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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“Your signature here, Headmaster Chen,” said the younger man from Saigon, offering a receipt for signature and the envelope.

“I will read it later,” said Percival, ignoring the receipt as he took the manila envelope. “Thank you, brothers. I will send it back by courier.” He put it down on the table. They did not budge. “Why should you wait for this? You are important, busy men. Police officers, of course.”

They did not say otherwise. The older man said, “Sign now.” Of course, they were the quiet police. Below the balcony, Percival glimpsed some of the school’s students having their breakfast in the square. Some squatted next to the noodle sellers. Others ate baguette sandwiches as they walked. Percival was relieved to see Teacher Mak coming toward the school. Foong Jie would send Mak up as soon as he arrived.

Percival tore open the envelope, slipped out a document from the Ministry of Education in Saigon, and struggled through the text. He was less fluent in this language than in English, but he could work out the meaning. The special memorandum was addressed to all headmasters, and outlined a new regulation. Vietnamese language instruction must be included in the curriculum of all schools, effective immediately. “You rich Chinese always have a nice view,” said the older man, looking out over the square. He helped himself to a piece of papaya. Dai Jai offered a napkin, but the officer ignored him and wiped his fingers on the tablecloth.

The younger one thrust the receipt at Percival again. “Sign here. Isn’t that church the one . . .”

“It is.” Percival peered at the paper and selected an expression of slight confusion, as if he were a little slow. “Thank you, brothers, thank you.” He did not say big brothers, in the manner that one usually spoke to officials and police, or little brothers, as age and position might allow a headmaster. He made a show of re- reading the paper. “But I wonder if there is a mistake in this document coming to me. This is not a school. This is an English academy, and it falls under the jurisdiction of the Department of Language Institutes.”

The older one bristled. “There is no mistake. You are on the list.”

“Ah, perhaps the Department of Language Institutes did not review this directive. I would be surprised if Director Phuong has approved this.” Mak must be downstairs by now. Percival could easily delay until he made his way up.

“Director Phuong?” laughed the younger officer.

“My good friend Director Phuong,” smiled Percival. He was Hakka, his name was Fung, though he had come to Vietnam as a child and used the name Phuong. Each New Year, Percival was mindful to provide him with a sufficient gift.

The older one said, “You mean the former director. He recently had an unfortunate accident.”

“He is on sick leave, then? Well, I will take up this matter when he—”

“He will not return.” The older man from Saigon grinned. “Between you and me, some say he gave too many favors to his Chinese friends here in Cholon, but we didn’t come to gossip. We just need your signature.”

Percival stared at the memorandum. He was not reading. Just a little longer, he thought. Now he heard sure steps on the stairs, familiar feet in no hurry. Mak appeared on the balcony, nodded to Percival, who handed the papers to him. Mak glanced at the visitors and began to read the document. The teacher was thin, but compact rather than reedy, a little shorter than Percival. While some small men were twitchy and nervous, Mak moved with the calm of one who had folded all his emotions neatly within himself, his impulses contained and hidden. For years he had worn the same round, wire- rimmed glasses. The metal of the left arm was dull where he now gripped it to adjust the glasses precisely on his nose.

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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