The war juxtaposed life and death, jabbing each against each: a baby carriage next to the bomb crater, a shiny white Mercedes abandoned without a scratch next to the hull of the mobile antiaircraft gun. Nightmare vied with banality: the severed leg of a policeman rotted in the gutter, half covered by a girlie magazine, blood-speckled pages fluttering in the evening breeze.
Just hours before, downtown Hanoi had been hit by four dozen bombs and missiles launched from a wave of Chinese aircraft. The daytime attack had pockmarked the already battered city, starting fires and destroying several buildings. The fires burned largely unabated. The relief forces were drained, and much of their equipment was exhausted as well. A number of fire trucks and ambulances had been damaged by the bombings; a few sat crushed by debris from the buildings they had tried to save. Others sat abandoned where they had run out of fuel. Fire trucks and ambulances still operating no longer used their sirens, as if they were too weak even to sound an alarm.
The center of town had been hit hard. The former French-dot-com bank, once a landmark, was now a burned-out hulk. A residential high-rise not far away had lost about a third of its tower; in the dimming light the jagged edges of bricks looked like an arm rising from the earth, about to rake its claws on the city.
And yet, despite the destruction, the city continued to struggle on, its breath labored yet real. Elements of the bizarre mixed with the defiant and practical. In the same street where citizens had cowered in basements and behind whatever thin shelter they could find an hour before, a parade of black Korean limousines now delivered elegant matrons and twenty-something fashionistas to the Ambasario Hotel for an annual benefit for Hanoi orphans. The women wore brilliantly colored dresses, their hot pink and fuchsia silks a militant stance against the Chinese onslaught.
Zeus Murphy stopped on the street to let a pair of women pass. The soldier felt like a misplaced voyeur, an uninvited guest at a private carnival. He was certainly an outsider—a U.S. Army major dropped into the middle of an exotic land—though he was also more of a participant in the war than any of the dozens of people walking past him in the street.
Zeus watched the women pick up the skirts of their dresses and step over the dried splatters of blood as they walked across the concrete apron to the hotel’s front door. A path had been swept clear for them; a small pile of glass lay a few feet from Zeus’s boots, the fragments glittering with the hint of light from the hotel’s interior.
Most of the women were ex-pats, the spouses and, in a few cases, daughters of men working in Hanoi or nearby. Zeus wondered if they had come out in defiance or to seek some sort of solidarity in misery. There was no longer a reliable route of escape for civilians from the city or the country. Air transport was close to impossible; commercial flights had ended the day before, not only out of Hanoi but also Saigon much farther south. (Saigon was what everyone except foreigners called Ho Chi Minh City.) Even the American embassy had difficulty arranging for helicopters, although it had two flights scheduled for later that day.
The highways south and the sea ports were still open, though how long that would last was anyone’s guess.
Realizing he was late, Zeus started forward, only to bump into a woman who’d been trying to squeeze past him on the pavement. The woman jerked her head around and put up her hands. He reached to grab her, thinking she was going to fall.
She staggered back, regaining her balance. The look on her face was one of dread, as if she had been touched by a ghoul.
Zeus put up his hands, motioning that he meant no harm.
“It’s OK,” he told her in English. He searched for the Vietnamese words for sorry amid his scant vocabulary.
“Xin loi,” he told her. “I’m sorry. Excuse me.”
She took another step, then turned and walked quickly toward the hotel, her pace just under a trot.
Zeus waited until she reached the door before starting again. He, too, was going to the hotel, though not for the show. He had to meet someone in the bar.
Two women dressed in plain gray pantsuits, neither much younger than fifty, stood at the doorway to the lobby. They had AK-47s in their hands. Zeus nodded as he approached. His white face made it clear that he was a foreigner—and not Chinese—and that was all the pass he needed to get in.
At the very start of the war, the Vietnamese had posted soldiers at the large hotels used by foreigners, more as a gesture of reassurance than security. The soldiers had long since been shifted to more important tasks. Some of the hotels had replaced them with their own security forces, though in most cases these men, too, had left, answering the call for citizens to report to local defense units, a kind of home guard that was organized around different residential areas in the city. Though trained in name only, some of these units had been transported farther north and west, to supplement regular army units facing the Chinese.
The units included women as well as men of all ages. Posters emblazoned with slogans like COURAGE and FIGHT ON were just now appearing on the walls of the city; the state television channel had broadcast interviews with women who had fought in the home guard during the last conflict with China. Some were now close to eighty; all said they were ready to fight again.
Zeus lowered his head as he passed a foreign camera crew standing at the end of the hallway. They had obviously come to record the charity event, but were being harangued by a hotel manager, who kept waving his hands in front of the cameraman’s face. The journalist looked exasperated; he clearly had no idea why the man was objecting.
The hallway was dimly lit, with three of every four lightbulbs removed. People clustered along the sides. Many cupped cigarettes in their hands. Smoke hung heavy in the passage, adding to the shadows. It looked like a scene from a 1930s noir film: gangsters hiding at the far end of the hall, an undercover detective weaving through the unfamiliar darkness toward his fate.
Even in the mixed crowd of Westerners and Asians, Zeus looked out of place. His civilian jeans and casual collared T-shirt did little to disguise his military bearing. People glanced in his direction and made way.
The etched-glass door to the bar was blocked by a crowd of people on the other side. He pushed against it gently, gradually increasing pressure when they failed to move.
“Excuse me,” he said, in gruff English, pushing a little harder. He eased up and then jerked his hand so that the door banged against the bodies. Finally they got the message and began to part.
* * *
The opening door caught the eye of Ric Kerfer, who was sitting at the bar across the room, angled so he could see the doors without seeming to pay too much attention to them. His eyes sorted through the crowd, waiting to see if whoever was coming through was worth his interest.
Kerfer wasn’t surprised that the bar was packed—bars were always popular when the world was going to hell—but it was interesting that there were so many foreigners still left in Hanoi. When he’d left the week before, it seemed like everyone was angling for a way out. Now it looked like everyone wanted to stay and find out what the Chinese were really like.
Maybe it was this way on the Titanic as well.
Kerfer had been here for more than a half hour, nursing a single Jack Daniel’s straight up. Ordinarily in that time he’d have had four or five or six. But he’d decided Vietnam was no longer a good place to get even mildly drunk. There was too much desperation in the air, too many people with little to lose.
That was when you had to keep your wits about you. The man pushed inexplicably past his breaking point by an accidental event was infinitely more dangerous than a soldier doing his duty.
Kerfer had felt the same sensation in Baghdad, in Yemen, in Syria. In Tripoli, he’d sensed things were past the breaking point, and yet he’d stayed on an extra day, wanting to make sure his job was truly done. It was a foolish bit of overzealousness that had almost cost him his life.
You had to do your duty. But your duty rarely called for you to die. Or rather, it called for you to die only under the most leveraged circumstances. Circumstances that Lieutenant Ric Kerfer, a United States Navy SEAL, could no longer imagine.
Kerfer leaned back on his barstool, recognizing Zeus. Right away he noticed that the Army major had changed. Part of it was physical—Zeus was banged up. Kerfer could tell from the way he moved, shuffling the way an injured man did to divert attention from his injuries.
SEALs were always covering for some ligament strain or muscle tear, pretending they didn’t need surgery that would end their time on the firing line. They might hold their shoulders in or be selective in how they leaned their weight, subtly trying to lessen the potential for more injury.
It had nothing to with pain, per se—you got used to pain, unfortunately. It was more that you tried to keep whatever defect you’d acquired from being seen.
But there was more than that. There was something now in Zeus’s frown, something in the way he glared people out of his way.
Zeus Murphy was now an extremely dangerous man, Kerfer realized. More dangerous than the enemy.
He finished his drink, then pushed the glass toward the bartender.
“Fill it,” he told the man, a Vietnamese who spoke English well, though with a French accent. “And draw a beer. I have a friend coming.”
* * *
Zeus spotted Kerfer at the other end of the bar. He’d grown to like the SEAL officer, even though like most SEALs Kerfer barely pretended to tolerate him. Kerfer’s rank as a lieutenant was the equivalent of a captain in the Army, which meant that Zeus outranked him, but it was clear that rank had exactly zero meaning to Kerfer.
“Hey,” said Zeus when he finally reached Kerfer.
“Hey yourself, Major.”
Zeus frowned at him. Kerfer smirked.
“Ain’t nobody in this place who can’t figure out what the two of us are and who we work for,” said Kerfer. “And not a one of them could give a shit. Here’s a beer.”
Zeus was surprised to find that not only the contents but the glass was cold. He took a drink; it was heady and seductive.
“I heard you had some fun north of Haiphong,” said Kerfer. “You’re becoming a legend.”
“Perry’s kinda pissed off I hear.”
“Screw him.” Zeus ran his fingers along the outside of the glass; the cold felt almost exotic against the tips.
“You’re coming over to the dark side, Major. Glad to have you.”
“Let’s just say my eyes are open. You talked to Perry?”
“He talked to me.”
“You told him we were meeting?”
“Why would I do that?” asked Kerfer.
Zeus suddenly felt wary. “I’m surprised you’re back in Hanoi. I hear you’re a wanted man.”
“They don’t know they want me,” said Kerfer. His men had killed a squad of Vietnamese soldiers who had strayed into their path while they were rescuing an American scientist from the Chinese—at least that was Kerfer’s version. The Vietnamese had protested vehemently to the ambassador and to Perry, both of whom had denied they had any knowledge of what had happened.
“They wanted what I brought more than they wanted revenge,” added Kerfer. “Revenge isn’t going to help them. Never helps anyone. Remember that, Major.”
Kerfer was about the last person Zeus needed a lecture from. He changed the subject. “You finished the shipments?”
“All done. I suspect they’ve used them already.”
“So why are you still here?”
“I was told to sit and wait, in case I might be more useful in the future.”
“Perry said that?”
“Perry’s not my boss,” said Kerfer. “He wants me out. He wants you out, too.”
“Yeah.” Zeus set down his glass. He glanced at it, and was surprised to see it was more than half gone. “He told you that?”
“He was in a talkative mood.”
“I have something I wanted to ask you about,” Zeus told Kerfer.
“This isn’t a good place.”
“As good as any. Nobody’s listening to us, Major. Look around.”
Zeus shook his head.
“All right,” said Kerfer. “Lead the way.”
“I thought you’d have scouted out a place.”
Kerfer laughed. “Follow me.”
The SEAL was a powerfully built man, with broad shoulders and legs that worked like piston rods. He exuded a certain don’t-mess-with-me energy, and the crowd parted as he got up from his seat and led Zeus into a supply room at the back end of the bar. He didn’t bother flipping on a light, and there was barely enough to see around the tall shelves of supplies as he walked to the back of the room. There he paused in front of a steel door; he fiddled with the knob for a moment, then pulled the door open, having picked the lock. Zeus hadn’t even seen him take the lock-picking tools from his pocket.
“Out here,” Kerfer told him.
Zeus followed up a short flight of steps to a long, narrow corridor. A glass door, all but one of its panes missing, stood at the end. There was no doorknob on the inside; Kerfer reached through and took hold of the small handle to unlatch it. They emerged on a wide patio.
A man stood against the far rail, smoking a cigar.
“Take a walk,” Kerfer said to him in English. Then he added another few words in Vietnamese. “Bo?.”
The man frowned, but stuck the cigar in his mouth and left, going through the way they had just come. Kerfer, meanwhile, walked over to the edge of the patio, which was bounded by a short, thick wall. The space overlooked a yard paved with small stones that was part of the hotel restaurant’s outdoor dining area; it was closed to patrons.
“I don’t think Bo? really means go,” said Kerfer. “More like ‘abandon all hope ye who enter here.’”
“Your Vietnamese is getting better.”
“It gets the job done.”
Zeus looked around. They were alone.
“I need to get somebody out of the country,” said Zeus.
Zeus felt his cheeks warm.
“Relax, Major, I’m not your chaperone,” said Kerfer. “I don’t give a crap about where you dip your wick.”
“Why don’t you throw her on a military transport? There’s a helo coming into the embassy in a few hours.”
“Perry won’t go for it.”
“I’m just a gofer. I bring things in, not take them out. When we left with the scientist, we had a destroyer.”
“You think I can bribe some of the people you’re working with?”
“The nonmilitary people? Sure, you can bribe ’em.” The SEAL rubbed his face. “Whether they can help you or not is another question.”
“How much will they want?”
“The question is how much you can trust them,” answered Kerfer. “You’re not paying attention. I’d say the way things are going, nobody’s going to be able to help you pretty soon. Where is she?”
“I don’t know for sure,” said Zeus. “A military prison. I’m working on it.”
“Why is she in jail?”
“It’s a long story … She saved the life of a POW that the Vietnamese wanted to kill. So she was arrested—”
“Save it,” said Kerfer. “Your best bet is to get her out on an embassy flight.”
“That ain’t gonna work.”
Kerfer shrugged. He pushed off from the wall.
“I have something else I need to talk about,” said Zeus.
“I need to get in touch with your command. I have something I want to talk to them about. I want to work something out with Trung. But I can’t go through Perry.”
General Minh Trung commanded the Vietnamese army. Kerfer scratched his ear, then the side of his cheek.
“You want to tell me what the hell it is you’re planning?” he asked Zeus.
“You know, I’ll give you this, Major. You’re nobody’s fool.” Kerfer laughed. It was a short laugh, the sort of thing a man does when he finds the world’s insanity amusing. “I thought you were kind of a desk jockey pussy when I first met you, like that partner of yours, but I was wrong.”
“Christian is dead. He died in the line of duty.”
Zeus suddenly felt an obligation to stand up for Christian, even though he had spent a good deal of his time despising the man when they were together.
“Win Christian jumped on the back of a Chinese tank,” said Zeus. “He tried to blow it up. He got a bunch of them before he died. He was right in the middle of things. He risked his life. He was a brave man.”
Kerfer said nothing. Zeus wondered if he thought Christian was foolish—and if, by extension, he was, too. But SEALs were always doing ridiculous things, always risking their lives on the battlefield.
“I have a plan to help the Vietnamese,” said Zeus. “I think it’ll stop the Chinese cold.”
“How high up at my command do you want to talk?” said Kerfer after what seemed like an eternity.
“High enough to get people into China.”
“You should talk to the agency,” said Kerfer. “They’re the people running the show.”
“I want to be involved.”
“So tell them that.” Kerfer gave him another of his cynical laughs. “You think if you got the go-ahead from WARCOM, they would let you be in charge? You don’t know them very well.”
WARCOM was the SEAL command.
“You need agency approval anyway,” said Kerfer. “Talk to them first.”
“Lucas. Peter Lucas. Or the woman he had here, if you can track her down. Mara Duncan.”
“Yeah, you’re right. I should talk to Mara.”
“I can give you a lift back to the embassy.”
“I can’t go there. Perry wants to put me on a helicopter.”
“Well, that’s a bit of a problem for you, Major, isn’t it? Because you need a secure phone line to talk to anybody important, don’t you?”
“You have an encrypted sat phone.”
Kerfer shook his head.
“I know you do, Ric,” insisted Zeus. “Come on.”
* * *
In the end, Kerfer let Zeus borrow the phone, but only with him there. First he led him to a second, windowless courtyard, which he swept with a small electronic device to make sure they weren’t being bugged. It was paranoid overkill, but necessary just the same.
Kerfer had to call one of his own people to get cleared up to the CIA contact; that cost him a promise to fill the man in later. He got the number for the Vietnamese situation desk at Langley, made the call, then handed the phone over to Zeus.
Zeus talked for a bit, but mostly spent the call frowning. He looked as if he’d been punched in the stomach when he handed back the phone.
“Problem?” Kerfer asked.
“I have to talk to Perry.”
Harland Perry was so famous in the military that even Kerfer had known who he was before coming to Vietnam. The general was a powerful presence in the Army, and not only because he was friends with the president. Even before George Chester Greene had been elected, Perry was on the short list of future candidates for Army chief of staff. Few people would want to cross him, even in the CIA.
“Come on, Major, I’ll buy you a drink,” said Kerfer loudly. “Or should I just put you to bed?”
“I’m wide awake.”
“You’re zoning on your feet. Did you even hear what I just said?”
“Come on. Another beer. Or maybe some coffee.”
* * *
Zeus followed Kerfer into the hotel. It was clear the SEAL officer had thoroughly checked the place out; he moved smoothly through the dimly lit corridor and then the back rooms. Finally they reached the metal door that went into the storeroom behind the bar and pulled it open. He led the way around the now-empty shelving where food supplies had once been kept. Just before Kerfer reached the door to the bar, they heard loud sirens from outside.
There was commotion on the other side of the door. Kerfer stopped, listened, then put his hand out, keeping Zeus from opening the door.
“What’s going on?” Zeus asked.
“Probably a bomb raid. Hang back a minute. They’re probably all heading for the bomb shelter.”
“Sure, if you want to be buried with a couple hundred strangers when a bomb hits.”
“You think the building will collapse?”
“Nah.” Kerfer shrugged as if the odds were a million to one. Zeus thought about it, and decided that if the building was hit by any bomb big enough to do serious damage, it would most likely collapse. It would be days, maybe weeks before they would be dug out, if they were dug out.
Better to go out in the blast.
When the commotion inside had died down, Kerfer opened the door. The barroom was completely empty. The lights were still on, and drinks arrayed around the tables, as if the inhabitants had simply disintegrated.
They walked to the bar. The SEAL went over to the liquor well and took a fresh bottle of Jack Daniel’s from the shelf. He fished around for two fresh glasses, then set them out.
“I’ll just have a beer,” said Zeus.
“Suit yourself.” Kerfer pointed to the tap. “They’re still serving Tsingtao. So your choices are watered-down Chinese beer, or watered-down lite Chinese beer.”
“I’ll try the lite.”
Kerfer tilted a glass beneath the tap.
“You know, if you get too tied up in a place, you end up with problems,” he said, watching the liquid run slowly into the glass. “Sooner or later, you get to the point where you can’t separate things out into the proper categories.”
He dragged the word categories out, almost like a word in a song. Zeus knew he was supposed to interpret it as a warning—he’d have been brain-dead not to—but he ignored it. Instead, he glanced around the room. It seemed smaller without the people here.
The red drapes that hung along the walls looked like the cushioned sides of a coffin. The black tiebacks added to the funereal feel.
“So you’re having trouble with Perry?” Kerfer slid the beer over to him.
“I really can’t get into it.”
“Right.” Kerfer filled his cocktail glass about a tenth of the way with the Tennessee whiskey. Then he scooped up some ice from a tray below the bar. “He’s listening to the people who think China’ll flatten the Viets inside a week.”
He pronounced “Viets” like “Veets.”
“You think that’s gonna happen?” Zeus asked.
“I don’t go around making predictions. That’s the job of assholes and generals.”
“If it’s so foolish to stay, why are you here?” said Zeus. He felt his cheeks and the skin under his ears starting to buzz.
“Who says I think it’s foolish?”
“Why are you helping them? I mean.”
“I’m following orders,” said Kerfer. “Even SEALs have to do that, now and again.”
He smiled and took a long sip from his glass. His eyes had narrowed; it seemed to Zeus that he was looking off into the distance—to the future, maybe, or perhaps the past. Kerfer remained a mystery to him.
There was pain as well as cynicism in his face. Maybe he had lost someone he loved. Or maybe he had killed more people than Zeus had, and they were weighing on him.
Funny. Not one of the Chinese soldiers he’d killed haunted him. It didn’t bother him in the least—it was kill or be killed.
Zeus put his drink down. The thought had taken him by surprise—he’d killed many people.
Soldiers, not people. But of course they were people. Until that very moment he had separated the two categories. They were separate—soldiers were not people. The enemy was not people.
He glanced up at Kerfer, thinking that he might ask him about this—ask him, one killer to another, if he kept separate tallies. But Kerfer had turned his attention to the doorway.
A man stood there. He was Vietnamese, short and thin. He wore a stained white apron as if he’d come from the kitchen. He had an AK-47 in his hand.
The man stared at the room, puzzled. Suddenly he seemed to notice Zeus and Kerfer. When he did, he jerked his shoulders up, raising the gun in the same motion.
He shouted words in Vietnamese that Zeus couldn’t understand.
“Cái gì the?” said Kerfer matter-of factly, as if the man were ranting about the weather. “What’s the matter?”
The man pointed the rifle at him and shouted again.
Zeus had his service pistol in a holster under his outer clothes, but it would take precious seconds before he could reach it. By then, he’d be dead. There was no cover between him and the man. He thought of retreating behind the bend in the bar, but that would take as long as pulling his gun.
Kerfer spread his hands, gesturing to the man.
“Tôi không hieu ý anh,” said Kerfer. “I don’t understand. I don’t understand Vietnamese. Can you speak English?”
This elicited another long rant. The man seemed to calm slightly as he spoke, though his head bobbed emphatically as he made his points.
Zeus noticed that Kerfer was moving almost imperceptibly forward.
That was the strategy—get close to him and rush him. Zeus took a step. Immediately the man turned the gun toward him.
Zeus put out his hands.
“I don’t understand Vietnamese,” he said. “What do you need us to do?”
The man frowned. Zeus struggled to understand. It was impossible.
“Anh có can su’ giúp dõ’ không?” he asked finally. “Do you need help?”
The man lowered his rifle so that it was even with Zeus’s chest. He pushed out with it, almost as if he was thrusting an imaginary bayonet in the American’s direction. Fortunately, they were still separated by a dozen feet.
Kerfer started to talk, once more in his very calm voice. The man frowned but then turned toward him, answering.
“He thinks we’re spies,” said Kerfer, talking to Zeus while keeping his eyes fixed on the man. “From what I can make out.”
“Yeah, for China.”
“Irony is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? What the hell happened to your minder?”
“You were followed on the way in. I figured Trung or somebody put a guard on you. Really, Major, you didn’t notice him? We lost him in the halls. Looks like he took off. And he ain’t comin’ back.”
Kerfer held out his hands as the man began yelling again. He picked up a can of soda from the back of the bar.
“Ðo uo ng nhe?” Kerfer held the can up, twisting it in his hand. “Soft drinks? A soda—would you like?”
It seemed an odd way to placate a crazy man. It didn’t work—the man’s voice turned angrier. Zeus couldn’t understand the exact words, but the meaning seemed clear enough: I’m going to kill you bastards.
Zeus angled his left foot forward, getting ready to plunge ahead. The strategy seemed clear now. Kerfer was getting the man’s attention. Zeus would work himself close enough, then jump him.
Kerfer could use the bar for cover. The way it was angled, he could duck down.
Or not. The man with the gun had a clear sight down if he took a half step to the right.
He couldn’t get both of them.
“Maybe a chair,” said Zeus, taking a half step forward. He gestured toward the chair. “Maybe you should sit.”
The man’s rants turned even more emphatic.
“All right, all right,” said Zeus. “I was just trying to make you comfortable.”
“Ô!” shouted Kerfer. “Hey!”
As he yelled, Kerfer pulled the top on the cola can and tossed it at the man as if it were a grenade. Soda spurt in the air. Zeus took two steps toward the man, preparing to dive at him. Something barked at his ear—twice, three times.
The man spun backward, almost pirouetting, a dancer in a play. He fell back, beyond Zeus’s reach, the AK falling to the ground. Zeus stopped, his hands out. He felt for a moment as if he had been plunged into the middle of a dream.
“I almost shot you,” snarled Kerfer. He’d drawn a pistol and fired in the split second that the man was distracted, though Zeus couldn’t imagine how it had happened; the time seemed too short.
“What the hell?” asked Zeus.
“Some fuckin’ crazy,” said Kerfer. “He thought we were spying for the fuckin’ Chinese. God. How insane is that?”
He touched the barrel of his gun, sliding his hand down it as if to wipe it off, or maybe to see if it was warm. Then he slipped the gun back into the front of his belt below his loose shirt.
“You’re pretty fast,” Zeus told him.
“Lucky he doesn’t like Coke. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
Copyright © 2012 by Larry Bond and Jim DeFelice