A Study in Saffron
It was in the rainy season of eighty-six that I first met him. How often since have I reflected what a slender chance it was that brought me into contact with one of the most remarkable men it has been my privilege to encounter; and how profoundly his friendship, not to mention his extraordinary gifts and his unique profession, have changed the course of my life, and that of so many others, for better or for worse.
Because of my harrowing experience in the fighting in the troubled Wa zone in northern Myanmar, the international medical NGO I worked for had insisted on an extended spell of enforced rest and recreation in Yangon. But I knew no-one in the great metropolis. After the first few days of diversion in my new surroundings, I must confess that a certain ennui had set in, and I felt increasingly at a loose end.
Nor were my finances very sound. Though the mission subsistence allowance paid by my employer went a long way on the frontier, here in the big city it seemed slender indeed. Though I had first put up at the excellent Strand Hotel, knowing no other, I was becoming ever more conscious of the expense, but knew of no means of finding more reasonably priced accommodation.
One afternoon, when the torrential downpour of the morning had dwindled to a fine drizzle, I was strolling in Maha Bandoola Park, when, to my surprise, I saw a familiar face. It was old Boothby, the embassy wallah whom I had briefly met at a reception before being deployed to the north. Of course, we got chatting and I told him of my plight. “All I’m looking for is a decent set of rooms at a reasonable price. Is that so hard to find in such a large city?”
“How very strange,” he remarked at once. “A fellow I met just this morning was complaining to me in exactly the same terms.” It emerged that his acquaintance had found a modest two-bedroom apartment with a sitting room not far from the park, which was however beyond his purse. “You must introduce us,” I urged him, and was at once struck by the expression of reserve on his face. “Is there anything wrong?” I asked.
“Not exactly wrong. For all I know, U Sha Lok is a perfectly decent fellow. I know nothing against him, at any rate. But he is certainly a singular character.”
“In what way singular?”
“He appears to be a man of science, but pursues no profession that I know of. He certainly seems to know a great deal about anatomy and chemistry, particularly the effects of strong drugs and poisons, as well as knife and gunshot wounds, and while he devotes himself to his studies with a fiendish concentration, he seems to have little time for his fellow man.”
“That would not trouble me,” I assured him. “After my terrible ordeal in the Wa zone, I am looking for peace and quiet. I could not tolerate a companion who thought himself the life and soul of the party.”
“Then he may indeed be your man. You can find him at the hospital laboratory, if you’d care to, for that is where he spends much of his day, engaged in who knows what study.”
I at once bent my steps there, having no other errand, and asked the receptionist if U Sha Lok had arrived. As I spoke his name, a man standing a few feet away turned and looked sharply at me. “I am the man you seek,” he said, striding towards me and shaking my hand with a surprisingly powerful grip.
His personal appearance created a strong impression. He was above the normal height, and though slightly stooped, appeared taller because of his excessive leanness. Bright eyes glowed above a hawk-like nose. A jutting chin denoted determination. And his hands were spotted and stained with chemical marks and burns, as if he spent much time with his test tubes, his potions and his experiments, and was careless of the consequences to his person.
He spoke with a quick, confident manner. “I perceive that your name is Dr John Smith, you work for Surgeons without Borders, and you have recently returned from the Wa zone after undergoing a terrible experience.”
“How on earth do you know that?” I asked in astonishment.
“You have the unmistakeable bearing of a man who does terribly important work for a terribly important international non-governmental organisation. Yet, I note your haggard appearance, as one who has suffered privations. Therefore, you have not been sitting at a desk in a comfortable headquarters location, but were deployed to the field. At this point in time, no posting is more taxing than the Wa zone, so I surmise that you served there. Besides, you are still wearing your ID around your neck, which records your name, grade and duty station. How may I be of assistance to you?”
I explained my plight. He said at once, “Why, that is capital. I have found an excellent set of rooms very close to here, in Bei Ka Street. But are you sure you would like to share with me? I have some very unusual habits, not to say vices. I chew betel, of course, and smoke our local green cheroots, as well as British or American cigarettes when I can get hold of them and, in order to accentuate my exotic appeal, Gauloises. As a pipe smoker, I always enjoy a good rough shag. I am partial sometimes to opium. I can go for days on end without talking to anyone, and keep very irregular hours. I work a great deal with strong chemicals and, oh yes, I often play the Burmese harp to help me concentrate or relax. But if you feel you can put up with me, then let us go there now.”
“Most certainly, U Sha Lok,” I said.
“But what shall I call you?” he asked. “‘John Smith’ is much too difficult to pronounce. In view of your most recent service deployment, I shall call you ‘U Wa Zone’. Unless you have any objection?”
“None in the world,” I replied.
And so it transpired that I became acquainted with one of the most extraordinary men I have ever met, an individual of towering intellect and no mean scientific achievement, who lived by his wits in solving mysteries beyond the grasp of the official Yangon police. Yet he was also one of the coldest, most rational of men, who sometimes seemed to lack normal human warmth or even the power to perceive the feelings of others. Perhaps most remarkable of all was his faculty of observation and deduction, tools of his peculiar trade which he had honed to a particular sharpness, and employed to the most startling effect.
I see I have spoken of the “trade” of my flat-mate, U Sha Lok. But I get ahead of myself. In the early days of our acquaintance, I had not the least idea of his occupation, nor did he seem willing to speak of it. What I did notice was that he received the visits of a remarkably varied class of people, some of whom spent hours in earnest discussion with him. One was a young woman, to all appearances delicately brought up, but with a troubled face I never saw lit by a smile. Another appeared to be a sidecar driver, hoarse of voice and teeth stained crimson from the inevitable betel. Number three was a gentleman in a pink satin gaungbaung, paunchy and portly, pompous, imposing, prosperous-looking and self-important, obviously a senior army officer. Of the details of their consultations I knew nothing, since on their arrival at our flat I would withdraw to my room, or set out on a long walk, yielding to him and his visitor our common sitting-room. He apologised for this imposition, and would often play for me one of my favourite pieces on the harp in recompense. But he never did explain who his visitors were, or the reason for their calls on him.
One who came more than once was a short, ferrety man whose name I remembered, for it was announced by our housekeeper, Daw Hat Sun. This shifty-looking customer, who went by the name U Lek Trey, combined in his manner both officiousness and, at least in the presence of U Sha Lok, a marked but reluctant deference, as if he were somehow obliged to recognise in my flatmate skills superior to his own.
One rainy morning, as U Sha Lok and I were partaking of the breakfast mohinga brought to us by Daw Hat Sun, I was leafing idly through The Myanmar Times. “Here’s another story about beggars shaving their heads and dressing up as monks to induce passers-by to hand over their money,” I remarked. “It’s quite shameful how some people will take advantage of the natural reverence people feel for a man of the cloth.”
“Donning a monk’s garb transforms a man,” observed U Sha Lok. “He can pass wither he pleases, equally at home in palace or hovel and, except for the teashop or the ale-house, none will think it strange to see him there or mark his presence.”
At that moment, I happened to glance out of the window. Across the street stood a middle-aged man, motionless and apparently irresolute as he gazed towards our house. He was hatless, bore no umbrella, and appeared indifferent to the heavy rain that had soaked his garments.
“I wonder what that fellow could possibly want,” I remarked idly.
“You mean the retired sergeant of marines?” U Sha Lok said at once.
“Oh really, U Sha Lok. You cannot possibly know that the man is a retired sergeant of marines.”
“You think so? But perhaps we shall soon find out, for I perceive he is crossing the street now.”
At that moment there came a loud knock on the door and, sure enough, a few moments later our visitor was ushered into the room, still dripping with rain on our worn but intricately patterned China carpet.
“U Sha Lok?” he inquired, looking from one to another of us. When my flatmate identified himself, the stranger handed him a blue envelope and made to depart.
“By the way, my man, what is your profession?” asked U Sha Lok.
“Messenger, sir. Late of the 35th Marine Regiment, retired. A sergeant, I was,” he said proudly, as he left the room.
I turned in astonishment to my companion, who had opened the envelope and withdrawn the letter within. “U Sha Lok! How could you possibly have known that man’s profession?”
U Sha Lok, his eyes bent on the letter in fierce concentration, replied only with an impatient wave of the hand.
“My apologies, U Wa Zone,” he said, a moment later. “I was pursuing a chain of thought. How did I know? Why, it is easier to know than to explain how I know. But since you ask, did you not observe the anchor tattooed on his wrist? It was clearly visible even as he stood across the street. Obviously, the mark of a military man, one with a naval connection. His upright bearing and air of command, even though in civilian clothing, was also immediately apparent. But he had not the superior air of the commissioned officer.”
“Why, that is remarkable!” I exclaimed.
“Not so remarkable, however, as the contents of his missive,” said U Sha Lok, tossing the letter to me across the breakfast table. “What d’you make of that?”
I read the note with interest. It stated as follows:
“My dear U Sha Lok,
“There has been a bad business during the night at 3, Ba Thoun Street. Our man on the beat saw a light there about two in the morning, and as the house was an empty one, suspected that something was amiss. He found the door open, and in the front room, which is bare of furniture, discovered the body of a gentleman, distinctively attired, and having cards in his pocket bearing the name of ‘Jasper B. Monk, Oakland, California, USA.’ There had been no robbery, nor is there any evidence as to how the man met his death. There are marks in the room that might be blood, but there is no wound upon his person. We are at a loss as to how he came into the empty house; indeed, the whole affair is a puzzler. If you can come round to the house any time before twelve, you will find me there. I have left everything in statu quo until I hear from you. If you are unable to come I shall give you fuller details, and would esteem it a great kindness if you would favour me with your opinion. Yours faithfully,
“U Lek Trey.”
"U Lek Trey is one of our better official detectives. For all his skills, though, and the vast organisation at his disposal, he often draws a blank in his investigations. That is when he calls on me for help,” U Sha Lok said rather dismissively.
He finished his mohinga and pushed away the bowl. “This matter may be a mere trifle. I cannot decide whether to involve myself or not.”
“But you must, surely! A man has met his death in peculiar circumstances. You clearly have a certain skill in these matters, and the police are asking your help. Will you not go?”
He considered me for a while, his hawk-like face expressionless. “Well, perhaps I will. If you are not engaged, would it amuse you to come with me?”
“By all means!” I cried, seizing my umbrella. A moment later we were aboard a sidecar, rattling briskly toward Anawrahta Street. On the way, my companion discoursed idly about the virtues of the Burmese harp and its superiority over the Japanese shamisen.
“You don’t seem very concerned about this matter,” I remarked.
“On the contrary. But I decline to speculate. It is a capital mistake to theorise before you have all the data,” he replied.
As we sped along Anawrahta Street, almost empty of traffic at this hour of the mid-morning, U Sha Lok suddenly ordered the sidecar driver to stop. We got off at the corner of Ba Thoun Street and walked the rest of the way. At the door, U Sha Lok halted me with an imperious hand and, adopting an odd crouching gait, sidled along the path that led past the building, scrutinising it with care. Ignoring the uniformed officer standing at the entrance, he beckoned to me and we entered.
No 3, Ba Thoun Street was one of a terrace of shabby and unsightly buildings thrown up in the mid-seventies, judging by the banality of their appearance and the shoddiness of their construction. Passing under an archway between a grimy but teeming teashop and an emporium of religious artefacts and attire, we climbed narrow concrete steps that led upwards through gloom into a foetid passage.
As we stepped into the main front room, I had to stifle a gasp of horror at the sight that awaited us. As a mid-level official working with a major international NGO I am of course accustomed to scenes of violent death, but the spectacle before us surpassed even the worst of my experience.
The room itself, I should tell you, was square and empty under its high ceiling. The walls were covered with a dingy grey paint dripping in places with damp and decay. The rough floorboards were coated with a film of dust. On the windowsill stood a stubby red candle, unlit, held in place by its own melted wax.
All of that I noted later. What struck me at once, with tremendous force, as I stood in the doorway looking over U Sha Lok’s shoulder, was the sight of the sprawling body of a middle-aged man, his arms splayed wide. In life he had been tall and strongly built. He was wearing a black leather jacket decorated with steel studs, leather trousers and calf-length leather boots. His hands were heavily tattooed and his black hair long and greasy. He wore a red and white bandana around his head, and there was the stubble of several days on his chin. And to this day I shudder as I recall the worst of it – the expression on that lifeless face was one of unimaginable horror, his mouth agape, his lips drawn back from his teeth, his sightless eyes staring madly at the ceiling.
Even in happier moments than this, he could not have been a pleasant-looking man. Setting aside the expression he bore in his final extremity, his low forehead and bristling eyebrows, his thick and stubby nose, his thin lips all bespoke a cruel, narrow and perhaps violent individual. Yet the rascally nature of a victim in no way condones his murder, and to all appearances it was murder that had been done here, in this shabby room where we stood as the sidecars pedalled by and the vendors called their wares in the street outside.
As I contemplated the terrible scene, U Sha Lok was constantly in motion, now examining the walls with the aid of his magnifying glass, now on his knees intently studying the dusty surface of the floorboards, now beside the body. He appeared to be sniffing its dead lips. “No wound, you say,” he said crisply.
“Our medical examiner has not been able to determine cause of death so far. There is no visible wound on the body.”
“Has he been turned over? I have seen all I need to see. You may do it now,” said U Sha Lok. Two constables stepped forward and took the dead man by the shoulders. As they struggled to lay his heavy body face down, I heard a tinkling sound as a ring fell from the man’s clothing and, a dancing twist of gold, spun briefly on the bare boards. U Sha Lok snatched it up.
“No date, no inscription. And yet, I fancy this mute token may lead us to the killer,” he said, holding the ring in the palm of his hand.
“And so might this!” cried U Lek Trey suddenly from the corner of the room. “Come and look at this, U Sha Lok, if you please!” And holding up his plastic cigarette lighter, he illuminated a patch on the wall by the smeared window-pane. Daubed there in some orange-brown substance, illuminated by the flickering flame of the lighter, was the word Parami.
“There!” exclaimed the detective, in tones of great satisfaction. “Parami! Why, this explains it all. Oh, U Sha Lok, we know all about your fine theories and your exotic methods. Observation and deduction! Ho yes, that’s all very well. But at the end of the day, you know, nothing beats plain ordinary foot-slogging police work.” The ferrety little man positively bulged with self-indulgence.
“Well there’s the clue to the whole thing, right there!” exclaimed U Lek Trey, pointing at the word "Parami" inscribed in Myanmar script on the dingy wall in a brownish tint that might have been dried blood.
“Indeed,” said U Sha Lok coolly, in no whit discomfited by the triumphant air of the official detective. “And pray tell us, U Lek Trey, what you deduce from this word and how it helps us know the identity of the murderer in this case?”
“Why, sir, it’s obvious. Confronted by his foe, who he knew was bent on his death, the victim wrote this word on the wall to alert investigators as to the identity of his would-be killer. And why at this spot?” He pointed dramatically to the extinct candle-end stuck to the window sill a few inches from the wall. “This spot, I say, so obscure in the daylight of this dim room was, last night, in the light of this candle, brightly illuminated. And what did he mean by the word? Clearly, he meant to convey that the murderer lived in Parami Road, a squalid and disreputable quarter of Yangon infested with the meaner criminal element. I think you will find, U Sha Lok,” U Lek Trey nodded portentously, wagging his finger in my friend’s direction, “That a swift raid, which I will order carried out this very morning, will net a dozen desperadoes known to us who will be able to shed light on this dastardly affair! Our man is as good as in our hands.”
“Really,” remarked U Sha Lok, his tone that of a man who masked with difficulty his amusement. He strolled over and, magnifying glass in hand, cast a cursory glance at the word written on the wall. “Perhaps they will also explain why the murderer stood patiently and watched while his victim prepared a piece of evidence likely to convict him, and then failed to rub it off after he had done away with him?”
“Hmph! No doubt in the heat of the struggle he was distracted and then, the foul deed done, made off for fear of discovery before he could clear away all traces of his guilt. No, sir, I think you will find that the duck is as good as cooked.”
“Might your suspect also explain why, having written this incriminating word on the wall in this dark substance, managed to do so without leaving a single trace on his fingertips? For the victim’s hands are entirely innocent of any stain,” said U Sha Lok calmly.
U Lek Trey did not seem to have thought of this. “Really? Oh. Well, anyway, I have no doubt I am right. But just out of interest,” and here he assumed a condescending, humouring tone little short of outright derision, “What might be your explanation of this word, U Sha Lok?”
“Why, it was written by the killer, after the death of his victim. And it denotes that he acted, not out of revenge or any low motive, but simply to restore the genius of ‘parami’. But I fear the roots of this affair run very deep, and are not to be found here in Yangon, or all Myanmar, though the killer may yet linger here. Otherwise, all I can tell you of our culprit is that he is a little taller than the average, left-handed, with rather long fingernails, bald, has a good knowledge of the English language, and eats lots of fish. Apart from that, I know nothing.”
“Well we shall see about that,” said U Lek Trey, reverting to his previous officiousness. “You may go your way, U Sha Lok, but we will do our humble duty as officers of the law and shall this day lay our man by the heels. We’ll get a result all right. You see if we don’t!”
As we emerged into Ba Thoun Street, the mackerel sky above threatening a further downpour, U Sha Lok was shaking with silent laughter.
“Oh, U Wa Zone, the observation of our police agents as they go about their work, bungling at every turn, is for the discerning professional truly one of life’s more exquisite pleasures!” he exclaimed.
“You think you can beat them at their own game and catch the man who did this?” I asked. “And your detailed description – bald, speaks English, likes fish, for heaven’s sake. How on earth did you deduce all that?”
“Why, I have no doubt that we shall catch him. As to my description, for the moment, suffice it to say that the word "Parami" was inscribed by his index finger, presumably at eye-level. This man’s eye-level was the same as my own and I, as you see, am slightly above the common height. The word was written very close to the corner of the room, so that a man facing it would have found it much easier to write with his left hand than his right. Upon observing the word with my magnifying glass, I remarked some tiny scratches as if, in inscribing it, his nails had scraped the letters. As for the rest, it is all a mere trifle, which I shall explain once we have caught him. And this very afternoon I shall take the first steps towards that end. But first, a little relaxation. There is a harp concert this afternoon in the precincts of Sule Pagoda. I propose first to take a cup of tea at this excellent establishment before us and then repair there, where you are welcome to accompany me.”
Back at our lodgings at Bei Ka Street, immediately strode to his writing-desk and began scrawling on a piece of paper.
“What do you mean to do now?” I asked.
“We found a ring at the scene. Somebody – probably the killer – left it there, and probably inadvertently. Perhaps they would like to have it back,” he said tersely as he wrote. “I intend to place an advertisement in the personal columns of our best periodicals, where it will certainly be seen by the widest variety of readers. This should serve.” He handed me the note he had written. It read:
“FOUND, in the middle of Anawrahta Street early this morning, a plain gold lady’s wedding ring. For further particulars, please refer to Dr Wa Zone of 221B Bei Ka Street etc etc.”
“We must say it was found in the middle of the street, or it will arouse suspicion. He who lost the ring must believe it was found innocently by a passer-by, or at least be so eager to retrieve it that he will take the risk. My apologies for using your name, my dear chap, but mine may already be too well known in these dark circles in which we are moving.”
Then, to my surprise, he flung open the window, stuck his head out and gave a sharp whistle. Moments later, we heard the sound of protestations and remonstrances coming from below as our housekeeper, Daw Hat Sun, apparently endeavoured to stem the intrusion of a small herd of elephants. U Sha Lok smiled to himself as we heard the sound of flip-flops on the stairs. As the door burst open, half a dozen small boys, aged between eight and twelve, poured into the room, followed by a cross and flustered Daw Hat Sun. They lined up at attention in front of my friend, like little soldiers on parade.
“I’m so sorry, gentlemen, I did my best to stop them. You boys have no business – ”
“That’s quite all right, Daw Hat Sun,” smiled U Sha Lok indulgently. “They are here at my bidding. But you boys!” he addressed the miniature mob sternly. “When I call, I wish only Maung Oo to attend me. You others wait in the street.”
The boys, already red in tooth from betel-chewing, their faces smeared with thanaka in the most outlandish designs, their sandaled feet muddy and their longyis tattered, nodded shamefacedly and went raggle-taggle down the stairs, pursued by a scolding Daw Hat Sun.
“Now, Maung Oo,” U Sha Lok turned on the last remaining of these young reprobates, who stood to attention with a rigour that would have pleased a colour sergeant-major.
U Sha Lok handed him the note. “Take this immediately to the offices of The Myanmar Times and ask for publication in this evening’s edition.” He doled out a handful of coins. “Here is three kyat; that should suffice to cover the cost. Here, another ten for your troops. Wait, here is another two kyat. Place the advertisement also in Eleven Journal. That will ensure it is seen from the highest to the lowest reaches of society. And now…”
U Sha Lok bent forwards and murmured urgently to the unkempt boy in tones too rapid and low for me to follow. After a few moments the lad nodded, turned, and slipped soundlessly through the door on his errand.
“Behold the Bei Ka Street irregulars,” said U Sha Lok sardonically as the boy left. “They move swiftly, are sharp of wit, eye and ear, and all but invisible. While the sight of a uniformed policeman will put a halt to any criminal activity or discussion, these boys can approach and pass unnoticed by the most suspicious and hardiest desperadoes. Properly disciplined, they are the most invaluable source of information on what is happening in the highways and byways of our great city.”
“Very good. And now?” I asked.
“Now, we wait,” he said, languidly arranging himself along the worn settee in our sitting room and lighting a cheroot.
Towards evening, as the rain beat once more against the window-pane and agreeable aromas of kaukswe wafting up from Daw Hat Sun’s kitchen were prompting me to think of dinner, the doorbell rang.
“Aha!” cried U Sha Lok, his listlessness vanishing upon the instant. “I doubt not that this is our man. Here, take this.” He handed me a gold ring. “This is a cheap substitute, not the one we found this morning. But I fancy that will make no difference. U Wa Zone, during your dangerous service on the border did you chance to have a pistol?”
“Of course not, U Sha Lok. I worked for a highly reputable international civilian humanitarian organisation.”
“Get your stiletto, then. It may come in handy if things get rough,” he said, just as Daw Hat Sun knocked and entered to inform us that we had a visitor.
But picture the consternation that overcame U Sha Lok’s features as our caller entered. For, instead of the bald, English-speaking, fish-eating desperado that he had evidently expected, she was a little old lady, aged and bent, wearing a sun-hat with a broad and floppy brim that obscured much of her face.
“Good evening, madam. Do I take it you have come in response to my advertisement?” said U Sha Lok.
“Yes, sir,” she replied in a quavering voice. “The ring belongs to my granddaughter Ma Khine. She lost it when she was on her way to worship at Shwe Dagon Pagoda. The ring is very precious to her, and we shall be much obliged to you if you could return it.”
“Quite so. Well, madam, here it is. U Wa Zone?”
I handed the aged person the ring U Sha Lok had given me, and she took it without a second look.
“Thank you sir,” she said, and turned to go.
“One moment!” cried U Sha Lok. “May I know your name and address?”
“I am Daw Aye Aye Kyaw, sir, of Oak Pe Street, Mingaladon.”
“But Anawrahta Street does not lie between Mingaladon and Shwe Dagon.”
“No, sir. My granddaughter does not live in Mingaladon. She lives in Pansodan.”
“I see. Very well, then. I wish you a pleasant evening.”
No sooner had the sitting room door closed on the elderly lady than U Sha Lok smote his palm with his fist. “A trick, it must be a trick; else, he has an accomplice,” he murmured, as if to himself. “U Wa Zone, I must make haste. Don’t wait up for me!” And in an instant he was gone, into the night.
When I found him at breakfast the next morning, his manner was a queer mixture of chagrin and eagerness. “She gave me the slip, U Wa Zone! That is to say, he did, for now I am certain that our visitor of last evening was no elderly dame, but our quarry himself who, may I say, matches myself as a master of disguise. On gaining the street last night, I was in time to see our visitor disappearing round the corner on a sidecar. I hailed the next one and set off in hot pursuit. But he must have been aware of me, for in that seedy tangle of alleys behind the British Embassy he gave me the slip. By the time I had caught up with his sidecar, he had gone, and made off into the night. We face a slippery customer, U Wa Zone, infinitely cunning and dangerous. And yet, I still have one or two irons in the fire.”
Just then the bell rang, and moments later we were joined by U Lek Trey, who radiated an even more powerful aura of smugness than he had the day before in the charnel house on Anawrahta Street.
“I just dropped by to tell you, U Sha Lok, that you need waste no more of your prodigious brainpower on our little mystery. For I have found our man, who is even now behind bars at Bo Street police station.”
“The devil you have,” cried U Sha Lok, his face for a moment showing consternation. But only for a moment. “Pray tell me, U Lek Trey, the identity of your prisoner?”
“Why, sir, the thing was easy enough once our plodding Yangon Metropolitan Police got onto the job. We may lack your dash and your sparkle, U Sha Lok, but you may rely on us for solid achievement. The guilty party is a notorious loan shark, who has made a fortune wagering on the outcome of English Premier League matches. His name is Man U Win, and he lives, as I suspected, in Parami Road. We picked him up at once the moment our informants told us he had been seen in the vicinity of Anawrahta Street late last night. We’ve been after this customer for a very long time, as he is a suspect in at least three murders. I have no doubt yesterday’s business will make a fourth.”
U Sha Lok had by now completely recovered his habitual sang froid. “My congratulations on a job well done, my dear fellow. But has your man confessed?”
“Not yet. Indeed, he denies all knowledge of the affair, though he was forced to admit going to Ba Thoun Street late last night, and will not say why. No doubt he feels the noose closing around his neck.”
At that moment there came a loud knock on the street door below.
“U Lek Trey, I pray you do us the honour of waiting a moment before returning to the scene of your triumph and extracting a confession from your suspect. You may find it interesting to meet our visitor, who is even now ascending the stairs,” said U Sha Lok. As he spoke, he took a pair of handcuffs from a drawer and concealed them in the top of his longyi. “U Wa Zone, at my word, be ready to strike!”
“Sir, the cabman you ordered,” called Daw Hat Sun from the landing. I opened the door to reveal a burly fellow in workman’s clothing, a grimy cap upon his head, pulled down firmly over his eyes and over his grey-streaked hair.
U Sha Lok turned his back on the fellow, who entered the room with a slow and reluctant tread. “Kindly bear me a hand with these valises if you please, my good man,” he said, half turning his head. With an air of disgruntlement, the man slouched forward.
Then, quicker than thought, U Sha Lok spun round and snapped the cuffs to his wrist. “U Wa Zone, seize him! U Lek Trey!” he cried, clinging tight to the ruffian’s free arm. For all the force the three of us could bring to bear, the cabman fought like a fury to be free. With hideous oaths he struggled in our grip until I struck him hard on the jaw, and U Lek Trey applied his own handcuffs to the man’s ankles. We were all of us quite breathless by the time we had subdued him.
Standing in the middle of the room, U Sha Lok pointed an imperious finger. “I present to you Daniel Maung, also known as Kyaw Maung, the murderer of Jasper B. Monk, Oakland, California, USA!” he cried. “Come, admit it man, our case against you is complete!”
“’Twas never murder,” said the man, who had recovered his breath and seemed resigned to his capture. All traces of violence and defiance had now been erased from his manner, and there was about him a kind of serenity. He spoke quietly, even with a tinge of ironic humour, though not devoid of bitterness. “If ever a man deserved to die, it was the demon Jasper Monk. His death was no murder, but heaven’s revenge. My part in his death was an act of virtue—even of genius, you might almost say.”
U Sha Lok cast a meaningful glance at U Lek Trey. “You admit, then, writing the word ‘parami’ on the wall beside your victim?”
“Aye, so I did. And I will tell the world why, too, and dare any man to say he would have done different, if he had suffered the same fate as I,” said the man stoutly. “I gave him a choice he never gave to my darling, whom he destroyed!”
“That’s as may be,” said U Lek Trey sternly. “Yet for all that you’ll be charged with murder and answer at Yangon assizes. And then to a higher power than that, I should say!”
The man shrugged. “I don’t fear your earthly judges. Where were they when I wanted justice? I took it for myself, for none other ever offered it.”
“U Sha Lok,” I said, rather diffident before this display of defiance which, I confess, I found rather stirring. My friend looked at me questioningly.
“You said he was bald,” I reminded him.
With a flick of the wrist, U Sha Lok whisked the man’s cap from his head, taking with it the grey wig beneath, revealing a scalp as hairless as a billiard ball.
The man looked at him with an air of mocking disdain. “Oh, you’re a clever man and no mistake, U Sha Lok. But I daresay in all your investigations you’ve never heard a stranger tale than I can tell.”
“I would hear it gladly,” said U Sha Lok. “If U Lek Trey has no objection to our whiling away an hour or so before he carts you off to Bo Street?”
As Lek Trey nodded assent, our prisoner began to speak. “My story begins in the state of California, and two of its great cities, that face each other across the Bay—San Francisco and Oakland,” began Daniel Maung. “For it was in Oakland that lived the demon Jasper Monk, and in San Francisco that dwelt the fairest and sweetest girl I ever met—my dearest Kate, Katherine Moran. We all knew each other from studying together at the University of Berkeley in the sixties.
“It was the summer of love,” he continued fondly. “You gentlemen may be too young to remember, but you must have heard what it was like in San Francisco and in Berkeley in those far-off days. Long hair, rock music, free drugs, free sex. That’s no exaggeration, whatever you may have read is the truth. I was there. And as students at Berkeley, the most left-wing, free-thinking place on the planet—why, we had it all, I tell you. What between sit-ins and be-ins and love-ins with flowers in our hair, the free rock concerts and the free LSD, we spent most of our time floating high above the earth. As a chemistry major, I was even able to manufacture some of the drugs we used myself.
“I wouldn’t say Jasper and I were rivals for Kate’s affection. It never seemed to me that way at the time. Maybe there were things going on below the surface I never saw. At any rate, she chose me, and he seemed to take it in good part, and I can tell you gentlemen she made me the happiest man in the world.
“But in the early seventies we all came down with a crash. The world didn’t seem so much fun any more. When we left Berkeley, Kate and I hooked up with a Buddhist sect in Frisco, not far from Haight-Ashbury, where all the hippy action was in those days. There wasn’t much money. We could always get acid, but it was illegal now, and the cops were starting to crack down. We weren’t really what you’d call attuned to the world of work, and the idealism of the sixties protests seemed to have curdled into something violent and sour.
“As for Jasper, he went in a different direction. He graduated the same time as us—in comparative religion, as it happens, magna cum laude—then got involved with a motorcycle gang. He always had a wild side, and he was into leather. Next we heard, he’d formed his own chapter, the Zombie Angels, and they were making a name for themselves as one of the most dangerous outfits on the West Coast. There were wild stories of drug raids and shoot-outs with the police.
“Well, he had his life and we had ours, so I had no problem with that until the day he turned up, without warning, at the squat I shared with Kate and a few others. We spent our time fasting and meditating and chanting, and drug-taking. Back home in Daly City I’d been brought up as a Baptist, but I always felt more drawn to Buddhism. Though I lacked the discipline for that noble faith, I revered its precepts and I still follow its practices to this day, if temptation allows me. For I have to admit, we also smoked a lot of dope.
“Anyway, Jasper was coming to us with a proposition. His Zombie Angels chapter had grown to be a power in the illegal drugs market, but the cops and the FBI were hot on his trail. He said he needed to pull off just one more major deal that would net him enough money to retire on. He claimed he was getting tired of the violence and the criminality. He talked a lot about the old days, how we’d sat up all night discussing karma and suchlike. And he asked for our help.
“It didn’t seem like much at first. He just needed a couple of lookouts, but they had to be clean. Jasper was pretty sure all his own people were known to the Feds, and I had the feeling he was afraid some of them had turned informer. I didn’t see why we should help Jasper, but he played on the sympathy Kate had for old times’ sake, and I went along with it to protect her.
“Well, I was right not to trust him. The whole thing turned out to be a setup. It was Jasper himself tipped off the cops, but the information he gave them was partial and misleading. While he escaped with the drugs, Kate and I were trapped in a shoot-out. She was killed outright and I was caught and made to take the blame for the whole caper. They put me in Sing Sing for 20 years.
“All that time I swore that as soon as I was released I would go looking for Jasper Monk, and so I did. I meant to make him pay for Kate’s death and the loss of my freedom. I put out feelers in the Bay area, and heard he’d gone to the Golden Triangle to arrange a major opium score. I set off after him, but arrived too late. They told me there he’d come on here to Yangon to finalise his arrangements with the people in charge.
“I had to be careful. But my big advantage over him was that I could pass as a local. I hit on the idea of having my head shaved and sometimes going about as a monk. It made me sick to do it, but as a disguise it was perfect. For my other disguise, I rented a sidecar and passed myself off as its driver. What between the two disguises, I could go anywhere in the city I pleased without anyone giving me a second look. There aren’t so many foreigners in Yangon, particularly looking like him. And pretty soon I had tracked him down to his lair, a small hotel off Strand Road. All I had to do then was get him alone.”
“For I knew how I meant to deal with him. I’d spied out the city for empty houses, and I knew the place at Anawrahta Street was vacant, if I could only induce him to go there with me. But angry as I was, evil as he was, I could not bring myself to murder him in cold blood. Besides, revenge has no spice unless the victim knows why he is being killed. I wanted him to die with the knowledge that he was paying for what he’d done to Kate and me. So using my knowledge of chemistry, I made up two identical tablets – one harmless, the other containing a deadly poison. Looking at them, even I couldn’t tell which was which. But when would I get my chance to use them? Then my chance came, and sooner than I expected.
“Just two nights ago, amid torrential rain, I was hanging about in front of his hotel when I saw him emerge and look about him. I turned my sidecar to pass him and, as I’d hoped, he hailed me and climbed in. He had a scrap of paper with him and he peered at it under the glow of the street lights, as if the place was strange to him. Then he thrust it under my nose, for he could not read the address in our language. After that, nothing could be simpler. I took him direct to the empty house at 3, Ba Thoun Street, making him believe that that was his destination.
“When we got there, he looked a bit uncertain, as if he’d been expecting something else. But he passed under the entrance archway readily enough, with me on his heels. When he climbed the stairs and entered the room that was to be his death chamber, I confronted him. ‘Jasper Monk!’ I cried in a loud voice. Well, he started like a deer faced with a tiger in the forest. ‘Who are you?’ he asks. ‘Do you not know me, Jasper Monk?’ I taunted him. ‘You knew me well enough when you set the police on to me in Oakland back in ’71.’
“As he stood motionless, I walked to the corner of the room, where I’d seen a candle-end on the window-sill, and lit it. Recognition seemed to dawn slowly on him, for perhaps he was addled by drink or drugs, but when he understood who I was, I swear the blood drained from his face in an instant. ‘What are you going to do?’ he demanded roughly.
“’I’m going to give you a chance to live, Jasper,” I told him. “That’s more of a chance than you ever gave Kate.”
“That was none of my doing,” he said. “Yes, I admit I told the police about the job we were on. There was a police spy, and I had to tell them something. But I never meant for her to die, or for you to go to jail.”
“‘It’s too late to bother about that now,’ I told him. ‘This is what you must do.’ I laid out the choice before him – pick one or other of these two white tablets, which I kept in a little case of saffron that I carried about with me. ‘To look at they are identical, but one carries life, the other death. Choose one, and I will take the other. We both take the pills at the same time,’ I said.
“It seemed a kind of fatalism came over him, for he made no demur. Perhaps he thought I was not serious, or he was playing for time. At any rate, he reached out his hand and picked out one of the pills. I held the other between my thumb and forefinger, and replaced the saffron box in my longyi.
“‘Now,’ I said, and we each swallowed our own pill. For long moments we stood there, and I'm sure his heart was beating as fast as my own. Such was my state of excitement I could not be sure that my pill was the harmless one. But then I saw a horrid light gleam in his eyes as the poison in his pill took hold. He sank to his knees with a rattling in his throat that I swear I never want to hear again. His eyes goggled and flecks of spittle spurted from his lips. His hands flew to his throat and he thrashed about in agony on the floor. And then, after what seemed an age, he lay dead. My vengeance was complete.
“I had one last task to perform. I had not planned for it, but the occasion seemed to demand it. During our student days, our master had given us each Buddhist names. Mine was ‘Parami’. It seemed only right now that I should sign my handiwork, using the name that he would have known had he lived to see it. Having no pen, I dipped my finger in the little box of saffron that had held the pills, and daubed it on the wall, by the candle that still flickered there.”
By the time we stepped into the street, now gently steaming as the sun sucked up the remains of the latest downpour, I felt thoroughly exhausted. But that did not still my curiosity.
“But, I say, U Sha Lok,” I expostulated. “I do think you owe us a little explanation. You said in that terrible room in Anawrahta Street that our man was bald, English-speaking, and ate a lot of fish. It seems you were correct, although we never did get around to asking him about the fish. But however did you know all that?”
U Sha Lok already seemed bored, as if in reaction to the excitement of the successful chase. “It really is elementary, my dear U Wa Zone,” he said. “You touched on the answer yourself over breakfast yesterday when you drew my attention to the number of men falsely masquerading as monks. It struck me then that the clerical garb would be the perfect way of moving around town without attracting attention. But to do so, however, a man would have to shave his head. Hence the baldness. When, in my inspection of the floor around the dead man, I saw the prints of bare feet, I suspected that he had been lured there by a fake monk.
“But he wasn’t. That is, our man was also a fake sidecar driver as well as a fake monk.”
“Indeed. That is the other perfect disguise. Clearly he deftly alternated between one and the other as he pursued his prey. That is why I instructed the Bei Ka Street irregulars to ask at every cabstand in the six townships of downtown if anyone had remarked on a driver new to the area, possibly with an unusual accent, and unfamiliar with our streets. It was not long before they ran him to earth. On my instructions, Maung Oo then engaged him to come to this address supposedly to help me move some cases. The rest you know.”
“But the fish?”
U Sha Lok sighed. “To enter into his character of a monk, Daniel Maung could not risk being seen to eat meat. And yet, he had to keep up his strength in order to keep pedalling his sidecar throughout the day. Evidently then, he needed a suitable source of protein. Hence, fish.
“And now, U Wa Zone,” said my friend U Sha Lok, “Iron Cross is playing a selection of classical harp arrangements at the Thu Wunna stadium tonight. I am off there now, and you are most welcome to accompany me…”