There was no pattern to the murders, no common thread other than the fact that the victims were all vacationers, robbed of their possessions and slain in seemingly random crimes. Authorities across three continents and a dozen nations had no idea they were all looking for same man: Charles Sobhraj, aka “The Serpent.”
A handsome Frenchman of Vietnamese and Indian origin, Sobhraj targeted backpackers on the “hippie trail” between Europe and South Asia. A master of deception, he used his powerful intellect and considerable sex appeal to lure naïve travelers into a life of crime. When they threatened to turn on him, Sobhraj murdered his acolytes in cold blood. Between late 1975 and early 1976, a dozen corpses were found everywhere from the boulevards of Paris to the slopes of the Himalayas to the back alleys of Bangkok and Hong Kong. Some police experts believe the true number of Sobhraj’s victims may be more than twice that amount.
Serpentine is the “grotesque, baffling, and hypnotic” true story of one of the most bizarre killing sprees in modern history (San Francisco Chronicle). Edgar Award–winning author Thomas Thompson’s mesmerizing portrait of a notorious sociopath and his helpless prey “unravels like fiction, but afterwards haunts the reader like the document it is” (The Plain Dealer, Cleveland).
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By Thomas Thompson
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2017 Thomas Thompson
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Behind bamboo screens, in the charity ward of the Catholic hospital in Saigon, lower-class women in final labor screamed. They beseeched their gods and cursed their bellies and received small solace from the nuns who always found out which girls had no legal husbands and whose sins should thus be reprimanded by Mother Church. It was April 1944. The room swam in thickest heat. The women, most of them very young, lay in pools of sweat and listened to their fears and to the crackling of an electric storm that hurled bolts of lightning at the hospital. Everything stank. The bed that contained Song was filthy when they brought her to it, and now, after two days of trying to squeeze the child from her thin frame, it was a battlefield.
Song suffered in silence. The pain was second nature now and screaming did not soften it. She envied the other girls who had come to this room and endured the contractions and the sharp tongues of the nuns and were wheeled away. Presumably they were holding babies now in contented arms, the progeny of war. One girl was pregnant with the baby of a Japanese naval captain, part of the invading force that had seized Indochina in 1940 as easily as plucking a mango from a tree. Of course, this captain could not marry Song's friend — not until the war was done and the Japanese possessed the entire world — but the fortunate creature would live in a nice apartment near the river and have a servant to send out for sweets and cigarettes.
Song congratulated her friend and prayed for the infant when they took her away. She also held the hand of a frightened girl not yet fifteen who carried a Frenchman's seed, but in her solicitude was a tinge of envy that Song knew was shameful but that she could not conceal. Many of her friends had French lovers, and all of them were well treated. They bragged of going to Paris one day when the war was over, and although Song had no real understanding of where Paris was located, she comprehended that it was a prize. Certainly the French men were the most handsome in Saigon, be they soldiers or civil servants, even though during these war years they bowed lower than their masters, the Japanese. A delicate balance existed between the French, who in theory owned the country, and the Japanese, who so easily had conquered it. Those French who swore allegiance to the Vichy government were permitted to stay and operate Saigon's bureaucracy — just as they had done for almost half a century. Thus, in the port which had become the busiest in Asia, Japanese warships bearing the rising red sun nuzzled next to French cargo vessels, a strange and tenuous marriage.
Waves of excruciating new pain swept over Song in her fortieth hour of labor and she cried out, fearful that death had come to take her. She tore off the thin and dirty sheet, arching her naked back as high as it would go, putting a strand of her own hair between her teeth to bite on. One of the nuns came upon hearing the terrified girl and put her hand on Song's belly and said the baby would soon appear.
"Who is the father?" demanded the nun. In her agony, Song shook her head in refusal. She did not want to tell. "God is punishing you," said the nun. "God does not make it easy for the fornicator. God wants you to suffer for breaking the commandments." With that, the nun went away to find the doctor, muttering all the way about country girls who come to Saigon and stain the laws of God.
It had not been in Song's scheme of things to be in this bed, trapped by an unwanted new life. She had left her village in the wetlands when she was not yet fifteen, over the protests and warnings of her family. Saigon was evil, lectured her mother. Her prophecy was that Song would find nothing there but pain and disgrace. The mother had even crept into her daughter's room and clipped off her toenails and, at dawn, threw them into the cooking fire. When dark green smoke rose from the flames, Song's mother pronounced it to be an omen. Song was not dissuaded — her mother could find an omen in the way a bird sang or a stalk of corn grew. Defying her family, she walked more than a hundred kilometers to Saigon, refusing every oxcart that offered her a ride. On her journey she fortified herself by reassurances that there was more to life than balancing a harness with twin water buckets on her shoulders, or crouching in rice paddies to pull the weeds and staying ever alert for the tiny serpents that lived in the muck and bit farmers' ankles. From her earliest years, Song had been told she was bright with an ability to learn. Everyone also said she was pretty, with long, shining black hair and a cheerful air. It must be true, she told herself, for now she was outside the perimeters of her village, and men who had never seen her before were slowing their carts and stopping on the road to flirt and tease. For the first time, Song felt the promise of power that was in beauty.
Within a few days, Song found a job washing melons for a merchant who sold to restaurants. She was one of a thousand women who worked in the open air vegetable market, most of whom were old and wrinkled and hidden beneath cone-shaped straw hats that blocked the sun. Song knew she stood out, bare-headed, getting to the stand before sunrise and arranging the shining fruit in such graceful displays that the French chefs always praised her. They flirted, too, and at that Song laughed and looked boldly back at them, even though she could not speak their language. One day an old Vietnamese man who owned a popular cafe bought melons and asked Song if she would like to better herself. Would she not prefer to wear silk instead of black cotton pajamas, and work inside, in a cool place, rather than under the tropical sun? He offered her a job as waitress, and though Song would have preferred that he was French, she accepted.
Before a year had passed, Song had managed diplomatically to resist the old gentleman's occasional lunges and had learned the abacus well enough to become cashier. She sat by the doorway, directly in front of a large window that she filled with plants, and she wore bright silk dresses and put fresh blossoms in her hair. The men who ate in the restaurant usually found an excuse to linger beside the cashier when they paid the bill, and the proprietor did not object. He knew that Song was more of an attraction that his noodles and spicy beef wrapped in lettuce, particularly now that he often substituted diced rat as wartime filling.
In the summer months of 1943, Song came to notice a foreign man who dined alone each night in the restaurant. He was tall and rather fair and handsome. Song was unable to discern his nationality. All she knew was that he was not Oriental and that he stole glances at her throughout his meal. But when he paid his bills, he never spoke, other than to smile and murmur "thank you" in broken Vietnamese. For a time, Song assumed the man was French, but when she addressed him in the new language she was learning from customers, he could not answer. One evening he paid his bill and thrust a package at Song before he hurried away. When she opened it, Song discovered an exquisite gown and a note, painstakingly printed in French, asking her to go for a boat ride on the Dong Nai River. When he returned the next night and took his customary table without daring to look at the cashier, Song sent over a note. "Thank you so much," it read. "Yes." His cry of joy was heard over the entire restaurant.
On their first date, Song learned that her admirer was an Indian in his early forties from a town near Bombay. He was a tailor who lived in Saigon and both lived and worked in one room. The machine on which he sewed was an old one, operated by a foot pedal, but from it emerged dress whites for officers and soft, pretty blouses for their women. He worked from before sunup until it was too dark for his eyes to see the stitches. It was his plan to build this one-room operation into a thriving business, then branch out with affiliated shops in Saigon, perhaps Hong Kong and other capitals if the war ever ended. One day, the tailor promised, he would be rich.
Life in one cramped room was not what Song had dreamed of when she left her native village, nor had she ever found Indian men to be particularly appealing. But there was something in the tailor's old-fashioned passion for work, and his ambition, and his almost adolescent infatuation for her that touched Song. Within a few weeks, she moved into the room and became the mistress of a man whose name was impossible for her to pronounce: Hotchand Bhawnani Sobhraj. He brought her white orchids and sweet oranges and gold buttons.
Not long thereafter, the tailor's mood swung abruptly. He was not at all happy when Song told him that she was pregnant. Nor was he convinced that he was the father, because, as he heatedly reminded Song, she flirted with every man who came to the restaurant. That was no longer a problem, yelled Song in angry retort, because she had just been fired. The proprietor threw her out upon learning that the girl who had always rejected his attentions had succumbed to the sweet talk of an impoverished tailor — and a foreigner at that. Mr. Sobhraj, as she called him, reluctantly permitted his pregnant mistress to stay in his room, but during the final months of her gestation, each day was acrimonious. As her belly swelled, Song hated the tailor and the seed he had planted.
The doctor who attended her in the labor room was kind, with a caring face, and he assured Song that everything was normal. But as the anesthetic seeped into her, Song felt desperation and she beseeched the physician to pay attention. Surely the baby was deformed! It did not want to come out of her womb. If it was a monster, she wanted it destroyed. And she did not want to know. Just tell her that the child was born dead. Every mother has such fears, soothed the doctor. Put those thoughts out of your head. But Song had heard bombs exploding during her pregnancy! And even though she had always pressed her hands to her stomach to let the baby know that she would protect it from harm, Song had come to believe that the unborn infant had been affected by the tumult of war. Just before she fell into unconsciousness, Song wished that she had possessed more courage when, early in her pregnancy, she had gone to an abortionist and watched the old woman mix a foul potion of secret herbs and laxatives. Song had run out of the hut before the glass was offered her.
She had not tasted a drop, and now it was too late.
A son was delivered precisely at midnight, and the miracle of squawling new life softened even the scolding nun when she placed the baby in Song's exhausted arms and instructed her how to nurse. "He is perfect," said the nun, "all thanks be to God." The next day, Song washed herself and the baby and put a blossom in her hair. She waited for the tailor to come, having sent him a message that their son awaited his father. But Mr. Sobhraj did not visit the hospital, nor was he receptive when Song and the baby soon thereafter arrived at his shop. He made one thing clear before he would grant them admittance: he was not admitting paternity of this child, nor would he accept responsibility for its upbringing. Those were his conditions. Song was too tired to argue.
At the end of World War II, the Japanese left Saigon, to be replaced by a British occupation force. But the country enjoyed little peace. Less than a fortnight after the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, Ho Chi Minh seized control of Hanoi in the north and proclaimed that his coalition of nationalist rebels — called the Viet Minh — would soon unite a country so long ravaged and abused by foreign colonial powers.
Song knew little of politics, nor did she care, but she heard stories of new violence in the city. Buildings owned by the French blew up from time to time, and once she saw two bloated bodies floating in the Saigon River. Mr. Sobhraj assured her that such events were not important, better that she concentrate on learning how to sew buttonholes and measure inseams. This she accepted until the morning that she dressed up her infant son in a new linen shirt and trousers that the tailor had sewn and took him in a taxi to visit a girl friend. The little boy was called Gurmukh, an Indian name that Mr. Sobhraj had come up with, although the child had no official identity. Wartime records had been poorly kept, and aside from an entry in a hospital record, the baby did not exist in the eyes of the transitional government. Song did not particularly like the name. Gurmukh was strange-sounding and hard to pronounce, but it stuck.
When the taxi stopped for a traffic light in a section of Saigon she did not know, the doors were suddenly yanked open by Vietnamese men holding guns. They dragged Song and her baby out of the taxi, ignoring the mother's screams and passing the child between them like a soccer ball. Then one of the men pressed a rough cloth smelling of fumes against Song's nose. Before she blacked out, she saw another man putting a blindfold over her baby's eyes, wide with fear.
The men were Viet Minh partisans and by nightfall they had delivered a ransom note to Sobhraj the Tailor. Kidnaping was common in Saigon in 1945, particularly against foreigners whom the Viet Minh felt were intruders and should contribute toward cleansing the country of alien powers. The ransom note demanded $10,000, and inside the envelope was a scrap of the linen shirt that the baby had worn. It was torn and wet and flecked red.
Several years later, in a letter written to a friend, Sobhraj the Tailor remembered his predicament. "I could not have raised $1,000," he wrote, "much less $10,000. And I was afraid to go to the police because my visa to work in Saigon had always been a problem. It happened that one of my customers was a British officer. I was sewing him a suit of white linen. When he came to get it that night, I told him of what had happened to my wife and the boy. He rounded up a group of his soldier friends, some Americans, too, I believe, and they raided the house where the kidnapers were living, and they freed Song and Gurmukh. I made all of the brave men — eight of them, I recall — a new suit to thank them, even thought I have often thought it would have been better for the Viet Minh to keep Song."
Mother and son had been held hostage for three days before rescue came, sustained only by sips of water and a few spoonfuls of cold rice. Afterwards, when she told the story, Song was reassured by friends and family that the baby was too young to be seriously affected by the experience. But she wondered, particularly when the boy woke up screaming for years thereafter in the middle of the night. It was also difficult for her to forget the tailor's attitude upon her deliverance from kidnapers. Sobhraj had lectured her, suggesting that Song had perhaps brought the abduction on herself, the way she dressed in sexy clothes and painted her lips and toes the same lacquer red. People must think she is a prosperous night club hostess, with a rich patron.
The boy now became witness to a year of increasing anger and accusation as Song and the tailor destroyed their relationship. Song discovered a letter that indicated her lover had another woman (perhaps a legitimate wife, although he would not admit it) back in India, where he went once or twice a year on extended visits. When she confronted him with this discovery, the tailor fired back with his accusations — principally that Song was seen now and then in the cafes of Saigon, drinking wine with French soldiers. How many secret lovers did she have? "How did this country girl become a bad woman so quickly?" wrote Sobhraj to his cousin in Bombay. "She spends all of her time painting her nails and her face and cares nothing about me or Gurmukh. She also gambles."
Before the child was two, his mother packed up all of her gowns, each sewn by her lover, and moved out on an afternoon when the tailor was worshiping at a Hindu temple. That night, Sobhraj went to a cafe, ordered an uncharacteristic bottle of champagne (for as a Hindu he rarely drank) and announced to the other customers that he was celebrating the successful removal of a tumor.
Excerpted from Serpentine by Thomas Thompson. Copyright © 2017 Thomas Thompson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
- Cover Page
- Title Page
- Author’s Note
- Book One: Charlot
- Chapter One
- Chapter Two
- Chapter Three
- Chapter Four
- Chapter Five
- Chapter Six
- Chapter Seven
- Chapter Eight
- Chapter Nine
- Book Two: Three Women
- Chapter Ten
- Chapter Eleven
- Chapter Twelve
- Book Three: Charles and Hélène
- Chapter Thirteen
- Chapter Fourteen
- Chapter Fifteen
- Chapter Sixteen
- Chapter Seventeen
- Chapter Eighteen
- Chapter Nineteen
- Chapter Twenty
- Book Four: Serpentine
- Chapter Twenty-One
- Chapter Twenty-Two
- Chapter Twenty-Three
- Chapter Twenty-Four
- Chapter Twenty-Five
- Chapter Twenty-Six
- Chapter Twenty-Seven
- Chapter Twenty-Eight
- Chapter Twenty-Nine
- Chapter Thirty
- Chapter Thirty-One
- Chapter Thirty-Two
- Chapter Thirty-Three
- Chapter Thirty-Four
- Chapter Thirty-Five
- Chapter Thirty-Six
- Chapter Thirty-Seven
- Chapter Thirty-Eight
- Chapter Thirty-Nine
- Chapter Forty
- Chapter Forty-One
- Chapter Forty-Two
- Chapter Forty-Three
- Chapter Forty-Four
- Chapter Forty-Five
- Chapter Forty-Six
- Book Five: Destinies
- About the Author
- Copyright Page
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Could not put the story down. Well written intrigue.