Authors: Don Pendleton
Tags: #Action & Adventure, #Fiction, #det_action, #Non-Classifiable, #Men's Adventure, #Drug traffic, #Bolan; Mack (Fictitious character), #Opium trade
So much for undercover operations, thought Bolan. His nighttime parachute drop into Thailand had become an open secret. Enemy gunfire zeroed in on his position. It was survival time in the jungle again!
The Executioner was in Southeast Asias Golden Triangle to strike at the international illicit-drug industry. But his advance man had been captured by the enemy — the 93rd Kuomintang Division of the Nationalist Chinese Army, better known as Tiger Enterprises, the worlds largest heroin ring.
Bolans Montagnard army now refused to fight. The tribesmen, traditional enemies of the Chinese for 4,000 years, were fierce warriors but fickle allies. They knew better than to back a loser...
But Bolan would not lose. However much death it took.
"Unbounded courage and compassion joined,
Tempering each other in the victor's mind,
Alternately proclaim him good and great,
And make the hero and the man complete."
"You've got a weird combination there,
Sarge — tough guts and warm heart.
Most cats don't know how to carry both."
Lt. Wilson Brown to Mack Bolan
"There is nothing so practical and real as
survival except love. Jungle law, like love,
is no philosophy — it is reality."
Dedicated to our peacekeepers killed by the suicide bombers.
In the words of the President, "We must be more determined than ever that thugs cannot take over a strategic area of the earth or, for that matter, any other part of the earth."
A trap! The word exploded in Mack Bolan's head. He brought up his weapon and went into a crouch, eyes scanning the terrain. The valley shone peacefully in the moonlight, the rhythmic rasping of cicadas the only sound.
Was his subconscious warning system alerting him to a real danger, or was his mind playing tricks on him?
By the light of the moon he could see all the way to the tree line. The ground was flat, covered in elephant grass dotted with clusters of bamboo.
Bent double, his parachute still slung over his shoulder, Bolan ran for the nearest cluster. He crouched in its shadow and listened, mouth open to hear better.
From the jungle forest came the screech of parakeets. An owl hooted. A bullfrog croaked nearby. The cicadas went on with their concert.
A typical night in Thailand.
Perhaps it was only his imagination, he thought. After all, the ground recognition signal had been the right one.
His mind went back to the circling Antonov. He had stood by the open jump door, wind tearing at his clothes, and watched the light flash in the darkness below.
Long, long, short, the light flashed. The letter
in Morse, It was the agreed signal. So why this sense of danger?
The valley dimmed as a cloud covered the moon.
Suddenly, on the east side of the valley to his left, figures emerged from the forest. Almost immediately more men appeared on his right. Then a third group came out on the northern end, straight ahead of him.
For a moment Bolan thought they might be Nark and his Montagnards come to look for him, but they were too silent for that.
A reception committee was a noisy affair, especially when the parachutist landed as far off the drop zone as he had. People would thrash through the bushes shouting instructions to each other, calling the parachutist's name.
But this group was on a manhunt. They moved furtively, communicating by hand signals, and they held their weapons at the ready.
The moon came out from behind the cloud and Bolan could see them better. They were soldiers and wore the distinctive fatigue caps of the Nationalist Chinese.
Tiger troops. It
Bolan looked around for an avenue of escape. The only one was the way he had come, to the south. Even then it would be touch and go; the moment he left the bamboo they would see him.
He unhooked two Slepoy grenades from his gun belt, took one in each hand, and armed them using the opposite index finger to pull the safety ring. He glanced at the sky. Another cloud was approaching the moon. The gods were on his side.
Bolan waited, a motionless shape in the night.
To the north, a line was being formed, the original group swelled by new arrivals. They began to sweep the valley like game beaters while those on the side made sure their prey did not escape that way.
The valley dimmed, and Bolan sprang to his feet. He lobbed one grenade to his right, the other to his left, then ducked, clutching his weapon.
The Slepoys burst in midair, each giving birth to three minigrenades that fanned out and hit the ground with blinding flashes, spewing irritating smoke.
The valley boomed, surrounding hills reflecting the explosions, and Bolan raced for the southern tree line, mentally counting the seconds.
The Slepoys — Russian stun grenades — were supposed to give a man six seconds' grace by stunning his enemies, but that was for a given area. Here, the troops had been spread out.
In the end he got four seconds, because on the fifth the lead began to fly. At first their bullets went wide, the soldiers' aims hampered by the noxious smoke, but as they crossed the screen after him, their shooting narrowed.
A flare gun fired in rapid succession, and the valley turned silver. Bolan, a silhouette in the flashing light, zigzagged toward the forest.
A green tracer sang past his ear, another brushed his sleeve, a third ricocheted off his haversack. Bolan felt the hand of death reach out for him.
He ran like a hunted animal, unaware of anything but the tree line ahead, his whole being concentrating on it. Eyes glazed by the rush of air, deaf to the noise around him, he raced toward sanctuary.
The forest drew nearer, slowly at first, then faster and faster, and suddenly he was inside, swallowed by its protective darkness. He darted behind a tree and, gasping for breath, peered back. The valley was lit up like a football stadium for a night game, flares dangling everywhere. As for the players, they were coming at him, their guns spitting flame.
It was time for some counterplay.
Bolan folded out the butt on his AK-74 and changed trees to give himself a better angle. He took a deep breath and started firing.
The effect was instantaneous, for the new Kalashnikov was a formidable weapon, its muzzle brake practically eliminating recoil and climb, giving its handler the ability to keep it on target throughout a burst.
Dying screams tore the air, men toppled and the charge halted.
But they were well-trained troops, and those who had dived to the ground in time immediately returned fire. And now their aim became more accurate, every man knowing where Bolan was.
For all its improvements, the new Kalashnikov had one major defect: its muzzle-flash was three times the normal. The brake did nothing to reduce flame.
To counter this, Bolan began changing trees after each burst. He fired burst after burst, keeping the soldiers pinned, sacrificing ammunition to gain time to catch his breath. On the next leg, lungs — not ammunition — would decide the outcome.
A new group of soldiers appeared in the distance. And these had dogs. Bolan saw them run to outflank him. He fired a last burst and fled.
Now began a grueling marathon.
Going like a blind man, he crashed through the undergrowth, thorns tearing at his clothes, razor-sharp grasses cutting his skin. The forest was pitch-dark, and it took time for his eyes to adjust.
The ground rose and fell, so that one moment he was sliding into gullies, the next struggling up slopes on all fours. Vines kept tripping his feet.
Behind him, he could hear the dogs barking and shouts in Chinese. He had to go faster!
A clear stretch came, followed by more thick jungle, then an area of boulders so big he had to climb over them, another clear stretch, then a forest of bamboo and more gullies. The ground began to slope.
A stream appeared and he hurried up it, hoping to obliterate his scent for a short distance. He splashed himself with handfuls of water scooped up on the run. The heat, the burning cuts, the sting of ants... he felt on fire.
On the other side of the stream was a clear stretch, the ground aglow with bits of phosphorescent bark. He raced through that, then the terrain thickened. Once again he was thrashing through dense undergrowth.
An hour after he began his escape he emerged atop a ridge overlooking the valley, his fighter suit in tatters, his arms and face a mass of bleeding cuts. He ran along a trail until he came to a clearing, turned into it and collapsed to the ground.
Chest heaving, heart pounding, he lay there, rivulets of sweat flowing over his body.
When his panting subsided he removed his haversack and took a drink from his water bottle. He sat down by a tree and strained his ears. Not a sound. Even the birds had retired for the night.
He took another drink, leaned back and closed his eyes, his mind taking stock of his situation.
Eight hours earlier, which now seemed like aeons, he had taken off from an island in the Indian Ocean for the Golden Triangle on a mission to destroy the world's biggest heroin ring, Tiger Enterprises.
Code-named Galloping Horse, a synonym for heroin, the mission was to be the opening salvo in Stony Man's war against hard drugs. Instead of fighting the syndicates at home, Phoenix would take the war to the doorstep of the venal surveyors, the filth, who subverted the health and welfare of good people with the terrible products of their self-interest.
Yet no sooner had he arrived in the Triangle than the tables were turned. He, the hunter, had become the prey.
Where was Nark, he asked himself. In his last message, Bolan's pathfinder had reported everything going according to schedule. He had to find him and fast.
Bolan put away the bottle and untied the head scarf he wore in the manner of native warriors. One side was black, the other a grid map of that area of the Triangle. From his haversack he brought a poncho. He crawled under it, turned on a penlight and studied the map.
With the aid of a tiny compass on the band of his watch, Bolan worked out a route to the Montagnard village that Nark had made his base. If he hurried, he told himself, he might make it by daylight.
He repacked the poncho and put on the haversack. He picked up his gun and went to the trail. As he turned into it he glanced at his watch. A little past midnight. If he wanted to make the village by daylight he would have to run part of the way. Twenty minutes running, twenty minutes walking, he decided.
Bolan took a deep breath and set out on his journey.
It was dawn, and the sun streaked the sky with faint rays.
Standing on a ridge and peering through field glasses, Bolan surveyed the village. Judging by the goings-on, it was breakfast time. Smoke rose from the homes, and turbaned Montagnard women were coming out of the doorways with buckets of pig feed. Bolan could hear the squeal of pigs fighting at the troughs.
The village lay in a terra-cotta valley, a couple of hundred huts scattered randomly in Montagnard fashion where the only rule was that no two doorways should face each other in case they attracted each other's spirits. The absence of any symmetry gave the place a decidedly primitive look.
Beyond, in low grassland blanketed by a ground mist, shaggy horses and cattle grazed. A solitary elephant wandered among them, the chain around its leg attached to a boulder. The Montagnards used elephants for logging.
Bolan scanned the village for a sign of Nark. But there was none. Nark could still be sleeping, Bolan thought; nothing new in a CIA agent snoozing.
As the day advanced, people began leaving the village. Some went to the slopes to work fields of rice, corn and tobacco. Women with bamboo water containers on their backs headed for a stream in the hills. A hunter with a musket rode away. A family set out for market, each member carrying a live chicken in a basket under each arm.
Still no sign of Nark.
A group of women, small sacks in hand, left the village and headed in Bolan's direction. He watched them disappear from view as they began climbing his slope, then he heard them pass on the trail, chatting gaily. Bolan picked up his haversack and went to follow them.
The women turned off the trail, took a couple of footpaths and emerged into a field of opium poppies. From their sacks they brought knives and jars, and proceeded to scrape the white ooze that had coagulated on the pods.
It was the second stage of a harvest. The ooze was opium juice that had seeped out overnight, the pods having been slit the previous day.
For a while Bolan watched the women work. They moved gracefully amid the flowers, the colored accessories of their black outfits closely matching the reds, blues, pinks and yellows of the poppies.
Finally he coughed and emerged from his hiding place.
Cries of fear escaped the women's lips as they ran to one another for protection. Bolan could understand their reaction. In his tattered suit and with his bloody cuts he looked the epitome of the long-nosed "white devil."
To assure the women he meant no harm, Bolan stopped at a respectable distance, brought the palms of his hands together in a
and bowed. He knew the ways of these people from his time as a sniper specialist during the Vietnam War, and from his return to Vietnam in search of MIAs at the beginning of the Stony Man operation. He addressed them in the most formal manner in their own language, Meo.
"O sisters of great beauty and worth, a lost traveler seeks assistance. I am searching for a brother, another white man. Does a white man live in your village?"
The women exchanged looks to determine who would answer the traveler. Finally the eldest replied, "Your brother is no more in the village. He left."
Bolan grunted in disappointment. "Where did he go?"
The women exchanged looks, this time to see if one of them knew. None did. "He left with the Chinese," volunteered a second woman.
Bolan's worst fears materialized.
"If you want to know about your brother, you must speak to the headman," said the first woman. "Your brother lived in his house."
"Is the headman home?" he asked.
The first woman nodded.
"Are there any Chinese in the village?"
"They left," said the second woman. The others nodded in agreement.
"O sister," Bolan said, addressing the first woman, "help me find my brother. Take me to the headman so I can ask him."
She signaled to a younger woman to accompany her, and they set out, Bolan following.
They descended into the village and walked quickly past yapping dogs and bare-bottomed children. Women ran out of doorways to look at him, and someone shouted a greeting, mistaking him for Nark. In the Orient, white men look alike.
They came to the headman's hut, the elder woman coughed — knocking being rude in their culture — and Bolan followed her across the threshold. Inside was a typical Montagnard abode, dark, windowless and smelling of dampness from the earthen floor.
By an open fire, on low stools, two men in baggy black mountain suits sat smoking water pipes. One of the men was a thin individual with tiny, almost reptilian eyes. The woman spoke to him. He came up to Bolan. They exchanged bows and shook hands. The others left, and Bolan and the headman took seats by the fire.
"I am Colonel John Phoenix," Bolan introduced himself. "Did Nark tell you about me?"
"Yes," the headman said. "He told us you were coming." He spoke in English.
"What happened to Nark?" asked Bolan. By coming straight to the point he was ignoring Montagnard etiquette, but time was short and the headman knew Western ways, so it was unlikely he would be offended.
"Bad things," said the headman. "Mr, Nark betrayed by the shaman's son. The son was spy for Tiger."
"When was this?"
"Three nights ago. Tiger soldiers come in middle of night. Take radio and code books, too."
"Where are they holding him?"
"The Tang Mei temple. A Buddhist monastery two ranges away. Tiger use it for radio relay. The temple is on a mountain. A bonze tell us he hear screaming at night. Bad for Mr. Nark."
"Yeah," said Bolan pensively. So Nark got himself betrayed. There had always been a danger of that. Tiger had spies everywhere, from simple villages to government ministries. Half the Bangkok government was in its pocket, which was the main reason the Colonel Phoenix visit had to be kept a secret from the Thais. They would have been the first to tip off Tiger.
Bolan knew he had to warn Stony Man Farm that Tiger was playing back the radio before the Farm gave the show away. On the other hand the show might have been given away already by Nark. But Bolan doubted this. Nark was tough. Either way Bolan had to move damn fast. It was jungle time in the everlasting war once again.
A turbaned woman appeared carrying a tray, the headman's number-one wife judging by the silver on her. Montagnards were polygamous, and the higher the woman's rank in the wifely pecking order, the more silver she was given by her husband.
The woman set down glasses and a bottle of tieu, the mountain people's rice whiskey. While the headman, poured their drinks, Bolan took a pack of cigarettes from his haversack and offered him one. At the sight of the brand, the headman's face beamed.
"Marlboro," he exclaimed. "Not smoke that since Laos." He stuck the cigarette behind his ear to save it for later. The cigarette that was stuck upright in the water pipe still had a few puffs left.
They raised glasses, and Bolan downed his drink in one swallow. A warm glow spread inside him, the whiskey chasing away the chills of the night. The headman refilled the glass while Bolan lit his cigarette with a stick from the fire.
Bolan took a deep drag. "How many Tiger soldiers guard the temple?"
"About thirty," replied the headman. The water in his pipe gurgled as he dragged on it.
"Nark said he had signed up three thousand men in the area for the attack on the Tiger camp," said Bolan.
"Yes," said the headman.
"How many signed in this village?"
"We could use some of those to attack the temple and free him."
The headman remained silent, eyes on the fire.
Warning bells rang in Bolan's head. Something was up. "Do you agree?" he pressed.
"The men have no arms," said the headman into the fire. "Tiger take all our rifles.''
"You have muskets and crossbows," Bolan countered. "Our superior numbers will take care of our inferior weapons."
The headman-made no reply. Suddenly the room was very still, the only sound the rustling of a paper skeleton blown by a slight breeze. It hung on a wall next to the ancestral altar, a charm to ward off evil spirits.
"What do you think?" asked Bolan, breaking the silence.
"The men don't want to fight," announced the headman quietly.
that's what it is,
Bolan thought. Nark's capture had given the Meo cold feet. "I don't understand," he began. "You told Nark that everyone in the Golden Triangle wanted to fight the Chinese. You said the Chinese enslaved you, that they made you grow opium and paid you low prices. You said they forced the men to be coolies and took your women. And now you say you don't want to fight."
"Only a fool fights to lose," the headman snapped. He fixed Bolan with his tiny eyes, the pupils glowing like coals. "When I tell Mr. Nark we want to fight, Tiger not know about operation. Now they know, now no surprise. No surprise, no win." The pipe gurgled as he resumed smoking.
"What you say might be right," said Bolan, "but only if Nark told Tiger about the operation. If he didn't, the operation can still be a surprise. First, however, I must speak to Nark. Let's make a deal. If you find me a hundred men to attack the temple, I will pay each a bar of silver. And you, I will pay twenty."
"You brought silver?" the headman asked, his interest perking up.
"I will have it sent to you as soon as I speak to my people on the radio. I don't know how long it will take — a week, maybe two weeks — but you will be paid. I give you my word."
"And if you are killed?"
"That is a chance you take, Major Vang Ky."
The headman started. "You know?"
"That you were a major in the CIA Montagnard army? Yes. They still remember you in the CIA as a valiant ally. That is why I sent Nark to you. I also know about you from your cousin Vang Jay."
"He is in America," said the headman.
"Yes, farming in Wyoming," said Bolan. "We fought together in South Vietnam. I was with the Hmong in Kontum." Hmong was the term the Meo liked to be known by. The term Meo, which everyone used, was Chinese for savages.
The headman stared into the fire, weighing the pros and cons of Bolan's offer. Bolan fell silent; he had nothing to add. What else could he have said? Help me keep America free from drugs? A decade or two ago, the headman's kind had been asked to help America defend the free world in Asia, only to be sold down the river when America tired of the fight. No, Bolan said to himself, he wasn't going to start moralizing, not to this man. Better to keep the deal strictly on a business level.
The headman reached for the bottle and topped Bolan's glass. "I will consult the others," he said. "Please wait. I will return soon." Rubber sandals flapping, he left the hut.
Bolan sipped at his drink. Now there was nothing to do but sit and wait. He pushed the stool to a barrel so he could lean back. Might as well wait in comfort. "Soon" could be five minutes or an hour. He was familiar with Montagnard ways.
Bolan's eyes settled on the jars stacked against the opposite wall. Upas tree poison, he guessed. The Montagnards harvested it to sell in town for pest control. Deadly stuff, a doctor once told him. One touch on a wound and a man was as good as dead.
In the space between the jars, halfway up the wall, was the ancestral altar. It consisted of a ledge over which hung a portrait of a Meo couple in full regalia. Ancestors.
Standing on the ledge was an empty jam jar with incense sticks and food. There was an egg, a bowl of uncooked rice, a bit of sugarcane and a glass of tieu. Offerings.
Next to the ledge the paper skeleton continued its rustling jig. Not only was it supposed to ward off evil spirits, it was a good-luck charm for the house.
Bolan stared at the dancing skeleton.
Bring some luck to me while you're at it,
he told the skeleton.
* * *
The shout sent Bolan to his feet. He grabbed his gun and haversack and ran out. Dogs were barking, mothers were gathering children and running into houses. On a slope, descending single file, were Tiger troops.
Bolan's mind whirled. Run or hide? He was outnumbered eleven to one.
To run would be to kiss the mission goodbye. He would lose face and the Meo would never fight with him after that, even if he returned during the night. They might feed him and shelter him, and do all the things their sense of hospitality dictated, but they would not follow him in battle. A leader does not run.
But where could he hide? Tiger would search the houses, he was sure. And he knew of no hiding place. Nor was anyone offering to show him one. The women ignored him, busy with their children, the men were at work, and the headman had been gone for over an hour.
The enemy helped solve his problem.
A shout from the slope was followed by a burst of gunfire. He threw himself to the ground as bullets slapped at the houses. A squealing pig ran past him, a jet of blood spurting from its side. Bolan scrambled for cover.
By the time he reached the rear of the headman's hut, he knew what to do. It was the old story: stop thinking and a solution will appear. The slapping bullets had done their job; they had cleared his brain.
Bolan whipped a gas mask out of a pocket of his haversack, slipped it over his head so he could use it quickly, and took off. Geysers of dirt accompanied him as he weaved in and out between the houses, heading for the grazing fields.
The Tiger soldiers went after him. There was a pause in the shooting as they reached flat ground and ran into the village, the huts blocking their view of him. Bolan used the pause to put on the haversack and sling the gun over his chest to free his hands.
The village ended, and he ran into the fields. It was a section that had not been grazed for a while, and the grass was knee-high. He plowed through it, hands going for the remaining two Slepoys on his gun belt. He armed them and continued running, making for the bordering jungle.
A gun fired and a bullet sang past, telling Bolan the troops were emerging from the village. He tossed the grenades over his shoulder. The valley boomed, and Bolan went on running, glancing behind him. A barrier of smoke rose between him and the enemy.