Nine Dragon River
Part One: Delta Blues Again
1: Don’t shoot into pagoda
Friday, November 13, 1970
“Xin Đừng Bắn Súng Vào Phật Giáo Chùa.” The pagoda we weren’t supposed to shoot into was along Highway 4 in Vĩnh Long province, far down in the wet rich Delta of South Việt Nam. A hundred meters further on, the thick vegetation through which we were driving faded and disappeared, leaving us surrounded with empty fields. “Go back, Ritchie. Let’s go in.”
“You’re nuts.” But he U-turned and drove through the open metal gates; glaring golden lions squatted on short pillars to each side. The banner over the gate read, “Trường Hạ Đại Tòng Lâm.” Đại Tòng Lâm Retreat, a place for monks and nuns to get away from it all.
My name is Andrea—call me Andi—Holmes. I’ve been incountry since January last, I’ll be leaving January next, if I don’t die first. A rocket could get me, a crazed VC, botulism in a can of C-rations. I could die from too much formaldehyde, which seems like the main ingredient of Ba Mươi Ba, the Vietnamese beer that doesn’t count against our ration cards. Ritchie was worried about mines.
“There aren’t going to be any mines here,” I told him. Banyans, frangipani and ficus trees overgrew either side of the narrow access road. Ritchie parked. Off the highway, out of the sun and away from the cloudless sky, things seemed slower and cooler. The air was so humid it was like peering through drizzle; smells were carried on it like kings on palanquins.
The jeep nudged against a sparse fence made of large-caliber empty shell casings; it looked like any fence in a war zone. I hooked the M79 grenade launcher over my shoulder; Ritchie did the same with his M16. In a war zone, even Buddhists are suspect. “Looking for anything in particular?”
“My butt’s sore.” I could see a fenced garden thirty meters away populated with brightly-painted statues of Buddha: standing on pink-and-white concrete lotus blossoms and pointing at the ground and the sky; preaching to the animals; reclining; meditating under a tree. Halfway there, we were met by a shaven-headed monk in orange silk robes. I put my hands together and bowed. “Chào, Thầy.” Hello, master.
Accepting the respect, he bowed less than I had in return. “Chào mung. Cô nói tiếng Việt không?” Welcome. Do you speak Vietnamese?
“I try,” I replied in the same language. “Forgive me if I offend.”
“Are you Buddhists?” His alert, direct, gaze spent no more time on us than on the scenery. He was on the lookout for dangers that might have come with us; America had been involved since 1955, but Việt Nam had been at war for twenty-six years. He was younger than I’d thought at first, only in his mid-twenties: shaved heads age people.
He showed serene amusement. “We get few American ‘tourists’ here. Would you like to look around? I would be happy to guide you.”
“Is it permitted to just wander? We don’t want to take up your time.”
He shrugged, making his robes ripple. A boy in maroon acolyte’s robes peddled past on a rusty girl’s bicycle, presumably en route to the village a kilometer away. “I have nothing else to do.”
His company, then, was required. “What’s in here?” I pointed to the garden with the statues.
“Scenes from the life of Buddha. In this one, he has just been born. ...” Once started, he talked so rapidly I had a hard time following,. I inserted translations for Ritchie until he told me not to bother.
“I don’t understand this stuff, and I don’t need to.” He lit cigarettes for both of us, passed me one with his chubby fingers. He brushed the blond hair off his forehead—he was pushing up against the Army’s length limits—and squinted at the bowing elephant statue. “Fun to look at, though.”
We left the third small garden, and the monk led us to a twenty-meter bridge across a huge lotus pond; on the far side, under a bodhi tree another thirty meters further away, squatted an small golden Buddha. I took pictures of the pads floating serenely on the sunlit water. Golden koi lurked in the shadows cast by the round leaves. The concrete walkway underfoot was cracked and patched.
“Smile,” I said to Ritchie, “Cười” to the monk. Two shots. “Go to the other side of the bridge.” I faced them and snapped two more pictures before I saw what was behind them. “What’s that?” I pointed.
The monk turned. “Quan Thế Âm Bồ Tát. The Chinese name is Kwan Yin.”
The alabaster statue, her feet planted firmly on a dragon’s head, stood twenty meters tall across a field at the far end of the lotus pond. She held an upturned flask of the water of life and poured it into the sea of boundless suffering. Nearby stood a twisted pine with dead branches, most of its needles gone or dried brown.
A small ditch, edged with fledgling eucalypts and full of water, ran from the bridge alongside the pool, past the statue and out into the fields. A gravel footpath alongside led to the statue. I left the monk and Ritchie and walked back to the beginning of the path. The monk kept talking, even though Ritchie wasn’t listening. I followed the path through the eucalypts; at the last tree on the edge of the empty field, a twelve-year-old boy sat fishing in the irrigation ditch.
“Hey, where you from?”
“Tôi là người Mỹ.” I’m an American.
He did a double take. “You’re a girl!” Being mistaken for a man is a frequent consequence of being tall, skinny and dressed in fatigues. “Cool! What’s your name?”
“Tôi tên là Anh Đi.” My name is Andi. It means “Go English” in tiếng Việt.
“How old are you?” He spoke English; he wanted practice in a foreign language as much as I did.
“Hai mười ba.” Twenty-three.
He waved at the statue. “You know about Kwan Yin?”
“A little bit.” She is the Goddess of Compassion, the One Who Hears the Cries of the World. Centuries ago, she was male; like Tippetarius of Oz, he changed his sex when called upon to do so. Her placid face seemed to stare directly at me.
He left his fishing pole. “I can show you.”
“OK.” I preferred to be alone, but didn’t want to be rude. “Ong tên không?” What’s your name? I used the pronoun for equals in age, to show respect.
“Long.” He smiled broadly. “Quynh Van Long.”
“Dragon? Big name for such a small package.”
“They called me shitface when I was little. To keep the gods from getting jealous and taking me away.” He took my hand, a familiarity I hadn’t expected. He walked with me along the path until we stood in the silence on gravel, nothing near us out there at the end of the grass but that twisted tree. The dragon on which the statue stood twisted and coiled in the center of a big round pool; it was somewhat off true vertical, so Quan Âm leaned forward, as if eager to get going. Her face was smooth, placid ; in contrast, the face of the dragon was animated, alert, on guard; its eyes bugged manically as it watched for demons. Long’s hand was warm in mine.
I had nothing to say; all I wanted to do was watch Quan Âm, but Long tugged his hand away from mine and put his palms together, glanced at me and waited. Taking the hint, I put my hands together and bowed to Quan Âm in time with him. Three times. In the distance, water buffalos and brahmas moaned, bellowed, ruminated. The road was so far away I couldn’t hear the traffic.
“Now you must burn incense.” A concrete ringwall surrounded the pool; at the edge of it, between us and Quan Âm, stood a small red box with a slot in the top in front of a stone incense burner full of pure white sand—and a cigarette butt. I pulled out the butt and shoved it in the pocket where I kept my own. “Here.” He rummaged in the storage area underneath the red box and handed me a bundle of twenty or thirty sticks.
“All of them? That’s a lot.” I took out my lighter and applied the flame to the sticks. Not all of them caught.
“More means more good karma.”
“Your English is excellent.” I lit the rest and waved the bundle in the air.
“So is your tiếng Việt.”
“Eh!” He flashed me a grin.
He took half the bundle from my hands and bowed to the statue with it, chanting something so quickly I couldn’t catch it. He bowed three times, chanted three times. “Now you.”
Since I didn’t know what to chant, I said nothing. Surely silence showed respect. I bowed three times and caught smoke in my eye; it stung and watered. I stuck my half of the burning incense into the pure white sand and looked up into the alabaster face again.
“Now you should give money.”
So that’s what the red box was for. I opened my wallet, took out a five dollar MPC—“Military Pay Certificate”—and looked at Long. “That is very generous.” I shoved it in the slot and offered him a dollar.
He drew himself up. “No thank you.”
I studied him. “I am sorry. I meant no offense. My friend and I need lunch. Could you show us a good place? Would you eat with us?”
“Yes.” He was mollified, but barely. I took pictures of the statue and the dragon; when we hiked back to join the monk and Ritchie, he didn’t take my hand.
I introduced him: “Ritchie, this is my friend Long. Dragon.”
“I am pleased to meet you, Mr. Ritchie.” Long stuck out his hand.
Ritchie gave that slow grin of his and shook. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Dragon.”
I looked back at Quan Âm.. “Long here says he knows where we can get a good lunch.”
I hung back to hand the monk a five. “For the pagoda. Thank you for showing us around.” He accepted with both hands, an indication of deep gratitude.
“You didn’t see much except Quan Âm.”
“It was what I needed.” Enough to bring calm; I felt refreshed.
Long and Ritchie, already in the jeep, honked for me to hurry up. Ritchie started the engine. “Thanks a bunch for leaving me alone with that monk. I couldn’t understand a word he said.”
“Sorry. I got distracted.” I remembered an impassive face and a gaze that followed me everywhere.
Long rode with us to the next village south where we stopped at a bright blue roadside booth in the market. A very old woman with one tooth and more wrinkles than skin sold us noodle soup in big hot bowls, full of broth and sliced rare beef. Ritchie paid for all of us with an MPC dollar. We went back to the jeep and found a shady spot under a tree. “It’s called phở,” I told Ritchie. “You won’t want those things, they’re tendons and chewy, but everything else is edible.”
“Yeah, but am I gonna die from the shits?”
“What, you wanta live forever? Eat, it’s been cooked enough to kill nasties.”
He took the first bite reluctantly and smiled. The three of us slurped and smacked. Ritchie handed out cold beers from the cooler. “No driving,” he told Long.
The boy smiled shyly at Ritchie. “Thank you. Where are you stationed? Where are you going?” He drank from the open bottle.
“We’re from Củ Chi, and we’re going to Shannon-Wright, near Thành Phố Vĩnh Long.” Vĩnh Long City; the name means “Eternal Dragon.” Lieutenant Weed, from Company HQ in Long Binh, was supposed to have come with us, but he’d caught Hồ Chí Minh’s revenge late last night. He’d called Sgt. Hutch and told him to send me and Ritchie on alone; we could deliver dispatches to Company A for him.
I tore up some of the bột bánh dầu chá-qùay—“twist cakes”—and dropped them in my soup along with pieces of ngó om, a herb which tastes a little like cilantro. “How you feeling, Ritchie?”
“Good enough.” He knew I was talking about his late August divorce, which had hit him like one of those tree-trunk booby traps you see in movies. He still carried the Dear John letter in his pocket. I’d seen him take it out and read it when we were drinking and he thought no one was looking. He smiled less and drank more than he used to and it was easy to catch him gazing off into the middle distance behind people’s heads. He got himself another beer.
“My sister lives in Vĩnh Long,” said the boy. “Can I come with you? Otherwise I have to walk.”
“Do your parents know?”
He looked at the ground. “They are dead. I used to live with my brother, but he was transferred to Sàigòn yesterday. Bộ đội.”
“Army,” I translated for Ritchie. “Better he should be in Sàigòn than the jungle.” I collected all our trash and walked it to a fifty-gallon drum a few feet away. A wall-eyed man in a blue plaid shirt was selling durian; he had only one hand, which explained why he wasn’t in the Army. I bought a slice of fruit, paid him with a few coins. “You guys ready?”
“Yuck. Did you have to get that shit?”
“Ritchie, it’s good. It tastes like custard. Try it.” To me the stuff doesn’t smell at all, but Ritchie is one of the many people who say it smells like gym socks soaked in sewage. He waved me off and held his nose to start the jeep. Tiny villages, no more than a mile or two apart, seemed to consist of pool halls, barber shops, clothing stores and pharmacies. Roadside booths offered jeep painting; skinny boys stood outside waving in customers while old men squatted under the flattened soda-can roofs smoking cigarettes and squinting in the sun. Little carts the size of tamale stands sold shrimp on sticks and short baguettes. Other booths sold tall clear bottles of gasoline in one and two liter sizes; the Lambrettas and scooters that bought gas there buzzed slowly down the road, mingling with the bicycles that fill most roads during the day.
We had to wait a frustratingly long time to catch the slow and crowded Mỹ Thuần ferry, but once across the silt-laden Mekong, it was minutes to downtown Vĩnh Long. From Vĩnh Long City to Shannon-Wright base camp, our destination, it was a short trip to the southwest along the banks of the Sông Cổ Chiên, less than two klicks, barely over a mile. Long had us drop him off halfway between the city and Shannon-Wright. “I can walk from here. See you! Thank you!” He ran, scuffing dirt, up the road, its entrance marked by red-and-yellow painted artillery shells. A Lambretta putt-putted by, its little motorcycle engine struggling under the weight of three calves wedged into the back.
2: A voice like a didgeridoo
Friday, November 13, 1970
I knew SFC Scanlon from when he’d come to Củ Chi; as Sergeant in Charge, he ran the 369th Signal Battalion, Company A, Vĩnh Long Detachment. The air-conditioning in his office in the Electronic Equipment building was cranked so high I shivered; his fatigue shirt was unbuttoned, showing a mat of fine blond chest hair. I handed over the dispatch pouch. “Here’s your stuff, Sarge. Where can Ritchie and I get drunk?”
His handlebar mustache twitched. “I know just the place.”
Ritchie and I skipped dinner in the mess hall; we were still full from our big, late, lunch. In the dusk, we hiked the few blocks to the Get Dead Drunk Saloon, walked up a rickety wooden sidewalk and dodged around a banana tree that had grown large enough to crowd us off the path. Some wag had painted a Santa Claus on the wall right of the front door that had been there through several Christmases. The red, pink and white paint peeled to show grey patches of weathered wood like pimples and birthmarks on his face. A honeysuckle bush on the left had been there long enough to become a small tree with a smell that took over the yard like a church lady’s perfume at a bake sale.
Inside, the air-conditioning made more noise than cool; the knotty pine wall paneling made it seem even warmer. A show was setting up on the low stage. We didn’t pay attention at first because we were there for serious drinking; we’d had only beer on the way down, and the heat had baked the alcohol out of us in nothing flat. We claimed the last open pair of stools topped in red oilcloth and checked the menu. Prices were the same as in any other EM or USO club in ’Nam; 30¢ for potato chips, 35¢ for pretzels, 15¢ for sodas, 20¢ for beer, $1 for pizza and a quarter for everything else. I ordered a bag of chips and a beer and pushed a Kennedy half across the counter. The regs said we were supposed to use MPC small-denomination bills, but even the PX gave change in US coins. MPCs had been introduced to eliminate the illegal trade in American money; instead, it had created yet another black market.
I asked for a double bourbon to go with my beer. I heard someone talking into a mike, and turned in time to hear the band strike a few notes. There were two Filipinas and two white girls, with a four-man band off to the side of the stage. One of the white girls was little and dark, not even as tall as the Filipinas, with short-chopped black hair. The other was an overblown blonde whose main talents lay in parts that jiggled, and she was also the MC. All four wore shiny, low-cut, tight satin pants and tops through which it was easy to imagine seeing. They did American pop songs, the Filipinas by imitation. After a couple of songs, the Filipinas began tandem juggling, which showed off their lithe figures and rippling muscles. Ritchie and I were caught up watching the bowling pins fly by. “They’re good,” he said, admiringly.
“You’re hypnotized by their scanty attire.”
He laughed. “Nah, I used to juggle a lot. Me and a coupla friends a mine got good enough to get paid for it, and I was even thinking of quittin’ my day job when I got drafted. I’d just joined the International Jugglers’ Association when I got my notice.”
“You should take up knife-throwing.”
He shuddered. “Knives give me the creeps.”
“Sorry, I forgot.”
The big blonde kept up a running patter, engaging GIs in the audience and leaning over to show them her cleavage. It was a popular move. After a pair of back-to-back songs, she declared intermission. The little dark woman wove through the crowd like a gecko through hot rocks, finishing up at the bar between Ritchie and me.
“Gimme a double scotch.” She had a voice like a didgeridoo; it reached down inside and rattled me. She had a roman nose, big bushy eyebrows and not a lot of chin; a smile on her wide mouth showed big white teeth. She wasn’t a bit pretty according to the Playboy centerfolds tacked up on hooch walls, but I could hardly take my eyes off her.
“Let me.” Ritchie handed a bill to the barkeep, sweaty in his OD T-shirt and dogtags, who moved so fast he had to be on something. He made change before I could count it.
“Thanks.” She put her back to the bar and gave him a big smile and looked me up and down from the corner of her sparkly eyes. Up close, her arms swelled with muscle, maybe from helping the Filipinas practice juggling. Her skin was filmed in sweat, and she wore red-hot lipstick that matched her nail polish. She aimed the smile at me. “Call me Rat. Short for Rayna.”
“Andi Holmes.” I beat Ritchie’s slow answer by a handy second. “This is Ritchie. We’re here on TDY.” I didn’t mention Ritchie’s first name: Delbert. Delbert Richkowski. I only know it because the Army insists, and I’m the detachment clerk.
“Hi, Andi. What’re you having?” She took the glass right out of my hand and sniffed. “Barkeep! Bourbon!” The kid behind the bar whipped over fast enough to send a breeze through my hair and splashed in another bourbon. She held it and a bill over her shoulder while never taking her eyes off me. He left coins for change on the counter and was gone; she gave me the drink and hooked her elbows on the edge of the bar, pushing out her breasts. I tried not to look.
She scared the piss out of me but I couldn’t not speak. I sipped. “What’re you doing in ’Nam?”
Rat turned her body a half-inch away from Ritchie toward me. “Entertaining the troops, Holmes. It’s our patriotic duty.”
“You’re the patriotic type, are you?”
“Absolutely. Money’s got nothing to do with it.” She hadn’t stopped smiling, she hadn’t stopped looking, and she hadn’t moved further away. Not that she could: she had the perfect excuse; there were a lot of people in that bar, most of them jostling for drinks. “What about you? What’s a looker like you doing in a sleazy bar like this?” Her bushy black eyebrows didn’t quite join in the middle; despite the makeup she wore for the show, she obviously spent no time tweezing hairs. Two-inch silver hoops bobbed and waggled in her ears. Her eyes were a brown so deep and wet they were almost black.
“It’s my patriotic duty.”
“And I’m Uncle Sam, here to check your story.”
“Pleased to meet you, Unc. Too bad there’s no story to check.”
“What a shame.” She’d finished her scotch and more of her back was aimed at Ritchie. “I heard you Army girls are supposed to keep up troop morale. Now, tell me, how can you entertain soldiers in that?” She fingered the buttons on my tropical fatigue shirt from ten centimeters away. I let her do it. I had help from the bourbon.
“Entertainment’s not my job.” I took a drink and watched.
“That’s not what the men say.” Not entertaining men was what she wanted to hear: she let go of my shirt and moved close enough we could feel each other’s body heat. I drank the rest of my bourbon and resisted caving my chest away from hers.
“The regs say I don’t have to listen as long as I follow orders, keep my nose clean and don’t get knocked up.” I might have trouble with the first two, but providing I wasn’t raped, the third was easy.
I turned for another drink, brushing against her muscular body. “Two doubles,” I told the barkeep; he made change and poured at the same time, vanished.
I twisted back to Rat and pushed her one of the shot glasses. “It could be worse. We’re supposed to wear ‘modesty’ panels.” I showed her where they were supposed to button. “They raise the temperature ten degrees. Uh, centigrade. That’s—”
“Eighteen F. I know.” There must have been a couple of ultraviolet bulbs around; her teeth were so white they shone blue. Several stools down the bar behind her, the blonde was parked with five or six GIs hovering around. Rat noticed me noticing and turned to see. “These guys haven’t seen a round-eye in how long?”
Ritchie put in, “You’re a round-eye.”
“Yah, but I’m not blonde and I don’t wave my chest in everyone’s face to get drinks.” Rat nodded her head at me. “Besides, you’re here with the best-looking woman I’ve seen incountry.”
Ritchie looked at me, then back at Rat. I worried that he might add one and one and get a couple. “Aw, Andi’s just one of the guys.” I had a slow drink from the beer I’d been nursing. A tight little knot underneath my sternum eased.
“Uh-huh.” Rat kept her gaze on me. “Listen, lemme buy you guys some real beer.”
“I could use a change.” She twisted against me, then waved the bartender over and spoke to him. When he went into the back and brought out three bottles, Mr. Flash slowed down as if he’d hit glue. He opened the bottles reverently, placed them carefully on the counter. I’ve known guys with no necks, but this was my first no-neck beer. Condensation formed on the outside, making them slippery and comforting to hold.
“Drink up. They won’t stay cold long.” Cold happens in Việt Nam only with industrial assistance.
“Oooh.” Ritchie, smacked his lips. “That just might be the best beer I’ve ever had. Even better’n what my neighbor Simon used to make.”
When I think of Russian beer, I think of kvas, that awful fermented bread stuff that tastes like dirty dishwater mixed with molasses and looks like raw sewage. It very well may be the worst drink on the planet, worse even than Vietnamese beer. I don’t think of spicy, exotic lager in the heart of the Mekong Delta, but that’s what Rat bought us in the Get Dead Drunk Saloon. I puzzled out the label: “Лучшее пиво Ивана.” “Ivan’s something beer?”
Rat flashed her teeth again. “Ivan’s best beer. Tы не говорите по Русски, Я вижу.”
“You said something about speaking Russian. I know the alphabet, and I can figure out words that are the same in both languages—like кенгуру—but understand it? No.”
“I said, ‘You don’t speak Russian, I see’.” There was something else I knew; like French, unlike English, Russian distinguished between second person singular and plural. Plural form, вы, was for strangers and acquaintances; singular, ты, was for intimates.
I peered at the bottle. “This label is a xox, the original was hand-lettered. Are they making it in the back room?”
Rat laughed. “Close. There’s a cluster of Soviet ex-pats living over in Vinh Long City who got tired of tasteless American beer. We met last year when I was here with a different group—this is my third tour in the Delta.” Her smile grew wider. “Entertaining the troops. You should let me take you over there to meet them.”
I looked at Ritchie. “We’re only down until Monday.” Instead of answering he grinned. One of the reasons I like him more than most of the other guys at Củ Chi is that he knows when to shut up. Out of 19 men in the 369th Detachment, he’s the one who prefers to watch the landscape roll by instead of chatting the miles away. He lets me stop, take snapshots, wander off into someone’s house to shoot the breeze and practice tiếng Việt with strangers.
“We could go tomorrow.”
“I’d like that.”
“Where you staying?”
“Push the buzzer at the gate for the 369th Detachment and ask for me.” I drew her a map on a napkin.
One of the Filipina girls tried to get close to the bar but wasn’t as good at navigating mobs as Rat, and got shut out by a wedge of large GIs. Ritchie noticed and motioned her next to him. She slid between him and Rat. There wasn’t room, but Rat made some by prising herself between my legs. The Filipina asked the barkeep for a gin and tonic in a metronomic cadence that showed she’d memorized it. Ritchie spoke to her and earned a big smile.
I scooted back on the seat to make space, my knees on either side of Rat’s body. Her face said she knew exactly how far apart we were. “Really, how come you’re in the Army?” The hand that wasn’t holding a drink was on my leg.
“I don’t have to make any fashion decisions.”
She poked my ribs; it was a familiarity I would never have allowed sober. “Don’t bullshit me. Why?”
Something made me want to tell her. “I used to have an older brother—Dana. He died in Tết. Josh, the younger one, is a quartermaster stationed in Germany, thanks to me; the Army tries not to send siblings to the same theatre at the same time. I volunteered for ’Nam and they shipped him to Giessen instead of Sàigòn. He probably would have been fine, but why take chances?”
Everyone at the bar was jammed together tighter than mushrooms in a box, and it seemed as if no one would notice two girls, one on a stool, the other between her legs with her back to the bar. She gave my bicep a quick squeeze. “I’m sorry to hear that.” She had a dancer’s body, solid and dense with no give; when she turned in place, it was like restraining a python. If I’d been sober I would have run. Instead, I—enjoyed the feel of her.
Rat asked the barkeep for two more bottles of the Russian beer. The Filipina downed her drink, gave Ritchie a grateful smile and waved at Rat, who passed the bottles to Ritchie and to me. “Time for the next set.” There was nothing coincidental about the way she touched me when she extricated herself slowly from between my legs.
The girls climbed back onstage; the four-man band picked up their instruments; the noise level ramped back up to a double-digit decibel level. Ritchie and I drank our beers and watched the four girls dance, sing and juggle—and jiggle. When I wasn’t remembering the way Rat felt against, me, I was trying to identify what the spiciness in the beer was. I wondered who the hell Ivan was. Bottling the stuff professionally and selling it in the States might make someone a lot of money.
We had more of the handmade beers. The blonde with the sloppy chest was a big hit with the upper rank GIs—no officers in the EM club, of course. I kept my eye on Rat and found myself wondering what a night with her would be like. I called for another beer and tried to push the fantasies out of my head. It didn’t work.
Speedy shook his head: the bar was out, so I switched to tequila and Ritchie went back to Bud. The band ran out of music; the set was over; they began packing their instruments. The big blonde was pulled into a cluster of E-7s and E-8s at the far end of the bar; we could hear her giggle all the way across the room, even with the stereo cranked up to stand in for the band. Rat came back to talk to me; the girl who’d smiled at Ritchie was small enough to slide between him and the bar. She stood between his knees with her back to the bar, the way Rat had done with me; she spoke no more English than he spoke Tagalog, but it didn’t seem to bother them.
Ritchie’s not fat, but nowhere near thin, and not what I’d call attractive, but then, what do I know about men and attractive? He’s a bit of a pudgeball, blond, with a round face and an engaging grin, and I would’ve thought that he’d go after the plump blonde, who wore too much makeup, but didn’t seem to lack admirers. The Filipina ignored the tall and rugged GI on the next stool over and stropped Ritchie like a cat; he soaked it up like a sponge. It was a nice change to see Ritchie’s five-degree-off-level smile again.
The girl said something to him. He shrugged and smiled. She said it again, put her hand on his arm, rubbed the bare skin a little. He looked puzzled.
“She’s propositioning you.” I turned on my stool. “She says you’re cute, and she wants you to stay with her tonight.” Rat leaned against the bar with one arm, and put her other arm on my hip, out of his sight.
Ritchie’s face sprouted the biggest smile I’d seen since before he’d opened that damned Dear John back in August. “Tell her yes! And how do you know what she’s saying? That’s not Vietnamese.”
“I was born in Luzon, my parents are missionaries. I thought I told you that Tagalog was my first language. It’s all I spoke, with a little English, until I was 9 and we moved to Yogya.” Yogyakarta, Indonesia. More than a little English really. Rat leaned against my back unobtrusively, looking around my shoulder while I made arrangements for Ritchie’s rendezvous. The Filipina smiled hugely and left her hand on his arm. The girl was a tight, attractive package in shiny satin tights with thick black hair half down her back. “She’s gonna rob you.”
Rat spoke up. “No she won’t. Iryne’s honest. So’s Chona.” She nodded at the other Filipina; her right hand had found its way under my fatigue shirt to stroke my back.
“Don’t take chances, Ritchie.”
I watched him look the girl up and down while his smiled broadened. “Eh, even if I do get robbed, it’s worth it.”
I rolled my eyes. “You better give me your money. And your ID, and your ration card. Men.” I wasn’t certain that I didn’t agree with him, but there was something about Ritchie that brought out the bossy older sister in me.
Ritchie dug in his wallet and handed me all but $50 MPC. “I gotta leave her something if she does rob me,” he explained when he saw my expression. The USO girl hung onto his shoulder. Our eyes met and she smiled knowingly; even without English, she knew what we were talking about; she didn’t take it personally.
Rat leaned against me and whispered in my ear: “You worry way too much, hon.” I ignored her words, but it was impossible to ignore the breast pressed to my back.
Ritchie’s face gave everything away. I guess knowing you’re going to score does that, or maybe it was what turning responsibility for your actions over to that particularly brainless bit of flesh does to men. I spent a few minutes teaching him yes, no, nice, bad, more, again. Giggling, Iryne helped out a little. I could think of a few more phrases he might have used, but his attention was on her body, not his memory. Anything else he wanted he could pantomime; I wasn’t about to demonstrate gestures.
The band had already gone into town, leaving the stage empty, so Iryne went off to help Chona pack up their juggling gear; it all fit into two smallish aluminum cases. I thought of something else to check. “Ritchie. Gimme your billfold.”
He knows me too well to argue. I flipped through it, looking for the condoms. He had two, hidden behind a flap in the bill compartment. “Use ’em. You need all your parts.” He grinned sheepishly and blushed. He refrained from pointing out how interferative I was being, and got another beer. He went over to help Iryne and Chona pack their juggling props.
I turned back to Rat, whose hand was still stroking my bare skin. “Where’d you learn Russian?”
“Brooklyn. City College of New York. I was gonna be a diplomat, but I drank myself out of, instead of into, a degree in three years.” The corporal who’d had the stool next to her got up and left half his beer on the counter. If I’d been sober, I would’ve made her take the stool. Instead, I waved for another drink.
“I know about that.”
“I bet you do.” She moved her hand from my waist to my leg. “Where’d you say your brother was?”
Hardly anyone was left at the bar. “Giessen.” Back in Củ Chi, I had a picture of redheaded Josh holding a nicely shaped blonde Fräulein. He’d sent it to me back in May; they were both of them very happy and very drunk. One of her hands was tangled possessively in his hair, and judging from the way he held her, she was my future sister-in-law. It was not the same picture he’d sent to Momma. “I don’t carry pictures, but if I did—”
“That’s OK, I’ll show you mine.” I bought the next round so we could look at her snapshots. It gave Rat the perfect excuse to put her head close and feel heat from my skin, the perfect excuse to touch my fingers with hers as we held the images: cats, a spindly-looking brother she said was an engineer, a sister who looked nothing like her. “Half-sister, I haven’t seen her for ten years, and if ever see her again, it’ll be too soon.”
“Why do you carry her picture?”
“So as not to forget how much I hate her.” I didn’t want to be her enemy.
They flashed the lights; time for one last drink before going “home.” Rat went to use the john. Only Ritchie and I, the barkeep and the Filipinas were left. I wondered what had happened to the big blonde.
3: This is just a hobby
Saturday, November 14, 1970
Ritchie and the girls disappeared; the bartender turned out everything but a couple of nightlights and zipped out. I sat in the dim finishing my drink. Rat returned and wormed her way between my knees and the bar. She touched her lips to my cheek lightly, but not so lightly I could pretend it hadn’t happened. “You could stay with me.” She pitched her voice so it didn’t carry.
“I’m—” It came out all rusty. A bunch of spit had to be swallowed before the words would stick together. “Ritchie’d know. And I’m not that way,” I squeaked. “I’m flattered.”
“Oh, yeah, yeah. I’m straight too. This is just a hobby.” She’d tied her hair back into an unruly little ponytail. “Ritchie would keep it quiet, you know that. He’s a good man.” Her lips brushed mine; the hair stood up on my arms. My heart was pounding. I felt her small, strong hands on my waist; they slid up under my shirt to touch bare skin. “No one else has to know. You can sneak out in the morning and not be seen. Tell yourself you were drunk, it’ll never happen again, it was a fluke. Just one of those things. Blame it on the booze.” Her finger traced a hot path on my sweaty cheek. “You can pretend you don’t remember a thing.” I felt as if I’d got myself plugged into a wall outlet; my throat knotted up.
“Uh—” I stopped, my voicebox clogged; I cleared my throat and said, “Sorry.”
She leaned back and stroked my cheek again. “Sure.” She kissed the end of my nose very gently and was gone.
I left by the front door and ran all the way to the compound.
I was still breathing hard when I pressed the buzzer, wired to the chain-link gate, for the Tech Controller on night shift to come out and let me in. Those patch cord jockeys never have anything to do for their 12-hour shifts, except read, watch Star Trek reruns, and play cards; the ones who play bridge claim they’re smarter. Most incountry comm sites, like Củ Chi, let them have a beer or two, providing they behave. Their only job is to wait for communication circuit failures, which almost never come, and change out printed-circuit boards when they do. I buzzed a second time. Eventually, a short, shirtless Latino came out and peered at me through the fence. He didn’t say anything. Moths and mosquitoes flitted in the streetlight a few feet from the fence.
“I’m here on TDY from Củ Chi.” I waited.
“No se.” He blinked.
I got mad. Most of the verbs I used were variations of “chingar.” After a while I ran down and glared. He smiled at me and unlocked the gate with the key that hung on the neck chain with his dogtags.
He locked the gate. “I haven’t heard cussing like that from a gringa in years. Where’d you learn vocabulary like that?”
“Quito,” I snapped. “Where do I bunk?”
He pointed at the closest corner of the hooch, across the tarmac. “First door. Scanlon forgot to say anything to me. Probably drunk. But the only bunk for you is in with China.” He smiled. It wasn’t a nice smile. “If she lets you in.”
“Well, if she doesn’t, expect me in the EE building.”
“Right.” He turned to go and stopped. “Sorry.”
I nodded. “The guy with me—Ritchie—might be along sometime.”
“I’ll send him to Yerby’s room.”
He waved and disappeared behind the revetments.
I listened to the familiar rattle of the generators for a minute, and looked up at the stars, but I was too wobbly to pick out any constellations other than Orion. I walked over to the hooch and rattled the locked screen door to the first room, the one usually reserved for the sergeant in charge of the Detachment. Here, that was Scanlon; in Củ Chi, it was Sgt. Hutchens. Here, there was no answer. I rattled it harder. “Ssst!”
“What d’you mean, go away? You’ve got a spare bunk. I need it.”
“I’ll rip the fucking door off the hinges!” I thumped hard on the wood, making the whole door shake.
“Sssst! Be quiet!”
“What the fuck’s your problem? Do I have to wake up Scanlon in order to get a bunk?” I banged harder on the door with the heel of my hand.
She was short, beautifully proportioned, and wore an extra-long T-shirt that covered her to her knees. You could tell she wore glasses but didn’t have them on; she blinked. “Shut up! I’ll let you in.” She hooked the screen and locked the door behind me and climbed back under her mosquito netting. “No one told me I was going to have company.” The other bunk, against the inner wall, had netting but no bedding. Three fans were going; I moved one a little so it blew more on my bunk. I pulled off my boots and fatigues and lay on the bare mattress in my underwear, leery of crawlies; shirt and pants made a pillow. I stuffed my socks in the boots to keep out scorpions.
“Andi Holmes. Pleased to meet you.” Pisshead.
“China Doi. Go to sleep.”
I shut up and listened to the geckos in the rafters. It didn’t take long for me to fall asleep, but I had time to wonder what a Nikkei, a Japanese-American girl, was doing with a name like China. It was like a Navajo calling himself “Cowboy.”
I opened my eyes to grey dawn light filtered through the shuttered screens and China spoke. “I’m going to take over the shower. If you join me the men will appreciate not having to give them up twice as long as usual.” I wondered how long she’d been lying awake, waiting for my breathing to change.
Now that I was mostly sober and feeling much less daring than last night, I couldn’t think of a reason that would sound anything but stupid. “Sure.” I climbed out of bed. She peeled off the T-shirt she’d slept in. I stared. I’d guessed she’d not been wearing anything under it, but I wasn’t prepared for the tattoos that covered her stomach, lower belly, chest and breasts, upper arms. She turned around to reach for her robe, and I could see that the dragon that began on the front of her body, using one of her nipples as an eye, coiled around her body like a lover, ended at the base of her spine, the tip of its tail circling the tenderloin at the top of her rear cleavage. The dense imagery on her back drew attention to a bottom that was smooth, plain and golden as dawn.
She turned back around; riding on the dragon’s back was a small Kwan Yin, holding a downturned flask, her face the same face I’d stared at yesterday, the calm unworried face I’d taken pictures of. I’d been followed. Yesterday, Kwan Yin had been the only thing in the world for a few minutes; here, on living, breathing, warm flesh, she was of the world, not merely in it. When China moved, Quan Âm moved; it was unsettling.
I gulped. “They’re beautiful.” Also profoundly erotic.
Pleased, she held the robe away from herself. “You think so?” She spun around, giving me an eyeful.
I took full advantage of the permission; I couldn’t imagine anyone enduring such a process and not wanting the results to be admired. “All my grandfather’s tattoos were green.” Done by amateurs in WWI. Dad had managed to avoid acquiring any during his Navy tour during The Big One, but it hadn’t been his father who had had the green tattoos.
“Things have changed a lot since your grandfather’s time. American tattoo artists have finally started learning from Japan, where they’ve been doing tattoos like this for hundreds of years.” On her, the only all-green parts were the dragon’s scales.
“What do the men think?”
She laughed. “These don’t show in fatigues.” She looked at me expectantly. “Well? You coming? There’s a robe you can use,” she added, pointing to the open locker beside my bunk. On the top shelf were blankets and sheets for the bunk I’d slept in last night. She reached in and tossed the linens onto my bunk.
I turned my back on her, got rid of my underwear, pulled on the robe. We walked around the end of the hooch; China banged on the door of the combined shower and restroom. “Everybody out!” Her voice had a hard undercurrent that made it carry well. When there was no answer, she motioned me in, locking the door behind us. I took the showerhead at the far end and cranked the cold all the way. In a country where the daytime temperature was often over forty, cold showers made sense.
She soaped her hair and said, “Sorry about last night; I can be a real shit when I’m sleepy. Wanta borrow my shampoo?”
“Thanks, I just use soap.”
“Well, that tells me something about you. That’s really bad for your hair.”
“But it’s quicker.”
China tossed me a bottle and I caught it by reflex. “Try it. It’s not so bad.” I opened the lid and sniffed; fruit salad. I closed it up and stuck it on the 2x6 shelf nailed crookedly between bare studs.
“How long are you here for?” She began shaving her pubes, which, as far as I could tell, didn’t need it.
“We leave Monday.”
“You’re from Củ Chi, right?”
I was impressed, not that she knew where we were from—I’d said something last night—but that she pronounced it correctly. “Cô nói tiếng Việt không?” Can you speak Vietnamese?
“A little bit. I can ask for directions, what someone’s name is, where the pisser is, how much something is. Stuff like that.”
“Everybody starts somewhere.” I tried not to watch her, but her muscles rippled and made it hard to turn away. And the pale flesh of her butt drew my eyes as if it were magnetic. “Why’d you get the tattoos?”
“Why not?” She turned to face me.
“I’ve always been afraid to get one.” I deliberately let the soap cover my face. “I think I’d get one and six months later hate the sight of it.” But even Gramps’s amateur ones had always fascinated me.
“Most people think that. The trick is to pick a design you’ll never fall out of love with.”
“If you’ve got that secret, I know a lot of marriages that could use your advice.” She snorted. Still, she’d pushed an idea to the forefront of my mind. I’d known for a long time that tats didn’t have to be green, and ever since I’d found that out, my desire to get one had been more than idle. I’d never been brave enough to go through with it, but China was the first woman I’d ever known with tattoos.
“I take it you’re a Buddhist?” I pointed to the Quan Âm design. She nodded. “How’d you get in the WACs? I thought there were rules—” against weird and offensive tattoos. Hers were neither, but facts never prevented the Army from enforcing or not enforcing whatever rules it felt like.
“I had them done here. There’s a place downtown I’ve been going to for the last six months, ever since I got here. See this one? It’s brand new.” She pointed to a raw spot on her belly. “The guy who does them studied in Japan; we get along pretty well.”
What’s not to get along with, if you’re a horny guy and you get to work on a canvas as lovely as China? I opened my mouth to say something but somebody banged on the door.
“Hey! You girls in there?” Scanlon’s husky tenor was unmistakable.
“Go away, we’re not done!” shouted China.
“This is serious. You need to come out now, there’s a couple of MPs here. They’ve come for PFC Richkowski, and I persuaded ’em to wait until you got out. Move it.”
Shit. Hutch was going to kill me. Not to mention Ritchie. “Thanks, Sarge.” As an E-4, I ranked a PFC, so I was technically in charge of Ritchie. He’d probably got himself into a fight. I needed to be in on any military legal action taken.
“Move your butts, girls,” he said, more to provoke than any other reason.
“Piss off!” said China.
I rinsed my hair and got out. Outside, as I rounded the corner, I saw a jeep parked inside the compound near the gate. Two men, one in an MP helmet, stood next to it, waiting patiently. Armed, of course. What the hell was this about?
When I came out of China’s room, dressed, my hair nearly dry from the ever-present heat, I could see Ritchie standing next to Scanlon. The MP was uneasy, rocking from foot to foot, but didn’t look trigger-happy. China went to her desk inside the EE building, where she shared an office with Scanlon. Scanlon wasn’t in it; he was here, trying to reassure Ritchie. It wasn’t working well.
“Thanks for waiting. What’s going on?”
“There’s been a murder.” The taller of the two, with a craggy, impassive face and a wide forehead, was an E-6, Staff Sergeant; one notch below Hutch and Scanlon; someone at this Detachment would have the same rank and be second-in-command, but I hadn’t met him yet. “We just want to ask questions.” His nametag read “KANE.” He took off his baseball cap, exposing his light brown hair, and mopped his brow dry of sweat. The width of his head, the shorter than regulation length flattop and the narrow chin gave his face a triangular appearance; he looked to be about the same age as Scanlon. His sunglasses were Army issue. Only troops with no vanity or no money chose those; they were free.
4: Juicers rarely dope, and dopers rarely juice
Saturday, November 14, 1970
“Who was killed?” I asked.
“One of the Filipino girls in the show at the club. Iryne—” Kane looked at his clipboard.
Ritchie looked ill. “Iryne? Iryne was killed? She was fine when I left! How?”
The younger man, a corporal, “DUBOIS,” was so handsome and dashing in his black MP helmet and starched fatigues that I assumed he was stupid. He answered before Kane could stop him. “With a switchblade, Private.”
I could feel that my own was safely tucked away in my boot. “So you dusted for prints and got nothing. Can I see the knife?”
“What?” Dubois looked at me blankly.
But the older one’s eyes snapped to mine. “Why would you want to do that, Miss?” I pinned down the Old Spice smell to him.
“If you let me look at the knife I can probably tell you something about it. Maybe even something about the murderer.” I wasn’t so certain of that last as I sounded. But hell, it was worth a try.
Kane looked at me. I get looked at a lot incountry. At 185 centimeters—6 feet plus an inch—I’m used to it. Since men here outnumber women by something like 100 to one, most of those looks make me feel like I’m being stripped, but this was different: like being a paramecium on a microscope slide. He made a decision. “Let’s go back to the station.”
“Wait a minute!” Scanlon’s face was red. “You can’t just take them without arresting them.” When he talked, he waved his arms. When he waved his arms, the bronze-colored marijuana symbol on his chest showed. I wondered if he toked up now and then, although in my experience, juicers rarely dope, and dopers rarely juice. Never the twain. I guessed he wore it to send a message to the younger troops.
I tried to calm him. “Sarge, it’s not an arrest, they don’t have any evidence.” To Kane, I said, “Unless there’s going to be something on Ritchie’s record, we’re happy to cooperate.”
Kane relaxed the jaw he’d clenched when Scanlon started. “Unless my investigation shows that he’s the murderer, the only records are going to be my case notes and the MP office’s day reports. I’m not with the MPs, I’m an official CID investigator, normally stationed at Dong Tam. I’ve been helping the 148th MPs with another case. When this call came in and it was a possible murder, the CO sent me.”
I pulled my boonie hat onto my head and spoke to Scanlon, whose color had returned to normal. “Sarge? You OK with that?”
“Yah, go on, go. You’re on TDY, not KP.”
Kane’s lips twitched. “I’ll drive.” Ritchie climbed into the back of the MP Jeep without asking; Dubois hopped in next to him; that left me shotgun. “You coming?”
“How come I get special treatment?” My boots went under the dash.
“You need as much room for your legs as I do.” Kane turned the key.
There was almost no leg room in back, but Dubois and Ritchie were able to deal with it, being about the same height—substantially shorter than either me or Kane, who topped me by at least three centimeters. Scanlon opened the chain-link gate, closed and locked it behind us. I noticed he was sweating already. It wasn’t that hot at 0700; he must have been drinking, not toking, for breakfast. I wished I’d been that quick on the draw.
Kane spoke. “We’ve got witnesses who say Ritchie propositioned the girl, and that he was the last GI in the club.”
“Untrue. She propositioned him.”
“She oughta know, she translated for me,” offered Ritchie from the back seat.
“What do you mean?” Inside the jeep, out of the sun’s glare, I could make out Kane’s eyes squinting behind the dark lenses.
“Iryne only spoke Tagalog, and Ritchie speaks only English, so I helped.” He started to ask something else, but I got my question in first. “So you’ve got nothing to go on but hearsay?”
“We have three people who place PFC Richkowski with the girl last night, but the knife was smeared, so no prints. None of his clothes have blood on them. His boots have no blood in the tread and weren’t touched by the hooch girls.” No one had gone down to the main gate to pick the girls up yet. “The mud from the puddle outside the Get Dead Drunk Saloon is still on them, but that’s true of nearly every troop who was there last night.”
He parked. The MP office was a platoon office for the 148th MP Company, a typical single-story, wooden hooch-style office building, painted a deep forest green. Four banana trees took up most of the small front yard. The grass was the typical coarse-bladed, chartreuse stuff you see in Florida and other tropical countries. Sticking up from behind the building was a coconut palm five meters tall. The office was twelve blocks from the 369th, in the opposite direction from the USO club. “Of course, all the witnesses have hangovers, and none of them stayed late.”
“What about the other USO girls?”
Kane ignored my question; Dubois held the door for three of us. Inside, both men hung their headgear on a coat rack. Dubois continued to wear his pistol belt, and I noticed for the first time that Kane wasn’t armed, that his fatigue shirt had no unit markings, only the muted USARV patch. I’d never had to deal with Criminal Investigation before; the only contact I’d ever had was driving by their Long Binh field office, a light blue single-story hooch near the 160th Signal Group’s Camp Gerry.
Ritchie crumpled his baseball cap and shoved it in a pocket; I pushed my boonie hat off so it hung at the back of my neck. Several fans created a pleasant breeze in the white-painted room, but it was still over thirty degrees; a few geckos crawled on the screens underneath the angled slats. The floor was a grey linoleum, polished to a high gloss, marred with a few skid marks from their jungle boots. The air was scented with the smell of flowers, which filtered through the screens on the three exterior walls.
Dubois sat down at one of the three desks; the rightmost desk was occupied by a thick-fingered 2nd Lieutenant, his back to us, attempting to fill out forms on a grey Royal that matched the Army-issue steel desks left over from Korea or WWII. From where I sat, it looked like the ribbon had been through the typewriter enough times to print light grey. I thought about offering tips on re-inking, but he’d probably tell me he knew all that and had had as much luck getting ink as ribbons out of the Army.
Sgt. Kane reached into a file cabinet and pulled out an envelope. He sat down and propped his feet on the middle desk. I could tell it was a borrowed desk because a nameplate for a guy named “Przewalski” perched on the edge, dangerously near being kicked off by Kane’s size 14s. “You said you might be able to tell us something from seeing this; go ahead.” He passed me the envelope.
He’d mentioned that they hadn’t been able to get prints, so I took the knife out of the envelope and held it up. “It’s a very expensive knife. The handle’s briar, like fine pipes; these are brass fittings, and the mechanism isn’t cheap.” I flipped it open, and we could all see that the blade was somewhat wavy, like the fabled Moro kris of a century ago. “It was made in Italy. The action’s very smooth, nearly silent, although it’s so old it’s getting more than a little sloppy, and the owner’s had it for a very long time. It’s been well cared for; the blade’s been sharpened over and over. In fact, it’s a good deal smaller than it would be new.” I pointed to a crooked place on one of the curves of the blade. “See? Oversharpening.”
I tried unsuccessfully to hold it so that the indentations on the wood matched my fingers, but it felt better in my other hand. “The handle’s worn to match the left hand. Wearing it down like that could take a long time, so I’d guess the owner is older than the average GI.” At twenty-three, I myself was older than average. I put the knife back in its envelope and pushed it across to Kane, expecting him to put it away.
Instead, he shoved it toward Ritchie. “PFC? Would you pick that knife up, please?”
Ritchie knew he had to, but it was easy to tell it was difficult. He held it gingerly, grew pale. “Left hand, Private,” said Kane, gently. “Try to hold it like you mean it.” It was neither physically nor psychologically a good fit. Kane took the blade back,stuffed it into the lower right-hand pocket of his tropical fatigue shirt and buttoned the flap.
“Do you mind telling me the details of the murder?” I asked him.
“She was stabbed, once, in the heart. There were no signs of defending herself, no signs of struggle.”
“So she was asleep when she was stabbed?”
“Killed with a right or left handed blow?”
“Left, which matches the knife.”
“And he was in a big hurry; nobody would leave a knife like this unless they were afraid of being discovered. But if he were thinking well enough to smear his prints, why wouldn’t he simply take it with him? Any chance you’d let me see the body?”
“Maybe in a while. Where were both of you last night after the club closed?”
“I was the last customer to leave the club. Even the bartender’d left. Rat—one of the entertainers—let me out and I came to the compound. Delgado let me in at around midnight or a little after, I think; check with him for the exact time. I bunked with China, but I don’t know if she even has a clock to look at.” I didn’t mention Rat’s proposition.
He made notes on a pad. “PFC Richkowski? What else can you tell me? Anything you can think of will help.”
He spread his hands in a gesture of helplessness. “Her name was Iryne, that’s all I know. I left sometime around three, I think. Delgado let me in too.”
We waited. “That’s it? C’mon, Ritchie, tell us the rest.”
“What rest? We went back to her room, and, well, you know. ...” His voice trailed off; his face red. Not a braggart, but I already knew that.
“Did she rob you?”
“You told me she would, but she didn’t. I guess Rat knew what she was talking about.” He showed us the MPC in his wallet.
“Sgt. Kane, that’s exactly how much money he had last night when I left him. I know, because I held his ID card for him.” I showed Kane what I’d kept for Ritchie; he looked at the items and passed them over. “Is anything else missing, Ritchie?”
He checked again. “I guess I kinda wish the picture of my w—ex-wife was gone, but no. Nothing.”
“It looks like you lucked into an honest hooker.” Kane chewed on his pencil. Without his hat and sunglasses, he was handsome, like Hollywood’s idea of a beach boy’s sidekick, thin and angular. His jaw was narrow and he had a pointed chin; his forehead was wide, and his hairline was beginning to recede, making him look a bit as if his brain were pushing the top of his skull wider. Dubois looked like a professional athlete, which I guess is why I was prejudiced against him.
“She wasn’t a hooker,” snapped Ritchie. “She never asked me for anything, not even a drink!”
Kane looked at me and I shrugged. “Takes all kinds.”
“Hey!” Ritchie was outraged.
Kane smiled and spoke to Dubois, who was on the edge of sleep. “Go check with Delgado. Since he worked last night he’ll be asleep; get Sergeant Scanlon to wake the guy up for you.”
Grabbing his cap, he stood. “Come with me, Holmes; I’ll show you the body. Richkowski? You too.”
The morgue building, attached to the 13th Evac hospital, was a minute’s walk, but most NCOs I’d known would have driven anyway. There was a breeze off the Mekong and we could smell the fishy odor of the downtown market, barely two klicks away. If the breeze shifted, the burning shit smell from the rest of Shannon-Wright would hit us.
We were met in the front office by a scrawny black man with a white medic’s coat pulled loosely over his fatigues. His eyes were bloodshot and he was holding a cup. Even over the phenol and formaldehyde and the faint, sweetish smell of decay, I could smell double-strength coffee. He lifted his cup. “Kane.” I couldn’t make out his rank, which was covered by the tunic’s collar.
“Morning, Dr. Gilray. We want to see that Filipino girl.” The cup of coffee waved at the entrance to the morgue proper, and the Dr. folded himself into the steel chair behind the desk, onto which he parked his feet.
“They’re none of them dressed.” His voice was raspy and hoarse from lack of sleep. He sipped, closed his eyes and sighed.
Kane waved a thank you and worked the handle on the meat-locker-style door. It didn’t look like morgues do on TV sets; the dead weren’t hidden away in drawers behind neat little doors, but dumped naked and uncovered on wheeled metal tables, awaiting autopsy. There were five of them, four GIs with various parts shot off, and one little Filipina girl wearing nothing but a slack expression on her face. Her body was small and perfect, except for the wound above the left breast, directly beside the sternum.
Kane glanced at Ritchie, who’d made a sound. “PFC Richkowski? You OK?” Ritchie shook his head, fist over mouth. Kane thumbed over his shoulder at the door. “Git.” Ritchie got. Kane looked at me, his gaze direct and piercing; I noticed his eyebrows were as bushy as Rat’s. “You seem OK.”
“I’ve seen death.” I left it at that.
Kane let me leave it, but I could tell that he filed it away. He stood to Iryne’s left, I went to the right. “There aren’t any practice stabs, so whoever it was has probably killed before.”
I bent close to inspect the entrance wound. There were no fibers caught in the wound that I could see. That meant she either slept face up without a blanket, or she slept like the dead and the killer had uncovered her before stabbing.
Kane reached over for the clipboard with the results of the medic’s examination. “The autopsy’s scheduled for later this afternoon, unless casualties come in.”
“Who found her?”
“Maxie. Maxine Henderson, the big blonde with the show.”
“Did you see it last night?”
“The night before, Thursday. The troupe was supposed to be here through Sunday night and leave Monday morning.”
“And what’s their schedule now?”
“They don’t have one until this is solved. Same’s you and Ritchie.” He waited patiently as I finished looking at Iryne’s body. Her lipstick was red as fresh blood and barely smeared. In life, she had been beautiful. The camera would have been good to her; Playboy would have been happy to have her with only a little airbrushing. I stood and stretched.
“Can you pronounce her last name for me?” Kane held out the clipboard.
“Madlangbayan. Iryne Madlangbayan.”
He shook his head. “It sounds easy enough when you say it. Mad—long—” His tongue got tangled up.
I laughed. “You don’t have to care.”
He smiled. “That may be true, but it doesn’t mean I don’t. Anything else you notice?”
“Judging from the knife, the killer’s hands are bigger than mine. Doesn’t that pretty much eliminate women?”
“Not really. There’s a nurse over’t the hospital who has hands my size.” He held up a paw the size of a dinner plate. “I checked on her; she assisted at an operation last night, so she’s in the clear. But it’s not a good idea to rule out women prematurely.”
I wondered how he knew about the nurse. Kane signed us out while I went outside to track down Ritchie. He leaned against the low wall of sandbags surrounding the building. He smoked, looking pale.
“Just a few hours ago, she was alive, warm—” He broke off, rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand. He gave me a weak smile that showed his buck teeth. “How come it’s so easy for you?”
“It isn’t. All you can do is get used to it.”
“I’d hate that.” He lit a fresh cigarette from his existing butt.
“O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”
Silence. Then, “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.”
“I didn’t take you for a Bible-quoter, Ritchie.”
“I was raised a Southern Baptist. My folks made me to go to church every stinking day, nine or ten times a week. I ran away from home at 15 and never went back. Only time I been to church since was for weddings and a funeral. But I still got big hunks of Bible stuck in my head.”
“I know what you mean.” He knew I was a missionary kid. I lit a cigarette for myself.
“Don’t tell the guys.”
“Ritchie.” I was hurt.
“You won’t, will you?”
I whacked the back of his head with the flat of my hand, not particularly gently. “One more word and I’ll phone Củ Chi now.”
He inhaled smoke. “Guess I deserved that.”
“I’m your friend, fuckhead.” He smiled a little.
The hospital door banged and Kane came out to help us hold up sandbags until Dubois drove up and parked the Jeep next to us.
“Delgado confirms their stories; Holmes pushed the buzzer at oh-dark-15 and Ritchie at 0320 hours,” he told Kane. “He’s not required to write stuff like that down, he says, but he does it to cover his ass.”
His voice was full of a rhythm I knew. “Dubois, you’re from New Orleans, right?”
Dubois smiled. “How did you know?”
“I spent some leave time there.” Josh and I’d both had thirty days of it before reporting to our respective transport stations. I’d gone on to Ft. Lewis, then Việt Nam; Josh to McGuire Airbase for Germany. We’d spent Christmas with Aunt Drusilla in Chicago, but had taken a week to visit bars and clubs in the Big Easy. There’d been a strip club with a dancer he’d admired. ... “You ever eat at Deanie’s, over in Bucktown?” He lit up!
“I’ve eaten there since they opened up on the Old Hammond Highway. They moved twice since then. John and Deanie are friends of my family. And my girlfriend Lucia works there now.”
“You’re kidding. Last time I was there she waited on me. Tall girl? Hair in a big braid down to here? Very elegant?”
He beamed again. “That’s her!”
Lucia’d been terribly amused by Josh’s attempts to impress her. With a personality like a spotlight, she was way more woman than I’d expected to be with someone like Dubois. I needed to rethink my opinion of him: stereotypes will bite you in the ass every time.
Kane made notes. “You can go, Ritchie, although you can’t leave the camp. You want a ride back?”
“I’ll walk. It’s only a few blocks, and I need to stop at the PX anyway. Andi?”
“Yeah, I’ll go with you. I should see what they got.”
Kane cut in. “I need to talk to her; you go ahead.”
“I can wait to go to the PX.”
“I wouldn’t; Specialist Holmes will be busy most of the afternoon.”
I spread my hands. “Then don’t wait.”
Ritchie looked from me to Kane and back. “I know what you’re looking for. If I spot ’em, I’ll buy ’em.”
“Thanks, I appreciate it.” I’d be surprised if he found tampons, but it was always worth a look. Ritchie walked away on the gravel road; I turned to Kane and ignored the curiosity on his face. “What is it you need?”
“You can help me interview the other Filipino girl. She doesn’t have any English.”
“It’s Filipina, if you’re talking about a woman. Tagalog is gendered, just like Spanish.”
“I’m not much good at languages. Ready?”
I’d be glad to get away from the hospital. “Sure. What’s her name?”
He consulted his clipboard again. “Chona. Chona, um, Aba, Abad ...” He handed the board to me.
“Chona Abadayabalahin,” I read. “Easy.” Showing off. He gave me enough of an amused, corner-eyed glance to let me know I’d been caught.
It was almost noon. On top of the hooch revetments, the ten-o’clock flowers growing out of the yellow-edged railroad-tie flowerboxes had folded their bright magenta blossoms; the dew had been scorched off long ago. There was no hope of relief from the heat later in the afternoon; monsoon had been over for a couple of months, but at least there was no chance of getting flooded. Six months of the year in Vĩnh Long, inundation was a way of life; no one kept anything precious on the floor in Shannon-Wright base camp. Like the French Quarter, it was two meters above sea level in the dry season.
The Army tries to always be the same Army and build every building as if it were in the States, but in the vast overflowing Delta, it’s always wet, always hot, and, during monsoon, often flooded enough to float the toilet seats off the latrines. The jungle lurks around every corner.
5: Smoking on live ammo
Saturday, November 14, 1970
Army base camps all start out the same way; the Army Corps of Engineers moves in, bulldozes the earth to the bone and Agent Oranges the bejesus out of the soil. When we drink on top of the Củ Chi bunker, every tree we see is the same height, barely above the rooftops of the single-story hooches.
Dubois—“Call me Heck”—drove us to the Get Dead Drunk Saloon and parked in the small paved lot by the road. Kane unfolded himself from the too-small rear seat where he had insisted on riding and we left Heck to wait with the Jeep. The asphalt was sticky in the heat of the sun; the humidity was higher than in Củ Chi, the greenery greener, the trees larger, the grass softer, the bushes fuller, everything that grew plumped with water.
In the front yard of the saloon, a Vietnamese worker wearing a cone hat was overwatering the banana tree and the honeysuckle bush—the source of the mud puddle. The grass, a bright spring chartreuse, dripped from the watering. Instead of going in the front door, Kane led the way around back between two recycled airplane fuel tanks used to hold water for showers. Sun heats the water all day, and the tanks keep the heat in most of the night. The system works even when the sky is overcast during monsoon because infrared still gets through. With enough storage capacity, it’s pretty efficient. But with 500 people fighting over ten 50-gallon drums, the situation I’d had to put up with in Vũng Tàu where I’d spent my first two months incountry, the system fails pretty badly. By the time I’d managed to work showers in, the hot water had almost always been used up; I’d become inured.
Sgt. Kane knocked and waited. I field-stripped my cigarette. “Those things’ll kill you,” he said carefully, as if avoiding a fight.
“Someday I’ll worry.” The door was pulled open by a tall, willowy woman in tropical fatigues without nametags or rank insignia. She was Special Services, not military, and dressed that way for comfort.
“Hidee. C’mon in.” Her hair was red and grey and spiky; she peered at me through thick-lensed glasses. She was nearly as tall as me, with a brassy voice. The hand she stuck out was big and knobby, as if she’d grown up drawing water from a cast-iron pump and milking cows without a machine. “I’m Emily. Y’all’re here to interview people about the murder, I expect.” She talked to Sgt. Kane, but watched me sideways.
“This is Specialist Holmes. She speaks Tagalog.” He pronounced it TAG-alog instead of ta-GAH-log, even though he’d heard me say it several times. I gave him credit for pronouncing Ritchie’s name correctly, however: rich-KOFF-ski.
Emily turned her direct gaze on me. “Then you’ll be wanting to talk to Chona.”
Emily led us to a hollow-coor door and knocked. Chona, who had clearly been crying, let us into a small room outfitted as dressing room and bedroom both. It was half the size of the room I’d shared last night with China, but was still meant for two people. The twin-size bunk beds took up the width of the wall opposite the door. One bunk would be a tight fit for a couple, but clearly Ritchie and Iryne had managed it. Chona sat at the vanity and stared into the mirror, seeing nothing. The plywood walls were unpainted and free of decoration. I sat by her side on the bench; she’d either slept in her clothes or never bothered to iron the blue shorts and crinkly polka-dotted blouse. She smelled of sleep, booze and sex.
“How are you doing?” I asked in Tagalog.
“Not well. We were very close. Like sisters.”
“Tell me what happened. We need information to find the killer.”
She scowled at the floor and shuffled her feet. “I was asleep in my own room. I saw nothing, heard nothing.”
I looked at her for a second and made a judgment call. “No one thinks you killed Iryne. We’ll be grateful for any information, no matter how trivial, that might help us determine who killed her.”
She raised her eyes. “Most police are happy to believe Filipina girls are guilty even when we have done nothing.”
“I’m not a cop. Neither is he.” I nodded at Kane. “Besides, not all of them think that way.”
She eyed us warily. “What do you want to know?”
“What time did you go to bed? Do you remember?”
“I left when he left. The blond American.”
“What? I don’t understand.”
“We were all three together.” And that explained her smell.
“Sergeant Kane?” I looked over my shoulder. “She says that she and Iryne were in a threesome with Ritchie.”
“Ah.” He called outside. “Dubois! C’mere, please.” Heck stuck his head in the door. “Go find PFC Richkowski for us. He might still be at the PX.” Chona sniffled, and I tried to work out how a threesome could fit on a twin bed. There was just room on the floor to pull both mattresses off the beds and lay them side by side.
Emily poked her head in; she had a cold beer in her hand. “Y’all can use my office now. I cleaned off some chairs. It’s not big but all the parts are there. I’m going outside to sit in the sun and read.” A magazine was tucked underneath her arm; I envied her the beer.
By the time we’d moved the discussion to the office, Dubois was back with Ritchie, both of them sweating from the walk in the sun. I’d thought of something else to check. “Ritchie, show me your billfold again.”
Ritchie looked puzzled, but handed it over; I lifted the little flap behind the money and found the same two condoms he’d had there last night. “Why didn’t you use them?”
“I started to, but Iryne didn’t want—wouldn’t let me.”
“And what about Chona?”
“The same—” He stopped.
I spoke to the girl in Tagalog. “Did you want to get pregnant?”
She nodded. “Both of you?” She nodded again. “She says the two of them wanted babies,” I told Kane.
“Well, they should’ve asked me. One of the reasons Claire wanted to divorce me is I can’t have kids.”
“You can’t? Why not?”
He threw up his hands. “I don’t know. The doctor says it’s because I’ve got weezy sperm—”
I asked him if that was a technical term, and he laughed, the first time today.
“I think that’s it, Ritchie. You can go.” After he left, Kane asked me, “Are you certain Chona can’t understand English?”
“Reasonably certain. You can’t find anyone anywhere who doesn’t understand a few words. Why?”
“Is it possible she killed the other girl?”
Chona didn’t react. “I doubt that very much. Their nightclub act wouldn’t work without two of them.” I doubted their act in bed would work without the two of them, either, but Kane could figure that out as well as I. “And even if the girls could afford such an expensive switchblade, it still wouldn’t fit their hands.”
We questioned Chona for a few more minutes, but came up with nothing. She didn’t have any reason for the two of them wanting to get pregnant. “We wanted to be aunts together,” was all she had to say. It sounded to me like Iryne had a reason and Chona went along with her because they were good friends. I found it hard to imagine being that kind of close without being related, but I’d never had to live with anyone but family long enough to finish sentences.
“I don’t understand why they picked Ritchie.” I leaned back in my chair after we sent her on her way. “Face it, there’s no shortage of sperm incountry. He is a sweet guy, but he’s no Greek God.”
“Some women would rather have ‘a first class temperament’.” He ran his hand over his hair.
“Being a nice guy goes a long way, I’ll admit.” I waited while he thought. “Do you need me any more?”“I’d like you to stay, if you don’t mind. Sit in when I talk to Rat and Maxie.”
“Are those two the only ones you’re going to talk to?”
“And Emily. Not that I think she had anything to do with it.” He rubbed his hair again. “I’d like to think that I have only three suspects, the three USO girls, but chances are there won’t be anything conclusive and I’ll have to start looking more widely.”
“I see. If you hate someone in your circle and you’re determined to kill her, why do it when you’re stuck someplace where the eye is always on the sparrow? In Manila or Chicago or Sàigòn, things would be different, but in Vĩnh Long a little thing like a murder’s going to be noticed. Right?”
“Right. I think the killer’s someone who lives here, not one of the troupe. It seems like a crime of opportunity to me.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “We haven’t considered the possibility that the knife doesn’t necessarily belong to the killer. He or she could have stolen it, borrowed it, or even bought it used from a pawnshop; and what that means is that we can try hands on it all we want, but we really haven’t narrowed the field.”
“That makes sense. For instance, Maxie could have held the knife in both hands, stabbed the girl and left it there to encourage us to look for someone whose hand fit and ignore her.” I scratched my head. “I don’t know how we could prove it if that’s the case. We’d have to get a confession. Besides, I think the knife belongs to the killer.”
“Me too, but we have to consider everything and rule people out by other criteria. What’s your take on Maxie?”
“I’d be astonished if she spent the night alone.” I described what I’d seen last night, all the high-ranking NCOs clustered around Maxie in her tight satin clothes. “She seems harmless enough, and I can’t imagine she doesn’t have a witness to her whereabouts last night.”
“Right.” He got up and stuck his head out the door to send Heck to collect Maxie before sitting back in Emily’s chair.
Kane puzzled me. Most high-ranking NCOs either treat me like dirt, the way they treat all subordinates, or single me out for “special attention.” Kane seemed to accept me as a person, not as furniture or a sex object. As far as I could tell, he treated everyone that way. Maybe it had something to do with being CID, groups deliberately composed from the lower ranks. All the investigators were NCOs and wore no special patches or headgear—unlike MPs—that might attract notice. On US and European bases, CID members wore ordinary civilian clothes. Here, civvies would mark the wearer as off-duty.
I checked what Emily had on the walls; farm pictures, for heaven’s sake: cows and barns and fields, sheep and goats and silos and prairie windmills. Even though she’d cleaned up some, it was still a sprawling mess. Empty coffee cups and beer cans occupied the flat surfaces people didn’t sit on, papers cluttered the desk; the inbox was piled a third of a meter high. The trash can was close, so I poked through it and found a wadded-up letter. I smoothed it out enough to see it was a draft of a letter to her niece in Oklahoma City. The most interesting thing in it was a caution: “I’m happy you’re happy, but it would be a bad idea to tell your mother about your sex life. She don’t want to know. She thinks you’re still her perfect baby, and you know very well contradicting her don’t go anywhere.” It went back into the can; when I straightened up I found Kane looking at me with amusement.
The building was constructed the way most incountry wooden structures were, except that it had solid walls. Hooches and offices had solid walls only halfway up; from the midline up to the ceiling, louvered boards covered screens. That promoted airflow but made air conditioning impossible. Places that required cooling, like this club, had solid walls, but otherwise the basic construction was the same: a concrete slab supporting 2x4 studs, clapboard siding on the outside, plywood interior walls, stud-and-plywood interior partitions that went up to the ceiling line. In hooches, the upper ranks got ceilings; peons didn’t, unless they added it themselves. Which they could do if they could find plywood, either on the black market or by trading.
I hadn’t seen where Iryne had been killed, but if Chona’s room was like all of them, then every room had solid walls and ceilings. It was small, with a bunk bed. That would mean space for eight people in the four guest rooms. Since the band hadn’t stayed at the club, all four women got rooms of their own, giving each a little privacy. The Army Engineers had gone out of their way to provide a little insulation, for soundproofing, in the plywood interior walls; in Củ Chi, we had the interior walls all right, but you could hear every move, snore and fart from the rooms next door. Here, it meant that Em’s office was semi-private.
The office door opened to admit Maxine. “Have a seat,” said Kane. “Tell us your full name, please.”
Maxine eyed me with distrust. “Maxine Henderson. From Henderson, Kentucky. Call me Maxie.” She gave a weak smile. “Ain’t this is a terrible thing?”
Kane noticed her anxiety. “I’ve asked Specialist Holmes to sit in with me when I interview you; I was hoping to make you a little more comfortable.”
Maxie unbent a little, but wasn’t within shouting distance of comfortable. That didn’t stop her from sticking out her chest. It had no effect on Kane that I could see. “Well. Anything to help, but I didn’t hear a thing all night. All I did was find her when I went to wake her up.”
“Why did you go into Iryne’s room so early?”
“We almost always eat breakfast together. Iryne, and Chona, and me. Not Rat; she don’t eat breakfast.” She made it sound like a moral failing on Rat’s part. No love lost there.
“Do you speak Tagalog?” I asked in Tagalog.
“Yes, no, and you wanta fuck?” She laughed enough to make her jiggle. “Not that I’d say that, of course.” She giggled, which seemed to be her main conversational talent. “Rat has enough she can look out for the Filipinas and keep them from being cheated.”
“How about the man who was with you? Did he hear anything last night?” She jumped as if stuck with a pin. Paydirt.
“You’re a lousy liar, Miss Henderson,” said Kane.
When she hesitated, I spoke up. “Look, you need an alibi. We could get Emily in here. I’m sure she can tell us who it was.” She was agitated. “Kane? If she’s cleared, there’s no need for personal information to become public, right?”
“That’s right. Unless you or the man you spent last night with killed her, nothing about your part in this investigation has to come out. I won’t put it in my report unless it’s crucial.”
Her gaze shifted between us, like a cornered cat. “Well. He said he was top kick over t’the 125th Signal Battalion.” She swallowed. “Bill. That’s the only name he gave me. He was with me all night and didn’t leave until I let him out, just before I woke Iryne.”
“We’ll take it from there, Miss Henderson. Thank you. If he verifies your story you’ve nothing to worry about.” He dug in his pocket. “One more thing before you leave?”
She’d already stood. “What?”
He held out the switchblade. “Would you mind holding this in your left hand?”
I sat up. I didn’t expect her to try anything, but it’s good to be prepared. Maxie had trouble getting her hand positioned correctly.
“It feels bumpy in funny places.” I took the knife from her.
“That’s all we need. You can go.” She closed the door behind her and Kane raised an eyebrow at me. “Well? What do you think?”
“I think she’s mostly telling the truth. She’s hooking and Bill paid her.”
“That’s what I thought, too.” He glanced at his notes. “Let’s talk to Rayna Aaron.”
Since I’d stayed for Maxie, I didn’t see how I could avoid staying for Rat. But it put me on edge when she came in. “Tell us what happened last night,” he said, unaffected. I hadn’t expected him to be: what she radiated wasn’t aimed at men. Even if it had been, I didn’t think it would have made any difference.
“Hey, Andi, what are you doing here?”
Kane cut in. “I’ve asked her to help out, but if her presence makes you uncomfortable—?”
“Oh, no, not at all. I was just making conversation. Sorry!”
“I can leave, Rat—” I started to say.
“No, no, no. It’s OK, really it is.” She pointed that smile at me. Every time she said something in that deep raspy voice I got twinges.
Kane blinked. “About last night, then.”
“Well, after the show, I had a pretty good buzz on. I tried to sleep, but the room kept spinning, so I went for a walk.”
“What time was that?” he asked.
“Oh, the show finished up a little before midnight. But you know that.” She nodded at me. “I locked up after Andi left and grabbed a free drink—well, a couple of free drinks—and went to bed at um, twelve-forty-five or one. I couldn’t sleep—Ritchie and the girls were making a lot of noise—got up and had another drink. I guess I went for a walk at, oh, two? Little after?”
“Where did you go? Did anyone see you?”
She shrugged and I could see she wasn’t wearing a bra under the T-shirt; her breasts were a bit big for that. It was a nice look. “I dunno where I went, just around. I ended up out by that big bunker sort of thing over that way—” She waved to the northeast of the Saloon. “It’s in the middle of all those little rubber trees. I smoked and watched the stars and listened to the crickets while I waited for some of the booze to wear off.”
I’d seen the low, fat bunker in the field with trees around it, but hadn’t thought about it. “What is that place?”
Kane was amused. “It’s an ammo bunker. For the infantry.”
Rat laughed. “You mean I was out there smoking on live ammo? Shit!”
“Shouldn’t there have been a guard, though? Someone who might’ve seen her?” I asked.
Kane turned both hands palm up. “They don’t have enough people to guard everything.”
“Didn’t you hear about Ginny Kirsch? The Donut Dollie who was murdered at Củ Chi back in August? Her death’s a good argument for keeping guards on places like ammo dumps.”
Kane sat up straight. “Murder? Of a round-eye? I never heard anything about it.”
“It wasn’t in the Star and Stripes. I knew the Army’d suppressed the news, but it was all over the grapevine.” Which meant that Iryne’s death wasn’t newsworthy enough to make the paper. “There were no guards posted by the hooch where Ginny and the other girls bunked. Some psychopath walked in, stabbed her to death, and walked out.”
“I’m surprised I didn’t know about the murder, but ammo dumps aren’t women’s dorms, and guarding them is low priority.” He turned his attention back to Rat. “Could anyone else have seen you? I don’t suppose you went near the perimeter?”
“I don’t think so.” She lit a cigarette left-handed. “I spent at least an hour out there before I went to bed for the night. Next thing I knew, Maxie was screaming like a banshee.”
Kane scratched on his pad. “So you were awake until around 0300 but not in the club, and after you came back in you were sound asleep. Is that right?” That tied in with Ritchie’s story.
“Absolutely.” She nodded her head vigorously, stirring the tendrils of smoke around her head.
“And what about after you came back to the saloon? Did you hear anything then?”
“Before I fell asleep, I heard Iryne and Chona and your friend—Ritchie—still making noise in Iryne’s room. They sounded like they were having fun, but I didn’t listen hard. And Maxie over on the other side, of course. She had some guy in there with her, but she always does.”
“And you were alone.”
Rat looked resigned. “I’m always alone.”
“And why is that, Miss Aaron?”
“Is that really the Army’s business?” She glared.
Kane backed down. “Sorry, Miss. I was curious, but it isn’t anyone’s business but yours. I didn’t mean to be sexist.”
I didn’t know a lot about this women’s lib stuff. Precious little makes it into civilian papers and even less gets into the Stars and Stripes. It was the last news topic Momma would forward to me. I was fascinated that Kane seemed to not only know about it but to support it. I changed the subject. “You heard nothing suspicious before you fell asleep, then?”
“Not unless you think fucking is suspicious, no.” She took a deep puff on her cigarette and thought, then blew a smoke ring. “Sorry. I know I need an alibi, but I didn’t see anyone, and no one saw me.” She smiled at me rakishly. “Arrest me, officer!” She held out her hands, wrists together.
Kane suppressed a smile. “This is not a laughing matter, Miss Aaron.”
“Hey, I’m laughing.” I was laughing, but it was as much with relief that she hadn’t said a word about our encounter last night as it was in appreciation for the lame joke. Rat flashed me a grateful look. I glanced a question at Kane, and he nodded; I handed her the switchblade. We watched as she tried it in both hands. “How’s that feel?” But I already knew.
“Those bumps on the handle make it hard to hold.” Her hands were small and smooth, but I knew she was stronger than she looked.
“Thanks, Rat. I guess that’s it.”
Kane spoke. “Would you ask Emily to come in and see us? Thanks.” The door closed.
“The knife’s way too big for her.”
Rangy Emily Starns strode into the office and sat, efficiently but ungracefully, like a pigeon landing. “Feels a little odd being on this side of my own desk.” The beer can she’d left with was mostly empty. She gripped it like a man, swinging it back and forth between the thumb and index finger of her left hand.
“Thanks for letting us use your office. It’s been a big help. Did you hear anything last night? See anything unusual? Find anything out of place?”
“Nope. Nothing. But wouldn’t that mean something? Like that Holmes story about the dog? No commotion, so that meant the dog knew the criminal.”
“‘Silver Blaze’,” I said.
Kane nodded. “The killer may or may not have been known to the Filipina girl. She seems to have been killed in her sleep.”
“Sometime after 0300; unless war casualties come in, we’ll have autopsy results later today.”
“I’m up and down all night long,” said Emily. “I’m a light sleeper, but I didn’t hear a thing until 0700 when Maxie screamed. Like to give me heart failure. ’Course, I am on the other side of the office from the entertainer’s rooms.”
“So you knew that Maxie had someone in her room last night?”
“Why, sure. Nothing wrong with that, is there? She’s a grownup. She’s got healthy appetites.” She looked interested. “Did she tell you who it was?”
“I’ll send Dubois out later to check her story. She asked us not to get him in any trouble.”
“Bill Jenkins can’t stay out of trouble. He is trouble. Everything that man touches turns to chaos.”
“How’d you know who he was?”
Emily looked at us scornfully. “First, he was the highest-ranking enlisted man hanging around Maxine last night. Second, just before the bar closed he bought a bottle off me to take to bed. It didn’t take no genius to figure out.”
“Would he have been likely to hear or see anything last night?”
She sniffed. “All his brains are in his pecker.”
I smiled. “Do you know how to use a knife?”
“I grew up on a farm in the Texas panhandle. There’s almost nothing I don’t know how to use. Wasn’t me what did it, but I can’t prove it. Anything else?”
“No, ma’am,” said Kane, standing. “I think we need a lunch break. Miss Holmes?”
“Uh, sure. Sure.” I stood up.
“Thank you, Miss Starns.”
“Mrs.,” she corrected him. “My husband died five years ago. He woulda had a fit if I’d tried to come here with him alive.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
She shrugged. “Don’t be; he was in terrible pain. When he died, it was a release for both of us.” She focused on Kane. “Opening time is 1300. Can I go ahead?”
“I’d rather you didn’t.”
“It disappoints the regulars who work nights and almost never get to see the shows. Once in a while I’m able to arrange a daytime performance, but not very often, unfortunately. They’d rather come here than drink alone in their rooms.”
“Sorry, I don’t think opening’s a good idea yet.”
“Well, when can I tell them to come back?” Kane spread his hands wide. “Oh, dear. I hope you’re not saying I have to close down until you find the murderer.”
“I’ll have Heck go over the place one more time, as soon as he comes back after talking to Bill Jenkins, but I don’t see any reason you can’t open up at 1800.”
“That’s good. The troops’ll still expect a show tonight.”
Kane raised an eyebrow at me. I took out the knife and handed it to her. She knew how to hold it. It fit a bigger hand than hers, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t have stolen it.
She gave the knife to Kane, who asked me, “Ready for lunch?”