Chapter 3

The column snaked through the night, climbing the mountain forest. To help them stay together, every man had a firefly in a tiny cage attached to his back. It was an old Montagnard trick revived by Bolan to prevent men from getting lost. Getting lost was easy when going cross-country at night.

Bolan had dispensed with the trail because it was a longer way. He wanted to get to the monastery before midnight, before Tiger put Nark through another torture session.

From his knowledge of interrogation techniques Bolan knew that the best time to work on a man was after midnight, when his psychological defenses were the weakest. Tiger would know that too.

Tock, tock.

A woodpecker’s tap traveled down the line. The column halted, the men squatted. Bolan heard someone make his way down the column. It was the headman.

“We are at edge of forest,” he whispered. “Temple ahead. Come.”

Bolan and the headman made their way past the line of glowing fireflies flicking on and off. They emerged into grassland and knelt by a large boulder. A couple of hundred yards away stood a compound of buildings with a pagoda. Lights flickered from the shuttered windows, and in the pagoda there was chanting.

“They hold services at this hour?” asked Bolan. It was nearly eleven o’clock.

“These bonzes pray day and night,” said the headman. “Tang Mei is temple of Night Buddha.”

The entrance to the pagoda was lit by flaming torches. By their light Bolan could see two soldiers. He brought out his field glasses for a better look. One man sat on the steps. His companion leaned against one of the stone dragons flanking the entrance. Both were eating, holding a bowl and chopsticks, their rifles propped nearby.

“Could be they’re holding Nark in the pagoda,” Bolan said.

“Not know,” replied the headman.

Bolan went on inspecting the target. The ground behind the monastery rose sharply to a plateau. On the plateau stood a shack with an antenna.

“Radio relay station,” said the headman, seeing him looking up.

“Doesn’t seem to be anyone there now,” said Bolan. The shack was in darkness. He turned his attention to the compound. “Which building houses the soldiers?”

“Not know.”

Great, thought Bolan. Crossbows, muskets, and he didn’t have a clue where to start.

He lowered his glasses. “Okay, here’s what I propose.” He outlined his plan. “Do you agree?”

“I agree,” said the headman and went back to the forest.

Bolan put away the field glasses and brought out a camy stick. He proceeded to apply the camouflage to his hands and face. By the time three men with crossbows joined him, the whole of him blended into the night. He gave the men their instructions.

“Wait,” said one of the men. He undid the safety pin from Bolan’s back and freed the firefly in the cage. He handed Bolan the cage. “Keep for next time.”

Bolan pocketed the cage. It was made from a banana leaf. “Ready?” he asked them. “Let’s go. May the spirits protect us.”

They ran for the cover of the nearest building and crouched in its shadow. They waited to catch their breath, then worked their way along the wall.

When they came to the end of the building, they sprinted across open ground, working their way closer to the pagoda. The next building was in total darkness. They could hear snoring, and a child’s voice mumbled in its sleep. It was a boys’ dormitory. The monks ran a school for temple pages.

To his right Bolan could hear a lot of loud talk and laughter. Right away that told him something. Thais did not talk loudly, especially not in a monastery. He waited until he could hear the language clearly. It was Chinese, which confirmed what he thought. He took a Meo by the arm.

“Tiger,” he whispered, pointing.

The other ran off. He would tell the headman, who would now know where to place his M-16 squad.

Bolan and the other two continued along the wall. They reached the corner and Bolan peered ahead. Before him was a sandy clearing in the middle of which grew the traditional sacred tree. Beyond was the pagoda, the inside lit and visible through the open doorway, though the monks were out of sight.

On the steps, the two soldiers were serving themselves second helpings from a multitiered food container of the kind peasants took to the rice fields. Bolan watched them resume eating. They were completely absorbed in their meal.

Perhaps they were not guarding anything, thought Bolan. Perhaps they were simply having a late dinner and had chosen the spot because of the light. If so, they could not have chosen a better place as far as he was concerned. The chanting would drown out whatever noise Bolan and his men might make.

Bolan signaled the Meo and they crawled out, Bolan following. They crawled single file, trying to keep the bodhi tree, between them and the soldiers. Bolan kept his eyes and ears wide open. This was the most dangerous moment; they were completely exposed.

The Meo reached the tree and rose, eyes on Bolan, who lay on his stomach a few yards away so he would have a better line of fire if he have to intervene. Bolan edged sideways to see the soldiers. They were still eating.

Bolan nodded, and the Meo stepped out. Two arrows sang through the air. Rice bowls and chopsticks clattered, one man groaned and fell to the steps, and the other began coughing blood, hands clutching the arrow embedded in his stomach.

The chanting stopped.

The Meo looked at Bolan as if to say, What do we do now? Neither of two young Meo had ever killed a man. One reason they had volunteered was that a Meo was not a man until he had killed. The professionals, the ex-soldiers, had refused to take part in an operation that opposed muskets to assault rifles.

Bolan streaked past the Meo, hand going for his dagger. He bounded up the steps and plunged it into the coughing soldier’s heart. The man died instantly, and Bolan dragged both bodies inside the doorway of the pagoda. The Meo followed with the soldiers’ rifles.

“Get the food things!” Bolan snapped, livid with anger. He would have the headman’s neck for giving him greenhorns. He turned to the line of yellow-robed monks in the interior of the pagoda, gave a perfunctory wai, and said, “Venerable monks, sing.”

The monks glowered back in antagonistic silence. Not only was this foreigner desecrating a holy place by retaining his footwear, he had the impertinence to bring savages with him.

No love is lost in Thailand between the lowlander and the Montagnard, one civilized to the point of decadence, the other primitive and pagan, but a superior fighter.

“Sing, venerable monks,” Bolan repeated.

The shaved heads remained silent. They knelt on the stone floor under a giant statue of the Night Buddha. The god gazed at Bolan through half-open eyes giving the impression he, too, was displeased by this intrusion.

Bolan sympathized, but war is war. He told the Meo to bar the door and went over to the chief monk. He dropped to one knee and addressed him in the most formal manner.

“Venerable teacher, excuse this imposition. I have come to rescue the white man. Please have the other monks sing while we talk. If they do not, the Chinese might suspect and come, and there will be fighting. I have a hundred barbarians outside ready to attack if necessary.”

The head bonze and his assistant exchanged glances.

Bolan continued, “If there is fighting, many of your monks could be killed. Many of your temple boys, too. Your monastery will be damaged by fire. Please sing.”

There was another exchange of looks. The head monk nodded, the assistant intoned. Wooden sticks clacked, small brass cymbals clashed and the chanting resumed.

“Thank you, venerable teacher,” said Bolan. “Where is the white man?”

The monk’s gaze fell to the floor.

“He’s under the pagoda?”

The monk nodded.

“Where is the entrance?”

The monk said nothing.

“Please, venerable teacher, there is not much time.”

“We haven’t the key.”

“Doesn’t matter — I can open locks without a key. Where is the entrance?”

“The entrance is in the rear of the temple. One must go outside.”

They held each other’s eyes. Was this a trick, Bolan asked himself. There was something of a snake about this man. The eyes were glazed and the voice was syrupy.

Bolan lifted himself to his feet. “Please come to show me the entrance.”

A shaved eyebrow rose almost imperceptibly. The monk had not expected that. He glanced at his assistant and rose. Bolan signaled to the Meo to unbolt the door.

“No one is to leave, understand?” Bolan told them. “If anyone tries, shoot.”

The two Meo nodded nervously.

They stepped out, Bolan leading. The square was empty. They descended the stone steps, avoiding the slippery blood, and Bolan motioned for the monk to go first. They went around the side of the pagoda.

The sky was still cloudy, obscuring the moon, the monks inside the pagoda were chanting, and the Tiger soldiers in the building were still laughing away. Everything was going like clockwork.

“Maiouk!”

Bolan spun around and ducked as a muzzle flashed. The monk was thrown against the wall by the impact of the bullets.

Bolan returned fire and a man screamed. Bolan fired again, a long, lateral burst. A second voice cried out and something crashed into the bushes.

The compound burst into life. Shutters banged, doors flew open, soldiers ran out. From the hill where the Meo headman was positioned, a whistle blew.

A musket fired dryly. An automatic rifle replied with a burst. A Meo war cry filled the air, followed by a fusillade of musket fire. The chanting continued.

Bolan dropped to the monk’s side, then ran to the rear of the pagoda, found the door, and felt for the lock. There was no lock. The door was false.

He sprinted back past the body of the monk, feeling not at all sorry for him now that he knew the guy had tried to trick him. He bounded up the steps and pounded on the door.

“Open up!” he shouted.

The door remained closed.

“Open the door!” Bolan yelled over the gunfire outside and the chanting inside. “It’s me — the white man!” He banged on the door with his fist.

There was the sound of a bolt being withdrawn, then the door opened and Bolan strode inside. This time there was no wai or kneeling.

“Silence!” he called out.

The chanting stopped.

Raising his voice above the din outside, Bolan said, “The head monk is dead. He tried to deceive me, the door is false. Where is the white man?”

The monks remained silent, eyes straight ahead.

Bolan walked up to the assistant. He placed the muzzle of his gun against the man’s bare shoulder, and repeated his question.

“The white man is in a chamber under the pagoda,” replied the monk.

“How does one get there?”

The monk rose, walked quickly to the side of the Buddha, and pushed a panel. A section of the wall swung open.

“Get a light and take me down there,” Bolan ordered.

The monk took a torch from a wall, and they descended a long flight of steps into a large cave. On a mat, chained to the wall, lay a tall man with a mustache.

“It’s me,” said Bolan. “John.”

“How come they’re letting you keep your weapon?” asked Nark, squinting.

“I didn’t come as a prisoner,” said Bolan. “I came to free you.”

“They told me you’d been captured,” said Nark. “I knew they’d be on the drop zone. I was in the radio shack when Stony Man Farm radioed your time of arrival. How come your people fell for it? I specifically left out the true check to let you know I was transmitting under duress.”

“The operator must have missed it,” said Bolan, picking the lock on Nark’s chains.

“How can anyone miss a check?”

“Routine, boredom, people get careless. It happens.”

“Not in the NSA,” said Nark.

“In the NSA too,” Bolan assured him. “A few years back — this was before your time — the NSA agent in Tangier left out the true check to tell control he had been captured. Guess what control replied? ‘Next time, please remember to include your true check.'”

They heard the sound of feet descending the stone steps, and the headman appeared. “Fight finished,” he announced. “Hello, Mr. Nark.”

“Hi, Major,” said the tall, rail-thin American.

The headman held out a ball-shaped rocket attached to a small launcher. “You know this?” he asked. “Never see before.”

“A RAW,” Bolan replied. “Like an RPG but makes a bigger hole, and you fire it from a rifle.”

“You want?” said the headman.

“Sure, I’ll take it,” said Bolan. It was of no use to him — the launcher only fitted an M-16 — but to refuse a gift would be rude.

“Major,” said Nark, “could you send someone to the shack to pick up my radio? Also, the ge-gene.” That was what the Montagnards called the hand-pedaled generator used to provide current for the set. When pedaled it made a ge-ge sound. “And a flashlight, too.”

“I go myself,” said the headman.

“While you’re there, put a few bullets through the Tiger radio. The big set on the table.”

“Yes, sir,” said the headman and ran up.

Bolan continued to pick the lock. It was a complicated mechanism. He signaled to the Meo who had replaced the bonze as torch holder to come nearer so he could see better.

“What did you tell Tiger?” Bolan asked Nark.

“I told them what I was supposed to tell them,” said Nark, his pale features showing some amusement.

“They bought the cover?”

“They even suggested it. From the start they kept saying, ‘You’re Russian, aren’t you?’ Well, it was obvious, wasn’t it? Russian weapon, Russian radio, Russian clothes. I must say, John, your tailors are tops. Even the stitching on my buttonholes was Russian. You know, crossed instead of parallel? I saw them check.”

“I’ll pass on the compliment,” said Bolan. After a while he added, “But if they bought the cover, how come you were tortured?”

“In the beginning I refused to talk. I figured if I talked too early, they’d get suspicious.” He grinned. “After all, a hardened KGB agent is a tough nut to crack, no?”

The cover for Galloping Horse was that it was a Russian operation. Nark was a pathfinder for a KGB team coming to stir up a rebellion among Montagnards in Burma and Thailand. Objective: to destabilize the two countries in preparation for a pro-Moscow Communist takeover. The Soviet Union wanted Burma and Thailand as satellites to complete its cordon sanitaire of China. It already had Vietnam and Laos.

The lock finally snapped open. “There,” said Bolan. He removed the chains and helped Nark to his feet. The man swayed, hand going to his head. “What’s wrong?” asked Bolan.

“They were very fond of the sock,” said Nark, massaging his head. “I never realized such a simple technique could be so painful.”

“Yeah,” said Bolan. “It can really knock you around.”

“I’ll be all right,” Nark replied, his long legs becoming more steady as he crossed the room.

They went up to the pagoda. The torches flickered in silence; the monks had gone. They crossed the floor and came out. The square milled with black-clad figures, some loading booty on captured Tiger horses. Occasionally a shot rang out as some Montagnard finished off a wounded Tiger soldier. The Montagnards did not take prisoners.

Nark sniffed the air. “Tobacco?”

“They used bundles of tobacco to smoke out the troops,” Bolan explained. “With our muskets and crossbows, Tiger could have held us off forever.”

Three horses were tied by the bodhi tree, obviously for them. Two had saddles, while one carried Nark’s radio and generator. From one of the saddles hung an M-16 with a canvas bandolier containing ammunition magazines, a weapon for Nark.

The headman came up. He glanced from the man with the mustache to the man with the ice-blue eyes. “Tiger know?”

“No, they don’t know,” said Bolan. “We can still surprise them.”

“When come money and arms?” asked the headman.

“In two nights’ time,” said Bolan.

The headman’s tiny eyes held Bolan’s. “How you know?”

Bolan glanced at his watch. “In two and a half hours, which is when our next radio transmission is, we will ask for an air drop.” He turned to Nark. “Where should that drop be?”

“Valley of the Spirits,” replied Nark.

“We will tell our planes,” Bolan continued, “to drop arms and money in the Valley of the Spirits the night after tomorrow. This is the earliest they can come. We will ask for the drop to be at midnight. You must send messengers to the villages to tell people that. They must be there to collect the drop.”

The headman grunted. “We ride to village now?”

“You do,” said Bolan. “Nark and I ride to reconnoiter the Tiger camp. I want to make a final check before we attack. Okay?”

“Okay.” The headman turned to the milling figures in the square and blew a whistle. “Paj, paj,” he called out.

Watched by bonzes leaning from windows, the Montagnards headed for home. The Tiger War had begun.

Mack Bolan knew this would be a strange one. Drugs were a blatant form of terrorism, he understood that to the depths of his being, and the enemy was as clearly defined as ever. But to Bolan there were even more serious concerns in his recent life that seriously slewed the picture.

Increasingly he was aware of the potential for betrayal. At every turn, politics and nationalism muddied the clarity of the essential task: the clean versus the unclean. More and more he realized the dangers implicit in his hastily organized missions.

So it felt good to be a soldier in fatigues again. A soldier’s kind of action was the best way to find out which of a guy’s allies were for real. Bolan needed that.

He felt he was edging toward some terrible revelation now. He needed a soldier’s faith to see it through. Yeah, this would be a strange one.

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