Steve Stilwell’s former Navy JAG Corps buddy Ric Stokes has been jailed for possession of heroin in Vietnam. He was found in the same room with his traveling companion Ryan Eversall, who died of an overdose in the company of a prostitute. Steve knows his friend is a straight arrow. Was he set up? If so, for what reason? Steve travels to Ho Chi Minh City in search of the truth.
In no time Steve is targeted by the people who framed his friend. A beautiful young American businesswoman insinuates her way into the case. Can she really help, or is she just a dangerous distraction? Ric and Ryan came to Vietnam in search of an Air Force transport plane that disappeared in 1968. The pilot was Ryan’s father. Before the heroin bust, they had located the wreckage. Ryan’s notebook, which Steve manages to obtain, spells out the exact location. Ryan’s widow has given Steve’s associate Casey another piece of valuable evidence, a file labeled “Sapphire Pavilion.” Someone is willing to go to any lengths to steal both the notebook and the file.
From Virginia and Texas to DC and Vietnam, powerful, all-seeing forces with unlimited resources are determined to bury the truth about Sapphire Pavilion. But they have grossly underestimated Steve Stilwell and his associate Casey, a former Army pilot who lost her leg in a helo accident. And the ability to inspire loyalty wherever you go can come in handy when danger lurks behind every corner.
Thursday, 18 January 1968–Ubon Air Base, Thailand
Two jet-black Cadillacs raced along the tarmac toward the hazy silhouette of an aircraft up ahead. Neither vehicle had its lights on; they didn’t need lights with the jungle moon casting its incandescent glow across the runway. They zoomed past the terminal and the apron where all the other aircraft nestled for the evening. Ignoring bold-lettered warning signs, they sped onto the ramp, chasing a giant C-130A “Hercules” transport lumbering to the point where it would turn onto the main runway and launch into the torrid air rising above the Thai airfield.
The C-130 paused before taxiing onto the runway, allowing the lead Cadillac to approach. It parked twenty-five feet behind the aircraft, perpendicular to the left wing. There were two figures in the front seat, one a fashionable strawberry blonde in her late twenties with flipped hair. Her lithe figure was perfectly complemented by her light cotton business suit. She opened her window to look at the other car, but the exhaust from the C-130’s roaring turbos was too much for the driver. He asked her to close her window and she did. She twisted backward, looking over her shoulder, gently pressing her cheek against the cool glass. It was too late and she knew it. What she had to tell him would have to wait until he returned.
The second Cadillac followed closely behind the first. It angled to the right of the plane until it was parallel to the wing. Only the driver was visible through the window in the front seat. When the vehicle stopped, a sturdy man in his late thirties emerged from the driver’s side rear door. He wore a dark business suit, starched white shirt, and a pencil-thin black tie. His non-regulation haircut branded him as a civilian. Hands occupied—he carried his hat in one hand and a briefcase in the other—he shoved the car door closed with his polished wingtip shoe. He walked toward the rear of the aircraft, the blast from the propellers forcing him to lean into the wind. His suit coat flapped so violently, it looked like it would rip from his body. Pausing at the base of the plane’s lowered cargo ramp, he glanced over at the first Cadillac.
She could see him looking in her direction. She started to open the car door but the driver reached over and held her arm, so she closed it. She wanted desperately to run to him, but it wasn’t to be. She had to let him go for now.
The man switched the briefcase to his left hand, which still clung to his hat. Then he smiled and waved to the woman. She waved back from inside the car, but had no idea whether he could see her. He walked briskly up the ramp, which lifted until it merged with the aircraft’s fuselage.
Her driver didn’t wait for the ramp to close all the way. He began a slow curve to the left to retrace his tracks toward the terminal building and beyond. The woman sank into her seat, staring out the front window. She hated unfinished business; that was just the way she was. As the two cars sped away, she swore to herself she would fix the situation as soon as he returned. She was already counting the days.
Same day—Thursday, 18 January 1968–Somewhere over Laos
“Hey Pikes, you still got the sealed orders?” asked Lieutenant Colonel Ray Eversall, his hand guiding the yoke of the C-130A cruising in the night sky over Laos.
“Nav’s got ’em, sir,” replied Captain John “Pikes” Peke, the plane’s copilot. Nav was short for navigator, another U.S. Air Force Captain working just behind the two pilots. A short but stocky Italian-American with jet-black hair and a Napoleon complex, Nav kept the crew entertained with his trooper’s vocabulary, having elevated profanity to an art form.
Eversall activated his mic with a press of a button. “Nav, you got the orders?”
“Yeah, I got ’em, Skipper, but I still say it’s bullshit we can’t open ’em till we get over the waypoint. Who the hell we gonna tell, anyway? I mean we’re flying a night mission in radio silence. What the hell?”
“You’ve flown enough spook missions to know how the game goes,” Eversall chided. “Besides, it gives us something to look forward to.”
“Yeah, Skipper, but usually the game doesn’t go like this. Nobody drives out to the runway to stop a take-off, let alone some stiff in a suit with Top Secret orders. And why can’t we open ’em until we’re flying over some godforsaken point in the middle of nowhere? That’s fubar, Skipper. I don’t care what anybody says.”
“Roger that, Nav,” Eversall replied, “but maybe that’s why they asked for volunteers to fly this mission. Besides, General Rollins didn’t think it was fubar. He thought I was fubar for balking at taking the passenger on board, and he radioed all the way from Japan to tell me. I’m just hoping I still have a job when we get back to Thailand.”
“I wouldn’t sweat it, Skipper,” Pikes said. “I mean, we did bring the guy onboard, we’ve got the orders in hand, and we’re back on schedule. The General got what he wanted.”
“I like the way you think,” Eversall replied, looking over at Pikes and smiling. “But I’m guessing the General may not see it that way. Generals get a little bent out of shape when you question their orders, and they all seem to have long memories.”
Pikes nodded and shrugged. As good as Pikes was, Eversall knew he still had plenty to learn about how things worked in the Air Force.
“I show us crossing into South Vietnam now,” Nav reported a few minutes later.
“I say we go ahead and open those orders, Skipper. That way, if we gotta make a course change, we can be ready to execute it as soon as we arrive. Besides,” Nav added, “who the hell’ll know if we open ’em a little early?”
Eversall turned around in his seat and winked at Nav. “I suppose I don’t see any problem with you bringing the envelope here so I’ll be ready to open it when we get to the waypoint.”
“You got it, Skipper,” Nav replied, grinning at his boss’s malleability. He handed the envelope to Eversall. It was the size of a normal sheet of paper, manila on one side and marked with two-inch diagonal orange stripes on the other. Block letters printed on the striped side said TOP SECRET—OPEN AT WAYPOINT. Nav rubbed his hands together like someone waiting for a choice slice of beef at a buffet line carving station.
“Skipper,” Pikes interrupted as he took control of the aircraft from the autopilot. “Looks like we’ve got some company coming from the north at ten o’clock. It’s moving pretty fast.”
Eversall rested the orders on his lap and leaned forward, squinting to get a better look. “Yeah, I see it. I don’t recall anyone briefing anything about an escort. Take it down to fifteen thousand feet at two hundred sixty knots and come right fifteen degrees just in case. Nav, be ready to get us back on course. I’ll get these orders open and see what they say. I’ll bet they indicate we get an escort for whatever it is we’re supposed to be doing.”
“Wilco, Skipper,” Pikes replied, tightening his grip on the yoke and pushing it forward to take the plane down to fifteen thousand feet. “It’s got to be a friendly. I can’t imagine an NV fighter being this close to the DMZ, let alone at night.”
Eversall knew Pikes was right. The North Vietnamese, or NV as the aircrew called them, rarely risked their fighters in night actions. Having an NV fighter stray all the way down to the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Vietnam was even more unheard of, so this had to be a U.S. fighter escort or a U.S. plane returning from a mission over North Vietnam. Still, Eversall wasn’t ready to concede the point. He wanted to see how the unidentified aircraft reacted to his own plane’s maneuvering.
“Four minutes to waypoint,” Nav shouted.
The loadmaster’s voice broke over the intercom. “Skipper, our guest would like to be up there with you when you open the orders. You want me to bring him up?”
“Not now,” Eversall barked, tearing open the Top-Secret envelope. “We’ve got an unidentified aircraft up here with us. Now’s not the time to play show and tell. Tell him I’ll talk to him later.”
“Copy all,” the loadmaster replied as the plane buffeted through turbulence on the way down to the target altitude.
Eversall blew into the envelope to make it easier to remove its contents. As he started to pull out the papers, which were covered with another orange TOP SECRET cover sheet, Pikes reported again.
“Skipper, our friend made a compensating course change and is heading toward us. Hard to tell the distance at night, but I estimate he’ll be on top of us in a little over a minute.”
“Okay, boys,” Eversall said as he folded back the Top-Secret cover sheet from the orders and started to scan them. “Nav, give Pikes a course change to put us right over the way … holy shit!” Eversall rarely swore unprovoked with real obscenities, so his word choice told everyone this was something big. “You’re not going to—”
“Missile inbound!” shrieked Pikes, not believing what he was seeing. “That bogey just launched on us!”
“I got it from here,” Eversall yelled, dropping the Top-Secret orders, which scattered on the flight deck floor. He grabbed the yoke and turned the plane hard to port to close the distance between it and the other aircraft. The head-on approach would help mask the exhaust from the engines in case the inbound missile was a heat-seeker.
The loadmaster hopped on the intercom again, his voice animated after Pikes’ missile broadcast. “Skipper, what should I do with the passenger? He won’t stand a chance if we get hit.”
“Get him in a parachute,” Eversall yelled, pissed at the distraction. He needed to focus his full attention on evading the attack.
“Missile just went over us by a hundred feet!” Pikes exclaimed, relief apparent in his voice. Sweat covered his face and his hands dripped perspiration onto the flight console. “Skipper, you want me to get on the radio to tell this guy we’re a friendly? He’s got to be one of us.”
“No,” Eversall said bluntly. “We’re under radio silence and still have a mission to complete. Plus, this guy sure isn’t acting like a friendly. He’s got to be a stray NV.”
“Radio silence doesn’t do us much good if we’re dead,” replied Pikes, pushing back on Eversall’s uncompromising adherence to orders. “Shit!” Now it was Pikes’ turn to swear. “Missile two inbound at two o’clock.”
“I’m taking us down to the deck,” Eversall exclaimed.
“There are mountains down there,” Nav warned. “Don’t go below nine thousand feet or the ground will get us even if the missiles don’t!”
Eversall said nothing. He turned the nose of the plane toward the incoming missile and put the plane into a dive.
“Brace for missile impact,” Pikes screamed into his microphone.
This time the missile didn’t miss. It slammed into the inboard engine on the right wing but miraculously didn’t explode. The supersonic missile was too much for the wing’s frame, though, and the impact sheared off the wing just beyond where the missile hit. The remaining two engines on the left wing continued to drive forward, but with the outboard engine and half the right wing gone, the plane started to spin toward the ground.
“Bail out, bail out,” Eversall commanded over the microphone. He looked to Pikes, knowing this would be the last time he’d see him this side of eternity. “Get the hell out of here, Pikes. I’ll call in our position and I’ll be right behind you.”
“You’ll need my help holding her together,” Pikes yelled over the violent shaking in the doomed aircraft.
“I said, get the hell out of here. That’s an order. Now get going.” Eversall looked over at Pikes with a smile and the courage of someone ready to stare down death to the end. “I said, get going.”
As Pikes unbuckled from his seat, he struggled to make his way aft, given the plane’s downward spiral. He briefly looked back at Eversall, who was fighting the controls and getting ready to broadcast over the radio. Pikes didn’t look back again as he grappled his way to the cargo bay.
“Mayday, Mayday,” Eversall broadcast over the emergency circuit. He no longer had any regard for radio silence. They were well beyond the point of no return. His job now was to stay in the air long enough for the crew to get out and to make their position known to would-be rescuers. The altimeter told him he had only a few seconds left over the mountainous terrain. “This is Lion One. We’ve been hit by enemy fire and are going down. Last known position was Waypoint One on mission flight plan. Repeat, Mayday, Mayday.”
Seconds later, the plane crashed into the side of a tree-covered mountain. Eversall had been able to steer the plane just enough so it wasn’t a head-on blow, and the plane hit the ground near the base of the mountain and started careening through the virgin forest. Both wings and the tail ripped off as the fuselage continued forward, until a jagged rock protruding from the undergrowth tore it open. The plane’s flight deck was obliterated and there was no sign of Eversall—only blood and the shattered glass of the windshield littered across what had been his seat, moments before. The engines smoldered two hundred feet behind the airplane but didn’t catch fire. Everything in what was left of the fuselage lay still; and the mountain rendered a moment of silence.