The following is an excerpt from Dukkha Reverb, a Sam Reeves martial arts thriller. After six weeks of being intensely investigated for the accidental killing of a young boy, Portland police detective and martial arts instructor, Sam Reeves, travels to Saigon, Vietnam to visit his newly found family. Although he hopes to find peace and refuge, Sam, along with his family and a bizarre set of new friends, suddenly find themselves thrust into a nightmarish world of sex trafficking, a deadly warehouse of Buddha statues, and a dirt tunnel that leads to a suffocating death.
Samuel probably feels that his power was somewhat weakened by yielding to Lai Van Tan’s request to meet here in his building, so getting the big man to agree that the conversation be in English is one building block toward regaining it. But asking that I sit at the table seems a little antagonistic. Back at the house, he said that he didn’t want to do that.
“Your son may sit at table,” Lai Van Tan says, his words uttered as if chipped from the cement-hard silence, “when your daughter be one of my whores.”
Mai leaps to her feet shouting something and knocking her chair over backwards. Granite Face responds quickly, standing up and slamming his chair back against the wall. He takes a protective step closer to Lai Van Tan. For a second, Mai postures to jump onto the table, but Samuel, still sitting, touches her arm. “Sit down, Mai,” he says calmly. I put her chair upright and she sits without looking behind her.
The corners of Lai Van Tan’s mouth turn up a little in what might serve as his smile, but his eyes still have that dirty water thing going on. He says something to Granite Face, and the guy sits, his hands out of sight seemingly in his lap.
Master puppeteer, this Lai Van Tan, and he just had Mai dancing at the end of his strings. I can’t see Samuel’s face but I’m guessing he’s not too pleased about that.
After a half minute of eerie silence, Samuel speaks first, his voice tight as if struggling to restrain himself. “I have come today…to talk to you man to man…and you insult my daughter.”
“I insult your daughter,” Lai Van Tan says gruffly, “but you kill my son!”
“I did not kill your son and you know this.”
Lai Van Tan’s quivers as if he, too, is fighting to control his rage. “I know nothing of the kind.”
“Do not insult my intelligence, Mister Lai. I came to you that night to ask you to reduce your demands for money from my stores. You insulted me and tried to intimidate me. So I left. Then you sent two men to confront me in a narrow street.”
“You lie! I sent no—”
“One man lifted a gun toward my face,” Samuel continues, ignoring the accusation, “just as the second man moved into the bullet’s path. The shot man was your son, shot by one of your people. The second man continued to fight me. He died when his head hit a railing.”
I’m not sure, but it looks like Lai Van Tan’s eyes might be tearing.
“That night haunts me.” Samuel says. “Two lives gone unnecessarily. A waste.”
“Waste,” Lai Van Tan grunts. “My son’s life was a waste, you say.”
“I am saying that his death was unnecessary. An unnecessary death is a waste.”
Lai Van Tan is quivering. I can’t tell if it’s because he is trying to control his anger or his sorrow. Maybe both.
“Do you know my son’s name?” Lai Van Tan asks quietly.
“I am sorry, I do not.”
“It means good,” Samuel says softly.
Lai Van Tan nods, his eyes looking off to the side for a moment.
“I am sorry this happened, Mister Lai.”
“Duc was most precious to his mother and to me. He have important future. In one year he would be doctor.”
Doctor. Then why was he doing strong-arm work for the old man? Not sure if I’m buying this. Phong Tran still looks like he’d rather be anyplace else but here. Granite Face looks like he was born to be here.
“I am sorry this happened,” Samuel repeats.
“I send him to get you to come back. To talk more.”
Right. Next he’s going to offer to sell Samuel a bridge on the River Kwai. This guy is the worst kind of dangerous. He’s in denial and he’s nuts.
“Lai Van Tan,” Samuel says, sounding more like, come on, knock off the crap.
“You do not take responsibility?” the old man suddenly shrieks. I jump a little; Samuel and Mai don’t.
Okay, he’s not just crazy, he’s a whole lot crazy.
“Sir,” Samuel says, his voice low and subdued, no doubt trying to calm the man. “We both survived those dark years of the war and we are old men now. We are no longer enemies. Have we not earned a peaceful life?”
He looks at Samuel for a long moment. If I were betting, I’d wager that Samuel’s words just bounced off the old man’s stone-carved head.
“Do you take responsibility for my son’s death?” he asks.
I would have won the pot.
“If that is what it takes to have peace between us, then yes, I take responsibility. I am sorry it happened.”
Lai Van Tan sputters a laugh. “Your words are like a whore’s whispers of affection. Empty, meaningless, self-serving.”
Samuel has to be exasperated, but he isn’t showing it, at least from my view of his side profile. Mai has been sitting motionless, except for her left hand that I can see clearly from my position. Since Samuel encouraged her to sit back down, her fingers have been continuously curling into a ball, first the little finger, then her ring finger, middle, index, and thumb. When they’re fisted, they reverse the action and straighten. Then they curl again.
“Tell me what you want from me,” Samuel says.
“What I want,” Lai Van Tan says in a voice as cold as an icicle through the heart, “is my vengeance.”
The quiet in the room earlier was like a Mardi Gras compared to now. I’m guessing that Samuel and Mai are thinking the same thing I am, that this man cannot be placated. He is in another world where the sky is a different color.
“Revenge is not the way, sir,” Samuel says.
“I thought you a learned man,” Lai Van Tan says, his mouth doing that curl-up thing. “I am not seeking revenge. That is an act of passion and I am not acting passionately. My actions are deliberate because vengeance, you see, is about justice. I will have justice.”
This is one of those “oh shit moments” when you know that everything from here on out is going to turn to caca.
“What can I do to make this better?” Samuel asks.
Lai Van Tan lays his palms flat on the table. “Simple. You can die and your family can die.”
A slight movement from Mai catches my eye. Using my peripheral vision, I see that she is maintaining her upright posture as she ever so slowly lowers her right knee down as far as it can go. Now she is curling her foot up…a little more…there. She slowly slides her Glock 26 out of her ankle holster, then lowers her foot back to the floor and brings her knee back up to its normal position. She did it all without giving away her action to those on Lai Van Tan’s side, and while appearing to have her hands in her lap the entire time. That’s where they are now, but the right one is holding a Glock 9 millimeter handgun loaded with eleven rounds, ten in the magazine, one in the chamber. That is, if she reloaded after shooting her kidnappers.
“I am sorry we could not come to a peaceful agreement, sir,” Samuel says, still sitting calmly. “So we are leaving now. I request that the man on your left lift his arms out to his sides, shoulder high. I want to see his empty hands.”
The rain starts again, slamming the windows hard.
“Ngai,” Lai Van Tan says, his eyes darting to Granite Face, then back to Samuel. Granite Face starts to bring up his hands.
“Stop!” Samuel says, then says something in Vietnamese, probably “move slowly.”
The man does slow for a moment, then stops moving all together, his hands still not visible, his eyes boring into Samuel’s. Lai Van Tan, still watching Samuel, talks to his man out of the corner of his mouth. Again, Granite Face’s arms begin slowly moving. His left hand clears the tabletop first, empty. Then his right hand.
It’s holding a gun, a revolver, big. Three-fifty-seven.
The three of us are instantly on our feet. Samuel side-steps so that his body covers mine. Mai is thrusting her Glock at Granite Face, shouting something. Still in his armed crucifix pose, the man is speaking to Mai, his voice eerily calm. If he swings that weapon around toward us, Mai will turn him into burnt toast.
Lai Van Tan remains cool, his mouth turned up a little into a sick smile, eyes watching, excited. He’s having a good time.
Without turning around, Samuel reaches behind his back and grips the front of my shirt. “Stay behind me,” he says over his shoulder. He begins side-stepping behind Mai who is keeping her weapon trained on Granite Face. Half a dozen more steps and we’re at the door, Samuel still in front of me. “Open it, Sam.”
I reach behind me, fumble for the knob, find it, turn it. “It’s open.”
“Mai. Come,” Samuel says, nudging me to keep backing out.
Mai moves in front of Samuel, her gun trained on the three on the other side of the table. The last I see as we back out into the lobby is Lai Van Tan still sitting passively, looking at his nails, that vicious smile curling up the corners of his mouth. Mai pulls the door closed. Surprisingly, Granite Face doesn’t shoot through it.
“Keep watching the door, Mai,” Samuel says, as we move quickly across the lobby.
The same “undercover” couple are still under the shelter of the outside overhang, probably because another downpour is slamming the street and sidewalk. This time the man and woman don’t move out of our way in the tight space. The male is making an Elvis sneer and the female is doing an outlaw biker chick pose. She can’t nudge the scale to more than a hundred pounds, even with her boots on. It’s hard not to laugh.
Bad for them that this time Samuel is no longer in the mood for their nonsense. He grabs Elvis’s shirtfront with both hands and sweeps the man’s left leg to the side until he’s teetering in a half split, his foot out in the rain. Then he sweeps the man’s other foot to the right, dropping him into a deeper split. Elvis is yelling something quite loudly and struggling to stand upright, but Samuel is preventing that by pulling down on his shirt.
When Biker Chick screeches and reaches for Samuel, Mai grabs a wad of her hair, whips her head back and forth a couple of times, and flings her out into the monsoon. Mai does this with her left hand because she still has her Glock in her right. That’s my girl. The shake job must have jarred the woman’s brain because now she’s staggering about in a small circle as if she were drunk.
Samuel kicks the man’s left leg out a couple more times, until his crotch is about a foot above the sidewalk. I’m guessing he doesn’t normally do the splits because he’s screeching like an actress in a bad horror movie. Samuel does one last kick and the man goes all the way down. I think I hear his muscles tear, but I can’t be sure because the rain’s din is so loud. All this took place in about ten seconds.
Then the rain stops.
Half a minute later, we’re all in the Volvo and Mai is driving like a crazed person—even considering her regular style.