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Edward C. Lynskey

The Hanoi Hilton


Emerging from Noi Bai Airport, I wondered what Jane Fonda was thinking that afternoon in 1972 when she waltzed into Hanoi. Whoa. She peed off the Viet vets. Big-time. Some folks should just stay home, you know? Could it be I was one? Here I slouched under the tropical sun, a glutton for heatstroke. Sticky temperatures spiked the upper 90s.

Whistling between my thumb and finger, I hailed a battered Lambretta minibus. Not far behind me, a ragged column straggled also seeking conveyance downtown. The 45-minute jaunt cost me ten dollars. As we shambled over the Thang Long Bridge, an Englishman aboard the same Thai Air 727 from Bangkok jabbed my shoulder. I hitched around.

"Spotted you on the flight, mate. Only other white man," he said. "Sam Rutgers. Sales. Heineken Beer. Put it there, mate."

I couldnít slither through roached out floorboards. We shook hands. "Frank Johnson. Consultant. Misplaced Persons."

"Misplaced persons, eh?" Rutgers tilted a brow over his glass eye. "Not sure I follow, mate."

My lids mashed as a runnel of sweat scorched them. Handkerchief swabbed. Nausea skewered my midsection. "Itís pretty basic. A clientís sixteen-year-old daughter vanished. Three weeks ago. Worried sick, he hired me to investigate. The trail led me here."

Rutgers fanned a sweat-splotched dress hat. "Why in the name of everything holy in hell would an American girl come to this godforsaken hole?"

"Because her ma is Vietnamese," I said. Maybe it wasnít intentional on Rutgerís part, but he chapped my ass. Maybe it was his suety complexion, obese girth, or dun-flecked eyes. Maybe it was none of those things. I flat out didnít like him.

"Oh, I see. A half-breed. Youíve her photo handy?" asked Rutgers. "Trotting between bars and hotels, I can keep an eye peeled for her."

"Iím expecting her photo faxed to me."

"No kidding . . . whereabouts are you bunking?"

A persistent pill, that was Rutgers. "Blue Dragon Hotel," I said. "Dirt cheap. On a corporate expense account, it rates well below your standards."

Rutgersís grin twisted arrogant and smug. "I book cut-rate rooms. Pocket the difference. No oneís the wiser. Hey, weíre neighbors. Ainít that the Queenís dirty knickers?"

The window I grazed through was grimy. Banana groves, elephant grass, and rice paddies alternated as far as the eye could rove. The image of blooming dogwoods back home in Virginia minted a pang of homesickness in me.

"You serve in the war?"

"Nope. The draft went to a lottery before I tripped eighteen. By then, the noise in Saigon had died to a whimper."

With a hand flourish, Rutgers eyes were slits over black holes. "Lucky."

Lucky? I didnít see it. Boys far grittier than me perished in those encephalitic jungles. Their names marched on blood-black granite panels along a gentle trench in Washington, DC. A high school friend shipped out three days after boot camp. On recon a few kilometers outside of Danang, he was smoked in a Vietcong ambush. Lucky. Every Veteranís Day, I left him a pair of drumsticks at The Wall. Beat on, Clete . . .

A sharp punch. "Johnson! This is our stop! Grab your duffel, follow me."

After disgorging us curbside, the minibus clattered off, its diesel fumes spewed to asphyxiate fools. Trotting, Rutgers picked up a satchel and an envelope-style briefcase. My luggage was two bags, the brand that hyperactive gorilla couldnít demolish in TV ads. Trudging behind Rutgersí lopsided bulk, I admired the Blue Dragonís facade, an ocher brick.

One at a time, we threaded through a revolving door into the lobby. I went slack-jawed. Once colonial French comfort was now a decrepit ordeal. Behind the desk depicting a bas-relief of cupids carved in teak, a petite man waved. In mismatched khaki blouse and shorts with a dented sun helmet, he smiled black stubs for teeth.

"I best warn you of a couple things," said Rutgers. "This is Hanoi. Youíll beat off rats in your room. No escaping it. Buy a cane. Mosquito netting dangles over your cot. Use it. Power failures are habitual. I can lend you a flashlight. Itíll glows brighter than candlepower."

Turning, I chuckled without enthusiasm. "Youíre yanking my crank, right?"

Rutgers extended the flashlight. "You hear it cranking?" His toothy grin was meerschaum yellow.

True, my room wasnít the Hilton. The slatted bamboo bed rested six inches from the parquet floor. I drew the red twill curtains apart to emit sunrays, switched on the ginger jar lamp. Light flooded the space. Thank Buddha, no vermin scrounged for shadows. Joss sticks smoldered in sand-filled urns. I inhaled. Ah, sandalwood. Included with this deluxe single were color TV with international cable and a rotary dial telephone that belonged in a Lew Archer novel. Here it was two oíclock. I didnít bother to calculate Washington, DCís present time.

Cheswick picked up on the third electronic chirp. "Hello." His refined nasal tone galled me.

I swallowed hard. "Johnson here. Touched down in Hanoi within the past hour."

"Excellent." I heard a thrill charge his exclamation. "Iíll expect to hear progress in your next report."

"Maybe. Maybe not. You know an Aussie named Rutgers?"

"Rutgers? You mean like the university? No, of course not. Should I?"

"Beats me. I met him on the plane. Big, cloddish joker. Peddles overpriced German beer. Extra friendly if not nosy. Appears to know his way around the city."

Cheswick snorted through the connection. "My dime pays you to hunt up my daughter Jill, not chat it up with the tourists. This isnít a damn vacation."

Out the tail of my eye, I detected a furry movement. The rat was coarse and black, its eyes beady red. My voice hardened. "Does your non-vacation include the rat Iím trading stares with?"

"Not my problem," said Cheswick. "Your next report, tomorrow. Same time, same number. Now do me some good, damn it!"

He won the race hanging up. Staring off into limbo, I couldnít decide if I detested him, Rutgers, or the rat more. Everything else being equal, I awarded the rat the most latitude. He could do me the least malice.

The headwaiter, an old man sporting a pencil mustache, danced over to my corner table from the hotel bar. He fetched me a bourbon with chopped ice and a Sapporo beer chaser. For an early dinner, I ordered a cheeseburger, well done. I scanned over the glass rim, but my radar didnít detect Rutgers.

From my shirt pocket, I removed a snapshot to study for the umpteenth time. To her credit, Jill Cheswick appeared more Vietnamese than American. Cheswick, an U.S. Foreign Service big shot, had spirited her away on one of the final choppers lifting off the embassy roof in Saigon. Her Vietnamese mother, collateral damage, was abandoned to fend for herself under the Communists.

The bourbon, good and cold, insisted on a second and yet a third. While briefing me about his daughterís disappearance, Cheswick had mentioned her motherís relatives were from Hanoi. After several promising leads Stateside dried up, with angry reluctance, I asked my travel agent for a flight plan to Hanoi.

"Hey, sheís a filly. I mean for half being one of them." Rutgersí boozy breath vented down my neck.

Throwing back my arms, I cringed. "You mind giving me a little elbow room?"

Uninvited, Rutgers flopped down opposite me. I supposed we white men had to stick together. "You dined yet?" he asked. "I recommend the red snapper. Exquisite. These gooks know how to cook."

A sudden flurry of whacks erupted from the kitchen. "Thatís the chef now tenderizing my chuck beef." I arose. "Tell you what, though. Iím not hungry. You can eat it." I slapped down several American bills from a money clip. "Itís on me, mate."

"No call to blow off all pissy," he slurred after me. "Cheerio."

Traffic was pure pandemonium. Bicycles, motorcycles, and Peugeots jockeyed for position. Hand-drawn cyclops mashed into pushcarts. Raised fists. Enraged yells. Honked horns. Somehow, the bumptious swarm, ignoring traffic signals and driving on instinct, functioned. In a matter of minutes, I began to sense how ill equipped I was. For starters, I gleaned not even Pidgin English in the constant street babble.

More critical, who might know the girl as Jill Cheswick? I racked my brain. Either Cheswick hadnít told me her motherís name because he didnít remember or he figured it was too irrelevant. Stalking southward from the Blue Dragon, I tried to orient myself. For more than a while, I wandered a tangle of lanes, bumped and nudged hither and yon like a pinball in long play. To make matters worse, an abrupt, cold rain swept the Old Quarter where I slogged at a ragged gait. Damn. I was lost. Merchants were receding from arcades and alleyways. Shadows lengthened. Evening air turned a greasy brown enveloped me.

By chance, I trudged by the infamous Ho Lo Prison, the "Hanoi Hilton" where American POWs passed some dark, dire days. Ground lights sprayed across its flinty exterior. After visiting POWs there, Ms. Fonda had delivered an ill-advised broadcast. Many of them still branded her a traitor, or much worse. Now, it seemed, tourists for a small fee could tour its gothic interior.

"Taxi." Across the street, the word sprang up on a red Volga, a Russian-manufactured sedan. For the first time, I recognized something familiar. I approached, rapped knuckles on the driverís window. The glass clattered down. "Yes?" His prominent forehead fell away to luminous hazel eyes to a knobby nose to a jutted jaw. He wore the traditional black pajamas and sandals stamped from tire treads.

"You speak English?" I asked him, my voice strained with anxiety.

"A little. Where to?"

I blinked away rain scalding my vision. "Blue Dragon Hotel. You know it?"

"Very well," he replied as I crawled into the shabby rear seat. "Tourists stay there. You visit inside Ho Lo Prison?"

"No. Later, maybe."

"Stay out of dungeon. Tiger pits. Very bad place."

"Yeah, Iíve read about them."

"Nobody go there. You, too. Very bad place."

"I catch your drift. Can you step on it? Iím in a hurry."

He whipped through a red light, flew around a cab-over-engine truck hauling rice sacks. Several mechanics brandishing wrenches clustered over it. One scratched his scalp. The drizzle had lessened. After a few minutes, we docked at the Blue Dragon. After piling out of the taxi, I paid the driver through the window. American bills prompted his smile. "Thanks," he said, departing into the city gloom.

The trek up the hotel steps was slow. My legs ached. The hunchbacked elderly man for a night porter swished himself with a hand-held fan. Black cloying heat once more suffocated all. From the tiers of votive candles on the front desk, I learned we lacked electrical power. Rutgerís flashlight loaner sat on my nightstand. The prospect of retrieving it through rat-infested darkness held little appeal.

"Johnson!" Rutgersí outburst startled me. "I worried about your return. But here you stand in the living flesh."

I followed the utterance to its oracle. Draped over an overstuffed chair, Rutgers let his legs dangle like a childís. Feeble light cast his oblong face seemingly red as a radish before I noted the row of drained shot glasses. He tipped another to his vague mouth. "Have a bourbon on me, mate."

"Thanks, no. Big day tomorrow. Iíll turn in, get some shut eye."

A feral belch, then from Rutgers: "Did you track down your wayward lass?"

Hmmm. Rutgerís idle curiosity didnít ring true. My eyes took in his fuzzy bulk. Sprawled ten feet away from me, his state of inebriation motivated my own questions. "Did you meet customers today? Do you ever work, Rutgers?"

"Touchť, mate. Hereís a bit of free advice. Watch where you dip your wick out there. Lots of disease infest these slantwise cunts."

"Rutgers," I said. "Do me this big favor."

"Howís that, mate?"

"Go screw yourself." I left things on that mordant note, prowled my way along skinny corridors marked by the irregular placement of kerosene lanterns. The door was locked, my quarter still leaning against the sill. No uninvited guests had dropped in.

My nerves were tensile taut. Sleep was the last thing on my mind. I propped Rutgerís flashlight on the nightstand to beam a halo of light on the flyblown ceiling. Out from under my shirt came the commando knife. It was American surplus from the war. If any rat, either the four-legged or two-legged variety, took a notion to prowl into my crib, my plan was to nail him. I now hurled the knife straight as on a string to thud into the wood door. After retrieving it and extinguishing the flashlight, I stretched out under the mosquito netting. My heart hammered between both ears as I faded to black.

Next morning, I was late arising. Settling down to breakfast on scrambled duck eggs and rat turd sausage, my mind mulled over how to run up Cheswickís tab. This case frustrated me like fiddling with a Rubikís Cube. Even if my hunch that Jill had returned to Hanoi proved correct, sheíd long ago disappeared into this cityís teeming mass. Any hope of tracking her down by myself was damn near impossible.

What to do when all else stank? Why, phone Robert Gatlin, my billionaire lawyer friend who played Robin Hood to the common man. The red plastic rotary dial on the nightstand in my room hummed and burped in my ear. The international call threaded through copper cable and beamed off spy satellites.

Gatlin was enjoying whipped cream on his tuna fish sandwich. While chewing, he listened to me.

"Cheswick? Yikes. I know of him. Foreign Service VIP. Big talker. He was friends with Pamela Harriman and that hotsy-totsy crowd."

"Is he legit?"

"He was a spook during the war. Operated out of the Saigon Embassy. Ran political interference for the Army brass at the Pentagon. Was reputed to have orchestrated death squads sent into Cambodia. In short, a shark in a three-piece silk suit."

"Your best advice?"

It was sensible if not blunt. "Make a show of tracking down this phantom girl, then get the hell out of Hanoi."

The late morning sun toasted my shoulders and neck. I had until two oíclock when my 727 humped it out of Noi Bai Airport, and not soon enough. Meantime, the wild, weird streets led me back to the Ho Lo Prison. My thoughts turned to Jane Fonda and how much the two of us now had in common. Like her ages ago, I shouldíve stayed out of this damn city. Next, I upbraided myself for not doing a better job screening my clients for sleaze bags like Cheswick. Due diligence, it was called.

For 50 dong, a toothless official in an olive drab blouse admitted me. My tour of the Hanoi Hilton was a self-guided one. Bullet pockmarks marred a mortar wall with the graffiti above them reading: hoa binh. My English-Vietnamese dictionary translated it as "peace." A gaggle of school children paraded ahead of me into the barren courtyard. I heeled and ventured the opposite way. Girlish giggles struck me as too out of place.

A long, narrow stairway erected from an adobe-like brick descended into dank catacombs. My eyes grew accustomed to the claustrophobic dimness afflicting them. The smell coarsened. Soul-emptying screams pierced my ears. Blood dripped from low ceilings. Then I remembered the cabbie telling about the tiger pits. Torture chambers, really. A very bad place.

"Freeze right there, mate."

I flinched, turned to my left. Rutgers face leered in the flashlightís beam. "Whatís with the gun?"

"The better to kill you with, mate. Why? Itís pretty basic. I donít like you rutting with the slope-eyed natives."

"The war isnít over for you," I guessed with the .44ís muzzle and flashlight beam now put on my torso.

"Aye. My friendly face is a cover. In truth, I despise the lot of them. What better way for me to kill them at will? Whoíd suspect me? Me, only a drunken beer salesman."

"Did you murder the half-breed, too?" I wondered.

"Youíre a fast learner, mate."

My lucky kick knocked the .44 from his grasp. Before darkness fell, Iíd memorized where his face hovered. My uppercut exploded square under his chin. Teeth clacked. A hoarse grunt proceeded a thud to the floor.

My foot nudged against the flashlight which when tapped laid down a beam. My heart began pumping up in my throat. A square hole cut in the floor showed up in my searching brightness. Kneeling to inspect its dimensions, I encountered a chamber big enough to seat a man.

I didnít muster enough cojones to slit Rutgersís throat. Too messy, too risky. Instead, I towed him by the collar by the hole to tuck and stuff inside it. He was regaining consciousness, garbling his words.

"W-w-whot ur u doiní, mate?"

Both knees were doubled up to Rutgersí chest. The serial killer wheezed. Spotting a mortar slab of adequate size and heft, I dragged it over and capped the hole. Other slabs were piled on for insurance.

Rutgersí hysterical yells, though by now muted, shattered my ears as I shambled up the stairway. The toothless official smiled and waved as I hiked past, whistling for a taxi luckily at the curbstone.

Ed Lynskey's short fiction has appeared in Plots with Guns and Judas Ezine. Two of his novel manuscripts are out for review with a publisher and an agent

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