A famous victory, I thought. It wasn’t the Battle of Blenheim, and it didn’t have Robert Southey to write a poem about it, but when the Shan state achieved independence, it might rate a mention in the high school history books.
So I thought about it, and about the relationship of war and testosterone, and the previously unnoted aphrodisiacal effects of malaria. And about Stuart, in whose memory the day’s slaughter had been undertaken.
And other things, things to think about while I waited for the dawn.
While Katya and I breakfasted on duck eggs and sticky rice, the rest of the camp was a beehive of activity. It was only a question of time until army headquarters in Rangoon sent a brigade to avenge yesterday’s action, and Ne Win wanted to be prepared.
Katya wanted to know what would happen. I wondered myself. Would Ne Win try to defend the little compound? Or would his troops slip away into the hills, pausing now and then to ambush the SLORC regulars, then disappearing before the army could exact retribution?
There was something to be said for either approach, but we weren’t going to be around for it. Because, as soon as we’d finished our meal, he put us in a car, assigned us a driver, and sent us off to Thailand.
“Evan Turner,” he said, “you are a true Shan brother.” He placed a hand on my head, where, were I still a monk, I’d be well advised to shave. “You were a splendid monk,” he assured me, “but an even better soldier. A safe journey, my friend.”
By nightfall we were at the border. We had to cross a river via a rope bridge, a passage I found scarier than the firefight the previous day. The third night of malarial fever was on me by then, which didn’t make it easier. But we got across, and they found me a safe place to sweat out the fever, and I was better in the morning.
The following day we reached Chiang Mai, where we caught an overnight train to Bangkok. And by nightfall I was back where I’d started, in the little teahouse across the street from the Swan Hotel.
Mr. Sukhumvit wasn’t there. I ordered a Kloster and a basket of prawn chips. I was on my third beer and my second basket of chips when he came in. He walked toward his usual table, then spotted me out of the corner of his eye. I looked different – my hair gone, my skin darkened by the sun and yellowed by malaria – but something clicked and he recognized me. He looked my way, and I nodded, and he came to the table.
“So,” he said. “I heard you were dead.”
“You can’t believe everything you hear.”
“You are quite right. I also heard you planted a bomb at Shwe Dagon Pagoda.”
“That is not true either. Soon you will no doubt hear that I was involved in a massacre of a Burmese army post by an insurgent Shan force.”
“The Shan are at peace with the government.”
“Ah,” he said. “I think you bring me valuable information. Tell me more, and then we will go eat some dog.”
“To tell you the truth,” I said, “I’m sick of dog.”
“You must have eaten your fill of it in Burma.”
“Day and night,” I said. “It’s hard for me to pass a fire hydrant.”
“I do not understand.”
“Never mind,” I said. “There was some difficulty in Rangoon, as you may imagine. I find myself in need of a passport.”
“Ah,” he said.
“I thought you might be able to help.”
“You need a passport.”
“Two passports, actually.” I took an envelope from my breast pocket, removed two pairs of inch-square photographs, one showing a man with his head shaved, the other a woman with long black hair. We’d had them taken at a drugstore in Chiang Mai, right next door to the shop where Katya bought the wig.
“And here is the data for the passports,” I said, and handed him a slip of paper.
“Evan Michael Tanner. And Katerina Romanoff. A Russian woman?”
“The problem with American passports-”
“Is the scanner. I know. I thought perhaps passports of another country.”
He nodded thoughtfully and named several countries. Some of them, like Vanuatu, had not even existed before I took my little trip to Union City. Then he mentioned Ireland, and I stopped him.
“As a matter of fact,” I said, “I think I’m entitled to an Irish passport. They let you claim dual citizenship if you have an Irish grandparent.”
“And one of your grandparents came from Ireland?”
“My great-grandmother,” I said. “That’s not the same as a grandparent, but it ought to be close enough to qualify me for a forged passport.”
“And your friend? She does not look Irish.”
I squinted at the photo. “She could be Irish,” I said. “In dim light.”
“Romanoff is not an Irish name, is it?”
I reached for a pencil.
“Katherine O’Shea?” Katya said. “What kind of a name is Katherine O’Shea?”
“Well, it’s Irish,” I said.
“As a matter of fact,” I said, “it’s a name with a lot of resonance to it. Kitty O’Shea was Parnell’s girlfriend, and her jerk of a husband caused a scandal that ruined the man’s career. It’s a name with a real history to it.”
“So is Romanoff, Evan.”
“You can be Katya Romanoff as soon as we clear Immigration,” I assured her. “You can be Katya Romanoff or Katya Singh or Katya Kovalshevsky, whatever you want. But first we have to get you into the country.”
“When will we have the passports?”
“The day after tomorrow. And the day after that we fly from Bangkok to New York via Los Angeles.”
“They gave you tickets?”
“They didn’t really want to,” I said. “But I had a return ticket in business class, and it was in my name even if I had lost it. I’ll have to show them a passport to prove I’m really me, so I won’t have the tickets in hand until I do, but once Sukhumvit comes through with the passports it won’t be a problem. One ticket in business class more than covers two tickets in economy.”
“Poor Evan. If you didn’t have me along you could sit in the front of the plane.”
“That’s all right. Even the luggage compartment would feel luxurious to me after the past couple of weeks.”
“What’s the matter, Vanya?”
“Well, I’m sure I’ll figure it out.”
“A way to pay for our passports. I showed Sukhumvit the ivory statues, and he all but laughed in my face. They may be worth something, they may even be museum quality, but this is no place to sell them. He’s giving me a pretty good deal on the passports, but I don’t know where I’m going to find the money.”
“My poor little Vanya,” she said. “Maybe it is not so bad after all that you have me with you.”
And she twisted the ruby ring from her finger and dropped it in my palm.
“I thought you were dead,” the Chief said. “There were these stories out of Burma. Great work, setting off a bomb at one of their sacred sites. Nothing quite gets a headline like blowing up the Holiest of Holies, eh?”
I’d been back for less than a week when the call came, and we were meeting in a bare-to-the-crumbling-walls apartment on the top floor of a tenement in Alphabet City. The building was abandoned, and I could see why. Squatters had nested in some of the other apartments, but only the Chief had wanted to climb five flights of stairs to this one.
How he finds these meeting places, or why he thinks they’re suitable, is just one of the mysteries that hover about him.
“But then they arrested you and hanged you,” he went on, “and I found that disturbing in the extreme. That’s not like Tanner, I told myself. It’s never happened before.”
“Once is generally plenty,” I said.
“And the irony of it,” he said. “Here I’d just got you back after having lost you for what, twenty-five years?”
“Something like that.”
He put his fingertips together, looking almost as though he were praying, which I somehow knew he was not. “One sends men out,” he said, “knowing that there’s a chance one will not see them again. Of all the burdens of command, that is by far the heaviest. Yet in this instance I had no real concern that you might be lost. I felt confident that you’d execute your assignment and return in good time, and in all likelihood net yourself a tidy profit in the bargain.”
Some tidy profit, I thought. I’d lost everything I brought with me, including my flashlight and my Swiss Army knife, and I’d still be stuck in Bangkok but for Katya’s ruby ring.
“The shock,” he said, “when I learned you were dead. But of course, that was your doing, wasn’t it? Covering your tracks by having someone else carry your name to the scaffold.”
“This Rufus Crombie,” I said. “Your… what? Employer?”
“Patron, you might say.”
“How sure are you of him?”
He gave me a long look. “Why?” he said at length.
“I didn’t arrange the bombing at Shwe Dagon Pagoda. It’s about the last thing I would have done. Well, the second last, actually. The last thing would be harming Aung San Suu Kyi.”
“But your assignment-”
“Was to destabilize the SLORC regime,” I said, “and that would have been the worst way to do it. And bombing Shwe Dagon runs a close second. They framed me for it, and if they’d had the chance, they’d have hanged me for it. As it was, they did the next best thing. They hanged an Australian kid and said he was me.” I drew a breath. “It was a setup from the jump. That’s what I was there for. To be framed. And caught. And hanged.”
He was sitting up straight now, a frown creasing his brow. All the years seemed to drop away, and he was his old self again, the man I’d known back when the Cold War was red hot. Of course he hadn’t been all that sharp back then, but it was still comforting to see him as I remembered him.
“Report,” he said.
When I’d finished he went to the window and spent a few minutes staring out. Then he said, “It’s all very confusing.”
“And unsettling as well. Disturbing, even.”
“You were set up, as you said. You also seem to have been protected. Someone arranged your escape from jail, for example.”
“Unless I was supposed to be recaptured. But you’re right, I had a guardian angel hovering around somewhere. The warning I got at Shwe Dagon was well sent.”
“And someone killed the man who planted heroin in your luggage.”
“But how did that work? I think that was all part of the frame, the heroin and the dead body, so that I could be charged with drug trafficking and murder at the same time. Who was the dead man in my bed at the guest house? And why had they chalked his temples so he would look like Harry Spurgeon?”