Nobody Gets Off the Bus:
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Medici had arranged to meet Huge, a staff friend, for dinner at L'Amiral restaurant for the best French food in Saigon. He whet his appetite during the walk to Tu Do Street, lined with Saigon's best restaurants and the Reuter's office.
As he walked, thought drifted through his mind. How absolutely beautiful Saigon must have been before the war; how nice it was in certain places still. The Sihanoukville mission excited him, but not too much yet. He enjoyed the buoyancy that always occurred after they briefed him, the relief from fear of the unknown. He smiled at the prospect of the evening of reveling that lay ahead.
The idea that Kenck had planned the mission bothered him. How many other missions had he suggested to the Intelligence Chief? Kenck's part in them gnawed at Medici. It made him apprehensive about the real risks of Sihanoukville. CDR Holland had explained that as far as they could tell Sihanoukville was as safe as Phnom Penh, possibly safer because the NVA hadn't surrounded it or shelled it. Medici remembered that his agents had reported elements of the 9th NVA Division in the area, but no one besides Medici believed the reports.
He couldn't help dwelling on Kenck. He never realized how jealous Kenck was because Medici had the Ha Tien NILO post. His subconscious kept scanning his history with Kenck, all he knew about him, trying to see if there was something he had missed in sizing him up. He remembered Frank's warning.
He caught the movement of a rifle in his peripheral vision. Crouching, he withdrew the Browning from his waistband, then leapt sideways two steps behind a banyan tree that poked through the sidewalk. An Asian soldier in chrome helmet spun his rifle and brought it smartly to a halt in front of him with a cry. Medici stood, put the pistol back in his waistband. The soldier completed the manual at arms and returned the rifle to rest position. The butt cracked sharply on the cement.
Medici blushed in embarrassment and returned the salute. In front of the Korean Embassy, a sharp-eyed guard at attention in the dark saw his black collar devices and initiated the manual-at-arms salute. The Korean guards were so enthusiastic that in daylight they could spot and salute an officer a half block away. During his month on the staff, their elaborate salute had so annoyed him that he would walk on the far side of the street to avoid the formality.
He couldn't believe he had reacted instinctively as if it were an attack. You really can't put a field man in the city, he thought.
He rounded the corner and found himself on Tu Do street. The European architecture reminded him of Paris. The second stucco building modestly displayed a small brass sign, "L'Amiral." A plaintive Vietnamese ballad came from a restaurant further down the street.
He opened the small wrought-iron gate and stopped to read the menu posted in a glass shadowbox. He smiled. It would be a good eat. He slipped through the door into a chilled anteroom with a small tapestry on the wall. A faint smell of decay mingled with the smell of garlic and butter.
A Vietnamese waiter in high-cut vest and plastered hair came to greet him.
"Bon soir, Capitaine. Y aura-t-il des autres en votre partie?"
"Seulement un autre. Un sous lieutenant de la marine, de tres haute taille, avec les cheveux rouges," Medici answered.
"Bien entendu! Il est deja au table! Monsieur Reffe, n'est-ce pas?"
"Ah, oui! C'est lui!" The waiter led him around a wall to a room with two tables. Rick "Huge" Reffe sat, towering in his wash khakis, red hair like a beacon. His massive freckled forearms rested on the table, an empty bottle of Beaujolais in front of him.
"Huge! Am I late?" Medici asked. They shook hands and sat down.
"No. I had a particularly shitty day and came over early to get out of the back room. All hell's breaking loose since the shift in emphasis to Cambodia. The stupid middle-level officers just don't know anything about what's going on and they flap around at the slightest crisis." He drank some wine and motioned to the waiter for another bottle. "Of course the upshot is, they give the junior officers scores of emergency projects that take time and keep us frazzled. You're one lucky dude, Tom. I'd give my left nut to go out to the field now, just to get away from this staff bullshit."
"I guess your SI clearance from the embassy job in Manila doomed you." Medici laughed. "And you were the one guy in language school that really wanted to be a NILO, got orders, and then were pulled back to the staff. I thought I'd be happy with safe staff duty, and I end up out in Cambodia. How d'ya figure it? Fate?"
"Fuck fate," Reffe snorted.
Medici guessed the irony wasn't so funny to Huge, so dropped the subject. He poured himself a glass of wine. It was good but had vinegared slightly. Wines shipped to Saigon inevitably soured from exposure to the brutal heat.
The waiter came and they ordered. Medici began his dinner with French onion soup au gratin. Then escargots, a scallop salad, rack of lamb and glazed carrots. Huge had veal in wine sauce. His eyes widened as Medici, on whom he had a foot in height and one hundred pounds, out-ate him three to one. For dessert, Medici ordered a baked Alaska for two for himself, while Huge had only espresso. After he finished the baked Alaska, Medici picked a softball sized mango from the fruit display across the room.
"Where the hell do you put it, Tom! Do you have a hollow leg or what?"
Medici laughed. "I don't know. I've never eaten like this before. The food's shitty in Ha Tien except on Sundays when the Ba is off and we go to the round restaurant and eat shrimp. Maybe it's Last Supper syndrome. Figure I better eat decently while I can." He slid a thick slice of ripe orange mango into his mouth.
They ordered cognac and sat silently awhile. Medici really missed spending time with Huge. They had met in the crash Vietnamese language school at Coronado and had finished at the top of their class. Huge graduated from Dartmouth and Medici from Princeton the same year, 1967. The Ivy League camaraderie had offered them some insulation from the relentless leveling effect of the service.
Huge's dream was to finish his hitch and start a private book publishing press somewhere in New Hampshire. Medici didn't understand Huge's apparent lack of larger ambition. He was a Phi Beta Kappa, no great feat at Dartmouth, Medici kidded, but seemed uninterested in material things.
"What about the trip home in the Land Rover? Have you looked into that?" Medici asked. The Martell calmed him.
"I did. I think the best plan is to buy it in Bangkok, not Saigon. There's no way we can drive through Cambodia now, even if we bring our own weapons. Even with NILO Ha Tien aboard." Huge laughed.
"Roger that. Do you need a deposit or anything?"
"No. Not yet. I've explored the routing. From Bangkok, we can drive northwest to Rangoon, then on up the caravan route to East Pakistan, India, West Pakistan, Iran and through Turkey to Istanbul. From there we just follow the path of Orient Express back to Paris. Should take four to six months assuming we get cooperation at the borders. I'm working on getting us both red diplomatic passports."
"Will naval staff separate us from service out here?"
"Yup. I've already taken care of that with the administrative officer. It cost me several dinners and a case of scotch, but he'll do it."
"Great!" said Medici. He and Huge had planned this trip home before they got to Saigon. Part fantasy, anyway, their plans suffered a setback when Medici transferred to the border. On trips to Saigon, he made a point of discussing details with his friend in the hope that they would attempt the trip.
For Huge, the trip represented the derring-do that had been denied him when the staff canceled his NILO orders because of his Special Intelligence background. Medici sensed the blow the jaygee felt, and was determined to keep their dream alive.
Medici lived out adventure fantasies regularly in Cambodia. The trip would be fine, but he didn't need contrived adventures any more. Medici had seen Huge become demoralized from the pressure of staff work and the boredom of Saigon. Unless he could keep his sights on the trip, the year might be unendurable for him. He wondered whether Huge understood this. Then he thought maybe Huge believed Medici's sanity depended on the trip in the same way. He knew neither of them could discuss the issue directly. The dream must be kept alive for sanity's sake. Whoever's sanity. That was their compact.
The bill came and Medici paid. Over 20,000 piastres with tip, almost $100. Huge tried to contribute, but Medici said, "I ate most. Anyway, I can't spend this stuff out at the border if I try."
Huge, really drunk, made a mock salute and said, "Okay, NILO Ha Tien. Now it's my treat: Monique's!"
"You bumpkin from the border! The most famous massage parlor in all of Indochina. Monique is half French and half Vietnamese. She's run the parlor since 1954. It's a high-class joint."
"A whorehouse, right? I'm not interested."
"Not a whorehouse. Well, only if you want it to be. They give hand jobs under the right circumstances. But the girls are really talented masseuses. If we leave now we can be there in ten minutes."
Medici saw no sign that distinguished Monique's from the other residences on the neat street of European houses. Huge paid the fare and led Medici to a solid plank door. He knocked. Behind the door an old Vietnamese man sat listlessly on the wooden chair and smoked. An M-16 leaned in the corner next to him. He smiled at the sight of Huge, a regular, Medici gathered. Wooden benches lined the anteroom, but no patrons waited. Monique glided gracefully toward them. She was an aging yet stunning Eurasian, the essence of elegance. Every word and gesture was graceful and pleasing to Medici's eye.
They bantered briefly in French. Huge asked if Mimi, his favorite, was available, and Monique led him to a small door in the wall of a larger room beyond.
"Et vous, Capitaine?" she asked Medici pleasantly.
"Just a massage, Monique. Seulement un massage."
She smiled and nodded, then gestured for Medici to follow her. She moved fluidly down the hall to a dressing area with benches and stall shower, told him to undress and shower, then to wrap himself in a large, terrycloth towel. He complied. A petite Vietnamese girl in an elegant silk dressing gown came out of a room to greet him.
Medici was nervous. On the border he had simply decided not to deal with the sexual issue. Concentrating on his job, he found fear could be directed to suppress, rather than excite his libido. He knew Frank Brown went to town to be serviced every ten days or so. Carlos merely masturbated regularly. They never discussed the subject of how each coped, forbidden under the cryptic but strict code of etiquette of the hill.
The temptation did not upset Medici, but rather the fact that circumstances might serve to smash the fragile shell of abstinence he had constructed around him as part of his Ha Tien fantasy. If the shell broke, there was no telling what arrangements he might make in Ha Tien for his own pleasure.
He remembered the young Navy Lieutenant from Annapolis whose father was an admiral. He had survived well as the C/O of the junk force advisors in Ha Tien until he became enchanted by a Vietnamese widow with two children. He moved in with her in a small rented house in Ha Tien village, said he loved her and would divorce his American wife to marry her. He went to hell in a handbasket. The Lieutenant's friend, his second in command, assumed the responsibilities of the junk group when a third of the Lieutenant's tour remained. The Lieutenant so wore himself out from the stress of trying to maintain a domestic life while knowing he shirked his duty that he contracted hepatitis and was flown back to the States. No one knew what became of his Vietnamese paramour and her children.
Medici didn't trust himself to open the door to that kind of fall. Too many people relied on him and the job he did, not to mention his wife to whom he intended to be faithful. They had never discussed fidelity before his departure, but he decided he would be faithful. It also fit his Ha Tien scheme.
The girl said her name was Lotus; Medici said his name was Tom. She directed him to a padded table covered with fresh white linen. He climbed up, careful to keep his towel in place. Lotus turned him face down, loosened the towel, sprinkled talc on his back and shoulders and started a soothing gentle massage.
Medici relaxed, but tensed and rose quickly up on one arm as the door quietly opened. He realized the Browning was in the pocket of his fatigue blouse in the hall.
Monique entered dressed in a silk robe. She smiled so benignly Medici felt immediately at ease. Lotus giggled. "You are safe here, Capitaine," Monique said in flawless English. He lay down again and relaxed.
Monique expertly kneaded his leg from foot to thigh. She moved to the other foot and up the leg. Tension drained from him. Lotus worked his back and arms. They gently rolled him over and continued. He didn't open his eyes. Monique worked the talc up his thighs while Lotus worked down to his midsection, kneading gently but persistently. The crescendo effect was incredibly sensual. Medici felt himself rousing inexorably. He experienced a stupor of pleasure. He sensed himself growing hard against the scratchy towel, and Lotus redoubled her efforts around his groin, never touching his genitals.
Completely, uncontrollably erect, he felt the thin shell of abstinence cracking. Lotus rotated his pubis in wide circles, bearing down with each orbit. Medici could take no more. Tomorrow his Sihanoukville mission began. He sat up, furious.
"I said massage only! Stop now!" he shouted in a frenzy of sexual desire and anger. He jumped off the table, holding the towel in front of him, and barged past Monique, her mouth agape.
"Cher monsieur..." she started, but Medici charged out of her room, scowling, his libido completely supplanted by rage.
He tore his uniform from the hanger and dressed in seconds, pulled on his jungle boots and laced them, leaving the wide stovepipe trousers unbloused, dropping baggily to his boots. He tucked the Browning in his waistband and went to the door of Huge's room, banged on it twice, heard a commotion inside, then shouted, "Huge, I'm gone. See you when I'm back from mission," then headed for the door. As an afterthought he threw 5000 piastres on the wooden table next to the puzzled guard, who saluted limply. Medici threw open the door and entered the Saigon night.