11 Come into my Parlor
I’VE been hearing some very strange things about Tough Eddie Htoo Htoo lately,” said my contact on The Myanmar Times, crime reporter Zone Lone.
“Like he wants to go legit. Being an old-fashioned crime boss, even a very rich and successful one, isn’t enough for him anymore. He hankers after social acceptance.”
“He had his teeth done. After years of chewing betel, nobody was redder in tooth and claw than Eddie. Now, when he smiles, he channels Liberace. The effect is no less chilling, I’m told.”
“Weird stuff. Bits and pieces, but it all points in the same direction. He opened a florists’ shop called Eulalia. He was seen at the Southwest New City Opera House, in white tie and tails. And a top hat. And then at a Shakespeare performance at the SNC Theater. OK, Coriolanus, but still. He’s been heard attempting to speak English, with mixed results, but nobody laughs. He even, get this, has been seen crooking his little pinkie finger when he drinks tea. Now that has to mean something.”
“So what does it mean?”
“Eddie wants to put his violent criminal past behind him and join the great and the good. And he’s obviously being carefully coached by someone who knows exactly what they’re doing. Tough Eddie wants to get out of Southwest New City. He wants to cross the Hlaing River and make it in the mainstream. In Yangon Old City.”
What had all this to do with me?
Driving back into SNC with Daw Mae East and going over in my mind what had happened that night at the Blue Moon Kachin restaurant, I couldn’t help wondering if I was putting my head into a noose. I had watched from five feet away as Tough Eddie Htoo Htoo coldly gunned down two men at the next table.
My mind was working furiously. I knew now, as I had not known then, that the humorous-looking Chinese guy he shot was Laughing Chow, the gang boss of Southwest New City, at least until that night, when Eddie blew his head off. The silver-haired man was SNC Police Commander “Nipper” Nyunt, brought along by Laughing Chow as a guarantor of good behavior by all concerned. Nice try. But the lank-haired, blank-faced kid who shot them both, with a gun he’d had stashed in the toilet, didn’t do good behavior.
I also know now, which I did not know that night, that while he was busy shooting his main competitor and his police protector, the kid had sent his men out into the gin joints and gambling halls and cellar bars of Southwest New City to massacre Laughing Chow’s men. Every single one. By the next morning’s blood-soaked dawn, the kid was the new master of Southwest New City.
That was Eddie. No wonder they called him Tough Eddie Htoo Htoo.
Rumor had it that in the days and weeks that followed the Blue Moon massacres, Eddie Htoo Htoo had consolidated his power, extracting tribute from the bar and casino and dance-hall owners, making nice with City Hall and even managing to set things straight with the police.
Like I said, Southwest New City police are different than police in the rest of the city. Across the Hlaing River, they have their own ways of doing things. One gnarled police lieutenant in Twante once told me, “You want honest cops and unbribable public officials? Try the pantywaists over at Northeast New City. SNC was crooked before it was born.”
Daw Mae East sat beside me silently as I negotiated the early evening traffic heading for the bridge. I wondered again what she really wanted of me, and why I had decided to accompany her back to SNC despite the fact that her story didn’t add up. She was offering too much, explaining too little. Her story about a no-good husband squandering her investment in their tattoo parlor was not the business of a private eye. Why did she really want me to go back with her to Southwest New City?
As we approached the bridge, with the lights of SNC’s towers blazing in front of us, another detail of that deadly night at the Blue Moon suddenly occurred to me, something I noticed at the time, but then forgot. I didn’t think it was important.
I was wrong.
I replayed in my mind the events of that evening. The three men at the wooden table, the food and the wine, the way Laughing Chow had kept laughing until the moment the kid blew his head off. I thought of the acrid cloud of blue gun smoke that had hung in the air after the executions, the way it drowned out the cooking smells. Then I remembered something else.
Icy fingers seemed to walk down my spine.
There had been another scent in the air, briefly, before the gunplay began. I forced myself to go over the scene in my mind one more time, resisting the temptation to skip over the details to get to the shooting part.
Now I had it. When he hauled the black snub-nosed pistol out of the waistband of his longyi, something else had come out with it. A scrap of lace, a lady’s handkerchief. For the briefest of instants, a scent had wafted toward me, before the bullets started flying and two men lay dead.
A fruity yet fugitive scent redolent of mango trees in the morning in the rain, underscored with a darker, earthier heft, the musk of loamy fields fragrant with poppies nurtured with cow-dung. Both robust and refined, elegant and full-bodied, it was a perfume unashamed of its rustic roots.
Eau de Kachin.
And now I was smelling again that same scent, worn by the woman sitting beside me.
12 A Tight Corner
Whistling softly to myself, as if I was thinking of nothing in particular, I continued to rack my brains over what had happened in the Blue Moon.
I never did find out who my client was, or what he or she really wanted from me. The day after the shooting I received my fee, one lakh, in cash, in the mail. No further instructions. I wondered whether I should claim the meal I’d ordered in the Blue Moon on expenses. I still had the receipt, after all. I decided against it. Let them keep the two thousand kyat.
What was the connection, if any, between the murderous coup launched by Eddie Htoo Htoo one year before, and the woman who sat beside me now in my car? Why was she luring me – the word sprang into my mind unbidden – back into Southwest New City, a place I’d found it healthier to avoid for the past year? Beneath the cool façade that I cultivated, and being careful to give no hint to my companion of the turmoil in my thoughts, I was thinking furiously. In fact, I like to think I was the picture of insouciance.
“You wanna knock off the d--- whistling?” she asked.
There was still time to change my mind. We were almost over the bridge, but there’s a place you can make an illegal U-turn if you catch the eastbound traffic just right and you’re slick with the handbrake. I’ve seen it done in the movies. Then I could roar back into Kyeemyindaing, set her off at the curb and go home.
The last light turned green. I drove straight ahead, off the Bargayar Street Bridge, and on into Southwest New City.
“The place is called Irezumiya Superior Tattoo Parlor,” said Daw Mae East. “I’ll give you directions. Just carry on straight.”
“You said. Twante and Seventeenth,” I said. “I know the way.”
For a wonder, there was a parking spot within a couple of minutes’ walk of the place. By now it was dark. Together, we strolled along the narrow, busy street, lit on both sides by flickering neon signs advertizing fast-food joints, bars, another tattoo parlor. Music blared from an open door. Concrete steps led down to a jazz cub in a cellar. The smells of fried food wafted across our faces. Sharply dressed young men and underdressed young women chattered and giggled as they tottered unsoberly past. SNC was preparing for another edifying evening.
All this time I was wondering what Daw Mae East – and maybe Tough Eddie Htoo Htoo – really wanted from me. Assuming her cover story was a lie, or several lies rolled into one, Eddie was behind this. Why should he have any business with me? The only reason could be that he knew I had witnessed his execution of his rivals in the Blue Moon restaurant that night a year ago. But if he had just wanted to kill me, there were any number of ways he could have gotten to me without sending his moll, Daw Mae East, to my office to get me. Maybe he just felt more comfortable murdering people on his own home territory.
I thought again of the information my contact on The Myanmar Times, crime reporter Zone Lone, had told me: Eddie was classing up. He didn’t want to be just an SNC thug anymore. He wanted to cross the Hlaing River and make it in the big time, with the top people. The people who lived in the white mansions with the Corinthian columns and the chandeliers, like the one I’d visited that morning, to call on the General.
Maybe Eddie thought I was in his way.
Despite the secret weight of the gun under my arm, I felt like a fly being presented with a gold-embossed invitation card from the spider residence.
I followed Daw Mae East into the Irezumiya Superior Tattoo Parlor.
“My husband, Ko Jimmy, will be upstairs,” she said. “It’s this way.”
She led me up a flight of stairs and along a narrow corridor. Pushing aside the half-open door at the end, she beckoned me into a lighted room. There, sitting on a plastic stool with his back to the wall, facing me, sat the pale, thin kid with the lock of hair hanging over his forehead that I’d last seen gunning down two rivals in the Blue Moon.
Standing on the floor next to him was an alabaster bowl on a silver filigree stand, a delicate thing of beauty forged from the finest of fragile materials, finely engraved with classical scenes depicting happy people in colorful ethnic garb, singing and dancing and engaged in traditional rural pursuits. Eddie spat in it. Then he took out a crisp white handkerchief and carefully wiped his teeth. I guess the betel habit is not so easy to break.
He said to Daw Mae East, “Frisk him.”
She swayed toward me, moving in very close, and patted me down with her small, dimpled hands, quite thoroughly, front and back, taking her time about it, looking me in the eye as she did so, her face inches away from my own.
“I said so.”
He jerked his chin,
“What about that?”
“That’s not a gun.”
“Well, if you say so, angel.”
Then he spoke to me for the first time. “Take a seat,” he said.
He nodded toward a red plastic stool in front of him. I sat.
For a few moments he just looked at me, his face expressionless. Then he asked softly, “Why are you investigating me?”
“I’m not investigating you.”
He nodded slowly, his eyes fixed on mine, then said, “Let me introduce a friend of mine. Ko Luka, take a seat.”
A man I had not seen before came up from behind me and sat on a plastic stool next to mine. His was green. The stool creaked as he lowered his bulk onto it. He was older than Eddie, probably in his mid-thirties, with short hair and a broad face. He looked at me steadily, without expression. His eyes were even deader than Eddie’s.
13 Of Cement Slippers
“Ko Luka’s from Shan State,” said Eddie conversationally. He flashed a brief, bizarre, grin at me, showing a mouthful of shockingly white teeth. Like Zone Lone, the crime reporter on The Myanmar Times, said, he had replaced his betel-reddened teeth for a pearly set of ivories that would not have disgraced a Steinway.
“A lot of people just call him The Shan,” he continued. “He helps me out sometimes when I have a problem. He gets people to do what I want them to do, and to stop doing things I don’t want them to do. He’s very persuasive. Sometimes he uses an ax. He’s pretty handy with a knife, too. Artistic, even. He don’t have the ax with him right now, but he always carries a knife. Not that he always needs it. A lot of times he just relies on his natural charm and the force of his personality. Ko Luka can be a very charming guy, but there are limits to his patience. He knows you can get more cooperation with a kind word and an ax than you can with a kind word alone. He starts out by trying to persuade someone, but if he thinks that person is not listening to him, if his charm is not getting through, he can start to get agitated. You may think he looks very calm now, and so he is, he is, but that calm masks a dark and terrible anger. When he starts to reach the limits of his persuasion, he also reaches the limits of his patience. His mood darkens. He becomes disappointed. He stops smiling. Reason deserts him. If he still can’t reach agreement, a kind of fit comes down on him. He’s described this fit to me in some detail. He actually scared me. The way he tells it, a red mist comes down over his eyes. His muscles tense up and he lets slip control over his actions, the way a hunter lets slip a fierce dog to attack his prey. This loss of control can result in great suffering. But not for him.
“Trust me,” said Eddie. “You don’t want to be around when the fit hits The Shan. So I ask you again: Why did the General hire you to investigate me?”
I began to see a dim glimmering of light. Maybe this was not about the fact that I’d witnessed the double murder he’d committed the year before. That would be a load off my mind. In any case, I decided against bringing it up.
“Eddie,” I said. “Ko Luka, pleased to meet you, I’m sure. The General didn’t ask me to investigate you. He had in mind something altogether different. As to what that was, he did tell me not to discuss his case with anyone, but I can assure you my investigation is not going in your direction. At least, not so far as I know.”
“What size are your feet?” asked Ko Luka suddenly. He had a curiously light voice, with a strong northern accent.
“My feet? Well, it varies,” I said evasively.
“I like to plan ahead,” said Ko Luka affably. “I mean, if it was decided by all concerned, which would not include you, that you would be better off sleeping with the tilapia in the Hlaing tonight with a pair of concrete slippers, I would have to ask myself, Do we have enough cement powder, sand et cetera? You wouldn’t believe the price of building materials these days.”
Without replying – repartee has its limits in a situation like that – I stealthily tightened my left arm against my chest, to reassure myself that my gun was still in its shoulder holster. Why Daw Mae East had missed it when she frisked me, I had no idea. I could have sworn her hand had passed over it, and I would guess that in her position she would know what a gun felt like, and in what kind of places it would likely be stored. Yet she had told Eddie, wrongly, that I was clean. What was her game, if she had one?
“Investigation? What investigation is that?” Eddie was saying. I wondered how liberally I could interpret the General’s instruction not do discuss his quest for his missing daughter and the Laukkai Jade with anyone. I decided to err on the side of telling Eddie a little bit more. Not as much as would compromise my standing with my client, obviously.
“The investigation concerns the General’s daughter, Ma Doris. So far as I know, she has no connection to you or to Southwest New City. I only came here tonight because Daw Mae East asked me to. But that was in connection with another matter entirely – something about a tattoo parlor. The one downstairs, in fact. I now understand that to have been merely a ruse.” I looked at Daw Mae East reproachfully, but she merely shrugged.
“You came here because I wanted you to come here,” said Eddie. “And now you’re here, you do what we tell you.”
I looked at the other two. Daw Mae East looked back impassively. There was a kind of glitter in the eyes of The Shan. I took a deep breath. But as I was thinking about what to say, Eddie continued.
“Describe the General’s house. The inside,” he said. “Start with the room layout.”
“What am I, a real estate agent?” I said.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw The Shan reach inside his jacket.
I jumped backwards, overturning my stool. Backing against the wall, I pulled out my gun and pointed it, straight-armed, at Eddie’s head. They all sat there, not moving, just gazing at me. Then they looked at each other. After a brief silence, all three of them burst out laughing.
14 Enter the Lady
I stood there, my back against the wall, trembling slightly, my gun aimed at Tough Eddie Htoo Htoo’s head. He and his scary sidekick, Ko Luka, and his moll, Daw Mae East, who had lured me into this trap, just sat there looking at me, still laughing.
I didn’t get the laugh. It was not the menacing, Now that you’ve fallen into our evil clutches we’re going to watch as The Shan carves you up with his knife, or cuts you in pieces with his ax kind of laugh. It was more of a You look really silly! kind of laugh, delighted and childlike, almost as if my longyi had just fallen down.
Surreptitiously, I checked. It hadn’t.
I felt peeved, I admit it. I’m a serious professional private detective, not lightly to be trifled with. My fee is one lakh a day, plus expenses. I don’t get to use my gun that often, but it’s a real and serious gun, and when I pull it out of its holster and aim it at someone’s head I expect a more respectful and appreciative reaction. Giggles, I don’t expect. It’s not fair.
“He’s gonna shoot you, Eddie,” said Mae teasingly. “He’s a tough private dick, and he’s got a gun, and he’s gonna shoot you, bang!”
“Then he’s gonna shoot me too!” crowed The Shan. That was hilarious. They all had a chuckle about that. I felt moved to complain.
“Now cut that out,” I said sternly, keeping my pistol aimed at a spot between Eddie’s eyes. “I mean, just cut it out!”
Well, that just set them off again, laughing harder than ever. Eddie, I guessed, was not normally much of a one for hilarity. While Mae’s laugh was a silvery tinkle, and Ko Luka was more the full-throated guffawing type – he actually slapped his thigh – Tough Eddie laughed with an almost soundless hiss, his eyes narrowed. And his eyes never left my face. My gun, he ignored completely.
Daw Mae East got up and stood between me and Eddie.
“Step back,” I warned her, sliding along the wall to keep Eddie in my sights. I didn’t want to lose sight of The Shan either.
“So what are you gonna do, Mar Lo?” she asked, her eyes on mine, her voice a husky whisper. The other two men apparently forgotten, she was directing her entire attention at me. There was a kind of shiny look in her eyes. I could smell the scent on her, Eau de Kachin. I didn’t like this at all. The whole thing made me feel very uncomfortable.
“You gonna shoot me?” she said softly, swaying toward me. “You wouldn’t shoot me, would you? What did I ever do to you?” She was about three feet from me, her face only inches from the muzzle of my gun. She paid the gun no mind, looking me straight in the eye, mock-pleadingly. Behind her, the two men made no move, just watched the scene play out as peaceably as if they were watching an anyeint back in some Loikaw village.
What the hell was I supposed to do? If Eddie or Luka had come for me I swear I would have fired. As it was, I didn’t feel as if I was in danger. Not from her, anyway. I just felt foolish.
“Tell him,” said Eddie suddenly, as if tiring of a game. Mae continued to gaze into my eyes for a few more moments, ignoring my outstretched gun, merriment in her face mixed with something I couldn’t read. Then she stepped back a couple of paces.
“You can’t go around threatening to shoot people,” she said, as if instructing a child, “when you got no bullets in your gun. I think this is what you need.”
From some hidden fold of her longyi she produced a cluster of small metal objects and held them out for my inspection.
Six bullets. I recognised them. They came from my gun.
She must have searched my desk, picking the flimsy lock, and taken the bullets from my gun a few moments before I arrived back at the office. Feigning surprise to find her there, as she pretended she’d been waiting for me in the outer reception office.
I swallowed hard and slowly lowered my useless firearm. Nobody was laughing now. Eddie and The Shan both looked at me, incurious, detached. With a swirl of clothing she turned and sat back down again on her stool, tossing the slugs into Eddie’s scarlet-spattered spittoon.
“Come sit,” she said to me, tapping the red plastic stool I’d been sitting on lightly with her small, soft hand.
For the second time that evening, I sat.
“Now, then,” said Eddie. “You were gonna tell us all about the General’s house. In Parami Heights. Where all the rich folk live. You had your fun. Now, how about it?”
The Shan sat forward, clasping his hands, fixing those dead eyes on my face.
At that moment the door behind Eddie opened and a woman entered the room.
No, that’s not correct. A lady entered the room. She was tall and slender, with the kind of hair they call auburn and a pale oval face. Her cheekbones and jawline looked as if they had been carved from ivory. Above a fine, straight, slightly tip-tilted nose, her eyes were green, something I’d never seen before in the flesh.
Her presence instantly transformed the atmosphere in the room.
Back in my schooldays, I briefly studied physics. We didn’t have much in the way of equipment at the school I went to, but the teacher passed around a couple of bar magnets to illustrate some point about magnetism. When they got to me I held one in each hand so that the opposite poles snapped together with a click. Then I turned one of them round and tried to bring the like poles together, like the teacher said. I couldn’t do it. The magnets bucked and twisted in my hand. That was what was happening now between this flame-haired lady and Daw Mae East. Sitting between them, I found myself in a human force field of great and repulsive strength.
15 Taking Tea with Mobsters
The sudden entrance of this stately redhead transformed the atmosphere in the room. In astonishment, I watched first Eddie and then The Shan rise to their feet with a kind of sheepish alacrity. I decided I’d better do the same. Eddie looked apprehensive, The Shan quietly resigned. Only Daw Mae East remained seated, her face an unreadable mask. In a voice more lead crystal than cut glass, the lady said, “Oh, am I interrupting something?”
She spoke in English.
Advancing on me, she said, “We haven’t met. My name is Miss Dulwich. How do you do?” She extended a hand and, mumbling some reply, I shook it. It was cool, dry and firm.
“I’ve put the kettle on,” she announced. “Whatever it is you’re discussing, I think we should continue over a cup of tea. Don’t you?”
She swept from the room, back through the door by which she had entered. Led by Eddie, we all filed through behind her, with Daw Mae East, uttering a snort of disdain that was audible only to me, bringing up the rear.
The round table in the room beyond was already set for tea. In the centre, on the flower-patterned tablecloth, stood a silver comport bearing triangular cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off, and scones. Twin glazed white pots of strawberry jam and clotted cream stood by it, each accompanied by a silver spoon. There was a large brown teapot, covered by a woollen tea-cosy, and five teacups, each on its saucer. It looked like Royal Doulton to me, and somebody who’d been around the block a few times would have said those periwinkles were probably hand-painted.
“Shall we sit down?” the red-headed lady was saying brightly. “Wherever you like. No, Mr Shan, not there. Let’s make it boy-girl-boy-girl, shall we? There we are. Eddie, why don’t you be mother?”
Under a glare of contempt from Daw Mae East that would have withered basalt, Eddie picked up the teapot and poured for all of us. “Cucumber sandwich, Mr Mar Lo?” said Miss Dulwich.
I don’t think this was the way any of us had expected the evening to turn out.
Miss Dulwich was leading a discussion of the weather which, we all agreed, was particularly warm for the time of year. Only The Shan seemed inclined to challenge the consensus on this point, but he immediately subsided when Miss Dulwich arched an eyebrow in his direction. Back in the other room, amid talk of axes and knives and concrete slippers, The Shan had seemed a pretty tough guy. Here at the tea table, he seemed as out of place as a bedbug on a dish of ah pone pastries. Daw Mae East, still simmering in silent fury, was ignored.
“I understand you know our friend the General?” Miss Dulwich said to me. Her voice was soft, musical and low.
“We’ve met,” I acknowledged cautiously.
“How are his dear daughters, Ma Mildred and Ma Doris?”
“They looked fine to me.”
“But of course, Ma Doris is only recently married. Do you know her husband Jack?”
“I first met him this morning."
“Indeed you did. After you’d spent the morning making enquiries about him at the lethwei heya in Little Tokyo, had you not?”
“You can’t do nuttin’ without us knowin’ about it!” Eddie burst out. The faintest shadow of discomfort passed fleetingly over Miss Dulwich’s alabaster features. At once, Eddie said, in the same aggrieved tone, “You can do nothing without our becoming aware of it!”
Miss Dulwich seemed to nod approvingly.
“That is quite correct, Mr Mar Lo. We do know a very great deal about you, but there are one or two more questions we should like to ask. And you would do well to bear in mind the possibility raised by The Shan here, regarding the Hlaing River and the concrete flip-flops scenario. Not that the issuance of death threats excuses defective grammar, of course.” The Shan looked duly chastised.
“We understand you have your professional ethics, and though we all have our own ideas as to why the General engaged your services, we would like you to consider an alternative course of action,” she told me.
“I have a duty to my client.”
“What we have in mind will not interfere with your duty to your client,” said Miss Dulwich.
“What do you have in mind?”
She and the two men looked at each other conspiratorially. Daw Mae East was not included in this exchange of glances, I couldn’t help but notice.
Daw Mae noticed it too. “You’re pathetic,” she suddenly burst out at Eddie. “You really think you can fool people? You may be the big bamboo shoot in Southwest New City, but you’re nothing better than a small-time hustler, Eddie Htoo Htoo, and that’s all you’ll ever be.”
“Now that’s where you’re wrong, Mae,” said Eddie, half-soothing, half-defiant. “I got this far. And I can go further. This is just the beginning. Southwest New City is just the beginning. If I can make it here, I can make it anywhere. I’m gonna be on top of the world.”
“Of course you are,” said Miss Dulwich. She said it briskly enough that it didn’t sound patronizing.
“You keep out of this!” hissed Mae. “Ever since you started poking your nose in, this organization’s gone rotten!”
“Now you cut that out,” said Eddie. He sounded as masterful as I had when I’d used the same phrase, waving my empty gun at her.
“We got a good thing going,” said Mae, pleading now, her voice low and husky. She looked from Eddie to The Shan. “Don’t risk it. Don't risk it all for her."
“I fear we’re embarrassing our new friend,” said Miss Dulwich. They all turned and looked at me.
Interesting as all this was, I saw no connection with the commission I’d accepted from the General that morning. It already seemed like a long time ago, and although I’d found both his missing daughter, Ma Doris, and the husband she’d eloped with, the former lethwei fighter turned wannabe band leader Jack Lenihan, I was no closer to finding the missing Laukkai Jade.
I decided it was time to come clean.
16 Miss Dulwich Regrets
My companions at the tea-table, the Southwest New City gang boss Tough Eddie Htoo Htoo, his henchman Ko Luka, his moll Daw Mae East and the mysterious auburn-haired beauty Miss Dulwich, all looked at me expectantly.
I decided to tell them as much as I could about the commission I had received that morning from the General in his mansion on Parami Heights.
“The first job was to find out what had happened to his daughter, Ma Doris,” I said. “Well, that turned out to be easy enough. She did marry Jack Lenihan and she is still alive. That, I can tell him.
“But he asked me something else,” I continued. “The General wanted to know the whereabouts of the Laukkai Jade, a family heirloom, which was stolen from his house about the time Ma Doris disappeared. The General thought she’d taken it. She says she didn’t, and I think I believe her. Do you know where it is?”
Nobody looked at me directly, or gave a guilty start, or otherwise betrayed any reaction to my question. Yet I sensed that my information did not surprise them. At least, not all of them.
“I don’t know nothin’ about – ” Eddie began. He broke off short and spoke again more carefully, getting it almost right the second time. “I don’t know anything about no Laukkai Jade. But how’s about we ax you something?”
“What about? The inside of the General’s house? I can’t talk about that.”
“I think you misunderstood Edward’s intent,” said Miss Dulwich.
I racked my brains for an Edward, decided she meant Tough Eddie, and looked at her inquiringly.
“I think perhaps it’s time we laid our cards on the table too,” she said. “After all, that’s only fair, if we’re expecting you to disclose your thinking to us. “ She glanced briefly at Eddie and The Shan, again ignoring Daw Mae East, more to confirm that she was taking the lead than to ask for their consent.
“What we have in mind, U Mar Lo, is a sort of reinvention. You might call it a charm offensive. You’ll be aware that Edward here has attained a sort of status in Southwest New City, though many of the stories you may have heard are absurd exaggerations. We haven’t yet moved to counteract those stories because Edward finds them useful in his current capacity as a restaurateur and bar owner in a location marked by a certain colorful and quirky frontier charm, where a reputation of that kind does him no harm.
“But as he seeks to extend his range, and particularly as he contemplates establishing himself in the city of Yangon proper, he thinks it important to be considered a serious businessman, someone who will be taken seriously by right-thinking persons in the more established world of commerce, and even of politics.”
“Where do I come into this?”
“We think you may be able to help us. You’re based in the Old City, you know the General and, perhaps, others who move in those circles. And you appear to be a decisive and resourceful person, a man of action whose insights might be valuable.”
I said nothing. Miss Dulwich, and maybe Eddie too, seemed to have a much higher opinion of my potential usefulness than I had. I was getting the sinking feeling they’d mistaken me for someone much more important. I had no connections among the great and the good in Yangon Old City. I didn’t even know why the General had picked my name out of the phone book when he needed someone to track down his errant daughter and his family heirloom.
Miss Dulwich was looking at me speculatively, as if she guessed what was going through my mind.
“Edward, Mr Shan, if you don’t mind, I’m going to ask our new friend to excuse us for a few moments while we straighten out one or two things.”
Without waiting for their reply, she turned to me.
“U Mar Lo, if you will go through this door here, you will find a staircase that will take you down to the street level. If you then go out of the door right in front of you and cross the street, you will find yourself outside the Spearmint Bullock. Tell them Eddie sent you. Please have a drink or two on the house, and then Edward or I will be down presently to discuss this matter further.”
I followed her directions. At this hour there was no line leading up to the maroon velvet rope supported by gleaming brass posts. But there was a doorman anyway, an average-sized guy for a joint like that, illustrated of skin, shaven of head, no bigger than a beer truck and no more likely to glide nimbly out of your way than a paddy cart stuck in a rut in an August downpour. His eyes were as empty as a politician’s promises.
“Members only, bya,” he said softly. Men built like him don’t have to shout.
“Tough Eddie sent me.”
He pulled a small phone out of his pocket, pressed a button and spoke rapidly, giving me the empty eye as he did so. After a brief wait, a word of command came from the speaker. He stepped aside and nodded me through.
I passed down a narrow corridor, thickly carpeted. The dark red and gold wallpaper to either side was heavily flocked. The dim lighting came from fake electric candles in sconces high on the walls. At the end of the corridor was a staircase, heading downwards.
It was smoky in the club, and even dimmer lit. Against one wall was a stage the size of a pocket handkerchief under a couple of spotlights, with a mike. The stage was for a singer, who wasn’t there yet; in the larger, darker space behind, a small band played softly, something moody in tenor sax and Burmese harp. Most of the floor space was covered by little round tables, mostly loaded with glasses and bottles. There was a quantity of black bow-ties and enticing bare shoulders. Customers in evening wear huddled around them, some talking urgently in low voices, others gazing listlessly at nothing.
17 A Philosopher amid the Glassware
The Bullock was Tough Eddie Htoo Htoo’s unofficial headquarters, the heart of his empire in Southwest New City. On the upper floors, small ivory balls were clacking in their spinning roulette wheels, as gamblers tried their luck at the green baize blackjack and fan tan tables. During the long afternoons, bored housewives would drop thousand-kyat tokens into slot machines, again and again and again.
And on other floors there might be less public entertainments.
I took a stool at the bar and ordered a Sagaing Sling. I watched as the barkeep carefully bruised the cucumber before slicing it and stirred the dark green mixture instead of shaking it. I liked that, and said so.
“Most people prefer it shaken, not stirred,” said the barman. “But those people are wrong.”
“That’s kind of a bold statement. Most people are more nuanced.”
“It’s not a matter of opinion,” said the bartender confidently. A brass badge on his maroon tuxedo proclaimed that his name was Lenny. “Stirred drinks are better than shaken drinks. They look better, taste better and are morally superior. Show me a man who likes his cocktail shaken, and I will show you a jaundiced and retrograde degenerate.”
“You have strong feelings.”
“I’m entitled to them. I’m a graduate of the ASEAN Bartending Academy. Singapore. Summa cum laude.” He fished a card out of an inside pocket and handed it to me. I read it. He was right.
“They don’t just teach you how to make cocktails. Over the four-year MSc course, the tutors instil the entire moral and intellectual code that the student requires in order to serve as a credit to the bartending profession,” he went on.
“My degree. I have a Master’s in Stirring Cocktails. I mean, you think it just comes naturally?” he said. “Absorbing that encyclopedic knowledge of building drinks, regulating the interplay of sweet and sour, ensuring the correct gradation of the color medley in a Tavoy Sunrise or a Bago Blaster, mastering the chemistry involved – that isn’t even the half of it.”
“Is that right?”
“The successful barkeep creates the atmosphere, the environment, in which the customer, typically a middle-aged man, perhaps in sales, out on the road and far from home, often lonely and insecure behind his trademark bluster, opens his heart. The barkeep must have within his repertoire a battery of smart and knowing comments, delivered in a manner that blends a decent respect for the customer, an unforced saloon-bar camaraderie, with a healthy skepticism toward the powers that be that borders on the devil-may-care. He must inspire confidence that he is a worthy receptacle for faux world-weary insights, tedious sob-stories and implausible accounts of tough-guy behavior. No matter how many times he has heard it all before.”
“You don’t say.”
“That isn’t all. At ABA, they train the students to be masters of repartee.”
“AB – Oh, the ASEAN – ”
“Bartending Academy of Singapore, yessir. That’s the place to learn how to listen, and to invite intimate confidences. You have to project the idea that you will be silent, even unto the grave. Secrets are safe with us. Lips are sealed. Father confessors are just a bunch of Chatty Cathies compared to an ABA man. That’s how you encourage people to share their confidences with you.”
“I guess – ”
“You see,” he continued, “Anybody who’s ever seen a black-and-white movie, or heard the name of Humphrey Bogart, or Damon Runyon, or Ye Mon Chan Dala, knows exactly how a bartender is supposed to look and act. And talk – they give classes in mastering the argot of the barroom exchange, sophisticated yet gritty, vernacular but not without the ring of blue-collar poetry. Especially in the wee small hours of the morning. You think that kind of experience and ability come naturally? They have to be learned, inculcated. Discretion, that’s our watchword. The customer has to feel his every little opinion is the most interesting thing you’ve ever heard.”
“I – ”
“It’s our job to be seen and not heard,” he continued. And if it’s quarter to three and the customer is searching for another nickel to put into the jukebox so he can play that old sad song just one more time, well, that’s when your ABA graduate comes into his own.”
“It’s everything, from the way you wear your tux, how you knot your bow tie, the way you command the space behind the bar, to the technique for polishing glasses and setting out the paper napkins and the little bowls of beer nuts. Professionalism. There’s no substitute. Puts the customer in the mood to talk. That’s how they trained us.”
“So, now, I mean, is there anything you’d like to tell me?”
“Or, if you’d rather just exchange desultory, cynical-sounding but witty and cutting-edge remarks about the political situation or the Delta Boys’ last game, or engage in undemanding but morale-boosting male bonding rituals,” he jerked a thumb at his own nose. “I’m your man.”
“I’ll bear it in mind.”
Suddenly, Lenny the barkeep seemed troubled. He grew pensive, his eyes lowered, and he kicked the foot of a stool moodily.
“You know, my girl left me.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“One day I had the world on a string, just sittin’ on a rainbow. It was like we were flying to the moon. I could hear angels cheer, ’cos we’re together. I’d got her under my skin, you know? Deep in the heart of me. She made me feel so young. It was all baubles, bangles and beads. The next minute, she leaves. Turns out the lady was a tramp. Suddenly, we were just strangers in the night. All I had left of her were foolish things – a tinkling piano in the next apartment, or the way she sipped her tea. But they can’t take that away from me.”
18 I Learn from the Lady
"Regrets?” Lenny the barman shrugged. “I’ve had a few. But then again, too few to mention. One day it was all polka dots and moonbeams. But now I’m a man alone.”
“The best is yet to come,” I encouraged him. “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again.”
“But she was special, you know? Maybe it was just too hot not to go cold. Call me irresponsible, but I had to spoil it all by saying something stupid, like ‘I love you’. I loved her so bad it hurt.”
“That’s, uh, too bad.” Swiftly I racked my brain for fresh clichés, but he had me beat.
He drew a deep breath and seemed to recover himself. The man graduated summa cum laude from the ASEAN Bartending Academy, after all. Singapore. They don’t take just anybody.
“Another drink, sir?”
I dropped a C-note on the counter. “Set ’em up, Lenny. Take one more for your baby and give me one for the road,” I said.
“My name’s not really Lenny,” he confessed. “It’s Aung Myint.”
I turned as a wave of applause behind me signaled the arrival of a singer on the small stage in the corner. I knew who he was, but I’d never seen him before in the flesh. I understood something now of the phenomenon that was Ko Frankie Xin.
He was a skinny wisp of a kid with slicked-back hair except for a curl over his forehead that he kept brushing back, and which kept falling again. He looked about 19, but his voice sounded 35. I mean in a good way. It was the voice of a man of the world in the body of an adolescent. The women sitting around the tables laden with liquor kept casting him anxious glances, like they were worried he was out so late, or might hurt himself if he fell off the stage.
Then he started singing. They say nobody sings the old Myanmar traditional favorites like Ko Frankie. Tonight he kicked off with My Kind of Town, is Nay Pyi Taw and there’s that high C in the third bar, which he made, but with a kind of little catch in the throat. That was enough. Leaving their husbands and boyfriends at their tables, the women in ones and twos slowly got up and kind of drifted toward the little stage, clustering before it, looking up at him. But the kid from Ho Bo Kin township up in Kachin State just kept singing, as if he hadn’t noticed them.
My kind of town, is Nay Pyi Taw,
My kind of people too,
Government officials who
Smile at you,
And each time I roam
It’s Nay Pyi Taw, callin’ me home…
I felt rather than saw someone come up and occupy the stool next to mine. Turning, I found I was looking into the astonishing green eyes of Miss Dulwich.
“We had our little chat upstairs,” she said. “Now I think I should let you know something of what’s going on.”
For a moment she sat silent, acknowledging with the briefest smile Lenny, or Aung Myint the barman, as he placed a tall drink in front of her. It looked like plain water. I decided to start.
“So, Miss Dulwich, how did you get into this situation? You don’t seem to be the usual kind of person I’d expect to find advising a Southeast Asian gang leader.”
“Well, it just sort of happened,” she said. “I never set out to be in this kind of position.”
“Where are you from?”
“I was born in Dorking township, Surrey Region, not far from London.”
“Oh come on, you must remember England. It used to be in Europe.”
“Oh, that place. OK.”
“I had a normal childhood. But something told me I was meant to travel. I studied at Miss Lincoln’s Academy in Esher for the Teaching of English to Persons in Foreign Parts. As soon as I graduated, I bought a Gladstone bag, a pair of sensible shoes and a one-way ticket for foreign parts. And here I am.”
“How did you meet up with Eddie?”
“Being down on my luck, I was working as an English teacher in an international school. One evening some friends invited me to go with them across the Hlaing. Bar-hopping isn’t really my thing. As my friends were drinking and talking and laughing, one of the staff slipped me a note. It was from Eddie. I had no idea who he was, but the waiter who brought me the note – I could tell from his bearing that it must be from someone terribly important, at least in these circles. I couldn’t help but be intrigued.”
She took a sip of her drink. Ko Frankie was on his second number, belting out another old favorite.
If you can grow rice there,
You can grow rice anywhere,
It’s up to you, Magwe, Magwe…
“Eddie asked me to meet him to discuss receiving private English lessons. Of course I had my reservations, but it was all very above-board. He is actually the perfect gentleman, despite what you may have heard. And from the grammar in his note, I knew he was in serious need of instruction. I never could resist a challenge. And the money he was offering was…substantial.
“But it was more than that,” she went on. “If I’m honest, I have to say the whole underworld scene had a certain attraction for me. Not that we don’t have organized crime back in Dorking, obviously. But somehow it just seems so much more exotic here.
“Eddie is a good student,” she said, “Conscientious and eager to learn. He’s made tremendous progress, not just in linguistic terms, but in, well – I hate the expression, but reinventing himself. It hasn’t always been easy, what with his business interests, and there was some resistance from his immediate circle. Well, you saw. But he really does want to enter the right circles and leave all this – ” she waved a well-manicured hand to take in the Spearmint Bullock, “behind him.
“And that’s where I hope you can come in, U Mar Lo.”
19 An Unexpected Offer
I couldn’t see where she was going with this. I knew, from my reporter friend, Zone Lone of The Myanmar Times, that Tough Eddie was trying to go mainstream, to slough off his violent crime background and reinvent himself as a straight businessman, moving in high society, patronizing the arts and maybe getting into politics. That’s why he’d hired Miss Dulwich, to work on his English and his manners. But why did he want me?
She told me.
“You remember Edward’s assistant, Mr Shan?” she said.
I searched my memory. The man of whom she spoke had recently threatened to fit me with concrete slippers for a one-way trip to the bottom of the Hlaing River. He also had a habit of chopping off people’s feet with an ax.
“You may have noticed that, while undoubtedly loyal and often very effective, in some situations, he can give the impression of being rather blunt. Hasty, even.”
“Edward is loyal to his people. And that means all the Kachin State people in Yangon. Such as this young singer behind us, Ko Frankie, and that pretty actress, Ma Norma Jin. For them, Edward is a kind of father figure. And he’s loyal to Mr Shan too, and would not dream of dismissing him or anything like that. It’s just that…”
“Well, what works in Kachin State, or even in Southwest New City, might not be so useful in Yangon Old City. Might be a disadvantage, even.
“I’m not naïve. I daresay there’s as much crime in Yangon as there is in Dorking, my home town. But if Edward wants to advance in society, as he does, I’m afraid Mr Shan is not going to be of much use to him. Whereas…”
“You’re looking at me?”
“As I said, we know a lot about you. “
“Did I not say? Ma Mildred called Edward about you.”
“Ma Mildred!” I was taken aback. The General had called me in, that very morning, to find his missing elder daughter, Ma Doris. And I’d found her, with her new husband Jack, amid the twangling instruments of his band at the Tunnel Club. But all I knew of the younger daughter, Ma Mildred, was our ambiguous encounter in the General’s drawing room, where she’d tried, and failed, to find out why the General had hired me. I don’t know if she was trying to do anything else during our meeting but if so, she’d failed at that too. From that encounter, I’d written off Ma Mildred as a flighty, selfish, greedy drunk, spoiled, wayward and rotten to the marrow.
“How is she?” I asked politely.
“You were apparently unhelpful as to the details of your commission. Which, from our point of view, is a mark in your favor. Ma Mildred assumed, evidently wrongly, that her father had hired you to talk to Edward about the gambling debts she’d amassed in his casino upstairs, which are rather considerable. She called to warn him that you were coming to investigate him. She also provided a detailed physical description, and her assessment of your character, which she meant as criticism, sounded rather good to us. So Eddie sent Daw Mae East to fetch you. And to make her own evaluation.”
“So that’s why she made up that silly story about the tattoo parlor. I saw right through it at once, of course.”
“Quite so. Edward trusts her judgment, in some matters, and she has been singing your praises upstairs at our meeting just now. You seem to be just the sort of person he’s been looking for to ease his passage into Yangon society. Not the superior parts of course. I will help him with that. I meant the lower end of the market. No doubt some of the existing criminal enterprises in the Old City will be aware of Edward’s reputation, and they will need reassuring that he has no designs on them when he crosses the Hlaing. We would be relying on you to make that clear to them.”
“He doesn’t want me to chop their legs off?”
“Mr Shan’s methods can be efficacious, but only under rather restricted circumstances. Those circumstances do not apply on the other side of the river. We would need something much more discreet and sophisticated. But not too much. It’s important that your interlocutors east of the river should know that Edward is not a man to be trifled with. At the same time, he poses no threat to their business. His interests lie elsewhere.”
“I still have to find the Laukkai Jade,” I said.
“What? Oh, that,” she said, a shade distantly. “Is that still really important?"
“My client expects it. It’s what he’s paying me for."
“Edward will pay you far more.”
“Well, we can talk about that. But for the moment I still work for the General."
Miss Dulwich stood up. “We know where to find you. We’ll be in touch.” She turned and slipped through a door at the back of the bar.
Lenny, the barman, appeared in front of me. “Another?” he asked, picking up my empty
“That’s some dame,” he continued, looking reflectively at the door through which Miss Dulwich had disappeared. “Redheads, huh. They told us about those in bartending school. You know there’s lots of different kinds."
“Is that right.”
“Absolutely. There’s your carrot-tops, who are all basically eleven years old. All freckles and braids and braces on their teeth. When you try to play with them, turns out all they want to play is softball. They chew gum and go gooey over ponies and stuff. Then you got your strawberry blondes, who are not strictly redheads, but they have the same kinda greenish skin and couldn’t get a tan if they spent a year in the Dry Zone.
He stirred my Sagaing Sling vigorously, warming to his theme.
20 A Hymn to Redheads
"As far as redheads, that lady is in a different class,” declared Lenny the barman, deftly sliding a paper napkin, monogrammed with the logo of the Spearmint Bullock, along the mahogany bar in front of me with one hand and placing my drink on it with the other. With a third hand, or so his dexterity made it seem, he positioned a bowl of mixed and salted nuts the regulation seven inches north-west of my glass.
“Here in Asia you get a lot of women with hair the color of tea who like to pass themselves off as redheads, though under the dye their hair’s as black as yours or mine. Over in Europe and America you’ve got your ginger women. They tend to be sharp-tongued, on the snide side, quick at put-downs, and that’s when they’re not even mad at you. They do it just for practice. But being ginger, they are actually mad at you quite a lot of the time. In public they make scenes, at home they throw plates.
“But the lady that just left, she was of a different kind.”
He continued, with all the authority of a graduate of the ASEAN Bartending Academy, Singapore. Summa cum laude.
“The ginger type, they’re hot, but it’s a surface heat. The pain they cause is like to the sting you feel when you pinch out a burning match with your fingers – something we were trained in, by the way. It smarts a little, for a while, but it means nothing. Now that dame…”
He tilted his head to one side admiringly. “She’s the real thing. The true, the blushful auburn. Autumn leaves, hot toast, smoldering coals, a dark saffron curry. With them, only the surface is cool. Icy, even. Underneath, it’s all pepper and spice. With them, you know you’ve been burned. But you keep coming back, because they’re worth it.
“And that one,” Lenny jerked his chin at the door through which Miss Dulwich had vanished, “The real jalapeño. That hair is pure Titanic.”
“That would be ‘Titian’,” I suggested.
“And the eyes, you saw her eyes? Jade. Of the first water.”
“OK, Lenny. I get it.”
“No offense, I hope,” he said. “They taught us all about this stuff, and you have to keep up the patter. The guests expect it. I could tell you about blondes too, but we don’t get many in here. Anything else I can get you? More nuts?”
“I need a little time to think, is all.”
He took the hint.
I had a lot to think about. In the past hour I had narrowly escaped a death threat, been ready to shoot one or more people myself, and been offered a job.
So if Miss Dulwich was to be believed, Tough Eddie Htoo Htoo wanted to cross the Hlaing and to go legit, and wanted me to persuade the local gang bosses he posed no threat to them. That was quite a tall order. East of the Hlaing there was plenty of mob action, but it was less raw, more civilized than the high jinks you got over here in Southwest New City. Back east, the gangs were long-established, kept to their own territories, regulated their disputes in a gentlemanly, almost clubby way, though not necessarily without violence. How would they react to an incursion from Yangon’s Wild West?
And I still had to find the Laukkai Jade.
But at least I had some progress to report to my client, the General.
The following morning, after calling first to make sure he could receive me, I made my way back to Parami Heights. Again the weather was warm and sticky, the security camera winked at me like an old friend, the two golden retrievers looked a little sadder and a little wiser than last time.
The bright red sports car belonging to the wayward Ma Mildred was not there. It was a little early to be clubbing. Maybe she was still out from last night. Or maybe she was making the round of her favorite charities, bestowing stuff.
Arnold the butler was as friendly and approachable as he’d been the last time I came, managing to look down his nose at me even though I’m taller than him. “Please come this way. The General is expecting you,” he murmured.
Again we made the transition, via the air-conditioned gloom of the main atrium and down the corridor, into the glassed-in conservatory at the back of the house where the General made his lair. He sat in the same chair, in the same position, with the same fierce expression on his face as last time.
“Report,” he said briefly as I walked up.
Still standing, I told him what he needed to know – that his elder daughter, Ma Doris, was still alive and apparently healthy and happy; that she had indeed married the former lethwei fighter Jack Lenihan, the Liverpool Lasher, now reinvented as a budding rock star; but that I had not yet located his prized family heirloom, the Laukkai Jade.
Of my activities the previous evening at the Spearmint Bullock in Southwest New City and my encounters with Daw Mae East, Tough Eddie Htoo Htoo, Ko Luka, Miss Dulwich and Lenny the barman, I said nothing. Two can play at “need-to-know”.
“Ma Doris said she didn’t take the Laukkai Jade,” I said. “I believe her.”
Until the words came out, I hadn’t known whether I believed her or not. But now I knew.
The old man seemed to unbend a little, motioning me to the vacant rattan seat beside his own, and extending the gesture to the drinks trolley. I poured myself a small one and sat.
“Supposing you’re right,” he rasped musingly in his sandpaper voice. “If Doris didn’t take the jade, who did?”
I let that one ride. It sounded rhetorical to me.
“We had no break-in. There has been no intruder, not even a guest or visitor. The only person outside my household who has come to the house since I discovered the loss of the jade is you.”