Downtown Saigon never gets comfortable. Even in January, the humidity hangs like hot laundry around your neck. The streets smell of fish oil and duck; charcoal and incense. You can’t take twenty steps without someone trying to sell you a knockoff watch or a Zippo guaranteed to be used in the war by American GIs, engraved with misspelled military slogans like, Sempor Fiddles.
The gentrified wouldn’t call it a walkable city, but that’s how you get around unless you own a motorbike. Every guy who isn’t shoeless looks like a government official or a party member—someone who could ruin your week. Scooters loaded down with live poultry juke skeletal men on bicycles pulling mini trailers of construction debris. Women sell sparrows from crowded wooden cages to release at the temples, a beggar in work gloves drags her legless body through the streets, her stumps tied to a leather pad. Jobless men sit on their heels on the sidewalks and play xiangqi. It’s tropic indolence in a faraway land of promise, unless you live there.
But the food is delicious. A tacit embrace of, or perhaps a reluctant handshake with capitalism has improved the economy. The new digital hope blends with vague cultural effigies. The black-haired schoolgirls in white ao dais float over the dusty streets, always in flocks of four or five like giggling egrets, in every way more beautiful than whatever the communists brought down from the north. The men of Ho Chi Minh are disinterested. The women of Vietnam, entrancing. You move the country twenty degrees off the equator and it’d be paradise. If you were sitting on a beach in Nha Trang, two cocktails in, you might believe it already is.
The men in the rented cars, however, weren’t there for leisure.
Only a few of the most loyal knew Le Sauvage’s real name. He was a phantom to international law enforcement and a specter among the criminal element who referred to him only by his moniker—earned by deed, billowed by legend. When those he dealt with met him, they wished they hadn’t, because once he knew them, he never forgot. He’d look at them with eyes that said he could find them anywhere and kill their families en route. His crew referred to him as boss when they worked, as other names when they met in public places, sometimes Jacob, sometimes another name, depending on which part of the world they were in. It rarely came up—they wouldn’t put themselves together in social situations unless it could lead to work or they were surveilling a potential client. The rumors persisted that he sold French-made armaments to the most unsavory characters, the ones the public entities couldn’t entertain.
An hour north of the city, the first car had stopped at the designated spot on the bank of the Mekong. The driver stood outside his door. Tiago Chastain dreaded leaving the air-conditioned rental van, but there was Spanky, right on time, waving and smiling that tour-guide smile of his. With his graveyard teeth and an independent left eye, there was something likable about the little cherub, but it wasn’t his body odor.
Hubert got out first and cringed at the heat. He put a hand in his waistband and opened the sliding door for his boss and Bouchet the money man. A chase car pulled up after Hubert signaled. Two men exited the car; both were Gulf veterans and wearing the sort of permanent ruddiness that comes from surviving desert warfare.
Spanky called out from the approaching boat. “Hello, Mister Boss. Bon après-midi, Monsieur. See I’m learning Fr—.” The boat collided with the bulkhead.
“Just drive the boat, Spanky. Learn French later.” Chastain couldn’t place Spanky’s age, thirties maybe, a rough thirty-five. He had the look of a man who was sickly as a child, never quite developed, more bloated than pudgy. He’d been kicked out of the Tam Binh orphanage at fifteen and worked the streets of Saigon, learning whatever bits of tourist language he could to entertain them and survive.
He reminded Chastain of the boy in the black-and-white American reels with French subtitles he watched as a kid. He’d long forgotten his Vietnamese name, if he ever knew it.
The men joined Spanky and a small barefoot boy of twelve or so who ran the rope lines and walked along the outside edge of the boat without ever looking down. He never spoke. The crew’s pilot, Fournier, stayed with the vehicles. He sat in the air conditioning and smoked his Gauloises.
Fournier had easy access to St. Étienne M12SD submachine gun, Tanguy carried one as well. All the men carried .40 caliber semi-auto handguns except the boss, who rarely armed himself. Together they had killed more people than the Donner party. Ordinary men can smell it on them or see death in their eyes or both, but step aside nonetheless. A certain kind of woman can’t stay away from them, the kind who thinks she can hump her way to the other side of the brooding façade, get inside and find her dad or some other guy who held sway over her heart. She always left disappointed or drank herself stupid.
The men looked out toward the horizon, not much for talking. In taverns after or between jobs when they’d have time to drink together, the ball-breaking would commence, a little arguing maybe if Tanguy got pissy about religion or something else that chewed at him, but not now, not when they worked.
Spanky steered the family boat back up river, the air more tolerable now in the northern wind. He turned at an unseen marker into the jungle and up a muddy Mekong tributary no more than eight feet wide. Here the crew put their hands on their weapons. The sounds of the river receded as they moved deeper into the verdure. The motor spat blue smoke but gurgled rhythmically through a tunnel of wide-leafed vegetation around a bend to a small clearing in the bush where the children waited with rice wine and sapodilla fruit.
Another boat sat waiting by the muddy edge, held in place by a teenager, neck deep in the brown water, feeling the bottom for crabs while he waited like a human piling.
Hubert and a gun named Marin stayed with Chastain and Bouchet while Tanguy walked beyond the kids and into the thickening smell of coconut oil boiling in a large steel wok over a propane stove near the family hut.
The Filipinos waited, five anxious terrorists as comfortable in their surroundings as they could fake. Tanguy sized them up and returned to the boss. “There’s five, three armed, no extra ammo. They want to kill something but it won’t be us, not today.”
Chastain had been talking to the children and hefted a piece of the root-beer-tasting sapodilla, grateful to the kids. He passed on the rice wine but his men all took a hit, gave the kids some coin. “Come, children,” Chastain said. “Let’s go find Poppa.”
Spanky barked at the boy to stay with the boat and followed behind the others at a five-meter gap. They walked roughly thirty meters around random mixed-breed chickens and broken furniture to the main structure, not a home in any western sense but the family’s only option, dry now, some weeks beyond the rainy season.
Chastain ignored the terrorists and walked to the man of the house. He shook his hand with a pleasant smile and fifty US dollars for the use of his property. Ngo’s family would eat for six months on that money.
Chastain took a sideways seat at the short bamboo table and waved for the terrorists to sit, Bouchet the money man across from Chastain. The Filipinos grabbed buckets and mismatched plastic stools and formed a semi-circle in front of him. Hubert sat behind his boss, flanked by standing mercenaries.
Chastain spoke in French, only the mutt’s leader understood. “First, before we talk specifics, where is my deposit?”
The leader, the only one with a working brain and actual balls, pulled a fat envelope from under his khaki shirt. “One hundred fifty thousand US, changed this morning to new Dong at VP Bank on Nguyen Chi Than, as instructed.” He leaned forward and placed the money on the table.
Without shifting his eyes off the terrorist, Chastain pushed the envelope to Bouchet who flipped through it while everyone watched. He nodded and pocketed the cash. Ngo’s children, a younger boy and girl no older than ten, weaved among the men offering them homemade rice wine and fruits, singing local songs and looking for tips. Ngo shushed them.
As he did, two of the Abu Sayyaf crew, one with a scruffy mustache and one with wire-rimmed glasses and long hair, leaned in to one another and spoke in Tausug dialect. Tanguy and Marin noticed but didn’t move, already prepared to shoot first. The long-haired one curled his lip as he eyed Ngo’s daughter from her neck to her ankles. He laughed and slapped her on the ass. She ran to her father who pushed her inside.
Chastain reached back to Hubert who placed his Sig Sauer .40 caliber in the boss’s hand. Chastain shot long-hair in the face and sent him reeling off his stool. He kicked the man’s teeth in before he died. Chastain growled in French. “Any more pedophiles among you? Huh? Take your death like a good soldier of your god now.”
The terrorists didn’t understand the words but got the sentiment. They all froze except for their eyes—scanning, looking for a sign from their leader or a tick in the tendons of the special forces, the next shot. None came. No one spoke or moved an eyelid. Spanky shit his pants.
Chastain informed his conferee that the price just went up ten percent. The man didn’t balk. Chastain laid it out for him. “One hundred fifty FAMAS G2’s, fifteen thousand rounds of 5.56 NATO. Three cases Russian F1 grenades, seventy-five pounds of C4, two dozen detonators. No instructions, figure it out. Sixty Tokarev nine millimeters, three hundred rounds each. That’s it. One hundred eighty thousand upon delivery. We will contact you with details. Now get off this man’s property before we bury all of you here. Take that child rapist with you.”
The leader hustled his crew who complied and dragged the dead one to the boat.
Chastain told Bouchet to give Ngo the equivalent of two hundred US in Dong from the envelope for his trouble. The man cried with appreciation and hugged his children. Sauvage and his crew walked away.
Spanky cleaned his ass in the water and turned the boat back out toward the Mekong, a dirty tablecloth wrapped around his waist. The boy held his nose and laughed at him. Everyone smoked as they pulled off, including the boy, a fresh pack from Tanguy. The boy dangled his shoeless feet from the prow. He yanked a foot in when it brushed across the dead terrorist in the riverside churn.
“There are cleaner ways to make money,” Chastain said, looking down at the bobbing corpse.
Bouchet agreed. “But this is what you are good at.”
“And all we know,” Hubert said.
“In due time, Hubert. En temps voulu. Stay ready.”
On the flight back to France, Hubert sat in coach, three rows behind the boss’s first-class seat. He read Flaubert, though he didn’t quite understand him; he thought it would make him smart. The rest of the crew took separate flights.
Chastain drank bourbon over ice. Je suis malade, he thought, sick of it all. He thought about what he needed to do next, not wanted but needed to. A necessity overdue. He’d waited long enough, become too quick to kill. It had become an addiction. Twenty years ago, he’d have beaten the kidneys out of that pedophile and left him to think about his actions. He would have thought he was teaching him a lesson. They never learn, he thought. He thought more often after he acted these days. Pourquoi s’embêter? No one cares.
He looked over his shoulder at Hubert, immersed in his book. Chastain took a letter from his pocket and read it again. He touched the words as if he were touching someone he cared about. He folded it back into his shirt, finished his bourbon and closed his eyes.