Viet Nam, 1963. A female Viet Cong assassin is trawling the boulevards of Saigon, catching US Army officers off-guard with a single pistol shot, then riding off on the back of a scooter. Although the US military is not officially in combat, sixteen thousand American servicemen are stationed in Viet Nam “advising” the military and government. Among them are Ellsworth Miser and Clovis Robeson, two army investigators who have been tasked with tracking down the daring killer.
Set in the besieged capital of a new nation on the eve of the coup that would bring down the Diem regime and launch the Americans into the Viet Nam War, Play the Red Queen is Juris Jurjevics’s capstone contribution to a lifelong literary legacy: a tour-de-force mystery-cum-social history, breathtakingly atmospheric and heartbreakingly alive with the laws and lawlessness of war.
|Publisher:||Soho Press, Incorporated|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.20(d)|
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The dead American major lay faceup on the sidewalk in his stocking feet. His khaki shirtfront gleamed with blood, a sizable pool now spreading toward the gutter. A stray dog, weighing the odds of sampling some, cringed when a waiter clouted it with a broom. Street hustlers with pointy sideburns cackled as their leader mimicked the mutt’s lapping tongue.
Two plainclothes Vietnamese dicks were chatting up some military police in green fatigues with QC in white letters on their black helmet liners. The tallest of the army cops stood bareheaded in an open jeep, forearms leaning on the bar of red flashers that ran along the top of the windshield. Our own Air Force military police were in khakis and black boots, MP emblazoned in white on their sleeve brassards and helmets. One sergeant took 35-millimeter photographs of the major while another readied a body bag.
Saigon municipal police—who everyone called “white mice” both for their all-white uniforms and their cowardly inclinations—busied themselves waving away vehicles streaming past the cordon. The higher ranks stood in the shade and made a bored show of checking their wristwatches, as it was nearly time for their ngu trua, the long midday break the Vietnamese took during the worst of the heat. Another American getting himself murdered had them acting even more inconvenienced than usual.
As agents of the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division, me and Robeson had jurisdiction over the victim; the Viets, over the killer. I flipped open my spiral notebook and entered 11:28 hours, 16 October 1963. Then the basics: Staff Sergeant Ellsworth Miser and Sergeant Clovis Auguste Robeson, CID investigators at scene. One entry wound, upper torso.
From the damage, it looked like the round might’ve flattened as it struck, smacking into his chest like a quarter driven by a pickaxe. Sergeant Robeson turned the body partway but found no obvious exit wound. The slug was lodged somewhere in the corpse.
In the first incident, a week and a half ago, the shooter had aimed for body mass on an American army captain and let the bullet do its work. Six days later she’d gone for a head shot on a major. “Hit ’im straight between his running lights,” Freddie Crouch had announced to the office on returning from the scene.
Lying in front of us, her third kill was much less messy. Perfect placement: straight to the heart. Struck in the breast pocket, the major had been slammed right out of his shoes. The shot bordered on impossible, given the moving motorbike on which the sharpshooter had balanced, firing from behind the driver.
We approached the closest witness to the killing, a staff sergeant like me, three gold chevrons on his sleeve above a single rocker. He stopped teeter-tottering his café chair midair and lowered the front legs to the sidewalk.
“Can you describe the assailant?” I said, ready to take notes.
He reared up again on the back legs of the chair. The cap of his lighter chinged open and clicked shut over and over as he spoke.
“Drop-dead gorgeous, you might say.” He smiled faintly at his lame joke. “Way better-looking than my broad. Otherwise typical: no knockers, not much ass. Coal-black hair way past her shoulders. Slender as a sparrow.”
“Wearing?” Robeson said.
The sergeant didn’t so much as glance Robeson’s way. He looked straight at me like I’d asked the question. “An ao dai. White. Loose dark pants underneath.”
“Head covered?” I asked.
He nodded. “Cone hat tied under her chin.”
“No idea. Little. Course they’re all little. One cute baby-san, I tell ya. My Fifth ARVN guys iced some female VCs last week out in the boonies, but they were nothin’ to look at compared to this kid.”
“Kid? What age?”
“Maybe twenty, tops.” He clicked his Zippo shut and laid it on the pack. I read the sentiment etched into its side:
I love the
and the Army
loves fucking me
“She have the piece in a bag before she produced it?”
The sergeant lit a Lucky Strike and inhaled deeply. “Had it in this red silky scarf. Slipped away as the barrel came up. She fired as soon as she had the gun raised and nested.”
“Could you make out the weapon?”
“Looked to be a forty-five.”
A .45 pistol had a lot of stopping power but wasn’t everyone’s weapon of choice. The piece was a lot to lift—three pounds—and its iron sights sucked. The recoil from the large-caliber bullet was notoriously hard to handle. Harder still to hit anything at all with a .45, much less while balanced on the back of a moving vehicle. But smacking into you at high velocity, the stubby slugs could dislocate your shoulder if they so much as struck a finger. Like reaching up and catching a cannonball, our firearms instructors liked to boast. A .45 could knock you upside down if it struck low, or toss you backward like a puppet, as it had the major.
“She had no problem handling the kick?”
“None. One shot. No hesitation. Hit ’im dead center and flung ’im.”
“Standard issue forty-five?”
“Looked to be standard,” he said, “except the finish was lighter.”
“Shiny, you mean? Plated like?”
“No. Just not blued. And the grips . . . they could’ve been light too.”
“Not pimp grips, no. Not sparkly. More like bone.”
“Like that, yeah. Sort of grayish-yellow.”
Sweat dripped down my chin. I brushed it away.
“How is it you saw the grips,” Robeson interjected, “if she was clutching the piece?”
Again, the sergeant answered me. “She took it by the slide right after the discharge. Held it at her side like a hammer. Had a finger through the trigger guard riding away.”
“How far was she when she fired? Ten feet? Fifteen?”
“I’d say twenty-five to thirty.”
“Jesus. No mean feat.”
“She oughta shoot for their Olympic team, if the zips ever get their act together to have one.”
“You get a look at the motorbike driver?”
“Not a motorbike. A scooter. Young stud. Dark pants, red and black short-sleeve shirt. Plaid, like yours.”
Robeson and me had on our civvies: tan desert boots from the base exchange, beige socks, drip-dry pants. No underwear. CID credentials rode in the breast pockets of our short-sleeve shirts, left untucked to cover our holstered revolvers.
I glanced across the black macadam, trying to imagine the scene just before the shot. “The major, was he sitting when he got hit?”
“He had just stood up. The poor bastard was smiling.”
“He was leaving?” Robeson said.
“Don’t think so,” the sarge said to me. “Just got up.”
“Why, if he wasn’t leaving?”
“And you said he was smiling?”
“Yeah. The major said something as the weapon popped up.”
The sergeant frowned. “I wasn’t paying no mind. The gun had my full attention.”
“Who did he say it to?”
“Maybe the pro who had planted herself at his table. I’m not sure.”
“She still here?”
“No. When the little lady got splashed, she wailed and bolted.”
“And were you socializing with a tea girl too?”
“Yeah.” He nodded to where she stood, quaking.
I let the sergeant retreat to another table and went to talk to the tea girl who’d been sitting next to him during the attack. She was wearing white, as decreed by the Diem regime’s morality laws. The laws also forbade hostesses to consume alcohol, but a waiter was plying her with liquor after what she’d seen. “Lousy VC numba ten,” was the extent of her English. I took down her name from her hostess ID for our office interpreter to follow up, but I wasn’t expecting much from that quarter.
I blotted my eyes with my sleeve. “Lady Death,” the Saigon press had dubbed the shooter. At the shop we called her “the Red Queen” because a playing card bearing a red female figure in a cone hat and ao dai had been left at each of the first two shootings, a detail our boss had held back from the press. Though they’d have it soon enough: Saigon was a sieve.
Our military press was lucky to report on it at all. The new Armed Forces Radio broadcasts were censored both by the Vietnamese and by us in solidarity with our ally’s restricted news accounts. Also in keeping with our commanding general’s morale directive—no lurid shit. Our service rag wasn’t much better. Most days Stars and Stripes read like a small-town weekly filled with photo spreads of Saigon’s orphan boys learning “simple trades and civic responsibility” at the local Lions Club.
What it didn’t have was hard military news about Green Berets arming Montagnard tribesmen in the highlands and building fortified mountain camps for them along the border with Laos. Not a thing about our secret air bases in Thailand flying missions against VC supply lines running south down through Cambodia. Nada about the black-op coastal raiders launching out of Da Nang into North Viet Nam’s waters. Instead we got the “landslide” victory of the Vietnamese president’s party in a country that practically outlawed opposition, alongside stirring stories about American ground crews servicing choppers in the blazing sun and guys getting care packages from home. I could hardly wait for this year’s Christmas piece on Santa’s sleigh taking fire over Bien Hoa. But today there had been a rare short article—barely two inches of type—about the two previous attacks by the deadly damsel. No names or details, just a quick cautionary tale meant to warn uniformed advisors off Saigon’s streets, from its swank boulevards to its narrow stinking alleys.
An American MP brought over the major’s wallet and dog tags. James Calvin Furth, blood type A, Presbyterian. Officer and gentleman by Act of Congress, career concluded three thousand leagues from home. Back there it was a little before midnight, his kids asleep, his wife drifting off. Dreaming. Or maybe jarred awake by terrible dread like people bullshitted about in movies.