Tet, the Lunar New Year. For the Vietnamese it was the year’s major festival, like Christmas and Easter packed into four days. Not only this, the Vietnamese do not celebrate individual birthdays; at Tet, everyone becomes one year older.
Tet: no one goes to work and the markets are closed. Houses are filled with flowers and everyone dresses in new clothes. Even the street children buy a new shirt or a new pair of pants.
Tet: the air is filled with a cacophony of flashes and bangs from the firecrackers lit to chase away evil spirits. Merchants spend vast sums on them, hanging long strings outside their shops believing the more they have, the more business they will attract in the coming year.
Tet: a time to celebrate, and to feast. A time to visit one’s family, and pay off all old debts. A time to honor one’s ancestors.
It was a hot, desolate afternoon. Nguyen Hue street, the Street of Flowers, was a mass of color. The appearance of these flowers every year seemed almost miraculous in a country pocked with bomb craters, vast expanses of defoliated jungle and rice paddies with barbed wire perimeters.
Michel took a suite at the Continental Hotel. When he retired that evening he could hear the distant crump-crump-crump of shellfire but it was mostly drowned out by the whirring of the ceiling fan. The war was like a bad habit, and it seemed a long way away. Like everyone else in the city, he was accustomed to it now. Everyone called it Saigon Night Music.
He had heard the rumors of an impending attack on Saigon by the VC, but he had discounted them. It just didn’t seem possible.
He woke around two in the morning to the sound of sharp, whip-like explosions from the street outside. At first, he thought it was more firecrackers, but then there was another, bigger blast and his bedroom window turned white and fell in, showering the bed with shards of glass. Michel rolled off the bed and lay flat on the floor.
Another explosion rolled across the square and the curtains billowed in the second blast.
Keeping low, Michel went to the balcony and peered down into the street. He saw half a dozen Vietnamese, dressed in black pajamas and carrying AK- 47s, pour out of a manhole cover, like ants from a crumbled nest.
They ran off in the direction of the US embassy.
Viet Cong! So for once the rumors were true.
He heard more gunfire from across the street, saw one of the Viet Cong stumble and fall. A grenade exploded in the square, and a piece of shrapnel slapped into the wall of the hotel, just a few feet above his head.
Michel crawled back inside, fumbled in the darkness for his clothes. He supposed most people in the city tonight were terrified by what was happening in the street; but then he was not like most people. There was opportunity here. A night like this, with guns and explosions going off everywhere, a man could get away with murder.
As dawn broke, the Saigon streets were utterly deserted. The usual clamor of horns and bicycle bells and hawkers had been replaced by the clatter of small arms fire and the sudden, ear-shattering explosions of mortars and rockets. Joginder saw a squad of Marines crouching behind an overturned jeep. Shadowy figures in black pajamas ducked into an alleyway further down the street.
Joginder scampered along the arcade, a voluminous white handkerchief flapping in his right fist. When the attack started he had been asleep in his favorite brothel, five blocks away. He would have cowered there all week if he had to, but he was gravely worried about leaving his shop unattended. There was twenty million piastres in the iron safe upstairs.
Joginder stepped over the bodies of three VC sprawled on the footpath. A coat of flies rose into the air, buzzing angrily at this interruption. Joginder noticed the dead men had white cotton shirts and even jewelry underneath their black pajamas. They must be cadres, ordinary Saigonese who had been waiting for a chance to fight.
He saw the glitter of a gold chain at one of the men’s throats. He bent down and ripped it off, before hurrying on.
He heard firing from the direction of the US embassy. He decided to get off the main street. It would take him longer to get home, but it might be safer. On the Tu Do he was too tempting a target for Viet Cong snipers as well as nervous Marines.
Get me home, he prayed silently. O Ganesh, get me home and I will make a great sacrifice in your honor!
When he finally reached his shop he didn’t risk the street entrance. Instead he went to the wooden gate that led on to the small garden at the back. He banged on it with his fists. ‘Sai, it is me, Joginder! Let me in!’
There was no answer. He tried the handle, and to his surprise, it swung open. He almost fainted with alarm. He was sure he had locked it when he went out that previous evening.
It had been forced. Someone had broken in during the night.
His first instinct was to run. But where to?
And what about the safe?
He eased open the door with his foot. It swung half-way and stopped. Something was obstructing it from opening the whole way. He peered inside; one of Sai’s boys, her eldest, lay face down on the floor.
There was blood everywhere.
Joginder put his handkerchief to his mouth and retched.
‘Joginder! Up here!’
He reeled back in surprise. It was Sai’s voice, coming from his upstairs office. She was alive.
‘What’s happening?’ he shouted.
‘The VC were here! Quickly!’
‘Have they gone?’
‘Yes, it’s safe now. Hurry!’
He ran up the back stairs, tripped over another body. Shivering with fright, he stared at the smear of blood on his hands.
Savages. They had murdered both the children.
‘Jogi, help me!’
Perhaps they’ve tied her up, he thought. Did they torture her and make her tell them where the money was?
He wiped away the blood with his handkerchief, and stumbled the rest of the way up the stairs to his office.
Sai was sitting behind his desk, white as chalk, a strange look on her face. ‘What happened?’ he said.
She didn’t answer him.
He ignored her and rushed across the room to the safe. It was still securely locked. He groaned with relief. He was afraid the VC might have tried to blast it open.
He felt something hard nestle into the small indentation at the base of his skull. Then he heard a familiar voice, very close to his ear.
‘Father. How nice to see you again.’
VENOM has just been published for the first time in the US and is exclusive to Nook through Who Dares Wins Publishing. Find it here at Nook.