Anthony "Buzz" Basilio is an intelligence analyst working on Vietnam POW/MIA issues in the mid -1980s. Many believe there are Americans still alive in Vietnam and the pressure is on to find them, but Buzz doesn't believe it. In his zeal to prove the issue is a scam orchestrated by Hanoi to blackmail the US, he makes more than a few enemies, and meets a beautiful girl whose father is one of them--and wants Buzz eliminated. His quest takes him back to Southeast Asia, first in Bangkok where he meets a mysterious man who claims to know where live POWs are being held in North Vietnam. Although skeptical, he decides to check it out and ends up a prisoner himself in the Hoa Lo prison - the famous “Hanoi Hilton!” A real “page turner” with a great twist of an ending and written by an author (a Vietnam vet himself) with direct experience with the POW/MIA issues.
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It sometimes takes a few moments for a man to realize that he's done something extraordinary. Especially when it's extraordinarily wrong.
Buzz looked down at the dead Vietnamese, then at the gun in his hand, then at Tran, and finally back to Cao. "It -- it went off, I didn't shoot him!"
Tran moved toward him menacingly. "You stupid fool. Are you satisfied now? You are a murderer as well as a liar."
Tran started to reach for the gun, but Buzz acted almost on impulse. "Not so fast, asshole." He pointed the gun right at Tran.
The Vietnamese stopped short, staring down the barrel of the automatic. "Oh, you are going to kill me too?"
"Maybe. Sit down." Tran walked around his desk and did what he was told. Buzz sat in the chair he had occupied prior to the incident. The two sat facing each other once again, only now Cao Vien's body occupied a part of the floor a few feet behind Buzz, who laid the gun down on the desk.
Buzz slowly regained his composure as he stared at Tran. Regardless of what had happened to Cao, he now had Tran at his mercy, and the situation presented Buzz with a fantastic opportunity. He could take advantage of it, or submit to the natural urge to get the hell out of there. As Tran stared back at him, Buzz made a decision. Calmly, he pulled out two cigars. "Want one?"
"Are you crazy?"
"Suit yourself." Buzz chewed off a small part of the end of the cigar and spat it out on Tran's floor. While his "host" watched with incredulity, Buzz took out a box of matches and lit the cigar. Inside, he was shaken up in spite of his attempt at bravado. Even in Vietnam, he had never killed a man. Hell, he wasn't even sure he had killed one now. But he had to remain cool, at least for a few more minutes. All the marbles were up for grabs.
As Buzz shook the match out and puffed on the cigar, Tran reached over the desk for the pistol. Buzz shoved the lit end of the cigar into Tran's reaching forearm. The Vietnamese hissed with pain and sat back into the chair.
"You try that again and you'll join your buddy over there, okay? You almost made my cigar go out."
Tran surveyed Buzz, wondering if he hadn't under-estimated his foe. "Mr. Basilio, who are you really working for, the CIA?"
Buzz laughed, albeit nervously. "Me? I'm just a staffer on Capitol Hill, that's all. The question, Tran, is who are you working for?"
Tran remained silent. Buzz leaned forward and stared into those cold, black eyes. "Look, bastard. You know as well as I do that gun went off by accident."
Tran's eyes narrowed until they became slits, staring out of a face filled with hatred. "You killed him, Basilio, and I am going to call the police."
"No, you're not, and you know it."
"Why, pray tell?"
"Because you can't afford to. You call the cops and your whole operation is finished here. I'll bet that whatever you're up to couldn't stand the scrutiny of a police investigation."
"Hah! It is my word against yours."
"Bullshit! The Pentagon has a file full of goodies on
your dead friend over there. They know he was working for Hanoi, and my boss knows you've been talking to them. It's not hard to put two and two together. Shit, I might get a manslaughter charge, but, hey, I work for a congressman. But you, you're out of business."
Buzz wondered what would really happen even as he confidently said the words. Tran merely stared at him while Buzz sat, hoping all the while that his adversary was duly impressed by the "power" of a congressman.
A few long moments went by, with Tran staring at Buzz, and Buzz staring back. The gun sat on the desk a few inches from Buzz's right hand. Cao Vien still lay near the corner, now in a widening pool of blood. Buzz waited until he could stand it no longer. His nerves were beginning to go.
Finally Tran spoke up. "What is it you want?"
"Simple. Get rid of Cao -- and shut your mouth."
"I see. I do not tell about you, and you do not tell about me, is that it?"
"For the time being."
"I thought you were, shall we say, 'protected'."
"Sure, but who needs an investigation and a trial, you know?"
"Let me understand this. If I 'get rid of Cao' as you put it, you will keep your nose out of my business?"
"Yeah, that's about it. Except for one thing." Buzz pulled out a microcassette recorder from his pocket and placed it on the desk. "Now, let's see what your business is, shall we?"
Tran was nearly as surprised as he was when the gun went off. "Do you really expect me to say anything into that?"
Buzz picked up the gun and pointed it at Tran. "Yes."
Tran started to rise from his chair.
Buzz cocked the hammer on the automatic. Tran stared into his eyes, trying to discern just how far he would go. He quickly thought over the situation and just as quickly decided that Buzz had little to lose at this point. He sat back down.
Buzz turned on the tape recorder.
Some thirty minutes later, Buzz shut off the recorder and pocketed it. "Well, my friend, that is an interesting story. You have confirmed everything that I've suspected for many years. I would imagine a few people would like to hear the contents of this tape."
Tran stood up. "What do you intend to do with that?"
Buzz also stood, still holding the gun on Tran. "Oh, don't worry. This'll go on ice for a while. Now, I strongly suggest you do away with former friend there, and then I'd say you should pay attention to running your little newspaper and forget about the 'POW's' in Vietnam for the time being."
"Mr. Basilio, how long do you expect this -- arrangement to last?"
Buzz took a last puff on the cigar and put it out on Tran's desk. "Well, you've got the body and I've got the tape. I'll be satisfied if you keep your nose out of my business and, presumably, you'll be satisfied if the government doesn't put you out of yours. Your legitimate business, that is. Now I think this little interview is over, don't you? It's been fun."
Buzz walked toward the door. Tran followed him into the antechamber, where Buzz turned to face him. He gestured with Cao's pistol. "I'll keep this for a souvenir, by the way. Oh, one other thing. I'm going to tell certain parties about your little, uh, 'party line' to Hanoi. Just so you don't try to tell the boys back home what's happening, okay?"
Tran moved toward him angrily. "The deal is to say nothing! I have the body, remember?"
The headiness of making his enemy squirm still filled Buzz with bravado, making him do things he didn't know he had the guts to do. Calmly, he pressed the pistol against the left side of Tran's head and spoke quietly. "Then, show the body to the cops and we'll each tell our stories and let the chips fall where they may. Okay, asshole?"
Tran's eyes opened wide but he said nothing as Buzz lowered the weapon. The barrel of the pistol left a small, round impression on the skin on Tran's left forehead. Buzz glared at him for a second, and walked out the door. Tran remained motionless as Buzz negotiated the stairs and went out to the street. When he heard the outer door close, he turned, reentered the office, once more taking in the sight of the dead Cao Vien. Tran was always a good Communist and an able servant of the Revolution. An educated and resourceful man, he had never been in a situation whereupon he did not know precisely what to do. Until now.
Buzz walked down the almost deserted street to his car. Once inside, he took the gun and placed it in the glove compartment. Did anyone hear the shot? he wondered as he started the engine. No one had come during his talk with Tran, however, and nothing seemed amiss now. He drove slowly, turning into a side street, and then on to Wilson Boulevard, heading out of Little Saigon. He drove into a "Dunkin' Donuts" coffee shop, and ordered a coffee from the drive-in window. A Vietnamese girl handed it to him and took the money. Buzz stared at her for a moment, seemingly mesmerized.
"No. Thanks." He drove around to the back of the lot, turned off the motor, and took in his surroundings. No cops. He removed the top from the coffee cup and started to drink. The adrenaline generated by his triumph over Tran slowly evolved into anxiety. And fear. The image of Cao Vien on the floor was burned into his mind. Still, he thought, he couldn't have shot the guy. He tried to remember what had happened. Cao aiming the gun at him, Tran trying to stop him, his own struggle with Cao, each with a hand on the gun. A shot . . . and the gun in his own hand.
"Jesus Christ." He finished the coffee and tossed the cup onto the floor. He pulled out the small tape recorder, rewound the tape somewhat, and listened to a portion. Just to be sure he had what he had.
"And no prisoners, still alive?"
"No. Oh, there are a few Americans there, but nothing like some people would like to believe."
"I do not know. Five, maybe six. They did not want to come back, at least not at first. But they are useful."
"In what way?"
"Every now and then one will be released. Like Mr.
"What about remains, Tran?"
"You know where, Mister Basilio. A certain traitor told you that."
Buzz put the recorder back into his pocket. He thought about a report of a couple of years back in which a Vietnamese defector told of seeing remains of hundreds of Americans in a warehouse in Hanoi. He started the engine, still thinking about the warehouse full of bones. A police car pulled into the lot, parking two spaces away from Buzz and an officer got out and glanced at him. For one long, agonizing moment Buzz wondered if Tran had reneged on the "deal". The cop walked past his car and went into the "Dunkin' Donuts". Buzz sighed with relief, and pulled out into the street.
Eventually, he found himself in front of his apartment
building. He drove into the garage, parked the car, and walked toward the elevator. He was almost at his door when he turned around and headed back toward the elevator. He was not yet ready to tell anyone what had happened.
Back in Little Saigon, Tran got off one more message to his friends in Hanoi. He gambled that Buzz wouldn't be able to turn off his pipeline in time to tell the "Perfect Fire" what had happened and why he wouldn't be heard from for awhile. He was right.
Fred Baxter had just returned from a late session on the House floor when he ran into a nervous George Collins.
"Hi, George, what are you still doing here?"
"Just some paperwork. Have you heard from Buzz?"
"Li just called. It's almost ten and he hasn't shown up yet."
"You mean he hasn't been home tonight?"
"Right. He left here before five to go see . . ."
His eyes opened wide as the realization hit him. "Oh, wow!"
Baxter's face turned ashen. "He went to talk to Tran."
Collins' face took on a quizzical look. "You don't suppose there was trouble, do you?"
"I don't know, but we better play it safe and check it out. Hopefully he stopped off for a beer and forgot the time." Baxter started walking quickly toward his office. "Come on."
At Buzz's apartment, a worried and frightened Li waited by the phone until she heard a knock at the door. She hurried to answer it, only to find George Collins and Fred Baxter who quickly introduced themselves. She had no news for them and vice versa.
Baxter went to the phone. "Li, keep quiet for a minute, I'm gonna call your father."
Baxter threw up his hands. “I want to see what he knows
about Buzz. You do know that Buzz went to see him, don't you?"
Her eyes opened wide. "No! I did not know that."
"Well, he went to ask him a few questions. Strictly routine stuff." He cursed to himself. Why didn't that guy tell Li? He fumbled through an address book and punched the numbers on the phone. "Maybe he's still at the office . . . hello? Mister Tran?"
The voice of Tran Van Lam came through. "Yes?" he said, abruptly, impatiently.
"Well, I see you're a night owl too. Mister Tran, this is Congressman Fred Baxter. I'll get right to the point. A
staffer of mine named Buzz Basilio was supposed to talk to you tonight. Have you seen him?"
A pause. "Uh, oh yes. Basilio came here earlier this evening. Is there a problem?"
"Well, no. He hasn't shown up at home yet and I need to get in touch with him. I, uh, trust the interview went well? I am sorry to have inconvenienced you, but as you know, Buzz can be quite insis --"
Tran interrupted. "The interview was fine. I'm sorry, but I have to go now. It is late."
"Sure, Mister Tran, but one more thing. What time did
Buzz leave, do you happen to remember?" He threw a glance at Li who stood silently a few steps away.
"I believe he left around seven o'clock. Will that be all?"
"Yes, that's all. Thank you very much, Mis --"
Baxter eyed the phone for a moment and hung up. "Screw you too, buddy." He turned to Li and George. "He says he was there but he left around seven."
"Is that it?" Collins asked.
"Yeah. He just said 'the interview was fine' and that's
that. Li, I'm sure he's probably just having a drink. Maybe he found something out and he's celebrating. You know Buzz."
Li seemed unconvinced. "I suppose so. Maybe I am worrying too much. I'm sorry I caused you gentlemen such trouble."
Baxter touched her arm. "No trouble, Li." He winked at Collins. "Besides, I'll make Buzz work late some night like we usually do and that'll make up for it. I'll fix his butt tomorrow."
"No you won't," said Collins.
"Tomorrow's the Fourth of July. I don't know about you, but I've got the day off."
"Oh, yeah." He thought for a second. "Li, holiday or not, I'll be at the office tomorrow for at least part of the day. Have Buzz call me, okay?"
"Great. Come on, George." They said their good-byes and each assured Li that Buzz was all right. Li closed the door behind them and then went to the window, staring at the world outside. She felt alone. And worried.
On the elevator down, Baxter turned and faced his staffer. "George, I didn't want to say anything in front of Li, but
something's not right here."
"I can't put my finger on it, but Tran seemed. . . cagey. And he was nervous, that's for sure."
"Yeah, but who wouldn't be? How many people get visited by a congressional staffer in the early evening and then get a late night call from the congressman himself who's trying to find the staffer?"
The door opened to the building's lobby and they walked out. "Good point, George. Still, my Texas intuition tells me that boy's in some deep dung. By the way, didn't you tell Li where Buzz was supposed to be when she called you?"
"No, I didn't say anything. I assumed she knew."
"Apparently Buzz didn't tell her either." He shook his head.
Collins shrugged. "Boss, maybe Buzz didn't want her to try and talk him out of it."
Baxter cocked his head. "Maybe. I'll tell you this much, I can't wait to hear his story."
"Yeah, me neither." The two left the building.
Twenty four hours passed since Buzz had visited Tran. Li padded nervously about the apartment, occasionally staring out
the window. It was still light outside as she watched the cars slowly make their way through the street nine floors below. The Washington rush hour was replaced this evening by thousands of cars vying for good spots to view the fireworks. She hoped Buzz was out there somewhere, caught in traffic. On his way home from wherever.
She had eaten little since the day before, and had talked only to Baxter and Collins. She had nowhere to go, and no way to get there. Only the welfare of Buzz mattered now. Like a mother waiting up for an overdue son, Li's mind was filled with the worst possibilities. She had felt better after hearing Tran's story that Buzz had visited him and left the night before. She felt worse, however, when she realized her father was perfectly capable of lying.
Li was sitting in Buzz's favorite chair, almost curled up in the fetal position, when she heard the key turned in the lock. She jumped up and was halfway to the door when Buzz walked in, looking as though he hadn't slept in two days. His eyes were bloodshot, and he needed a shave.
"Oh, Buzz, my darling!"
Buzz caught her as she almost leapt into his arms. "Hello, Li. I hope you weren't worried."
"Of course I was! Where were you?"
He gently pulled himself away from her. "I need to get out of these clothes and get cleaned up, Li."
She looked anxiously after him as he walked toward the bedroom. "Buzz . . ."
He kept walking. She followed him in the room. "Buzz, what is happening? Why did you not come home last night?"
Buzz started removing his clothes. "Li, I needed to think, that's all. I needed some time to be alone with my thoughts and work things out."
"Well, where did you sleep?"
"I stayed at a hotel. I bought myself dinner, had a few drinks, and went to bed. In fact, I went to bed drunk." Buzz thought of the drive aimlessly around the Washington beltway, that fifty-plus miles of congested, monotonous highway which circled the Capital, talking to himself. Then, the cheap hotel on Arlington Boulevard and the bottle of wine. As if that would make things any better. He finished undressing as the depressing memories played out in his mind, finally lying on the bed in his underwear. "I got up late this morning and drove around all day. Jesus, I feel lousy."
Li sat on the bed next to him. Her demeanor changed somewhat as her concern over his well being gave way to a bit of anger over his leaving her alone. "Anthony Basilio, I have, how do you put it, a bone to pick with you."
Buzz lifted his eyes to meet hers. "What's that?"
"You left me in this apartment for two days, you did not call, and I had no one to talk to. I have not eaten since yesterday, and I have been worried sick. This is not fair, don't you agree?"
"Yeah, you're right. Li, listen, I'm sorry about that. But I had a, uh, traumatic experience, shall we say."
"Trau . . . what is that?"
"Traumatic. It means something that affects you in a big way. Really screws you up."
"Is it something to do with my father?"
"How'd you know that?"
"It is not hard to guess. Besides, your congressman and his friend came here. They told me you went to see him."
Buzz thought about Baxter. Surely he must be wondering what the hell was happening. "Why did they come here? Today's a holiday, I don't have to be at work."
"I called them last night because I was getting very nervous. They came here and called my father."
Buzz sat up and moved next to her. "They called your father?"
"Yes. They said you had visited my father last night, so
Mister Baxter called him and he was still at the office."
Buzz raised his eyebrows. "Oh? And what did he have to say?"
"Nothing much. He told them you had been there for a short time, and then you left."
Buzz stared at the floor.
"What is it, Li?"
"Why didn't you tell me you were going to see my father?"
He sighed. "I didn't want you to worry. And, frankly, I didn't want you to try an talk me out of it." Might as well be honest.
"But what made you go there in the first place?"
"Li, I talked it over with Fred and we decided to hit him with a few questions, that's all."
"So. What happened between you and my father?"
For all his affection for Li, Buzz Basilio he still didn't know how much to tell her. The warnings of Jack Hopkins and Fred Baxter were fresh in his mind. No, some things should be kept secret for now. He decided not to tell her about the unfortunate Cao Vien. "Li, I -- I had an argument with your father. In fact we almost came to blows. Almost, but not quite. Anyway, it ended with him telling me everything."
It was Li's turn to contemplate the floor. She almost did not want to know what "everything" was. Whatever else
he was, Tran was still her father. After a moment of silence, she said softly, "What did he tell you, Buzz?"
Buzz took a deep breath. He could imagine what she was going through. "Li, this is not going to be easy for you to hear."
"I am ready. Tell me." She continued to keep her eyes down.
"Well, I was right, Li. Your father is working for Communist Vietnam. He's involved in some sort of fantastic scheme to convince us there are live American POWs over there. The whole thing is apparently being run right from Hanoi."
She closed her eyes. For a long moment, she said nothing. For his part, Buzz could do nothing but put his arm around her and mouth a weak "I'm sorry."
Finally, she asked quietly "Buzz, why would my father tell you that?"
Good question, he thought. "I guess when I confronted him with the facts he figured he should come clean. I've got
the whole thing on tape, by the way." He was sorry as soon as he said it.
"May I hear it?" She seemed unconvinced by his story.
"No, not tonight, Li. I think you shouldn't hear this
just yet. Let's let this settle for a while, okay?"
"As you wish. But why did you not come home? What was so -- so, what was it? Dramatic?"
Buzz smiled. "Traumatic. I don't know, I guess it was just the realization that I was right after all I've been through." He hoped he sounded convincing.
Li started to question him some more, but he interrupted. "Li, let's get something to eat, okay? I'm hungry, and I know you must be too."
She agreed, and she fixed up a simple meal from odds and ends in the refrigerator. Most of the meal was eaten in silence. "Li, if there was food in the refrigerator, why didn't you eat since yesterday?"
"I could not eat. I was too worried. Do you understand?"
Buzz nodded. "Yes, I understand, and I'm very sorry."
Come on, leave this. Let's go to bed."
Li got ready for bed while Buzz stared out the window, holding a glass of wine.
"Buzz?" He turned around to see her standing naked.
Ordinarily this would have quickened his pulse dramatically, but now the things on his mind precluded even thoughts of making love.
"Li, you look incredible as usual, but let's just go to sleep, okay? I'm beat, and I've got a big day tomorrow."
Li acted hurt. "I no longer please you? Or is it all that wine you drank tonight?" She pointed to the nearly empty glass in his hand.
Buzz thought about the bottle of wine he had opened, most of which he had consumed. "Li, you please me just fine. It's not you at all, I'm just screwed up, that's all. And, yeah, I'm a little drunk. Again."
She came over to him, took the glass and put it down. Taking him by the hand, she led him out of the room. "Buzz, maybe you drink too much."
Ouch. "I know it seems like that, doesn't it? But I really don't. Lately, though, I seem to need a bit of the grape. I guess I'm having trouble coping with all
this -- activity." An understatement, he thought.
She did not reply, but continued to hold his hand as they entered the bedroom. Once inside, she helped him undress and then they both lay on the bed with the lights out. After a
bit, Li decided she needed him in spite of his mental state. She began caressing him gently, and then she started kissing him, making no secrets about her desires.
Buzz began to get aroused in spite of his weariness, and started to respond. It only took a few minutes for him to realize the futility of the situation, and he rolled off her. "I'm sorry, Li. I can't. I just can't." His courage had been only the first thing he was unable to get up this day.
Li sat up in the bed. "Buzz, there is something you are not telling me. You disappeared for a whole day, and then came home looking terrible. You say you got drunk last night, and you drank heavily tonight. You cannot even make love to me. All this from talking to my father? And from finding out you were right? I would think you would be happy. Or at least relieved. But you are terribly distraught! I do not understand." Her eyes were moist.
Buzz propped himself up on his elbows. He was still not entirely in control of his emotions. "Li, I am truly sorry. I simply can't tell you everything now. Please, just trust me, okay? It's important to me."
"But what is it you cannot tell me? Is my father okay? You said you had a fight . . ."
He shook his head. "No, no. He's fine. I said we almost
had a fight." He sat up and held his head in his hands. "Li, I have to speak to Fred Baxter tomorrow and play that tape for him. See what he says. Things are happening fast. Once I sort it all out, I'll tell you everything. I promise."
But Li was still worried. The two lay down and Buzz held her. "Please, just trust me. Everything's okay."
"I trust you Buzz. Now go to sleep, my darling."
As the two tried to sleep, the dull thud of fireworks shooting up the night sky could be heard outside. Then the loud bang as the charge went off. The celebration had begun.
Li sat up. "Oh, I forgot it's the Fourth of July. Can we watch?"
"Yeah, why not?" Buzz started to get his bathrobe but
thought better of it. They walked to the living room window which faced the Potomac River and the two stood naked watching the fireworks near the Washington Monument.
The muffled sounds reminded Buzz of the crump of mortars being fired back in Nam. You never knew where they would land, or if the projectile had your name on it.
A flash of crimson, blue, and white silhouetted Li as she stood in front of him in the darkened room. Suddenly, he spun her about and pulled her close to his chest.
She smiled. "Why, Buzz!"
"Don't say a word. Just hold me. Hold me and don't let go."
She gazed into his eyes for a moment, seeing the reflections of the colored lights in the sky, and then she lay her head on his shoulder. The two stood there, embracing in front of the window as the world outside celebrated. To the crowd the fireworks sounded like the bombs bursting in air. To Buzz, they sounded like shots. From a pistol.