“A social history, a political thriller, and a personal story, masterfully pulled together by a writer whose gifts we mourn.”
—Sara Paretsky, author of Dead Land
It is a bittersweet day for Soho Press as we celebrate the release of late Juris Jurjevics’s evocative posthumous novel, PLAY THE RED QUEEN. If you’re not already familiar with our larger-than-life co-founder, Juris was a critically acclaimed author, storied publisher, and Viet Nam veteran who touched the lives of everyone he met, within the publishing industry and without. PLAY THE RED QUEEN is his capstone contribution to a lifelong literary legacy: a tour-de-force mystery-cum-social history, breathtakingly atmospheric and heartbreakingly alive with the laws and lawlessness of war.
Read on for an idea of what made Jurjevics a master craftsman and storyteller. PLAY THE RED QUEEN is on sale now.
The dead American major lay faceup on the sidewalk in his stocking feet. His khaki shirtfront gleamed with blood, a sizable pool now spreading toward the gutter. A stray dog, weighing the odds of sampling some, cringed when a waiter clouted it with a broom. Street hustlers with pointy sideburns cackled as their leader mimicked the mutt’s lapping tongue.
Two plainclothes Vietnamese dicks were chatting up some military police in green fatigues with QC in white letters on their black helmet liners. The tallest of the army cops stood bareheaded in an open jeep, forearms leaning on the bar of red flashers that ran along the top of the windshield. Our own Air Force military police were in khakis and black boots, MP emblazoned in white on their sleeve brassards and helmets. One sergeant took 35-millimeter photographs of the major while another readied a body bag.
Saigon municipal police—who everyone called “white mice” both for their all-white uniforms and their cowardly inclinations—busied themselves waving away vehicles streaming past the cordon. The higher ranks stood in the shade and made a bored show of checking their wristwatches, as it was nearly time for their ngu trua, the long midday break the Vietnamese took during the worst of the heat. Another American getting himself murdered had them acting even more inconvenienced than usual.
As agents of the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division, me and Robeson had jurisdiction over the victim; the Viets, over the killer. I flipped open my spiral notebook and entered 11:28 hours, 16 October 1963. Then the basics: Staff Sergeant Ellsworth Miser and Sergeant Clovis Auguste Robeson, CID investigators at scene. One entry wound, upper torso.
From the damage, it looked like the round might’ve flattened as it struck, smacking into his chest like a quarter driven by a pickaxe. Sergeant Robeson turned the body partway but found no obvious exit wound. The slug was lodged somewhere in the corpse.
In the first incident, a week and a half ago, the shooter had aimed for body mass on an American army captain and let the bullet do its work. Six days later she’d gone for a head shot on a major. “Hit ’im straight between his running lights,” Freddie Crouch had announced to the office on returning from the scene.
Lying in front of us, her third kill was much less messy. Perfect placement: straight to the heart. Struck in the breast pocket, the major had been slammed right out of his shoes. The shot bordered on impossible, given the moving motorbike on which the sharpshooter had balanced, firing from behind the driver.
We approached the closest witness to the killing, a staff sergeant like me, three gold chevrons on his sleeve above a single rocker. He stopped teeter-tottering his café chair midair and lowered the front legs to the sidewalk.
“Can you describe the assailant?” I said, ready to take notes.
He reared up again on the back legs of the chair. The cap of his lighter chinged open and clicked shut over and over as he spoke.
“Drop-dead gorgeous, you might say.” He smiled faintly at his lame joke. “Way better-looking than my broad. Otherwise typical: no knockers, not much ass. Coal-black hair way past her shoulders. Slender as a sparrow.”
“Wearing?” Robeson said.
The sergeant didn’t so much as glance Robeson’s way. He looked straight at me like I’d asked the question. “An ao dai. White. Loose dark pants underneath.”
“Head covered?” I asked.
He nodded. “Cone hat tied under her chin.”
“No idea. Little. Course they’re all little. One cute baby-san, I tell ya. My Fifth ARVN guys iced some female VCs last week out in the boonies, but they were nothin’ to look at compared to this kid.”
“Kid? What age?”
“Maybe twenty, tops.” He clicked his Zippo shut and laid it on the pack. I read the sentiment etched into its side:
i love the
and the army
loves fucking me
“She have the piece in a bag before she produced it?”
The sergeant lit a Lucky Strike and inhaled deeply. “Had it in this red silky scarf. Slipped away as the barrel came up. She fired as soon as she had the gun raised and nested.”
“Could you make out the weapon?”
“Looked to be a forty-five.”
A .45 pistol had a lot of stopping power but wasn’t everyone’s weapon of choice. The piece was a lot to lift—three pounds—and its iron sights sucked. The recoil from the large-caliber bullet was notoriously hard to handle. Harder still to hit anything at all with a .45, much less while balanced on the back of a moving vehicle. But smacking into you at high velocity, the stubby slugs could dislocate your shoulder if they so much as struck a finger. Like reaching up and catching a cannonball, our firearms instructors liked to boast. A .45 could knock you upside down if it struck low, or toss you backward like a puppet, as it had the major.
“She had no problem handling the kick?”
“None. One shot. No hesitation. Hit ’im dead center and flung ’im.”
“Standard issue forty-five?”
“Looked to be standard,” he said, “except the finish was lighter.”
“Shiny, you mean? Plated like?”
“No. Just not blued. And the grips . . . they could’ve been light too.”
“Not pimp grips, no. Not sparkly. More like bone.”
“Like that, yeah. Sort of grayish-yellow.”
Sweat dripped down my chin. I brushed it away.
“How is it you saw the grips,” Robeson interjected, “if she was clutching the piece?”
Again, the sergeant answered me. “She took it by the slide right after the discharge. Held it at her side like a hammer. Had a finger through the trigger guard riding away.”
“How far was she when she fired? Ten feet? Fifteen?”
“I’d say twenty-five to thirty.”
“Jesus. No mean feat.”
“She oughta shoot for their Olympic team, if the zips ever get their act together to have one.”
“You get a look at the motorbike driver?”
“Not a motorbike. A scooter. Young stud. Dark pants, red and black short-sleeve shirt. Plaid, like yours.”
Robeson and me had on our civvies: tan desert boots from the base exchange, beige socks, drip-dry pants. No underwear. CID credentials rode in the breast pockets of our short-sleeve shirts, left untucked to cover our holstered revolvers.
I glanced across the black macadam, trying to imagine the scene just before the shot. “The major, was he sitting when he got hit?”
“He had just stood up. The poor bastard was smiling.”
“He was leaving?” Robeson said.
“Don’t think so,” the sarge said to me. “Just got up.”
“Why, if he wasn’t leaving?”
“And you said he was smiling?”
“Yeah. The major said something as the weapon popped up.”
The sergeant frowned. “I wasn’t paying no mind. The gun had my full attention.”
“Who did he say it to?”
“Maybe the pro who had planted herself at his table. I’m not sure.”
“She still here?”
“No. When the little lady got splashed, she wailed and bolted.”
“And were you socializing with a tea girl too?”
“Yeah.” He nodded to where she stood, quaking.
I let the sergeant retreat to another table and went to talk to the tea girl who’d been sitting next to him during the attack. She was wearing white, as decreed by the Diem regime’s morality laws. The laws also forbade hostesses to consume alcohol, but a waiter was plying her with liquor after what she’d seen. “Lousy VC numba ten,” was the extent of her English. I took down her name from her hostess ID for our office interpreter to follow up, but I wasn’t expecting much from that quarter.
I blotted my eyes with my sleeve. “Lady Death,” the Saigon press had dubbed the shooter. At the shop we called her “the Red Queen” because a playing card bearing a red female figure in a cone hat and ao dai had been left at each of the first two shootings, a detail our boss had held back from the press. Though they’d have it soon enough: Saigon was a sieve.
Our military press was lucky to report on it at all. The new Armed Forces Radio broadcasts were censored both by the Vietnamese and by us in solidarity with our ally’s restricted news accounts. Also in keeping with our commanding general’s morale directive—no lurid shit. Our service rag wasn’t much better. Most days Stars and Stripes read like a small-town weekly filled with photo spreads of Saigon’s orphan boys learning “simple trades and civic responsibility” at the local Lions Club.
What it didn’t have was hard military news about Green Berets arming Montagnard tribesmen in the highlands and building fortified mountain camps for them along the border with Laos. Not a thing about our secret air bases in Thailand flying missions against VC supply lines running south down through Cambodia. Nada about the black-op coastal raiders launching out of Da Nang into North Viet Nam’s waters. Instead we got the “landslide” victory of the Vietnamese president’s party in a country that practically outlawed opposition, alongside stirring stories about American ground crews servicing choppers in the blazing sun and guys getting care packages from home. I could hardly wait for this year’s Christmas piece on Santa’s sleigh taking fire over Bien Hoa. But today there had been a rare short article—barely two inches of type—about the two previous attacks by the deadly damsel. No names or details, just a quick cautionary tale meant to warn uniformed advisors off Saigon’s streets, from its swank boulevards to its narrow stinking alleys.
An American MP brought over the major’s wallet and dog tags. James Calvin Furth, blood type A, Presbyterian. Officer and gentleman by Act of Congress, career concluded three thousand leagues from home. Back there it was a little before midnight, his kids asleep, his wife drifting off. Dreaming. Or maybe jarred awake by terrible dread like people bullshitted about in movies.
Trucks, sedans, and overloaded buses rolled past the newly dead body at speed. Among the mass of vehicles jamming the boulevard rode women on bicycles, scooters, and the benches of pedal rickshaws, their long hair trailing behind them. Most of the younger ones were dressed just like the Red Queen in white ao dais and woven cone hats, their eyes flitting over us from beneath black bangs. The gauzy silk tunics billowed as the women floated by.
The street cops’ white uniforms blazed as they went through the motions of searching for the expended shell casing among the automobiles and motorbikes darting around them like spooked fish. They weren’t exactly busting ass, but you could hardly blame them. There was no mystery as to who had killed the major or why. It’s what we did—hostiles and friendlies. It’s what we were there to do to each other. Any so-called evidence wasn’t going to tell you much more than that. This wasn’t a crime of passion or common murder. It was a skilled assassination, a stranger coming upon a stranger and cutting him down. Nothing personal.
A QC sergeant found the red silk scarf she’d used to cloak the pistol and turned it over to me. I got a whiff of gardenia and gun oil. Righting the major’s café chair, I sat down at his table, still feeling kind of hollow from a touch of fever the week prior. Something crackled underfoot—looked like pieces of windshield glass and bits of chalky stucco. I leaned down to see what it was. Pinned beneath a leg of the major’s chair was a torn wedge of paper—a corner of an astrological chart, common as candy in Saigon. I piled the debris on the paper scrap and lifted it onto the table. “Well, I’ll be,” I muttered. Bleached bones from the skeleton of a small creature, maybe a tiny bat. A miniature fang stuck to my thumb. The glassy fragments were broken mirror.
“Might’ve been getting his fortune read when he bought it,” I called out to Robeson. He came over to examine my collection, then went to check with our witness, who looked mighty pissed at being questioned by Robeson on his own. The staff sergeant was lucky we were outside in broad daylight. If this had gone down in a bar after hours, whitey might have ended his night picking glass out of his skull.
“You were right,” Clovis called over to me. “The sergeant here says an astrologer was squatting next to the major when he bought it.” A fortune-teller poring over small mirrors and bones, divining the American’s destiny. The Year of the Cat hadn’t lined up so good for Major Furth.
Robeson joined me at the table. “You think this dude gave Furth a break on the price when he saw how little work it was gonna take to lay out the guy’s future?”
A Vietnamese police captain, in gray slacks and snappy white shirt with black epaulettes, fanned himself with his hat and called his men out of the road. They sidled to the curb, exhausted. Come evening, they’d be dragging themselves to second jobs, the lucky ones at hotels and businesses, the others doing hard-ass manual labor. Elite nabobs and shitbags lived well in Saigon but even ranking soldiers and police struggled, doing menial work far beneath them just to get by. Which had Vietnamese cops like these forever fishing for bribes, and threatening shopkeepers with raids if they came away empty-handed. The more ambitious ones saved up to buy promotions. Higher rank would let them extort more and work less, like their bosses and the plainclothesmen standing in the shade.
One of the street cops handed me what looked like a face card, but not any of the sixteen cards in the standard Vietnamese deck. I took it by its edges: a female figure in a black ao dai beneath a black cone hat, with a red skull for a face and empty black eye sockets. Instead of a suit symbol, a yellow Communist star gleamed in the upper corner.
“She’s using revenge cards,” Robeson said. “Same as our side.” He reminded me about the rumors that some of our guys had started marking their kills with an ace of spades stuffed in the victim’s mouth or wounds. “It’s like she’s mocking us, tossing it right back in our faces.”
My buck sergeant was good. Robeson ground it out, working the details until they talked. I liked to think I didn’t have the patience. More likely his kind of smarts is what I didn’t have. Not that he needed them. The fucker had family money. He’d gone to college for a couple of semesters and had kicked back in places like Paris and Morocco. He could read music, speak some French and do arithmetic in his head. He knew things that weren’t in Army manuals.
I slipped the card into my breast pocket without touching the face or back. “The bystanders give you anything useful about her driver?”
“Mostly no one remembers a whole lot more than hearing the gunshot. One of the waiters said a male in his twenties, on a pale green Vespa.”
Vespa motor scooters puttered all around Saigon, humming like hornets. A few red, the rest a watery pea-soup green. “Some getaway vehicle,” I said, peeved at the humiliation. “Fleeing on a two-stroke lawn mower engine.”
A waiter delivered us each a small aperitif. I sipped the blond liqueur and sifted through the contents of the major’s wallet. Pictures of two kids, the wife, a pickup truck and a Ford Falcon parked in the driveway of a sprawling white Victorian with a wraparound porch. A wallet-size hand-tinted photo showed a pink-cheeked ARVN ranger in a beret. In a tiny insert next to him, a tinier paratrooper rappelled down a rope. In another black-and-white, a properly shy Vietnamese girl in a tight, high-collared, long-sleeved ao dai stood next to the major. In with the piasters in the bill compartment was a condom packet that had raised a permanent round impression in the leather.
The Virginia driver’s license had him at age forty, nine years older than me. I groped my pants pocket for my mentholated Newports and examined his tiny bank-card calendar. Three months left to mark off from his tour of duty. He’d be home earlier than expected, Glad-bagged inside a crate, his personal effects in a ditty pouch between his knees, his body seen off by an honor guard from the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam, the ARVN troops he had come such a long way to instruct in the art of war. Never mind that they’d been soldiering since before the baby Jesus drew breath.
Judging from his starched khakis and MAAG shoulder patch, Major Furth was more likely a Saigon warrior, a REMF: Rear Echelon Motherfucker. Even so, unarmed and ambushed on a city street by a woman in civvies was no way for any soldier to go.
In ’62, fifty-three Americans had gone home in flag-draped boxes, yet the embassy kept insisting we all were non-combatants. Though five thousand of us were in the field, Washington insisted all sixteen thousand US military in-country were “advisors.” Whether we bore arms or wielded pens, flew missions or desks, didn’t seem to matter. We were paying the price for taking a stand alongside the South Vietnamese. As we closed in on the last two months of ’63, the casualty toll was already double last year’s and rising as the Red Queen trawled the streets, adding her kills to the total.
Before the Red Queen showed up, weeks had gone by without shots being fired. We had explosions in town—bombs, plastique—and restaurants had started to put up latticework grills to keep out tossed grenades, but gunplay was rare. Your chances were still far better of getting killed by a barstool than a bullet.
Until now, Americans in Saigon had rarely been targeted. And never their dependents, like the kids in the stateside yellow bus passing in front of us, carting students home from their half day at the unairconditioned American Community School, the older boys in the back puffing on Bastos, impressed with themselves ’cause they could buy beer and smokes anywhere in the city or bum them from the armed GI on board. The boys stared at the body, the girls mostly looked away. All of them worried it might be somebody they knew.
Guerillas were embedded in Saigon’s Chinese district and encamped in swampy wetlands within sight of the city, yet poor and posh alike denied that the Viet Cong were at the gates. The terrifying executions took place out there. Whenever violence erupted locally, the regime blamed “bandits.” But last month, during a crowded matinee of Lady and the Tramp at the theater leased for American use, a bomb had smashed the ladies’ room. And across town in Cholon, a thirty-foot section of the wall surrounding General Harkins’s headquarters had gotten blown out. These incidents made everybody edgy with the thought that the VC had something new in mind for US personnel that might even include their families. Nevertheless we’d carried on like everything was normal—until these slayings.
Not that there was much we could do if Viet Cong assassination teams started targeting unarmed American advisors. We lived and worked in locations scattered across the city. Being dispersed allegedly made us less noticeable and safer than if we were concentrated. At least that was the official bullshit the brass put out. The simple truth: there wasn’t any huge, impregnable base to take shelter in. Tasked with our well-being, the US Navy didn’t have the manpower to secure the bus lines, the dispensary, the American library, the brand-new naval hospital, the bowling alley, the swimming pool in Cholon, the USO, the motor pools and commissaries, the mess halls, or the big base exchange where everyone shopped. Much less our widespread workplaces or the villas and apartments throughout the city the Navy leased for service members and their families. Security at our bachelors’ quarters was only slightly better.
I drained the aperitif, letting the chilled alcohol drench my tongue and glide down my throat. An MP collected the major’s dog tags and wallet, slipping them into an olive-drab drawstring bag. Two other MPs hoisted the stretcher with the body onto a small Army truck, Hang Loose with the Deuce stenciled on the bumper.
Pedestrians stepped around the waiters sluicing blood off the sidewalk. A siren announced high noon, the beginning of the three-hour siesta. The Vietnamese cops scattered.
I squinted against the stabbing flashes of light as we got back into our jeep. A pang turned into pain in my hips. A recent bout of dengue revisiting the scene.
Me and Robeson went over the little we knew from Freddie Crouch, our voices raised over the engine and the hot air streaming past us in the open jeep. Two Americans had been cut down in the street in quick daylight attacks, the first shot dead near a flower market, the next a few days later at a food kiosk. “She’s in and out lightning fast,” Crouch had said, “improvising targets on the fly.” And now this third blitz attack curbside at a café, using the same shoot-and-scoot tactic. The drivers varied, the shooter didn’t.
“She’s always the button—and deserves to be. She doesn’t miss,” I said.
“You think this is one of Madame Nhu’s paramilitary broads? She puts her sharpshooters up in contests against guys.”
True, the president’s pain-in-the-ass sister-in-law had created her own women’s paramilitary corps. But much as she loved attacking America in the press, I doubted she’d have the balls to start ordering hits on us herself. If you asked me, she just liked having 20,000 uniformed women saluting her for the cameras. But this was how Robeson covered all bases, casting a wide net before he circled back toward simpler possibilities.
“If the Dragon Lady was sending a message the shooter would have been wearing the corps’ blue jumpsuit and regulation dark lipstick. She acts like her ladies’ militia’s a force to be reckoned with but they’re mostly for show. Her ‘little darlings’ may be decent enough at target practice, but they couldn’t pull off shots like this.”
“Yeah, our girl’s got some serious skills.”
I leaned toward him. “I’d say a decade’s worth.”
“So maybe she’s a Viet Minh veteran?”
“No,” I objected. “Too damn young. If she’s twenty, she would’ve been, what?—ten or eleven back when the Viet Minh were kicking French ass up north.” The independence fighters had recruited some awfully young teens, but that still seemed like a stretch.
“She got herself trained real good by somebody somewhere.” Robeson wiped his brow. “The North’s got Chinese and Russian advisors. There’s gotta be some decent pistol instructors among ’em.”
I shook my head. “Taking down a live target from the back of a moving scooter—she didn’t learn that on no VC firing range or live-fire course up north.”
“Point taken,” Robeson agreed. “She got thrown in the shit.”
Robeson navigated us expertly through the sea of vehicles. Saigon traffic was a chaotic mix of hand-drawn carts, oxcarts, bicycles, three-wheeled cyclo-pousse rickshaws, overloaded scooters, motorcycles, Renault taxis, buses, and military vehicles like ours. Vietnamese drivers could buy their licenses whether or not they could drive. In an accident, the foreigner was always in the wrong—and would be expected to pay to make it right. The army was known to shell out up to a thousand bucks, so accidents were not always so accidental.
We cruised down a street lined with eateries that specialized in snake dishes, then passed under a long canopy of flame trees. I swiped at the sweat stinging my eyes, grateful for the shade. Saigon had hardly a traffic light to slow our progress. At intersections, vehicles never stopped or slowed, but passed between each other at right angles like synchronized drill teams.
The heavy air was muzzy with exhaust fumes. A derelict villa loomed over the road, barely visible through creepers growing upward along its façade, its roof slowly being lifted off by vines. The purple and red flowers smelled great but couldn’t hide the aroma of raw sewage in the street. Saigon was like a booby prize. The Vietnamese had surrendered it to the French a century ago hoping they’d be devoured by the mosquitoes. The colonists brought in mosquito netting and built four thousand kilometers of canals to protect themselves. The French had planned for half a million residents. Four times that many had flooded the town for protection and profit, overwhelming the roads and plumbing. Saigon’s sewers were bursting. The poorer neighborhoods—like the shantytowns on the outskirts and the sampan slums on the canals—had none. No running water, no electricity either.
Robeson sang to himself as we rolled. “Oh mama don’t you weep and moan/Uncle Sam he got your man and gon’.” On a traffic island, sentries dozed in shaded hammocks while their fortified pillbox stood empty. On the sidewalks, vendors slept beside their covered wares or atop their outdoor counters. I wondered where the Red Queen had tucked herself away for the noontime siesta after her morning’s success.