The Devil's Toyshop
REGULAR readers will be aware that my friend U Sha Lok is a man of science, though of a rather singular kind. Though many would call him conservative, at least insofar as his views on religion and society are concerned—I never once heard him express a view on politics—when it came to scientific matters, and especially the use of science to fight crime, he was nothing less than a front-line, storm-the-barricades radical. Though self-taught, he was an expert in the theory of chemistry and its practical application to the art of detection. The first time I met him was at the Yangon General Hospital, performing chemical experiments, and one of the first things that caught my attention about him was the stains on his clothes and the burn-marks on his fingers occasioned by the use of corrosive acids. How often did I come home to our shared lodgings in Bei Ka Street to find him engrossed in some experiment, surrounded by his test-tubes, flasks and retorts, the air thick with noisome fumes, testing the efficacy of some solvent or other in the identification of bloodstains or hair-types. He has written at least one learned monograph on the ingredients of lipstick, using the knowledge thus derived to bring to justice the seductive but murderous female known to the more lurid sections of our press as the White Widow of Wundwin township.
Little escaped his eagle eye or his restless brain. One afternoon in my bachelor days, as we sat chatting in our shabby but comfortable sitting-room, he suddenly remarked to me, “So, Wa Zone, you’ve decided after all to go to Pyin Oo Lwin for the weekend?”
“Yes,” I replied, unthinking, then: “But Sha Lok, how on earth did you know that?”
“Perfectly simple, my dear fellow. It is a question of inductive and deductive reasoning. As you sprawl in your comfortable armchair in your characteristic pose, I see on the underside of your sandal a bright-red splotch of betel, mixed with a yellowish clay. The closest place that clay of that colour can be found is in the road-works around the front entrance of the Rathedaung Bank in Kyauktada township, where the workers buy their betel nuts from a supplier who deals solely in nuts from western Sagaing Division, which produce a particularly vivid scarlet hue when chewed. You cannot get to the bank without walking over that colourfully spattered stretch of mud and, once there, there is nowhere else to go but the bank. Hence, you went thither. Why? To withdraw funds. Why again? I can only conclude that your need for money is related to the debate you were having with yourself yesterday about whether or not you could afford to go to Pwin Oo Lwin this weekend to attend your brother’s wedding. I take it from the evidence before me that you decided in the affirmative. Am I right?”
I threw up my hands. “Sha Lok, I must say, in an earlier age you would have been burned as a witch! Not that we in Myanmar ever resorted to such a barbarous practice, it being restricted primarily to primitive Anglo-Saxon Christian countries. But your combination of observation and reasoning is surely akin to magic.”
But stranger sights were yet to come. On another afternoon, I came home to find him sat before a kind of box with an illuminated glass front, like a magic lantern, though it was broad daylight without and the curtains were open wide. The front of the box glowed, bathing his face in a lurid green light. It was attached by a black wire to what looked like a typewriter, but there seemed no place to insert the paper, nor any ribbon or bell. As I watched over his shoulder, for, as was his wont when concentrating, he paid me no attention at all, I was astonished to see that each time he touched a key, the corresponding letter appeared on the glass front of the box, in black, against the green background.
“I say, old chap—” I began, but he silenced me with an imperious gesture and continued to type.
U Sha Lok is adept at many things, particularly in the realm of pure thought and deduction, but he evidently lacked the skill and experience that an office secretary can bring to the art of mechanical writing. In fact he seemed to be experiencing difficulty even locating some of the keys he sought on the board and was clearly growing rather hot and bothered by his unaccustomed clumsiness. Nevertheless, he persevered for long enough to cause to appear on the screen, if so I may call it, the words:
THIS IS TEH FUTURD
I intervened as mildly as I knew how. “Should that not say, ‘This is the fut—”
“Yes, yes, I know,” he said rather testily. “I have not yet mastered the art. But,” he continued, turning towards me. “You see the possibilities. At present this machine is but a toy. But my friends tell me that the science of computers, for so they are called, is advancing by leaps and bounds. A little box like this already holds a vast amount of information, equivalent to, for instance, an entire daily edition of The Myanmar Times. And more can be added by inserting this floppy disc into the machine!”
He held up a curious object. “I observe a rigid article, square in shape. In what sense, precisely, is it a ‘floppy disc’?” I asked carefully.
“It’s just a name, Wa Zone,” he said, brushing aside my question. “That is what computer experts call it. But they foresee much more. They are talking now about connecting computing machines together over the telephone lines, so that the information contained in one can supplement the other. It would be possible to form a Data Bank connecting up a dozen, even a hundred computing machines, so that the operator of one could gain access, within the hour, to data stored on another machine perhaps five miles away. Nay, do not scoff. Such a system would be a boon to the detective. You see my files stacked up on the shelf along the wall there. Imagine if all that data could be stored on a handful of these floppy, rigid, square, discs. A world of information would be at my fingertips!”
“Only if you learn to type properly,” I pointed out. “And, by the same token, would not such a system, if it could be made proof against power cuts and the vagaries of the telephone system, be of equal value to the criminal element?”
He looked at me in astonishment. “But Wa Zone, how could that be? This is science! These machines are being developed by men of the highest intelligence and the purest motives. It is inconceivable that a computer could be used for any criminal, immoral or even frivolous purpose. No, I tell you here and now, and you may mark my words. Within twenty or thirty years, the man who has access to one of these computers will be elevated far above the common herd of the ignorant. It will be as if he is possessed of a Super Brain!”
“Or Super Drain, if you type it wrong,” I remarked. As a man of science myself, or at least a doctor, at any rate, I fancy I am more sceptical about these boons to the human race that sway the minds of more fanciful types, like my friend U Sha Lok. I doubted that the possession of a computing machine would really make a person superior, or endow them with powers beyond the normal. After all, it’s not like having a motor car.
A timely power cut caused the glass screen to go dark and released his attention.
“Well, so much for the future. Here in the present, we are condemned to deal with more humdrum matters. It is some weeks since I have had a case I can get my teeth into. Hence—” he gestured at the now darkened box—my dalliance with toys like this. But hello! There is the bell, and I hear steps on the stairs. Perhaps my luck is changing, U Wa Zone, and a client is approaching.”
Before I could reply, a young man burst into the room, brushing past me. He was dishevelled and unshaven, his hair uncombed. He addressed U Sha Lok in a state of great agitation. “You must help me!” he cried. “It’s happening again.” He thrust out a hand. “Look!”
Only with an effort did I restrain myself from laughing out loud. For the man, whose hand was visibly trembling, was holding out a potato. Still more absurd, shaped pieces of coloured plastic had been embedded into the vegetable’s flesh to designate eyes, nose, ears and a smiling red mouth, forming a caricature of the human face. On top of what would have been its head was stuck a yellow plastic trilby hat.
“Calm yourself,” said U Sha Lok. “Pray take a seat, and explain to me the purpose of your visit, and the nature of the threat which you seem to fear.”
“Seem!” echoed the man, in a voice nearly hysterical. “I know not ‘seem’. U Sha Lok, I have been plunged into a state of mortal terror ever since this object arrived on my doorstep this morning.”
“How exactly did it arrive?”
“Why, by post. It came in a small cardboard box. Just like the others.”
Suddenly succumbing to exhaustion, perhaps brought on by nervous prostration, he sank down onto the nearest armchair. “The others that killed my father,” he said in a trembling voice.
“I think you had better tell me the details,” said U Sha Lok calmly.
In fits and starts the man’s story emerged. Omitting the repetitions, and putting the facts into logical order, his account was as follows.
“My name is Kyaw Myint Phyu. My father, Kyaw Hlaing Phyu, was a senior official of our Ministry of Home Affairs prison service. He served for many years in London, England, providing technical assistance to the government there on the management of their custodial and penitentiary service. He had been seconded as part of an international development program that we extend to some deserving countries. In effect, he ran the notorious Wormwood Scrubs Prison. I call it “notorious” because that is the adjective habitually attached to the prison by our media. In fact, it is no better or worse than, say, Insein Prison.
“My father enjoyed his work and, so far as I could tell, he did it well. Two years ago, he returned to Yangon to resume his normal functions in the prison service. You should know that I am an only child, and as yet unmarried, and my mother died some years ago. I therefore lived with my father in a small house in its own compound in Ahlone township. We have a houseboy and a maid who do not live with us.
“About four months ago, a small parcel arrived in the morning post, addressed to my father. I happened to be present when he opened it. U Sha Lok, I was shocked at the sudden change in him. The moment he opened the small cardboard box he uttered a gasp, and half-rose to his feet. His face was white, his mouth agape. Never have I seen such an expression on any man’s face, least of all my own father’s. I hope I may never see such an expression again. I would describe it as the very face of horror.
“But what happened then astonished me still further. The sole content of the box was a small model motor car, painted silver. There was no note, and nothing was written on the box save his name and address. My father upended the box, allowing the small car to roll out, onto the table, where it sat between us. He glared at it intently, as if afflicted with nameless dread of—well, I don’t know what he feared. When I asked him what was amiss, he merely glanced at me, like a man who has half lost his wits, then shook his head slowly. He rose, taking the box and the car with him, and retired to his study, his gait slow and his back bowed. I never saw the box or the model car again.”
“One moment,” said U Sha Lok. “Did you chance to observe where the parcel was posted?”
“No. I did see a number of stamps on top of the box, bearing the silhouette of a woman crowned but, oddly, the stamps did not bear the name of any country.”
“That is most instructive,” said U Sha Lok. “Please continue.”
“Over the next few days, my father made no reference to the parcel, and I feared to raise the matter lest I upset him further. He called in sick and spent the time alone in his room. As time went by, and he seemed to recover something of his old spirits, as if the threat he feared was past. Our life resumed its former tenor, and he returned to work.
“But then, one month to the day after the first delivery, another parcel arrived. Again it was a cardboard box. When my father opened it, it contained nothing but a dolly, a blond, blue-eyed creature in a pink ball gown. Nothing could seem more harmless. But the effect on my father was tremendous.
“Instead of being frightened, he seemed this time to be galvanised into feverish activity. He ordered barbed-wire fencing installed atop our compound walls, and hired round-the-clock security guards. He bought two fierce mastiffs, Pinky and Perky, to patrol our grounds at night. I even saw him cleaning his old service revolver, which he had retrieved from a locked wooden box, and kept, fully loaded, by his bed. But he would never tell me why he was making these frantic preparations, or what fear drove him.
“For some weeks we lived thus, as if in an armed camp surrounded by unknown foes. And then the third parcel arrived.” Our visitor sighed deeply, his shoulders slumped. “Again, I happened to be there when the postman delivered it. My father opened it with trembling hands, then dropped it onto the table. U Sha Lok, I am telling you the absolute truth. The object in the box was a stuffed toy, a purple dinosaur with an idiotic expression on its face. As before, there was no note or explanation of any kind. But my father’s reaction was different yet again. This time, he seemed resigned, as if to some nameless fate. He shook his head slowly, rose and retired to his room without a word, his head sunk on his chest, his footsteps shambling, for all the world like a man bound for the gallows.
“The next morning, I found him dead in his bed, his pistol still lying on the bedside table, still fully loaded. The coroner’s inquest found that he had died of natural causes. Natural causes! There was nothing natural about my father’s death. I believe he was murdered, as much as any man who is stabbed through the heart or shot through the head. Or any woman who has had the life squeezed out of her by a Burmese python under the control of a greedy and murderous stepfather. Who did it, and how, I cannot say. But his blood is on their hands.
“And that is not all. This morning, I received a parcel addressed to me. There was no accompanying note or explanation. That is all it contained.” He nodded at the vegetable resting on our breakfast table, its red plastic mouth smiling idiotically at the ceiling.
“Did you bring the box it came in?” asked U Sha Lok. Kyaw Hlaing Phyu silently handed it to him.
U Sha Lok looked carefully at the small cardboard box. It bore no writing but the name and address of the recipient.
“This was sent locally, unlike the first box in the series. Concerning that one, which bore foreign stamps, the only country that does not identify itself on its own postage stamps is England.” Picking up his magnifying glass, he examined the stamps more closely. “Though smudged, the postmark is still legible. ‘Botahtaung’. This parcel was sent from not five miles from this room. They are coming closer, it seems.”
He turned to our visitor. “There seems little doubt that this parcel was sent by the same person or persons who hounded your unfortunate father to his death. Evidently the toys are some sort of coded message, which he appears to have understood, and which caused him severe mental distress. What is not clear, at least not yet, is why these people in London who intended such ill-will towards your late father, should have transferred their antipathy to you. It also appears that they operate with equal facility both in London and in Yangon. Even if it were the case—and I only speculate, as I hope you understand—that your father had entered into some sort of relationship with these people during his time in London, it clearly had nothing whatever to do with you. Could it be that, given the similarity of your name and that of your father, and the fact that you lived together, this morning’s parcel was actually meant for him?”
“I don’t know. Do you think so? Yes, perhaps. I am sure you are right. When it arrived, seeing my name, I naturally assumed…and having opened it, and remembering my father’s fate, it struck me at once that I was next.”
“You say these parcels arrived every month, one month apart, is that right?”
“That is my recollection. Certainly, the last before this, the one that occasioned my father’s death—”
“The grinning purple dinosaur.”
“Yes. That arrived just one month ago.”
“Can you tell us anything about your father’s character and working methods, which could shed some light on this matter?”
“If you are implying that he may have entered into a corrupt relationship with a criminal gang, I can wholeheartedly deny it. My father was a man of the utmost rectitude.”
“I had no intention to suggest the contrary. But I am seeking to find some reason why, having received a threat from a criminal organisation, he did not at once refer the matter to his superiors in the Internal Administration Ministry, or to the police. Can you shed any light on that question?”
“All I can tell you is this,” said our visitor after some thought. “My father certainly employed an unconventional approach to his work. Some of his colleagues and superiors may well have regarded him as a kind of maverick.
“My father certainly employed an unconventional approach to his work. Some of his colleagues and superiors may well have regarded him as a kind of maverick. For instance, he believed that prison authorities should engage much more closely with the lives of inmates. In our prison system here, he was too constricted by established rules and practices to put his theories into practice. It may be that, in far-away England, he felt able to experiment.”
“What did he actually do?”
“He instituted a very liberal approach to parole. He would even allow deserving prisoners a brief leave of absence. Some of them even spent weekends at our home in London.”
“Your father took prisoners into his own home?”
“He came to know several of them very well as individuals, and liked them. I should say that my father was an exceptional linguist. Not only did he speak English perfectly, he even mastered the Cockney rhyming slang with which the criminal element were accustomed to communicate with each other.”
“Weekends in your household must have been quite an experience,” remarked U Sha Lok.
“They were indeed. My father found these old lags endlessly fascinating, and I believe he became genuinely fond of some of them. Perhaps he was a little naïve. Many prison officers adopt a harsh attitude towards inmates, but many, including my father, favour a more enlightened approach. They go into the service to help people. In some cases, no doubt subsequent adverse experience can temper their initial idealism. But there again, my father’s Anglophilia, combined with his instinct to see the best in his charges, and the freedom he had in the foreign environment of London to put his theories to the test may have led him into error. And then…”
“I know from stories my father used to relate that prisoners can be extraordinarily manipulative. The more cunning among them use their helplessness as a tool. A weapon, even. They play upon submerged feelings of guilt among their warders in order to manoeuvre them into doing things that are unwise.”
“You think this was the case with your father?”
U Kyaw Myint Phyu said, after a brief pause, “He was particularly interested in a prisoner I knew to be the leader of a criminal organisation known as the Jack in a Box. Why they were called that, I do not know. But the man, whose name was Reggie Shand, seemed to exert a peculiar power over him. The man’s record was atrocious. He was serving 14 years for murdering a gangland rival by driving three steel spikes through his head, and there were untold stories of his violence and cruelty. And yet he had about him a kind of sweetness, amounting almost to unworldliness. They would sit and talk, in our living room, long into the night. I believe Reggie Shand convinced my father, not that he was innocent, but that he had been forced into doing the terrible things he did by the appalling conditions of the east London slum in which he grew up.”
I admit that at this point I scoffed.
“You are quite right to be sceptical, Dr U Wa Zone,” said U Kyaw Myint Phyu. “I like to think I did not fall for Shand’s blandishments. But then perhaps I lacked my father’s sense of humanity, as well as his trust in his fellow man. Nor was I exposed for as long to Shand’s seductive and sinuous personality.”
“What happened then?” asked U Sha Lok.
“I made it clear to my father that I thought his increasing closeness to this convicted criminal was unwise. As a result of that intimacy, he somehow became implicated in the affairs of this violent criminal gang, and paid the ultimate price for doing so.”
U Sha Lok rose and began to pace backwards and forwards, as was his wont. “Let us assume, then, that this latest delivery was in fact intended for your father, and thus forms the latest in a series, each element of which was presumably meant to convey something to him. These communications had the effect of frightening your father, initially to the point of armed resistance, but eventually to death. To your knowledge, did your father ever contact the Internal Administration Ministry, or the police on this matter?”
“Not to my knowledge, no. And nor have I.”
“Indeed, with so little to go on, it is not easy to see what our Yangon Metropolitan Police would be able to do about it. If I know our friend U Lek Trey, if presented with evidence of this kind, he would probably laugh.”
“The death of my father is hardly a laughing matter.”
“Indeed not. But what an official detective would seek, and what we lack, is any chain that would link these toys to your father’s death. The finding of the coroner’s inquest that your father died of natural causes would, to an official detective, indicate that he need trouble himself no further in the matter. If, indeed, he had ever taken it up in the first place. Your father, perhaps, could have supplied that link. But you, evidently, cannot.”
“Then the link must be sought, and I fear it probably lies in London. I am engaged on one or two other small problems at the moment, and am not able to get away.”
(At this point I suppressed an urge to raise my eyebrows, for the memory of U Sha Lok’s complaints about the tedium of his client-free existence was fresh in my mind.)
“As it happens, I do know one man, certainly one of the very few in all Yangon, who can shed some light on this matter.” He looked at his watch. “But not yet. We shall not find our man until the early hours of the morning. I suggest that you, U Kyaw Myint Phyu, should return home, for I do not believe anything will befall you in the immediate future. U Wa Zone and I shall have a bite of supper, than retire for a little rest. We should be ready to move out at 1am tomorrow morning.”
Bei Ka Street was very still as U Sha Lok and I stepped out of the house, a little after one o’clock in the morning. The air was cool. Far aloft, wispy clouds raced across the face of a gibbous moon. Not a sidecar was to be seen in the street, so busy during the daytime, so we walked in the direction of Anawrahta Street, our footsteps seeming to echo loudly in the unaccustomed silence. Finally we encountered a solitary nighthawk tricycle cruising near Sule Pagoda.
“Take us to U Fleet Street,” said U Sha Lok.
The scene at the home of the nation’s largest newspapers presented a startling contrast to the sleeping gloom of its surroundings. Ablaze with light, the narrow street was packed on both sides with lorries, engines throbbing, filling the air with the tang of exhaust gas, to mingle with the aromas of hot lead and printer’s ink. Shouting men strode purposefully back and forth bearing on their shoulders huge bundles of newsprint. Beneath our feet, we could feel a dull vibration, as the mighty presses rolled in their vaults in the cavernous buildings to either side. Their windows were all starkly illuminated even at this hour as those within toiled over the first editions of the morning papers that would be sped through the empty streets in these lorries to Yangon’s great railway termini. Once arrived at Pa Ding Tun, U Ston, Shan Street Station and the others, the papers would be loaded aboard waiting trains for dispatch to every corner of the Union. As tomorrow's sun was rising, the newspapers now being printed in the basements of these buildings would be popping through letter boxes, in rustic cottages or high-rise flats, from Chinshwehaw to Sittwe, from Bogale to Injangyang.
U Sha Lok led me down an alley between The Myanmar Times and The Daily Twelve, and we walked through narrow streets that appeared dark in contrast to the brightly lit thoroughfare we had just left. But to either side there were bustling teashops and drinking dens, all lively with custom as the compositors, stone subs, flong makers, night reporters, delivery drivers and linotype operators snatched their quick breaks amid the night’s toil.
“I fancy this is where we shall find our man,” he said, indicating a drinking den, a little set back from the road and seemingly quieter than most of its neighbours. As we stepped through the curtained door we stood for a moment to accustom our eyes to the sudden gloom. The smoky, low-ceilinged interior was lit by red-shaded lamps in sconces on the walls. U Sha Lok made for a line of booths to the left of the door. At the third, he stopped and addressed the man sitting therein at the table.
“It’s been a long time, U Peter.”
The man looked up from his drink, a bleary expression in his eyes. Indeed, one eye, since the other was covered with a black patch. Under a tangled thatch of grey hair, his seamed face was half-covered in grey stubble, his shirt was wrinkled and, in this dim light, did not look quite clean. “U Sha Lok,” he said, in a surprisingly cultured voice.
“May we sit? This is my friend, Dr Wa Zone.”
The man nodded. “I’ve read about you.”
U Sha Lok turned to me. “U Peter is a walking encyclopaedia, if you want to know anything about the London underworld in bygone times. Or modern times, for that matter, for he knows a thousand stories about London and its more exotic inhabitants.”
Turning to our companion, he added, “We have a strange story to tell you, U Peter, if you can spare us the time. And then, if we may, there are a couple of questions that occur to me.”
“Sounds like we'll need something to drink then,” said the man. U Sha Lok beckoned to a waiter, and we took our seats opposite him.
In a low voice, U Sha Lok explained to U Peter the matter that had brought us there, and expounded his theory concerning those who might be responsible for the death of our client’s late father, the customs official Kyaw Hlaing Phyu. He also spoke of the singular way in which the perpetrators communicated their warnings and their threats.
“U Peter, this may seem a strange question. But were any of the London gangs with whom you were acquainted involved with toys?”
“Toys?” The old reporter looked hard at U Sha Lok. “Surely you are having, as we used to say, a laugh. In the seventies and eighties, the Jack in a Box were the most dangerous gang in London. Whitechapel, Shoreditch, Limehouse, Bethnal Green and Bow, Mile End—they ruled it all with an iron hand.
“These were dangerous areas of London, then?”
“Not in the slightest. Not, that is, for your average law-abiding citizen. Any young lady could walk the streets without fear, at any time of the day or night. You see, there was no unorganised crime at all in the boroughs they controlled. The Jacks wouldn't stand for any riff-raff. Very high standards, they had. They frowned on street crime, for it attracted the attention of the police and the press. They wanted to run a very tight ship, in which they controlled everything, and could get on with what they really wanted to do, which was to make huge amounts of money controlling the illegal trade. Gambling, women, liquor, drugs, they ran all those operations. No freelance crime was tolerated. Any would-be mugger or burglar not part of the gang would be dealt with very severely. The message soon got round.”
“Why were they called the Jack in a Box?”
“I suppose it started as a macabre joke, derived from the fact that in the early days they buried one of their victims alive, the eponymous Jack, in a vegetable allotment not far from the Tower of London. They had a kind of code. They would send signals to each other, or to those they wished to warn, intimidate or punish, through the use of toys. Each toy signified a threat, a deadline, a command, a different kind of punishment. It might be a model fighter aircraft or a toy car, a cowboy figure…”
“Mr Potato Head?” asked U Sha Lok urgently.
He nodded. “That one I remember. It meant a particularly gruesome form of death involving, as I recall, decapitation and multiple gouging. Not necessarily in that order.”
“And many of them would have wound up in prison. In Wormwood Scrubs, for instance?”
“Of course. But that didn’t slow them down as much as you might think. Even from his prison cell, Reggie Shand was still the lord of the East End manor. It was all about family, you see. He ruled the family, and the family had its connections. The police, the Mayor, the unions, the local press, they were all more or less involved. Even the banks in the City of London were enmeshed, because the Jack in a Box had to put their cash somewhere. This was very big. Some say it even reached as far as Westminster and the national parliament and civil service. And some say, though I could never prove it, that the gang even had connections in the royal family. One or two of the younger royals seemed to think it was chic to be seen hanging around in louche nightclubs with mob figures. It was the same for the younger aristocrats, dukes, earls and suchlike. In their heyday, that is.”
He paused. “But there was one fly in the ointment. There was a rival gang, the Elephant and Castle, across the river, in Southwark. They were big too, in their own patch—Deptford, Bermondsey, Lambeth and Wandsworth, even as far out as Catford. A lot of the time they each kept their own place. But when they clashed, serious blood was shed. The leader of the Elephants, Ahmed O’Toole, hated Reggie Shand with a passion. And in a huge showdown, O’Toole managed to take over the Jacks, and vowed revenge against all their allies who didn’t kowtow to him.”
I decided to venture an opinion. “You seem to be a man of breeding, if you’ll pardon my saying so. How did you come to be so intimately acquainted with these gangs?”
“I’ll admit I had a sheltered childhood,” said U Peter. “I was not always as you see me now. My parents were typically English, somewhere between middle middle-class and slightly upper-middle middle class, not that we cared about that sort of thing. The country had entered an age where those old distinctions scarcely mattered any more. You have to understand how bad things were in England in the seventies,” said U Peter. “The economy was very depressed. Prejudice was worse. Back then, times were hard for white, middle-class, Anglo-Saxon, public-school-educated, Christian young men. Job opportunities were few and far between. Apart from government, politics and the civil service, diplomacy and consular work, the armed forces, security forces and police, the legal profession, the prison service, probation work, the merchant marine, trade and commerce, industry, construction, renovation and demolition, scientific and technical research and development, professional sport, transport, banking and finance, hairdressing, modelling, photography, tourism and guide work, costume jewellery, theatre, cinema and television acting and production, turf accountancy and other forms of legalised gambling, graphic design, arts and crafts, public relations, pharmacology, medicine, surgery and funeral services, the church, teaching and further education, civil, mechanical, chemical and electrical engineering, hydrology, geology, typography and metallurgy, local authority and municipal functions, town and city planning, architecture, agriculture, forestry and fisheries, the mines and factories, printing and publishing, estate management, animal husbandry, commodities trading, haberdashery, ironmongery and retail sales, there was just nothing – no career prospects at all. It was worst for boys like me, who had served time at Eton. I soon realised I had to take on any kind of work, however menial and degrading, just to keep body and soul together. In the end, I drifted into journalism. Just as I thought I could sink no lower, my luck just seemed to get worse and worse. In the end, I found myself working for one of the London tabloids.
“It was as the East London crime reporter for the Daily Telex that I came into contact with organised gangs. In those days, there were some pretty colourful, even frightening characters. There was Joe “The Hat” Jimpson, of Whitechapel, who was rumoured to have murdered two men with a knife.”
“Why did they call him ‘The Hat’?”
“Well, he often wore a hat.”
“Is that it?”
“I said they were colourful, not imaginative. For instance, the Jack in a Box, like most of the east London gangs, used to conceal their activities from the police by communicating almost entirely in a local variant of Yiddish, or in Cockney rhyming slang, until it became too widely known to serve as a secret code. Then they hit on the idea of using toys as signals, which nobody else ever did, before or since. From what you say, it seems that the victim was very well aware of this practice and, furthermore, knew the fearsome significance of the child’s playthings that were sent to him.”
“Indeed,” said U Sha Lok. “Are you still a journalist?”
“No. After years of applying a rainbow-coloured sheen to life as viewed through the prism of journalism, I can no longer be trusted with the facts. I now eke out a living as communications director of one of the less reputable international NGOs.”
I spoke up again. “I'm sure we are all assuming that U Kyaw Hlaing Phyu was entirely free from the taint of corruption, and entered into no shady deals with this gang. But that being the case, why would he not, on receiving the first parcel, immediately inform the Yangon police? You say they would have laughed. But if he approached them with the support of his former colleagues in the Customs Department, who would surely have been aware that the threat posed to him was real, the police would have had to take it seriously.
“While I’m at it, other points occur to me,” I continued. “The victim had left London some time before. Why should this threat, directed from thousands of miles away, suddenly appear? What happened, in London or elsewhere, to revive his association with the Jack in a Box? And how did they come, over there in Wapping, or Shoreditch or Whitechapel, to know his address here in Yangon? Could there be a local connection—one that was the true source of U Kyaw Hlaing Phyu’s fear, and one from which, he knew, the Yangon police could offer no protection?”
“By heaven, U Wa Zone, I believe you may have got something there,” said U Sha Lok. “The existence of a local connection would indeed solve both those little mysteries. But what could it be?
“The answer may lie,” he continued, “In Internal Administration. Of all government departments, Internal Administration has the most formidable reputation for efficiency and tight organisation. They are certainly the most secretive, and prefer not to share much of their information with the public. But I know one or two senior officials there, and I will see what I can do about finding someone who might be helpful to us,” said U Sha Lok.
The call came early the next day. We were to come to the office of U Han Bo at 11.30 precisely. The messenger who brought this summons also handed over two tokens which we were supposed to present at the 35th Street entrance of the Internal Administration complex, from which a security officer would accompany us to U Han Bo’s office. “Most efficient,” remarked U Sha Lok. “This is no less than I expected from the technocrats at Internal Administration.”
Arriving a few minutes before the appointed time, we were conducted by an unsmiling uniformed official to an imposing teak door at the end of a long, linoleum-covered corridor on the third floor. He knocked and, without waiting for a reply, opened the door and ushered us in.
Seated behind a vast teak desk at the far end of the lofty room, a middle-aged man was seated next to an elderly woman, apparently in intense conversation. As we entered, he looked up and waved to us.
“Good morning! Thanks for coming. Take a seat, do. I'll be with you in a jiffy.” He returned his attention to the woman. As we approached, we saw that she was reading his palm “Arsenal? Again?” he sounded incredulous. “It’s really time West Ham had a shot. But if you’re sure…well, thank you so much, and see you again same time next week.”
The man was not alone. To either side were ranged smaller desks, each of them occupied by subordinates, mostly women. Behind them, along both of the long walls of the room, towered a mass of wooden shelves bearing thousands of cardboard files. High above, three large ceiling fans circled lazily, scarcely moving the moist and sultry air.
“Now, gentlemen, what can I do for you?” U Han Bo asked, as the fortune-teller gathered up her things and left. “Take a seat, please.” He gestured towards two wooden chairs before his desk.
“Won't you have some tea? I know I'm having some. In fact,” he looked around vaguely, “I do believe I'm starving. Isn't it about time for lunch? Ma Thi, what are you making over there?”
He called to a group of women who were busying themselves around a small open fire in the far corner of the room. They seemed to be cooking rice.
A baby started crying. “Daw Cha! Bong Bong has woken up and wants her lunch,” he called jovially to another of his staff, who at once left her desk to tend to the infant, accompanied by two other office staff, who formed a little group around the baby, clucking and cooing to quiet it.
“Right! Where were we?” he asked. A woman approached with a cup of tea and a plate of rice and curry, to which he energetically applied a fork.
“We wanted to ask you about U Kyaw Hlaing Phyu,” said U Sha Lok, and briefly explained the background to the case.
“Ah, yes,” said U Han Bo thoughtfully, sipping his tea. “Well now, what can I tell you? It was certainly a bad business, a very bad business. Poor chap. He was well thought of here, you know, in the service. He was supposed to have done particularly well in London, while he was seconded to that international development project there. True, there was talk of some indiscretion. When you told me what you were after, I checked. There was nothing in the files, nothing official, but stories get around. There was talk of a gang leader, an inmate, which whom our colleague perhaps got too close. Allowed his judgement to be affected.”
He leaned forward confidentially. “From what I hear, our man may have become implicated, entirely unwittingly, of course, in some sort of gangland altercation. There was a violent death, bearing the hallmarks of this gang. The finger was pointed at the gang leader, even though he was in prison, in Wormwood Scrubs, at the time. Questions were asked as to how he could have murdered his rival without some sort of assistance from the authorities, that is to say, from our colleague U Kyaw Hlaing Phyu who was in charge at the time. Mark you, all this is extremely murky, you won’t find anyone to confirm it, or any report even hinting at it. I’m telling you this only because of that business in which you, U Sha Lok, were particularly helpful to my family a few years ago. Perhaps you don’t even remember the case. The media called it the Affair of the Dancing Girls. Made it sound frightfully lurid.”
“I remember it well,” replied U Sha Lok. “There was never any doubt in my mind but that your brother had been outrageously defamed. I’m glad I was able to prove it.”
“Quite so. I must say, my brother and I were virtually estranged. Well, you know how that is. But family is family when all is said and done. In any case, we haven’t forgotten. But I don’t know how much more I can tell you. Shortly after that business, U Kyaw Hlaing Phyu completed his term in London and came home as scheduled, with not a black mark against his name. He had resumed his normal duties when these things, you know, started happening, and ended so unfortunately.”
“One thing that puzzles me,” said U Sha Lok, “is why U Kyaw Hlaing Phyu apparently never sought protection from the police, or told his colleagues in this department what was going on. He seems to have gone from his initial shock, to a determination to offer armed resistance, and finally to terminal despair—and all because he received a few toys in the post. It seemed to us extraordinary.”
“I know! Would you Adam and Eve it!” said U Han Bo. “All I can suggest is that, and I’m not saying anything against the man, he was a fine colleague with a good record, but perhaps he was afraid of what the police might find out if he asked for their help. Found out about him, I mean, if there was anything untoward to find. Not that I’m suggesting there is. Not for a moment.”
U Sha Lok was looking at U Han Bo thoughtfully. “Could it also be because he feared the authorities here might have been somehow infiltrated by the London gang? To the point where, far from being a—”
“What? Oh, good heavens no!” cried U Han Bo. “A bunch of small-time crooks in Deptford infiltrating our Internal Administration Ministry? No, no my good sir, I can assure you that nothing of the sort could possibly have happened. Quite out of the question. Sure you won't have some tea?”
We politely declined. The interview was over.
As was his custom, U Sha Lok said nothing in the sidecar back to Bei Ka Street. Once back in our shabby but comfortable armchairs, he asked for my opinion on our recent interview.
“It seems to take us back to square one,” I hazarded. “I heard nothing in that conversation to throw much light on the problem. It may even have raised new questions.”
“On that I agree,” said U Sha Lok. “But the questions raised may in themselves point to an answer. The first is, Why should U Han Bo speak of Deptford? The Jack in a Box was a Cockney gang, operating north of the Thames. Deptford was controlled by the Elephant and Castle. But neither you nor I ever mentioned any location in London, and familiarity with such a detail on the part of someone who has never visited England seems remarkable. The second question is, why would a Myanmar civil servant suddenly lapse into Cockney rhyming slang? Which sounds even more absurd in our language than it does in English, by the way.”
I thought about this for a moment. “And what conclusion do you draw from your observations?” I asked.
“My dear Wa Zone, the same conclusion you have already suggested. There is a London gangland connection right here in Yangon, which influences either the police, or the Internal Administration Ministry, or the prison service, or all three. That is the only conclusion that would explain the facts. It would explain, for instance, why U Kyaw Hlaing Phyu was so afraid, not of a remote and negligible threat emanating from an obscure organisation thousands of miles away, but a close and potent threat posed by a powerful entity on his doorstep. And it would explain why, although he had done nothing wrong, he felt unable to appeal to the authorities. Finally, it would explain the very gentlemanly, very subtle way in which U Han Bo appeared to suggest that his late colleague U Kyaw Hlaing Phyu may have been corrupt.
“The answer to the riddle, then, lies not in London at all, but here in Yangon,” said U Sha Lok.
He rose and paced back and forth, as he was wont to do when his mind was grappling with a problem.
“I am convinced something very evil is abroad. But I must confess I hardly know how to proceed,” he said. “A man is dead, but of natural causes. There was no murder done, as such, though he was driven to his death by fear. His son, who is certainly entirely innocent, may also be at risk. Yet, neither the official police nor the dead man’s colleagues in government service seem willing or able to address the matter.”
He turned and looked at me gravely. “I am reluctant to let this matter rest. And yet, I will have to give considerable thought as to how to proceed. Needless to say, I will be grateful for any advice you may wish to offer.”
I looked back at him silently. I had no advice to offer. But a course of action was forming in my mind. And it was not one that I felt I could share with my old friend.
Later that afternoon I slipped out of the Bei Ka Street lodgings and walked towards Anawrahta Street, picking up a sidecar near the corner. I asked to be taken to 50th Street. Alighting outside a bustling restaurant, I walked further down the road until I found myself in the place which I sought: in front of the low archway in the blank brick wall, once whitewashed, but now leprous with green mould. The pile of rubbish lay to one side, and the stray dogs lounged on the cracked pavement. Opposite the archway was the row of mean, narrow stalls and flyblown little shops with not a lick of paint between them.
All of this was exactly as I had expected, because I had been to this place before. Standing now before the low archway in the blank wall, I was aware that nothing that I saw was quite what it seemed. I knew also that despite the apparent quiet of the empty street, I was under the surveillance of watchful but unseen eyes. My scalp tingled with the knowledge. For the archway before me led, through a small flag-stoned court, to one of the many entrances of the house of Dr Moe Yat Ti, whose notoriety was such that he was known as the Genghis Khan of crime. In that house, he held in his hands the threads of a hundred criminal enterprises, stretching across the planet. So much U Sha Lok had told me before our first visit there. And I believed one of those threads led across the world, through the grimy back streets of east London, to the murderous gang known as Jack in a Box.
The last time I had visited Dr Moe Yat Ti’s home was in the presence of U Sha Lok, who was forced to request the his aid in recovering a silver spoon, whose theft from the home of one of the country’s richest bankers had required an urgent, and highly discreet, resolution. Though the case was settled to the entire satisfaction of the client, I myself had been exposed to harmful publicity and the threat of ridicule, not to mention possible criminal charges—for I had been manoeuvred by the infamous doctor into helping him steal one of the world’s most celebrated artworks, Angelo Di Leonardo’s Fallen Madonna, and to do so, moreover, in front of the entire Yangon press corps. To this day I blush at the memory.
His mission accomplished, with my most reluctant assistance, Moe Yat Ti had then invited me back to his sprawling and luxurious mansion, which nestled within this complex of streets virtually invisible in plain sight behind the banal façade before me. There, over an excellent whisky, he had presented me with information which, at first, had astounded me but which, later, I was forced to accept as the truth. Information which I was now about to use in an attempt to solve the case that was baffling my friend, Yangon’s most famous consulting detective.
With a deep breath, I started across the street and passed below the archway. Crossing the flagged courtyard, beneath the slatted windows, I made for the door in the far corner, not at all surprised to see that it stood ajar.
Passing along the narrow corridor, I found myself once more in the large square room, white-painted, with a high ceiling with fluorescent lights, empty but for four armchairs set around the low table on which the magazines and periodicals were placed. Nothing had changed.
At every point on my brief journey from the street outside I had expected to be challenged. But the room was empty and silent; indeed, as I knew, the walls were thick and the doors soundproofed. There was no clock, and the windows were masked with blinds. After sitting expectantly for a few moments, I shrugged my shoulders and reached for the nearest magazine: Murder Most Foul. For, as I knew, I was in the waiting room of crime; and I would just have to wait until the criminal doctor was ready to see me.
I waited precisely one hour. At the end of that time, I looked up to see Moe Yat Ti’s manservant, Lin, standing silently in the far doorway. Without a word, he beckoned to me to follow him, and we proceeded down a passage and up a flight of stairs into a large and airy open space, where Dr Moe Yat Ti stood in the middle of the floor, dressed entirely in black.
“Good evening, doctor,” he said smoothly. “So sorry to have kept you. In recompense, you do not need to waste time explaining your visit to me. I have kept myself very well informed of your movements and I will venture to tell you why you came. Your visit, after all, was not unexpected.”
He gestured towards an armchair and sat opposite me, contemplating me thoughtfully for some moments.
In an attempt to shake off a feeling that I was there just to listen to him, I spoke first, perhaps more belligerently than I had intended. “So you know, or think you know, why I came?”
He shrugged languidly, his expression mild. “When you have eliminated all other possibilities, whatever remains must be the truth. But perhaps you have heard that aphorism before.”
I had. I suddenly felt an eerie sensation, as if I was seeing everything around me with a kind of double vision, as if a different reality had been superimposed on the world I thought I knew, and the match was not quite exact. An image popped into my head as I recalled the words spoken by the lapsed journalist, U Peter: the multicoloured edge applied to life viewed through a prism. Where did this illusion of double vision come from? Was it just because I had been here before? Or was it something more intangible?
“Very well,” I said. “So why am I here?”
“To seek my help.”
“To do what?”
“To close the case of the toys so terrifying they frightened a man to death.”
“Did you send them? Or order your accomplices in London to send them?”
“We regard London as an interesting growth area,” he replied obliquely. “There is some scope for, ah, cross-fertilisation. I am, as you know, something of an aficionado of foreign criminal enterprises. You might say I collect them. Some of the London gangs offer appealing features. We saw opportunities for collaboration.
“It was not my intention to kill the unfortunate U Kyaw Hlaing Phyu, still less to threaten his son. The campaign against the father was the result of some internal reorganisation in Whitechapel. Things got out of hand. I have made it clear matters must go no further. You may tell U Kyaw Myint Phyu he will receive no more parcels and may sleep peacefully in his bed.”
“Have you allowed a London criminal gang to infiltrate our Ministry of Internal Administration?” I asked him bluntly.
“Oh, it’s far more complicated than that,” he said, smiling slightly. “Consider the explorer who ventures into the deepest jungle, far from human habitation. He is experienced, he is wise, he is careful. But by the nature of his work, he knows very little of his new environment. He does not know to what novel risks he is exposing himself, in this strange and marvellous new natural laboratory. He learns a great deal. But he who gazes into the abyss finds that the abyss gazes right back. When Kyaw Hlaing Phyu, pursuing a harmless hobby in a far-off land, mastered Cockney rhyming slang well enough to bandy words with the likes of Reggie Shand, did he think it was beyond the wit of a London criminal to acquaint himself with our environment?
“What if the explorer, heading home, were to bring with him a microbe, a virus picked up in those alien climes that is then let loose among a million potential victims? Karma tells us that the great wheel turns: the mighty decline, the invader is invaded, and the coloniser becomes the colonised. Let us say there has been a penetration, infestation even, accompanied by the creation of antibodies—as a doctor, you will understand how these things work. We are no more immune to these English than they are to us. We thought we were bestowing upon them the benefits of our superior civilisation, but perhaps we have things to learn from them too.”
“You’re suggesting Shand is behind all this?”
“Not Shand. Reggie Shand now sleeps encased in a concrete pillar, propping up an overpass on the Southend Arterial Road between Basildon and Billericay. The big man in London now, north and south of the river, and the latest member of my international coalition of crime, is the leader of the Elephant and Castle gang, Ahmed O’Toole.”
“It was he who sent the toys to U Kyaw Hlaing Phyu?”
“He found that device, perfected by the Jack in a Box, amusing enough to perpetuate.”
“First because U Kyaw Hlaing Phyu was close to his great enemy, Reggie Shand. Second, to show anyone who needed showing that he could reach out his hand even to the heart of Yangon, that he was now a player of international rank. And third, to impress me.”
“And did he?”
“Ahmed O’Toole is a man I can do business with,” said Moe Yat Ti.
“But why are you telling me all this?” I asked.
“There is something, just one small thing, I would like you to do for me,” he said.
I was instantly alert. The last time Dr Moe Yat Ti had asked for my help, I had found myself plastered over the front page of The Myanmar Times, masquerading unconvincingly as Dr Watts Johnson of the Prestigious University of Camford-Yardavale as the two of us made off with the priceless Fallen Madonna of Angelo Di Leonardo.
“No,” he said, as if he had read my thought—something I knew he was perfectly capable of doing, just as U Sha Lok was perfectly capable of doing it.
“I’m not asking you to do anything illegal,” he continued. “I just want you to take a message to my…to your friend, U Sha Lok.”
“Why me? You must have a hundred ways of getting a message to him.”
“Coming from you, it will have more resonance.”
“What do wish me to tell him?”
“Merely this: ‘No man is an island’.”
I considered this for a moment, to see how the words might fit into the startling information that Moe Yat Ti had revealed to me, in this house, at our last meeting. It did not surprise me that I had no idea what the message meant. Perhaps it was some sort of literary allusion. Not my thing. Anyway, rather than ask, I nodded wisely, as if I had guessed.
“Very well. I will tell him. May I go now?”
I did not look forward to telling U Sha Lok that I had been, without informing him beforehand, to see his deadly enemy, the Genghis Khan of Crime, Dr Moe Yat Ti, alone in his den. In fact, it took me a day or two to find a way of breaking the news to him. In the end, I just blurted it out: that I had taken it upon myself to follow up the notion, which was after all my own, that a link existed between the obscure east London gang whose leader had been befriended by the prison governor U Kyaw Hlaing Phyu and senior officials at the heart of our own government.
The reader will forgive me if I gloss over that awkward encounter, for I cannot say my friend took it well. He had become accustomed, as indeed had I, to a certain kind of relationship between us, in which he did the detecting and I the recording; in which I asked the questions and he answered them; in which he led, and I followed. For me to impart vital information to him, for him to have to press me for more details and explanations: such things were not in his script.
I passed on Moe Yat Ti’s message: “No man is an island.” U Sha Lok made no reply, merely looked at me sombrely. I could not tell if he understood the significance of the words any better than I had myself.
And so the case of the man who was frightened to death of toys was concluded, if not exactly settled. For different reasons, both U Sha Lok and I were dissatisfied with this outcome: he because he never found out who in Yangon was acting on behalf of the murderous London gang that had scared U Kyaw Hlaing Phyu to death and seemingly laid its hand on parts of our government; and I because, knowing the answer to those questions, I felt burdened with unwelcome and disturbing knowledge that I could not share.
Yet there was to be a resolution of the matter, and a most dramatic and definitive resolution it proved to be. Looking back now, as I write these words many years after the event, I cannot help wondering if I could have acted differently, or even spoken out. Perhaps things would have turned out very much for the better. But after turning over the matter endlessly in my mind, unable to seek advice even from – most especially from – my closest friend and confidant, I chose to keep silent. And I maintained my silence until I found myself, once again, shoulder to shoulder with Yangon’s greatest consulting detective as, together, we tackled the fatal mystery of the Great Bell of Magwe.