The Reckoning (Long novel)

The Reckoning is a 2004 thriller/suspense/horror novel by Jeff Long.


Molly is a freelance photographer and journalist who has just been offered an assignment by The New York Times: travel to Cambodia to cover a U.S. military search for the body of an American pilot who went down thirty years ago during the Vietnam War. She meets up with the search team and encounters two civilians. One is Duncan O'Brian, a kindly academic and archaeologist who is interested in restoring ancient Khmer temples. The other is John Kleat, the brother of an MIA Vietnam veteran who has dedicated his life to finding the remains of missing American soldiers in Vietnam and Cambodia. There is also a mysterious blond Caucasian man, thin and bedraggled, who is seen from a distance but never approaches the team.

After weeks of work the remains of the pilot, or any U.S. servicemen, have still not been discovered. A typhoon is approaching and the search is to be cancelled. At the last moment, Molly randomly begins taking shots with her digital camera, including a shot down a large sinkhole. When she reviews the photo it turns out that the bottom of the sinkhole contains human bones. A search by a Marine lowered on a rope reveals evidence of an American pilot, as well as a Khmer Rouge mass grave.

The U.S. military is contacted and agrees to extend the search by a week, but for essential personnel only - meaning that Molly, Duncan, and Kleat are expelled from the dig.

In a Phnom Penh restaurant, Kleat fumes angrily that Molly got them kicked off the dig by taking pictures of human remains, something she had been told not to do by the U.S. military. Hours before all three civilians are to depart to return to their respective homes, the mysterious blond man from the dig site approaches, revealing that he has found dog tags of several MIA servicemen, all of the Eleventh Cavalry armor. He reveals that his name is Luke and he speaks with a West Texas accent, and the trio place his age at about twenty. He gives them two hours to decide whether or not to join him – if they agree he will lead them to the resting places of these missing soldiers. Molly, Duncan, and Kleat agree.

They quickly recruit the services of Samnang, an elderly Cambodian who speaks fluent English and once studied in the West, and three brothers who operate an expedition-outfitting business of sorts. With the last of their funds, the three civilians purchase an "expedition package" that includes the assistance of the three brothers, an aging UN Land Cruiser, a French colonial-era Mercedes truck, and boxes of U.S. military supplies siphoned from similar remains-hunting expeditions. It is night-time and the two-vehicle convoy drives north, into the wilds.

After hours of driving the group stops at the edge of the mountainous rain forest, unsure of where to go. Molly spots tread marks of an armored personnel carrier – the heavy vehicle having driven through clay that was then baked in the summer sun, turning rock-hard and resisting the elements for three decades. Knowing that the APCs went into the rain forest and up the mountainside, the group continues in that direction.

They soon find an undiscovered ancient Khmer city of massive size, and Luke disappears. The group makes camp, amazed at their find and deciding that remains of the missing group of Eleventh Cavalry soldiers must be inside.

As everyone begins to explore the city, they discover both amazing and troubling things. The ancient city, while remaining unpillaged and unvandalized over hundreds of years, is a labyrinth that has been further confused by the overgrown jungle. Quickly, signs of the missing soldiers are discovered, and appear strange: The soldiers, of which there are nine listed as missing, had tried to turn parts of the city into a crude fortress, stringing concertina wire.

One morning, during an argument, the group looks up to discover one of the soldiers' two APCs some sixty feet up in a grove of enormous trees - the forest having grown that much in thirty years. Molly, a veteran rock-climber, climbs up to the armored vehicle and attaches a rope. She discovers a terra-cotta head, having been taken from one of the many statues in the city, mounted to the vehicle's exhaust port as a trophy.

The group begins descending into argument, dissension, and anger as the days pass. Duncan and Molly want to explore the city and catalog its sites, later to release the findings to the academic world for further exploration. Kleat is only interested in the remains of the soldiers, and is willing to allow the three Cambodian brothers to loot and pillage to keep them satisfied. Samnang sides with Molly and Duncan, but is hated by the three brothers, and is disdained by Kleat, because there is evidence that he was once a member of the Khmer Rouge government. The three brothers, armed with assault rifles, begin growing more aggressive and hostile over time. Molly tricked Kleat into giving her his Glock pistol to prevent him from provoking a slaughter, and hid it away.

Finally, the remains of the Eleventh Cav soldiers are found. Some are found in the top room of a large tower. The room was once a shrine to Buddha, with an open roof to serve as an observatory. The soldiers had turned the room into a defensible bunker and had created a large S.O.S. signal on the floor of the room, hoping that aircraft would pass overhead and see it. The room shows evidence of a massive firefight, but no non-American ammunition is found - there is no sign of an enemy.

That night Molly is awakened to the sound of gunfire – the three brothers are intoxicated and angry. In the morning it is revealed that they think Samnang had stolen and smashed their loot from the city. Molly and Duncan talk to Kleat, who reveals that he had come upon the brothers beating Samnang with their rifles. Unable to kill Samnang in front of Kleat, the brothers let him go, only to pursue him later. The brothers are also agitated because the jungle, growing faster than ever because of the rains from the approaching typhoon, has encroached on the two vehicles, miring them overnight. Calmly, Duncan placates them, helping them free the Land Cruiser.

Deciding to leave that evening, the group breaks into teams: Two brothers will try to free the Mercedes truck from the mud. Another brother, the most Americanized of the trio, will go with Duncan to search for loot to replace that which Samnang had smashed. Molly and Kleat will do the same.

Molly makes a grisly discovery - Samnang's artificial leg being gnawed on by gibbons, and then finds another Eleventh Cav body in a bamboo grove - a suicide by self-inflicted gunshot. She calls for the others, and they help her extract the corpse's helmet, remaining scalp and hair, and three teeth. They return to the vehicles, but the Cambodian brother who was with the trio has gotten separated from them. As they wait, Kleat seizes the opportunity and jumps into the Land Cruiser, driving off. The vehicle runs over several land mines, obliterating it.

The two brothers, angrily chasing their Land Cruiser, also find themselves in the mine field, and both die. Molly, having run out into the mine field as well, discovers the second APC at the bottom of a bomb-crater lake. Duncan slowly rescues her, using a stick to feel cautiously for mines.

Deciding that the mysterious Luke has placed the mines to keep them from leaving the city the way they entered it, Molly and Duncan decide to escape through the city, leaving out the other side of it. In case Luke is watching from a distance, Molly and Duncan begin removing supplies from the hopelessly-mired truck, giving the impression that they are going to stay through the typhoon.

That night Molly, trying to be helpful, opens Duncan's briefcase to find some items that she can rescue (the duo had agreed to leave everything behind in order to travel faster). She discovers that Duncan was the mysterious troublemaker and thief from the U.S. military search site. The briefcase is also filled with other mysterious items, including ID cards, tags, and photographs. When she confronts him he seems genuinely confused.

Suddenly, Luke arrives, and he and Duncan converse cryptically. Luke is now missing three teeth, and Molly realizes, to her horror, the identity of the soldier in the bamboo grove. She uses Kleat's Glock to shoot Luke who, in death, reveals himself to be the missing Cambodian brother. Molly fears that, in a malaria-induced hallucination, she had imagined seeing Luke and had killed an innocent man.

She and Duncan flee through the city, growing weaker from minor injuries sustained the day before in the mine field explosions. Duncan's face becomes injured by what appears to be a gunshot, and Molly tries to help him. They find a sheltered room to rest, and when Molly awakes she finds that Duncan is gone. Searching for him, she discovers the cloth used to bind his jaw on the ground - free of blood. Two more soldiers' bodies are later found. One is a suicide by hanging, while the other man had been a sniper who had completely enclosed himself in a nest of razor wire to prevent anything from getting to him...or to prevent him from going anywhere.

Duncan's trail leads to the top room of the tower they group had discovered previously; the observatory room with the remains of the Eleventh Cav men.

In the room Molly discovers, under a pile of debris, the body of the soldiers' commander: a young man with a wedding band. To her shock, she discovers that his name is Duncan O'Brian. In his belongings Molly finds a photograph of her mother, who had committed suicide when Molly was a baby. She realizes that Duncan O'Brian, an Army soldier, was her father, and that his death in the war drove her young mother to kill herself. Later, still in the room, she discovers that Duncan O'Brian had been killed by a soldier named John Kleat in retaliation for getting them lost and trapped in the city. The panicked soldiers, trying to hide the death of their commander, had buried their commander under tons of explosive-induced rubble and exiled the killer, Pvt. John Kleat.

Molly, unable to see in the dark, is approached by a presence who talks to her. He has a bag full of jade eyes, which had been seen in the skulls of all the intact American soldiers' remains. Horrified, Molly realizes that this mysterious person intends to remove her eyes and replace them with jade. She loses consciousness.

When she awakes she is being rescued by members of the U.S. military team from the original dig - Samnang had somehow made it back to civilization and told them about her.

It is not revealed if her eyes had indeed been replaced with jade.


The novel received relatively positive reviews.[1][2][3]


Long, J. (2004). The Reckoning. New York: Pocket Star Books

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