“You may kill me if you wish,” he said stiffly. “There is no black girl here. I will not tell you anything.”
I started to swing at him, then caught myself in time. Dhang was trotting down the hallway, moving gingerly over the floor: I found out later that they had beaten the soles of his feet. Dhang handed me a pistol and kept one for himself.
“There were soldiers there,” he told me.
“They saw the uniform and thought I was one of them. I picked up the guns and shot them.” I hadn’t even heard the shots. “I closed the door, Heaven. But much is happening outside. Flames and screaming. We must get out of here.”
“This pig won’t tell me where the girl is.”
“Shall I kill him?”
“No. We’ll need him later.” I wished I could think straight. She had to be somewhere inside the building, I decided.
I cupped my hands and shouted. “Tuppence! Tuppence, where are you? Tuppence!”
A muffled cry came in answer from off to the left. Dhang led the way, and I grabbed up the little commander, and we ran. I shouted, and she called out in answer, and we kept running to the sound of her voice until we found the room.
The door was locked. The commander denied possession of a key, and there was no time to find out whether he was lying or not. I called out for Tuppence to stand aside, and put three bullets in the lock before it fell apart. The door flew open, and there was Tuppence.
“Evan, baby! Like where did you come from?”
“Later,” I said. “This is Dhang, he’s a friend, he doesn’t speak English. This is the Lord High Everything-Else, he-”
“I know him,” she said contemptuously. She went on to describe him as a fulfiller of oedipal desires. “How’d you get here, baby?”
“Kendall and Willie and Chick and Niles -”
“I know. Dead.”
Dhang was chattering excitedly at my elbow. I didn’t pay any attention to him. “You can tell me about it later,” I told Tuppence. “First we’ve got to get out of here. There’s a boat waiting. We’ll go out the back door and-”
“What’s the matter, baby? You all right?”
I had stopped abruptly in midsentence. It was the fever, coming on worse than before. All of a sudden everything I looked at was tinted a furious red. I blinked the redness away and shook myself free of the fever’s grip.
“I’m sick,” I said. “I’ll be all right once we get out of here. Follow me.” I gave the same order to Dhang, and I dragged the Lao commander along. Where was the back door? I had lost my bearings and wasn’t sure.
But Tuppence said, “Wait, cool it, Evan. We don’t want to leave without the jewels.”
“The Siamese pretties. This mothering bastard has them locked up in his office. We can’t leave them.”
“The hell with them. There’s no time.”
“Won’t take a minute.”
“I don’t even know where his office is.”
“I do,” she said. “I damn well should. His men dragged me to it once a day, regular as a clock.” She glared at the commander. “You little bastard,” she said to him. To me she said, “Once a day he had me brought to him. He has this mattress on the floor. He’s full of class, this boy. Can’t even afford a couch. Put me on the mattress, put himself on me, and wham and bam and not even a thank you, ma’am.” She hauled off and slapped him in the face, and his head bounced back.
“There’s no time, Tuppence. Don’t waste it talking.”
“Come on, then.”
I didn’t care about the jewels. I didn’t care about anything. I just wanted to get the hell out of there before I pitched over on my face. But it was easier to go along with her than to argue about it. She led the way through a maze of corridors to another locked door. There was a pane of frosted glass in the door. It was the only door I had seen like that, evidently a special luxury, a great status symbol. I knocked out the glass with the butt of my pistol and reached through to un-bolt the door.
There was a straw mattress on the floor, as Tuppence had said. She hurried past it without looking at it and tugged at a drawer of the desk. It wouldn’t open.
The commander was making unhappy noises – he really didn’t want us to get those jewels. Somehow this encouraged me. Anything that bothered him made me happy. I let Dhang cover him and went around the desk. I shot the lock off – guns have a multitude of uses – and Tuppence yanked open the drawer and hauled out two leather sacks.
“Wait till you get a look at these, Bwana. Your eyes shall roll in disbelief.”
“Like a king’s ransom.”
“Or the ransom of a Senegalese princess.”
“Later. Let’s move.”
We moved. Tuppence took one sack of jewels, and Dhang carried the other. I twisted the commandant’s arm behind his back in a hammerlock and propelled him in front of me, the muzzle of the pistol against the side of his neck. The fight had gone out of him now. With his men locked up, his prisoners liberated, and his jewels gone from his desk, he had lost all will to resist.
We located the back door. I hesitated in front of it, certain that we would open it to find ourselves surrounded by soldiers. There couldn’t be too many of them, I decided. It seemed unlikely that too many men would be garrisoned at Tao Dan, and with several dead and a dozen locked inside Dhang’s cell and more fighting the fires that the old man had started, I didn’t expect too much of a welcoming committee. Dhang thrust the door open, and we went through it.
There was no one there. The noise from the other side of the building was deafening – shouts, screams, the staccato snapping of small arms fire. From the street we could see flames leaping everywhere. The fire was spreading throughout Tao Dan.
I tried to remember the old man’s map. Off to the right, then to the left on the long street that ran to the river. Which was right and which was left? My head was mixing things up. I started in the wrong direction, then caught myself and turned around.
“Do we have to take this pig with us, Yevan?”
Dhang gestured at the commandant with his pistol.
“He will slow us down.”
“He could be a valuable hostage. If we run into an armed patrol, his presence might save us.”
“Make him move faster.”
We hurried onward. The race to the river bank remains a blur in my mind. The fever seemed to be getting worse instead of better. Colors were unusually bright. My body took one path and my mind another, and I seemed to be racing along without paying any real attention to what I was doing. My head was overflowing with unexplained questions. Why had Tuppence and the quartet been kidnapped? Why were the men killed? Why was Tuppence kept alive? How did the jewels enter into it all? Who had stolen them, and for what purpose?
Somehow we found the right street and followed it to the river. I remember the whole thing very imperfectly, and the memory is mostly sensory – the heat of the road beneath my feet, burning through the thin soles of the sandals, the sun hot overhead, the furious pounding of my heart. There was no one behind us, but I was fairly certain that pursuit would come before very long, and so we ran, out of the village and past the stray huts on its outskirts, and onward to the bank of the river.
It was a broad river, the waters dark and muddy, the current swift, forming little whirlpools here and there. The bank was dense with undergrowth, reeds and bulrushes and sprawling vines and shrubs. We made our way along the river’s edge and found the boat just where the old man had said it was. I would never have found it if I had not been looking for it. It was completely concealed among the reeds.
We removed the camouflage. Off in the distance small fishing boats sailed upon the river. I studied our craft. It was not the rowboat I had suspected but was more along the lines of the dugout canoes of the American Indians. A very large tree had been cut down and split in half, and a section of trunk some twelve feet long had been hollowed out, evidently by fire, with the charred center of the tree carefully removed until only a shell remained.
Tuppence studied the boat thoughtfully. “We don’t need him any more,” she said, pointing to the commandant. “He’s a good old hostage, but we have no use for him now.”
“We could take him.”
“Really, Evan.” She was swinging with her English accent now. “There’s scarcely room for three of us, and we have the jewels as well. We needn’t waste space on a rapist and a murderer. He made me watch when he killed those four boys. He had their heads cut off. Rivers of blood.”
“He’s had a long life. I think it’s time it ended.”
I still had the dagger. I handed it to her. “Want to kill him yourself?” I asked. And she, of course, was supposed to do as the girls always do in the movies, clutching the dagger, studying it in horror, and then muttering something like Oh, let him live with himself, that will be punishment enough for him or Oh, no, I couldn’t, I couldn’t or No, it’s wrong, there must be an end to all of this wanton slaughter or If we kill him, then we are no better than he is or any of those lines.
But Tuppence hadn’t read the script. “I’d bloody well love to,” she said, and fastened her small black hand around the butt of the dagger and advanced on the cowering commandant. He shrank from her; he seemed as much dismayed at a woman’s being the instrument of his death as he did at dying in the first place. He let out a rather pathetic moan, and Tuppence sank the knife into his soft, round belly and ripped him wide open.
I threw up, but I think it was more the fever than the spectacle that caused it. The commandant made unpleasant noises for a time and then quietly died. Tuppence and Dhang helped me into the dugout. There was a single oar inside it, and we used it to push the boat free of the bank and out onto the waterway.
I sat in the stern, Dhang perched in the bow, and Tuppence was between us. Dhang had taken the oar and wanted to know in which direction we ought to proceed.
“Go with the current,” I said, pointing. “We’ll go that way whether we want to or not, so we might as well paddle in that direction.”
Tuppence wanted to know what we were saying, so I translated for her. Then Dhang asked what I was saying to the girl. I could see a potentially horrible situation developing, with myself in the middle of it. I told Tuppence in English that Dhang did not speak English and that I would relay to her whatever was important of my discussions with him but that we would all go crazy if I translated everything. Then I told Dhang approximately the same thing in Siamese, and then I leaned back in the dugout and watched birds diving for fish in the river and thought that perhaps Esperanto wasn’t such a terrible idea after all.
I took a fresh piece of betel for myself and offered one to Dhang, but he said his slice had not yet lost its flavor. I popped the betel into my mouth. Tuppence wanted to know what the hell it was, and I told her.
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