I chewed a fresh piece of betel and spat a stream of red juice at the dusty ground. The sun burned down. The deluge of the night before was barely a memory, and what had been mud a few hours ago was now baked as hard as earthenware. I chewed and spat and, like the mindless crowd, I waited for something to happen.
Then something happened.
I didn’t even recognize the old man at first, but I stared at him anyhow, just like everyone else. He was a sight. He was riding in my cart, and my bullock was pulling it, and all of that was normal enough, but that was where normalcy stopped. For the bullock was moving faster than it had ever moved in its life, faster, I suspect, than any bullock had ever moved since the species first evolved. The bullock tore through the crowd like a bull at Pamplona, tossing its head and snorting, bouncing the little cart on the bumpy roadway, while the old man prodded its rump with fire.
I do not speak metaphorically. The old colonial boy held a long stick like a shepherd’s crook, and on the end of that stick was a rag soaked in kerosene or something of the sort, and the rag was burning. He kept poking the flaming end of the stick into the tormented end of the bullock, and the results were spectacular.
All hell broke loose. The crowd stampeded. The jeep parked in front happened to be in the way, and the bullock came down on its hood and struck a mighty blow against the forces of automation. The animal caromed off the wrecked vehicle, tossed its head wildly, then charged for a mass of onlookers. They broke and ran; some of them got away and some of them did not.
The guards didn’t know what to do. They had drawn their guns and were now waving them uncertainly in the air, evidently feeling that the situation could be solved only by a show of force but not knowing where the force ought to be directed. And through it all the old man prepared for his finest hour. The day of glory has arrived –
He was in costume, for one thing. He wore the uniform of a French Legionaire. God knows where he found it; perhaps he had kept it hidden as a relic of better times. It fit him like a glove on a pencil. The pants covered his feet and the jacket’s sleeves came down well over his hands, and the shriveled little old man inside disappeared completely. He paused, kept the fire away from the bullock’s rear for a moment, and his little voice rang out over the crowd.
“Long live King Charles de Gaulle! Long live the beautiful France! Lafayette is here! Long live Napoleon! To hell with Marx! To hell with Lenin! To hell with the Pathet Lao! To hell with Mao Tse-tung! Long live Jeanne d’Arc!”
Everyone’s attention was drawn to him. The doors to the command post were open, and soldiers from within crowded the doorway, staring out at the wild old man with the wild young bullock. I could have pushed through them without their paying the slightest bit of attention to me, but at the moment I was utterly transfixed by his display. Wild bullocks couldn’t have moved me.
“‘Allons, enfants de la patrie – ’”
Singing the “Marseillaise” at the top of his lungs, he began waving a tin can around madly. He splashed something from it, soaking the straw around him, soaking the fine French Legion uniform, soaking the flanks of the unfortunate bullock.
Then, still singing bravely, he brought the day of glory to its peak. He touched his torch to the straw beneath his feet. And, as the straw and the cart and the bullock and the old man burst suddenly into flame, with the maddened bullock veering sharply to his right and crashing head-on into a cluster of ramshackle wooden huts, with bullets flying overhead, and with the final death-echoes of the French national anthem sounding around me, I drew my dagger and rushed into the building.
Behind me the crowd hooted and wailed hysterically. Soldiers rushed into the mob to stare mutely at the spreading fire. Someone began shooting at something. I moved quickly, mind and body oddly disassociated. At the head of the stairs a soldier blocked my path and snapped a command at me. I thrust the dagger hilt-deep into his chest. He gasped and died, and no one noticed. I drew the dagger free and entered the building.
The corridors inside were uniformly olive drab, floors and walls and ceilings, a study in institutional monotony. The entire place was in an uproar, with uniformed men barking commands and rushing to and fro. I too rushed to and fro, and to as little purpose. I felt like a moth who against all odds had managed to penetrate a screen and fly into a fireplace. I was a great success, but at any moment the flames would realize I was there and fry me to a crisp.
“Outside!” I bellowed. “All men to their posts in the streets. At once!”
That got rid of a few of them, but there were still too many soldiers around. I looked into one room, then another, but there was no sign of either Dhang or Tuppence. And I couldn’t peek into every damned room in the place. There simply wasn’t time; in a few moments the shock value of the old man’s act would wear off, and somebody would begin to wonder just who in hell I was.
I started into a third room. A soldier on his way out met me with pistol in hand. If I had had time to think about it I would probably have stood there like a ninny while he shot me, but I acted without thought, plunging the dagger into his belly and ripping upward. He pitched forward, and I spun away from him and on down the corridor.
And promptly walked into another man. We bounced off one another, and I said “Pardon me,” and he said “Who are you?” and I looked at him, and he looked at me. His chest was full of medals and ribbons. He was the important-looking middle-aged man who had recently dismounted from the jeep in front.
He said, “Seize this man!”
But I seized him first. I grabbed him by the shoulder and gave a yank, and he spun like a top and sagged against me. The top of his head came to just below my chin. I wrapped one arm around his chest and with the other hand I held the tip of the dagger to his throat.
“I just hope to God you’re important,” I told him in English, “or we’re both going to wind up dead.”
He was saying something that I couldn’t understand, which I guess made us even. A semicircle of armed men stood around us, their guns pointed at me. I worked my way backward so that my back was against a wall. I kept my grip on the important little man, and the tip of my dagger stayed within an inch of his throat.
“If you do not cooperate, you will die,” I told him, in Khmer this time. “Tell your men to throw their weapons down upon the floor. Do this at once!”
He said something unintelligible. The soldiers were still holding their weapons.
“Tell them,” I said reasonably. I pricked the skin over his Adam’s apple with the dagger. He was trembling in my grasp. His voice shaky, he conveyed my order to his men. Rifles and pistols bounced crazily on the bare concrete floor. One discharged, and a bullet ricocheted wildly from wall to ceiling to wall.
“The Thai who was taken prisoner last night,” I said. “Where is he?”
“The ravisher of my daughter?”
So this was the commandant, I thought. “That’s the one,” I said. “Where is he being held?”
“He is to die for his crimes.”
“He is to go free. Where is he?”
“What do you want with him?”
I prodded him again with the dagger. “I shall cut out your heart,” I said gently, “and your liver, and I shall roast your intestines in the fire. Tell your men to lead us to the prisoner’s cell. Do not waste time.”
“You will die.”
“Yes, but not right now. Give them the order.”
He barked it out, his voice cracking before he reached the end of the sentence. The men – there were about a dozen of them – led the way to a small room at the end of a long corridor to the right. They were a disorganized bunch, those soldiers. Their training had made no provision for such an emergency, and they did not know what they were supposed to do. They had been taught, like all good soldiers everywhere, to obey unquestioningly all orders of a superior officer and to avoid taking matters into their own hands. The little commander followed a still older code, the ancient law of self-preservation. And thus the men led the way to Dhang’s cell, and the commander, pale and trembling, stared cross-eyed at the dagger that touched his throat.
More orders. A heavy iron door was unbolted and drawn open. At the far end of a dank, windowless room a half-naked Dhang, the upper portion of his body scarred badly with the marks of the lash, stood upon the tips of his toes. His hands were tied to a pipe overhead, and his toes just barely reached the ground. He did not seem to recognize me at first but stared ahead dully.
The sight of him infuriated me, and I came very close to ruining everything by killing the commandant then and there out of sheer pique. But I snapped out a brace of orders, which he conveyed to his men. They cut Dhang free, and he sprawled face-down on the floor. I shouted at him. He shook himself, looked up at me, then struggled to his feet.
“Heaven! You have come…”
I tossed him a chunk of betel. He popped it gratefully into his mouth. “There’s very little time,” I told Dhang. “We have to get out of here.” I singled out one of the soldiers who was about Dhang’s height and build and had the commandant tell him to get out of his uniform. He did this, and Dhang dressed himself in the soldier’s clothing. He didn’t exactly look as though he had been born to wear a uniform, but it wasn’t a bad fit.
“I could have had her, Evan. So beautiful she was! And she wanted me, too. They said I tried to have her against her will, but in truth she wanted me. She-”
The commandant cursed and tried to make a lunge for Dhang. I tightened my grip on him.
“Such a sweet cunat,” Dhang went on. “And in another moment she would have been mine, but then this pig had to intrude.” And he cleared his throat and spat in the commander’s face.
I couldn’t really blame him.
“No time now,” I said. “We have to hurry. Tuppence is somewhere in the building. Have you seen her? The girl?”
“We’ll have to find her. Go back toward the front door and make sure it’s locked. And pick up a couple of pistols from the floor, one for yourself and one for me.” I backed off toward the door, dragging the head man with me.
“Tell your men to sit down,” I ordered him. “Tell them to seat themselves upon the floor and remain there until they are called.”
He did, and they did. We left the room with the dozen men inside it, and I toed the door shut, then bolted it. The fever hit suddenly, slamming me with a wave of dizziness and nausea. I swayed on my feet and very nearly dropped the dagger. I drew a deep breath and tried to catch hold of myself. The building, I thought, I had to get into the building. No, that was wrong, I was already inside the building, and now I had to find Tuppence and get out of it.
I spun the little man around and backed him against the wall. “The girl,” I said. “Where is she?”
“There is no girl.”
“The black girl.”
“There is no black girl.”
“Damn you, where is she?”
“There is no black girl.”
I transferred my dagger to my left hand, made a fist of the right hand, and hit him in the mouth with it. He caromed off the wall and stumbled toward me. I hit him again. He sagged against the wall, wiping at the blood that trickled from his mouth.
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