A Scent of Scandal
FOR U Sha Lok, she was always “that woman”; a phrase used always with a kind of rueful admiration and, despite everything, never a breath of acrimony.
My friend was not an admirer of the fair sex. He led a largely solitary life in which his only passion seemed to be the solving of the tangled cases that came to his notice and, though I counted myself his friend—perhaps his only friend—I would have been hard put to it to defend him from accusations of coldness and want of natural human fellow-feeling. He seemed, in particular, impervious to feminine charm. Though invariably gracious to our landlady, Daw Hat Sun, and most solicitous to his female clients, who came to him in various degrees of distress, he was wont in private to make game of what he called “women’s intelligence”, making clear his fixed view that in any sphere, women were inferior to men, and most particularly where it concerned the power of the intellect.
Until, that is, he met Daw Aye Linn.
Let me be more precise: until he was defeated and publicly humiliated by Daw Aye Linn, outmanoeuvred and exposed under a glaring spotlight, to the mocking laughter of hundreds of onlookers. After that I never heard him dilate quite so much on the inferiority of women.
After my marriage, U Sha Lok and I had grown somewhat apart, naturally enough, since we no longer shared our comfortably shabby bachelor quarters in Bei Ka Street. His reputation continued to grow apace, and he acquired a large following. From time to time I would read of his exploits in The Myanmar Times, almost always in connection with a case that stunned the newspaper-reading public with its bizarre or horrific elements. The affair of the Sule Ruby springs to mind, or the astonishing denouement of the series of grisly murders on the Circle Railway Line. At other times, though his name was never mentioned, I fancied I could detect his hand in the solution of other crimes that had long baffled the official Yangon Metropolitan Police. I have no doubt, for instance, that it was he who cracked the mystery surrounding the notorious break-in of the underground vault below the Federated Union Bank in Hat Tan Garden Street and the theft of millions in valuables stored there in safe-deposit boxes.
It was in the cold season of ninety-four that, my work over for the day, I found myself sauntering past the familiar corner of Bei Ka Street. On an impulse, I turned into the street and was just passing our old home, number 221B, when I saw U Sha Lok himself, standing at the window of our upstairs sitting room and gazing down into the street. He seemed to be quite lost in thought. As I stood there, he suddenly became aware of my presence and beckoned, quite imperiously, for me to ascend. Nothing loth, I had myself admitted, and soon entered the familiar diggings where we had shared so many uncanny and sometimes hazardous adventures.
“Well, Wa Zone, marriage suits you, I must admit. You must have put on several ticals—I would say a couple of viss, to be sure!”
“Perhaps a kilo,” I replied, rather stiffly, since I was aware that I was losing my youthful slenderness of figure, as old married men will.
“You have arrived just in time. If you can spare me some time from your sweetly onerous marital duties—”
“I say, old man—”
“There is no one whose company, and help, I would rather have at my side in this matter which just come before me. It’s early days yet, but this affair could turn out to have significant international consequences.”
“Oh. Well. If you put it like that, I suppose I could send a boy to tell my wife I'll be a little late…”
“I will not detain you long, at least not this evening. Take a look at this,” he thrust at me an envelope, already torn open, addressed to himself at this address, but without a stamp. The handwriting was well-formed, accurate and legible, but gave the impression it had been written by someone copying the symbols from a book, rather than by one who had learned our characters at his mother’s knee.
“You know my methods, Wa Zone,” he said, stretching out in his familiar place on the settee, his hands clasped behind his head, a posture he claimed was conducive to clarity of thought. “Examine the envelope, the writing, the texture of the paper, anything which may indicate to you something of the sender, especially something which the sender might wish to conceal, or of which he himself may be unaware. For we all surround ourselves at all times with mute witnesses of our innermost thoughts, and to the keen observer, those witnesses shall speak, whether we will or no.”
I should explain that my friend U Sha Lok, Yangon’s foremost consulting private detective, lived by his wits in exercising the most remarkable skills. He was a master at observation, drawing from the close and precise scrutiny of the evidence of his eyes and ears the most pertinent deductions to assist him in his calling. It was not only the police who were wont to call upon his services whenever they were baffled. Any humble citizen could rely on U Sha Lok’s assistance, provided only that he found their case sufficiently intriguing. And I was aware that in recent months, the rich and the famous, stars of stage and screen had begun to turn to him when a delicate problem required a discreet solution.
While avowing myself a mere amateur in the arts he had perfected, I had picked up a few hints from watching his prowess and recording his cases and, at his invitation, I now began to apply such little skill as I had garnered.
“The envelope is of very good quality,” I began slowly, turning it in my hands. “Bearing no stamp, it was evidently hand-delivered. I take it you did not see the messenger?”
“It came this morning while I was out. Daw Hat Sun heard it plop through the letterbox, but saw no one,” he said, referring to his, once our, landlady.
“Hmm. Well, in itself that means nothing.” I extracted the letter from the envelope and continued my examination. “The paper is likewise of good quality. Paper of this kind, even if it can be had here in Yangon, would cost K50 a box. So, the writer is a person of means. But, speaking of the sender, you said ‘he’.”
U Sha Lok laughed. “Well spotted, Wa Zone, indeed I did. But you need draw no conclusions from my conventional use of the male pronoun to denote both genders merely because I lack the inclination to employ the socially approved but ponderous locution ‘he or she’ every time I am ignorant of a person’s identity.”
I nodded thoughtfully several times as I construed his sentence. “Oh. All right.”
“Please proceed with your analysis.”
I unfolded the single sheet of paper I had taken from the envelope. It contained only a brief text, written in the hand that had penned the envelope and, like it, in black ink. I read the letter aloud:
“‘Having on careful inquiry received excellent reports of your abilities and your discretion, one has decided to employ you for a small but highly delicate task. One envisages no physical danger, and will pay handsomely. Be good enough to expect one at your lodgings at six pm today. Do not take it amiss if your visitor wear a disguise.’”
There was no signature or date. With U Sha Lok’s eyes upon me, I tried not to look blank. “The writing style is distinctive,” I began cautiously. “‘Be good enough to expect one.’ One what?”
“I think we will find that the style is that customarily employed by a royal personage,” said U Sha Lok. “He—or she—refers to him, or her, self with the use of the neutral pronoun ‘one’, having been trained from an early age not to overemphasise before humbler interlocutors their overweening wealth and power by overusing the first person singular pronoun ‘I’, and still less by using the royal ‘we’ to which they are entitled, but must eschew if they wish to be taken at all seriously. It is therefore an expression of faux humility. But you are doing very well, Wa Zone. Please continue.”
“But if the sender is royalty, of what country? Evidently not our own dear republic. A foreigner, then, which would explain the careful formation of our characters, and the correct but stilted use of the subjunctive and other elements of the writing style. A foreigner from a land that still has kings and queens and suchlike, but where people are aware of your abilities and close enough for them to come here and seek your assistance.”
“Not necessarily,” said my friend airily. “You note the reference to ‘careful inquiry’. Our correspondent has no doubt asked around among her, or his, royal pals in the various countries that still maintain such luxuries. They are so relatively few that, in my experience, these people tend to know one another, to attend the same exclusive schools, to perform the same wearisome social functions and to adorn the boards of the same companies in their decorative but profitable fashion. This person could be from more than a dozen countries. But,” he said, sitting up, “It is close on six, and I fancy that is a motor car that I hear in the street. Our visitor is punctual.”
Indeed, as he spoke there came a knocking at the street door, answered by Daw Hat Sun. Moments later, our visitor entered the room.
He, for it was indeed a he, presented a remarkable sight, and U Sha Lok and I took great pains not to stare. He was fully as tall as U Sha Lok, but held himself straighter, and was slender in build. He wore a high-collared, brass-buttoned military-style uniform of spotless white from head to foot, with very shiny black patent leather shoes and a high-peaked military officer’s cap, also in gleaming white. On his chest gleamed a dozen medals, winking in the lamplight of our modest room, each bearing a multicoloured scrap of ribbon. He also wore, and I found this particularly disconcerting, a plastic Donald Duck mask. Behind it, I could see brown eyes looking from one to another of us in some uncertainty.
“Welcome, sir,” said my friend, with his customary suavity. “I am U Sha Lok, and this is my friend Dr Wa Zone. He assists me in all my cases and you may rely on his discretion as far as the grave, as you may my own. Please take a seat on the settee, and I think now that you are here, perhaps the mask…”
“You are right.” Our visitor lowered himself onto the settee, removed his cap and slipped off the mask, placing it carefully on his knee, where it seemed to stare back up at him. He was a man in his early thirties, with short dark hair brushed back, fine features, liquid dark eyes, a chin perhaps a little on the weak side, and high cheekbones. With U Sha Lok’s explanation still ringing in my ears, I found no difficulty in discerning in his face an imperious entitlement to command, partially softened by years of schooling in the need for politeness to his inferiors.
“You will please to forgive the disguise, but sometimes these things are necessary for a person in my position, as you will understand. I must begin by stressing the extreme delicacy of the case I am about to present to you. I know it is unnecessary to ask you to swear an oath of secrecy or anything of that sort, as I can rely on your word as gentlemen?”
“You may indeed,” said U Sha Lok.
“Then I will begin,” he said, but he did not. He clasped his knees with fine-boned, beautifully manicured hands, bit his lip and shifted in his seat with an uneasiness that was quite unrelated to the presence beneath him of the broken springs I remembered so fondly. After some reflection he seemed to recover himself and, speaking clearly and fluently but with a marked Eastern accent, narrated the following account.
“I represent a very elevated person from a country which I will not name, but whose king is deeply revered by his people, and whose royal family is extensive. You may address me as Count, er,” his eyes fell on the discarded mask, “Donald. The country of which I speak has very strict laws to protect the good name of the royal family, and the penalties for even minor infractions in that sense are severe.
“Some years ago, a junior member of the royal family became acquainted with a Myanmar lady called Daw Aye Linn. She was an actress and a singer, renowned for her beauty and wit, a suitable enough temporary companion, therefore, for a young gentleman, even one with royal blood in his veins. But the young gentleman was incautious. At the time he came to know Daw Aye Linn, he was passing through a phase which is common enough in all young persons, a period of disillusionment with the status quo and attachment to romantic ideals of democracy and equality and suchlike. He was very young,” said our visitor, looking at us appealingly, as if making excuses for this kind of conduct.
“At any rate, while in this phase, the young man wrote a kind of tract, or pamphlet, a brief and undistinguished thing, no more scurrilous than any that you might find even in a country whose king is as revered as is our own monarch. Or you would, if the laws against that sort of outrage were not so severe. Except that this young man, knowing first-hand in great detail and in great intimacy the affairs of the royal household, of which he was a member, included in his antimonarchical tract certain details that had best been left unexpressed even in private, let alone in such a medium.
“In writing the tract, he was in part inspired by the lady Daw Aye Linn, who had entirely captivated him, and whose charms I could not in any way resist. Her beauty, her accomplishments, her wit, her fame all conspired to lend her republican sympathies a force that swept, er, this young royal person, into very deep and dangerous emotional and political waters. It was under her spell that this tract was composed. And it is she who retains the only copy!”
Our visitor at this point, clearly agitated, sprang to his feet and paced backwards and forwards across our faded but intricate China carpet.
“What I want, U Sha Lok, what my distinguished client wants, is for you to recover that document. First you must find where she keeps it, for I have had her house burgled three times by agents who found no trace of it. You must get it and bring it to me so that I can destroy it. And it must be done within three days, for then I, that is, the personage one represents, is to marry a lady who has eminent rank in her own country, and who knows nothing of the reckless behaviour in which her husband-to-be engaged in his foolish youth.”
“Certainly, Your Royal Highness,” said U Sha Lok calmly.
The effect of this appellation on our visitor was electrifying. He spun upon his heel, fixing U Sha Lok with a piercing gaze, alarm written across his handsome, if slightly effete, features. “What!” He exclaimed. “How could you possibly have guessed my identity?”
“I have made a study of the decorations awarded by various governments for merit and other such reasons. The Order displayed on your uniform is bestowed only on persons of the most lofty rank, and may be awarded only directly, from the hands of His Maj—”
“Enough!” exclaimed our visitor in alarm. “Do not utter the name.” He took a deep breath and sat down heavily.
“Indeed, it is true, the foolish young royal person was myself. And how bitterly one has since regretted that moment of madness! Yet it is done now, and must be paid for.” He turned to my friend, supplication in his eyes. “U ShaLok, they say you can do things no other man can do. Can you do this thing for me?”
“Where does the lady live?”
“She has a mansion in Bo Aung Kyaw Street. Opposite the cathedral.”
“An illustrious address.”
“She made a fortune from her career in entertainment, and is a wealthy woman in her own right. These days she rarely sings or acts, but supports worthy local children’s charities. She hardly goes about in society, but keeps to her home, save for an afternoon drive of one hour or so.”
“Can the thing not be bought?”
“She has no need of money. Besides, she craves possession of it for the power it gives her over me and, through me, our House and our country, which she does not love.”
“Has she made any direct threats?”
“She has conveyed to me that she is prepared to make the pamphlet public in the event of my engagement to the lady of my choice. Her intent would be to create embarrassment and shame. She would find it amusing. Though she made her name in the classics, some of her most celebrated roles were in comedies. Perhaps you have seen one or two. She was particularly good in Sleepless in Sagaing, and she had the lead role in There’s Something About Ma Yii.
The prince sat forward, his face suddenly animated. “But my all-time favourite has to be When Ko Hari Met Ma Salli. It’s got that scene in it everyone remembers, you know the one, when they’re in the teashop talking about how men and women deceive each other, and she pretends to have—”
“I do not frequent the moving picture-houses,” interposed U Sha Lok, a shade curtly, I thought, before adding in a softer tone, “Perhaps I should. In my own profession, a little acting skill can accomplish much, and it never hurts to know something of what the lower classes are watching. What other efforts have you made to recover the pamphlet?”
“As soon as she issued her threat, I hastened over here at once, travelling incognito.”
“That must have been quite a feat,” murmured U Sha Lok, eyeing the resplendent uniform.
“We receive special training. I am staying with a trusted associate, and am confident that nobody else knows of my presence here, let alone my object in coming.”
He reached a hand inside his crisply ironed uniform jacket and, withdrawing a thick envelope, handed it to U Sha Lok.
“Here is one thousand kyat. Spend it as lavishly as you wish. Should you need me, there is a number you can call written on the envelope. I will be impatient for your news.”
“Your Royal Highness need have no fear. I shall take the matter in hand immediately. When will you be returning to Th—”
“Don't say it!”
“…to your country?” asked U Sha Lok.
“I must return at the latest on Wednesday. I trust you will have good news for me by then.”
“You may depend upon it,” said U Sha Lok, rising. We saw our visitor down as far as the street door, noting that he carefully put his mask back on before stepping into the street, murmuring as he did so, “I must avoid drawing attention to myself.” Then he climbed aboard the long, low black motor car, topped with a modestly inconspicuous royal crest that had conveyed him to Bei Ka Street, and was gone.
“How do you mean to set about this?” I asked him as we climbed the stairs back to our familiar sitting room. “And where do I come in?”
“My first task must be to find out more about our quarry—her nature and her habits. I shall then devise a plan and, you may rest assured, old friend, I shall certainly call upon you to play a part. In the meantime, I would like you to come back here at about three o’clock tomorrow afternoon, if you can get away.”
“Try to stop me!” I said.
Yet, when I arrived at Bei Ka Street punctually the following day, there was no sign of my friend. After a wait of some 20 minutes I was beginning to feel some concern, when I heard steps on the stairs and the door of the sitting room was flung open to reveal a lean, haggard-looking, ill-dressed man with betel-stained teeth and carrying a tool-box. I was about to remonstrate with this stranger when he laughed and said in a familiar voice, “Sorry to keep you waiting, old fellow! Let me just change back into my normal clothes and I will tell you of my adventures.”
Within a few moments, this apparition had indeed transformed himself into my old friend. He seemed remarkably pleased with himself.
“The lady is a phenomenon,” he told me, shaking his head in what looked like admiration. “I’ve spent the day as one Ko Toe Lone, a jobbing carpenter. There is always work for such as them, and a cursory glance I took at the lady’s mansion after you left last night revealed that some minor work is being done to the exterior. Indeed, I have spent my day smoothing down teak window-sills with emery paper. Luckily, I keep my hands rough with plenty of manual work, or they would be a mass of blisters now. Anyway, nobody gossips about the lady of the house more than local traders and craftsmen, and a mine of information they proved to be.
"As our guest of last night said, the lady leaves her house very seldom, but never misses her appointment with the local film and drama study group attached to the orphanage in Thein Byu Street, of which it seems she is a patron. Not only has she contributed heavily to its establishment, she also generously gives of her time and skills, coaching the children in drama and singing, and even acting out some of her more famous roles and singing her hit songs of yesteryear to inspire them.
“It seems she is also most gracious and condescending to her household staff and to the workmen engaged in extending her conservatory, paying them above the going rate, buying them extra food to mark national holidays, and insisting they take at least one day off each month. When one of the carpenters suffered an accident, cutting three of his fingers very badly, she took him to the hospital herself and paid for his treatment. It is his place I am filling, incidentally. Her character therefore seems as outstanding as her talent; and, for that matter, her beauty.” He broke off for a moment, seeming to muse as if in thought.
“How does this help us recover the pamphlet? “ I asked, “Or even to locate its whereabouts? Such a small thing could be concealed anywhere.”
“Oh, you may be sure it is in the house,” said U Sha Lok swiftly. “A woman would keep such a valuable thing close at hand. True, if she has entrusted it to a lawyer or placed it in a strong-box in the bank, our job is immeasurably harder. But I must trust to my instinct that it is in that house. Perhaps it is in the bedroom or the boudoir; perhaps in the main room on the ground floor. But wherever it is, I mean to make her show it to me.”
“How on earth will you manage to do that?”
“That is the very purpose of the plan I have been formulating throughout today. And as I promised, it features a very prominent role for you.”
“I will do whatever I can.”
U Sha Lok pulled a small package from his pocket. “Here are some Chinese firecrackers, of the kind used for the New Year celebrations. Harmful, but noisy and dramatic. This variety is particularly rich in dense black smoke.” He handed me the package.
“We will carry out our plan this very afternoon. I have made all the arrangements, and I am satisfied they are sound. Give me a few moments, and we will go together to Bo Aung Kyaw Street. When we arrive, you will take up your station just outside the large front window of the house, which is within a few paces of the public street. You will find the locale rather busy, but be assured that nobody will take any notice of you. Then, a little drama will be played out in front of you. I pray you to take no action of any kind. Do nothing, say nothing, merely wait. You will see me enter the house. Keep a close observation through the window, and at some point you will see me make this gesture,” here, he lifted his right arm from the elbow and slowly lowered it again.
“When you see that, light the firecrackers and toss them through the window, which will have been opened, and at the top of your voice shout “Fire!” You may shout the word twice, or even three times, but no more. Then walk calmly to the junction of Bo Aung Kyaw and Anawrahta streets and wait for me in the teashop on the corner there, where I will join you presently.”
With that, U Sha Lok disappeared into his room and emerged a few moments later in yet another disguise. This time, he was attired as a Christian clergyman, with a long, rusty black gown, gaiters and a black silken shirt with a white reversed collar. He was also wearing round spectacles and had dusted his hair with talcum powder, giving it a silvery appearance. Some kind of padding around the middle completed the effect, for nobody would have seen in the portly, elderly, mild-mannered Catholic priest who now stood gently blinking before me with the lean, vibrant, sardonic and incisive consulting detective I knew him to be. Nor yet, with the horny-handed, betel-stained staircase carpenter whose appearance he had assumed earlier in the day. Truly, mastery of disguise was with U Sha Lok a skill just as sharp as those of observation and deduction.
It took but a moment to hail a passing sidecar, and we arrived in front of the cathedral, before Daw Aye Linn’s house, just as the sun was setting.
The street seemed to me surprisingly bustling. In addition to the tables that spilled out of the doors of the neighbouring teashop, each occupied by laughing and chattering patrons, I spotted at least two cigarette sellers, a young woman frying dumplings on a makeshift kerbside stove, half a dozen shirtless young men playing an energetic bout of chinlone, and a palmist. As U Sha Lok had bade me, I took up my station in front of the large window of Daw Aye Linn's front room. It was at that moment that a silver luxury car glided to a halt outside the house. The chauffeur leapt from the driving seat to open the rear door, and a woman emerged.
I recognised her at once, of course. U Sha Lok may not be a film fan, but I myself have been known to pop into the cinema from time to time. Long after her premature retirement, Daw Aye Linn was still a beautiful woman, and an imposing presence whether on the stage or, evidently, on the street. For her appearance had the effect of provoking a kind of riot.
Two of the teashop patrons decided to take their discussion of the relative merits of Chelsea and Arsenal to the point of violence, knocking their plastic stools backwards as they surged to their feet and began grappling. As the two swayed in violent embrace dangerously into Daw Aye Linn's path, three of the chinlone players joined in, hurling themselves on top of the two tea drinkers, whether to separate them or support them was unclear. In the centre of this mêlée then wandered a gently blinking priest, whose softly spoken and ineffectual attempts to quell the disturbance were entirely ignored. Nothing daunted, he stepped forward, apparently to shield the young woman as the fighters lurched unheeding in her direction and then, in a flash, he was down, his face bloodied, and the angry men suddenly dispersed in all directions.
In an instant, their places were taken, with the palmist and the noodle-fryer hastening up to minister to the fallen minister. “He’s hurt real bad, ma’am,” said the frying lady in a Delta twang. “He’s out cold!” piped up the palmist, appealing to Daw Aye Linn. “Can't you take him inside, Miss? He needs an ice pack on that nose. Blimey, look at all that blood!”
Alone in the crowd, Daw Aye Linn seemed to have retained her cool demeanour. Turning to the chauffeur, she said in a low voice, “Ko Naing, fetch Ko Zeya and the two of you help this poor gentleman into the house.”
Within minutes it was done. Faithful to my instructions, I had taken no part in this pavement drama, merely holding my station at the window and observing. I remained there now and, in the deepening twilight, saw the light come on in the front room of the house as U Sha Lok’s recumbent form was carried in and laid on a sofa. A moment later the lady appeared, accompanied by a maid. “Ma Sein, an ice-pack, hot water, bandages,” she said crisply.
The stricken priest then appeared to revive slightly, feebly clutching at his throat.
“Zeya, the window,” I heard Daw Aye Linn say, and the houseboy flung open the window not two feet from me. As the women busied themselves around him, applying the ice-pack to his nose, U Sha Lok slowly raised his right hand, then lowered it. This was my moment.
This was my moment. All I had to do, as instructed by U Sha Lok, was to light the fuse of the Chinese firecrackers he had given me and toss them through the open window of Daw Aye Linn’s front room, in which he now lay prostrate on the sofa, as if barely conscious. In fact, it struck me that he was giving a very good impression of being barely conscious. From my vantage point by the window, looking into the brightly lit room, I could see that his nose was still pouring blood where he had been struck while attempting to quell the melee that had erupted around Daw Aye Linn when she stepped out of her car. Much as I admired my friend’s facility with the art of disguise, I was very impressed that he should have taken it to such lengths.
Putting aside these thoughts, I reached for my cigarette lighter to light the fuse of the firecrackers.
It was not there.
Baffled, I patted the pockets of my jacket, but to no avail. I could not think what I had done with the lighter, which I was sure I had with me. U Sha Lok had not told me the full details of his plan, but on this point he was very clear: on his signal, which he had just sent, I was to light the fuse of the firecrackers and toss them through the open window with a cry of “Fire!” I was authorised to cry “Fire!” a second time, and possibly a third, but no more. Then I was to proceed calmly to the teashop at the corner of Anawrahta Street and await his coming.
But I had no lighter. I looked around me wildly. A few feet away, the young woman with the down-home Delta accent was still cooking dumplings at her impromptu kitchen on the pavement. I approached her and asked politely if I could light my firecrackers at her cooking fire. She nodded assent, and I went down on one knee to apply the fuse of the crackers to the nearest flame. But at that moment, the dumplings she was frying suddenly spat hot fat into my face. With a cry, I dropped the firecrackers into the flames and clutched at my cheek. The Delta lady started up in alarm, and I had just got out my handkerchief and was dabbing at my cheek when the firecrackers ignited with a loud bang and a gout of thick black smoke,
“Oh, lordy! Fire!” she screamed. That was my line. “Fire!” I cried, in the direction of thehouse.
“No, no, it’s a real fire!” she exclaimed. She was pointing at my longyi which, I now observed, had been set ablaze by the firecrackers.
“Fire! Fire!” shouted other voices, as the argumentative teashop customers and chinlone players involved in the fight before Daw Aye Linn’s door suddenly rushed back, clustering round her window and crying out excitedly.
“Fire!” I cried again, desperately trying to beat out the flames in my longyi.
“Fire!” they shouted enthusiastically, pointing into Daw Aye Linn’s front room.
“Not there! Here!” I cried out again, jumping around in agitation as the flames mounted higher. At that moment, the dumpling lady, snatching up two jugs of beer from the teashop, emptied the contents over my burning attire, which continued to smoulder gently.
My mind raced rapidly. U Sha Lok had given me three simple instructions. He told me I was to toss the lighted firecrackers in through the open window of Daw Aye Linn’s house; shout “Fire!” two or three times; and then proceed calmly to the teashop at the corner of Anawrahta Road.
By any objective standard I had not quite managed the first, but I had certainly called out “Fire!” twice. It only remained for me now with what dignity I could muster in my charred, smoking and beer-sodden clothing, to saunter nonchalantly down to the teashop without drawing attention to myself. I fancy I did it rather well, though the waiter at the teashop, sniffing suspiciously as he eyed me, wouldn't let me sit at a table, so I waited outside.
That is where I was when, ten minutes later, U Sha Lok appeared, his nose no longer bleeding but remarkably red and swollen. One of his eyes seemed to blackening. We eyed each other in silence for a moment.
“I thought that went rather well,” I said. “Your nose looks jolly realistic. I’d assumed you would have some sort of little plastic sac of fake blood that you would use to make it look like—”
He silently held out a small plastic sac of red fluid which he had concealed in his hand.
“I neglected to mention to the men when I explained my plan to them that I had brought fake blood. They improvised.”
“No wonder it looked so convincing, then,” I said. “Did you hear me shout ‘Fire!’? I shouted twice, like you said, jolly loud too.”
“I heard you,” he said. “Indeed, in accordance with my prior instructions to them, half the street was shouting ‘Fire!’ it was most impressive. The only thing missing was some actual fire, which would have been available had you hurled the firecrackers I gave you through the window which I had caused to be opened. The lack of fire, inside the house that is, detracted rather from the execution of my design. The only actual fire in the vicinity, but too far away to be of any use to me, was that which you caused by setting light to your garments, which I do not remember instructing you to do.”
“No, that’s true. You see, what happened was—”
He held up a hand. “Enough.”
“But did the plan work? I mean, apart from that. Did you get the pamphlet?”
“The plan, which was to induce the lady, under the threat of fire, to hasten to rescue the pamphlet from its secret location, did not work. She, seeing no fire, not unreasonably saw no need to retrieve the pamphlet. I therefore still have no idea where it is,” he said. “But I see, or rather smell, that you have nevertheless decided to celebrate our success, perhaps rather prematurely, with a drink or two.”
“Oh, I say,” I said. “It wasn't exactly like that, you know. Look, old man, I'm sorry about the firecrackers. I forgot my lighter. And then things got rather out of hand. But it was a jolly good plan, nevertheless. All we have to do now is…”
“Well, come up with another one, I suppose.”
As the two of us were walking disconsolately down Anawrahta Street in the direction of Bei Ka Street, U Sha Lok hailed a passing sidecar to take us back to the comfort of our familiar sitting room.
On the way, he explained how the plan should have worked.
“It’s all psychology, Wa Zone. What does a person do when they think their house is on fire? A mother will rescue her child. A single woman will secure whatever is most valuable to her – money, jewellery or, in this case, the pamphlet. I was watching our quarry very closely, while pretending to be unconscious. As soon as you, assisted by my paid collaborators, raised the cry of “Fire!” Daw Aye Linn looked around in some puzzlement. That was the point at which your Chinese firecrackers ought to have been emitting large volumes of smoke in her living room, causing her to hasten to retrieve the pamphlet to protect it from the flames. Instead, all we could see was you, out in the street, dancing around rather ineffectually as the flames consumed your longyi. Unsurprisingly, Daw Aye Linn did not see this as a threat to her or, more importantly, to the pamphlet she has secreted. Instead of giving away its hiding-pace, therefore, she simply shot a sharp glance in my direction and left the room. My plan in ruins, I slipped out without further ado.
“Needless to say, all the street people – the chinlone players, the tea drinkers, the palmist and the dumpling-maker – had dispersed, with their pockets full of our client’s generous largesse.”
“What do you mean to do now?” I asked.
“Why, as you said, I shall have to think up another plan. A more foolproof one this time.”
I accepted the reproof in silence.
U Sha Lok asked me to stay for dinner, a delicious vegetable curry prepared by his landlady, Daw Hat Sun. Sha Lok had just lit one of his pipes, and was thoughtfully emitting clouds of blue smoke, clearly at work devising a new scheme. I had enjoyed a glass or two of my favourite claret, Château de Cul-crevasse du Bâtisseur, which I find often helps me think. At that moment, there was an unexpected ring at the doorbell. U Sha Lok looked at me quizzically, but said nothing.
A moment later, Daw Hat Sun announced: “U Sha Lok, a visitor to see you. It is Daw Aye Linn.” Daw Hat Sun has introduced many strange, formidable and dangerous characters into our lodgings with the greatest sang-froid. But tonight, there was wonder in her voice.
Sha Lok, his face a picture of consternation, leapt to his feet, as did I. Our visitor swept into the room, even more beautiful and imposing at close quarters than she was on stage or screen.
Daw Aye Linn was not tall, but she carried herself willow-wand straight. Though her clothes were modest and restrained, they were clearly of impeccable design and expensively made. She was hatless and carried no bag. It was not her physical beauty so much that lent her that indefinably commanding character, but rather her bearing, which was that of a great lady wronged. Once she had entered a room, it was scarcely possible to pay attention to anyone or anything else. Her face even in maturity was striking. Though the laughter lines were clearly in evidence, she was not in a laughing mood now. Her eyes seemed to flash as, ignoring me entirely, she directed her gaze at U Sha Lok who, his nose still swollen and inflamed, seemed to shrink before her icy regard.
“So. The great detective. You tricked me. You took advantage of my kindness to enter my home under false pretences, in order to spy and to steal,” she said in a quiet, level voice that yet seemed to resonate with power. U Sha Lok said nothing.
“I know who you are, and what you were after, and for whom you are working,” she continued. “Well, you can have it. That is, I will give you one more chance to come by it, honestly this time, if you have the courage to take it.”
“Madam,” U Sha Lok began hoarsely, but fell silent as she continued to speak, ignoring his attempt to explain.
“Tomorrow night I will appear in a presidential command performance at the Yangon National Theatre. Here are three tickets,” she slipped a hand inside a pocket of her jacket and held out three slips of cardboard. “The seats are excellently placed. You will have a perfect view of the play. If you listen very carefully, you will learn exactly where to find that which you seek. You may then do what you wish on your client’s behalf. The tickets are for you, him, and this gentleman here,” she said, indicating me with the merest flick of her hand, a lightly tossed wrist of elegant disdain. She did not deign to cast a glance in my direction, but continue to address her remarks to Sha Lok. “He would be advised not to throw any smoke-bombs, or to set light to any of his garments, or prance about in an absurd fashion, or raise the alarm of fire in the theatre. It could cause panic,” she went on as I cringed in embarrassment.
Then, with a barely audible swish of silk and the merest waft of French perfume, she turned and was gone.
For a long moment the two of us stood immobile, not looking at one another, until U Sha Lok let out his breath in a long exhalation.
“Well,” he said, with the air of a man recovering his amour-propre. “We’ve obviously got her worried. But perhaps my disguise needed more work. And I suppose she’s right about, you know, not setting fire to things.”
“She did not look worried to me. But will you attend?”
“I must. And so must you, Wa Zone. I cannot speak for our secretive royal client, but I will urge him most strongly to come with us. The lady is clearly not to be trifled with.”
SHA Lok looked down at the three tickets that he had automatically accepted when Daw Aye Linn thrust them at him. “It is to be an evening of high culture, Wa Zone,” he said, with an attempt to regain his usual aloof manner. “We are to be treated to a gala performance of The Merchant of Mandalay by U William. And it seems that our recent visitor is to play the leading role, Ma Paw Sha. Are you familiar with the work?”
“Of course,” I said. “Every schoolchild knows the plays of U William.”
“I rather think this will be a particularly memorable performance,” he said faintly.
We foregathered, the three of us, in Bei Ka Street the following evening. U Sha Lok had persuaded our blue-blooded foreign client to forego his anonymous uniform, and he appeared clad in evening dress instead, looking doubtful, but saying little.
Arriving at the National Theatre, we were ushered to our seats, in the most expensive section of the house. U Sha Lok sat in the middle, with me on his left and our incognito royal friend on his right. As the great and the good of Yangon took their places around us, U Sha Lok had me run through the plot of the famous play, explaining that he himself had no time for culture and had neglected his literary education.
“Ma Paw Sha is a beautiful, brilliant and wealthy heiress in Mandalay, sought after by many powerful and formidable suitors. However, in accordance with the will of her late father, any man who seeks her hand must first choose from among three locked boxes, of gold, silver and lead, one of which contains the key to her heart. He who picks the right box may marry her, but any suitor who chooses the wrong box must swear to leave her presence instantly, and thereafter never marry,” I explained. “The Merchant of the title is the Chinese moneylender—”
But at that point I had to desist as the entire audience rose to its feet. The president of the republic had entered the theatre and, to tumultuous applause, waved graciously from the presidential box. The house lights immediately dimmed and the stage curtains swished open.
Looking back now, I remember little of the first couple of acts. Some say the play is anti-Chinese, citing the many ways in which the usurious merchant is made to look a fool, though he also speaks moving lines affirming his humanity. The cast were the flower of the nation’s theatrical talent and the well-known lines were delivered with all possible wit and grace, but I could not help wondering why Daw Aye Linn had summoned us to this performance so imperiously, and what she could have meant by her reference to a clue. U Sha Lok, too, sat in tense silence. Our client seemed to have dozed off.
My own attention may have wandered. The next thing I knew, U Sha Lok had dug me in the ribs with his elbow. On the stage, just a few feet in front of us, stood Daw Aye Linn, attended by her maids. “Let the first suitor enter,” she said in a clear, high voice. And onto the stage walked a tall man with dark, liquid eyes, resplendent in a dazzling white uniform with gold buttons and a tall military cap. His chest was covered with decorations, and he stalked toward Daw Aye Linn with a stiff and self-important gait.
U Sha Lok had evidently also roused our client, who gasped audibly at the apparition on the stage, but said nothing.
I am no literary critic, but I believe this was the point at which the action started to diverge from the immortal lines written by U William.
The white-uniformed suitor was speaking, in a marked eastern accent, as if to himself. “I am so elevated in birth and so important. My country is so powerful, and our king is so revered. We win all the football games and most of the gold medals. How can this girl not wish to marry me? Three boxes, hmm, gold, silver and lead. Why, there can be no question. Only the gold box can be important enough to contain the key to this maiden’s heart, not to mention the fact that boxes made of baser material cannot possibly be worthy of notice to a personage such as Moi. Deliver me the key!”
Ma Paw Sha’s loyal retainer, played by Ko Klu Ni, appeared bearing a golden key.
With great ceremony, the lanky princeling unlocked the golden casket and opened the lid.
“What is this?” he exclaimed. “There is a paper.” He handed it to Ko Klu Ni, who read it aloud:
“‘You have come to press your suit
“‘Bragging of one’s royal stock
“‘Very close, but no cheroot
“‘Now begone back to Ban—’
“Don’t say it!” wailed the white-uniformed figure. Amid the laughter and taunts of the audience, he stalked off the stage, presenting a figure both swaggering and forlorn.
In the darkness, I noted our client gazing at the stage, eyes wide and shiny, jaw slack, his expression unreadable.
Commanding the stage, Daw Aye Linn did not cast a second glance at the retreating figure. “Call in the second suitor!” she commanded.
Now it was my turn to gasp, and I felt U Sha Lok quiver wordlessly at my side. For the skinny, nervous-looking young man who darted onto the stage bore a remarkable resemblance to Yangon’s famous consulting detective. Twitching convulsively, he scarcely waited to hear the rules of Ma Paw Sha’s late father’s will explained to him before turning his attention to the three boxes. Whipping out from the top of his longyi a very large magnifying glass, he struck a dramatic attitude and intently examined each in turn.
“All I can tell you is that these are three boxes, made of gold, silver and lead, and that one of them contains the key to your heart,” he said portentously. “Beyond that, I know nothing.”
“Brilliantly spotted, oh great detective,” said Daw Aye Linn. “But which is it?”
The character on the stage before us, who bore such a remarkable resemblance to U Sha Lok, mused to himself. Which of the three boxes before him was the right one? “I observe that one candidate has already retreated, having failed in his quest. He was clearly such an important-looking personage that he can only have chosen the gold casket. Therefore, that option can be eliminated. That leaves us with the silver and the lead caskets. Hmm…”
The suitor stuck his magnifying glass back in his longyi and pulled out a large pipe, which he lit as he stalked backwards and forwards across the stage, puffing out clouds of acrid black smoke and talking as if to himself.
“The silver and the lead. The silver and the lead. Which one can it be? What a pity my derided and slow-witted rival of the Yangon Metropolitan Police Force, U Lek Trey, is not here. Then I could rely on him to make a fatuously confident and entirely incorrect prediction as to which of the two boxes it must be, enabling me to choose the other one, and inevitably be proved right. Which casket, then, would U Lek Trey select? Why, the silver, of course. No, wait. He would probably pick the lead. Oh, why is my loyal but not very bright collaborator Dr Wa Zone not here to help me?”
I shrank down in my seat, blushing in the dark for shame as the audience howled its appreciation.
On stage, the suitor continued to talk to himself. “I see no clue. Unless it be that these boxes contain some reference to the celebrated cases which have made me so deservedly famous. But which cases?”
He suddenly stopped in mid-stride. “I have it! Of course, it is elementary, since both lead and silver, as well as gold, are elements. We have eliminated the gold. As to lead, I cannot remember a single case where lead has ever featured. But I well remember the famous case of Silver Blaze, in which Wa Zone invented one of my deathless aperçus. I referred to the curious incident of the elephant in the night-time, and he said the elephant did nothing in the night-time, and I said, with my characteristic enigmatic brilliance, ‘that was the curious incident.’ Yes, that must be it.” He appeared to reach a decision.
“I will choose the silver.”
Ko Klu Ni wordlessly handed him the key, and the box was opened.
“But what is this!” exclaimed the actor, waving aside a cloud of smoke. “A picture of a blinking idiot! What can this mean?”
He plucked the slip of paper from the box and read aloud the words written on it.
“‘They say you're a master detective,
“‘Prancing round as you peer through your glass,
“‘But we see now your skills are defective,
“‘Ev’n with both hands, you can't find your—’
“Oh really, Madam!” the unfortunate suitor cried in mortification. “I must say—”
“You must say nothing!” cried Ma Paw Sha in a ringing voice. “You swore as a suitor to follow the rules. You chose the wrong box and now you must depart. And yet,” she continued, “I would have you wait a while, to see what must now befall. For a third suitor has revealed himself.”
Ko Klu Ni stepped forward. “Madam, I choose the lead box,” he said, and at once opened it. Reaching his hand inside, he took out a small pamphlet and handed it to her.
“This may be of some interest to you. Of more interest to me is this, your picture, which is also contained in the box, and which means—”
“It means you have won my heart, Ko Klu Ni!” Daw Aye Linn turned to the audience.
“Good friends, this is no play. For Ko Klu Ni and I are in love, and will soon be married!”
In the storm of applause that met this declaration, Ko Klu Ni and Daw Aye Linn bowed repeatedly, first to the presidential box and then to the rest of the packed house.
U Sha Lok, our client and I clapped feebly once or twice, not looking at one another.
“But what is this?” asked Daw Aye Linn as the applause eventually subsided. She held up the pamphlet Ko Klu Ni had handed to her.
“This little tract tells a very spicy tale,” she said, leafing through it. “Exotic goings-on of a most extraordinary nature are here, involving kings and queens and princes and princesses! Not in this country, of course. But not very far away, either! And written not by some obscure scribbling commoner, but someone very high up indeed. Someone I used to know quite well. Someone who might even be here this evening!”
Our client was clutching frenziedly at his hair, while U Sha Lok appeared stunned into silent inaction.
“Should I read it out loud?” asked Daw Aye Linn, waving the pamphlet about.
“Yes! Yes!” cried the audience.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes!” all cried again, all the louder.
“It’s awfully saucy,” she warned, appearing to demur.
“Read! Read! Read!” chanted the audience. Trapped in the middle of the row, the three of us could only sit in horrified silence.
Daw Aye Linn raised a hand, stilling the roar of the crowd. “Yes, I could read this thing. It tells of corruption and crime and infamy within palace walls. It would appal and delight you in equal measure, and it would cause a scandal that would shake coronets from some very uneasy heads.
“But tonight I am betrothed to my own true love, and now is a time for mercy, and the quality of mercy is not strained. Despite the dread and fear of kings, mercy is above the sceptered sway. Ko Klu Ni.”
Her actor beloved handed her a plastic cigarette lighter. Taking it, she clicked on a flame and applied it to the pamphlet, holding the flimsy paper until the flames licked at her very wrist, and she dropped it. All the audience watched in silence as the flames reduced it to ashes. In the darkness, I thought I sensed a movement in the presidential box. A uniformed figure was leaning forward, as if to watch more closely. From two seats away, on the other side of U Sha Lok, came a long, shuddering, heartfelt sigh of what sounded like relief.
“There remains only one thing before we resume our play,” said Daw Aye Linn, scattering with a dainty foot the ashes of the pamphlet she had just burned. “I would like to offer public thanks to a man who is almost as remarkable as he thinks he is, one who, quite unwittingly, has helped me prepare for this evening, which I shall remember all my life. And so, I think, will he, if not with quite such warm feelings. Lights!”
And a brilliant spotlight above the stage swivelled rapidly, pinning U Sha Lok to his seat with a lance of light, as an insect is pinned to a card. A buzz of interest ran through the auditorium, and a thousand heads turned towards us. Again I fancied that I saw a movement in the presidential box as a pair of lorgnettes was trained upon my companion.
“All hail the great detective, U Sha Lok of Bei Ka Street!” cried Daw Aye Linn as the audience applauded in good-natured derision. A good evening to you, Dr Wa Zone of the Burning Longyi. And to your other friend there, who shall be nameless, kob kun ka for the memories!”
Though the play soon after resumed, as originally written by U William, it seemed to me that the laughter of the audience, free of malice but certainly at our expense, dinned in our ears for the rest of the evening.
Finally the play, and its seemingly endless triumphant curtain calls, was over. As if in a daze, the three of us stumbled out into the street, enveloped in the theatre crowd. We walked disconsolately along Pyay Road, our client having told his chauffeur to stay in Bei Ka Street. Each of us was lost in his thoughts. At least, the other two seemed to be. I myself was not really thinking about anything very much, but I could not help feeling that my companions must have been very unhappy about the way the evening had developed.
As if by common consent, we headed in silence back to Bei Ka Street. Outside 221B U Sha Lok, still evidently reeling from his experience in the theatre, turned to our client as if to speak, but the prince forestalled him. “One wishes to thank you, U Sha Lok. You succeeded brilliantly! My pamphlet has been destroyed! There can be no doubt of it. And it was all your doing. You have my most earnest thanks, Sir, and that of my House, my king and my country. You have performed a great service, and have only to name your reward.”
U Sha Lok appeared dazed. “Well, if you say so,” he murmured rather feebly.
“One does indeed say so.” The prince continued to speak, as if to himself. “But was she not entrancing? What beauty, what charm, what elegance! Most of all, I admire her stunning intelligence and air of command. No wonder our men are so captivated by your Myanmar women. She is, of course, far below me in rank. But what a queen she would have made!”