“I can manage.”
“Good, very good. And now we will go to town, but first you must darken your face once more. Was it my tobacco that you used?”
“I hope there is enough left to do the job. Go ahead, it is all right. I will not need more now. Go ahead.”
The taste of the tobacco almost made me sick again, but I chewed it and rubbed the resulting liquid into my face. I gave my hands and forearms the same treatment. It didn’t take so long this time, perhaps because the fever was beginning to endow me with a yellowish color all my own.
“And now we go,” he said. “You will mingle with the crowds, you will stay close to the entrance of the command headquarters. I will see to the rest.”
“You will know when it is time, my friend. I only hope that it can be done before it is too late.”
I don’t remember very much of the ride to town. I kept telling myself over and over again that I couldn’t have plague or cholera and that I had not yet been bitten by a rabid skunk. Nor had I walked through any caves cluttered with bat crap. I would tell myself this, and then the fever would pick up steam again, and I would become slightly delirious. I was in fairly good control of myself, however. Each time I had to vomit, I managed to lean over the side of the cart.
In Tao Dan the old man parked the bullock and took me to a little restaurant. He knew the proprietor and spoke rapidly to him before leading me to a small booth at the rear. Then he pressed a few well-creased little bank notes into my mind.
“I have told him to continue bringing you cups of herbal tea,” he said. “I have said that you have a weakness of the brain and cannot speak clearly. Thus it will not be necessary for you to say anything, and you may remain here until I return. No one will disturb you.”
“I will be back shortly. I will arrange for a boat. I had thought to take you with me, but it may be more readily done this way. Then I will tell you how to find the boat after I return. You will wait here? You will not move?”
“There is little time-”
“I know. I shall not be long.”
He left. I looked down at the table top. It was wooden, and the finish had long ago been worn away. My eyes saw intricate patterns in the scarred surface, patterns alive with aesthetic implications. Fever does weird things to one’s mind.
Then the waitress was bringing my cup of herb tea. She was a tiny thing and looked to be about twelve years old. I thought at first that she was a very pretty child, but when I looked more closely, I saw that one of her eyes was missing. The empty socket was black inside. She smiled shyly and set the tea down before me. I tried not to look at her face. I felt tears welling up behind my own eyes and blamed them on the fever. The world, after all, is filled with blind children who envy the one-eyed ones, and legless men who envy cripples, and millionaires who envy billionaires. One has to maintain a sense of proportion…
I smiled at the girl. I held my thumb and forefinger an inch apart, brought them to my lips, and made chewing motions.
“You are to have only tea,” she said. “You are not to have food. The man said.”
I shook my head, smiled again, and went through the routine once more. This time I made motions of chewing and spitting, chewing and spitting.
I shook my head.
She smiled, pleased with the game. “Show me again.” I did. “Betel nut? You wish betel nut?”
I smiled and nodded enthusiastically. “I will get it for you. I ask my father if you may have. You wait.”
She rushed away. In a few moments she came tripping back with a slice of betel nut wrapped in the usual leaf. The flavoring agent was different from that used in Dhang’s betel but by no means unpleasant. I smiled my thanks, chewed, spat. The girl giggled happily, made a small but very courtly bow, and scampered away.
I found myself thinking of Minna and hoping that she was all right. I knew that Kitty Bazerian would take good care of her, and I was privately convinced that the child was sufficiently adaptable to get along almost anywhere; she possessed both charm and pragmatism far beyond her years. But she was happiest at home with me in the apartment on 107th Street, which was why I would undoubtedly never get around to having her adopted, or sending her to school, or doing any of the things one really ought to do with a child her age.
Thoughts of Minna drew me out of my role, and I caught myself letting my eyes widen and my mouth relax. I narrowed my eyes to slits once more and pursed my lips. I had to get out of this mess, I told myself. After all, I wasn’t entirely a carefree adventurer any more. I was a man with responsibilities – Minna, Todor, another child on the way. I had to get a grip on myself.
Perhaps the betel nut was an imperfect idea. I had ordered it because I wanted it, which seemed motivation enough at the time. But the slight narcotic properties of the betel nut seemed to be working in tandem with the fever. My head was doing unusual things. From time to time I would catch myself staring off into space with the purposeless intensity of the catatonic, spending endless minutes in stoic contemplation of nothing whatsoever, with not a thought passing through my mind. Then I would force myself to move an arm or a foot, to drink some of the ever-present tea, to chew and spit.
When my teacup was empty, the girl returned for it and brought it back full again. I handed her all of the notes the old man had left with me; I didn’t want to run up a tab higher than my bankroll. She started to give some of them back to me, and I motioned her to keep the lot. She smiled, and her eye brightened. She returned again in a little while and slipped me a handful of betel, giggling as she did so and either winking or blinking, whatever you prefer. I put the betel in the pocket of my tunic.
My time sense was completely shot. When the old man sat down opposite me – I hadn’t even noticed his approach, which shows how magnificently I was functioning – I had no idea whether he had been gone an unusually short time or an exceedingly long time. I really did not know. It could have been fifteen minutes or several hours.
In French he whispered, “It is arranged. I have purchased a boat. It is small, but I believe it will accommodate three persons. You and the Thai and the Princess.”
“What about yourself?”
“Do not worry yourself about me. Now” – his finger traced lines on the scarred table top – “we are here. Here is the command headquarters. You see? The front of the building here, a rear entrance here. Down this way is a street that leads to the river. It runs just so. You follow me? You take that street and do not leave it, and it will lead you directly to the bank of the river. The boat is hidden in the rushes perhaps fifty paces in this direction. You see the route you must take? This way from the building, and down the road to its end, and then to your left and along the shore perhaps fifty paces, perhaps sixty. The boat is well hidden, I cut reeds and placed them atop it. You will be able to find it?”
“I think so.”
“I am sure that you will. There will be very little time. You must hurry into the building and liberate the two prisoners and hurry out again as quickly as possible. You may find this useful.”
He put a hand under the table, and I reached to take what he handed me. It was a dagger with an eight-inch blade, razor sharp, with deep blood grooves running the length of the blade on either side. The hilt was covered with tightly wrapped leather. The dagger had not been washed since its last use, and there were traces of blood in the grooves. I concealed it as well as I could in a fold of the tunic.
“Go, now,” the old man said. “We are in time, your friends have not yet been executed. Get as close to the entranceway as you can. When the moment is at hand, seize it. Do not spend time watching me.”
“What are you going to do?”
He looked at me, and over my shoulder, and miles past me. Perhaps he was seeing a parade in the Place de la Concorde.
“I shall do what I must,” he said.
“It is time.” A smile. “The day of glory has arrived. Do not ask questions, young friend. Go now. The day of glory has arrived.”
I put both hands on the table top and pushed myself to my feet. The day of glory has arrived, I told myself. My knees buckled. I took a deep breath and walked unsteadily to the doorway. My little waitress blinked good-bye. I stepped out into the heat of the glaring afternoon sun, waited for a moment to get my bearings, then found my way quickly to the command headquarters.
The four heads stared at me as before, but this time they had no effect upon me. Perhaps I was prepared; perhaps the fever and the betel nut had combined to render me impervious to horror. I looked at the heads, and they looked back, and I walked past them to the side of the entranceway, where notices were posted on a bulletin board. Some were hand-lettered, others were printed, and all of them were equally meaningless to me. I can speak Khmer but cannot read it at all and after I had looked at a few notices, I found it hard to believe that anybody could read it. It has frequently occurred to me that the high illiteracy rate in certain countries is at least partially attributable to the impenetrability of their alphabets. It amazes me that people learn to speak at all, let alone read and write. I went on scanning the bulletin board. The fever caught me, then let me go. For a moment I was quite unsteady and didn’t think I could stay on my feet, and I moved to one side and turned around, leaning against the building in what I hoped was a casual fashion. The street was beginning to fill with the local citizenry, all of whom seemed interested in the command post. Though public executions had been abolished, it was evidently quite the thing to watch new heads being installed on the ceremonial head posts. Perfectly reasonable, I decided. With no movie theater and no television, the people needed something to take their minds off their troubles.
I slipped my hand under my tunic and touched the handle of the dagger. Its presence was somehow reassuring. I looked at the squat concrete building. If we left it by its rear door, we would have to run off to the right to the street the old man had indicated, then turn to the left and follow that street to the river, then look off to the left some fifty paces for the boat. I pictured his finger tracing the route on the table top and I closed my eyes and fixed the image of his map in my mind.
In the street a jeep made its way through the crowd. The driver confirmed the popular notion of the Oriental view that human life is cheap, driving with a fine disdain for the throngs in front of him. Magically the crowd melted aside just in time to let him pull to a stop in front of the building. The driver remained in the car. Two men climbed out of the back seat. One of them was middle-aged and looked important. The other younger and in a less impressive uniform, hurried to open the door for him. The guards stood aside, and the two men walked on into command headquarters.
Wonderful, I thought. By the time I made my move, half the soldiers in Laos would be inside the concrete structure. I looked around, wondering what the old man had planned. For a moment I had thought he might have organized some sort of riot, with the mob storming the building, but the crowd did not have the look of potential rioters. They were just a mass of bored yokels waiting for something to happen.