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But what difference did it make? “She got no power,” he said. “Gov’ment say stay in house, she stay in house. Gov’ment say nobody go see, nobody go see. She good, she bad, what difference?”

And what if something happened to her?

He rolled his eyes at the very thought. “Be very bad,” he said. “Not good to be in Rangoon when that happens. People be very set-up.”

“Upset.”

“Good, yes. People be upset. Go peanuts. Is right? Go peanuts?”

“Go nuts,” I said. “Or go bananas.”

“Go bananas,” he said, enjoying the phrase. “Something happen to Suu Kyi, Burmese people go bananas.”

So the Chief was right, I thought. All I had to do was kill her.

Chapter 9

No, of course I wasn’t going to kill her.

In the first place, it’s not the sort of thing I do. I’m a long ways from nonviolent, although I like the idea of nonviolence. But I’m certainly not an assassin.

Assassination, according to Bobby Kennedy, never solves anything. Well, I’m not too sure about that. You could argue rather forcefully that assassination had solved Bobby Kennedy. And, just as I’ve wondered how history might have been different if the Kennedys had not been gunned down, so I’ve wondered what difference a well-placed bullet or bomb might have made with Hitler or Stalin as the target. It was a little late in the game by the time Von Stauffenberg and his pals tried to take out the Führer, but suppose someone had nailed the son of a bitch in, say, 1930, or ’35 or ’40. Would we have been spared Auschwitz? Might we have avoided the Second World War altogether?

Recently, in the course of catching up with current events, I’d read about the Gulf War and wondered why nobody had thought to knock off Saddam Hussein. Surely it had to be more cost-effective than sending a whole army halfway around the world, and more humane than bombing hospitals in Baghdad, or burying enemy infantry battalions in the sand. And, if it was simply too difficult to pull off in the beginning, why not do it at the end, when the Iraqi army was reeling? Just drop in an airborne unit with instructions to find him and string him up. Down the line you could always attribute the action to dissident Iraqis. There had to be a few of those around, and if you just kept quiet about the whole thing, some of them would very likely jump up and claim the credit anyway.

I wouldn’t call myself a big proponent of assassination. I think it’s tactically unsound most of the time, and I didn’t need the bald-headed guys in the red robes to tell me it was bad karma. But it still has the same thing going for it as capital punishment – i.e., it’s a good bet that particular son of a bitch won’t give you any more trouble. Right or wrong, humane or barbaric, it’s unquestionably final.

That didn’t mean I favored knocking off some of the good guys as a way to achieve their goals. That might make sense if the end justified the means, but it doesn’t. And even if you thought it did, what kind of ninny would want to assassinate Aung San Suu Kyi, who, according to everybody in the world but the SLORC generals, was a sort of cross between Mother Courage and Mother Theresa?

No, I don’t think so.

So what was I doing in Burma? Why, feeling that way, had I caught the noon balloon to Rangoon?

I could say I’d always loved to travel, and I’d had a yen to see Burma since I read the Kipling poem. (As a boy, I was especially fond of that couplet that goes “On the road to Mandalay / Where the flying fishes play.” For some reason I always pictured them playing gin rummy.) I could say, too, that I’d been spending too much time around the house lately and I was long overdue for a change of scene.

All true, and all beside the point. I’d accepted the assignment because, the way I looked at it, I didn’t have any choice.

If I didn’t go, they’d send someone else.

I never knew how many men worked for the Chief when he was working for the government, and I couldn’t guess how many had followed him into private service, or whom he might have recruited recently. But I damn well knew I wasn’t the only arrow in his quiver. After all, he’d managed without me for twenty-five years, and if I didn’t want to go to Burma, someone else would.

And my replacement would very likely get the job done.

Because it didn’t strike me as all that hard to do. SLORC’s flunkeys were keeping people away from Suu Kyi, and they said it was for her own protection, but I don’t think they really expected anyone to believe it. They wanted to keep her away from her supporters, and from the journalists and TV cameras. While they were busy trying to attract tourists, they didn’t need clips of her on the evening news, holding court on her front porch and telling the world not to visit lovely Myanmar after all. Now that they were opening up to foreign trade and investment, the last thing they wanted was Suu Kyi, Nobel laureate and darling of the media, calling for economic sanctions against her homeland. If they couldn’t muzzle her, they just might have to kill her themselves.

Isolating the woman, albeit in the guise of protecting her, was a far cry from providing her with any real protection. They might block off her street, but I couldn’t believe it would be all that hard to slip around the barriers, or to get access by going over rooftops or through backyards. SLORC might not want her dead – if they really wanted her dead, she’d already be dead – but neither did they think there was any real threat. Since they were her only enemy, where was the danger?

My assignment was to kill her. And my own personal mission was to accept my assignment and fail to carry it out. That was child’s play – any fool could spend a couple of weeks visiting pagodas and releasing birds and slurping noodle soup – but if I did it right I could make it clear to the Chief and his mysterious billionaire that I had given it my best shot, that it was a practical impossibility, and that perhaps there might be a better way to achieve one’s ends in Burma. Because otherwise I’d just be postponing the inevitable, and they’d send someone else later on to do what I’d been unable to do.

The only problem was that I didn’t know how I was going to pull this off. Especially in light of the warning on the bottom of the bird cage.

Leave Burma or die.

Terrific.

It was dark by the time we left the noodle shop. I hadn’t seen any other Westerners in the place, but neither had any of the other patrons registered much surprise at seeing me there. The Burmese, I could see, were an unfailingly polite lot. An-ah-deh was consistent with the whole feel of the country. They didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable.

I paid the check, as I’d taken it for granted I would do, and I was surprised to discover that Ku Min had assumed we would split it. With all the beer we’d had, it still came to less than ten dollars for the two of us, so you couldn’t call it a grand gesture on my part. But it reinforced a decision Ku Min had already made: I was a genuine good fellow, and the closest thing to a brother Shan.

“You must come to my country,” he said, as we stood outside the little restaurant. “You know what I mean when I say my country?”

“The Shan state,” I said.

“The independent Shan state,” he said.

“Of course.”

He swayed, and grabbed a lamp post to steady himself. We had swallowed beer from all over the world, and it was not without effect, on his body as well as his spirit. “You are my friend, Evan. You are my brother.”

“The Shan must be free,” I said.

“Yes!”

“Free of SLORC,” I said, and I spat, and he cried out with delight and spat himself.

Maybe he wasn’t the only one feeling the beer.

He had invited me earlier to accompany him to a boxing match – he hadn’t known the word for it, nor had I understood when he said it in Burmese, so he’d mimed it, throwing punches at the air. I’d turned him down then, and I did so now when he repeated the offer. I could imagine what boxing was like in this gentle Buddhist land. No doubt some physical equivalent of an-ah-deh applied, and you took pains to avoid striking a blow that would cause your opponent to lose face. The end result was probably more like ballet than boxing, with the winner the one who had not actually struck his opponent, but whose blows had missed their mark in the more artful manner.

“Evan,” he said, his eyes moist in the light of the street lamp. “Evan, my Shan brother, how I find you again?”

“Our paths will cross,” I said. And we embraced, and he went one way and I went the other.

GET OUT OF BURMA OR YOU DIE

I stood beneath another street lamp on another street and read the note again, not that there was much chance I’d forget what it said. But maybe there was a clue for me in the words themselves or the way they were written.

Printed, that is. In block capital letters that looked clumsy to me, or awkward. As if the author of the note were unaccustomed to the Latin alphabet? Or as if he had deliberately used his left hand (or his right hand, if he chanced to be left-handed) to disguise his handwriting. People did that in ransom notes, I seemed to recall, and in the messages they shoved across the counter at bank tellers, PUT ALL THE MONEY IN THE SACK, that sort of thing. I couldn’t see how any of that fit the present circumstances, and decided not to try reading too much into the seven words in front of me. The message itself was plain enough. I didn’t have to go rooting around looking for subtext.

But had the note been meant for me? Young Master Shit, the bird salesman, had been recruited for the occasion, and who was to say that all Westerners didn’t look alike to him? Maybe he’d given the bird to the wrong person.

No, I decided, that wouldn’t stand up at all. The envelope, which was just too bird-limed to hang onto, had had my name on it, in the same spidery letters as the note it contained. I had been instructed to be in a certain place at a certain time, and a few minutes after the appointed hour a kid gave me an envelope with my name on it. No matter how much beer I’d had since and irrespective of its country of origin, I couldn’t sell myself on a case of mistaken identity. TANNER EVAN was what it said on the envelope, and, last I looked, that was me.

NO comma between TANNER and EVAN. That suggested an Asian hand had printed those letters. An American would have written EVAN TANNER. A European might have put the last name first – a Viennese, I thought, would have made it HERR DOKTOR EVAN TANNER – but there would have been a comma if the Tanner had preceded the Evan.

But how did I know that there wasn’t? I’d have had to scrape away a lot of birdshit to find out. It hadn’t seemed worth it at the time, and it didn’t seem worth it now, not that I still had the option.

My friends in Burma, the contacts of my contacts in Thailand and Singapore, were the source of the rendezvous at four-thirty in Shwe Dagon Pagoda. There was no getting around it. The people I was looking to for assistance had responded with threats. Nothing veiled about it, either. No an-ah-deh type niceties. Get out or get killed – just that and nothing more.

Unless…

Wait a minute. Was it a threat or a warning? It made just as much sense either way. Suppose my friends had learned that the other side was on to me, and that I was likely to be killed if I hung around. They’d want to warn me, but they might be afraid to make direct contact with me, for fear that SLORC had me under observation. That would explain the whole business with the boy and the bird cage.

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