Girl in a Red Shirt by Owen Mullen
O’Hare International Airport
Across the barren runway, in the glare of a spotlight, the hydraulic arm of a de-icer truck sprayed clouds of fluid from wingtip to wing root on a Finnair jet scheduled to be landing in Helsinki. Billy Randall looked out of the giant windows of the over-crowded departure lounge, sipping the coke cradled in his hands, his tired eyes following the progress of the final scattered snowflakes on their way to the tarmac. Seven hours earlier, beside the giant Christmas tree in the corner, a choir had enthusiastically reminded the waiting passengers that Santa Claus was coming to town. But as irony dawned, the singing petered out. They were probably at home now.
Someone had turned the air con up in the lounge and it was stifling. Dull-eyed people stared ahead, bludgeoned into silence by the circumstances they found themselves in.
Billy had expected to be in front of the fire, happily watching a movie he’d seen a dozen times, with his wife and kids.
God had had other ideas – then, he usually did.
From behind him, a dark-brown voice said, ‘Billy? Billy Randall? Is that you?’
The last time he’d heard it was on a sunny morning at Travis AFB in Fairfield, California, almost twenty years ago. The voice belonged to a Sioux Indian he’d spent the best part of two decades trying to forget, and if Billy had spotted Danny ‘Dakota’ Goodpipe first, he would’ve avoided him.
They locked in an awkward embrace which only lasted seconds. In Vietnam, Goodpipe had been a spectacular specimen: six feet nine inches, towering over everybody in the unit. He was still tall, though there was grey in the ponytail tied with an elastic band, and lines either side of the mouth on his moon face. The collar of his shirt was frayed, Danny Goodpipe had fallen on hard times, but he grinned, genuinely pleased.
‘What the hell…’
‘You stranded, too, huh? Where you headed?’
‘That home these days?’
‘Memphis. Moved there a dozen years back.’
Billy nodded as if the words meant something to him.
Goodpipe said, ‘Ain’t this storm a bummer?’
‘Screwed up your plans?’
‘Done that, all right.’
‘You got kids waitin’?’
‘A boy and a girl.’
‘Nice … nice.’
Billy tried to end the conversation. He stuck out his hand. ‘Great running into you, Danny. Enjoy the holiday.’
The Indian smiled. ‘I get it, Billy. Feel the same. But we never talked it out, did we?’
‘I don’t want to talk.’
Goodpipe understood. ‘Me neither. So, let’s do it.’
They stepped over a teenage GI in uniform, curled in a foetal position on the floor, and found a space against a wall. Through the window an American Airlines jet was getting the same treatment as the Finnair. Billy Randall wished he was on it.
Danny Goodpipe said, ‘Bad stuff happened in that damn war. Hard to get it straight in your head sometimes.’
‘My head’s fine.’
Goodpipe ran a disbelieving hand over his hair.
‘Then, you’re a lucky guy, Billy.’
Bac Lieu province. Mekong Delta
Morning crept up on them. A hundred shades of black melting to grey, then light – at least, as light as it would get under the canopy. Cold night air drifted away replaced by rising clouds of condensation plastering their fatigues against their bodies while the tick and hum of the jungle, the soundtrack to another sub-tropical sunrise, began to play.
Two days earlier, the firefight had been a scene from hell – dozens of men lost their lives in minutes. When the smoke cleared, their group had found themselves separated from the platoon. Worse news was to come: the radio had been hit and they’d lost communication with basecamp. Johansson, the blond Swede from New Jersey, had worked all night to repair it without success. He’d keep trying because, unless they re-established contact, they’d die here.
Danny Goodpipe sat against the broad base of a tree, his huge hands reducing the rifle he gripped to a toy. His watch was almost over. In a few minutes he’d rouse the others and day three of their patrol would begin; the big soldier was on his second tour. All told, he’d served nearly eighteen months. That made him a veteran. But the ingrained fatalism of his South Dakota heritage kept him from considering the past or the future.
Billy Randall was awake and struggling to admit it. His ancestors weren’t watching over him. Nobody was watching over him. He’d lost count of the number of patrols he’d been on. It never got any better and it never would.
Some reckoned the hardest part of being in this godforsaken country on the other side of the world was the crippling tiredness that never went away and the heat, drenching your body while leeches drunk their fill. For others, the constant drum of the rains dragged them to the edge of madness. Or the stench, vile enough to make men gag.
Then there was Charlie.
Charlie wasn’t afraid. Charlie could see in the dark.
And everywhere the jungle.
During the endless nights of silence, demons seeped into every soul. No fear was left untested, no truth unquestioned in the battle to hold on to the half-remembered dream of life before. The rustle of a bush or the sharp crack of a twig was enough to terrify. Sometimes something slithered over you. Crying out would confirm what the enemy already knew – that you’d crossed the line, you were in his land, stumbling and sobbing, blind and afraid.
And that he would win because it was his destiny.
Family and friends, love and hope, were scoured from every mind by a thousand nightmares rolled into one. But when the first rays of a new sun found a way through the canopy and warmed your face, when your eyes opened on one more day, for Billy, that was the very worst thing.
Yards away, Goodpipe pulled the long-bladed double-edged knife from its sheath, keeping his gaze locked on a new danger. He edged forward. If the sleeping man moved even a little, the snake tightly coiled against his back would strike, its needle fangs easily penetrating the layers of material until it found the body beneath and injected its poison.
Snakes: the jungle was full of them. At night when the temperature dropped, the heat from slumbering bodies offered warmth to their cold blood. The big Indian crept to within an arm’s length of the reptile. In the growing light he could see part of the circular mark behind the hood: a monocled cobra, one of the cong’s many natural allies. Snakes don’t hear, they sense vibration and their instinct is to attack any enemy that cannot be avoided. A bite from the cobra and private Jimmy Holden would be leaving Vietnam in a bag.
The action was deliberate, unhurried, no more than cutting a piece from a block of cheese. Danny leaned across the final few feet and sliced the head from the body in a single movement. A jet of dark blood spurted, staining the earth before becoming part of it. Holden continued to sleep. His comrade lifted the parts of the dead thing, tossed them into the bushes and sat down against the tree. No one saw. No one would ever know. It wasn’t important they did.
Zilli returned from an advanced position to report the enemy was up ahead and coming their way. Lieutenant Warner listened. ‘So how many are there?’
‘No idea. I saw four.’
‘Then there are probably more, maybe as many as ten.’
Somebody at the back said, ‘Ten? Where did that number come from?’
The lieutenant heard it and didn’t answer. He gathered the men together and told them what was going to happen next.
‘Zilli says Charlie’s coming our way. We can take them.’
Billy Randall asked, ‘How many?’
Warner took off his helmet and wiped sweat from his brow.
‘He’s not sure.’
Rodriguez supported Randall. ‘If he’s not sure, we should get out of the way.’
Warner hadn’t been looking for suggestions. ‘We’re not here to hide. We’re here to win. Least that’s my understanding. Our orders are to seek and engage.’
Warner had the stripes. Nobody wanted to argue. Billy Randall did. ‘But sir, those orders were for the platoon. Shouldn’t we establish force of numbers before we commit ourselves?’
The lieutenant didn’t appreciate the private’s persistence.
‘Zilli saw four definites. My guess would be higher.’
‘Your guess? Shouldn’t we confirm that?’
Warner made a contemptuous noise in his throat.
‘You volunteering to go get that information, soldier?’
Randall stood to attention and delivered his objection: ‘Lieutenant, sir, we should confirm the strength of the enemy before we engage them. We should–’
‘We already know their strength. There’s nine of us. Surprise is on our side.’
Billy kept going. ‘We don’t have the firepower for another fight. Surely our priority is to clarify the enemy’s strength and keep trying to make contact with base?’
Warner ignored him. ‘Seek and engage. We’ll backtrack, fan-out on both sides of the path and wait. If there’re too many we’ll let them pass. If not…’
He allowed the alternative to hang in the air.
Pasternak: ‘Yes sir! Seek and engage, sir!’
Pasternak’s salute was ridiculous in the circumstances. He couldn’t help himself; he’d found a soulmate and wasn’t about to lose him.
Warner’s lips pressed together. ‘Let’s go.’
Zilli whispered to Rodriguez, ‘Fucking nuts.’
‘Ben Tre logic, variation thirteen.’
Zilli understood. The year before a US Air Force Major had been famously quoted as saying, ‘it became necessary to destroy the town to save it.’ The town was Ben Tre. That thinking became ‘Ben Tre logic’.
They advanced in single file. Warner had taken them to a clearing that might have been the site of a village a thousand years earlier. Billy Randall was on the left with Dakota Goodpipe and Rodriguez, the other four hidden in the trees where the knee-high elephant grass ended. The location had obvious advantages though it would be entirely possible to shoot one of their own.
But it was the best there was.
Charlie didn’t rush, he was never in a hurry. Why would he?
He knew how it would end.
Goodpipe saw them first, walking silently, rifles at the ready. He signaled to Rodriguez. Rodriguez passed the message along. They let the first go by, and the second – they’d be back if the shooting started. The two after that were close together, bodies tense, fingers on the triggers of their weapons.
Sweat rolled down Billy’s face. He brushed it away. Then, a shot crashed through the silence, the third man went down and they were drowning in sound. The first two Vietcong raced back to the fighting and died without getting off a single round. Billy watched flashes of fire spit from behind the trees on the other side. There hadn’t been time for him to contribute anything, it had gone off so fast. The fourth enemy soldier died in a burst from an M-16 and lay, eyes open, on the brown earth.
When the barrage ceased it was like a blow to the head, leaving them reeling. Suddenly, Pasternak cried out, dropped his rifle, and fell to the ground, blood pouring from his chest. Shots followed without finding their mark. Goodpipe raced into the open and lifted the injured man. Shouts and gunfire echoed in the ancient rainforest. Billy heard a cry of pain but couldn’t see who’d been hit.
It was Rodriguez.
Holden and Zilli picked him up and dragged him along the earth track into the jungle.
That had been yesterday. Since then, they hadn’t halted. Fear kept pace with them, the enemy never far behind. Whenever they stopped, they heard him call to his brothers. He was always there, always with them.
Charlie didn’t rush, he was never in a hurry: why would he hurry?
He knew how it would end.
Nine had become seven.
Lieutenant Warner was wrong – there were more than ten.
A lot more.
Billy Randall’s body screamed for sleep. They’d come close to death and the emotional backlash overwhelmed him, leaving him shaken and weak. No one spoke. On the ground, the bodies of Pasternak and Rodriguez were frightening reminders of what they’d come through.
Survival brought no joy.
Next to him Holden slumped forward, head in his hands, his shoulders trembling. He might have been crying, Billy couldn’t tell. But Zilli was crying – crying like a child. Tears rolled down his face, blackened and torn into a tragic mask. Lieutenant Warner looked into space, away from the dead soldiers at his feet, while the big Indian stared ahead, unmoved by what was going on around him.
Mario Zilli stood up and pointed to Rodriguez. ‘Close his eyes! For Christ’s sake close his eyes!’
The dead man had been his buddy from the moment they met, all their free time had been spent together drinking and whoring, playing pool, listening to football scores and trying to impress each other with exaggerated stories about women. Bravado that seemed distant now.
He sobbed. ‘Close his eyes. Please, please.’
Billy rolled the dead man’s eyelids down. Zilli fell against the tree had been leaning on, exhausted by trauma.
Lieutenant Warner picked the wrong moment to speak.
‘Just want to say well done. Well done, guys.’
Holden lifted his head and looked at him in disbelief. Zilli wiped his tears away and struggled to get a hold on himself.
‘I’ll be mentioning all of you in my report, especially you Goodpipe. Carrying a wounded comrade while under fire…’ He shook his head. ‘Bravest thing I ever saw.’
Nobody could’ve stopped what happened next. ‘Dakota’ wrapped his hands round the lieutenant’s throat before anyone could move. The lieutenant’s eyes bulged, his face seemed to expand, his tongue lolled in his open mouth as the pressure mangling his neck squeezed the life-force from him. Out-weighed, he tried to wrestle the soldier off him. One of his legs kicked against the body of Jackie Pasternak; Jackie was beyond indignity. The sun moved behind some clouds, reappeared then disappeared again, making the scene resemble the comic violence of the early cinema.
Randall and Holden only just managed to free Warner from the Indian’s death grip. Billy Randall shouted in Goodpipe’s ear to break the murderous spell he was under. When they finally pulled him off, Billy placed himself between them.
The lieutenant didn’t get up, he couldn’t, he stayed on the ground, coughing and rasping, trying to extinguish the fire in his lungs with precious air. His hands pressed against Goodpipe’s powerful chest, symbolically holding him back from renewing the assault.
The big man’s breathing was deep and steady, the emotions that drove him to attack a superior visible only in his eyes.
Billy talked him down. ‘Easy, easy Dakota. Take it easy, buddy.’
Warner’s sole supporter lay dead beside him. When he rose on unsteady legs his voice was all but gone. What should have been a snarl was a whisper.
‘Court martial! You! Court martial!’ The words were lost but everyone knew what he was saying. ‘Fuckin’ crazy Indian! Fuckin’ crazy…’
Billy stepped carefully over the forgotten fallen on the jungle floor and stood in front of him. Warner pointed to the big soldier staring at an invisible point in the dense undergrowth, detached from the fury directed at him.
‘That fuck’s finished!’
Billy said, ‘Nobody’s finished, Lieutenant. Nothing happened here.’
Warner’s lips trembled in rage.
‘Nobody’s finished,’ Billy Randall repeated. He gestured towards Pasternak and Rodriguez. ‘Ten! You told us there were no more than ten of them, remember?’
Warner blinked defiantly.
‘You said we’d wait to confirm their numbers. But you didn’t wait, did you? You opened fire without knowing the enemy’s strength, that’s why these two,’ he hooked his thumb at the dead men, ‘are where you see them now.’ He backed away from the leper in their midst. ‘Nobody’s finished, unless it’s you.’
Bac Lieu province. Mekong Delta
Billy bent back the lacquered leaf of a young rubber plant and saw the girl walking towards them, unaware she was the centre of attention, her shirt a fantastic red against the green wall of tall kunai grass at the edge of the clearing. She couldn’t have been older than fourteen or fifteen – in another culture little more than a child – here, she was a woman.
The bucket bounced against the top of her thigh as she moved, her small fingers closing firmly and easily round its rope handle. Black hair hung long, and her face was unblemished, fear and pain still strangers there, yet her life was lived in the middle of a war. Behind her on the deep-brown earth stood a cluster of thatched huts on wooden stilts – protection from flood. She was on her way to the cool clear ribbon the soldiers had crossed a mile further up, a trip as familiar to her as going to a drugstore on the corner would be for any of them. That same gurgling rivulet would join with others until together they coursed and sped towards the larger flow of the Mekong and on to the South China Sea. Here, it was no more than a shallow stream swollen by the rains, a timeless place where a village girl might gather water for her family.
The lieutenant pressed a finger to his lips.
Everyone understood. Nobody moved, a noise, any noise, would give them away and the tranquil scene could quickly change to reveal an enemy whose patience was without limit waiting for them.
Then the doors of hell would open.
With a few more steps the girl would be out of sight of anyone in the village. High above two birds crashed from the canopy, thrashing their wings and screeching. Billy’s heart stopped. He closed his eyes. When he opened them, he saw a single leaf drift lazily to the ground and come to rest like ten million others under his boots. His breath left his body, controlled and measured. He waited for his heart to restart.
The girl hummed a tune. Without breaking her stride, she snatched at a blue and yellow butterfly that flew near her, missed it and carried on, as distracted as any teenager anywhere. The village might be as innocent as the girl herself, or it could be a cong arsenal, booby-trapped and expecting them: the skill was in being able to tell allies from enemies. Too often, the very people the soldiers were there to assist ended up dead, casualties of mistaken identity. But that misjudgement could cut two ways and was never an easy call to make. The young beauty before them might be a pretty stalking horse chosen for her seeming artlessness to tempt them into revealing their presence.
Or a village girl collecting water.
Lieutenant Warner edged forward. Billy Randall tried to stop him and was shrugged aside. The girl didn’t notice, lost in her private little song she bent to her task. The lieutenant came directly behind her, crossing the short distance between them in seconds. Her body jerked when he grabbed her. The bucket fell from her hand, she didn’t see it float away on the current. Her delicate face disappeared behind the hand that blotted out light and air. With his other arm round her slender waist the soldier easily lifted her from the water’s edge and spun round. Back in the trees, Holden saw the look on his face and didn’t like it. Warner whispered in her ear like a confidante or a lover. Randall and the others emerged from the forest. The lieutenant dared them to intervene, grinning like a stupid schoolboy. When nobody moved to stop him, he headed for a patch of long grass twenty yards downstream, carrying the struggling girl. Through it all, the cries of the young Vietnamese were muffled by the rough hand of her attacker.
Randall and Goodpipe moved at the same time. Goodpipe dragged the lieutenant off the girl and threw him to the ground. Randall helped her to her feet, signaling her to keep quiet.
Warner growled. ‘What? She’s the enemy. C’mon.’
He brushed leaves from his arms, got up and spoke to Goodpipe.
‘You’ve just assaulted your commanding officer a second time, soldier.’ He turned to Zilli and Holden. ‘Arrest him. When we get back to…’
Warner stopped speaking. His jaw slackened, he dropped to his knees and pitched face down on the grass. Billy Randall looked dumbly at the knife in his hand, blood dripping from the tip, unsure how it got there.
The girl sensed the confusion and tried to make a run for it. Randall dived at her, caught her ankle and had his fingers over her mouth before she could scream. She struggled, breathing hard, eyes wild in her head.
Zilli voiced what the rest were thinking.
‘What the hell do we do now?’
Holden said, ‘If she’s cong we’re dead men.’
Randall saw where it was going and panicked. ‘We don’t know that. We don’t know anything.’
Danny Goodpipe stepped forward, shafts of golden light flashing off the steel in his palm.
Billy Randall looked up into his deep-brown eyes and pleaded for the girl’s life.
‘This isn’t right. There has to be another way.’
Beads of sweat gathered like crystal tears on the Indian’s massive brow.
‘Like what, Billy? Let her go and send har a postcard when we get home?’
‘We can tie her to a tree and be long gone before somebody from the village finds her.’
‘Yeah, and she can tell the bastards chasing us exactly how many we are, how much ammo we don’t have, and where we’re headed. Can’t take that chance.’
He looked at the girl. ‘Probably understands every word.’
‘Danny, please. She’s just a kid.’
Goodpipe drew her head back and sliced her throat in a single stroke, wiped the knife on the grass and put it back in its sheath, his moon face expressionless.
The American Airlines jet taxied to the end of the runway in the slush-tracks of the departed Finnair. Goodpipe raised his gaze to the sky and the stars twinkling like silver stones at the bottom of a black lake, as a tinny voice announced the flight to Los Angeles was ready to board.
‘Looks like you’re gonna make it.’
Billy had wondered a thousand times what he’d say if they met again. Now, the words wouldn’t come.
‘I’ll walk you to the gate.’
‘I’d rather you didn’t.’
Around them, people gathered themselves and their belongings together.
Goodpipe said, ‘Set it down, Billy. It was a long time ago’
‘What choice did we have? We were lucky to get out of there.’
‘We could’ve checked the village. We could’ve and we didn’t. In the end, we were no better than Warner.’
‘Don’t accept that. It was war, for Christ’s sake. We were a bunch of young guys separated from their platoon, being hunted, carrying our dead, led by a madman. Some of us hadn’t slept in days. None of us were cut out for what we’d gone through. We were broken.’ Goodpipe got a hold on himself. ‘What I’m trying to say is, we did what we felt we had to do. The odds were high she was cong.’
‘It was wrong and I knew it.’
‘That makes you a better man than me, it doesn’t make you right.’
‘We should’ve checked.’
Goodpipe sighed and slowly shook his head. ‘Don’t know what to tell you, Billy. The enemy was right behind us and somebody could’ve come out of that village at any minute.’ His deep voice cracked. ‘We didn’t have time to think it out better than we did. It was no different from you doing Warner. To my mind, we both made the correct call.’
‘That what you tell yourself in the middle of the night?’
‘No, I tell myself that was then, this is now and I’m alive to kiss my wife and wish my children and my grandchildren merry Christmas. Then, I pray none of them has to make those choices, because we already made them. And because we did, you’re on your way home to your family and I’m on my way home to mine. Yesterday’s yesterday, Billy. Don’t judge it too hard.’ Goodpipe pointed to a young G I – the one they’d stepped over earlier – heading to the departure gate. ‘Think we knew any more at his age than he does? Cut yourself a break.’
Billy didn’t answer. He picked up his bag and walked away.
Danny Goodpipe watched him until he was out of sight. The lies had come easily. Now, he needed a drink. A drink to forget. The truth would’ve been easier – that he’d lost everything, his wife, his job, even his health, because of a girl in a red shirt. But Billy Randall already knew the truth. Had always known it.
They should’ve checked.