1 I Call on the General
I’D parked the car on Parami, partly because I wanted to get the feel of the neighborhood by strolling through it, partly because those little lanes off the main road were never built for cars, at least the kind of cars they make now. The general’s house didn’t have a number; none of the classy houses do. It went by the modest moniker of “Noble Mansion”. It was a warm April day, so I was glowing gently by the time I reached the black steel security gate and rang the bell.
The security camera mounted on the high wall swivelled and gave me the glassy eye. I took no notice. The gate slid back silently, just enough to allow me to pass through, then soundlessly rolled back behind me.
It was one of those big white mansions they have up there on Parami Heights, all Corinthian columns and triangular pediments, just like an ancient Athenian temple. Except the ancient Athenians didn’t park gold-coloured four-wheel-drives in front of their temples. This one was being cleaned by a short, lean, moody-looking kid wearing only a tartan longyi kilted to the knee and a determined expression, like he wasn’t going to let the car beat him again. He whistled tunelessly between his teeth while he worked. As I walked up the drive he shot me a glance, as glassy as the camera’s. I took no notice of him either.
I pressed the bell-push set in the stone wall next to the double teak doors. From deep inside came a single muted chime, like a prayer-bell in a cave. Within seconds the left-hand door swung back to reveal a costumed butler. English, of course. You can tell, and not just because of the swallow-tailed black morning coat, the striped trousers and the white bow tie. No monocle, but he looked like he knew how to use one in an emergency.
I handed him my card. He took it in a white-gloved hand and glanced at it down one of those long noses they have, like he’d been asked to dispose of a piece of rotten fish.
“The general called me,” I said.
“Be so good as to wait,” he sniffed. Even talking Myanmar they manage to sound snooty.
The door closed firmly, with me on the outside.
Time passed. The kid whistled some more and played his hose on the windshield of the gold four-by-four. Two plump and indolent golden retrievers adorned the lawn, trying to look ancient and noble.
Right next to the golden four-wheel-drive stood a red sports convertible with a tasseled silk shawl draped over the back of the driver’s seat. This car was already shiny and clean. The kid didn’t have to worry about this car. I was glad about that because he looked like the worrying kind.
The door opened, wafting cooler air into my face. “Please come this way,” murmured the butler. He led me down a gloomy corridor floored in shiny granite. To either side hung oil portraits of men in uniform. We passed through a green baize door at the very back of the house.
There, the jungle began.
After the brief exposure to air-conditioning, the heat struck me in the face like the monsoon wind straight up from the Delta. Tropical birds tweeted and screeched in cages hung from the branches of trees. High above, filtered through dense green foliage, the sun blazed through a glass roof, its beams burning in straight, hot green lines to the dappled granite floor. I swear I heard a monkey screech.
Up ahead, at the end of a narrow lane between violently coloured spiky flowering shrubs, sat a very old man in a rattan recliner. He was barefoot, in pajamas, and wore a Chinese-style silk dressing gown. He made no sound, but looked at me with piercing dark eyes that glowed in a fleshless face as tight and shiny as old parchment. As I approached, he gestured, with a claw-like hand, to a straight rattan chair beside his recliner. On the other side stood a cane table with an assortment of brown medicine bottles of different sizes and a manila folder. I sensed a cloying, acrid chemical odour in the air, like a mix of baby powder and embalming fluid.
“You must forgive the heat,” he said, in a surprisingly deep, rumbling voice. “This is the coolest temperature my body can stand. Take off your jacket if you wish. Arnold, a drink for the gentleman.”
He turned to me. “Will Mandalay rum do?” He nodded to the lackey without waiting for an answer and Arnold, soft-footed, departed.
I sat for a while in silence, the sweat dripping cold down my back. The old general seemed in no hurry to speak. The monkey did some more screeching. And then he began, in that bass rumble.
“I don’t like private detectives. And I don’t like discussing my family business with strangers. Especially civilians. If I decide to engage you I will expect total discretion. You will never discuss this case with anybody else.”
He shot me a sharp glance with those flint-spark eyes. “What are your rates?”
“One lakh a day, plus expenses.”
“I shall expect you to enumerate all expenses, with bills attached.”
I waited some more. Arnold returned with a bottle and glass on a silver tray, which he set down on a side table. He poured a sliver of rum into the glass and proffered it to me on the tray. I looked at him appraisingly as I took it. The dead fish was still there.
“Heaven’s sake man, give him a proper drink,” barked the general. Arnold turned smoothly on his heels, made with the bottle and handed me back the glass half-full.
With a jerk of his head, the old man dismissed the servant. So now we were alone again, just as warm and cozy as before.
“My daughter has disappeared. I want you to find out if she is living or dead. If she is dead, I want to know who killed her,” he said.
He leaned forward and fixed me with his glittering eyes. “But that’s not the most important thing. When she left, she took the Laukkai Jade.”
2 The Laukkai Jade
He looked at me as if I was supposed to know what he was talking about.
“The Laukkai Jade is a priceless medallion that has been in my family for more than 100 years. It has inestimable sentimental value, quite apart from the price it could fetch on the black market. U Mar Lo, bring me back the Laukkai Jade and I will pay you K10 million!”
I took a swig of my drink. It was early, but it’s never too early for Mandalay rum.
“My daughter’s name is Doris,” continued the old man. “She is the elder of my two daughters. Both are wild, but she has been ungovernable since her early childhood. A bad seed. Even before she left school she began patronising night clubs and dance halls and other unsavoury places. Her mother could do nothing with her.”
The rumbling voice ceased and he took a deep breath, looking into the distance. “I was away at the front for much of the time she was growing up. Kayin, Shan, Kokang. In those innocent times, I thought that was where the chief danger to our country lay. I was wrong. The danger lay here, not in the forest, but in the city. Not in time of war, but in time of peace.”
He turned and shot me a glance, his eyes like live coals flaring. “We’ve gone soft, Mar Lo. And with peace and softness has come corruption.”
I figured it was time to start earning my fee.
“When did you see her last?”
“Ten days ago. She came to tell me she was getting married. Her husband-to-be was a lethwei fighter – an Englishman known in martial arts circles as the Liverpool Lasher. His real name is Jack Lenihan.”
The foreign name rang oddly in this green tropical cave.
“I met him a couple of times. She invited him here to taunt me, thinking I would disapprove, but I have nothing against a man who earns his living through fighting. And he was a step up from the world of petty drug pushers and cardsharps and torch singers and painted gigolos she squandered her time with before she took up with him. He even had a certain cheeky charm, I found when I met the man. A sort of working-class hero, if you will. Remarkable accent. Anyway, she wouldn’t be talked out of marrying him. Not that I tried very hard. I know my daughter, Mar Lo, and getting her to change her mind is like trying to dig out a banyan tree root with a plastic spoon. Well, I gave her my blessing, for what that’s worth, and she cleared out her things and left.”
“When did you realise the medallion was missing?”
“Just a couple of days ago. Every year I have a little ritual. I like to take it out and hold it and look at it, and think about the time when my family amounted to something more than a drug-addled wreck in a wheelchair and a couple of no-good hookers for daughters. I sent Arnold to find it and he came back to tell me it was gone. I had to go up and see for myself. We keep it in a teak cabinet by the prayer-room. The drawer was empty.”
“You don’t keep it locked up?”
“I know my daughters are dissolute and greedy. I don’t expect them to steal their own patrimony. They don’t have to. Each of them has a more than generous allowance. Far too generous.”
“You said she might be dead. What makes you think that?”
“She has always moved in very dangerous circles. Perhaps that’s the fault of my genes in her. A man with hot blood in his veins can put on a uniform and take up a gun and fight. In our society, what does a woman do if she has the killer instinct? I’ll tell you. She heads for Southwest New City.”
I nodded slowly.
“That’s the new frontier, Mar Lo – just across the Hlaing River. I presume a man in your line of work is familiar with the place?”
“I go from time to time. Strictly on business.”
“Hmmph. Well, how you spend your time is your business. But when you’re on my time, it’s my business.”
“Hanging out in Southwest New City isn’t my idea of fun, general.” Luckily he didn’t ask what my real idea of fun was. Restoring classical marionettes is not exactly a tough guy’s hobby. But you can’t spend all your time beating people over the head and exchanging wisecracks, no matter how diverting it is.
He reached over and handed me the brown folder from the table next to him.
“This is a picture of the Laukkai Jade and another of my daughter, and one of Lenihan, plus some biographical details. If you need any more background information, let me know.”
I looked at the pictures. One sheet showed both sides of the jade. I’m no expert, but the obverse looked to me like the Kwan Yin Goddess. On the reverse was a highly complex geometrical pattern I’d never seen before.
The expression on the face of the young woman who looked at me out of the other picture was something I’d seen plenty of times.
I don’t do divorce work any more. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against the Four Laws to protect marriage, the family, tradition, monogamy, mohinga, whatever else they’re supposed to protect. A lot of guys in my profession make a good living tracking down errant husbands and, more and more these days, errant wives. I just always found it kind of depressing.
The woman in the photograph looked like one of those runaway wives, though judging by the date on the back it was taken before she was even married. Supposing she ever did marry this Lenihan guy. She looked sulky but defiant, like she’d taken something she shouldn’t have taken, but kept it anyway because nobody could take back from her.
Lenihan’s picture was a surprise. Didn’t look much like a fighter. Beaky nose, round glasses, hair too long. But a lot of these lethwei fighters are oddballs, especially the foreign ones they have now. You get all kinds.
3 Brief Encounter in a Drawing Room
The general spoke. “Obviously I don’t want the police involved in this. Our family is very old and very distinguished and I want to keep it that way, at least while I live. After that …”
“So why would she take it? I mean, if she didn’t need the money?”
“Oh, she can’t sell it anyway. Any dealer would know of that piece and its provenance. Any reputable dealer would call me at once if he came across it.”
“And the disreputable ones?”
“That will be for you to find out, Mar Lo. No doubt you have your contacts in those circles.”
“You know, the thing could be halfway to Shanghai by now.”
“Then go after it. I want the Laukkai Jade back.”
I made for the front door, but Jeeves – that is, Arnold – blocked my path. “Ma Mildred would like a word before you leave,” he murmured, indicating a door off the hallway. Anyone else would have just pointed at the door. Jeeves managed to indicate it. He was that kind of guy. I changed course and stepped inside. It was a big, square, cool, high-ceilinged room, with a nice view of a rose arbour, and lots of ornate, expensive-looking furniture and a China carpet thick enough to shelter field mice, but I didn’t pay any attention to any of that. What caught my attention was the young woman coiled up on a plush velveteen sofa, with her knees up under her chin, her hands clasped together in front of her legs, looking at me with shiny eyes from under a mop of teased auburn hair, like a kitten watches a sparrow.
The general had said both his daughters were dissolute, greedy no-good hookers. But maybe that was just the doting father talking.
I’d put her at about 18, going on 40 if you factor in those hungry and calculating eyes. She was pretty enough, and her casual just-something-I-threw-on-to-hang-around-the-house-this-morning outfit can’t have cost more than three times my income. Annual income. And I’m not counting the gold at her throat and wrists or the diamonds that dripped from her ears. A cocktail glass, half-full, beaded with moisture, stood on a small round table at her elbow, next to an ashtray and lighter set in heavy pink-gray onyx.
I stood there for a moment as she appraised me, the way a stockman looks over a side of beef.
“You look big enough,” she said after a while. Her diction was exquisite, maybe to make up for the lack of manners, though with enough vocal fry to run a medium-sized noodle stall. She talked like she’d gone to one of those English schools they have here now for the daughters of the rich. At her age, maybe she was still going there.
“Big enough for what?”
Using her chin, which was perfectly modelled with a becoming dimple, she pointed to a tray of drinks in the corner. “Fix yourself something and take a seat.”
I did that, feeling her eyes on me. She untwined those legs and stretched like a cat, still eyeing me, arching her back.
“Why did my father hire you?” she asked.
“Is that an Aung Kyi Soe?” I asked, looking at the cityscape on the opposite wall. “Nobody paints crows like him.”
“I didn’t ask you here to talk about art.”
“You didn’t ask me here at all.”
She paused then as if contemplating another tack.
“Your name is Mar Lo. You’re a private eye. So, a nobody. In a cheap suit. And is that bulge I see a gun?”
“Yeah. But I’m only paid to shoot people on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”
“Lucky for me it’s Wednesday.”
“Oh, I wasn’t thinking of shooting you.”
“What were you thinking of doing to me?”
“What do you normally do on Wednesdays?”
“Today isn’t Wednesday, silly.”
She leaned forward, took a sip of her cocktail, tilted that little chin at me.
“I think maybe you’re a little nervous of me.”
“You know what they say. The female of the species is deadlier than the male.”
“You know your Kipling, Mar Lo.”
I checked. “So I am. Don’t flatter yourself. It’s just the heat.”
She took out a green cheroot and screwed it into a long holder that looked like it was made of jade, and waited until I lit it for her. I let her wait. In the end she lit it herself from the onyx table lighter and tilted her head to blow smoke away from me. She had some manners, then. The kind you learn in a crowded nightclub.
“So you won’t tell me why daddy hired you?”
She made a face. For a moment I thought she was going to pull her tongue out at me.
“I think you’re a cad.”
“I’m working up to it.”
“Has anyone ever slapped you really hard on the cheek?”
“The circles I move in they usually sock me on the jaw.”
“Ma Mildred, this has been delightful. Thanks for the drink. I’ll see myself out.” I got up.
“I will find out, you know. One way or another,” she said.
“You could hire a detective. It wouldn’t cost you much from your allowance.”
She flushed, and her eyes went blank. “Oh, just get out,” she said, her voice suddenly as dull and hard as an actuarial report.
I picked up my hat and walked out.
In front of the house, the little guy had gone, and so had the golden chariot. The red sports job, which I guessed had to be Ma Mildred’s, was standing all by itself. I made a note of the licence plate. Just habit. A car like that, you don’t forget. Mildred I’d half-forgotten already. That was probably a mistake.
4 The Hunt for the Liverpool Lasher
If Jack Lenihan was still in the lethwei game, I knew one place I could start looking for him. Back in the car, I headed east on Parami, turned south onto Weizayandar Expressway and on down to the Syriam Bridge. This time of day that would be the quickest way out to Little Tokyo at Thilawa Port, the location of the biggest stable of lethwei fighters in the country outside Mon State.
Passing by the little police box at the gates of the giant port complex, I cruised down Nihonbashi Street and turned into Little Ginza, past the sushi bars and ramen restaurants and sakayas and little Japanese bookshops and grocery stores. The streets teemed with salarymen in nice suits, carrying briefcases. Off the main drag the establishments had a more intimate look. A young Myanmar woman in a silk kimono and obi and wooden geta, her hair pinned high, her face in the morning sunlight tired and pallid and stripped of makeup, clattered daintily down the sidewalk with short mincing steps. A few winding streets further in, I found what I was looking for: the heya.
Nothing is more Myanmar than lethwei. But these past 20 years, the sport has been revolutionised by the same power that changed every other sport it touched: money. Once the international investors saw the potential, they flooded the game with big kyat. These days, lethwei is as international as soccer and cricket, and as high-paying, for those who can stand it.
The money made it international. First you started seeing Chinese and Japanese fighters turning up in Mon State in ones and twos, solemn and shy as pilgrims. They took Myanmar ring names, but everyone knew who they were. At first it was a joke. Until they started winning.
That opened up the floodgates. Mongolians, Bulgarians, Americans, of course, who go everywhere and do everything, Russians, then, finally, even the English.
This is the pinnacle of our country’s integration into the international economy: Jack Lenihan, the Liverpool Lasher, lethwei fighter.
It isn’t just lethwei. Look at the way chinlone has gone global, with high-priced Italians and Brazilians who spend more time in night clubs than they do kicking a ball, and who can’t play for five minutes without hurling themselves to the ground and writhing in agony, clutching their knee, crying foul and screaming for a physio. I sometimes think they don’t really get the spirit of the game.
And don’t get me started on what they’ve done to our mohinga. I read the other day they were serving it at the Ritz in Paris, for 50 euro a bowl, with a glass of Champagne thrown in. Some things, when they change, they change fast, and what you thought you always had, you don’t have any more, even though it’s still there.
Here in Myanmar, it’s mainly the Japanese who moved in and adopted lethwei, setting up heyas – stables – the same way they do for sumo wrestlers, calling the fighters rikishi and introducing all kinds of brand-new ancient traditions, like playing the national anthem and scattering salt before rounds.
It’s all just a way of making the fights last longer. The advertisers and the audiences aren’t happy if one of the fighters hits the deck within 10 seconds and doesn’t get up again. They like to spin things out if they can. A spasm of murderous aggression may be the heart and soul of lethwei, but to stretch it out to an evening’s viewing requires the artistry not of fighters, but of ad-men and promoters and other hangers-on. Luckily, there are always enough of them to go round.
At first the little guy at the gate gave me a hard time, looking at me suspiciously out of his narrow blue eyes. He made me wait until asa-geiko was finished. The morning training rituals attract a lot of tourists. They don’t like them to be interrupted.
Once I got inside I asked for Kyaw, an old fighter I’d met years ago. He still worked there as a coach.
“You made it past Hobbes, then.”
“The guy on the gate.”
“Why do you call him Hobbes?”
“Because he’s nasty, poor, solitary, British and short.”
“So, a good gatekeeper.”
“Abso-bloody-lutely, old boy. More than his job’s worth to let anyone in who don’t have a good reason.”
“I have a good reason.” I told him what I was after.
“Jack Lenihan,” said Kyaw. “Yeah, I know Jack. He trained here a couple of years. Not a top-class artist, but handy enough in a brawl. He left maybe a couple of months back.”
“I heard he got married.” I mentioned Ma Doris’s name. Kyaw whistled softly.
“Yeah, Jack was into the high-society thing. Before one match he even asked the audience not to clap, just to rattle their jewellery. High-class women had a thing for him. I mean, even more than they like most rikishi.” He caught my expression. “Okay, I know, ‘fighters’. You have to move with the times, Mar Lo. Lethwei isn’t just ours anymore.”
“What else can you tell me about him?”
“Well, he had this image as a kind of working-class hero. When he wasn’t fighting or training he played some guitar. He would even write stuff. He had aspirations, you know? Kept talking about continuing his education. There was some place back in England he said he always wanted to go to, some big school where all the toffs go. Bullock Creek Crossing, I think he called it.”
“He may have meant Oxford University.”
“Yeah, well. He was smart enough to score a general’s daughter.”
“So where is he now?”
“He was pally with another English guy, name of Mac. Last I heard, they were doing gigs in some dive in SNC.”
He came up with a name. The Tunnel Club. I thanked him and left, nodding politely to Hobbes as I walked out of the heya. He glared at me balefully from his blue eyes.
5 Into the Tunnel
Kyaw, the old fighter at the lethwei heya in Little Tokyo, had told me Jack Lenihan’s new band did lunchtime gigs at a club in Southwest New City called the Tunnel. If I hurried back through the downtown traffic, I might just catch him.
Turned out the place wasn’t hard to find. I could hear the noise from half a block away.
I know, I’m showing my age. The kids don’t call it “noise”, except in the good sense.
Unsurprisingly, the Tunnel Club was below street level. I’d expected that. I’m a detective. I bought a ticket from a hatcheck girl – Ma Cilla, her badge said she was called – and descended the concrete steps into the heaving mass of young people. The place stank of sweat and cheap perfume and cigarette smoke. It was lit only by footlights on the stage and it was crammed so tight it was hard to move or even breathe. The kids were gyrating wildly to a continuous blast of super-amplified music coming from the stage. Evidently not thinking it loud enough, the girls – more than half the crowd was girls – erupted into bouts of ear-splitting shrieking at regular intervals.
I recognised him at once from his photo. Jack Lenihan was centre stage, playing a guitar and singing, if you can call it that. OK, I know, call me old-fashioned, I’ll stop with the clichés now. But a few moments of Lenihan’s leather-lunged bawling was enough to get me thinking fondly of Ko Frankie Xin. Frankie has tunefulness, and melody, and grammar.
There were three other kids up there with Lenihan, all with long hair, two other guitarists and a drummer. They were foreigners, probably English, though the songs they were singing sounded like they were in German. Sie Liebt Dich, Ja, Ja, Ja, what’s that about? Must be one of those meme things.
I had arrived toward the end of the gig, which mercifully soon ended. The audience, deflated now like a toy balloon, filed up the stairs, resuming with each step their workaday existence as clerks and receptionists and messengers for the big corporations. I walked up to the stage.
“Oo wants to know?”
He had the sharp, lean aggression of the lethwei fighter he had recently been, grafted onto a touchy, chippy manner. I handed him up my business card, and the other three lads gathered round behind him to read it.
“Yer in trouble, Jack,” said one of them. “What you been up to now?”
“What’s this about?” Lenihan asked me.
“Is there somewhere more private we can talk?”
“You can talk right ere,” he said. I clambered up into the small stage.
“I’m making enquiries about the Laukkai Jade,” I said.
He looked blank. I guessed it was not an act.
“It went missing from the home of the owner, the General. He believes his daughter, Ma Doris, may have borrowed it. I understand you’re associated with Ma Doris?”
One of the other band members laughed, not very kindly. “Associated with,” he said, with an ironic tone.
“She’s me wife,” said Lenihan, looking at me hard. “Are you sayin she’s a thief?”
“If you or Mrs Lenihan have any idea of the whereabouts of the Laukkai Jade, the General would be very glad to have it back,” I said.
“I’ve never seen it in me life.”
I nodded slowly. “You don’t mind if I have a word with Mrs Lenihan? I’m sure we can get this cleared up very quickly.”
“She’ll be ere in a minute. You can ask er yerself.” He thrust his beaky-nosed face closer to mine, giving me a hostile look through his round glasses. “But if she tells you to take a runnin jump, I’ll make sure you do, alright?”
“I needn’t take up much of her time. As I said, this really shouldn’t take very long.”
As we spoke, the other three were shifting the mics and amps around, spreading themselves around the underground space, now that the audience had gone and they had the place to themselves. They looked like they were preparing for a practice session.
And then the atmosphere changed. I felt Lenihan’s eyes shift to a point behind me. Even before I turned, I knew what I was going to see.
Ma Doris, the General’s daughter and Jack Lenihan’s wife, had entered the Tunnel.
I noticed that the other three band members glanced at each other with brief, unreadable expressions, and one – I think it was the boy called Mac – seemed to shrug a little.
As Ma Doris approached the stage, I climbed down.
Behind me, Jack shouted. “This is a detective. E was sent by your dad.”
I started as one of the band played a guitar chord, very loud. Maybe it was meant as some kind of comment. I don’t think it was aimed at me.
“Mrs Lenihan, I’ll come straight to the point. The General engaged me to find the Laukkai Jade. Do you know where it is?”
“The Laukkai Jade? That old relic?” she laughed. “It’s gone missing? What made him think I took it?”
She gave me a long, considering look. I was aware of Lenihan behind me, watching us.
“And if I did, what are you going to do about it? Arrest me?”
“I’m not the police, ma’am. I’m just trying to get this settled quickly and amicably.”
The drummer turned out a quick drum roll, the sticks flashing in his beringed hands. He’d had the band’s name emblazoned on the front of the big drum: The Silver Scarabs. I didn’t think it would catch on. I mean, why “silver”? The connotations were all wrong: elderly, second-best after gold, prone to tarnishing. Altogether too slender a word for the kind of cheerfully noisy, driving, beaty kind of music these kids were belting out. Why not just call themselves The Noise? Or The Drive? Or The Beat-
But what did I know? Anyway, Ma Doris was speaking.
6 Ma Doris
While Jack bustled up, uxorious, with a folding metal chair which he placed behind Ma Doris, the other three lads started playing quietly among themselves. Barely acknowledging her husband, Ma Doris sat down. She looked me straight in the eye as I handed her my business card. She glanced at it briefly before handing it back to me.
“My father sent you? Why?”
“The General was worried about you.”
“Well, that’s a first. What did he think might have happened to me?”
“He’s concerned for your health and safety.”
“Who’s going to hurt me? Them?”
She jerked her head, without looking at them, toward the three Scarabs, four now that Jack had rejoined them. The boy called Mac was crooning something, his voice a honeyed counterpoint to Lenihan’s vinegary bawl.
“SNC can be a rough neighborhood.”
“This isn’t about my health. What do you really want?”
“Now I know you’re not dead, he wants the Laukkai Jade back.”
She shrugged. “Why would I have it?”
“He found it missing. Just after you left. Did you take it?” I asked again.
She looked at me mistrustfully. I was struck again by something I had seen in the photograph of her the General had handed me in his superheated antechamber of death behind the house on Parami Heights. She looked like she’d gotten away with taking something she shouldn’t have, but which nobody could take back from her. But I didn’t think that something was the Laukkai Jade.
She crossed her legs and pulled out a cigarette from her bag. I lit it for her, and she sent a stream of blue-grey smoke toward the already smoke-grimed brick ceiling of the Tunnel club. The resemblance to her sister, Ma Mildred, was not in the features, but in the expression they presented to the world. Like they had seen too much of it to be taken in, but were still hungry for more.
“I didn’t take it, U Mar Lo. But I think I know who did.”
I waited expectantly, but it seemed she wasn’t really talking to me.
Behind me, the boys continued their musical doodling until someone, Jack I think, struck a jolting, jangling chord that hung in the air for a few moments. Someone blessed with an ear for relative pitch might have identified it as a D Sus 7. “That sounds good,” said the skinniest of the four.
“You mean it was taken by someone else with access to the cupboard where it was kept? What would the purpose be in taking it? The General said it would be almost impossible to sell.”
“That’s right. Certainly here in Yangon, or anywhere in Myanmar. It’s too well known.”
“Could it be sold in Yunnan? Shanghai?”
She shook her head decisively. “No. Forget about that. If I was a betting woman like my sister, I would lay you a million to one that the Laukkai Jade is within five miles of here.”
“Tell me more.”
“Why should I? What’s it to you?”
Thoughts of the ten million kyat the General had promised me if I brought him back the jade medallion crossed my mind.
“Just professional curiosity, ma’am,” I said.
I could think of no reason why she would tell me, even if she knew. Yet she seemed to be considering something, figuring something out, as if she thought it might be handy to keep me in play for some purpose known only to herself. I tried to look eager, young, pliable, playable.
“So you’re a detective, U Mar Lo,” she said. “I wonder how much you know. Do you know how I met my husband?”
“You don’t strike me as a lethwei fan.”
“You’d be surprised. Not that it’s any of your business, but I met him through a mutual friend. Here in Southwest New City.”
When I said nothing, but just looked at her encouragingly, she continued.
“The friend was called Eddie Htoo Htoo. I presume a man in your line of work would have heard of him. Jack was his language teacher.”
I blinked a little at that. “Tough Eddie Htoo Htoo is learning English? Jack Lenihan teaches English?”
She laughed. Behind me I half-felt Jack and one or two of the other boys look in our direction. “No, he really doesn’t. Jack, I mean. Eddie knows that now, but he didn’t then. Eddie is a very smart guy in his own line of business, which is being a gangster, but lacks experience in the broader fields of life. Experience he is very rapidly acquiring. Jack was happy to do his best, as a favour, but it didn’t take Eddie long to realise that Jack was not exactly Professor Higgins.”
“I mean Eddie soon decided he needed someone with a little more polish. He seems to have found that person. But we digress.
“Tell me, U Mar Lo,” she said, looking up at me from her seat. “How do you come to be involved in this? Did you know my father before he called you?”
“No. The call came out of the blue. I don’t know where the General got my name.”
“What’s your background? Police?”
“Special Forces, originally. After that I was a cop, briefly. Yangon Central, then Hlaing Tharyar Homicide.”
“Why did you quit?”
“They insisted. I punched a deputy commissioner.”
“Violent, but not very bright. I like that in a man.”
“I have testimonials.”
“I’m sure you do.” She got up, dropping her cigarette on the concrete floor and stepping on it.
“Jack,” she said softly, not turning round or making any attempt to raise her voice over the noise of the music. Lenihan immediately stopped playing and hastened to her side.
“U Mar Lo is leaving now. Did you have anything else to tell him?”
“Not a thing.”
“So I’ll wish you a pleasant journey back to Bo Aung Kyaw Street, U Mar Lo,” she said. I hand out a lot of business cards, but I’ve never known anyone read one of them.
Nodding goodbye to the two of them, I left. I didn’t see her gaze thoughtfully at my retreating back, and pull out her phone as I mounted the stairs, and murmur rapid instructions.
7 A Client Awaits
The mid-afternoon traffic was light as I drove back over the Bargayar Street Bridge from the Tunnel Club, pondering my conversation with Ma Doris. So Jack Lenihan, the Liverpool Lasher, was now out of the lethwei game. He had briefly become an English teacher, to one of the city’s leading criminals yet, and had now taken up as a rock singer. Well, good luck to him breaking into that world. It’s hard to see how a foreigner from some obscure town in England can make much headway as a rock singer against the kind of musical giants we have here in Myanmar. But you have to follow your dream.
People sometimes ask me why I keep an office in Yangon Old Town, which is kind of like a living museum now with all those Victorian-type buildings, when I could rent in some gleaming skyscraper in Southwest New City or the Myanmar Plaza complex on Kabar Aye Pagoda Road. Old Town is charming, shabby, olde-worlde and cheap, cheap being definitely the operative word from my point of view.
My office is right by the Mahabandoola Tower, not far from where the Bago Skyway swoops in from Shwe Mann International Airport. I rent a small space on the seventh floor, at the back of the building, with a view of nothing in particular. In fact, I prefer to keep the blinds closed. The building is not new or fancy; you could walk past it without noticing it. Most people do. Many years ago the city declared it a danger building, meaning it’s likely to fall down in the next big quake, if it holds out that long. That did wonders for the rent, too.
If you were a client, and you needed my services, you would step in off the street to find yourself in a deep, dim lobby with a few large and dusty potted palms and overstuffed leather armchairs dotted about. Some of the people sitting in them may still be alive. Way in back, across the cracked faux marble-tiled floor, there’s a faux teak reception desk where an indolent young man with real orange hair will be able to help you, provided you know exactly what you want and how to find it, and you’re not that pressed for time. Against one wall is a directory of tenants where you could confirm that I was who my business card said I was: U Mar Lo, Suite 777, Investigations and Security Consultant. Come right up. No need for an appointment. The receptionist will be happy to see you. In fact, it’s even easier than that. There is no receptionist. There’s just me, and even I’m not always there.
So you leave the splendid opulence of the lobby behind and climb in the creaking elevator with the brown walls that hoists you slowly to the seventh floor. The corridor is narrow and quiet and lined with doors with frosted glass panels with company names on them. Some of them look pretty respectable, if a trifle fly-blown. Khaing Gyi and Partners Mung Bean Brokers is on your left, Daw Chit Oo, Engravings and Miniatures on your right. The rest just show meaningless company names that could be a front for anybody or anything. I’ve never seen anyone going in or coming out of any of these doors. I have no idea what goes on behind them. I guess they could say the same about me.
So here’s my office, with a frosted glass panel in the door like the others. This one repeats the vital information you’ve already gleaned from the directory in the lobby: No 777, U Mar Lo, Investigations and Security Consultant. If you knock, and if I’m there, I’m all yours. For one lakh a day, plus expenses.
There is a miniature receptionist’s office. In my office, beyond it, there is a small wooden desk with a well-worn swivel chair, neither new. A gray steel filing cabinet in the corner contains meticulous records of my successful and unsuccessful cases. The desktop computer contains more. In the top left-hand drawer of the desk you would find a bottle of Mandalay rum, quite new but certainly no longer full. In the top right-hand drawer, you would find a gun, loaded, not fired recently.
It isn’t a very big gun, and I don’t even use it that often, not more than once a month. I don’t mean I shoot anyone with it. I never actually have shot anyone with it. But when I’m cracking wise with some tough hombre in some shady joint, maybe in Hlaing Tharyar, or Dagon Seikkan, I like to feel it there, under my arm.
I try not to make too much noise when I walk, and the threadbare carpet that covers the corridor on the seventh floor of my building helps muffle what little sound I make. Halfway down that corridor, I stopped dead and stood still. There was a scent in the air, quite alien to that dusty place of failing businesses. I stood and breathed it in, making no more noise than a man standing and breathing. Eau de Kachin. Expensive, classy, and not something I’d smelled up here before.
Someone was waiting for me in my office.
I started walking again, deliberately scuffing my shoes on the carpet, whistling a tuneless tune. I didn’t want to surprise anybody.
I walked through the door of my tiny reception office as if I had no idea it would be occupied, and pretended surprise when I saw the woman waiting there.
Pretending to be surprised was easy enough. She was quite something.
This dame would have been worth a second look any place. In my office she stood out like a thazin orchid stuck in an empty beer can. About five-four with lustrous hair she let hang loose, a figure like a Dresden shepherdess, the face of a fallen angel, and eyes as old as Nefertiti. Her voice, when she spoke, was a low, breathy purr as if she used it mostly to sing sad torch songs in the wee hours under a smoky pink spotlight.
“U Mar Lo? My name is Daw Mae East,” she said.
8 A Risky Commission
“Take a seat,” I invited my fragrant visitor as I ushered her into my inner office. I moved round my desk and sat behind it. Daw Mae East kind of flowed onto the straight wooden chair opposite me. I looked at her expectantly, but she seemed hesitant, reluctant to speak. She was holding a little lace handkerchief – I could smell that expensive Eau de Kachin on it – and was twisting it between her fingers. It wasn’t shyness. This lady was about as shy as a piledriver, though more elegant.
She looked around, as if seeking reassurance from my battered gray filing cabinet, the worn carpet and the shabby old drawn blinds that concealed no view.
She stopped looking around the office. I guess she didn’t find any reassurance there, but she spoke anyway.
“I feel kind of strange coming to a private detective,” she began. Funny, the General this morning hadn’t seemed too keen on hiring me either. But who ever wants to hire a private dick?
“It’s about my no-good husband,” she went on. There are circles in which wives apply adjectives other than “no-good” to their husbands, but I don’t move in those circles. I waited for her to elaborate.
“Used to be he was in the papier-mâché animals racket. You’ve seen those cute giraffes and things they sell, all the pretty colours. The money was good, but it got to be too dangerous. A lot of tough people muscled in and he decided it would be healthier to find another line of work. Anyway, we set up a tattoo joint together. Irezumiya, over in Southwest New City. Twante Boulevard and 17th Street. It does good business. And now he’s running around with his floozies and drinking and gambling and that’s where all the money goes. I put 10 lakhs of my savings into that place, and I want it back. I mean, not all of it. Just the income would be nice. I don’t want him to think he can just jerk me around, you know? He should treat me with more respect. Without me there wouldn’t be no tattoo parlor. It wasn’t just the money. I advised on the décor and hired a couple of the artistes. Is there anything you can do?”
“Did you sign a contract with him when you handed over your stake?”
“No, nothing like that. He’s my husband. He has to treat me right.”
“How much money do you think the parlor is making?”
“Punters come in all the time. I’ve seen them. Celebrities, too. Singers, lethwei fighters, actors. Repeat customers. We’re fashionable. He probably takes in five lakhs a week. I’d take half.”
“What exactly do you want me to do?”
“Talk to him. Get him to do the right thing. Be persuasive.”
I looked at her consideringly, wondering what more was behind this.
“What’s your husband’s name and where can I find him?"
“Ko Jimmy Latt. He lives above the shop. I’ll pay you two lakhs to come back with me right now if you agree to talk to him. Listen, you pack heat?” she asked
“It depends. I have a license to carry firearms. I have a gun. I don’t always carry it with me.”
“You won’t need it for this job. Ko Jimmy likes to talk tough because he hangs out with hoodlums sometimes. The business we’re in, it’s part of being fashionable. Don’t let him fool you. He’s just a big pussycat.”
“Then why don’t you talk to a lawyer instead of me? A lawyer could draw you up a proper contract. Even if I get him to agree, what’s to stop him from breaking the deal the moment I leave?”
“I don’t want no lawyer. Just talk to him.” Her manner seemed to alter. She leaned forward slightly, shifting in that hard straight chair, as if to remind me that there was not a single straight line in her entire body. “You look like a persuasive kind of guy. Just talk to him.”
“How did you find me, anyway?”
“I saw your ad in The Myanmar Times.”
“And then you came all the way over here from SNC?”
“Sure. By subway.”
“There are no private eyes in Southwest New City?”
“I don’t need just a private eye. What I need is an investigations and security consultant. Look, do you want the job or not? Is it about money? I can pay you now if you like. With money, that is. If you want.”
I sat for a moment in silence, looking at her. Everything about her story was wrong. She was offering too much, and not explaining enough. She had no business being this side of the river. SNC has its own ways of doing things. I didn’t need the money, any more than I always need money. I even had a job on right now, thanks to the General. Nothing she said had the ring of truth. Even if it was true, I didn’t believe I could talk her husband into promising to give her any money or that, even if I could, he would keep his promise.
And I don’t advertise in The Myanmar Times.
As she looked at me expectantly, I pursed my lips doubtfully and slowly rocked my head from side to side, as if I was considering her request, and none too enthusiastically. I opened my mouth to speak.
“OK,” I said.
We were halfway down the corridor before I remembered I’d forgotten my car keys, or so I told her. She stood there waiting while I let myself into the office, fumbled around in the drawer and came back out again, jingling the car keys that I’d had with me all along. What I also had now, silently nestling under my arm, was my gun. The gun she told me I wouldn’t need.
I guessed different.
9 Blue Moon Memories
The flashback came as I drove Daw Mae East back down Bargayar Street toward the bridge to Southwest New City. It was the second time that day I’d entered SNC. Over the past year, I must have gone there a dozen times. But usually I manage to put out of my mind the reason why I really don’t like to cross the Hlaing River at all.
It was a year ago. The client asked me to go to a Kachin restaurant in SNC, Blue Moon, and just sit there. He’d agreed beforehand that I could charge any meals I had there to expenses. That’s important. You won’t believe what some clients will do to get out of paying legit expenses.
Anyway, I arrived on time, at 7pm. I didn’t know why I’d been told to go there, or what I was waiting for, or how long I’d have to wait, or what exactly I would have to do when the wait was over. Sometimes that happens in this job. The client was paying me my full daily rate of one lakh. All I had to do was be there, keeping my eyes and ears open and my wits about me. I was unarmed.
At first the place is empty except for me. It’s a quiet, almost cosy, family-type joint, with plain wooden tables set in small alcoves for a little privacy, despite the close quarters. I order a dish of noodles and a mischievous little Shan burgundy, or so it said on the label. About 7:30, three men walk in: a strongly-built middle-aged Chinese with a commanding air and laughter lines around his eyes and mouth, an older man, silver-haired, and a pale, thin young guy with a lock of hair flopping over his high forehead. The older man isn’t in uniform, but something about him makes me think: Cop. An SNC cop, too.
The three sit at a table to my left. The commander-type, who seems to know the place, orders for all three without looking at the menu, and at once begins to talk.
Looking at them covertly out of the corner of my eye while pretending to read The Myanmar Times, I’m struck by the dynamics between them. The Chinese guy is clearly in charge, or thinks he is. To the older man, he appears deferential, but not as if he was about to take any orders from him. It’s more like he’s giving him his rank, whatever it is, in front of the kid.
Toward the kid, he seems to have more of a paternal approach, but wary. He might have been a senior family member, a rich uncle maybe, gently upbraiding an unruly teenager, reminding him the family honor is at stake, talking him round to get him to do the right thing. Even though he seems to speak more in sorrow than in anger, the humorous look never leaves his face. As to the actual words, I can’t hear.
What I do notice is that the face of the Chinese man is always wreathed in smiles, even though what he’s saying seems to be very serious. Sometimes he laughs out loud, as if at his own wit. The silver-haired man helps him laugh, but the kid just sits stony-faced, preoccupied.
Their food arrives. The two older men tuck in, the kid just picks at his plate moodily. He seems ill-at-ease, like he doesn’t want to be here at all. Suddenly he speaks up, interrupting the flow of honeyed persuasion from the older Chinese man. He speaks loud enough that I can hear him: “I need the can.”
He stands up, but before he goes to the bathroom, the Chinese man stops him. He seems suspicious. He even reaches out a hand and frisks the kid, roughly but expertly. As if satisfied, he nods curtly and jerks his head in the direction of the bathroom. Off the kid goes. The two older men just sit there, eating, not talking. But the Chinese is still smiling.
I don’t know what it was, but I swear it wasn’t just hindsight. When the kid comes back out, his face is expressionless, his eyes almost sleepy. But to me, the air seems to crackle with tension. The kid sits down in his seat opposite the Chinese, who at once resumes talking to him in the same reasonable, good-humored, persuasive but slightly intimidating way he had used before.
The kid stands up. He’s wearing a round-collared short jacket, closed with one button. He undoes the button and, from the waistband of his longyi, takes out a snub-nosed black pistol. With it he shoots the Chinese man twice in the head. Turning to the silver-haired man, who has not moved, but just sits there looking blankly at him, he shoots him, first in the throat, then in the head.
Smoke from the four gunshots hangs in the air, which smells strongly of cordite. The table is covered with blood. Each of the four cartridge cases had ejected with an audible “clink”, and all four lie on the floor, within plain sight as I sit at my table. A heavy silence falls. The kid seems to stand there for an age, but it can’t be more than a few seconds.
I turn and look at the wall. There’s a picture hanging there, a line of monks with umbrellas passing through a market. I’ve seen pictures like it a million times before, but this time I notice remarkable and fascinating aspects of the composition and brushwork I’ve simply never noticed before. These details engage my full attention, though I do hear a thud as the kid drops the black pistol on the floor, and then the opening and closing of the door.
I don’t hear a car, but I count fifty to give him time to get clear. There’s no sign of the waiter. Plucking out a tissue from the box on the table, I carefully wipe every surface I might have touched. Leaving some money on the table for the meal and the wine, I slip out. Of course, I also take the receipt with me. My client will need to see it before meeting my expenses claim.
10 Tough Eddie Htoo Htoo
When the pale, skinny kid with the lock of hair falling over his face stood up, pulled a gun from the waistband of his longyi, and pumped four bullets into his two dinner companions, sitting not five feet away from me, it somehow stuck in my mind. Those were my dark and bloody thoughts as I drove down Bargayar Street with Daw Mae East beside me, the glittering towers of Southwest New City looming up before us in the gathering dusk.
Southwest New City was as new and sharp as a sickle moon. They built it fast, and they built it high. Thirty years ago, they say, back in the twenty-teens, the paddy farmers of Tamartagaw or Tamangyi village would gaze eastward across the Hlaing River at the rising towers and bright lights of the old city, wondering when their turn would come. Now you can stand in the street in Kyeemyindaing or Ahlone townships and look up westwards beyond the Bargayar Bridge at the skyscrapers of glittering Southwest New City. And these days K1 billion will hardly buy you a parking space in Tamartagaw.
The broad avenues and boulevards of Southwest New City run north-south, and its narrow streets run east-west. The high-flying finance boys and girls, the fancy lawyers, the corporate planners, the software engineers, spend their days grafting away in those lofty megaliths. Come sundown, they head for the narrow streets, looking for fun. SNC is ground zero for the night spots, the jazz clubs, the gambling dives, the dance halls, the places of ill-repute with the huge reputations.
Everybody knows who rules the broad boulevards – the Wanbaos and the Huaweis, the Kanbawzas and the Toyotas and the Maxes, the Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Indonesian, Vietnamese and Myanmar giants of global finance and banking and IT and shipping and bio-engineering and aerospace.
Nobody will tell you who owns the dark and narrow streets
But I know. On the street, and below, the big boss was not some Chinese or Japanese or Thai financier. The triads and the tongs and the yakuza had all tried and failed to muscle in. Down in the streets of Southwest New City, the big man was one of our own. The underworld big-shots who had dismissed him as nothing but a two-pya hoodlum had all been crushed and discarded by the cunning and ruthlessness of this tattooed, betel-spitting hustler. Forget the multinational behemoths with the 20-foot-high logos on their signature buildings and their stock exchange profiles in London or Shanghai or Tokyo. The real boss of Southwest New City was Tough Eddie Htoo Htoo.
So who was he, this young crime boss? My first clew came from reading a story in The Myanmar Times by, of all people, their fashion correspondent, Ma Louella Nandar.
“Oh my dears,” she’d written, about some pricey shindig downtown. “I couldn’t begin to tell you how simply tempestuous the last few days have been here in our hot and frantic little world of fashion. And the star of the show was none other than our very own Charlie Kyauk Kyauk with a just droolworthy selection of enchanting…” well, you probably read it. But a little further down, this passage caught my eye: “Here’s the thing – alongside all the usual suspects from the world of fashion, the proceedings were graced by just the coolest cat from across the river, Eddie Htoo Htoo, czar of the B there or B square Spearmint Bullock on 13th Street. Originally from the woolly wilds of Dazungdam in Kachin State, you know, up where they think Myitkyina is, like, the Deep South, Eddie came to seek his fortune in our fair city just three years ago. I know he won’t mind my saying he seemed to be very slightly lacking in polish for some of our twee-er establishments, but nobody can deny the attraction of that rough-jade shtick. At least, up to a point. He is, of course, one of quite a stable of Kachin characters gracing us this season, like that hot new crooner Ko Frankie Xin and the adorable ingénue Ma Norma Jin, who simply sizzles on the silver screen. Ko Frankie is still packing them in night after night at the Bullock, kicking off with his trademark number, I Left my Heart in Gamlangrazi. You know the one, about those little cable cars that reach halfway to the stars. Then came Ma Norma’s big movie hit Some Like it Spicy, which established her overnight as one of our finest comediennes. A veritable Kachin State renaissance, who’da thunk it. So where does Eddie fit into this, other than being glowering and moody and radiating that pale and fascinating sense of menace? They say other Kachin here in Yangon, including Ko Frankie and Ma Norma, regard him as a kind of protector. His name has been linked with some of the less savory activities over there across the Hlaing. But deep down, what draws us like moths to his flame is the sense that, though he is perfectly at home amid these latest fripperies of fashion, there is something about him that is only half-civilised. Something men fear, and women want. He’s one to watch, is that Eddie Htoo Htoo.”
Well, that got me thinking. I called up a pal of mine on The Myanmar Times City Desk, the crime reporter Zone Lone. I knew I could trust his information because he’d trained under the Times’s legendary founding editor, tough, bald, cigar-chewing Ted Gerbil.
“Tough Eddie is the boss alright,” said Zone Lone. “He comes from a Kachin family that made its bones during Prohibition, as beetleggers.”
“Betel bootleggers. When the government cracked down on betel-chewing back in ’16, they created a market overnight for the cultivation, processing, distribution and sale of bootleg betel all over Myanmar. Families from Sagaing Region to Kachin State jumped right in and made fortunes. Tough Eddie is just carrying on the family tradition. His daddy, Tough Leslie Htoo Htoo, took over a big field in Twante across the river for a warehouse. I guess Southwest New City just grew up around it.
“‘Tough Leslie’? Really?”
“The title came with the territory. Leslie was studying to be an actuary, but had to take over from his elder brother, Tough Tommy, when Tommy got rubbed out. But I been hearing some strange things about Tough Eddie lately,” the crime reporter continued.