to the VF-97 Ready Room. Chuck “Slick” Connelly had the Alert Fifteen

and was using his time in the ready room to go over his rosters for the

next day.

“Hello, Slick.”

VF-97’s Executive Officer looked up from the paperwork on his desk.

“Tombstone! How’s it hanging’?”

“Fine. Mind if I come in?”

“Grab a chair. Java’s hot.”

“Thanks.” Tombstone helped himself to the Ready Room’s coffee mess.

Lieutenant Commander Connelly had not been formally named skipper of the

War Eagles yet, but as the squadron’s XO he’d been running VF-97 since

CAG had grounded Bayerly a week before.

“So the Doc gave you a clean bill of health,” Connelly said. “Glad to

hear it.”

“Me too.” He sipped the strong, black coffee to cover what he was

feeling. Both he and Batman had nearly been down-checked by Jefferson’s

senior flight surgeon. Batman because of his three-day bout in the

jungle, Tombstone because of what the doctor had termed “possible

psychological trauma.” Tombstone had suffered no serious physical

injury, but there was still a very real chance that he’d suffered mental

damage, something that might not reveal itself until he was again put

under stress.

Stress such as what he might endure during a dogfight in the seat of his


Well, sure. Go after a guy with a cattle prod and he was going to show

definite signs of stress. But the cure wasn’t to leave him at home when

he had a chance of striking back. The burns still hurt, especially on

his underarms, stomach, and groin where his flight suit chafed, but they

wouldn’t stop him from flying.

He was going on this mission. He owed it to Pamela.

And to Bayerly.

He’d argued the point with the doctor, demanding at last that CAG be

brought into it. It had taken some doing, but in the end, and at CAG’s

urging, the doctor had agreed.

Batman would be flying today too. Malibu Blake had a down chit, of

course, and would be in sick bay for another few days with his sprained

ankle, but the rest of them would be going. Tombstone checked his

watch. In less than four hours now.

“Look. Slick …” Tombstone hesitated, unsure how to proceed. “About

the assignments for today …”

Connelly grinned. “Don’t sweat it, hotdog. Sure, I’m jealous as hell

… but no hard feelings. You’ve been point on an alpha strike before.

That’s probably why they picked you.”

Tombstone chuckled. “Well, they didn’t choose me for my boyish good

looks.” He tried to make a joke of it. “I figure my uncle has it in

for me, is all.”

The final details for Bright Lightning had been posted only that


VF-95 would be leading the way into U Feng, supporting the That air

group called Trapdoor. VF-97 would fly CAP over the Jefferson … just

as they had at Wonsan.

Once, Tombstone would have been upset at that. He wasn’t certain what

had changed. Possibly, he reasoned, he had a more realistic image of

himself since his capture and escape. If there was anything special

about him, it wasn’t who he was related to.

And Slick’s reaction told him that the other men in the air wing weren’t

holding his relatives against him either. At this point, though, what

the other people thought didn’t concern Tombstone. He was going on the

mission, and that was all that mattered.

That, and the fact that Hsiao still held Pamela and Bayerly out there


He would lead the Vipers to U Feng. But God help Hsiao if Tombstone

ever met with that bastard again.

0430 hours, 21 January

Americana Hotel, Bangkok

The 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) of the Royal That Army was

organized along the same lines as the American Green Berets, concerned

primarily with anti-guerrilla ops, intelligence gathering, and missions

behind the lines. They trained extensively with their American

counterparts, as well as with the elite troops of other nations. Though

they normally wore two-piece jungle camouflage uniforms in the field,

for special operations they wore the all-black combat suits and

balaclavas of other elite units.

The men who rappelled from the hovering That UH-1s, then, were almost

invisible against the night. They dropped from the helos in teams of

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Categories: Keith Douglass