Warren Murphy: Walking Wounded

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Warren Murphy Walking Wounded
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    Walking Wounded
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IT DIDN'T TAKE TWO TO RAMBO It didn't matter to Remo that his mentor Chiun told him he was acting like a child to want to go back to Vietnam on a mission of rescue and revenge. It didn't matter to Remo that his superior Smith ordered him to abandon a plan that could upset the delicate balance of world peace. Remo was out of his skull with remembered rage, and out of control of anyone who wanted to stop him from trying to spring a wartime buddy from a jungle hell. And the Destroyer plunged back into the past to fight a one-man war against an old enemy that would not die but could still kill without mercy and vanish like a ghoulish ghost....

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Destroyer 74: Walking Wounded

By Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir

Chapter 1

The footsteps began at the edge of consciousness. Even in sleep, Cung Co Phong recognized them. Somewhere in the deepest recesses of his mind, Phong understood that he slept. He did not want to awaken. Sleep was his only escape. But the familiar, hated footsteps intruded like drumbeats.

Phong awoke in a cold sweat.

The Americans still slept. Nothing seemed to rouse them from slumber anymore. They had been here at Camp Fifty-five so long that they'd ceased to fear the wrath of Captain Dai. But Phong feared Captain Dai. Captain Dai had made the task of breaking Phong's spirit his personal responsibility.

Phong sat up. The hut was still dark. The hammering of his heartbeat was so loud in his ears that it wasn't until the footsteps were nearly to the rattan door that he realized the camp was alive with activity. Men moved about hurriedly. Shovels were at work. And most amazingly, there were trucks. Many of them. And other vehicles. Gasoline had been rationed tightly since long before Phong had been born, up in Quang Tri province.

Whatever had brought the captain in the middle of the night, it was very, very important.

At the sound of the padlock being opened, Phong nudged the others. Boyette, Pond, Colletta, and the others. And finally the big black one, Youngblood, whose snore did not die away until he stopped blinking his bleary eyes at the grass-mat ceiling.

"Huh! What?" Youngblood mumbled. He grabbed Phong's forearm so sharply it hurt. Of all the Americans, only Youngblood had kept his weight. Even in the worst days of captivity, when all there was to eat was fishbone soup, Youngblood never lost a pound.

"Dai," Phong said in his clipped English. "He come."

"Shit! That ain't good news."

The rattan door banged open and a flashlight stabbed at their eyes.

"Up! Up!" said the shadow behind the light. He was tall for a Vietnamese. His sidearm was holstered. He did not fear them enough to draw it.

"What gives?" someone asked in English.

"Up! Up!" Captain Dai barked, stepping in and kicking the nearest man. Phong.

Phong winced. But he said nothing.

They got to their feet, their hands dangling helplessly at their sides. Their gray cotton clothes had no pockets. They never knew what to do with their hands. Single file, they walked out into the night.

The jungle encroached close to the camp, a moving dark wall of primordial foliage. Within the camp, lights blazed. The two-story officers' huts were being dismantled and the sides loaded into the back of flatbed trucks. Tents were coming down. Provisions-sacks of potatoes and rice-were set against a sandbag wall and a human chain of green-fatigued soldiers was relaying them into a canvas-topped truck.

"Looks like we're moving out," Boyette whispered through set lips.

"No talk!" Captain Dai snapped. Although tall for an Asian, he had thin shoulders that might have been cut from a two-by-four. His face was pocked and pitted, the skin so dry it looked dead. His eyes were bright and black-the avid eyes of a crow. A cigarette dangled from his stained, shovellike teeth.

They were quickly surrounded by soldiers, fresh troops in khaki uniforms, their green pith helmets-adorned only by a red medallion surrounding a single yellow star-sitting low over their merciless eyes.

"Follow!" Dai snapped.

Captain Dai led them around an old T-54 tank, the yellow-starred flag of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam emblazoned on the domed turret.

"Must be big for them to pull a tank from the war zone." Pond had spoken.

"Look again," Youngblood said.

The cannon was false. A wooden barrel painted to look like metal. They walked around it and their hearts stopped.

"Oh, dear God," Colletta moaned.

On the back of a flatbed, they had mounted the steel conex container. Each man knew the conex box intimately. Each of them had spent weeks of solitary confinement in its sterile, stifling interior.

"I ain't going back in there," Colletta suddenly yelled. "No way, man. I ain't! I ain't!"

Youngblood grabbed him and threw him down before the nervous guards could shoot.

"Easy, man. Take it easy. You won't be alone this time. We're all goin' in." He turned to Captain Dai. "Ain't that so? We're all going in."

Captain Dai looked down at them. The soldiers had their AK-47's pointing at them, huddled there on the ground. Youngblood moved his body between their menace and Colletta's flailing, trembling form.

For a long, hot moment even the jungle seemed to hold its breath.

"Up!" said Captain Dai at last.

Youngblood found his feet. "Come on, Colletta," he said. "You can do it."

Colletta sobbed uncontrollably.

"Come on, Colletta. We're going to a better place. You won't be alone, man."

Still crying and trembling, Colletta gathered up his limbs like a clutch of sticks and stood on his feet.

One end of the conex container was opened and they were shoved into its darkened interior. It was warm inside, but not oppressive. Youngblood was the last of the Americans to go in. Phong started to follow, but Captain Dai inserted a boot between his shuffling feet.

Phong fell to his hands and knees. He stayed there because Dai had not given permission to rise.

"You are on your knees now," Dai said in Vietnamese, sneering.

"I tripped," Phong replied in an emotionless voice.

"I need the Americans," Dai said slowly. "I do not need you. Perhaps I will kill you here and leave you for the tigers to eat."

Phong said nothing.

Dai plucked a rifle from the nearest soldier and placed the muzzle against the back of Phong's head. He pressed hard. Phong stiffened his neck. If he was to die here, he would die a man-resisting. His mouth would taste dirt only in death.

"But I will let you live, traitor to the people, if you kneel before me and beg for forgiveness."

Phong shook his head slowly.

Captain Dai sent a round into the chamber. "You are already kneeling!"

"I tripped."

"Then I will shoot you for your clumsiness," Dai screeched.

Phong said nothing. The pressure of the barrel was more maddening than frightening. He had stared down the barrel of a loaded weapon before and seen Captain Dai's hate-charged face behind it. This way, looking at the red soil of Vietnam and not into the face of death itself, oblivion could be accepted.

Dai pulled the trigger. Phong flinched at the click. But there was no pain, no other sound. Instead, his voice strangled with inarticulate rage, Captain Dai threw the rifle to the ground and picked Phong up bodily. He flung him into the conex container and the door slammed with a ringing finality.

Inside, the men disentangled themselves and each found a place of his own along the walls. After years of shared captivity, their most basic instinct was to seek a place to call their own.

No one said anything. The truck started up. Other engines joined it. Finally the T-54 tank grumbled and rattled into life. The convoy had started.

No one slept. The novelty of being moved absorbed their attention.

Youngblood's rumbling baritone broke their private thoughts.

"Wherever we're going," he said, "it's gotta be better than where we've been. "

"Could be worse," Pond said. "They might be ready to execute us."

"They wouldn't break down the camp to do that, fool," Youngblood scoffed.

"You will not die," Phong said. His voice was distant, stripped of all emotion.

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