I hadn’t planned on telling him. So far I’d only told Minna, and she’d kept it to herself. The Chief was hardly a confidant of mine – my reports over the years were sketchy at best, and often highly imaginative. But the words came out of their own accord, and before I knew it I’d filled him in completely.
“So that’s how the Scandinavians deal with spies and secret agents,” he said. “They put them on ice. Well, it’s a cold climate, isn’t it? I suppose ice is abundant in their part of the world.”
“I was in New Jersey.”
“Yes, and they didn’t literally use ice either, I don’t suppose. Still, you take my meaning.” He made a clucking noise. “We’re a pair, Tanner. They put you on ice and they stuck me in mothballs.”
“The mothballs are metaphorical, the same as the ice. They put me on the shelf, Tanner. Tied my hands. Took my box of toys away from me. Cashiered me, man. Relieved me of my duties.”
“The bastards,” I said.
“First it was age,” he said. “Some nonsense about mandatory retirement. But I had them there. My whole operation was always unofficial, you know. Off the books, deep in the shadows. How do you strike someone off the books when he’s never been on them?”
He took out a handkerchief, coughed into it, and examined the result. Evidently satisfied, he said, “But they kept cutting my appropriation. Slashed my budget. Reduced my staff. Still, I held on. My boys are like you, Tanner. No names, no pack drill. Make their own way, write their own tickets, employ and develop their own resources. And often as not turn a neat profit in the course of things, so they’re not greatly troubled if there’s no money coming their way from Washington.”
What enabled them to ease him out, he went on, was success.
“The fucking Russians,” he said with feeling. “Who ever expected the sons of bitches to quit on us? They were the enemy, along with the damned Chinese, and damned if they didn’t plain fall apart. The whole Evil Empire collapsed like a pack of cards. Maybe we played a small part in it, and maybe we were entitled to a little bit of the credit, although I wouldn’t care to sit on a hot stove waiting for it.
“Doesn’t matter. The Soviet Union is gone and the Red Army’s soldiers are begging for food on Moscow street corners, or enlisting in the Russian Mafia, or standing around with signs – ‘Will Work for Roubles.’ Will work even harder for hard currency, I shouldn’t wonder. Russia fell apart and China ’s become a bastion of State Capitalism. Still the same rotten lot running things, and still the same repressive government, the iron fist in the bamboo glove. We’ll go up against them someday, mark my words, but just now they’re our good friend and trading partner. So’s Vietnam, for God’s sake. Men who fought there are going back with tour groups, taking pictures, buying souvenirs. You believe that?”
“I believe everything.”
“You might as well,” he said, “because sooner or later everything comes true. Just a question of sitting it out. And that’s what I had to do when the idiots at the top decided there was no threat to our security anywhere in the world. Except for Cuba, and if the refugees didn’t own half of South Florida the government would have made peace with Castro ages ago. No threats, nothing but peace and love, so that was it for me. Out you go, old fellow, and be a good chap and don’t slam the door.” He sighed heavily. “What did I just say? About sitting it out? I sat and waited, and along came Rufus Crombie. Ever hear of him?”
“I don’t think so.”
“No surprise there. He’s kept as low a profile in his area as we have in ours. Worth billions, but you won’t even find him on the Forbes list. Business interests all over the world. Rubber plantations in Malaysia. Copper mines in Shaba province in Zaire. Oil tankers sailing the seas. Microchips, textiles, superconductors – you name it, he’s got a finger in the pie. Unless he owns the whole pie outright. Been at it for years, Crombie has, and lately he’s pretty much turned over the management duties to his four sons. Not because he wants to slow down, but so that he can concentrate on what really matters to him.”
And what was that?
“He wants to do some good in the world,” he said. “Not by giving to charity. Doesn’t much believe in charity. Said as much to me the first time I met him. ‘Give a man a fish,’ he said, ‘and you feed him for a day. Teach that man to fish, and for the rest of his life you can sell him rods and reels and hooks and leaders and flies and lures and God only knows what else.’ I’d heard something like that before, but Crombie put a different spin on it. Shows you the kind of man he is.”
“I guess it does.”
“He wants to have an impact,” the Chief said. “Stir the stew. Make waves. Wants to work behind the scenes, naturally. Not for commercial gain, although if a trading advantage comes along he won’t turn his back on it. But that’s not the main objective. Hell, the man’s already got more money than God.” He coughed again, used his handkerchief. “Where we come in. His eyes and ears, don’t you know. Hands and feet as well, you might say. Stirring the stew for him. Pulling his chestnuts out of the fire. The metaphors are piling up, but you get the idea, don’t you?”
“The general idea.”
“Well, let me get more specific, then. Suit you, Tanner?”
“ Burma,” he said. “How’s that for getting down to cases? What do you know about Burma, Tanner?”
“I know they don’t call it that anymore.”
“They call it Myanmar. Know what old Thoreau said about enterprises that require new clothes? Said to beware of them. Well, same goes for countries that feel the need to change their name. One thing when it’s a colony that’s gone independent. You can see why the Belgian Congo would want to call itself something else once it got rid of the Belgians. Still, most of those nations merit wary treatment. But when a country’s been on its own for years, and all of a sudden decides out of the blue that the old name’s not good enough anymore, that’s cause for alarm, isn’t it?”
“Anything the SLORC generals do is cause for alarm.”
“I see you know about SLORC. You’ve been catching up since you got out of Sweden.”
“ New Jersey, actually.”
“Well, six of one, eh? Point is you’ve been doing your homework. Nasty buggers, the chaps of SLORC. Between them and the bastards before them, they kept the country isolated from the rest of the world for thirty years. That’s even longer than you were on ice, isn’t it?”
“By five years or so.”
“Well, what’s five years in the mysterious East? ‘Better twenty years of Europe than a cycle in Cathay.’ I forget who said that but I suppose it must have been Kipling.”
“It was Tennyson, actually.”
“Same difference. Sweden, New Jersey. Kipling, Tennyson. Six of one.”
Maybe it wasn’t entirely accurate to say he hadn’t lost a step. Maybe he was missing a whole staircase.
“For years,” he said, “they wouldn’t let anybody in. Tourist visas were for a maximum of seven days, and you could only go to a couple of the big cities. They changed the names of the cities, too. I forget what they call Rangoon these days.”
“That’s it. Tried to change Mandalay while they were at it, but they gave up and changed it back. If you’re lucky enough to have a city with a name like Mandalay, you’d have to be out of your mind to change it. Same goes for Rangoon, of course. I had a professor once, used to ask the class, ‘What time does the noon balloon leave for Rangoon?’ His version of ‘Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?’ but it’s got a ring to it, doesn’t it? ‘What time does the noon balloon leave for Rangoon?’ Try that with Yangon and it won’t work at all.”
“Won’t get off the ground,” I said.
“Ha! Very good!” He cleared his throat, filled his glass from the water carafe. We were in a bare office on the seventh floor of a commercial building on Fifth Avenue in the Twenties, sitting in chairs on opposite sides of an old metal desk. He said, “The names are the least of it. The regime’s extremely repressive. Doesn’t trust intellectuals, and you’re considered an intellectual if you own more than three books, or write letters, or wear glasses. You run a risk of jail or a beating or worse. There have been massacres. They’re not the Red Guards or the Khmer Rouge, not by a long shot, but they’re a right bunch of bastards all the same. They’ve got statues all over the country to Aung San. He’s the lad who got them free of the British. First he joined the Japs to fight the Brits, then he saw what swine the Japs were and took his ten-thousand-man army to the other side. Fought for the Brits, and managed to get the country independent in 1948. So Aung San’s the national hero, and one of the first things SLORC did was put his daughter under house arrest. Aung San Suu Kyi’s her name, and she-”
“Chee,” I said.
“Aung San Soo Chee,” I said. “That’s how you pronounce it.”
“Then why spell it with a KY?”
“Well,” I said, “that’s Burma for you.”
“If you ask me,” he said, “they should have let the Brits go on running the show. At least you had people speaking English and spelling things the way they sound. Any rate, 1988’s when SLORC got in. They put Suu Kyi under house arrest and wouldn’t let her participate in the national elections, which they figured they were in a good position to steal. Well, she won anyway. With all their fiddling, they still got voted out of office.”
“But they stayed.”
“Of course they did. Threw out the election results and held onto the power. Kept the lady under house arrest while they were at it, and of course that got her the prize from your friends in New Jersey.”
“My friends in New Jersey?”
“Is that what I just said? Well, six of one. I meant Sweden, of course. Stockholm. Gave her the Nobel peace prize. Best way to get that is to be locked up by the government of a country nobody gives a shit about. You’d think they’d have given one to Salman Whatsit-”
“-after he got the death threats from Whatsisname-”
“-but do that and you piss off the entire Islamic world. Give it to the Burmese girl and all you piss off is SLORC, and who cares?”
“Not me,” I said recklessly.
“Or anybody else, either. So she’s still under house arrest, and they’ve stopped letting journalists see her, and God knows how many other enemies of the state are rotting in jails in Rangoon and Mandalay. Meanwhile, they’ve made peace with some of the ethnic minorities, but they’re still fighting with the Shan and the Kareni, and suppressing the others.”
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