Chapter 3 – Foetus

Barely half-conscious now, Duque surmised the loneliness of his sniper torment. There he lay, on a tenebrous, distant crag cleverly perched atop an isolated ridge, hid from the air by jungle canopy and by tall  boulders on the ground, all enveloped with grassy overgrowth.

Had he not been mortally wounded at the approach, Bao Cat might have only been to him a faded vignette in some old Chinese postcard. A whimsical cardboard portrait like those bought by stary tourists in one of Hoi An’s dilapidated bookstores. Or mayb, a dreamy watercolor fantasy evoked eons ago one monsoon evening by a forlorn Vietnamese brush maestro stowed away all his life in a court pavilion inside Hue’s Imperial Palace.

Yet, as war finally erupted upon the hamlet, the place suddenly became real and lethal, just as Cardenas had figured out in spite of all the derision.  A veritable, clandestine rest spot for top Viet Cong cadre, just as the captain’s spiritual informants had snitched.

Duque looked around again and saw no one. Not one insurgent to shoot at, much less the prime target, the elusive Quyet Thang. Possibly the sniper that hit Duque was an elder, terrified peasant defending his pigs and chicken coop from the olive-garbed intruders, the likes of which had never before bothered to climb the rocky bluffs. Perhaps Cardenas had marked on his maps the wrong objective. Ordered the attack at an equivocal timing. It may have even been a delusive military target, just as lieutenant Jeremy Popper preached all along.

¡Mi Dios!  Perhaps all this for naught,” Ulises mumbled on and on.

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A few seconds after his divagation, another rifle crack broke the silence. Duque heard a slug hit the dirt in front of him with a dry thud. He felt the lead bounce around with the rhythmic thump of a finely tuned Africanized water drum. Pum, pam, pum.

His mind reeled again. Vegetable crepitations, tree barks moaned and water splashes bounced about his mind with brio.  Duque found out early in life he was clairaudient, capturing in the inner ear certain sound waves imprinted onto and bouncing off any mundane object. And at that moment, even in this trance of death, the cadence of the jungle superseded the cacophony of war.  To him, Bao Cat hummed with tremolo chants to loneliness and isolation,  Champa ritual songs of long ago calling for rain and trilled orations for a good harvest.

How could he explain it? It consisted of  tiny sensations of melodic feeling. Here now, gone in an instant.  Not even his best music professors  were able to grasp it. So he kept it to himself,  tucked away in his soul as if it were a defect of character. A freaky, melodious sentimentality.

In his senses, all events around him contained a certain cadence, a displaced upbeat or a percussive utterance. Thump, tap, tap, tum, ta-tat.  A Conga beat. A clave, cymbal or a bong flutter.  Chimes and soft clangs.  In his head, sound clouds reverberated all day.

Drowned in such vagaries, silence set in again at the Bao Cat battlefield. His sphincter muscle went into a spasm again, twisted, bent and then relaxed.  Duque lay face up, staring from an eye corner at the nearby crest of the dry paddy dike, diagonal to the village entrance. He saw two of his comrades trudge cautiously towards the levee, half bent down with M-16’s at the hip. It was Mimas and Tabal.

Duque next squinted and gazed hard at the midday sun. Though partly in shock, he felt no need to blink away the sunlight nor felt the heat of day. He merely craved for a drink of water. It was an urge inspired by the fluid tone of horizontally cascading water by the hamlet ledge.  A new liquid song began moving about in his head.

As the Tango troop swiftly sought cover and the concealment of an good attack position, the Viet Cong sharpshooter remained still, probably taking slowly aim again for the kill shot.  He had effectively hit Duque in the throat but since his victim still moved around a bit, he surely was pondering an angle for the final rub off. Or perhaps, Ulises figured,  simply preferring to lay hidden for a while. Noiseless. Invisible to the intruding force.

Though sweat-drenched, in effect Duque felt cold. New visions came in.  For a second, he thought he saw his mother Teodocia, hovering over the rice paddy in the white cotton gown with embroidered fuchsia flowers she wore on special occasions. It was the dress she sewed herself at age 17 for her funerary upon being diagnosed with tuberculosis before adulthood. Instead, she had to hide the gown in a trunk another 50 years.

Next he saw her playing the old wooden harmonium she kept at the foyer of her ancestral home, back up the small coffee plantation of Puerto Rico’s central mountain range. So shady, so tropical a place even during summers. The front veranda always under the umbrella of a huge, flaming flower tree.

“I’m dying, mother,” Ulises muttered.

“Not yet. No one dies on the eve of one’s last breath,” Duque heard the matriarch say in her soft, mellow voice. Curiously, she did not seem to be talking to Ulises, but to the spirit erupting from his broken body.  In a next instant, the maternal ghost dispersed itself into the horizon. No harps, no angelical chorus, no heavenly gates to escort it away.

“Death is no melodrama, madre,” Duque gasped out loud, talking to himself. He finally blinked and began to close both eyes in the slowest of motions.

Ever since his arrival in Vietnam six months before, Duque wondered hard day and night about killing or being killed. Was the monk Jampa Kochi right?  Once killed, soldiers like him would become a wispy sparkle of eternity.  A minutiae blast of  luminiscent energy shooting out from a spent carapace to merge into the subtle tapestry, the invisible spiritual chemistry of the cosmos. Or perchance, a tiny spasm of radiance, beginning to pulsate forever among the vast concert of astral harmonics. Or maybe tragically, merely sucked into a long night of being not. Of nothingness. A simple lump of flesh and bone rotting by the bamboo gate of Bao Cat. Rotting vulture carrion. Sadly just that, nil. Nada

An instant before his life unwound from his swollen brain, Ulises Duque strived with all remaining strength for just one more reverie. Seeking a new apparition, he struggled with the last gasps of life to envision a probable face for his yet to be born child.

“Agnus Dei!” he prayed in Latin. So badly he wanted to know if his offspring would take on the smooth Polynesian visage of his estranged mother. Or maybe hints of his own suave, sambo demeanor.  Preferably his tall stature and a reasonable facsimile of his hazel eyes. The features he was inwardly so vain about.

One glance of the unborn… that was all Ulises wanted at his imminent moment of death. A pithy glimpse of the yet to be born infant for dynastic hubris.  Fatherly vanity.  A little notion of what was to emerge out of his own blood and flesh.  It was only fitting, because, by the wizardry of passion, he had lovingly placed that tiny creature in Kikei Santos’ womb to carry on both their physical and spiritual legacy.

Instead, what stirred up in Ulises’ mind were contorted memories of the amatory affair with quartermaster lieutenant Kikei Santos; the clandestine liaison that sunk him so deep into her alluring domains that it soon became impossible to find a way out. Mortician Kikei Santos. Viet Nam’s  Lady of the Lamps. The dame of military corpses. The undertaker of his love and lust in Da Nang.  His once amorous Kikei  Cocoa”  Santos.

Older than him, yet a woman of youthful coppery skin, childish charms and girlie raven black eyes, her glistening lava bomb pupils entranced him beyond any escape.  The bearer of his seed. The shooting star for his offspring.  So far away now from his evanescent life.


Chapter 6 – Tenderfoot


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“Medic. we need the medic for Duque,”  lieutenant Popper yelled at the top of his voice.

Thick sweat ran down the officer’s face and over the blondish eyebrows as he finally reached the village plateau above the jungle gorge that so lushly camouflaged Bao Cat from the world outside. He made a few attempts to approach the dying Duque, but sniper bullets held him back behind the boulders.

“Rawlings, get up here, dasmn it,” he hollered loud, calling for the troop combat medic. “And, Thibo get the radio up here, too. Up. Up, man!”.

Shielded by the huge rocks, Popper with only hand signals divided the platoon into two sections to flank the hamlet on the north and south boundaries of the mesa. It was not clear at that moment if the lieutenant maneuvered the troop for a defensive action or a counterattack.

The officer’s screams –noted Duque– broke the silent voice order that earlier in the day allowed the impromptu assault troop to creep up the ridge to the isolated commune. No one knew what they would find there, all hoping it were merely rustic peasants shying away from civil war and Saigon’s political follies. Or a tiger. Perhaps bamboo vipers, beehives, the stinger of a scorpion under the humid rocks by the stream. Anything but a hail of bullets.Screenshot 2018-03-15 15.07.26

Duque made an effort to talk to Popper, whom he spotted some fifty feet feet away by the big rocks, as the officer dodged ricocheting bullets aimed at his head. Ulises tried to articulate  words, shrinking his diaphragm muscle, moving his tongue, then lips to let out a voice.

“Don’t bring Rawlings to me. He’ll be shot,” Ulises barely vocalized in a hoarse, blood drenched utterance that only he could hear. An dismayed desperation set in, not so much but difficulty in breathing, but of having no control to his situation as emotions and recollections  gyrated crazily inside his head.

Damn, he gathered. How in a single instant, one half-inch slug of cheap lead can alter an entire lifetime.”  Time was fast shrinking in Duque’s mind. Days became seconds, weeks moments and years a quick memory.

He conjured how a week before, captain Cardenas sent out the platoon-size combat operation to “poke around” the environs of Bao Cat. It was to be a recon patrol with only light rifle armament. The Tango platoon was to snoop around a while, Duque would take pictures, the buck sergeant map out the place and soon all head back to a clearing in the valley below for a chopper pickup a day or two later. Clean, swift and neat field intelligence as was Cardenas’ operational trademark. Orders were to avoid any clash with the Viet Cong.

“Move. move Rawlings!  Duque’s gonna die on us,” Popper came with another high pitch holler.  Consequently, another bullet whizzed by his steel pot, missing him by inches.

Although not an infantry officer, lieutenant Popper volunteered to lead the expedition but only if given proper offensive weapons in case of an ambush. His insight proved right. The trek to and up the Annamite cliffs had taken six days through lush forest and unfriendly terrain. The uphill stone path seemed to be alive and menacing ever since the troop set their boots on the ancient trail. Many of the grunts, Duque noted, bore an uneasy stares all over their eyes.

“It’s fate calling. I get the feeling I’ve been here before,” Duque recalled that Mimas Bolanos, told him as they gazed up hard at the rocky climb. The Cuban  santero  warrior always seemed to sense things that would later happen to the ragbag troop.

“Fate my eye,” interspersed platoon clown Raymond Galán. “This is one big ugly mistake. You know… Us being here in such a small unit. Big time deja boo-boo to me.”

Specialist Four Galán had been in country ten months and was going to take early departure from Nam when Cardenas recruited him for the Papa, Whiskey, Tango mission. He recaptured Galán by promising another stripe. A month away from ending his tour, the jester grunt took the gamble.

En route, the platoon met with two brief ambushes, a prelude to what awaited them at Bao Cat. Popper had sent a distress situation report back to base camp via radio two days ago.  Duque heard him explain how the terrain they entered was not a pacified war zone as described by the military intel of the day. Three times the lieutenant told Cardenas via  RTO  that the encounters along the way were getting heavier. Popper requested a recall to base and a redesign of the mission as a helicopter assault. The entire troop heard on the radio’s telephone voice box how Cardenas replied angrily and with a quirky analogy.

“Dammit, lieutenant. Do you think Hernán Cortés would’ve turned back when he met the first Aztec attackers out of Veracruz.”

Popper seemed perplexed but Duque quickly deciphered the statement.

“The captain wants us to go on, sir,” Duque translated to Popper. The lieutenant figured it was code conversation and acquiesced.

Duque and sergeant Chuco Tabal knew better. It was not talk code. The captain was a fanatical student of the conquest of Mexico. He did a master’s thesis at the US Army War College on how Cortés cunningly used primitive field intelligence to conquer the Aztec Empire. Finding a willing ear for such spiel, Cardenas conversed frequently with Duque about the historical aspects of the Cortés expedition. Tabal, although born in New Mexico, had a strong Mayan ancestry, both in lineage and features –short, stocky, oblique eyes and spiny, raven black hair to the brow.  In Cardenas’ fired up imagination about the Spanish Conquest, Tabal became in Viet Nam an emulation of one of Cortez’s indigenous scouts. In all truth, the staff sergeant, now in his second tour in Nam, was an expert trailblazer and for Duque, a damn good marimba player.

It was amidst such musings that Ulises Duque thought back about the day of his arrival in Vietnam, age 26, one of the oldest of the crowd at the Da Nang Deployment Station. A rookie, a tenderfoot warrior in a war stage teeming with an Middle America adolescent militia, untimely aged by battlefield brutality, all commanded by Korean or World War II veterans with crimped bodies revitalized by addictive combat zone adrenaline.

Soon, faint shouts of village dwellers began to stir inside Bao Cat. Duque instinctively searched for his M-16 and realized he was laying heavily and motionless atop of his field weapon. Talking about combat inexperience, Duque cursed inside his mind.

Next, he sensed a prompt guerrilla break out from the entrails of the hamlet. A vexed guerrilla tiger team coming towards him for the kill.



CHAPTER 7 – Retaliation

A syncopate sequence of thoughts ran through Duque’s head. Memories, opaque or alternatively flashy, emotions, words and sounds emerged in counter rhythm to the coarse reality around him. Fear of death grew as his heart skipped beats and perceptions pulsed on and off.  Ulises began to panic.

He came to the realization that his life was in its final moments.  The shouts of the marauding troop, Popper’s screaming out orders and a few more blasts from Papio’s M-60 towards the village gate, seemed diffused and distant at times. The landscape around him acquired hues or sounds he had never before distinguished.

As his breathing became heavier and more difficult, Ulises Duque tried to imagine the visage of the sniper who so expertly had put a bullet through his throat and now was letting him suffer cruelly. Blood drop by blood drop.  He convinced himself this could only be the brutish military artwork of Quyet Thang, the executioner. It was thus that captain Cardenas constantly described his target: El Verdugo in Spanish.  But for Duque, this ruthless persona also seemed to be a war poet. The writings by Thang that Duque had studied, said so.

Upon his arrival at Dan Nang base that Spring of 1967, Cardenas quickly took Duque under his wing as an anthropological researcher and groomed him for the capture mission. He continually briefed Duque about the Viet Cong chieftain and the lethal ideology that constituted the cadre’s motives to become a patriot for the Vietnamese revolution and a headman for the battle.

In the historical documents culled by Cardenas from French war dossiers and recently captured Viet Cong materials, Thang came out as an uncanny warfare strategist since a young age, responsible for planning dozens of mortal ambushes to Marine and US Army infantry patrols during  the first years of  US troop presence in Nam’s central highlands and it’s nearby coastal towns. Also, as Cardenas personally knew, the guerrilla boss  had an unearthly ability to know where to locate key US and South Vietnamese honchos operating in the Quang Tri, Da Nang, Hue, Dak To and southward to Pleiku or even the inner city Sai Gon combat zones. Then Thang and his pack would kidnap them.

Almost every day, Cardenas feverishly poured over the yellowish folios. Duque, who transcribed many of the classified translations from Vietnamese from a rusty portable Lettera typewriter learned that Thang had personally executed most of his prisoners of war. This included –and Cardenas’ faced twichted with spite each time he said it– his uncle Bernard Cardenas, a 25th Infantry top sergeant who was completing his tour in Nam. Bernardo, as the captain called him, was ready to retire after 35 years, a dozen medals for gallantry in combat  and three wars stacked into his jungle fatigue pockets. Ulises Duque thereby knew by hard that capturing Quyet Thang and seeing him “severely” punished was not only a scheme to advance Cardenas’ military career, but an obsessive though unexpressed urge for personal revenge.

In Bao Cat, Cardenas expected to find a trail that would lead to Quyet Thang’s definite hideout in the jungle, were it not the hamlet itself.  The captain collected deficient reconnaissance images and visual sightings of a large radio antenna sticking out of the jungle foliage behind the hamlet. Also, a pair of reinforced bunkers behind the pigpens supposed an  underground heavy weapons cache. The bunkers had a design that only a high echelon Viet Cong political cadre would command. Most significantly, the aerial evidence showed tin roofs over the hamlet’s hooches, most camouflaged by straw pelts. Cardenas’ field intel savvy told him the huts had to be housing a command and commo post of provincial, if not regional control. As he lay bleeding slow bt the Bao Cat gate, Duque could eyeball close up that Cardenas’ intuitions were precise.




During the expedition to Bao Cat, no one in the Tango troop had an inkling of such intelligence. Not even Popper nor the sergeants. Cardenas always kept his playing cards close to chest and far from prying eyes. Duque did have knowlede of such facts. He had carefully categorized the documents by date and constantly retrieved them from the captain’s security pouch during briefings with Peter Amador, the air recon pilot recruited for the mission. Other field intelligence reports and parchments from the old Viet Minh days of the initial Vietnamese insurgency, convinced Cardenas he had finally located a possible Thang hideout, or at the least a true path to it.

Sworn to secrecy as he was, Duque hardly had to tell the Tango troop much about the operation. Clairvoyant as they almost all were, each silently intuited the dangers awaiting them as the unit got closer and closer to the ridge top battle scenario. Tango troop, as it turned out, was another of Cardenas’ classified military intelligence experiments. The captain had put together a small and bizarre expedition force with an uncanny collection of  abilities that included infantry, music and psychic faculties, all rolled into one surrealistic phalanx like a robust enchilada.

That early Summer, as the grunts recruited by Cardenas began to coalesce into the Tango platoon, Duque began to realize each soldier brought with him some sort sensing skill, earthly but with a certain paranormal flair.

“I already smell the blood of humans and animals gushing out of that place,” grenadier Jairo Jaramillo told Duque as both took a cigarette break behind an abandoned Buddhist temple in the Pineapple Forest. They were then still 37 klicks away from Bao Cat. Jaramillo’s sharp eyes spotted the outline of the faraway ridge line and restlessly sensed a tragic outcome for troop as if he could  see through the heavy mist that in the mornings covered the ancient village sitting on the high, rocky ridge.

“Guerrillas in the mist,” was the way Missouri guy Theodore Thibodeaux, the troop radioman described the hamlet sighting from afar each morning.  “Not good. Not good.”

Yet, the platoon moved on, spurred by Cardenas’ ceaseless radio messages from homebase. The Tango team was also prodded by lieutenant Poppers urge for protagonism as a rookie commanding officer. It was to be a covert long range patrol with the possibility of briefly entering Laotian territory, but only if the village paths led elsewhere to other key locations where Thang might be.

All illegal, as everyone new, without the possibility of logistical, air or firepower support from the coastal US friendly bases.  Duque also secretly knew Cardenas had no authority for the mission, except the like-mindness support of a Special Forces colonel friend of his operating in a nearby Laotian secret commando base. A warrior,  also entranced with Quyet Thang’s sagacity. The man mortician Kikei Santos did a death mask on her gossing able when she and Duque.

Ulises could not tell her so, but the colonel’s death so infuriated Cardenas that despite the weak intel on Quyet Thang’s whereabouts and the ill preparations of the expedition troop, the captain moved the mission forward ahead of time and with a new vengeance boiling in his blood. Revenge with hurried retaliation.