The Silver Spoon
I trust I have managed to make it clear, in the sketches I have produced from time to time to illustrate the cases solved by my friend, the famous consulting detective U Sha Lok, that he was very little motivated by money. Nor was fame the spur that impelled him to put his gifts to work in penetrating the heart of mysteries that left the police force of our great city baffled. Indeed, I have seen him coolly rebuff the pleas of wealthy and powerful men and, I may say, beautiful and desperate women, when he deemed the problems they brought him insufficiently worthy of his attention.
The puzzle that engages him does not even have to be a crime, as the affair I narrated as A Scent of Scandal made clear, when U Sha Lok agreed to accept a commission from a personage of royal blood to recover an object entirely valueless in itself. No; in that matter, the magnet that drew him was the opportunity to match his wits with those of the entrancing Daw Aye Linn. That he came off much the worse in the encounter is neither here nor there.
In every case he undertook of which I am aware, there has been an element of the bizarre, the grisly or the uncanny, which alone can guarantee the attention of my mercurial friend, and cause him to deploy his unique and arcane skills. He had developed those skills, which all of us possess in embryo, to an astonishing degree.
I'll give you an example of what I mean. We were sitting by the fire in our rooms at Bei Ka Street a couple of weeks ago, I in my armchair and he stretched out on the sofa in his customary posture. The rain was beating against the windowpanes, the aroma of dinner, being cooked by our landlady Daw Hat Sun, was in the air, and an air of companionable silence prevailed. Out of the blue, he suddenly said to me: “You are right, Wa Zone. How paradoxical it is that a religion of peace can produce such brave warriors!”
“How true,” I concurred. Then I looked at him in astonishment. “But what makes you say that?”
“Because that is exactly what you were thinking when I said it. Can you deny it?”
My astonishment deepened. “Why yes, my thoughts were running along those lines. But how could you possibly have known?”
“By mere observation, my dear fellow.”
“Oh really, Sha Lok!” I protested. “I was just sitting here. What could there possibly have been to observe?”
“I am reluctant to tell you because the moment I do, you will say the whole thing is perfectly obvious.”
“I will do no such thing. Pray tell me how you followed my train of thought, when I barely articulated it myself.”
“Gladly. I noted that your gaze rested for a moment on the small shrine in the corner, where I have recently replaced the electric bulb. You pursed your lips and nodded almost imperceptibly, as if in approval—I surmised, of our noble faith itself, rather than my humble attempt to maintain the shrine.
“Then you glanced around at nothing in particular until you fixed upon the photograph of your great-uncle, Colonel Gyi, who was decorated posthumously for valour in the Ayodya conflict. For a moment, your expression was one of puzzled incomprehension. I have seen that expression on your face often enough; it has no particular significance. But then you looked a little sadder, and shook your head slightly as if in bemused resignation. The contrast between the two objects of your attention could not have been more stark. Here the shrine to peace and love, there the fierce man of the sword who, yet, fought in that cause, and to the death. Hence your conclusion, and mine: it is a paradox indeed that a peace-loving Buddhist country can produce a man of such valour, and such violence.”
I laughed aloud. “Well I never! Of course, now that you explain the thing it is, erm, uh,”
“I fancy you were going to say, ‘Perfectly obvious’.”
“Well, no. But not magic, at least.”
We left it there, but the reader will see my point. In his quest to engage skills of this calibre, my friend would allow no mere squalid murder or headline-grabbing robbery to engage his mind for a moment, whatever the inducements. To divert U Sha Lok, a case must be nothing short of extraordinary.
Imagine, then, my surprise, when I answered an urgent call from Sha Lok to find, ensconced in our sitting room, no less an individual than the chairman of the Union Federated Bank.
Since Thura U Aung Naing goes about much in society, and as I confess I am an avid reader of The Myanmar Times Socialite column, I recognised him at once. As U Sha Lok introduced us, and I took my usual seat in our sitting room at 221B Bei Ka Street, I wondered what could possibly have brought a man of his eminence to resort to a private consulting detective and, more intriguingly, why U Sha Lok might be interested in a case involving so mundane a thing as a bank, even if it was one of the world’s largest.
My curiosity was soon satisfied on both counts.
“Wa Zone, Thura U Aung Naing was about to elucidate, in greater detail, why he has come here this afternoon. I am already familiar with the main outlines of the case, but I shall certainly benefit, as I know you will also, from a more circumstantial account. Sir, you have the floor,” he told our visitor.
“The matter is at once very simple and potentially extremely embarrassing,” said Thura U Aung Naing in a cultured baritone. Worldly, silver-haired and sophisticated, he did not strike me as a man to be easily embarrassed. With his grave, urbane and yet affable manner, he brought a breath of infinite riches to our little room.
“You will know that we have been in close discussion with the Central Bank about expanding our financial services and generally reinforcing our connections with the international financial industry. Our national banking system has long been considered so wealthy and powerful that we have seen little need either to diversify or to link up with any foreign bank, despite receiving regular entreaties to do so. But times change, and it was felt at the very highest levels that perhaps the time had come to share our expertise.
“We were concerned, of course, to select nothing but the best in terms of an international partner. We demanded the highest standards of competence, integrity and personal honour in our foreign interlocutor. After thorough research and considerable internal debate, we therefore decided to approach the famous London finance house, Saxa, Silva & Gold. Its chairman is, as you may know, a French aristocrat, the Count de Lavallé-Monet.
“The Count was, naturally, deeply gratified at our approach, no doubt sensing the opportunity not for mere profit, but to burnish his own considerable credentials through closer association with our Bank. I invited him to propose an interlocutor for more intensive and in-depth discussions. He at once agreed to my request to dispatch to Yangon, post-haste, his personal envoy, a man whose integrity and sense of honour matched his own and who would, he assured me, be deeply sensible of his role as the ambassador of the City of London.
“That gentleman arrived within the week, and put up at the Grand Hotel. In order to form an impression of him, I invited him to dine with me at my home in Po Thein Street.”
I had often strolled past his mansion, on the street known locally as Millionaires’ Row, marvelling at its unostentatious magnificence. I said nothing, however, as our visitor continued his account.
“The man arrived late, but I thought nothing of that, knowing that he had undergone a gruelling journey to get here. Though he did not remove his shoes on entering he was somewhat casually dressed, which I take to be the fashion in London. When he took off his jacket to hand to our butler, I observed that he was wearing a pair of bright red braces. No doubt a touch of personal eccentricity.
“Good evening, Mr Steele,” I said. “‘Call me Rob,’ he at once replied, in an engagingly cheery tone, offering me his hand to shake. The dinner passed agreeably enough, though I was surprised at the way he wiped his fingers on the tablecloth. My only regret was that we could not serve him the bread and butter he unexpectedly asked for to go with the Shan noodles. He was quite familiar with wine, though, and consumed two bottles of Mouton Rothschild all by himself, with no appreciable effect on the sharpness of his mind or his tongue, except possibly to intensify a certain, ah, demotic quality that he displayed.”
To U Sha Lok’s inquiring look, Thura U Aung Naing added, “He kept calling me ‘mate’. And my wife ‘darlin’. These are London ways, I have no doubt. A certain refreshing charm, perhaps. His grasp of international finance was certainly most comprehensive. At all events, it was not until the following morning that I became aware that anything was amiss.”
Here our distinguished visitor’s mien became slightly less assured. He cleared his throat before continuing.
“My butler came to me in my study and informed me that the housemaid, in clearing the table after dinner, had noted that one of the silver spoons was missing. We have a priceless set of silverware which the late King gave to my great-grandfather, and which has been in our family ever since. It is a most valued possession, quite apart from its monetary value, which is incalculable. The handle of each piece is emblazoned with the ancient royal crest of Mandalay. Each individual knife, fork and spoon is unique, subtly different from its fellows. The housemaid, who set the table, is adamant that the missing spoon was the one that formed the place at which Mr Steele was sitting.”
“You invited a London banker to dinner and he stole the family silver?” asked U Sha Lok, half-incredulously. “Was anything else missing? Cash, jewellery, valuables of any kind? Your watch? An Old Master off one of your walls, by any chance?”
“Just the spoon. Though now you mention it, I will ask the butler to check. But it is only the spoon that I care about. I have not dared to tell my dear wife, who values the set very highly, and have sworn the butler and the housemaid to secrecy. I know of your reputation, my good sir, and I know I have no need to enjoin you, or Dr Wa Zone, to any such—”
“Indeed not,” said U Sha Lok swiftly, and I at once nodded reassuringly. “You may rely entirely on our discretion. But what do you wish me to do?”
“I want the spoon back, with no publicity or fuss, and preferably without the knowledge of Mr Steele that it has been recovered. As I mentioned, he is staying at the Grand, and at my invitation he is spending all today and tomorrow touring our offices in Yangon and receiving briefings from my senior colleagues. This evening he has been invited to a reception at the British Embassy in his honour, followed by a dinner with the Bankers’ Trust Institute. So you may be sure his suite will be unoccupied for the next several hours.”
The banker leaned forward and spoke earnestly. “U Sha Lok, please restore the spoon to me, using the utmost discretion, and I will be deeply in your debt. But that is not all. On the swift and effective resolution of this matter could depend the future of our country’s financial relations with the rest of the world. I know I can count on you.”
After Thura U Aung Naing’s departure, U Sha Lok paced the room in silence for some time, to all appearances lost in thought. Hoping to invite his confidence, I said tentatively, “It seems a rather simple matter.”
He turned on me sharply. “It is far from simple. Assuming the London banker Rob Steele has the spoon in his possession, and is keeping it in his suite, he will have stored it in the safe with which each room at the Grand is equipped. Those safes are manufactured to the highest and most modern standards of craftsmanship and are guaranteed impossible to crack. I know this because it was I who advised the hotel management precisely on what safes to install. If this were any ordinary safe, I could crack it myself. But nobody can crack the safes of the Grand Hotel.
“Except…” he paused, but the thought that seemed to have struck him evidently brought no comfort.
“There is one man who might be equal to the task. Yet I would do almost anything to avoid appealing to him.”
“Who is he?”
“The man of whom I speak is the master of a criminal empire that spans the world. He lives right here in Yangon, barely a mile from this room, in 50th Street. Only once have I entered his home, and I may say I was lucky to escape with my life. From the outside, it is a very modest building, but appearances, in his home as in the man himself, are deeply deceptive. Within, it is a palace, every bit as opulent as I am sure the house of Thura U Aung Naing is, and probably bigger. From his private apartments inside that secret mansion, this man holds in his hand the threads of a hundred criminal undertakings. Throughout Asia, he is known as the Genghis Khan of Crime. Half the triads in China are under his sway, as is every snakehead and gangmaster and tea-dealer in the world’s most important Chinatowns: from Grant Avenue in San Francisco to Mott Street in Lower Manhattan, and into the back alleys of Soho in London. They say the Yamaguchigumi of Osaka is in his pocket. At a secret temple rite in Kyoto last February, seven hundred sumo wrestlers in the service of the Yakuza each cut off the tip of his little finger in swearing allegiance to him.”
“Quite. And he is the acknowledged hetman of the Gyöchhürkh Shangâang order that rules the Ulan Bator underworld.”
U Sha Lok shifted slightly in his seat. “Well I think that's the name. My knowledge of the Mongolian organised crime set-up is slightly rusty. Be that as it may, he is a highly dangerous and formidable man. I have crossed swords with him once or twice, and though I think I acquitted myself creditably enough, I have no desire to try conclusions with him.”
He stood, and took a breath. “And yet. He is the only man I know of who could break into the Grand Hotel and recover Thura U Aung Naing’s silver spoon from the safe in the room of the banker Rob Steele.”
“What is his name?”
“Did I not say? He goes by many names, but is best known here as Dr Moe Yat Ti. He is a highly educated man, with degrees from the best universities in Yangon and Mandalay. He is of middle height and unimpressive appearance, unless he fixes his unwinking eyes on you and grips you with his will of steel. Women, needless to say, find him irresistible, though none has ever been able to keep him for long, for at bottom he has a cold and solitary nature. Though slender, he is physically very powerful, as I know to my cost. He is fluent in five languages, and an acknowledged expert in Occidental mysticism, going so far as to collect Western religious objets d’art. He cheats at bridge, undetectably, but quite lucratively. Not for the money, you understand, just to inflate his sense of superiority over his high-society acquaintances. What else? Oh yes, he is quite fond of cats. Other than that, I know nothing of the man.”
I looked at my friend in some surprise. Usually the coolest of characters, it was rare for him to display the slightest emotion. Indeed, many consider that his imperviousness to normal human feeling is a fault in him. Yet the contemplation of this Dr Moe Yat Ti appeared to have left him quite flustered. There was a blush to his cheek, and his hands were trembling slightly. I said,
“Why should he do what you ask, should you decide to ask?”
“That is what I fear. It may well amuse him to carry off this trick, for so he would regard it, but would not do so out of patriotism or for mere money, so much as to extort something of greater value either from me, or from Thura U Aung Naing, or both. I do not know what that price might be, or how I should pay it.
He sighed heavily. “And yet. Ask him I must.”
He strode to the window and opened it. Thrusting out his head, he emitted a piercing whistle, then sat back on his favourite settee to wait. A few moments later, a solemn-faced, ragged boy was admitted by our landlady, Daw Hat Sun.
“Maung Oo,” said U Sha Lok to the boy, who stood respectfully to attention. “I wish you to contact Dr Moe Yat Ti. It is imperative that I see him without delay, preferably this afternoon and, if possible, within the hour. Tell him time is of the essence. Revert to me at once with his reply or, if he be not at home, find out where he is. Go now.”
The boy made a swift and silent departure.
This was not the first time that U Sha Lok had called upon the services of the Bei Ka Street irregulars, a gaggle of small boys who passed their time playing chinlone, begging, waiting on tables in local teashops and practising their pickpocketing skills. Under my friend’s tutelage, they had also become a matchless instrument for the swift and unobtrusive gathering of all kinds of obscure information about what was going on in every back alley, gambling hell, house of ill-repute and cellar bar in the great city of Yangon. All but invisible to the police and to respectable citizens alike, they were the natural allies and confidants of sidecar drivers, sympathetic ladies of the night, barkeeps and ne’er-do-wells. In the hands of U Sha Lok, they were the observers and chroniclers of the seamy side of Yangon life.
Within the hour, Maung Oo was back. “He says to come now,” he said.
With the air of a man bracing himself to an unwanted task, U Sha Lok rose from his settee. “Shall we go?”
Hailing a passing sidecar, U Sha Lok gave the man detailed directions. Though the address we sought was not far, the driver had to stop three times along the way, in the squalid tangle of alleys near the docks, to seek fresh directions from the local denizens, before we arrived at our destination.
“This is the place,” said U Sha Lok. He gestured towards a low archway in a blank brick wall, once whitewashed, but now leprous with green mould. A pile of rubbish lay to one side, and stray dogs lounged on the cracked pavement. Further down the street was a small restaurant, which looked respectable enough. Opposite the archway was a row of mean, narrow stalls and flyblown little shops with not a lick of paint between them. They sold used-bicycle parts, sewing notions, questionable snacks and—I am sure I saw this—Christmas-tree decorations. The few passers-by had a sullen, slouching air.
We passed in silence below the arch and across a stone-flagged courtyard overlooked by slatted windows in unpainted wood. U Sha Lok led me through another door, which stood ajar, into a narrow corridor.
“I should have expected rather tighter security to surround the formidable fellow you described,” I murmured.
“We have been watched every step of the way since we left Bei Ka Street, and are watched now,” said U Sha Lok tightly. “And when we leave here we will be watched all the way back, and thereafter. Have no doubt of it.”
We passed along the narrow corridor, which opened into a large square room, white-painted, with a high ceiling with fluorescent lights, empty but for four armchairs set around a low table on which a number of magazines and periodicals had been placed. U Sha Lok turned to face me.
“You must wait here while I go in alone to see the man,” he said in a low voice.
I remonstrated with him. “But my dear chap, think of the risk. If this man is as dangerous as you say—”
“If he wanted me, or you, or any man in this city dead, we would be dead already,” he said in an uncharacteristically gentle and weary voice. “Have no fear, old friend. Unless he decides to make away with us, we are as safe here in his house as if we were guarded by an entire brigade of Tatmadaw.”
Reluctantly I took my seat in one of the armchairs as he disappeared soundlessly through a low door in the opposite wall.
The room was quite silent, as if the walls were thick and the doors soundproofed. There was no clock, and the windows were masked with blinds. Having no idea how long I would have to wait, I leafed idly through the pile of magazines on the low table before me. Detection Weekly. Crime and Punishment. Police Blotter. True-life Murders. I shook my head in disbelief. I was sitting in the veritable waiting room of a damnable criminal enterprise.
And wait I did, for nearly two hours. To this day I do not know exactly what transpired between the brilliant, aloof consulting detective and the ruthless, villainous Genghis Khan of Asian crime. Needless to say, U Sha Lok himself told me very little, and a deeper quietness that I detected in his manner made me forbear to ask him directly. He said nothing in the sidecar that took us back to Bei Ka Street but, once returned to our sitting-room, he began to speak.
“He will do it. Dr Moe Yat Ti said he would break into the room of Rob Steele at the Grand Hotel and crack his safe, and bring me the silver spoon. And he will do it tonight,” he told me.
I waited for further particulars, but when it was clear he intended to add nothing to his statement, I asked, “What does he want in return?”
U Sha Lok shot me an unreadable look, in which I detected bitterness, chagrin, resignation, but also a kind of grim humour.
“He wants to meet you,” he said.
“Me! What on earth for?”
“I have no doubt he has his reasons: twisted, subtle, unfathomable reasons which he did not deign to explain to me and almost certainly will not explain to you. Be that as it may, he has at this point made no other demand. But he wishes you to attend the reception tonight at the British Embassy in honour of Rob Steele.
“But I have no invitation.”
“Oh yes you have.” He pulled a square white envelope from inside his light jacket. “By some means he procured this for you. You’d better go home and get changed.”
As a doctor working in the field I had never needed any Western formal wear, and I never acquired any even after I took an office job. I do happen to have a spare suit of formal Myanmar clothes for special occasions, including my wedding, since my wife’s family helpfully provided it for me. Though I had never been invited to a diplomatic reception before, I assumed that my dark-grey longyi with its miniature swastika pattern, fawn-coloured pinni taikpon and crisp white round-collared einji would pass muster. I was in two minds as to whether to sport a rather dashing baung gaung, but decided against it. By 6.30, I was presenting my engraved invitation card to the guard at the gate of the British Embassy compound.
Taking a glass of something from a silver tray proffered to me by a serving person, I wandered around the embassy lawn. It was almost dark, and there were a couple of hundred people milling about in the usual laboured conviviality in the light of clusters of arc lamps mounted on the compound walls. I assumed that Dr Moe Yat Ti knew what I looked like, and would approach me in his own time. But I still had no idea what he wanted to meet me for.
My attention was drawn to a small knot of people in office attire who seemed to be making more noise than anyone else. They were talking, indeed, braying about large quantities of money.
“So I said to him, I said, ‘if you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t trying’!’ one was shouting, to general merriment. All of them were swigging champagne. And he said, ‘I owe you for that one, big boy. The next case of Bolly is on me!’ All the members of this little group seemed to find this reported exchange terribly funny. I noticed that, though most of them were young, one was an older man with a white moustache, dressed with extreme formality in a black coat and striped trousers and wearing a monocle. He was visibly sweating in the heat and appeared most ill-at-ease, as if he would rather be elsewhere but felt constrained by duty to remain with the group.
“Well you know what, Rob,” said one of the group to the speaker. “What’s the point of being in a cartel if you can’t swing it to make a bit more dosh? I mean, it’s not like we’re competing against each other. Isn’t that right, ambassador?” he turned to the older man with the monocle, who smiled weakly.
It occurred to me that the loud raconteur was Mr Rob Steele, the light-fingered guest of our client Thura U Aung Naing. I examined him closely from my vantage point in the shadows, outside the circle of his acquaintances. He was younger than I had expected, probably in the early thirties, though his black hair, heavily oiled and combed backward from his forehead, was already receding. He was of medium height and build, with narrow, light-coloured eyes and a beaky nose. His most prominent feature lay not so much his physical appearance, however, as his manner, which reminded me of the aggressive, fast-talking boys who used to hawk fruit and vegetables from their barrows in my local market during my boyhood.
“Have you met my friends?” he was saying to the ambassador. “Just arrived from Blackhearts Bank in Holborn last night: Nick Whippet and his associate, Miss Pillfer. Nick, you need anything, you just tell the ambassador here. He and all his staff are completely at your disposal for anything you need, isn’t that right?” Without waiting for a response from the diplomat, he appealed to the rest of the group. “After all, looking after bankers travelling abroad for their country is what an embassy’s for, am I right?” Guffawing, he slapped the hapless ambassador on the back.
At that moment, I suddenly became aware of a presence at my elbow. I turned in some surprise to see a man, shorter and slighter in build than myself, and dressed entirely in grey. He wore horn-rimmed spectacles, but otherwise appeared to possess no distinguishing feature that I could detect. But when he turned and looked at me, I was at once struck by the force of his penetrating glance. Though his expression was serene and his voice, when he spoke, was mild, calm and beautifully modulated, he radiated a kind of invisible force, like a dark star.
“Glad you could come, Doctor,” he said. “Our mutual friend U Sha Lok says you are free to accompany me this evening. If you’d be good enough to finish your drink, we can go.”
“Go? Go where?” I asked in bewilderment.
“To the Grand Hotel. You are going to help me recover Thura U Aung Naing’s silver spoon,” he said.
He was lying, of course. I knew that straight away.
As I accompanied Dr Moe Yat Ti out of the embassy compound, winding our way through the throng of sweating drinkers, I gave myself furiously to think.
There was no doubt that a man like Moe Yat Ti would have his people at a place as important as the Grand Hotel. Because of its prominence and luxurious appointments, every visitor from abroad of any pretensions to rank could be expected to stay there. Any self-respecting criminal genius would naturally want to be able to gain access to any room in the hotel whenever he chose. It was certain that one of his legions of associates would be able to provide him with a passkey to the Presidential Suite in which Rob Steele the English banker was staying.
Once inside, I reasoned, he would have several hours to crack the safe perfectly undisturbed. We knew that the banker would be detained all evening, first at this reception, then at the dinner to be held in his honour thereafter. Once he had opened the safe, Moe Yat Ti needed only to slip the spoon in his pocket and stroll insouciantly out of the hotel like any other guest. He had no need for a look-out, a diversion or even a getaway driver. I was baffled. Why did he need me?
By now we were outside the embassy compound walls, where a vehicle awaited us. To my surprise, it was a common pick-up truck with a double cab. Moe Yat Ti gestured to me to sit in the back seat, and he took his place next to me.
“Take off your jacket and put this on, if you’d be so kind,” he said in his soft voice, handing me a white coat, of the kind laboratory technicians wear. He also handed me a pair of spectacles with thick black frames, and a clipboard.
“What on earth is this for?” I asked as I complied with his request. I noticed that the spectacles were of plain glass.
“Patience, doctor, patience. All will be revealed in the fullness of time,” he said mildly.
A few moments later we drew up in a side street off Strand Road, next to the hotel. Moe Yat Ti turned to me and spoke swiftly. “We will enter the hotel through the front door and go up to Mr Steele’s room. I have access to a key. There I will open his safe and recover the spoon. There is also something else there that I will need your help with.”
“And what is that, may I ask?”
“All in good time, Doctor,” he said, smiling.
If I had expected Moe Yat Ti to slink into the Grand Hotel like the thief he was, avoiding notice and doing his best to blend into the luxurious background, I was entirely mistaken. Once inside the revolving doors, he appeared to take on a completely different persona, loudly hailing a uniformed porter.
“I am Professor Hlaing Shwe of the Department of Antiquities, and this is Professor Watts Johnson, of the Prestigious University of Camford-Yardavale. Kindly bring the trolley I ordered, and accompany us,” he called in ringing tones. The porter hastened to obey and the three of us ascended in the service elevator along with a squat, four-wheeled trolley of the kind used to transport hotel guests’ luggage.
With Moe Yat Ti striding ahead, we went directly to the Presidential Suite now occupied by the absent Rob Steele. As if by prearrangement—in fact, most certainly by prearrangement—the porter produced a key and admitted us. Moe Yat Ti turned to him.
“You may go now. The Professor and I will handle the artefact and bring it down ourselves,” he said. The porter left, and Moe Yat Ti closed the door behind him.
As we entered the main living room of the suite we stopped: he because, evidently, he knew exactly what to expect and I, because I did not. In fact, I gasped in surprise at the sight before me.
I am no art lover, though I do know what I like. But I doubt there is anyone in the world so philistine as not to recognise Angelo Di Leonardo’s sculpture of the Fallen Madonna.
Moe Yat Ti was gazing at it raptly. “At last,” he breathed. “All my life I have sought this treasure. And now it shall be mine!”
For a moment I rather expected him to add “Mine!” again, and cackle madly, but he did not. Instead, he turned to me. “Quickly. Help me load the statue aboard the trolley.”
“Do you mean to steal it?” I asked in astonishment.
He responded rather patiently. “Why else do you think we’re here, Doctor? I have no interest in the spoon. I agreed to undertake this commission because I had but lately learned that the Grand Hotel was displaying this work in its Presidential Suite. I was devising a suitably cunning scheme to acquire it when who should approach me but Sha Lok, with his very welcome request. Of course, I agreed at once—but for my own purposes. And your assistance is the price, the only price, I shall exact for my assistance. Come! The object is heavy. I cannot lift it alone.”
“I want the spoon first,” I insisted.
“It is not here,” he said shortly.
“What! Not here! How do you know?”
“Because I have it.”
“In my house. And I will give it to you gladly, once we are back there with the statue. Come now, bear a hand.”
I stood for a moment irresolute. Quite a long moment. I may have shifted from foot to foot.
“I know what you’re thinking, Doctor,” said Moe Yat Ti, breaking in on my cogitations. “You are thinking that if I am lying and the spoon is in the safe, but I refuse to open it; or alternatively, if Rob Steele has the spoon about his person; then either way you would not get it back, and your friend Sha Lok would have put himself through the ordeal of seeking my assistance in vain. The only outcome would be that the two of you will have been manipulated into helping me, a fiendish international criminal, augment my private collection of looted artworks. And yet, if I am telling the truth, and the spoon is indeed in my possession, there is nothing for it but to accompany me back to my house on 50th Street to collect it. Am I right so far?”
What between Moe Yat Ti and U Sha Lok, I confess I was getting a little tired of being told what I was thinking when sometimes I am not even sure myself.
“Allow me to resolve your dilemma,” he continued, speaking slowly and clearly. “You want the spoon. It is not here. Unless you help me, now, you will never see the spoon again. If you do come with me now, you will have it within the hour. Does that help clear things up?”
In bafflement and chagrin, I was forced to agree. Certainly, walking out now and leaving him alone here with the statue would guarantee that Sha Lok and I would never recover the spoon, whether Moe Yat Ti had it or not.
“Oh, very well,” I said, with the best grace I could muster.
“Stout fellow! One last thing, then,” said Moe Yat Ti. Crossing to the plinth where the statue
stood, he removed a stiff piece of white card from his pocket and placed it thereon. It read, “Removed for Repairs: by Order, Ministry of Culture, Department of Antiquities”.
Between us, we manhandled the Fallen Madonna onto the low trolley and, by common consent, paused a while to recover our breath. The thing must have weighed 70 or 80 viss if it weighed a tical. I may say am no weakling, and evidently Moe Yat Ti was a great deal stronger than he looked, but it was a struggle nevertheless.
We trundled the trolley out into the corridor and towards the lifts, descending without incident. But once the lift doors opened to the lobby, we were engulfed in pandemonium. Hordes of journalists surrounded us and, to my horror, many of them were taking pictures, the flashbulbs flashing and popping loudly as people shouted questions at us. This was clearly one of those media ambushes of which one reads, when newspapers of the meaner sort harass and chivvy celebrities, humble officials and even ordinary law-abiding citizens going about their normal business who happen briefly to attract the unwelcome attentions of the media for, in this case, stealing a world-famous work of art.
“Doctor Johnson!” One was shouting, almost in my face. I remembered I was supposed to be Dr Watts Johnson of the Prestigious University of Camford-Yardavale, wherever that might be. I hoped nobody would ask me.
“Doctor Johnson! What’s wrong with the Fallen Madonna? Is it broken?”
“We are just removing it temporarily for, uh, a computerised, er, aesthetic systems orientation check,” I heard myself say.
“Was there an accident? How bad is the damage?” shrieked a young woman, brandishing a microphone in my face.
“There is no visible, er, superficious damage. I mean, to the outside. Of it. However, we have recently performed a series of ultrasonographic detector tests on works of art of a similar age and condition, using high-energy bursts of alpha, beta and, er, yobba rays. These have revealed internecine submitrochondrial, er, crackages,” I found myself saying. “In the material of which the Madonna is made, which we call, er, erm, ‘stone’, there is a risk of silicate tissue degeneration of an extremely inorganic nature. Also, some of the gold paint needs a bit of a touch-up.”
The reporters scribbled furiously.
At any rate, that seemed to satisfy them. Moe Yat Ti and I wheeled the trolley out into the hotel forecourt, where his driver leapt from the pickup to help us manhandle the thing on board. Only now did I notice that the side of the pickup bore the words “Ministry of Culture: Antiquities Department”. We climbed in the cab and roared off.
Within minutes we were in the courtyard of Moe Yat Ti’s home—oddly, not the one by which Sha Lok and I had entered that morning. It seems Moe Yat Ti’s house is a vast and sprawling complex of many buildings, all linked to each other by passages, secret and otherwise, above and below ground, and has many exits and entrances. You may enter his house via a cupboard door in some innocuous-seeming eatery in 50th Street and exit through some equally unostentatious portal, as far away as Maha Bandoola Road, or even via the changing cubicle in a bespoke tailor’s shop in Anawrahta Street. All this I was to learn later.
He ushered me into the house as attendants hastened to unload the artwork from the pickup and secure it inside.
Once within, I found myself in a comfortable lounge, with curtained windows, a thick, richly decorated carpet and oil paintings on the walls. Floor and table lamps cast pools of adequate but soothing illumination. At Moe Yat Ti’s invitation I took a seat, sinking gratefully into the depths of a most accommodating leather armchair. There were fresh orchids in an alabaster vase on the low table at my elbow, as well as a highly polished mahogany box containing paper doilies. Despite Sha Lok’s remarks about Moe Yat Ti’s cold and solitary nature, I sensed a woman’s touch in these domestic arrangements.
A uniformed valet soundlessly appeared at my elbow.
“I'll have a White Label, Lin,” said Moe Yat Ti. “Yourself, doctor?”
“Oh, er, well, I'll have the same, thank you,” I said. The brand is above my price range.
“And Lin,” added Moe Yat Ti, “Bring the spoon.”
Within moments, the soft-footed attendant returned, bearing a silver platter. From it he placed our two glasses, heavy crystal affairs, no doubt of great value, a fitting container for the amber gold within. Also on the platter was a silver spoon, which he gave to Moe Yat Ti, who at once handed it to me.
“Examine it with care, if you please,” said Moe Yat Ti. “I wish you to be sure that I am a man of my word, when I choose to give it, and that this is indeed the table implement you seek.”
It was a teaspoon, heavy, apparently made of silver and, as our client of this morning had stated, intricately engraved with a royal crest. Subject to confirmation by Thura U Aung Naing that this was indeed the missing piece, I had no hesitation in saying so.
“Very good,” said my host. “You will be aware that it follows therefore that the English banker Rob Steele, though undoubtedly a coarse and vulgar fellow, is no thief, at least not in this case. I myself am a thief, among other things, though I trust neither coarse nor vulgar.”
“But how did you come by it?” I asked.
“Thura U Aung Naing’s housemaid, Ma Thant, is in my employ. I asked her to bring it to me.”
“Because I hoped to set in motion the very series of events that have indeed transpired this evening.” He sipped his drink. “I wanted, in particular, to meet you and to inform you of certain things of which I am sure you have no knowledge, but which I am sure you will find of great interest. Shall I begin?”
Dr Moe Yat Ti then spoke, almost without stopping, for the next three hours. During that time, I listened, almost without speaking, by turns enthralled, astonished, saddened and slowly enlightened about much that I had not understood before, without even knowing that I had not understood. For his part, he was by turns eloquent, engaging, moving, and entirely convincing. Under his spell, drinking his whisky in that easy chair, in that comfortable, quiet, lamp-lit room, I never questioned for one moment but that he was telling me the entire truth. The servant Lin brought another tray containing snacks, which I sampled idly as I listened, hardly aware of the taste, while he spoke on, his spectacles flashing occasionally in the muted light.
But as to what he told me, I must save that for another occasion.
Our long meeting over, Moe Yat Ti conducted me to one of the doors of his house. Stepping out into 51st Street, I was able to hail a passing nighthawk sidecar, and was back at Bei Ka Street within 15 minutes.
As I had expected, U Sha Lok was still up and about. At the best of times he keeps irregular hours, often up with the lark even after staying up half the night. He does not seem to need sleep the way we ordinary mortals do.
Not just awake, he was, in fact, in a state of extraordinary agitation. The moment I walked into our sitting room he turned on me, his hair disordered and his eyes alight. I noticed that the air of the room was thick with blue smoke, as if he had lit one cigarette after another in his long vigil.
“My dear fellow!” he exclaimed. “I’ve been so worried! Where on earth have you been? Are you all right? Not hurt in any way?”
“Calm yourself,” I replied. “Let’s sit down. Oh, I have something for you,” I went on, trying to keep my voice as light and airy as I know he would have done in similar circumstances. Extracting the spoon from my pocket, I handed it to him. “I think this is what you were waiting for.”
For a moment he stood stock still, his eyes fixed on mine, ignoring the spoon. Then he reached out a tentative hand—I fancied I saw it tremble slightly—and carefully took it from me. He held it for a moment before his eyes, but did not really seem to be looking at it.
“So this is it,” he said, his voice rather subdued.
“You may give it to Thura U Aung Naing tomorrow morning. I'm sure he will confirm that it is indeed his property,” I said.
“I? But you must come with me. It was you who recovered it,” he said.
I shrugged lightly. “If you insist. It’s of no consequence.”
Collapsing onto the sofa like a man exhausted, he looked at me in silence for a long moment.
“What happened, Wa Zone?” he asked softly.
I told him. At least, I told him of what had transpired first at the embassy reception, and then in the Presidential Suite, of Moe Yat Ti’s admission that the spoon was already in his possession, of his hand in its theft and the innocence of the brash London banker, and of our extraction of the Fallen Madonna under the eyes of the Yangon world media.
Of the detailed and circumstantial, not to say astonishing, information Moe Yat Ti had imparted to me, I said nothing.
“Then you both went back to his house, with the work of art. It seems to have taken a long time.”
“Not so long. We also had a chat.”
“You had a chat? With the Genghis Khan of crime? In his lair? A chat? What about, may one ask?”
“Oh, this and that.”
“‘This and that!’”
He gazed at me again, but said nothing more. I maintained my usual expression of untroubled serenity, or so I like to think of it. Unaccustomed to evasiveness in me, he, uncharacteristically, did not appear to detect any now. A pall of exhaustion, or emotional reaction, seemed to descend upon him and he lay back on the sofa, closing his eyes.
“Time for bed?” I suggested.
The next morning at breakfast he had resumed his normal, self-possessed, slightly aloof manner. “Take a look at The Myanmar Times,” he said. “You’re all over the front page. All the other papers too.” He gestured at the pile of newspapers before him.
As I leafed through them, I noticed a curious thing. Though my own face, wearing the absurd black-framed spectacles with which Moe Yat Ti had provided me, was everywhere prominent, there was no recognisable trace of him. Some pictures showed a shoulder or an elbow sticking out behind me, one or two a man turned three-quarters from the camera, but my companion of the previous evening could not have been identified from a single picture.
I, however, or rather Dr Watts Johnson of the Prestigious University of Camford-Yardavale, was the star of the media show. My learned remarks on the internecine crackages detected by yobba-ray machines in one of the world’s most famous heritage artworks had been breathlessly reprinted. Though the account in The Myanmar Times was sober and factual, and actually made me sound quietly impressive, that always entertaining journal The Voice of Elewaddy had gone so far as to print a special multicoloured graphic to illustrate for its readers how a yobba-ray machine worked, while the paper’s science editor explained the serious damage that silicate tissue degeneration of an extremely inorganic nature could cause in great works of art. A strident editorial urged the government to take immediate action to protect our heritage from this scourge. Where would we be without a free press, I asked myself.
“We may need to think up a story to explain how you came to be photographed on every front page in Myanmar assisting an internationally notorious criminal to purloin a priceless Renaissance sculpture from the country’s most prestigious hotel,” said Sha Lok at length.
“Oh. Do you think anyone will notice?”
“Well, they might. We can only hope that through the good offices of Thura U Aung Naing, whose name we have managed to keep secret, and the darker and more secret influence of Dr Moe Yat Ti, the authorities might be persuaded to let things lie,” he said.
And so it proved.