“There’s a picture,” I said.
“It is, isn’t it? Name’s Stuart, mate.”
“And you’re a Yank and I’m an Ozzie, and here we are in a fucking jail. Not even a proper jail, either. A concrete block shithouse of a building with a sodcutter playing basketball on top of our heads.”
“I wish he’d stop.”
“Oh, he will. Then he’ll come downstairs and sit over there and stare at us, and you’ll wish he’d go upstairs and dribble some more.”
“How long have you been here, Stuart?”
“I dunno. I can’t say what day it is, and don’t tell me because I don’t know what day it was when I came here. I don’t think it’s two weeks yet, but I can’t be sure. See, day and night’s all one here, ’cause there’s no window to let the sun in and no clock on the wall. And they have the light on all the time.”
“They must have more than one guard.”
“There’s another chap, or maybe two of them. It’s hard to tell ’ em apart. They all do the same. Bring a tray of food now and then. Empty the slop jar now and then. And go upstairs now and then and play fucking basketball until you want to scream.”
“What are you in for, Stuart?”
“I’m ashamed to tell you.”
“Keep it to yourself if you’d rather,” I said. “But I’ve been around some. I don’t shock easily.”
“Oh, this won’t shock you, Evan. And I don’t mind saying. It’s durian.”
“Is it an Australian word? Because it’s a crime I’ve never heard of.”
“I was eating durian,” he said.
“Is it some kind of drug?”
“Or an endangered animal species? Is it like eating whooping cranes?”
“Jesus, no. It’s a fruit.”
“Oh, right,” I said. “I thought it sounded familiar. What’s wrong with eating it? Does it get you high?”
“Not like drinking pints does.” He sighed. “I say, mate, you wouldn’t have a pint in your back pocket, would you? Nice frosty pint of Foster’s?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Like I thought. Can’t even get Foster’s in this sodcutting country. Just the local brew. Mandalay. Tried it yet?”
“Tastes like piss, don’t it?”
“I don’t know.”
He frowned. “Thought you said you tried it.”
“I did,” I said. “But I never tried the other.”
“The other.” He thought about it, then let out a whoop. “Stone the crows! You never tried piss. Jesus, I never tried it meself. Never hope to try it. Mandalay beer’s as close as I ever hope to get.”
“Same here,” I said.
“S’funny how people will say that. ‘Tastes like piss.’ But how would they know?” He shook his head in wonder, then lapsed into thoughtful silence. I had to ask him why he’d been arrested, then, for eating fruit. Was it stolen?
“Nope. Bought and paid for.”
“Legal for them to sell it to you?”
A nod. “And legal for me to buy it. Oh, I don’t mean to make you drag it out of me. I was eating it in my hotel room, and you can’t do that.”
Now I remembered what it was about durian. “The smell,” I said. “It smells, doesn’t it?”
“It does,” he said. “Has the most almighty pong you ever smelled in your life. You get a whiff of it and you think a man’d have to be stark mad to put it in his mouth. Then you get a taste of it and it’s so good you don’t care a fuck what it smells like.”
“What does it smell like?”
“Like sex,” he said.
“Like sex, but that’s just part of it. Imagine if you and a really trashy Sheila was to smear yourselves head to toe with limburger cheese and then have sex on top of a heap of rotting fish.”
“Oh,” I said.
“That’s a fair description of the smell. The taste is something different.”
“It would have to be,” I said, “or no one would ever have a second bite of it.”
“I can’t describe it,” he said, “but once you taste it, all you want to do is have more of it. I bought a single durian – it’s a sort of a melon, like – and I took it to my room and ate the whole thing. And then I went out and bought two more.”
“But it doesn’t get you high?”
“Not like a drug will, or a couple of pints. It’s just good, is all, and you’re so glad to be eating it you’ve got room in your mind for little else. And in no time at all you don’t mind the smell, and the time comes when you begin to like it.”
“It must taste wonderful,” I said.
“And it must smell terrible.”
“It does that as well, and it’s a smell that lingers. The hotels have rules against bringing durian into your room, because once you do it’s ages before they can rent the room again, because it pongs so bad.”
“But you didn’t know about the rule?”
“I knew,” he said. “But I thought, what harm? So I’ll open a window after, air the place out. I was three days and three nights eating durian in that room. They’ll be three months fumigating it and airing it out.”
“Oh,” I said. “Still, to jail you over it-”
“They want damages,” he said. “For all the nights they can’t rent the room, plus the cost of clearing the smell out of it.” He cupped his beard in his hand, sniffed deeply. “There’s still a whiff of it in me whiskers,” he said, “if you want to get the sense of it.”
“That’s all right,” I said. “How much do they want from you?”
“Five thousand U.S.,” he said, “which is absurd, but I’d say they’d take less. But all I’ve got is a couple hundred and me ticket home, and they’ve taken that away from me along with me shoes and me belt. And who’s going to send me that kind of money?”
They’d let him try to call home, on a rare day when the phones worked, but getting through to Australia had proved to be impossible. He’d written letters to everyone he knew back home, and they’d taken the letters, and he could only suppose they’d mailed them, but God knew when they’d get there.
“And what are me mates going to think? ‘Oh, that Stuart, he spent all his cash on drink and whores, and now he wants to cadge the price of the next girl and the next few pints.’ Catch them falling for that line, eh?”
“The Australian consulate,” I suggested.
“Oh, right. Would the U.S. consulate lend you a few thousand to pay for stinking out a hotel room? Well, neither would ours.”
Somewhere in the course of his recitation the basketball stopped bouncing, and a few minutes after that our guard made his appearance. He was short for a Burmese and even shorter for a basketball player, and I didn’t suppose he got too many chances to dunk the ball.
He sat at the desk and watched us for a while, then picked up a magazine and turned its pages. He’d evidently lost interest in us, and it didn’t take me long to lose interest in him.
It was getting on for tea time, I thought. That reminded me how long it had been since my breakfast of steamed buns and sticky rice. I kept hunger at bay by thinking about Harry Spurgeon. Was he at a table in the Strand ’s lounge, having his tea? He might well be, I decided, but I rather doubted he was glancing at his watch, wondering what on earth was keeping me.
Had he sent the cops a-knocking on my door? That made the most sense. If he knew the phones were out all over town, he could have figured that my call would have had to have come from within the hotel. Once he knew that, it was a fairly simple matter to check with the desk and fill in the rest of the puzzle. Yes, Mr. Spurgeon, we did have a recent check-in fitting that description. A Mr. Edmonds, a Canadian gentleman, and he’ll be coming down soon to show us his passport and a credit card, neither of which was close to hand when he checked in.
Maybe calling him from the Strand wasn’t the best idea I ever had.
But what else could I have done? Lurked across the street from the Strand, hoping he’d show up? And what if he did? Then what?
I still didn’t know where he fit in, or even where I fit in. What exactly had happened last night? Someone had been shadowing me, someone I’d presumed to be Harry Spurgeon because of his whitened temples (which I was beginning to think of as whitened sepulchres, but that was wrong). But my tail could as easily have been the Spurgeon manqué, the Burmese fellow who turned up dead in my bed at the Char Win Guest House.
Scenario: X, a Burmese man who is attempting for reasons of his own to look like Harry Spurgeon, has the job of shadowing me. I give him the slip, but he circles the block and picks me up again without my spotting him. For camouflage, he picks up a prostitute and checks into the Char Win, where he goes to my room and plants a foil-wrapped brick-shaped package in my backpack.
Then the prostitute, revealing a heart of something other than gold, stabs him to death, goes through his pockets, takes his money, and leaves him there.
Or try this: Spurgeon is on my tail, and I ditch him successfully when I dive out of the taxi. But his backup man, X, stays with me. They hook up together, slip into the hotel together, and enter my room, where Spurgeon murders his partner, whitens his temples, tucks him into bed, stuffs the brick into my backpack, and takes off.
Or, as an alternative-
Never mind. You get the idea. I had too little in the way of data and too resourceful an imagination, and I could thus concoct no end of scenarios, one as plausible as the next. None of them made much sense, and all of them raised more questions than they answered.
“Feeding time,” Stuart said. “Here comes the bloke with the key, and there’s Gran with the tray.”
“You don’t sound enthusiastic.”
“See how enthusiastic you are, mate, when you see what’s on the tray.”
Our guard unlocked the massive padlock, then unholstered his gun and pointed it in our general direction while he swung the door open. Then a little old Burmese lady, shrunken and wizened, brought two trays of food, one at a time, and set each in turn on the floor of our cell. Then she turned without a word and left the room, and the guard swung the barred steel door shut and went back to his desk and his magazine.
Stuart took a tray and sat on the edge of his mattress. “What have we here?” he said. “Why, I do believe it’s chopped muck with rice. How unusual.”
“It doesn’t smell very nice,” I said.
“Nasty pong, eh? Doesn’t smell as bad as durian, but it doesn’t taste as good as durian. Tastes like old lawn clippings.”
“And smells,” I said, “like a goldfish bowl.”