Sure, that made sense. If they wanted to intimidate me, why send a boy and a bird to do a man’s job? It wouldn’t even take a note. Just a couple of dangerous-looking men (assuming a man in a skirt could look dangerous) telling me to get out of town if I knew what was good for me.
So it was a warning, not a threat. Unless, of course, the Burmese preferred gentle threats, with no loss of face on either side…
It was hard to say for sure, hard to tell a threat from a warning. And it was even harder to figure out what to do next.
For starters, I kept moving.
I walked a lot, for the exercise and to walk off the beer, and to transform an acquaintance with maps and guidebooks into a real feel for the city. I didn’t want to stray too far from central Rangoon, but I could stay within the immediate area and still wear out a lot of shoe leather.
And I paused from time to time – to buy a few kyats’ worth of tamarind candies from a vendor, to snack on fried vegetable rolls at a hole-in-the-wall around the corner from the National Museum, to duck into a teahouse and sip a pot of tea while two men at the next table puffed on cheroots and played a passionate game of dominoes, slapping the tiles down with a vengeance.
In the swank bar of the Traders Hotel I had a whisky and soda and spoke French with a wine salesman from Nice. He had been all over Southeast Asia and disliked it all, but he especially disliked Burma. “If you think that this city is disgusting,” he said, “and believe me, I do – well, Mandalay is far worse. The sanitation is primitive, the cuisine is lamentable, and the women are neither skilled nor attractive. Have you noticed the pale circles on their cheeks? They paint them on to make themselves beautiful. They look like clowns in the circus.”
He was glad of my company because I spoke French, and he was starved for conversation in his own language. He got plenty of it in Laos and Vietnam, but lately he’d been in Singapore and Bangkok and Jakarta, where he’d had to speak English. “Everywhere English,” he lamented. “What a stupidity. If there must be a single language spoken throughout the world, certainly it ought to be French.”
“The language of Voltaire,” I said. “Of Racine, of Corneille, of Molière. The tongue of Victor Hugo, of De Maupassant, of Proust and Sartre and Camus.”
“Ah, my friend,” he said. “You are an American. And yet you understand.”
“Mais certainement,” I said.
When I left the Traders Hotel, I got disoriented for a moment. (Or disasiaed, I suppose, to be politically correct.) I turned left when I meant to turn right, and walked half a block before I realized it. Whereupon I turned around and headed back where I’d come from.
And realized I was being followed.
I don’t know why it took me so long. I haven’t had a great deal of experience at following or being followed, and it’s not something I have on my mind much. But I should have this time around, especially after the threat or warning, whichever it was, that I’d received that afternoon at Shwe Dagon. There were people who knew I was in Rangoon, and some if not all of them were not happy about it, so it was a good time for me to grow eyes in the back of my head.
The only eyes I had faced forward, and I hadn’t done a great job of using them. I’d probably been followed all day, and the first intimation I had of it was when I spun around abruptly on Sule Pagoda Road and, half a block away, somebody darted into the shadows of a doorway.
You’ll go to ground, the Chief had said, and it seemed to me I should have done that right off. Even if I wouldn’t be sleeping in it, I needed a place to hole up, a room where I could shuck off my backpack and unsnap my Kangaroo and kick off my shoes and relax. But first I had to make sure no one knew where my refuge was, and that meant giving the slip to the man in the doorway and any little helpers he might have brought along.
It would be easier, I thought, to dispose of a tail in a city I knew. It’s a cinch in New York, with so many public buildings with multiple exits. And there’s the subway – you can hop on and off, and if you time it right your shadow has to ride forlornly on to the next stop. Ditch him on the train at Columbus Circle, say, and he’s stuck until the train gets to 125th Street, just over three miles away.
In the present instance, however, I didn’t know the city at all, and the man or men on my tail presumably did. So I would have to be clever, and for starters I couldn’t let my pursuer know that I knew I was being pursued. I had to lose him without looking like I was trying.
That meant walking on at a leisurely pace and not looking back to catch a quick glimpse of him. It’s not as easy as it sounds, though, especially when you don’t know who the bastard is or what he’s got in mind. It’s one thing if he’s just a snoop, trailing relentlessly after you, content to keep his distance. It’s something else if he’s stalking you, waiting for the opportune moment to close the distance between you and slip a knife between your ribs.
And the latter was a real prospect, if not an appealing one. I had been threatened or warned that I would be killed if I didn’t leave Burma. And I hadn’t left Burma. And here I was, walking down a darkened street in an unfamiliar city, with someone tagging along in my wake.
I pressed on for a block or two, turned left, walked another block, turned right. I was on a main street now, with empty taxis trolling for fares. I hailed one, jumped into the front seat beside the driver, who looked quite startled.
“Take me somewhere east of Suez,” I said, “where the best is like the worst.”
He looked straight ahead, avoiding my eyes entirely. I wasn’t looking at him much, either, after a quick glance. I was too busy looking out the back window.
“Just drive around,” I said, and handed him a two-hundred-kyat note. “I want to see Rangoon.”
I had to spell it out, but he got the idea, and by the time he pulled away from the curb, my shadow was in a cab of his own and ready to resume pursuit. That was good. I wanted to lose him, but I didn’t want it to look as though that was what I was doing.
And I wanted to get a look at him.
The poor cab driver thought I wanted a sightseeing tour, and pointed out this pagoda and that public building, all in an accent that would have been hard to make out if I cared to try. I didn’t have the heart to tell him to shut up.
Then he said, “That guy following us.”
How had he noticed? The son of a bitch had been tracking me for hours before I got a clue.
“Like in the movies,” he said with satisfaction. His English was much better now that he had Hollywood films on his mind. “Cocksucker. You want, I lose him.”
First, I explained, I needed to know who he was. He thought that one over and hatched a plan. I rolled my window all the way down, held my backpack on my lap. He picked out the place where we would make our move, a narrow and poorly lit alley off a street that wasn’t much to begin with. We were a hundred yards or so into the alley when another car turned in after us and immediately cut its headlights.
“Stupid,” he said. “He think we not see him. But now he don’t see us.” He hit the brake. “Now!” he said. “Go!”
And I went, tossing my backpack out the window, thrusting myself feet first after it. The car was moving again before I hit the ground, and from a hundred yards back it must have looked as though he’d feathered the brake pedal to avoid running over a cat, or to dodge a pothole. My door never opened and the dome light never went on, and he’d picked a nice dark place to do it. I had a reasonably soft landing on a patch of bare earth, and I stayed down and rolled deeper into the shadows.
I wasn’t sure where my backpack had wound up, but I could wait to find out. Right now I wanted to make the most of my chance to spot my shadow. He’d be in the backseat, and he’d probably be leaning forward, his attention concentrated on the car in front of him. It would be a great opportunity for me to get a look at him, except for the very factor that had made it easy for me to give him the slip.
Namely the lack of light. A dark alley was the perfect setting for Act One of our little melodrama, but Act Two ought to be taking place on a main thoroughfare, with dozens of bright lights blazing.
Well, that wasn’t going to happen. In the dark I wouldn’t get much of a look at him. The best I could hope to do was tell if he was a local or a Westerner, and I wasn’t by any means sure I could do that. That was one flaw in the plan. Another was that sooner or later he’d catch up with my cab and see that I wasn’t in it, and he’d know I found some cute way to get away from him, and I’d hoped to keep him from realizing I was on to him.
And the third flaw was that I’d landed on my right shoulder, and I could tell it was going to hurt worse than root canal in a couple of hours.
All this takes longer to tell than it took to happen. Because I crouched there in the dark, waiting, and the pursuit vehicle made its deliberate way through the alley. It seemed to stop for an instant when it was right in front of me, but I think that was just my perception of the moment, as if it were a stopframe, frozen in time.
The guy in the backseat was facing forward, one hand on the back of the seat in front of him. His face was in profile, but the cab’s interior was too dark for me to make out facial features, and far too dark to provide a hint of his skin color. All I saw, really, was a dark face and an even darker head of hair.
And a blaze of white at the temple.
I had a mini-flashlight in the Kangaroo strapped around my waist, keeping my Swiss Army knife company. It would have been handy for getting out of the alley, and I opened the zipper of the Kangaroo, groped around until I found the light, and then, reassured by its presence, decided to leave it there. Spurgeon’s cab might well circle the block and make another pass at the alley before I cleared it, and I wanted to be able to disappear into the shadows if I had to.
Meanwhile, I did what I could to avoid falling on my face. The alley was evidently where the citizens of that part of Rangoon stored their spare stumbling blocks, and it’s hard to keep from getting tripped up by objects in your path when you don’t know they’re there. I stubbed my toe a couple of times, and almost fell more than once, but I stayed on my feet. It struck me as a good thing I wasn’t traversing holy ground. The trek would have been murder without shoes.
At the mouth of the alley I looked both ways without knowing exactly what I was looking for. I saw cars passing in both directions, and any of them could have been Harry Spurgeon’s cab. If it had had any distinguishing marks or characteristics, I hadn’t noticed them.
Unlike the man himself, who sported a distinguishing mark on either side of his head. That patch of white hair was as vivid and unmistakable a field mark as the white feathers on a magpie’s wing or the eponymous scarlet of the red-winged blackbird. I hadn’t really given Harry a thought since we’d shared that cab from the airport. Now, suddenly, I could think of nothing else.
And now, of course, it all seemed obvious. The way he’d so neatly picked me up when I cleared Customs, the way he’d suggested our sharing a cab. He was a type, the old Burma hand, knocking around Asia at his employer’s behest, grumbling a little about each country’s less palatable idiosyncracies, and making the best of it all the while. Bluff, open, friendly, especially to another English speaker-
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