DaVinci and I stepped off the plane in Saigon and walked directly into a particular hell of heat and mosquitoes.
Marty West was waiting for us at the bottom of the roll-away stairs. “Harlan,” he said warmly, his beefy paw devouring DaVinci’s hand.
“It’s good to see you again, Marty,” DaVinci smiled and cocked a thumb back at me. “You remember Jimmy?”
“How could I forget Jimmy Dupont?” Marty said, crushing my hand in his.
Marty was tall, broad and barrel-chested and had the friendliest smile that I’d ever seen. He wore glasses with thick rims that made him look like George Reeves from Superman in his Clark Kent disguise. Marty was to be our guide for the next few days. He worked as a minder to American journalists in Vietnam.
Marty was devoted to DaVinci. Some years back his daughter ran afoul of a coven of witches who’d taken up residence in Brooklyn. DaVinci and I were sent by the Inner Circle to investigate. If it hadn’t been for us, Marty’s little girl would have been the coven’s property — body and soul. Instead she was fine and healthy and attending Vassar.
“I’ve got a car waiting,” Marty said. “We can gather your luggage and go right into the city.”
“This is it,” I said, indicating the carry on I was carrying off. “We travel pretty light.”
“Good,” Marty said. “Then we can head straight for the Majestic. Monsieur LaFontaine will meet us there.”
Marty’s car was an old Studebaker with wood panels and everything. The top was down as we drove towards the Majestic Hotel.
Saigon was a jarring mix of Modern, Asian and Colonial French architecture. There were Vietnamese peddlers in the street hawking exotic foods in front of upmarket haberdashers. The street was a mix of white Europeans wearing new Paris fashions and the Vietnamese wearing traditional outfits. Dotted here and there amongst the crowd were American soldiers in fatigues. The soldiers were veterans, not the draftees — the kids — they would come later. What we saw were the advisors to the South Vietnamese Military — professional soldiers. Many of them had cut their teeth in Korea. Some of the older ones had probably been with MacArthur in the Pacific at the end of WW2.
The heat and the smells were overwhelming and almost nauseating to me. For the last two days all I’d seen were airport terminals. I was tired and grouchy and wishing that Marty hadn’t picked us up in an open roofed car, but thinking it would probably be better this way. After nearly two days wearing the same clothes, DaVinci and I were likely pretty ripe.
In the middle of downtown Saigon the car slowed. The streets were bustling with activity. The faces that surrounded us were mostly Vietnamese. I could hear shouting but couldn’t understand the words. “What’s going on?” I asked.
“I’m not sure,” Marty said, gearing down.
“Is it a festival?” DaVinci asked.
Through a gap in the crowd I saw a group of what looked like Buddhist monks, their heads uniformly shaved, wearing saffron robes. One of them, an elderly fellow, sat down in the middle of the street.
Marty shook his head. “Another protest.”
“Protest? What, those monks?” I asked.
Marty nodded. “It’s been happening a lot. President Diem has had it in for them. He’s been trying to repress the growth of a southern communist movement. In doing so he’s brought in some pretty repressive measures against the Buddhist Church.”
“The church? Why” DaVinci asked.
Marty shook his head. “The politics of independence. The struggle for independence is linked with the rise of communism. At least that’s what it was with Ho Chi Minh in the north. Diem’s afraid of it happening in the south. Any nationalist movement…” Marty stopped mid sentence. I followed his gaze.
At first I didn’t understand what was happening. The Buddhists were dousing the old monk with water. It wasn’t until the crowds nearby started screaming and I saw another monk with a lit taper that I realized what was really happening.
“Jesus, no…!” I heard Marty say. I couldn’t tear my eyes away as the old monk went up in flames.
I could not believe what I was seeing. They’d doused him in gasoline and set the old fellow ablaze. He just sat there while the flames ate him up. No screams, no struggles and no movement until he finally just flopped over. No one ran forward to try to help him. The other monks just stood impassively and watched while the old monk burned.
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