C h a p t e r  1


F i r s t  K i l l

Killing can be a social event.


On the edge of the high Utah desert, the golden windspun aspen leaves had been driven to ground. The nude, outstretched limbs of the trees conjured up images of doomed prisoners. The young man imagined Death blowing through their limbs, leaving as its spoor the faint scent of cordite that settled as a mist in the gullies. He carried his lust for it effortlessly, like a fool.

Suddenly, the sharp cracks of nearby gunfire startled him. Haphazard at first, they became an avalanche fueled by the rhythmic staccato of the semiautomatics. It was a furious fusillade so relentless in its pursuit that he doubted anything could survive it. Then, a buck broke out of the forest on the other side of the ravine. A symphony of guns kicked dust all around the deer as it raced for a thick copse in the draw below. It ran across his line of sight, no more than forty yards away, but the young man didn't raise his rifle. The buck made the thicket, safe for a few heartbeats.

Too many people! He turned east, away from the doomed buck, making his way downslope to flee the noise. He had become separated from his buddies, and now as he broke clear from the trees and walked onto the high desert, he was alone.

As far as the eye could see, the grayish green of the ubiquitous Artemisia tridentata, or sagebrush, carpeted the landscape. He inhaled deeply and smelled the sweet, pungent scent of sage, rising slowly on unseen thermals as the land shed its coat of frost. In the distance, softened by the



F r e d e r i c k  S u

haze, the mountains looked to him like purplish, Brobdignaggian whales breaching a gray sea.

Then, he saw the mule deer. A doe! She was out in the desert about 175 yards away, flushed from the forest by the mob of hunters. It traipsed slowly, then stopped, looking back at him, the large ears at attention. Now! the hunter thought. It would be a long shot, he knew, especially with iron sights. He knelt and pulled the .30-.30 to his right shoulder. He had sighted in the lever action rifle at one hundred yards. He aimed high and squeezed off a round. The bullet hit the ground some five yards short of the doe and left of its haunch. The doe didn't move. Incredulous, the hunter readjusted. He aimed higher and to the right, slightly above the doe's body. He inhaled, then exhaled, letting the exhalation settle easily in his diaphragm, squeezing slowly, steadying the rifle at the last moment with the bottom of his exhalation, which was simultaneous with the last of the trigger squeeze. KABOOM! The doe jumped into the air, snapping at its rear, and then landed bodily on its side. Gotcha! he smiled.

He eyeballed along his line of sight, picking a small downcurve in the profile of the distant mountains as his reference point. He then looked backward, mentally marking the spot where he stood against the nearby hills. He walked through the sandy soil, stepping around the sagebrush. When he thought that he had walked about 175 yards, he lined himself up with the two reference marks. No deer! He pivoted 360 degrees, but could not spot her. He dropped his small pack, and using it as a reference point, started making circles. He expanded the radius of each circle by five yards, and it wasn't until his fourth circle that he found her.

The doe had been hit in the right haunch. She eyed him curiously, head held high. There was no panic in her eyes. But, of course, she had no understanding of what was to come, or that her wound was the effect and he was the cause.

There was a mellowness in her gaze that he found discomfiting, like the trusting innocence of a small child. Almost a bemused smile, he thought. Her beautiful brown eyes held his gaze like a magnet, and he wished with all his heart that he had killed her with the first shot.



F i r s t  K i l l

This was his first deer hunt. How do you kill her? he asked himself. Should I shoot her in the head or the heart? He raised his rifle, aimed it at her head, but then swiveled it toward her chest. He could not destroy those elegant features. He shot. The doe gasped, breathing harder, head bent over now, coughing little dainty coughs.

"Die! Goddammit! Die!" he shouted at her. "I don't want you to suffer! Please die!" But she wouldn't.

He waited a minute—an eternity to him. She was still alive, suffering. And then the hunter knew what he had to do. She was meat for the dinner table, after all. He could not keep pumping bullets into her. He pulled out his knife, and steeling his heart, grasped her long beautiful snout and cut her throat, spilling her life onto the high desert.

The sandy soil absorbed her blood like a sponge.


Hell, it can even be legal to hunt men!

They went out into the dusk, single file, following the dirt trail through the man-high elephant grass. The moon was a slivered crescent.

"Hey, hey, enough light to kill gooks by," Smitty said, smiling crookedly, fingering his long knife in the last of the waning light.

They walked like ghosts in a two-dimensional world of flat light. There was very little depth perception. And each one's sense of hearing grew to compensate. Their boots felt the path before them; their eyes strained to see the moving mass ahead; they took quick easy breaths, straining to quiet the beating of their hearts and the pounding of the blood rushing by their ears. What they could not see, they had to discern by hearing.

After about half a mile, they stopped. They congregated quietly around Sarge.

"Wolchak," Sarge whispered, "you stay here with Wong. Set up the claymore, five yards away. Then set up your positions on this side." He pointed to the vegetation sloping uphill, away from the trail. The ambush zone would be below them, giving them a fairly free field of fire.




F r e d e r i c k  S u

"Smitty and Gonzales, you're gonna be ten feet up the trail. Me and Johnson will be up another ten or fifteen feet. Watch your angles. You know this site from the daytime. Don't shoot your own men for Chrissake. From now on, no talking. When you're set, pull the wires. Go!"

With that, they disappeared into the brush, except for Sarge and Wolchak. Sarge set up one claymore mine on the far end of the ambush site. Wolchak, after directing Wong into position, slid out to the side of the trail to set up his claymore at the near end of the kill zone. He was back in a few minutes. "Armed and ready!" he whispered.

Lying down side by side, under the brush, they each laid out two grenades. They checked their M-16s, quietly flipping their safeties off and then back on. Worn smooth, the actions of the safeties made little noise in the night air. They checked the electrical wire, borrowed from the claymore, that served as a silent link between each fire team. Wolchak had it wrapped around his left wrist. He gave a slow tug signaling, Ready! Three fast, heavy tugs on it meant, Enemy! It would work if no one fell asleep.

This was Wong's first night ambush. He had been in-country now for a little over three weeks. He was tired. Always tired. His company had been humping the hills every day. The first week had killed him. Fresh from stateside and Okinawa, he was not used to the incredible heat, the humidity, and the eighty pounds he carried. And at night, stuck in his foxhole, he had alternated with Wolchak, two hours sleeping, two hours awake, then the cycle repeated. The next day, they humped the hills again.

The night air carried with it the scent of danger in Wong's mind. It hung like fruit, redolent with the implied carnage that could come. Whenever he thought he heard something, he would grip his M-16 tighter to him, wrapping his right hand tightly around the stock. But it was always innocent night sounds such as the wind rustling the trees and brush or some animal snorting about. In the distance, every once in a while, he heard the sharp yapping of the village dogs. He strained to see down the path, using only the starlight, for the moon had long since set. But he could see nothing but the vaguest of forms. He thought he could see a



F i r s t  K i l l

large bush on the other side of the trail, a black amorphous shape. Next to it, the ribbon of trail, lighter in contrast. He could not see his comrades, nor could he hear them. It was like an ethereal dream, and he was the only one in it.

The hours passed. Wolchak slept lightly, a barely perceptible snore. He had been on too many ambushes. Complacency had taken over. Wong stifled a yawn. Nothing, he thought. The initial state of excitement had turned into boredom. His grip relaxed on the stock of his M-16. He pushed his shirt cuff back, circling the luminous dial with his hand. Almost 0330. Nothing doing, he thought. It will be dawn soon.

He closed his tired eyes. He let his ears play sentry.

The world awoke with a huge explosion. Sarge's claymore had been tripped. Then the sound and sight of AK-47s and M-16s filled the night air. Then more explosions, grenades thrown by Sarge, then by Smitty and Gonzales. Screams rang out. And yelling, Vietnamese and American. The Viet Cong were firing wildly. Then the sound of pounding footsteps coming their way. And again, the bark of M-16s.

Wolchak, wide awake now, and yelling. "Son of a bitch!" he said, throwing a grenade onto the path. "Fire!" he shouted. "Shoot at the fucking shadows! The silhouettes, man! Shoot!" He let out short bursts of automatic fire. The grenade exploded. Wong followed his example. Screams. Black shadows raced toward them. Wong let loose. Wolchak reloaded, stripping the magazine out, inverting it, pushing its companion back in.

Wong saw bursts of light. Wind blew by his head. The sharp pop of bullets cracked the air and crashed into the bushes behind him. His mind registered those sounds in a split second. But he was focused on aiming toward the flickering lights that were the barrels of the enemies' weapons. Dark shadows were moving away, disappearing. Then Wolchak's claymore blew. Wong quickly reloaded and let out another burst. More screams. Wolchak was firing again. Then, both their magazines spent, reaching for more, they suddenly heard only silence. Their ears rang. Slowly, the moans of the wounded filtered through. The smell of cordite hung heavily in the air. Their hearts raced madly. Their eyes held the bloodlust.




F r e d e r i c k  S u

The silence reigned for what seemed like hours. Then Wong heard American voices, yelling. The gray light of dawn filtered through the trees.

"Fucking son of a bitch, that was a good firefight," Wolchak said. "You did all right, Wong. Didn't freeze up."

But Wong, coming down from the adrenalin rush, was shaking now. It finally hit him. This was no longer a game. It was a life where death was a way of living. It was reality more real than he had ever imagined or experienced. He looked at his hands and willed them to stop shaking. But it was like an ague had settled on him.

Wolchak looked at him. "Take deep breaths, man. Don't worry! You'll get used to it." He clapped him on the back. But Wong doubted that he would ever get used to it. He breathed in deeply. After several breaths, the shaking lessened. He continued hyperventilating.

"Wolchak, Wong! You guys okay!" It was Sarge yelling out. "Smitty, Gonzales! Sound off!"

Wolchak yelled, "Okay, Sarge!"

Smitty yelled, "Yo!"

"Secure your area!"

The gray light now gave form to the killing ground. Wong and Wolchak got up and approached the trail. Smitty and Gonzales were already about. Sarge and Johnson were on the trail, Sarge kneeling on both knees, Johnson hovering over him. Four bodies in all, Wong saw at a glance. Two were moving and moaning. Wong's nostrils wrinkled at the smell of war, of blood and fresh death.

Two bodies were on the path, the other two strewn on the slope beyond it. One body was blown into two parts, cut apart at the stomach, flesh stripped clean from part of the skeleton by Wolchak's claymore.

Smitty and Gonzales were sweeping the area from beyond Sarge's up to where Wong and Wolchak stood. Smitty stopped, bent over, working over a wounded, sobbing VC. The sobbing stopped abruptly. Smitty worked at his task, then got up. He laughed with Gonzales as they approached Wolchak and Wong. "Hey, Wong," he yelled. "Look what I found for you!" He held up a severed head, spitting into the face.



F i r s t  K i l l

Wong looked up from the dead VC he was examining. The blood drained from his face. He retched, vomiting until nothing else came out, then dry heaved. "Oh, God! Oh, God!" he gasped, wondering why in the fucking hell he had ever joined the Marines.

"Put the fucking thing down, Smitty," Wolchak said. "We got more important things to do."

Incredibly, one VC was still alive, having gotten beyond Wolchak's claymore. "Yeah, we sure do," Smitty said, tossing the head at Wong's feet. "One gook's still alive."

He was about fifteen, crumpled over in a fetal position, his hands over his abdomen, pushing his intestines back in. He was moaning loudly.

Wong slowly straightened and saw the boy. He yelled out weakly, "Corpsman!" Then inhaling deep breaths, more strongly now, "Corpsman! Corpsman! . . . Johnson, get on over here!" He kicked the head over the edge of the path, viciously, like a man kicking a soccer ball.

"Now wait a minute. What the fuck you want Johnson for?" Smitty asked softly, grinning.

The boy looked at Wong, face contorted in agony, pleading, "Lam on." The fear seeped through, rising above the pain. "Lam on -dung giet toi . . . Anh giong toi."

"What did he say, Wolchak?" Wong asked.

"He said, `Please. Please don't kill me.'" Wolchak looked at Wong. "He said, `You're like me.'" The other men's eyes were on Wong, too.

The boy's eyes, Wong thought. Doe eyes. Like in that other world an eternity ago. His first kill. But . . . No! Not this boy! He reeled, suddenly dizzy, knowing what was to come.

"What the fuck you gonna do, Smitty?" Wong cried out, grabbing his arm. "He's wounded! Let him be!"

But Smitty had already unsheathed his knife. In one swift motion, he pulled free from Wong's hand, then came up under his outstretched arms and sliced through the top of Wong's shirt, between the sides of his unzipped flak jacket. He snarled, "Out of the way, you motherfuckin' gook! If you can't finish the job, I will!"




F r e d e r i c k  S u

Wong stood dumbstruck. And afraid. Wong opened his shirt and looked at his chest. His finger traced the long thin cut, rubbing the blood now seeping out onto his chest. Then fear turned to anger. He gripped his rifle stock harder, swinging the barrel up. But Wolchak stopped him, pushing the barrel back down, glaring at him, shaking his head. "You American, ain't ya?"

Smitty laughed. "Him, American? He ain't proved it in my book yet!" He spat, then leaned over, yanked the boy's head back by his hair and plunged the knife through the side of the throat and ripped out. A whoosh, then a small, gurgling fountain of blood. The boy twitched, then lay still.

"Fuck! Like cutting butter, man!" Smitty said, grinning, wiping the blood from the blade on his pants. "You should try it sometimes, Wong." He bent over again, working speedily. He threw the prizes at Wong's feet.

"Wear 'em," he said.

Wong looked at Wolchak, but Wolchak would not meet his gaze. Then they all turned away, leaving. It was like a dream. Wong heard the garbled static of the PRC-25, messages from company headquarters. Sarge's voice, answering. He heard Johnson, the Corpsman, coming over, saying, "The Sarge was hit. But he'll be all right. Somebody hit over here?" Then Smitty's voice, followed by laughter. They all walked over to Sarge.

Wong looked at the crumpled body. "Son of a bitch!" he cried. Then softly, "That motherfucking son of a bitch!" Two tears trickled down. It was all he would give in front of his comrades.

The dirt beneath the boy was now dark crimson. He saw the boy's eyes. Glazed. And the face, a rictus of pain, frozen in death.

He stood rooted to the earth . . . then, he took a few steps, bent over, picked up the ears, notched holes in them with his knife, and strung the bloody lobes through the chain alongside his dogtags.