“Give our friend here a little background so that we’re all on the same page,” said Roark.
The Kid, after eyeing me warily for awhile, as if he was worried I might leap across the table and enucleate him with a soup spoon, described the events that led him believe he was on the verge of solving a nearly half century old mystery. He had arrived in Saigon, officially known as Ho Chi Minh City, little more than a month earlier, to do research for a story on the underground traffic in human remains.
After the war, when there was a thaw in relations between the former combatants, both countries collaborated in the effort to find, identify, and return home the remains of missing American servicemen. A black market sprung up in the shadow of the official efforts, catering, for the most part, to the families of missing soldiers and servicemen who were frustrated by the slow pace of official efforts. The underground trade in remains was dominated by scam artists and unscrupulous dealers who recognized that grief is often the handmaiden of gullibility. They forged dog tags or passed off bone fragments belonging to animals or ordinary Vietnamese as those of missing Westerners. After a number of weeks, The Kid made little headway in developing his story. He had made some contacts on the margins of the bone trader but no active traders around whom he could build a story. They were extraordinarily tight-lipped and saw no benefit in drawing attention to themselves and inviting another crackdown. The Kid had drawn attention to himself, as he pursued contacts in a shadowy milieu that was rife with both criminal elements and informers, and discovered that he was being closely scrutinized by the local authorities. Meanwhile, his story was going nowhere, time was running out as well as his money and he little to show for his efforts.
Chapter 18: LATTER DAY STANLEYWith his own story foundering, The Kid read all that he could find about the missing actor and made some casual inquiries amongst the few contacts he had made. Just when all seemed lost, and he was prepared to concede defeat and fly home, he was informed that a Westerner, who had stayed in the country after most of his compatriots left, who, it was rumored, had been someone of importance. He kept to himself and operated, unmolested by the local authorities. He was rumored to live somewhere around Da Nang. For a few dong –the Vietnamese currency- his exact location might be procured. The Kid was on to something. Finally.
He began to imagine himself to be a latter day Stanley who garnered fame by locating the missing Livingstone. There would be great acclaim, and perhaps a Pulitzer –did they provide a prize for digital journalism? It didn’t matter, this reporting coup would make his name. And all those haters back at the office could bite it. There would, perhaps, be a book deal, followed by a movie, or a six-part series.
This is when two Vietnamese men Cuong and Dung, presented themselves at his door, and informed him, in broken English, that their services would be not only indispensable but mandatory. So insistent were they, that The Kid did not dare say no. The Kid was unsure whether they were connected to some crime syndicate that had ties with people in government or whether they worked for the government themselves. At any rate, they did prove, later, to have a way of cutting through red tape. They were able facilitators, to a degree, but with their arrival all of The Kid’s other sources dried up. No matter.
He prepared to go to Da Nang immediately but first, before he went to seek his glory, he wanted to see the Central Highlanders, to go up river, in country, to the rogue colonel’s compound.
He rented a Willys and, with Cuong and Dung in tow, drove into the hills where he encountered not a mad colonel but an equally colorful