Authors: Edward S. Aarons
DROWNING, Durell felt an
inner rage because he had been careless. Just a little careless, but when you
walk the edge of a knife, every step must be calculated. He had been watching
for the girl when the mistake was made. But you only made one, in Durell’s business.
You rarely had another chance.
The water was warm and
smelled of rotting things, of vegetable scum and human excrement, of oil and
mud that gave oft foul, gaseous bubbles. He could at least have chosen some
clean water to drown in, he thought. And because the water was so foul, it gave
him a little extra determination not to open his mouth and breathe it in.
The pain in the back of
his head was not so bad. It had been a glancing blow. He wondered if the girl
had planned it, because he never saw the thug who’d come up behind him on the
plank walk across the
His feet touched bottom.
The mud clutched like warm, licentious hands all the way up to his ankles,
pulling at him. Through his dazed pain, he felt revolted, and he wanted to
laugh, because his death was happening in such a ridiculous way, and he’d had
so many other smarter enemies who had tried to kill him. Now some half-wild
jungle villager had managed to do it. But it had happened like that to Fred
Harrison, who was pushed under the wheels of a London Underground; and Joel
Marley, hit by a taxi in Athens. Or Danny Vane, with that girl in Hong Kong.
Durell had worked with them all, at one time or another. They had been good
men, and no doubt all of them had been surprised, in that instant of dying.
He opened his eyes
underwater and saw wavering shafts of red and yellow light from the paper
lanterns of the Chinese quarter all around the canal, and it seemed as if he
had already departed this world, or was on his way, and everything was growing
Something raw and
screamingly painful cut across his cheek with a shock that almost made him open
his mouth to breathe in the water for that final lungful. His head had scraped
against a piling encrusted with thick river barnacles, and the tiny shells,
open in the night hours, presented so many serrated razors to his passing
flesh. He pushed away, a dim sense of survival returning to him. He did not
have to die. His mind was clearing. But he would have to surface fast, to drink
in air and not water. . . .
He pushed against the
muddy bottom and felt the muck release his ankles from its obscene clasp. He
drifted up toward the red, yellow, and green worms of light that lay on the
surface of the
Too far to go.
You can’t make it.
Besides, he’s still
waiting up there.
Crouching, the other man
was a long shadow against the shadows of night, kneeling on the plank walk, the
club in his hand, waiting to smash his skull and let his brains float away in
the water like the pulp of an overripe fruit.
The shadow was
monstrous, inexorably blocking the way to precious air and life.
But he couldn’t wait.
His lungs screamed for
air now and gave him no choice. He slid up through the murky, warm water. The
shadow of the waiting man blotted out the colored worms from the lanterns
around the places where the old Chinese men were sitting, drinking tea and
playing eternal Mah-Jongg. No one had seen the swift attack. Even if anyone had
seen it, would he have cared? There had been no alarm. Durell was alone, dying,
and his murderer knelt up there just above the surface of the water, in case he
came up again. Instinct lent him cunning, and cunning gave him a last
resentment against the death that hungered for him. His head came above the
water with a small splash.
The man waiting above
struck at once—and missed. And pulled back to strike again.
Dimly, through his pain
and fear, Durell was aware of instinctive reactions. He had another moment to
live. The reflexes drilled into him so painfully made him act almost without
volition, when part of him told himself to let it go and finish it in the warm,
viscous mud at the bottom of the canal. It was like standing aside to watch
himself challenge the thug crouching above. He could see his own bloody head
and the soggy white linen suit that hampered him. But in that instant he got a
good gulp of air into his tormented lungs. It was a small victory. But it gave
him another chance.
He let himself drift
down again, and now, slowly at first, he began to think and let his mind overcome
the shock and dismay he had felt when that first blow crashed down on the back
of his head. He remembered following the girl, Anna-Marie Danat, from the
riverfront hotel, through the hot and humid night of the coastal town that
sprawled almost within sight of the Cambodian border. They had crossed a few
paved streets, then some bridges over the
, where sampans and
barges made a solid surface over the dark, turgid water. There had been a
garden gate, oleanders, the scent of night-blooming flowers, and then the crash
and din of the Chinese quarter of the Thai town of Giap Pnom. Here
there had been a vitality of sights, sounds, and smells—dragon lanterns and
snake shops and old men sitting at their games, the noise of barking dogs and
wailing children, the odors of fish and food and opium smoke.
Where had he gone wrong?
Anna-Marie had turned
left into an alley, then along a brick-paved walk beside the canal. She headed
for a Chinese house a little larger than most. Now and then she had turned
about to see if she were being followed. But it had been easy to stay
invisible. He’d been angry with her, because her orders were to stay at the
hotel; but everything she did was suspicious, and he wanted to know where she
was going before he stopped her. If he halted her too soon, she would only lie
Better lie than die, he
In seconds, he would
have to surface again. He touched the barnacled piling again and remembered the
small bridge, the stone garden lantern beside the
had paused at a wooden gate and he was caught out in the open on the bridge.
The moon was full, like a searchlight out of the Southeast Asian sky, aimed
right at him.
Then, just when he saw
her pert French features change into alarm, he felt the pain and thrust into
the fetid Waters below the bridge. Someone had been hiding behind that big
stone Chinese lantern.
Had the girl known?
Was she smarter—or more
treacherous—than he’d expected?
No matter now. It was
time to go up again. This time, your pal waiting up there won’t miss when he
tries to bash your brains out.
His head broke the
surface of the water again.
The shadow waited, tense
and lustful for his death. The club swished down with a swift, ugly sound in
the air. Durell saw a skeletal face, a mélange of racial strains in almond
eyes, brown skin, a round shaven head. He ducked and thrust up a hand to catch the
impact of the club in his palm. His fingers closed around the shaft and he
yanked back with all his remaining strength, setting up a great splashing in
the dirty water as he fell backward, hauling on the club. He pulled his
assailant in after him. There was a brief squawk of anger and surprise. The man
was like a water snake in the
Durell released the
club. Water resistance made it a poor weapon. But the other man thought he had
wrenched it free and tried to smash it at Durell’s head again. Durell lunged
forward in the water and locked his fingers on the man’s throat.
For one long moment, in
the shadows under the bridge, with the lights and noise of the Chinese quarter
all around them, Durell looked into the other man's eyes.
They were wild, feral,
“Cong Hai?” he
The man said: “You die,
you die, you die.”
He made a knot of bone
out of his middle knuckle and used his other hand to squeeze it into the Cong Hai’s larynx.
The man smashed at his shoulder with the club; but the few inches of water it
had to penetrate weakened the blow. Durell did not relent; he squeezed harder.
His knuckle was like the knot of a garrote. He saw a recognition of death in
the other’s eyes. He heard, above the sound of a Chinese orchestra in the distance,
a wail and a plea for mercy.
He had no mercy.
“You die, you die, you
die,” Durell said.
It took half a minute to
kill the man.
HE LET the body drift
down and away, into the mud at the bottom of the klong. He could do
nothing about it. It took all his strength to cling to a strut of the small
bridge overhead, and then, when his breath came back,
he pulled himself,
dripping wet, out of the canal and fell on his back. He watched the hot Asian
sky reel and dance above him in the humid night.
You came close to it,
Samuel, he told himself. Not a very auspicious beginning for the job. Maybe
you’ve been at a desk too long, back in Washington.
Durell was a big man,
with a heavy musculature, controlled by a lithe and easy way of moving. To a
trained observer who watched him cross a room or a street, he would be marked
as dangerous, as one might mark a prowling jungle cat. Yet he could lose
himself in a crowd, except in a town like this, half Thai and the rest
Cambodian, Malay, Chinese, Indonesian; here his American height made him stand
out. The trick then was to twist his uniqueness into something ordinary; he was
an American businessman, according to his identity papers, in search of
contacts among the tea planters in the distant loom of the mountainous Chaines des Cardarnomes.
You played it with awkwardness, eager to please, with just a touch of
condescension for the “natives.” You smiled a lot and pretended not to
understand the swift, wry asides in Annamese or Canton dialects. He
had never mastered Thai very well, although he had a gift for languages and
could maneuver reasonably well in a dozen major and a score of minor dialects.
Not knowing Thai made his pose easier to maintain.
But someone now knew his
And this troubled him.
It could get him killed.
Next time, he might meet a more expert and professional assassin.
Durell rolled over and
pushed up and felt water drain from his soaked linen suit, his shirt and shoes.
The night was hot, but he shivered a moment, seeing his image waver
indistinctly in the black waters of the canal. The high keening of a Chinese
song came from a sampan not far of. He saw the dead man briefly, floating
in the water, and something else. With his foot, he hooked onto the long ribbon
and took it up in his hand. It was the dead man’s headband, a peculiar cap
fashioned of Thai silk and ornamented with a band of snakeskin.
Snakes were the symbol,
the method of life, of the Cong Hai. Silent, secret, and venomous, they
were cousins to the V.C. across the peninsula in Vietnam, infiltrating the
jungles and rivers and mountains here on the Gulf of Siam as sinuously, as the
snakes that were their totems.
Durell shoved the
headband into his wet pocket and stood up. The starry sky reeled around him.
The Chinese lanterns up and down the canal stabbed and winked and jiggled.
Music brayed from the radio, the impossible wail of one of West Europe's
hermaphroditic boy singers. The inane melody fought with the wind bells and
Chinese notes as oil fights with water. Never would the twain meet.
It was a long walk
across the bridge—all of a dozen steps. He staggered like a drunken man. His
head throbbed where the thug had landed his first blow; he had bled a little,
and he wondered about the possibilities of infection from the filthy waters of
the canal. He pushed hard fingers through his thick black hair, touched the
small moustache he had grown for this assignment, tried to adjust his dark
knitted tie into the soggy collar of his drip-dry shirt. His shoes squelched
with each step. A band of running Chinese boys broke around him like a sudden
torrent breaking around a rock; they came and went with a bubble and spray of
Cantonese, laughing at the drunken white man. Good enough. If he met a cop, he
could always Say he’d had too much rice wine at Mama Foo’s and fallen into the
Until they found
the dead man.
Major Muong, of the
Thai Security people, wouldn’t like that at all.
But first things first.
He’d come here after Anna-Marie Danat, and the last he’d seen of her was
when she went through the red gateway of that big house ahead. To judge from
the expansive compound walls, the solid tiles of the roof, the fish fertility
symbols, it seemed to be the house of a reasonably wealthy Chinese merchant.
The dead man might have
had some friends nearby, and Durell, heading for the house, exercised caution
and kept his hand on the snubby-barreled .38 S&W in its underarm
holster. He looked as if he were scratching his chest. But anger and chagrin at
losing Anna-Marie—and almost losing his life-—-made him a walking time bomb.
But no one triggered an