The unmarked Air America cargo plane descended from cloud cover like an ungainly bird of prey, a seventy-five foot long silver Frisbee skimming the surface of the South China Sea.
The actions of the men known as Abbott and Costello had earned them one-way tickets, no return. While their ultimate destination was unknown, it was presumed to be a place both far to the south of Indochina and infinitely warmer.
Abbott was, like his comedic namesake, tall and slender, Costello likewise short and chunky. The men were humorous, in their way. But Bien Hoa Province, Republic of Vietnam, in the late spring of 1970 was not the Copa Room at the Sands in Vegas.
Two men all but carried Abbott, rendered mercifully semi-conscious by the drugs administered during the course of his interrogation, to the open door of the old Curtiss C-46. The weighted chains secured about Abbott’s ankles tinkled like chimes in the wind.
A third man placed the barrel of a Walther P38 one inch from Abbott’s skull, just behind his left ear. The sound of the single gunshot was lost in the two thousand-horsepower thunderstorm generated by the plane’s twin Pratt & Whitney engines.
Blood, brain matter and bone fragments, caught in the swirling wind, exploded against the doorframe. A fine mist of gore showered the cabin, spraying upon the faces, hair and clothing of the executioners.
Already dead, Abbott was pushed from the door, catapulted from the darkness into a world of pure white light. His body plummeted toward the water, straight and true as a pistol round. This same procedure, deemed necessary by higher authorities, was followed with Costello.
A hollow point round burst Costello’s cranium like a ripe melon dropped from the roof of a ten-story building onto a summer sidewalk, a plume of blood spurting from the wound. The Vietnamese’s slender limbs jerked spasmodically. One of the men in the plane laughed; possibly as the result of nervous tension.
Both bodies disappeared almost immediately beneath the choppy surface below, the sea sparkling like a vast field of blue diamonds in the morning sun.
The cargo door of the C-46 was shut.
One of the executioners vomited. The men stripped off their khaki uniforms. These now resembled the aprons worn by butchers, by workers in a slaughterhouse. They changed into civilian clothes, shivering and shriveled, teeth chattering, in the cold, stark vastness of the C-46.
Two of the men silently lighted Marlboros, hands shaking. Bottles of warm Coca-Cola were opened. The soda chased green capsules that fueled restlessness and rage.
The men did their very best to ignore the small pools of blood on the metal floor. They did not look at a section of interior cabin wall that might have been the canvas of an abstract artist working with claret-colored paint. A radio, the volume of necessity turned up loud, offered Eric Burdon and the Animals: “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”.
The pilot took the Animals’ advice to heart. The plane swung in a wide arc back toward Tan Son Nhut, the sprawling civilian-military airport on the tattered fringes of Saigon.
Two more deaths that might well have remained specks of insignificance on a crimson tide of half a million military and civilian casualties. If, that is, the executions had not occurred at the treacherous intersection of fate and timing. Hadn’t opened the lid on a Pandora’s Box of bad luck and badly clashing agendas.
There were five men on board the twenty-five year old twin prop Curtiss on its return trip. Four of those men would pay for their actions of that morning with their own lives.
Within thirty days of the ‘disappearance’ of Abbott and Costello two more individuals possessing guilty knowledge of the mission were murdered in Saigon. A half-dozen others would shortly thereafter find themselves defendants in a Kafkaesque criminal trial, a trial that evolved into international incident, into cause célèbre.
Dozens of lives and careers would crash and burn in an unlikely chain reaction of unexpected consequence, a Domino Theory of a very different sort. The flames, both literal and figurative, ultimately reached all the way to the White House, to the Oval Office itself.
Two shots fired, two bodies fall; the bloody opening paragraph. The final chapter, a singularly brutal denouement, took nineteen years to complete…
(you’ve just read the prologue to the novel “Night Train Express,” coming Fall 2013)