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Authors: Nelson Demille

Rendezvous

BOOK: Rendezvous
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Rendezvous

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious.
Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Text copyright © 2012 by Nelson DeMille
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Thomas & Mercer
P.O. Box 400818
Las Vegas, NV 89140
eISBN: 9781477855010

Rendezvous

N
ELSON
D
E
M
ILLE

A
s I learned in high school biology, the female of the species is often more dangerous than the male. Maybe that was true in the animal kingdom, I remember thinking, but with human beings, the male was more dangerous.

I changed my mind about this when I crossed paths with a very deadly lady with a rifle, who was intent on killing me and everyone around me.

I was a young infantry officer doing a tour of duty in Vietnam in 1971–72. After a few months of combat, I mistakenly volunteered for a crappy job. I found myself leading a ten-man Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol, known as the Lurps.

I was near the end of my tour, with twelve patrols under my belt, and all I could think about was getting home alive.

We were patrolling near the Laotian border west of Khe Sanh, a hilly area of dense, semitropical rainforest broken up now and then by expanses of head-high elephant grass and bamboo thickets. The local population of indigenous Montagnard tribespeople had long since fled this free-fire zone for the safety of fortified compounds to the west.

I had the feeling—which was total illusion—that I and my nine men were the only human beings in this Godforsaken place. The reality was that there were thousands of enemy soldiers moving around us, but we hadn’t seen them, and they hadn’t seen us, which was the name of the game.

Our mission was not to engage the enemy, but to find and map the elusive Ho Chi Minh Trail—actually a network of narrow roads used by the enemy to infiltrate troops and supplies into South Vietnam. We were also to report such movements via radio so that American artillery, helicopter gunships, and fighter bombers could deliver appropriate disincentive to the enemy.

It was July, it was hot, humid, and buggy. Snakes and mosquitoes loved the weather. At night, we could hear the chattering of monkeys and the growl of tigers.

Long-range reconnaissance patrols usually lasted about two weeks. Beyond two weeks, the carried rations ran low and the patrol’s nerve ran out. You can only take so much time in the jungle, deep in enemy-controlled territory, outnumbered by hostile forces, who could snuff out a ten-man patrol in a heartbeat if they discovered you.

We carried two radios—PRC-25s, called Prick Two Fives—so that we could keep in contact with our headquarters far, far away, to make reports, call in artillery or bombs, and ultimately arrange our extraction by helicopter when the mission was completed, or when the mission was compromised, i.e., if and when Charlie was breathing down our necks.

Radios sometimes fail. Or get damaged. Radio frequencies sometimes don’t work. Sometimes Charlie is listening to you on
his
radio, so there is a contingency plan if the radios are no longer an option. There were three prearranged pickup sites marked on my terrain map, with three prearranged times of helicopter rendezvous. These are called Rendezvous Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie. If you don’t see your helicopter at Alpha at the designated time, you move to Bravo, and if that meeting fails, you move to Charlie. If that fails, you move back to Alpha. Then you’re on your own. And as our Viet friends say,
Xin Loi
. Good luck.

Things that caused a missed prearranged rendezvous were weather and enemy activity in the area. So far, the weather was clear, and we hadn’t seen or heard the enemy. But he was there. We saw fresh ruts and footprints in the network of trails, and we came upon recently abandoned camps, and we smelled cooking fires at night. He was all around us, but he was invisible, and so, too, I hoped, were we.

That all changed on Day Ten.

We were patrolling an area that gave me some concern; it was a place that had once been lush woodland, but was now an expanse of napalm-charred tree trunks, compliments of the U.S. Air Force. Our job here was to report on the effects of the recent air strike, and I was trying to comprehend and evaluate what I was seeing: black ash, charred trucks, and dozens of grotesquely contorted and incinerated bodies, white teeth protruding from charcoal faces. We needed to do a vehicle and body count.

The problem with this place, other than the obvious, was that it offered little or no cover and concealment to me and my men.

I spoke in a whisper to my radio operator behind me, a guy named Alf Muller. “Radio.” I put my hand out behind me to take the radiophone, but it wasn’t slapped into my hand as it should have been.

I turned to see Alf lying facedown in the black ash, his radio strapped to his back and his arms thrown out from his sides, one hand holding the phone at the end of the wire.

It took me half a second to realize he’d been hit.

I yelled “Sniper!” and dove to the ground and did a roll in the ash with everyone else. We lay there, hoping to look like something inanimate among the blackened debris of the blasted earth.

Sniper
. The scariest thing on the battlefield, where scary things abound. I hadn’t heard the shot, and I wouldn’t hear the next one either. Nor would I see the sniper even if I was still alive after the next shot. The sniper operates from a long distance—about a hundred or two hundred meters—and he has a very good rifle, equipped with a telescopic sight, a silencer, and a flash suppressor. He wears camouflage clothing and his face is blackened like the ash I was lying in. He is the Grim Reaper who harvests the living.

No one moved, because movement meant death.

There was no way to tell where the shot had come from, so we couldn’t get behind something because we could actually be putting ourselves in the direct line of fire. We couldn’t run because we could be running right toward the sniper.

I turned my head slowly toward Alf. His face lay in the ash, and there was no sign of breathing.

To the extent that I had any thoughts at all except terror, I wondered why the sniper had taken Alf, the radio man, rather than me; the guy next to the radio man is the officer or the sergeant, who is the prime target in combat, like taking out the quarterback. Strange. But I wasn’t complaining.

There is no best thing to do in this situation, but the second best thing to do is nothing. My guys were trained, and they knew to keep their nerve and stay motionless. If the sniper fired again, and someone got hit—assuming we knew someone was hit—then we’d have no choice but to scatter and take a chance that the sniper could only hit so many moving targets before some of us were out of range.

I get paid to make decisions, so I decided that the sniper was too far off to hear us. I needed a head count, and I called out, “Dawson. Report.”

My patrol sergeant, Phil Dawson, called back, “Landon is hit. He was moving, but I think he’s dead.”

The patrol medic, Peter Garcia, called out, “I’ll try to get to him.”

“No!” I shouted. “Stay put. Everyone report.”

The men reported in order of their assigned patrol numbers. “Smitty here,” then “Andolotti here,” followed by “Johnson here,” then after a few long seconds, Markowitz and Beatty reported.

Sergeant Dawson, whose job it is to count heads, reported to me, “Nine accounted for, Lieutenant. You got Muller with you?”

I called back, “Muller is dead.”

“Shit,” said Dawson.

So we had the two radio operators dead, which was not a coincidence. But it was puzzling.

I needed to get on the radio and ask for observation helicopters and gunships to form a ring of fire around us and maybe flush out the son of a bitch. I glanced toward Muller, who was about five feet from me. He had the radiophone in his right hand, which was farthest away from me.

Well, I thought, we could stay here and get picked off one by one, we could wait until sundown and hope the sniper didn’t have a nightscope, or I could earn some of that extra combat pay. I had a thought, based on a year of this kind of crap, that the sniper was gone. I thought this because all this possum playing didn’t amount to much, considering how exposed we were in this burned-out terrain. So, if the sniper was still there, he’d have taken a few more shots by now. I called out, “Report.”

Everyone who was alive a few minutes ago was still alive.

I took a deep breath and rolled twice, then a third time over Alf’s body and came to a motionless stop on top of his outstretched arm. I snatched the radiophone out of his stiffening fingers and put it to my ear, waiting for the shot that would blow my brains out. I squeezed the send button and said in the mouthpiece, “Royal Duck Six, this is Black Weasel.” I released the send button, and I pressed the earpiece hard against my ear, but there was dead silence. I tried again, but there wasn’t even a radio hum or the sound of breaking squelch coming through the earpiece. The radio was as dead as Alf Muller.

I waited for the impact of a bullet somewhere in my body. I could almost feel the hot steel tearing into me.

I waited. I got pissed off. I stood and called out to my patrol, “If I go down, you scatter!”

I stood there and nothing happened.

I ordered again, “Report.”

The seven other survivors reported again.

I looked down at Alf Muller and saw now the bullet hole in his radio. I walked along the line of the patrol and saw my men lying in the black ash, their heads turning toward me, and some of them saying, “Get down, Lieutenant! You crazy?”

You get this sixth sense that it’s not your turn that day, that you’re okay now, that fate has spared you for something worse later.

I found Landon facedown like Muller, and like Muller there was a single hole in the top of his radio. The battery is in the bottom; the guts are in the top. The sniper knew that and was able to put a single round through the electronics and into the spine of both radio operators.

What I didn’t understand was why the sniper didn’t take out at least a few other guys. He certainly had the time, had the range, had a clear field of fire, and obviously was a good shot.

Actually, I knew the answer. This guy was playing with us. There was no other reason for his actions. A little psychological warfare, played with a deadly rifle instead of propaganda leaflets or Radio Hanoi broadcasts. A message to the Americans. And the game wasn’t over.

Snipers think and act differently from normal people, and our own snipers, some of whom I’d met, liked to play games, too. It gets boring waiting for hours or days or weeks for a target. The sniper’s mind does weird things during the long, lonely waits, so when a target finally shows up in the telescopic lens, the sniper becomes a comedian and does funny things. Funny to them, not to the targets. An American sniper once told me he’d shot the hashish pipe out of an enemy soldier’s mouth.

I thought about sharing these thoughts with my men, but if they hadn’t figured it out already, then they didn’t need to know, or they’d know soon enough.

Decision time. I said, “Okay, we’ve got to leave these guys for a body recovery detail. Strip the bodies, and let’s get moving.”

There wasn’t a lot of enthusiastic movement until finally Sergeant Dawson stood and said, “You heard the lieutenant. Move it!”

Everyone got up slowly, heads and eyes darting around like cornered prey. The men stripped the bodies of the two dead radio operators, removing anything that could be of use to the enemy: rifles, ammo, canteens, dog tags, rations, compasses, boots, rucksacks, and so forth.

Dawson asked me, “How about the radios?”

“Let’s take them,” I replied. “Maybe we can make one good radio out of two.”

We moved quickly out of the deforested area and into a thick growth of bamboo that offered some concealment, but gave us away by the movement of the tall, leafy shoots as we macheteed and moved our way through.

We spent the night in the bamboo, forming a defensive perimeter, and we allowed ourselves the belief that we’d shaken the sniper.

A few of the guys tried to make one live radio out of two dead ones, but the guys who knew about radios were six kilometers back and not in a position to help.

By dawn, we’d given up on the radios, and we buried them with our entrenching tools so as not to give anything up to the enemy.

We hadn’t been able to call in our situation report during the night, so now our boss, Colonel Hayes, also known as Royal Duck Six, knew that his patrol, known as Black Weasel, had a problem. A radio problem, he was thinking, or maybe a got-captured problem, or a got-killed problem. These things happen with long-range recon patrols. One minute you’re there, and the next you’re gone forever.

We saddled up and moved toward the grid coordinates on the map that was Rendezvous Alpha.

We got out of the bamboo and into a nice thick growth of forest. We came to a rocky stream that we had to cross and we halted. Streambeds are like shooting galleries. Dawson volunteered to go first, and he bolted across the knee-high stream and scrambled up the opposite bank, dropping into a prone firing position, sweeping his M-16 rifle up and down the stream.

Two riflemen, Smitty and Johnson, went next and made it to the far side. Next, the medic, Garcia, carrying his big medical bag on his back, charged through the stream and was helped up by the other guys. The guy who carried the grenade launcher, Beatty, took a deep breath and moved so fast I thought he was walking on water. Another rifleman, Andolotti, waited five seconds, then ran so fast he almost caught up with Beatty.

Markowitz and I were left on the stream bank, and I said to him, “Your call.”

He smiled and said to me, “He’s waiting for
you,
Lieutenant. Your call.”

I replied, “I’ll bring up the rear. Good luck.”

Markowitz said, “See you on the other side.” He charged into the stream and about halfway across, he slipped and fell. I waited for him to get up and get going, but he didn’t seem able to get his footing. Then I saw the water turning dark around him. He fell again and lay there, submerged, but still moving.

“Sniper!”

Garcia, the medic, and I charged simultaneously from opposite stream banks toward Markowitz. The guys on the far bank opened up with automatic weapon fire, raking and blasting the tree lines up and down the stream.

Garcia and I reached Markowitz at the same time, and we each grabbed an arm and dragged him as we ran toward the far bank. I glanced at the wounded man and saw white frothy blood running from his mouth.

BOOK: Rendezvous
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