Somewhere between the middle of the night and dawn we lost the road. This could never have happened farther back, with the dense jungle on either side, but as we moved south the jungle gave way to vast stretches of open ground. I suppose we must have entered the demilitarized zone. I’m not too clear on the geography of the region, and even now I don’t know exactly where we were. At any rate, I drove us right off the road without even noticing the difference. By the time I realized what had happened, there was no way to correct the error. The tank had a compass, so I kept us on a southerly course and hoped it would take us where we wanted to go. By the time the sky lightened, we were far out of sight of the road, so we kept on going south. When Tuppence woke up and asked where we were, I told her we were in Asia, and she told me nobody likes a smartass.
We were still in Asia when the plane attacked us.
We were still in the open, too, surrounded by vast reaches of grassland on either side. We were the only tank around, and he was the only plane, and unfortunately he was one of ours, and the tank was one of theirs. I didn’t even see him until he started shooting at us. Then a rocket went off a few yards to our left, and we could feel the impact inside the tank.
“You idiot,” I screamed, “we’re on your side!”
“Maybe if you got out and waved to him-”
“I don’t think so,” I said. I tracked him – he was banking now, preparing for another run. I looked at Dhang. It was too much for him, and he was cowering in one corner like a rat driven mad in an insoluble maze. The jungle was one thing, but riding in the belly of an iron monster while an iron bird shot at you, that was too much. He didn’t want to have anything to do with it.
Neither did I. I had closed the hatch, of course, and now I watched the plane through the tank’s sights. He was ready again. He came at us lower this time and fired off two rockets in turn. They were both wide on the left.
“He’s a lousy shot,” I said. “He’s really terrible. We’re barely a moving target, and he has all the room in the world to move around in. He should have blown us to hell by now.”
Tuppence was shaking.
“That’s a small consolation,” I went on, “but it’s something. If all our fliers are this bad, it’s amazing we’re holding our own. Maybe he’ll run out of rockets.”
“Maybe we’ll run out of tanks.”
He showed no sign of running out of rockets. His next pass brought him even lower, and I cooperated brilliantly by stalling the tank. This time he scored a near miss, and the tank rocked with the force of the explosion.
“He’s getting warmer. Evan-”
“Can’t this thing shoot back?”
I looked up. There was a sort of steering wheel. I turned it, and our gun moved. There was a little door that you opened to insert a shell, and behind me on the floor there were shells. I snapped a command, and Dhang handed me a shell.
“They’re probably duds,” I said. “And I don’t really know how to work this thing.”
“We have to do something.”
I loaded the shell, closed the little door, and searched the control panel for a gadget that would fire the thing. How the hell was I supposed to manipulate a tank gun to pick a plane out of the air? I had enough trouble manipulating a tank.
“Hey, wait a minute,” I said. “I can’t shoot him down.”
“He’s an American,” I said. “That’s one of our guys up there!”
“This is us down here,” Tuppence said.
He came on again, undaunted, diving straight for us. I spun the little wheel and found the gun sights. I zeroed in on him as he swept down on us. He fired his rockets, and I fired the tank gun, and we rocked wildly with the force of all this explosive power, and he missed completely and so did we.
Dhang handed me another shell. “I don’t like this,” I said.
“Maybe you can just wing him, baby.”
“Or maybe he’ll give up and go home.”
I loaded the shell, put my eye to the sight, and started tracking him. I wondered if he were the same idiot who had put a few hundred holes in our poor little dugout. That one hadn’t given up easily, either. At least now we could shoot back.
He began his run again, and I had the damnedest feeling that this was the last chance we were going to get. He was coming from our right front. I swung the gun at him and kept it on him, and I fired before he did.
“You hit him!”
The tail of the plane seemed to disintegrate. Then the plastic canopy popped open, and the pilot ejected, seat and all. He sailed high into the air, as if shot from a cannon. His parachute opened, and he floated gracefully down to earth.
I watched him land, roll, and come up on his feet. I felt a lot better then. It had been a kill or be killed situation, certainly, but that didn’t change the fact that I had felt less than delighted at the thought of knocking American planes out of the sky. I started the engine, and the tank headed for him.
“He’ll have flares,” I said. “With any luck at all, somebody saw him go down. They’ll send a helicopter for him, and we can hitch a ride on it.”
“He may not be happy to see us.”
“He’ll be happy when he finds out we’re us. Right now he’s getting ready to surrender to a North Vietnamese tank.”
Except he wasn’t. We had a good look at him as we drew closer. He was a very young Negro airman with a very valiant look on his face, and he had one hand on his hip while he used the other to point a pistol at our tank.
“I think he wants us to surrender,” I said. “It’s going to surprise the hell out of him when we do.”
We drew closer. I flipped open the hatch, and he sent a bullet whistling over the top of it.
“Cool it, soul brother,” Tuppence called out. “The natives are friendly.”
In Saigon an Army doctor spent two hours checking me over. “I think you’re all right,” he said finally. He sounded vaguely disappointed. “I can’t find anything wrong with you. If I were you, I’d spend the next few weeks eating like a horse and sleeping like a bear. There’s no trace of disease in your system. These tropical fevers are funny. We don’t know as much about them as we’d like to. For instance, this one might recur. If it does, seek medical attention immediately.”
“I never would have thought of that.”
“Nothing,” I said. “What about my skin? I’m not usually this color.”
“A few days on a balanced diet should straighten you out.”
“And my hair?”
“You weren’t bald before?”
“Oh,” he said. “Well, I suppose it will grow back in. Or possibly the loss will be permanent, it’s hard to say. If it grows in, you have nothing to worry about. If, on the other hand, the hair loss does turn out to be permanent in nature, you have the choice of remaining bald or obtaining a hairpiece. Whichever you choose.”
“Thanks very much,” I said.
I got away from him and spent the next couple of hours with representatives of Army Intelligence and the CIA. They asked me a thousand questions ten times each. After it got boring, I said something about how hungry I was, and they sent someone out for sandwiches. It worked so well that I repeated this procedure every half hour or so, and every half hour they sent the kid running. I ate dozens of sandwiches and answered all their questions with my mouth full, and after a few hours of this in came Barclay Houghton Hewlitt.
It was Call-Me-Barclay in the flesh, and the flesh was as pink as ever. “Tanner, old man,” he said, thrusting out a pink hand which I ignored. “My God, you look dreadful, ha ha.”
“You look Caucasian,” I said. He blinked at me. It was true – after all that time in the jungle, after the constant company of Tuppence and Dhang and the occasional company of an infinity of Thais and Laos and Vietnamese, I felt that I had never in my life seen anything quite so Caucasian as Barclay Houghton Hewlitt.
I didn’t explain it to him. I didn’t even try.
He asked the same thousand questions that everyone else had asked, and I gave him the same answers. He was full of enthusiasm. He was full of plans. He was full of-
“This is more perfect than you can possibly realize,” he intoned. “You and the girl will return the jewels personally to His Majesty, of course. We’ll arrange full press coverage. She’s a colored gal, eh? That’s a good angle, gives us a pitch that ought to appeal to the liberal press. Black and white together working to foil a Chi-com plot. I think it would be good to draw the Chinese into it, ha ha. Black and white together. Won’t hurt a bit, will it? Spike the rumors you hear about the Agency being prejudiced against the coons. You’d be amazed the rumors you hear, Tanner. Say, I got a look at that little jungle bunny. I think she’ll photograph well, and that’s a help.” He sort of winked at me. “Bet she was hot as a pistol in the jungle, eh? Ha ha.”
“Ha ha, I said. The girl and I won’t return the jewels personally to His Majesty.”
“Say you recovered them yourself,” I suggested. “Say it was an Agency operation all the way. If you want to juice it up, say that the Kendall Bayard Quartet was abducted because they attempted to prevent the robbery. You can play around with that if you want to, but the girl and I stay out of it. You blow my cover, and I’ll blow your head off, ha ha.”
“Well, if that’s the way you want it, Tanner-”
“That’s exactly the way I want it.” I wasn’t sure who outranked whom in this situation, but I felt that the best way to acquire power was to act as if one already had it. “Here are the jewels,” I said. “Two sacks of them. You give them to the king and give him my love. Tell him Tuppence says he plays a very down clarinet, and Tuppence would know.”
He took the jewels, then hesitated. “What about the gook you had with you? The Siamese kid? Want me to haul him back to Bangkok and give him the hero treatment?”
I had almost forgotten Dhang. “No,” I said. “Leave him out of it, too. His role is classified.” I thought for a moment. “If you want a hero, I’ve got the man for you. An American airman named Marcus Garvey Cook.”
“What did he do?”
“At great personal risk he destroyed a pursuing North Vietnamese tank in the Demilitarized Zone. Then, disregarding his own safety, he crash-landed his plane in order to come to our rescue.” That was the story Airman Cook and I had dreamed up while waiting for a helicopter to find us. He hadn’t wanted it known that he was capable of making that many runs at a tank without hitting it, and I wasn’t thrilled at the idea of official records crediting me with the destruction of an American jet. So we knocked out the tank with a grenade in the gas tank and worked up a story for the folks at home. “If you want a hero,” I said, “he’s your man.”
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