I slipped inside and reached for the light switch. And stopped when I saw that there was somebody sleeping in my bed.
Classy hotel, I thought. It was a variation on an old Henny Youngman joke – you get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, and when you get back there’s another guest in your room.
How had it happened? Well, maybe they put him in Room 9 and he held the key upside down. Maybe the clerk, on his rounds, checked my room and found it empty and thought he could fit in an extra off-the-books rental. Maybe Katya, with a nod and a wink, had told him during her ayet piu run that I’d be upstairs in her room.
Didn’t matter. He was there, and the bed was far too narrow for two people, even if they loved each other. The night was almost over – there had been a lot of rich detail in Katya’s story, and the hours had flown during the telling of it. It was almost dawn, and time for me to get busy doing… well, whatever I was going to be doing. I could leave now, or, if I wanted to wait another hour or two, I could go back upstairs and perch on a chair in Katya’s room.
I opened the door to let myself out. Then I remembered the backpack. I’d put it on the chair, but Katya had moved it so that she could sit down. And there it was, on the floor where she’d placed it.
So I slipped inside again and went over to get the pack. And that brought me close enough to the bed so that, with only what little light filtered in through the window, I could have a look at the someone who’d been sleeping in my bed.
It wasn’t Goldilocks. This sleeper’s hair was dark. All except the patch of white at the temple.
Spurgeon! Harry Spurgeon, asleep in my bed!
Well, not exactly. Staring hard at him, I realized he didn’t seem to be breathing. I leaned in, listening, and still couldn’t hear anything. I reached out a hand and touched him. His forehead was still warm – it takes a while for a body to lose heat, especially in the tropics – but I could tell I was touching a dead man.
He was lying on his stomach, the side of his face pressed to the pillow. I rolled him over to get a look at his face and found I was wrong on a second count as well. Not only wasn’t he sleeping, but he also wasn’t Harry Spurgeon.
I got my little flashlight from my Kangaroo and made sure. He wasn’t Spurgeon, and he didn’t even come close. This man was Asian, for openers, and he was shorter and slimmer and darker than the hearty fellow who’d picked me up at the airport. In fact, the only similarity between the two men was the white hair at the temple.
And that was a fake. A close look with the help of the flashlight showed the hair had been bleached, with the effect heightened by the application of what looked like white shoe polish.
Who was this faux Spurgeon? And what was he doing here? And how had he died?
The last question was the easiest to answer. Whoever had stuck the knife in him had left it there, wedged between his ribs. The wound must have been instantly fatal, as there was hardly any blood.
I patted him down, looking for ID. His pockets were empty except for a single well-worn forty-five-kyat note. Something made me roll him over again, onto his face, and when I ran my hands over him I felt a bulge in the small of his back. I tugged his shirt free from his pants – he was wearing dark Western trousers, this Spurgeon imitator – and found an oilskin packet fastened to his skin with plastic-coated tape.
I ripped it free, stuffed it into my own pocket. And heard a car draw up somewhere outside, brakes squealing. And more noise in the pre-dawn stillness – men shouting, their boots slapping on wooden stairs, their voices loud and angry in the lobby.
Time to get the hell out.
I heard them on the stairs and beat them to the door, turning the key and sliding the brass bolt across as well. While they hammered at the door I rushed to the window, flung it all the way open, and tossed my backpack out. More hammering at the door, and they were fiddling with the lock, trying to get a key in while the key I’d left there blocked the way. In a minute or two they’d lose patience, I knew, and they’d kick the door in, and that would be about as difficult as shoving in the side of a cardboard box.
I sat on the windowsill, my legs outside. I got turned around so that I could get a grip on the sill and lower myself partway before letting go. My shoulder ached, and when my hands were supporting my body weight, the ache in my shoulder became something more than an ache. It felt as though my arm was being yanked out of its socket.
Could I just stay there? Maybe they’d confine their search to the room, maybe it wouldn’t occur to them to look out the window-
Yeah, right. I heard them hammering at the door – more forcefully, it seemed to me – and I took a deep breath and let go.
One of the things that had struck me during my months of catching up with the news of the world was an experiment the city of Chicago had tried a few years ago. Someone had determined that street-level drug dealers made a lot of their arrangements via public telephones. So the city ordered the removal of all pay phones in drug-infested areas.
That struck me as something like draining Lake Michigan because mosquitoes breed in it. And of course it didn’t inconvenience the dealers for longer than it took them to run out and get cellular phones. But it certainly made it a lot more difficult for the rest of the public to place a call.
I wondered if the same keen civic intelligence was at work in Rangoon. If there was a phone booth anywhere in town, I couldn’t find it. New York has pay phones at almost every corner. Three-quarters of them don’t work and the rest have people lined up waiting to use them, but at least they’re there.
And I wanted to make a phone call. I knew one man in Rangoon, and I even knew where he was staying. He was all mixed up in whatever it was that I was mixed up in, and I’d been followed earlier by someone who was either him or his double, and I knew he had a double because that’s who I’d just found in my bed, deader than your average New York pay phone. I wasn’t sure what I was going to say to Harry Spurgeon, but I couldn’t think of a better place to start.
The one-story drop hadn’t done any further damage to my shoulder, though it certainly didn’t do my ankle any good. I landed on both feet and managed to stay upright, and I grabbed my backpack and got my arms through the straps. The pack felt a little heavier than I remembered it, but I figured that was me. I was probably a little weaker than I’d been at the beginning of the evening.
I limped a little leaving the alley behind the guest house. I figured there might be some cops out front – I could only assume those were cops hammering on my door, and didn’t want to hang around to test the hypothesis. Nor did I want to meet any of their fellows, so I worked my way through backyards instead and wound up on a different street. And decided I ought to call Spurgeon, and went looking for a phone.
I don’t know what I could have done if I’d found one. The small change in Burma, all the way down to a single kyat, was in the form of paper money, and you couldn’t stuff it in a telephone. Maybe they had tokens, or plastic phone cards. Then again, what did they need them for if they didn’t have phones?
Of course I could just turn up at the Strand and ask for him at the desk. But the more I thought about it, the less I liked the idea. I didn’t know what his agenda was or how I fit into it, but he damn well had one. I wanted to talk to him, but from a distance.
I bought some sticky rice and a couple of steamed buns from a vendor. He didn’t have any English and my Burmese didn’t include the word for telephone, so I asked my question by pantomime, holding an invisible receiver to my ear and making dialing motions.
“Hotay,” he said.
That meant hotel, and I tried the first one I came to. The clerk was Chinese – from Singapore, I guessed – and his English was fine. Yes, he said, they had a telephone available to the public. There was only one problem. It wasn’t working.
“Phone system very bad in Myanmar,” he explained. “Almost never possible to call through to Mandalay. Other towns, forget it.”
“I wanted to call someone in Rangoon.”
He picked up the phone behind the desk, checked it a couple of times, shook his head. “Not possible now,” he said. “Maybe they fix it in an hour, maybe a few days.”
“If I tried another hotel-”
“Be same story. Is the whole system, not just hotel.” Whereupon the phone rang, and he picked it up, rattled off a conversation in Chinese too rapidly for me to follow, and hung up. “A guest,” he said. “Hotel system works fine. You want to talk to someone staying here, no problem. Anybody else, forget it.”
“I tried to call,” I told the young woman at Strand ’s registration desk. “From Delhi yesterday, and then from the airport just now. But I couldn’t get through.”
“It is a problem,” she said.
“So I don’t have a reservation. I hope you have room for me. I’ll be staying three nights, possibly longer.”
She had a nice room on the fifth floor, she told me, and gave me a card to fill out. I signed in as Gordon Edmonds and made up a street address in Toronto and a Canadian passport number. My luggage would be along later, I explained. It had missed one of the connecting flights, but I’d been assured the bags would catch up with me here in Yangon, and that the airlines would deliver it to the hotel.
She asked to see my passport, and a credit card. I patted the money belt beneath my clothes and explained I couldn’t get at either very easily but that I’d bring them to the desk as soon as I’d had a chance to wash up. She decided that would be fine.
I rode up alone in the elevator. It was a beautiful hotel, and I could see why Spurgeon was partial to it. I’d have been happy to stay there myself, but for the fact that a hotel room is largely wasted on a man who doesn’t sleep.
I’d only come here now because I wanted to use the phone.
And that was the first thing I did.
“Mr. Spurgeon,” I said, and spelled the name. After a long moment the phone rang, and after two and a half rings he picked it up.
“Mr. Spurgeon,” I said again.
“This is Harry Spurgeon.”
“And this is Evan Tanner,” I said. “I don’t know if you remember me, but we shared a taxi from the airport.”
“Of course I remember you, Tanner. I hope you’re enjoying Rangoon.”
“As much as possible,” I said.
“And you got to Shwe Dagon Pagoda all right?”
“And took your shoes off, I trust.”
“Yes, and put them back on again once I got out of there.”
“Wound up with the same ones you started with, did you?”
“I think so, yes.”
“That’s good,” he said. “One wouldn’t care to be walking around in another man’s shoes.”
“One wouldn’t,” I agreed.
“And you found a place to stay? Something modest but not too modest, I hope.”
“The first place I tried was a little too bare-bones for me,”
I said. “It turned out to be less private than I would have liked.”
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