Seated at the head of his boardroom table, Bud Haney thought the meeting was going very well. He admired the table's highly polished, deep mahogany luster. Smooth and thick as ice, he thought, and I'm very comfortable in this high-backed leather chair! He liked the supple cordovan leather and massaged the chair's arms with the palms of his spread-fingered hands. Feeling secure in his high-backed chair, his seatbelt forming a snug X across his chest, he smiled at his Board and swiveled the chair from side to side. Left to right. Right to left. Left to right. "Richard Beecroft reneged on our deal. Reneged, Goddamn it, do y'all hear me? Reneged!" He looked around the hexagonal table-Smooth and thick as ice. It seems to tilt with every swivel of my chair-looked at his Board of Directors and wondered if they would support him. He smiled. "That smug bastard asked me to step down or there's no deal." He smiled again and comforted himself further in the soft leather of his high-backed chair. Things are going great! He nodded at the people seated around the shiny mahogany table: Chris Pearson, Nigel Finch-Hatton, and the others-and for a moment he thought he recognized David Dolan, and smiled at him. A red light began to flash above the meeting room door, and the highly polished table nosed downward and canted to the right. Bud struggled with his controls. He saw the explosions before he heard them. Flak and SAMs! Meeting papers began to curl at their edges, lift off the table and swirl above the heads of IPP's Directors, then rush past him. An 8 1/2-by-11 blizzard! He laughed. Coffee cups spun by him. He wanted to catch them but held steadfastly to his controls. "Gentlemen," he said, addressing those seated at the table as their Chief Executive Officer, "we're taking on enemy fire." Chris Pearson shook his head as though he couldn't hear above the antiaircraft flak exploding now in small black clouds close by. "Step aside, Bud. Step down," someone yelled above the roar. Perhaps they don't understand. The bastard screwed me! He thought if he spoke louder, with a little more authority, they'd understand. "How can we trust a man who goes back on his word?" he yelled over the explosions. The men tucked their ties inside their jackets and held them against their shirts to keep them from blowing with the wind. Thick black smoke began to stream from beneath the far end of the table, surrounding Chris Pearson, who buttoned and re-buttoned his double-breasted jacket while Bud struggled with the controls, the joystick forcing his hands toward his crotch then toward the instrument panel in violent spasms. "Mayday! Mayday! I'm hit!" he said, and then calmly notified his Board of Directors of his coordinates. "It looks like our next meeting will be held somewhere in the Tonkin Gulf." Can they hear me? "In the fucking Tonkin Gulf!" he screamed above the hammering of the explosions. Smoke filled the boardroom. He reached above him and pulled the ejection seat handle. Get your ass out of this mess! Find Plan B! Instantly, he was free from the table, blood inching in slowly spreading, frothy-pink streaks across the visor of his helmet. He swayed beneath his parachute-Quiet, so quiet! Not a sound-just the groaning of the risers. He watched his crippled A-4 Skyhawk, its swept-back starboard wing shot completely away, right itself. Without me, for Christ's sake! It's flying without me, without Lieutenant Junior Grade Bud Haney! Beneath him, on the bank of a narrow, muddy river, he could see the five-foot-square bamboo cage. Home again! Comforting, like my high-backed leather chair. He drifted slowly over the cage, swinging right to left, left to right, the relentless, cold rain now drenching the back of his flight suit. He squinted through his blood-streaked visor and for the first time-or is it? He's always there! -He saw the thin, buck-toothed Vietnamese boy, dressed in a black shirt and black pants and Day-Glo green shower shoes, grinning and pointing an AK-47 at him, its curved gun-metal gray clip and large front sight flashing in the sun. He tried to wave the boy away, his hands knotted against his sides by his bed sheet. He swung to the left and when he looked back, JJ Jennings stood in the boy's place at the edge of the river, beckoning toward him with her delicate hands, then cocking the AK-47 with a sharp, business-like chunk-chunk and leveling it at him. David Dolan swam in a circle in the dirty water in front of JJ, looking up at him and screaming, over and over again, "Welcome home! Welcome home!"
Bud struggled to get himself free, his left hand slamming against the clock radio, knocking it clear of the bedside table and onto the floor. "No!" he screamed as he wrestled with the sheet to sit upright. "Not this time, you bastards. Not this time!" He was shivering, his pajama top soaked with sweat. He took a deep breath, and then another, and switched on the light and ran his hands back over his wet hair. "I'm okay. I have not been recaptured. I am in my bed in London. I am okay," he recited to himself mechanically. He leaned forward and picked the clock from the floor and replaced it on the bedside table.
He walked to the bathroom, switched on the light and pulled off his wet pajama top. As he dried the sweat from his head and torso, he turned and looked at his back in the mirror. The nine long scars-souvenirs of his stay at the Hanoi Hilton-showed a dead white. He sighed. Out of the frying pan, into the fire. He flicked off the light and, as he walked back to his bed, had the ominous feeling that his dream was more a forecast of the future than a reminder of the past. I really may be caught in friendly fire, he thought. He lay on his back and stared into the darkness, reviewing the events and his actions that had mired him in his dilemma, and lay awake until it was time to get up and face his Board of Directors.