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Rendezvous Page 3

by Nelson DeMille

  “Yes, sir.”

  You need to establish who’s in control if you’re going to survive, so I said, “Get the men up and moving. Eat on the march. We’ve been here long enough.”

  “Yes, sir.”

  Sergeant Dawson got Smitty and Johnson up and within a minute, we were moving south through the bamboo, which gave way to scattered trees, then a thick subtropical growth of palm brush that cut our arms, hands, and faces.

  Within an hour, I was able to locate us on the map, and I announced, “Rendezvous Alpha is about twenty kilometers south and west. We won’t make it in the daylight, but we need to be there for our 0600 hours rendezvous.”

  Everyone nodded, if not enthusiastically, then at least with a little optimism. One more day and night of hell, and by first light, we’d be on the magic carpet, and half an hour later, we’d be in base camp on the coast, showering, eating real eggs and bacon, and getting debriefed, not necessarily in that order. Maybe all at once, if I had my way.

  I had exactly twenty-nine days to go in this shithole, and by custom, you didn’t go out on patrol with less than thirty to go. This was my last patrol, one way or the other.

  We moved into a triple-canopy jungle where the lack of sunlight kept the brush at a minimum, and we should have been able to make good time, but we were barely able to put one foot in front of the other. We all had heat rash, crotch rot, jungle sores, festering cuts, and foot blisters big as onions. I had the sense that we were making barely two kilometers an hour.

  It got darker in the triple canopy long before sunset and by 1900 hours, when it should have still been light, it was getting murky, though now and then sunlight would slant in from the west.

  We pushed on, me, Sergeant Dawson, Smitty, and Johnson, the survivors of the radioless patrol known by the radio call sign of Black Weasel. We’d located troop movements, but were unable to report them. We’d evaded large numbers of the enemy, but couldn’t evade a single woman who’d taken an obsessive interest in us. If, in fact, I found myself eating scrambled eggs while being debriefed by Royal Duck and the intelligence types, all I could think to say was that they’d better send a good antisniper team in before they sent anyone else. And don’t be surprised if you never hear from the first couple of teams that go in.

  We moved into a long patch of sunlight that was contrasted with a dark shadowy area up ahead, and my senses went into high gear. I was about to say, “Spread out and find shadow,” when a movement up ahead caught my eye.

  Even with her flash suppressor, I saw the spit of fire high up in the triple-canopy jungle, not more than seventy-five meters away. Johnson let out a loud grunt behind me, and I heard him hit the ground.

  I dropped into a kneeling firing position and emptied a full magazine where I’d seen the muzzle flash.

  As I was firing at where she was supposed to be, I caught another movement to my left and turned. I was aware of a long vine swinging in an arc back toward where I was spraying bullets. She wasn’t on the vine, but she’d been on the vine and was now in a tree somewhere to my left.

  Dawson and Smitty had been firing bursts where I’d directed my fire, and before I could shift my fire to where I thought she’d ridden the swinging vine, Smitty screamed out in pain, then stood, stumbled a few feet, and collapsed facedown. I saw his body jerk like he’d been hit again.

  I shifted my fire to where I guessed she was, but Dawson kept firing at her last location, and I shouted to him, “Monkey vine!”

  He got it and shifted his fire to intersect mine. Red tracers sliced through the jungle canopy, and leaves, branches, and palm fronds fell to the ground.

  We backed out in a crouch, firing as we went, and regrouped about fifty meters back down the trail, then scrambled into a thicket of brush.

  Dawson was visibly shaken for the first time since I’d known him. He kept saying, “Jesus Christ. Oh, God. Oh, God.”

  I said, “Quiet.”

  He sank cross-legged on the ground, then began rocking back and forth, mumbling something.

  I said softly, “Get it together, Sergeant. Get it together now.”

  He didn’t seem to hear me, then suddenly he brightened and said, “We got her. I know we got her. I saw her fall. We wasted that bitch.”

  I didn’t think so, but it was a nice thought.

  I said, “Get up.”

  He stood.

  “Follow me.”

  I led us a hundred meters away, found another thicket of brush and said, “We stay here until midnight, then we move toward our rendezvous. Understand?”

  He nodded.

  We sat very still until dark, then drank some water and ate a few cookies from home that we’d found on Landon’s body.

  Sergeant Dawson had gotten himself under control and to make up for the lapse of cool, he said, “Let’s go out and get her. You got the starlight scope. She don’t have a nightscope. Right? We can see in the dark, she can’t.”

  I listened, as though I was considering this insanity, then I replied thoughtfully, “I think our best course of action is to stay put for now. I think I can find Alpha from here even in the dark. If we go out after her, we’ll get disoriented and miss our rendezvous. What do you think?”

  He pretended to think about this, then nodded. “Yeah. We need to get back and report what happened. They need to get some antisnipers on this bitch.”

  “Right. Let the pros handle it.”


  “We can go along and give them some tips.”

  He didn’t reply for a while, then said quietly, “We’re not going to make it, Lieutenant. You understand? She’s too good. She’s not gonna let us make it.”

  I stayed silent for a while, then gave him some good news and some bad news that I knew I’d be sharing with him eventually. I said, “One of us is going to make it. She wants one of us, the patrol leader, me, or the patrol sergeant, you, to go back and tell them about her. Otherwise, all her fucking bullshit was for nothing. She could have wasted all of us at any point since day one, but she didn’t. She made us piss our pants, tighten our assholes, sweat cold and run hot. She risked her own life to wow the shit out of us, and she didn’t do that for a totally dead audience. One of us—you or me—is going to get on that chopper at dawn. And if it’s you, I want you to report very accurately and very professionally what happened here. And you make sure you make the dead look good and bring honor on them. Then you—or me—volunteers to come back here and settle the score. Understand?”

  He didn’t reply for a long time, then said, “I understand.”

  “Good.” I put out my hand, and we shook.

  • • •

  We moved through the night, and I navigated as best I could, using my compass and keeping track of our paces.

  An hour before dawn, the land sloped steeply downward, and I knew we were in the vicinity of Rendezvous Alpha, which was a bowl-shaped depression about a kilometer across, thick with elephant grass.

  We had less than twenty minutes to get to the approximate center of this place, and it should be easy, if we just kept going downhill until we started going uphill. Very simple, said Royal Duck. How can you miss the bottom of a bowl, even in the dark?

  I looked at the luminescent glow of my watch. It was a few minutes to 0600 hours, and I didn’t hear a chopper, and I didn’t know if I was at the very bottom of this depression.

  Normally, it wouldn’t matter if we were even a hundred meters off because we could use a signaling mirror, or pop a smoke canister as a last resort. But the geniuses who picked this place hadn’t taken into account the morning ground mist that had settled in the depression. The good news was that the lady with the gun, if she was anywhere on the rim of this depression, couldn’t see us. We might both make it out.

  Somewhere above the mist, the sun was rising and from the air, the terrain would be light enough for the choppers to find this bowl of pea soup.

  Dawson and I decided we’d gotten to a place where the terrain was r
ising on all sides, so we stopped and listened for the beating chopper blades, which we hoped we could hear over our heavy breathing.

  We waited. It was ten minutes after rendezvous time, but that wasn’t a worry. The chopper pilots were always wary about these pickups in the middle of nowhere, and they tended to dally and recon a lot. There would be two Hueys to pick up ten men, though there were only two of us, and there’d be two or more Cobra gunships flying cover. If they drew fire, they’d try to suppress the fire, and sometimes they’d come in under fire. But not always.

  It was now fifteen minutes past rendezvous time, and Dawson said, “They’re not coming. They didn’t hear from us, so they’re not coming.”

  I replied, “We’re here at the prearranged spot because they didn’t hear from us.”

  “Yeah, but—”

  “They’re not going to leave us.”

  “Yeah, I know … but … maybe we’re in the wrong place.”

  “I can read a fucking map.”

  “Yeah? Let me see the map.”

  I gave him the map, and he looked at it intently. Sergeant Dawson had a lot of good skills, but land navigation was not one of them.

  He said, “Maybe we should go on to Bravo.”


  “Maybe the choppers saw gooks on the ground.”

  “Unless they’re getting shot at, they’re coming in. Take it easy.”

  We waited. Dawson asked, “You think she’s out there?”

  “We’ll find out.”

  We waited and we listened. At 0630 hours, we heard the distinct beating of helicopter blades against the cool morning air. We looked at each other, and for the first time in a long time, we managed a smile.

  We could hear the choppers get closer, and I knew the pilots were worried about putting down in a mist-shrouded area where they couldn’t see the ground. But they’d been briefed that it was elephant grass, easy landing, and the downdraft would clear the mist for them. Still, we had no radio contact so they wouldn’t know who was waiting for them on the ground. I thought about popping a green smoke canister, which meant all clear, or a yellow that meant caution. That would tell them we were waiting, although it would also announce our presence to people who didn’t need to know we were there.

  Dawson said, “I’m gonna pop smoke. Pick a flavor.”

  “Wait. They need to get closer. They don’t want more than three minutes between smoke and pickup, or they get pissed off and go home.”

  I listened to the approaching choppers, counted to sixty, then popped a yellow smoke canister. The billowy plume sat on the ground in the damp, windless air, then began to rise into the mist. At some point, it must have broken through the top of the gray fog because very quickly the sound of the choppers got very loud. A few seconds later, I could see a huge shadow overhead, and the mist started swirling like a tornado was coming through.

  The first chopper was twenty meters away looking very ghostly in the gray mist as it settled toward the earth. The second was about twenty meters farther.

  Dawson and I sprinted toward the first chopper, making hand signals toward the crew to make them understand there were only two of us, and waving the other chopper off. Someone understood because the second chopper lifted off before we reached the closest one. Our chopper hovered five feet off the ground, and I slapped Dawson’s ass indicating he was first. He reached up and grabbed the hand of the crew chief. His feet found the chopper skid, and he was in the cabin in about two seconds. I was right behind him, and I think I actually high-jumped into the cabin, calling out above the noise of the blades and engine, “Only two! Eight dead! Go! Go!”

  The crew chief nodded and spoke into his radio mouthpiece to the pilot.

  I sat cross-legged on the floor as the chopper rose quickly through the mist.

  I looked at Dawson, who was kneeling on the floor of the cabin and already had a cigarette lit. We made eye contact, and he gave me a thumbs-up. Just as the chopper lifted out of the misty depression, Dawson’s cigarette shot out of his mouth, and he pitched forward, his face falling in my lap. I shouted, “Fire!” as I grabbed Dawson’s shoulders and rolled him on his back.

  He stared up at the ceiling of the cabin, blood running from the exit wound in his chest.

  Both door gunners had opened fire with their machine guns raking the forest below as the Huey shot forward away from the area. The Cobra gunships fired their rockets and Gatling guns into the surrounding terrain, but it was mostly for show. No one knew where the shot had come from, though I did know who fired it.

  I got down close to Phil Dawson, face to face, and we stared into each other’s eyes. I said, “You’re okay. You’ll be fine. We’ll go right to the hospital ship. Just hold on. Hold on. A few minutes more.”

  He tried to speak, but I couldn’t hear him above the noise. I put my ear to his mouth and heard him say, “Bitch.” Then he let go and died.

  I sat beside him holding his hand, which was getting cold. The crew chief and the door gunners kept stealing glances at us, as did the pilot and copilot.

  • • •

  The magic carpet landed at the field hospital first, and medics took Sergeant Dawson’s body away, then the chopper skimmed over the base camp and deposited me at the landing zone of the Lurp Headquarters.

  The pilot had radioed ahead, and Colonel Hayes—Royal Duck—was there to meet me in his Jeep. He was alone, which I thought was a nice touch. He said, “Welcome home, Lieutenant.”

  I nodded.

  He asked me to confirm that I was the only one left.

  I nodded.

  He patted my back.

  We got in his Jeep, which he drove directly to his hootch, a little wooden structure with a tin roof. We went inside, and he passed a bottle of Chivas to me. I took a long swig, then he steered me to a canvas armchair.

  He asked, “You feel like talking about it?”



  “Yeah. Yes, sir.”

  “Good.” He patted my shoulder and went toward the door of the single-room shack.

  I said, “Woman.”

  He turned to me. “What’s that?”

  “Female sniper. A very dangerous woman.”

  “Right … take it easy. Finish the bottle. See you when you’re ready. In my office.”

  “I’m going back to get her.”

  “Okay. We’ll talk about it later.” He gave me a concerned look and left.

  I sat there, thinking about Dawson, Andolotti, Smitty, Johnson, Markowitz, Garcia, Beatty, Landon, and Muller, and finally about the sniper.

  • • •

  After I made my report, the Air Force carpet-bombed the area of my patrol for a week. The day the bombing ended, we sent three two-man antisniper teams into the area. I wanted to go back, but Colonel Hayes vetoed that. Just as well, since only one team made it back.

  We kept people out of the area for a few weeks, then sent in an infantry company of two hundred men to locate and recover the bodies of the eight guys left behind, and also, of course, to look for the lady with the gun. They never found the bodies; maybe the bombs and artillery obliterated them. As for the lady, she, too, seemed to have vanished.

  I went home and put the whole thing out of my mind. Or tried to.

  I stayed in touch with a lot of the Lurp guys who were still in ’Nam when I left, and they’d write once in a while and answer the questions I always asked in my letters: Did you find her? Did she get anyone else?

  The answer was always “No” and “No.”

  She seemed to have disappeared or gotten killed in subsequent bombings or artillery strikes, or just simply quit while she was ahead. Among the guys who knew the story, she became a legend, and her disappearance only added to her almost mythical stature.

  To this day, I have no idea what motivated her, what secret game she was playing, or why. I speculated that probably she’d had family killed by the Americans, or maybe she’d been raped by GIs, or maybe she was
just doing her duty to her country, as we did ours.

  I still have the brass cartridge I’d picked up on the riverbank, and now and then I take it out of my desk drawer and look at it.

  I didn’t want to obsess on this, but as the years passed, I began to believe that she was still alive and that I’d meet up with her someday, someplace, though I didn’t know how or where.

  I knew for certain I’d recognize her face, which I could still see clearly, and I knew she would recognize me—the guy she let get away, to tell her story. Now the story is told, and if we do ever meet, only one of us will walk away alive.

  The End




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