No Enemy but Winter
I. Van Laningham
Winter—Fimbulwinter, the winter that heralded Ragnarok, the end of the world—stooped on Chicago like a hawk on a sparrow. Friends laughed when I told them that all it took for another Ice Age was one summer when the snow didn’t go away. When the weather quacks predicted 40 below with a wind chill close to 80, I restocked the bourbon and tequila, closed the office early and refrained from mailing out I-told-you-so’s. My Mustang, Miss Emily, got her dipstick heater and the ill-fitting doors got rags stuffed under them. Pops and snaps came from the foundation as the cold slowed the molecules of the bricks and mortar, and the studs and joists creaked into new positions. A water glass of whiskey helped keep my bones warm while outside, the world grew slow and cold and ancient. It was too cold to sleep, even with the supplementary heaters, so I got out my iaito and practiced.
I practiced kata after kata, aiming for the place where the body stops hurting, the mind stops thinking, and the breath ceases counting. Where the sword becomes the warrior, the warrior becomes the sword. When thought ceases, acts occur because they are the only way. That’s the theory, anyway. Sensei George had been trying to teach me iai for months now, and I wasn’t sure how much had stuck. It’s supposed to be whole body practice, but I get distracted. It’s one of those things where if you practice enough you can make your body do enough well enough to get by, but as long as your brain is off doing other things you’re never going to get it well enough to stop thinking about it.
At 0200, my body dripping and exhausted, I slid the dull-edged practice blade back into its saya. The old-fashioned red phone, with a dial and a black КРЕМЛ stenciled on the side, rang. Who would call me at 0200? “Holmes.”
“Anh Đi? Scaramouche đã chẽt,” said Lam Anh Kiều in her native Vietnamese.
Scar was dead; my heart grabbed. “But he was fine at Christmas,” I said, also in tiếng Việt. I mopped my face and sat down hard.
“They murdered him.” She raised her voice to be heard over the chanting Hare Krishnas.
“You’re at O’Hare.”
“Yes, Drea here me.” Stress made her English worse than usual.
Over my objections, Scar and Kiều had named Drea after me. I looked at the picture of her fifth birthday party, not quite a year ago. Pigtailed hair the color of dusty butterscotch, Scar’s startling blue eyes, Scar’s craggy cheekbones, Scar’s willpower and sense of humor. Kiều’s poise, Kiều’s brains, Kiều’s sense of—impending doom. In the picture, in the midst of a dozen happy, laughing kids, Drea looked as if her next birthday would be her thirtieth. “I’ll come get you.”
“I have money and your address. Drea will tell the taxi driver where we must go.” Drea’s English was far better than hers. I expected them within the hour, but I hadn’t allowed for luggage. I paced, listening to the building; the cold was at its most bitter, the city locked in a block of ice. The radiators in the building were working constantly, as were the electric heaters I had spaced around the floor; both gas ovens and all six burners were running full blast. Con Ed says don’t do that. Con Ed doesn’t have to freeze its ass in a storefront with forty-year-old radiators run by a boiler that demanded greater sacrifices than cockroach corpses before it would produce heat.
For my annual Christmas visit, I’d flown out to Fayetteville, near Fort Bragg; I hadn’t come out to Scar and Kiều then, but now I wished I had. As usual, I’d worried so much and so uselessly over something that shouldn’t have mattered that I’d nearly made myself sick. The three of us had been friends since the Việt Nam war had thrown us together in Củ Chi, a base camp a few klicks from Sàigòn. It was where I’d given Scar his nickname; Al Q. Jones was—had been—a dead ringer for Stewart Granger as André Moreau in Scaramouche. Scar, Kiều and I had left Việt Nam for the last time in January of 1971, Kiều pregnant. Scar’s dog Cat, an ugly red Chow mix, had been sent ahead to go through quarantine. I’d mustered out in ’72, but Scar put in his whole twenty so he could retire in ’75 at thirty-eight. They’d invited me for every Christmas since we’d been back in the world and I’d always accepted, though it was difficult for me to be that close to Kiều.
I was going to miss the skinny boy with the faint Missouri drawl and the ability to swear in three languages so badly no one ever understood what he was saying. Scar could get by well enough; everyone went out of their way to help the GI with the ready smile and outsized laugh. I remembered nights in ’Nam we went to his room for tequila straight from the bottle and hot chili peppers straight from the can. I remembered the quiet times on the bunker in Củ Chi, watch the war on Núi Bà Đen, listening to outgoing and incoming until four or five in the morning. He’d talk about what he wanted to do once he and Kiều got back, how much he wanted kids. Sometimes he would bring out the cheap guitar he’d found in Bến Thành market in Sàigòn. He couldn’t sing any better than he could speak Vietnamese, but he still made us all homesick for the world.
I wondered if I’d ever find out what the “Q” stood for; once, I’d asked if Q was for “Quagmire.” Joe Westmoreland, raised Catholic in Brooklyn, picked up on it and began calling him “Sergeant Aloysius Quagmire Jones.” I poured another glass of tequila and stared blankly at the icy windows, waiting for Kiều and Drea. Their taxi arrived at 0400; I stubbed out my cigarette and opened the door to cold that prickled my eyes and scalded my skin, and guests who smelled like they’d been outdoors for days. We dragged in three big bags and an overnight case, and then I squatted on the floor, Vietnamese style. “Hello, Drea. Where’s my hug?” Her solid little body trembled in my arms. She handed me her book—Freddy the Cowboy—and twisted buttons to get out of her parka. Kiều hung their coats on wall hooks. “Sleep or food?” I asked.
“Sleep,” they answered together. “We ate on the plane.” I led them back to what was going to be the bedroom, once the construction was done with walls in place, showed them the brand-new shower, and left them to it. I went around the curtain—bed sheets draped over a rope—that would become a wall, and spread my sleeping bag on top of the exercise mats near the radiator by the front door. Remodeling was a pain, but winter was the best time for it; walk-in traffic dwindled to nothing. Indoor crimes of passion were easy enough for the cops to solve, and it was too cold to commit most outdoor crimes. There wasn’t much work for a PI in this Ice Queen’s heart of a Chicago winter.
I curled up on the floor, listening to them breathe. I needed to hold and be held; I thought of Dragon’s warm flesh, the cool tattoo that gave her her name. She broke up with me the day before my Christmas visit to North Carolina. I wouldn’t take her with me for the holidays, didn’t want to introduce her to my friends. It wouldn’t have hurt so much if I hadn’t harbored hopes, but I had only myself to blame.
I woke at 1000; I hadn’t set the alarm because Tim Pajakiewicz, my contractor, wasn’t due again until Friday. I peered in at my guests, buried under piles of blankets; two small blue eyes set in a wide face stared back. Drea slipped from under the covers and padded over to take my hand.
She tugged me into the kitchen. “Breakfast?” She tried to keep her stentorian voice quiet, but her whispers are as loud as other people’s conversation.
“I don’t suppose you take your bourbon straight?”
She opened the refrigerator and made a face. “Eeuuw, gross.”
“We can walk to Ying’s. Think we can pull it off without waking your Mom?”
“She sleeps hard.”
We dumped the icky stuff into a plastic bag, snuck out the back way to dump the garbage, and walked a block west to Ridge. The morning sunshine warmed Chicago to 21° below, but the beaches of Lake Michigan still had plates of ice on them. It felt so cold I expected clinkers of O² to fall out of the sky the way they had in the Fritz Leiber story, “A Pail of Air.” We walked a half-block north to wait for the light. “How’s your Mom doing?” I asked.
She turned her parka’d head up to me. “Bad,” she said through the white scarf I’d wrapped around her mouth. “She’s OK in the daytime, but she cries all night until she falls asleep.” She kicked something on the sidewalk. “I have to hold her.” I couldn’t see her face, but I knew she was scowling. She stopped talking and pulled herself closer to my leg.
Next to the ugly grey liquor store with the turrets is Ying’s “吉 LUCKY MARKET 市.” At the bottom of the sign was “Siêu Thị,” Vietnamese for “supermarket”; Ying doesn’t speak tiếng Việt, but she carries Vietnamese produce for the community. I pushed the door open for Drea. “Nǐ hǎo,” I said to Ying. Hello. I have enough Chinese to be polite and ask where to pee; I picked it up from Nora Torrance, one of too many exes. There are times I wonder why I bother to get sober.
Ying is small, with bowl-cut hair laced with grey, gold-framed glasses and a ready smile. Ying bowed. “This your daughter? She not look like you.”
“Of course not!” I said before realizing I was being teased. I introduced Drea Jones. “We’re looking for breakfast,” I said. Except for obligatory items like beer, soda, cigarettes and Twinkies, everything Ying carries is Asian.
“Tôi muốn gởi hủ tiếu tôm cua sò hến,” Drea piped up, unexpectedly, peeking out from behind my leg. I want seafood noodles.
I rolled my eyes. “No gots, punkin,” I said.
“You could make them,” she said, reasonably.
“Do you have shrimp?” I asked Ying.
“Shi,” she said, and pointed.
Drea followed me to the cooler where the seafood was kept. “What happened to your dad?”
“Somebody blew up his car,” she said, matter-of-factly.“Holy shit,” I said, without thinking. “Sorry. I wasn’t supposed to say that.” I put a package of shrimp in the shopping basket and headed to the produce aisle.
“It’s OK. Mommy says ‘shit’ and ‘fuck’ and stuff all the time.”
“Well, yeah, but maybe she doesn’t want you to say it.”
“She doesn’t care. Only the teachers at school care, so I don’t say it in front of them.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. “When did the car blow up?”
“Monday. The funeral was yesterday.” They must have caught a late plane afterward. “We were all going to go shopping, and Daddy went out to warm up the car.” Her grip on my hand strengthened. “It blew out the front window and Mommy screamed.”
I remembered the front window; Scar had said he was planning on adding a driveway and a garage later on. Until then he had to park on the street. I had asked him why he wanted to stay near Ft. Bragg. “Good a place as any,” he’d said. He had looked at Kiều with an expression I’d seen on puppies. “I imagine she’ll want to move someplace warmer, later on. But I like it here for now.” And Kiều had watched me from the kitchen, shaking her head and smiling, wiping her hands on a dishcloth. She understood more English than Scar understood Vietnamese, but spoke little.
“Do you have coffee? Mommy will want coffee.”
“Oh, right. I have presses, but we’ll have to buy the rest.” I filled the basket with fresh herbs—ngò om, tần ô, diếp cá—fresh noodles and ground spices. I added Twinkies, because I couldn’t resist Drea’s mournful expression, a carton of cigarettes, Longevity brand condensed milk and a can of Café Du Monde coffee with chicory because real Vietnamese coffee can’t be found. Ying added everything up on the abacus; she has a cash register, but it’s only there to reassure the bái zhǒng. I watched her fingering the beads with her open-tipped gloves; I could see my breath.
Drea looked at the picture pinned to the wall behind Ying, a
picture of the Portola palace. “Where’s
“That Lhasa. Tibet. Capital of Tibet. I live there ten year. Very nice place.”
“Oh. Why did you live there? And why did you come here?”
“Chinese government send parents there, I live with them until graduate. I went medical school, become doctor.” She shrugged. “Life better here.” Even though she couldn’t join the AMA and ran a grocery store instead of a practice, life here was better.
I paid, and Ying said to Drea, “You like sweet?” Drea nodded. Ying dug in the small refrigerator where she kept her lunch and her drinks. “Here.”
“Wow. Moon cake!” It was a very small one, barely big enough to contain the slice of hard-boiled egg in the center. Drea closed her eyes and bit. Ying was pleased with herself.
“Thank you! Happy New Year!” said Drea. The year of the Dragon was barely over, now it was a Snake year. I’d celebrated Tết with the Nguyễns and felt honored to be invited to participate in private family rituals. Drea introduced herself: “My name is Drea Jones. What’s yours?”
“Ying,” said Ying, taking the hand. “Wang Ying. Wang means king, Ying firefly.”
Drea said, “Cool! The King of the Fireflies is a woman! Can you write it for me?”
“Sure,” said Ying, and scribbled on the back of a green-and-buff order pad: 王萤.
Drea took the paper and folded it carefully before putting it in her pocket.
Drea held my hand as we left the store, crossed Ridge and walked the
half-block to my door. The plate-glass window bore gold lettering:
Thám tứ Riêng
Tôi nói tiếng Việt
Notary—Công Chứng Viên
“Thám tứ Riêng,” is “Private Eye” in tiếng Việt. Al painted it for me last year, right after I opened. I paid him with six bottles of Jack Daniels, plus a hundred bucks cash for the gold leaf and other expenses. My business cards are the same, with the addition of my phone number. I’d thought about having the text turned into chữ nôm, Chinese-style writing, for the older Vietnamese, but I’d never gotten around to it. Besides, the older Việt người would never give their business to a roundeye. Al had wanted me to use my middle initial so I could be “A.K. Holmes.” “Then you could fabricate an extra ‘A’,” he’d suggested. I’d told him that was too, too precious.
The doorway was inset from the storefront by two feet, with solid brick on either side; the door itself, lacking a peephole and weighing enough to knock down the unwary, was oak that should have been replaced with steel years ago. I eased it open and made it to the kitchen without waking Kiều, but she heard me start the water boiling for the noodles. She came in yawning and scratching, wrapped in one of the blankets from the bed, looking more beautiful than she had been seven years ago in Việt Nam. She smiled radiantly when she saw me looking at her.
“Who would want to kill him?” I asked. Her face fell, as if I had brought the memory of murder back. “Drea told me about the car,” I added.
Kiều turned her back; Drea watched her for a moment, then took her mother’s hand. I wanted a drink, but it was too early when I had guests. Kiều sat at the small kitchen table, which I’d patched together from an old drafting board and two-by-fours, and Drea climbed up on her lap, leaning against her mother’s bosom and looking out at me as impassively as a small cat. Kiều spoke. “You remember Học.”
I nodded. How could I forget her half-brother? I had killed him in self-defense.
“After you and Scar took me back with you to Củ Chi I kept thinking about his money. I couldn’t get it out of my head. Scar already knew that you and I must have—done something about Học, otherwise he would have come after us. He knew Học had money, so it was easy to persuade him to go Sàigòn and search. Học’s body hadn’t been discovered yet, and his rent was paid through the end of August; I had a key, a copy I made once when he passed out at the bar.” The Hollywood Bar on Tự Do street. “We searched his apartment and found a key for a safety deposit box at the main Post Office.”The noodles finished cooking; I drained them, dumped them in the broth and handed out big bowls. For a moment, the only sound was of slurping. There’s something deeply satisfying about serving sloppy noodles to Việt người; Anglo manners are pale and washed-out by comparison. Kiều wiped her chin. “Do you have any bourbon?” she asked, which surprised me; she hadn’t used to drink very much. What she’d liked had been sweet, like Singapore Slings. Even at Christmas, she’d been—circumspect? Had she been hiding it? Any excuse would do, though; I poured two shots.
“What about me?” asked Drea.
“Children must be THIS tall to ride.” I held my arm straight out. She stuck out her tongue and got down.
Kiều continued. “In the box was a paper and a key ring. The sheet listed several accounts and places where he had money hidden. It was all written in chữ nôm.” I’d known she could read the old, Chinese-style, characters—was even teaching them to Drea—but I’d never imagined the knowledge would be practical; chữ nôm had fallen into general disuse in the the teens and twenties. Vietnamese society was now one of the most literate on earth, due almost entirely to the spread of roman-style writing, or chữ Quốc ngữ, “National language.” “It was very strange, finding the list. It was almost as if he knew that someday he would be killed. If we had found a note in the box—‘I am dead. Give my sister the key’—I would have thought it was a plot; he didn’t love me any more than I loved him. But it was just a list of numbers to help him remember. We drove to them all—he even hid money with a monk at a Cao Đài temple—and retrieved most of it. The only place we had trouble with was a big pharmacy in Chợ Lớn.”
Chợ Lớn, “Big Market,” is the Chinese sector of Sàigòn; huge I Ching signs mark the pharmacies. Most of the signs are in Chinese, and the traffic is thick with jeeps and deuces-and-a-half, merchants making deliveries, bargain hunters looking to haggle. Chinese temples thrive on every block, and the whole area smells of spices, fish, frangipani, motor oil and incense. I dumped the dishes in the sink and turned on the water. “How much did you end up with?”
“Nearly a million dollars, after we converted all the greenbacks to piastres. We could have made twice that if we had converted it to MPC, but then it would have had to be in Scar’s name. In pi, it would be in my name, and the Army wouldn’t make him prove he’d got it legally.”
Far more than I would have thought. “No wonder Scar didn’t think he needed to go to work right away when he took retirement.”
“We lived off the interest. Nobody suspected.” I’d noticed a few things: a car a little bit nicer than it ought to have been, going out to dinner several times a week, a big color TV. But those could have been explained by an NCO living a little beyond his means, a small family a little bit in debt. “We thought we were safe, we thought we had gotten away with it.” She smoothed Drea’s hair. Tears ran down her cheeks.
“Once you left the country, how could anyone track you? Học didn’t keep records, did he?”
“The only record was that list of account numbers. He didn’t have any real friends and he was too paranoid to have a partner. No, I think whoever did this found us through the bar.”
“What makes you think that?”
“Tuesday, I went to my bank, and someone had cleaned out our joint accounts the morning of the day Scar was killed, took it all in bills. I was able to talk to the teller, and she described the man. He had a plausible ID, answered all her questions correctly, and forged Scar’s signature so well that if he hadn’t been with me until the end, I would have sworn it was his signature. He closed all the accounts and told the teller we were being moved unexpectedly. She told me that the man was at least as tall as Scar—” A touch over six feet. “Blond, very short hair, and a tattoo on the back of his right hand. An eagle on a globe, an anchor and ‘Semper fi’ underneath. An ex-Marine. He was probably a customer at the Hollywood. And after I left, well, the other girls would have talked. They didn’t have any reason to keep quiet. They all knew Học had lots of money. When both of us disappeared at the same time, they would assume I went away with my American Sergeant. If this Marine was still around when Học’s body was found, he might have assumed I took the money.”
The Marine could have been a deserter, but if that were the case, he probably wouldn’t have survived the Communist takeover. The rumors in theViệt kiều community are that all the American deserters, even the enlisted men, were rounded up and shot. So he’d been on active duty and served at least one tour before 1970. I had contacts in DC, and in the Chicago Police; I was sure I could find out something.
She took another deep breath. “I want to see Scar’s killer get what he deserves, so I want to pay you to find him.”
“No need—”“I will hire you and pay you.” Her tone left no room for argument, so I didn’t try. I lit a cigarette and smoked it while I dried the dishes and put them away. The cabinets had no doors; the refrigerator was an antique from WWII that looked like a Chrysler Airflow, painted tan with red trim; Tupperware spice jars hung in plastic racks on rows screwed to tacked-up plywood. I had dreams of a new kitchen, someday. Real tile on the floor, instead of bumpy, cracked and missing linoleum. I wondered if I could pull in enough business between now and next fall to afford a furnace; the Rube Goldberg arrangement I had going now was both inefficient and dangerous. I glanced out the windows in the kitchen, and was surprised that it was almost dark; we’d spent the whole afternoon talking. Above the small courtyard where the dumpsters were kept, apartments lit up; the green door into Thumper’s, where Dragon was the bartender, was solidly closed. Once, I’d had a key; I’d been a regular until we broke up. She’d been the main reason I’d taken this place when it had come up for rent.
Drea came back in the kitchen. “I’m bored!” Her voice boomed in the small space.
I laughed. “Punkin, did you bring toys?” If she didn’t, I had a few left over from Bob’s nieces. I’d liked them, but after I came out, I stopped existing for Bob’s whole family. Even his mother Wilma refused to speak to me, and I’d always thought we had a good relationship despite her creeping missionaryism. That had been one of the things that drew me and Bob together; our parents were missionaries. More religion had stuck to him than me.
“I’d rather read,” she said. “I finished Freddy.”
“Those six boxes in the front room are full of books. Look through them; you might find something.” I wouldn’t have trusted Bob’s nieces; they were pretty smart kids, but they respected books as little as grownups. Drea hitched up her corduroy pants and swaggered into the front room.
I turned back to Kiều. “The bomb was supposed to get the three of you?”
She shook her head. “I don’t think so. Al usually did the shopping. We decided to all go at the last minute, but Drea couldn’t find her purse, so he went out to warm up the car. Drea and I left Ft. Bragg right after the burial.” Like most people in her country she was a Buddhist; like most Buddhists, she would prefer cremation. Scar had converted, but preferred a coffin; some things are hard to give up. I ought to know.
“Why? I mean, why leave, why come here? You could have called—”“Whoever has done this is still out there. I think he tapped the phone; I know he has searched our house—how else could he have been able to show an ID and forge Scar’s signature?—and he knows that I have safety deposit boxes with jewelry, savings and checking accounts in my name only. Once he knows we are gone, I’m sure he will track me down—”
Kiều checked the time and poured us more bourbon. I wondered if she had begun to drink as part of her adaptation to straight life. I hoped not; it froze my heart to think that she would drink to help her pass. “What will we do for dinner? Drea will be hungry soon.”
“I know a pretty good Vietnamese restaurant masquerading as a Chinese one.”
“Is that the place you helped your friends buy?” she asked. “The people you got out when Sàigòn fell?”
“The Nguyễns, yes.” We went into the front room—or what would become the front room once the walls were up—and saw that Drea had alphabetized the books. “Who taught you to read?” I asked.
“Suffering Sappho,” I said, “that’s better than the Classics Comics I had to learn from.” Drea read while Kiều and I talked—and drank. An hour later, I checked the weather. The wind had slacked off enough to bring up the temperature some. “If we’re going out to eat, now’s the time.”
Outside, Miss Emily’s big 390 caught right away, due mostly to her dipstick heater. I rolled up the extension cord and dropped it into the trunk. Miss Emily is named after the shape-changing secretary on Kolchak. She’s a ’67 Mustang High Country Special—one of only 416 built. I didn’t know that when I bought her: all I thought about was getting my hands on a convertible that could go 320 KMH. Only when I researched the little blue shield above the galloping pony did I learn how rare the model was.
Drea and Kiều rushed out and I locked the front door. I had an alarm system on special order, but it wouldn’t arrive until after the remodeling.
The Nguyễns’ restaurant, Tin Lung—Nora had explained to me once that the name means something like “Palace of Heavenly Delights”—is on Ridge, north of my place, too far to walk but not quite in Evanston. Fat happy golden Buddhas guard the red double doors.
“Chào chị,” said Hue, bowing slightly. Hello, older sister. She’s not yet fifteen, but can get away with helping as a hostess because she’s family in a family-owned business. Hue seated us at one of the few remaining booths and handed out menus. “Long ở đâu?” Where is Dragon? “I haven’t seen you together since before Christmas.”
I smiled weakly. “We broke up.” I hoped she’d drop it.
“Oh, that’s too bad. I liked her a lot.” She patted me on the shoulder and walked off to get water.
Damn. I turned back to the table to find Kiều’s gaze riveted on me. “So I was right, that night in Sàigòn, when you stayed at the bar.”
“Right about what, Mommy?”
“Andi is a lesbian,” she said, not taking her eyes off me. We’d all been speaking tiếng Việt, so when she used the English word, it was a surprise. Vietnamese uses a long, awkward phrase.
“Cool!” said Drea. That’s another word that doesn’t translate well.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Kiều asked.
“I didn’t tell myself for a long time,” I said. “And, uh, after that—” I stopped.
“You didn’t want to make it any harder for me than it already was,” she said, tiredly. “Damn.”Hue came to the table and said, “Let me guess. You haven’t opened the menus.”
“Bring us something good,” I said.
“Tôi ăn chay,” said Drea. I’m a vegetarian.
“Oh, you are not,” her mother said crossly.
Drea said, “Tôi thích cá.” I like fish.
Hue smiled at the little girl. “Keep practicing. Maybe someday you will be as good at making trouble as Andi.”
“Hey!” I said. Hue smiled angelically and left.“Why is she called Dragon?” asked Kiều.
“She has a tattoo. On her leg.”
Kiều rolled her eyes.
Drea went back to studying the placemat with its description of Vietnamese Lunar years; ’77’s a snake year. Last year, dragons ran things. I’d been with Dragon in her year, dragon of the lit fire. Dragon of the blast furnace was more like it, I thought. If anyone wants to know what it’s like to date an acetylene torch, I can tell them. Rule number one is, “never let her know she’s a suspect in a murder investigation.”
I lit a cigarette and looked around, trying to hurry the food. Across the aisle a little old Chinese man I’d seen before, in a quilted black coat and revolutionary cap, caught my eye. He waved and gave me a grin big enough to show every one of the eight teeth he had left. I waved back. A few tables from him was a large white fellow who looked like he was the model for Jo March’s Papa Baer: just this side of fat, with a heavy black beard to match his black suit. All he needed was a black bowler. He was talking earnestly to a tiny blonde who waved and jabbed her chopsticks when she talked, as if she were writing on a blackboard. A fragment of the conversation floated over; her voice was so full of adenoids I felt like blowing my nose. She called him Daddy, and he laughed indulgently.
Hue brought chopsticks and chả giò, egg rolls, with nước chấm, fish sauce. No one that I could see was using Western utensils, although I knew they had them in the back.
Later, I took Kiều and Drea through the smoky kitchen, full of noise and fire and the hiss of garlic in hot oil, to introduce them to Thanh and Đue. Before they would let us leave, I had to swear us all to dinner when the restaurant was closed, on Monday.
Exhausted the way only kids and cats can be, Drea fell asleep the instant her mother tucked her in. Kiều and I stayed up talking and drinking bourbon. Sometime in our conversation, I realized, but didn’t say, that whoever had found the money would have less trouble finding where Kiều had gone than he would have had tracking down the money in the first place; I wondered if he were already here. We went our separate ways to bed. I stared at the ceiling a long time.
After the world outside had slowed and chilled until you could almost hear the air fracture, Kiều slid naked into my sleeping bag, zipping it up after herself. I caressed her smooth skin with my hands. “Seven years,” she whispered. A dream seven years delayed. I had wanted her—loved her—since Việt Nam, and she made me feel as if she felt the same way about me. We made slow sweet love; she hooked her bare leg over my hip so I could touch her while I tasted her nipples. Afterward, we lay next to each other, smiling and whispering. I don’t think I had ever seen her more beautiful. I turned on my side and watched her face until I, too, fell asleep, and dreamt that I was back in ’Nam, listening to the geckos in the rafters of my hooch scuttling back and forth, quieting only when incoming rockets got too close.
The alarm went off early; Tim was coming over to do more remodeling and I wanted us all to be awake. I didn’t want to find out what he thought of lesbians. I’d already found out what too many ex-friends and relatives thought. One of the reasons I work hard to maintain ties with ex-lovers is that I can use all the friendships I can hold onto.
Tim was late, so I read the Sun-Times after breakfast; some oil tanker had blown up West of Honolulu and dumped 31 million gallons of crude into the ocean, Soyuz 24 was back on earth. Anita Bryant was spewing yet more vitriol. I finished the funnies and called Punch at the Chicago PD to sweet-talk her into running a search for a white guy with a tattoo on the police computers. “Mellon,” she answered. Her voice made my bones buzz and stirred old memories from ’Nam, where the woman with Punch’s voice’s twin had talked me into a tattoo, a gecko on the back of my calf. I’d never regretted the tattoo, but I often wondered what had happened to Rat. She’d offered her mother’s address—someplace in New York, I remembered—as a permanent contact point, but I’d been too afraid to keep it.
The doorbell rang. The extra-long phone cord let me open the door for Tim and motion for to him to start work without interrupting my conversation with Punch. “C’mon, Punch, it’s not like I’m asking you to run a plate. You know you’re always searching for guys by description for all kinds of legit reasons.” I watched Tim set up his sawhorses and start measuring; today, he was supposed to finish the wall between the bedroom space and the front room, where the exercise mats, file cabinets and desk were. I’d stacked the mats in one corner after getting up, and the wall would replace the Mickey Mouse sheets that hung over clothesline. Bob had loved the things, but the sheets were going straight to Goodwill when the paneling supplied enough privacy. Most of the framing was done; part of the drywall was already in place. Tim hadn’t begun on the ceiling. The supporting walls needed to be finished, but several rafters were in place to keep the new wall straight.
“Oh, all right,” said Punch. She’s in the 18th Police District, Near North; my office, my home, is in the 20th, Foster. I wouldn’t have minded a friend in my own district, but it hadn’t worked out. Boggs, the Commander of the 20th, hates my guts. Nothing personal. There wasn’t a woman under his command anywhere, not even a receptionist. Women are assigned, and everything is fine for a day or two. Then they lose a pencil or drop a paper-clip or something, and Boggs screams at them for thirty minutes, his face red and his eyes bulging. Everyone hopes he’ll have a stroke and have to be cared for by vengeful female nurses wielding sharp catheters for the rest of his long agonizing life. I can’t begin to imagine how he treats his wife and children.
“I’ll do it for a dinner.”
“How about donuts?” She’s the only cop I know who hates them.
“Dinner for you and a friend at the Tin Lung,” I agreed, knowing that’s what she had in mind all along. But I hoped she wasn’t still dating that racist redneck from downstate Coles County. If she were, I might talk Thanh into slipping some castor oil into his food.
“Deal.” I heard papers rattling. “I’ll call you later, OK?”
“If I’m not here, leave a message with Fran.”
“Your answering service? She’s got a mouth; my ears are still blistered from the last time I talked to her.”
“You should listen; maybe you’d learn something.”
I hung up. Tim asked to use the restroom. “You know where it is, you don’t need to ask.” He hadn’t installed all of it, but close enough; he’d put in the shower and switched the hot and cold faucets on all the sinks so they’d match the world. I started catching up on my paperwork. I didn’t have much to do in this kind of cold except catch up with case notes and expense records, receipts for taxes. My lawyer friend, Taxi—another ex—probably had papers for me to serve, but I wanted to put those off until next week if I could. I didn’t want to leave my guests unguarded.
Tim came back out, rubbing his shaved head. “I met Kew and Drea. That’s some kid!”
“What’d she do?”
He chuckled. “She asked me if I thought there was a space alien base at the top of the World Trade Center.”
“What did you tell her?”
“I said why go to New York when there’s one on top of Big John?”
“Great. Now my goddaughter believes in aliens. Thanks a bunch, Tim.”
“Welcome. She’s mighty cute. Real live wire.” He started marking a dozen two-by-fours for cutting. I expected him to start the power saw, but instead he cleared his throat.
“Um,” he began, and ran down.
“Yes?” I swiveled my chair. He wasn’t a bad looking guy and he had been Bob’s friend. He’d done work for me in the past, after Bob died, and had always seemed willing to help out, shave a little off the price if he could.
“Uh, do you, uh, think maybe you would like to have dinner with me sometime?”
A hundred different nice ways to say “no” rattled through my brain, but I finally settled on, “No.”
His face fell. “Oh,” he said. He turned on the saw.
I waited until he’d finished the cut and the twelve stub ends fell on the black tile. “I’m sorry, Tim. But you’re not my type.” I’d settled on that as the least offensive thing to say. Besides, it was true; he wasn’t my type. I thought of Kiều, naked in my arms.
“Hey, it’s OK. Not a problem.”
Now what was I going to do the next time I needed work done? I sighed and turned back to the Selectric and my case notes, waiting for Punch to call. Punch was a squat little redhead, built like a fireplug. I’d met her last August, during that mess with Le Hanh; her real name was Henrietta Mellon, but you called her Henrietta only if you didn’t care about your teeth. She’d told me her story once when we went drinking together. She used to tell people to call her “Mellon,” keeping quiet about her first name. Some bully in a bar had weaseled it out of another customer, a couple of months after she’d become a cop, and used it one too many times. If he hadn’t been disturbing the peace anyway, she would have been in big trouble. As it was, the whole bar had applauded and she got the nickname, “One-Punch Mellon.” She pretty much defined not-my-type; if nothing else had done it, her cophood would have pegged the meter. But she had that great voice—lower than Suzanne Pleshette’s—and I could see where some would be attracted to her preternatural calm. People who mistook it for placidity were usually surprised.
Tim went out for lunch and I went back to see about food for me and my guests. Kiều was napping in my bed, snoring softly. Drea was seated at the kitchen table, drawing a picture of the John Hancock building with a flying saucer moored to the top, the way the Hindenburg might have tied up to the Empire State. The aliens seemed to be mostly teeth and tentacles. “Hey, kid. Hungry?”
“Yeah! Do we get to go to Ying’s again?”
“Nope, we bought plenty yesterday.” I opened the refrigerator and started taking things out.
“Did Mommy sleep with you last night?”
I was proud of myself for not jumping. “Yes. Why do you ask?” I started chopping an onion.
“I woke up to pee and she wasn’t with me. Did you have a bad dream?”
“Yeah,” I said, amused at the thought of Kiều comforting me. I cracked eggs into a bowl and whisked them. I heard Kiều get up; she wandered in, sat down at the table with Drea and smiled at me. “I’m making omelets,” I said unnecessarily. “Ômơlết,” in tiếng Việt. French loan words seem to be acquired with less damage than English, I reflected. Of course, a lot of them have to do with food. Words obtained from GIs have to do with sex and bodily functions. Not that I had anything against those.
“Do we have salad?”
I hadn’t forgotten how important it was to the Vietnamese table, and had bought plenty of lettuce and herbs at Ying’s yesterday. “If you make it.” She smiled again and stood up.
The phone rang. “That’s probably Punch,” I said.
It wasn’t. It was no one. The call made me jumpy. My mind leapt immediately to worst-case scenarios. I wanted a kitchen phone, but the business phone and the much too large Yellow Pages ad cost enough to make me economize. That ad was shrinking by 50% next year, and I promised myself I would never again be influenced by pushy saleswomen with pushy chests.
I came back into the kitchen, where Kiều was tearing the freshly washed leaves into a big bowl. “What are you going to do once this is over?” I asked. The greens went onto a plate and she arranged sliced and julienned vegetables on top; I gave her a bottle of commercial oil-and-vinegar from the refrigerator. Nước chấm went on the table next to the quartered omelet.
“I’ve thought about opening a bookstore. But you need capital for that; I don’t know if I have any of that left. And I don’t know if there is enough demand for Vietnamese books in the US.”
I nodded and reached for my fork. “There’s a big Buddhist bookstore on Octavia Street, in Nihon Machi in San Francisco. A lot of what they sell is in Japanese, but they carry plenty of English books too. They have books about Japan, about Japanese Buddhism, Japanese cookbooks; that’s what you need to do, for your country. Sell what you love and know. ”
“You think Americans want to know about my country? They hate us, or ignore us. They pretend that the war never happened.”
“Some do, some don’t. There are always a few who are interested, who like to know for knowing’s sake. But now that there are plenty of Vietnamese refugees, it’s worth a try. You can sell best-sellers—oh, and Twinkies, like Ying does.” The doorbell rang. “Go ahead and start without me.” I took my plate with me to open the door. It was Punch. “Whatcha got? C’mon in.” She pulled her hat off and placed it top down on my desk, the way we both do in bars. Makes a good place to dump money; the bartender doesn’t have to wait for you to dig it out of your wallet.
Punch moved slow and certain like a little elephant, confident that there was no one stronger in the room. She sat opposite me in the customer’s chair. She snapped open one of those aluminum folding clipboards. “There are several ex-Marines, or deserters, in the system with tattoos,” she said. “But only one with that exact tattoo.” She flipped through her papers. “This guy received an honorable discharge, in 1972, but went down for armed robbery a a few months later. He got a light sentence because it was his first offense and no one was injured or killed during the commission of the felony. According to reports I saw, from the warden at Riker’s Island, he’s ‘quite a personable young man, who seems to have learned his lesson and is ready to take his place in society.’ I don’t have anything on his military service except his DD214.” She pushed a copy over the desk into my hands.
I read the single page. “Haakon Rølvaag. Is this guy royalty, or what?”
“Dunno what you’re talking about. Here’s what he looks like.” I looked at standard cop shots with numbers; he had no hair, like Tim, and a face and neck that bulged with muscle.
“When was this picture taken? What’s his hair color?”
“1973, when he went to prison. It says here that he grew his hair back, blond. That what you wanted to hear?”
“Maybe. Dunno. Looks like he spent a lot of time working out,” I said. “When did he get out of prison?”
“Couple of months ago. I don’t suppose you got any decent coffee?” The last time I’d fed her coffee, it had been stale.
“I think you’ll be surprised. And you can meet my friends.”
“I can’t stay too long; I’m on lunch.”
“You know, for a cop, you’re awfully resistant to meeting strangers.”
“In my line of work, strangers usually come out shooting.”I dumped my plate in the sink and introduced her. “Kiều and Andrea Jones, meet Punch Mellon.” Kiều smiled and nodded, trying to avoid using her English. She actually has a pretty large vocabulary—she reads dictionaries instead of novels on planes—but doesn’t do well at putting words together in sentences; her accent is strong and she leaves out words.
Drea pointed at Punch’s gun. “Hey, pig, how many bad guys have you killed?”
I snapped, “Andrea! Show some respect. Officer Mellon is my friend.”
Punch put her hand on my arm. “Take it easy, Holmes. She’s only a kid.”
I didn’t want to let it go. “She knows better. She’s been watching too many cartoons. Drea—”
But Punch interrupted me. “Lay off. I’ll answer her.”
Drea tucked her head like Brando in The Wild One. Question: “What are you rebelling against?” Answer: “What’ya got?” I looked back and forth between the two. They looked like sisters. The same squat, solid build, the same swagger, the same “Do your worst, I’ll pull back my ears” attitude.
“Yah, OK.” I was not happy.
Punch nodded at me and squatted face-to-face with Drea; the resemblance was uncanny. “I shot three men and one woman with this gun,” she said, sticking her own chin out. “You wanta know how they died?”
Drea’s eyes got big. She nodded.
“You come down to the station sometime. I’ll show you the police reports. And the pictures.”
I gritted my teeth.
“What do you wanta be when you grow up?” asked Punch. I had never asked Drea that question.
“A cop,” she said, decisively. At her age, I’d wanted to be a baseball player, until I played my first game and found out I hated it. Pissed off my Dad. He’d already bought mitts and balls and bats, eager to raise a major star. Momma kept him from spanking me.
“Here,” said Punch, handing Drea her card. “Ask for me at the station; I’ll show you around. Come early in the morning and you can help me let out the drunks.” She very carefully didn’t look at me when she said that. She’d had to let me out of the tank a time or two. “Now, it’s OK if you want to call me a pig,” she said, still kneeling, her face level with Drea’s. “But you shouldn’t do it at the station. Lotta those guys can’t take the truth.”
Drea hung her head. “I’m sorry. I was only trying to be funny.” She held out her hand. “Shake?”
Punch shook Drea’s hand solemnly and stood; she knew how to work an audience. “Thanks for the fancy coffee; that was a lot better than the goat-piss you usually serve me.” She looked down at Drea. “Uh, sorry.”
“It’s OK,” said Drea. “Andi calls every drink she doesn’t like moose-piss.”
“I do not!” I glared at her until I realized how stupid arguing with a six-year-old was. I turned to Punch, who was hiding a smirk. “Want some omelet to go?”
“Nah. Gotta run.” She jingled her keys, which would have been impressive except for the miniature rubber ducky that dangled from the ring. “I’ll get a McBooger on the way back.”
I closed my eyes. Drea was impressed; I don’t think she knew grownups could talk that way. I walked Punch to the door. “Thanks for the info.”
“No problem.” She adjusted the hat on her short, slicked-back hair. “You need help with this Roll-vag guy, you call me,” she said. “Pride won’t keep you alive.”
“It’s done pretty well by you.” Punch was five feet one-half inch tall; the height requirements had been eliminated six months before she swore in.
She drove off just as Tim walked up to his pickup. He watched the blue-and-white drive away. “Sorry I’m late. Do you need to cancel an APB?” He grabbed a small toolbox from the bed of the truck. As I started to let him in, I smelled alcohol.
I blocked his way. “What?” he asked, surprised.
“How much did you drink? I can smell it. Don’t lie.”
“I wasn’t planning on lying,” he said. “One beer, one double.”“Thumper’s?” He nodded. “Can you work without power tools this afternoon?”
He looked tired. “Yeah. I can hang panelling.”
“Don’t do it again.” I stopped myself from saying “I’ll fire your ass,” because once in a while, I had a clue. I watched him for a moment, working on the wall between the two areas and putting up the drywall on the window side, before going back to the kitchen. I told Drea and Kiều I’d be back soon, and let myself out the back door.
In January, when I’d found that I couldn’t change Dragon’s mind, I’d dropped off the last of her stuff and the back-door key I used to have, so I had to walk around to the front. It wasn’t a big deal, but it was one more reminder of a failed relationship. I pushed through the door. The lunch crowd had evaporated—or should that be sublimated?—leaving only one of the regulars. “Hey, Sam,” I said.
Dr. Hook’s “A Couple More Years” played on the jukebox at a substantially quieter level than it was kept for the lunch crowd. I waved at Dragon. “Can I get a beer, please?”
She considered throwing me out before she pulled the draft lever. “And a shot?” she asked, carefully not looking at me.
“Nah.” I decided not to ask her how I could have been stupid enough to let her get away; she’d tell me, and whatever she might have to say, I wasn’t ready to listen. Kiều was helping. I stuck my finger in the head of my draft, waited until the foam disappeared, and drank deeply. “Can I ask you a favor?”
“That man who was in here over lunch? No hair? The workman?”
She tried to give the impression that she didn’t have time for this. “No hair? There were a couple of guys like that. In case you don’t remember, this bar caters to the working class. What was he wearing?”
“White guy wearing jeans, a flannel shirt, black Frye harness boots.”
She nodded. “Like I said, there were two, one with a McLeod tartan shirt and—”
“What about it?”
“Can you not serve him hard liquor at lunch?”
“Nuts. This bar is struggling, you know that. If it weren’t for the lunch crowd, I’d be out of a job. You want me to turn down business?”
“I’ll pay you for the doubles he doesn’t drink.”
I explained, but I didn’t tell her that Kiều and Drea were staying with me. Stupidity and wishful thinking make an explosive combination.
“Sheesh,” she said. “Yah, I’ll do it, but I won’t take your money.” I meant to ask about the other guy with no hair, but she looked pointedly at my beer. “You through with that glass? I need to wash it.”
It wasn’t that cold, but my eyes stung in the winter air. When I got back, I called Al Ogren and asked for his friend’s number at the Pentagon.
“You better let me call him,” he said. “What do you need?”
I gave him Haakon Rølvaag’s SSAN and the other information from the DD214. “I want everything. Dietary habits, favorite color, sexual preference. Pictures would be nice, but not necessary. I’ve got one.” I checked his birthdate: February 29, 1936. Year of the Rat. It figured. Of course, rats were good guys in the Vietnamese can chì—the placemat zodiac.
“Right,” he said. “I suppose you want this tomorrow.”
“Today would be better.”
“Uh-huh. You keeping up with your banjo?”
“Mmmm,” I said, feeling guilty.
“It’s a sacred trust, you know,” he said, twisting the knife.
I hung up on him. It’s not like it was the first time; he was as good as Momma at guilt. I took a bite of the leftover quarter-omelet. Cold. Not for the first time, I wished I could afford a microwave oven.
“When do you expect him?” asked Kiều.
“Do not patronize me,” she said, drawing herself up. “The man who killed my husband.” She stood and dropped a teabag into her mug, which she stuck under the spigot of the coffeemaker. “We are waiting for him to come try to kill us, are we not?” Tim’s pounding from the front room underscored the pounding in my head. She sat down to wait for her tea.
I thought about what to say. “Anytime,” I finally said. “He could be here anytime.”
Drea marched in from the front wearing a crown made from aluminum foil and carrying a pen and paper. She sat at the end of the little kitchen table, crossed her eyes, chewed the end of pen, and scrawled, “Come bow to me.”
“You being a princess again? I’m not bowing, shrimp.” She stuck out her tongue, inserted her thumbs in her ears, and waggled her fingers.
“Andrea Jones! Do you want a spanking?”
“Oh, sure,” she said, going back to her writing and pretending to ignore her mother.
Kiều reached for her daughter. “Come here. We’re going to do your hair properly.” Drea tried to squirm away. “Hold still!”
“But Mommy, I like my pigtails!” Kiều ignored her, snapping both rubber bands and starting to unbraid the left one. Drea shrieked and wriggled like a cat held upside down. Her mother persisted, until Drea kicked her and she let go. Drea ran toward me. “Don’t let her! Don’t let her!” She wrapped her arms around my leg. I picked her up and she was upset enough to put her arms around my neck and glare at her mother. “Meano!” She leaned back. “She only wants to take them away because Daddy liked them!” She stuck her tongue out at Kiều. “You big fat meano!”
It was easy to forget Drea was only six. It was also easy to forget that Kiều had had nearly everything about her life obliterated, and that, underneath her composure and seeming calm, she was not much better off than her daughter. She was crying. “It’s not true! It’s not true!” she said. She rocked on the chair and held her sides and belly as if they were going to fall open.
“It’s OK,” I whispered to Drea, kissing her forehead. “It’s OK. She’s not going to change your hair.”
“I am too! She needs a decent hair style!”
“Kiều, there’s nothing wrong with her hair! This is America!”
“I hate it! I hate it! I want to go home! Home!” Her whole face was contorted, eyes screwed shut, trying to hold in the tears.
“Put me down,” Drea insisted. “I’ll be OK.” She looked at her mother. “Please.”
Drea never said please unless forced. I put her down, and she started pushing me toward her Mom. I put my arms around Kiều, who first resisted and tried to hit me, and then put her head against me and sobbed and sobbed.
“I’ll let you do my hair, Mommy,” said Drea, saying it only to get her mother to stop crying. But she didn’t stop, and Drea became more and more distressed. “OK!” she shouted. “I’ll let you do my hair and I’LL EVEN LIKE IT!” She slid down in her chair and crossed her arms, scowling.
I laughed, and so did Kiều. She shifted her grip on me so that she could wipe her eyes with the back of her hand, but she didn’t let go. She sniffed. She put her arm around my waist. “I will be fine,” she said. She sniffed again.
“I know,” I said, and kissed her forehead.
She sniffed again and put both arms around me. She turned her face up, her cheeks wet. I kissed her just as Tim walked into the kitchen. He stopped, and his gaze shifted between me and Kiều. “Uh, ’scuse me! Getting rid of beer!” He ducked into the bathroom.
When he came out, he grinned nervously and said, “I’ll, uh, get back to, uh, work.”
“How much do you have left to do?” I followed him up to the front. He’d put up all the drywall and the insulation, and all but one sheet of panelling. “Why don’t you put up this sheet and call it a day?”
He was already pushing the 4x8 sheet up and holding it in place with his shoulder so he could tack it up. I held it for him. “Go ahead, I got it.”
“Thanks,” he said, not looking at me. He hammered in enough brads so the wobbly sheet would stand up on its own, said, “That’s it,” and started in on the finish nails. I noticed that the wall didn’t wobble at all; a good sign, especially since I was already thinking past the current phase. He had installed a few more joists, 2 x 6s spaced widely apart, just enough to brace the wall. He whacked in the last nail and started packing up. I gathered a few things and handed them to him to install in the proper place in his big toolbox. He hefted it and manhandled it out to his truck, veins bulging, and came back for the small toolbox.
“See you Monday? 9 AM?”
“Yeah. Yeah!” He gave a too bright smile and opened the door.
I stopped him. “There’s a shot they can give you, if you catch it in time.”
“What?” His face was turning red.
“Queerness. It’s contagious. You’d better stop at the emergency room on the way home.” For a second, I thought he was going to drop the toolbox and charge me or throw the box. But he ended up turning on his heel; I let the door slam behind him. “I’ll send your wages by express slug,” I muttered as I locked up.
So I didn’t have to fire him after all. I figured I’d better tell Dragon that the arrangement was off, but there was plenty of time to do that later. I wasn’t in any hurry to rush over there. I went back to the kitchen where I sat at the table and pulled Drea up onto my lap. She didn’t bother to resist.
“Al should call soon,” I said, looking at Kiều. I brushed Drea’s butterscotch hair; it was soothing. “I hope it’s before—Rølvaag gets here.” I hesitated before saying the name; somehow, it made the threat seem more real, more certain to arrive on the doorstep.
“What if he doesn’t? Come for us, I mean.”
“We try to be good Buddhists and wait without expectation.”
She snorted. “You are not a Buddhist.” She stood and looked in the mirror next to the kitchen sink, applied her lipstick, blotted the glossy redness on a tissue.
“That makes it easier for me, doesn’t it?” Although if I’m anything, I’m a Buddhist.
Scar had been a Catholic; he’d even worn a cross, in ’Nam. When he and Kiều were about to get married, she had assumed that she would have to convert to Catholicism. I remembered driving her to Phú Cường, over in Sông Bé province, where the closest church was, and waiting while she arranged for RCIA classes. Scar got mad when he’d found out about it. “No. No. No! You are not doing that. How do I become a Buddhist?” I’d asked him why, one night when we were drinking together in his room at the compound. Kiều had been staying in her little house in Tân Hòa; the whole district of Củ Chi was off limits. That hadn’t changed just because they married. “I live with enough guilt for ten people,” he’d said. “Why would I inflict that on my kids?” It hadn’t made any difference to their marriage ceremony. She’d had no family; all her acquaintances were in Sàigòn. They’d had a simple service with an Army Chaplain, with me and Wes as witnesses; it satisfied the law.
Scar had kept quiet about his Buddhism incountry and in the States; he’d stopped wearing the cross but hadn’t bothered to inform the Army of the change. They were able to find a temple of some sort near most of the bases where they’d been stationed and would quietly go when the opportunity presented itself. They took what they could get; sometimes, that was someone’s living room. It became a little easier to find places after 1975. He never did give up Christmas, though. “I’m a crummy Buddhist,” he told me once. “I like stuff.”
I did too. But I still wore my little ivory Buddha. He meant something to me. Probably not at all what he was supposed to mean. That short time I’d dated Taxi, I’d gone to her Buddhist temple with her, but that’d stopped for several months after we broke up. I’d started going on my own, although infrequently, and always went with Scar and Kiều. Recently, I’d begun regular iai classes with Sensei George, who told me I didn’t have to come to services if I didn’t mind hurting his feelings.
A snow plow went by outside—the first I’d heard in weeks—recalling me to the present, the present in which Scar was dead, Kiều was missing a great deal of money, and we were waiting for someone to come try and kill us. Kiều asked, “What is our plan?”
“Make a noise like cheese,” I said. We were waiting for a rat.
“I think that is a joke I do not get,” she said, smiling back at me anyway.The phone rang. Kiều jumped, startled.
“Probably Al.” I picked up: “Holmes.”
“I suppose one of the advantages of you working in that awful job is that either you or that loud woman at the answering service always answers.”
Damn. I wished for a way to know in advance who was calling. “Hello, Momma,” I said. “I was hoping to hear from Al.” My parents think the world of Al, and I don’t know why; he’s pretty much everything my father disapproves of. A long-haired, leftist-verging-on-Marxist, leftover-hippie/musician/student who manages to hold a steady job only because he’s one of a handful of people in the Chicago area willing to work on crime scene cleanup. He says it’s interesting work.“Well, then I won’t keep you. I’m sure you have more important things to do than talk to your mother.”
Drea had gone back to looking at my books; I could hear Kiều in the kitchen making tea. “Stop that, Momma,” I said. “Drea? Would you ask your mother to make me some too?”
“Sure,” she said, turning a somersault before standing up. Marvelling at the rubber bones of the young, I shoved the curtains open in front of my desk so I could watch the sunlight fade and the darkness crawl up the side of Senn High across the street, making it look like the building was sinking.
“Who are you talking to?”
“Drea. You remember? Scar and Kiều’s daughter.”
“Is Allen there too?” She had probed me mercilessly until I had divulged Scar’s real name—as much of it as I knew, that is. She had decreed what the “Al” must stand for.
“Oh, dear, I hope you’re not getting involved,” she said.
“He was my friend, Momma.”
“It’s not ladylike.”
I used my only ammunition. “Maybe we should talk about decking sailors in Jakarta.” Dad laughed every time he told the story; he never got tired of it. I hadn’t heard it since he stopped talking to me.
“That’s enough of that,” she said, primly, and changed the subject. “Do you remember our friend Jillian Amis? The one who went to Gabon when we were in Brazil?”
“How could I forget?” She should have been a race-car driver. The only reason she never acquired a collection of unpaid speeding tickets was because she couldn’t afford cars that’d go faster than 50. I remembered riding with her in Quito while she dodged the trolley buses in her tiny little Fiat and swore. Sometime before she’d become a missionary, she had learned to curse with efficiency and creativity and didn’t mind letting fly with me in the car. One woman I know claims that Vietnam ruined her mouth, but I’d been ruined years before in Ecuador; Sister Jillian merely helped me refine my raw talent into an art form. “How is she?”
“Dead. You know she retired when she left Quito, and had been living on Social Security ever since? She paid all of her bills on time and had nothing left for food.”
“You mean she starved to death?”
“Let that be a lesson to you.”
“Momma! Your friend dies and you think that’s a message from God? That woman was a saint! What kind of—?”
“Don’t you start. But you should prepare for retirement, just like your father and I have been doing all along.”
“Preparing for retirement” was precluded by drinking, but for fear of firestorms I said meekly, “Yes, Momma.”
“See that you do. Now, your father and I were hoping you and Alan Ogren could come over for dinner on Saturday.” Alan was his real name; Momma called everyone by their full first names. If she used your middle name you were in trouble. Since she’d never asked for Al’s middle name, he could never be scolded.
So, Dad was indeed going to talk to me for the first time since they’d run into me with Nora, that day in the Loop. I still ached, still felt horrible about Nora. She didn’t deserve what I’d done. Nor had Sandy, for that matter. I rubbed my jaw.
“I’d love to,” I said. “I’ll have to ask Al. Don’t forget that I have guests.”
“Naturally, your friends are also welcome.” She cleared her throat. “Don’t expect him to talk about—it.”
“God forbid that I should ever bring it up,” I said. “I’ll call you when I hear from Al. Give my love to Dad.”
“Hmph,” she said. It was kind of nice to know that some things were constants. After we hung up I finished my tea and stared out the front window. I lit a cigarette. At least she hadn’t started reading the Bible to me and crying. When the light faded and the dark closed in, I closed the curtains.
“Where are we going to eat tonight?”
“We might not,” I said to Drea. “We have to wait until Al calls.”
Drea put her wrist to her forehead, swooned and fell on the mats cinematically.
I tickled her until she shrieked; the phone rang. “It’s me,” said Al.
“Took you long enough.”
“Many people would thank me.”
“The thanks come after you tell me what you got.”
“There’s almost nothing to be had about this guy.”
“You’re not serious?”
He sighed. “Paul was able to tell me that Rølvaag spent a lot of time in ’Nam. Four tours. Born in 1936, in Koshkonong, Wisconsin. That novelist wrote about it.”
“Ole Rølvaag; he wrote Giants in the Earth, and some other ones I haven’t read. You haven’t heard of him?”
“No, sorry. Is this guy related?”
“It’s likely, but it’s also as likely not. If so, he’s a sixth or seventh cousin,” said Al.
“That’s no help. I hope there’s something else.”
“Don’t hold your breath; Paul said he’d dig around.”
I asked him about Saturday. “Only because you’re my favorite PI,” he said.
“You’re going to regret this, you know. Momma and Dad are trying to get us together.”
“Um, have they met you?”
“That’s why they’re doing this,” I said.
“Can we persuade them to go out to a decent restaurant?”
“I sympathize,” I said. “But no. We have to go there.”
“Yuck,” he said. Momma’s idea of stewed tomatoes is to put unpeeled ones into a pan and scorch them. Usually, she forgets to take the stems out. Her cooking, and the American-style cooking she forced on her hired cooks, was one of the reasons I’d spent so much time on the streets of Jakarta as a kid; I’d been searching for something edible. Last time Al and I had eaten there, we’d had exploded eggs.
“Can’t you invite them to your place, and I’ll cook? Or you can. Or some random stranger off the street. Anyone but your mother.”
“Sorry, suffering is mandatory.”
“Want me to come by and pick y’all up?”
“Good idea. Then you can claim you’ve got to get up early and we can all get out before midnight.” I was glad his car was out of the shop. I’d hauled him all over Chicago last week, and had felt like a mother with an underage kid in a rock-and-roll band. The things we do for our friends.
Kiều brought me another cup of tea, placed it on the coaster where the other mug had been. She picked up the picture of Haakon Rølvaag. “Who is this?” she asked. But she already knew.
“I think he is Scar’s murderer,” I said. “Have you ever seen him before?”
She said nothing for a while. “He looks very familiar.” She seemed as unwilling to let go of the photo as she was to hang on.
I reread my notes, still in the open folder that Punch had left me. I felt nervous. “He was stationed in III Corps in 1969,” I said, checking his DD214. “I don’t know where exactly, but he could have been near, or in, Sàigòn.” She shivered and turned her back, brushing the picture onto the floor. I bent to pick it up and stared at it for a minute. “What if he had hair?” I asked. “Short blond hair?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I suppose ...” Her voice trailed off. “Shouldn’t we eat?”
“Sure,” I said. I didn’t want to know any more than she did that she might have slept with him when she was working at the Hollywood. But it was my job to know and find out things that might help catch him. Much later, after we had returned for the night and Drea had fallen asleep, Kiều came to my bed again, and I was glad. I held her until she stopped trembling, breathed slow and still and deep, and slept.
It wasn’t fair to make Al walk point, so I rang the doorbell while he hung back. Dad opened the door. We stood there staring at each other. I had to look up; he and Al are the same height, 6'5". He’d put on a few more pounds in the last year and a half, but otherwise, his wide body looked normal, reassuring as always. He ran his left hand over his thinning, reddish hair, a gesture I knew well. And then, instead of speaking, he opened his arms and enveloped me.
“Oof! Dad! You’re crushing me!”
“Oh, sorry, punkin. Come on in, everyone. Who’s this?” He squatted down to peer at Drea.
“Drea Jones, meet Winston Holmes.”
She held out her hand. “I’m very pleased to meet you, Winston. Are you a giant?”
“No, just too big for my breeches.”
“What are britches?”
He picked her up, stood, turned her upside down and yanked on her corduroys. “Pants! You’ve heard of pants!” He tossed a laughing Drea over his shoulder and herded us inside.
“Momma, can I help?” Please, can I put some flavor into this food?
“No, dear, I’ve got it all under control.” We have everything under control, don’t we? “Why don’t you see if your father and Alan need anything?”
“I’d rather help you.”
She looked up at me as she stirred ketchup and water together and poured the result over the unseasoned raw round steak in the glass oven dish. “You mean they’re smoking those awful little cigarillos.” The ones that smelled like burning shit.
“Dad is. Al was able to keep his pipe.”
“I wish they wouldn’t smoke in the house.”
“Momma, don’t start; we all agreed on no cigarettes indoors, but Dad only smokes those—things—now and then, and you gotta admit Al’s pipe smells better than anything else.” He smoked pure black cavendish, a tobacco soaked in rum so sweet it smelled like smoldering cherry chocolates.“Why don’t you get yourself some nice clothes, dear? You’d look very fashionable in a little black dress, like your friend Kew. Those jeans look like you stole them out of the hired help’s laundry. And that hat you wear!”
“I look terrible in that femmy stuff, and you know it.”
“Don’t be silly, Andrea. You’re a beautiful girl and you shouldn’t be ashamed of it.”
“Momma, I’m not about to get myself another husband and give you grandchildren. I want a wife, but don’t want kids. Besides, I’d be an awful mother. I’d wash them in turpentine, or poison them, or let them play with guns. I’d forget and leave them on a stakeout.”
“You’re the only one left, Andrea. Can you blame me if I pin all my hopes on you?” She stared at me bleakly. Whatever else she was, Momma was no dummy.
“Momma, it’s not my fault that Dana and Josh were killed.”
“Of course not.” She slid the baking dish into the oven. “Now, open these cans of oranges, would you please?” she said. Ambrosia for dessert. I looked out the kitchen window. I could see the nearby grade school through the leafless trees. In the summer, the greenery would hide it, but now the playground with its empty swingsets and jungle gyms was a constant reminder of the grandchildren Josh would have given her. I still had the address and picture of the girl in Germany who would have been my sister-in-law. I’d never dared to write to her.
“I’m sorry I’m not a better daughter,” I said.
“You can’t help it.” That was better than what she usually said, but since she seemed willing to keep the Bible on its stand and her prayers in church, I was willing to refrain from arguing with what she might have said.
I went out into the back yard to get some air and have a cigarette. It was merely cold, not brutally cold. The trees Dad had planted when they bought the place after their return from Brazil had grown enough to block some wind. I lit a cigarette and scuffed eroded chunks of mortar off the patio. The door opened and Al came out. “How you doing?” I asked.
“My head hurts and my throat is sore.”
“You don’t have to actually smoke those things,” I said. “I never do.”
“Well, you’re a ‘girl’.”
“You afraid he’ll think you’re one if you don’t inhale?”
“Shit. Maybe I do.” He dug out his pipe and tobacco. “Here.” He held out a silver flask.
“Al, you didn’t. You’re risking hours of Bible lessons.” But I drank half and tried to pass it back.
He held up his hand. “I heard from Paul again,” he said, fishing out another flask for himself. “There’s a rumour that Rølvaag had something to do with Diệm’s assassination, but nobody can prove anything.”
“Weren’t all the generals who killed him Vietnamese?”
“That’s what the press wants you to think,” he said. Al is a conspiracy theorist from way back. He got it from his mother, his grandmother, his ex-wife, the wannabe muckracker and lesbian, his lovers and ex-lovers and friends: he hung out with, dated, fell in love with and married, conspiracy theorists. Sometimes, I wondered why I was his friend and not my mother; she was the one who’d been right about the tunnels under Củ Chi. “Anyway,” Al continued, “That’s all I’ve got. Sorry I couldn’t do more.” He knocked the dottle out of his pipe and tucked it away; I gulped the remainder of my flask, reached for the doorknob and heard a shriek.
Drea sat on the glass coffee table while Momma peered at her head. “What the hell?”
“Andrea! Your language!”
Dad’s mouth twitched as he turned to me. “Drea turned a somersault, misjudged, and whacked her head—”
“How is she? Do we need to take her to emergency?”
My mother straightened up. “Of course not. I can take care of this.” She left the room.
I inspected Drea’s head. There was a lot of blood, but head wounds always bleed profusely, and it had soaked through the stack of napkins Momma had used as a temporary compress. “She needs stitches—”
“And she shall have them,” said Dad. “You know there’s no arguing with your mother.”
“It’s going to hurt,” I told Drea. “They got no anaesthetic. I would cry.”
“You are a sissy,” said Drea. Momma returned with needle, thread, alcohol and a fresh towel.Kiều spoke to Drea in Vietnamese: “Are you sure you want to let her? We can—”
~oOo~I drove Al’s ratty Corvair van back from Wadsworth, itching to get under the hood to fix whatever was making it emit vast clouds of grey-blue smoke that made me feel I was being followed.
“I did not like the food,” said Kiều, haltingly, in English. “Doesn’t your mother ever
“Win watches sports and does color adjustment for fun,” said Al. Dad’s color sense was more off than most men’s, so he spent a lot of time fiddling with the color TV until the uniforms were excessively orange and the players’ hair neon green.
“‘Win’, huh? Next you’ll be calling Momma ‘Edie’.”
“‘Mrs. Holmes’ is as casual as I get when it comes to your mother,” he said.
There was a parking place in front of my place, so I invited Al in for a real drink. Kiều put an almost-asleep Drea in bed before coming to sit with us. “Your mother is not a happy woman.”
“Not most of the time, no. I guess she could have been now and then, if ...” I trailed off. I’d told both her and Al about my dead brothers often enough.
“Your father was very nice to Drea.” Kiều took my hand and worked her fingers through mine. She smiled at Al. “You too. Nice to Drea.”
“She’s a sweet kid,” he said. Sweet like a gooseberry. I’m sure that’s why I like her so much. He stayed to finish his drink and left before he became a crowd.
Kiều locked the door behind him and turned in my arms. “He overstayed.” She opened my belt, undid my zipper.
“It was only ten minutes.”
She crouched and pulled. “Ten minutes too long.”
Monday was cold enough to make me think it was the Nones of January, not the Kalends of March. Kiều and Drea were still asleep while I showered and wondered where the hell I was going to find someone I could trust to finish up the remodeling. Illiterate signs plastered the city from Gary to Waukegan, but I wasn’t someone who could work with a handyman who couldn’t spell.
I pinned Drea’s latest artwork to the bulletin board to admire: a gigantic T. Rex, standing butt deep in the Lake, had picked up Big John to smoke like a cigar. It clutched an oversized Zippo in its itty-bitty claws and looked puzzled because it couldn’t reach the far end of the building to light it. The doorbell rang. I wasn’t expecting Tim, but that’s who it was. I stared at him.
“I’m sorry. Can I come back to work?” His breath steamed in the cold. Across the street, a clutch of teenage boys squabbled noisily over pitched pennies before starting their day at Senn.
“I don’t want you thinkin’ I’m that much of a jerk,” he said, talking to the sidewalk and rubbing his hands together. “Besides, I need the money.”
“I need the work done,” I said. “But I don’t need you to judge me while you’re doing it.”
He glared at me and stuck out his jaw. “I said I’m sorry; I ain’t saying what I did was right.”I stood away from the door to let him in. “I don’t believe you believe that, but it’s nice of you to say so.” I had to give him credit, even though I knew he was motivated by money. This country’s got a long history of doing the right things for the wrong reasons; why blame Tim for something I wouldn’t hold against LBJ? Even LBJ had the occasional noble motivation.
Over the next couple of hours, Tim finished up the wall between the front office and the bedroom before starting to mark joist locations over the sleeping area. He did half before knocking off for lunch. “Going to Thumper’s?” I asked.
He stiffened. “I was gonna have one beer! Not—”
“I’ll have one too.” He relaxed. “I’m getting a little stir-crazy.” I locked the door and told Drea not to let anyone in. There wasn’t any point in telling her mother; Drea was the one who would answer the door. I was confident—maybe over-confident—that I could take care of Rølvaag, but I didn’t want Kiều and Drea to leave; I was feeling things I couldn’t afford to feel. Every time I thought about them moving to California, I felt something clutch my heart.
On the way to the bar, I checked out the upper-floor windows of apartments in the alley. It wasn’t something I put on special for Rølvaag; I’m always on the lookout for snipers. Tim ordered sardines and pig’s knuckles for lunch. The sardines come in a can, but the pig parts are in a big glass jar sitting on the bar; Dragon pushed the jar and some paper plates over to me. “I’d rather sit through an autopsy than eat those things,” I said.
Dragon thawed a little and smiled at me. That was nice. “I’ll have one of those little cheese pizzas,” I said, not because I wanted one much but because it’s a treat watching her. She’s shorter than Punch and has to stretch to put pizzas in the oven because it’s mounted high. Tim and I ordered a beer apiece. I paid to prove there were no hard feelings.
“What’re you gonna use that space above the bedroom for?”
“Books,” I said. “Books, books, and more books. I got a truckload in storage.” I missed them; they’d been there since I’d sold the house to Ed and Anya.
“I better beef up the flooring, then. I was going to use ½ inch particle board, but I better go with plywood.”
“Make it ¾ ply,” I said. “When I said a truckload, I meant it.”
He rubbed his jaw. “I could sisterboard the joists.”
“I don’t think you need to do that, as long as you upgrade the plywood.” Adding a joist toenailed to the existing ones would add to the cost and the time.
He nodded, concentrated on worrying the last scraps of flesh off the pig bone. “How come you’re so antsy now? You and Kew were OK on Friday, but now both of you jump at every noise.”
I looked at him, not his plate. “You don’t want to know,” I said. “I’m taking care of it.”
He let it drop; I hadn’t thought he would. After a time, he looked up at me. “My Daddy doesn’t think women belong in the workplace, but—” He paused while he shoveled the last of the sardines and mustard and crackers into his mouth, chewed and swallowed. “I don’t think I could do what you do.” He shoved his plate away and drank the last dregs of his beer. “Besides, if Mama didn’t work, Daddy woulda lost the house for us a long time ago. Construction’s not as regular as it oughta be.”
I drained my glass. “Neither’s detecting.”
We took the long way back, up Ridge to Ardmore instead of cutting through the alley. It was a mistake. Despite the sun, the winter wind squalled down Ridge as if pumped through a jet engine. On the way, he said, “That bartender. She’s pretty. What’s her name?”“She’s not your type.”
He stopped dead. “Aw, shit.”
“If it’s any consolation, she decided in December that I wasn’t her type either.”
He chuckled and caught up. “Sounds like your judgment isn’t any better than mine.”
I shrugged. Inside, I helped him load more joists up on top of the sleeping area. “Since Bob died, it’s been—.” I heaved a 2x8 up for him to catch and lay flat. “Well, I just wish something’d last more than a few weeks, is all.”
“Yeah,” he said as he grabbed the end. “You ever fall in love with a straight girl?”
“Uh-huh. There were a couple in my high school. I was scared to talk to one of them.” I picked up the next board. “The other one, my last month there, almost turned me in, until I managed to convince her—and myself—it was all a joke.” There’d been a few since, but I was trying to make him feel better, not dump on him.
He was silent until he placed the last 2x8. He hopped down and grabbed his nail gun. “Must be hard.”
“You get used to it.”
He was uncomfortable with me, but he was trying to understand. The nail gun went up the ladder with him, and I went in the back to check on my guests.
An hour later, after I’d come back to work on case notes, Taxi called. “I have papers for you to serve.”
I needed the work—serving processes is what paid most of my bills—but I wasn’t sure I should leave Kiều, Drea and Tim alone all day. “Can I spread them over Tuesday and Wednesday?”
“Just so they’re all done by Thursday morning.”
“I’ll pick them up tomorrow morning.”
“Great. I’ll see you then.” She waited a beat; I thought at first she’d hung up. “There’s a meeting near you tonight. Want to go?”
“Sorry, no, I’m tied up.” Something made me say, “Ask me later.”
“Holmes, you got me on this road—”
“Don’t need AA,” I said, probably too abruptly. “I haven’t hit bottom yet.” Something in the back of my head hinted that I could see bottom. I steadfastly ignored it. “Besides, we’re going over to the Nguyễns.”
“Kiều and her daughter.” I explained why they were there. Tim fired a pair of nails into a joist hanger: “phsst—thunk—phsst—thunk.” Every few joists, the compressor rattled on. Plywood flooring tomorrow, drywall for the ceiling the next day.
I went back to my notes. After the third time I caught myself remembering last night with Kiều, the notes went back into the file cabinet and the cover went back on the Selectric. There’s a bottle in the back of my lowest desk drawer, but behind the bottle, there’s a shoebox full of my letters home from ’Nam—rescued when Momma had decided to do some spring cleaning a few winters ago. Most parents keep their kids’ first drawings, first baby shoes, first lock of hair, first hand-picked rocks—but not mine. In my parents’ house, the stuff of the present world was ephemera, and sooner or later, everything not necessary ended up in the trash; I packrat in self-defense.
I’d never told my parents about drinking with Scar, or how his sister had sent tequila to him, but I was hoping that I had at least mentioned the sister’s name to them. I flipped through the envelopes and spent much too much time going back to 1970, so it was nearly 1600 before I found it. Scar’s sister’s name was Serena. Seven years ago, she had been married to a deputy named Moreno living down in Harlingen, Texas. I’d never been to Harlingen, but what I knew of Texas made me wonder how many promotions a man named Moreno could expect. As I picked up the phone to call information, Tim clambered down and said, “I’m done for the day; I’ll pick up the plywood on the way home; that way I don’t have to get it in the morning.”
I stood up to let him out. “Are you up to putting in a furnace? A real one?” I was tired of the clanging radiators and inadequate heat, tired of running both ovens all the time.
He lit up. “For this place? Piece a cake; a nice 80,000 BTU unit’d do real well, even with your new upstairs. I can get my Daddy to help me wire it in and save you the electrician money.”
“Probably not until next month. That OK?” If I squeezed real tight I could swing it. Barely. Maybe a magic sugar Momma would send me a diamond.
He nodded. “Yeah, no problem.” He stepped out the door, cleared his throat. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome; I just wish I could afford it right this minute.” I locked the door. Cynically, I thought he must really need the money. I tried to be a little more generous, but wasn’t up to it. Nonetheless, he was trying. And, I thought, as I checked the joists and their hanger brackets, he did do good work. I thumped on the rim joist with my fist; no wobble. Bob would have approved.
I sat back down at the desk. There was a half-sheet of paper lying on the desktop, to the left of the Selectric. In large, raggedy capitals, it read, “The Horrible Ten are after you. Return the jewels or DIE!” I carried the sheet over to the bulletin board, where I pinned the note up near Drea’s other drawings, the Tết drawing of the boy and the purple toad, and the “Come bow to me” sign. Entertainment for the customers I planned to have once our mini-Ice-Age was over.
I worked on case notes and expense records for the IRS until it was time to go to the Tin Lung for dinner with the Nguyễns. “How do you like my dress?” asked Kiều, spinning to show the black, red-dragon-decorated, cheongsam that flattered her figure like spray paint. Ten frogs closed the right side and stopped at the knee, showing bare skin to her patent-leather heels.
“Maybe we should stay home and send Drea—”
We didn’t speak a word of English all evening. Drea found some of it hard to follow, but Kiều felt the same way I did; Drea wouldn’t maintain her tiếng Việt if it were boring, so we didn’t leave out the good parts because of her. In that, Kiều went against her culture; the sexual revolution came to Việt Nam only when it landed with the Marines at Red Beach near Đã Nẵng in 1965. Being a lesbian in a society that barely admits there is any such thing—well, it would push you to the edge if you weren’t already there. I’d had rough spots—like falling in love with someone who wanted to put me in jail, for example—but my road had been far smoother than hers.
At home later, we tucked Drea into the sleeping bag; Kiều and
given up any pretense of sleeping apart.
When Drea’s breathing slowed, I put my hand
on Kiều’s bottom. “That dress is pretty tight.
I think you need some help.” I defrogged the
cheongsam from the hem up; after the first three, she pushed me over
and straddled me to make it easier. Undoing another let me push
the dress up around her waist; underneath, she wore nothing. I
fell asleep with the salty
taste of her on my lips.
I issued strict instructions to Drea. “Who do you let in?”
“You. Tim. The Horrible Ten.”
“Now, just who are these guys, the Horrible Ten?”
“Rabbits. With knives.”
“Switchblades?” I asked. The doorbell rang, and it was Tim with the load of plywood. I stuck around long enough to help Tim haul it in and set up his compressor for the nail gun. He brought in coils of round-headed nails, and I was glad to see him using those, instead of the cheaper stick nails, which have smaller heads and don’t hold as well. I felt a little more kindly toward him today.
The Tribune map covered my desk while I plotted the day’s route; without advance planning, all my pay would go for gas. The paper’s covered with red marks and notes, because every once in a while, I have to go back to a place I’ve been before, and second visits are hardly ever welcomed with open arms. Unless the arms are of the projectile variety. I never serve processes without my gun, which is easier to hide in winter. I patted the .38 in its shoulder holster, double-checked that I had my concealed-carry permit, and folded the map.
“Drea, you can answer the phone, but give away nothing and only take messages.”
“I’m no dummy,” she growled; Tim smiled.
“I know that, kiddo. I’ll be back at eleven-thirty with food. Don’t get in Tim’s way.” She stuck her tongue out at me, and I went away happy.
The morning went well enough, in the sense that nobody pulled a gun or took a swing at me. At 1100 I parked at a gas station to use its phone booth; I pulled the door closed; my breath steamed out and froze on the glass, making crystals in the sunshine. I gave the operator my home number for billing. Ring ring. Ring ring. “Hello?”
“Are you selling something?”
“Ah, no. Did I get the name wrong? Are you Ms. Moreno?”
“Maybe I should ask for Serena Jones, the sister of Al Q. Jones?”
“Look, if you’re selling something, you can—”
“Please don’t hang up. I’m a friend of Al’s.”
“ ‘Al’ doesn’t have any friends,” she said. And waited.
Ah. “My name is Andi Holmes, and I’m the one who gave him the nickname ‘Scar’,” I said.
When she spoke, the change in her voice was remarkable. “He talks about you,” she said. “Are you really you? What’s the name of the bar?” She had a faint Chicana accent, the kind Anglos get when they live their life with someone whose first language is Spanish.
“The Hollywood,” I said, knowing which bar she meant.
“OK. How is Scar? And Drea and Kew? I haven’t talked to them since Christmas.”
Shit. Why did stuff like this always happen to me? “I’m terribly sorry. Kiều didn’t have time to call and tell you. He’s dead.”
Long pause. “What?”
“Car bomb,” I said. “Kiều—”
“—And Drea are OK, obviously. Why would anyone kill my brother?” I explained what Kiều and I had worked out, that I was investigating, and probed her for clues, hints, anything, but she had nothing. Until.
“What about your husband? Could I talk to him?”
“That would be hard,” she said, her voice low. “He’s in the hospital. A couple of the thugs he arrested a few years ago came back after getting out of prison and pistol-whipped him. He damn near died; he’s got a broken jaw, so it’s wired shut and he’s eating through a straw. He’s not due back on the job for another month.”
“When? When did this happen?”
“Last month. The thirteenth.”
“Did they catch who did it?”
“Oh, yeah. The chingados claim they didn’t do it. Ha.” Something about her explanation made me nervous. “I have to get back to work. I’m the dispatcher for the Police Department; let me give you the number.”
“Were you on duty when—”
“Yeah,” she said. “That was hard.” She asked about the funeral, and was depressed when I told her it had been last Wednesday. “There’s no reason for me to come out, then,” she said.
“No, I’m sorry. No one would be there anyway.”
“Right. Oh, what about Cat?”“Staying with a friend.” I was glad she asked about the dog. “And can you satisfy my curiousity? What was Scar’s full name?”
“Alton. Alton Quietus Jones,” she said. Her laugh was warm and low and made me glad I’d asked. “Quietus was after a Roman Emperor, whose chief claim to fame seemed to be that he was declared Emperor of the East against Gallienus.” She cleared her throat. “We always said that the Alton was from the railroad. Chicago and Alton, that is. But Daddy wouldn’t confirm or deny it. He took that secret with him.”
“I can see why he preferred Al or Scar,” I said; I’d never even heard of Gallienus, much less Quietus. I promised to call when I had hard information. I climbed into Miss Emily and cranked the heater. My hands were numb from the cold. I blew on them, rubbing them together, before pulling my gloves back on and heading to the nearest Steak & Shake for takeout.
“It’s me,” I told my locked door. “I brought lunch.” Drea let me in.
“That’s good, because I’m hungry,” she said, biting my knee to prove it. “The Horrible Ten are even hungrier.” She poked at my leg critically. “Too bad you don’t have any meat on your bones.”
Over the burgers, I told them what I’d learned from Serena.
Kiều stopped eating. “Jesús is in the hospital? That seems very hard to believe.”
“He was a Ranger. He came through two combat tours during the war, including Tết, without incident. He never lost a man assigned to his platoon. I do not like him and he does not like me, but he is a very cautious man, and a very competent one. I did not think it possible for him to be surprised.”
We chewed in silence. Both of us thought of it at the same time; we looked at each other. “Rølvaag,” I said, making thought audible.
“Yes. We must be very careful.”
I didn’t honestly know how we could be more careful than we already were, but I nodded. I thought of the mysterious phone call, the duplicate workman at Thumper’s. My gut knotted. “Where did Tim go for lunch?”
“McDonald’s,” said Drea. “I asked him to bring me fries but he said no.” She pouted, and I didn’t mention the double order she’d inhaled with her cheeseburger.
“He’s a big meano,” I said. That got me the smile I was looking for. She wadded up the greasy papers and stood.
“May I be excused?” We both looked at Drea.
She put a hand on her hip, indignant. “I can be polite!”
“Uh-huh,” I said.
“Tim said I could help!” She hopped up and down in her impatience. Kiều waved her away and I heard Drea clamber up on the new plywood ceiling. We disposed of the lunch remains and went up front; I still had three processes to serve. Tim’s compressor came on, making us jump. It shut off right away; not much air had had time to leak out. “Watch out up there,” I called to Drea.
There was a knock on the door. I checked my watch. “Must be Tim,” I said, reaching for the lock. “Who is it?”
“Tim.” It was his voice, so I twisted the deadbolt. The door slammed in, catching my left shoulder.
“God, I’m sorry!” That was Tim; Rølvaag had a knife in his neck.
“Shut up,” said Rølvaag. His voice was nothing like I’d expected. A tenor like a raw wound, every word pronounced with great precision as if he’d had the language teacher from Hell. “One more word and you are a dead man,” he said to Tim. He spoke to Kiều. “Come over here, gook.”
“What do you want?” Kiều also spoke with great precision.
“Where’s the rest?”
“Rest of what?” She looked as puzzled as I felt.
“Don’t play dumb. I want the other half of the money, or this man will die. If he dies, you will die, and your girlfriend too.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about—”
“Yes, you do. The rest of your brother’s money. From the bar.”
Kiều paled. “Other half? There no other half—”
“Don’t lie to me, you little bitch!” He moved the knife enough to draw blood from Tim’s neck. Tim cried out and pissed his pants. The acrid odor of urine filled the room. “I have his records from the Hollywood. You know as well as I do that he owned that bar. You and Jones stole his money, but you only put half in the bank. Tell me where the rest is.”
Kiều spoke slowly, carefully. “You will kill us all anyway,” she said. “I don’t know about missing money, and I not tell you if I did.”
I saw his jaw clench. I spoke quickly, in Vietnamese. “Kiều! Tell him! Lie!” Anything to buy time.
He turned his attention to me. “One more word of gook talk.” The knife against Tim’s skin moved, not deeper, but sideways, widening the cut. Tim was having trouble standing, but Rølvaag had no trouble holding him. He turned back to Kiều, opened his mouth. “Now!”
“I will tell you,” she said. “I give combination to safe.” She held up her purse.
“I told her to,” I said. “Her English isn’t very good and I wanted her to obey you right away.”
“You’re smarter than you look,” he said. Then he ignored me.
I waited for an opening. Nothing presented itself. My gun, in its shoulder holster, weighed a ton, but I didn’t dare reach for it. Rølvaag was fast and strong. Kiều approached the desk slowly, moving with grace as always, but clearly terrified. She dumped the contents of her purse. “Leave my friends and take me. I take you to safe, and do anything you want. When you tire of me you kill me. Don’t hurt my friends.” That was about the longest speech I’d ever heard her make in English.
“I’ve had gooks,” he said. “You bitches are lousy in bed. I won’t kill anyone if you do what I say. What safe is this?”
“Safe in shed. At home.” Kiều peered at the table and sorted through the items. “This safe deposit key,” she said. “Combination in it.”
He showed his teeth. “Bullshit. You know the combination, you write it down.”
“I have no paper,” she said.
“I have some in this drawer.” I touched the drawer in question and he nodded.
“I’m faster than you think,” he said. “Don’t fuck with me.”
“I won’t,” I said. “Watch.” I moved very slowly. He did watch me; his knife hand moved away from Tim’s neck, but Tim was trembling in mortal fear and unable to do anything about it. I reached slowly into the drawer. The compressor upstairs rattled on, loudly, startling all of us, including Rølvaag, who jerked. I yanked the drawer out of the desk, pulling it back so I could throw it.
A piercing, animal scream cut through the air. Rølvaag’s gaze snapped up and he started to move. There was a “phsst!” and another “phsst!” as he took two nails in the face; he screeched and dropped the knife and clawed at his eyes. Tim, released, fell to the floor like a sack of cement dropped off a bridge.
Drea perched on the edge of the wall, her face as contorted as any gargoyle’s. She screamed again and held the nail gun, her finger poised over the trigger. I pulled myself up the ladder. “Give it here, Drea, give it to me. It’s OK. Everything’s OK.” Out the corner of my eye, I saw Kiều picking up the knife. “Don’t kill him,” I cried. “Don’t!”
Drea was still screaming; my ears hurt. I tried to get in front of her and she moved sideways like a crab. Fiddling with the front of the gun, she fired six more nails into Rølvaag’s face. His body jerked, his bowels let go and he went quiet. Drea dropped the nail gun and leapt off the roof onto the floor next to the corpse; she pounded on it and screamed. I grabbed for her but Kiều beat me to it, dropping the knife and folding the little girl in her arms. “My hero,” she whispered in Vietnamese. “My hero, my hero.”
I went into the back and got some water, which I brought back and poured on Tim’s face. Tim shrieked. I poured more water. “You’re OK,” I said. “All you need’s a Band-Aid.” He didn’t stop screaming. After a minute, I crouched down by him and closed my arms around him. His screams changed to cries, then whimpers.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he said, barely able to force the words out.
“It’s OK,” I said. “You did everything right. You did everything you had to do. It’s OK.”
“Anh Đi? I think Drea is hurt.”
I dropped him quicker than I should have; he went “oof.” I didn’t care.
Drea was quiet, but there was a terrified look on her face. She clung to her mother with both hands, and grunted, “Uh, uh, uh, uh.”
“Where’s it hurt?”
Drea shook her head, but Kiều pointed to her left leg.
“Let me feel it,” I said. “I’ll be real careful.” I knew perfectly well I couldn’t get away with claiming it wouldn’t hurt.
“Uh, uh, uh, uh.”
“OK, I won’t touch, only look. Can you move it?”
There was too much white in Drea’s eyes. Her mother was stroking her hair, muttering to her, soft sounds I couldn’t understand. After a minute, Drea tried to move her leg and her face went pale. “Broken leg,” I said.
I called an ambulance and was about to call Punch, when Kiều said, “He said he had my brother’s records from the bar. If they fall into the hands of the cops, they will think the money is not mine.”
“Shit. You’re right. Does he have car keys?” She dug in his pocket and came up with a set.“These are for my car,” she said, holding them up. “The money will be in it. If the records exist, they will be there too.” One ring had a mini-plate hanging from it like a charm. “It is a 1976 Camaro, a yellow one.”
“My God. My God,” he said, staring at the corpse. “My God. My God.”
“He’s dead. You’re not,” I said.
“Yeah,” said Drea. “He got beat by a kid!”“Kiều, help Tim. Call Punch if I—”
She smiled proudly. “Tim showed me how to work his nail gun,” she said. “He’s got it set in bump mode. All I had to do to fire it was pull back the nose guard.”
“Kiều, did you know your daughter’s going to be an engineer?”
She nodded and said, “Scar always wanted to be one,” she said. “He signed up for some courses last semester.” The tears were running down her face, and Drea reached up to touch them.
“Gotta go now, lady,” said a medic, grabbing one end of the stretcher. Her partner grabbed the other end, and they loaded Drea on board. Kiều climbed in, and I had barely had time to shove the key rings back in Rølvaag’s pocket and stash his gun in my desk before Punch arrived.
“I called Henry Ames at the 20th,” she told me. “He’s the least awful detective there.” The ambulance left. Punch looked at Rølvaag’s corpse and asked, “How’d he get here?”
“Probably drove,” I said. “He had a bundle of cash—Kiều’s money—and he wouldn’t want to try to get that on a plane.”
“You know the car and the money are all evidence.”
“Damnation, I forgot.”
“It’s too late now, I’ve already called Ames,” she said. “Don’t you have a lawyer friend?”
“Yah, I do.” I called Taxi and filled her in until I heard the second set of sirens.
Ames wasn’t what I’d call a nice guy. He found the keyrings in Rølvaag’s pocket and handed them off to Punch. “Make yourself useful,” he said. “Find his car.” I guessed that was better than running her out of his territory. I explained what I knew. So did Tim, but I knew Ames wasn’t going to be satisfied until he could interrogate Kiều and track down witnesses and documents from Fayetteville. I offered to follow Ames to the hospital and translate. He struck me as the type to shout at women. Before we left, I called Ogren and asked him come over to guard the store, co-ordinate with the evidence techs and get the place cleaned up. I didn’t want to come back to bloody floors.
Tim came with me to the hospital—I didn’t trust him to drive his pickup—after I gave him a pair of sweatpants. The only clothes of Bob’s I’d kept were the sweatpants and one set of dress greens to keep my own company in the closet, and the sweats had been a mistake I’d been meaning to take to Goodwill for years. Taxi showed up a few minutes later and found me, Tim and Kiều in a waiting room, waiting for Ames to get off the phone.
Ames went over and over Kiều’s story, but he seemed less antagonistic than he had in the office. He must have run a background check on the dead man and talked to the MPs at Ft. Bragg. He would have found out that Kiều was the wife of a respected member of the military—a Bronze Star holder, no less—and that the dead man was an ex-con. The only aspect he couldn’t seem to let go of was the money. “Yes, it was all my money,” Kiều told him. I explained that she had inherited it, had transferred it to a US bank perfectly legally when she moved here. He couldn’t trace the money prior to that, thank goodness, since South Viet Nam no longer existed.
An hour into it, Punch called for Ames. “Office Mellon found her car,” he told me, waving at Kiều. “She says the trunk is full of money. That means we have to impound the car and the money both as evidence.”
Taxi spoke: “As Lam Anh Kiều’s lawyer, I want to be there when the full search is conducted. The money—”
“—Has to be counted in the presence of witnesses. Don’t tell me my job, counselor.”
“Just dotting i’s and crossing t’s, Detective. Don’t take it personally.” But it was clear he did.
He let us leave three hours later. When we got back to the office, Al Ogren was just finishing up; the body was on its way to the morgue and the floor where Rølvaag had fallen was spotless. He was happy as a pig in poop, as Dad used to say when he was away from Momma. “Blood and shit are easy to clean up. It’s not like—” I quickly cut him off. Tim didn’t need reminders of mortality combined with graphic descriptions. If Al ever made a documentary, it would be called The Corpse that Moved. Like what the French do with cheese? “Le fromage qui marche.” Only it would be “Le cadavre qui marche.”Al dropped his invoice on my desk: “N/C. Buy me a bottle sometime.” He left, and Tim edged toward the door.
“Naw. I better get going.” His voice shook.
“It’s a piss-poor idea to be alone tonight.”
“I won’t be,” he said. But I had to remind him to unplug the compressor. “I’ll be back in the morning to finish up.”
“You want off tomorrow?”
“No. No, I’m—I gotta work extra for a while.”
There wasn’t much else I could do for him, so I let him go, knowing there were only two places he’d visit, a bar or a whorehouse. The bar didn’t sound at all bad to me, but I knew I should get something inside first. I called Punch. “Thanks for watching out for Kiều today.”
“No problem. I have to say that counting $950,000 in hundreds is not nearly as exciting as you’d think from watching TV.”
“Don’t watch that much TV,” I said. “Ready for dinner?”
She laughed. “You owe me more than a few dinners,” she said.
“Can I pay in installments?”
“Sure,” she said. “Now that your girlfriend’s spending her time in the hospital with her daughter, you’ve got free time, hmmm?”
“It’s unseemly to rub it in,” I said. “Anyway, who says she’s my girlfriend?”
“Hardly anyone can figure it out, unless they happen to be in the same room with the two of you.”
In the end, she ended up joining me at the Tin Lung, but my attention was elsewhere. Not even Hue could cheer me up. The only thing I accomplished was to get Punch’s promise to check on Tim soon. She agreed that he was going to need some sort of propping up. I thought she might be the one to do it, but I wasn’t about to say so. I admit to being fueled by self-interest; I never wanted to see her boyfriend again, unless it was his backside heading out of town.
By the time Kiều came home, so late it was nearly tomorrow, I
mostly drunk. You can down a lot of tequila in two hours, but
not a very good anaesthetic when you realize you’ve made it
someone to leave you. I remember crying, and being very, very
but she held me and made love to me anyway.
I lay there thinking of, but not saying, that line from a Dylan song, the one about not ever leaving, waiting until she slept to whisper it. If I spoke the words, she would fall away from me like ice. I hoped Drea’s leg would require a long time in the hospital; I hoped Taxi’s friends in the DA’s office would run into unreasonable delays when they tried to get Kiều’s money and car released from impound; I hoped the glaciers would crawl in, lock up Lake Michigan and grind O’Hare into rock flour.
But in the morning, Taxi called and assured us that, since there was
a clear chain from bank to bills to Rølvaag—they’d
found the ID he’d used on him—and because there was no
question who the money belonged to, the DA’s office was going to
release Kiều’s property next week. As long as nothing
unexpected turned up in the vehicle search, that is; I half hoped for heroin
hidden inside the door panels.
The gun case I’d bought for the Python fit well underneath the spare tire; I wedged two suitcases in front of it. “I can’t live in Chicago,” Kiều said. “I need someplace warm. We’re going to that place in California they’re calling ‘Little Sàigòn’.” She dumped her last suitcase into the trunk of the yellow Camaro, dropped Drea’s smaller one in the corner. “I want you to come, but it would kill you to live somewhere else.”
“That’s not true. I can try. Give me a few weeks to wrap up around here—”
“No. We both know that won’t work. This is your city, it is where you belong, it is your heart and soul. I love you so much, but I would die if I had to live in this icebox any longer.” It was twelve below Celsius and the wind was from the north at a meagre twenty klicks an hour. They claimed better weather was on the way and for the first time, it felt like it.
“It’s fifty degrees warmer in summer,” I said. Meaning real degrees, of course.
She laughed. “Almost like home.” There are places in California where it’s almost as hot as Việt Nam. Sàigòn, not winter, was my enemy.
My eyes watered, stung cold in the crisp, brittle air. “I’m going to miss you like the very devil,” I said. “Both of you.” The way bone misses ripped-away flesh.
“I hate this.” She grabbed me and pulled me down for kissing. I didn’t know if it was going to be our very last kiss, but it was the last one either one of us could see coming anytime soon, so we put everything we had into it. I didn’t have any thoughts to spare to worry about the neighbors, but if I had I still would have kissed my heart out.
Drea waited patiently for her turn, then hugged me hard, although it was difficult because of her cast and little crutches. She was crying too; I wiped her cheeks with my sleeve, kissed her and said, “Say ‘Hi’ to Cat for me.”
I watched them drive away, Drea waving through the window. I waved back until they had disappeared and I stood there with frozen tears on my cheeks until my skin felt numb and ice filled the hole where my heart had been. I went inside and locked the door. I stood looking at the empty room, now fully remodeled; boxes of books sat upstairs in the library, waiting to be shelved and organized. There was my practice sword, reminding me that I’d neglected my iai shamefully. There were bottles in the kitchen. I opened the first one and drank. I really shouldn’t waste my money on such good tequila, I thought. After a few more drinks, I called Thumper’s. “Dragon?”
The hurt grew worse. “Um, I wondered—”
“You’re alone again and you wanted to know if I’m free. And would I like to come over for a little drinking, a good time in the sack, no strings attached. Oh, and by the way, you’ll introduce me to your friends next morning, no problem. Only let you get me in your bed.”
“Oh, Dragon, it’s not that simple.” I was crying again.
“You’re damn right it’s not.” She was crying too. “Stop calling me.”
She hung up.
I woke up in my own shit; the sun slumped south, behind the storefront. Gloom shaded the front windows. The top floor of Senn was limned with late golden sunshine, and the penny-pitchers had already left the grounds. The only noise was from rush-hour traffic a block away on Ridge.
I had a drink to help me with the sheets and another drink to get me through a shower. A drink to get my day started. A drink to ward off the cold. I’d begun to feel warm and alive when I looked in the mirror and saw the tears over a bruise I didn’t have yesterday. The face of the enemy.
My hands shook as I poured the remains of the last bottle of tequila down the drain; my heart thumped, my head pounded and my knees nearly gave way. I thought about tomorrow. Teetotallers don’t fare well in the Windy City on St. Patrick’s Day; everyone is Irish and the beer and the rivers run green and free. I knew I’d need help; I called AA and told the woman who answered I’d been a steady customer a few years ago. “Welcome home.” She had a voice like a game-show hostess. “You’re not drunk now, are you?”
“No, but don’t waste time, and don’t send any suits.”
“Someone will be there in an hour.” She’d ignore me; it was a tradition, at least in Chicago. They’d send one conservative and one leftist—if not downright radical—because they thought they were guessing.
I felt a glimmer of house-pride and neatened up my desk; underneath the heavy red phone I found the $95,000 check signed in Kiều’s neat hand. I sat there looking at it for a long time thinking I should tear it up. I could afford to throw away a hundred grand if I were going to keep drinking myself to death.
But I could get the furnace installed in time to do some good; Tim could use the work; I could get the phone extension installed; redo the kitchen and its floor, put bamboo in the front office. I quit having big dreams years ago.
The women from AA knocked and I went to answer. I felt like I ought to offer them a smile, but I was out.