I felt increasingly horrible. I didn’t want to look at the old woman, who was behaving more and more like an agent for the Pathet Lao’s secret police, and my only alternative was to watch the four heads baking in the morning sun.
“The sex criminal,” I said desperately. “When is he to be killed?”
“At what hour?”
“It is of no importance, young one. All executions are carried out within the building. Then the head is brought outside for display.” She clucked her tongue in disappointment. “In old times criminals and devils were put to death in the public square, where all could see. And it was not done with a single stroke of the sword, either. All executions began at noon, with the sun high in the sky, and often the condemned man would not draw his last gulp of air until the sun had set.” She sighed, remembering. “And the entire populace would come to view the spectacle, and the peasants from miles around would make their way into Tao Dan. Much business was done on such days. The cafes carried on a great trade. It is with sadness that I witness the disappearance of the ancient customs.”
“But this criminal – when will he die?”
She eyed me suspiciously. “Why does it concern you? Are you of the same blood as this crazed one?”
“A wager. A man at a cafe, we wagered on the time of death.”
She nodded, at ease now. This made perfect sense to her; the Laos, like the Thais, will gamble on almost anything. Like the Siamese, they raise specimens of Betta splendens, hazarding great sums on the outcome when two male fish attempt to assert their respective territorial rights in a small bowl. That two strangers should bet on the time of a third stranger’s death was wholly reasonable.
“Then, you must wait for the officials to determine the outcome of your wager,” she said. “The criminal will die by evening prayers, but the exact time I do not know.”
I managed to get away from her. I took my bullock’s lead rope in hand and headed him around the corner. A few blocks from the command headquarters I picked out another hitching post and tethered the bullock. I was sweating freely now and had to sit down somewhere before I collapsed. I climbed on top of the mound of straw in the cart, stretched out, and put my hat over my face. I had seen natives resting in this fashion and hoped I would look ordinary enough.
My mind simply wasn’t functioning. The stark horror of those four heads atop those poles had evidently had dire effects upon a brain already numbed by a progressively heightening fever. I tried to put myself into the Yogic relaxation state, tensing and relaxing muscle groups in turn, letting myself go utterly limp, blanking my mind. To do this properly takes twenty minutes, which I couldn’t afford, and a healthy mind and body, which I couldn’t supply. I gave myself a few minutes to loosen up and unwind a bit, and then I tried putting together what I knew.
The Kendall Bayard Quartet was beyond salvation, at least in this world. For reasons that remained unfathomable to me, some in power had seen fit to separate their heads from their bodies, displaying their heads publicly and doing God-knew-what with the rest of them.
Tuppence was probably inside the building, but maybe she wasn’t. She was probably going to be executed, but that was no foregone conclusion, and official policy seemed to be to pretend she had never existed in the first place. That seemed like a sensible policy, I thought idly; if I had followed it, I would have stayed in New York.
Dhang was definitely inside the building, where he would remain until they put him to death for rape. Attempted rape, actually – the poor son of a bitch was going to die without getting the only thing on earth he really wanted. Sometime within the next several hours he would be executed.
I wondered what part of him they would hang on the post. If the punishment were to fit the crime…
I decided I didn’t want to think about it.
There were more important things to think about. I had to find a way to get into the command post, had to locate and free Tuppence and Dhang, and then had to get out again. Then I would have to find a way to get out of Laos or at least into the comparative safety of the southern part of the country, but all of that was a bridge that could be crossed when it was reached, not before.
Step One – get in. Step Two – rescue Tuppence and Dhang. Step three – get out.
But Step One stumped me all by itself. Get in? How? Get the bullock to kick a hole in the side of the building, I thought wildly. Throw a stone at a cop and get arrested. Or rape somebody – that way I’d be sure of winding up in the sex offenders’ cell with Dhang. Slug somebody, steal a uniform, and march importantly past the guards and through the corridors. Create a diversion – set fire to half the city, and when the guards ran to see what was happening, make a beeline for Tuppence and Dhang.
I sighed. Everything seemed quite hopeless. My assets were limited: a bullock, a cart, some straw, the clothes I was wearing, and, if I wanted to go back for them, a mud-clogged rifle and a machine pistol, and a flashlight that was missing a battery. I also had one ally: a broken-down old Francophile.
If Dhang hadn’t managed to get himself caught, there might have been a chance. There would have been two of us instead of one, and one to rescue instead of two, which would make an immediate change in the odds. Still more important, the time element might not be so crucial. We could have taken our time and made our plans, and Dhang himself could have passed easily in the crowds, and the two of us working together might have come up with a way to get Tuppence out of there.
But I didn’t have Dhang’s help now. And by getting caught he had put a tight time limit on the game. If I was going to rescue him, I had to bring it off before evening prayers, whenever precisely that was. Because by then he’d have his head on a post.
A chill caught me up, and I fought it, bringing my knees up to my stomach and wrapping my arms around them. I was getting fever cramps in my arms and legs, and my head felt like the before half of an aspirin commercial. James Bond never got sick, I thought resentfully. James Bond never had to worry about washing or shaving or changing his clothes, or finding a toilet when amoebas played jumprope with his lower intestine. James Bond, in my particular situation, would pluck a button off his cuff and flick it at command headquarters, whereupon all of the enemy would be blown to bits to the tune of “Rule, Britannia.”
James Bond was a hell of a lot better suited to this sort of idiocy than I was.
The old man drew on his pipe. Moisture gurgled in the pipestem. He took it from his mouth and looked in turn at it and at me. In his heavily accented French he said, “My young friend, I do not know how I can help you.”
Neither did I. I had left Tao Dan to lead my bullock all the way back to the old man’s hut, not because I thought he would really be able to help me but because I couldn’t think of anything else to do. He took one look at me and made me lie down on his straw mattress and cover myself with his few blankets. While I babbled wildly about Tuppence and Dhang he poured cup after cup of strong herb tea into me. It came out through my pores in rivers of sweat. My stomach calmed down after a while, and finally the fever broke.
“You must sleep,” he assured me. “You must spend a week doing nothing but sleeping and drinking the tea. Or you will die.”
And then I had told him why I couldn’t sleep, not the medical reasons but the immediate, practical ones. A Senegalese princess and a Thai agent of France were under sentence of death in Tao Dan. It was my mission to rescue them and rush them to safety in Paris. In their hands, I said, they held the future of the French colonial empire in the Orient.
Perhaps, I suggested, he had comrades in the area, other men who had known the glory of French leadership, other men whose thoughts and feelings were akin to his own. Men who would help us in our noble task, men who would join with us to…
As rhetoric goes, it certainly went. I don’t think I could do it justice in English, but the French language is an ideal vehicle for the expression of such sentiments. The speech fired the old man’s blood – it was even beginning to rouse me, for that matter – but at the end he merely shook his head.
“I am such a man,” he said unhappily, “but I know no others. This is a nation of slaves and fools and traitors, and the times are bad. Here there are only knaves who bow down to those in power and peasants whose thoughts never rise beyond their rice bowls and their yokes and plows. If the Communists seize a man’s bullock, he puts the yoke upon his wife’s shoulders. If they beat him, he apologizes. If they kick him, he polishes their shoes with his tongue.”
“If we had just a few men-”
“But there are none but myself.”
I sank back on the straw pallet. I had succeeded only in wasting more precious time, the time I had spent walking from the village and the time it would take me to return to it. It was hopeless, and I should have known as much, but there was nothing else to be done and no one else to whom I could turn.
“You say that this son and daughter of the beautiful France are in the command headquarters?”
I gulped herb tea. Hopeless, I thought. Better to stay on the old man’s floor until the fever either ran its course or killed me. Better to keep out of Tao Dan entirely and later to make my way back through Thailand to Bangkok. Better to let them lop off Dhang’s head and Tuppence’s head. If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you –
“My young friend, are you awake?”
“You did not seem to hear me. I asked if your allies are being held in the command headquarters.” I nodded. “And there is how much time until the murder?”
“A few hours.”
“If you could gain access to the command post, if you could manage to slip inside, would you have any chance of success?”
“Possibly, I don’t know. But the guards-”
“Perhaps I can dispose of the guards.”
He held up a hand and waved the question aside. An odd smile played on his thin old lips. I finished the tea, and he dipped my cup into the pot and filled it again. I sipped it and looked up at him. He was humming the “Marseillaise.”
“Le jour de gloire,” he sang softly. His eyes flashed at me. “Perhaps the day of glory has indeed arrived, my little friend. Perhaps it is so. Do you think it is possible?”
“I don’t understand.”
“We must return to town,” he said. “Finish your tea, there is time. I will lead the animal, and you must ride in the cart. You will need your strength later in the day. The day of glory. When you leave the building, how will you flee the town? Have you a plan?”
“There is a river east of the town. If you had a small boat moored at the bank, it would be a great asset to you, would it not? Gold will buy a boat. There is enough left of what you have given me.”
“No time, not now. Finish your tea, that is a good boy. Can you get to your feet? I will help you-”