average run of the mill working class family. What happened inside that little white house with the perfect lawn was a nightmare for me."
For a change I kept quiet. I couldn't think of anything to say.
"I was always a 'Daddy's girl'. Mostly because mom was always doing something for the church. Many nights daddy read me to sleep while mom was at choir practice or something. I would sit on his lap while he read me a story. It just became something we did. At some point I guess I should have stopped. Since I was always a small child it never seemed to be a problem.
I don't even remember at what age he began having erections. Mama was always gone so nobody was taking care of him. I think it was accidental. Like all kids I squirmed while he read to me. I suppose the squirming did it. I noticed it but didn't mention it. I didn't want daddy to stop reading to me. Maybe I just didn't know what it was. Either way, I was just a kid. Without getting into real details, one thing led to another very slowly. It wasn't rape. I am not even sure it was child abuse. I just began to be my daddy's Mistress. It stopped when I got old enough to understand that it was wrong. I asked him to never come to my room again. He never did. Even though it was not socially acceptable it was not until my first sexual experience that I felt guilt and shame. Regardless of those feels I masturbated to those memories.
Preacher, you can imagine what I looked like at seventeen. I was attractive but not a knockout by any means. A lot of what you see in me is illusion. Expensive hair cuts, makeup applied well, the right clothes, they all go into making me who I am these days. When I met the General I was a screwed up but attractive teenager."
"How did you meet him?" I was afraid she planned to skip the mundane details.
"I was sixteen and working after school in a fast food place. He was in town to make a speech at the local Veteran's day celebration. He came in for coffee and to kill a half hour. We talked. He told me about all the places he had been. I was a fascinated little small town girl. He found an appreciative audience. He didn't treat me like a kid. He treated me like a grown up. He never even asked my age."
"I suppose he knew I was too young because he just talked to me that day. He had family in our town so he stayed the weekend. On the second day he asked me to his motel. I understood he could not be seen with me so I agreed to stop in to see him. I told myself it was to talk again but I knew better. He struck the right chord in me and we both knew it.
He began that first night teaching me how to be a good little subbie. Hell, he wanted it and I wanted him. He recognized something in me I didn't. He was stationed a pretty good bit away but he came to town several times that year. I told myself it was because he loved me. In truth it was probably because I would do anything for him. Before you ask Preacher, anything means anything.
I graduated high school without him present of course. I got a call the next morning from some Army guy. I was being offered a job as a civilian employee on the base where the General was a big deal of some kind. It was a low level job, but it put me near him so I took it. The tiny little job was a test. He could have gotten me a high level job if he wanted. The typist job paid little but it was enough. I moved to a little apartment off-base. It was found and paid for by the General. Actually, his aide found it and the money came from some kind of fund so it couldn't be traced to him.
The training began immediately. I could and did say no often that first year. After a while most of it seemed harmless enough so I just went along. I never really argued much until Tracie came along. Oh, I knew the General was turning other young girls onto the life. I just never knew any of them until Tracie. He brought Tracie into our life. I always thought I could have said no to anything. He didn't force me. So if I said yes, I must have wanted it too. Actually I just wanted to please him I think."
"All that is over now, isn't it?" I asked it but I remembered the red welts on her legs.
"No Preacher, it isn't. He sent his errand boy to the club after you had gone. I do not know how he knew but he knew when you left. I should have gotten the cab like you told me."
I didn't want to ask but I knew it was necessary. "So what did you do?"
"The General's Aide gave me a message."
"So what was the message?" I was afraid to hear it but I knew it would haunt me if I didn't.
'Get your ass out of that club and come to me. You were my slut and you will always be my slut."
"Nice way with words for a General," I said it hoping against hope she had seen the humor in it.
"Preacher, my mind just went into a fog. I remembered all the times he had said he owned me. That I was his little slut. I could hear his voice as he spoke to me."
"So you went with the Aide?" I asked it knowing the answer.
"Yes," She looked away from me out into the rain.
"I guess that pretty much tells me what I need to know." If anything it told me what I didn't need to know.
"I'm sorry, Preacher. I wish I had met you years ago." She was looking into the downpour again, avoiding my eyes.
"It would have had to been before the General. I was never into fifteen year old girls... except when I was fifteen." It was cruel but I didn't care at that moment. "So, are you going back to him?" I asked it forgetting for a second her words when she first arrived.
"No, he doesn't want me back. He just wanted to show me he could control me, prove he could have me anytime he wanted. Let me know that I was his slave. He had never used that term with me before. He made sure I understood who I was before he told me to get out. He suggested I come back to you, then he laughed. He told me I would be his whenever he wanted. He meant he would send his Aide for me. He knew I would leave even if I were with you."
"Would you?" I asked it knowing what her answer would be. She might have lied any other night but not that one.
"Yes." She looked about as miserable as any human I had ever seen. It probably saved one of us from doing something stupid.
"Well, you go on to bed. I need to do some thinking." She stood without a word. She walked into the small stucco house closing the door behind her. For some reason it failed to latch. It stood cracked a few inches. What symbolism I thought. The closing of a door. What a simple act but so significant. Like the door to my house, the door to her past would never be completely closed. I wondered if I could at least give her a fighting chance with her past.
"Probably not, but then why not try?" I asked myself. It would be a little for her and a lot for revenge for me.
I realized how close it was to sunrise only when the sky began to lighten. Even in Vietnam sunrises were spectacular. Not so much from inside a walled compound, but in a jungle clearing they were amazing. That morning the sunrise made me sad. I should have spent hours thinking about my situation but I didn't. Instead I went into the house. I began packing up the duffel bag. It was a load but I managed to get it to the sidewalk. I took a cab, then a bus to the Air Force base. My first stop was the supply Sergeant. That particular Sergeant was an avid collector of souvenirs. I left with a second case but short my two pistols. I knew I would have no further need for them anyway. I would have kept the Derringer had he not driven such a hard bargain.
It was mid-morning when I arrived at the fancy apartment house. I checked to make sure the staff car was still in the parking lot before I walked to the front of the building. I carefully aimed the awkward piece of hardware, then pulled the trigger. Nothing seemed to happen for a second. The rocket engine ignited sending the half pound or so of high explosives through the window of his bedroom. I sure hoped he slept late since it was the only rocket I had. I dropped the launcher into a trash bin as I calmly walked away. Just another early morning rocket attack by a determined Viet Cong. It was what I expected to read in the newspapers.
The next stop was the Associated Press office. Tran was in the dark room processing film. He hadn't fully been integrated into the reporter's job. I assembled the crossbow without being disturbed. I entered the dark room to his voice.
"Damn, you just ruined a roll of film. What the hell is wrong with you." He said it all with his back to me. When he turned I could see him in the glow of the yellow safe light. He obviously could see me and the crossbow.
"What the hell?" he asked it very much surprised.
"I am going to kill you Tran. That is what the hell." I smiled as I watched him get really nervous.
"You are finally over the edge. You are crazy man now."
"True, I am a little crazy. You on the other hand are a dead man."
"Why are you doing this?" He asked it with real fear in his voice.
"I can do it because you killed Janson. I actually did like the guy. I can do it because you are dangerous. I can do it because you are a VC agent at least."
"I am not VC." He seemed to be really frightened.
"Sure you are. You recognized the picture of Wilson White. Wilson and his boss are doves. You sure as hell didn't want him turned or even put in jail. Best to keep the friends of the Cong right where they are."
"You are wrong, but why do you think this?" He asked it with a calmer voice.
"Oh, it all makes sense that way. The thing that makes it come together is I would do it if I were you."
"You Americans do not belong in my country. Our bothers in the north are Vietnamese."
"I just fired a captured Viet Cong rocket into the bedroom of an American General. That rocket was made in Russia. I do agree with one thing though, Americans should not be dying in your war. Unless they just happen to be like me."
"Tracie always said you were looking for a place to die. I suppose you found it here?" He was stalling, hoping someone would come rescue him.
"Looks like it won't be the Nam after all dink," I said that as I pulled the trigger, sending the aluminum bolt completely though his chest. The bolt actually nailed him to the wall.
"First Buddhist ever crucified with aluminum." I said it aloud even though no one would ever hear me.
They still hadn't fixed that damn air conditioner. Not only that the Saigon plane was late.
"Burke, where you headed?" It was the pair of murder cops who asked. They had slipped up on me. My excuse for allowing it was simple, I had been up all night.
"Home, guys. I have had enough of the Nam," I smiled a very pleasant smile. I should have been nervous but I was too sleepy. "You guys shouldn't have come all this way just to say good-bye."
"We are thinking about keeping you here. We have some questions."
"What about White? Hell, I thought that was all finished." I said it looking hard from one to the other.
"That one is, but General Barrick got killed in a rocket attack." The heavy one looked at me,
"Rocket attack sounds like an act of war to me. Why would murder police be involved in that?" I looked back just as hard.
"Could be because the witnesses swear it was a white man who fired the RPG."
"I would look to the men in his command if I was you. Could be one of those Frenchmen, you know what sore losers they are."
"Not many men running around the Nam in blue jeans," the smaller one suggested.
"Did you look inside the General's apartment?" I asked. Neither of them spoke but I knew they had. I also knew what they found was not good. "You think the IG will want that in a public trial. If the killer wasn't a Cong, he is going to have a civilian trial. If he turns out to have any pull, you are looking at a newspaperman's holiday. Sure you want to take me in?"
"How about Tran?" the heavy one asked.
My mind had been racing since I arrived at the airport. It was all just for that moment. "Best I can figure he was Cong. He killed Janson trying to protect White." Suddenly out of the blue it hit me. "Then he killed the General to try to hide the S&M connection. Then the poor devil must have been ordered to kill himself, suicide mission." How they were able to choke off the laugh was beyond me.
"Well it is possible, I guess. It might be a little hard to sell that our suspect committed crucified suicide." When he couldn't hold it any longer the thinner cop burst into laughter.
Just then the plane was called. "Preacher, if I was you and got the urge to come back to Vietnam, I would sit somewhere quietly until it passes." The thin one was playing the heavy.
"I can promise you, I will not be back." I walked through the door, then onto the plane. I supposed I would just have to keep looking.
Maybe Uncle Deacon could help me find my place to die, I thought. I knew he would at least have to listen to the events of the last few days. Somebody was going to have to help me make sense of it all.
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