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Best Of Luck

As I mentioned in discussing "Firefight," in 1973 Marvel Comics started a digest fantasy/horror magazine titled The Haunt of Horror. When they killed Haunt as a digest, they bruited the possibility of reviving it as a B&W horror comic with two pages of prose fiction. (I believe the purpose of the prose was to meet mailing criteria for a reduced postage rate.)

Two comic pages amounted to 1600-1800 words. I sat down to write a story which would fit that length. The result was "Best of Luck," another standard horror story using Viet Nam for its setting (as I'd done with "Arclight" and "Contact!").

The length was a problem. My first version of the story came to 2,000 words, short even for me but too long for the space. Even at the start of my career I understood something many writers fail to grasp: if there's a fixed amount of room available, turning in a story that is the fixed amount plus more is a sure route to rejection. I therefore cut out 200 words that really shouldn't have gone. I was never satisfied with the story after that final edit.

And Haunt wasn't revived in any format, so it'd all been wasted effort anyway. The story dropped completely out of my mind.

In 1977 Gerry Page, editor of The Year's Best Horror Stories for DAW Books, changed the previous reprint-only format (to which Karl Wagner reverted when he took over from Gerry in a few years). He asked me if I had a new story to submit; I told him I didn't.

Whereupon Kirby sold Gerry "Best of Luck." As I said, I'd forgotten about it.

Frankly, I wasn't thrilled to sell a story which I felt I'd crippled in the editing, but shortly afterward I got another surprise: NBC developed a horror anthology show, whose producers optioned "Best of Luck." Not only that, they later renewed the option. For quite a long time, "Best of Luck" was my most profitable story in total terms, let alone on a per-word basis.

I still wish I hadn't taken out that last 200 words.


A Russian-designed .51 caliber machine gun fires bullets the size of a woman's thumb. When a man catches a pair of those in his chest and throat the way Capt. Warden's radioman did, his luck has run out. A gout of blood sprayed back over Curtis, next man in the column. He glimpsed open air through the RTO's middle: the hole plowed through the flailing body would have held his fist.

But there was no time to worry about the dead, no time to do anything but dive out of the line of fire. Capt. Warden's feral leap had carried him in the opposite direction, out of Curtis' sight into the gloom of the rubber. Muzzle flashes flickered over the silver tree-trunks as the bunkered machine guns tore up Dog Company.

Curtis' lucky piece bit him through the shirt fabric as he slammed into the smooth earth. The only cover in the ordered plantation came from the trees themselves, and their precise arrangement left three aisles open to any hiding place. The heavy guns ripped through the darkness in short bursts from several locations; there was no way to be safe, nor even to tell from where death would strike.

Curtis had jerked back the cocking piece of his M16, but he had no target. Blind firing would only call down the attentions of the Communist gunners. He felt as naked as the lead in a Juarez floor show, terribly aware of what the big bullets would do if they hit him. He had picked up the lucky Maria Theresa dollar in Taiwan, half as a joke, half in unstated remembrance of men who had been saved when a coin or a Bible turned an enemy slug. But no coin was going to deflect a .51 cal from the straight line it would blast through him.

Red-orange light bloomed a hundred yards to Curtis' left as a gun opened up, stuttering a sheaf of lead through the trees. Curtis marked the spot. Stomach tight with fear, he swung his clumsy rifle toward the target and squeezed off a burst.

The return fire was instantaneous and from a gun to the right, unnoticed until that moment. The tree Curtis crouched beside exploded into splinters across the base, stunning impacts that the soldier felt rather than heard. He dug his fingers into the dirt, trying to drag himself still lower and screaming mentally at the pressure of the coin which kept him that much closer to the crashing bullets. The rubber tree was sagging, its twelve-inch bole sawn through by the fire, but nothing mattered to Curtis except the raving death a bullet's width above his head.

The firing stopped. Curtis clenched his fists, raised his head a fraction from the ground. A single, spiteful round banged from the first bunker. The bullet ticked the rim of Curtis' helmet, missing his flesh but snapping his head back with the force of a thrown anvil. He was out cold when the tree toppled slowly across his boots.

* * *

There were whispers in the darkness, but all he could see were blue and amber streaks on the inside of his mind. He tried to move, then gasped in agony as the pinioning mass shifted against his twisted ankles.

There were whispers in the darkness, and Curtis could guess what they were. Dog Company had pulled back. Now the VC were slipping through the trees, stripping the dead of their weapons and cutting the throats of the wounded. Wherever Curtis' rifle had been flung, it was beyond reach of his desperate fingers.

Something slurped richly near Curtis on his right. He turned his face toward the sound, but its origin lurked in the palpable blackness. There was a slushy, ripping noise from the same direction, settling immediately into a rhythmic gulping. Curtis squinted uselessly. The moon was full, but the clouds were as solid as steel curtains.

Two Vietnamese were approaching from his left side. The scuff of their tire-soled sandals paused momentarily in a liquid trill of speech, then resumed. A flashlight played over the ground, its narrow beam passing just short of Curtis' left hand. The gulping noise stopped.

"Ong vo?" whispered one of the VC, and the light flashed again. There was a snarl and a scream and the instant red burst of an AK-47 blazing like a flare. The radioman's body had been torn open. Gobbets of lung and entrails, dropped by the feasting thing, were scattered about the corpse. But Curtis' real terror was at what the muzzle flash caught in midleap—teeth glinting white against bloody crimson, the mask of a yellow-eyed beast more savage than a nightmare and utterly undeterred by the bullets punching across it. And the torso beneath the face was dressed in American jungle fatigues.

* * *

"Glad to have you back, Curtis," Capt. Warden said. "We're way under strength, and replacements haven't been coming in fast enough. Better get your gear together now, because at 1900 hours the company's heading out on a night patrol and I want every man along."

Curtis shifted uneasily, transfixed by the saffron sclera of the captain's eyes. The driver who had picked him up at the chopper pad had filled Curtis in on what had gone on during his eight weeks in the hospital. Seventeen men had died in the first ambush. The condition of the radioman's body was blamed on the VC, of course; but that itself had contributed to rotted morale, men screaming in their sleep or squirting nervous shots off into the shadows. A month later, Warden had led another sweep. The lithe, athletic captain should have been a popular officer for his obvious willingness to share the dangers of his command; but when his second major operation ended in another disaster of bunkers and spider holes, the only emotion Dog Company could find for him was hatred. Everybody knew this area of operations was thick with VC and that it was Dog Company's business to find them. But however successful the operations were from the division commander's standpoint—the follow-ups had netted tons of equipment and abandoned munitions—Warden's men knew that they had taken it on the chin twice in a row.

It hadn't helped that the body of Lt. Schaden, killed at the captain's side in the first exchange of fire, had been recovered the next day in eerily mutilated condition. It looked, the driver whispered, as though it had been gnawed on by something.

* * *

They moved out in the brief dusk, nervous squads shrunk to the size of fire teams under the poundings they had taken. The remainder of the battalion watched Dog's departure in murmuring cliques. Curtis knew they were making bets on how many of the patrol wouldn't walk back this time. Well, a lot of people in Dog itself were wondering the same.

The company squirmed away from the base, avoiding known trails. Capt. Warden had a destination, though; Curtis, again marching just behind the command group, could see the captain using a penlight to check compass and map at each of their frequent halts. The light was scarcely necessary. The mid-afternoon downpour had washed clean the sky for the full moon to blaze in. It made for easier movement through the tangles of trees and vines, but it would light up the GIs like ducks in a shooting gallery if they blundered into another VC bunker complex.

The trade dollar in Curtis' pocket flopped painfully against him. The bruise it had given him during the ambush still throbbed. It was starting to hurt more than his ankles did, but nothing would have convinced him to leave it in his locker now. He'd gotten back the last time, hadn't he? Despite the murderous crossfire, the tree, and the . . . other. Curtis gripped his sweaty M16 tighter. Maybe it hadn't been Maria Theresa's chop-scarred face that got him through, but he wasn't missing any bets.

Because every step he took into the jungle deepened his gut-wrenching certainty that Dog Company was about to catch it again.

The captain grunted a brief order into the phone flexed to his RTO. The jungle whispered "halt" from each of the platoon leaders. Warden's face was in a patch of moonlight. His left hand cradled the compass, but he paid it no attention. Instead his lean, dominant nose lifted and visibly snuffled the still air. With a nod and a secret smile that Curtis shivered to see, the captain spoke again into the radio to move the company out.

Three minutes later, the first blast of shots raked through them.

The bullet hit the breech of Curtis' rifle instead of simply disemboweling him. The dented barrel cracked down across both of his thighs with sledge hammer force. His left thumb was dislocated, though his right hand, out of the path in which the .51 cal had snatched the rifle, only tingled. Curtis lay on his back amazed, listening to the thump-crack of gunfire and bullets passing overhead. He was not even screaming: the pain was yet to come.

An American machine gun ripped a long red streak to within six inches of Curtis' head, no less potentially deadly for not being aimed at him. The wounded soldier fumbled open his breast pocket and clutched at the lucky piece. It was the only action to which he could force his punished body. The moon glared grimly down.

Something moved near Curtis. Capt. Warden, bareheaded, was snaking across the jungle floor toward him. Warden grinned. His face slumped suddenly like lead in a mold, shaping itself into a ghastly new form that Curtis had seen once before. The Warden-thing's fangs shone as it poised, then leaped—straight into a stream of Communist fire.

A two-ounce bullet meat-axed through the thing's chest back to front, slapping it against a tree. Curtis giggled in relief before he realized that the creature was rising to its knees. Fluid shock had blasted a great crater in the flesh over its breastbone, and the lower half of its face was coated with blood gulped out of its own lungs. The eyes were bright yellow and horribly alive, and as Curtis stared in fascination, the gaping wound began to close. The thing took a step toward the helpless soldier, a triumphant grimace sweeping over its distorted features.

Without conscious direction, Curtis' thumb spun the silver dollar toward the advancing creature. The half-healed wound-lips in the thing's chest seemed to suck the coin in. The scream that followed was that of an animal spindled on white-hot wire, but it ended quickly in a gurgle as dissolution set in.

* * *

The stretcher team brought Curtis out in the morning. His right hand had been dipped into the pool of foulness soaking the ground near him, and the doctors could not unclench the fist from the object it was frozen on until after the morphine had taken hold.

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