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Authors: Edward S. Aarons

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There seemed to be
nothing else, until he found the loose floorboard. It creaked as he backed away
from the books, and when he tested it, he saw it could be pried loose with
little effort.

Kneeling, he looked into
the dusty cavity beneath.

He knew at once he had
stumbled on an arms cache of importance, and he knew, too, it was meant for the
Cong Hai.

There were grenades,
heavy Russian PP SH burp guns—
poluaftomatichesky
 
pistolet Shpagina
—some 7X57 Mausers, Schmeisers,
two 7.62mrn Mosin Nagents, old Russian Anny rifles, and boxes of
official 7.62 NATO cartridges and 12.7mm Russian machine-gun clips.

Durell straightened,
tall and dark in the deepening shadows of the room. Through a break in one of
the sun shutters he could see giant ferns near the side of the house. A rooster
crowed, although the sun was beginning to set. The air felt like a steam towel,
and his shirt clung like warm, wet moss. He felt a sudden urge to return and
ask Major Muong a number of pointed questions. He was also oppressed
by a feeling of danger, although children had begun to play on the nearby
sampans and temple bells tolled lightly in the shimmering air.

He turned and walked out
of the room.

As he did so, an arm
whipped across his throat and a hard knee smashed into his kidneys. The arm
strangled him, the knee tried to rupture his spine.
Something  smashed against his head and a, wild carillon rang in his
ears. He felt himself falling into a red pit, and he tried to shout, but the
thick forearm cut off all air in his throat.

He smelled sweat and the
sharp, rancid odor of curry and fish. He tried to drop and fall out of the
other‘s grip, but there was a flash and something hit his shoulder. He heaved
up and felt as if his head were twisted off his neck and thrown across the
room. He rested on hands and knees on the floor. When he shook himself, blood
spattered on the planks like water snapped from wet fingers. A boot kicked him
in the ribs. Nothing broke. He was grateful to get air into his lungs before
the boot knocked it out again. Then the man made the mistake of jumping
exuberantly onto his back. He moved aside just in time.

There was a
bone-crushing thump, a thin curse. The smell of fish and curry ran wild as he
rolled over across the floor with his opponent. The man wore a Western shirt
and a ragged dhoti and the snakeskin headband of the Cong Hai. Durell was
dismayed that he hadn’t heard him enter the house, and shocked that he had been
taken by surprise.

He glimpsed a gray
distorted face and a savage palisade of snaggly teeth. He smashed at
the face with his fist, but he had no leverage; he struck again, and the
palisade broke, turning to rose and then to a bloody red.

The Cong tried to knee
him again, then scrambled for something across the floor. There was an element of
panic in the gesture. Durell swung on his hip and kicked with his right leg,
not rising from the floor, and his hard heel hammered into the Cong’s jaw.

It was very
satisfactory.

There was a cracking
noise and a thin scream and the face Went out of shape, teeth hanging from only
one hinge in the jaw.

He felt better. But
satisfaction came too soon. There were reinforcements for the man with the
curry breath.

A sudden swarm of men
brazenly wearing the dreaded snakeskin emblem of the Cong Hai.

Something bounced off
the back of his head and he rolled away down an incline into sudden, appalling
silence and darkness. He waited in despair for it to become permanent.

But they did not kill
him.

They should have; but
they did not.

He heard dim shouts of
alarm and a gabble of thin, angry voices and then the quick padding of feet
that ran away. A door slammed. Temple bells called out for peace and serenity
and contemplation.

Still, he did not feel
as if he were alone.

Outside, the rooster
crowed, to celebrate sunset. It was a topsy-turvy world.

He opened his eyes and
looked into the muzzle of a gun held by Major Muong, who stood over him
with the bland, slightly supercilious face of a brown Buddha.

 

                                  12

TEN SECONDS that could
have been ten years oozed by.  He was on hands and knees, trying for
the summit, and frozen there by a blast of icy wind. The Congs who
jumped him were running away. Far, far away. He couldn’t go after them. If he
moved, he’d find himself running down that black tunnel of a gun barrel, with
no known end in that direction.

Major Muong had
smooth brown lips that stretched in a meaningless smile as he spoke with only
mild interest. “And what happened to you, Mr. Durell?”

“I stumbled over the
rug,” Durell said.

“Who else was in this
house?”

“Some no-friends.”

“I do not understand.
Did someone else help you search my office and then this place?”

“Oh, no. I did that all
by my little self. The people who tried to zap me here were Cong Hai jokers.”

“I am quite surprised,
sir,” said Muong.

He did not seem at all
surprised.

Durell said: “If they
were really Congs, then you came at a fortunate moment, Major. But I
wonder if they were for real, or just clowns trying to make me think they were Congs.
In the back room you’ll find a little nest of goodies under the floor-—some Mausers, Mosin Nagents,
PP SH burp guns. They may have come back for the iron, after hearing that Doko Dagan
was dead, and found me in the way.” He looked upward at the Thai. “Can I get
up? Or do you shoot me into the floor now?”

“I am sorry. Please
rise.”

“Hands over my head?”

“I am not your enemy,
believe me. If I seem annoyed, and hold my gun, it is because you have betrayed
my trust by searching my rooms. However, perhaps it can be explained. You are
good at explanations, Mr. Durell?”

“Not tonight.” Durell
got to his feet. He clung to the edge of an abyss that reeled away, came back,
and yawned in his face. Major T.M.K. Muong did not touch him. He Went
into the other room While Durell rested, and came back with a NATO grenade. He
examined it thoughtfully and then put it aside with care. There was a gleam in
the rice-white teeth, the cool brown tiger’s eyes. He meticulously lit a thin
and pungent cigar.

“Obviously, Dagan’s
friends came back here for these weapons, Mr. Durell. You were lucky to
intercept them. And also fortunate that I intervened. But you did not come here
looking for illegal Cong Hai arms. Just What were you looking for,
Mr. Durell?”

“A way off the cleft
fork. You and I are after the same game, but how we skin it is different. I
wish I could let you have Orris Lantern when we bag him. But I have
to take him to Washington with me. Not Bangkok—Washington. But we’ll decide
that after we get him. Let's finish this part of the damned game here and now.”
Durell felt a bit steadier. “What were you doing with all of Papa Mao Tse-tung’s hate
literature in your bedroom, Major?”

“It is not illegal to
read the enemy’s intent, sir.”

“If that were all. But
what were you doing earlier in my hotel room? You bugged it, and Deirdre’s,
too. And you bug me. Why the gun pointed at me now? 
Pourquoi?

“We seem to be mutually
suspicious, sir.”

“I’m only a vanguard,
with a password. But I’m not alone. Other people wonder about you, too.”

“Such talk could be
dangerous.”

“I live a dangerous
life, Major. Full of high adventure.

A mouthful of slime from
the canal, a mouthful of splinters from this floor. Very romantic.”

“Do you feel all right,
Mr. Durell? Perhaps I should call a doctor for you.”

“Do that. And tell him
what a pity it is that your Sergeant Lao shot so well and killed such a
pleasant little gentleman as Doko Dagan before I could ask him a few
pertinent questions.” Durell walked to the door. The floor undulated under him.
He wondered if Muong would shoot him. But the major stood quietly,
exhaling thin smoke from his Dutch cigar. Then Muong said:

“Do you know the real
significance of the leaflets in Dagan’s suitcase? You saw them in my room.”

Durell was angry. “Did
your lab test a sample?”

“Ah.”

“Are you surprised that
I know? It’s a simple method of running dope through the borders. We’ve met up
with it in Syria, Egypt, and Albania—anywhere the Chicoms establish
their so-called ‘trade missions.’ Have you a sample of Doko’s propaganda
literature on you?”

Muong
 
nodded
and held out one of the pulp-paper hate sheets from the straw suitcase in his
wardrobe closet.  This one was printed entirely in Chinese, except
for a cartoon that depicted Uncle Sam as a fat ogre gobbling up little Asians
from a banquet table. He took the leaflet between thumb and forefinger. It was
quiet now in the house, growing shadowed with dusk. He wondered if Muong had
other men watching in the bamboo hedge or in one of the sampans in the lagoon.

“If you run this paper
through routine lab tests,” Durell said, “you’ll find it’s impregnated with
opium crystals in the fiber. Hate sheets, textbooks, any printed matter—they’re
used to illustrate the fact that one man’s poison can be another man’s meat,
right? You boil these leaflets and let the paper disintegrate. Then you skim
off the crystalline residue, dry it out, and in Doko Dagan’s  single
suitcase, you have maybe a million dollars’ worth of dope, tight?”

Muong
 
nodded.
“Such is my estimate, too.”

“Enough to buy enough
support for the Cong Hal up in the highlands, right?”

“There are some who can
be bought, yes.”

I “You knew what Dagan
was. Were your people keeping him under surveillance?”

“Yes,” Muong said.

“Was he at the Danat tea
plantation before he boarded the river steamer with Uncle Chang?”

“Yes. You are very
clever.”

“Then you know what .our
next move is, Major Muong?”

“You are in command.”

“Thank you.” Durell’s
tone was dry. “So we shall go looking for Yellow Torch and the Cong Hai at
the Pierre Danat tea farm, if you have no objections.”

“M’sieu Danat is
above suspicion.”

“I didn’t say he
wasn’t.”

“His daughter is a
personal friend—”

“—of Orris Lantern’s.
And he’s the man we’d both like to kill. The man we must work together to wrap
in cotton wool and bring home to Big Daddy.”

“I do not understand all
that you say, Mr. Durell, but I understand enough. You do not trust me. I do
not entirely trust you. But this is my country, and what happens to it concerns
me more immediately than it concerns you. Your help is appreciated. The Cong
Hal must be stopped. They are like sparks in a dry forest, like deadly snakes
coming up out of the dark. If the head of the snake is offered, I shall cut it
off.”

“When we find him,”
Durell said.

Major Muong nodded,
bowed, and made him a wei of respect.

“We shall go upriver
tomorrow into the highlands, and we shall find Orris Lantern.”

 

                                  13

DEIRDRE said: “Honestly,
I did the best I could, Sam, but he knew you were on to something. He has a
wife and nine children! I tried to chat charmingly about American folkways and
so forth, but he never really listened. He’s a little like you, darling. He’s a
bit scary.”

“Just how am I like Muong?”

“Dedicated. Monomaniacal
about the job at hand. Concentrated. His eyes looked through me for a million
miles.”

Durell winced as Deirdre
applied antiseptic to the cut on his scalp. “I wish I could see through you,
honey.”

“The allure of the
feminine is a mystique we always cultivate,” she said, and smiled down at him.
He put his arm around her and drew her down to his lap. She did not resist. He
said: “You did the best you could. I didn’t find many answers, but I got some.”

“And almost got killed,
too.”

“That’s part of the
business.”

Her gray eyes glistened
in the shadows of his hotel room. “Sam, darling, I hate this thing you call
business.”

“Then why did you squirm
your way into it?"

“Because I want to be
with you.”

“And I want you at home.
Safe at home.”

“And if you’re not safe?
You can understand that, but you don’t accept it. You like this work, don’t
you?”

“Somebody has to do it,
Dee.”

“I know, but you’ve been
in it so long, and you’ve already done your share—”

“Who is to measure one’s
share? It’s my job and I do it. I don’t ask for more than my salary and an
annual contract renewal. Don’t blow bugles for me, Dee.”

BOOK: Assignment - Cong Hai Kill
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