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—LeDallic and Lazarie! announced Dubois.
—LeDallic has been here longer than anyone, said Frémont. The room was lined with windows looking out over the trees and boulevards from an angle that somehow revealed no people at all. We newcomers threw ourselves into the creaking wicker chairs.
—How long have you been with Immigration? the captain asked me. You look to be the junior partner.
He couldn’t have been past forty yet his broad forehead was deeply lined, with eyebrows set so far apart as to sit nearly on his temples. A physiognomist might’ve spent an entire semester on him. I tried unsuccessfully to meet his gaze and realized that his left eye was glass—it contemplated a potted fern in the corner.
—In truth, sir, I stammered, you find me on my first day at this—
—First day? the captain shouted at Dubois. Why’d you bring him into this?
—But you needn’t worry! I said. If my colleague’s expertise can’t help, I happen to be a specialist in Vietnamese military history prior to European involvement! The captain cracked his knuckles against the arm of his chair.
—When did you start here? he asked Henri.
—In 1911. I’d heard that girls in this country could be had for nothing.
—And can they?
—Captain Tremier, said Frémont, is hoping our records will lead him to locate his mother, a Madame Tremier, who landed in—which year? I can’t read my own writing.
—October, 1909, answered Dubois.
—First name Adélie, the captain said. Adélie Tremier.
—Does that mean something to you, LeDallic? asked Frémont.
—Just that it’s nearly lunch, said Henri.
—She’ll celebrate her fifty-sixth birthday before long, said the captain, but the fact remains I haven’t seen or heard from her in twenty-seven years. Now, I have confirmed that on August 29 of ’09 she sailed from Marseilles for Saigon aboard the Salazie, and I trust you fellows will be able to do more with that information than I have. I’ve been trying to trace her since I was ten years old, but until recently the Messageries Maritimes had misplaced the relevant records.
—Typical of their inefficient practice back there, murmured Frémont.
—I did check the civil registers with the Ministry before coming to you, even the Saigon telephone directory for 1910, so if she did stay on here I—well, I can’t imagine where! Forgive me. It’s very seldom that I talk about her.
He massaged those distinctive brows. His unwavering glass eye was able to contain its emotion.
—The Salazie docked here in one piece? asked Henri.
—It was sunk in 1912. A cyclone off Madagascar.
—If it had gone down sooner that might have resolved your query. At that Frémont fingered his pencil nervously. I fixed the captain’s good eye with my most professional gaze.
—And she she departed in good health, twenty-seven years ago?
—Ah, said the captain. On the contrary, she spent the year before she went away convalescing from tuberculosis.
—Odds are she died en route then, Henri said. They threw her over to Poseidon.
—The good captain, announced Frémont, leaves for Haiphong tomorrow to join his new battalion, so you and Laramie—
—Lazarie, I said.
—The matter is in your hands. Locate her arrivals ledger, see where it leads you.
Henri twisted a rat-tail of hair between his fingers.
—But, now, you see, Captain Fornier, you really must picture the stinking piles of work upon our desks. If the dear woman’s indeed lost herself, surely the police, the secret police, will have—
—Henri, young Dubois said, this is the Department of Immigration for the Vice-Regency of Cochin-China—
—Yes, I’ve seen the letterhead, said Henri.
—And as we’ve told Captain Tremier, we have proved and will continue to prove ourselves capable regarding any matter called to our attention simply as a matter of pride. What’s more—and this point should hardly concern the captain—Paris has lately discussed how best to make each department better accountable, not only in light of economic conditions—
—Discord, said Frémont. These people’s laughable notion of self-government!
—Only a natural progression, said Dubois, as we shepherd the protectorate toward maturity. In coming months there will be audits at every level and, should we be found wanting, Paris of course has the power to ransack our funding, our staff, and apparently even our pensions.
—Our pensions! said Henri. Lazarie, you’re done for
—This “discord,” is that these Bolshevists? the captain asked. I’m meant to ferret them out around Haiphong.
—Their political stripe is irrelevant, said Dubois. They’re only youngsters looking for excitement.
—Same boys at home would be content to get drunk, said Frémont.
—To whom exactly are we referring? I asked. Is this some tribal group?
—Here’s a useful professor! said Henri. Every idiot knows there are Bolshevik rats filling Paris, didn’t they come fill your academic ears with all their talk of Indo-Chinese autonomy and a free drink special if ordered before five o’clock?
—Our faculty is aware that something is afoot, I said. But there’s no way to make a study of a thing while it’s still unfolding, is there? Perspective is required if we—
—I’ve met with the police about them any number of times, announced Frémont, and I do find the whole situation rather tiring. These are sons of rich men, landowners, these are native boys without a care in the world, yet they run their mouths about independence and they do it right in Paris, in the lion’s den, because they know how soft the courts are back there— for a conversation that’d draw the death penalty here no one so much as blinks. Now any number of them are trying to sneak home and we’re expected to catch them, despite their slipping in under assumed names and dressed as fishermen. And I would like to catch them! I shouldn’t like to see what happens to my Michelin dividends if a lot of hoodlums burn a plantation down!
—The death penalty? I asked. For a conversation?
—Certainly! said Frémont. Hangings by the dozen.
—If we may return the topic to my mother, the captain said, I have an item which may prove useful.
From his breast pocket he drew a photograph in a small oval frame and leaned across to place it in my hand. No one spoke, though Henri’s chair creaked peevishly. The picture showed a smiling couple and long-haired child in a white pinafore; the man appeared to be in the act of graduating from the Sorbonne.
—Look at the regalia, I said. Your father was an engineer! Around 1905, judging by her blouse—I’ve a picture of my mother in a number just like it. This is you, isn’t it?
—I was the only child.
—It’s not hard to see he’s your father, with those eyes of his. Ah, and your mother, yes. Striking.
Henri rose to look over my shoulder: the future captain upon her knee, Adélie Tremier flashed white teeth at the camera while her masses of black hair gave the impression, even in that diminutive portrait, of a gale gusting around her. And there was a particular squint to her eyes that somehow spoke to me, despite every likelihood the woman had been dead two decades, of lust.