Excerpt from Darkling Plain – Copyright © 2010 by Gary Tillery


Bryce's Big Chance

The quay was growing dark. Billowing black clouds scudding out of the west toward the South China Sea made the twilight after sunset even briefer than usual. Below the clouds a wind came sweeping across the river and the surface turned choppy. Hunter sensed that Saigon was in for an unseasonal rainstorm. As if to confirm his suspicion, something splattered on a nearby leaf.

He glanced up.

A seagull was gliding above the tree.

He put his fatigue cap back on his head and returned his attention across the street to the doorway of the Majestic Hotel.

At last Lieutenant Bryce came out. As he crossed the sidewalk and plunged into the street, he moved in tense little bursts that made it clear that he wanted to break into a run. At the line in the middle of the street he seemed to resist the impulse to dash and stopped short to allow an empty pedi-cab to pass by. The cyclo driver, recognizing that Bryce appeared in a hurry and expecting him to dart across in front of him, slowed down. As soon as Bryce noticed him slowing, he impatiently stepped ahead. But by that time the driver had decided that Bryce meant to wait, and came down heavier on the pedal to resume his speed. Bryce jerked to a halt in mid-step and the driver slammed on the brake. The left corner of the passenger seat at the front of the cyclo stopped only inches from Bryce's shins.

Bryce peered through his wire-frame glasses at the Vietnamese, who peered back at the lieutenant through his black-frame glasses.

Bryce gestured for the driver to proceed. The Vietnamese gestured for the American officer to advance instead. They held their positions, each politely urging the other on, then both concluded at the same instant that the other was more determined and both started to move forward. Bryce recoiled and the driver hit the brake again.

Once more they stared at each other.

Bryce strode toward the back of the cyclo, and as he crossed the street behind it Hunter heard him mutter, "Stupid gook."

The Vietnamese, rising off the bicycle seat, responded by lifting his right leg and turning his buttocks aside as though breaking wind in the lieutenant's direction.

Bryce had already passed and did not notice him.

Hunter saluted. Bryce returned it. Above the lieutenant's pale cheeks and downy moustache there was a devilish gleam in his blue eyes. "I'm glad you're on time, Hunter. Did you bring the Scout?"

"It's parked on Nguyen Hue."

"Good, good. Listen, I want you to know. You're handpicked for this. I singled you out because––" Bryce placed a hand on Hunter's left shoulder "––because I know I can count on you."

"Count on me for what, sir?"

"I can count on you to stick by me no matter how rough it gets out there tonight."


"Listen…" He took a half-step closer and turned Hunter by the shoulder so that they both faced into the wind coming off the river. He lowered his voice. "Listen, Gordon, how would you like to help me bag a VC tonight?"

"A VC?"





"I've got intelligence."


"I mean I know where Charlie's planning to hit tonight. One guy. Alone. All we have to do is get the drop on him and he's ours."

"Whose intelligence? Won't the canh-sats or the army be there?"

"It's my source. No one knows about it but me." Bryce winked. "And now you."

"Is that wise, sir? Shouldn't someone else know?"

"Hunter, think about it. How many times does an opportunity like this come along? We've got the chance to capture a VC in the act. Why share the glory?"

Something splattered on a nearby leaf. This time it was a raindrop. Others followed. They moved under the tree.

"Are you sure of your source, lieutenant? What if we're being set up and led into a trap?"

"I appreciate your wariness," Bryce said, "but she's … I mean … Well, if you must know, it's a bar girl. But I know her very well. I trust her."

"And she just happens to know when and where a Viet Cong plans to attack?"

"He got drunk," Bryce said. "He talked too much."

"Not exactly my image of a Viet Cong."

"They're human, too."

"I suppose."

"The point is, we know, and he doesn't know that we know. I just talked with her again in the hotel bar to confirm things and she says she thinks it's still on for tonight."

"I don't have a weapon," Hunter said.

"Not a problem. I borrowed one for you from an army buddy of mine. We'll have two pistols."

"Any idea what he'll have?"

"He may not even be armed."

"An unarmed VC? What is he planning to attack?"

"He's going to plant some explosives beneath a bridge."

The rain began a steady patter against the canopy of leaves above them. Droplets trickled through the maze onto their hats and shoulders.

"Lieutenant, are you sure about this? I mean, you've got less than three weeks left on your tour."

"Nineteen days," Bryce said. "And that's exactly why I am sure."


"A year, a whole frigging year in the middle of a combat zone, and I've got nothing to show for it but one stinking letter of commendation in my records. Is that how captains are made? Is that going to impress any female back in the States? I'm telling you, Hunter, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a personnel officer and there's no frigging way I'm going to let it just slip by. This is my big chance to get a piece of this war. Our big chance. We can go out there tonight and nail a VC all by ourselves––without the army or the police or anyone else lifting so much as a finger to help us. Think about it."

Hunter thought about it.

"I can probably handle it alone," Bryce went on, "but it would be smart to have someone there to keep an eye on things––to back me up if things turn sour. You're the one I want there, Hunter. I've had my eye on you and I know you're level-headed. I know you would never let me down." Night had fallen now, but in the light from the hotel across the street, Hunter saw the glimmer of fire in Bryce's eyes. "What do you say, Hunter? Are you ready to back me up?"

He wished there was something else to say. "Yes, sir. Of course."

"Great! Good soldier. Let's get started. Where's the Scout?"

Hunter led him to where the Scout was parked on the broad low island that ran down the center of Nguyen Hue Avenue. Hunter climbed into the driver's seat. When Bryce opened the door to the passenger's side, Hunter noticed the pistol on his hip. "Where do we pick up the pistol for me?"

Bryce had one foot in the vehicle and was about to sit down. He caught himself and straightened out with his shoulders against the seat and his foot pressed to the floorboard. "Oh, yeah." Without changing position, he awkwardly unbuttoned his khaki shirt and reached around inside it to the middle of his back. "I just about forgot." He brought out a crumpled white tee-shirt. Wrapped inside it was the smallest pistol Hunter had ever seen. He handed it to Hunter. "This is for you."

"What is it?"

"It's a twenty-two."

"It's pretty small."

"It's the best I could do."

"Will it stop a man?"

"It will when it's loaded."

"Are you sure, sir?"

"Might take a couple of shots."

"I see."

"Don't sound so dismal."

Bryce cleared his throat, swallowed. "Listen, Hunter. I guess I ought to have been a little more up-front with you."


"I don't … I don't have ammunition for it."

"But yours?––"

"Mine's a thirty-eight. The cartridges won't work in yours."

"I see."

"Actually, we should count our blessings that we were able to get the twenty-two for you. Captain McElroy doesn't even know it's missing."


"He keeps it in his sock drawer."

Hunter stared at the pistol. "Lieutenant…"

"I know what you're thinking, Hunter."

Hunter waited.

"You're thinking––how can I expect you to use a gun with no bullets?"

Hunter waited.

"Well, the fact is, you shouldn't need to."


"If things go right, you won't even need to get close to the scene. At worst, you might need to show the pistol to establish a little credibility."

"You have a plan, then?"

"Of course. Well, not exactly a plan. But I have an idea how the thing should go."

"I don't know, lieutenant."

"Listen, I'll make sure you don't get into a bad situation. Trust me. If things turn sour, I'll fire some shots at him to cover us and we'll get the hell away from the scene and find the nearest guard station."

"Can I count on that, sir?"

"You can count on it. I wouldn't ask any of my men to do anything I wouldn't be prepared to do."

"Sir, would you go into combat carrying a weapon with no bullets?"

A fish truck thundered past as Hunter began speaking. Bryce gave no indication that he was hearing the question, and as the roar was dying down he glanced at his watch. "You know, we really should get on the road. We've got to get across town and get prepared."

Hunter stared ahead through the rain-speckled windshield. Then, muttering to himself, he turned the ignition key and started the engine.

They drove northward through a light rain, out past the National Museum, across the road that led to Bien Hoa, out beyond the edge of the city. They crossed a bridge over the Saigon River, then turned left onto Nguyen Van Hoc, driving to another bridge just north of the one they had already crossed. The railroad ran parallel to Nguyen Van Hoc on the street's northern side, and both railroad and street crossed the river on the same bridge.

Bryce told Hunter to pull off the road just east of the bridge and park the Scout behind a dense stand of brush on the south side of the road.

They got out to look around.

"Beautiful," said the lieutenant. "Absolutely perfect. The guard post is on the other side of the river, so he'll obviously be planting the charge near this bank between the sentry's rounds. The vehicle's well hidden. All we have to do is stay out of sight and keep our eyes open."

"Will he be coming by land, or along the river in a small boat?"

Bryce stared at the river. "Good point. I don't know. We'd better get closer to the river where we can keep an eye on both. Do you have your weapon?"


"Better get it."

By the time he got back to the vehicle, ten steps away, Hunter felt transformed into a complete fool. He hesitated as he picked the pistol up off the seat, deliberating whether to carry it in his hand, tuck it under his belt, or re-wrap it inside the tee-shirt. He finally slipped it into the deep pocket of his fatigue pants.

Traffic came by occasionally on the road and Bryce thought it best to stay out of sight, so they walked toward the river through the brush. Bryce's street shoes slipped easily on the wet ground. Every few moments he would tense up suddenly and struggle to recapture his balance. Hunter, who had worn jungle boots, had no problem.


"Is this wise?"

"Try not to worry about it, Hunter. I'm in command. I'll take responsibility."

"But, just suppose everything goes right. Won't they want to know why we didn't report this to the proper authorities? It's intelligence, after all. And this isn't our job."

"She's just a bar girl. She's told tales before. And it is our job to defend these people. We thought we'd better check it out just to be safe. Do our duty."

"Well, then just suppose it goes wrong—we fail to see him and he plants the charge and blows up the bridge?"

"It won't go wrong."

"Just suppose."

"We'll see him."

"But just suppose we don't?"

"In that case we run back to the Scout and get the hell out of here and neither of us knows anything about it."

The lieutenant slipped and recovered his balance too late. One hand came up muddy, and one pant leg of his khaki uniform was smeared from his knee down. "Shit."

They came to the river. It was an excellent vantage point. They could see the double bridge stretching out over the water, they had a clear view of the support structure beneath it, and they could see the road where it led up to the bridge. "Beautiful," said Bryce. "We can't miss. Hunter, we're going to be medal winners before this night is over. Everything is going our way. The only thing we have to do now is sit tight right here."

There came a long low rumble of thunder. Raindrops began to patter against leaves.

Bryce turned to him, a wet smear on one of his lenses. "I don't suppose you brought a poncho?"

"Sorry, sir."

"No big deal."

The storm began to pick up strength. They squatted amid the shrubbery and tried to use the small dancing leaves as an umbrella. Very few of the rain drops had the misfortune to be intercepted.



"This isn't a very good night to set a charge."

"What do you mean?"

"It's wet. He may not come tonight. He may wait until tomorrow."

"Don't be ridiculous. This is Vietnam. The rain will blow over in a minute."

The rain continued, gathering force. Their uniforms became drenched. Bryce took off his holster and cradled it beneath him to try to keep the pistol dry. A steady cascade of water poured off the bill of Hunter's cap. Two jagged bolts of lightning lanced earthward in the direction of Saigon. Two claps of thunder followed, rumbling ominously across the river toward them.



"We could wait in the Scout until the storm dies down a little. He's not likely to place the charge until the worst is over."

"That's exactly what he would want us to think. The storm is a perfect distraction. We'll stay here where we can watch. What's a little rain?"

A dazzling scar of light split the black sky over Saigon. A titanic crack of thunder swept over the river and assaulted their ear drums. Turbulent waves pounded the river bank below them. Then the floor of heaven ripped open and a torrent of water plummeted to earth. The slender branches they were using for cover gyrated frantically beneath the deluge. Rain crashed through leaves and pummeled roots. Rain churned the mud. Rain coursed down swollen rivulets, sweeping leaves and logs and small animals out into the river.


He didn't answer.


Bryce, six feet away, couldn't hear him.

Forty minutes later, the worst was over. The rain settled into a steady drizzle.

No traffic passed by during the downpour, at least none they could see or hear. Now Hunter became aware of the sputter of a motor scooter. It seemed to be slowing down. He rose up on one knee to see better. A Vietnamese man in a rubber poncho rolled to a stop near the end of the bridge. He was arriving from the direction across the river.

"Lieutenant," Hunter said quietly.

The lieutenant sneezed.

Hunter dodged behind the bush he was using for cover. He stretched one leg back and poked Bryce's calf with his boot. Bryce was trying to dry his glass lenses with a wet handkerchief despite the continuing drizzle. When he looked up, Hunter held his forefinger to his lips and then pointed toward the highway. Bryce scrambled over beside him.

The Vietnamese had stopped and climbed off his scooter, but now Hunter could see that he was wearing a helmet. "The sentry," he whispered.

"Must be making his rounds now that the storm is finally over," the lieutenant said.

The sky responded with a rumble of thunder. Bryce made a face at the sky.

"This is a good opportunity to tell him what's going on, lieutenant."

"No way."

"Then let's hope he doesn't see us."

"This is a good test of our cover," Bryce whispered. "If he doesn't see us now, Charlie won't see us later."

The patter of rain stopped. It became quiet. They could hear the thump and splash of the sentry's footsteps on the wet bridge, and the rustle of his poncho when he turned or lifted an arm. He checked out the opposite side of the bridge, then thumped his way back and stood at the railing nearest to Hunter and the lieutenant. He leaned forward against it on his forearms, hands clasped, and looked at the river. He was young. For awhile he stood motionless, contemplative, gazing at the hypnotic flow of the water emerging from beneath the bridge. Then he began to pick his nose. He picked his nose quite tenaciously for a couple of minutes, wiping his discoveries onto the bottom of the railing. Then, satisfied, he leaned on the railing once again. He cleared his throat and spat down into the dark water.

From across the river Hunter heard the sound of an approaching automobile. It rolled onto the bridge, accelerated, and came rumbling their way.

The soldier must have heard the automobile coming, too, but for a moment he continued to watch the river. Then, suddenly, he bolted upright and stared in the car's direction. Then, just as suddenly, he whirled and dashed toward his scooter.

When he reached it he began to push it urgently toward the end of the bridge. He had almost made it to the end when the car raced past and its front tire heaved a sheet of water into the air that drenched him and his scooter.

He shouted furious Vietnamese at the receding vehicle. When it was out of sight, he muttered angry Vietnamese to himself. He removed his helmet and wiped his dripping face and neck. Then he turned his attention to his scooter. He slipped his helmet over the left handle-bar, letting it dangle by the strap, then he climbed on, arranging his poncho so he could sit without getting the seat of his pants wet. He tried kick-starting the scooter half a dozen times. It was no use.

Still muttering, he got up off the scooter and kicked it twice with the side of his foot. Then he pushed it across the road into the other lane and turned back in the direction from which he had first appeared. The darkness and the bridge gradually obscured him as he pushed the scooter back to the guard station.

Hunter had just lost sight of him on the middle of the bridge when he heard a roaring whine from somewhere on the highway. Seconds later a two-and-a-half ton truck rolled into view from his right and thundered onto the bridge, heaving sheets of water with every puddle it hit. He listened. Just before the vehicle reached the other end of the bridge, the horn honked. Above the rumble of the truck, above the churning water in the river, he could hear a torrent of Vietnamese invective.

They sat in the mud and waited. Two more vehicles passed by in the next half hour. Then they heard the soft sputter of another scooter slowing down. This one came from the highway, not from the bridge. They got to their knees and looked.

Some of the sky had cleared, and there was a hint of pale moonlight that allowed them to see some detail. The rider was Vietnamese, and he was wearing a poncho, but he had no helmet. They watched him get off the scooter perhaps a hundred feet away from the bridge and walk beside it silently for twenty steps and then push it onto the muddy roadside. He fumbled with something that created a bulge under his poncho. He kept looking nervously down the road in both directions. He pushed the scooter farther off the road, propped it against a bush, and then strode quickly toward the bridge.

In his haste he slipped and fell. The bag he carried beneath his poncho dropped free and some of its contents tumbled out into the mud. He pounced on them immediately, feverishly shoving them back inside the bag, watching both directions along the road as he did.

Then he got up and disappeared behind the far side of the bridge, behind the railroad tracks.

Bryce tugged at his pistol until it reluctantly came out of the swollen holster. "Follow me," he whispered. On his third step he slipped and fell to one knee. "Shit," he whispered.

"Lieutenant," Hunter whispered.


"Let's be cautious, all right? This guy is for real."

"It goes without saying," Bryce said, placing his feet gingerly in the mud.

They stalked through the shrubbery to the edge of the bridge. Bryce braced himself with one hand against the concrete structure as he made his way down the muddy slope toward the river. Halfway down he slipped again. "Shit," he whispered.

"Lieutenant," Hunter whispered.


"Why not take off your shoes? You'd have better traction."

"Don't worry about it, Hunter. I'm trying to concentrate."

At the base of the retaining wall, Bryce squatted down with his back to the concrete and prepared to peek around the corner. He swiped a forefinger across his lenses. "Goddam glasses," he whispered. Then he leaned to have a look.

He jerked his head back. "Sonuvabitch."

"What's going on?"

"He's taking explosives and fuse out of his bag. He is a sapper. He's an honest-to-God, card-carrying Viet Cong. She was right. He's going to blow up this frigging bridge—he really is. And we're the only ones who can stop him now. It's all here, Hunter. Everything's perfect. All we have to do is go out there and––" He jerked his head back from another quick glance, eyes wide open. "Holy shit!"


He was holding his breath. "I think he saw me."

"Does he have a gun?"

"I don't know. I can't see without looking."

"He may be coming toward us."

"––or else sneaking around to catch us from behind."

"Or maybe he didn't really see you."

"He did."

"But your glasses are dripping wet."

"I know, I know."

"Are you sure he saw you?"

"I'm sure, I'm sure," he said, but his voice was now uncertain. He held up his pistol. "I'm going to have to look again. Be ready." He glanced down, alarmed. "Hunter––where's your gun?"

Hunter, startled, shoved his hand down into the wet pocket of his trousers and struggled to pull the twenty-two up through the swollen, clinging fabric. By the time he finally extricated the empty weapon and waved it in front of him, he felt thoroughly ridiculous.

It began to drizzle again.

"Listen," Bryce whispered. "If it's reasonably clear, I'll get out there and take charge of the situation. You can stay near the corner here. Just be sure he sees your pistol."

"What if he takes charge of the situation?"

Bryce thought for a moment. "Then improvise."

Bryce pressed close to the wall again and cautiously leaned his head out beyond the corner. "My God!"


"He's already placed the charge up under the bridge and he's lighting the fuse!"

Bryce jumped out into the open. "Hold it, Charlie! Hold it right there!"

The Viet Cong was a man in his early twenties wearing a long-sleeved green fatigue shirt, dark-colored short pants, and high-topped sports sneakers. Startled by Bryce's sudden appearance when he thought he was alone, he twisted toward them with a cigarette lighter in his hand. But the fuse had already ignited. Hunter saw it spitting fire in the darkness under the bridge.

The VC lunged toward the bag which rested on top of his poncho a few steps down the incline. Hunter knew he must have a weapon in it. Bryce, fixated on the burning fuse, didn't react immediately.

"He's going for a gun!" Hunter rushed toward Bryce to prod him into action.

They remained kneeling there, the VC and Bryce, pistols pointed at each other, neither one having the conviction––or perhaps presence of mind––to fire, both distracted by the imperative sputter of the burning fuse.

Hunter, as an afterthought, brought his own pistol up and pointed it at the VC.

In the erratic light from the fuse, Hunter noticed a bewildered expression on the VC's face. He was squinting at his own pistol. He angled the barrel slightly to one side in order to see something more clearly.

There was just enough light for Hunter to see it, too. A few blades of grass were sticking forlornly out of the barrel. The pistol must have been dropped into the mud when the VC stumbled beside the road. Bryce saw it, too, and gave out a high, quick laugh.

The Viet Cong glanced at the fuse hissing and flickering in the darkness under the bridge and suddenly, ignoring the two pistols aimed at him, he dropped his own pistol and scrambled backward in panic.

"You sonuvabitch," Bryce said. He aimed and squeezed the trigger.

It clicked … then clicked again.

"Shit! It's too wet!"

Bryce glanced at the fuse. "Run for it!" Without thinking, he started after the Viet Cong, toward the other side of the bridge, even though it was the longer route to the top.

Hunter turned to run the shortest way and stopped.

He hadn't noticed it before, but now he could hear it very clearly––the rumble of an approaching train.

He glanced up at the burning fuse, thirty or forty feet away. He shifted the pistol to his left hand and raced diagonally up the incline under the bridge toward the explosives. As he got closer, he could see that the spark was only inches from the charge. He leaped forward and reached out—

The flame flickered to black.

He rocked back into a sitting position and smiled.

He got up without touching anything and walked down the incline toward the other side of the bridge.

Just before the train came thundering overhead, he caught the sounds of shouting. When he reached the far side of the bridge, he looked up the rain-slicked slope and saw Bryce and the Vietnamese––both coated in mud––slipping, sliding and tumbling in their helter-skelter panic to reach the top.

When Bryce finally came near enough to grab the VC's pants leg, the Vietnamese began kicking furiously to get free and they ended up grappling and, doggedly clinging to each other, lost their balance and skidded several steps back down the slope as the last cars of the train rumbled off the bridge. Now returned almost to the base of the slope, they kept struggling to get a grip on their slippery opponent until, almost at the same moment, they noticed Hunter standing over them with the pistol.


"Yes?" said the one on the bottom.

Hunter pointed the gun at the one on top.

"The fuse!" Bryce cried.

"It's handled," Hunter said.

"You put it out?"

"Didn't need to. Our friend didn't connect it to the explosives very well. It burned out on the ground."

"You're kidding. What a dimwit."

Bryce slithered out from under the Vietnamese and stood up. His glasses had been lost somewhere on the slope. He raked his fingertips across his eyes to scoop the mud away. Two round white patches showed up against the grimy face.

"Why don't you wash off in the river, lieutenant? You wouldn't want to bring in a prisoner looking like that."

"Good thinking."

Bryce walked into the river fully clothed and washed away most of the mud. He came out recognizable as a dirty version of the man Hunter had met in front of the Majestic Hotel, but without his glasses.

"How about him?" Hunter asked.

"He's fine," Bryce said. "It'll make a better impression when we walk up to the guard post." Bryce took the empty pistol from Hunter's hand. "Uh, listen. Would you mind looking for my glasses? I lost them in the struggle. I'll take our friend here across the bridge to the guard post and start giving them a report."

Hunter looked at him.

The lieutenant at last had no alternative and returned his gaze. "Don't forget, my intelligence was responsible for all of this." Then, finally, "It's important to me, Gordon. I won't forget to mention what a key part you played, but I'd like to be the one who takes him in. Do you mind?"

"If it's that important, sir, go ahead."

"Thanks. Don't worry, there'll be a medal in it for you, too." He waved the pistol at the VC. "You––up!"

Bryce directed the VC to the concrete wall. Using it for support, they worked their way up the slippery incline.

Hunter waited until they were approaching the top, then he started peering at the dark wall of mud for the lieutenant's glasses. The moon was still mostly hidden by the thick clouds, but he thought, if he were lucky, that one of the lenses or the wire frame might catch some of the feeble light. He stood at the base of the slope, wondering how far up in the mud he might have to climb.

He heard scuffling in the darkness at the top.


Grunts. A thud and a groan. Then a body came sailing out, arms flailing. The body slapped into the mud, head down, face up, and skidded down the steep slope like a limp sled. It came to a stop near the bottom.

Hunter stared at Bryce's upside-down expression of humiliation.

Somewhere above the top of the slope, in the darkness, the scooter's engine kick-started, then revved up.

Bryce made no move to get up, and no sound, other than a simple, resigned, "Shit."

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