Excerpt from The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Headmaster's Wager

A Novel

by Vincent Lam

The Headmaster's Wager
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2012, 416 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2013, 448 pages

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When the coffee reached the smooth stone, it dried immediately, a stain already old.

Percival said, “You are my son.” The pads of his fingers stung with the heat of the stone, his mouth with its words. In the sandbagged observation post between the church and post office, the Republic of Vietnam soldiers rolled up their sleeves and opened their shirts. They lit the day’s first cigarettes. “You must show respect.” Percival turned halfway back toward Dai Jai, and squinted against the shard of light that had just sliced across the balcony. Soon, the balcony’s tiles would scorch bare feet.

Percival noticed a black Ford Galaxie pull off Chong Heng Boulevard, from the direction of Saigon. He considered it. Who was visiting so early? And who was being visited? Dark- colored cars were something the Americans had brought to Vietnam, thinking them inconspicuous. They had not noticed that almost all of the Citroëns and Peugeots that the French had left behind were white. Now, many Saigon officials had dark cars, tokens of American friendship. Dai Jai stood to see what had caught his father’s attention.

“Where are they going, ba?

“That is no concern of yours.” It was prudent to take note. But he must not let the boy divert the conversation. The Galaxie turned the corner at the post office, floated past the church, and then pulled up at the door of the school. Two slim Vietnamese in shirtsleeves emerged, wearing identical dark sunglasses. Percival felt his own sweat trickle inside his shirt. That was just the heat, for why should he worry? Everyone who needed to be paid was well taken care of. Mak was fastidious about that. Percival watched them check the address on a manila envelope. Then, one man knocked on the door. They looked around. Before he could step back, they looked up, saw Percival, and gestured, blankfaced. The best thing was to wave in a benignly friendly way. This was exactly what Percival did, and then he sat down, gestured to Dai Jai to do the same.

“Who is it, ba?”

“Unexpected visitors.” Had his friend, police chief Mei, once mentioned the CIA’s preference for Galaxies? Perhaps it had been some other car.

“Are you going down, Father?” asked Dai Jai.

“No.” He would wait for Foong Jie to fetch him. He preferred to take his time with such people. “I am drinking my coffee.” Percival reached toward the tray and saw the broken pieces of glass. Dai Jai hurried to pour coffee into his own glass, and gave it to his father. A few sips later, feet ascended the stairs, louder than Foong Jie’s soft slippers. Why were the men from Saigon coming up to the family quarters? Why hadn’t Foong Jie directed them to wait? When she appeared, she gave the headmaster a look of apology even as she bowed nervously to the two men who followed her onto the balcony. They shielded their eyes despite their sunglasses. The balcony now glowed with full, searing morning light.

The younger one said, “Percival? Percival Chen?”

“Da.” Yes. Dai Jai stood up quickly, but Percival did not. The two men in sunglasses glanced at the single vacant chair, and remained standing. Now that they were here on his balcony, Percival would do what was needed, but he would not stand while they sat.

“This is the Percival Chen English Academy?” said the older man. “My school.” Percival waved at Dai Jai to sit.

“We were confused at first— your sign is in Chinese.”

The carved wooden sign above the front door was painted in lucky red, “Chen Hap Sing,” the Chen Trade Company. Chen Kai had made his fortune in the Cholon rice trade and had built this house. He could not have imagined that the high- ceilinged warehouse spaces would one day be well suited for the classrooms of his son’s English school. “It was my father’s sign. I keep it for luck.”

Excerpted from The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam. Copyright © 2012 by Vincent Lam. Excerpted by permission of Hogarth Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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