Fat Man had followed the Little Boy. The war was over for those who lived.
Those who didn’t, they were still on battlefronts, crouching in bunkers or planes, or breathing water on the seabed. It was an endless night for the sun never rises when you die. And this was how they’d be remembered, at war forever.
He paused briefly before the paintings of her, she in many of those frames, dewdrops in her eyes, melting midway in trees, streams, wind or the fog. It was a different vein of war she fought with the sentinels of the society. That too would rage, for ever and ever.
He flipped open the curtain and a grey wall of fog stared at him instead of Quintara Street. Today he had planned to be at Alta Plaza Park again, before the sunrise. That was where he had been able to complete the painting of him looking out at the Bay. He still couldn’t think of a face for him, no matter how hard he tried. It always had to be his back then. He had vainly tried putting him on the Golden Gate Bridge or the Fisheman’s Wharf earlier.
It was still on the easel, the painting, and his sister had taken a sharp breath when she saw it the other day. ‘It is incredible how it looks like him!’
That should do it. That should be it. Wonder where he was now? What kind of war could he be waging?
He dipped his brush in black and signed at the bottom right of the frame.
It hadn’t rained for the last four days. Not a drop.
Then it poured through the daybreak they were to be air-dropped in Myitkyina. By the time it stopped it was halfway to noon and the grassland had turned into a lagoon. The wind was forceful and aimless but the clouds seemed southwest bound. The airstrip peeped through the general wetness like the naked, grey back of a raptor that refused to go away. Lt Vernon Brown thought of the musty, mouldy huts they had been holed in since the last week, sharing food and space with rabbit-sized rats, and his stomach cartwheeled. He’d rather return to the headquarters of the institute, all bamboo and thatch but mansions compared to the mud mounds. But all these days he had been waiting —waiting to zap the zipperheads, yank the light out of their slanting eyes. And sooner he did it the better, for he feared he might lose his mind one of these days and forget all about them.
The Tea Research Institute was a thin façade for D2F —the Dragon Fang Detachment— tucked among the tea slopes of Ledo. The ‘researchers’ were mostly Americans, with a smattering of Indians and Chinese; the looming pall of Japanese imperialism was the object of the outfit rather than the humble plant it was named after, the leaves of which leavened the lives of the elite. There was an urgency about them as they traipsed about the greenery but they were polite and unobtrusive to the local populace. Yet, they were a handpicked squad, remarkably spry, skilled in armed and unarmed combat and dangerous either way. A streak of brotherhood ran through the ranks and races of the group, spurred by the perils of the mission, and perhaps the madness of the common enemy.
Lt Vernon Brown was a rising star of the boxing circuits of San Francisco when he had packed his bags for the army abruptly. Many attributed it to his jinx with girlfriends and the disappearance of Augusta, his long standing partner of Lindy Hop and Balboa; there were whispers of a secret lover who leaped into the strait from the Golden Gate Bridge when she failed to cover her tracks. Hazel’s sudden engagement to his brother Joe may have been the final straw.
Vernon loved his brother Joe, and loved Hazel more for the happiness she brought him. If he closed his eyes he could still see them walking down the Golden Gate Bridge, their arms entwined, her blond tresses flying all over him. They had married on December 07, a date on which Joe was born and one on which he would die too, exactly four years later in Pearl Harbor.
In Ledo, Vernon had met more than a match in Sepoy Amar Singh who had a fascinating history in Rangoon. A soft-spoken Indian, the private had a knack for foreign tongues, and a rare mastery of Muay and Karate. Setting up duels between the two was the favourite recreational high spot for the group and Vernon and Amar took turns losing the mock cockfights. As a result, no one could be sure of the mightier man or method. This had pulled them closer to each other despite the gap in their ranks.
The buzz had cooled since the morning and turned to boredom among the troopers. Except for Mark and Charlie, who kept ambling in and out of the wireless cabin and looking important, most of them were getting restive and grumpy. Vernon could swear the pilots had already decided the fate of the mission but were keeping them dangling for the heck of it. Such were the men who were to fly the Skytrain behind the enemy lines into Burma! Keeping his anger in check, he walked up to Mark. ‘Is it good enough to fly now?’ He asked.
‘It’s always good enough to fly.’ Mark told him flatly. ‘It can be bad for the troopers though. The sun betrays whatever tumbles from the sky and the Japs hunt and flay the fallen alive.’
‘Or worse, they send them to New Guinea as war prisoners and rape their —souls.’ Charlie said, lighting up a cigarette. ‘Ever been over the hump?’
‘It’s the very first operation of the unit.’ Vernon said sourly.
‘Well, Mark has done it a few times for the India-China Ferry Command.’
Vernon walked away angrily.
‘Frankly,’ Mark said in a low tone, ‘I much prefer the daylight to hurtling semi-blind among the Patkai Hills.’
Mark hated unsolicited suggestions from the non-crew heroes. And he hated the hump. But more than that, he hated tailing a jeep —of all things, a jeep!— on a clueless, lightless runway for a take-off. He was forever dreading running over the dumb thing on wheels and losing the landing gear apart from killing the idiot driving it. As for the Japs, they could be crouching in the mountains with anti-aircraft batteries. Maybe they had hauled up some damned canons right into Pangsau Pass. Maybe they had flying pigs out there —nothing could be ruled out with those lunatics. The day changes the game but so does the night, in their own different ways, but who was to define the night from the day, the state that ruled the minds of men who ruled this or that part of the geography? And who was the ultimate referee to the whole goddamned fracas?
As the C-47 took off hours later than originally scheduled, the special agents hunched in its belly, Vernon felt his guts tighten. He could feel his blood thumping in his balled fists, just as he’d feel in the ring. ‘Here I go, my brother!’ He mumbled. ‘Here I come, you crazy assassins. Payback time!’