He took a table near mine. I stood up, walked past his table, dropped the napkin in front of him, and kept going to the lavatory. The writing on the napkin said, There’s someone following both of us. I’m going to skip – cover me.
I glanced back at him. He winked at me again, crumpled the paper napkin, and turned a wary eye on the doorway. He would stay there like a faithful guard dog until I dropped his leash.
Now, I thought, it would be simple. I had invented a fairly plausible reason for my own departure; I wasn’t ducking out on him but on someone else. I locked myself in the john. The window opened out on an alleyway that cut across to Minetta Lane. All I had to do was climb through it.
I spent five minutes struggling with that window. I don’t think it had ever been opened since they built the building. They certainly hadn’t done so when they painted the last time, or since then, because the damned thing had been painted shut. When someone began knocking impatiently on the john door, I gave up and went back to my table. My shadow was where I had left him. He said in a whisper, “The Chief-”
“No time,” I said. “C’mon, cover me.”
I left, and he walked beside me. We headed south toward Bleecker. He looked around, then spoke to me out of the corner of his mouth. He said, “Who’s on our tail?”
There were two boys in field jackets a few paces behind us. Near them was a long-haired girl carrying a guitar. Behind her a young executive type with attaché case.
“The one with the briefcase,” I said.
“I didn’t notice him before.”
“Surprising. He was on me while you were watching the kids playing stickball.”
“Never even spotted him,” he whispered. “You go ahead, Tanner. I’ll take him out.”
I kept walking. My erstwhile tail slipped into the shadows of a doorway, let the two beat types and the guitarist pass him, then moved out just in time to get a foot in front of the young executive, who promptly dropped the attaché case and sprawled on top of it.
“Clumsy bastard,” said my tail. The executive apologized, and my man roared, “Watch what you say about my mother, fella!” and hit him in the side of the jaw, and I ducked around the corner on Bleecker and caught another taxi.
I spent the rest of my waiting time with Ramon and Felicidad Abrillo. Ramon is an old-line syndicalist who left Spain after the Civil War and who occasionally boarded Spanish anarchists and Trotskyists who were in the States illegally. He let me spend the next two days in his apartment and he sent his nephew Felipe to fetch my bags from my place. I ate paella with eels, read books in Spanish and English, listened to recorded flamenco music, and remained pleasantly incommunicado.
My flight was scheduled to leave Kennedy Airport at 11:35 Thursday night. I took a taxi to the airport and checked my bags at the Air India flight desk. On my way to the passengers’ lounge a fat man with a wide striped tie collided with me. I said, “Sorry,” and he said, “Go to the men’s room, Tanner.”
I looked at my watch. My flight would be boarding in twenty minutes. I could brazen it out, go to the lounge and try to get to my plane before they bothered me any more. Or would the Chief have the plane stopped? It was possible. Anything was possible.
But I really didn’t want to talk to him. I headed on toward the flight lounge and as I approached the desk I reached into my breast pocket for my ticket, and it wasn’t there.
So I went to the men’s room. The Chief was there, washing his pudgy hands at the sink. As usual he was wearing an expensively tailored suit that did not fit well on his plump frame. He smiled broadly at me, then began drying his hands with one of those machines that blows hot, moist air at one.
“We’re quite alone,” he said. “We may talk.”
“Anyone could walk in-”
“Not at all. One of the lads will hang an out-of-order sign on the door. There’s your ticket, by the way.”
He nodded at it, and I went over and collected it from the shelf over the sink.
He said, “You led us a chase, Tanner. Bangkok, eh? What’s in Bangkok?”
“It’s just a personal trip.”
He chuckled. “Oh, come, now, Tanner,” he said. “I know you better than that. Why didn’t you make contact?”
“I was being followed. I didn’t want to risk it.”
“You could have given us a call, you know.” He was still drying his hands. Those machines never work particularly well and occasionally don’t work at all, but the places that provide them often don’t have towels, so one has no choice. He kept rubbing his hands together in the air spray. Finally he gave up and wiped them on his pants.
“All I wanted to know,” he said peevishly, “is why you’re going to Bangkok. It’s not as though I had some other place to send you. Things are rather quiet at the moment, as a matter of fact. But when one of my boys heads for Southeast Asia, I do like to know about it.”
“I like to encourage individual initiative, Tanner. You know that. My men don’t type up reports, they don’t have to clear it with me before they clean their fingernails. Nothing of the sort. I never tell a man how to do something. I rarely ask how it was done.”
“But Bangkok is a forbidding place, you know. And, while my men are on their own, sometimes it’s possible for one to give another a hand. Why are you going to Thailand?”
“I have a few contacts there.”
“I’m not surprised. You appear to have contacts everywhere. Go on.”
“You know, of course, that Bangkok is a center of the narcotics trade. Raw opium from Red China is processed there into morphine and heroin. I understand that something like forty percent of the illicit heroin supply passes through Thailand.”
“I didn’t realize it was that much.”
Neither did I, but it seemed like a good working figure. “Some people I know, friends, actually, have been exploring the possibilities of launching a large-scale opium operation in one of the new African states.”
“The whole operation. Growing it and processing it.” I glanced at him, and he seemed very interested. I was encouraged. “They need connections with purchasers, of course, and they need details on processing and distribution, all of that. Of course the opium trade is very important economically to Peking. If the Chinese growers suddenly found themselves operating in a competitive market-”
“Interesting,” he said.
“I don’t suppose much will really come of it.” Nothing, I thought, could possibly come of it. “But it seemed worth the trip. As I said, I know a few people in Bangkok. I can get a certain amount of access to some peripheral figures in the opium market. But I don’t want anyone to know the purpose of the trip.”
“Of course not. You’ll have a good many hostile forces to contend with, won’t you? The Chinese, the Thai refiners, just about everyone connected with the Bangkok operation.” He thought for a moment. “Well, you’ll need a cover. Bangkok swarms with agents these days. Half the town spies for the CIA and the other half spies on it. Let me see now. The Agency will have to know about you-”
“No, no, they’ll be onto you at once anyway. Best if they have advance information. We’ll leak it to them that you’re connected with a pilot study of guerrilla activity in Thailand. How does that sound? We’re thinking of increasing the U.S. military commitment to Thailand, and you’re being sent there to determine how acute the situation is. They’ve been doing the same thing, of course, and they’ll think you’re being sent to determine the accuracy of their reports. They’ll never guess your major interest is opium.” He lit a cigarette. “Of course this is just the sort of operation the Agency would like to take over for its very own, and you could imagine what they would do with it. If it ever got out that agents of the U.S. Government were helping to establish a narcotics industry in Africa, it would be hell, and the Agency can’t seem to do anything without splashing it all across the world press. I can see why you’ve emphasized secrecy. Which new African state, by the way?”
“I’m not certain.”
“You don’t even want to tell me, eh?” He chuckled. “Probably not a bad idea. You’d better go now, they’ll be calling your flight any moment. Incidentally, you got our man in a bit of a jam. That fellow he tackled wasn’t following you at all.”
“Oh? I could have sworn-”
“And his attaché case spilled open in the ruckus, and it turned out that it was filled with obscene photographs. The police arrested the fellow, and our lad has to be a witness at the trial. He’d been planning a little trip south of the border, and now this. Just an inconvenience, but it shows the way things can go awry for the oddest reasons.” He checked his watch. “Better get on that plane,” he said. “I’ll just duck in here for a moment.” And he locked himself into one of the toilet stalls so that no one would see him when I opened the door.
I boarded my plane with a few minutes to spare. A doe-eyed stewardess with a half-moon on her forehead bowed me to my seat. The takeoff was reassuringly uneventful. I leaned back in my seat and thought about the cover story I had invented for the Chief and the cover story he in turn had devised for the CIA. Opium and guerrillas. Mine seemed even less plausible than his, but it was close.
But consider reality – I was rushing in, a little higher than the fools, a little lower than the angels, to liberate Siamese jewels and a Kenyan jazz singer. I wasn’t at all certain that the jewels and the jazz singer were together or where either of them might be found. Nor did I know just what I would do with the jewels when I found them. I had a fair idea what I’d do with Tuppence.
The passengers on either side of me fell asleep. I didn’t, and envied them. The plane flew with monotonous efficiency. I thought of all the things that might go wrong, and the more I thought, the more things occurred to me. Before very long I had managed to convince myself that I’d been an absolute fool to pass up the rabies shot. There would be endless bat-infested caves in Thailand, I was certain. And dogs and raccoons and squirrels and skunks. I would get bitten by a rabid skunk. Alone in Thailand, stranded, no jewels, no Tuppence, no Pasteur shots, and cornered by a rabid skunk-
I was alone in Thailand, stranded, no jewels, no Tuppence, and cornered by a rabid skunk from the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States of America.
His name was Barclay Houghton Hewlitt, and his mother must have given him three last names with clairvoyant assurance that no one would ever want to call him by a first name. He told me to call him Barclay. I didn’t want to call him anything and I wished someone would call him off.
He met my plane in Bangkok, the idiot. We landed in midmorning, Thai time. I had been too long in the air and had seen the insides of too many airports to know what time it might be in New York or just how much of my life I had devoted to the process of getting from hither to yon. Somewhere along the way we had crossed the International Date Line, a concept I understand hazily in the abstract and not at all in the concrete, so it was possible, I suppose, that I had arrived in Bangkok before I left New York, and that if I continued around the world fast enough, I could get back to New York in time to meet the Chief again in the washroom. I didn’t really want to think about this and I didn’t have to, because Barclay Houghton Hewlitt picked me up as I came down the ramp. He spoke my last name, and smiled, and spoke all three of his own names, followed by his organization’s three initials, and told me to call him by his first name, and thrust out his hand, which I shook. A reflex, like answering telephones.
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