This is a work of fiction and is not based on anyone living or dead. Part of the story is about a time in history in which most of my generation participated in one way or another. I am proud to say I am a veteran of the United States Army. I was fortunate enough to serve my tour of overseas duty in Korea rather than Vietnam, but I know and I served with many men who went to that hell, did the job asked of them, and tried to get on with life afterward.
I respected them then for their courage, and I respect them now for being brave enough to live their lives in spite of remembering the things that required them to show that courage. For those who did not return to pick up their interrupted lives, I have nothing but reverence for their sacrifice and for that of their families.
For those of you who lived through that hell, I have tried to be accurate with dates, places and military actions, but I probably have made some errors. Please forgive these as the well-intentioned mistakes of one who writes from research rather than experience.
For those too young to remember that time and know only what they read, I'll just say the time was what it was, and each person had to make decisions that impacted the rest of their life and the lives of others.
Most made the best of the situation into which they found themselves thrust and served their country to the best of their ability.
Others could not support the political decisions of the time. They chose not to serve a government with which they did not agree, and accepted the legal consequences. Such is the freedom enjoyed by citizens of the USA. Many did not agree with the reasons for the exercise of that freedom, but few would wish to deny them their right to do so.
A very, very few made decisions which no one could ever defend. Please remember and appreciate the bravery and sacrifices made by the many, and don't judge the many by the actions of the very, very few.
They say the grass is always greener somewhere besides where you are, and right then, that's what I was thinking. I'd spent fifteen years in a squad car, running after assholes who didn't know what stop meant and hoping I'd pass the detective exam someday. The last twenty two, I'd driven an unmarked sedan, hardly ever chased an asshole, and often wished I was back in that squad car.
The uniforms, in reality, have it worse. They chase people through mud, snow, and ice, over fences and through back yards, put up with a ton of disrespect and abuse, and once in a while, some smart ass with a gun thinks he can take out the cop before the cop takes him to jail. Too often that happens, too. The uniforms earn every cent the city pays them and deserve more, but they usually only find the big mess. It's up to the detectives to sort through everything and try to make sense out of the mess. Sometimes, I think that's harder.
That's what I was doing that day at six in the morning – trying to figure out how this mother's son had managed to get himself offed in the alley behind a Vietnamese restaurant. Nothing usually happens in that part of town, not even a simple purse snatching, yet somehow this jerk and somebody with one hell of a big knife found each other. The single stab wound the medical examiner showed me was just under his ribcage on the left side of his back and was a good three inches wide.
Because nothing ever happened there, I didn't know the area very well, but even so it was obvious this guy didn't belong there. Judging from his gray hair and full beard, and the wrinkles on his face, he was a little over sixty. He wasn't Vietnamese or any other Asian group. He looked pretty American to me. No, this guy was there for something else and that something else had backfired on him.
The .22 semi-auto pistol with silencer that Sam Fisher, the medical examiner, pried out of his right hand told me what the guy was trying to do probably wasn't legal. It smelled like it had been recently fired. I put on the latex gloves Patty handed me, then popped the magazine and jacked the slide into the baggy she held open to catch the cartridge.
I dropped the pistol and magazine into another baggie. Patty put that baggie, along with the one with the cartridge and another holding the spent casing she found a few feet from the guy into the evidence box. Patty was trained by the TBI, and if there was anything of use on the cartridges or auto, I knew she'd find it.
Since we had one spent round, either there was a bullet somewhere in the alley, or there was somebody else with a hole in them. I made a note to check the hospitals for any gunshot wounds that might have come in during the night. The Vietnamese still like their traditional medicine for most things, but no home remedy was going to fix it if the hit did anything more than nick the skin.
Sam handed me the guy's wallet and I whistled when I opened it. Inside, I counted three thousand in hundreds along with a few smaller bills. I had Patty count it again to confirm the total and then she put it in another baggy.
I'd seen about all there was to see, and I knew Patty would cover everything with digital photos, so I told Sam I'd check with him that afternoon to see if he had anything more, then drove back to the precinct. After talking to the uniforms that responded, I could decide how to proceed.
The uniforms didn't know much of anything. The 911 caller had just said someone was lying in the alley and then hung up. They hadn't seen anybody leaving the alley as they drove down it, and they'd found what I'd found – a guy with a slice in his back lying on the pavement. They'd been careful not to touch anything except to check if he was alive or not. Then, they backed away and radioed for the medical examiner and a detective.
I listened to the 911 call. The man wasn't a native. His accent sounded a little French to me, although his English was very good. I'd heard English spoken with that odd French accent a few times before. I spent a year in the A Shau in '66 and '67, and in Hue, there were a few Vietnamese people who spoke English like that.
There was little more I could do until the medical examiner and the lab finished working the case, so I went back to the scene and started up the block to interview the people who lived and worked there.
The restaurant behind which the guy died wasn't yet open, and I couldn't read the sign with their hours. Instead, I went next door to a little grocery store that was open. I might as well have been back in one of the little hamlets in the A Shau. Neither of the older couple there could speak English. I was getting frustrated when a woman walked into the store. She chattered out something in Vietnamese, and listened to the reply. Then she turned to me and asked in very British sounding English if she could help me.
I really couldn't tell how old she was. The body in the jeans and pale blue silk blouse had the ripe curves of a mature woman, but her face didn't match, and faces are usually my key to guessing age. Asian women defy all my rules. Their skin, according to my ex-wife, doesn't age as fast as Caucasian skin so the little crows feet and wrinkles that usually tell me age come along later in life for them.
She wasn't very tall, maybe five feet without the three inch heels, and her long, shining black hair framed a face that was very feminine and very beautiful. Her smile was beautiful too, and I found myself smiling back.
I showed her my badge.
"I'm Detective Max Ross. I'm looking for information about a man found in the alley last night. I thought this couple might know something, but they don't speak English."
"No, they think they're too old to learn and here ... well, everybody here speaks Vietnamese or French, sometimes both, so they don't have to. I speak Vietnamese, Lao, Thai, French, English, and a little Mandarin. If you'll tell me what you want to know, I'll ask them."
The interview took a while, and I didn't get much. Mr. Bihn and his wife went to bed about ten and didn't hear anything. They didn't know anything about the stiff in the alley and I didn't tell them, but I did ask if they'd seen any white males around lately. They thought for a while and then said nobody but Vietnamese ever came to their store, but many white people came to the restaurant down the street on the weekends.
I turned back to the woman at my side.
"Well, I didn't expect much. Can you give them this card and ask them to call if they remember anything?"
The woman put the card in her purse and chattered out some more stuff I couldn't understand, then turned back to me.
"If they call you, you won't understand what they're saying, so I told them to call me and I'd call you."
"Well, Miss ... uh ... I didn't get your name."
"It's Mrs ... Mrs. Lieu Thi Lien."
"Mrs. Lien, thanks, but I really can't ask you to do this."
Mrs. Lien shrugged her shoulders and beamed that smile at me again.
"You didn't. I volunteered. I might as well stay with you, too. Lots of the people here either don't speak much English, or they're embarrassed by how they speak it. You'll get more answers to your questions if I translate."
"I don't want to keep you from whatever you were going to do."
"I'm off work today, so all I was going to do is buy some food and then go home and watch TV. This will be much more interesting."
After talking to the people in a half dozen more shops and knocking on as many apartment doors, I still didn't know anything. I needed a break so I asked Mrs. Lien if she knew where I could buy her a cup of coffee.
She smiled that radiant smile again.
"It won't be hot, but it will be good."
The little shop was a very small place, and the smell of fresh coffee rushed into my face as soon as I opened the door for Mrs. Lien. We sat at one of the tiny tables that lined one wall. Mrs. Lien said something to the man behind an equally tiny counter and held up two fingers, then turned back to me.
"It'll be a few minutes. Vietnamese coffee is always made fresh."
I didn't want to just sit there like an idiot, so I tried to make conversation.
"This is a really small coffee shop."
"It's half of the store that used to be here. Mr. Huynh runs the coffee shop in this half. His wife runs the beauty parlor in the other half, next door. In Vietnam, this would probably be his living room, but the health regulations won't allow that here. He and his wife live upstairs. Ah ... here he comes now."
The iced coffee in the glass was like an espresso milkshake. I could almost feel the caffeine racing through my stomach and speeding up my heartbeat.
"Wow ... I thought the guys at the precinct made strong coffee. This stuff could walk by itself."
Mrs. Lien laughed.
"We Vietnamese do like our coffee strong, but the sweet condensed milk tones it down a little."
I took another sip and decided I liked it.
"You know, you're right. It's good. I'll just have to remember not to have one before bed if I'm really tired."
Well, that subject died and we were silent for a minute. I had to say something so she'd stop just looking at me and smiling.
"So ... what do you do when you're not helping me?"
"During the day, I work for the city helping people from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos find jobs and places to live, and I teach English at the Cultural Center three nights a week. As you're seeing today, learning to speak English is very important if my people are going to succeed here."
We finished our coffee and I asked Mrs. Lien if she thought the restaurant would be open now. She said yes, so we walked back up the street.
The woman slicing vegetables behind the counter seemed nervous to me when I showed her my badge. That set off the little alarm in my head that made me very interested in what she had to say. I asked her if she'd heard anything the night before. After Mrs. Lien translated and the woman answered, she translated the answer.
"Mrs. Minh says she went to bed early and didn't hear anything because she sleeps very soundly."
I didn't think Mrs. Minh was telling me the truth. There were beads of sweat on her forehead and the knife in her right hand was shaking a little.
"Ask her why she's nervous."
"I don't have to ... I know. Mrs. Minh was arrested in Saigon for what the police called "subversive activities". She was just a school girl who didn't like the current government. She won't talk about it, but I know it must have been horrible. If someone calling himself a policeman had done that to you, wouldn't it make you afraid of anyone who says he's a policeman?"
"Well, does she live here alone? If someone else lives here, maybe they heard something."
"She has a husband. I'll ask her if he can come answer your question."
Mrs. Lien translated my question and then translated the answer.
"Her husband is ill and has to stay in bed today, but she says he didn't hear or see anything either."
After interviewing six more people with the same result, I gave up for the time being. Mrs. Lien gave me her phone number, "In case you need me again". As I drove back to the precinct, I was hoping I would. She was about my age, and in the few hours we'd spent together, I'd started liking her.
I figured I would need her to translate again. I wasn't buying much of what I'd heard so far. Someone knew what had happened that night. Out of fear or loyalty or just because I wasn't Vietnamese and they didn't trust me, they weren't saying anything. I'd dig into that more tomorrow. Just then, I wanted to know if Patty had come up with any more evidence from the scene.
She had a print from the cartridge and pistol and prints from the stiff, and they matched. She also had an ID. His name was Warren Roux. His prints were on file because he'd served in the Army. I went back to my desk and put in a request for his DD-214 and service records, then logged into NCIC to see if Warren had any past problems with the law anywhere.
Warren had been a bad boy before joining the Army, and my guess was he joined to keep from going to jail. It was a relatively common choice judges gave first time, non-violent offenders back then. All his record showed was the sentence for burglary had been reduced to time served after a plea bargain.
After that, Warren seemed to stay clean. There was nothing else about him on the NCIC database.
I called Sam, the medical examiner to check on what he'd found. Sam gave his typical, no-nonsense report.
"Your dead guy was stabbed with a wide, very sharp blade. There was no tearing of the skin and it sliced right through his diaphragm and lung and then his heart. He would probably have dropped in seconds, and been dead in less than a minute. The blade was maybe eight inches long. The handle left an imprint at the point of entry and blade didn't go much further than his heart.
"One other thing, Max. This wasn't an amateur job. I found bruises on the guy's neck like he'd have if he'd been in a choke hold. It also takes some knowledge to know where and at what angle to put the knife in to get the diaphragm, a lung and the heart in one thrust."
"You find anything else ... tattoos, scars, anything like that?"
"Yeah, as a matter of fact, I did. On his right forearm is a small tattoo, two words – la fantome. I Googled it. It's French and means 'the ghost'.
The next morning when I got in, there was a note on my desk to call Sam.
"Max, I found something else. Your guy had a sub-cutaneous fungus infection on his crotch. I sent a sample to the lab and they identified it as Tinea Ambricata."
"OK ... that means what ... he had a case of jock rot?"
"Something like that except Tinea Ambricata is usually found only in Southeast Asia. I'd say your guy has been there in the last couple of months, maybe even longer if he didn't have it treated. The lab didn't find any traces of medication."
Well, the information helped, but it didn't. All I knew was my dead guy's name and that he'd caught jock rot somewhere in one of the little countries half way around the globe. I decided to go talk to some more people in the area of the restaurant to see if they remembered anything. The murder had hit the papers by then, so I was certain they'd all know the reason for my questions. I called Mrs. Lien, and arranged to meet her at four, after she got off work.
The people we talked to all knew about the guy in the alley, but they were still not talking. By six, I was hungry and I was pissed at everybody I'd talked to except Mrs. Lien. She'd been more than helpful and seemed really trying to get people to cooperate. She was also better company than any other partner I might have had. The idea had been forming in my mind for an hour, and about six, I asked her if she'd like some dinner.
After we'd finished eating something I couldn't pronounce but tasted pretty good, I asked if she'd like to have another cup of coffee before I took her home. Her answer was a smile and an answer that made me a little sad.
"Detective Ross, I'd like that very much, but Mr. Huynh closes his shop at six, and anyway, unless I leave pretty quickly, I'll miss the bus to the Cultural Center. I'm teaching English tonight."
As it was, she didn't miss the bus. I drove her to the Cultural Center instead. It was against department rules to transport civilians, but I figured she'd earned it. Besides, I was starting to like having her around, and wanted to keep her with me as long as I could.
I got a special delivery package the next morning. It contained a copy of Private Warren Roux's personnel file and his DD214. I started reading his DD214 first.
I had to look up his separation code because I'd never seen it before. It was SPN 943 – Dropped from rolls as missing or captured. I knew if he or his body had been found or he'd been repatriated, his DD214 would have been changed, so the Army still considered Warren an MIA. I wondered where the hell he'd been for thirty-two years. I thought I might get something from his file and opened it.
Warren was born May 3, 1949 outside of a little Louisiana town in the middle of Bayou Teche, and enlisted on June 10, 1967. He listed no next of kin. Though he'd managed to get himself arrested for burglery, Warren wasn't dumb. He made one of the highest scores ever recorded on the Army Proficiency Test.
He did basic training at Ft. Dix, New Jersey, and AIT at Ft. Polk, Louisiana, the same place I'd trained for my 11B MOS in Combat Infantry. While there, he'd gone AWOL for two weeks and, after being busted from PFC back to Private, had to repeat the course.
He finally landed in Saigon in February, 1968, still a private, and was assigned to 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne in I Corps region, the same area I'd served with the 3rd Brigade of the 101st a year earlier. After three months of patrols and more than a few firefights, he got in an argument about some illegal war trophies he was keeping, and punched his platoon sergeant. That cost him a month in Long Bihn Stockade and a month extension of his tour.
Two weeks after he was returned to duty, his fire team drew a listening post assignment for the night. It was just before daylight when Private Roux was challenged by the sentry at the gate to the fire base. Once inside, he reported a fire fight had occurred just as the team was readying to return. Private Roux said the rest of his team was dead, and that he'd escaped by hiding under the bodies of two of them until the VC left.
When questioned, the sentry agreed he'd heard serious AK and M16 fire just before daylight. A patrol later that day found and recovered the bodies of the rest of the fire team, but no VC bodies or weapons. Private Roux's CO noted this was not unusual, as the VC always policed their bodies and weapons if possible to give the impression they'd suffered no casualties.
Private Roux was given a week's R&R in Saigon, after which he rejoined his company in another squad.
Private Roux seemed to do well in his new squad, and evidently completed several more patrols without incident since there were no entries in his file for about two months. Then, one day when his squad was on a routine patrol, Private Roux was walking rear guard and apparently got lost.
The undergrowth was heavy, according to the report, and the squad sometimes got spread out. They stopped for a break, and found they'd lost Private Roux sometime during the last couple of hours. The squad retraced their steps and found nothing except Private Roux's boony hat. He was declared MIA upon their return to the fire base.
I had no more answers than when I started, but I did have a lot more questions now. I called Mrs. Lien and asked if she could help me again.
I waited in the same coffee shop until she walked in a little after four. She apologized for being late, saying she had something she had to finish up at the office and it took her longer than expected.
It was time to lay what cards I had on the table for Mrs. Lien, so she'd understand why I was asking the questions I was going to ask. I spoke to Mr. Huyng.
"ca phe sua da ... hai"
Mrs. Lien smiled.
"You just ordered coffee for two. I didn't know you knew Vietnamese."
"I don't. I got a Vietnamese-English dictionary last night and memorized how to order two cups of coffee."
"I'm flattered that you would take the time to do such a thing."
"You're taking your time to help me. Besides, I ... I like you."
"Now I'm very flattered. I like helping you, so it's more like fun."
"Your husband doesn't care?"
Mrs. Lien dropped her eyes.
"I lost him ... in the war."
"I'm sorry I said anything."
Mrs. Lien looked up and her smile returned.
"You couldn't know about that. It's all right, though. That was a long time ago. I'm not sad anymore."
She took a sip of her coffee, then smiled at me again.
"Who are we going to talk with tonight?"
"I thought I'd start by telling you what this is all about, so you'd understand."
She listened while I went through the story, sometimes nodding, sometimes frowning, and when I mentioned that Warren was technically missing in action, she looked astonished.
"He's been missing for all these years? How can that be?"
"Since he was able to come back to the US, he couldn't have been held captive. I can only guess he didn't want to be found for some reason. There've been a few soldiers who deserted to stay with their Vietnamese wives and came back years later. Maybe he was another one, and he just now came home. Anyway, he was evidently meeting someone who knew him, and it's likely the person he met is the same person who killed him. Do you know of any people here who he might have known back then in Vietnam?"
"It could be many. That's why most of us are here. If we'd stayed we'd have been put in work camps or killed because we worked on the military bases."
"I don't think people will talk to me about that time, and I don't want to make them any more afraid of the police. You seem to know most of the people here. Can you tell me about some of the most likely ones so I can decide which ones I do need to talk with?"
Mrs. Lien began telling me about the people in the community. Most had just worked at one of the bigger military installations during the war. A few had been officers in the ARVN. None of them had any connection with the 101st or were from the area where the 1st Brigade was stationed. At six, I thanked her and asked if she'd have dinner with me again.
We went to the same restaurant behind which Warren had met his end. When Mrs. Lien ordered for us, the young girl who took our order blushed and chattered something in Vietnamese. Mrs. Lien laughed, and said something back as the girl walked quickly away. I asked her what the girl had said.
"She said the way you look at me, we would probably end the evening eating lying down."
Mrs. Lien grinned.
"Eating lying down is an old Vietnamese saying that means having sex."
"Do you think I look at you that way?"
She grinned again.
"Sometimes I think you do and I rather enjoy it. That's what I just told her."
When we finished the meal, I really didn't want her to just leave.
"Mrs. Lien, would you like to go someplace for a drink or something?"
"I don't usually go to places like that, but ... well, we could go to my apartment for a cup of tea if you'd like."
I followed her example and took off my shoes when we entered her apartment. It's almost an instinct for me to look at any area as I would a crime scene, so as I padded around in my socks, that's what I did while she made our tea.
Mrs. Lien's apartment was small. It was just two rooms with a bath. On one wall of the living area was her kitchen – a small refrigerator, an even smaller stove, a sink, and a few cabinets. On the wall next to the kitchen was a tiny table with two chairs and on the wall opposite that, a TV and a low bookcase flanked on the left side by a door. I figured the door led to her bedroom.
The center of the room was occupied by a couch and chair. Curtains covered the windows on the other wall. It was a small place, but everything was tidy and it was obviously a woman's apartment. The colors were soft and everything matched, unlike my white walls and haphazard collection of furniture. There were only a couple of pictures on top of the bookcase, one of a little girl and a young couple I assumed was Mrs. Lien and her parents. The other was a man in the uniform of the ARVN.
The voice behind me was soft.
"He was my husband."
"I thought that was probably so. ARVN, 1st Infantry Division, I think."
"Yes. He was killed during Tet. You were there ... in Vietnam, weren't you?"
"I was there, '66 and '67, at Firebase Ripcord. I went to Hue a few times. The 1st ARVN was stationed there."
"I thought so. You call me Mrs. Lien instead of using my last name, and you did the same for all the people we've talked with. Most people don't know that's the way Vietnamese address each other. It's nice that you remembered."
Her tea kettle whistled, and she talked over her shoulder as she hurried to her stove.
"Please sit down and I'll bring the tea."
We talked about a lot of stuff that didn't matter because neither of us wanted to talk about the one thing we had in common. At ten, I got up to leave. Mrs. Lien walked with me to her door.
"Mrs. Lien, I thank you for your company at dinner and for the tea. I hate to leave, but I have to work tomorrow so I need to be going."
Mrs. Lien put her hand on my arm, then looked at the floor and her voice was almost a whisper.
"Do you really not want to leave me?"
"Well ... that's just a figure of speech, and..."
"Then you don't feel like that girl in the restaurant said?"
"Well ... I suppose I do to some extent. You're a pretty woman. If I knew you better ... if I knew you felt the same..."
Mrs. Lien looked up at me and smiled.
"I feel that way. You don't have to go if you don't want to."
She put her arms around my neck, stood on her tiptoes and looked into my eyes.
"Please stay with me tonight."
Mrs. Lien seemed nervous as I took off my jacket, and unclipped the Glock from my belt and sat it on the bed. Before things went any further, I needed to know if she was having second thoughts.