Tet, the Lunar New Year. For the Vietnamese it was the year’s major festival, Christmas and Easter packed into four days. The Vietnamese did not celebrate individual birthdays; at Tet, everyone became one year older.
No one went to work, the markets were closed. Houses were filled with flowers and everyone dressed in new clothes. Even the street children begged or stole a new shirt or a new pair of pants.
The air was filled with the din of flashes and bangs from the firecrackers that chased away evil spirits. Merchants spent vast sums hanging long strings of them outside their shops believing the more they had, the more business they would attract in the coming year.
Tet: it was a time to celebrate, and to feast. A time to visit one’s family and pay off all old debts. A time to honor one’s ancestors.
It was a hot, desolate afternoon. Nguyen Hue street, the Street of Flowers, was a mass of color. The appearance of these flowers every year seemed almost miraculous in a country pocked with bomb craters, vast expanses of defoliated jungle and rice paddies with barbed wire perimeters.
Michel took a suite at the Continental Hotel. When he retired that evening he could hear the distant crump-crump-crump of shellfire, but it was mostly drowned out by the whirring of the ceiling fan. The war was like a bad habit, and it seemed a long way away. He was accustomed to it now. Everyone called it Saigon Night Music.
He had heard the rumors of an impending attack on Saigon by the VC, but he had discounted them.
He didn’t see how it was possible.
He woke around two in the morning to the sound of sharp, whip-like explosions from the street outside. At first, he thought it was firecrackers, but then there was another, bigger blast and his bedroom window turned white and fell in, showering the bed with shards of glass. Michel rolled off the bed and lay flat on the floor.
Another explosion rolled across the square and the curtains billowed in the second blast.
Keeping low, Michel went to the balcony and peered down into the street. He saw half a dozen Vietnamese dressed in black pajamas and carrying AK- 47s pour out of a manhole cover, like ants from a crumbled nest.
They ran off in the direction of the US embassy.
Viet Cong! So for once the rumors were true.
He heard more gunfire from across the street, saw one of the Viet Cong stumble and fall. A grenade exploded in the square, and a piece of shrapnel slapped into the wall of the hotel, just a few feet above his head.
Michel crawled back inside, fumbled in the darkness for his clothes. He supposed most people in the city tonight were terrified by what was happening in the street; but then he was not like most people. There was opportunity here. A night like this, with guns and explosions going off everywhere, a man could get away with murder.
As dawn broke, the Saigon streets were utterly deserted. The usual clamor of horns and bicycle bells and hawkers had been replaced by the clatter of small arms fire and the sudden, ear-shattering explosions of mortars and rockets. Joginder saw a squad of Marines crouching behind an overturned jeep. Shadowy figures in black pajamas ducked into an alleyway further down the street.
Joginder scampered along the arcade, a voluminous white handkerchief flapping in his right fist. When the attack started he had been asleep in his favorite brothel, five blocks away. He would have cowered there all week if he had to, but he was worried about leaving his shop unattended.
There were twenty million piastres in the small iron safe upstairs.
A Citroen was skewed across the middle of the street, its coachwork punched through with bullet holes. Joginder stepped over the bodies of three VC sprawled on the footpath. A cloud of flies rose into the air, buzzing angrily at this interruption. Joginder noticed they wore white cotton shirts and even jewelry underneath their black pajamas. They must be cadres, ordinary Saigonese who had just been waiting for a chance to fight.
He saw the glitter of a gold chain at one of the men’s throats and bent down to rip it off, before hurrying on.
There was firing from the direction of the US embassy. He would have to get off the main street. It would take him longer to get home, but it might be safer. On the Tu Do he was too tempting a target for Viet Cong snipers as well as nervous Marines.
Get me home, he prayed silently. O Ganesh, get me home and I will make a great sacrifice in your honor!
When he finally reached his shop he didn’t risk the street entrance. Instead he went to the wooden gate that led on to the small courtyard beside it. He hammered on it with his fists. ‘Sai, it is me, Joginder! Let me in!’
There was no answer from inside. He tried the handle, and to his surprise, it swung open. He almost fainted with alarm. He was sure he had locked it when he went out that previous evening.
It had been forced. Someone had broken in during the night.
His first instinct was to run. But where to?
And what about the safe?
He eased open the door with his foot. It swung half-way and stopped. Something was stopping it from opening the whole way. He peered inside. One of Sai’s boys, her eldest, lay face down on the floor.
There was blood everywhere.
Joginder put his handkerchief to his mouth and retched.
‘Joginder! Up here!’
He reeled back in surprise. It was Sai. She was upstairs.
‘What’s happening?’ he shouted.
‘The VC were here! Quickly!’
‘Have they gone?’
‘Yes, it’s safe now. Hurry!’
He ran up the back stairs, tripped over another body. Shivering with fright, he stared at the smear of blood on his hands.
Savages. They had murdered both the children.
‘Jogi, help me!’
Perhaps they’ve tied her up, he thought. Did they torture her and make her tell them where the money was?
He wiped away the blood with his handkerchief and stumbled the rest of the way up the stairs to his office.
Sai was sitting behind his desk, white as chalk, a strange look on her face. ‘What happened?’ he said.
She didn’t answer him.
He ignored her and rushed across the room to the safe. It was still securely locked. He groaned with relief. He was afraid the VC might have tried to blast it open.
He felt something hard nestle into the small indentation at the base of his skull. Then he heard a familiar voice, very close to his ear. ‘Father. How nice to see you again.’
‘Sit down in that chair.’
‘Are you surprised to see me.’
Joginder thought he was going to lose control of his bowels. This was impossible; Michel was in the Port of Bombay jail. No one ever got out of there.
‘Sit down,’ Michel repeated.
His legs wouldn’t hold him, so he crawled. ‘Get out of the way!’ Michel said, and Sai did as she was told, backing into a corner of the room, relieved that she was no longer the one this madman was pointing his gun at. Michel grabbed Joginder by the collar and threw him into the chair.
He was holding the service revolver he had taken from the holster of a dead ARVN on Tu Do street. He pulled back the hammer and rammed the barrel between his father’s eyes.
‘No!’ Joginder shrieked. ‘Please!’
A stain spread across the crotch of his trousers and a puddle formed under his chair.
‘I’ll do anything. Do you want money? I’ll pay you …’
‘Shut up.’ Michel looked up at Sai. ‘Come here,’ he said. He threw her the length of wire twine he had taken from one of the rolls of cloth in the shop. ‘Tie his wrists behind his back. Make sure it’s tight. If his fingers don’t turn white, I’ll shoot off one of your toes.’
Sai did as she was told. The tailor yelped with pain. ‘You’re hurting me, you bitch!’
Michel gave Sai a tight, humorless smile. ‘I don’t think you like him anymore than I do, do you? Now step back against the wall.’
She backed off, her eyes never leaving the gun. She had watched this monster gun down her sons. She knew he wouldn’t hesitate to do the same to her.
Michel perched himself on the corner of the desk.
‘Please . . . Michel …’
‘Shut up.’ Michel hit him with the barrel to make his point. Blood started to leak down his face from his scalp. Joginder began to cry, softly.
‘I have often asked myself why you did what you did. Now I know. There are few fathers who have the opportunity to abandon their children twice.’
‘I have money. How much do you want? You gain nothing by killing me. Don’t you see?’
‘That’s right. I don’t deny you have cause to hate me, but think of the money. How much do you want? Just name your price.’
‘How much is in the safe?’ Michel said.
Joginder swallowed hard. Twenty million piastres! Of course, his life was worth more than that, but he had to try and stall him. ‘What do you want?’
‘Everything you have.’
My money! I can’t let him have all that money! It’s mine!
Michel smiled and held the barrel against Joginder’s crotch.
‘Open the safe!’
Sai knelt next to the steel box, and Joginder recited the numbers to her. His voice came out in a squeak. Twenty million piastres!
‘Seven-three-to the right. Ninety-five-to the right. Sixty-three-to the left. Now back again. Eighty-eight.’
He heard the tumblers click and fall. The door swung open.
‘Put it all on the table,’ Michel said.
Sai obliged, piling the bundles of notes on the desk like bricks. All that money, all that work, all gone. After all these years that damned French whore was going to cost him everything.
Michel threw an airline bag at Sai. ‘Put it in there,’ he told her. ‘His passport as well.’
‘Please, not all of it,’ Joginder whimpered.
‘Take off his rings,’ Michel said.
It was useless to plead with this cold-hearted bastard. But as long as he let him live.
Sai pulled the fat emerald-cut ruby from the little finger of his left hand and the ruby signet ring from the third finger of the other.
‘If you’ll just take these and go I promise I—’
‘This is not repayment. Did you really think that? This is my inheritance, that’s all.’
‘Please, Michel … ‘
‘You sent me to hell, father. If it wasn’t for the nuns I would have starved. I spent most of life sleeping in bombed-out buildings with rats eating my feet. Even that was better than the Indian prison. Do you know what they did to me, father? The warden spread-eagled me naked across a desk and beat me for two hours with a rubber hose and a brass belt buckle.’
The gun shook in Michel’s hand.
‘No,’ Joginder said, and a rope of saliva spilled from his bottom lip and dribbled down his chin.
Sai finished packing the thick bundles of paper money into the airline bag. Michel snatched it from her, keeping the gun aimed at Joginder’s head. ‘What sort of man would do that to his own son?’
Joginder tried to speak but all that came out was a squeak. I have to stop him, he thought. A vague plan formed in his mind, where he would launch himself from his chair and fling himself headlong across the room and snatch the gun away. But his legs would not obey him. He felt paralyzed.
‘So many nights I lay awake dreaming of this moment, Father.’
He closed his eyes.
There was a loud bang and Joginder screamed, waiting for the pain.
He opened his eyes. Michel was laughing. ‘Just a grenade, Father. The VC have their war. I have mine.’
He looked at Sai, aimed the revolver and casually shot her in the head.
Joginder heard her heels rattle on the floor and he became aware of a terrible stench. He realized he had soiled himself.
A grenade exploded in the street. ‘Listen to it,’ Michel said. ‘The VC are taking over the whole city. There are dead and dying everywhere. It seems I am the only one who takes the festival seriously, the only one in all of Saigon who wants to forget about the war with the Americans and simply give my ancestors their due.’’
Michel held the gun low, at his hip. He fired once into Joginder’s right knee and then, as he lay howling on the floor, he casually fired another round into the other one.
Michel picked up the airline bag and went back down the stairs into the war- ravaged streets.
It was almost a week before civilian aircraft were once again cleared to fly out of Tan Son Nhut. During that time Michel took refuge inside the Continental Hotel. On the other side of the city Joginder Krisnan lay in hospital bed, heavily sedated. During his few lucid moments, he raved to the doctors and nurses about a man who had murdered his family and then tied him up and tortured him. No one took any notice of him. The medical staff supposed it was a side effect of the strong narcotics. Anyway, the police and the military were fully occupied with tracking down the last of the Viet Cong cells.
And so Alana Regan flew unmolested out of Saigon, aboard a Cathay Pacific flight for Hong Kong. Once in Kowloon Michel booked into a luxury suite in the Peninsula Hotel and toasted his inheritance with fine French champagne, while he pondered his next move.
He made himself two promises:
He would never be poor again, not ever.
The second promise he made was that he would find his mother. Wherever she was in the world, he would track her down. No matter what it cost.