Part Three: Escamillo
10: Strangely attractive
Monday, November 16, 1970
I crawled out of bed in time to shower and make it to work early, even though I had no official job here in the Delta. I grabbed one of the colas I’d stashed in China’s refrigerator and ambled up to the EE building. “I need to call Sgt. Hutch.”
Scanlon threw me a mock salute and went back to his book. “Whatcha readin?” He held up Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, the fattest SF novel of 1968. I went into tech control to use the phone: the only person there was one of the two Việt Sergeants that the detachment had been assigned. “Xin chào, ông Bình,” I said, reading his name tag. “Tôi có thể sử dụng điện thoại?” May I use the phone?
He wasn’t surprised. If they ever harness grapevine technology, we’ll end up with faster-than-light communication. Bình turned to the rack-mounted patch panel, lifted the receiver and jiggled the hook switch a few times. On the far end, at Cần Thơ, lights were blinking, alerting the controller on duty that they had an incoming call.
Ten minutes later, I’d been patched through to Củ Chi and SFC Hutchens. “Holmes, what the fuck are you and Ritchie still doing there? You’re supposed to be halfway back by now.”
“I miss you too, Sarge. Look, I thought we’d have this all cleared up by today, but we can’t leave until Kane finds the killer. I wish I could promise Tuesday, but it doesn’t look good.”
“You told me Ritchie was clear; there’s no reason for you to stay.”
“Sarge, the MPs and the CID aren’t letting the entertainers leave either.”
“Maybe they need more coffee to speed up their investigation.”
“You think everything comes down to caffeine.”
“Doesn’t it? Don’t they know there’s a war on? Why’s it taking so long?”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
“Don’t ask yourself if Sgt. Hutch would approve; I wouldn’t, so don’t ask.”
“Oh, you got a care package. I’ll try to keep it safe, but the jackals are circling.” He gnashed his teeth audibly.
“Get back on time, Holmes.” I wondered what was in the box. Oatmeal-raisin cookies, for sure. If there was room, pepperoni for pizza and two loaves of Brazilian bread. The way my dad wrapped things, it would still be in great condition even if it took a week to get back.
I climbed up onto the bunker and looked the site over. This 369th compound was laid out as a north-south mirror image of the one in Củ Chi. The red-and-white painted tower, ten meters tall, sported an antenna that looked like a large, closed cake carrier; the handle pointed at the next site in line. From Củ Chi, that was straight east to Dĩ An; here it was Cần Thơ, fifteen kilometers to the southwest. The communications gear in the EE building took standard telephone circuits from the DCO—dial central office—and sent them via microwave to Vũng Tàu, where signals bounced off the troposphere and connected to the US. High-priority voice and digitial circuits were usually sent to Nha Trang to take advantage of the new undersea cables. If a CO had enough clout, he could pick up the phone on his desk in Shannon-Wright and talk directly to President Nixon. Few did, that was clear. Everything Nixon had done since taking office betrayed the fact that he had no idea what was going on here: no one was willing to tell him. Besides, he had a tin ear.
I drank from my beer and watched a Filipino work on a recalcitrant cooling fan attached to one of the two hefty AC units attached to the wall of the EE building, where all the comm gear was housed. In the generator building, three out of four enormous diesel engines were on line producing around a megawatt of power. The fourth was backup, to be cut in when one of the live ones failed. The AC was to cool the equipment, not the soldiers, who benefited regardless.
A tall white civilian, dressed in baggy khaki trousers and an open khaki shirt over a sweaty sleeveless T-shirt, came out of the generator building to confer with the Filipino. He gestured impatiently at the elderly worker, who nodded and went back to work. The supervisor took the hearing protectors from around his neck, pulled them over his dirty reddish hair and covered his ears. He went back inside.
Seeing the worker reminded me that I had several greenbacks hidden under a flap in my wallet. Into every care package—along with cookies and bread and other items difficult or impossible to get at the PX, like panti-liners—Momma would tuck a bill or two. I could get five to ten times the face value of the dollars in MPC on the black market. Momma didn’t know, and I sure wasn’t going to enlighten her.
The generators were maintained and serviced by civilians working for Pacific Architects and Engineers, who had the contract for all the Army bases. They hired white men to run the generator operation, men from the US or the British Empire. The white bosses, in turn, hired almost no one but Filipinos to work for them, because they worked cheap and were used to the heat. It was hellishly hot inside the generator buildings, far warmer than outdoors. Outdoors in ’Nam meant 35 to 45—95 to 110 in civilian degrees. The workers lived off-base where possible, staying in whatever town or village was convenient. Most had mistresses or live-in maids they slept with. I’m sure some lived with other men but kept it quiet. Because they lived off-base, they were intimately connected to the black market economy.
I clambered down from the bunker to walk across the asphalt to the condenser. I squatted next to the worker. “Ang pangalan ko ay Andi. Ano ang sa iyo?” My name is Andi, what’s yours?
“Jestoni.” A common nickname—his full given name would be Jesus Antonio. He torqued a nut firmly and used a screwdriver to close a relay. The motor engaged and the fan started to spin, but it made a low-pitched noise before he lifted the screwdriver. “The bearing is bad, but Red doesn’t want me to replace it. Too much money.”
“So you load up the oil in a bearing that’s not supposed to need lubrication.”
He shrugged. “It will hold it for a week or so. It will fail, Red will yell at me, which he does anyway, and then I will do it the way I should be doing it now.” He began putting access panels back in place. “Where did you learn Tagalog?”
“It was my first language; I was born in Luzon.”
“You remember it well.” He put his tools down. “I believe you have some money to change.”
I handed him two twenties, a ten and a five, crisp new greenbacks from Momma. “I would be very grateful for MPC.” If I asked for Vietnamese piastres, I could get more, but they were harder to spend.
He grinned, showing a gold tooth amidst his plentiful wrinkles, most of which came from being out in the sun, not age, which I put at early fifties. “Ito ay madali. Bumalik bukas.” Easy. Come back tomorrow.
“Salamat sa iyo, ako ay.” Thanks, I will.
Kane beeped when I was halfway back to the bunker. I changed course. “Lunch?”
“Can you drop me off at the PX after? I need to buy some sody so I can quit sponging off people.” China still hadn’t asked for her gate key back. I wondered what she did for fun. Maybe got tattooed. Maybe visited that girl at the orphanage, if she could get a ride. The gate firmly closed and locked, I climbed in next to him. “Where’s Pancho?”
“Your name; I remembered. There was this show on American TV, The Cisco Kid. I watched it a few times in what had to be 1955. We stayed in Mattoon between missions, with my very cranky grandmother, until she died. The star’s name was Duncan Renaldo. His sidekick was called Pancho.”
“If it’s any consolation almost no one was ever killed.”
“So it was boring.” He pulled up in front of a different mess hall than the one we’d previously used.
“I watched it, so it couldn’t have been too awful.”
“How old were you?”
“I rest my case.”
“I hope you’re not implying I had no taste.”
He grinned, but then said, “Hey, wait. If you were eight there’s no way—”
“So he was in movies before you were born. There couldn’t have been many Renaldos in show business in 1939.”
We went through the line. The main course—no choices offered—was beans and franks with a broccoli side cooked so long it had become an olive-colored paste. I would have preferred nothing, but I took a small plateful to be polite. Kane found a table and we sat. “Maybe tomorrow we should go down to the main gate,” I suggested. “Street carts all over the place.”
“I’m willing. That soup last night was good.”
“You can branch out tomorrow.”
“I’m game.” He swallowed another enormous mouthful. “Here’s something you’ll want to know. Heck found a guard who saw someone walking away from the club in the early AM Saturday. Male, untucked white shirt, blue slacks, longish black hair. He was too far away for the guard to see much else, so it’s not a lot to go on. He was vague about the time, but thought it was around the middle of his watch, which would make it roughly 0400.”
“So now we know for sure he’s male, and that once he got away from the club he was calm enough to walk instead of run.”
Kane nodded, chewed, swallowed. He pointed at my tray with his fork. “You’re not eating much.”
“I’ve had worse.” I ate a hot dog disk. “Anything I can do to help out?”
“Not that I can think of. Unless you can read minds.”
“Oh, lord, I’d kill myself.” I swallowed some beans without chewing. “There’s a story about that. Damned if I can remember what it’s called, though.”
“‘Journeys End,’ by Poul Anderson. Very persuasive. At least I no longer wanted telepathy.”
I drank some water. “Is it OK if Rat and I go into town this afternoon? I have an idea, and I’m getting antsy with not much to do.”
“And you don’t want to tell me about this idea beforehand.”
“It’s probably completely off the wall. The trip may degenerate into shopping.”
“You don’t strike me as a shopper.”
“Rat might be, and like I said, I’m antsy. If nothing else, we can sightsee.”
“Go ahead. I’d loan you Heck’s Jeep, but—”
“That would be so discreet.” MP Jeeps had “MP” stenciled in big white letters on the hood. “I’ve got my own, thanks.”
Back at the compound, I shoved several of the colas I’d bought into China’s refrigerator before collecting my M79 from the EE building’s gun rack. I drove to the club and parked under an isolated rubber tree a half-block away just for the shade. Ritchie and Chona were behind the club practicing. Chona was wearing her teensy green bikini again, the one made of piecework rejects and string. Rat watched them and drank beer. She squinted up at me in the sunlight and said, “They’re getting better, but the way things are going, I’d guess the next step is topless juggling.”
“Hey, I’m all for that!” Ritchie lit a cigarette and admired his companion.
“Shut up, Ritchie. Rat, if you’re not busy, can you come with me into town?”
“Taba boy, you teach me top-less.” I glanced over at Chona, who grinned bawdily; she knew exactly what she was saying.
Rat downed her beer, folded her lawn chair and stepped inside. I followed. She pulled a light white blouse over her sleeveless T-shirt. “Not that I care, but where are we going?”
“I want you to take me to visit those Russians you told me about.”
“That sounds like fun. You want more of Ivan’s Best?”
“That—and to ask them some questions. You can translate.”
We opened the back door just in time to see Chona undo the string holding up her top. “Time to leave!” said Rat, laughing.
We got stuck behind a big U.S. Army diesel tanker and had to slow down to 30 KPH. I asked, “What do you think of Chona? She acts like she really likes Ritchie.”
“She likes doing him, that’s for sure. Those two are like mating snakes. I don’t know why I subject myself to them. I don’t mind all the skin, but they keep taking fuck breaks.”
I laughed. “Speaking of skin, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a revealing bikini.”
“You’ve never been to Brazil, then. It’s called a tanga, although some people call it dental floss.”
“It helps if you’ve got a gorgeous ass to show off.” I imagined her wearing one. “Take the next left.” She handed back my flask and I grabbed a quick drink before tucking it away. “Neither one of those girls has ever been into one-night stands. In the six months I’ve been with this troupe, Iryne only had one fling, Chona none. Of course, lack of privacy could have something to do with it: most other places we have to double up.”
Or maybe Iryne and Chona were good Catholic girls with an agenda. No, I emended, Iryne had been the one with the agenda.
We drove almost to the riverside, to several blocks west of the restaurant we’d used as a base for our trip to the island on Sunday. She had me park in front of a small bar with an open front and two big pool tables visible from the street. An open-fronted barbershop—Thợ Hớt Tóc—was to its right, a glass-fronted and air-conditioned dress shop to the barber’s right, and the store on the left of the bar—HONDA—sold and repaired motor scooters The scooters spilled out to cover the sidewalk, forcing passers-by into the street. Several uniformed Vietnamese—five men and one woman—were looking them over critically.
Rat led me past the tables to the bar, where a short blond with several days’ stubble was wiping things down. He wore a moderately filthy apron over shorts, not even a T-shirt covering his hairy upper chest. “Здравствуйте. Где Артем?” Rat asked. He thumbed over his shoulder, and I followed her through a a plywood-walled storage room, out the back and into a courtyard. Under what looked like a U.S. Army mess tent, several men were standing around sipping from small glasses.
They seemed pleased to see Rat, and she spent several minutes renewing acquaintances. One of the younger men went off somewhere, and the others sat down. One handed us cups. I sniffed, drank. “Это очень хорошее пиво,” I said, using up almost all my Russian.
They laughed and nodded and tried to find out how much more than “This is very good beer” I knew, but after my third blank look they went back to talking through Rat. I had her ask them about the coconut palms I’d seen on An Bình Island Sunday.
“They say sure, those are ours. They rent the field from a farmer on the island, use the sap to make palm toddy and lambanog. They do a good business with the Filipinos in the area, and have been for years. They’re even starting to sell a little flavored lambanog to Vietnamese, but it’s taking a long time to get going.”
“If the stuff they make is any good at all, it will. Ask them to sell me a couple of bottles of lambanog, along with some of that beer.”
“Ivan—” She pronounced it the Russian way, “ee-VAHN went to get us a case. If we don’t drink it all, we can sell the rest to Emily.” She talked to the shortest of the men, who seemed to be in charge, and he disappeared. Rat and I tried to finish the beer in our cups, but magic refills kept arriving.
The short guy showed up holding four small bottles of yellow lambanog in his hands. Raisins in the bottom supplied the color along with a bit of sweetness I didn’t care for. “Rat, ask him if I can have non-flavored instead, will you?” He returned with four clear bottles, wiped them off, wrapped them in newspaper and put them in a small burlap bag. “How much?”
She consulted. “Art—Артем—says the lambanog is free, we only have to pay for the beer. If you like it, tell your friends.”
“I didn’t expect that.” I counted out MPC and handed them over. “Спасибо.” Thanks. Art smiled broadly and handed back one of the bills.
“He says if you pay in MPC, not piastres, you get a discount,” said Rat. Ivan came back with the case of beer and followed us out to the Jeep. He put it on the rear seat, and smiled shyly at Rat. They exchanged a few words and he waved goodbye and left.
“What did Ivan want?”
“A date. I told him he was too young for me. You jealous?”
“Just curious!” She chuckled.
I started the Jeep. “We’ve got an hour. Is there anything you’d like to shop for?”
“You’re volunteering to sit there like the bored half of a married couple while I try on clothes and ask you if they make my butt look big and you lie and fall asleep and I buy twice as much because you hurt my feelings?”
“Put like that—”
“Ha! I knew it!”
“—It sounds strangely attractive.”
She laughed. “I’m tempted, but some other time, Escamillo.” I pulled out onto the street to head back the way we’d come and tried to remember where I’d heard the name Escamillo. We had to stop at the next intersection for a very long ARVN convoy in which every single driver wore mirrored sunglasses.
We were halfway back, passing a rice paddy, before she spoke again. “Why’d you want the lambanog?”
“You guys doing a show tonight?”
“Yeah. We’re not getting paid any extra, but we can get a few tips. Emily said it was OK to take up a collection, so we’re going to do a short one.” She looked at me and waited.
I swallowed. “Early show, huh?”
She kept looking at me and smiling, and I kept driving. “After the show I might take a bottle and go out to that ammo bunker.”
I could feel my cheeks heating up. “I don’t think you’ll need a bottle.”
Ren stopped by the compound before the show. “Let’s have lunch tomorrow. My treat,” I told him. He drove off looking disgruntled. I grabbed a quick shower, and halfway through, realized he’d wanted me to ask him out for dinner. It was just as well I didn’t suspect it at the time. At 1850 I let myself out the gate and walked toward the club along the side of the gravel road. Halfway there, Long joined me.
“I hope you’re not going to ask me to get you into the show.”
He laughed. “No, I am here to ask you if you would talk to my sister.”
I stopped. “Sure, but why? I thought the restaurant was closed on Mondays.”
“No, it is open every night. Those of us who work there stay overnight and go home in the morning.”
“Why do you want me to talk to your sister?”
He took my hand in his. “She wants to get married.”
“I don’t really trust him.”
“Does he hit her?”
“No, he doesn’t seem to be that kind of person. But I don’t trust him, and I don’t think he loves her.”
“Are you sure you aren’t overreacting? Brothers never think anyone is good enough for their sisters.”
He scratched his head while he thought about that. “Maybe. He is nice enough to me, but distant. He says that when they get married, he will take her back to his country. He will let her take her children—her husband was killed at Tết—but not me. I will have no family left.”
“What about your brother? In Sàigòn?”
He shrugged. “He is bộ đội and has little time, but when he is around Thoai bosses me. I might as well be alone.”
“It seems to me like you do pretty well on your own.”
“I would rather be with Kim.” He pulled his hand away. I didn’t try to hang on; I was anxious to see Rat.
“I’ll talk to her. But that’s all I can do, I can’t force her—” If she were determined to go back to the US with some random GI, there wasn’t anything I could say that would change her mind.
“I know. It’s OK. Thank you.”
“Tomorrow night? I can come by the restaurant.” I wanted to put it off more, if I could.
“To the back door.”
The club was packed as tightly as clothespins in a packet, but I mostly paid no attention. Maxie and Rat sang duets; they harmonized well. You might even think they liked each other. Ritchie juggled balls and Chona juggled knives. Together, they made the clubs behave in ways I thought were impossible. When Chona juggled clubs by herself, she had a way of tossing one behind her head with her right hand and swiveling a quarter turn to catch it with her left. Since she wore her tanga, every time a new section of the audience saw her backside, it broke out in applause and wolf whistles. At the finale, they turned on an ultraviolet light and tossed neon props back and forth, alternating over-arm and under-leg throws in a dazzling, seemingly endless, river of pinwheeling clubs. But whatever else was going on, even when the spotlight was on the jugglers and Rat and Maxie did nothing at the back of the stage—I watched Rat.
The set ended at 2130, and I couldn’t wait to get her away from the crowd.
11: Shikata ga nai
Monday, November 16, 1970
“Ritchie’ll help Chona pack up. Let’s get out of here,” said Rat. Twenty minutes later we were snuggled together, leaning against the wall of the ammo bunker. The waning moon, still low in the east, threw dim light on the sparse population of young rubber trees around us and silhouetted a guard tower several hundred yards away.
I handed Rat the bottle. “Whoo! That’s—” She coughed. “That’s raw. Like drinking paint thinner.”
“Yah.” I drank some. “It’s an acquired taste, I guess. Not everyone starts drinking it as young as I did. Maybe you should’ve brought something else after all.”
“That’s OK. I have something better to do with my mouth.”
When she began undoing my buttons, I went to work on hers. I pushed the pale blue material off her shoulders and reached behind her. “Josh claims this can be done one-handed,” I said, and squeezed.
“Oooh. That’s a skill to brag about,” she said, and kissed me. I cupped her breast. She raised my T-shirt, pushed me flat and bent her head; her flexible lips met my nipple and I gasped. I stroked her hair.
Near midnight, she put her hand on my belt buckle and popped it open. I let her get further: she had her tongue in my bellybutton and my zipper down, with her hand under the waistband of my boxers, before I froze again. “Sorry. I’m sorry.” I was near tears.
She inhaled raggedly. “No, no, it’s OK. Don’t worry.” She put her arm around my shoulders. “I’m fine. Let’s have some more of that—stuff.” She drank and made a face. “Just how young were you?”
“Seven. I stole it.”
“You must have been a real joy to your mother.”
“Growing up, I heard an awful lot of ‘Why can’t you be more like your brother?’ Or I did, until Josh—my younger brother—took some of the pressure off me. He turned out more like me than our brother Dana, who was just too perfect.” I lit a couple of cigarettes for us. “I spent as much time as possible on the Luzon streets with my friends. Most of them were older, none of them were missionary kids, and all had easy access to booze. Since my parents wouldn’t have alcohol in the house, I discovered that shopowners don’t really expect seven-year-olds to shoplift liquor.” I inhaled. “There weren’t many things I could do right with momma, so after while I learned to do what I wanted and if I got caught, put my ears back like a cat and take it. I got a rightful share of lickings.”
She blew a smoke ring and looked at me. “So. How is this different?”
I blew one of my own and took a drink before answering. Her nipples, pale and pink as a redhead’s, puckered attractively in the cool night air. “It shouldn’t be. But it is. I—” My voice caught and I swallowed some more lambanog. “The only person I ever saw Momma turn away from the mission school was a little girl who had two ‘uncles.” When I told her she was being mean, she slapped me. Then she pulled out the Bible and prayed over me for hours.”
Rat leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. She shrugged into her bra; I hooked it for her. I buttoned up too. Then I put my arms around her waist and kissed her neck. “Maybe tomorrow—”
She touched my lips and stood up. “We’ll worry about tomorrow tomorrow.”
No one was around when I dropped her off at the club. We spent a long time in a goodbye kiss. I only broke the clinch when I felt her hand on my bottom.
Tuesday, November 17, 1970
Kane showed up at 1150. I locked up behind me and hopped in. “Main gate, James.”
“I’ve had those hoagies.”
“Bánh mì. That’s the Vietnamese name, but that’s not what you’re having. You’ve had gyoza and dim sum, right? Bánh cuốn are like those, only better: spring rolls filled with pork and mushrooms.”
Just outside the main gate, a dozen or so carts were parked in a semi-circular cluster on a patch of dusty red dirt. I pointed Kane at a line for a green-and-orange painted cart. It was run by a toothless woman wearing a cone hat and brandishing a thin bamboo stick. I went to one offering Phan Thiết-style fried fish sandwiches. The man operating it had one leg, sparkly eyes, a huge smile with multiple gold teeth, and huge ears that stuck out like bat’s wings. He slit a small-sized Vietnamese baguette, inserted a couple of fried fish patties, added bean sprouts, herbs, peppers, onions, lime juice and tương ớt tỏi—chilli-garlic—sauce.
Back to the Jeep, Renaldo was waiting for me. “How come you’re not having these?” He held up his plate.
“I’m not a big meat-eater. You should have started without me.” I bit into my sandwich. “You weren’t waiting to see if I’d fall over dead after eating one, were you?”
“No, no, not at all. It’s polite to wait.”
“If your moms are running a cafe where the most popular dish is kim-chi scrambled eggs—”
“They sell a lot of rice with kim-chi; they recently added sushi.”
“—how come you don’t have a more adventurous palate?” I bit into my sandwich.
“You wouldn’t believe what they would make me eat. After a while they started claiming that if I hated it the customers would love it.”
“Was that true?”
“Probably not, but I never saw any of those additions on the menu.” He finally risked eating one of the rolls. “Very tasty.”
“Don’t act so surprised.”
“Even my moms had successes now and then.” He ate another. “I used to think they were just torturing me, but now I think they just wanted me to like what they liked. It mostly didn’t work, especially when they tried to get me to like dried squid.”
“You mean Japan’s answer to lutefisk? That was torture.”
He smiled. “What about you?”
“Momma was a terrible cook. When we were on missions, we had chefs, but we went through a lot of them. She insisted they make everything exactly her way. If I’d relied on ‘home cooking,’ I would have starved.”
“What’d you do instead?”
“Street food. Especially in Yogyakarta, where the warungs—tiny little shops—sell the best gado-gado in the world.”
“Why does that sound like ‘the best dried squid in the world’?”
“’Cause you’ve never had gado-gado.” He still had over half his plate to go, while I’d eaten most of my sandwich. I changed the subject. “Can I ask what’s new in the investigation?”
“We’re trying to get in touch with Iryne’s next of kin back in Manila. Phone service is not great, and the only time I connected with a nearby Constabulary, he told me I had to talk to something called the PPP. The connection dropped before he could give me the number.”
“Police in the islands has always been a mess,” I told him. “Nobody wants to accept jurisdiction, nobody wants to do any work. PPP is Pinagsamang Pulisyang Pambansa, Integrated National Police, but they’re no better organized than the Constabulary, so nothing ever gets done and cases don’t get solved. You need to find out what’s to be done with the body, don’t you?”
“Storage facilities are limited. If we have to send her to Long Binh, there’s no telling how long it would be before she got to the islands. Paperwork does get lost.”
“Maybe she was Buddhist and wanted to be cremated.” I knew she wasn’t, though.
“Chona says no, she and Iryne are both Catholics.”
“She told you?”
“Ritchie told me. He and Chona are working out ways to communicate.”
“Is that what they call it?”
“Have you watched those two lately? There’s more going on than simple infatuation, Andi.” He finished his last spring roll. “See what you think the next time you see them together.”
“Mmmm.” I was reluctant to admit that, despite what Rat had said, all I had seen had been lust.
He picked up on my reluctance. “I forgot that you were supposed to be the perceptive one.”
“Now you’re reminding me of my mother.” Too damned observant.
He grinned and started the Jeep. “I’ll take that as a compliment.” We dropped the trash in a barrel and drove underneath the big arch that read “Vĩnh Long Installation.” He turned toward the 369th and asked me, “What about your lead in Vinh Long City? Did that pan out?”
“No, but I got some good beer. Stop back after work and I’ll give you one.”
“I suppose I could drive you home in your Jeep and walk back.”
“Says the woman who drinks three to my one.”
“If you want more than one Ivan’s Best, that’s the deal.” He pulled up at the gate and idled.
He looked at me long enough that I wondered if he were going to try to out-macho me. He shrugged. “Shikata ga nai.”
“Japanese. ‘It cannot be helped because it can’t be controlled’.”
“Good advice.” I didn’t want to be kissed, so I hopped out and fished for China’s key.
He spoke before I could open the padlock. “I don’t suppose you have any contacts in Manila, do you?”
“Not from when I lived in the Philippines, no.” I scratched my head. “Well—maybe. My SIC mentioned a friend stationed at Clark Air Base.” I took the last cigarette from the pack, lit it, and handed him the unfolded wrapper. “Give me the phone number of the office you’re using. I’ll call Sgt. Hutch and let you know.”
He looked at the wrapper, shook his head and pulled out a pen. He wrote and handed it to me. “Now I expect a miracle.”
“It may take one.”
Ten minutes later I was talking to Hutch. “Didn’t you mention you had a friend at Clark Air Base, near Manila—?”
“How did you ever become friends with a Colonel?”
“Not only that, he’s a full bird Colonel,” he said smugly. “What do you need with him?”
I was hopeful; with a chicken Colonel on our side, something might get done. I explained the situation, pointing out that anything he could to do expedite matters would get me and Ritchie back sooner. “Can you have him call here?”
“I’ll do what I can.”
“I’m running out of coffee already.”
“I’ll see what I can do.” He snarled and hung up. I was pretty sure I could sweet-talk Scanlon into donating a can.
I went into the break room where China was engaged in what appeared to be a perpetual bridge game. “Want to play a few rubbers?” she asked. “Yerby’s playing like shit today and he needs a stiff drink.”
“No, thanks, I’m not very good.”
“You can’t be any worse than he is.”
Yerby looked like he was used to such treatment. He stopped dealing and calmly collected the deck into a neat pile. “I’m ready for a cold drink now. Why don’t we take a break and pick this up in an hour?”
“Find me a different partner who can make up for your shitty bids,” she groused. His mustache twitched and he stood. She looked at me and said, “Can I talk you out of one of those beers?”
“I had no idea you were interested.”
“I don’t drink much, but I do like a small beer now and then. Buddhist moderation.” We walked across the tarmac to the hooch; she opened her door and motioned me in.
I got two Russian lagers from her fridge, opened them and handed her one. “I went to the break room to look for you.”
She tipped the cold beer back and swallowed. “Ahhhh.” She wiped her mouth on the back of her hand. “Yeah?”
“I have a favor to ask.”
She switched on the fans and sat down on her bed. “What?”
I sat next to her and kept my voice low. “I’d like to take pictures.”
She drank. “If you like my tats that much, maybe you should get one.”
“They’d only be for me. I’ll develop them myself.”
She stood and began stripping.
“Here and now?”
“Why not? You’ve got a flash. Everyone is either in the EE building, drinking or sunbathing on the bunker, or over at the club. It’s the perfect time.” She stepped out of her fatigues and underwear. “Well?”
Now or never. I fished three rolls of Ektachrome out of my camera bag, put two on my bed and loaded the third. I mounted the 28mm wide-angle lens—the only way I’d get full-length portraits in such a small space—put a new battery in the flash and mounted it.
“What should I do?” she asked. I took a shot of her face.
“Anything you want. Pretend I’m a journalist and I need full coverage.”
She faced away from me. “Journalist, huh? Not from Playboy?”
Click click click. “Please. Besides, we both know they wouldn’t be interested in you.”
“They might, if I got these enlarged.” She held both breasts. I took four shots in quick succession and wished for a motor drive like the National Geographic staff photographers had. Playboy’s probably used Hasselblads.
“Please don’t,” I told her, and steeled myself. “Your body’s lovely the way it is.” She smiled.
“I could use longer hair.” Regulations were pretty strict.
“Lots of us could.”
It took me only twenty minutes to use all three rolls. “That’s all the print film I have.”
“You said you’ll develop it yourself?” She picked up her T-shirt to mop herself with.
“One of the craft shops in Củ Chi has a color darkroom.”
“You’re the first person I’ve met incountry who does color. Any particular reason you decided to take that up?”
I swapped lenses back before choosing to tell her part of the truth. “I had a roll of prints I needed to develop discreetly. For a friend. Are you worried? I could save these until I get back to the world—”
She laughed. “No, go ahead. I’m just being nosy.” She dropped the wet T-shirt on the floor, but made no move to get dressed. “I may make a couple of pizzas for the bridge club. Why don’t you join us?”
“I think Ritchie’s juggling over at the club this evening. I’ll get something there.”
She shrugged. “’K. I’m going to Dũng’s shop tomorrow afternoon for more work.” She waved at her body. “You’re welcome to come along.”
“Maybe I will.” But it wasn’t her I wanted to go with.
At 1750 I drove to the back door of the restaurant, where I sat on the fence, smoked and watched the shadows grow longer. As I started to light another cigarette, Long and his co-workers arrived. The men wore simple black silk pajamas. The hostess and the two waitresses wore flowered aó-daìs, while the other women dressed like the men. One of the party unlocked the door, and Long brought one of the women over. “This is my sister Kim.” Kim was a knockout, with floor-length hair, a wide mouth and downcast eyes; she had a stunning figure, but she walked with her shoulders forward to avoid calling attention to it.
“Xin vui lòng để gặp bạn, hoa hậu Kim.” Pleased to meet you, Miss Kim. There was a picnic bench under a nearby tree, and Long herded us to it.
Kim spoke rapidly, but so softly that I had to lean close to hear her. “I don’t know what Long is so worried about. My boyfriend will take me with him. We will get married and I will send for Long.” She put her hair up in a bun while we talked.
“That is not what he said. Why are you lying?” Long demanded.
“I am not lying! He only said that my children can come with us, but you have to wait. When we get there and he gets his money, we can send you enough to come too.”
I did not want to be in the middle of this, but Long had dragged me in, and I felt obligated to help him. “Why does your boyfriend want to wait to get married? If he is serious about taking you back, you must marry first. You can’t go to the US on your own.”
“Oh, no, he is not a GI, he is Filipino. He wants a big wedding in Manila.”
Ah. “I see. Has he been married before?”
“No, never. I used to be married, but my husband died in Tết.”
“It would be smarter and safer to marry here and then have a church wedding there.”
Kim shook her head obstinately. “He says this is how his family wants it. He would like to take Long but we can’t afford it. Only after he starts his new job will he be able to send for Long. But he will, I promise!”
I couldn’t make her stand up to her boyfriend. It smelled, but there was nothing I could do. I checked my watch. “I’m sorry, I have to get back now. I’m expecting a phone call.”
Long walked me to the edge of the property. “Thank you for trying.”
“She is determined to do what her boyfriend wants.”
“Yes. It is too bad she is so stubborn. I didn’t think you could do anything, but it was worth a try.”
“Most people like to do things their own way, even if it is bad for them.”
He glanced at my cigarette and smiled. “That’s very true.” He raced back to the restaurant.
Colonel “Call me Chuck” Stumbaugh called fifteen minutes after I got back. “I understand you’re trying to locate the family and obtain disposition instructions for the body of Iryne Madlangbayan. That right?” I held the receiver two feet from my ear: he spoke as loudly as Lyndon Johnson, but without the Texas. I like to guess where people come from—and I’m often right—but his accent was so generically Midwestern he could have been raised anyplace south of Milwaukee.
“Told you, call me Chuck. Now, give me all the information you have.”
I read him everything I had, which wasn’t much. Full description, including moles people wouldn’t normally see. Next of kin, Amboy Madlangbayan, no address listed. Parents’ address and phone number and the parish of the church they went to. “But every time we try to call that phone number we either get a busy signal or no connection. It’s very frustrating, sir. Chuck.”
“I’ll put my best man on it, Andi. Let me give you my direct phone; that way you don’t have to go through a lot of red tape to talk to me.”
I wrote the number down. “If you don’t mind my asking, sir, what are you a Colonel of?”
“Security Police. We’re the MPs of the Air Force.”
“I see. So I—”
“Came to the right place, yes. I’ll get back to you tomorrow, with a report if nothing else.”
“Can I give your number to the CID agent in charge of the investigation?”
“Let’s keep things simple, Andi.”
I called Kane to fill him in, but he wasn’t in the office, so I left a message. I was glad of that, because if I had talked to him, I would have had to lie to get out of a dinner date. I had a show to see. And it wasn’t on stage.
12: Butterfly marauders
Tuesday, November 17, 1970
I stopped off at the generator building to find out how much Jestoni’d gotten for my greenbacks. It turned out to be more than enough MPC to make up for what I’d given Rose. When I got to the club, there was no show, although there were plenty of customers. Only the crammed-tight feeling was gone. Speedy the bartender slowed down long enough to pour me a full-to-the-brim double and say, “On the house,” before taking my order for a pizza. He smelled of dope, and I wondered if that were the only thing speeding him up.
Ritchie and Chona were at one of the small tables. “I was looking forward to another world-class juggling exhibition,” I told them.
“The girls don’t usually perform more than three days in a row,” said Ritchie. Last night had been the fifth. “Besides, the band picked up a gig in the city, and Rat thinks she’s going to go see them.”
“She in the back?”
“No, she’s right here,” she said over my shoulder. “You want to come too?”
“Sure. It’ll be nice to see what the nightlife’s like.” Speedy waved that my pizza was ready, and I picked it up. “Help me with this. How were you planning to get there?”
“You’ve got a Jeep.”
“What if I hadn’t showed up here?”
“I would have walked to the 369th and gotten your attention.” She bit off a chunk with stringy cheese; grease ran down her chin. “One way or another.” I wanted to wipe her face clean. Or lick; it was a good thing the pizza didn’t last long.
At the gate, the guard cautioned us about curfew. “You got a weapon, Specialist?” I showed him the grenade launcher. “That’ll do,” he deadpanned. I pulled into the road and immediately had to slow down for a massive US Army semi going too fast for Vietnamese roads. Most American drivers pretended they were back home, ignoring the posted speed limits and prevailing traffic patterns,.
“Did you really want to see the band?” I asked Rat.
“I’m sick of them; I just wanted to get away from Ritchie and Chona.”
“Honeymoon still on, hmm?”
“Yes, with no signs of going away.”
“Kane thinks it’s more than a fling,” I said.
“I’d say he’s right.”
“They look at each other the same way: gobsmacked. Sure, they’re still all over each other, but it’s her idea to finally learn some English. He really listens to her, and he’s learning Tagalog. If all they wanted was to fuck, they’re trying to learn a lot more words than are strictly necessary.”
I handed her my flask and said, “I was planning to get all liquored up and get myself an impulse purchase at the tattoo shop.”
She took a big drink. Then another. “That would take more firewater than this.”
“Look under the seat.”
Rat pulled the bottle out far enough to see that it was bourbon. “This is the planning ahead part of the impulse purchase, huh?”
“Yah. What do you think? Am I an idiot?”
“Oh, honey, not only are you asking another impulse shopper, I’ve been thinking the same thing for months. Here’s the town, what are we looking for?”
“Signs that say either ‘Xăm Mình,’ body tattooing, or “Vẽ Mình,” body drawing.”
It wasn’t hard to find. Rat spotted it on a side street and I parked in front.
“Lemme have some more,” said Rat.
I held out my flask. “Having second thoughts?”
She drank half. “Not anymore. You?”
I drank the remaining half. “You want to bring the painkiller or should I?”
Outside of downtown Sàigòn, Vietnamese shops rarely have front walls, just pull-out expanding bars to prevent theft when no one’s there. Once inside Dũng’s shop, however, the buzzing flourescent lights made it easy to forget the lack of privacy. The lights attracted moths and other flying critters, and most of the cracks in the pale green plaster walls were covered with tacked-up tattoo designs—flash, in tattoo-speak. I found the one I wanted almost immediately: a big-eyed, green and orange gecko. Dũng had enough English to ask me where I wanted it. I rolled up the right leg of my fatigues and showed him exactly where to put it on the back of my right calf.
He patted the table; I lay down and he swung his magnifying lens and light combo over me. He washed the leg, ran a straight razor quickly over it, washed it again, swabbed me with alcohol, gripped his buzzing gun and went to work. I’d heard that after the first few minutes, your endorphins kick in and you stop hurting. I kept the bourbon nearby anyway, and it was a good thing I did, because It felt exactly like what it was—being stabbed by tiny needles. It hurt like the devil. The noise of the gun heterodyned with that of the flourescent lighting. It became bearable, but there was never a point where it wasn’t painful. Rat kept looking at the drawings on the walls.
Dũng was efficient and fast, taking less than twenty minutes to finish, despite the multiple colors and shading and the cigarette in his mouth. When he was finished, he washed the area for the fifth or sixth time with soap and water, applied a sterile bandage, and said, “Done.” Before he did anything else, he put the needle bar and tube into his autoclave for sterilization.
Rat called me over. “What do you think?”
“It’s very pretty. Where would you put it?”
She unpinned the emerald green butterfly from the wall and held it up. “Here.”
“Does that mean you don’t like it?”
“No.” I swallowed. “Quite the opposite. But don’t get it for me, it’s for you. Are you going to love it in six months?”
Dũng walked over to ask, “You decide?”
She held the butterfly against her, her hands a little shaky.
“Good choice,” he said in Vietnamese.
“Tôi cũng nghĩ vậy.” I think so too.
He smiled at me in surprise. “Tell her I have to shave her.” He was a bit taller than most Vietnamese men, and handsome, in a sharp-edged sort of way; even his hair was spiky.
“She already knows.” I held out the bottle to Rat. “Don’t skimp.” She gulped, handed the bottle back and put her hands on her belt. “There’s still time to back out. You saw the razor he’s going to use.”
“I’ll be OK.” She yanked her slacks and underwear off in one smooth motion and lay on her back on the table. Dũng handed her a towel and she slid it under her butt. Out came the soap and water. When he stubbed out his eternal cigarette, I took it as a sign that he meant to concentrate. He stropped the razor, washed it in hot water, lathered her with soap and bent to his task.
“Bạn không tận hưởng chính mình quá nhiều,” I told him. Don’t enjoy yourself too much.
He chuckled. “Đó là quá muộn.” Too late.
I smiled. “I’d smack you if it weren’t dangerous.”
He was careful and precise. I made sure the bourbon was handy. By the time her groin was smooth enough for him, she was feeling very little pain. He washed her one more time, gave himself a surgical scrub, and loaded a freshly autoclaved, needle bar and tube into a gun. He looked at me. “Maybe give her more. It hurts most over bone.” He prodded her pubis.
I took him at his word and gave her a healthy slug. “That’s probably enough for now.” She watched as Dũng gripped her thigh firmly and his needle gun touched her skin to lay in a fine black line. “Oh, fuck. Don’t go far. Yee-owch!” She reached for my hand and squeezed hard. The endorphins must have worked for her, though, because she let go soon, and an hour and a half later there was still plenty left in the bottle.
And, red and angry-looking as it was, the tat was beautiful. Not too large, the vibrant colors went well with her pale skin. Even though it was going to thwart our plans for the night, it had been the right choice.
He put a dressing on, covering the design. Dũng handed us little tins of salve and gave us our final instructions. Rat clutched at my sleeve to hold herself up. “Keep clean, plenty of soap and water, then rub in a little salve. Take your bandages off tonight,” he told me. “Hers, wait until tomorrow morning. Don’t pick at the scabs, and if you are going to have an infection, you’ll see it in less than two days. If you do, either go to one of your American doctors or come back to me.”
“We’ll be fine. You are very careful. Thank you.” I tipped him $5 in MPC.
“One last instruction.”
“Làm tình cẩn thận.” Make love carefully.
I thought about getting mad, but there was no point, not when it was what we meant to do anyway. “OK.” Twenty minutes later we were back on base; we made it before curfew, but we were the last vehicle in. The guard locked the main gate behind us.
“How’re you feeling?”
“Now it hurts. I could use another drink.”
I handed her the remains of the bottle. “Here. Finish it.”
“Don’t you have some of that Filipino stuff left?”
“How ’bout we save it for tomorrow night?”
She blinked and looked around. “Oh. We’re at the club.” She kissed me before climbing out. “But it’s a promise. Tomorrow night at the ammo dump.”
“Promise.” I kissed her again. There was no one around; I risked slipping a hand under her shirt.
Back at the compound, I grabbed a beer from the fridge and climbed up on the bunker. Scanlon and one of the other guys were in his room with the lights on, arguing and drinking, leaving the bunker for me. I thought about Rat and our plans for tomorrow night. I felt pretty confident, but just in case—there was no telling when momma’s voice would come to me—I needed to practice putting my ears back.
Wednesday, November 18, 1970
Scanlon was in the break room, putting double grounds in the coffee pot; his hands trembled, and there were little beads of sweat on his brow.
“Care for some real caffeine?” I offered, holding up my cola can.
“Sergeants don’t have hangovers.”
“Or hearts. Or brains. Or lives.”
“I could while away the hours—”
“Conferrin’ with the flowers—”
“If I only had a brain.” We sang the last line together. He had a good baritone, though with more vibrato than I really liked. He and Kane would probably sound pretty good together.
He held his temples and moaned theatrically.
A couple of hours later, I finished my book and went into the break room where Yerby, Scanlon and China bullied me into playing bridge. The TV was tuned to Star Trek: “The Gamesters of Triskelion,” on AFVN. “Come. It is the nourishment interval,” said Kirk’s love interest woodenly, proving that acting ability wasn’t why she was wearing tinfoil clothes and a cotton-candy wig.
As China’s partner, I was dummy most of the time, and could get in a lot of watching. China was an agressive bidder who took plenty of risks. She made most of her bids: the percentage she didn’t kept the other players in the game. On TV, underpants girl used a combination fish-hook and bear-gutter to fight Kirk. Mostly she hit with the middle of the weapon, as if it were a quarterstaff. Why have the pointy parts if you don’t use them? In the end, she lost, and no wonder. I never did understand why they were fighting anyway, other than to show off her boobs.
The buzzer went off and the flashing lights mounted high on the pre-fab wall next to the television blinked, signalling an incoming call.
Scanlon stood. “It’s probably for me, Sarge,” I told him. He sat back down while I went into Tech Control. Delgado, now on day shift, handed me the phone. “Hello, Chuck.”
“Good guess, Andi. I have news.”
I grabbed a sheet of paper for notes. “Ready.”
He read off a phone number. “It’s for Iryne’s youngest brother, who’s ready to come here to the base to pick her up. I’ve made arrangements with the 114th Aviation Company there to get her body to Tan Son Nhut by chopper. All you need to do is go over to the morgue and fill in some paperwork. Get that CID agent you’ve been working with to help. Get it done today and she’ll be home tomorrow.”
“I’ll get right on it, sir.”
“That takes care of the body, but there’s more. Iryne was only 19 when she left in ’65; she’s been on the road ever since. She began doing shows in Vietnam in 1967, and her parents moved several times after she joined the troupe. Her dad’s business took off: the family is pretty well-to-do now, but they were very poor when she left. She wouldn’t have known that her family was suddenly well off, because she never wrote to her parents. That’s why the phone and address she had for them were wrong. Now, she’s the oldest child, but her brother Amboy, the second oldest, is the one she listed as next-of-kin, and that makes me think she kept in touch with him.”
“Any idea where he is?”
“I don’t know, and neither does her family. Amboy took a job outside of the Philippines nearly three years ago, but no one can remember the name of the company. He never wrote either—got along with the father OK, but no one else—so I have an investigator trying to find him. I imagine you can guess how successful he’ll be working a Filipino case.”
“Yes, sir, I can. Just how rich is the family?”
“Middling. They’re not Rockefellers. There are plenty of politicians with much bigger fortunes.”
“Is it a big enough fortune to give all the children a chunk?”
“Might be, but the will leaves everything to Amboy, as the oldest male child. The mother died about a year ago, and the father is in poor health.”
“That’s cut-and-dried? Are there any special conditions? Or didn’t you ask?”
“It’s murder. Of course I asked. If Iryne had a son, that child would inherit instead of Amboy. I talked to the father myself, and he said he’d told no one about that provision. And he only put it in because his wife made him promise on her deathbed.”
I could have called Kane for the ride he’d promised, but decided to walk over; I wanted to stop at the club to check on Rat. I’d expected her to be outside working on a tan, but she was in her room with the door closed. She wore borrowed blue plaid boxers and a men’s washed-out-orange Madras shirt. She opened the door with Northwest Passage, by Kenneth Roberts, in her hand. Fat books are often more popular than they deserve in a war zone. I’d finished Valley of the Dolls a few days before this trip. I closed the door and she gave me a thorough kissing.
I sat on the bunk next to her. A rhythmic thumping came from the room next door. “I was going to ask where Ritchie and Chona were.”
“That’s the third time today.” She kept her voice down, even though we both knew they weren’t listening.
“Those weezy sperm sure are anxious to breathe free.”
She choked and swatted me on the arm. “Behave!”
“How are you feeling?”
She whispered in my ear: “My pussy hurts.”
My breathing suddenly sounded as loud to me as the couple next door; my vision blurred and all I could think of was Rat up on the table last night. I swallowed. “Are you surprised?”
Her lips were an inch from mine and I could feel her breath when she spoke: “Are you being deliberately obtuse?” She kissed me.
“I hope you aren’t expecting—”
“I was hoping for sympathy and an offer. I don’t expect anything.” She kissed me again and waited.
“Are you doing a show tonight?”
She thumbed at the wall, through which we could hear Chona making little squeaks. “The only show around here is those two.”
“How about we have dinner at the restaurant tonight? And lambanog.” My throat was dry. “For after.”
She bit my lip. “You can bring that paint remover if you want, but I will bring something drinkable.” The noise from the other room stopped.
“I’ll pick you up at 1900.”
“Is the restaurant too far to walk to in heels?”
“I wouldn’t do it, but I haven’t practiced as much as you.”
“’Cause if your jeep’s parked on the road by the ammo dump, people will see it—”
“After dinner, I’ll drop you off and take the Jeep back to the compound. It’s an easy hike from there to the dump.”
“Or we could both walk from the 369th.”
“We’ll see.” There was no way I was going to show up at the detachment with Rat wearing any outfit that went with heels. “How’s the pain? Getting better?”
“The more you kiss me the better it feels.”
“Glad to help out.” I ran my hands down her sides.
The thumping began again. She glared at the wall. “Holy fuck.” She took off the plaid shirt, and my hands cupped her breasts. “I need to take a shower.”
“What makes you think they won’t follow you?”
“Don’t give them ideas.” She skinned down the blue boxers; her tattoo looked only mildly irritated. She put her arms around my neck. “How’d you like to help? You could put the salve on for me.”
I let my hands wander over her smooth bare bottom. “I have to go see Kane so we can get Iryne’s body shipped home.”
“Meano.” She bit my lip.
Kane swung his feet off the desk and closed his fat hardback. “I thought you were going to call so I could pick you up?” I picked up the dark blue volume and read the title: The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, Volume 2. Sheesh.
I handed him two Russian beers. He put them in the fridge while I filled him in.
“We go to the morgue, fill out the paperwork, get the body bag out of the cooler and drive it to the airfield, put it on a chopper, and that’s it?”
“It pays to have friends in high places. Sgt. Hutchens’ friend ranks a good deal higher than I’d realized.”
“So that takes care of the body.” At Tân Sơn Nhất, they had proper cadaver transport planes. “Did this highly-placed friend have anything else to say?”
“The family’s rich.” If he’d asked for more, I would have told him. I lit a cigarette and we left for the morgue.
Two hours later, we watched a Huey with Little Annie Fanny painted on the door zoom straight up and head off toward Sàigòn. “Thanks for taking care of that,” he said.
“Don’t thank me, thank Hutch.”
“Rather thank you. Let me buy you a drink.”
“I’ll have a drink, but I’m buying.”
We got into his Jeep, but instead of turning the key, he reached under his seat and handed me a brown paper bag.
“Ripple! My favorite!” Inside the bag was a bottle of Grand Reserve Metaxa. “How’d you get something like this incountry?”
“A friend at Bien Hoa brings it in for me.”
“I know someone whose sister sends him top-of-the-line tequila labelled ‘shaving lotion’.”
“I thought of that, but neither mom would do it. Besides, with my luck, it would be opened for inspection.” He waited. “What’s the matter? I know you have a corkscrew on that Swiss Army knife.”
“Oops, sorry. Where are my manners?” I uncorked the bottle. “You know, the only reason I know what this stuff is, is because I use to read—”
“Mack Reynolds’ Section G stories. No kidding? Same here.”
“’S’truth.” I took a drink and passed it to him. “Oh, that’s lovely stuff. Thank you. Is there an occasion?”
“Happy getting-close-to Thanksgiving? Happy Lunokhod 1 day?” I laughed. He drank and looked at the bottle appreciatively. “Would you like to have dinner? Bring this along.”
I shoved in the cork. “I’m sorry, but I already have plans. Rat and I are going to gorge on Vietnamese food and get seriously drunk.” He shot me a glance and smiled stiffly. It’s the drinking, I told myself. He disapproves of my getting drunk. But I left before he could ask about tomorrow night.
At 1830, I took a shower and put more salve on my gecko. I wished briefly for something a little dressier than fatigues, but even if I’d had civvies they wouldn’t have been something I’d wear. Every now and then, Momma sent me clothes she wanted me to wear. Last month, it had been a blazer and skirt; they didn’t go well with my combat boots. I’d given them to my friend Max No Difference; with his pretty-as-a-girl looks, I knew he’d look smashing.
I was tying my boots when China came in and opened her refrigerator to get a cold lemonade; I offered her an Ivan’s Best instead. “I went to Dũng’s shop today,” she said, pulling up her shirt to show me the latest detail. “He said you and your friend were there last night getting tats.”
I showed her mine. “We got pretty liquored up. It still hurt more than I thought it would.”
She lifted my leg so she could see it better. “It’s doing well. He does a good job, doesn’t he? How’s your friend?”
“Rat complained much less about the pain than I did. I was surprised. Does it bother you?”
“It’s different for everyone. For me, it only hurts at the very beginning. Then it stops hurting and starts to almost feel good. What’d she get?”
“A butterfly. Um, in her crotch.”
“Ask her if she’s happy with it. I haven’t thought much about what I’m going to put there.”
“Don’t dragons eat butterflies?”
“My dragon is a pussycat.”
“Pussycats are known butterfly marauders.”
“All the better. Ask her.”
China left, and I contemplated taking the Metaxa with me. My conscience told me not to be criminally tacky. I shouldn’t be surprised that it so often spoke in Momma’s voice.
13: Alabaster face
Wednesday, November 18, 1970
Rat wore a V-neck black dress without a bra, matching black sandals, a single-strand pearl choker and tiny pearl earrings. The silver front zipper pull had a big hoop that seemed made for my teeth. Chona stood beside her, wearing a low-cut spring green number. Ritchie leaned against sandbags, smoking, looking at her and probably thinking of ways to get her out of the dress. I doubted that Rat wore anything but the dress and heels.
“Hi Andi. Ritchie and Chona are coming to dinner with us.” Rat’s smile was forced and her grip on the matching black purse white-knuckled.
She and Ritchie were too involved in each other to notice my strained response. “Oh. How nice.” Rat elbowed me.
I drove; Ritchie and Chona sat in back; Rat rode shotgun and kept her silence. I had hoped that I could find out more about her. Before ... I swallowed and tried hard to calm down. There was going to be plenty of time for me and Rat later; this wasn’t like a double-date back in the world. We were having dinner with Ritchie and Chona, not spending the whole evening together.
It could have been worse, I thought: Kane could have invited himself along.
Since there were four of us, the hostess put us in a different section of the restaurant than Kane and I had been in. I sat with my back to the wall, Rat to my right, Chona to the left and Ritchie across. Rat grumbled when she found out there was only beer, no wine. They’d managed to find some Buds, so that’s what we had. Ritchie and Chona insisted on Chinese food, but Rat wanted to try something Vietnamese that wasn’t soup. “I’m a vegetarian.”
I ordered a plate of meatless spring rolls for all of us and asked the waitress to tell the chef to do something vegetarian for Rat. “You must have a pretty hard time eating in a mess hall,” I said. She was wearing a light perfume. Against Chona’s overpowering lilac, Rat’s light scent was hard to classify.
“They’re almost always willing to make me an omelet.” Ritchie and Chona weren’t paying any attention to us; they had scooted their chairs close together and were holding hands and kissing.
“Pretty round-eyes can always count on good service from horny mess Sergeants.”
“Or horny Spec-4s?” She spoke quietly. I felt her foot running up and down my shin; she had taken off her sandal just to torment me.
I smiled. “How’re you feeling?”
“I could use a kiss.”
“Certainly not the one I have in mind.”
I inhaled, caught her scent: vanilla, like the metaxa. Long brought our spring rolls. “Trân Châu told me my friend was here! How are you, Anh Đi? Who are your friends?” I introduced Chona and Rat.
“How is your sister?”
“She is determined to go with her boyfriend. I will have to live here with one of the waitresses. Until I am sent for, I mean. It is not what I would like, but—” He shrugged.
“I’m sorry. I wish there were something I could say to change her mind.”
He grinned. “You should tell your friend Kane he needs a Vietnamese wife.”
I laughed. “That’s not a bad idea. I’ll see what I can do.” I suspected Renaldo was planning to return to the seminary when his current enlistment was up, however.
“Rat, that’s fish sauce. I thought you were a vegetarian?”
“Snot.” Her face screwed up. “It was the only dip there was. I should have known, I didn’t think.” She downed half her beer.
“Long—” But he had already dashed off. He turned up with a vegetarian sauce for her just as Trân Châu—Pearl—showed up with two plates, one for me and one for Rat. Fried halibut with tomato sauce for me, tofu and chopstick beans in coconut milk for her.
Even though it was a week night, the restaurant was almost full. Long brought rice and the other two plates before racing away to take care of other customers. Ritchie and Chona began feeding each other bits. I’d had to show Ritchie how to use chopsticks when I first arrived at Củ Chi; now he was an expert. Rat and I could only look at each other with sideways glances, while he and Chona could treat each other like baby birds in public. It gave me a sour feeling in my gut.
Rat touched my arm. “You should try this, it’s really good.” I used my own chopsticks to pluck the fried bean curd from her plate.
“That’s very tasty. I’d offer you some of mine, but—” The bleakness in her expression stopped me cold. The lovebirds had affected her the same way. “Sorry.”
“It’s OK.” She put on a smile. She lowered her voice. “If they start talking baby talk—”
“We’ll have to kill them.” It made me happy to see her smile.
“Do you still have some of that drain cleaner left?”
“You mean the lambanog? Two bottles, why?”
“I think we’re going to need them.”
“Maybe not.” I risked touching her hand. We ate in silence until Long brought out the fruit plate. I ate a longan. Chona peeled a lychee for Ritchie. I wiped my hands on a napkin and glanced at Rat, who was watching them. Her jaw was set.
I opened my mouth to say something but Rat beat me to it. “What are you going to do, Ritchie?”
I butted in. “Don’t be dense. If even I can see what’s going on—”
Ritchie put down his chopsticks. “I’ve been trying not to think about it.”
“If you keep that up,” said Rat, “you’ll end up back in Cu Chi and Chona will be on the road. Is that what you want?”
“We could write.”
“We’ll be on the road. We only get mail when it catches up to us, and it does that only once every few weeks. What would you write, anyway? She knows six words of English to your six in Tagalog. You could be transferred to another site tomorrow. You could have an emergency in the US and have to go back to the world. The war could end, for heaven’s sake! Anything could happen. And don’t forget, even though we’re entertainers, some of us have been killed.”
My heart clutched. Ritchie looked—overwhelmed. But he was starting to get the picture. He took Chona’s hand. It wasn’t hard for her to figure out that the conversation was about something serious.
“There’s a lot of paperwork to take care of,” I said. “But it won’t be so bad; I’ve been through it with Scar and Kiều. You’ll get a marriage allotment again, and she can live with Kiều in Tân Hòa until it comes in.”
Underneath the table, Rat gripped my leg and spoke up. “Don’t do it just because you think it’s the only way, or you think it’s the right thing to do.”
Chona stared at us, her gaze swivelling from one to the other like a lighthouse beam stuck in a loop. Her smile was fixed, nervous.
Ritchie looked at Chona and said, “Andi? Tell me the words.”
“Are you certain?”
“I don’t even have to think about it.”
“Then say, ‘Chona, kayong magpakasal sa akin?’ ”
He repeated it, said it in English: “Chona, will you marry me?”
She looked at us and started to cry. “Ito ng isang ibig sabihin bumiro?” Is this a mean joke? She threw her napkin on the table and ran out, heels tocking.
Ritchie went after her and Rat followed him. “You go ahead, I’ll pay the tab,” I informed her back. It took several minutes to find Trân Châu and get a total. I expected everything to be over when I went outside, but I didn’t expect everyone to be gone. The Jeep was still there, however, so I knew they couldn’t be far away. I went around back to the picnic table where the three clustered at one end. The eucalypt that provided sparse shade in the daytime held a tin-shaded clear light bulb. Moths circled. Chona was still crying.
And so was Ritchie. “She won’t believe me.”
“She will. Keep at it.” She loves you as much as you love her, I thought. She’s just scared. All she needs is time to adjust. There was nothing to do but wait around until she did. I walked over to the fence, lifted myself up to sit on the top rail and lit a cigarette. Rat was talking to Chona and Ritchie was looking helpless. If he had had a ring to give her, I thought, she would have had to take him seriously. Rat talked, Chona shook her head and cried.
Long came out of the back door. He saw me, waved and came over to sit beside me. “What’s going on?”
“Ritchie asked Chona to marry him and she thinks he’s mocking her.”
He watched them a minute. “But anyone can see—”
“Yup.” I took out my flask and swallowed some tequila. It felt pretty good. “I wish they’d hurry up.”
Ritchie got down on his knees and said something to Chona. She pushed his head away. I could hear her from where I sat: “Ikaw ay isang malaking haltak!”
“That’s progress, I guess.”
“What did she say?”
“She told Ritchie he was a big jerk.”
“And she isn’t?”
“You’re too smart for your own good.”
“That’s what Kim says.” He looked up at me. “Why won’t she believe him?”
“I think she’s beginning to. Maybe she likes being the center of attention.” I had some more tequila. “But it is also a big step, and she’s scared as hell.” I wobbled the flask. There wasn’t much left. I passed it to Long. “Finish it.” Ritchie hoisted himself back up onto the bench and put his arm around Chona. I glanced at the back door of the restaurant and Long’s sister Kim came out smiling. Iryne was right behind her.
Chona looked up and screamed. Iryne’s brother reached into his belt. I leapt off the fence and ran toward him. When Kim figured out there was something terrible happening, she grabbed his arm and screeched something. I heard the snick of a switchblade opening. Ritchie yelled and pulled Chona away from the table; Rat dropped to her knees and scrabbled for something to hit with. My own knife was still in my boot, and I had no time to get it; I aimed at his feet and dove. I hit his boots, he fell. Rat found a rock and was on him; she whacked with both hands hard enough to make a nauseating crack. He went slack; there was blood on the ground.
But it wasn’t Amboy’s. I had heard the woman’s scream as I’d knocked him down. Trying to stop him, Kim had stepped into the blow meant for Chona’s heart. Shocked into silence, Long crouched by his sister’s inert form.
Amboy Madlangbayan wasn’t dead. But he was going to spend quite a bit of time in a hospital under guard. Rat was angry at herself: “I should have hit him harder.”
Kane was also cranky. “Do you have any idea how complicated the paperwork’s going to be?”
“It happened on an Army base, you’ve got jurisdiction.”
“Christ knows I don’t want it.” He flipped through the report sheets. “All right, let’s go over this one more time. Long? Where did Amboy work?”
“At the generator building for the 369th detachment. He’d been there at least two years. When my sister went to work in the restaurant last year, he ran into her one day buying meat at the market for that night’s dinner. He started courting her—” He went on for a while; I helped him with English from time to time. It was like helping a robot.
Kane scratched his head. “I still can’t see how he found out about this will business. Andi, how could you not tell me?”
“If I had thought there was the slightest chance— He’d been gone from the Philippines for a long time. His father didn’t think anyone knew!”
“I know, I know. It’s just—” He slapped the table with the flat of his hand. Under normal circumstances, Long and I would have jumped.
An hour later, Kane realized he had all he was going to get. He declared the interviews finished and Heck Dubois drove him away. I sat at the picnic table smoking. The kitchen workers turned off the outside lights. Long paused before going inside the restaurant for the night. “Thank you for trying to save Kim.”
“It wasn’t enough. I’m sorry.”
Rat waited in the Jeep, still wearing the black dress, now dusty and torn, and held up a bottle. “You did great,” I told her, and drove to the Get Dead Drunk Saloon.
“I hate to drink alone.”
“I’m sorry.” I didn’t turn off the Jeep.
“Don’t you do that to me. Don’t you dare run.”
“Not tonight, Rat. I’m sorry.”
“Just to talk—”
She got out to stand on the gravel. “Tomorrow?”
“Not then, either,” I said, and I drove back to the compound. In China’s room, I opened a bottle of lambanog; by the time I’d finished it, I’d given up trying to convince myself that I could drink enough to stop seeing tears in Rat’s eyes.
Thursday, November 19, 1970
At 0600 I drove to the restaurant to talk to Long before he left for the day. “What about Kim’s children?”
“They will have to go to the orphanage. I hate to take them there, though. Even though we are Catholic, there are too many orphans for the nuns to give them the attention they should have.”
“Take this.” I tucked a hundred dollars into his shirt pocket. Then I told him about the small orphanage over on Đảo Xanh island. “Tan Mai. It’s Buddhist, though.”
He looked at the ground. “Maybe we don’t need to be Catholic anymore.”
“You should go to the club at noon and talk to Emily. She’ll help you, regardless of where you want to take them.”
“She doesn’t know me.”
“It doesn’t matter, she would help you anyway. I will talk to her.” I gave him a ride to the main gate. I held out my hand for him to shake, but he hugged me, making me feel worse.
I knocked on the back door of the Get Dead Drunk Saloon. Rat, still wearing last night’s black dress, answered, a nearly-empty bottle of scotch in her hand, her eyes swollen and red. She stood aside. “I take it you’re not here to see me.”
“I need to talk to Emily. About Kim’s children.”
“I wish we’d never met.”
I swallowed. “Someday you’ll meet someone who doesn’t have my problems.”
“Thanks for the advice, Dr. Pangloss.” She drank.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to sound patronizing.”
“I know. There sure are a lot of things you didn’t mean.” She drank again.
“I did mean to—”
“How can I believe you?”
“You can’t. I’m sorry.”
“Why? Why won’t you even tell me? Don’t I deserve to know?”
Yes, I almost said, but you don’t deserve what the knowledge would bring.
The door to Chona’s room opened and Chona stepped out. She looked at Rat, then me; her eyes widened and she rushed past to the john.
“I have to see Emily.” Rat turned away and I knocked on Em’s door.
Kane walked up while Ritchie piled Chona’s suitcases into the Jeep, which I’d parked on the dirt by the fuel tanks. It was going to be a tight fit, between her costumes and props, but if I held an overnight bag on my lap or under my legs and let Ritchie drive, I’d still have a little room for a case of lambanog. It would only be a few minutes out of our way.
I leaned against a pile of sandbags destined for the revetments around the club and smoked. “Anything I can do?” he asked.
“I’m fine, thanks.”
“I’d like to write to you.”
I lit another cigarette. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Ten-o’clock flowers spidered across the dark olive bags, interspersed with a few stalks of tropical grass.
“I’m a lousy correspondent.” I drank from my flask.
“Is that what you told Rat?”
“Is that what made her cry?”
“None of your business.” I turned away and pretended to ignore him. Eventually he went away.
I left Ritchie and Chona in the Jeep in Đại Tòng Lâm’s parking lot. When a monk tried to intercept me I stopped him with a glare. “I know where I’m going.” He saw my face and the grenade launcher and held up his hands.
Far away from the world, I stood in front of Quan Âm and her manic dragon to light a bundle of incense. I held it in my hands and bowed three times before sticking it into the sand; an MPC twenty went into the slot in the red donation box, and I stared up into the impassive stone face. There was no one to hear but her, no one to see but water buffalo and brahmas, no one to speak but me. In the middle of an empty field, I tried to talk to a crooked statue, but she wouldn’t meet my eyes. The words stuck in my throat.
What I know about Buddhism can be written on a single page, but I know that forgiveness is not part of the dogma. That’s up to the individual, as it should be. If I couldn’t forgive myself, how could I expect anyone else to absolve me? I wanted to ask only for what Quan Âm was supposed to give: compassion. But the words were lost in the quiet rustle of wind through the rice and eucalypts.
I pulled out the flask I’d refilled with lambanog and took a drink. I heard footsteps on the gravel and turned to see Kane. My heart sank. I knew he wouldn’t let me brush him off again. He squatted next to me and held out his hand. I handed the flask to him and he drank.
He choked. “Holy shit,” he wheezed. “What the hell is that?”
“Lambanog. How’d you find me?”
“Wasn’t hard. I remembered you told me this was where you met Long.” He had another drink, passed back the flask. “I never had a chance, did I?”
I drank and considered. “Not no chance. I like you.”
“But against Rat, none at all.” I ignored the statement and offered him another drink. “Won’t this stuff make you sterile?” He took it anyway.
“It’s 90 proof, not the 160,” I said. “I’ve got more.”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out the square of linoleum he’d cut from the janitor’s closet. “Want to tell me about this?”
He sighed. “One category of crime the CID is supposed to investigate is homosexual activity.”
“That’s a crime?” I knew it was.
“My superiors say so. I was sent down here to look into allegations that a Lieutenant and a Spec-4 were having relations.”
“I put into my report that I couldn’t find any evidence.” He took another drink. “I thought about it a long time before committing it to writing. It’s always been my policy to ignore indiscretions, as long as there aren’t any actual pictures, warn them to be more careful and drop it. But hell. This guy was an officer, a First Lieutenant, for Christ’s sake. It was clear enough that the kid was also gay, and attracted to the guy, but thought it a lousy idea to get mixed up with his commanding officer. Instead of backing off, the officer coerced the Spec-4: it was a blatant abuse of power. In the end—I couldn’t do anything but caution them. Even with the evidence, and the story the kid told me, I kept hearing okaasan’s voice in my head.”
“Japanese for ‘mother’. Kimiko. Connie is ‘mom’.”
“Oh.” I drank.
“So my point is, in case you didn’t get it, is, stop worrying. I would never do anything to hurt you, and you should already know that.” He waved the square under my nose. “Tell!”
I finished the lambanog and thought. If Quan Âm wasn’t going to listen, did I really have a choice? I took the square and said, “Smell it.”
“Try harder. Close your eyes, open your nose. Inhale from your bellybutton.”
He did, and shrugged. “I got a little something, something a little sweet, but I have no idea what it is.”
“That smell is flavored lambanog.” I shook the flask. “It’s like vodka; it doesn’t have a smell of its own, so what you’re detecting is basically pickled raisin. It’s distinctive.”
“And that’s important because?”
“Because almost no one but Filipinos drink it, and it’s not exported. Amboy hid in the closet with the brooms, where he drank to pass the time until he could sneak out to kill Iryne. He spilled some.”
“How long have you known what it was?”
“Since Monday. On the way back from the orphanage on Sunday, I spotted a plantation of coconut palms on one of the islands. It was set up for mass production of tuba—the palm toddy they make this stuff from. The next day, the Russian ex-pats in the city said the plantation was theirs and that almost all of their sales were to Filipinos. It was obvious they don’t keep records, so there was no way to link the flavored kind with any particular customer.
“I knew Filipinos worked over at the generator building; almost every tech who works for PA & E is Filipino. They work hard for not much money and they’re used to the heat. But I didn’t ask Kim what her boyfriend’s name was or where he worked, I didn’t ask to meet him. Remember the guard who said he’d seen someone with longish hair walking away from the club? That very likely meant a Filipino—but I didn’t think about it. I didn’t want to think about it.”
“Did you figure out anything more about the knife?”
“Again, I tried not to think about it, but it was so thinned and weakened by oversharpening that it was risky to use it. That made it easy to leave behind. We thought he left it in Iryne’s chest because he was startled. But he couldn’t have been scared, not when he took the time to smear his prints. He hoped we’d waste time looking in the wrong places for someone whose hand fit.”
“Which we did.”
“Yah. Wouldn’t surprise me if he’d already bought the replacement that killed Kim.”
“Well, Amboy’s hand doesn’t fit the knife that killed his sister any better than yours or mine. He is left-handed, however, and I recall seeing a flask in the personal possessions the hospital gave us.”
“So he probably saw the show Thursday night, saw Iryne, and stole or bought the knife he used to kill her the next day.” I shook my head and field-stripped my cigarette, lit another one, had another drink. So did he. I went on: “I didn’t follow up on what Colonel Stumbaugh said. I let myself believe that there was no way Iryne and Amboy could know about the provisions of their father’s will. But Iryne’s desire for a baby should have told me better. I didn’t let myself think about lawyers who could be bribed. Hell, maybe it was the lawyer who kept track of Iryne and Amboy, and kept Amboy up to date on the family and the new will. I was stupid to not follow up on what the Colonel told me.”
“You couldn’t have known.”
“It’s true that I didn’t know who, but I knew exactly how to find out. And I didn’t. I ignored the evidence.”
“It was all circumstantial.”
“And because of that, two children will grow up with no family but an uncle not much older than themselves. I might as well have stabbed Kim myself.”
I stopped talking and Kane said nothing else. After a few minutes he got up and walked away. He didn’t have to ask why I’d done it. He knew.
I faced the statue, put my hands together and bowed three more times. I still didn’t know what to chant and I’d burnt all the incense that had been there, so I put another MPC bill into the red donation box and looked into Quan Âm’s alabaster face one more time. It had been such a little thing to want, I thought: just one more night by the ammo bunker, under the stars, with Rat.