The Vets (Stephen Leather Thrillers)

The Vets



Stephen Leather


Copyright © 1993 by Stephen Leather


First published in Great Britain in 1993 by Hodder and Stoughton

This edition published in Great Britain in 2005 by Hodder and Stoughton

A division of Hodder Headline


The right of Stephen Leather to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.


All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.


All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.


A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library


Epub ISBN 9781844568543

Book ISBN 9780340597705


Hodder and Stoughton Ltd

A division of Hodder Headline

338 Euston Road

London NW1 3BH


For In-Hei




As he levelled the helicopter off at 3,000 feet above the choppy South China Sea, the pilot marvelled as he always did at the way it managed to stay in the air. The cyclic control stick twitched in his right hand, the collective pitch control lever vibrated in his left, and his feet made small adjustments to the directional control pedals as he headed out to the waiting ship some six miles away in the Gulf of Tonkin. All four of his limbs were needed to keep the helicopter in the air, though he had been flying for so long that he was no longer aware of them as individual movements. He was part of the machine: his nerves and tendons ran from the rotor blades throbbing above his head to the skids below him. He could feel the blades cutting through the night air and the tail rotor fighting against the torque the blades produced, and when he swung the helicopter to the left to make a course correction it was flesh and blood that turned and not metal; he saw only the sea and the sky, not the Plexiglas windows. He scanned his instrument panel, taking in the information from the myriad dials and gauges without reading them in the same way that his skin recorded the chill in the air and his nose picked up the smell of the fuel that had slopped over the fuel tank filler while they were preparing the helicopter at a Special Forces airfield outside Da Nang.

The pilot was alone in the cockpit and the second set of controls in front of the co-pilot’s seat moved as if guided by ghostly hands and feet, mirroring his own actions. During his year-long tour of duty with 1st Cav he’d never flown solo on a mission, but Air America did things differently and he hadn’t been surprised when he’d been told that he’d be flying alone.

He clicked the microphone trigger switch on his cyclic control stick and identified himself to the target ship which was still some two miles away, bobbing in the sea like a toy boat. He had no problems communicating with the ship on the prearranged VHF frequency and he decreased power to the 1,100 shp Lycoming T53-L-11 turboshaft engine as he made his approach.

It was dusk and there was enough light to see by, but just to be on the safe side he thumbed the switch on the collective pitch control lever which turned on the searchlight mounted under the front of the Huey to give him a better view of the deck of the ship as it bucked and tossed in the waves. A guy with a torch in either hand guided him down until he was hovering just six feet above the heaving deck and then the pilot chose his moment, cut the power and dropped, pulling back the cyclic and dropping the collective at the last moment to cushion the impact as best he could. The guy drew his hand across his throat telling the pilot to cut his engine but he’d already done it and slammed on the rotor brake. More men rushed forward to tie the Huey down as the pilot removed his flight helmet and put it on the co-pilot’s seat.

A man with a blond crew cut, wearing civilian clothes, appeared from somewhere, took the pilot by the upper arm, and guided him below deck to a tiny steel-lined cabin containing a folding bunk and a wooden chair on which was a green file and a plastic mapcase.

“That’s your flight plan,” said the man. “Anything else you want?” He hadn’t introduced himself, nor did he ask to see any identification from the pilot.

“Just water,” said the pilot.

He sat down on the bed and studied the maps and papers. A few minutes later the man with the crew cut came back with a glass of water which he handed to the pilot without a word before leaving and closing the door behind him. The pilot took a mouthful of the cold water and then placed the glass on the floor. He looked at the solid gold Rolex on his wrist. It was just before eight o’clock, and according to the flight plan he was due to take off at 2200 hours. The course he was to fly was marked on the map in red, north-west up to the coast near Quang Tri, then due west across Vietnam to the border with Laos. He was to follow the border up twenty klicks and then cut into Laos towards a town which was marked as Muang Xepon. There were no details as to how he was to find the LZ but that was nothing unusual. When you flew for Air America almost everything was on a need-to-know basis. That would explain the missing co-pilot. Presumably one of the passengers would be sitting in the co-pilot’s station to help guide him in. The flight would be 275 klicks, 550 klicks there and back, and he’d be carrying four passengers and a small cargo. The standard Huey had a range of about 540 klicks with its 200-gallon capacity but the UH-1E had been fitted with extra fuel tanks and it now had a range closer to 700 klicks. The pilot would have preferred to have refuelled at a Special Forces camp closer to the border but whoever had planned the mission obviously didn’t want the chopper on the ground between the ship and its final destination. The take-off would be tricky, but once they’d burned off a few gallons they’d have no problems. It would be a milk run. After the drop in Laos they’d be returning to the ship. The pilot took off his leather shoulder holster and slid out his .25 calibre handgun, checked that it was fully loaded and that the safety was on and put it on the chair. He read through the papers, reckecked the maps, and then lay down on the bunk and stared up at the ceiling, relaxed but not asleep. He pictured an ice cube in his mind, a square block which he allowed gradually to melt until nothing remained but a pool of water which slowly evaporated. His breathing slowed and his pulse rate dropped and his mind was empty. He stayed that way until a sharp knock on the door announced that it was time to go.

The man with the crew cut took him back to the Huey where the restraining ropes were being untied. The pilot carried out his pre-flight checks then strapped himself in to the high-backed armoured seat before checking the positions of the circuit breakers and switches. Satisfied, he looked back over his shoulder to see if there was any sign of his passengers.

Four men were walking towards the Huey. All were dressed in tiger-stripe fatigues and bush hats and had camouflage streaks of green and brown across their faces which blended so well into the material of their uniforms that he couldn’t see where skin ended and material began. They walked two abreast, the men in front carrying rifles at the ready, the two behind with their weapons shouldered as they manhandled a heavy metal chest between them. As they got closer the pilot could see the weapons they were carrying. One of the men in front, the thinner of the two, carried a Commando submachine-gun, a variation of the standard M16 infantry rifle, and the man on his right held a Kalashnikov AK-47, the Soviet assault rifle which had become the weapon of choice of the Viet Cong. The pilot wasn’t surprised to see the AK-47 in the hands of a Special Forces soldier. They tended to use whatever gear they were comfortable with, and there were obvious advantages of operating with VC equipment in enemy territory. The man who was carrying his end of the chest with his left hand had an M16 slung over his shoulder and what looked to be a sawn-off shotgun hanging from his belt. His companion on the other end of the chest had an M16 and a radio on his back. Apart from the weaponry, there was little to tell the four men apart: all were lean and wiry, all were clean-shaven with no hair showing under the floppy bush hats and all moved with a fluid grace that brought to mind images of lions on the prowl.

The man with the Commando walked around the Huey and pulled himself into the co-pilot’s seat and nodded as the pilot handed him a flight helmet. The other three manhandled the chest through the doorway, grunting as they slid it along the metal floor. They climbed in and pulled the sliding door shut behind them.

The pilot pushed in the igniter circuit breaker and prepared to start the turbine. Before he squeezed the trigger switch he became aware of a knocking sound coming from somewhere within the Huey, a tapping that he felt rather than heard. It was like Morse code. Dit-dit-dit daa. Dit-dit-dit daa. Three short taps and a long one. The Morse code signal for V, and also the first notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, being repeated over and over again. He twisted around but he couldn’t see where it was coming from. He shrugged and settled back in his seat. As he gave his instruments a quick visual scan he saw that the noise was coming from the man in the co-pilot’s seat. His right hand held the Commando barrel up between his legs while his left hand was against the bulkhead. He was tapping, three times with the tips of his fingers, the fourth with the flat of his hand. A sign of nerves, Doherty reckoned, but once he started the T53 turboshaft engine the tapping sounds were lost.

The pilot waited for the exhaust-gas temperature gauge to settle into the green before opening the throttle. He pulled on the collective, increasing the power to the whirling blades and lifting the Huey off the deck before nudging it forward with a push on the cyclic. The Huey was sluggish, loaded down as it was with the extra fuel, and the pilot took it up slowly to 3,000 feet. It was a cloudless night and a full moon hung in the sky and the pilot could see clear to the horizon.

Forty minutes later they flew over a narrow strip of beach and above the jungle which shone blackly in the moonlight. The pilot took the Huey up another thousand feet. The thinner air meant he’d burn fuel up faster but they had plenty in reserve. He followed the course on the map he’d been given, climbing way above the mountain ranges where VC snipers were prone to take pot-shots at passing helicopters, no matter how high they were. There was no indication of where Vietnam ended and Laos began but the pilot knew that two hours after leaving the ship he’d crossed over whatever border existed. The knife-edged ridges far below were no different from the mountain ranges in the west of Vietnam and he knew that the Viet Cong criss-crossed the border as if it didn’t exist. The map meant nothing, in the air or on the ground.

The pilot felt a touch on his arm and turned to see the man in the co-pilot’s seat mouthing to him. He reached over and showed him how to operate the microphone trigger switch on the cyclic.

“Can you take it down?” he said, the voice crackling in the pilot’s ear.

“Sure,” he said, dropping the collective pitch and nosing the Huey down with the cyclic. He levelled off a thousand feet or so above the jungle while the passenger peered out of the window.

“What are you looking for?” asked the pilot.

“A river,” said the man. “A river shaped like a heart. It’s within fifteen klicks of that range.” He pointed to a steep rocky outcrop which speared through the jungle like an accusing finger.

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