Read an ExcerptThe Silent Assassin
By Andrews, Lori
St. Martin's Paperbacks
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
The tank that ended the Vietnam War over thirty years earlier by crashing through the gates of the presidential palace provided cover for Huu Duoc Chugai as he strode to the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. At 2:00 a.m. the few people on the street were drunks or lovers, probably with little interest in the tall forty-year old, but Chugai fell into a routine of keeping in the shadows, his head down. His pace picked up on Vo Van Tan Street, then slowed as he weaved through the arsenal of captured American planes and bombs outside the museum. He swore under his breath as he clipped his shoulder against the rocket launcher attached to a rusting American helicopter.
He glanced around as he reached the door of the main building, saw no one, and let himself in with a key. Chugai was a man who made the most of opportunities. The ministry which previously employed him oversaw the park system, including the museum. He'd hung on to a key to the museum, not knowing at the time how he would use it. His life was like the construction of the tunnels at Cu Chi. He believed in stealth, in collecting and manipulating information, in winning at all costs. Sometimes he couldn't tell if it was his birthright or the two years he spent in the United States that had honed his resolve. But hisplanning was about to pay off.
He locked the museum door behind him, congratulating himself on his choice of a meeting place. When the general arrived, Chugai planned to walk him past the photo of smiling Americans sitting down in front of the heads of two decapitated North Vietnamese soldiers. It would remind the man of his debt, of how Chugai's father had saved his life during the war.
Chugai moved into the room that held a tiger cage for prisoners of war. He lit a cigarette, thought about the warm bed of his mistress he'd just left, and smiled again at his own cleverness. He'd arrived a half hour before the proposed meeting time and was keeping watch so he could let the old North Vietnamese solider in. Or maybe he would move back through the museum, so the man would knock and wait for a few moments, just to show him Chugai was running the show.
His thought was abruptly interrupted by an arm reaching around his neck and grasping him in a choke hold. His cigarette fell to the floor as his assailant spun him around. Chugai looked down in embarrassment at the general, who was three inches shorter than him. How the hell had he gotten in and crept up so silently?
The older Vietnamese man grinned, with a touch of madness in the corner of his eyes. Chugai was sufficiently chagrined that he forgot his grand plan to walk the general through the museum to seal his loyalty. Instead, he thrust an envelope into the general's hand. The man didn't even open it. Instead, he held his pointer finger up, signaling "one."
Chugai knew what he meant. He'd kill once more and then he would consider the debt repaid. Chugai opened his mouth to speak but the man was no longer listening. Instead, the general had moved over to the French guillotine that was on display.
The old man placed the envelope on the wooden bench at the bottom of guillotine and let loose the weighty blade that had been used to kill prisoners of war. The crushing thump severed the envelope in half, shredding and scattering the Vietnamese and American currency it held. As Chugai rushed over to see if the airline ticket was still intact, the general disappeared out of the museum.
Screw it, thought Chugai. If the general wants to do it his way, so be it. Chugai put the mangled currency and plane ticket into his pocket. He didn't care how the general got to Washington, D.C. as long as he killed the bastard.
Luke knelt on the hand-loomed rug next to the bed and started zipping his guitar into its traveling case. The loud crackle of the industrial-sized zipper brought Alex in from the next room. Her long, wavy blond hair cascaded over her black turtleneck and she still looked flushed from their lovemaking. She walked up behind him. “I heard the zipper and thought it was your pants coming back off.”
He turned toward her, still kneeling, and faced the fly of her jeans. He reached his hand up to the snap at the top. “Dare me and I’ll have you back in bed in twenty seconds flat.”
She thought about how that might make him late for his flight to London, and how she’d probably lose her favorite parking spot at work. Then she smiled down at him. “Dare you,” she said.
A flurry of clothes streaked across the room like the streamers from a New Year’s Eve popper. She fell back on the bed and he joined her, licking her mischievously down her body, a favor she promptly returned. Then he moved up over her and they made love tenderly, gingerly, his face down close to hers, nose to nose, their sighs turning into gasps. As they were about to climax, they rolled across the bed, so that she was on top of him, almost seated, lifting herself up and down. Her hair shook like a horse’s mane.
She came first and the rolling motion caused him to climax and groan. She flopped over next to him and buried her head in the crook of his arm. Brushing her hair back from her eyes, she noticed the wristwatch she’d failed to remove before lovemaking. “Yikes, Luke, we’d better hit it.”
She got out of bed, but Luke feigned exhaustion. She bent over to shake his shoulder and her cell phone rang. A tune by Luke’s rock band, the Cattle Prods.
“Oh, Luke, you didn’t reprogram this again, did you?” She was glad it hadn’t rung like that in some high-level meeting.
“Alex Blake,” she said into the receiver, as Luke continued to simulate a coma.
The familiar voice of Major Dan Wilson said simply, “You’ve got a date with a corpse at eleven hundred hours.”
She hung up and addressed the body on her bed. “Up and at ’em, Luke. You’re not my only stiff today.”
A few minutes later, Luke and Alex had packed the trunk of her battered ’63 yellow T-Bird and were racing to National Airport. She couldn’t bear to refer to it by its new name, Ronald Reagan International Airport. Hadn’t they named enough stuff after him? Was it true that every big city now had a Reagan Street, a Reagan School, probably even a Reagan Prison? Was anything safe from the creeping Reaganisms? She could imagine a day when they would start renaming people’s body parts. Yes, my Reagan bone broke just above the Coca-Cola cartilage.
At the United terminal, Luke lingered to say good-bye. He handed her a CD of songs he’d recorded for her. She looked at this almost handsome man as he shouldered his guitar case and gripped the handle of a meager duffel bag of clothes. He loved playing and writing lyrics so much that he’d do it for squat—and, in fact, earned only slightly more than that. But the music did provide him an excuse to see the world. When an old bandmate in London offered to put him up in exchange for Luke helping the guy move his piano to his new flat, Luke jumped at the chance and the Cattle Prods Second World Tour was born. After London, there would be gigs in Spain, France, and Denmark.
“I haven’t taken any vacation. Maybe I’ll meet you in Barcelona,” Alex said.
Luke looked down at the ground, then back up at her. “That’s not so great,” Luke said. “I’m staying with Vanessa."
Alex’s mouth gaped before she could hide her feelings. And then the curbside skycap told Luke he’d better haul ass if he wanted to make the flight.
Luke stepped forward. “It’s nothing. She’s just a friend. I’ll e-mail you once I land.” He bent over to kiss her, but she turned her face and the smack landed on her cheek.
Luke ran into the terminal and Alex started the old T-Bird. As she sped toward the George Washington Memorial Parkway, she pumped up the heater to chase away the chill she felt, a combination of the unseasonably cool December day and the icy thoughts running through her mind. Who the hell was Vanessa? Probably someone he’d met on the First World Tour, last year, after he and Alex had broken up.
The parkway was more like a parking lot that time of day. Alex used her time in traffic to pick up her messages at work. One from Dan, left before he reached her at home about the autopsy, and another ordering her to meet with the head of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, Colonel Jack Wiatt, at 2:00 p.m.
As a civilian working at the AFIP, she bristled at the term order, especially when it came from Wiatt, with whom she’d tangled on more than one occasion. When President Bradley Cotter had appointed him head of the AFIP a year earlier—and not head of the FBI, which he’d wanted—he’d practically gone postal. But it turned out the AFIP suited him. Overseen by the U.S. Department of Defense, the compound functioned like a city, with its own fire department, police station, and hospital. The facility sat on 113 out-of-the-way acres in D.C. near the Maryland border, four acres larger than the Vatican. Like the Vatican, the AFIP had a surprisingly wide reach, often working in mysterious—or at least sub rosa—ways. It oversaw forensic investigations in the United States and abroad involving the military and the Executive Branch—all without the close scrutiny that the public and Congress gave other institutions like the FBI and CIA. A high-testosterone soldier who’d led men in every war, incursion, altercation, and conflict since Vietnam, Wiatt was a man for whom rules were flexible. Running an institution where they could be bent suited him. But he and Alex often butted heads as she tried to do her job using genetics to create biowarfare vaccines and he pulled her into activities that took her away from her work.
Once she reached the compound—a frustrating forty-five minutes later—Alex nosed her car toward her favorite parking spot, but, of course, it was now occupied. The only space left was across the base from the main AFIP entrance. She walked to the door of the National Museum of Health and Medicine, which was connected by tunnels to both the AFIP, where she worked, and the Walter Reed Medical Center, where she often provided second opinions for prominent patients.
As Alex approached the museum, she was surprised to see twenty or thirty people outside, some holding placards. The museum was usually a sleepy place, with tours of third graders staring at the microscopes and medical oddities like the stomach-shaped hair ball from a teenage girl who constantly chewed (and swallowed) her curls. This was a much different crowd. Elderly Vietnamese couples in cream-colored flowing pants and denim-clad college students carrying signs with phrases like let their spirits rest in peace. A thin white guy in his early twenties with a megaphone blocked the sidewalk. He shouted into the mouthpiece, “Give back the Trophy Skulls.”
He looked straight into Alex’s blue eyes, at her beguilingly sweet heart-shaped face. His gaze traveled down her body, noting her beat-up brown leather jacket and jeans, nicely taut over her lean, athletic curves. He handed her a placard to carry.
“No, thanks,” she said. “I work here.”
On the way to her lab, Alex stopped at the office of her best friend, Navy Lieutenant Barbara Findlay, the African-American lawyer who was the AFIP’s general counsel.
“So, what’s with the crowd outside?” Alex asked. She folded her legs under herself in the comfortable chair across from Barbara’s desk and reached into the cut-glass candy bowl that was Barbara’s way to get secretaries and generals alike to stop in and chat.
Barbara, poised and feisty in her crisp Navy uniform, leaned forward and pushed a Washington Post across her desk toward Alex. “Didn’t you see yesterday’s newspaper?”
Alex shook her head. “I was busy having good-bye sex with Luke.”
“Breakup sex or tour-schedule sex?”
Alex thought for a moment. “Not sure yet.”
“Frankly, Alex, your taste in men—”
“At least I’m taking a swim in the dating pool. You haven’t even put on your suit.”
Barbara laughed. “A teenage daughter and parking lot full of protestors keeps me busy enough.”
Alex looked down at the front-page photo of a small hill with a pagoda-shaped pillar of five carved stones on top of it. She read the caption. “The Ear Mound?”
“Yes, the Korean Ear Mound in Kyoto, Japan. A five-hundred-year-old pile of ears that Samurai warriors cut off of Korean soldiers.”
“The Samurai generals got a bonus for each soldier they killed in Korea. At first they sent back heads, but when the ships got too crowded, they started dispatching just the ears.”
Alex looked at the mound of dirt as high as a house. “They must have killed tens of thousands.”
Barbara nodded. “Recently, a group of Korean monks placed fifty Korean flags on top of the mound and began to negotiate for a return of the ears, at least spiritually, to Korea. That’s what provoked the Vietnamese Ambassador to the U.S. to contact us. Some U.S. GIs kept skulls of North Vietnamese soldiers. Most of the skulls were confiscated when they tried to bring them back through U.S. Customs. And the skulls ended up here. We’ve never displayed them, though, because the soldiers shouldn’t have taken them out of Vietnam. We just stuck them in a drawer.”
“So what’s the big deal? Give them back, let them rest in peace.”
“It’s not that simple,” Barbara said, getting up from her desk chair. She motioned for Alex to come with her.
As the two exited the office, Barbara walked with the dramatic posture of a soldier, her body forcefully and efficiently slicing down the hall. The kinetic Alex commandeered more space.
They approached the storage area of the museum, and Barbara said, “Wiatt wants me to see if I can find a way to delay their return, some legal maneuver.”
Alex wondered why Wiatt would care about sending back a drawerful of skulls. Sure, he’d fought in Vietnam, but hadn’t the whole nation moved on?
“What’s his problem?” Alex asked as Barbara approached a cabinet in the storage room.
“Well,” Barbara said, “the U.S. soldiers added a few touches of their own.”
Barbara pulled open a drawer, and Alex peered in. The skulls stared back at her. Some had grotesque faces painted on them; a few had their craniums lopped off so that they could serve as ashtrays. A half dozen had been painted neon colors and covered with graffiti, with holes drilled through the top and candles jammed in.
Alex’s eyes grew wide and she shook her head. She’d seen bodies and bones in all states of decay, disease, and disfigurement. But graffiti on someone’s superciliary arch? This was chilling and demeaning. “Who would do something like this?”
“Now you see. We can’t let them go back like this.”
Copyright © 2007 by Lori Andrews. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2007 by Lori Andrews
Excerpted from The Silent Assassin by Andrews, Lori
Copyright © 2008 by Andrews, Lori. Excerpted by permission.
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