Flanked by their captors, hands tied behind their backs, cords around their necks, Bolan and Nark were trotted past rows of coconut palms. The sun was going down and they had been on the road for over six hours. All of them, prisoners and captors, were tired and covered with dust. Just why they were being taken to this plantation instead of the hardsite was not clear, but Bolan suspected it might have something to do with the annual meeting. White men as prisoners would lead to questions. No doubt Liu preferred his directors not to know of the recent goings-on. That would be bad for company morale.
They rode up to the plantation house, and the commander dismounted. An overly made-up middle-aged woman in a cheongsam came onto the verandah and he talked to her. Equally over-painted but younger women appeared at the windows, and there was a great deal of banter between them and the soldiers, as well as ogling and giggling in Bolan and Nark’s honor. White men might have lost the Vietnam War, but they were still number one as far as the bar girls of Southeast Asia were concerned.
The commander saluted the
A soldier untied Bolan’s hands, another brought a bucket and a ground mat. The door shut and a bar went across it. The troop rode off, leaving a guard pacing outside. Bolan looked around. He was in a rectangular cubicle with an earthen floor and wood walls. The pen was dark and gloomy, the only light coming from a grille in the rear wall. He went to it and tried the metal bars. It was solid. So were the walls and so was the ceiling. He unrolled the mat and sat down, leaning his back against a wall. In this position he took stock of their new situation.
They were in a real bind, he acknowledged. Tomorrow night the planes would come, there would be no one to give the ground recognition signal, and they would fly away without making the drop. A couple of days later an agent would arrive to investigate. When he learned they were prisoners he would try to organize a rescue. But would the headman agree to another mission on credit? Unlikely. The agent would have to ask Stony Man Farm for a money-drop. And more days would go by.
Of course, Lady Luck might intervene, and he and Nark might get the opportunity to escape, but that was a big if. A professional fighter could not base strategy on chance and luck; he had to face reality, which was that Tiger would have a week to work on them.
A week. A wink in time when you were sitting on a beach in the Caribbean, but in a torture chamber it was an eternity. And what if one of them broke? This time Tiger would have the advantage of working on two men at once, playing off information gained from one against the other, demoralizing them with conflicting testimony.
It was too bad they had not had the opportunity to agree on a common story. The one and only time they tried to talk during the march, they were whipped. Now it was too late. Nark’s cell was at the other end of the stable. In order to avoid giving conflicting testimony, one man had to clam up completely and refuse to talk no matter haw painful the consequences. And Bolan knew who that man would have to be. Nark might or might not decide on a similar approach; a soldier could choose, but not a commander. Part of being a commander was that you took the rap.
The cubicle darkened as night descended. From outside came the purr of a generator providing the plantation with electricity. Bolan continued sitting, waiting for the footsteps that would announce their coming. They would come for him soon, he knew that. They would not wait for the psychological hour, not when they saw those sketches in his haversack. That would make them want to talk to him right away. And when he refused to answer they would bring out the sock, a sock filled with sand and applied to the side of the head. Nark said that was their favorite tool. Bolan was familiar with the sock. The experience was similar to a dentist’s drill striking a nerve, except that the pain was multiplied over the entire nervous system. Still, he would rather have the sock than the water bath or electricity any day.
From outside the grille came the scent of wood smoke. Bolan’s mouth watered. Wood meant cooking, and Bolan had not eaten since they set out for the attack on the pagoda. Visions of wonderful dishes floated through his brain, and bit by bit his head lowered, lulled by the rasping of cicadas outside. The rasping turned to music, he was in a ballroom, the buffet table was loaded with dishes…
The sound of the bar being withdrawn brought him to his senses. The door opened and a torch shone. By its light he could see pointing muzzles. The torch and the muzzles advanced. A muzzle rose to his face and pressed into his cheek while hands grabbed his arms and steel went around his wrists followed by clicks. A cord went around his neck, and they led him out into the night. The air was warm, heavy with the scent of frangipani, and the moon was shining. As they passed the back of the plantation house he heard music and laughter. But for Bolan, there was no escaping his fate. Not yet, anyway.
They led him through a banana grove. On the other side was a villa. They went up the stone steps and entered a large room with a stone floor that echoed as they walked. The villa was dark and empty except for a table at the far end, lit by a low-hanging lamp with a large shade. The scene was straight out of a gangster movie, except that instead of a hood or cop at the table there was a tall Oriental man with a gaunt face wearing a mustard-colored camouflage uniform. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, Bolan noticed several more soldiers on a bench by the wall. He guessed these were the muscle boys.
The interrogator was reading a file while smoking a cigarette that he tapped occasionally against a cut-down artillery casing that served as an ashtray. Now that he could see him better, Bolan noticed the man had a dueling scar on his face. But what Bolan noticed most were the man’s hands: thin, long, manicured. A surgeon’s hands.
The interrogator closed the file and stubbed out his cigarette. He clasped his hands and leaned on the table. “Do you speak English?” he asked, friendly.
“Yes, I do,” Bolan replied slowly.
“Good,” said the interrogator as if he were really glad of an opportunity to talk to Bolan. “Now then, in your rucksack we found drawings of our main camp. What purpose would they serve?”
There was a brief silence. “I have nothing to say,” Bolan said quietly.
The interrogator feigned surprise. “Is something wrong?” he asked, concern in his voice.
Bolan remained silent.
“Have you been mistreated?”
“Then why do you refuse to speak to me?” In a slightly hurt tone he added, “Surely the mark of a gentleman is that he is polite even to his enemy.”
Great was the temptation to take him up on his offer, to engage in some polite talk and delay the moment of pain. Bolan fought the temptation. “I have nothing to say,” he repeated quietly.
The interrogator scrutinized Bolan’s face. He seemed genuinely upset by the prospect of causing Bolan pain. If the man had been an actor Bolan would have given him an Oscar. “Do you realize the consequences?” he asked.
“I have nothing to say,” Bolan intoned once again.
The interrogator sighed. “Very well.” He looked in the direction of the men on the bench and nodded.
A curtain was pulled back, and an arc light went on. Bolan’s blood froze. The light lit up a corner of the room with an overhead metal bar and a stool. On the floor lay a pair of wires with metal clamps at their ends. Bolan could imagine to where the other ends led — to a hand-pedaled electric generator similar to the one they had left behind with the busted radio.
Hands roughly grabbed his collar, and he was dragged to the corner.
With practiced movements the men attached a chain to his handcuffs, threw it over the bar, and pulled him up so he hung from the bar, his toes just touching the floor. Only then did he realize that they had just cuffed his ankles as well.
A soldier undid his trousers and pulled them down along with his underpants. Another stuck a bucket up to him and made a gesture that he should urinate. They did not want him to mess up the floor. He did as he was told because there was a man with a raised rubber truncheon ready to encourage him, making it obvious which part of the body he would strike.
The clamps were attached, one to the skin of his testicles, the other to his left earlobe. For the ear a soldier climbed on the stool. Another brought a wet towel that he passed to the man on the stool. The first soldier squeezed some water on the clamp to improve conductivity. Then he jumped off the stool and repeated the process on the genital clamp.
The victim ready, the men disappeared beyond the light, taking the stool with them. Bolan hung from the bar, handcuffs biting into his wrists, the bright light burning the retinas of his eyes. He could see nothing beyond the light; everything was in darkness. The room fell still.
“Now then,” the interrogator’s voice spoke from the darkness, “permit me to remind you that the pain will accumulate as we proceed. What is more, the pain will last a long time. You would be well advised not to delay answering for too long. What is your name, please?”
There was a deathly hush. Bolan replied, “I have nothing to say.”
A chair scraped, there was the sound of a turning dynamo, and Bolan gasped as electricity flowed through his body. The gasp turned to a scream as the soldier hand-pedaled faster and the voltage built up. As he screamed, the whirling stopped.
“I am sorry for causing you pain,” the interrogator’s voice said, “but you really leave us no choice. I must remind you of what this is doing to your body. The damage could be permanent. What is your name, please?”
“I have nothing to say,” Bolan groaned.
The generator whirled. Only this time it went on and on, the sound of the dynamo mixing with Bolan’s repeated screams, the electricity sending his body into spasms, contorting his face. When it stopped, his testicles were on fire and he was gasping for air; the current had prevented him from breathing.
A soldier stepped forward with the stool and the wet towel. He climbed the stool and squeezed more water on Bolan’s ear, repeated the process on the other clamp, then disappeared into the darkness. Bolan hung from the bar, panting, his body covered in sweat, the light burning his face, throat parched, tears filling his eyes.
“Once again,” said the interrogator’s voice. “What is your name, please?”
“I… have… nothing… to… say,” Bolan groaned.
A warm glow was spreading through his testicles as the body’s defense mechanism began anesthetizing. But his torturers were experienced men and knew this. So when the man by the generator pedaled, he did so much faster, boosting the voltage far above what he had given Bolan before. The current seared through Bolan’s body, transforming him into a screaming puppet, the twitching body dancing like the paper skeleton by the ancestral altar in the headman’s hut, his handcuffs rattling against the metal bar, the pain growing and growing — Suddenly his body went limp.
The generator man stopped pedaling. “Excuse me, Captain, I overdid it.”
The interrogator nodded to the soldiers who brought Bolan. “Take him back to the stable. Bring the other.”
* * *
The soldiers layed Bolan on a blanket, took a corner each, and left the villa. As they carried him, Bolan contemplated his next move. A few more volts and he really would have fainted. It was his ability to withstand pain well past the level that would cause most men to faint that made his act believable.
Bouncing in the sagging blanket, Bolan observed his captors through half-open eyelids. There were four of them, and their state of readiness was zero. They had their rifles slung across their backs, and as they carried the blanket they laughed and joked. Every so often they paused to set him down. The opportunity to bolt was perfect, because by the time they unslung their weapons he would have been swallowed by the night. But there was Nark. On this mission he was not alone. A commander does not abandon his men.
As they emerged from the banana grove the idea came to him. A little ambitious considering the odds, he had to admit, but nevertheless he felt confident he could carry it out. After all, the gods of Southeast Asia were on his side again tonight.
They crossed to the stables, and one of them called to the man guarding Nark to hold open the door to Bolan’s pen. They struggled with him through the door, dragged him along the ground, and, sighing with relief, dumped him against the far wall.
In that instant Bolan sprang to his feet and shot for the door. He grabbed the fifth man, threw him inside, took his rifle. As the door closed, plunging the cubicle into darkness, he set on them, wielding the rifle like a club, striking with the fury of a cornered animal, the thought of what would happen if he failed giving him added strength.
Perhaps because the attack was so sudden or because it was dark and they could not see his blows, no one shouted. There were one or two muted screams, but mainly the fight took place amid shuffling feet, moans, grunts, snapping bone, and cracking skulls. When it was over, Bolan rummaged among bodies sticky with blood and removed two rifles and some ammunition belts.
Fighting nausea, for the pen was heavy with the odors of dead men, he examined the rifles to make sure they were not damaged. He checked the bolt mechanism, and satisfied that they were in working order, he left the prison and walked to the other end of the building. The animal pens of the stable had their doors open. All were empty. He unbolted Nark’s pen and opened the door. By the light of the moon he saw the American sitting awake on his mat.
“Come on,” Bolan whispered to the surprised man.
They made their way to the plantation house, darting from building to building, guns at the ready, keeping to the shadows. At the back of the building, more horses had joined the line tied to the pole bar. They surveyed them from the cover of trees.
A door opened, filling the night with rock music. Through the doorway Bolan could see that the interior was arranged like a bar with tables and a dance floor. It was packed. A soldier and a girl came out. They kissed for a while, then headed for the stables arm in arm. A moment later the door opened again, and another couple stepped out. They too headed for the stables. Would they notice there were no guards?
Again the door opened.
“This is going to be risky,” Nark whispered.
Bolan tapped Nark and they left the trees. Bent low, they ran across the open ground and untied the reins of two horses. They were mounting them when the door opened and a soldier appeared. Bolan pointed his M-16 at him like a pistol and fired. The soldier toppled backward, a woman screamed, and pandemonium broke out.
Bolan and Nark galloped off, the horses’ hooves drowning out the shouts from the receding villa.
They headed down the road past rows of palms, the moon lighting their way. As they rounded a corner they saw the gate was closed. The gate was the only way out, the plantation being surrounded by a tall fence.
At their approach, figures materialized. One of them knelt in the roadway, and a muzzle flashed. Bolan let go of his reins, set his rifle on automatic, and stood in the saddle. Nark followed his example. Guns blazing, they bore down on the guards. Bodies toppled, figures scattered, the wrought-iron gate clanged from ricocheting bullets.
“Cover me!” shouted Bolan as the horses slid to a stop before the gate.
While Bolan leaned down to open the gate, Nark wheeled his horse in a circle, firing constantly, keeping the guards pinned on both sides of the gate. Bolan went through and proceeded to fire while Nark came out. Together they fired a final burst and galloped off into the night, free men once more.
For Bolan it was a glorious sensation. He ignored the pain in his crotch although it was aggravated by the furious gallop. What counted was the wind in his face, the moon in the sky… and freedom.
Behind them, an air-raid siren began wailing.
Two miles down the road they turned into a trail leading into the hills that would take them home to the Meo village. But here they had to slow down. The ground was uneven, full of rocks, and the thick canopy lowered visibility. A horse could easily break a leg, and they had to maintain a walking pace.
A little later they heard the thunder of hooves on the road they had left. The sound died out at the junction of the trail, telling them Tiger too had turned into it.
“They’re going to catch up with us,” said Nark.
“We still have a few minutes,” Bolan replied.
The enemy would catch up because they were familiar with the trail and would know where they could speed up without risk of injury to their animals. Before they caught up, however, the trail left the thick woodland for a ravine in open grassland. The ravine sloped to a bridge across a stream, then the trail rose sharply up a hill, disappearing into some woods. For Bolan this was their opportunity. He sent his horse into a gallop and Nark followed. They crossed the bridge and scrambled up the slope, reining inside the woods.
“I’ll try to delay them,” said Bolan. “You go ahead.”
“I’ll help you,” said Nark, dismounting.
“Nark, I’m giving you an order,” said Bolan. “One of us has to make the air drop.”
Nark was on the verge of replying but changed his mind. Bolan was right; the mission came before friendship. He remounted. “Take care, John,” he said and rode away.
Bolan tied his horse to a tree and went to the edge of the woods. Nearby was a large boulder, and he dropped behind it and waited. He did not have to wait long because they were gaining on them faster than he had thought, and for good reason. They had torches, and the woods flickered with light.
On the third horse rode a man with a pistol strapped to his belt. There was one individual who would have benefited from the Vietnam War, thought Bolan. Nam taught officers not to advertise rank by such telltale signs; the VC always fired on officers first.
Bolan counted nine men. As the leading rider reached the bridge, he sighted the officer. A flame stabbed the night, and screeching birds rose from the treetops. The ambush was on.
Bolan picked them off one by one. The ponies in the ravine milled as the riders toppled. The flaming torches that had helped the Tiger soldiers to catch up quickly now helped Bolan to kill them quickly. They lit the target, complicating Tiger’s defense. To reach the rifles on their backs, the soldiers had to drop their torches.
But the horses were panicked by the torches flaming on the ground, which made it even more difficult for the soldiers to unsling their rifles.
When the ambush was over eight corpses lay on the trail. Over them stood a few dazed horses. The rest of the animals had gone back the way they had come, along with the sole surviving soldier. From behind the boulder Bolan observed the silent scene, lit by the dying torches on the ground. Not a soul moved.
Bolan shouldered his rifle and walked back to the woods. He mounted his horse and resumed his journey.