REAPER

Chapter One

August 3, 1974

He sipped a tepid demitasse, and poked around a half eaten baguette, eyeing each passerby and the occupants of vehicles on the street. He glanced at his watch again, wondering if he'd missed the guy, but certain he hadn't. Man, this is getting old.

For Ruben Carver, it was his third assignment―the first in Paris―and the bloom had definitely come off the Rousseau. The city of lights, the cornerstone of European sophistication since the Merovingians, was just another big, smelly burg. 

That's not to say he wasn't jazzed when the call came in for the gig. He was into it. 

He spent a couple of days in the library reviewing a fabled history of religion, renaissance, revolution and romanticism. It was fascinating stuff. That's why he was mystified when he discovered it was populated by a bunch of surly, hygienically challenged assholes. I got your age of enlightenment right here…

He, and the rest of the surveillance team, had been living in Saint Germain-des-Prés in the 6th Arrondissement, for almost eight weeks. An area noted for its expatriate past, and the center of French intellectualism. 

Carver wasn't impressed. The conspicuous derision by the locals of all things pas parisien, became irksome.

Then again, having just been dumped by a local―a real bombe bien roulée―whatever romantic notions the Okie had regarding his current assignment, ended when she walked out the door.

He didn't have much experience with women. His dad had signed the paperwork for him to join the Army on his seventeenth birthday, and until he'd received his discharge, a little over a year before, he'd spent most his two and half tours in Vietnam, in the bush.

The weaker sex didn't seem all that weak, and while he'd read several books on unraveling the mystery of women, he'd come to the conclusion there was no conundrum; no gender riddle. Given the opportunity, a woman had zero difficulty in expressing how she felt, and in no uncertain terms, what she thought of him―in any language.

The enigma, if there was one, had to do with why, but even then it was clear. They had a problem with a guy who was more confident in a three meter gunfight with a dink in a rice patty, than engaging chit-chat with a broad over a cocktail.

So there he was, sitting at an iron based guéridon bistro table, in an overpriced sidewalk cafe, called Les Deux Magots, with his psychological thumb shoved up the ass of his ego. It didn't matter he was supposed to be waiting to catch a glimpse of an Angolan warlord. He'd had his heart bruised yet again. What the fuck am I really doing here?

#

When Carver's service to his country came to an end at the Oakland Army Base in April '73, any plan he had for the rest of his life didn't go any further than what he could acquire with his GI bill. The welcome home sign he walked under going into the out-processing center, made him wonder if it was true.

He'd been a Ranger, a LuRRP, with an affinity for finding the enemy and making them wish he hadn't. It wasn't exactly the kind of skill set he could put to good use as an eight-to-fiver. 

The termination of his military life began with a steak dinner, replete with a mound of mashed potatoes and garlic greens. Then came the reissue of a Class A uniform, with the combat patch of his choice sewn on the right shoulder. 

The new jump boots were nice, but he preferred the beret in his duffle over the one they passed him. The ribbons for the medals he'd been awarded was a surprise. He didn't remember receiving any any except for the purple heart, which predicated his ETS. They made sure to give him a lengthy instruction on how they were to be worn.

Once that was completed, he was given a physical. Based on his medical records he carried by hand, a recommendation of a ten percent disability was submitted for adjudication. If that came through he'd be assured of beer money for the rest of his life.

A hair cut and shave was next, to go with the fresh martial regalia. Apparently, the Department of the Army wanted him to make a good impression when he arrived home in Bowlegs, Oklahoma. 

On his way out the door, he stopped at a desk where he was handed his DD214, an airline ticket for Oklahoma City, and a stack of cash, all tucked in a manilla envelope. Next to the table was a drawing of Uncle Sam, with a tear in his eye, captioned, “I'll miss you.” Hu-huh, me too.

He found an empty seat on a bus outside the processing center to take him to San Francisco and that, as they say, was that. His exit from the United States Army was about as abrupt as the French bitch slamming the door when she took a powder. 

As terrible as the 'Nam could be, he'd never had the sense of being alone. Back in the World, and on his own was, for a moment, disconcerting. Oh, yeah, cuttin' the umbilical. 

When the bus reached the airport, he bought a pair of bluejeans, a Giant's jersey and ball cap. The Class A's went into the duffle, which he checked at the counter where he purchased a ticket for Los Angeles. The out-processing center gave him almost four thousand dollars for his unused leave, combat and overseas allowances, and back pay for promotions the Army had difficulty keeping up with.

He'd taken the SAT, and applied for the fall quarter at the University of California Los Angeles, from a hospital bed in Danang two months earlier. The acceptance letter was waiting for him, along with other mail from home, at the military post office. If the Army ever got anything right, it was that kind of shit―mail call and medical―the things that helped keep a troop's head on straight.

The initial port of embarkation in the city of the angels was a room at the Hollywood YMCA. He had more than four months before classes began and the four grand in his pocket would only go so far.

While he'd eventually have to call his dad, he had a phone number in his pocket, written on the flap off a C rats box, he wanted to dial first. It belonged to one of the two surviving members of his squad, which was wiped out in a firefight in Laos in November 1972.

When they walked out of the jungle they found a firebase manned by a Marine Corps mortar platoon and an ARVN weapons company. It was Thanksgiving and the Marines were more than accommodating. One of his men was leaking from several shrapnel wounds, and medevac'd to an aid station.

To thank them for their hospitality, Carver and Corporal Francis Wilson stuck around to help fend off a battalion of NVA that overran the compound that night. It was a high casualty shoot 'em up, which MACV declared a victory. The fellas at the Pentagon east figured it must have been, since there were Marines still standing once the dust cleared.

Ruben and Francis had made a pact after that to keep in touch and the number he had was for Fran's parents. They lived in a place called West Covina, which Ruben understood to be about thirty miles east of LA.

As luck would have it, Fran was there, but only for a couple of hours. He had a job that was taking him out of the country for six to eight weeks, so any catching up would have to wait.

Francis was cryptic about what he was doing, saying only that it was government work. Since he couldn't provide any further details, he gave Ruben another telephone number.

Before he hung up, the former corporal encouraged Ruben to make the call, adding he'd stand as a reference. “Sarge, it pays better than the army, and nobody's shooting at you.”

That was the beginning of Ruben's association with the Rainbow Corporation―a civilian contractor used exclusively by the Central Intelligence Agency to run surveillance and surveillance detection in support of CIA operations globally. It seemed a perfect fit for a warrior with a GED.

#

Sitting alone for hours, in a city where every conversation was an huffy negotiation gave him plenty of time to turn introspective. He'd been able to complete two quarters at UCLA, and remain on the Rainbow payroll, collecting a full year's wages on six months of work. It didn't take him a millisecond to figure life amongst the frogs was still better than humping the Prairie Fire, or dealing with jungle rot.

The team's rotation was coming up in ten days and he'd be back in LA in time for the start of the school year. He was getting his groove back thinking about it.

While this job began the second week in June, the observation post had been established for more than three months. It was situated across the street from the leased home of the Angolan.

Ruben had an apartment a few kilometers away, and received the day's static surveillance location during the team meeting the night before. Static surveillance on a moving subject was a technique both expensive and time consuming, but it was also the hardest to detect by a target who expected to be watched.

Success depended on the ability to blend in. To become a natural and benign feature in the background. In Paris that wasn't easy. 

Upon arrival, Carver walked and drove the labyrinth of streets for days. He became familiar with all twenty of the Arrondissements, and memorized the subway, bus and tram systems.

He also went shopping. Once he'd observed what French men his age were wearing, and got a good idea how they moved and interacted with others on the street, he bought six changes of clothes and the appropriate accessories. With the exception of his passport, there was nothing on his body that would identify him as an American.

His last haircut was at the Oakland army base and instead of having it hang loose, he kept it in a ponytail. With his Fu Manchu, platform shoes, skin-tight polyester bellbottoms and wide-collar shirts, he looked like all the other disco dandies diddy-boppin down the Champs-Élysées.

One of Carver's attributes, which the organization rewarded with a little bonus money, was his ability to pickup languages. With a book and tapes he could be fluent in a few weeks. If he had a teacher it wasn't long before he was near native.

He'd hired a teacher, turned girlfriend, who spent what time she did teach, working on his pronunciation. It was one thing to memorize vocabulary, grammar, idioms and have perfect comprehension. It was another to shake off an Oklahoma country accent.

Her other priority was trying to drum a complicated, and exacting cultural etiquette into his head. Parisians were downright peevish over the slightest faux pas. Eh, fuck 'em if they can't take a joke.

The third time the water cruised by the table, Ruben ordered another coffee. Protocol required he stay on site until he spotted the target, or received a call. The OP would ring the cafe with the message his friend wouldn't be coming. The CIA really wanted to know where this guy was going.

With the success of the April '74 military coup in Portugal, the new regime in Lisbon began a policy of colonial divestment. Angola, one of those colonies, located in southwest Africa, had three warring factions that had settled into a stalemate.

Intelligence indicated the Soviet Union saw it as an opportunity. Desperate for years to acquire warm water ports, Angola as strategically perfect for the Russians. They'd have unencumbered access to the south Atlantic, along with the ability to finance its fleet from the most productive diamond mines on the planet.

To get the ball rolling, the Russkies decided to take sides in the conflict and settled on the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola, or MPLA. While it may have violated a number of international agreements under the umbrella of détente, they weren't going to let a little matter like world peace queer the deal.

The US, already with its back against the wall in Southeast Asia, was suddenly having to address the potential domino effect on the subcontinent. It believed if Angola dropped to the Soviets, then it was only a matter of time before its neighbors in the Congo and southern Africa, friendly to the US, would begin to feel the communist influence.

Source reporting suggested the Cubans, as Russian proxies, had arranged meetings with António Agostinho Neto, the titular head of the MPLA and currently residing Paris. However, the meet locations and times were unknown. The Agency used rotating surveillance teams to mark the spots.

While the job didn't require much more than sitting and watching, Ruben's team had been on Neto for more than a month without a positive result. He had three or four habitual routes, but none the of people Neto met, the restaurants he favored or the hotels and businesses he visited, netted a single commie connection. The whole thing would have felt like a bust, if the warlord's aimless pursuits weren't, in and of themselves, suspicious.

The second coffee came faster than the first, which either meant the wait staff had begun to accept his presence, or they wanted him to drink up and get out. As much as he liked to believe it was the former, his experience told him otherwise. 

Ruben hadn't graced the establishment enough times to warrant that type of forbearance. Since he wasn't going anywhere, they'd have to be satisfied with his feigned ignominy. It made them feel better if he acted uncomfortable.

He uncrossed his legs to pull out a pouch of Gauloises tobacco. After loading and rolling the paper into a thin cylinder, he brought it to his mouth to link the edge and stopped, nonplussed. In front of him was a man he'd encountered in Saigon, while waiting to catch the freedom bird home.

The lean, six-foot ginger, with a fresh brush cut and close shave over a pink, pockmarked complexion, evinced a memory Ruben had done his best to bury. It was the tan suit, however, that jogged the man's name to mind: Frank Delacroix. A civilian investigator for the US Navy, who worked criminal cases.

He was wearing the same tan, lightweight gabardine attire, the day he questioned Ruben about a murdered nurse. The image of the woman also floated up. He'd been witness to some seriously wicked shit in his young life, but nothing prepared him for what had been done to her. What are you doin' here Agent Delacroix?

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Chapter Two

March 27, 1973

Carver was on his second Biere “33”, schmoozing a worn out bar girl, and thinking this was about as good as it was ever going to get, in what was once the pearl of the orient. He still had a couple of days to kill in Saigon before he caught the last freedom bird back to the World. 

The twenty-ninth was the day all combat personnel were to di di mau, but most were already gone. He would have left months ago, with his last unit, if he hadn't gotten hit.

As it was, he was still recovering from a shrapnel wound in his chest. A random mortar round had been lobbed into an ARVN firebase in the Quảng Trị province, where he and his platoon had taken shelter after a night mission in January. It caught him coming from the latrine. Being a glass-half-full kind of guy, he mentioned to no one in particular, he was happy it didn't find him in the crapper.

The small chunk of metal had gone through him a few inches below his left collarbone. While it missed his subclavian artery, it nicked a lung, causing a pneumothorax. In layman's terms, it was called a sucking chest wound, which in Ruben's mind was totally appropriate. It did indeed suck a big one. The concomitant collapsed lung, with the several weeks of treatment keeping the thing reinflated, was no joy either.

He was laid up in Danang at the 95th evac hospital until he was told he'd have to find someplace else to bed down. The installation was being abandoned in place.

As a Ranger, most of his time in country was with the 75th Infantry Regiment. While his company engaged in long-range reconnaissance patrols primarily in the II Corps Tactical Zone, he'd had several night ops much further north. Many of which had crossed the border into Laos. 

Those incursions had been code named Prairie Fire by the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group, also referred to as MACV-SOG, or the more colloquial Pentagon east. 

He and the boys did their best to avoid contact, but they weren't always successful. The number crunchers never complained when there was gun fight, though. They liked the body count. 

Carver would admit later in life, the time he spent in the bush was a major contributing factor to the ethos he developed when it came to conflict resolution. He never lost any sleep over greasing bad guys.

A week after he'd been notified of his homeless status, his rotation date back to the World, called a DEROS, along with a set of orders, miraculously appeared. Somebody remembered him. He was finally going home with an early out.

The hospital was able to process his orders to leave Vietnam, but he had to finish out-processing at the Oakland Army Base. A ticket for a chartered flight to Travis AFB was awaiting him in Saigon, five hundred miles south. A phone call from the hospital commander put him on a C130 flying out of what was left of the Danang Air Base that same day.

After draining the last drop of the cold brew, he hoisted his duffle, and ignoring the whining demand for more money, went out in the street to wave down a taxi. There were a number of war hotels in the city he'd heard about, including the Rex and Continental, but arrangements were made before he left Danang for a room at the Majestic.

It was an old, adobe beige, French colonial, with an arching marquee, and large radius windows on the ground floor. Its six stories fronted the Saigon river, and while it had seen better days, it seemed unscathed by the conflict.

The spacious, white pillared lobby, with its marble flooring and polished mahogany checkin counter, provided more than a hint of elegance. For a guy who considered Red Mountain a fine table wine, he wasn't sure he, or anyone else in his generation, could really appreciate the place. Ya gotta love that military discount.

There were more than a dozen people standing in three lines waiting to register. Most were young men Carver's age or younger in Army khaki. A few were older, white, government types in short sleeved shirts, slacks and Hush Puppies.

There were no Marines or Air Force, but there was one navy baby. A tall blonde, maybe five-nine or -ten, with her hair pulled tight to her scalp and rolled into a four-inch bun at the back of her head. 

He couldn't tell her body shape, other than she was slim in the hips and had a nice rack. The faded olive drab fatigues hid everything else. The sleeves on the tunic were rolled up above her elbows and her baggie field pants were bloused in jump boots.

On her right collar were two black bars―a lieutenant―and on the left was a caduceus, the designator for the medical corps; a US Navy tape was above her left breast pocket and above the right was her name―Ford. 

She was a no-makeup stunner; a Tuesday Weld in boondockers. The type of woman who could make saggy granny panties sexy.

There was something else about her as well. Lieutenant Ford had the air of someone who'd been in-country one tour too many. More than her posture, it was her eyes. A lot of old boots, who'd been in the shit for months without a break, had a similar countenance. Grunts called it the thousand yard stare. She must'a pushed a lotta guts back in place.

Carver also assumed the lieutenant was a nurse. He'd been in and out of several meat factories during his tours and all the sawbones he saw were men. 

As he thought about it, he also realized he'd never seen a navy nurse in fatigues. Air Force and Army, yes, Navy never―they wore the white, button down scrub dresses and nurse's caps. They had that whole Florence Nightgale thing goin' on.

The LT had a single suitcase, which was more of a tote. If she was in transit, she was traveling even lighter than Carver. That, however, was something he understood―she carried her real baggage between her ears.

He noticed they were staying on the same floor, and with his redneck charm on full display, he offered to carry it for her. She didn't bother to turn. 

“Down boy, you're not getting any of this,” and she walked on.

Carver buttoned his lip and let it slide. The fact the OD goddess said anything at all, made him feel pretty good about himself. 

The flip side to that single was he didn't need to be put on report either. While she rode the elevator, he tucked his tail and climbed the stairs. 

By the time he reached the fourth floor, she was at her door turning the key in the lock. She must have heard him in the hall because her head swiveled and she watched him for a few seconds. It was the last time he saw those far away eyes. 

#

Carver had made arrangements with a couple GI's he met on the trip down from Danang, to meet a at 17:00. They said they had rooms at the Rex, but were willing to meet him at the Majestic.

Once they were on the prowl, it wasn't difficult to find a place they could exchange their military payment certificates, or MPC, for piasters. Military personnel weren't paid in greenbacks, for fear of currency arbitrage on the local economy. 

Merchants in the city, however, were willing to purchase the scrip at a handsome rate. The MPC had a shelf life, though, and new scrip traded better on the blackmarket.

With a wad of legal tender in their pockets, they bar hopped until curfew broke them up. Carver made it back to the Majestic by midnight, but instead of going to his room, he headed to the hotel bar on the roof. He had enough left in his pocket for a couple of night caps and breakfast in morning.

It was close to two am when he ambled down the two flights. All he had on his mind was a shower and bed. 

What he found was a hallway lined with teenaged warriors in khaki and olive drab, entangled with raven haired LBFMs―a GI acronym for little brown fucking machines. On the clock for a little boom-boom action, they were apparently waiting their turns for the rooms they were sharing with their buddies. 

Ruben was still in his raggedy ERDL pattern camies, and scuffed-up jungle boots. He must have looked a sight, or it may have been the stripes, but even in their inebriated states, they made a hole and let him pass without comment. 

He reached in a cargo pocket for his room key and found an old pack of four Chesterfields he's saved from some C rations. He had a mind to fire one up, when the nurse's door opened.

With a sense of nervous expectation, he stopped moving. He wanted to see her again and couldn't mask his disappointment when a man stepped out.

He was a naval officer, in summer whites, with shoulder boards that identified him as another lieutenant. A six-footer, thick in the chest and arms, he had a v shape that made the cotton polyester appear molded to his body.

The white cap, with its eagle, shield and fouled anchors, was tucked under his left arm. He had four rows of combat ribbons above his left pocket and Carver recognized two things immediately. 

First, the ribbon for a silver star had a small gold star attached to it. Second, he had a special warfare pin, a SEAL trident, above the ribbon bars. 

Everything about the guy was strack, from his honey colored flat top, with the shaved sides, to the perfect gig line. The square, dimpled chin and jaw line that could cut bread, were offset by thin lips, a thick boxer's nose and heavy lids and brow over ice blue eyes.

There was no denying this squid was a badass. The kind of man other men stepped aside for. What pissed Ruben off, wasn't the smug demeanor―that's something the guy probably rated―it was the expression on his face. It wasn't a smirk, really. It was more like…satisfaction.

#

He'd been dreaming about a night patrol in A Shau valley. A cherry from Fort Hood, Texas, was on point and tripped a bouncing betty. The mine blew out his lower back, tearing the grunt in half. Ruben watched as the hurled entrails became bloody ornaments on the surrounding bamboo.

The kid was dead, but Ruben could still hear him screaming. The image shocked his eyes open, and he sat up, panting. 

He scanned the room, taking a few seconds to remember where he was. The memory of the dream began to fade almost at once, but the howl of the dichotomized Ranger was now coming from the hallway.

He grabbed the cocked and locked .45 on the night stand, and bracing himself against the door frame, twisted and yanked the knob. He did a quick peek in the direction of the sound, and saw a mama-san in a housekeeping uniform, her hand over her mouth, staring into the nurse's room. 

As Ruben stepped into the hallway, other doors began to open. He wasn't the only one with a firearm.

Clad in army issued boxers, he stayed close to the wall and double timed it toward the Vietnamese woman. When she spotted him, and the pistol in his hand, she didn't stick around. She ran past him in the direction of the elevator, sobbing.

While he knew whatever freaked the old gal wouldn't be good, it didn't prepare him for what he found. He crossed the threshold, pistol up and sweeping left to right, he froze. His brain needed time to register what he was looking at.

Ever since he was old enough to hold a rifle, Ruben loved to hunt. It was the singular activity he enjoyed with his dad. As his little brother Claude came of age, tracking and stalking in-season game became a treasured family tradition.

Shooting rabbits and squirrels year round wasn't much different than going grocery shopping. It put meat on the table. The real prize came the last two weeks of November, when they were licensed to hunt deer and elk. They didn't always bag their limit, but come rain or shine, they always brought something home.

As part of the ritual, it was his and Claude's task to prep the game for the processor. By the time Ruben was in junior high school he was an adept. 

He had no idea how the Army's mortuary affairs personnel at Tan Son Nhut air base would describe the body. It was likely they'd call it disemboweled or eviscerated, but Ruben knew exactly what the bastard had done.

What was left of Lieutenant Ford was hanging by the heels, on two wire hangers attached above the closet doors. She'd been field dressed. Oh, man, this is way too dinky dau. 

He was transfixed, until a young troop came up behind him.

“Holy shit! What the fuck!”

Ruben jumped. The only thing that saved the oxygen thief from a ball round in the chest was the safety.

Before the idiot could utter another dull trope, Ruben waved the barrel his direction.

“Go down to the front desk and make sure the Canh Sat have been called.” Ruben turned and stared at him until their eyes came together. “Do it now.”

“Huh?”

“The White Mice, dude―the cops. Haul ass motherfucker!”

Ruben closed the door. He'd witnessed enough fragging investigations by Army CID to know they  didn't want anyone “disturbing” the scene. 

With that in mind he was careful not to touch anything, as he moved closer to examine the remains. He couldn't tell how she was killed, but he was certain she was dead before the jagoff went to work on the body. There wasn't much blood. How truly fucked up can someone be to do this?

Ruben calculated the guy used two different blades. A thin one was used around the anus to cut the rectum loose. He then made a incision along the centerline of the lower pelvis to expose the bladder and sever the urethra. 

From there, Ruben figured the guy stuck two fingers in the laceration to pull the skin up, away from the organs. It would've allowed him to insert a larger knife, and slice the body up the middle. Like using a letter opener on an envelop, he splayed the flesh to the sternum, without making a mess of the innards.

Ruben could tell there was some skinning done on the abdominal wall on both sides of the slit. It made it easier for the monster get his hands inside to cut the diaphragm away to free everything below the heart and lungs. Fucker really knew what he was doin'…but why?

There were guys out in Indian country who would do some sick shit with a body, and the VC were no saints either. There was no excuse for it, but it was done mostly out of rage―pure hatred.

This was different. This was not the enemy. She'd been an angel of mercy; probably the last beautiful thing a lot of young GIs saw before they bit the big one. 

The memory of the evil asshole's face―a visage of self-satisfied pleasure―boiled up. Wha'd she say to me? “You're not gettin' any of this.” Fuck…wha'd she say to him?

The knife must've also had a serrated edge. The maniac had sawed through the sternum to separate the rids. Then he sliced the skin to her neck in order to cut the esophagus. After that he pulled everything out, including the heart and lungs.

Ruben figured the whole process took about ten minutes, and wondered what she'd gone through while still alive. Her hands, which were lying on the floor behind her back, had been bound with some kind of cloth. He squatted down and pushed the hair out of the way to get a better look. It was a pair of panties.

He knew, or rather hoped, the police would be there soon. Since he elected to stay with the body, the national police, referred as white mice because of their uniforms, would no doubt assume he was the culprit. I'm gonna miss my flight.

Since he accepted that possibility, he wanted to know what the piece of shit did with the rest of her.  Unless it was under the bed, there was only one place left. 

All of her organs had been piled on top of a shower curtain lying next to the toilet. It appeared the frog man had washed himself off after the deed, based on the pink stain around the tub drain. 

He'd also brushed his teeth. Ruben didn't want to think what that could mean. There was no way he was going to scrutinize the mound of flesh next to the shitter, either.

#

As expected the coppers beat on him until they got tired, and then turned him over to the US Army Military Police. A few days later, a couple of special agents with the Criminal Investigation Command, checked his story and cleared him. 

However, they wouldn't cut him loose. They sent him back to the Majestic with all his crap, sans the pistol and his Gerber MK II―a dagger he'd purchased with his own hard earned money. 

Since Lieutenant Ford was navy and the prime suspect was also navy, the case had been referred. He'd been order to provide a witness statement to a jackass from some organization called the Naval Investigative Service. 

He didn't want to talk about it anymore. Yeah, but it don't mean nothin'.

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