Saturday, November 14, 1970
We walked out of the office and down the corridor; at the end, there were two doors and another hall. A door on the right opened into the main room. On the left was the hallway leading to the back door, Straight ahead was a standard hollow-core door without a keyhole or deadbolt.
“What’s that door?” I asked.
“The janitor’s closet; we dusted it for prints earlier. Nada.” Kane gestured at the fine black powder before opening it. I peered in. It was a little more than a meter square, crammed with buckets, mops, wax, buffer, towels, soap—everything you’d expect. When he moved out of the way, I sniffed. Bleach. Cleanser. Wax. Mildew. And something else that tickled my brain. I couldn’t place it.
“Who’s the janitor?”
Emily laughed. “Mostly me. We have a few guys who volunteer for the heavy stuff, like buffing and waxing, now and then, but the regular work—cleaning toilets and mopping—is done by me. Yardwork’s done by a papa-san.” What that meant was that any help—such as the Vietnamese worker—that was paid, was paid for out of Em’s own salary.
“Thanks, Em,” I said.
We stopped at the Jeep so Kane could give Dubois his errands for the rest of the day, and then walked to the 52nd Signal Battalion mess hall. It was used by both the MP station and the Saloon and was located midway between, less than two minutes’ walk. The MP station, like the 369th Detachment and the other small detachments and units on base, avoided KP duties by supplying a permanent cook to the Battalion running the hall. It was a great arrangement for everyone but low-ranking enlisted in the 52nd, since they were the ones who pulled the KP that other units got out of.
Non-military personnel like Donut Dollies, Special Services—post librarians, for example—entertainers and politicians, staff at the EM clubs like the Get Dead Drunk Saloon, and Ilikai East in Củ Chi, were issued special meal cards that could be used in any military dining facility. Most Mess Sergeants, though, would have been honored to provide free meals for civilians—especially round-eyed women—even if their budgets hadn’t been recompensed.
Kane and I went through the line. In Củ Chi, I rarely bothered to walk over to the mess hall. I’d either toaster-oven canned food or C-Rations, or mix a pizza from a box. Or drive down to the main gate and pick up a cold pork and pig-ear hoagie from the Việt vendors just outside the perimeter, where I could also practice my tiếng Việt. This hall served half the number of people that Củ Chi did, but was laid out similarly. Kane and I sat across from each other at the free end of one of the long picnic-style mess tables and put our hats next to our trays. If he’d been a regular MP like the one several tables away, he would have kept his pistol belt on. But CID investigators, I’d come to appreciate, preferred to be inconspicuous.
Today’s menu was hot roast beef sandwich with gravy. Cheap, tough beef with what looked suspiciously like worm holes in it; yellow, dishwatery gravy and limp reconstituted potatoes with a heat-resistant square of government-issue “margarine” on top. Everything was hot, however, except the weevilly bread, which I won’t eat. I prefer Việt baguettes to mess hall bread. They have weevils too, but don’t taste like cotton pill-bottle stuffing.
I picked up my fork. “Mind if I say grace?” I put the fork down.
I put my hands together. I hadn’t said grace since I got out from under Momma’s Bible pages and moved in with Aunt Drusilla, who is a Theosophist, but I remembered what to do. He ducked his head: “Bless us O Lord ...” and crossed himself.
He shoved an entire slice of beef into his mouth. “You’re Catholic,” I said.
He chewed and swallowed. “Seminary student. Three years. I used to think I’d do my twenty years and go back; now, I’m thinking I might not re-up at the end of this enlistment. That’s only another year.”
“I considered becoming a Benedictine, but it was—too restrictive. I ended up going to Loyola.”
“So how’d you end up here, if you don’t mind my asking? Didn’t you qualify for a deferrment?”
“Sure. But my best friend from high school got killed here. He was one of the first, a Marine, at Red Beach. Before that, I agreed with the Berrigans, I thought the war was as wrong as it could be. But José’s death—I hated that it might have been meaningless. It made me rethink my position. Besides, I think I’ll make a better priest, later on, having served in the Military. You know, walking a mile in your neighbor’s shoes. If I return to the seminary, that is.”
“Why didn’t you finish and come in as a chaplain?”
“Frankly, the generic pablum served by chaplains is not something I’d ever want to be responsible for.” Lowest common denominator, suitable for everyone, according to the Army, which meant unsuitable for Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims.
I pushed my food around. He watched me for a second. “How about you? Aren’t you Catholic too?”
“Me? No. What made you think that?”
He pointed at my neck, using his fork, holding it upside down and putting his forefinger on the high point of the arch. “Two chains. One for your dogtags, the other gold. The logical assumption is that you wear a cross.”
I pulled the golden out to show the little white plastic Buddha. “It’s as tacky as can be, but I like it.”
“You’re a Buddhist? Isn’t that illegal in the Army?” He smiled, making it clear it was a joke. He wasn’t Hollywood handsome like Dubois, but he had a far more interesting face. With a voice that deep, in an earlier time he could have been a radio star.
“It makes the lifers uncomfortable, even if it’s not illegal. But I’m not a Buddhist. It’s—a memento. Of a dead friend.”
He waited, but I didn’t add anything. It hadn’t been that long, and I still choked up thinking about Tuyen’s death.
“Even if you’re not Catholic, you were raised in some Christian tradition.”
“Oh, yes: my parents are missionaries. Right now, they’re in Brazil, converting the headhunters. If they can find any. What made you say that?”
Instead of answering, he sang. His voice was astonishing, pure, resonant, clear—and highly trained.
I sing because I’m happy,
I sing because I’m free,
For His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me.
I joined in on the first because. Voices turned silent around us. Heads swivelled, and the clatter of tinny silverware and idle conversation ceased. I expected some soldiers who knew the hymn to join us—if we’d been in a bar and had started We Gotta Get Out of This Place, every soldier in the place would have chimed in—but instead, they waited to clap at the end. Thanks to my friend Ellen Bowman, I’d overcome my fear of public singing years ago, but it was interesting to see the same lack of stage fright in Kane. “What’s your first name?”
“Renaldo. My moms told me I was named after some movie star. I never asked who.”
“Moms?” I thought the plural might simply be a pet name.
“Lesbians. Hope that doesn’t bother you.” He stood.
“Not at all.” I left the wet bread and half the meat on my plate and followed him. We didn’t try to avoid scuffing the oxblood-colored linoleum under our feet, knowing that the guys on KP would be running buffers over it late tonight anyway. We scraped the leftovers into the garbage barrel and shoved our trays into the window for the dishwashers; the steam in the little room raised the temperature from unbearable to debilitating; if it was thirty in the main room, it must have been forty there. Beads of sweat covered the face of the man who pulled our trays off the counter; he was wearing a headband with a peace symbol and a sleeveless T-shirt with a big hand-drawn marijuna leaf on the front. Outside, we blinked in the blinding sun and heat. “Why didn’t you ask who the star was?”
His boots hit the boards. “I wouldn’t have known who he was anyway. I read.” While there were paved roads everywhere on the base, hooches, offices and workplaces between the roads were connected with wooden walkways. In places, where some of the planks had lifted away, we could see that wooden pallets underlay the walk two, three, sometimes four deep. The same sort of construction was common in Củ Chi, albeit with only one level of pallet. Here, nearly every building on the base was connected with the walkways, mostly for use during monsoon.
I wondered what was going to happen to the bases when the troops started leaving. Back home, Nixon was in the news, proclaiming that more and more units were coming home. He was quietly not mentioning that replacement troops were still arriving, keeping the number of men deployed nearly the same. The deaths had gone down, I’ll give him that. There had been a couple of days recently when there had been no deaths reported incountry. But “Peace with Honor”? I was skeptical.
It didn’t matter, of course; none of the politicos cared what I, or millions of hippies and draft-dodgers and commies, thought. They played to the rich and powerful, parasites infecting the body politic, and they told bald-faced lies to the Silent Majority. I thought of what Hermann Göring had said: “Why of course the people don’t want war. But it is the leaders who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a parliament or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”
I broke the silence. “Do we need to canvas? Check with surrounding compounds to find out if anyone saw anything?”
“I’ll send Dubois out tomorrow; he’s busy today. None of the other units are close enough to the club to hear or see, so it’s probably a waste of his time, but it has to be done.” He flashed a quick smile. “If only to satisfy my need to dot every i.”
Emily sent us into her office where we found a tall gangly medic folded into a chair, sound asleep, with an official manila envelope clutched to his belly.
“Yo, troop.” Kane shook the man’s shoulder.
“Grmph.” He struggled with his eyelids; even after he stood, one insisted on drooping. “Sgt. Kane? I need your signature.” He shoved over a clipboard; Kane signed.
“Go get some sack time,” he told the medic. He waved the envelope and said, “It’s the autopsy report from Captain Gilray.” Sitting in Emily’s chair, he pulled out the papers and photographs and spread them on the desk. She kept her desk the way I did; the only time mine was clear was for—infrequent in a combat zone—inspection, which I only passed because they didn’t open the drawers. He studied the first page and passed it to me, but instead of letting me read it for myself, he summarized.
“It’s pretty much exactly what we thought; the killer was left-handed and she must have been asleep when stabbed. The killer either pulled the cover off or she was sleeping without one, because there were no cloth fibers caught in the wound. The killer also knew enough anatomy to go right for the heart in one blow.”
“The fact that he got it in one, without giving her time to defend herself, is pretty conclusive. The killer’s no amateur.”
“It’s couched in a lot of medical terminology, but I think Gilray agrees with you.” Kane studied the second page. “She’d had sexual relations, confirming that part of Ritchie’s story, but all he says about the timeframe is ‘within the previous 24 hours’.” He handed me the sheet and went on to study the photos.
“This is interesting. Even though the examiner won’t commit to a tighter time frame than a day, he says that there’s a higher percentage of ‘non-motile, tailless, sperm’ than is consistent with sexual relations less than 12 hours prior to the exam. I guess those might be Ritchie’s weezy sperm.”
“I thought about getting Chona checked until she and Ritchie confirmed they were in a threesome.”
“Doesn’t seem a lot of point, does there? It might not have been an actual threesome, you know, not if both women wanted to get pregnant.” My imagination was way too occupied with supplying pictures to go with what I’d said.
“I suppose,” he said, “but that’s not a difference that makes a difference. Some i’s don’t need to be dotted.”
We found Emily polishing the bar. “Is Corporal Dubois back yet?”
“About ten minutes ago. He’s waiting in the Jeep. I offered him a beer, but he turned me down.”
“Good, he takes this stuff more seriously than I thought.” He checked his watch. “I want him to use luminol on the rooms. That won’t take long, so when he’s done, you can go ahead and open. You don’t have to wait until 1800.”
“Well, I won’t get much extra business, but thanks.”
Kane started toward the front door. “I’ll be a few minutes,” I told him. “I want to look in the closet again.”
“Should I have Heck do luminol in there?”
“Good idea. Soon as I’m done.”
I pulled open the door. Like nearly all military construction in Việt Nam, the club was built on a slab of concrete. Places lucky enough to have indoor plumbing had water and sewage lines laid under and into the slab. Orderly rooms, hooches and low-end EM clubs retained the bare concrete, but buildings that aspired to a modicum of class covered the slab with cheap linoleum. The military buys it by the linear mile. The stuff comes in four industrial colors; dark green, a grey, oxblood or a brick red. Like the messhall, this place used the oxblood, and it extended everywhere, even to the entertainers’ quarters in the back. A hallway almost the width of the building separated the offices and rooms from the main area, where the bar and the stage were. The closet was at one end of the hallway; I pulled open the door again and looked around.
The club’s floor, and the hall floor here, hadn’t been swept or buffed since last night’s show. Chewing gum wrappers, empty matchbooks, wadded up bits of paper, other litter and tracked in dirt and dust spotted the linoleum. But it was still waxed and highly polished.
The floor inside the closet was the same linoleum, but linoleum in its factory state. It had never been waxed and buffed. A properly cared for lino floor is stain-resistant and easy to clean and sweep. Raw lino, though, soaks up spills like a sponge, and stains can’t ever be gotten rid of. Smells, although they eventually evaporate, hang around long past the time you want them to be gone. Piss, for example, would stain the porous raw lino permanently, and stink for weeks.
I pulled out the buckets, mops and enough other clutter that I could get down on my knees and inspect the surface from close up. There were the usual stains, spills and crud, and the smells I’d encountered earlier. I still couldn’t identify the sweetish smell, but I found the spot it came from. It seemed as familiar as the smell of my pillow, but for the life of me I couldn’t pin it down.
I gave up—the answer would probably come to me sometime when I was asleep—and used the whisk broom hanging on the wall to sweep the floor; a piece of paper served as a dustpan. I found a pair of nearly dry lumps of mud just as Kane came back in with Heck. Heck went back to chase the entertainers out of their rooms.
I showed the makeshift dustpan to Kane. “I found some dirt.”
“I bet that was hard to come by.” He took the paper from me and peered closely. “From the closet, right? I don’t get it.”
“It’s not the same color as the mud the soldiers track in the front door, and it’s not the color of the mud you’d get from the back of the building, either. It had to come from someplace else.”
“Emily said that volunteers from several units came to help clean up. It could come from anywhere.”
“Right, it could. But you don’t have to walk into the closet to get anything out of it. All the hanging stuff is in the front where it can be reached from the door, all the stuff on the floor is on wheels so you can simply pull it out—there’s no reason for anyone to stand in it. Why would there be tracked-in mud in a closet there’s no need to put your feet in?”
“Someone hid in there until it was safe to come out to kill Iryne.”
“Exactly. Now, I didn’t find any piss stains, but if he went in there close to midnight with an empty bladder, he could go four hours easy. And I looked at the back door; it’s set up so that it can be opened from the inside, though you can’t get back in without a key unless you prop the door open. Emily remembers trying the door before she went to bed last night—it was fully closed—and only she and the four women had keys. The only explanation that accounts for mud in the closet is that the killer hid in it during the show, came out after everyone was asleep, stabbed Iryne and left through the back.”
He nodded. “Fast enough and she wouldn’t have made a sound.”
“This guy’s a pro, and strong. Yet he was spooked enought to leave behind his expensive knife.”
He scratched his head. “It’s good to know how, but that doesn’t help with who, does it?”
“Not a bit. You want to keep this dirt?”
“Yeah. Find an envelope for it.” I turned. “And thanks. Thanks a bunch.”
“I just wish I could identify that smell.”
“Will the luminol affect it? Should I have Heck wait on that?”
“If it were me, I’d cut out part of that section of floor and save it.”
“Good idea. Show me where it is.”
I took him to the closet and pointed. He got down on his knees and inhaled.. “You said it was strong, but I can’t detect a thing.”
“I have a good smeller.”
Kane used a pencil to draw a five-centimeter square and sat back on his calves. “How’s that? Do you need a bigger sample?”
He pulled out a Swiss Army knife and cut, going all the way down through the burlap backing and moisture barrier. He pried it out with the screwdriver blade and handed it to me. I dropped the dirt in one of the envelopes Emily handed me and slid the lino square into the other. Kane took both.
I waved at the buckets and other paraphernalia I’d pulled out. “Should I put this stuff away, or—”
“I’ll do it after the luminol is done,” said Emily.
Kane checked his watch; 1600. “I have reports to write up. Let’s call it a day.”
“Sounds good. Need me tomorrow?”
“Maybe in the afternoon. I’ll be at chapel in the morning.”
“I might come back for tonight’s show. Maybe I’ll run into you.”
“I’ll be here.” Only after I was halfway back to the compound did I realize I’d made a date.
Saturday, November 14, 1970
China had a bridge game going in the break room of the EE building. I watched her bid and win five no trump before I asked if anyone had a cold beer I could buy. Her partner was Scanlon’s second-in-command, SSG Yerby, who wore a scruffy mustache that looked like a blond caterpillar. “I’ll get you one, just let me finish this.”
Yerby laid out the dummy hand so China could play it; he was my height and half Scanlon’s weight, with a voice I could barely hear. “C’mon with me. You can’t drink it in here, though.”
Can’t drink in the EE building? What kind of shop was Scanlon running? I followed the E-6 out the door. “If we can’t drink in the air conditioning, where can we drink?”
Yerby pointed to the top of the bunker; two or three people were already up there, enjoying time off in the late afternoon sun. In his room, he handed me a cold Blue Ribbon. “Sorry it’s such crappy beer. It’s all they had left at the PX when I got there for my ration,” he murmured. He refused my offer to pay. The walls of the room were papered with centerfolds. Not a speck of wood was showing; I suspected they continued even behind the steel lockers. Nice scenery for Ritchie, I thought.
I thanked him. “It’s better than a 33. If you get to the club tonight, I’ll buy you a round.” He strolled back to the EE building while I climbed up the ladder to the top of the bunker. The compound was laid out much like the one at Củ Chi, the EE and generator buildings in an “L” shape, a parking lot for vehicles, a bunker, a hooch with showers and a john at the far end. Across from the hooch was a small open area. In Củ Chi, we had the space set up for horseshoes; here, there was nothing but gravel and an OD green container for storing paint. Between the paint storage and the rear wall of the generator building were the four 12,000-gallon underground diesel fuel tanks that kept the generators running day and night. Four big access hatches on yellow-painted concrete tubes poked above the baked mud ground and let the civilian generator operators check fuel levels in the tanks and analyse the water content. The whole fuel area was marked off by orange-painted railroad ties. Even as far away as I was, I could smell diesel and creosote, so I supposed the generator operators here didn’t keep to the maintenance checklist as well as those in Củ Chi.
There, from the top of the bunker, you can see a long way, as far as the single mountain—Núi Bà Đen—on the distant horizon, because the trees aren’t very tall. Things grow faster in the Delta, though, and the jungle here wasn’t that far away, so the trees outside the burned-off zone around the perimeter were tall enough to block a view of the horizon. At Củ Chi, the nearest village was a couple of klicks away, but here, they’d allowed shacks to spring up at the edge of the bare zone. If I stood on the tarps and revetment panels that covered the top of the bunker, I could see the main gate and the shacks amongst the trees.
“Have a seat, Specialist,” said SFC Scanlon. He was wearing civilian clothes; jeans and poncho-like shirt, love beads, peace signs and a bronze marijuana leaf on heavy chains around his neck. I did a double take. He grinned and preened his handlebar mustache. “I was wondering when we were going to see you up here.”
“Right.” I sat in the proffered lawn chair. “How’d she get the name China?”
“Dunno. We’re all afraid to ask.”
He gave a little sideways motion. “Play bridge with her sometime, you’ll find out.”
“I won’t be here long enough. I’ll ask her.”
“That’d be cool. Hey, you smoke dope? ’Cause if you do, Sheber here’s got a nice stash. He buys from baby-san.”
Sheber heard his name and lifted his head to give me a sickly grin. He was acne-covered and pasty white, with the build of a garden rake. “It’s really good stuff. Lots of flowers.” His voice was barely audible, weak and whispery.
“Can’t do it on duty or in the EE building, but I don’t care what you do on your own time.”
“No thanks. I’m a drinker. What’s with this no alcohol inside?”
Scanlon rolled his eyes. “That’s the XO’s doing. He said he’d court martial anyone he caught with booze—or anything else—inside.”
“That’s weird. It is against regs, of course, but no one enforces them. Even in Long Binh, stay in the break room with it and you’re fine.”
“Lieutenant Thornberry’s got religion,” said Sheber.
I opened my mouth to say something, but Scanlon cut me off: “I’m not about to cross Dingleberry.” He swallowed most of a beer and looked off at the jungle. I got the message.
Most officers had the sense not to get between the troops and their booze, so Thornberry must’ve really gone off the deep end at least once, if the higher-ranking NCOs didn’t even try to straighten him out. Officers like that got their way but lost the respect of the people there were supposed to lead. My brother Josh had one of those in his battalion in Germany; as he put it, “Woe betide his ass if some of these guys ever catch him alone.” Here, bad combat officers get fragged in the jungle; the opportunities in Germany were more limited. I was glad Josh had more sense—usually—than I did; in his situation, I’d likely be a betider.
Ritchie climbed up the ladder. “I shoulda known you’d be where the drinking was. I got some stuff for you.”
I got up and followed him down the ladder. “Yerby’s roommate got to go to Australia on R&R, the lucky bastard, so I’m staying with him.” We went in and he handed me the paper bag he’d left on his bunk. “I bought all they had.”
I looked. Three boxes of tampons. If my flow wasn’t too heavy, they’d last me three months. “What do I owe you?”
“Buy me a drink sometime, don’t sweat it.”
I’d been desperate my first month incountry. The Vũng Tàu PX hadn’t had a thing, and I’d used rags until I’d belatedly realized I could ask the mama-sans for help. They’d taught me the words and brought me black-market pads, but wanted a carton of cigarettes in payment. I smoke all six cartons of my ration every month, so I paid an extortionate sum in MPC instead, all so I could wear something that felt too much like a diaper. Momma now sends me little boxes of panti-liners in every care package, and sometimes she’ll remember to tuck in a box of tampons, but I’d rather she use the space for cookies. I hoped we wouldn’t be stuck here at Shannon-Wright long enough for my period to start, but I could stop obsessing for a couple of months. “Ritchie, you’re a gem.”
“No big deal.”
“It is to me.” Rather than acknowledge that women had special needs, the military found it simpler to pretend we were all men. Even our dogtags had ‘M’s on them.
“Eh.” He shrugged it off. “D’you know when the club’s going to open? I was thinking of seeing if Chona wanted to get together. After the show.”
“They’re open now, but I wasn’t going over until after 1800. I have to call Sgt. Hutchens and let him know what’s going on. If you wait for me I’ll walk over with you.”
“Good idea. No telling how long we’ll be stuck here. I’ll be on the bunker.”
I went into the EE building while he climbed the ladder to drink and wait for sunset. Twenty minutes later, I joined him.
“How’d he take it?”
“He said, ‘That Ritchie always was a fuckup. I’m not surprised he went and got hisself mixed up in a murder’.”
Ritchie laughed. “No, really.”
“Well, he wasn’t happy. He said Joel would blame you, but that he’d calm him down.”
Ritchie’s in the RF section, not Tech Control, and Joel Tarrant is his boss. Joel gives everyone shit, but he hassles Ritchie unmercifully. Joel is the reason that Ritchie is still a PFC. He refuses to put anyone up for promotion. Hutch and I were trying to figure out a way to get around that, but we hadn’t come up with a good way to do it without pissing off Sgt. Tantrum. With sufficient provocation he’d go over Hutch’s head and get everyone in trouble.
I looked outward; it was Saturday night in Việt Nam, where, if you’re not out in the jungle or the swamps fighting for your life, the most popular pastime is drinking enough to pass out. In Củ Chi, home base for the 25th Infantry, small ambush patrols would be going out the tiny side gates, big enough to let one person through at a time, heading out to set up in what amounted to duck blinds to wait for VC trying to sneak past. They did a good business.
Here in the Delta, most of the fighting was on the rivers by the Brown Water Navy in their heavily armed riverboats. What dry land there was was relatively safe. Which meant that the need for large bases to support large numbers of infantry didn’t exist this far south.
After a while I scrounged up a hunk of wood and propped it up against a sandbag. It made a decent target for my knife. Ritchie moved his chair so he could face away from me, and Sheber smoked dope, moving less than a snake on a hot rock. Two guys I hadn’t met shared a bottle of scotch without exchanging a word. At dusk, it became harder to see the board, so I folded the blade and stuck it back in my boot. Ritchie followed me to the bottom of the ladder, where the Detachment had put up an old parachute awning over the gravelled area. Lights shining through the cloth illuminated a picnic bench and charcoal grill with an eerie underwater green.
I went into the EE building to find someone to let us out the gate, but rather than leave her bridge game, China tossed me her gate key. “I don’t go out much,” she said. “Don’t lose it and don’t forget to give it back.”
“Thanks.” Ritchie and I walked to the Get Dead Drunk.
He found a table near the stage. “Let’s sit here.”
“Nah, I’d cramp your style. I’ll be at the bar if she uses words you don’t know.” I found myself a stool at the end of the bar where Emily was working.
“You look like a bourbon gal to me,” she said, putting her hand on a bottle of it.
“I like bourbon. I like tequila. I drink vodka and rum and beer and some things you never heard of. Won’t touch scotch.”
She poured a double of Early Times. “Yah. You wait until someday you got nothing else.”
“Already been there. I drank a bottle of Aqua-Velva and left the scotch to poison the rats.” I exaggerated a little. If there’d been scotch, I would’ve drunk it—after I’d finished the shaving lotion. It had not been my best night. Or the next few days, either, as the stuff worked its way out my pores. People edged away from me in formation.
“You’re a hard case, Holmes.” She watched me swallow the drink and hold out the glass for a refill. “China and I are going over to the little orphanage on Green Island—Đảo Xanh—tomorrow morning, to take food, clothing, chocolate. We even have a few toys this time. Want to come along?”
I swallowed my refill. “Mmm, how early?”
“Maybe. Check with me tomorrow.”
“China can wake you up.”
It wasn’t the time; drunk or sober, I almost always woke up at 0600. I didn’t want to be pinned down; I was planning on nursing a heavy-duty hangover. But when didn’t I? “I’ll probably come,” I told her. Someone at the far end of the bar yelled for service, and Emily splashed another drink in my glass. “Leave the bottle.”
Someone took the stool next to me. “Hey, Holmes.”
“Kane. Fancy meeting you here.”
When Emily returned she slid an open Bud over to him; he hadn’t asked. He sipped, and furrows I hadn’t noticed in his forehead smoothed out. “Ah.”
“I assumed you didn’t drink.”
“I’m a Catholic, not a fundamentalist.” I tipped the bottle, filling my shot glass to the brim. He watched while I drank it, not spilling a drop. “How’d you like to go to church in the morning?” In the dim light, his eyes looked grey.
“Sorry, I’ve already agreed to go with Emily to an orphanage.” Emily’s lips moved in a smile and she moved on to the next customer.
Kane drank from the bottle. “You wouldn’t have enjoyed it anyway.”
“Am I that transparent?”
“Maybe when it comes to church.”
“I might have considered going, but only because you can sing. Is there a choir?”
“They don’t have one here. I tried in Dong Tam, but there aren’t enough singers—and not enough interest. I’m not allowed to simply order people to go to services.”
“Free will and democracy will thwart you every time.”
Emily got up on stage and announced that the show was about to begin. It was pretty much the same show as last night without the juggling; Chona didn’t have a lot to do, so she mostly sang backup. It was easy to tell that she was depressed. I watched the show so I could watch Rat.
I watched her until intermission. The bottle I’d bought from Emily was nearly gone; I saw Rat looking at me through the crowd on her way to the bar. I saw her glance at Kane, but he didn’t notice. He swiveled to face me. “How about dinner tomorrow night? They’ve got a restaurant here; it’s not the Loon Foon.” A terrific place on Long Binh post. “But it’s halfway decent.”
“Dinner? Sarge, are you asking me out? On a date?”
He swallowed nervously, the first chink in his composure I’d seen, then nodded.
Despite the utter lack of sexual vibes, I liked him. He was competent, he was good company, he knew his business and was in control of himself and as much of his environment as was in his power. He seemed to avoid trying to control women. He was handsome and muscular without being musclebound, I put him at around thirty, seven years older than me. Momma would have approved; I could hear her voice in my head: “Andrea Kristín Holmes, he was nice enough to ask, you accept graciously like the polite young lady you know how to be.” There was no reason in Momma’s world that I shouldn’t be attracted to him. By this time, Renaldo’s face was flushed; he looked away. I’d been staring at him. I refrained from pointing out that most women feel like sides of beef most of the time, because if I read him correctly he already knew. “I’d love to. Do they offer Vietnamese food?”
“I’ve never asked. I’m willing to try.”
“Ever eat bugs?” I teased, thinking of Long running up the road tossing a smile over his shoulder.
“What have I got myself into?” He pulled a face and waved for another beer.
Emily gave Kane another Bud. “Where’s the other barkeep?”
“You mean Speedy? It’s his night off.”
“Kane, what about Speedy? He was here late, maybe he noticed something.”
“Good thought. I’ll schedule him for a talk tomorrow afternoon.”
I looked around the club. Ritchie and Chona were smiling and laughing. With almost no language in common, they were having fun, with no need for a translator. She was almost as attractive as Iryne had been, and when she put her hand on his, I knew he wasn’t spending the night in Yerby’s room.
I felt a hand on my leg. The leg on the opposite side from Kane. “Hi, Rat.”
Her voice buzzed in my ear. “After the show I’m gonna go for a walk, and I might as well plan on ending up by that ammo bunker with a bottle. You wanta join me?”
“Yes,” I thought, but what I said was,“I’m gonna try to get a little more sleep tonight. Less drinking.”
Rat’s face closed up tight and she turned her back on me. I wanted to shout at her; instead, I grabbed the bourbon bottle and left. I wondered briefly what Kane had thought when he looked around to find me gone.
Vĩnh Long isn’t a big base camp, so there was one EM club, one USO club, one restaurant, one movie theatre. Long Binh, with 60,000 troops, had multiples of everything—including country clubs—but here, there were no other clubs to go to, so the bunker was my only choice.
From the top of the 369th’s bunker, I could see nearly the whole camp. Everyone else had already gone to bed. Most of the place was silent. A few lights, regular old American streetlights, sparked here and there on the base. Dogs barked, now and then, and insects provided a constant background drone. Geckoes scrabbled over the tarp. There was a little light pollution from the nearby city, but surprisingly little noise. Everyone but the VC was in bed, with the exception of a few guards, a few parties in clubs like the one I just left, and hard cases like me.
In Củ Chi I could have watched the war on Núi Bà Đen. Here, there was nothing to see but the darkness, nothing to hear but waves and wind, the whispers of lovers from the city, nothing to feel but the heat and the breeze, nothing to see in the sky but stars. I thought about Rat, I thought about China, I thought about murder. I finished the bottle and caught myself just before I tossed it over the fence into the swamp the way we did in Củ Chi. Here, there was no swamp, so the bottle stayed on the tarp. I fell the last two steps getting off the ladder because I was drunk, but because I was drunk I didn’t hurt myself.
China let me in without complaint, maybe because I was there before midnight. She re-locked the door behind me while I fell into my bunk, which the mama-san had thoughtfully made up. I’d meant to take my clothes off, I really had.
Sunday, November 15, 1970
At 0900, China and I walked to the club to meet Emily. Shoving between the trestles supporting the old fuel tanks, she knocked on the back door. It was already hot; the ten-o’clock flowers were open, the dew barely burned off their fleshy leaves. Rat, eyes red, answered. “I’m going too. Emily’ll be a few minutes.” She came out into the small yard and closed the door behind her. “Ritchie and Chona are still asleep; they had a long night. And Maxie’s not coming; Maxie doesn’t want to help anyone but herself.”
While China stood a few feet away to avoid the smoke, Rat and I lit up. A C-130 and a loach flew in opposite directions overhead. I sat on a railroad tie and rubbed my eyes. China and I had showered together, but my head had throbbed so much I couldn’t enjoy her tattoos. My mouth tasted like the daily shit-burning had been held there. Rat sat next to me and groaned. “I could offer you a little hair of the dog,” I said.
“No thanks, my hair hurts just fine without your help.”
“Now I don’t have an excuse.”
She started another cigarette. “You hurt my feelings last night,” she said softly.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t—don’t want to lead you on.”
She was silent a moment. “You don’t even want to be friends?”
I swallowed. “If I can—”
She put her hand on my shoulder and squeezed. She was opening her mouth to say something when Emily came out the back door, carrying a duffle bag. “Somebody needs to grab this other one,” she announced. I hauled it out. “I’ve called for a deuce-and-a-half to take us to the waterfront. When it gets here, y’all can help me load the rice.”
The rice, donated by the 369th compound, turned out to be in hundred-pound bags, eight of them. “They didn’t exactly adopt the orphanage, but they all agreed to add a few dollars to the mama-sans’ pay, so’s I could buy rice. The place gets nothing from the government. The big orphanage just outside the city gets donations from the whole base and is supported by the Catholic church, but this little one needs all the help it can get.” Emily grabbed a bag and muscled it up into the truck bed. I followed suit, and Rat helped China.
We only had a short distance to go to Vĩnh Long City, but it was a bumpy ride. The deuce driver wasn’t good at dodging the numerous potholes. I wondered if the Army was in charge of the road; most Việt-maintained roads that carried much traffic were paved and kept relatively smooth. The four of us and the guard, Corporal Thompson, bounced around in the tarp-covered bed of the truck, keeping company with the duffle bags and hastily-slapped-together crates. We finally pulled up at the quay on the edge of the Sông Cổ Chiên.
The driver parked the deuce next to the Phưồng Thủy restaurant, where he would guard the truck while we were gone. A blue and white boat, its peeling paint showing grey boards here and there, lay low in the thick brown water; floating rafts of water hyacinth drifted past on the rapid current. A skinny teenager in a loose white shirt was our helmsman; when he saw us, he shouted out, “Dee-dee mau, hurry!”
The driver and an old man with a gold tooth and a permanent lip cigarette loaded the rice for us. Emily, China, Rat and I climbed in. Even when Emily needed help, the kid didn’t stop messing with the motor. I stepped up and shoved one foot in the boat, used the other to steady us, and gave her a hand. The kid got it going and the old man tossed the line into the boat. The pilot backed us away from the quay, out into the river to catch the current. I tapped our guard on the shoulder. “What’s your name, Corporal?”
“Andi. I meant your first name.”
“Call me Raz. Uh, Andi.”
“Raz? What’s that short for?”
“Erasmus. My dad’s a big fan of Erasmus Darwin. He’s a professor.”
The kid lit a new cigarette from the butt of the old one, which he flipped into the silt-laden waters. A klick away on the south bank, I could see a dozen or so beehive-shaped pottery kilns peeking out of the jungle. The smell of rotten fish came from a nước mấm factory nearby. The boat headed away from them, the American-made outboard buzzing noisily as it pushed the boat through the water. It took several minutes to reach the halfway point; the Cổ Chiên at this point wasn’t as far across as the Amazon, but it was as nearly a river sea. Midway between the mainland and the island, the banks became thin green strips cutting the water from the sky.
As we motored into the channel splitting the island, the far shore grew closer and closer, An Bình on our left and Bình Hòa Phườc on the right. I could see that houses and buildings were spaced more widely than in the countryside near Vĩnh Long. We buzzed past the Mục Đồng Buddhist temple and a little further along, a Catholic church. The church was in much better condition than the temple. Most of the population is Buddhist; only 9% is Catholic, but it’s the Catholics that have the money. When Diệm had been president, they’d also had plenty of political power.
Halfway through the channel, midway between the Cổ Chiên and Tièn Giang rivers, the helmsman cut the motor and we drifted to a pier on Bình Hòa Phườc island, the east bank. Little streams and minor channels cut Bình Hòa Phườc into smaller pieces, some of which have names and some of which don’t. The piece we’d come to ground on was named Đảo Xanh. Green Island.
The boat boy tossed the line to a bent old woman wearing a cone hat. She looked at least 90. All of us except the kid climbed out; he stayed put and made no move to help. The old woman offered her hand to Emily and assisted her scramble to the pier. I thanked her in Vietnamese—“Cám ơn nhiêù lắm”—which earned me a sharp look from the boy. Good; I hoped he was nervous about some of the comments he’d muttered about rich American women.
“Không có chi,” the old lady quavered. It’s nothing. I started to ask her about the rice when eight boys around twelve to fourteen swarmed toward the pier.
A small rickety sign, intended for Americans, pointed to a path of hard-packed yellow clay through banana and ficus trees: “This way to Orphanage of Tan Mai 200m.” Emily led Rat, China and me down the path. Behind me, the old lady headed the procession of boys carrying the rice. Thompson brought up the rear. The shade was cool compared to the sweltering oven that the tin-roofed boat had become on the trip across the river sea.
The orphanage, painted a bilious yellow-ochre, stood in a shaded grove; the play-yard contained a swing set with one working swing, a large sandbox minus one wall, allowing sand to leak out on the north side, and thirty or forty small-to-medium children, dressed in blue silk pants and white silk shirts, standing in a circle listening to a thin woman wearing a white aó daì over white pants.
I put her age at around fifty, although her skin was smooth and unlined and her figure was as trim as China’s. Her hair was liberally sprinkled with grey, but she still wore it in a long braid down her back, almost to her knees. I was reminded of my grandmother who had had white hair that reached to the floor when she stood. Every night before bed, she would brush it 100 strokes.
The woman interrupted herself when she saw our group. “Children, children, the Americans are here!”
In tiếng Việt, the word for “American” is “Mỹ,” flower. It’s because of the flag; the stars looked like flowers to the Vietnamese, so now all of us are flower children. The little boys and girls began jumping up and down and shouting and laughing, crowding around us and holding out their hands. Emily dug in the duffle bag she was carrying and handed out Snickers bars for us to distribute. “They hold up better in the heat than plain Hershey’s.” We each took a dozen and got busy passing bars to the yelling children. Rat was sweating profusely; her denim shirt showed wet spots in the armpits, and her bare arms and calves shone in the dappled sunlight. Three tours and she still wasn’t used to the heat.
After the children had spoiled their lunch with the candy, we handed over the toys and clothes in the duffle bags to the woman in charge of the orphanage; she told us to call her Rose. “Hoa hồng, không?” I asked.
She flashed me a sweet smile. “Just Hoa,” she said in tiếng Việt. “But I like ‘Rose’ so much I use it all the time. Even the children call me Miss Rose.”
I’d never heard of anyone actually preferring the name they chose to tell Americans; most GIs had no idea that Vietnamese was a tonal language and couldn’t even say ‘thank you’ correctly. They got along because the words for “how much” are toneless and every Việt knows some English.
Rose insisted we all stay for lunch. She put the four of us, with the guard, at her table. I ended up sitting beside her, close enough to touch, with a tiny girl to my left. A studious, tall girl wearing gold-rimmed glasses planted herself just as close to China, who, with her plain, black-framed specs, could have been the girl’s older sister.
The old woman didn’t join the group, so I assumed she was the cook. Lunch was rice with bits of fish and vegetables, liberally doused in nước chấm, a dip made with fish sauce. I ate just like the kids; hold the bowl up to your mouth and sweep the rice mixture in with đũa, chopsticks. Not eating like an American made them laugh and laugh at me, wrinkling their noses and holding their đũa and bowls as if the bowls would run away, some of them showing their lack of teeth, or combinations of baby and permanent teeth. Emily did well enough, although she left a lot of the fish; China ate everything. Rat and Raz Thompson both asked for only vegetables, and still hardly touched their food.
The children practiced their English: “Where you from? How old? How many kids?”
When they asked, “Where you from?” they meant what state, what big city. I told the girl next to me I was from Chicago, although that’s only marginally true, and she lit up. “Gangsters! Al Capone! Bang-bang!” China was from San Francisco, but most of her family lived in Chicago. I’d thought Rat was from New York City, but she said, no, she was from Long Branch, New Jersey.
“I don’t even know where that is.”
“Not that far from Atlantic City. On the Jersey shore.” She picked at her food, sniffed dubiously at it. “My mother’s a Rabbi at Monmouth Reform Temple. Close to Ft. Monmouth?” But I’d never been there, only heard of the Fort because it was a Signal Corps School.
The kids didn’t ask Emily where she was from because she was there most Sundays. I noticed that while most kids wanted to practice English, the girl sitting with China was helping her practice Vietnamese. China looked happier than any other time I’d seen her.
“I know a little about Chicago,” said Rose. “I used to have a friend I wrote to, and she used to send me pictures. Where did you live?”
“With my great-aunt, in Wheaton.”
“I don’t think I’ve heard of it.”
I told her where it was, and ended telling her about all the places I’d lived growing up. She seemed fascinated.
After lunch, I lined everyone up for a group photo, with Rose on one end and a teacher on the other. The two grownups held their cone hats in their hands and smiled. The tall, long-haired girl who’d sat next to China edged behind Rose to hide from the camera. But after the group shot, she pulled China to the side and motioned for me to take a picture of the two of them together. She linked her arm through China’s; her delicate features counterpointed China’s strong jaw. In a nearly inaudible voice, she asked me for copies.
When we got ready to leave, the others started down the path to the water, and I held back to talk to Rose. “How much would a new swing set cost?” She took the bills I handed her with a grateful smile. I didn’t make a lot as an E-4; most of what I made I drank and pissed away; but this I could afford.
She held my hand. “I hope you will come back and see it.”
“I’m going back to America in January, so I don’t think I can. But Emily can take photos; I’ll make sure she knows how to get in touch with me.”
“Oh, no, you should give me your aunt’s address now. I will send you pictures.” I wrote down the orphanage address while I was at it.
Rat was waiting for me partway to the boat, wearing an amused smile. “What did you give her money for?”
“A swing set. I saw the old one was busted.”
“Well, that worked out for her.”
“What are you talking about?”
She stopped. “You’re not going to pretend you didn’t realize Rose was flirting outrageously, are you?”
My ears burned. I turned and walked away.
She caught at my arm. “Don’t be mad, I think it’s sweet.”
“She wasn’t flirting.”
Rat interlocked her fingers, held them under her chin, and batted her eyelashes. “Tell me where Wheaton is, darling!”
“She didn’t do that.”
“She might as well have. And it worked, didn’t it? You gave her your phone number, didn’t you?”
“Just my aunt’s address—ahhhh, why do I talk to you?”
Back in the boat, I noticed that China was holding a white flower of some kind. I hadn’t seen her with it, but I was sure that it came from the tall girl. I resolved to send China copies when I developed them, as well as to the orphanage for the girl.
I asked around: “Anyone object if we take longer going back?” No one did, so I spoke to the helmsman in tiếng Việt. “Take us home a different way. Can we go around the island?”
“It takes longer.”
“We’re in no hurry. I want to see what there is to see.”
“There is nothing.”
“Nevertheless, I want to see it.” He shrugged irritably and started yet another cigarette.
Emily didn’t understand what he said, but she could see. “Don’t mind him, hon, he’s always nasty. I think he’s VC.” She didn’t seem concerned that he might overhear.
The kid guided the boat northward along the channel between the two islands. The channel was as wide as the Mississippi in northern Illinois, but here it was a tiny passage compared to the major waterways in the Delta. We stayed near a bank, underneath the overhanging trees and palms. Emily dug in the cooler she’d brought, and offered beers. Rat, Raz and I took one, and Emily handed one to the helmsman, which brought the first smile I’d seen from him all day. Every once in a while, something dropped from the trees and landed on the boat’s tin roof with a rattle and a bang. Once it was a small green snake, which slithered over the edge and into the water, where it swam off.
“Poisonous,” the helmsman informed us around his cigarette. “Very poisonous. Get bit, you swell up and die in about ten minutes.” He seemed positively ecstatic at the prospect. It mellowed him out enough to tell me his name was Vương, which means king. It also means caught, or trapped, as by a spider. He didn’t bother with his family name, which meant it was probably Nguyễn. The name had been handed out as a reward, the way knighthoods had been in England, for service to an early Việt emperor, or the country. I guess the Emperor must have had plenty of help, because over half the Việt bore his family name now. About a dozen other names make up another forty percent.
We pulled out into the Tièn Giang; a thin green line in the far distance marked the shore. Sunlight glared off the water surrounding us, water which came all the way from the high Himalayas. The Mekong is born in Tibet and runs through China, Burma, Thailand and Cambodia, Laos to here, nearly 5000 kilometers’ travel. In tiếng Việt, it is called the Sông Cửu Long, the Nine Dragon River, because it fans out into countless branches, fingers and talons in the Delta, where every claw and every toe has a different name. Once you’ve met the Nine Dragon River, you can never forget it; from then on, whenever you look at maps of Southeast Asia, all you can see is the Dragon and its claws and its teeth, the Delta in its maw. I put my hand in the flow; it was blood warm, without the ghost of snow from the roof of the world in its breath.
The boat turned left—port—to follow the outer coast of An Bình Island. Although being under the tin roof was like riding in a toaster oven, it cut the direct rays of the sun. The riverine haze had long since burned off. The sky was a flawless clear blue, with not a speck of white. The smell from the river was of a country asleep in siesta; warm water thick with loam, dead fish, dry clay, dusty streets, fetid jungle. Life was slow, luxuriant and certain, the heat constant, the beauty everpresent. As a picture it was seductively attractive—and false: there was a war on, and the Việt don’t have siesta.
But then, most pictures are false.
We motored slowly west, then, following the curve of the island, south, aiming at the city, passing a couple of channel openings, which Vương said cut through the island, like the one that had taken us to Tan Mai orphanage. “Anything to see down there?” I asked, as we drew up to another channel mouth.
He shrugged. “Just as much as any other channel.”
We had rounded the westernmost point of An Bình and were now aiming almost straight southeast. I could see a tiny village on the northern bank of the channel a few hundred meters in. “Take it,” I told him.
He swivelled the rudder and we cut into the smooth, undisturbed water; the way was narrower than the one that led us to the orphanage. I knew he was thinking that there was no telling what the crazy Americans would want. In the village, a pair of women, one smoking a pipe, watched us putter slowly by as they leaned against two mái, the big earthenware pots for storing rice. The thatched roof of the house shaded them from the worst of the glare. No one else noticed us.
Vương spoke. “They say there is an old man, a VC, living somewhere on this island, or maybe on Green Island. A Mr. Tiger. That he fought the French at Điện Biên Phủ, that he is fighting the Americans now. That he will fight until this is one country again and there are no more enemies to fight.”
“He’ll live forever, then.” I lit another cigarette, looked in the cooler and found one beer left. Emily nodded when I held it up, and I opened it, drank. Passed it to Vương. He looked at me a moment, gave me an almost invisible smile, drank, passed the bottle back. I wondered if I could use the snake trick again.
I turned in my seat to face the northern shore, which made it easier to keep passing the bottle, and watched the jungle slip by in the long afternoon sun. We were halfway through the channel when the jungle opened up into a large field crossed by regularly spaced lines of tall coconut palms. Most were connected by three bamboo poles lashed to the trunks, making flimsy bridges from one tree to the next. “Someone out here farming in the jungle?”
“Crazy people. They cut the flowers off so the trees never make coconuts and they catch the sap. Don’t know what for.”
“Ah. I see.” I drank from the bottle. “If you come here early in the morning, are there are guys carrying buckets from tree to tree?” The mananguetes, who knew how and when to cut the flowers, and how to bruise the cut stems to induce the best sap flow.
“Yes. How did you know?”
“They make very strong palm wine—lambanog—from the sap.” The sap is fermented to make awful stuff they call tuba, palm toddy. The tuba is distilled, like brandy, until it’s 90 proof. Distill it twice for up to 160 proof. I considered. “It’s good.” Like drinking lacquer thinner was good, I guess; an acquired taste, acquired years before I was old enough. My family had left the Philippines permanently in 1955, when I’d been eight. Precocious.
“Maybe I can get you some.” He flicked the butt into the water and started another.
“I’d like that.” I watched the plantation. I guessed at least a thousand trees, maybe more. Jungle birds cried as the water rippled past and the motor buzzed. The water flowed around us, warm, brown, turbulent, loaded with silt. Dragonflies and swallows swooped in the air, taking mosquitoes before they could draw blood.
China, who had been listening to our conversation and picking up a little, asked “What made you learn tiếng Việt?”
“I went to the PX to buy this camera—” I held up the Canon FT with which I’d taken shots of the palms. “Afterward, I stood in line for some ice cream outside. The woman selling it was sour and nasty and mean to everyone. Then the guy who’d been behind me started talking with her in her own language. I’d never seen anyone change so fast so quickly. I’d been toying with the idea of picking up a few phrases, but seeing her respond like that made me go right back into the PX to get some language books.” I blew a smoke ring. “So. Why China?”
“My name is Chinatsu. My mother is very traditional; she is issei, although my father is nissei.” That meant her mother was an immigrant from Japan, her father of the first American-born generation. “I’ve gone by China since I was old enough to talk.”
“And your mother’s the only one who calls you Chinatsu.”
She flashed me a grin. “‘That goddamn name China,’ is how she puts it.”
“Momma doesn’t swear, but you should have heard her when she found out the other kids had started calling my brother ‘Red’ instead of Josh. She hates nicknames. Won’t use them.”
“Mothers.” I noticed Rat out the corner of my eye; she was staring bleakly out across the waves, and I wondered what growing up had been like for her. I wished we were alone so I could ask about the Rabbi.
We came to the mouth of the channel where it debouched into the Cổ Chiên, and detoured around a huge flat barge with a crane mounted on it, slowly dredging out buckets of ooze, cleaning out the approaches to the waterway. A few minutes after passing the dredge, we saw the mouth of the Long Hồ river by the restaurant. The old man was still there; as he tied up the boat, I saw the truck driver leaning against the deuce and smoking a pipe. “Hey, Raz, where does he get tobacco for that thing?”
Thompson shook his head. “He can’t get it at the PX. I wish he could, ’cause whatever he smokes smells like he mixes shit into it.”
“He buys it from a Vietnamese smoke shop in the city,” said Emily. “His momma don’t believe in smoking and sends only underwear in his care packages. Won’t even make cookies for him.”
“I’d burn them before opening.”
When we got back to the compound, Ritchie and Chona were juggling the bowling pins the two Filipinas had used in their act. He wore his fatigue pants, an OD T-shirt and his cap. A cigarette in the corner of his mouth made him squint at Chona, who wore three very small iridescent green scraps. They stood on the soft hot tarmac, him in jungle boots and she in bare feet, tossing pins back and forth as if they’d teamed since childhood. “Catch, fucking GI!” Both of them were sweating; it looked good on her.
Yerby peered over the edge of the bunker. “Heads up, Holmes!” A cold beer flew my way and I caught it like a softball in both hands. After I pulled the tab, I watched Ritchie and his girlfriend for a few minutes. Several of the men, including Yerby, watched too. Like me, they mostly watched the girl.
They took a break. “You weren’t lying.”
Ritchie laughed. “I’m still paying my dues to the International Jugglers’ Association.”
Chona wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. “Turuan ako ng wikang Ingles.” He teaches me English. She smiled at Ritchie, aimed her thumb at him. “Magturo sa kanya ng ilang Tagalog.” I teach him a little Tagalog.
I laughed. “Bumili ako ng wiski.” I’ll buy the whisky.
Chona nodded vigorously. “OK!” She nudged Ritchie. “Fucking GI!”
“I think I just volunteered for something.”
“You’re learning Tagalog, she’s learning English, I’ll buy the drinks.”
He smiled. “I never turn down free drinks.”
Chona said, “Hey, taba boy! Bumalik sa trabaho!”
“There’s a lesson for you.”
“What’d she call me?”
“‘Fat boy.’ Then she told you to get back to work! Now you say, ‘Paglangoy ng batang babae!’ That’s ‘Scrawny girl!’”
He looked at her admiringly. “She’s not, though.”
“You guys are pretty good. Too bad you can’t quit your day job.”
He laughed and caught the first of the flying pins. “Sir! I resign, effective immediately! Sir! Why wouldn’t that work?”
I left them learning insults and went to catch a shower before Kane arrived for our date.
Sunday, November 15, 1970
Why couldn’t I have said, “Let’s just have dinner and conversation and not call it a date”? By the time Kane, dressed in clean jeans and a tucked-in white shirt, drove up at an hour past sunset, I was on my third cigarette. I locked the gate behind us with China’s key and hopped into his Jeep. “Let’s go, I’m starving.”
A block or so down the road, he said, “Are we going dutch?”
“It’s either that or I pay.” He cracked a smile. “In Ecuador, by the way, they call it ‘estilo Americano,’ instead of dutch.”
“You were in Ecuador?”
“Yah. Three years of high school.”
“A missionary school, right? Was that the last time you wore a dress?”
“No, that was from Chicago to SeaTac, and from Ft. Lewis to here.”
“Dress greens don’t count.” He waited. “You can’t remember, can you?”
“Back in the States they’ll make you wear class A’s again.”
“It couldn’t be any worse than being stationed at the Pentagon. I’m surprised they didn’t make me starch my fucking panty-hose.” He was quiet. I assumed my mouth had screwed up. “Sorry.”
“Are you apologizing for swearing? I’m no fundamentalist.” He spotted what he was looking for a block ahead and signalled, very likely the only person on base ever to do so. “Are you?”
“No, those guys don’t send out as many missionaries as you might think.” He parked and I got out and walked through the door of the restaurant, which looked like any medium-sized single-story house you might find in a Sàigòn suburb, complete with red tile roof. Kane caught up with me and stood at my side until the hostess returned. “Hai ghế, mong bà.” Two seats, please.
I gave Kane credit for not even trying to hold my chair. The harried-looking hostess slapped two menus on the table, poured water and left. The lights were dim, the walls covered with hanging cloth; ceiling fans spun, making the cloth wave, revealing pocked and cracked green plaster walls. He picked up one of the menus and glanced at it. “Is any of this Vietnamese?”
I read over the other one. “No, there’s nothing but Chinese listed. I’ll have to ask the waitress.” She showed up less than a minute later, wearing a white-flowered red aó-daì.
“What you want?” she asked, trying to hurry us. I asked in tiếng Việt if she had a different menu for the Việt người. “No.” She unbent enough to say, “the chef will make whatever you want.”
“Anything? Then seafood soup for me, and beef phở for him. Two beers.”
She brightened. “Good choice, he is from Hà Nội.” She chased off to the kitchen.
“What was that all about?” Kane wanted to know. “You ordered for me?”
He laughed. “Oh, no reason.”
“I’m only trying to help.”
“I’m sure I’ll love it.”
A bead curtain over the door to the kitchen rattled apart and Long came through it carrying two huge bowls. “Anh Đi! How are you this evening?”
“Long! How long have you worked here?” I waved toward Kane: “He gets the phở.”
Long put the bowls on the table and smiled at me. “My sister is one of the cooks. She made your noodle soup. How have you been?”
“Good. Can you talk for a few minutes?”
“Let me check.” He disappeared through the curtain.
“You were speaking Vietnamese and he was using English, so you must be practicing each other’s languages. But you forgot to introduce us,” said Kane.
“Sorry. His name’s Long. I met him when Ritchie and I stopped at Đại Tòng Lâm, the monastery a few miles up the road. We wanted to see the sights. I got waylaid by the Quan Âm—Kwan Yin—statue. Have you seen it?”
“No, I’m almost as new to the area as you are; I’ve only been to Shannon-Wright three times altogether. And there aren’t many tourist opportunities when you travel by chopper.”
“The statue’s twenty meters tall; she’s standing on a dragon. If you get the chance, you should see it. Ritchie and I gave Long a ride in exchange for tips on where to eat. Richie said the phở he got at the booth was the best soup he’d ever had, so if you’re not impressed with tonight’s, I could take you to the roadside stand tomorrow for lunch. As long as you don’t mind waiting for the ferry.”
He scooped up a healthy portion of noodles and broth and slurped. “Wow.” He closed his eyes. “I don’t have any reference points, but this is so good it’s hard to believe that there could be better pho than this.” He held out his spoon with the handle toward me. “Here, try it.”
I’ve been on dates where men tried to feed me as if I were a little girl; Kane just handed me the spoon. “That’s darn good.” I gave it back to him. “Hanoi thinks they have the best phở, but I’ve only had it here in the south, so maybe I’m—” I stopped. “Sorry. I’m droning on.”
“No, no, continue.”
“You’re just being polite. Tell me about your moms.”
“Changing strategies, Holmes? I know you’re hostessing. Drawing me out to deflect attention from yourself. Tell me about your parents.”
“Yours are quite dangerous, I see.”
“I’m their world domination project.”
Long brought us water. “It’s American, it is safe.” He poured. “I get a break in fifteen minutes.” He raced off to the next table.
“What about Iryne’s murderer, Kane?”
“For Pete’s sake, call me Ren. Andi.”
“OK, Ren. Who killed the girl?”
“And I’d rather not. Iryne?”
He shrugged. “It’s difficult to see how any of the entertainers could have done it. Emily’s got no motive, and as far as Ritchie goes—he may have had the opportunity, but he doesn’t strike me as psychotic.”
“Is it possible that a different blade killed her and then they stuck the switchblade into the wound? Or maybe the knife was stolen. Just because a hand doesn’t fit a knife comfortably doesn’t mean the killer couldn’t have put up with a little discomfort.”
“The autopsy says that the blade was distinctive. No other weapon could have caused the wound. As far as the other things go, the speed and decisiveness of the blow argue against a killer who wasn’t used to that particular knife. The killer knew what he was doing; Iryne died virtually instantly with no time to scream or struggle. Besides, none of the women would have any reason to hide in the janitor closet. They could have just walked from one room to the other.”
“How about the bartender? Was he any help?”
“Speedy? He was more than willing to talk—at length. Fastest talker I’ve ever heard. ‘Did you see anything odd during the show or before you left, Specialist Trask?’ ‘No, and I watched the whole show, but I never heard anything about anything and I didn’t see anyone suspicious. I just don’t see how I could have missed something like that, I must have been pouring drinks. She was killed, that’s all I know. No one ever told me how. I didn’t see anything suspicious. I wasn’t expecting a murder or anything funny like that. I never saw a thing and I like to think of myself as pretty observant, I’m real sorry I messed up. I’d like to know how she died and I’ll keep an ear out and let you know if I hear anything. I didn’t even know she’d died until you guys told me’.” If I’d had to listen to him any longer I would have taken up smoking, so I gave Heck the signal to tell me we had leave right away.”
If I hadn’t been laughing so hard, my ‘Poor baby!’ might have carried some weight. “So he’s not the bartender to pour out your troubles to.”
“It’s like an accountant with no head for math, or a tone-deaf musician. If he calls with a clue, I’ll hang up on him.”
We ate in silence until I became nervous enough to start hostessing again. “How much training do they give you CID agents in crime-solving, anyway?”
“We get basic, like everyone else. We’re all supposed to have two or more years of college, and that’s one reason there aren’t so many of us. Most guys who come into the Army with degrees become officers. We have to be MPs, so there’s that school, but it’s all about keeping order. How to persuade reluctant GIs to leave a bar and come with you. How to put troublemakers to sleep without killing them with our billy clubs. Once you're accepted for CID, you serve an apprenticeship before you go to school. We get the occasional seminar in Long Binh and I read what I can, but our best training is on the job. Some of us supplement that with Army correspondence courses.”
I knew about those; I was working my way through an algebra course. The fat, blue-bound paper volumes oscillated between too simple for words and too arcane for anyone but math majors. If I hadn’t had help from Sergeant Ngai, one of the ARVNs attached to Củ Chi, I wouldn’t have been able to get as far as I had. “The system could use some improvements.”
“You said it. Part of the problem is that we aren’t really centralized; the Provosts for major groups—like the 9th, 4th and 25th Infantry Divisions—are responsible. Some Divisions don’t have CID groups, and they have to depend on others. At the same time, most of our investigations aren’t difficult. Even murders are mostly easy. We just show up and watch for whoever’s so nervous he can’t hold still. 99 times out of a hundred, he’s the one. Then all we do is ask: ‘Did you kill so-and-so?’ and he’ll say, ‘I didn’t mean to do it.’ We arrest him, it’s over.”
When our waitress came back, I ordered Cà phê sữa—Vietnamese coffee—for Kane. “Trust me, you’ll like it.” I poured a double shot of bourbon from my flask into my empty water glass. Kane rolled his eyes.
Long brought the coffee and a plate of lychees, longan and rambutans. “For dessert.” He pulled up a chair.
“Long Quynh, meet Renaldo Kane.”
“Where are you from?” Long asked.
“A small town in Utah. Delta. Sort of in the middle of the state.” He sipped the coffee and looked at it in mild surprise.
“Are you Mormon?”
Long laughed. “No, I am Catholic.”
“So am I. Do you go regularly?”
“If I am near a church. There’s one in Vĩnh Long City. Họ Đạo—” He stopped and looked at me.
“—Vĩnh Long Parish. It is new and modern.”
“Yeah? How many times have you been?”
Long smiled. “Only once, this morning. Before my brother was sent to Sàigòn, he and I went often. But I didn’t like this priest very much, so I will probably only go when Kim makes me.”
“I didn’t go much when I was a kid. ’Course, that couldn’t be helped, since St. John’s in Delta was visited only once a month by a priest. On special occasions, we drove the hundred-forty miles to Salt Lake to go to the Cathedral there, which is where I really got interested.”
“How old are you now?”
“Old. I’m 31.” Kane picked up one of the spiky red rambutans. “How do you eat these?”
“Use thumbnail, push and peel here, pull there, bite, spit out the seed.” Onto the plate.
“This is good.”
I popped the skin off a longan, slid the cool sweet flesh into my mouth, dropped the seed on my plate.
“Hey, do you have pictures of your parents?” Long looked at me.
“I don’t carry pictures on me. What I have are in Củ Chi.”
Kane wiped his hands on a napkin and pulled out a thin leather wallet. “I do.”
Long examined the picture closely for a long time before passing it to me. I held the picture carefully. Two women stood next to each other on the sidewalk in front of Dawn’s Delta Diner, a stucco building painted an unhealthy shade of pink, bearing a “Breakfast Special” sign in the large front window. One woman, a short blonde in her late 50s with a cigarette in her mouth and a pencil behind her ear, was wearing a too-tight pink uniform, a lace apron and rhinestone glasses on a keeper chain. An order pad was stuck in a pocket. She wore white tennis shoes, not the pumps I’d expected.
The other woman was Japanese-American my height, or taller; she towered over her partner. Rail-thin and several years younger than the blonde, she was dressed in a plain black cheongsam that made the most of her slim figure, and hadn’t taken her glasses off for the camera. Her tightly-bunned and chopsticked hair, long expressive face and downturned mouth made her more than ordinarily pretty. The warm late-afternoon lengthened the women’s shadows and emphasized their features. They were smiling so much, Kane had to have been the photographer.
Long asked, “What are their names?”
“Constance Kane and Kimiko Fujimoto. That’s the restaurant they own. American, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, whatever sells. The most popular breakfast dish is kim-chi scrambled eggs.” Kane looked at Long’s face. “What’s the matter?”
Long glanced at me before answering. “They are both women.”
“Does that shock you?”
“It is not very common here. No one talks about it.”
“No one talks about it in America, either.”
Kane grinned at him. “I was a very lucky boy.”
Long laughed and the tension was broken. I handed the picture back. Long cleared our plates after we finished the dessert. The impatient waitress, barely older than Long, brought the bill. Kane calculated our shares to the penny; my share was more because I had had three beers to his one. “Món ăn thật tuyệt,” I told the girl. The food is excellent.
She flashed me a smile. “Because you asked for Vietnamese.” She dashed to another table
We were halfway to the 369th compound before Kane asked if I wanted to go to the club. “No, thanks,” I told him politely. “I’ve got some reading I have to catch up on.”
At the gate, he idled the Jeep. “You’re good company.”
I smiled at him. “Thanks, so are you. I had a nice time.” He leaned forward and I let him kiss me; I didn’t want to hear Momma’s voice asking what the matter was with me. It wasn’t so bad; he was gentle and only a little bristly. It was a fine kiss as kisses go, but it meant more to him than me: he drove off whistling.
I read Dress Her in Indigo in the room for half an hour before I walked to the club to buy a bottle of cheap tequila from Emily. Although I tried not to look at the stage, I felt a gaze on the back of my neck. I started back to the 369th to climb on top of the bunker to drink before realizing I wanted to be alone, and turned to go the other way. There aren’t many streetlights in the basecamps, so the roads were mostly dark. A couple of small compounds had a light or two, but most didn’t. Every once in a while a Jeep would grumble by. I came to the field where the sandbagged ammo bunker and the young rubber trees were, went to the far side of the bunker, sat down and leaned against the wall, facing outward toward the perimeter. The sign that said, “No smoking within 60 feet,” was on the opposite side, so I lit a cigarette.
I prefer to drink tequila when it’s ice-cold, but it’s hard to get that way; I’d have to have bought it the day before. The harsh liquid flowed down my throat and the fire hit me as if I taken it directly into my veins.
Monday, November 16, 1970
I looked around for the moon, but decided I didn’t care. No matter how hard I tried to make myself think of Kane, it was Rat’s face I saw. I thought about Kane’s kiss then thought about her, how I wanted to kiss that wide mouth. Every time I thought about her, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I wanted to feel her hands on me, taste her skin, hear her voice. I drank and looked around. I field-stripped the cigarette, dropped it in my pocket and checked the time. I closed my eyes and imagined what it would be like to be close enough to her to smell her. The night was quiet and cool; a light breeze blew off the river. I slumped down until I was hidden in the long grass, closed my eyes. I imagined Rat’s face close to mine; I put my hand on my belt buckle, thumbed it open—and heard a noise. I sqeezed the buckle, opened my eyes and sat up.
“I wondered if I’d run into you out here.”
My heart thudded. “Hi, Rat. Have a drink.”
She sat close and snuggled up until our arms touched. “Don’t mind if I do.” She took a drink and passed it back. She’d changed her satin pants for a pair of small shorts and the midriff-baring top for a fatigue shirt. “I ought be used to the heat by now. Does it ever get to you?”
I drank, wiped the neck and handed her the bottle. “I like it. Sometimes it’s too warm to sleep, but most of the time—” She leaned over and kissed me. Her tongue probed. I stopped breathing for a while. So did she.
“I’ve wanted to do that since—”
“—The first time I saw you.” It was hard to believe I’d said it out loud. I drank and handed her the bottle.
“Hold this, I need to cool off.” I took the bottle while she undid the buttons on her shirt. She shrugged it off and dropped it on the grass. The sleeveless OD T-shirt she wore outlined her plump breasts tightly, showing her nipples. “Now—”
This time, I kissed her. She put both arms around my neck and I gripped her waist. I was lost in the feel of her lips and tongue, the smoothness of her skin and the taste of her breath. She put her right hand on my left and moved it to her right breast, left it there while she gripped my face with both hands and kissed. We breathed together and I felt her erect nipple on my palm. Suddenly she lifted the T-shirt and I was holding her heavy naked breast in my hand; her hands fumbled at my shirt. We heard a Jeep engine mutter, getting slowly louder. “Whoops. Down,” she whispered. We lay flat, faces close. She kissed me gently and slid her small hand under the cloth. We could see lights approach, round the curve, disappear, but no beams came close to us.
We stayed there another hour, lying flat in the grass, necking and petting, and occasionally drinking. Then she raised up, fed her nipple to me, put her hand on my zipper. I turned my head, put my hand on hers. “No—” I inhaled noisily. “Not—not yet.”
“OK.” She was breathing as hard as I was. “OK.” She lay on her back and tugged her T-shirt down. “OK.”
I tugged and buttoned, had a drink, lit cigarettes and stuggled to relax. It didn’t work. “We better get back.”
She sat up. “I need your lighter.” She dug in my breast pocket, flicked it on near my mouth. “Thought so.” She wet the edge of her T-shirt with a little tequila and scrubbed gently at my lips, then her own. “Lipstick.” She used the lighter again. “Good enough. Next time I’ll take it off first.” She kissed my forehead. “Now we can go.”
We risked a quick kiss when we parted at the club. After walking the rest of the way in a lust-filled daze, I shoved the empty bottle into the flower bed on top of the revetment in front of China’s door. She let me in when I rattled the knob quietly and said, “Must’ve been a pretty good date to keep you out so late.” I climbed into bed.
“Uh-huh,” I said, then wished I hadn’t. Dope. I should have said I was only drinking.
I dreamed about Rat, the smell of her skin, the weight of her breast in my hand, the feel of her nipple in my mouth.
Monday, November 16, 1970
I crawled out of bed in time to shower and make it to work early, even though I had no official job here in the Delta. I grabbed one of the colas I’d stashed in China’s refrigerator and ambled up to the EE building. “I need to call Sgt. Hutch.”
Scanlon threw me a mock salute and went back to his book. “Whatcha readin?” He held up Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, the fattest SF novel of 1968. I went into tech control to use the phone: the only person there was one of the two Việt Sergeants that the detachment had been assigned. “Xin chào, ông Bình,” I said, reading his name tag. “Tôi có thể sử dụng điện thoại?” May I use the phone?
He wasn’t surprised. If they ever harness grapevine technology, we’ll end up with faster-than-light communication. Bình turned the rack-mounted patch panel, lifted the receiver and jiggled the hook switch a few times. On the far end, at Cần Thơ, lights were blinking, alerting the controller on duty that they had an incoming call.
Ten minutes later, I’d been patched through to Củ Chi and SFC Hutchens. “Holmes, what the fuck are you and Ritchie still doing there? You’re supposed to be halfway back by now.”
“I miss you too, Sarge. Look, I thought we’d have this all cleared up by today, but we can’t leave until Kane finds the killer. I wish I could promise Tuesday, but it doesn’t look good.”
“You told me Ritchie was clear; there’s no reason for you to stay.”
“Sarge, the MPs and the CID aren’t letting the entertainers leave either.”
“Maybe they need more coffee to speed up their investigation.”
“You think everything comes down to caffeine.”
“Doesn’t it? Don’t they know there’s a war on? Why’s it taking so long?”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
“Don’t ask yourself if Sgt. Hutch would approve; I wouldn’t, so don’t ask.”
“Oh, you got a care package. I’ll try to keep it safe, but the jackals are circling.” He gnashed his teeth audibly.
“Get back on time, Holmes.” I wondered what was in the box. Oatmeal-raisin cookies, for sure. If there was room, pepperoni for pizza and two loaves of Brazilian bread. The way my dad wrapped things, it would still be in great condition even if it took a week to get back.
I climbed up onto the bunker and looked the site over. This 369th compound was laid out as a north-south mirror image of the one in Củ Chi. The red-and-white painted tower, ten meters tall, sported an antenna that looked like a large, closed cake carrier; the handle pointed at the next site in line. From Củ Chi, that was straight east to Dĩ An; here it was Cần Thơ, fifteen kilometers to the southwest. The communications gear in the EE building took standard telephone circuits from the DCO—dial central office—and sent them via microwave to Vũng Tàu, where signals bounced off the troposphere and connected to the US. High-priority voice and digitial circuits were usually sent to Nha Trang to take advantage of the new undersea cables. If a CO had enough clout, he could pick up the phone on his desk in Shannon-Wright and talk directly to President Nixon. Few did, that was clear. Everything Nixon had done since taking office betrayed the fact that he had no idea what was going on here: no one was willing to tell him. Besides, he had a tin ear.
I drank from my beer and watched a Filipino work on a recalcitrant cooling fan attached to one of the two hefty AC units attached to the wall of the EE building, where all the comm gear was housed. In the generator building, three out of four enormous diesel engines were on line producing around a megawatt of power. The fourth was backup, to be cut in when one of the live ones failed. The AC was to cool the equipment, not the soldiers, who benefited regardless.
A tall white civilian, dressed in baggy khaki trousers and an open khaki shirt over a sweaty sleeveless T-shirt, came out of the generator building to confer with the Filipino. He gestured impatiently at the elderly worker, who nodded and went back to work. The supervisor took the hearing protectors from around his neck, pulled them over his dirty reddish hair and covered his ears. He went back inside.
Seeing the worker reminded me that I had several greenbacks hidden under a flap in my wallet. Into every care package—along with cookies and bread and other items difficult or impossible to get at the PX, like panti-liners—Momma would tuck a bill or two. I could get five to ten times the face value of the dollars in MPC on the black market. Momma didn’t know, and I sure wasn’t going to enlighten her.
The generators were maintained and serviced by civilians working for Pacific Architects and Engineers, who had the contract for all the Army bases. They hired white men to run the generator operation, men from the US or the British Empire. The white bosses, in turn, hired almost no one but Filipinos to work for them, because they worked cheap and were used to the heat. It was hellishly hot inside the generator buildings, far warmer than outdoors. Outdoors in ’Nam meant 35 to 45—95 to 110 in civilian degrees. The workers lived off-base where possible, staying in whatever town or village was convenient. Most had mistresses or live-in maids they slept with. I’m sure some lived with other men but kept it quiet. Because they lived off-base, they were intimately connected to the black market economy.
I clambered down from the bunker to walk across the asphalt to the condenser. I squatted next to the worker. “Ang pangalan ko ay Andi. Ano ang sa iyo?” My name is Andi, what’s yours?
“Jestoni.” A common nickname—his full given name would be Jesus Antonio. He torqued a nut firmly and used a screwdriver to close a relay. The motor engaged and the fan started to spin, but it made a low-pitched noise before he lifted the screwdriver. “The bearing is bad, but Red doesn’t want me to replace it. Too much money.”
“So you load up the oil in a bearing that’s not supposed to need lubrication.”
He shrugged. “It will hold it for a week or so. It will fail, Red will yell at me, which he does anyway, and then I will do it the way I should be doing it now.” He began putting access panels back in place. “Where did you learn Tagalog?”
“It was my first language; I was born in Luzon.”
“You remember it well.” He put his tools down. “I believe you have some money to change.”
I handed him two twenties, a ten and a five, crisp new greenbacks from Momma. “I would be very grateful for MPC.” If I asked for Vietnamese piastres, I could get more, but they were harder to spend.
He grinned, showing a gold tooth amidst his plentiful wrinkles, most of which came from being out in the sun, not age, which I put at early fifties. “Ito ay madali. Bumalik bukas.” Easy. Come back tomorrow.
“Salamat sa iyo, ako ay.” Thanks, I will.
Kane beeped when I was halfway back to the bunker. I changed course. “Lunch?”
“Can you drop me off at the PX after? I need to buy some sody so I can quit sponging off people.” China still hadn’t asked for her gate key back. I wondered what she did for fun. Maybe got tattooed. Maybe visited that girl at the orphanage, if she could get a ride. The gate firmly closed and locked, I climbed in next to him. “Where’s Pancho?”
“Your name; I remembered. There was this show on American TV, The Cisco Kid. I watched it a few times in what had to be 1955. We stayed in Mattoon between missions, with my very cranky grandmother, until she died. The star’s name was Duncan Renaldo. His sidekick was called Pancho.”
“If it’s any consolation almost no one was ever killed.”
“So it was boring.” He pulled up in front of a different mess hall than the one we’d previously used.
“I watched it, so it couldn’t have been too awful.”
“How old were you?”
“I rest my case.”
“I hope you’re not implying I had no taste.”
He grinned, but then said, “Hey, wait. If you were eight there’s no way—”
“So he was in movies before you were born. There couldn’t have been many Renaldos in show business in 1939.”
We went through the line. The main course—no choices offered—was beans and franks with a broccoli side cooked so long it had become an olive-colored paste. I would have preferred nothing, but I took a small plateful to be polite. Kane found a table and we sat. “Maybe tomorrow we should go down to the main gate,” I suggested. “Street carts all over the place.”
“I’m willing. That soup last night was good.”
“You can branch out tomorrow.”
“I’m game.” He swallowed another enormous mouthful. “Here’s something you’ll want to know. Heck found a guard who saw someone walking away from the club in the early AM Saturday. Male, untucked white shirt, blue slacks, longish black hair. He was too far away for the guard to see much else, so it’s not a lot to go on. He was vague about the time, but thought it was around the middle of his watch, which would make it roughly 0400.”
“So now we know for sure he’s male, and that once he got away from the club he was calm enough to walk instead of run.”
Kane nodded, chewed, swallowed. He pointed at my tray with his fork. “You’re not eating much.”
“I’ve had worse.” I ate a hot dog disk. “Anything I can do to help out?”
“Not that I can think of. Unless you can read minds.”
“Oh, lord, I’d kill myself.” I swallowed some beans without chewing. “There’s a story about that. Damned if I can remember what it’s called, though.”
“‘Journeys End,’ by Poul Anderson. Very persuasive. At least I no longer wanted telepathy.”
I drank some water. “Is it OK if Rat and I go into town this afternoon? I have an idea, and I’m getting antsy with not much to do.”
“And you don’t want to tell me about this idea beforehand.”
“It’s probably completely off the wall. The trip may degenerate into shopping.”
“You don’t strike me as a shopper.”
“Rat might be, and like I said, I’m antsy. If nothing else, we can sightsee.”
“Go ahead. I’d loan you Heck’s Jeep, but—”
“That would be so discreet.” MP Jeeps had “MP” stenciled in big white letters on the hood. “I’ve got my own, thanks.”
Back at the compound, I shoved several of the colas I’d bought into China’s refrigerator before collecting my M79 from the EE building’s gun rack. I drove to the club and parked under an isolated rubber tree a half-block away just for the shade. Ritchie and Chona were behind the club practicing. Chona was wearing her teensy green bikini again, the one made of piecework rejects and string. Rat watched them and drank beer. She squinted up at me in the sunlight and said, “They’re getting better, but the way things are going, I’d guess the next step is topless juggling.”
“Hey, I’m all for that!” Ritchie lit a cigarette and admired his companion.
“Shut up, Ritchie. Rat, if you’re not busy, can you come with me into town?”
“Taba boy, you teach me top-less.” I glanced over at Chona, who grinned bawdily; she knew exactly what she was saying.
Rat downed her beer, folded her lawn chair and stepped inside. I followed. She pulled a light white blouse over her sleeveless T-shirt. “Not that I care, but where are we going?”
“I want you to take me to visit those Russians you told me about.”
“That sounds like fun. You want more of Ivan’s Best?”
“That—and to ask them some questions. You can translate.”
We opened the back door just in time to see Chona undo the string holding up her top. “Time to leave!” said Rat, laughing.
We got stuck behind a big U.S. Army diesel tanker and had to slow down to 30 KPH. I asked, “What do you think of Chona? She acts like she really likes Ritchie.”
“She likes doing him, that’s for sure. Those two are like mating snakes. I don’t know why I subject myself to them. I don’t mind all the skin, but they keep taking fuck breaks.”
I laughed. “Speaking of skin, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a revealing bikini.”
“You’ve never been to Brazil, then. It’s called a tanga, although some people call it dental floss.”
“It helps if you’ve got a gorgeous ass to show off.” I imagined her wearing one. “Take the next left.” She handed back my flask and I grabbed a quick drink before tucking it away. “Neither one of those girls has ever been into one-night stands. In the six months I’ve been with this troupe, Iryne only had one fling, Chona none. Of course, lack of privacy could have something to do with it: most other places we have to double up.”
Or maybe Iryne and Chona were good Catholic girls with an agenda. No, I emended, Iryne had been the one with the agenda.
We drove almost to the riverside, to several blocks west of the restaurant we’d used as a base for our trip to the island on Sunday. She had me park in front of a small bar with an open front and two big pool tables visible from the street. An open-fronted barbershop—Thợ Hớt Tóc—was to its right, a glass-fronted and air-conditioned dress shop to the barber’s right, and the store on the left of the bar—HONDA—sold and repaired motor scooters. The scooters spilled out to cover the sidewalk, forcing passers-by into the street. Several uniformed Vietnamese—five men and one woman—were looking them over critically.
Rat led me past the tables to the bar, where a short blond with several days’ stubble was wiping things down. He wore a moderately filthy apron over shorts, not even a T-shirt covering his hairy upper chest. “Здравствуйте. Где Артем?” Rat asked. He thumbed over his shoulder, and I followed her through a a plywood-walled storage room, out the back and into a courtyard. Under what looked like a U.S. Army mess tent, several men were standing around sipping from small glasses.
They seemed pleased to see Rat, and she spent several minutes renewing acquaintances. One of the younger men went off somewhere, and the others sat down. One handed us cups. I sniffed, drank. “Это очень хорошее пиво,” I said, using up almost all my Russian.
They laughed and nodded and tried to find out how much more than “This is very good beer” I knew, but after my third blank look they went back to talking through Rat. I had her ask them about the coconut palms I’d seen on An Bình Island Sunday.
“They say sure, those are ours. They rent the field from a farmer on the island, use the sap to make palm toddy and lambanog. They do a good business with the Filipinos in the area, and have been for years. They’re even starting to sell a little flavored lambanog to Vietnamese, but it’s taking a long time to get going.”
“If the stuff they make is any good at all, it will. Ask them to sell me a couple of bottles of lambanog, along with some of that beer.”
“Ivan—” She pronounced it the Russian way, “ee-VAHN went to get us a case. If we don’t drink it all, we can sell the rest to Emily.” She talked to the shortest of the men, who seemed to be in charge, and he disappeared. Rat and I tried to finish the beer in our cups, but magic refills kept arriving.
The short guy showed up holding four small bottles of yellow lambanog in his hands. Raisins in the bottom supplied the color along with a bit of sweetness I didn’t care for. “Rat, ask him if I can have non-flavored instead, will you?” He returned with four clear bottles, wiped them off, wrapped them in newspaper and put them in a small burlap bag. “How much?”
She consulted. “Art—Артем—says the lambanog is free, we only have to pay for the beer. If you like it, tell your friends.”
“I didn’t expect that.” I counted out MPC and handed them over. “Спасибо.” Thanks. Art smiled broadly and handed back one of the bills.
“He says if you pay in MPC, not piastres, you get a discount,” said Rat. Ivan came back with the case of beer and followed us out to the Jeep. He put it on the rear seat, and smiled shyly at Rat. They exchanged a few words and he waved goodbye and left.
“What did Ivan want?”
“A date. I told him he was too young for me. You jealous?”
“Just curious!” She chuckled.
I started the Jeep. “We’ve got an hour. Is there anything you’d like to shop for?”
“You’re volunteering to sit there like the bored half of a married couple while I try on clothes and ask you if they make my butt look big and you lie and fall asleep and I buy twice as much because you hurt my feelings?”
“Put like that—”
“Ha! I knew it!”
“—It sounds strangely attractive.”
She laughed. “I’m tempted, but some other time, Escamillo.” I pulled out onto the street to head back the way we’d come and tried to remember where I’d heard the name Escamillo. We had to stop at the next intersection for a very long ARVN convoy in which every single driver wore mirrored sunglasses.
We were halfway back, passing a rice paddy, before she spoke again. “Why’d you want the lambanog?”
“You guys doing a show tonight?”
“Yeah. We’re not getting paid any extra, but we can get a few tips. Emily said it was OK to take up a collection, so we’re going to do a short one.” She looked at me and waited.
I swallowed. “Early show, huh?”
She kept looking at me and smiling, and I kept driving. “After the show I might take a bottle and go out to that ammo bunker.”
I could feel my cheeks heating up. “I don’t think you’ll need a bottle.”
Ren stopped by the compound before the show. “Let’s have lunch tomorrow. My treat,” I told him. He drove off looking disgruntled. I grabbed a quick shower, and halfway through, realized he’d wanted me to ask him out for dinner. It was just as well I didn’t suspect it at the time. At 1850 I let myself out the gate and walked toward the club along the side of the gravel road. Halfway there, Long joined me.
“I hope you’re not going to ask me to get you into the show.”
He laughed. “No, I am here to ask you if you would talk to my sister.”
I stopped. “Sure, but why? I thought the restaurant was closed on Mondays.”
“No, it is open every night. Those of us who work there stay overnight and go home in the morning.”
“Why do you want me to talk to your sister?”
He took my hand in his. “She wants to get married.”
“I don’t really trust him.”
“Does he hit her?”
“No, he doesn’t seem to be that kind of person. But I don’t trust him, and I don’t think he loves her.”
“Are you sure you aren’t overreacting? Brothers never think anyone is good enough for their sisters.”
He scratched his head while he thought about that. “Maybe. He is nice enough to me, but distant. He says that when they get married, he will take her back to his country. He will let her take her children—her husband was killed at Tết—but not me. I will have no family left.”
“What about your brother? In Sàigòn?”
He shrugged. “He is bộ đội and has little time, but when he is around Thoai bosses me. I might as well be alone.”
“It seems to me like you do pretty well on your own.”
“I would rather be with Kim.” He pulled his hand away. I didn’t try to hang on; I was anxious to see Rat.
“I’ll talk to her. But that’s all I can do, I can’t force her—” If she were determined to go back to the US with some random GI, there wasn’t anything I could say that would change her mind.
“I know. It’s OK. Thank you.”
“Tomorrow night? I can come by the restaurant.” I wanted to put it off more, if I could.
“To the back door.”
The club was packed as tightly as clothespins in a packet, but I mostly paid no attention. Maxie and Rat sang duets; they harmonized well. You might even think they liked each other. Ritchie juggled balls and Chona juggled knives. Together, they made the clubs behave in ways I thought were impossible. When Chona juggled clubs by herself, she had a way of tossing one behind her head with her right hand and swiveling a quarter turn to catch it with her left. Since she wore her tanga, every time a new section of the audience saw her backside, it broke out in applause and wolf whistles. At the finale, they turned on an ultraviolet light and tossed neon props back and forth, alternating over-arm and under-leg throws in a dazzling, seemingly endless, river of pinwheeling clubs. But whatever else was going on, even when the spotlight was on the jugglers and Rat and Maxie did nothing at the back of the stage—I watched Rat.
The set ended at 2130, and I couldn’t wait to get her away from the crowd.
Monday, November 16, 1970
“Ritchie’ll help Chona pack up. Let’s get out of here,” said Rat. Twenty minutes later we were snuggled together, leaning against the wall of the ammo bunker. The waning moon, still low in the east, threw dim light on the sparse population of young rubber trees around us and silhouetted a guard tower several hundred yards away.
I handed Rat the bottle. “Whoo! That’s—” She coughed. “That’s raw. Like drinking paint thinner.”
“Yah.” I drank some. “It’s an acquired taste, I guess. Not everyone starts drinking it as young as I did. Maybe you should’ve brought something else after all.”
“That’s OK. I have something better to do with my mouth.”
When she began undoing my buttons, I went to work on hers. I pushed the pale blue material off her shoulders and reached behind her. “Josh claims this can be done one-handed,” I said, and squeezed.
“Oooh. That’s a skill to brag about,” she said, and kissed me. I cupped her breast. She raised my T-shirt, pushed me flat and bent her head; her flexible lips met my nipple and I gasped. I stroked her hair.
Near midnight, she put her hand on my belt buckle and popped it open. I let her get further: she had her tongue in my bellybutton and my zipper down, with her hand under the waistband of my boxers, before I froze again. “Sorry. I’m sorry.” I was near tears.
She inhaled raggedly. “No, no, it’s OK. Don’t worry.” She put her arm around my shoulders. “I’m fine. Let’s have some more of that—stuff.” She drank and made a face. “Just how young were you?”
“Seven. I stole it.”
“You must have been a real joy to your mother.”
“Growing up, I heard an awful lot of ‘Why can’t you be more like your brother?’ Or I did, until Josh—my younger brother—took some of the pressure off me. He turned out more like me than our brother Dana, who was just too perfect.” I lit a couple of cigarettes for us. “I spent as much time as possible on the Luzon streets with my friends. Most of them were older, none of them were missionary kids, and all had easy access to booze. Since my parents wouldn’t have alcohol in the house, I discovered that shopowners don’t really expect seven-year-olds to shoplift liquor.” I inhaled. “There weren’t many things I could do right with momma, so after while I learned to do what I wanted and if I got caught, put my ears back like a cat and take it. I got a rightful share of lickings.”
She blew a smoke ring and looked at me. “So. How is this different?”
I blew one of my own and took a drink before answering. Her nipples, pale and pink as a redhead’s, puckered attractively in the cool night air. “It shouldn’t be. But it is. I—” My voice caught and I swallowed some more lambanog. “The only person I ever saw Momma turn away from the mission school was a little girl who had two ‘uncles.” When I told her she was being mean, she slapped me. Then she pulled out the Bible and prayed over me for hours.”
Rat leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. She shrugged into her bra; I hooked it for her. I buttoned up too. Then I put my arms around her waist and kissed her neck. “Maybe tomorrow—”
She touched my lips and stood up. “We’ll worry about tomorrow tomorrow.”
No one was around when I dropped her off at the club. We spent a long time in a goodbye kiss. I only broke the clinch when I felt her hand on my bottom.
Tuesday, November 17, 1970
Kane showed up at 1150. I locked up behind me and hopped in. “Main gate, James.”
“I’ve had those hoagies.”
“Bánh mì. That’s the Vietnamese name, but that’s not what you’re having. You’ve had gyoza and dim sum, right? Bánh cuốn are like those, only better: spring rolls filled with pork and mushrooms.”
Just outside the main gate, a dozen or so carts were parked in a semi-circular cluster on a patch of dusty red dirt. I pointed Kane at a line for a green-and-orange painted cart. It was run by a toothless woman wearing a cone hat and brandishing a thin bamboo stick. I went to one offering Phan Thiết-style fried fish sandwiches. The man operating it had one leg, sparkly eyes, a huge smile with multiple gold teeth, and huge ears that stuck out like bat’s wings. He slit a small-sized Vietnamese baguette, inserted a couple of fried fish patties, added bean sprouts, herbs, peppers, onions, lime juice and tương ớt tỏi—chilli-garlic—sauce.
Back to the Jeep, Renaldo was waiting for me. “How come you’re not having these?” He held up his plate.
“I’m not a big meat-eater. You should have started without me.” I bit into my sandwich. “You weren’t waiting to see if I’d fall over dead after eating one, were you?”
“No, no, not at all. It’s polite to wait.”
“If your moms are running a cafe where the most popular dish is kim-chi scrambled eggs—”
“They sell a lot of rice with kim-chi; they recently added sushi.”
“—how come you don’t have a more adventurous palate?” I bit into my sandwich.
“You wouldn’t believe what they would make me eat. After a while they started claiming that if I hated it the customers would love it.”
“Was that true?”
“Probably not, but I never saw any of those additions on the menu.” He finally risked eating one of the rolls. “Very tasty.”
“Don’t act so surprised.”
“Even my moms had successes now and then.” He ate another. “I used to think they were just torturing me, but now I think they just wanted me to like what they liked. It mostly didn’t work, especially when they tried to get me to like dried squid.”
“You mean Japan’s answer to lutefisk? That was torture.”
He smiled. “What about you?”
“Momma was a terrible cook. When we were on missions, we had chefs, but we went through a lot of them. She insisted they make everything exactly her way. If I’d relied on ‘home cooking,’ I would have starved.”
“What’d you do instead?”
“Street food. Especially in Yogyakarta, where the warungs—tiny little shops—sell the best gado-gado in the world.”
“Why does that sound like ‘the best dried squid in the world’?”
“’Cause you’ve never had gado-gado.” He still had over half his plate to go, while I’d eaten most of my sandwich. I changed the subject. “Can I ask what’s new in the investigation?”
“We’re trying to get in touch with Iryne’s next of kin back in Manila. Phone service is not great, and the only time I connected with a nearby Constabulary, he told me I had to talk to something called the PPP. The connection dropped before he could give me the number.”
“Police in the islands has always been a mess,” I told him. “Nobody wants to accept jurisdiction, nobody wants to do any work. PPP is Pinagsamang Pulisyang Pambansa, Integrated National Police, but they’re no better organized than the Constabulary, so nothing ever gets done and cases don’t get solved. You need to find out what’s to be done with the body, don’t you?”
“Storage facilities are limited. If we have to send her to Long Binh, there’s no telling how long it would be before she got to the islands. Paperwork does get lost.”
“Maybe she was Buddhist and wanted to be cremated.” I knew she wasn’t, though.
“Chona says no, she and Iryne are both Catholics.”
“She told you?”
“Ritchie told me. He and Chona are working out ways to communicate.”
“Is that what they call it?”
“Have you watched those two lately? There’s more going on than simple infatuation, Andi.” He finished his last spring roll. “See what you think the next time you see them together.”
“Mmmm.” I was reluctant to admit that, despite what Rat had said, all I had seen had been lust.
He picked up on my reluctance. “I forgot that you were supposed to be the perceptive one.”
“Now you’re reminding me of my mother.” Too damned observant.
He grinned and started the Jeep. “I’ll take that as a compliment.” We dropped the trash in a barrel and drove underneath the big arch that read “Vĩnh Long Installation.” He turned toward the 369th and asked me, “What about your lead in Vinh Long City? Did that pan out?”
“No, but I got some good beer. Stop back after work and I’ll give you one.”
“I suppose I could drive you home in your Jeep and walk back.”
“Says the woman who drinks three to my one.”
“If you want more than one Ivan’s Best, that’s the deal.” He pulled up at the gate and idled.
He looked at me long enough that I wondered if he were going to try to out-macho me. He shrugged. “Shikata ga nai.”
“Japanese. ‘It cannot be helped because it can’t be controlled’.”
“Good advice.” I didn’t want to be kissed, so I hopped out and fished for China’s key.
He spoke before I could open the padlock. “I don’t suppose you have any contacts in Manila, do you?”
“Not from when I lived in the Philippines, no.” I scratched my head. “Well—maybe. My SIC mentioned a friend stationed at Clark Air Base.” I took the last cigarette from the pack, lit it, and handed him the unfolded wrapper. “Give me the phone number of the office you’re using. I’ll call Sgt. Hutch and let you know.”
He looked at the pack wrapper, shook his head and pulled out a pen. He wrote and handed it to me. “Now I expect a miracle.”
“It may take one.”
Ten minutes later I was talking to Hutch. “Didn’t you mention you had a friend at Clark Air Base, near Manila—?”
“How did you ever become friends with a Colonel?”
“Not only that, he’s a full bird Colonel,” he said smugly. “What do you need with him?”
I was hopeful; with a chicken Colonel on our side, something might get done. I explained the situation, pointing out that anything he could to do expedite matters would get me and Ritchie back sooner. “Can you have him call here?”
“I’ll do what I can.”
“I’m running out of coffee already.”
“I’ll see what I can do.” He snarled and hung up. I was pretty sure I could sweet-talk Scanlon into donating a can.
I went into the break room where China was engaged in what appeared to be a perpetual bridge game. “Want to play a few rubbers?” she asked. “Yerby’s playing like shit today and he needs a stiff drink.”
“No, thanks, I’m not very good.”
“You can’t be any worse than he is.”
Yerby looked like he was used to such treatment. He stopped dealing and calmly collected the deck into a neat pile. “I’m ready for a cold drink now. Why don’t we take a break and pick this up in an hour?”
“Find me a different partner who can make up for your shitty bids,” she groused. His mustache twitched and he stood. She looked at me and said, “Can I talk you out of one of those beers?”
“I had no idea you were interested.”
“I don’t drink much, but I do like a small beer now and then. Buddhist moderation.” We walked across the tarmac to the hooch; she opened her door and motioned me in.
I got two Russian lagers from her fridge, opened them and handed her one. “I went to the break room to look for you.”
She tipped the cold beer back and swallowed. “Ahhhh.” She wiped her mouth on the back of her hand. “Yeah?”
“I have a favor to ask.”
She switched on the fans and sat down on her bed. “What?”
I sat next to her and kept my voice low. “I’d like to take pictures.”
She drank. “If you like my tats that much, maybe you should get one.”
“They’d only be for me. I’ll develop them myself.”
She stood and began stripping.
“Here and now?”
“Why not? You’ve got a flash. Everyone is either in the EE building, drinking or sunbathing on the bunker, or over at the club. It’s the perfect time.” She stepped out of her fatigues and underwear. “Well?”
Now or never. I fished three rolls of Ektachrome out of my camera bag, put two on my bed and loaded the third. I mounted the 28mm wide-angle lens—the only way I’d get full-length portraits in such a small space—put a new battery in the flash and mounted it.
“What should I do?” she asked. I took a shot of her face.
“Anything you want. Pretend I’m a journalist and I need full coverage.”
She faced away from me. “Journalist, huh? Not from Playboy?”
Click click click. “Please. Besides, we both know they wouldn’t be interested in you.”
“They might, if I got these enlarged.” She held both breasts. I took four shots in quick succession and wished for a motor drive like the National Geographic staff photographers had. Playboy’s probably used Hasselblads.
“Please don’t,” I told her, and steeled myself. “Your body’s lovely the way it is.” She smiled.
“I could use longer hair.” Regulations were pretty strict.
“Lots of us could.”
It took me only twenty minutes to use all three rolls. “That’s all the print film I have.”
“You said you’ll develop it yourself?” She picked up her T-shirt to mop herself with.
“One of the craft shops in Củ Chi has a color darkroom.”
“You’re the first person I’ve met incountry who does color. Any particular reason you decided to take that up?”
I swapped lenses back before choosing to tell her part of the truth. “I had a roll of prints I needed to develop discreetly. For a friend. Are you worried? I could save these until I get back to the world—”
She laughed. “No, go ahead. I’m just being nosy.” She dropped the wet T-shirt on the floor, but made no move to get dressed. “I may make a couple of pizzas for the bridge club. Why don’t you join us?”
“I think Ritchie’s juggling over at the club this evening. I’ll get something there.”
She shrugged. “’K. I’m going to Dũng’s shop tomorrow afternoon for more work.” She waved at her body. “You’re welcome to come along.”
“Maybe I will.” But it wasn’t her I wanted to go with.
At 1750 I drove to the back door of the restaurant, where I sat on the fence, smoked and watched the shadows grow longer. As I started to light another cigarette, Long and his co-workers arrived. The men wore simple black silk pajamas. The hostess and the two waitresses wore flowered aó-daìs, while the other women dressed like the men. One of the party unlocked the door, and Long brought one of the women over. “This is my sister Kim.” Kim was a knockout, with floor-length hair, a wide mouth and downcast eyes; she had a stunning figure, but she walked with her shoulders forward to avoid calling attention to it.
“Xin vui lòng để gặp bạn, hoa hậu Kim.” Pleased to meet you, Miss Kim. There was a picnic bench under a nearby tree, and Long herded us to it.
Kim spoke rapidly, but so softly that I had to lean close to hear her. “I don’t know what Long is so worried about. My boyfriend will take me with him. We will get married and I will send for Long.” She put her hair up in a bun while we talked.
“That is not what he said. Why are you lying?” Long demanded.
“I am not lying! He only said that my children can come with us, but you have to wait. When we get there and he gets his money, we can send you enough to come too.”
I did not want to be in the middle of this, but Long had dragged me in, and I felt obligated to help him. “Why does your boyfriend want to wait to get married? If he is serious about taking you back, you must marry first. You can’t go to the US on your own.”
“Oh, no, he is not a GI, he is Filipino. He wants a big wedding in Manila.”
Ah. “I see. Has he been married before?”
“No, never. I used to be married, but my husband died in Tết.”
“It would be smarter and safer to marry here and then have a church wedding there.”
Kim shook her head obstinately. “He says this is how his family wants it. He would like to take Long but we can’t afford it. Only after he starts his new job will he be able to send for Long. But he will, I promise!”
I couldn’t make her stand up to her boyfriend. It smelled, but there was nothing I could do. I checked my watch. “I’m sorry, I have to get back now. I’m expecting a phone call.”
Long walked me to the edge of the property. “Thank you for trying.”
“She is determined to do what her boyfriend wants.”
“Yes. It is too bad she is so stubborn. I didn’t think you could do anything, but it was worth a try.”
“Most people like to do things their own way, even if it is bad for them.”
He glanced at my cigarette and smiled. “That’s very true.” He raced back to the restaurant.
Colonel “Call me Chuck” Stumbaugh called fifteen minutes after I got back. “I understand you’re trying to locate the family and obtain disposition instructions for the body of Iryne Madlangbayan. That right?” I held the receiver two feet from my ear: he spoke as loudly as Lyndon Johnson, but without the Texas. I like to guess where people come from—and I’m often right—but his accent was so generically Midwestern he could have been raised anyplace south of Milwaukee.
“Told you, call me Chuck. Now, give me all the information you have.”
I read him everything I had, which wasn’t much. Full description, including moles people wouldn’t normally see. Next of kin, Amboy Madlangbayan, no address listed. Parents’ address and phone number and the parish of the church they went to. “But every time we try to call that phone number we either get a busy signal or no connection. It’s very frustrating, sir. Chuck.”
“I’ll put my best man on it, Andi. Let me give you my direct phone; that way you don’t have to go through a lot of red tape to talk to me.”
I wrote the number down. “If you don’t mind my asking, sir, what are you a Colonel of?”
“Security Police. We’re the MPs of the Air Force.”
“I see. So I—”
“Came to the right place, yes. I’ll get back to you tomorrow, with a report if nothing else.”
“Can I give your number to the CID agent in charge of the investigation?”
“Let’s keep things simple, Andi.”
I called Kane to fill him in, but he wasn’t in the office, so I left a message. I was glad of that, because if I had talked to him, I would have had to lie to get out of a dinner date. I had a show to see. And it wasn’t on stage.
Tuesday, November 17, 1970
I stopped off at the generator building to find out how much Jestoni’d gotten for my greenbacks. It turned out to be more than enough MPC to make up for what I’d given Rose. When I got to the club, there was no show, although there were plenty of customers. Only the crammed-tight feeling was gone. Speedy the bartender slowed down long enough to pour me a full-to-the-brim double and say, “On the house,” before taking my order for a pizza. He smelled of dope, and I wondered if that were the only thing speeding him up.
Ritchie and Chona were at one of the small tables. “I was looking forward to another world-class juggling exhibition,” I told them.
“The girls don’t usually perform more than three days in a row,” said Ritchie. Last night had been the fifth. “Besides, the band picked up a gig in the city, and Rat thinks she’s going to go see them.”
“She in the back?”
“No, she’s right here,” she said over my shoulder. “You want to come too?”
“Sure. It’ll be nice to see what the nightlife’s like.” Speedy waved that my pizza was ready, and I picked it up. “Help me with this. How were you planning to get there?”
“You’ve got a Jeep.”
“What if I hadn’t showed up here?”
“I would have walked to the 369th and gotten your attention.” She bit off a chunk with stringy cheese; grease ran down her chin. “One way or another.” I wanted to wipe her face clean. Or lick; it was a good thing the pizza didn’t last long.
At the gate, the guard cautioned us about curfew. “You got a weapon, Specialist?” I showed him the grenade launcher. “That’ll do,” he deadpanned. I pulled into the road and immediately had to slow down for a massive US Army semi going too fast for Vietnamese roads. Most American drivers pretended they were back home, ignoring the posted speed limits and prevailing traffic patterns,.
“Did you really want to see the band?” I asked Rat.
“I’m sick of them; I just wanted to get away from Ritchie and Chona.”
“Honeymoon still on, hmm?”
“Yes, with no signs of going away.”
“Kane thinks it’s more than a fling,” I said.
“I’d say he’s right.”
“They look at each other the same way: gobsmacked. Sure, they’re still all over each other, but it’s her idea to finally learn some English. He really listens to her, and he’s learning Tagalog. If all they wanted was to fuck, they’re trying to learn a lot more words than are strictly necessary.”
I handed her my flask and said, “I was planning to get all liquored up and get myself an impulse purchase at the tattoo shop.”
She took a big drink. Then another. “That would take more firewater than this.”
“Look under the seat.”
Rat pulled the bottle out far enough to see that it was bourbon. “This is the planning ahead part of the impulse purchase, huh?”
“Yah. What do you think? Am I an idiot?”
“Oh, honey, not only are you asking another impulse shopper, I’ve been thinking the same thing for months. Here’s the town, what are we looking for?”
“Signs that say either ‘Xăm Mình,’ body tattooing, or “Vẽ Mình,” body drawing.”
It wasn’t hard to find. Rat spotted it on a side street and I parked in front.
“Lemme have some more,” said Rat.
I held out my flask. “Having second thoughts?”
She drank half. “Not anymore. You?”
I drank the remaining half. “You want to bring the painkiller or should I?”
~oOo~Outside of downtown Sàigòn, Vietnamese shops rarely have front walls, just pull-out expanding bars to prevent theft when no one’s there. Once inside Dũng’s shop, however, the buzzing flourescent lights made it easy to forget the lack of privacy. The lights attracted moths and other flying critters, and most of the cracks in the pale green plaster walls were covered with tacked-up tattoo designs—flash, in tattoo-speak. I found the one I wanted almost immediately: a big-eyed, green and orange gecko. Dũng had enough English to ask me where I wanted it. I rolled up the right leg of my fatigues and showed him exactly where to put it on the back of my right calf.
He patted the table; I lay down and he swung his magnifying lens and light combo over me. He washed the leg, ran a straight razor quickly over it, washed it again, swabbed me with alcohol, gripped his buzzing gun and went to work. I’d heard that after the first few minutes, your endorphins kick in and you stop hurting. I kept the bourbon nearby anyway, and it was a good thing I did, because It felt exactly like what it was—being stabbed by tiny needles. It hurt like the devil. The noise of the gun heterodyned with that of the flourescent lighting. It became bearable, but there was never a point where it wasn’t painful. Rat kept looking at the drawings on the walls.
Dũng was efficient and fast, taking less than twenty minutes to finish, despite the multiple colors and shading and the cigarette in his mouth. When he was finished, he washed the area for the fifth or sixth time with soap and water, applied a sterile bandage, and said, “Done.” Before he did anything else, he put the needle bar and tube into his autoclave for sterilization.
Rat called me over. “What do you think?”
“It’s very pretty. Where would you put it?”
She unpinned the emerald green butterfly from the wall and held it up. “Here.”
“Does that mean you don’t like it?”
“No.” I swallowed. “Quite the opposite. But don’t get it for me, it’s for you. Are you going to love it in six months?”
Dũng walked over to ask, “You decide?”
She held the butterfly against her, her hands a little shaky.
“Good choice,” he said in Vietnamese.
“Tôi cũng nghĩ vậy.” I think so too.
He smiled at me in surprise. “Tell her I have to shave her.” He was a bit taller than most Vietnamese men, and handsome, in a sharp-edged sort of way; even his hair was spiky.
“She already knows.” I held out the bottle to Rat. “Don’t skimp.” She gulped, handed the bottle back and put her hands on her belt. “There’s still time to back out. You saw the razor he’s going to use.”
“I’ll be OK.” She yanked her slacks and underwear off in one smooth motion and lay on her back on the table. Dũng handed her a towel and she slid it under her butt. Out came the soap and water. When he stubbed out his eternal cigarette, I took it as a sign that he meant to concentrate. He stropped the razor, washed it in hot water, lathered her with soap and bent to his task.
“Bạn không tận hưởng chính mình quá nhiều,” I told him. Don’t enjoy yourself too much.
He chuckled. “Đó là quá muộn.” Too late.
I smiled. “I’d smack you if it weren’t dangerous.”
He was careful and precise. I made sure the bourbon was handy. By the time her groin was smooth enough for him, she was feeling very little pain. He washed her one more time, gave himself a surgical scrub, and loaded a freshly autoclaved, needle bar and tube into a gun. He looked at me. “Maybe give her more. It hurts most over bone.” He prodded her pubis.
I took him at his word and gave her a healthy slug. “That’s probably enough for now.” She watched as Dũng gripped her thigh firmly and his needle gun touched her skin to lay in a fine black line. “Oh, fuck. Don’t go far. Yee-owch!” She reached for my hand and squeezed hard. The endorphins must have worked for her, though, because she let go soon, and an hour and a half later there was still plenty left in the bottle.
And, red and angry-looking as it was, the tat was beautiful. Not too large, the vibrant colors went well with her pale skin. Even though it was going to thwart our plans for the night, it had been the right choice.
He put a dressing on, covering the design. Dũng handed us little tins of salve and gave us our final instructions. Rat clutched at my sleeve to hold herself up. “Keep clean, plenty of soap and water, then rub in a little salve. Take your bandages off tonight,” he told me. “Hers, wait until tomorrow morning. Don’t pick at the scabs, and if you are going to have an infection, you’ll see it in less than two days. If you do, either go to one of your American doctors or come back to me.”
“We’ll be fine. You are very careful. Thank you.” I tipped him $5 in MPC.
“One last instruction.”
“Làm tình cẩn thận.” Make love carefully.
I thought about getting mad, but there was no point, not when it was what we meant to do anyway. “OK.” Twenty minutes later we were back on base; we made it before curfew, but we were the last vehicle in. The guard locked the main gate behind us.
“How’re you feeling?”
“Now it hurts. I could use another drink.”
I handed her the remains of the bottle. “Here. Finish it.”
“Don’t you have some of that Filipino stuff left?”
“How ’bout we save it for tomorrow night?”
She blinked and looked around. “Oh. We’re at the club.” She kissed me before climbing out. “But it’s a promise. Tomorrow night at the ammo dump.”
“Promise.” I kissed her again. There was no one around; I risked slipping a hand under her shirt.
Back at the compound, I grabbed a beer from the fridge and climbed up on the bunker. Scanlon and one of the other guys were in his room with the lights on, arguing and drinking, leaving the bunker for me. I thought about Rat and our plans for tomorrow night. I felt pretty confident, but just in case—there was no telling when momma’s voice would come to me—I needed to practice putting my ears back.
Scanlon was in the break room, putting double grounds in the coffee pot; his hands trembled, and there were little beads of sweat on his brow.
“Care for some real caffeine?” I offered, holding up my cola can.
“Sergeants don’t have hangovers.”
“Or hearts. Or brains. Or lives.”
He began the Scarecrow’s song from The Wizard of Oz.
I butted in: “If only you had a brain.” He had a good baritone, though with more vibrato than I really liked. He and Kane would probably sound pretty good together. What would they sing, I wondered. Perhaps “Je t’aime… moi non plus.” I tried to suppress my smile, but all I managed to avoid was full-scale laughter.
He held his temples and moaned theatrically.
I left before I started to snort.
A couple of hours later, I finished my book and went into the break room where Yerby, Scanlon and China bullied me into playing bridge. The TV was tuned to Star Trek: “The Gamesters of Triskelion,” on AFVN. “Come. It is the nourishment interval,” said Kirk’s love interest woodenly, proving that acting ability wasn’t why she was wearing tinfoil clothes and a cotton-candy wig.
As China’s partner, I was dummy most of the time, and could get in a lot of watching. China was an agressive bidder who took plenty of risks. She made most of her bids: the percentage she didn’t kept the other players in the game. On TV, underpants girl used a combination fish-hook and bear-gutter to fight Kirk. Mostly she hit with the middle of the weapon, as if it were a quarterstaff. Why have the pointy parts if you don’t use them? In the end, she lost, and no wonder. I never did understand why they were fighting anyway, other than to show off her boobs.
The buzzer went off and the flashing lights mounted high on the pre-fab wall next to the television blinked, signalling an incoming call.
Scanlon stood. “It’s probably for me, Sarge,” I told him. He sat back down while I went into Tech Control. Delgado, now on day shift, handed me the phone. “Hello, Chuck.”
“Good guess, Andi. I have news.”
I grabbed a sheet of paper for notes. “Ready.”
He read off a phone number. “It’s for Iryne’s youngest brother, who’s ready to come here to the base to pick her up. I’ve made arrangements with the 114th Aviation Company there to get her body to Tan Son Nhut by chopper. All you need to do is go over to the morgue and fill in some paperwork. Get that CID agent you’ve been working with to help. Get it done today and she’ll be home tomorrow.”
“I’ll get right on it, sir.”
“That takes care of the body, but there’s more. Iryne was only 19 when she left in ’65; she’s been on the road ever since. She began doing shows in Vietnam in 1967, and her parents moved several times after she joined the troupe. Her dad’s business took off: the family is pretty well-to-do now, but they were very poor when she left. She wouldn’t have known that her family was suddenly well off, because she never wrote to her parents. That’s why the phone and address she had for them were wrong. Now, she’s the oldest child, but her brother Amboy, the second oldest, is the one she listed as next-of-kin, and that makes me think she kept in touch with him.”
“Any idea where he is?”
“I don’t know, and neither does her family. Amboy took a job outside of the Philippines nearly three years ago, but no one can remember the name of the company. He never wrote either—got along with the father OK, but no one else—so I have an investigator trying to find him. I imagine you can guess how successful he’ll be working a Filipino case.”
“Yes, sir, I can. Just how rich is the family?”
“Middling. They’re not Rockefellers. There are plenty of politicians with much bigger fortunes.”
“Is it a big enough fortune to give all the children a chunk?”
“Might be, but the will leaves everything to Amboy, as the oldest male child. The mother died about a year ago, and the father is in poor health.”
“That’s cut-and-dried? Are there any special conditions? Or didn’t you ask?”
“It’s murder. Of course I asked. If Iryne had a son, that child would inherit instead of Amboy. I talked to the father myself, and he said he’d told no one about that provision. And he only put it in because his wife made him promise on her deathbed.”
I could have called Kane for the ride he’d promised, but decided to walk over; I wanted to stop at the club to check on Rat. I’d expected her to be outside working on a tan, but she was in her room with the door closed. She wore borrowed blue plaid boxers and a men’s washed-out-orange Madras shirt. She opened the door with Northwest Passage, by Kenneth Roberts, in her hand. Fat books are often more popular than they deserve in a war zone. I’d finished Valley of the Dolls a few days before this trip. I closed the door and she gave me a thorough kissing.
I sat on the bunk next to her. A rhythmic thumping came from the room next door. “I was going to ask where Ritchie and Chona were.”
“That’s the third time today.” She kept her voice down, even though we both knew they weren’t listening.
“Those weezy sperm sure are anxious to breathe free.”
She choked and swatted me on the arm. “Behave!”
“How are you feeling?”
She whispered in my ear: “My pussy hurts.”
My breathing suddenly sounded as loud to me as the couple next door; my vision blurred and all I could think of was Rat up on the table last night. I swallowed. “Are you surprised?”
Her lips were an inch from mine and I could feel her breath when she spoke: “Are you being deliberately obtuse?” She kissed me.
“I hope you aren’t expecting—”
“I was hoping for sympathy and an offer. I don’t expect anything.” She kissed me again and waited.
“Are you doing a show tonight?”
She thumbed at the wall, through which we could hear Chona making little squeaks. “The only show around here is those two.”
“How about we have dinner at the restaurant tonight? And lambanog.” My throat was dry. “For after.”
She bit my lip. “You can bring that paint remover if you want, but I will bring something drinkable.” The noise from the other room stopped.
“I’ll pick you up at 1900.”
“Is the restaurant too far to walk to in heels?”
“I wouldn’t do it, but I haven’t practiced as much as you.”
“’Cause if your jeep’s parked on the road by the ammo dump, people will see it—”
“After dinner, I’ll drop you off and take the Jeep back to the compound. It’s an easy hike from there to the dump.”
“Or we could both walk from the 369th.”
“We’ll see.” There was no way I was going to show up at the detachment with Rat wearing any outfit that went with heels. “How’s the pain? Getting better?”
“The more you kiss me the better it feels.”
“Glad to help out.” I ran my hands down her sides.
The thumping began again. She glared at the wall. “Holy fuck.” She took off the plaid shirt, and my hands cupped her breasts. “I need to take a shower.”
“What makes you think they won’t follow you?”
“Don’t give them ideas.” She skinned down the blue boxers; her tattoo looked only mildly irritated. She put her arms around my neck. “How’d you like to help? You could put the salve on for me.”
I let my hands wander over her smooth bare bottom. “I have to go see Kane so we can get Iryne’s body shipped home.”
“Meano.” She bit my lip.
Kane swung his feet off the desk and closed his fat hardback. “I thought you were going to call so I could pick you up?” I picked up the dark blue volume and read the title: The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Volume 2. Sheesh.
I handed him two Russian beers. He put them in the fridge while I filled him in.
“We go to the morgue, fill out the paperwork, get the body bag out of the cooler and drive it to the airfield, put it on a chopper, and that’s it?”
“It pays to have friends in high places. Sgt. Hutchens’ friend ranks a good deal higher than I’d realized.”
“So that takes care of the body.” At Tân Sơn Nhất, they had proper cadaver transport planes. “Did this highly-placed friend have anything else to say?”
“The family’s rich.” If he’d asked for more, I would have told him. I lit a cigarette and we left for the morgue.
Two hours later, we watched a Huey with Little Annie Fanny painted on the door zoom straight up and head off toward Sàigòn. “Thanks for taking care of that,” he said.
“Don’t thank me, thank Hutch.”
“Rather thank you. Let me buy you a drink.”
“I’ll have a drink, but I’m buying.”
We got into his Jeep, but instead of turning the key, he reached under his seat and handed me a brown paper bag.
“Ripple! My favorite!” Inside the bag was a bottle of Grand Reserve Metaxa. “How’d you get something like this incountry?”
“A friend at Bien Hoa brings it in for me.”
“I know someone whose sister sends him top-of-the-line tequila labelled ‘shaving lotion’.”
“I thought of that, but neither mom would do it. Besides, with my luck, it would be opened for inspection.” He waited. “What’s the matter? I know you have a corkscrew on that Swiss Army knife.”
“Oops, sorry. Where are my manners?” I uncorked the bottle. “You know, the only reason I know what this stuff is, is because I use to read—”
“Mack Reynolds’ Section G stories. No kidding? Same here.”
“’S’truth.” I took a drink and passed it to him. “Oh, that’s lovely stuff. Thank you. Is there an occasion?”
“Happy getting-close-to Thanksgiving? Happy Lunokhod 1 day?” I laughed. He drank and looked at the bottle appreciatively. “Would you like to have dinner? Bring this along.”
I shoved in the cork. “I’m sorry, but I already have plans. Rat and I are going to gorge on Vietnamese food and get seriously drunk.” He shot me a glance and smiled stiffly. It’s the drinking, I told myself. He disapproves of my getting drunk. But I left before he could ask about tomorrow night.
At 1830, I took a shower and put more salve on my gecko. I wished briefly for something a little dressier than fatigues, but even if I’d had civvies they wouldn’t have been something I’d wear. Every now and then, Momma sent me clothes she wanted to see on me. Last month, it had been a blazer and skirt that didn’t go well with my combat boots. I’d given them to my friend Max No Difference; with his pretty-as-a-girl looks, I knew he’d be smashing.
I was tying my boots when China came in and opened her refrigerator to get a cold lemonade; I offered her an Ivan’s Best instead. “I went to Dũng’s shop today,” she said, pulling up her shirt to show me the latest detail. “He said you and your friend were there last night getting tats.”
I showed her mine. “We got pretty liquored up. It still hurt more than I thought it would.”
She lifted my leg so she could see it better. “It’s doing well. He does a good job, doesn’t he? How’s your friend?”
“Rat complained much less about the pain than I did. I was surprised. Does it bother you?”
“It’s different for everyone. For me, it only hurts at the very beginning. Then it stops hurting and starts to almost feel good. What’d she get?”
“A butterfly. Um, in her crotch.”
“Ask her if she’s happy with it. I haven’t thought much about what I’m going to put there.”
“Don’t dragons eat butterflies?”
“My dragon is a pussycat.”
“Pussycats are known butterfly marauders.”
“All the better. Ask her.”
China left, and I contemplated taking the Metaxa with me. My conscience told me not to be criminally tacky. I don’t know why I’m surprised that it speaks in Momma’s voice.
Wednesday, November 18, 1970
Rat wore a V-neck black dress without a bra, matching black sandals, a single-strand pearl choker and tiny pearl earrings. The silver front zipper pull had a big hoop that seemed made for my teeth. Chona stood beside her, wearing a low-cut spring green number. Ritchie leaned against sandbags, smoking, looking at her and probably thinking of ways to get her out of the dress. I doubted that Rat wore anything but the dress and heels.
“Hi Andi. Ritchie and Chona are coming to dinner with us.” Rat’s smile was forced and her grip on the matching black purse white-knuckled.
She and Ritchie were too involved in each other to notice my strained response. “Oh. How nice.” Rat elbowed me.
I drove; Ritchie and Chona sat in back; Rat rode shotgun and kept her silence. I had hoped that I could find out more about her. Before ... I swallowed and tried hard to calm down. There was going to be plenty of time for me and Rat later; this wasn’t like a double-date back in the world. We were having dinner with Ritchie and Chona, not spending the whole evening together.
It could have been worse, I thought: Kane could have invited himself along.
Since there were four of us, the hostess put us in a different section of the restaurant than Kane and I had been in. I sat with my back to the wall, Rat to my right, Chona to the left and Ritchie across. Rat grumbled when she found out there was only beer, no wine. They’d managed to find some Buds, so that’s what we had. Ritchie and Chona insisted on Chinese food, but Rat wanted to try something Vietnamese that wasn’t soup. “I’m a vegetarian.” Whidh I’d suspected since the trip to the orphanage.
I ordered a plate of meatless spring rolls for all of us and asked the waitress to tell the chef to do something vegetarian for Rat. “You must have a pretty hard time eating in a mess hall,” I said. She was wearing a light perfume. Against Chona’s overpowering lilac, Rat’s light scent was hard to classify.
“They’re almost always willing to make me an omelet.” Ritchie and Chona weren’t paying any attention to us; they had scooted their chairs close together and were holding hands and kissing.
“Pretty round-eyes can always count on good service from horny mess Sergeants.”
“Or horny Spec-4s?” She spoke quietly. I felt her foot running up and down my shin; she had taken off her sandal just to torment me.
I smiled. “How’re you feeling?”
“I could use a kiss.”
“Certainly not the one I have in mind.”
I inhaled, caught her scent: vanilla, like the metaxa. Long brought our spring rolls. “Trân Châu told me my friend was here! How are you, Anh Đi? Who are your friends?” I introduced Chona and Rat.
“How is your sister?”
“She is determined to go with her boyfriend. I will have to live here with one of the waitresses. Until I am sent for, I mean. It is not what I would like, but—” He shrugged.
“I’m sorry. I wish there were something I could say to change her mind.”
He grinned. “You should tell your friend Kane he needs a Vietnamese wife.”
I laughed. “That’s not a bad idea. I’ll see what I can do.” I suspected Renaldo was planning to return to the seminary when his current enlistment was up, however.
“Rat, that’s no vegetable, it’s fish sauce.”
“Snot.” Her face screwed up. “It was the only dip there was. I should have known, I didn’t think.” She downed half her beer.
“Long—” But he had already dashed off. He turned up with a vegetarian sauce for her just as Trân Châu—Pearl—showed up with two plates, one for me and one for Rat. Fried halibut with tomato sauce for me, tofu and chopstick beans in coconut milk for her.
Even though it was a week night, the restaurant was almost full. Long brought rice and the other two plates before racing away to take care of other customers. Ritchie and Chona began feeding each other bits. I’d had to show Ritchie how to use chopsticks when I first arrived at Củ Chi; now he was an expert. Rat and I could only look at each other with sideways glances, while he and Chona could treat each other like baby birds in public. It gave me a sour feeling in my gut.
Rat touched my arm. “You should try this, it’s really good.” I used my own chopsticks to pluck the fried bean curd from her plate.
“That’s very tasty. I’d offer you some of mine, but—” The bleakness in her expression stopped me cold. The lovebirds had affected her the same way. “Sorry.”
“It’s OK.” She put on a smile. She lowered her voice. “If they start talking baby talk—”
“We’ll have to kill them.” It made me happy to see her smile.
“Do you still have some of that drain cleaner left?”
“You mean the lambanog? Two bottles, why?”
“I think we’re going to need them.”
“Maybe not.” I risked touching her hand. We ate in silence until Long brought out the fruit plate. I ate a longan. Chona peeled a lychee for Ritchie. I wiped my hands on a napkin and glanced at Rat, who was watching them. Her jaw was set.
I opened my mouth to say something but Rat beat me to it. “What are you going to do, Ritchie?”
I butted in. “Don’t be dense. If even I can see what’s going on—”
Ritchie put down his chopsticks. “I’ve been trying not to think about it.”
“If you keep that up,” said Rat, “you’ll end up back in Cu Chi and Chona will be on the road. Is that what you want?”
“We could write.”
“We’ll be on the road. We only get mail when it catches up to us, and it does that only once every few weeks. What would you write, anyway? She knows six words of English to your six in Tagalog. You could be transferred to another site tomorrow. You could have an emergency in the US and have to go back to the world. The war could end, for heaven’s sake! Anything could happen. And don’t forget, even though we’re entertainers, some of us have been killed.”
My heart clutched. Ritchie looked—overwhelmed. But he was starting to get the picture. He took Chona’s hand. It wasn’t hard for her to figure out that the conversation was about something serious.
“There’s a lot of paperwork to take care of,” I said. “But it won’t be so bad; I’ve been through it with Scar and Kiều. You’ll get a marriage allotment again, and she can live with Kiều in Tân Hòa until it comes in.”
Underneath the table, Rat gripped my leg and spoke up. “Don’t do it just because you think it’s the only way, or you think it’s the right thing to do.”
Chona stared at us, her gaze swivelling from one to the other like a lighthouse beam stuck in a loop. Her smile was fixed, nervous.
Ritchie looked at Chona and said, “Andi? Tell me the words.”
“Are you certain?”
“I don’t even have to think about it.”
“Then say, ‘Chona, kayong magpakasal sa akin?’”
He repeated it, said it in English: “Chona, will you marry me?”
She looked at us and started to cry. “Ito ng isang ibig sabihin bumiro?” Is this a mean joke? She threw her napkin on the table and ran out, heels tocking.
Ritchie went after her and Rat followed him. “You go ahead, I’ll pay the tab,” I informed her back. It took several minutes to find Trân Châu and get a total. I expected everything to be over when I went outside, but I didn’t expect everyone to be gone. The Jeep was still there, however, so I knew they couldn’t be far away. I went around back to the picnic table where the three clustered at one end. The eucalypt that provided sparse shade in the daytime held a tin-shaded clear light bulb. Moths circled. Chona was still crying.
And so was Ritchie. “She won’t believe me.”
“She will. Keep at it.” She loves you as much as you love her, I thought. She’s just scared. All she needs is time to adjust. There was nothing to do but wait around until she did. I walked over to the fence, lifted myself up to sit on the top rail and lit a cigarette. Rat was talking to Chona and Ritchie was looking helpless. If he had had a ring to give her, I thought, she would have had to take him seriously. Rat talked, Chona shook her head and cried.
Long came out of the back door. He saw me, waved and came over to sit beside me. “What’s going on?”
“Ritchie asked Chona to marry him and she thinks he’s mocking her.”
He watched them a minute. “But anyone can see—”
“Yup.” I took out my flask and swallowed some tequila. It felt pretty good. “I wish they’d hurry up.”
Ritchie got down on his knees and said something to Chona. She pushed his head away. I could hear her from where I sat: “Ikaw ay isang malaking haltak!”
“That’s progress, I guess.”
“What did she say?”
“She told Ritchie he was a big jerk.”
“And she isn’t?”
“You’re too smart for your own good.”
“That’s what Kim says.” He looked up at me. “Why won’t she believe him?”
“I think she’s beginning to. Maybe she likes being the center of attention.” I had some more tequila. “But it is also a big step, and she’s scared as hell.” I wobbled the flask. There wasn’t much left. I passed it to Long. “Finish it.” Ritchie hoisted himself back up onto the bench and put his arm around Chona. I glanced at the back door of the restaurant and Long’s sister Kim came out smiling. Iryne was right behind her.
Chona looked up and screamed. Iryne’s brother reached into his belt. I leapt off the fence and ran toward him. When Kim figured out there was something terrible happening, she grabbed his arm and screeched something. I heard the snick of a switchblade opening. Ritchie yelled and pulled Chona away from the table; Rat dropped to her knees and scrabbled for something to hit with. My own knife was still in my boot, and I had no time to get it; I aimed at his feet and dove. I hit his boots, he fell. Rat found a rock and was on him; she whacked with both hands hard enough to make a nauseating crack. He went slack; there was blood on the ground.
But it wasn’t Amboy’s. I had heard the woman’s scream as I’d knocked him down. Trying to stop him, Kim had stepped into the blow meant for Chona’s heart. Shocked into silence, Long crouched by his sister’s inert form.
Amboy Madlangbayan wasn’t dead. But he was going to spend quite a bit of time in a hospital under guard. Rat was angry at herself: “I should have hit him harder.”
Kane was also cranky. “Do you have any idea how complicated the paperwork’s going to be?”
“It happened on an Army base, you’ve got jurisdiction.”
“Christ knows I don’t want it.” He flipped through the report sheets. “All right, let’s go over this one more time and make sure nothing’s missed. Long? Where did Amboy work?”
“At the generator building for the 369th detachment. He’d been there at least two years. When my sister went to work in the restaurant last year, he ran into her one day buying meat at the market for that night’s dinner. He started courting her—” He went on for a while; I helped him with English from time to time. It was like helping a robot.
Kane scratched his head. “I still can’t see how he found out about this will business. Andi, how could you not tell me?”
“If I had thought there was the slightest chance— He’d been gone from the Philippines for a long time. His father didn’t think anyone knew!”
“I know, I know. It’s just—” He slapped the table with the flat of his hand. Under normal circumstances, Long and I would have jumped.
An hour later, Kane realized he had all he was going to get. He declared the interviews finished and Heck Dubois drove him away. I sat at the picnic table smoking. The kitchen workers turned off the outside lights. Long paused before going inside the restaurant for the night. “Thank you for trying to save Kim.”
“It wasn’t enough. I’m sorry.”
Rat waited in the Jeep, still wearing the black dress, now dusty and torn, and held up a bottle. “You did great,” I told her, and drove to the Get Dead Drunk Saloon.
“I hate to drink alone.”
“I’m sorry.” I didn’t turn off the Jeep.
“Don’t you do that to me. Don’t you dare run.”
“Not tonight, Rat. I’m sorry.”
“Just to talk—”
She got out to stand on the gravel. “Tomorrow?”
“Not then, either,” I said, and I drove back to the compound. In China’s room, I opened a bottle of lambanog; by the time I’d finished it, I’d given up trying to convince myself that I could drink enough to stop seeing tears in Rat’s eyes.
Thursday, November 19, 1970
At 0600 I drove to the restaurant to talk to Long before he left for the day. “What about Kim’s children?”
“They will have to go to the orphanage. I hate to take them there, though. Even though we are Catholic, there are too many orphans for the nuns to give them the attention they should have.”
“Take this.” I tucked a hundred dollars into his shirt pocket. Then I told him about the small orphanage over on Đảo Xanh island. “Tan Mai. It’s Buddhist, though.”
He looked at the ground. “Maybe we don’t need to be Catholic anymore.”
“You should go to the club at noon and talk to Emily. She’ll help you, regardless of where you want to take them.”
“She doesn’t know me.”
“It doesn’t matter, she would help you anyway. I will still talk to her.” I gave him a ride to the main gate. I held out my hand for him to shake, but he hugged me, making me feel worse.
I knocked on the back door of the Get Dead Drunk Saloon. Rat, still wearing last night’s black dress, answered, a nearly-empty bottle of scotch in her hand, her eyes swollen and red. She stood aside. “I take it you’re not here to see me.”
“I need to talk to Emily. About Kim’s children.”
“I wish we’d never met.”
I swallowed. “Someday you’ll meet someone who doesn’t have my problems.”
“Thanks for the advice, Dr. Pangloss.” She drank.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to sound patronizing.”
“I know. There sure are a lot of things you didn’t mean.” She drank again.
“I did mean to—”
“How can I believe you?”
“You can’t. I’m sorry.”
“Why? Why won’t you even tell me? Don’t I deserve to know?”
Yes you do, I almost said, but you don’t deserve what the knowledge would bring.
The door to Chona’s room opened and Chona stepped out. She looked at Rat, then me; her eyes widened and she rushed past to the john.
“I have to see Emily.” Rat turned away and I knocked on Em’s door.
Kane walked up while Ritchie piled Chona’s suitcases into the Jeep, which I’d parked on the dirt by the fuel tanks. It was going to be a tight fit, between her costumes and props, but if I held an overnight bag on my lap or under my legs and let Ritchie drive, I’d still have a little room for a case of lambanog. It would only be a few minutes out of our way.
I leaned against a pile of sandbags destined for the revetments around the club and smoked. “Anything I can do?” he asked.
“I’m fine, thanks.”
“I’d like to write to you.”
I lit another cigarette. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Ten-o’clock flowers spidered across the dark olive bags, interspersed with a few stalks of tropical grass.
“I’m a lousy correspondent.” I drank from my flask.
“Is that what you told Rat?”
“Is that what made her cry?”
“None of your business.” I turned away and pretended to ignore him. Eventually he went away.
I left Ritchie and Chona in the Jeep in Đại Tòng Lâm’s parking lot. When a monk tried to intercept me I stopped him with a glare. “I know where I’m going.” He saw my face and the grenade launcher and held up his hands.
Far away from the world, I stood in front of Quan Âm and her manic dragon to light a bundle of incense. I held it in my hands and bowed three times before sticking it into the sand; an MPC twenty went into the slot in the red donation box, and I stared up into the impassive stone face. There was no one to hear but her, no one to see but water buffalo and brahmas, no one to speak but me. In the middle of an empty field, I tried to talk to a crooked statue, but she wouldn’t meet my eyes. The words stuck in my throat.
What I know about Buddhism can be written on a single page, but I know that forgiveness is not part of the dogma. That’s up to the individual, as it should be. If I couldn’t forgive myself, how could I expect anyone else to absolve me? I wanted to ask only for what Quan Âm was supposed to give: compassion. But the words were lost in the quiet rustle of wind through the rice and eucalypts.
I pulled out the flask I’d refilled with lambanog and took a drink. I heard footsteps on the gravel and turned to see Kane. My heart sank. I knew he wouldn’t let me brush him off again. He squatted next to me and held out his hand. I handed the flask to him and he drank.
He choked. “Holy shit,” he wheezed. “What the hell is that?”
“Lambanog. How’d you find me?”
“Wasn’t hard. I remembered you told me this was where you met Long.” He had another drink, passed back the flask. “I never had a chance, did I?”
I drank and considered. “Not no chance. I like you.”
“But against Rat, none at all.” I ignored the statement and offered him another drink. “Won’t this stuff make you sterile?” He took it anyway.
“It’s 90 proof, not the 160,” I said. “I’ve got more.”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out the square of linoleum he’d cut from the janitor’s closet. “Want to tell me about this?”
He sighed. “One category of crime the CID is supposed to investigate is homosexual activity.”
“That’s a crime?” I knew it was.
“My superiors say so. I was sent down here to look into allegations that a Lieutenant and a Spec-4 were having relations.”
“I put into my report that I couldn’t find any evidence.” He took another drink. “I thought about it a long time before committing it to writing. It’s always been my policy to ignore indiscretions. As long as there aren’t any actual pictures, I warn them to be more careful and drop it. But hell. This guy was an officer, a First Lieutenant, for Christ’s sake. It was clear enough that the kid was also gay, and attracted to the guy, but thought it a lousy idea to get mixed up with his commanding officer. Instead of backing off, the officer coerced the Spec-4: it was a blatant abuse of power. In the end—I couldn’t do anything but caution them. Even with the evidence, and the story the kid told me, I kept hearing okaasan’s voice in my head.”
“Japanese for ‘mother’. Kimiko. Connie is ‘mom’.”
“Oh.” I drank.
“So my point is, in case you didn’t get it, is, stop worrying. I would never do anything to hurt you, and you should already know that.” He waved the square under my nose. “Tell!”
I finished the lambanog and thought. If Quan Âm wasn’t going to listen, did I really have a choice? I took the square and said, “Smell it.”
“Try harder. Close your eyes, open your nose. Inhale from your bellybutton.”
He did, and shrugged. “I got a little something, something a little sweet, but I have no idea what it is.”
“That smell is flavored lambanog.” I shook the flask. “It’s like vodka; it doesn’t have a smell of its own, so what you’re detecting is basically pickled raisin. It’s distinctive.”
“And that’s important because?”
“Because almost no one but Filipinos drink it, and it’s not exported. Amboy hid in the closet with the brooms, where he drank to pass the time until he could sneak out to kill Iryne. He spilled some.”
“How long have you known what it was?”
“Since Monday. On the way back from the orphanage on Sunday, I spotted a plantation of coconut palms on one of the islands. It was set up for mass production of tuba—the palm toddy they make this stuff from. The next day, the Russian ex-pats in the city said the plantation was theirs and that all of their sales of lambanog were to Filipinos. It was obvious they don’t keep records, so there was no way to link the flavored kind with any particular customer.
“I knew Filipinos worked over at the generator building; almost every tech who works for PA & E is Filipino. They work hard for not much money and they’re used to the heat. But I didn’t ask Kim what her boyfriend’s name was or where he worked, I didn’t ask to meet him. Remember the guard who said he’d seen someone with longish hair walking away from the club? That very likely meant a Filipino—but I didn’t think about it. I didn’t want to think about it.”
“Did you figure out anything more about the knife?”
“Again, I tried not to think about it, but it was so thinned and weakened by oversharpening that it was risky to use it. That made it easy to leave behind. We thought he left it in Iryne’s chest because he was startled. But he couldn’t have been scared, not when he took the time to smear his prints. He hoped we’d waste time looking in the wrong places for someone whose hand fit.”
“Which we did.”
“Yah. Wouldn’t surprise me if he’d already bought the replacement that killed Kim.”
“Well, Amboy’s hand doesn’t fit the knife that killed his sister any better than yours or mine. He is left-handed, however, and I recall seeing a flask in the personal possessions the hospital gave us.”
“So he probably saw the show Thursday night, saw Iryne, and stole or bought the knife he used to kill her the next day.” I shook my head and field-stripped my cigarette, lit another one, had another drink. So did he. I went on: “I didn’t follow up on what Colonel Stumbaugh said. I let myself believe that there was no way Iryne and Amboy could know about the provisions of their father’s will. But Iryne’s desire for a baby should have told me better. I didn’t let myself think about lawyers who could be bribed. Hell, maybe it was the lawyer who kept track of Iryne and Amboy, and kept Amboy up to date on the family and the new will. I was stupid to not follow up on what the Colonel told me.”
“You couldn’t have known.”
“It’s true that I didn’t know who, but I knew exactly how to find out. And I didn’t. I ignored the evidence.”
“It was all circumstantial.”
And because of that, two children will grow up with no family but an uncle not much older than themselves. I might as well have stabbed Kim myself.”
I stopped talking and Kane said nothing else. After a few minutes he got up and walked away. He didn’t have to ask why I’d done it. He knew.
I faced the statue, put my hands together and bowed three more times. I still didn’t know what to chant and I’d burnt all the incense that had been there, so I put another MPC bill into the red donation box and looked into Quan Âm’s alabaster face one more time. It had been such a little thing to want, I thought: just one more night by the ammo bunker under the stars with Rat.