|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Nguyen Danh Lam
"Hey, mate! Start from this address before midnight, then follow her. When she reaches the broken handrail of the bridge that I'll show you right now, try to crash hard against the front wheel of her motorbike so she falls into this small dead river. That's all. Here's your reward." The middle-aged man handed the young hired thug a thick envelope.
"When do I have to finish this heinous task, sir?"
"As soon as possible! Within a month, at the most! I can't wait any longer, you see."
"Sir, frankly speaking, I've never done such a terrible thing in my life. But…."
"Yes, I know, I know. However, to the best of my knowledge, you're badly in need of money, aren't you?"
"What gives you that impression? You've never met me. You don't know who I really am."
"Well, we needn't go to the moon to realize that it doesn't have any water."
"But… why did you choose me for this dishonest deed?"
"By chance? Is it also by chance that you know I want money?"
"Who on Earth doesn't need money? I'm well aware that you're going to say, 'Money isn't everything.' But without money, we couldn't do anything!"
It was the end of autumn. It was cold. Bridge lamps shed a dim light on the black water. The thug tried dropping a big stone onto the waterway and heard a thud from below. The water must be stagnant and thick, he thought. A section of the ferroconcrete handrail had come off, revealing a few rusty steel rods. If someone fell the four meters between the bridge and the water, he would have no chance of surviving. He would be swallowed up by the menacing water. He would lie forever in this ill-smelling eternal grave, leaving no trace behind.
The thug's face was drenched with sweat, slimy and hot. From afar, he heard the two-toned horn of an ambulance. It was now three o'clock in the morning. He groped for his thick envelope. There it was, under his pillow, exactly where he had left it. He was startled. He had had the same nightmare every night for the past three days. He opened the bulging envelope. Banknotes appeared dimly in front of him.
"Hullo! How's your work? Can you hear me clearly? How's the mobile phone I gave you yesterday?" the man asked.
"Quite clear, thank you, sir! Anyway…"
"You've already accepted my money. The die is cast!" he told the hired youth. "You'd better not run away or cancel the contract. I've got lots of other envelopes for swindlers. After her fatal night, it would be yours. That river is large enough to bury a lot of cheats."
"I don't like that joke of yours, sir!"
"Sorry! Won't mention it again. By the way, when did she get home last night?"
"To be honest, I didn't see her. I stood in wait for her, but she didn't turn up."
"Don't worry! She'll certainly appear some night. You've already wasted three day, by the way. Bear in mind that you only have twenty-seven left. Furthermore, I'll repeat this for you to remember: she always wears black. That's why I chose her. I like black."
"But I've got nothing to do with the colour black. Why did you choose me?"
"You've got black in your eyes, mind and heart. I'm compelled to tell you that you've lost three of your thirty days."
The thug stopped his motorbike close to the destination. It was ten in the evening and the street was still crowded. He felt cold. Then he led his vehicle to a juice vendor sitting by the roadside. "Should I ask this old woman for some information about her? No, then I would unintentionally lay bare my scheme!" he whispered to himself. He drove his motorbike away at full speed to prove that he was nothing other than an ordinary customer. After that, he returned to the other side of the street. He stood in a shady place so that the seller could not spot him in the crowd.
One hour later, she turned up, all in black. The dark colour made him tremble. She was alone. He estimated the distance between the place where he would start his vehicle and the broken handrail. "Just a few minutes ahead," he said to himself. That meant that it would be nearly midnight. A human being might tumble into the black water as New Year's Day began. "It would be a Satanic moment before the new day," he whispered to himself. "I'd be lost in the dark. Even God wouldn't recognize me!"
She turned around and swerved into the opposite lane. To his surprise, the point she had reached was where he had previously seen the vendor. She was still there, selling something to the lady in black. There seemed a certain secret connection between them.
Instead of taking the cup of juice, she bent down to say something to the old woman. When she turned around again, he found her very beautiful, her white complexion glowing. "What an innocent beauty!" he exclaimed. When she was on the point of driving her vehicle away again, he looked down to evade her look. He watched the taillights of her motorbike go on. When her vehicle darted to the crossroads, his remained motionless.
"What happened to you last night, mate?" the man asked him.
"I identified her, sir."
"Great! But that's not enough, my friend! Besides, was it really her?"
"According to your descriptions of her dress, time and address, how could I guess wrong? But…"
"Again, another 'but'…" The man heaved a sigh.
"Is she really the woman you mentioned before?"
"If not, why would I have hired you? To hire is the right word in this case, you see."
"Another matter I want to know is why you wish to kill her. What does she owe you?"
"My friend, curiosity is by no means good for those who are employed to carry out such a heavy mission. What has made you nervous, may I ask?"
"I think she's innocent, sir."
"That's what I feared. Now you've made a mistake. I must warn you. If her naivete has taken you captive, you'll be her replacement!"
"Oh dear! Me! Why? You really are a monster!"
"You'd have to use much stronger words to do me justice: a devil, Satan in the disguise of a man. Anyhow, the die is cast! You'll have to carry out the mission I've entrusted to you. By the way, you've lost another day."
The thug slid the door open. "I'd like to get something to drink, sir," he said to the shopkeeper in a low voice through the crevice of the door.
"It's too late, mate! Come back tomorrow afternoon. Nobody can serve you right now."
He knocked at the door of a few other shops. Their answers were the same. He made his mind to head for the market. The distance was rather long. Nevertheless, he wouldn't be able to sleep. He was craving alcohol. At the marketplace, he managed to get a small bottle of second-rate rice wine, the kind consumed only by poor pedicab drivers late at night.
With the money under the seat of his motorbike, he could get far better drinks, even many dishes of tasty food. However, he felt unsafe whenever he thought of the dishonestly earned money. Sometimes he felt like he was sitting on explosives.
All of a sudden, she turned up. Again, she swerved to the old vendor to get a juice, and again she did not drink it. It was still drizzling. Her lily-white face was partly covered by the hood of her black raincoat. It was now eleven in the evening and the street was less crowded. He drove into a nearby alley. When she passed him, he chased her. About a hundred metres ahead, her taillights blinked a terribly dark red.
He followed her. The bridge appeared in front of him, dim in the heavy rain. Then he was driving alongside her. They were very close to each other and she smiled graciously at him. He lost his grip and crashed against the bridge handrail. Rainwater splashed all around. She stopped her bike abruptly with a screech.
"What's the matter?" she said to him. "I'm so sorry! Did my motorbike touch yours?"
Immediately, several people rushed towards them.
"The road gets so slippery in the rain," one of them remarked.
"Are you all right?" asked another.
"Do you want us to take you to the hospital?" said another one.
"Excuse me, is he your friend?" another driver asked when she stooped close to the thug's face.
"Yes, he is, thank you very much! We can manage on our own. Please, go ahead," she answered softly.
When the people were gone, she said, "Is this yours?" She was holding a big packet of money with one of her lily-white hands.
He lifted his motorbike, biting his lip.
"Yes, it's mine. Thank you very much."
"Are you sure you can drive home by yourself?"
"Certainly. Thanks again."
Her lips parted in a lovely smile.
The taillights of her vehicle blinked on and off, off and on in the heavy rain.
The thug was waiting for the phone call as usual. Thirty minutes had elapsed. "Beep…beep…beep." His handset rang loudly, signalling that a new message would appear in a few seconds. "You've lost another day, haven't you?" it said. His hands trembled violently. He replied, "How do you know that I didn't do anything to her last night? Are you spying on me?"
"Far from it, my young friend! I don't need to. You once called me a demon, didn't you? Nothing escapes the notice of such a creature, you see."
"You're a cunning guy indeed. I won't carry out the contract. I'll let you be with your mischievous trick. Tomorrow night, we'll meet each other so that I can return your money. I still haven't touched it. If you don't come, I'll throw it into the river. What could you do to me?"
"Well done! Please do what you wish. Saying is one thing, but doing is another, you see."
After that, he heard nothing else, except for a series of beeps and then a long silence.
He collapsed on the bed. That night, he had a high fever.
For three days on end, he did not leave home. During his delirium, he constantly anticipated a phone call or message from the man. Yet nothing occurred. Without the fits of fever that tortured him mercilessly, he would have banged his head against the wall during the moments of utmost destitution. "Has he tired of the game or has he temporarily let me off for a few days before embarking on a new wave of terrorism?" the thug asked himself.
Come what might, he could not escape from disaster. Either he or she would be murdered. If the contract was fulfilled, she would be done for, but two people would benefit: the mastermind and the youth. With that much money, he could lead a life of plenty for a long time. As for the mastermind, nothing special would happen to him. "What about the lady?" he asked himself. "She would fall into the black water and disappear forever.
"If I decide not to implement the contract, she'll still be in danger. She'd certainly be slain someday by another guy," he reasoned.
Anyhow, the die was cast. After he recovered from his illness, the contract would come into force. That way he could not only defeat his mastermind but also gain victory over himself.
"Why haven't you called me for the past several days?" the thug asked his master.
"Hey, young man. You've fully recovered, haven't you?"
"So you know everything. What a demon! Not to mince words, you really are a devil! I'm reluctant to accept this wicked trick of yours. When this dirty game is over, I want to spend a quarter of your reward to hire another guy to throw you into the river right at that place!"
"What an original idea! Very, very inventive, indeed! Do you believe that anyone could kill me that way? Anyway, our contract must be implemented. Can you remember the number of days left?"
"Of course I remember. Tonight it will be fulfilled. After that, a third man will push you into the thick water of that dead river."
"That's great, young man! To the best of my knowledge, her itinerary and schedule remain the same. Good luck!"
That night, the moon shed pure light on the ground through the trees. He hadn't anticipated such a situation. The bright moonlight would shine over the bridge while the thug committed the dark deed. "Anyway, the die is cast and I can't do anything else," he whispered to himself.
Suddenly, a black silhouette appeared on the other side of the road. In the bright moonlight, her white face contrasted with her mysterious black clothes. With clever strokes of the brush, a skilful artist might change her arms into a pair of fairy wings that could carry her over multi-coloured clouds. Sadly, the wicked guy had entered into a contract with a devil who aspired to get rid of angels.
She drove her motorbike very slowly and calmly, in harmony with the splendid scenery of the peaceful moonlit night. The taillights were not the terrible dark red of the other day. He tried to keep a suitable distance from her. With such a speed, they would reach the bridge rather late. "So much the better," he said to himself. Right at the moment between the old year and the new one, he could squeeze safely through the narrow crevice of the law.
The bridge loomed larger and larger ahead of him in the silvery moonlight, far away from the adjacent houses and human beings. She reached one end of the bridge. He reduced the distance between him and her. When he began approaching the bridge, she stopped abruptly. He pressed his brakes violently. He pretended to turn round to observe everything around, as if his motorbike had just crashed against a roadblock.
She stopped, stepped down, then made for the handrail. He also halted. He shook his motorbike slightly, as if he had been fixing it, while his eyes kept on staring at her. She leant against the handrail, looking down at the river. The wind blew strongly, making her hair stand up. He made up his mind to go on foot, leading his motorbike forwards to approach her. By now, his eyes were continuously upon her, as if he were just admiring a fair lady on the bridge at midnight.
When he was only ten metres away, she suddenly made for the broken handrail, looking down the black waterway. Right at that moment, a huge motorbike went across the bridge, making a loud noise. He turned around. Two strong headlights shone brightly over him. He was afraid that he would be late. However, it did not matter much. He continued to push his motorbike closer and closer to the target. When he was near enough to recognize her face, he stopped, breathing heavily.
She turned round and stared at him. The same sweet smile opened broadly on her lips. He had the impression that she was an old acquaintance.
"Hello! Guess you've just finished your work on the night shift. Is your leg all right now?" she said to him.
"It's OK, thanks a lot. You still remember me clearly?" he asked her.
"When I saw your motorbike, I recognized you at once. One of its sides was seriously scratched that night, wasn't it?"
Resting his vehicle on the bridge surface, he panted heavily. The headlights swept over them again. She cast a glance at them with a vague smile. He felt a bit nervous.
He clenched his teeth tightly. He looked at the broken handrail. She was busy watching the passing vehicle. The dead river lay behind her, just beneath where she was standing. He approached her, pretending to look down. She seemed a little frightened. Her hands still clung to the rusty steel rods of the broken handrail. He acted calm, kicking at one of the rods.
"It's too dangerous for you to stand here. Why does this handrail remain in such a bad state …?"
Hardly had he finished his remark when he felt a strong push from behind. He snatched hurriedly at the broken handrail. Then he felt a powerful kick. At the last moment, he saw the silvery moonlight shining over the shoulder of the woman in black.
The body fell into the thick, stagnant water, making a slight thud.
The bridge was almost deserted. A piece of paper floated down in the moonlight before landing on the surface of the river. Its white nuance gradually faded away.
"Hullo! Is that you, sir?"
"Yes, I'm still here, dear lady. What happened to him?"
"Our contract was successfully carried out."
"Congratulations! I witnessed your wonderful exploit. Great! By the way, push his motorbike into the river as well."
Translated by Van Minh