LÊ TUẤN WRITER-TRANSLATOR-ACTOR-DIRECTOR


 Featuring Beverly Hoang, the first and only Vietnamese female homicide detective in America.

A corpse of a man is found inside an abandoned temple in Binh Duong, a small town near Saigon. The identification found indicates that it belongs to Bau, an expatriate who lived in Portland, Maine. Due to the lack of refrigeration at the morgue, the body is buried immediately and Bob Zaragoza, an American Consulate security officer is informed. Zaragoza goes to Binh Duong with Police Lieutenant Van — a Scotland Yard-trained detective — to investigate, but the corpse has vanished. The drunk caretaker can’t remember where he’s interred the body and the steady rain has washed away the vestige.

Cammie Ly, a successful Vietnamese-American entrepreneur and pioneer in the Vietnamese-dominated acrylic nails industry, discovers that BAU, her much younger husband of a little over a year, has absconded with her three million dollars. Upon receiving the news and the circumstances regarding Bau’s death from the U.S. State Department, Cammie’s brothers are convinced that he’s faked his death in order to be free to enjoy the loot without fear of being tracked down. They hire Beverly Hoang, formerly the first and only Vietnamese-American female homicide detective, to look into Bau’s disappearance, investigate if in fact he’s really dead, and try to recover the three-million-dollar loot.

Beverly had resigned from police work after an emotional case involving the murder of a famous singer and the death of her partner at the hand of a criminal, whom she, in turn, killed. She’s now working for the L.A. Times as resident reporter at Little Saigon, California. The monetary reward Cammie offers is the incentive for her to accept the assignment. The only problem for Beverly is that she doesn’t have any idea what Bau looks like — Bau had destroyed all his pictures before he left Maine. After the preliminary investigation concerning Bau’s past, she left for Vietnam looking for his corpse or, if he’s still living, his whereabouts.

In Vietnam, Beverly meets with Bob and Van and establishes a good rapport with both. The two men know why she’s in Vietnam but to others, Beverly is there to write about the Viet kieu — expats who returned to their homeland to live. She also meets Huy, a restaurateur and purportedly Bau’s closest friend, who’s living in Saigon after having been deemed an undesirable element by the U.S government.

At the time Beverly arrives in Vietnam, Police Lieutenant Van is investigating a suspicious suicide. Phuong, a beautiful and pregnant woman, is assumed to have plunged to death from the eighth floor of a high-rise building minutes after she met with Vong, a handsome fortuneteller who is romantically involved with many of his female clients. Van suspects that Vong is the father of Phuong’s unborn child and has pushed her over the balcony of his apartment to prevent her from complicating his life. When ordered by Colonel Thoai, his boss, to close the case and proclaim it a suicide, Van believes the colonel is protecting a murderer. On a whim, Van suggests that he and Beverly swap cases: She’s now investigating the fortuneteller; Van will check further into Bau’s death and disappearance.

The more she delves into the suicide the more Beverly is convinced that the fortuneteller is responsible for Phuong’s death. Meanwhile, when Colonel Thoai discovers Beverly’s real purpose in Vietnam he sends Van to give her a warning: lay off the case of the missing corpse, or else. Beverly’s mission is in jeopardy.

 An excerpt

The next day after lunch, they were on the road to Binh Duong in a Toyota Crown rented from an agency across the street from the Continental. Beverly was glad that Van insisted on driving. She would rather ride a scooter on the narrow and densely packed streets in Saigon than drive a car and try desperately to avoid a head-on collision every other minute on the countryside roads. The peril was apparent to her when she saw that the two-lane highway barely had room for two cars and the drivers of the rickety inter-city buses - Xe Do - pressed the pedal down to the metal as if they were suffering from a case of severe diarrhea and needing a bathroom desperately.

          The chief of police of Binh Duong Province received them in his office.  “It’s very nice to see you again, Lieutenant.” He shook Van’s hand, and nodded at Beverly. “I see you got a new companion this time.”“It’s good of you to meet us, comrade Captain,” Van said. “This is Miss Thuy, Captain Nguyen.” They had agreed not to volunteer that Beverly came from America.

          “As I said yesterday in our conversation by telephone, Captain,” Van continued. “Police Central has decided to re-open the case of Le Bau’s murder. Miss Thuy represents the family. She came to us with many unanswered questions, and Colonel Thoai has directed me to cooperate. I thought I would show her how efficient the police of the people of Binh Duong are.”

          “What else can we do? They couldn’t find the body,” the police chief said. “You were here. The damn drunken fool couldn’t even remember where he buried the corpse.”

          Beverly detected a note of wariness in the chief’s voice. 

          “Like I mentioned to you yesterday, Captain, we want to talk to everybody who was involved in this case, again,” Van said.

          “I got them lined up already. They are waiting for you.”

 

Under the watchful eyes of the captain, the front desk cop described the couple who had reported the sighting of the corpse in the temple. The two policemen talked about the scene inside and what they had found. The coroner, a young medic during the war, had been promoted to the rank of doctor not because of his training in medical school but on his valorous deeds in battle.

          “There was no doubt that he was dead, so I signed the certificate,” he said. “The morgue had no refrigeration. We couldn’t keep him even if we had wanted to or been ordered to do it.”

          Out of courtesy to the lieutenant who came from Police Central and his female companion, the captain took them to the temple in the woods and then to the cemetery where Bau was supposed to have been interred. The ground had dried up somewhat. The new caretaker informed them that the old, perpetually drunk gravedigger had died on a hot and humid night a couple of weeks ago in his tattered shed, clutching his last half-full bottle of one-hundred-proof rice wine Ruou De.

          “What was the cause of death?” Van asked.

          “The way he drank, I’d bet his liver was shot,” the new caretaker snorted. 

          “We also found an abandoned Suzuki 50 cc. behind the blockhouse ruins on the way into town,” the chief said when they got back to the Jeep. 

          “Blockhouse?” Beverly echoed. It had been a long time since Beverly had heard that word.

          “Yeah. It’s in ruins now. There’s no need for it since the war ended.”

          “No license plate?” Van asked.

          “No. I am not even sure if it was related to the murder.”

          “Can you trace the serial numbers on the scooter?” Beverly asked. It was her first question since arriving in Binh Duong.

          “You know how many scooters we have in Vietnam? The last estimate was ten million, one for every eight persons,” the captain said darkly. “And we don’t have a computerized registration system. It probably was stolen anyway.”

          “Did you dust it for fingerprints?” she asked.

          “It had been raining steadily for a week when we found it. I thought it would be pointless.”

           Beverly thought the chief of police sounded rather defensive.  “Is it being impounded?”

          “No. I gave it to one of my men.”

 

Beverly asked Van to stop the car at the blockhouse on the way out of Binh Duong and they got out. The small, dilapidated concrete structure must have been built during the war against the French, Beverly thought. The police captain had assumed that this was used during the North and South conflict, but the South Vietnam army had been given a mandate to seek and destroy the infiltrating, and later invading, Communist troops, not hole up in garrisons with blockhouses like this one, as the French once did.

           She turned to Van.

          “What did you do during the war?”

          “I was just a kid in Hanoi when it ended. My two older brothers were conscripted into the Bo Doi and died in the South.”

          “My father killed himself when Saigon collapsed,” Beverly said.

          “Was he a high ranking official?”

Beverly shook her head.

          “Just a police colonel. On the thirtieth of April, 1975 when the North Vietnamese army was entering Saigon and the South Vietnam’s President went on the radio to surrender, my father shot himself in the head. My mother and I buried him in our family cemetery in Lai Thieu. You know Lai Thieu?”

          Van nodded.

          “I was born there.” Beverly lapsed into a long silence. “My mother was beside herself with grief. She refused to go to America with me. She wanted to stay and care for his grave.”

          They looked at the vestige of war. The ruins seemed the embodiment of the fate of the country torn after decades of conflict.

            “In the North, my mother didn’t have the bodies or the graves to care for,” Van said at length, his voice was dark. “She was devastated when my oldest brother was killed; then the other one two years later. All we were told was that they’d sacrificed. That was it. No bodies, no personal belongings. Just a note proclaiming her as a “Mother of Fallen Soldiers”. Afterwards, we learned that most of the dead were buried or abandoned where they died; almost none were brought home to their families.”

            They entered the blockhouse. It was dark, muddy, and full of graffiti. The inside was piled with trash and horde of rats scurrying everywhere. The stench of human waste was overpowering. They backed out fast and returned to the car.

          “I think the killer chose Binh Duong on purpose,” Beverly said.

          Van nodded.

          “The remote province, the incompetent police - no offense, Lieutenant - and the dead drunk who couldn’t find the corpse he’d buried...”

          “I was here a couple of months ago...with Bob,” Van said.

          “As a courtesy to the American consulate,” Beverly said.

          “So I didn’t really investigate.”

          “It’s understandable.”

          They were silent for a while.

          “They may be on the take, too,” Van said.

          “If they were paid to cover for the killer, then we might have a chance,” Beverly exclaimed.

          “You could be right. All we have to do is follow the money, but the trail could be a cold one.” Van glanced at Beverly. “You know what might’ve happened?”

          “Why don’t you tell me?”

          “A scenario could’ve gone like this: The chief of police would receive a phone call from someone who told him there was a dead man in the abandoned temple. His job was to make sure the body disappeared and there would be a sizable amount of dollars or a half a dozen bars of gold sent to him anonymously. It’s been done before.”

          “So everyone else just followed his order,” Beverly added.

          Van nodded.

          “And the chief is not likely to incriminate himself,” he said.

          “You’re right,” Beverly said with an air of resignation. “The trail would end with him. He wouldn’t even know where the bribe came from.”

          “I’m sometimes torn between the way business is being conducted in Vietnam and my training,” Van said. “Let me tell you a little story I learned when I was in England. After the war, a British reporter went into the deserted American Embassy in Saigon and found a familiar quote printed and framed on a wall. This is the quote,” Van switched to English, “Better to let them do it imperfectly than to do it perfectly yourself, for it’s their country, their way, and your time is short.”

          Beverly looked out at the serene and peaceful scenery, which belied the struggle of a people to get out from a life of poverty in the countryside.  “Who said it?”

          “I don’t remember. I just thought about it when you mentioned how incompetent the police are...Or how money - bribes - could influence their conduct.” He looked at Beverly. “You’re now a stranger in this land. It’s their way.... It’s   their  country...and your  time is short.”

          Beverly nodded absently. Her gaze was attracted to a green bamboo grove far from the main road. Van noticed it.

          “You understand the term ‘green bamboo’?” he asked.

          “Why?”

          “Because you’re a southerner, and you’ve been away for a long time; I’m not sure you understand it.”

          “Educate me then.”

          “In ancient time, the bamboo grove - Luy Tre - acted as a stronghold to protect the people from outside aggression. The word “luy” means a fortress. Now, the green bamboo - Luy Tre Xanh - is a symbol of the peaceful and harmonious life in the villages. It evokes tender feelings once you are in the countryside. When you come back from traveling, the sight of a green bamboo grove is the first welcoming sign as you approach your village. Artists use green bamboo in arts, poetry, songs, and literature to portray the image of a benign and peaceful Vietnam.”

          “I knew the words Luy Tre Xanh, but never was able to understand it the way you just explained to me,” Beverly admitted. She felt ashamed for her ignorance. I need to learn more about my country’s culture, Beverly told herself.

          “The thing that happened in Binh Duong, and the impotence of the National Police - me - in investigating the Vietkieu’s death means that the green bamboo grove again reverts to its ancient use: Acting as a shield to keep outside influence from intruding.” Van stopped for a moment. “There was a northern proverb about such an independent spirit when Vietnam was under monarchy: The village’s bylaw beats the King’s edict. I have another name for it.”

          “What is that?”

          “Green bamboo justice,” Van said.

          “So, it’s like the rule of the jungle beats out the law of the land?”

          “Pretty much.”

          “You are such a scholar,” Beverly proclaimed.

          “Even a kid in the North would know that.”

          “You make me feel so inferior. I now know more about America than I do about Vietnam.”

          “You’ve been away almost thirty years,” Van defended her. “Now, what do you know about white bamboo?” he deadpanned.

          Beverly turned to look at Van to see if he was serious.

          Van burst out laughing. “Sorry, I was pulling your leg.”

          Beverly pretended to pull a long face then started to laugh, too.


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