He propped his feet up on the corner of his desk, with a firm resolve to make the best of his time on this tired afternoon. He stared at the stack of papers that now filled his lap, determined to keep one step ahead of the fatigue that gnawed at him. There was plenty to do, if only he could shake off the drowsiness.
Jason leaned forward to his telephone, looking for a momentary diversion and a chance to reaffirm his control of the situation as he steeled himself against the overwhelming boredom. He keyed in Carolyn's extension.
"Hi, Carolyn. Anything exciting going on?"
"Are you kidding? This place is like a morgue with just about everybody out on vacation. Why? Do you need something?"
"No, no. I was just checking. No calls for me or anything, uh?"
"Nope....are you all right?"
"Oh, yah. Just trying to keep myself awake. I'll probably wander out there in a bit, as soon as I get some more of this new Procedures Manual read."
"O.K. Sounds like fun reading. Just call me if you need anything."
"O.K. Thanks." He pushed the speaker phone OFF button and decided it was time to get down to some serious reading. He began looking over the first page with the best of intentions and barely got to page four when his head bobbed forward and he drifted off into the beckoning dream world.
What?! I can't understand you!! Say again!
Jason's senses came full alert at the same instant his eyes snapped opened. Every muscle tensed. Every finely-tuned element of his internal radar system operating at peak reception.
As the fuzzy illusion of his drowsy imagination was ripped away, the sounds became crystal clear in the muggy morning. Foreign, but clear. Shit! Did I just holler out? No, I couldn't have!
Jason was leaning with his back against a tree, half covered by the natural foliage, totally covered by his camo-net that was as near to a walking mesh of undergrowth as could ever be. The netted material was woven with plastic leaves and vines so cleverly made, so naturally formed that they would look real in a barren desert. Here it was a portable slice of jungle. He was back about 20 yards from the clearing where they had come in off the river. The boat was just to his right, moored firmly to the bank by portable stake-down cleats and thin, green nylon line. At least he assumed it was still there.
Just ahead of him, standing in the small clearing, were three Viet Cong jabbering away like it was a social event. One was slowly walking backwards into the underbrush, moving away from Jason, apparently saying some final words to his partners and gesturing behind him into the bush. One stood with his back to Jason. The third squatted with his back to the river, his head and left shoulder barely visible through the green fans of growth along the river bank that separated him from Jason.
Jason's response was instinctive, too quick for analytical thought. Or at least, not a process open to debate and conjecture. It just flowed smoothly out of relentless and repetitious training. He knew there could be, and probably were, more VC up the trail, either heading towards or away from this small group. They may have already spotted the boat, even as well covered as it was. But they would be a bit more animated in their discussion if they had. They were here at the river for some reason, and the clearing was a natural docking point. They could have just come in off the river or they could have just strolled out of the jungle. All he knew was suddenly they were there. Shit! How long did I doze off?
His hand was imperceptibly in motion. He immediately recognized its grip on the .45 with the suppresser, loaded, cocked and ready in his hand from when he had leaned back against the tree. An old friend. Definitely not standard issue.
He looked down the barrel of the .45, past the bulky seven-inch extension of the silencer. His wrist rested on his right knee which had been drawn up under the net when he first squatted down. His left hand had already slid a backup clip out of the breast pocket of his vest and was bracing his right wrist. Seven rounds to a clip....one clip in....all special low-velocity loads to further reduce sound. Three in sight.....two bullets each.....seven in the gun. There was no time to figure odds or wait for the scene to change.
PFFT! PFFT! Two through the bushes to the center of where a man was crouching, to just below where Jason figured the shoulder blades would be. He had to be first. He was too close to the ground already and would just disappear into the bushes as soon as one of the others were hit. PFFT! PFFT! Two into center chest of the one moving away. PFFT! PFFT! Two to the center of the back. He followed his last target down as the third man began to move in response to the sudden attack. Too late, pal. PFFT! Last round into the third body when it twitched after hitting the ground. No movement now.
Come on, fuckers! Get up! Run! Look around. Give me a target if you still are one!
Nothing. His right thumb flicked and his left hand moved. Clip out; clip in. No sound louder than the click of the new clip locking in, following the dull puffs of shell casings bouncing off the net cover and onto his arm and shoulder as the ejected clip slid silently down his thigh. His right thumb released the slide lock and his left hand silently walked the bolt home, loading in the first round from the new clip.
No voices since the last exchange of words between the men who now lay still on the ground. Two out for sure. I can't see the first gook. Shit! Even with his expert marksmanship, Jason never liked to make any assumptions. Especially when the consequences could be so deadly.
Now came the time for a little analytical processing. Waiting for the Team to return was one of the hardest things for Jason to do, especially with these sit-and-wait extractions. Generally, it was the tension and the boredom that were the most difficult. This time it was going to be a different game altogether.
Damn, did I just get caught napping or what?
What if there were others? Where were they? How many were there? How long did he have? Could he get into the clearing and dump those bodies or should he just sit it out? No, he'd have to get them out of sight. Was that first man out or just down? His mind rattled off questions like it was reading a check list.
Oh, fuck. I gotta get out of this net! He observed himself from a detached perspective. Was that a rush of claustrophobia? Under a camo-net? Weird!
The adrenaline was pumping now. Good, clean, wholesome stimulant racing through his veins, clearing out all the cobwebs. Tuning up the carburetor. If adrenaline was a cleanser, then his whole body was glowing like shiny aluminum. Yah, he'd better get this mess cleaned up before the Team got back. There wouldn't be time then. He had to get out and moving.
But he also had to stay put until he knew what was up that trail. He flipped up the netting without moving anything except his forearms and wrists. His movement was so smooth it wouldn't have stirred a single bird if there had been a covey of Kansas quail cowering right beside him. From his crouch, he could spring forward or to the side. As soon as the tingling in his legs stopped. But he was a frozen statue, ready but with no intent just yet. Something was wrong. What? What the fuck now?
Oh, shit. There's somebody behind me!
"You WILL encounter the enemy and you will KILL him. Is that understood?"
"IF you encounter the enemy and you do NOT kill HIM, he will kill YOU. Is THAT understood?"
"IF he does not KILL you, he will attempt to CAPTURE you. And if you are CAPTURED by the enemy, you will WISH he HAD killed you. Is THAT understood?"
The D.I. walked slowly, in an agonizingly precise and measured cadence, back and forth in front of the group, hands locked behind him. Stiff as boards, eyes straight ahead, every angle square and rigid, the eighteen men stood in two ranks, the first row one and a half paces in front of the second. This allowed room for the Gunner to continue his cadenced stalk down the aisle so he could stare into the unblinking eyes of the men in the back row. He did that when it pleased him to make his presence intimately known to the row in back.
Each step showed a flash of gleaming black shoe from beneath black Shark Skin bell bottoms, followed by the slap of each heel planting itself into the linoleum floor. Then the other leg would swing forward, shoe flashing. On and on, one shoe after the other, forever.
This was the Gunner's way of "having a little chat" with his men. It was now about twenty minutes into this "little chat" according to the clock in everyone's peripheral vision. At each and every tick of that clock, no one had looked directly at it but everyone had seen the slow, steady movement of the second hand driven by the controlling pace of the Gunner's feet.
"I'm telling you that you would rather be DEAD than captured by the enemy. Is that CLEAR?"
"Do I make myself PERFECTLY clear?"
"What I'm telling you is that NONE of you will be captured by the enemy because NONE of you will ALLOW that to happen. Do I make myself CRYSTAL clear?"
"Take my WORD for it, gentlemen. If you are captured, you will WISH you were dead and your wish will eventually come true. But only after you are dissected. Beaten. Electrocuted. Raped. Skinned alive. And then tortured beyond the point where your own MOTHERS would recognize you. Then you will compromise your Team Mates because you will no longer have any choice. You will no longer be IN CONTROL. Is THAT understood?"
"And you don't want THAT to happen, DO you!"
"You will carry no identification. You will NOT wear your DOG tags nor carry any personal items with you when you are on a Team assignment. Is THAT understood?"
"And do you know why that is?"
"I can't HEAR you!"
"Good, because I'm going to tell you again. And then you will never forget, WILL you?"
At each of the last four statements, the First Class Gunner's Mate had stopped abruptly to stare into the unblinking, unwavering eyes of that unlucky sailor he happened to be directly in front of.
Oh, Shit. I hate it when he does this. He's up to something and you never know what it is until it's too late.
"It's very simple, gentlemen. It's because you're not going to BE there. Even when you're THERE. You're not even HERE. You're each somewhere else. Right now. At this very minute. Is that understood?"
"Believe me, I know. I've looked in your service records, which aren't even here. None of you are here. And none of you will be where you are going when you GET there. Is that clear?"
"BULLSHIT! Are you telling me that you don't know WHERE you ARE?"
"Then what ARE you telling me?"
Total silence pulsated through the hollow cavern of the room, penetrated only by the slap, slap, slap of shiny, patent leather shoes. Shoes made of plastic and painted so they would never scuff, never dull, never stop shining.
"Orr, where the hell are YOU?"
Ah, shit. I knew it. "HERE, SIR!"
The silence grew like an inflating balloon, engulfing the room, the building, the camp, the whole world. First Class Gunner's Mate Clinton Roberts pressed his wiry frame against Jason Orr's chest, eye's burning holes into the already lifeless sockets of Jason's eyes, his breath reeking of whisky and bad Italian food.
"You must not be LISTENING to me, Orr. I just told you that you're NOT here. Weren't you listening?"
"No, SIR. I mean, YES, SIR, I was listening."
"Then where ARE you, Orr?"
"Anywhere you WANT me to be, SIR!"
Oh, shit! Is that what I meant to say? Fuck, I wish he'd just get off my case. Go pick on somebody else! The silence amplified the pounding in his ears. There must be some sort of speaker wire running from his chest cavity directly to his head, because Jason was being deafened by his own racing heartbeat.
"Are you being a SMART ASS with me, Orr?"
"Then what the FUCK are you TELLING me? CARLESON! Do you understand what Orr is telling me?"
Good. Go pick on Carleson. Just leave me the fuck ALONE.
"No, SIR! I mean, Yes, SIR!.....No, Sir!"
"You don't know whether to SHIT or go BLIND, do you, Carleson?"
"Jeeezus! " With that indignant snort, the Gunner spun around and double-timed across the shining, puke-green linoleum floor, barking out a barely audible "Dis-missed." A stick figure in black with a little white hat bobbing up and down, getting smaller and smaller as he retreated down the long hallway. Jason could picture the crooked, shit-eating grin on the Gunner's face.
SEALS. Commandos. Whoopty-shit.
O.K. Somebody's behind me! Well, damn!
It was a very peculiar feeling Jason had at times like these. He could never explain it, never verbalize exactly what it felt like. It was just a very unique feeling. Premonition. Precognition. Knowing what's going to happen one full second before it does. It was fucking scary sometimes. Like now. Like every time it showed up.
Like the last time he drove the Interstate north out of Denver, home on leave before entering Coronado Training Center. Then, for some reason, his attention focused on a red convertible that was approaching from the rear, a half mile back when it first caught his attention. There were several other cars behind him, some keeping pace, some falling back, some gaining. But this one was sending him some sort of signal. Some sort of warning. Jason was driving in the lane second from the right, next to the exit lane that would soon peel off to Fort Morgan. The Boulder exit would be coming up next. The red convertible passed him on the left. Jason hit the brakes. In the split second that followed, the red convertible turned in front of him, heading up the Fort Morgan exit ramp, three young girls in the front seat. No warning. No indication the driver had even seen him. No doubt that if he had not hit the brakes, he would be sliding down asphalt right then.
He knew. He followed his instincts. And he reacted. That time it took him a good ten minutes to shake off the eerie feeling and the powerful adrenaline rush. And here it was again. That feeling. Bigger, stronger, more certain. Somebody was behind him. They probably weren't young girls in a red convertible. But they were there, sure as shit.
O.K. Now, let's go through this carefully. They're behind and to the right. They probably have a bead on me.
He leaned his weight very slowly to the left, sliding around the trunk of the tree so very imperceptibly, so very subtly, so very damned well certain of putting as much wood between him and the 7.62mm pieces of lead that would start raining on him any second.
All right. What the hell. Somebody is back there. It could be one of the Team coming back. They should start showing up about now. If it's a gook, I'm dead meat. I should be already! But why am I still here? Possibility: he saw his buddies drop but hasn't spotted exactly where I am yet. The only hard noise he could pin-point was the clip exchange. He must not have seen me move the net.
I've got to spin around the tree. Now, do I do that fast or slow? I'll be blind when I come around the side, but if he hasn't seen me yet, then he's blind, too. The noise will put a spot-light on me, so I've got to find him quick. He's on foot, like his buddies, most likely down low after what he just saw. So I need clear vision at ground level.
Are you shittin' me? This is a jungle, you asshole. He'll be the guy in the black pajamas that you can't see through all the green bushes until his AK-47 opens up. And you may not even see him then. Now get your shit together, because you've got to secure this area before the Team gets back.
His ears were perked. There was somebody behind and to the right. But who and where? His feeling indicated a kind of sliding, a slow-motion creeping. He couldn't quite make it out. But the feeling was there like a trumpet in his ear. O.K. When I hear it for sure, I'm spinning out. Fuck it!
As Jason took in a slow, deep breath and readied himself to move, the world stopped.
The instant there was a nudge on his right shoulder, everything came to an abrupt halt, and his heart stopped. His head reeled with the reactions of the next microsecond. They all happened at once. His chest exploded like it was hit by a wooden mallet the size of duffel bag. His ears popped like someone had just clapped their hands over them, smashing the pressure inward. His sphincter twitched and his testicles disappeared into his belly. His eyes blurred and watered. Then every drop of liquid in his body transformed into adrenaline and he shot out of his body and slammed right back in again without moving a muscle.
He very clearly visualized some phantom stalker wearing black pajamas, standing behind him, nudging him with the barrel of an AK-47. Then came a second nudge.
Oh, SHIT!! This guy's not going to shoot me. He's going to TAKE ME IN! Well, I fuckin' DOUBT it!
Jason hadn't moved yet. He felt as if he had been splashed in the face with a bucket of cold water. His weight was back against the tree. That wasn't good. His heart was now pumping at about 180 rpms. That was probably OK. And that imaginary splash of cold water had washed every ounce of energy out of him. That, he'd just have to live with. Or die with. He still held the .45 with its fresh clip in. That wasn't so bad, except it was pointing in the wrong direction. And he was certain that if his hand moved at all, he wouldn't feel much beyond the initial rounds crashing through his clavicle and rearranging his vital organs. Another push, just below the collar. Sharp.
I'm being nudged! But not very hard. Like maybe the guy is playing his own game of camouflage. Well, let's just check this out. I may be going out, but this fucker is definitely going with me. And I sure as shit don't need a gun for that!!
What happened next moved Jason to an even higher peak of intensity. It wasn't a kiss. It wasn't exactly a lick. It was a flicky-lick. It was a cool, moist splat that landed just below his right cheekbone. The wet slap on his cheek was like an electric shock that shook his whole frame. If he thought the first jolt of anxiety was bad, the second was a hundred times worse. He shit. He jerked perceptibly, before he could stifle the motion. His head pushed back against the tree involuntarily, like he had been slapped on the forehead by Flannigan, who always threw him around like a rag doll every time they got onto the mat. But as soon as he moved, he froze. OHFUCK. SNAKEONMYNECK. JESUSCHRIST. OHFUCK.
Jason couldn't remember anything except Flannigan's voice telling him there were two kinds of snakes on the rivers of Viet Nam: The deadly poisonous variety that could drop you on the spot, and the two-step poisonous ones, that let you twitch and jerk for about half a minute. He didn't even remember if it was true. He wasn't afraid of snakes. He wasn't afraid of VC. Basically, he wasn't afraid of anything.
For the first time in his life, but certainly not the last, Jason Orr experienced an overwhelming, totally dominating sensation of utter and complete panic. It over-rode all his training, all his stoic attitudes and beliefs and natural inclinations. It stripped away the confidence and machismo of military discipline. It lifted his soul out of his body and shook it so violently he would have screamed and ran, if only he had control enough to move.....or even to think. It over-rode any and every concept of personal safety and consideration of precisely when and where he was, and what he was doing.
For two full seconds, he was an empty shell crushed like a paper cup in the hands of the King Kong of all fear and trepidation. For the first time in his young life, he was about to lose control.
Some things in this world look like miracles. Some things really are. It's just a matter of timing and perspective. This one was definitely a miracle.
Jason jettisoned himself forward, into and out of a front roll that sent him diving through the bushes to his right where he once again did a diving roll and landed precisely in front of the mooring lines in a crouched position, his right hand griping a souped-up .45 and his left hand groping for his knife. At the very moment his brain sent a signal to his paralyzed muscles to begin the acrobatics, all hell broke loose in and around the clearing.
Detachment Gulf of SEAL Team One had slowly inched their way back to the river landing after wiring up a series of plastiques to remove an array of tunnels and underground storage rooms. They were off the main trail because they had caught up with a patrol of VC who seemed to be en route to the same destination. The problem was, the patrol was moving a lot slower than the Team wanted to move. So the five SEALs were slipping through the brush to get between the 12 VC and their common destination where they had last seen their boat and Jason Orr.
They had moved to within 30 yards of where Jason crouched, still invisible in their own secret way, when the trailing member of the VC patrol turned at the sound of movement in the bush. The SEALs immediately opened fire, taking out the last four members of the enemy party and wounding two others before the lead members had a chance to return fire. The jungle went from eerie silence to an all-out firefight in the blink of an eye.
Jason had a flash of insight as he did his first dive-and-roll through the underbrush. There was movement off to his left. There was another movement about 10 yards behind the tree he had just been catapulted from. As his head went down into the second dive-and-roll, there was an explosion behind the tree. It was the opening beat of a cacophony of percussion as the hollow pops of the AK's and the deeper barks of the M-16's became a drowning din. The explosion behind the tree was a signal to transform the quiet morning into a total assault on the senses.
The Team was back. Somebody had stepped on a land mine directly behind his tree. That was what he had sensed behind him, not the snake that had sent him into mindless movement. One of the Team must have bought it while coming back in. He would get back there and pull out whatever pieces he could find. But right now, he was still mindless, moving faster than he had ever imagined he could.
Two of the four lines were cut, one stake was kicked out of the ground and the last one, holding the boat against the slow downstream current, was ready to unloop and throw aboard along with the entire net cover before the echo of the land mine stopped....as if he could really hear that over the pounding rattle of the ongoing battle.
He stomped and kicked the netting into the boat and away from the controls and hit the ignition just as three men came crashing through the bush and dived aboard, landing with their rifles on the gunwale in a continuous exchange of return fire. Banana clips hit the deck as fresh rounds were locked into two of the guns in unison. It was like a well-rehearsed ballet. Except now was not the time to stop to admire it. The fourth Team member backed out of the bushes on his knees, moving to the edge of the river just off the clearing, about 30 feet astern. He was firing single shots and short bursts, apparently certain of his targets. Jason yelled "READY" as if to confirm the boat's revved up over-sized diesel as he stepped back and swung the ready-cocked .50 caliber toward the bush and started clearing everything in its path.
"Hold it." He felt the hard tug on his pant leg. "Bobby's still out there. Hold off!"
"He's down," Jason shouted above the deafening thunder.
"He's down. I heard him step on a thumper when you first came in. I'm going back to find him." Jason was out of the boat and moving into the bushes when two things happened at once. A hand from behind grabbed him and a burly figure with a grease-painted green face bounded out of the overgrowth directly into his chest. Bobby boarded the boat in a blur, practically carrying Jason with a one-handed grip on the front of Jason's vest. Like the third act of a bewildering ballet, Jason was partly lifted, partly thrown, simultaneously from the front and back, over the side, into the boat, landing in place with his hand on the throttle.
"Get the fuck out of here," hollered the lieutenant as he spun back to the stern to continue his noisy operation of a stubby grease gun. "HIT IT!!"
"Get us the fuck AWAY from this place, man."
"Yah, let's boogie!"
Jason was once again in his element, the throttle now slammed forward, feeling the surge of the inboard lifting the 31-foot PBR's nose out of the water as he wheeled it away from the bank and upriver, then pulled hard to port to take them past the spot they had just left, now 10 yards further out from the shore. Shit, I hope everybody is hanging on, 'cause we're going to tear ass. Damn, I left my net!
Five men had left the boat almost two and a half hours ago. Five men were back. And now it was up to him to make sure they got down the river and back to the roost. Five men in, five men out. Just like it's supposed to be. But wait!! Who the fuck..........???
Two hours later, as he sat alone on the dock, avoiding all the ruckus created by their return, Jason would openly deny to himself the true intensity of this entire experience. As the excitement of the morning was pushed aside, as he regained full control of himself and his feelings, he would think back briefly on this particular instant in time and convince himself that it never really happened the way it did. Fuuuuck!, he would moan in awe. That was WEIRD!!! I'm not even afraid of snakes! And who the fuck was behind my tree?? And then he would shut out all memory of those powerful sensations.
Jason snapped awake at the sound of a horn on the nearby roadway. His left foot was numb from the weight of this right leg where he had propped it up against the edge of his desk.
Oh, God. It's after five. And I didn't get a thing read. Jason sat up in his office chair and pressed his palms against his tired eyes. I'm going to have to take this stuff home with me and work on it tonight. And I'm the last one out again. Well, at least it's a weekend. I've got to get my shit together.
He noticed the hand-written note on the open booklet in his lap. He recognized his secretary's handwriting:
Jason - Bob called about 4:30 and I told him you were out in the yard inspecting one of the loads. He'll probably mention it Monday morning at staff meeting. I shut your door so nobody else would see you. Have a good weekend -- but get some rest. You've been looking run-down lately. Don't party so hard (smile). See you Monday- - Carolyn.
Ah, Carolyn. Covering my ass again. Thanks, babe. I'll remember that.
Jason moved very slowly but efficiently as he loaded the manuals into his briefcase, turned out the lights, quickly checked all the doors and windows, and got into the hot, stale air of his waiting car. Traffic on the way home was slower than normal, and it was usually a snail's pace. God, if this gets any slower, I'm just going to go to sleep at the wheel and let this bumper-to-bumper log jam push me right on home. I ought to tell the guy in that old gray Plymouth behind me where I live so he can honk me awake when we get there.
The evening never livened up for Jason. After making a quick microwave dinner,
he sprawled out on his water bed with his pile of reading material and only got
about one-third of the first manual read before he was fast asleep, a victim of
To be continued...
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