In our first installment of serialised original crime fiction by English author Rob Marsh, a murder is committed on Vietnamese soil and only one detective can solve the mystery. But can he bury his past to help a pleading mother? Illustration by Henry Fenton

 

Episode 1: An Absurd Request

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

 

The two figures stood side-by-side on the riverbank gazing out across the black sheet of water. The man was tall and blond, powerfully built; the woman tiny by comparison, slim and dark-eyed.

 

“You’re not the same any more,” the woman said.

 

A barge loaded with timber chugged slowly past, its deck lights twinkling.

 

“No, I’m not,” he agreed.

 

“This isn’t what you promised me.”

 

For a moment he considered her words, weighing up his options. “Yes, that’s true,” he said then swung around, bringing out the knife. He slashed at her throat, first one way then the other: a glinting figure of eight in the air. Like slicing through melon, he thought: hard skin, soft flesh. Easy.

 

She cast a surprised glance at the blood that was pouring down her front and took a hesitant pace forward, but the effort seemed to tire her and she sat down on the ground. As she slid onto her side there was movement in the grasses nearby as something small scurried away from the sound.

 

The man looked on with detachment until the twitching had stopped then removed his spectacles to clean them on his shirt. His moment of outrage had passed. Now the world tripped suddenly into slow motion and he imagined himself lying there as if he had committed some unpardonable sin and been punished accordingly.

 

Eventually, he knelt next to his victim studying the face of the woman. How strangely composed it was, he thought. Already heat was leaving the body and the chilling process was under way.

 

The killing itself was a moment lost in time for him. He would recall knowing her, would remember the days they spent together, but had little memory of the act itself. It was as if someone else had done the slaying. He knew only that she was dead, he was alive and that was the natural order of things.

 

After his moment of quiet contemplation he removed the woman's ring as a keepsake then took hold of her arms and dragged her back into the garden. Then he walked into the house and switched on the lights, began making preparations. Eventually he returned to the body and dressed the young woman in a plastic rain jacket. He hefted her easily onto his shoulder and carried her into the garage where he strapped her onto his motorcycle, arms around his chest, then set out for District 1.

 

Johannesburg, South Africa

 

When the door of Russell Kemp’s office opened he was sitting at his desk considering the long, bleak hours that lay ahead. And even though it was not yet seven in the morning, he had been at work for nearly two hours, moving papers about, looking for something useful to do.

 

His suite of rooms — the managing agent clearly had a sense of humour — consisted of a small, gloomy office with a tiny window that looked down onto a car park, plus a walk-in cupboard. He had no secretary because he couldn’t afford one, and the furnishings in his office were what could best be described as Spartan: a bookcase filled with out-of-date law books and fading box files, some dog-eared paperbacks and a street guide to Johannesburg. There was also an ancient wooden desk and scuffed leather office chair (circa 1930), two ‘visitor’ chairs that he had picked up at a house sale and a battered steel filing cabinet. Above the filing cabinet was a Let’s Get Hooked on Health anti-drug poster, one corner flapping.

 

His visitor was an elegant middle-aged Asian woman, expensively dressed. Standing behind her in the corridor was a large black man in a dark suit.

 

“My name is Nguyen Cong Hau, Mr Kemp,” the woman said in flawless English. “My husband works at the Vietnamese Embassy in Pretoria. John here is my driver.”

 

Kemp was a tall grey-haired man unshaven and unkempt with dark rings beneath his eyes. His clothes were creased and misshapen: a blue suit jacket over fading denims, a cream shirt un-ironed, and worn black shoes.

 

“Please take a seat,” he said.

 

She stepped into his office, but John remained standing in the doorway, arms folded.

 

“I require assistance, Mr Kemp,” she said when she had settled herself. “The people my husband spoke to recommended you.”

 

“What people, Ma’am?” he asked.

 

“Someone in the police. My husband says that you have a reputation for… tenacity. Is that right word, Mr Kemp? He says that you investigated a case involving the military some years ago.”

 

Indeed he had. The high point of his career some would say and look what that had gotten him.

 

“What exactly is it that you want from me, Ma’am?”

 

Hearing Kemp’s tone John frowned at him from the doorway.

 

“I want you to find my daughter.”

 

“I don’t think I’m the right man for the job.”

 

“My husband’s already checked up on you. He says that you’re a very experienced detective, though you get mixed reviews: a good investigator is how everyone described you, but unpredictable.”

 

Kemp chose not to comment.

 

“He also said that you lost your own daughter some years ago,” she continued. “Is that true, Mr Kemp?”

“Yes.”

 

“Then you know how I feel. That’s why I’m here, because I think you understand what it’s like to lose a child. What was your daughter’s name, Mr Kemp?”

 

“Nicola… Everyone called her Nicky.”

 

Despite himself, Kemp felt a lump in his throat. He couldn’t remember the last time he had said his daughter’s name out aloud. He knew then that he was being drawn into something he wished to avoid, but it was true, he could identify with this woman’s pain, which was why he didn’t want to get involved.

 

“I still don’t think I’m the right man for the job,” he repeated.

 

“My husband and I are quite wealthy, Mr Kemp. Money isn’t an issue, if that’s your concern.”

 

“Money’s not the issue.”

 

She saw the flash of anger in his eyes, made a gesture with her hands.

 

“I’m sorry. I don’t want to offend you.”

 

He shook his head. “You haven’t.” Then, with resignation: “Tell me about your daughter.”

 

She gathered herself, thought about the question for a moment. That was when he saw that she had been crying that morning; that her hands were shaking.

 

“My daughter’s name is Hai Hien. Just over a month ago she flew to Vietnam with her South African boyfriend. After three weeks she stopped calling. A few days ago my other daughter went to look for her, but Hai Hien’s just vanished. I need you to go and find her, Mr Kemp.”

 

“To Vietnam?” He couldn’t keep the incredulity out of his voice.

 

“Yes, to Ho Chi Minh City.”

 

It was an absurd request; impossible. “What about the boyfriend?”

 

“He’s vanished too.”

 

Unable to continue for a moment she pulled a handkerchief from her handbag and used it to dab her eyes. “My husband says you’re a good man, Mr. Kemp,” she said finally. “Are you?”

 

The question took him by surprise. “No, I don’t think I am, Ma’am,” he said with disarming frankness.

 

Remarkably, the answer seemed to comfort her.

 

“Please help me, Mr Kemp,” she said quietly. “Please…”

 

Look out for Episode 2 in our August issue.

 

This is a work of fiction. All names, characters and incidents are either invented or used fictitiously. Rob Marsh is the author of 30 published books (both fiction and non-fiction). He has a special interest in matters crime-related and is the author of Famous South African Crimes and With Criminal Intent: the changing face of crime in South Africa. He currently lives in Ho Chi Minh City.

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