And determined to dog my footsteps all around Rangoon.
But who the hell was he? A player on the other side, I had to assume, but what other side? What were the sides in this particular game without rules? And how many sides were there?
I had a million questions and I couldn’t come up with answers to any of them. When I tried, all I got were more questions.
All I knew was that I didn’t see Harry anywhere right now, and I wasn’t inclined to wait for him to show up. Before I’d spotted him, and long before I knew who he was, I’d been planning to go to ground.
It seemed like a better plan than ever now.
The Char Win Guest House was a four-story frame building on Mahabandoola Street. I liked the name of the street – it had such a nice musical cadence to it I was surprised SLORC hadn’t changed it. And, sipping a beer in the café across the road, I decided I liked the looks of the Char Win as well. What I especially liked was that, while I drank my bottle of Mandalay (and it was watery and tasteless, as Ku Min had said it would be) I saw four couples make their way up the half flight of wooden steps and into the guest house. In two instances the couples were mixed, with the woman Asian and the man a Westerner. All four couples were traveling light, unencumbered by luggage.
My kind of place.
I climbed the stairs myself. The lobby held two wicker chairs and a sad little palm tree. The fellow behind the counter looked as though he’d spent all his life staying away from sunlight and fresh air. He had sunken cheeks and a very tentative mustache, which he worried with a forefinger as he studied me.
“I want room,” I said in what I hoped was basic Burmese.
It was hard to tell if he understood me or not. He peered at me, picked up a cigarette from a glass ashtray, drew deeply on it. In English he said, “You bring girl?”
I shook my head.
“You got girl coming?”
“You want girl?”
“I want a room,” I said. “To sleep.”
He nodded, looking neither pleased nor disappointed. He consulted what I suppose was the register, then reached to take a key from a hook. “Twenny dollar,” he said.
“Ten,” I suggested.
He shook his head sadly. I found a twenty-dollar bill and gave it to him, and he looked it over carefully. He said, “Passport?”
I just looked at him. He held my glance for a long moment, then shrugged elaborately. The bill went into the breast pocket of his pale green shirt. He handed over the key, pointed at the stairs. “Room Six,” he said. “First floor.”
First floor meant one flight up, as it does just about everywhere but the United States. I climbed the stairs and found my room. The key was an old-fashioned skeleton type, with a brass oval attached to it, stamped with what was either a 6 or a 9, depending on which way you held it. I had trouble fitting the key in the lock, and had just about convinced myself he’d given me the wrong key when it slipped in the final quarter-inch. I turned it and opened the door.
I wasn’t expecting much, and that was exactly what I got. The room was very small, just a cubicle, really. There was a single bed, an old iron bedstead, the paint flaking from the metal panels of the headboard. There was a small mahogany table and a desk chair with a cane back and seat. The seat needed some repair, but probably wasn’t worth fixing. The floor was uncarpeted wood, ill used by time.
There was a window that looked out onto the litter-strewn backyard. I’d have closed the curtains if there had been any. I switched off the light instead, set my backpack on the rickety little chair, and sat down on the bed. The mattress was thin and the springs groaned. I stretched out on the bed – I kept my shoes on, what the hell, I wasn’t in a pagoda – and wished I had something to read. Except there wasn’t enough light to read by. Not now, with the light off, of course, but not with the light on, either. There was no lamp, just the one-bulb ceiling fixture, and the bulb couldn’t have been more than twenty-five watts. And it was a long ways off, too; the one nice thing about the room was its twelve-foot ceiling.
We’ll, I’d gone to ground. Now what was I supposed to do?
I settled my head on the pillow and tried not to think about lice. The room wasn’t exactly filthy, although it would have been going some to call it clean. But over the years I’d found myself in a lot worse places.
Maybe I should have asked him to get me a girl. This was no room to take a decent woman to, or even an indecent one, but maybe you got a more spacious room if you were going to be sharing it.
I closed my eyes and thought about Harry Spurgeon. But I didn’t want to think about him, not now. I tried instead to slip into the state of relaxation and meditation that I use as an alternative to sleep. By tensing and relaxing different muscle groups in turn, I get into a state that helps knit up the raveled sleeve of care. It’s not quite the restorative that eight hours of unconsciousness provides, but it’s an acceptable substitute when you haven’t got a working sleep center in your brain.
I started to ease into it, then lost it when tensing the muscles in my shoulder sent a stab of pain through me. The shoulder I’d landed on was going to hurt, all right. I rubbed it a little, to no apparent purpose, then started over from the beginning. Feet, ankles, calves, thighs, fingers, hands, arms-
There was a knock on the door.
I stayed where I was, breathing slowly and deeply, trying to concentrate on the light tingling sensation in my hands and feet.
Go away, I thought. And then I heard the knob turn and realized the lock was the sort that you had to lock with the key, and I hadn’t.
The door opened. In an instant the woman who’d opened it slipped inside and pushed it shut, pressing her back against it. I couldn’t see much in the dim light, only her silhouette against the door. She was about five-six and slender, and her hair was long. That was all I could tell.
“Please,” she said.
I didn’t say anything. I didn’t move, either, just lay there on my back.
“You are European?”
“American,” I said.
“That is even better.”
I guess the U.S. Information Agency would have been glad to hear that. It’s always nice to know our image in the Third World is improving. Still, I had the feeling I ought to nip this conversation in the bud.
“The clerk has made a mistake,” I told her.
“He has made many mistakes,” she agreed. “He would not be here otherwise.”
I couldn’t argue with that. I said, “I told him I didn’t want a girl tonight.”
“Oh,” she said. There was a silence, which I thought I probably ought to fill with an apology. But I didn’t, and at length she said, “But I am not a girl, not in the sense you mean. Of course you would think that. What else would you think when a woman comes to your door?”
If the clerk had sent her, I thought, she wouldn’t have entered so furtively.
“I am not a prostitute,” she said. “Perhaps I would be better off if I were, but I am not. If you want me to go, tell me.”
“First tell me what you want.”
“May I turn the light on?” She worked the wall switch without waiting for permission, and now I got a good look at her. She turned out to be Eurasian, and I wasn’t greatly surprised. Her English was fluent, even educated, but it was strongly accented and I couldn’t place the accent.
Whatever it was, it seemed a match for her appearance. She had straight blond hair that hung to her shoulders and a heart-shaped face with a broad, high forehead and cheekbones that were almost severe in their prominence. A lot of Slavic blood showed in her face, but the Asian was evident around the eyes and mouth, and in her complexion. I was so busy cataloging the various elements that it took me a minute to notice that, when all was said and done, she was not merely exotic. She was beautiful.
Her looks were the sort that made you sit up and take notice. I’d already taken notice, and now I sat up. I must have winced, because she asked me what was the matter.
“My shoulder,” I said. “I hurt it in a fall.”
“A long time ago?”
“About an hour.”
She came closer, set my backpack on the floor, and sat on the cane chair. She said, “Do you have anything to drink?”
“It would probably do you good.”
“It generally does,” I said.
She took a breath. “That is one reason I came here,” she said. “I was at my window when you came into the hotel. I thought you might have some whiskey.”
“I wish I did.”
“Yes, I wish it, too.”
“I might have bought a bottle,” I said, “but I didn’t see it for sale anywhere.”
“Buddhists,” she said.
“They don’t prohibit alcohol, do they?”
“They discourage drunkenness,” she said. “The Fifth Precept is opposed to intoxication.”
“Well, so am I,” I said, “but that doesn’t mean I don’t like a drink now and then.”
“They sell whiskey in the big hotels,” she said. “But not in a place like this. And it is very expensive.”
“What is your name?”
“Evan. It’s American?”
“Well, the name is Welsh originally, the Welsh equivalent of John. Like Ian in Scottish, or Ivan in Russian.”
“Evan. My name is Katya.”
“The name is Russian. I am – I don’t know what I am. So many different things. Katya is a diminutive.”
“Yes. In English it would be Katherine. What would you say for short, Kathy?”
“Or Kitty,” I said. “Or Kate.”
“Kate,” she said, trying it out. “That is so quick, is it not? So sudden, like fingers snapping. Kate. It is almost harsh.”
“Katya is a pretty name.”
“Maybe you’ll call me Kate. Maybe I like it. I don’t know.” Her forehead darkened. “Or maybe you will not call me anything at all because you want me to go.”
“No,” I said. “I don’t want you to go.”
“If we had some whiskey,” she said, “we could go to my room and drink it. My room is larger than yours.”
“Almost anything would be.”
“And not so barren. There are some pictures on the walls, a bit of rug on the floor.”
“It sounds cheerful.”
“No,” she said, “it is not cheerful. It is sad, like everything in this place. But it is a little better than this. Evan, could you give me some money? I will go buy whiskey.”
“Where will you go?”
“There is a night market a few hundred meters from here. They sell whiskey at one of the stalls, but you have to know to ask for it. It is not very good whiskey. It is made in Burma, so how good could it be? But it is whiskey.”
“How much is it?”