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The place was half-way along Soi Suek 3 and I walked there from the main road where the trishaw had dropped me. It was a narrow street of shop-houses, roofed at this moment by the twilight.
There was no one in the gem-shop except the small old Thai at the work-bench behind the counter; he did not hear me come in because of the noise of the gem-tumbler that churned at the back of the shop. There was no air-conditioner and the heat was as bad as in the street. From a room above came the weird notes of a pi-nai.
I stood watching the old man. He was making a ring, setting an opal in gold. It was a cabochon stone and the blade of his burnisher closed the claws of the bezel so deftly that they seemed hinged. The light of the hooded lamp reflected the gold and struck fire in the gem. When the last claw was pressed home he turned to look at his work under the lamp and saw me. I said at once: 'Mr Varaphan?'
He put the ring down on to the black cloth and made me the wai greeting with his hands, gently as a priest.
I asked: 'Is the bloodstone ready?'
'It has been lost,' he said.
'But it was worth more than a million pounds.'
'Much more, yes.'
'Then you must pay me.'
'I am a poor man,' he said. 'You cannot get blood out of a stone, even a bloodstone.'
'Then give me my pound of flesh.'
He bowed slightly in passing me and went to the open doorway, watching the street, his head turning from left to right. I waited, listening to one stone, heavier than the others, falling against the side of the tumbler as it went on turning slowly like a miniature concrete-mixer.
Mr Varaphan came away from the doorway. 'If you will be so kind ...' I followed him through the back of the shop, passing some steps in the centre of the house. The piping of the pi-nai became louder from above, then faded as we came to the other room. Much of it was taken up with cabinets and safes, but there were some rattan chairs and a table. The walls were timbered and there was the smell of sandalwood. The bleakness of the fluorescent tubes took half the value from a rosewood buddha in the corner but at least you could see where you were. In strange places I hate not being able to see things.
'Your presence in my house does me great honour,' said Mr Varaphan.
'You are most hospitable.' The Westerner suspects the extravagant courtesies of the East and I am always constrained. I added a bit in his own language to please him.
When he left me I noticed three things: there was a telephone in the room; you could make an exit through a second door near the rosewood buddha; and you could still hear quite distinctly the pebbly sound of the gem-tumbler in the shop.
It had been a long trip and I hadn't liked being shot out here without any notice so I tried to relax by looking at the display case on top of one of the safes. It was decent enough stuff: lapis-lazuli, obsidian, rose quartz, a few gem-quality microlites and a very hypnotic moonstone. This place really did belong to a lapidary; it wasn't just a front.
Loman arrived in ten minutes, punctually. He came in by the second door near the buddha, and asked at once:
'When did you get here?'
'A few minutes ago.' We shook hands as perfunctorily as boxers.
'I mean when did you get into Bangkok?'
'This evening at 1805. Air France Paris-Tokyo—'
'But what were you doing in Paris?'
'Oh my God, is it important?'
'I thought you were still in London when we put out the call for you.' He turned away and turned back, his small feet nervous. 'Everything is important. Very.'
'I hope that includes the fact that I'm here at rendezvous dead on time as per signal, because I'm fed up with bloody aeroplanes—'
'Of course. Of course.' He managed to stand still. There were beads of sweat on his face. 'There was one thing they didn't tell me about this place—there's no air-conditioning.' He was wearing grey alpaca and a spotted bow-tie.
I have a dislike for men with small feet and bow ties and a dislike anyway for Loman. It has been mutual for years but has never affected our work, so that neither considers it important except when we find outselves shut up together in the confines of a non-air-conditioned lapidary's back room in Bangkok and any other place where it is barely possible to breathe. Loman is like that room in London with the Lowry on the wall: he smells of polish. His shoes and nails and nose shine brightly and even his manners take on a spurious glitter when he has time to rub them up. Just now he was too busy with his nerves.
I was beginning to feel better; seeing him so worried was doing me good. I said: 'Why couldn't they have told me where this door was instead of sending me through the shop?'
'You had to introduce yourself to Varaphan, of course.'
'With that rigmarole?'
'He isn't a contact. We couldn't use established technique.' He was looking around the room, his bright eyes ferreting out the details. 'This is our safe-house for the present. Sometimes we shall meet at the British Embassy but the most important business will take place here. Let us sit down. We will ask for something to be sent in. There is no need for any rush, none at all.'
The rattan creaked under his slight weight and now he was completely relaxed and looking up at me as if it were I whose nerves had been showing.
'Just tell me one thing,' I said. 'Is this a mission or has something come unstuck?' He tapped the little brass bell on the table.
'It's a mission. And nothing must come unstuck.'
I didn't sit down yet because I was too uneasy with the whole thing. Loman was very high up in the Bureau echelon and he rarely left London to direct an operator in the field. He had never personally directed me before and it wasn't going to be any picnic. I said uncivilly:
'I've just flown seven thousand miles at the drop of a hat and you say there's no rush.'
'Not now that you're here.'
It might have been Varaphan's daughterwho came in to answer the bell, a willowy child with a mane of black hair. Loman said to me: 'I haven't very much grasp.'
I told her in English: 'We'd like something to drink, is that possible? Scotch, soda, limejuice and ice.'
'I will bring, yes.'
'You play the pi-nai beautifully.'
She denied it in delight and left us.
'It's the lingua franca,' I told Loman.
'Well you'd better give yourself a crash refresher-course in Thai. You'll be meeting people who don't speak anything else. Also you will want to be able to hear things. How proficient are you?'
'I'm all right outside esoteric terms.'
He got up, feeling restless again. 'What I meant when I said that there was no rush now that you're here is that if you'd been too long delayed we should have had to pull Styles out of Java, and he's very busy there. You know Bangkok as well as he does and you're between missions.'
'Or I was.'
'It's nearly two years since I was here.' There is a simple tradition in the Bureau that protects any given operation from failure. We can refuse a mission. There has to be a reason and we have to give it and it has to be a good one but in the final analysis we have a get-out if we want it. This is intelligent because it means that nobody is ever sent into the field with misgivings. Any operator taking up a mission has therefore a positive approach and is self-orientated towards success. There is only one thing London Control can do when a man wants to opt out; they have to give him an incentive that will make him opt in again. They tried this on me once in Berlin and it worked: they gave me a man to go after, a man I could hate. Talking now to Loman, I was already putting up the odd objection, rationalizing the situation to cover the one main misgiving which was simply that we didn't like each other. The work we had done together in the past was Bureau stuff: intelligence breakdown, communications, liaison, so forth. But now he was going to be my director in the field and that was different because the success of a mission and even your life could sometimes depend on whether you got on well with your director. You had to like him, trust him, respect him and live with him. My opinion of Loman, despite his brilliance and his record, was that he was a well-polished little pimp. It didn't help that he looked on me as a rough-haired sheepdog with more guts than gumption, a chip on each shoulder and one on the wick.
'After two years,' I told him, 'I don't remember much about this place.'
'You will now that you're back.'
His point. The memory relies strongly on environment. Recollective recall. If examinations were taken in the familiar surroundings of the lecture-rooms where the stuff was learned there would be fewer failures.
'I don't know this place for a start. Who's Varaphan?'
'The Embassy gave us his name.'
'Don't tell me you trust the Embassy.'
'We've checked on him, of course. He was educated on the Burma Road, liaising with our escape-parties. Since then he's been useful, very useful, to several of our operations. He travels a lot, with gems. That takes him to London a great deal.'
'He's not an agent?'
'He took a good look at the street to see if I'd been followed before bringing me in here.'
'He's not a fool.'
We had to stop talking because the girl was coming in with the drinks. As soon as she had gone we set on the lime-juice.
'At least he could rig up a fan in here,' I said.
'We will see what can be done.'
Some of the mutual antagonism went out of us now that our thirst was slaked.
'Is this Local Control Bangkok?'
He considered. 'We don't quite know where Control is yet. It's officially at the Embassy, though of course they don't know that. They think we're Security. This is our safe-house for the moment but if things get too hot we shall have to move on.'
My ears were still buzzing a bit from the altitude and I had come straight here from Don Muang Airport with no time to change into fresh things, so I said:
'Let's put it on the line, shall we?'
He was nervous again at once and I knew he'd been holding me off because he sensed I would try to refuse the mission, and that would mean pulling Styles out of Java.
He poured some more lime to give himself a last chance of planning his run-in.
'This is a special job,' he began. 'Very.'
I fingered a chunk of ice out of my glass and sucked it while he turned away and looked at the rosewood buddha and turned back and at last managed to stand still plumb in front of me. 'You may know there is an official visit planned for the end of this month. Three days in Bangkok as part of a larger South-east Asian itinerary.'
'No,' I said.
'You don't read the newspapers.'
'Then let me put you in the picture. Politically—one can even say militarily in view of local wars—Thailand is becoming drawn into the vortex of affairs involving China, India, Malaysia and of course Laos and Cambodia. Global interest is now centred on this capital, which has been a focal point in South-east Asia for half a century in any case. Thailand is a stable kingdom with close ties with the U.S. and to a lesser extent with Britain. We have NATO here in this city and we have the SEATO headquarters here as well. Bangkok is a key city in the South-east Asian complex, and geographically it finds itself in the middle of the China–India situation.'
Loman is one of those people who make whatever they are saying sound dull. Perhaps I was showing boredom: he began talking faster so that he could reach the point.
'Relations between Britain and Thailand have always been good, partly because each is a democratic monarchy and partly because many people close to the Thai throne—princes, ministers, financiers and men of affairs—spent much of their youth in English public schools and universities. At this time, when the whole of the South-east Asian picture is confused and threatening, Her Majesty's Government consider it highly desirable that a goodwill mission is undertaken by someone who is neither a statesman nor a diplomat but who commands international respect and admiration, particularly in Thailand.'
He waited for me to digest this. Some of his nervousness had gone; it had been soothed away by the reassuring sound of his own voice.
'Thus in three weeks' time a representative of the Queen is to visit Bangkok on a goodwill tour.'
Most of the ice in the bowl had melted but I found a bit and slaked my thirst with it.
'Since the Person—by the way, that is how we already refer to him for security reasons, so please adopt the habit—since the Person is neither a statesman nor a diplomat a tour of this kind entails no political functions. There will be, instead, a day's yachting on the Gulf, a polo match at the Lumpini Grounds—I am told that Prince Udom is to play—and a drive through the city in an open car. The Person will also visit those centres of traditional interest to him: youth clubs, welfare organizations, hospitals and of course sports grounds. He will be, one might say, our representative of the humanities.'
With careful precision he said:
'During the visit we want you to arrange for his assassination.'CHAPTER 2
The two fish circled, their heads turned towards the centre to watch each other.
The smaller was the more beautiful, its colours less diffuse, but both were caparisoned in the flowing splendour of their fins. They moved like rainbows through the pearly water. Faintly reflected in the glass was the face of Pangsapa, an enormous moon.
The strange sweet smell of opium was in the air.
The fish sped suddenly together, dart-quick and murderous, with the fins drawn close to the body as they met—a torn fin could unbalance them and bring almost immediate death.
The eyes of Pangsapa were unblinking in the great moon on the glass.
The fish circled near the sides of the tank with their coloured raiment flowing, like mediaeval war-horses on the battlefield. The next charge was mutual and explosive—they closed, met, held and spun in a whirlpool, with their razor-teeth working for a kill. Three times they attacked and withdrew, and now the water was tinged with carmine and from the spine of the smaller and more beautiful fish curled a crimson plume. As the water clouded with their blood, the face of Pangsapa was reflected more brightly. Once his eyes flicked towards me and flicked back: he wanted to feel that I shared his terrible delight.
A red plume streaked towards the centre; a rose-dark blossom spread and slowly spun, ushering upwards the vanquished. It floated on the surface, silver beneath the light. It was the smaller and the more beautiful.
Pangsapa turned away.
'That was Valiant Warlord,' he lisped. 'He had won seven fights, one of them against Golden Prince of Maipuri, the champion of a friend of mine. Such is the outcome.'
Knowing that his invitation for me to watch the fight was a courtesy rarely offered a stranger, I said:
'It was well fought. I was fascinated.'
He gestured for me to sit again on the cushions near him. 'Will you smoke?' Two or three opium-pipes were on the gold-lacquered stool.
'I am not accustomed, Pangsapa, but please take your pleasure.'
'My pleasure is already assured, since you honour me as a guest.' He sat with his legs crossed under him in the Lotus pose, his black silk robe enfolding him. The cushions made the only colour in the room except for the rose-red water tank. Three black orchids were grouped in a Niello bowl; a Phuan-Sadao tapestry in ash-grey tones was spread on the wall; the rest was teakwood and ebony.
He called a name suddenly and a servant came.
'Arrange for the burial of the fish. I will attend the ceremony.'
When the man had gone Pangsapa said in English: 'And while we're on the subject of guests I really can't let you go on speaking Thai in my house, though of course you do it splendidly.'
'I wanted to brush up my subjunctives.'
Loman had told me to take a crash refresher-course and I had been compromising, talking to everyone in the Bangkok dialect even when they just as resolutely stuck to Boston English.
'Your subjunctives are first class. Now you must let me have a go with mine.' There was something wistful about his smile and he looked younger still, a fat boy in the part of Buddha in a school play, a boy with a lisp. 'Tell me first how I can help you.'
Excerpted from The Ninth Directive by Adam Hall. Copyright © 1966 Trevor Enterpises. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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