21 A Million for Nothing
THE General pursued his train of thought, speaking out loud more to himself than to me. “Which means,” he continued, after a brief pause, “that somebody in the household, other than Doris, must have taken it. That leaves only the butler Arnold and my younger daughter, Mildred. And I would be inclined to rule Arnold out.”
He seemed reluctant to confront the results of this logical process of elimination. I decided to lend a hand.
“What would Ma Mildred need with the Laukkai Jade?” I asked.
“I know of no reason. She was barely aware of the existence of the thing. She never took the slightest interest in it. Until – ”
He stopped talking then, turned his head sharply and looked at me, fixing me with his gimlet-eyed gaze. With his hunched shoulders, scrawny neck, bristling brows and piercing gaze, the old man looked like an angry vulture. Evidently a thought had struck him, a thought that had never occurred to him before, a thought he found unexpected, disconcerting. Suddenly, the old man looked almost shaken.
But whatever was going through his mind, he was not about to share it with me. Without another word, he abruptly turned away, as if fearing that I might somehow read his thought in those burning eyes.
“But that’s no matter,” he said gruffly.
I let his words hang in the sultry air for a few moments. I had carried out two of his three instructions. His elder daughter Doris was alive and well, though married, and living in Southwest New City. At our first meeting, all of 24 long hours ago, the General had made it clear that he was far more interested in finding the missing Laukkai Jade than satisfying himself that Doris was still alive. But the sudden realisation that it was not she, but his wayward younger daughter Mildred that had purloined the family heirloom, had somehow changed the rules of the game.
I took another sip of my drink. The old man was lost in thought, huddled in his rattan chair, his withered body lost in the tartan dressing gown. After a while, not looking at me, he began to speak, slowly and formally, as if he was deciding what to say even as he uttered the words.
“Thank you for bringing me the information about my daughter Doris and her husband. And thank you for your efforts to locate the Laukkai Jade, in which you were unsuccessful. Yesterday I promised to pay you 10 million kyat if you could bring me the jade. I will now pay you 1 million kyat for your two days’ work, including this morning, on condition that you immediately cease your investigation into the jade’s whereabouts. Do you promise to make no further attempt to find it? And not to discuss this matter further with anyone but me?”
I shrugged. “OK.”
He turned and looked at me, as if wondering if my word could be trusted. Then he picked up a small silver bell on the table by his chair and tinkled it to call the butler. The interview was over. And so was my case.
Walking out of the house a few minutes later, with the million in cash weighing down my pocket, I pondered what had just happened. Why had the General just paid me, handsomely enough, not to do what he had hired me to do yesterday? Because he now knew that the jade had been taken, not by elder daughter Doris, but by younger daughter Mildred. Mildred of the red sports car and the after-breakfast cocktail habit.
What did he think Mildred had done with it? More intriguingly, why was he so anxious for me not to try to find out what she had done with it? What might she have done with it that could embarrass him, hurt her, or bring unwelcome publicity to his family? And, since I had been paid 10 times my normal daily rate not to care, why should I care?
But I did care.
Meanwhile, I had to find another case. A million kyat is not what it was. I thought about the intriguing proposition put to me in the early hours of that morning, in the bar of the Spearmint Bullock, by the redheaded Miss Dulwich. According to her, Tough Eddie Htoo Htoo, not content with establishing himself as supreme ruler of Southwest New City, was determined to cross the Hlaing River and become a straight businessman in Old Yangon, moving in all the best social circles and putting his criminal past behind him. But he wanted to do that without setting any alarms off among our old-established resident criminal fraternity. Miss Dulwich was grooming him, teaching him how to talk and how to act in society. I was to be the muscle, but respectable muscle. Less murderously volatile than his killer associate, Ko Luka.
Another thought struck me. The reason Eddie had had his people check up on me in the first place was because Ma Mildred had called Eddie about me, and he had wanted to find out more about my background. What exactly was the connection between the General’s rebellious younger daughter and the violent gang boss who ran Southwest New City?
I shook my head firmly as I walked back to my car on Parami. The man had just made me a kyat millionaire not to bother my head over such things. I was just going to have to let it ride.
The day seemed to hang heavy, as it always does when you finish a case, even though this case was not strictly speaking finished, just terminated. I drove downtown to my office, rode up the creaking elevator to the seventh floor, walked down the dusty corridor and let myself into the narrow reception with my name on the door. It was empty. It was almost always empty. And not even a trace of Daw Mae East’s Eau de Kachin still lingered in the air.
22 An Unexpected Visitor
I stood for a moment in the empty office, thinking fondly of the half-full or half-empty bottle of Mandalay Rum nestling hopefully in my desk drawer in the inner office, but decided against drinking any more of it this morning.
Unaccustomed to being free in the middle of the day, I drove back home through light traffic. There was a job to be done in my apartment that couldn’t be put off any longer.
I was living that year in South Okkalapa, before it became all Chinese. The rent was low because the owner was travelling abroad, and might come back at very short notice.
The previous week I’d driven up to Mandalay and, in a little shop I’d found a couple of miles from the royal palace, I’d found what I wanted. There are fewer and fewer places these days you can get this stuff, at least of this quality. And I knew that finding the materials was only the first step. Now I had to exercise all my skills to achieve the effect I desired.
Back in my living room, I laid out all the materials before me on the low table: the hollow teak core, the head and limbs, the tools, the copper spangles, the gold embroidery that I’d found in that little shop.
It was good stuff, the best you could get these days. Was I good enough to do justice to it?
Measured strictly in cash terms, I knew I could do well enough. The market for traditional marionettes, once in the doldrums, was then quite brisk. For a 25-inch dancing puppet I could guarantee to make at least 50 grand, if I decided to sell it. Otherwise, the princess I was carving would just have to join her fellow performers, the sprites and the goddesses, who were ranged along the opposite wall, watching me as I worked.
It used to be that puppeteers themselves would sculpt the marionette. Now that puppets were hot items on the tourist trail, local craftsmen are returning to the art of making puppets for a living. Or, in my case, because we found it entrancing, perplexing and rewarding in terms that could not be measured in kyat and pya.
The trick, which I was not sure I had mastered, was to craft a dancing figure with proper proportions between the head, the upper and the lower parts of the body. It’s not enough just to carve and assemble something that looks authentic. It has to work. Whether you’re creating an ogre, an alchemist, a king, a prince, a princess, a minister, a hermit, a tiger, a parrot, a monkey or a pageboy, you have to yield to the spirit of the marionette. The craftsman does not form the puppet. It’s the puppet that forms the craftsman. The instrument of creation is not the knife or the sandpaper or the paintbrush, but the craftsman himself, informed by the spirit of the doll that wills itself into being through the imperfect medium of his hands and his skill. You don’t want the customer to complain that when he pulls the strings, the arms and legs don’t move as they should because the proportions are all wrong. If you do it right, letting yourself be guided by the art, suspending all resistance to it, the puppet will sing, dance, engage in witty repartee, enthrall crowds, amuse kings. But get it wrong by a fraction of an inch or an ounce, and the thing is just a lump of painted wood.
Strangest of all, if you continue the thought in that direction, is the idea that when the doll is properly crafted and the strings are being pulled, it’s the puppet that commands the stage. The puppeteer is just dancing to its tune.
But I decided not to pursue that thought any further.
As I worked on a particularly tricky operation, threading gold wire through a tiny aperture, I was jolted from my concentration by the ringing of the doorbell. Until then, I didn’t even know if the doorbell worked. Laying down my work, I went and opened the door.
Standing on the welcome mat was Miss Dulwich, ice-cool in white linen, her jade-green eyes hidden behind dark glasses.
I guess I must have stood there looking at her stupidly for a little too long.
“May I come in?” she said, and I stood to let her pass. There was a fragrance about her I couldn’t identify, something much subtler than her rival Daw Mae East’s lusty Eau de Kachin. There was something of the English rose garden, but also something muskier. I remembered the words of Lenny the barman, the observer of redheads: pepper and spice.
“Coffee? Tea?” I babbled, waving her to a seat in the living room that suddenly looked threadbare and cramped. That was a mistake, I realized instantly. I knew what Miss Dulwich’s idea of “tea” was – Royal Doulton cups and saucers, a teapot with a proper knitted cosy, and scones and triangular cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off, tastefully disposed on a silver comport. I couldn’t match that kind of panoply. A teabag floating in a chipped mug would not pass muster.
Besides, I didn’t even have any tea.
Luckily, she shook her head. She took off her sunglasses and looked at me for a moment, as if appraising me. Then she took in the tools and parts on the table and the gallery of marionettes ranged along the wall. She made no comment.
“When we last spoke,” she said at length, “I mentioned that Edward had in mind a certain role for you.”
I remembered it well. I hadn’t given much thought yet to whether I would like being Tough Eddie Htoo Htoo’s minder on his trip across the Hlaing.
“I wanted to go into a little more detail about his plans, and where you might fit into them,” she continued. I sat down.
23 Carried Back to the Heights
“Eddie is much more than just a local gangster, you know,” she said, as if it was important to her to make me believe it. “I don’t deny he’s committed crimes – terrible crimes – some with his bare hands, others that he’s ordered done. Mostly by Ko Luka, who is… well, you’ve seen him. But in the little time I’ve known Eddie Htoo Htoo, I’ve come to sense something in him much larger and more impressive. He has a vision. It’s not fully worked out yet. It’s not just about himself. A vision for the country, I mean. His views are vague and ill-formed, but he has a remarkable capacity for self-improvement. He’s a voracious reader. He can tell me things about history I didn’t know, and he’s learning all the time. Not so much as if he’s pushing, but almost as if he’s being pulled, impelled, forwards. And he needs help, and he knows it. I can help him a little, but there’s only so much I can do. We think you could help him too.”
“Why me? There must be a hundred private eyes in Yangon with better contacts, more experience. Better dialogue, too.” I remembered how I couldn’t even match Lenny the barman in a rapid-fire exchange of clichés.
“We know what happened at the Diphu Pass,” she said.
And in an instant, I was back there. Back at the scene of my last operation with special forces, up on the border, high in the mountains. I felt the memory wash through me like a spring torrent through a dry gulley, bringing with it sensations so powerful – of hunger, of terror, of loss, of icy, intense cold – that I almost gasped in shock.
“That kind of thing is supposed to be secret,” I said. Even to me my voice felt shaky, unconvincing.
“Nothing that happens in Kachin is a secret to Eddie. Especially not that,” she said.
And she was patient, I’ll give her that. Almost as if she was a concerned citizen who’d come across an accident victim by the side of the road. She sat next to me quietly, waiting for me to recover myself.
It happened in 2035. We must have been at above 18,000 feet. India was directly below, Tibet some way beyond the line of haze on the horizon. The snow-capped peaks to the north seemed almost close enough to touch. For the air was not the kind mortals breathe at sea level, but a super-cooled crystal ether that burned the throat and left the lungs craving oxygen. Looking back the way we’d come I saw again in the middle of the broad green valley the dark-blue lake, its half-mile length shrunk, at this distance, to the size of my finger. I strained my eyes to pick out the tents of our base camp, but they were too carefully camouflaged.
My platoon was well-trained, as ready as a body of men can ever be for the action we had prepared for. They had worked well together on the long approach to the heights, striding easily over the narrow, muddy tracks through the deep forest, swinging hand over hand across the swaying rope bridges slung across the precipices over the foaming torrents below.
You’d almost think it was just a training exercise.
In the last village we’d reached before the march began in earnest, we’d set up camp on the outskirts before strolling down the single main street. The people had seemed friendly enough, if a little reserved. With the help of an older man who spoke Myanmar I’d asked the village chief about the road ahead. Easy, he’d assured me, it would be easy. Just stick to the path, don’t go into the forest. The villagers had sold us enough rice and vegetables to get us to the next stage. I’d insisted on paying the full amount we were authorised to pay.
In the 60-mile trek that followed we’d lost only two men, one to snakebite and another to a poisoned arrow. We never saw the attackers, who melted away into the forest without a sound. We buried our comrades beside the twisting trail, stood for a few moments in silent commemoration, and marched on.
Eventually we reached the base camp, where we stayed for a few days to finalise our plans to set the trap and, I admit it, to rest. On our last night there we’d gone over everything we knew, or thought we knew, about the mission. We were special forces, not the regular army. The discussion was sometimes intense. I encouraged my subordinates to speak their mind, but everybody knew the decision lay with me. In the end, I’d ordered most of the unit to stay behind. Leading just 10 men, I’d advanced to this point. We’d brought along half a dozen local porters, cheerful lads who chattered to each other in the local dialect and who seemed oblivious to the cold and the effects of the altitude. During the long ascent, they would scamper along sure-footedly ahead of us, burdened with food and water and gear whose bulk did not seem to slow them down or tire them. Every noon and every night they would set up a field kitchen and cook all our rice and vegetables in a single wok. How they made the campfires I never did understand.
As we climbed, the country grew more alien and forbidding. To one side rose lofty walls of granite, chipped and battered as if by a thousand giant hammers. The other side of the narrow path, mantled with a snowy coverlet that our army boots churned to muddy slush, lay a gulf, often sheer, sometimes so shrouded in mist that the trees far below could no longer be seen.
At 12,000 feet, I ordered the porters to cease their chatter. Now that we were headed into presumed enemy territory, we would have to exercise much greater caution. The silence grew intense. Apart from the scrape of a boot or the clink of an entrenching tool against a rock, there was almost no sound at all.
We trudged on up the narrow path, the sheer granite face to our left, the deepening gulf to our right. Our weapons and ammunition seemed to weigh ever more heavily as we ascended. Sometimes I would be aware of a desperate sobbing for breath, as one of the men dragged the thin air down into his lungs to feed the oxygen hunger. Sometimes I was aware that the sobbing came from me. For long periods we would stand, or lean against the rock wall, recovering after a particularly arduous stretch of path, gazing unseeingly into the misty depths beneath or upward towards the clouds, sometimes lowering, distended slate-blue shapes like ships or pagodas in the sky, sometimes airy filaments stretching across the heavens in long tendrils of opalescent vapor, like ghostly fingers.
Before the ascent, I had somehow supposed that from those heights the clouds would seem closer. But once up here on the mountain, they seemed impossibly far aloft, like something I had read about the pearly shrouds of the planet Venus, that sit eternally atop the miles of poison gas that forms its atmosphere.
The day before, I’d had to send back Corporal Nyein with three other soldiers who had succumbed to altitude sickness. Lowlanders from the sultry fields of Bago and Sagaing, they had grown increasingly ashen, groggy and sluggish as we climbed. That left me with only Sergeant Aung and five men, plus three of the porters who had volunteered to stay with us. Of these, the eldest, the most reliable and cheerful, was a boy of about 18 called Jack.
The rest of us had spent more time in the high country, but I knew I was near the limit of my endurance, and I was afraid my judgement could become faulty. Looking back later, I wondered if that’s why things turned out the way they did.
In single file I led the men forwards, the porters strung out ahead of us, their voices as they chattered echoing off the lofty rock face that towered above us to the left. They carried the food and water, but we were carrying our weapons and ammunition. Further up, around a corner of rock as sharp-edged as a flint ax, the narrow track suddenly twisted to the left and broadened out into a rough path that snaked across a tilted plain scattered with huge tumbled lumps of rock as big as houses. The thin, icy air was unearthly still, without a breath of wind, but a dense mist reduced visibility to a couple of hundred yards. At that time, there was probably three hours left of light.
We continued to walk in single file as we crossed the plain, not stringing out to left and right but sticking to the path, which narrowed as we advanced into a shallow gulley. As if wary of our new surroundings, Jack and the other two bearers had stopped their chatter, and walked silently, though just as lightly as before despite their burdens. I looked up. At this altitude the skies were as volatile as boiling milk. That morning had begun crystal clear, but now a thick plate of cloud covered the earth like a steel lid, as hard and unyielding as the ice-rimmed rock below our feet. I called a halt for a few moments to orient myself with my compass. By my calculations, we would be able to mount the operation about two miles or so further up, at the topmost height of the pass. I had never been there myself, but I had intensively studied recce photos back at Myitkyina when we were completing our plans. We had fewer men now than I had calculated that we would need, but with stealth and surprise on our side I had no doubt that we could carry it through.
As we continued, in silence broken only by the dull clatter of our boots on the rock, it began to snow, in thin, sere flakes that swirled aimlessly about our faces. The mist grew thicker.
That’s what they were waiting for.
We were going slightly downhill, into a roughly circular depression ringed with those hut-sized boulders. The young porter Jack heard it first. He was turning towards me, more excitement than fear in his eyes, even as I caught the sound myself – an eerie whistling, which seemed to come, first, from behind us, then to the left. I heard the clapping of hands and, to our right, bizarrely, a snatch of song.
“Captain,” said Jack. He didn’t have to say more.
“Down!” I shouted. “Everybody down!”
I and my men all flung ourselves to the dirt floor, looking around for targets, just as the shooting started.
It seemed to come from all sides. We responded as best we could, relying on heavy and continuous fire to suppress the incoming rounds. At my command, we edged toward a large, square lump of rock to the left of the path, which seemed to offer cover, at least to fire from that direction.
With our backs to it, we fired blind in what seemed to be the direction of the heaviest enemy fusillade.
A silence fell. I could sense the men looking at each other nervously. Who were our attackers? Were they the enemy we expected to encounter on the high pass? These were not the tactics we had been trained to expect. This was not the time, this was not the place for such a contact. And if there was any ambushing to be done, it was we who were supposed to be ambushing them.
I like to think I kept my head. We had plenty of ammunition, the men were well trained and we had no casualties. Then the shouting began.
“Hey, Mar Lo!” came the voice, somewhere ahead of us, in the direction we had been marching.
“You’re gonna die Mar Lo!” called another voice, to our rear. “We’re coming for you, Mar Lo!”
The voices seemed to be those of young men. They spoke perfect Myanmar. And they knew my name.
25 Trapped in the Triangle of Death
Loosed off more rounds in the direction of the voices, but another heavy volley came in from the left. Nyunt, a stocky, taciturn trooper from Mandalay, suddenly gasped and dropped his weapon. Needing no order from me, Kyaw, who had basic medical training, tugged his kit out of his knapsack and started to bind up his arm. The other three lads fired off more rounds in the direction from which the last round of shots had come.
“We can’t stay here,” I said. With professional soldiers I knew I didn’t have to explain my thinking. All I had to do was give orders. But I knew that the men guessed, as I did, that the attackers behind our sheltering rock, now silent, were probably creeping towards it and would soon appear, on one side or another, to put fire on us.
“We go dead ahead,” I said, pointing at the rocks to the left of the path that had led us here. “You know what to do. Go!”
I led the way, the others ranged out to my left and right, alternatively racing forward in a crouching, swerving run, then dropping and firing to provide cover as other men caught up with them. I was making for the largest of a dozen or so big rocks that lay in a rough half-circle, up a slight gradient, about 200 yards ahead in the mist.
Scrambling and dodging over the tussocks of coarse snow-encrusted grass, through the fitful mist, with fire coming seemingly from all directions, we made for the nearest big rock and took shelter behind it. I made a rapid count. There were 10 of us in all, Sergeant Aung, five men, young Jack and the other two local porters and myself. With our backs to the rock, we fired blind in what seemed to be the direction of the heaviest enemy fusillade.
I told my men to cease firing. A silence fell. Our blood racing, we had forgotten the icy cold. But in the thin air of 18,000 feet, all of us were wheezing and gasping for breath. All except Jack and the other two local porters. They should have been scared, but the younger two looked quite impassive. Jack, brushing aside the lock of hair that kept falling over his eyes, looked at me with an unreadable expression, his eyes alight with excitement.
Out of the mist there came more shouting, whistling and clapping. In the shifting mist I could not tell for certain where it was coming from, but there seemed to be three distinct sources of the sounds. Then the shouting got personal.
“Yo, Mar Lo!” cried a youthful voice to my right. “Cold enough for you?”
“Things are gonna get a lot hotter for you before we’re through, Mar Lo!” crowed another, from the left this time.
We loosed off more rounds in the direction of the voices, but another heavy volley came in, again from the right.
Thoughts raced rapidly through my head as I tried to map out tactics. In the thin air, my brain seemed clumsy and numb, as if I was trying to wind a Swiss watch while wearing boxing gloves. I don’t remember feeling fear. This wasn’t really happening to me. I was just an observer, looking on from the sidelines. I shook my head and tried to concentrate.
The bizarre whistling, clapping and singing that had preceded the attack nagged at a fleeting memory – an after-action report I had once read of another minor engagement, years before, not in the Diphu Pass, but somewhere near the border. That force too had been attacked in heavy mist. The unknown attackers – they were never identified – had fixed their positions before the attack on the column by singing and clapping in the fog. We later figured out that they had stationed themselves at the three angles of an equilateral triangle with our force in the middle, so that the group at each of the three angles could fire directly ahead of them, sure of hitting the enemy in the centre of the triangle without hitting either of the other two groups.
It was a highly effective, small-scale battlefield technique in the hands of highly trained and experienced men who knew the terrain and each other. It would work well against a larger, more conventional force on unfamiliar ground.
So much at any rate seemed clear. But who these guys were, what their quarrel was with us, how they knew my name, and how they came to speak such pure Myanmar this far north, were questions I would have to leave until a more leisurely occasion.
My head seemed to clear. Now I knew what to do. The only way out of the trap was to advance swiftly in a body directly towards one of the three sources of threat, maintaining a constant barrage of our own as we advanced to suppress their fire. The closer we got to them, the less we would have to worry about the other two groups, who would take care not to shoot at their own men. Once we broke through their lines, we would know that all the enemy were behind us and we could mount a rearguard action to mask a fighting retreat as we made our way back towards the narrow ascent path that had brought us to this potential killing field.
“We go back the way we came, using any big rock as cover,” I said, pointing back east. If we could make it out of the rolling, rock-strewn plain, as far as that ax-blade sharp corner of rock and back onto the narrow path that had brought us here, we could hold off any pursuit. I rapidly explained my plan. “Jack, you and the other porters, stick with my men. Wherever they go, you go. Aung, keep the men moving, as fast as possible, putting down fire directly ahead of you all the way. Let's go.”
I remained in place until the others were well on the way, covering their retreat by firing off a volley to the north and west before crawling rapidly toward my men under their protective fire.
The mist was very thick now. I could no longer see my men, but I could hear the distinctive rattle of their automatic fire directly east of me. Dimly ahead I could make out a looming mass of rock. As I was about to make for it, the eerie voices started again.
“Mar Lo! You’re gonna die!”
“Hey, 27th Myitkyina! Give up your weapons! You can’t get out. You’re all surrounded. Give up now and we’ll let you live!”
Reloading as I lay under the doubtful shelter of the boulder, I let off another series of bursts in the direction of the shouted taunts, then struggled to my feet and set off again, dragging thin, sharp air into my aching lungs as I stumbled forward.
Plunging through a dense patch of mist I tripped on a tangle of grass and pitched head-first to the ground, seeming to hear bullets whiz past my head. Stunned, I turned over and lay on my back.
Above, there were no more phantasmic pagodas, or puffy castles in the air, or sailing ships. Just the all-around gray cloud cover, as tight as the lid of a box. As tight as the lid of a coffin.
Time to rejoin the others. Standing up as the crackle of automatic fire continued all around me, I faced east and shouted, “Cease fire! This is Captain Mar Lo advancing!”
Pandemonium seemed to open up all around me in the fog. I broke into a run, instinctively ducking and weaving as I ran, not that there was any need because the enemy couldn’t see me, but I did it anyway. Seeing the big rock looming up in front of me, I hurled myself to the ground and slid the rest of the way. As I’d hoped, all my men and the porters were there. Nyunt, gray-faced, was hugging his wounded arm, but nobody else had been hit. Once I was among them, they all opened up in the direction from which I had come.
Now for the next stage of the advance. By my reckoning we’d reached and occupied one of the three points of the triangle that the enemy had cast around us as we marched, driving them off with the force of our onslaught. The next step was to lay down a curtain of fire behind us as we headed back, one by one, to the angle of rock that marked the descent. Once we had reached that angle, leaving the enemy on the high plain, we would have no fear of encirclement, even if the enemy followed us. I was betting they would not. The air was too clear, the cover too slight and the path too narrow, too easy to defend.
“Everybody ready?” I looked left and right as the men continued firing back the way we had come. The three porters sat quietly by themselves, a little to one side. They seemed to be repressing their natural exuberance, but they still didn’t look scared. I hoped I didn’t either. Jack, the lead porter, saw me looking in their direction and flashed me a quick, wide grin. He seemed to be enjoying himself.
“Kyaw, you and Nyunt go first. Leave your weapons and a couple of mags behind, we can use them. When I say go, Soe, you take Jack and the other two porters. The rest, await my order. Aung, you stay back with me until the others are clear.”
I could only guess at what the enemy was doing, still invisible in the thick mist that covered the rocky plain. How many more tricks did they have up their sleeve? The triangle manoeuvre was good, but it looked like we’d broken out. We’d heard no more of the outlandish whistling, shouting, clapping and singing by which they’d established their positions as we advanced unknowing into their trap. I organised the porters to reload the weapons we were not using, and had the men keep up a steady barrage of fire westwards. I let a few minutes go by, figuring Kyaw and the wounded Nyunt would by now be within reach of the relative safety of the ascent path, before ordering trooper Soe to go back with Jack and the other two porters.
“OK. Run for it.”
As the four of them disappeared into the mist, Sergeant Aung and I and another soldier, Myint, let loose another burst of fire in the hope of disrupting whatever moves the unseen enemy may have been contemplating, and distracting their attention from our retreat route. So far, no sound of firing had come from behind me, in the direction of the rocky corner that marked the edge of the plain and safety. I hoped that meant that my guess had been right, and the enemy had been scattered left and right by the speed of our advance rather than falling back towards the western edge of the plain. They must know the lay of the land well enough to want to avoid being trapped on that narrow ascent path, where they could no longer maneuver in the concealing mist. Where there would be no escape from us.
I made a rapid assessment of how much ammunition we had left. We should keep a magazine each for the descent, just in case there were any more attempts against us, but it was essential, now that we were so few, to keep up as heavy a covering fire as possible in the general direction of the enemy, until we were ready to make a break for it. I loosed off a few more rounds into the mist.
27 “Where’s Jack?”
Five minutes went by. Five minutes in which Aung, Myint and I fired off hundreds of rounds into the mist. There was very little incoming fire directed at us. I had no idea if the enemy were still trying to encircle us, but Aung and I both directed fire to the left and to the right to discourage our attackers from any moves in that direction, and to keep them in what I hoped was a state of confusion as to our intentions and numbers.
“Cease fire,” I said, my voice sounding unnaturally loud in the thin air. After the hellish din of automatic fire, the sudden silence was almost shocking.
There was no incoming fire. No taunting shouts. Nobody called my name, out of the mist.
“If you’re ready, gentlemen,” I said. Aung and Myint nodded wordlessly.
With a jerk of my head I motioned them to run on ahead of me. With a last, farewell burst of fire in the enemy’s likely direction, I set off behind them at the closest I could come to a run, over that treacherous and slippery surface, my lungs already aching with the effort, my head spinning.
Ahead of us I heard a shout. Though I couldn’t make out the words, I recognised Medic Kyaw’s voice, urging us on. The three of us continued to run, helter-skelter, in the direction of his shout. Up ahead loomed the gray granite wall of the cliff that formed the left-hand wall of the path that had brought us to this dreadful place. I could hear scattered shooting behind me, and the three of us were dodging and ducking as we ran. Our pace seemed nightmarishly slow.
Seconds later, we reached the edge of the plain. I slowed to allow Aung and Myint to get round the angle of the rock face first, then flung myself to the ground, rolling forwards and pivoting around that axblade-sharp corner of rock to safety.
Even as I sucked in desperate lungfuls of air, ignoring the pain in my chest, I was looking around at the men, mentally calling the roll.
Sergeant Aung and Trooper Myint had arrived safely with me. Medic Kyaw and his patient, Nyunt. I counted off Trooper Soe and the two porters.
Seven, plus me, eight in all. My brain, befuddled by lack of oxygen, seemed to balk at the simple figure, as if I were performing tensor calculus in my head, trying to solve an equation for the rotation of the planet. Something complicated. But this was simple. Yet the number was wrong. I forced my exhausted brain to grapple with the figures. It seemed to be very important.
Seven men, plus me. But a dim memory fluttered in my head from before the dawn of time, ten or fifteen minutes before. At that time, we were nine in all. Now we were eight.
Jack. Where was Jack?
They all looked at me blankly, as groggy and unfocussed as I was. Only the two young porters, alone among us capable of operating at that altitude, in that wispy air, in that deadening cold, knew what I was talking about.
One of them silently cocked his head, indicating the foggy valley from which we had just emerged. “Back there.”
“How did you lose him? Where did he go?” I asked Soe, the trooper I had ordered to take Jack and the other two porters back off the high valley, to the ascent path and to safety.
“I didn’t see, Captain. All three of them were in front of me, heading for this spot, then there was a burst of incoming from the right, so I dropped down to return fire. They carried on running. By the time I got up, I couldn’t see them anymore, so I just kept running. I didn’t realise Jack wasn’t with them until we all got around the corner of rock.”
“We’re going back for him.”
Nobody said anything. They didn’t even look at each other. I’d given an order, and special forces troopers don’t question an order. When a commander asks a question, or invites an opinion, even a common trooper will speak up and say exactly what he thinks. But when the order is issued, the time for debate is over.
And yet I could tell what they were thinking. We’d walked into a trap – I, their captain, had led them into a trap – from which they had barely escaped with their lives. Thanks to their intensive training, their superb fitness, their aggressive instincts that had been sharpened and hardened by years of special forces operations and their quick reactions, even under these harsh conditions, they had managed to extricate themselves with only one minor casualty, Nyunt, who had taken a bullet in the arm. And now the captain was ordering them back? Against an unseen enemy, of unknown strength, that controlled a hostile terrain? To rescue a porter?
That was the sticking point. Had the missing man been one of their own, they would be ready to go, order or no order. It was expected. But the idea that they should risk their lives for a civilian porter was not something that had been drilled into them. Porters were expendable. Civilians were expendable. And who knew whether or not these porters, and Jack himself, had any connection with this unseen enemy? I caught Soe and Myint eyeing the two porters dubiously, but they said nothing, and avoided my gaze.
Their silence told me what they thought about that idea. The way they refrained from looking at one another told me what they thought of that idea.
“Ammunition check. Report,” I said.
Starting with Sergeant Aung, one by one they reported how much ammo they still had. We’d been carrying a lot, but had shot off a large part of it, back there in the mist, against the invisible enemy.
“Nyunt, you can still shoot. You wait here, with the two porters. Cover us the best you can. The rest of you, you’re with me.”
28 Into the Gathering Night
The order I had given then, high up in the Diphu Pass, still seemed to ring in my own ears as I sat in my shabby sitting room next to Miss Dulwich, the painted puppets looking down on us from their perches on the opposite wall.
“We know what happened on the Diphu Pass,” she had told me. She knew. Tough Eddie Htoo Htoo knew, because he knew everything that happened in Kachin State. How did they know? I didn’t even know myself, and I was there.
I didn’t give Aung and the men any time to think about it. We were all now as recovered from exhaustion as we were ever going to be at this altitude, and it was time to act. Without a backward glance, I picked up my gun, rose and ran the few yards up the path, then turned sharply left at the knife-sharp rock wall.
The valley looked pretty much the same as it had when we had first entered, not two hours previously, a vale of rolling mist bisected by a winding path from which the frozen ground rose on either side, sometimes gently, sometimes more sharply. There was no sign of Jack, and no sign of the enemy.
The valley looked much the same as before, except for one thing: the light was already fading. Above the dense cloud cover, like a steel lid, the sun was sinking.
I didn’t look round to check, and I couldn’t hear Sergeant Aung and the men – Myint, Kyaw and Soe – fall in behind me. I didn’t expect to. They knew how to move without making a noise. Once I was with them in Shan State, tracking down a group of hostiles. Our file of 50 men were advancing through the forest, on our bellies, as another file advanced not 100 yards to the east, unseen and unheard to us, as we were to them. It took us six hours of infinitesimally slow advance to cover 400 yards in the darkness. We knew the enemy were there. We could hear them snoring. We could smell their latrines. They had no idea we were coming until we fell upon them, without mercy.
But now the enemy were alert. They knew we were coming, and they knew who we were. They had taunted us by name – “Hey, 27th Myitkyina!” “Yo, Mar Lo, you’re gonna die!” When we got back to base, someone was going to have to explain how they knew these things. But that was for later.
The mist, if anything, was thicker than it had been before, and the gray of the clouds above had a deeper tinge. We had less than an hour of light. If we were going to do this, we would have to be quick about it.
Stopping, I extended my left arm, then lowered it, ordering my men to lie on the ground. “Jack!” I shouted, as loud as I could, then dropped to the ground myself.
My voice seemed to echo weirdly in the thin air. But weirder still was the sound that floated back to us as we edged forward over the frozen ground, deeper into the high valley.
“Captain! Captain!” cried a voice somewhere ahead of me. In the mist, it was hard to tell where it came from. Was it Jack shouting? Without replying, I signalled to the three men behind me to spread out to the right and left of me, so that we could advance on a broader front. But I found they had already done so, anticipating my order.
Kyaw, Myint and Soe knew me well. We had served together in a dozen actions, in three states, along three borders. Kyaw was a Bago farmer’s son who had joined the army straight from Grade 12, wiry, reticent, and utterly dependable. Without being pious about it, he was probably the most devout among us, with no vices except an occasional flutter on a football game on pay day. Flag, faith, country, family, comrades, he really believed in everything a good army man was supposed to believe in, not that he talked about it much. He didn’t talk about anything much. He’d acquired his medical skills in courses paid for by the army at Yangon General, and honed them under field conditions. I knew of three men whose lives he had saved. He didn’t talk about that either, and I guessed he never even thought of it.
Myint was the joker in the pack, the class clown. He had once made corporal, but had been busted down to the ranks again after being caught cruelly, but very wittily, mimicking a pompous and particularly unpopular major. He liked a beer when he could get one, and had set up a card school in the unit that he thought I didn’t know about. He had a wife back home in Mogok township, and a small son, Jimmy, whose picture I knew he carried with him. He didn’t laugh about them. He would write long letters home and read and re-read the letters his wife sent him until they fell apart in tatters, rubbed gray by his fingers.
Soe was older, so old – pushing 30 – that the other boys called him “Granddad”. A by-the-book soldier whose weapons and kit were always in perfect order, he had a steadying influence over the unit. But he seemed to have no interest in promotion, smiling politely when an officer suggested it was time he was made up to corporal, but doing nothing to follow up. He was a crack shot, the second-best in the entire regiment.
And then there was Aung. Sergeant Aung Thein Soe was worth all the three put together. A born soldier, rail-thin, he was as tough as old leather and as strong as a rhino. I had seen him, once, in Magwe Region, pull a fully armed man out of the mudbath that threatened to drown him. The man had stumbled into the pool as the column squelched across a sodden field, realising all too late that it was ten feet deep, and his boots got stuck in the thick mud at its bottom. He had quite simply disappeared, sinking out of his comrades’ sight. It was Aung that jumped in after him and pulled him out.
29 Night and Fog
The five of us – Sergeant Aung, Myint, Soe and Kyaw and I – walked forward slowly in a ragged line abreast, about 20 feet apart from each other, weapons at the ready. We advanced into the mist, below heavy cloud cover, as the afternoon light began to fail. Our breath hung heavy in the air around our helmeted heads. Behind us was the path that would lead us back to safety, now guarded by our comrade, the wounded Nyunt, guarding the other two civilian porters. Ahead of us were the missing young civilian porter, Jack, and the enemy, whoever they were.
As we walked, while fully alert to a possible ambush, I went over in my mind the little we knew about our attackers. They were heavily armed, highly mobile, fast-moving and tactically adept. They seemed to be thoroughly familiar with the terrain and capable of operating in this fierce cold and at these high altitudes – altitudes that left us special forces almost breathless. From the sound of their voices, they were very young, maybe teenagers.
Then came the weird part: they knew who we were – a unit of the 27th Myitkyina – they spoke perfect Myanmar, even here up on the very edge of Kachin State, and they knew my name.
It didn’t sound like any force we had been briefed to expect up here. In fact, it just didn’t add up at all.
We were heading in the direction of the voice we had heard crying, “Captain! Captain!” But establishing the source of a sound, in this mist, at this altitude, amid these rocks that formed an acoustic squash court of rebounding sound waves, was very tricky.
I went over the options in my mind. Jack had disappeared on the way back to the path, as he retreated, together with the other two porters, covered by Soe. Somewhere along the way he had gotten detached from the others. Was he wounded? Had he been captured by our attackers?
There was a more disturbing possibility that I know had occurred to my men. I knew it from the way they had glanced at each other uneasily, almost furtively, when I said we were going back into the high plain to find Jack. Could there be some link between Jack and the enemy? We had no idea who they were. But our three porters were much more familiar with these high altitudes than we were. Could they have led us into a trap? Were we, even now, walking to our deaths?
Aung was to my right, Kyaw on my left. Soe and Myint, outside them to the left and the right, glanced behind them, back the way we had come, from time to time as we advanced, in case the attackers tried to get between us and the path. But the more we advanced into the mist, the greater was the risk that we could be cut off and surrounded. I had no idea how many men had attacked us, but they were split into three groups – three groups that fixed their relative positions by clapping, singing and shouting, before opening fire – and they must outnumber us. Our safety lay in quick and decisive action, making use of our superior training and firepower.
That was what I told myself. But at these heights, our jungle training and experience was of dubious value. The attackers were certainly better acclimatised to mountain conditions than we were. And we had already loosed off thousands of rounds in the first clash, fighting our way back to the path.
Damn Jack! A spasm of irritation shot through me. If only he’d stayed with the others, we would all be safe now, making our way back down the path, in the clear air, safe from attack. I was sure that once we were back on the path, there would be no further attacks. Deprived of the encircling mist, without the element of surprise, unable to bring their superior numbers fully to bear on us in such a narrow space, it would be suicide for these attackers to pursue us. We would have been home free and, apart from Nyunt’s wounded arm, unscathed.
We hit the deck as one as the automatic fire broke out, ahead and a little to the left. I could see the fire spitting red from behind a rock. Soe and Kyaw, to my left, returned fire as I, Aung and Myint scanned the terrain ahead and to our right in case this attack was a diversion.
“Jack!” I shouted again. “Jack, where are you?”
“Captain! Over here!” came an answering shout, ahead and to the right.
“Stay where you are!” I called.
I turned to Aung. “With me. You two, Soe and Kyaw, return fire ahead and to the left if they fire again. Myint, cover us, but don’t shoot unless you see a target.” I didn’t want Myint to give away his position by firing, supposing the enemy hadn’t already spotted him.
At a crouching run, Aung and I made our way toward the shout. We used the standard tactic for advancing under fire – I would run, back bent, dodging and ducking, for 50 yards before dropping to the ground. Then he would follow me as I kept a lookout. That way, we covered about 300 yards, ducking past heavy boulders over the icy mud of the high plain.
Then I saw him. Jack was sitting on the ground, his back against a rock. He didn’t look scared or hurt, though his face looked very pale against the shock of dark hair. He saw us at the same time and, flashing that bright, quick grin, started to lift a hand in greeting.
Then he froze, his attention seemingly distracted by a movement to his right, unseen to us. He held up his hand toward us, palm flat, fingers spread: “Stop!”
I strained my eyes into the mist, trying to see what he had seen. By now it was definitely dusk, the clouds overhead slate blue. Somewhere to the unseen West, behind those lowering clouds, the sun was setting on the day. Within an hour, the darkness would be absolute.
30 Why Did I Do It?
I guess I must have gone over in my mind a thousand times the violent, catastrophic events of that last hour of daylight on the high plateau. These are the things that still come back to me in nightmares: the pain of the raw, sharp, thin, bitter air in my starving lungs; the floundering panic as the fog and the darkness closed in, with the enemy close behind; the feel of the frozen mud and grit on my face as I clung desperately to the earth for my very life, bullets whining overhead; the sense of loss and grief, as deep as the echoing chasms that ringed that high, desolate, remote place.
Grief for the men I’d led to their deaths. And for what?
A thousand times, I wished I’d never set foot in the Diphu Pass. I wished I’d never heard of it.
And now this elegant English redhead, the green-eyed Miss Dulwich with her musky scent, was sitting in my shabby sitting room in South Okkalapa, with the bits and pieces of my broken puppet scattered on the table before her, was telling me, “We know what happened on the Diphu Pass.”
We know what happened in the Diphu Pass, because the Diphu Pass is in Kachin State, and her friend Tough Eddie Htoo Htoo, if that’s what he is, knows everything that happens in Kachin State.
As the events of that terrible afternoon rushed back into my mind – they were never very far away – when she spoke those words, I guess I must have sat there as if numb for a few moments. Long enough for her to prompt me.
“You lost all your men. The men that you took back into the plateau with you to find Jack, the civilian porter. Sergeant Aung, Myint, Soe, Kyaw. All killed, their bodies never recovered. Your comrades. Your friends. All dead because of you. That’s what you keep telling yourself, isn’t it?”
I just sat there motionless, unable even to nod.
“And the court-martial afterward, back in Myitkyina. The dishonorable discharge. You escaped a prison sentence because the wounded man, Nyunt, spoke up for you, and you still had some good friends in the command. But your career in special forces was over.”
I cast her a sideways look. Tough Eddie might or might not know everything that happened in his own home state of Kachin, but nobody outside special forces knows what happens in a closed-doors court martial. I sure never told anyone.
“Who are you, Miss Dulwich?” I asked. “How do you know all these things? And why do you care? What’s it to you, or to Eddie, what happened all those years ago, so far away?”
She met my gaze coolly. “It wasn’t just because your men were killed that the court martial treated you so harshly,” she said. “They found no fault in your tactics or your leadership. Nobody questioned your courage. What sank you was that you couldn’t answer the question: Why did you take those risks for a civilian porter? Your regiment would never have put you on trial if you’d left that boy, Jack, behind on the plateau, if you’d just taken your men down the path to safety. You might even have been commended for leading them out of the trap that had been set for you. But you risked everything to rescue a civilian, not even one of your own. Why?”
I knew she was repeating the question that had been asked in the court martial, but I answered as if she was asking me to explain, here, now.
“He was just a kid. He was there because of us. I couldn’t just leave him. How could I just leave him? He had family, a mother. I didn’t think. I just did it. Would I do it again, now, knowing what it would cost – my men, my career, almost my life? I don’t know. Should I have gone back onto the plateau by myself, leaving my men behind? But that would be against tactical doctrine, they knew that. They would never have let me go by myself. They would have insisted on following me. I like to think they would have insisted on following me even if they’d known what was going to happen. They were soldiers. They were special forces. Everything they did out in the field was a matter of life and death. This was no different.
“We never discussed it. There was no time. But I know what they were thinking, because I knew them and I knew their mindset, because it was my mindset too. Why are we doing this for a civilian porter? But they followed me anyway, and they died for it.”
I fell silent again, remembering the withering hail of bullets that had opened up behind me as I ran toward Jack, as he sat propped up against the rock. As I hurled myself to the ground, I had tossed a grenade in the direction he had been looking, with fear in his eyes. The explosion of the grenade abruptly cut off the fire that had been directed at us.
Jack had twisted his ankle. He couldn’t walk. I hauled him up onto my back and set off the way I had come, with Aung, trusty, reliable Sergeant Aung, covering us as we made our way over the rough, tussocky ground. But by the time I’d gotten back to where I left Myint, who was supposed to cover our retreat, it was too late.
Myint was there all right. But he was already dead.
“Soe! Kyaw!” I’d called, looking across at where I’d positioned the other two troopers. Leaving Jack by Myint’s body, I crawled rapidly over to them. Both lay dead, their chests torn away by machine-gun fire.
That left Aung.
Even before that day, if anyone had asked me which of my men I would want by my side, at my back, in mortal combat, I would have known the answer. I would not have said it aloud – the only acceptable answer would have been to say that I knew I could depend on any special forces trooper to fight alongside me. But of all my comrades, it was Aung I trusted the most.
31 “Aung, Where Are You?”
It was Aung I trusted the most, and it was Aung who saved my life. It was Aung who covered my back as I tottered back towards safety, supporting the young porter Jack as he stumbled along beside me, gasping at the pain from his twisted ankle. It was Aung who stayed behind, calmly taking up a firing position by a convenient boulder, as if he was settling in for an evening of watching sports on the TV. I could hear the bursts of fire he loosed off into the mist and the gathering darkness as the enemy closed in. From time to time as Jack and I made our laborious way toward the safety of the narrow path that led back down the mountain, I would turn and fire off a few rounds myself. I don’t know if it did any good.
Just then, the whole scene was lit up with a lurid purple glow. Aung had shot off a flare. As it drifted downwards, spluttering in the misty air, too bright to look at, it bathed that high plateau in a ghastly and ethereal glare, like some distant planet lit by an alien sun. For good measure, Aung tossed out a couple of grenades too. A moment later, I’d gotten Jack round the sharp-edged corner of granite that marked the start of the path to safety. Nyunt, the wounded man, was still there. Kyaw, the medic, whose body now lay not a thousand yards away on the high plateau behind me, had given him a couple of shots and applied a field dressing. Nyunt was unconscious, blood showing through the white bandages. Jack, who had barely made a sound as he limped back with me, had sunk down, ashen-faced, onto his knees to take the weight off his ankle.
Stripping off his boot, I took a field dressing from my pack and wrapped it tightly round the ankle. I could feel him trembling with pain as I did so, but he never made a sound.
I checked my rifle. The magazine was empty. I was out of ammunition.
Behind me, on the plateau, the flare was already extinguished. There was no moon. Night had fallen, and the darkness was absolute. The firing had stopped.
For a long moment I waited.
What could I do? Kyaw, Myint and Soe were all dead. I’d seen their bodies. Nyunt and Jack were hors de combat, but would live if I could get them back down from the mountain.
But Aung? I couldn’t leave Aung. And I still had my knife.
I spoke to Jack, very softly, so that only he could hear. “I have to go back in to help Sergeant Aung. Stay here with Trooper Nyunt. I’ll be back within the hour.”
He nodded wordlessly. I slipped back round the sharp corner of rock onto the plateau, now engulfed in utter darkness, and crawled silently to where I had left Aung. Or so I hoped. With no light to go by, the direction I took was pure guesswork.
I could not risk a light, but I could risk a shout, harder to locate in the darkness.
“Aung!” I called. “Where are you?”
There was no response, not even an echo. Stealthily, I crawled forward another hundred yards or so, then flattened to the ground and shouted again. No response.
It occurred to me that I could probably not find my way back to the path even if I wanted to do. As I had made my way into the plateau, I’d followed training, changing my direction every few yards to make myself a harder target. Now I had no idea where I was. Even if I found my way back to the path, I could end up falling over the cliff.
For all the rest of that terrible night I crawled around in the dark, shouting Aung’s name at intervals. I seemed to be the last man alive on the plateau. The enemy, whoever they were, had left no sign of their presence. Maybe they were still there, biding their time. Maybe they’d got what they wanted, whatever it was, and withdrawn. I had no idea.
And so my long, exhausting, grim and fruitless search began. For hours I quartered the field, searching for Aung. At first I was careful to creep silently, making no noise except when I judged it safe to shout his name. There was no contact with the enemy, or any sign they were still engaged. I felt as if I was the only living man on the whole Diphu Pass. But I never stopped looking. After a few hours, I didn’t bother to crawl anymore, I just stood up and walked normally, though holding both arms ahead of my face to protect me from rocks.
I never found Aung. As a grim and reluctant light began to bleed through the cloud cover I surveyed the scene. I found myself on a gentle slope, rough, icy and gray in this weary dawn. There was nobody else in sight, living or dead. I guessed I was about a mile from the path, and I could see quite clearly the track that led back to it. With a shrug, I stood up and unhurriedly walked back to the sharp corner of rock that marked the beginning of safety. Jack and Nyunt were still there, both apparently asleep. The priority now was to get Nyunt back to safety so he could receive treatment for his wounded arm. Having to spend one night in the open with a fresh wound was bad enough; he might not survive a second night.
What with Jack’s broken ankle and Nyunt’s wounded arm, it took all day to descend just a few hundred yards. At about midday, we’d stopped for a break and I decided to get some sleep, having spent all the previous night awake on the plateau. I gave Jack strict instructions to wake me after two hours, but I woke to find the light failing again, and him asleep beside Nyunt, who was also either asleep or unconscious.