“You’ll want to stay at the Orient, of course. I’ve booked a room for you, took the liberty. Private bath, tub and shower, fully air-conditioned, quite nicely furnished. Tenth floor, so you’ll have a splendid view. Give you some perspective on the situation here, ha ha.”
He was small and pink. He would have looked quite pink anywhere and in Bangkok he glowed like a sore thumb. He told me that one of the boys would see to my bags, ha ha, and I said that I would just as soon see to my own bags, ha ha.
“Oh, ho, ho, I guess you would. Top secret and all that, eh? You haff zee documents, ha ha?”
They unloaded the airplane, and I collected my baggage and followed it through Customs. A narrow, bespectacled Thai asked me to open my bags, and Barclay Houghton Hewlitt began waving cards at him, dropping winks at him, and urging him to let me through directly.
The Customs man said he would have to clear this with a superior. People were beginning to pay far too much attention to us. Already, as a result of Barclay Houghton Hewlitt’s greeting, at least half the population of Bangkok knew who I was and what I was supposed to be doing there. Now the fool would only succeed in assuring them that I had something classified in my baggage, with the result that my room would be searched and something, no doubt, stolen.
I opened the suitcases. The Thai, perhaps to save face, went through everything. There was not much beyond clothing and toilet articles. He picked up the flashlight and hefted it.
“Damned silly,” Hewlitt said. “We could have avoided all this, Tanner. Hardly a royal welcome for you, ha ha.”
The Thai unscrewed the back of the flashlight and poured the batteries into his hand. One dropped and bounced on the floor. I closed my eyes briefly. When I opened them, the Thai had recovered the battery from the floor and was replacing it and its fellow in the flashlight. He replaced the cap and flicked the switch. Predictably, nothing happened.
“Must have put the damned things in backwards,” Hewlitt said. “You fouled up the man’s flashlight, son. If you’re bent on wasting everyone’s time, why not waste some of your own and repair the damage? I’m sure it functioned properly before you-”
Barclay Houghton Hewlitt. We got the suitcases repacked and left the Customs shed without further incident. The taxi Hewlitt had waiting was no longer waiting. We got another one, eventually, and proceeded directly to the Hotel Orient. The streets in the central part of the city were crowded, more with bicycles and pedestrians than with cars, and our taxi moved slowly and tentatively through the maze.
I had never been to the Far East before. I could speak and understand the language, but I had never before heard it as a city’s background music, humming around me as verbal white noise. Every city has its own music and its own smells, and I would have to get the feel of this one if I was to accomplish anything in it. I rolled down my window and looked and listened, and BHH of CIA did what he could to spoil it by supplying a running commentary “Just to help you get your bearings locally – ha ha.”
The Hotel Orient was steel and glass on the outside, nylon and plastic within. The entire staff and most of the guests spoke English. My room had a thick carpet, a huge bed, and an air-conditioning unit that had rendered it uncomfortably cold. I turned it off and opened the window, and Hewlitt looked at me as though I had left my mind somewhere over the Pacific Ocean.
While I unpacked my suitcases and put things away Hewlitt babbled. He was personally so pleased I had come. The situation in Thailand was crucial, no doubt about it. A good government, a good solid government, but one had to keep on one’s toes, ha ha. Of course the Agency kept close tabs on everything. The Agency liked to maintain a position of dominance in Thailand. This was Marlboro country, ha ha. Good, though, that I was coming around to dig up data and present an impartial report. And of course they would be glad to ease the way for me, make sure I saw the right people and had easy access to the right data. The correct data, that was to say, ha ha. There would be a car and a driver at my disposal, needless to say, and if I wanted appointments with any officials in the Thai government, why, I need only ask, and in fact they had taken the liberty of arranging a luncheon with…
I suddenly saw how I had been cast. I was the Junketing Congressman, out to have a Good Time and get the Big Picture, and to be Handled with Kid Gloves, and Supervised to Death. The cover that had been provided for me was grand protection; it fit me like a noose. I had been ostensibly dispatched to study a CIA operation and return with conclusions that would either confirm or conflict with their own, and the chances of their leaving me alone were about as good as the chance of Barclay Houghton Hewlitt ending a sentence without a nervous little laugh.
I had to get the clown off my back.
“I’ve spent too much time on planes,” I told him, cutting in between one ha and another, “I need a shower and a shave and a good ten hours of sleep. Leave a number where I can reach you.”
I had evidently hit the right tone. He scampered. That was just what he did. He left his card and he started to say something but stopped, and then he scampered.
I had the shower and the shave, but instead of the ten hours of sleep I’d mentioned to Hewlitt, I stretched out on the bed and watched the ceiling for twenty minutes. I needed a place to start, and Abel Vaudois seemed promising. He was a Swiss who divided his time between Bangkok and Macao, buying and selling almost anything. We had corresponded a few years earlier when I had written him on behalf of the Latvian Army-in-Exile to inquire into the possibility of running guns into the Baltic States. Vaudois had been very cooperative, and seemed delighted to know of the existence of the Latvian Army-in-Exile, an organization hitherto unknown to him. Since then we had exchanged perhaps half a dozen letters, and although I had serious doubts that we would ever launch a revolution in Latvia, I felt I could call on him for information. If anything valuable was stolen anywhere in the Orient, there was a fair chance that he would know something about it.
I put on clean clothes and rode the elevator downstairs to the lobby. Hewlitt was sitting on a lounge chair with the Far East edition of Time on his lap. I got back into the elevator and went back to my room.
This, I thought, would never do. I called room service and asked for a bellhop, and a slim-hipped boy appeared shortly thereafter at my door. “A special favor,” I said, and passed him some Siamese notes. He made them disappear. His smile was eloquent.
“Gill?” he said hopefully. “Yun gill?”
“Just a favor.” In Siamese I explained that there was a gentleman in the lobby whom I rather wished to avoid. Was there, perhaps, a service entrance through which I might leave the hotel?
There was, he told me. He would have to go to another room to pick up a breakfast tray but if he might return in a moment, he would be pleased to lead me to the service entrance.
He was back a few moments later. I followed him down the corridor to the freight elevator and rode downstairs along with a stack of folding chairs. The elevator wheezed and creaked. We went straight on down to the basement and made our way through a maze of packing cases and garbage cans into the underground parking area. At the foot of the ramp I handed my guide a few more bahts. His smile widened. I left him and climbed the ramp and stepped out into the sunlight.
I turned left, walked half a block, and heard a familiar voice at my elbow. “I say there, Tanner. Couldn’t sleep after all, eh? Luck running into you like this, ha ha. Ready for lunch? Fine little place just around the corner, nothing fancy, ha ha, but they serve a fine businessman’s lunch.”
My lunch consisted of a glass of unidentifiable fruit juice, a plate of excellent spiced beef and rice, a root vegetable that tasted a little like parsnips, and a dreary dish of caramel custard. My tea was jasmine-scented and very strong. I would have enjoyed the meal a good deal more if I had been alone. But Barclay Houghton Hewlitt, ha ha, was a constant reminder of the bellhop’s perfidy. He was a perfect gentleman, never mentioning the fact that I had tried to dodge him. And he picked up the tab, which seemed no more than fair – I had spent more than the cost of the lunch on the treacherous bellhop.
I wondered if the boy had been merely enterprising or whether he was a regular employee of the CIA. After lunch, wandering through the narrow streets of Bangkok with Hewlitt, I began to get the feeling that half the town consisted of more or less regular employees of the Agency. Hewlitt went on pointing out drops and meeting places and fronts – a travel agency, a tobbo shop, a cocktail lounge, a restaurant – all, he assured me, fully staffed by competent Agency personnel. I’m not certain whether he was trying to reassure me of his outfit’s competence in Thailand or to warn me of the impossibility of slipping my leash. Perhaps a little of both, ha ha.
What really bothered me, though, was the great quantity of people who were watching us. An unusual number of natives and Westerners were taking a surreptitious interest in Barclay Houghton Hewlitt and me. We were followed, studied, glanced at, appraised, and, I’m sure, photographed time and time again. It seemed highly unlikely that all of the watchbirds could be CIA people. There would be agents of other powers as well – French and British and Russian and what BHH called Chicoms. And, given the sort of city Bangkok had become, there would be no end of free-lance operatives and double agents and triple agents ad infinitum.
In the middle of the afternoon I developed a convenient headache and had to return to the hotel. Hewlitt, who would have made a dandy shepherd, escorted me to the Orient in a taxi. I called down for a bottle of Scotch and some ice. The same bellhop brought my order, and he and I both pretended we had never met before. I tipped him not at all.
If he had been my size, I would have taken the Scotch bottle and clouted him over the head. I wouldn’t have done this purely out of animosity, nor was it some gentlemanly restraint on my part that let his size protect him. But I could have used bellhop’s livery in my size. If they were going to keep a batch of men on me, some sort of disguise would help. A uniform provides the best sort of anonymity, but I would have had to lose many pounds and shrink many inches to fit into his.
I sat around the room drinking until it was time for dinner. The hotel restaurant had a French chef who did a creditable job with coq au via. I thought of going backstage to compliment him in person, buying his white coat and hat, and slipping out through the staff entrance. Instead I went back to my room and put in a little more time with the whiskey bottle.
Around nine thirty I left the hotel. Barclay Houghton Hewlitt had departed, but there were at least two men on me, perhaps more. I wandered aimlessly around the downtown district, and a stiff-spined American and a slouching Thai both kept me under rather close observation. I was not sure whose side they were on. The question seemed academic. The night air was warm and damp, the sky clear. The keyed-up atmosphere of daytime Bangkok had yielded place to a gently throbbing aura of sweet decadence. The air did not actually smell of incense, but one felt that it ought to. Innocent doorways managed to convey the impression that opium dens lay within. I walked farther south and passed bars filled with U.S. military personnel. American jazz blared forth from American jukeboxes.