The house, which was large and detached and surrounded by a high wall, had been built in the 1920s for a French diplomat stationed in Saigon. When Detective Captain Tran Hai Duong arrived at the scene the forces of law and order were already hard at work. A doctor had confirmed the presence of a corpse, a photographer had photographed it and a dozen police officers had searched the surrounding area for clues.
“The gardener discovered it, sir,” Sergeant Le said.
The two men stood on the edge of a wide lawn, both smoking. In front of them the doctor was working among the trampled blooms of a flowerbed measuring a curve of grey-white bone that protruded from the earth. “I think this is a woman’s rib cage, gentlemen,” he said finally.
“How long has she been here?” Captain Tran asked.
The doctor began peeling off his rubber gloves. “I don’t know, but three or four years at least, probably longer.”
“What do we do now, sir?” the sergeant asked.
Captain Tran glanced around the garden. “Did your men remember to bring their shovels?” he asked.
Inside the house, Gabrielle Levron stood at the window watching the desecration of her property. She was a small, grey-haired woman of fifty-five. She bore an air of abstraction, was disorientated and vaguely light-headed, like an accident victim who has narrowly survived a brutal collision. It was not shock or horror she felt — that would come later — but surprise.
“Please sit down, captain,” she said in perfect Vietnamese when Captain Tran came to see her.
The detective noticed that the room showed evidence of good taste and not a little wealth: dark mahogany furniture, expensive bric-a-brac, heavy curtains.
“You speak good Vietnamese,” he said.
“How long have you lived here, Mrs. Levron?” he asked.
“And the previous owner?”
“His name was Sylvain Aguillard. He was killed in a car crash soon after I bought the house.”
“Do you know how long he lived here?”
“Not exactly; about 20 years, I think.”
“The doctor says that the body we’ve found has been here for about five years.”
“During Mr. Aguillard’s time then,” she said.
It had been a dreadful day. Just after breakfast, Mr. Dung, the gardener, had knocked on the kitchen door. His face was white. She asked him what he wanted, thinking that perhaps Stephane had inadvertently caused offence by using some of his precious tools.
“Come with me, please,” he said and she had reluctantly followed him out into the garden. He led her to a flowerbed and stared down at the ground where he had been digging. A piece of old bone lay exposed. She looked at him — at his face, sweat-stained and dusty — at the bone, then back to him once more.
“That,” he said, pointing, “is human.”
She smiled at his jest, after all good gardeners were hard to come by, then saw his eyes, graven and serious.
“You must be mistaken,” she said.
“We must phone the police,” he answered and led her back towards the house.
“Do you live here alone, Mrs Levron?” Captain Tran asked.
“No, I live with my son, Stephane.”
“And your husband?”
“He left two years ago.”
“Where is he now?’
“I’ve no idea. He ran off with a young Vietnamese woman; not his first affair, I might add. After he moved out Mr. Aguillard came to see me. François, my husband, had told him that the purchase of the house was off. It wasn’t — the money was mine — but François was that sort of vindictive man.”
When Captain Tran left the house a short while later, he saw that a crowd had gathered around some bushes at the bottom of the garden. The doctor was the centre of attraction. He was bent double, picking at the ground with a trowel.
“We’ve found another body, sir,” sergeant Le explained.
Mrs. Levron was sitting in front of the television set when Captain Tran called on her again later that evening. Her son Stephane sat at the dining-room table. He was a tall boy with a thin, delicate face and dark swept-back hair. He had a number of mathematics books spread out before him, but they had hardly been touched. Three hours earlier he had stood ashen-faced and apparently petrified in the street outside the front gate before his mother had ushered him into the house.
“So far we have found three bodies in your garden, Mrs. Levron,” the captain explained, “two women and a man, we think.” Then, while mother and son sat holding hands on the sofa, he outlined the police procedures that would thereafter ensue.
When he left the house Captain Tran found Sergeant Le smoking on the veranda. Behind him rain was falling in a solid sheet and the garden had turned into a quagmire.
“We’ve found another one, sir,” Le said.
In the living room Stephane went to the window where he stood watching the policemen make their way towards a distant corner of the garden.
“I think they’ve found another body,” he said.
Seeing his trembling tears his mother reached out and fiercely grasped his arm. “This has nothing to do with us, Stephane,” she said. “Do you hear me? Nothing!”
She shook him violently. Angrily. “We said we wouldn’t speak of it again.”
“I know but …”
Her expression silenced him, “There are no buts, Stephane. Not this time.”
When he had composed himself she said that there was nothing to worry about if he did exactly as he was told.
Among the bushes the scarcely recognisable body of a man lay at the bottom of a shallow grave. The doctor moved round the body then crouched down and examined an area of the dead man’s skull.
“This one’s had his head bashed in just like all the others,” he said.
The post mortems established that the four killings had occurred over a fifteen-year period with the most recent body having been buried approximately two years before. And although the pathologist established that, in every case, death had been caused by a severe blow to the head, he was not able to explain why the first three victims had been buried naked, but the fourth was semi-clothed.
Captain Tran began his investigation by circulating profiles of the four corpses; descriptions that included physical and dental characteristics, sex, age, stature and estimated time of death — and within two weeks he had three names. Victim Number One was a local woman named Nguyen Mai Khanh who had worked as a waitress at a nearby restaurant. She had vanished eight years before. Victim Number Two — Vo Thanh Vinh, a carpenter known to have worked in the house — had been missing for five years, but it was Victim Number Three, Khong Minh Thao, a shop assistant, who provided the police with their first positive link to their prime suspect, Sylvain Aguillard.
Miss Khong had gone missing three years before while walking home from work and among Aguillard’s few remaining possessions the police discovered a pair of her earrings. Damning evidence indeed and Tran’s superiors were naturally elated. Case solved, they declared, but something was troubling the captain. There were too many “loose ends”, he complained, not least of which was the identity of the fourth victim.
Two weeks later, Captain Tran went to see Mrs. Levron and her son again. “I am here to notify you of the official inquiry,” he said.
“Will we be called to give evidence?” Mrs. Levron asked.
“Only you, not your son.”
“And my husband, François? Is he to be there? Is he going to crawl from under his stone in order to gloat? Will he be at this inquiry, Captain Tran?”
“Ah, so you’ve found him, have you?”
“Not yet, Mrs. Levron, but I am confident that we shall.”
When Stephane began to weep quietly his mother went immediately to his side and began gently stroking his head and whispering to him in a soothing way, but Tran could see that her own hands were also shaking.
“I am sorry this is so distressing?” he said.
“Yes, this is very distressing, Captain. I feel nothing for François. He was an abusive bully and a drunkard…,” which was exactly what Tran had heard — “and I do not look forward to seeing him again.” She bent down and kissed her son. “But he was Stephane’s father, and a son misses his father even though he was not a good man.” Stephane looked up to his mother and grasped her hand tightly in his own. “On the night that he left me, I felt nothing but relief, Captain Tran,” she admitted. “Utter relief!”
“And you Stephane?” Captain Tran asked.
“My father was a cruel man, sir. He frightened me.” His voice faltered. “And I hated him.”
“And the fourth body, Captain Tran?” Mrs Levron asked. “Have you identified the man yet?”
“That’s proving to be more difficult than I expected.”
“Do you know then when these poor people are to be buried?”
“Arrangements are being made, I understand.”
“Will you let us know the details, Captain? The least that Stephane and I can do is pay our last respects to them,” she said.
The official inquiry lasted one day and the subsequent judgement surprised no one; Sylvain Aguillard had brutally murdered four people (one of whom remained unidentified), and had disposed of their bodies in his garden. After the judge had handed down his decision, Captain Tran spoke to Mrs. Levron outside the courthouse.
“We couldn’t find your husband,” he said.
“I’m glad, captain. His absence has been our only consolation during this entire ordeal.”
Only four people attended the funeral of the unknown man at Binh Hung Hoa cemetery — Captain Tran, Mrs. Levron, Stephane and a Buddhist monk who intoned the short service prior to the cremation of the dead man’s remains. During the ceremony, Stephane had stood, head bowed, while next to him, his mother, straight-backed and dry-eyed, had listened to words that held no meaning for her. Later, the two of them lit incense sticks in memory of the departed.
“It’s over now, Stephane,” Mrs. Levron said when they were finally back home again.
He looked at her, started to say something then covered his face and wept. She let him cry. After a time he wiped his eyes. He was staring at a small dent on the corner of the large dining table. There was an all-but imperceptible stain on the carpet beneath.
“It’s finished,” she said.
“I meant to hurt dad,” he blurted out. “I meant it. I couldn’t let him hit you any more.”
“It was an accident, Stephane,” she said calmly. “You pushed him, he struck his head,” — she touched his cheek — “and we took care of him together.”
Outside in the garden, late afternoon sunlight was filtering through the trees where they had once dragged her husband’s body across the lawn.
“Now that the matter is finished I think we should go for a holiday,” she said brightly. “Down to the Mekong Delta somewhere. The change would do us both good...”
This is a work of fiction. All names, characters and incidents are invented. Rob Marsh is the author of 30 published books (both fiction and non-fiction). He currently lives in Ho Chi Minh City