A detective story by Vo Chi Nhat from Vietnam

Επιμέλεια: Εύα Πετροπούλου Λιανού

Translated to English by Bao Vu


It was with considerable efforts that Le Thanh found a good seat in the Tapioca, a small food stall with traditional dishes like tapioca steamed in coconut water, boiled yam dipped in chili salt, with a free drink of Thai coconut water on the side and flawless service. Seated, he wasted no time ordering away, with a hasty front like he owned the place.
The Tapioca was located on 8th street, behind a billboard with two giant and colorful banners with a blonde woman printed on them; she had a plate of tapiocas, carrying it in her hand like a Sony Gramophone advertisement that was popular in the 80s. Le Thanh had inherrited this food stall from his father, while his mother worked as a manager and the lead accountant, so that her favorite son has time for his own passions.
– Morning, young boss. Waited long?
– Morning. I just got here. Take a seat.
He looped around and pulled a chair out for Ha before draping her coat over the back of the chair. Ha made some shallow social talk for Thanh to lift up his spirit since he was scratching his head nonstop. Going to a date while looking like that made Ha “the chili” very irritated, she asked.
– Did something happen again, boss? Some chicks dumped you? Business problems?
Le Thanh wanted to say, but nothing came out but a ridiculous face. He slicked back his hair before answering:
– No. Business is booming, so I can put my mind on the mission. There’s no bigger headache for us polices like a murder in the area right? I have a promotion in the bag this year, yet a murder happened, just my luck right? You’ve seen that pickup truck arson incident on the evening News last night, the one right on 8th street right? The whole country should know about it by now.
Ha showed her empathy and nodded like a pigeon pecking at seeds, and smiled:
– If it wasn’t for that, you wouldn’t have dragged me here. Isn’t that right, you sissy? – She knocked her fist on the table like she was testing the wood. – Alright! I order one of everything. Bag them up if I can’t finish them.
Le Thanh laughed heartily; though it can be said that he was delighted, other patrons around him weren’t much so. He decided to tone it down:
– What a case. Lots of uncleared details that I need your help analyzing.
– Then tell me all about them. Tell me what you did too. – Ha looked up, rubbed her chin then rested her elbows onto the table like a student in a lecture.
– Last night, 6PM, a traffic accident happened on 8th street. A pickup truck lost control and crashed into a power pole; there was a blackened unrecognizable body sitting in the driver’s seat. According to the license plate, wrist watch and keys, we identified the victim. Cao Tuan, 51, 160 centimeters tall… President of a paper manufacturing company in Phuoc Thanh commune. By my superior’s orders, the investigation on this case was widened since we found many suspicious details, but could only find some basic information on the victim during the last 24 hours.
– So what are the details that you want to make clear? – Ha emphasized.
– Simply put, the victim’s body. Burned to a crisp, unrecognizable. Maybe this is a murder disguised as an accident, but we found no suspects.
– A great detective leaves no stone unturned. First, you should check for missing people, then do some zoning work… Most importantly, find out the most basics informations about the victim. I want to know where he was going.
– According to his wife, every weekend he drove himself to Tay Ninh to work his fields, and discussed business with his partner there in the meantime. Some weeks, he didn’t even come back. As for widening the investigation, we have zoned the area, a very secluded place with only a few lamp lights at nights, so security cameras are out of the question. There’s a cemetery nearby, the keeper is an one-eyed drunkard, and a poor gardener living in a dilapidated house. Now that’s the part that’s giving us the headache. How are we going to make the two of them suspects.
– That is a tough one. What did old one-eyed and gardener say? I want to hear each and every word in their testimony. – Ha set her fork down and frowned, looking more focused despite the irresistible fragrance of the tapioca.
– The gardener was honest. He claimed to be in his garden all day, and didn’t see anyone loitering around the premises that he had to look after. Meanwhile, the Casuarina Cemetery keeper said he saw a white figure floating through the old graves that afternoon. It looked like a youth, about 170 centimeters tall, but we couldn’t find any leads. He’s a drunkard, so it might be his eyes playing tricks on him. Also, he had lost his left eye, so such a testimony isn’t very believable.
– Indeed. I need to think more on this. How did you handle the victim’s body?
– After taking the tissue samples, Forensics team had returned the body to his family. They told me that they will do more research, but I’m afraid that there’s nothing to be found, typical.
Ha snorted while her colleague chewed on his chopsticks. She had seen this many times, he just needs a single direction to follow it all the way. Seems like he was trying to recall the 75 classes on forensics back in the Academy. A police student’s past is always special.
– Currently, the investigation isn’t going anywhere. Unless there’s a breakthrough with new leads, otherwise I’m afraid that we hit a deadend. – With that, he shook his head in defeat.
– Not necessarily.
Le Thanh flinched, his brows relaxed.
– Did you find some new leads?
– Hmm… Looking at a story from different angles will eventually lead to something illogical, but we still have to start from the most simple aspects. Leads don’t come to you, so you have to come to it. Why don’t you put yourselves into the victim’s family’s shoes?
– What? Why you ask? How does that have anything to do with our investigation… – he thought about it for a while – Well, the victim’s family will definitely be in distraught.
Ha continued:
– So what do they need the most right now?
– Comfort?
– Exactly. I think we need a field trip, tomorrow morning. I have a few questions for them. Now, pass this to the Forensics: “Do you find anything in the victim’s throat?”

After Cao Tuan’s funeral, Ha and Le Thanh went straight to Casuarina Cemetery, about 15 kilometers away. It was a hot and sunny day. Ha swept her eyesight from afar :
– Casuarina Cemetery but it’s in the middle of a tapioca field, must be a hectre wide. Guess when they founded the cemetery, this place had a lot of Casuarina.
– There’s also a bomb crater a bit further away. It’s been 45 years, yet the crater had not been filled. That’s why they say war is the greatest failure of humanity. But you want to meet them both ? I’m starting to get bored with meetings like that! We never got any new info from them.
– Yes, I just want to test my guesses. You’ll get a surprise later, pinky promise.
– Now that’s interesting. – He whispered absent mindedly.
They were now in front of Casuarina Cemetery. Like always, old casuarinas silently swayed with the wind like a maiden’s long hair, a lonely and quiet maiden who always roams the city with a morose look. All through the years and all through the lives. Ha observed her surroundings before visiting the napping cemetery keeper. He had a few scattered beer cans, fish scraps and some other kinds of bottles under his feet. Ha didn’t expect to gain much from the keeper. He already had a newspaper on his face and snored away for a while now.
– Aha. This must be the first suspect in our case. Careful with that mouth of yours, he seems difficult. – Ha warned, though she knew that Thanh had met with the keeper for his testimony at least three times before.
– You met him before? – Thanh whispered.
– No need, bet he used to be a soldier. Look, he has a helmet and a military coat hanging on the walls, the way he arranges his footwears and the missing eye too. Must’ve been a stray piece of debris during the war. Did you forget that Cu Chi people are all revolutionists? His commrades must be resting in this cemetery.
Ha saw Le Thanh laughing but didn’t respond. With the keeper in deep sleep, she tried to pry:
– Sir, can we go in for a visit?
The keeper took a peek out from the newspaper, got up from a seconds-from-breaking, weevils eaten bamboo cot with great difficulties, as boredom had given him a long restful sleep. So tired of the sad faces, the bunches of marigolds and the incense, of people approaching him and asking for permission in a hushed voice, the keeper just waved.
– Just get in. What a bother! And you have to ask for that? First the police then you two, can’t a man just take a nap?
He then lied down and promptly fell asleep again. Ha can only press her palm in disappointment.
– He didn’t remember your face. Now think. He saw a 170 centimeter tall someone from where he’s lying right now, with one eye no less, so that specific grave must be within his eyesight, meaning a 60 degree range. It must be around here, let’s split up and look for it.
– Find what? I practically turned this place upside down for the last 2 days.
– No idea, but call me if you find something strange. Anything strange. Let’s do it.
Ha strolled around then stopped in front of a gravestone, then another, then another. Each one she checked thoroughly, then stopped in front of a single new grave in the middle of the are for old ones. It was dug recently, the photo in front of the grave depicted a skinny middle aged man with fair skin. Ha sneezed then wiped with a napkin, knelt down to grab a piece of dirt and wrapped it in a plastic bag before checking the other graves before someone called.
– Ha, Ha, over here…
It was her subordinate, so Ha followed his call. By a gravestone, she found a half empty bottle of rice wine, and wrapped it up in a plastic bag to carry it with her.
– What do you think of this bottle?
– Somebody drank it halfway, got drunk and threw it away? Isn’t the keeper a drunkard as well? – Ha said.
– Maybe so.
– Come, stop guessing, we need to visit another place, then I’ll tell you what I’m thinking.

Hearing the car engine, the gardener knew that someone was coming. He hung up the “No visitors” sign and looked the other way. It was a given though, as he had been hounded by the police for the last 2 days. Multiple testimony, and just as many procedures. He threw the fruit basket onto the bamboo table in his garden then took a stool to boost himself up a tree like a monkey.
– Morning, sir! – A familiar voice called.
Ha “the chili” pushed Le Thanh aside and stepped forth with a rambling:
– Morning sir, we’re criminal polices, we’re here for some more information about the incident on 8th street, the day before yesterday. Please cooperate and tell us what you know.
Ha looked closely at the small hut that the gardener was living in; a pair of faded dress pants larger than his curent size, covered in mud and dust. Despite her words, the gardener wouldn’t come down from the tree.
– What else do you need? Didn’t I give you all that I know? And that is it, even if you interrogated me a dozen times I would still answer the same thing.
Ha crossed her arms and explained:
– Please don’t be mad, my friend. It wouldn’t take long. You must have no idea who I am, otherwise you wouldn’t talk to me with that kind of voice. So, how long have you lived here?
– More than 2 years
– How’s the salary?
– Few millions a month. You see, officer, it’s an easy job and I’m still single, there’s not much that I need to spend on.
– So where were you and what were you doing on the day of the incident, and do you have a witness?
– What… like I told you before, after work I went straight to sleep, I don’t know any incident. I have to take care of this vast garden alone, and the owner rarely comes here for a visit so who do I even have to be a witness?
– So what about your testimony with the police that you saw a 170 centimetre tall youth loitering around here at 2AM on the day of the incident?
The gardener’s face reddened as he turned left then right:
– What testimony? I never said that?
– Yes, you did. You said that you heard heavy footsteps at 2AM that day, so you decided to investigate didn’t you. Everybody knows that gardeners like you tend to have good hearing, and can be stirred from sleep by the faintest sounds. You then shined your flashlight at the figure and shouted, but because you thought they were just loiterer so you didn’t persue. Isn’t that correct?
– Nonsense. Officer, you are wrong! – The gardener shaked his head then jumped down, turning towards the dense forest behind his hut like he was afraid there was someone loitering there.
– So no? – Ha looked at the gardening tools stacked neatly on the bamboo table before her – Are these all yours?
– Yes.
Ha picked a red plum right in front of her:
– Would you mind getting me that knife? – Ha pointed at a small, razor sharp slicing knife. Finished with the knife, she returned it. – Put it away, it’s dangerous to use a knife here. Goodbye sir, sorry for bothering.
– You’re welcomed, officer. I certainly hope that we won’t see each other again…
– Of course!
A while later, Le Thanh asked:
– What do you think about their testimony?
– One is the liar.
– Who?
Ha stood, facing Le Thanh. She puts her hand on his shoulder, where he would someday earn another star, and whispered, just enough for him to hear:
– Patient, and don’t worry. You will get that promotion on time. More stars you have, more responsibility you’ll carry. The killer is now appearing clearer. Who, in your opinion, is more trustworthy? A grumpy drunkard or a rustic youth? But no, let’s stop our guessing game. Just take a rest. Tonight, I’ll give you good show. Remember to bring your flashlights, guns and do what I tell you to. Your seat will be…

That night, at about 11PM, a diminutive figure, like someone crouching, appeared from the forest adjacent to the gardener’s hut. He wore a helmet with a military coat, looking extremely suspicious; if it wasn’t for Ha’s advice, Le Thanh would’ve moved in for the arrest.
– Why did you only come now? Hurry up and go, the cops are onto me. Get far away right now, or you’ll drag me down along with you. – The gardener said.
– It’s not like I can bring you the cash in the middle of the day. And I don’t need your worries. In a few hours, only with a binocular can the cops see me. – The helmeted man said, with a high pitched and rapid voice that made the other couldn’t follow him on purpose, then threw down a sack. – Spend wisely… Let things cool down before disappearing away. Got it?
– Thank you, generous boss. How would I ever…
The gardener grabbed the sack of cash and wormed his hand inside to check, but it didn’t take even a fraction of a second for the metallic clicking sound to show him what it truly was. A handcuff. Like a falcon, Ha smashed the helmet into the gardener’s face, knocked him down on his back then pressed her knees onto his waist before Le Thanh flashed his torch at him.
– So it was the gardener! Bastard! – Le Thanh shouted.
– What is the meaning of this? Help, Help! Thieves! – The gardener screeched, but Ha puched him in the throat. As she stopped crouching and rose up to her true size, the power of her fist grew along with it.
– Good, keep screeching and tell everyone how defiling a gravesite will get you 3 years behind bars, and 3 more years for insurance fraud! – Ha cackled – I already suspected you since the first time we met. Bunch of lies. You’re right-handed, and just now grabbed the money with your right hand. Meanwhile, the sickle hanging in the garden is for the left-handed, and you said that you’ve worked here for 2 years, using those gardening tools. Moreover, I can only see you being fit for a leech, so how on earth are you a gardener?
The gardener growled, lifted his face and loudly shouted:
– Then why didn’t you just arrest me then?
– Hmm. You just got to play the whole role, isn’t that right? Do you know what I thought about first when my subordinate here told me about an accident with a victim? Insurance, something the other cops forgot about – Ha glances at Le Thanh – I assume you boys will have to verify about two insurance packages: for the car, and for Mr. Cao Tuan’s life insurance. Who will be benefited from his death, according to the contract? Also, I wanted to verify if you knew about the plan to steal a buried body and use it as substitude for the accident, then stole the life insurance or not. And you do know, as expected. By my estimation, the package worths about 18 billions, not a small number by any means.
Le Thanh’s eyes flashed as he figured out everything:
– So… that Cao Tuan didn’t die, and the scorched body on the car was just a substitude. It was scorched so that the police can’t identify it… So where is Cao Tuan now?
Ha “the chili” laughed:
– Why don’t you interrogate this guy? He’s the accomplice in this case, so he must know everything. He and Cao Tuan defiled a gravesite then put the body in the car to fake an accident. Perfectly.
– So while defiling the grave, you two drank that bottle of rice wine that we found at the cemetery? I should’ve known from the begining. – Le Thanh facepalmed.
The next day, Ha received thanks from her colleague:
– Just as expected, I have found the perpetrator and brought him to light. We excavated that gravesite, and indeed found no body. No way to lie, so Cao Tuan confessed. He had a large debt of 10 billions, even selling his almost bankrupt company can’t make up for it. By the time he dies, his family will automatically inherit 18 billions of insurance money, from his life insurance package of 200 millions a year. What a wizard you are, Ha “the chili”.”
Read the messege, Ha smiled and answered her young colleague. “No wizardry here, just needed to ask the Forensics. They found no ash and cinder in the body’s throat, so we can deduce that it wasn’t a living person who caused the accident then died inside the car.” 
By Vo Chi Nhat