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.
.... There is more of this story ...