Until two days later The Times ran a story on page five that stated that the Royal Gem Collection of Thailand had been stolen in its entirety, that the thief or thieves had made good their escape, that it may or may not have been an inside job, and that preliminary estimates placed the value of the gems in excess of a quarter of a million dollars.
And a day after that, while I was still recovering from that one, Tuppence and the quartet made the front page of The Times. Thai Communists Kidnap American Jazz Quartet, Kenyan Singer, said the headline, and the body copy went on to elaborate. The Kendall Bayard Quartet and Miss T’pani Ngawa, in Bangkok for a command performance before His Majesty the King of Thailand, had been snatched from their accommodations at the Hotel Orient. The kidnapping appeared to be the work of Communist guerrillas based in Northern Thailand, and it was suspected that the five kidnap victims had been spirited away to the north.
The Times made no connection between the disappearance of Tuppence and the quartet and the theft of the royal gem collection.
But I did.
“This is for plague,” the doctor said. “Wouldn’t care to get that, would you, now? Little red blotches, black boils under your arms, altogether most unpleasant. Never had a case of plague myself. Think everyone ought to get inoculated against it, whether traveling or not. Suppose the enemy used germ warfare, eh? Wouldn’t be enough serum to go around. But an ounce of prevention…”
He stuck an ounce of prevention into my left arm. It hurt but seemed a healthy alternative to bubonic plague. He extracted the needle and dabbed at me with a cotton swab.
“Now the other arm. That’s right, good. Rather give you the shots a week apart so as to leave you with one workable arm, but time is of the essence, isn’t that what they say? This one’s for cholera, and it’s rather a massive inoculation, isn’t it? Now, all that serum has to go into your arm. Size of the needle worries a good many people. It doesn’t bother you, now, does it?”
“Uh,” I said.
“Nasty business, cholera. Dreary thing. With a decent public health program, every man, woman, and child in America would be inoculated against it. Imagine what a little flask of cholera bacilli in a reservoir would do. Eh? Thousands of people burning up with fever, dying like flies in the city streets. Makes you think, doesn’t it?”
He emptied the syringe into my right arm. It was worse than the plague shot. After he removed the needle and swabbed the puncture, I concentrated very hard and managed to wiggle my fingers. I felt very proud of myself.
“Let’s see, now,” he said. “How long since your last rabies shot?”
“Rabies. Hydrophobia. Hellish proposition, that. Get yourself bitten by a dog, and you have to take the Pasteur series. Dreadfully painful. Some fourteen injections into the stomach, and if you happen to be allergic to the Pasteur shots, why, they kill you. And if you wait for symptoms of rabies to develop, by the time they appear, then death is inevitable. And one simple injection every two or three years provides complete immunity.”
“Somehow I don’t think-”
“One shot does the trick. Of course no one expects to get bitten by a dog. Doesn’t have to be a dog. Squirrels, foxes, raccoons – anything. Rabies is endemic in skunks, for example. Bet you never knew that.”
“Don’t even have to get bitten. Take a walk through a bat-infested cave and you can pick up the disease from bat droppings. Just breathe it in, never even know you’re exposed until it’s too late. Grisly.”
“I don’t have an arm left.”
“Don’t give the shot in the arm. Base of the brain, same as with a dog. Good protection.”
“I don’t think-”
“Every dog gets it, and they don’t complain. Only take a minute.”
I managed to get out of there without his sticking a needle into my head. Both arms ached, and his conversation had very nearly turned my stomach. I walked quickly home. I passed half a dozen dogs en route, ranging in size from a miniature poodle who yipped nervously to a Doberman who maintained a watchful silence. I gave them all a wide berth and didn’t get bitten once.
Basic arrangements were simple enough. My greatest problem was Minna, who of course wanted to come along. Tuppence was her friend, she insisted. She liked Tuppence and wanted to help her. Besides, I might get into trouble without her assistance. I would never be able to visit the Bangkok children’s zoo.
Once she realized that nothing would persuade me to take her, she decided she could manage in the apartment by herself. She had friends in the building, she assured me, and her presence would facilitate such matters as the proper reception of mail and phone messages. I packed a suitcase for her and bundled her onto the subway, and we rode to Brooklyn, where a girl named Kitty Bazerian lives with her mother and grandmother. Kitty bellydances in Chelsea nightclubs as Alexandra the Great, and had already met and liked Minna. She was generally at home during the daytime, she told me, and her mother, a waitress, was home nights, and her grandmother, confined to a wheelchair, was home all the time.
Minna endured the subway ride stoically, walked through the streets of Brooklyn with the contempt of a native-born Manhattanite, and then became quite enchanted with the notion of spending a few weeks with Kitty and her family. The grandmother would teach her Armenian, she announced, and the mother would teach her to make Armenian coffee, and Kitty would teach her to dance.
“You’re kind of skinny for it,” Kitty said. “But we’ll see.”
I went to the Thai consulate to have my passport stamped with a visa. I went to Air India and booked a flight to Bangkok with interim stops at San Francisco, Honolulu, and Tokyo. At Deak and Company on Times Square I turned some American money into Siamese bahts. The baht was holding firm at 4.78 U.S. cents, the clerk told me. On West 45th Street I visited a rare coin dealer and bought a couple hundred dollars’ worth of common gold coins, mostly British sovereigns. The baht is a relatively stable currency, and the American dollar is highly desirable, but gold is good anywhere, at any time. And Bangkok is a center for the illicit trade in precious metals. Gold or silver may be exchanged there for anything – teen-age concubines, opium, guns, anything.
At my apartment I tucked the cash into a flat nylon money belt and fastened it around my waist beneath my clothing. The gold pieces, twenty-two of them, fit into the casing of a flashlight battery with just a little room left. I added cotton to fill and put the battery back in the flashlight. I was packing the flashlight and a variety of other things in a pair of suitcases when the phone rang.
I answered it, and a girl with a French or Belgian accent wanted to know if I was the Blue Star Hand Laundry. I said I wasn’t, and the girl said she simply had to get in touch with the Blue Star Hand Laundry, and hung up.
At the beginning, when the Chief first started using me for unusual assignments, I often failed to get the point of odd calls like that. My natural impulse, when some clown gets a wrong number, is to hang up, sometimes with a friendly word, sometimes with a curse. The Chief – I don’t know his name or exactly what he does, but he seems to think I work for him, and now and then I do – the Chief, at any rate, is indefatigable. He knows that the CIA taps my phone and the FBI reads my mail (or else it’s the other way around), so he sends me cryptic messages that may or may not fool the CIA and the FBI but that almost always fool me. Once an operative of his had to hand me a gum wrapper twice before I finally read the little message on it instead of flipping it into a litter basket.
This time, though, I understood immediately. I picked up the Manhattan yellow pages and looked up laundries and found a listing for the Blue Star Hand Laundry at 666 Fifth Avenue. Since it seemed unlikely that some mad Chinaman would open a laundry, hand or otherwise, in the Tishman Building, I guessed that the Blue Star was a telephone front for the Chief’s organization, whatever it might be.
So I closed the yellow pages and went on packing. There was no point in answering him. He would probably want to send me sneaking off to Poland or Hungary on some unpleasant task, and I couldn’t because I had to go to Siam. I didn’t want to try telling him why I had to go to Siam. I didn’t want to tell him anything at all. I wanted to wait for the fifty-six hours before I could board my Air India flight and then, as unobtrusively as possible, I wanted to fly to Bangkok.
I finished packing. The phone rang again, and it was the same woman, but this time she had an Italian accent. Sometimes the Chief has all the subtlety of a pneumatic hammer. I said, “No, damn it, you have the wrong number,” and added a string of curses in Italian, which I rather hoped she understood. I banged the phone down and when it rang again twenty minutes later, I let it ring. I stayed in the apartment for four hours, and the silly phone went on ringing intermittently. I found that it took a startling amount of will-power to ignore a ringing telephone. This should not be so; the simple fact that some dolt possesses one’s phone number and a dime should not compel one to answer the thing. But we are all of us brothers of Pavlov’s dogs, quick to respond to that bell, with feet and hands if not with saliva; held captive, too, by the idiot notion that the call might be Something Important. After four hours I couldn’t stand it any more. I left the apartment and went out for a walk.
Some nut followed me.
I may have been followed before, but this was the first time I ever realized it. When I left the building, there was a short, dumpy, middle-aged fellow on the other side of the street. He was watching some of the neighborhood kids play stickball. I walked uptown on Broadway and stopped for coffee at a Nedick’s and I saw him again, studying ties in a store window. I didn’t really pay much attention to him. I doubled back to the apartment to pick up a book I’d been reading on nationalism in the Far East, and when I came out, there he was back at his first post, watching the stickball game. When I saw him for the third time, I decided that it was an odd coincidence and I kept an eye out for him from then on. He wasn’t very good; after that, every time I turned around, there he was.
I wondered to whom he belonged. If he was from the CIA or something like that, I could let him follow me forever, and it wouldn’t much matter. If he was one of the Chief’s men, and this seemed more likely, then sooner or later he would make contact. That was the last thing I wanted. I could always lose him, I thought, but I would have to do so in innocent and casual fashion or the Chief would wonder why I was ducking him.
I used the subway, slipping through the door at 59th Street at the last moment, as if I had almost forgotten my stop. It was a nice try, but my man had been standing near another door and just made it out in time. I went upstairs and jumped in a cab, and he caught another cab and stayed right behind me. That there should be two empty cabs on hand at that hour struck me as a piece of particularly bad luck. I let my cabby take me down to the Village. The other cab followed close behind.
In a coffeehouse on Macdougal Street, nearly empty in the late afternoon, I scribbled furiously on a paper napkin. He came in right on my heels, caught my eye, winked. He had to be one of the Chief’s men, I decided, and he was ready to make contact.