“And then a couple of years ago the Retriever did something rather extraordinary. The trouble with Modonoland, as with most of these damned countries, is that most of it is just wasted. Just space with jungles and lions and tigers and what-not. And when they try doing something about it, why they only plant some crop that someone else grows better and cheaper, and get touchy if the U.S. doesn’t buy it from them. Ndoro, now, struck off on a new path. You wouldn’t guess what he grew.”
“Opium,” I said heavily.
“Opium,” he said lightly. He didn’t seem to have heard me. “Opium. Planted half of Modonoland with opium, giving himself a big cash crop and cutting the underpinnings from the Red Chinese opium trade in the bargain. A first-class development, you know. We couldn’t have been happier.”
I studied the floor. Stains made a pattern on the carpet, and I wondered if they could be augured, like birds’ entrails.
“And then not too long ago there was an uprising,” he went on. “It was a long while in the wind, and for a time it looked as though some sort of lefties were going to move in. Group called the Movement for Moderation in Modonoland. Batch of political amateurs, but well-financed. Moscow gold, I suspect. Or Peking, more likely.
“They had Ndoro’s government shaking like a leaf, and we were all a bit worried. Unknowns are a danger, you know. Better to stay with the old status quo. At the same time, we determined that Ndoro had to fall. There are times, you know, when it’s strategically unwise to try propping up an unpopular regime. Can’t always be done.”
I murmured something about Saigon. His eyes met mine for an instant, then withdrew.
“But we did have a bit of luck, Tanner. We thought about reinforcing Ndoro, and we rejected that, and then we found out that there were some white men who thought they ought to have a crack at running Modonoland on their own hook. Old line colonialists out of the same mold as the Rhodesians. Oh, I suppose you might call them reactionaries or white supremacists or something of the sort-”
“Or fascists,” I suggested.
“-but there’s no denying that they weren’t the sort to rock the old boat. Kept the opium trade flourishing, for one thing – and the MMM fanatics had intended to put a stop to it. And kept things more or less on an even keel foreign policywise. There’s some trouble with England, some question about the Commonwealth status, but all in all they’re the sort of people we can support. We may not boast about them, but we’re glad to see them around.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Now here’s where it gets a little sticky, Tanner. On the one hand, we gave these white supremacist fellows a little support. Our Boy Scout chums were in on that, and kept it a sight quieter than their usual sort of thing.” He grinned nastily. “They’ve been a little less boisterous since the Bay of Pigs, haven’t they? As I say, they handled that end. But at the same time, we had to do something for this Retriever fellow, this Knanda Ndoro. So I sent a man in to let Ndoro know as much of the score as we wanted to tell him, and to help him get out with his skin intact when the time came. I had a feeling Ndoro wasn’t too keen on white men, what with all the white men trying to chuck him out, so I sent my best black agent.”
“And that was Sam Bowman?”
“Samuel Lonestar Bowman,” he said. “A former burglar, heroin addict, and strong-arm man. Became a Black Muslim in jail. Broke with Elijah Muhammad about the same time Malcolm X did. Organized for the Black Panthers on the West Coast. Shot a policeman in a gun battle, possibly in self-defense, possibly not. Decided to get out of the country. Went to a friend of his, who happened to be a lad of mine. We got him out and added him to the payroll, and he’s been damned good ever since. He went into Modonoland to help Ndoro pack up the royal treasury and get out. Got to him in the nick of time, and the two of them left the back door of the palace while a white mob kicked in the front door. It was about that close, according to the reports I’ve seen.
“Then the two of them headed inland. Two men with a fortune in jewels and hard currencies. They disappeared into the bloody jungle, and they haven’t come out of it yet, and it does not look good, Tanner. Not good at all.”
“There’s been no word?”
“No direct word. Rumors, though.”
He hesitated. “A group of bandits, guerrillas, what have you. Operating deep in the Modonoland interior. One never knows what’s to be believed, but they seem to be a band of black religious fanatics led by a… this is slightly fantastic, Tanner.”
“Led by a blond-haired white-skinned jungle goddess of some sort.”
“Is that so,” I said.
“Sheena, Queen of the Jungle,” I said.
“You’ve heard of her?”
“It’s nothing. I’m sorry.”
“Er,” he said. “Well, rumors would suggest that this Sheena person has captured Ndoro and Bowman. And while of course she may have had them killed, she doesn’t seem to kill blacks, not as a general rule. So there’s a chance that they’re alive, and that they could be gotten to and brought out alive, and-”
“And I’m elected.”
“I hate to risk you on something this speculative, Evan.” He rarely called me Evan. Only when he was feeling very paternal or when he was conning me. “But this would be a good one to pull off. The situation in Modonoland is troubled. We may yet find a political use for the Retriever. And as for Bowman, well, he’s been a tremendous asset to us. Actually, to get down to cases, he’s our best black operative. In fact-”
“Well, he’s our only black operative.”
“Not because of policy. It’s just happened that way. I had been wanting to take on some Negroes for ages. It was still all right to call them Negroes then. In fact when I first wanted to hire one, they preferred to be called colored. I wonder what the word will be after black? I shouldn’t be surprised if things come full circle, don’t you know, and they insist upon calling themselves niggers.” He replenished his scotch, and mine as well. “Hmm,” he said. “Point is, we don’t run recruiting ads, do we? So with one thing and another, well, we never did take one on. Until Sam Bowman came along, and he couldn’t have been better, you know, and now it looks as though I’ve lost him. There are times, Evan, when a black operative has a distinct advantage.”
“At night,” I suggested.
He didn’t appear to have heard me. “In the Modonoland affair, for example. And in other situations as well. God alone knows where I would get another one.” He sipped his drink. “So I’m asking you to go to an unholy haystack and search for a needle that very probably isn’t there. I’d prefer to paint you a rosier picture, but in all conscience – well. What do you say?”
And so I went to the post office and told them to hold my mail and went to Brooklyn and boarded Minna with Kitty and her grandmother and tied my money belt around my waist and put my passport in my pocket and went away. I caught a Sabena flight to Brussels and another Sabena flight to Leopoldville. I flew Central African Airways into Nairobi, where I knew some people. They arranged for the necessary papers, and I got a slot as a deck hand on a Portuguese freighter that got me to Griggstown in five days.
It would have been easier to fly directly to Griggstown. Almost directly, anyway, via either Capetown or Salisbury. But I felt it wouldn’t be a good idea to let the Modonoland officials see my name on an incoming passenger list.
Modonoland and I go back a ways.
The opium, for example. It was largely my fault that it was growing there. Once upon a time I’d been talking to Abel Vaudois, a Swiss who lives in Bangkok, and I guess I gave him the idea of growing opium in Africa, and he subsequently made the deal with Knanda Ndoro.
So I had felt responsible, and when Abel sent me a bank draft as payment for the idea, I gave a large portion of it to the MMM. And if it hadn’t been for the MMM there would have been no white supremacist coup, and if it hadn’t been for me I don’t suppose there would have been much of an MMM, so-
Well, one thing leads to another, doesn’t it? Modonoland bothered the hell out of me. I hated to read news stories from there. They all seemed personally accusing.
All of which did not quite add up to enough of a reason to pursue wild geese in that beleaguered nation. I might feel compelled to send them a check now and then, and write occasional propaganda for the cause, and give aid and comfort to any MMM comrades who came to New York. But to chase all the way over there in search of the Retriever and the black militant who had been sent to retrieve him, that was something else.
Something which would have ordinarily remained undone.
But Kitty wanted to get married, and Minna was growing up, and New York was not a winter festival, and he who turns and runs away lives to run another day. And when it is January in New York it is July in Modonoland. Or, more accurately, when it is January in New York it is also January in Modonoland, since they use the same calendar we do, but January in Modonoland is a far cry from January in New York, Modonoland being in the Southern Hemisphere and their summer occurring during our winter, all of which is childishly simple to understand and maturely difficult to explain.
So I went there.
So they buried me.
“Evan? Are you all right?”
“It certainly is.”
“Are you all right?”
“Because for a moment I was talking to you and you didn’t answer me.”
“I was thinking about something.”
“Oh. Are you all right?”
She was evidently going to keep on asking until I said yes. So I said yes. And as I did so, the water stopped dripping through the tube. But it was still raining. I could hear it. I put my lips to the tube and sipped air.
“It’s still raining,” I said.
“But the water’s not coming through the tube.”
“I’m sort of hunched over it, Evan.”
“Is that bad?”
“No,” I said. “Don’t move. Or I’ll drown.”
“I may drown anyway. There’s a certain amount of seepage going on in here. I don’t know who manufactured this casket, but the quality control isn’t all it should be. Plum?”
“I sort of have to get out of here.”
I put my hands against the lid of the coffin, took a breath, composed myself, and with all my strength pushed at the coffin lid.
Nothing whatsoever happened.
“It’s all nailed and bolted together,” I said. “If I could just take the damned thing apart.”