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Authors: Edward S. Aarons

Assignmnt - Ceylon

BOOK: Assignmnt - Ceylon
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one

“Sir, are you all right?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“Are you certain, sir?”

“Yes, I’m fine.”

“Sir, that was what you might call a very close call, sir, that is what I would say.”

“Yes, Mr. Dhapura.”

H. K. D. Dhapura blinked his round black eyes.

“Where have you been, sir? All this past weekend, through the poya day and afterward, I have been wondering and searching for you.”

“Busy,” Durell said.

“Sir?”

“I’ve been busy.”

“Can you stand up?”

“I think so.”

Second strike, Durell thought. No mistake about it now. He climbed slowly to his feet, ignoring the skinny arm that little Mr. Dhapura extended to aid him. He felt drowned in this sea of alien faces and round dark eyes that looked at him, a stranger, in wonder. The noise of the Pettah rang and clashed in his ears. H. K. D. Dhapura began to wave away the onlookers with officious, jerky gestures. The midday sun struck hammers on top of Durell’s head. He felt a brief wave of dizziness when he stooped to retrieve his hat. The muggy air of Colombo oppressed him like a smothering blanket. The sun was blinding. He stooped again to retrieve his sunglasses. Fortunately, they were not broken. He felt naked in the midst of the crowded marketplace. Exposed. There was really no place to hide.

“Sir. Sir? Come, we will take a taxi back to the hotel.” “How did you happen to be along, Mr. Dhapura?”

“Ah. Ah. Fortunate for you, eh?”

“A coincidence?” Durell asked.

“Oh, surely, nothing in this world happens by chance. Nothing in all the universe occurs by accident, sir. Yet I was simply marketing, shopping for Mrs. Dhapura and the children. Inflation is terrible. Terrible. I did not think it would happen here in Ceylon.”

“You were just shopping,” Durell repeated.

“Yes, sir. And I saw you and that madman in the cart who struck you down.”

“You saw the man?” Durell asked.

“Briefly, briefly. Just the merest hint of a glimpse, sir.” “Describe him, will you?”

“I could not properly—”

“You’re paid to be accurate, Mr. Dhapura.”

“Surely you do not think—”

“What did he look like?”

“But the man was simply angry, because you were blocking his way, and he lost his head. Who knows what moves such common men to violence?”

“Where did he go?”

“I did not look. I was concerned for you, sir. I thought you were dead.”

“Almost,” Durell said.

“There is blood on your cheek, sir.” Mr. H. K. D. Dhapura took out a large, immaculately white handkerchief. “If I may, sir—•”

“What sort of cart was it?”

“A vegetable cart, one of those that are very common here in the market. Please, Mr. Durell. You look very poorly, if I may say so. You should have that cut attended to, at once. We have a doctor, you know. One who works especially for us.”

“Was the carter an American?”

“Oh, no, sir. No, he was black.”

“Black?”

“Yes, sir. Very dark brown, sir. Much browner than I.” “How many children do you have, Mr. Dhapura?”

“Sir?”

“How large a family do you support on K Section’s salary?”

“Oh, eight, sir. Eight children. And my mother’s mother, too. And sometimes an uncle—”

Durell said, “Go home, then. Don’t stay near me. It may be dangerous.” Not maybe, he thought. It’s a bummer. Somebody wants to kill me. Who needs innocent bystanders?

Mr. H. K. D. Dhapura looked hurt. His black eyes swam with incipient tears. “But I am supposed to assist you, Mr. Durell. My orders are to—”

“Go back to the hotel. I’ll see you there.”

Mr. Dhapura was mournful. “I understand so little of your business, Mr. Durell. Reports on economic conditions—I was educated for two
1
years at Harvard University, as you know—and checks on certain political affiliations, yes, yes, I can sense these very well, I have a knack for such matters, and I feel I do no harm in filing such reports for your people. I have a great love for America. To me, America is a friend, and a very kind and gentle giant. Sometimes foolish and lacking in understanding perhaps, but not like—not quite like the other great powers. So I help you. But when all the secrecy comes in, when you arrive—a spook, a man named Cajun as a code insignia— this I cannot understand. I feel helpless. I am sorry.” “You’re doing fine,” Durell said. “Have you heard from King and Thompson yet?”

“Nothing, sir.”

“Have you sent messages to Kandy?”

“Yes, sir. There is nothing. No reply. I am worried, I think.”

“They should have reported in last night.”

“Yes, sir. But they did not. There is nothing,” Dhapura said again. “Still, I am sure they can care for themselves, do you not think so?”

“I think so,” Durell said.

He turned away from the small brown man, aware of Dhapura’s fluttering hands, of the big white handkerchief; he wondered if the Sinhala was signaling to someone in the crowded Pettah, setting another watcher, another shadow, another assassin on his trail.

two

He felt a nagging worry about Harry King and Joe Thompson, but they were of less immediate concern than his own safety. In Durell’s business, you looked out for your personal security and survival first. He knew all about the printouts from K Section’s computers on his own survival factors. The job here in Ceylon—or Sri Lanka, as the country was now called—was not supposed to be particularly dangerous. He had resented the assignment, when he’d flown via Air Ceylon from Delhi to Bandaranaike Airport last week to contact Mr. H. K. D. Dhapura. He did not wish to be coddled. He appreciated General McFee’s concern, but he resented McFee’s patronage and considered it suspect, in any case. The head of K Section, the troubleshooting branch of the Central Intelligence Agency, never did anything out of emotional concern. No one could afford such a luxury in this business.

The thought of Aspara moved in him, the scent and touch and sound of her, filling him with memories of the weekend and the poya day just past. The memories were clouded with guilt. He should have gone to Kandy himself. Harry King and Joe Thompson were capable men, knowledgeable in the ways of the Asian subcontinent, almost Sinhalese themselves. No need to worry about them. Aspara, and the fishermen in Negombo, the sea and the sand, had all been beautiful.

He stood alone in the crowded, old Pettah, listening to the noise, feeling the heavy weight of the sun, testing the odors of the place, watching the people.

No one. Nothing.

The spectators who had watched the attack on him drifted away. The women in their batiks and embroidered cotton sarees went about their business of bargaining among the stalls and shops. The men bought, sold, argued, talked politics. Colombo was a blend of the ancient and modem, of Portuguese, Dutch, and Sinhala, and heavily overlaid with the centuries-old British colonial rule, which left its mark in architecture, street names, and the common use of English everywhere.

He felt exposed, his height towering over the Sinhalese around him, like a rock jutting out of a sea of brown faces. He moved across a stunted mango tree, ducked under the tattered canvas awning in front of a Chinese jeweler’s shop, was jostled by people making way for a bullock cart. The man who had struck at him from the other cart was long gone, swallowed by the crowd. Durell had not even seen him. He had been careless—that was evident. He had been thinking of Aspara, drowned in his sexual memories of her. His shoulder still ached from the blow of the heavy cudgel that had just missed his head. No accident, that. Only half an hour earlier, while walking through the modem fort area near the Clock Tower, he had narrowly escaped a wildly driven taxi. Coincidence was not a factor you accepted in the business.

He was being followed.

He moved past a fish market and a small temple from which came a faint echo of Buddhist hymns and the scent of saffron-spiced incense; then he paused at an antique dealer’s tiny window in an arcade. Beyond the entrance to the Pettah, he saw two lumbering double-decked red buses heading toward Vihara Maha Devi Park—once called

Victoria Park after the old queen. He had left his rented car at the Galle Face Hotel, had lunched there, had first begun to feel that inward sense of being watched. Deliberately, he had walked east to the fort area, with its modern banks and shops and tourists, and into this older part of the town. The taxi had almost killed him on Queen Street. The man in the cart—black? Dhapura had said he was— had attacked him here.

Whoever it was, he was a professional.

He paused again at a vegetable stall, where the bins were filled with colorful plantains, melons, pawpaws, mangosteens. There, he thought. Someone had stopped to look into the second jeweler’s stall just across the arcade. Cat’s-eyes and moonstones, gold filigree and ornate Kandyan silver work. The man was just a man, however, wearing a European business suit. He went the other way.

Durell allowed himself to be jostled past a souvenir shop selling plaster casts of ancient Sinhalese frescoes, local pottery, old Japanese plates.

Where was the son of a bitch?

More important, why was someone after him now?

The job was not that important.

Unless, of course, someone in Moscow’s KGB headquarters at No. 2 Dzherzhinsky Square, or maybe in Peking’s Black House, had lifted his dossier with its red tab on it and decided to do something about it. The red tabs meant, Execute. It was one of the reasons that K Section’s computer readouts had placed his survival factor so low.

To hell with it, Durell thought.

He caught a taxi and told the dark little driver to take him to the Cinnamon Gardens, leaving the Oude Stad, the Pettah, behind him.

On his visit to Aspara on the last poya day, she had said, “Why do you mention my former husband, dear Sam?”

“I’m looking for Ira Sanderson,” Durell told her.

“It is a problem for the police, not for you.”

“I’m the police, in a way.”

“But not here. This is Ceylon, Sri Lanka, the Resplendent Isle. We have our own police. Ira will be found.

“I hope so.”

“Nothing will happen to him. Ira was always bumbling about, seeming incompetent, and always came up fine.” “Perhaps.”

“This is not the sort of thing you usually do, is it, Sam?” “Not really.”

“So strange,” Aspara murmured.

“What’s so strange?”

“You. You are different.”

“How, different?”

Her slender shoulders lifted and fell in her glittering, multicolored silk saree. “I cannot say. Like a man in—in a jungle. Very competent, very dangerous. In some ways, in your mannerisms, you frighten me. As if you bring danger with you. It sits upon you like a mantle, or—”

He smiled. “Or a shroud?”

“I only think of you as being full of life.”

“Thank you.”

“I cannot help you about Ira,” she had said.

“Don’t you care what has happened to him?”

“We were married once. We are divorced. He fathered my only son. We have not seen each other in some years. He will be returned safely. Kidnapping is a sudden disease that has taken the whole world. Kidnapping, hijacking, insane massacres, ostensibly for political purposes. Let our police handle it, dear Sam, dear Cajun.”

“They want half a million dollars in cash.”

“Yes.”

“And a plane, immunity to fly from your Lanka to— where?”

“It is up to your government to decide whether to pay the ransom. We cannot. I am not so important in the Ceylon government that I can influence decisions like this. True,” she smiled, “I am ambitious. If a woman can be prime minister today, perhaps I too, as a woman, can hope to be the prime minister tomorrow. It is my hope. It is my dream.”

“You’re very beautiful,” he had said. “Not like the usual politician. I’d almost forgotten.”

“I am Sinhalese,” she said proudly. “I come from a very ancient people. Ira is not such an important man. A diplomat in your corps, a dabbler and devotee of archeology. Why should you be concerned with his vanishment?”

“It’s my job. I was sent to take care of it. I’ll get him back.”

She smiled, a bit wanly. “Dead or alive?”

'“Alive, hopefully.”

“Can you authorize payment of the ransom?”

“Yes,” he admitted. “I have that authority.”

“Then do so,” she urged. “Let it go. Do not fight it. Let the people who took him have their money and their plane. Do not fight them.”

“Do you know who they are?”

She was silent. She had already adapted to the statesman’s habit of weighing words, of smiling, of quick pondering behind a polite and facile facade. But she was beautiful, Durell thought. He remembered her from another visit here in Colombo, shortly after her divorce from Ira Sanderson, of Boston, Mass. She .had been very vulnerable then, and he had not intended to take advantage of her emotional disarray; but it had happened. It was something that had seemed natural and inevitable, and when they had made love, some years ago, each knew it was a temporary thing, a phase, a reaching for something both needed at that moment.

It’s probably over now, he thought.

He had gone to Negombo to see her. Negombo was a small fishing village only an hour from Colombo on A3 road. It was a place they had visited before. There was an old Dutch church, and ruined fortifications, the lovely old Angurukaramulla Buddhist temple, a lagoon, and the vast, brilliant stretch of the Indian Ocean beyond sands that seemed of pure gold. At the moment, the sea was like a blue jewel, while salpadda boats behind the- bungalow came down the canal from the north, floating lazily through reflections cast in the water by leaning coconut palms. They had lunched on the veranda of her bungalow, eating curried prawns and a dessert of aluwa, a confection of rice, cadjanuts, cumin, and coconut syrup. The coffee was sharp and bitter, the way she knew he liked it. He watched a bullock cart with its rounded roof plod slowly along the edge of the canal, wheels creaking. On the beach, fishermen worked on square-sailed, clumsy-looking catamarans, which were admirably suited to fish the blue Indian Ocean waters. Small creatures rustled in the thatched roof of the bungalow.

BOOK: Assignmnt - Ceylon
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