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Josh slept through the bombing. He slept through the wail of the sirens. He slept through the rumble of the Plaza Hanoi across the street imploding. He slept through the strike at the new education ministry a half block away, and the collapse of the Vietnamese Private Commercial Enterprise Bank building a half mile away.
Josh MacArthur slept and slept, oblivious to the sounds of the war he had suddenly found himself in, a war that he was not only witness to, but a critical part of. He missed the grating har-ush of the Chinese jets as they roared overhead, the last-minute shriek of the air-to-ground missiles just before they struck, and the steady rattle of the antiaircraft guns, twin-barreled 23mm and the larger 57s and 85s, their shrapnel exploding in an irregular pattern.
He missed the glass shattering everywhere, panes breaking like the thin ice over a pond on a late winter's day. He missed the rumble of the gas lines as they blew up, muffled by the ground. He missed the sharp cracks of old wood splintering beneath the weight of collapsing roofs and walls.
What woke him was the light touch of her footsteps in the hall, passing in front of his room on the way out.
They belonged to the woman who'd rescued him, Mara Duncan. Against all odds, the CIA officer had found Josh behind the lines of the Chinese advance and pulled him with her through the jungle, across the hills to a rendezvous with American SEALs, who had brought him to a truck commandeered by two U.S. Army officers. Together, they barely managed to make it past the advancing Chinese troops, but managed nonetheless.
The adventure would have been unimaginable for most people. But for Josh MacArthur, a weather scientist of all things, it seemed as unlikely as it could get. Josh had come to Vietnam to study the effects of the weather on the jungle. Instead, he had become a witness to man's more immediate impact on the environment—the cold-blooded massacre of a Vietnamese village in the hills by the Chinese.
The Chinese had also murdered his own colleagues. He'd missed that by chance, complete chance—his allergies had woken him and sent him away from the tents, out of concern for his colleagues and their sleep. His sneezing had saved him.
He'd run when the fighting began. Except that it wasn't fighting; it was a massacre. The scientists and their support staff had been killed in their sleep, without any possibility of resistance.
The killers had chased him as well. He'd run for his life, lost in the darkness in a country literally halfway around the world from his home.
He'd been defenseless and alone, and yet running seemed like an act of cowardice, of weakness, as if he might somehow have made a difference.
It was a foolish notion—the Chinese soldiers outnumbered him greatly, and in fact had barely missed him several times before his rescue. Josh had killed several himself, including one with his bare hands.
There was no question, or should be no question, of his bravery.
And yet that idea, that feeling of failure, woke with him in the gray light of the Hanoi hotel room.
Josh sat upright in the bed. The hotel had never been one of the city's best, nor a favorite with the international tourist crowd. The furnishings had been old and battered well before the war. There was only a pair of bare sheets on the bed. They hadn't been changed in days, not since the war began. Josh had found them covered with dust and small bits of glass from the shattered windows, blown out from the attacks on the first night of the war. Too tired to talk to the staff—and guessing it would have been worthless to try—he'd pushed the small shards off on the floor and simply collapsed in bed a few hours before. Now he found grime stuck to him, held to his skin by his sweat.
He put his hands on his chest, gently brushing downward, more to reassure himself that he was still there than to clear the clinging grit.
As unglamorous as it was, the hotel was a solid, squat structure, dating from colonial times and overengineered by its French architect. Its sturdy walls had protected it from the shrapnel when the building across the street had collapsed, and while nothing was truly safe against a direct hit by one of the Chinese army's larger weapons, the hotel was one of the safest buildings in the city still open to foreigners. And of course it was obvious that Josh and his friends were foreigners.
He swung his legs out of bed. They were creaky and stiff. Josh had considered himself both athletic and in fairly good shape—he had taken letters in cross-country and baseball in high school, despite the asthma occasionally provoked by his allergies—but his ordeal in the jungle had tested his body. Both knees were sore, his right calf muscle had been pulled, and his neck felt as if it were a bolt twisted too tightly into its socket.
Glancing at the gray twilight outside the window, he guessed it was roughly 5 a.m. His watch had been lost during the initial attack.
He walked slowly to the door, mindful of the glass. There were small piles of it along the front of the room, which faced a side street away from the hotel that had imploded. Someone had come in and swept the larger pieces into the piles, but neglected to come back and remove them.
Or maybe they had been killed before they got the chance. Several thousand civilians had died in Hanoi since the bombing began.
Josh undid the lock and pulled open the door. A large man stood in front of him, blocking the door. It was Jenkins, aka Squeaky, one of the SEALs who had rescued him.
"Hey, sir, where you going?" said Squeaky.
His nickname was Squeaky because his voice occasionally cracked, jumping a few octaves. He sounded like a teenage boy on bad mornings as his voice begins to deepen. There was no precise pattern to the squeaks; they seemed to occur a little less under pressure, the opposite of what Josh would have expected.
Squeaky was a big man, six ten and solidly built, stocky but not fat. He wore a pair of dungarees and a button-down shirt, in the Western style common in Vietnam's urban areas. The clothes were all black; they seemed to merge with his black skin, making him look like a dark spirit haunting the building, a hungry ghost looking for its ancestral offerings, as the local folklore would have it. He had an MP-5 submachine gun, and held it down next to his body discreetly, almost as if he were hiding it.
"I gotta use the john," said Josh.
"I'll walk you down."
Josh fell in behind him. Squeaky rocked a little as he walked, shoulders nearly scraping the walls.
"Hold on," the SEAL told him when they reached the doorway to the restroom.
He poked his head in, then reached back, took Josh's arm, and tugged him in. For a second, Josh thought he was going to stay—a problem, since Josh liked privacy—but Jenkins was just making doubly sure the place was empty.
"I'll be outside. Stay away from that window, you know?"
Josh nodded and stepped over to the commode. Fortunately, it was a Western-style toilet. But the water had been shut off sometime during the night, a fact Josh discovered when he tried to flush. Squeaky was waiting outside.
"Water's off," Josh told him.
"Hate to be the next guy that uses it."
"I'll remember that."
They started back for the room.
"What time is it?" Josh asked as they walked.
"Oh-four-ten," said Squeaky, his voice cracking. "Why?"
Jenkins didn't say anything. Josh wondered if he was self-conscious about his voice.
"I heard someone walking in the hall before," said Josh when they reached his room. He suddenly didn't feel like going back inside. "Was it Mara?"
"You heard that?"
Josh shrugged. "What was up?"
"Ms. Duncan had to go out."
"I don't set her schedule, bro."
"What about M??"
"The little girl?" Jenkins's face noticeably brightened. "Sleepin' like a peach. Cute little kid."
"Yeah," said Josh.
Josh had rescued the little girl after her parents and the rest of her village had been massacred by the invading Chinese. She was six or seven years old—Josh wasn't sure.
"We taking her with us?" Josh asked.
"Decision's above my pay grade." Jenkins grinned. "Why don't you go get yourself some sleep? Cap'll be looking for you in a few hours. We got a long way to go. Rumor is no flights out of the airport."
"We flying out of here?"
"We were supposed to."
"Don't know how the hell we're getting out of here," Squeaky added. He smiled. "Swimmin', maybe."
Copyright © 2010 by Larry Bond and Jim DeFelice