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Authors: Colin Falconer

Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #20th Century, #Suspense, #General, #Action & Adventure, #Romance

Opium

BOOK: Opium
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Opium

 

Book I in the 
Opium
 series

 

Colin Falconer

 

 

Acknowledgments

 

I
AM grateful to Henry “Slim' Giblett for his reminiscences of police work in Hong Kong during the sixties; to Joe White for advice on certain technical aspects of flying; and to Doug Kirsop who helped me with the more colourful aspects of spoken French.

In Vientiane I am very grateful to Michel Somsanouk, for allowing me access to his newspaper library and for his recollections of the city in the sixties and seventies. In Hong Kong I owe thanks to Senior Superintendent Robert Nicoll, Detective Superintendent Clive Tricker, Chief Detective Inspector Peter Ip Pau-fuk, and Senior Inspector Kevin Chen who all freely gave of their time.

I am greatly indebted to Chief Detective Inspector Trevor Collins, for his hospitality, and for his advice on the background and organisation of the triads in Hong Kong.

I also owe a special debt of thanks to Chief Inspector John Chetwynd-Chatwin, for his generosity and boundless assistance. Opium

 

“We gave up the drug war in favour of a war against communism.

In fact, we made a conscious choice.”

-Former senior DEA agent Michael Levine.

 

“If god made anything better than opium, he kept it to himself.”

saying common among the 
chiu
 
chao
 of Yunnan province in China.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1

 

Vientiane, April, 1959

 

N
OELLE thought she would have noticed him even if he hadn't driven his Packard through the front bar of the Hotel Constellation.

He was outrageously handsome, even when he was drunk. He had blue-black hair, with a pronounced widow's peak, swept straight back from the forehead, and the damndest blue eyes. His skin was olive dark and there was a reed-thin black moustache on his top lip. He wore a white linen suit, an affectation usually reserved for visiting potentates and ambassadors. It looked as natural on the Corsican as his own skin. Underneath the suit he was wearing a black silk shirt.

The bar was open to the street, so there were no walls to absorb the impact; but the unexpected arrival of a large burgundy red American automobile with massive rear fins quickly scattered the occupants, who were mostly bored foreign correspondents and diplomats. The chrome bumper bar splintered several rattan tables and chairs, and demolished half of the bamboo bar. Dusty bottles of Vermouth, Byrrh and black rum toppled off the shelves and shattered on the floor.

There was a deathly silence.

Then Baptiste Crocé leaned out from the driver's side and beckoned the startled Lao barman. “I'll have a large cognac,” he said in French.

There was a ripple of applause from the western journalists, who were also drunk. Any madness was a welcome diversion. At that moment Baptiste saw Noelle, stood on the bench seat of the Packard, and gave her a low bow.

“Imbecile,” Noelle's escort muttered. “He's drunk. A disgrace.”

Marcel Rivelini was her father's choice for her escort that evening; he certainly would not have been hers. He was one of his business associates from Bangkok, wealthy, sophisticated and insufferable. He was also almost as old as her father. I would not have minded that so much if he had a sense of humour, she thought.

The barman brought the Corsican his cognac. He raised the glass towards her in salute and climbed out of the Packard. He made his way, a little unsteadily, across the bar towards them. Rivelini looked tense.

This should be interesting.

“May I have the pleasure of this dance?'

Noelle smiled. “But monsieur, there is no music,” she said.

“That is beside the point, mademoiselle. All I want is the exquisite pleasure of having such a lovely young woman in my arms.”

Rivelini stood up and punched him under the jaw. The Corsican fell backwards, breaking another rattan table. There was a hiss of disappointment from the gathered journalists.

Noelle stood up.

“I'm sorry if he offended you,” Rivelini said to her.

Noelle threw her Pernod at him. He gasped in surprise, staring in horror at the stain on his silk shirt. The journalists cheered again.

“You little bitch,” he muttered.

Noelle pushed him in the chest, harder than she intended. He fell backwards, his legs tangled in his chair, and landed in a sprawl among the tables. He twisted his knee as he fell.

Noelle knelt down beside the Corsican.

“Are you all right?' she said.

He was bleeding from the lip. He felt around the inside of his mouth with his tongue. “Are any teeth missing?' he said.

“You're lucky he didn't kill you. He's a gangster from Bangkok. Are you crazy?'

“Look, my suit's ruined. Bastard.”

“Here, I'll help you up. You're drunk.”

“Just a little.” As she held out her hand he pulled her towards him. “But not so drunk that I don't know I've just met the most beautiful woman in Asia.”

“Get back in the car.”

Rivelini had struggled to his feet. His knee would not take his weight and he had to lean on a table for support. “Where are you going?'

“Thank you for an entertaining evening, Marcel,” she said and helped the Corsican into the Packard. Then, to a final chorus of cheers from the journalists, she got behind the wheel and reversed out. A rattan chair was tangled in the rear bumper and got dragged along behind as she drove off down the street.

 

***

 

Noelle drove slowly through the darkened streets looking out for the dogs and pigs that sometimes slept in the middle of the roads. The night was warm, and smelled of ripe fruit and kerosene. In the moonlight the stupas of the Pha That Luang looked like a cluster of missiles. An unsettling impression, considering what was happening just over the border.

The Corsican put his head on the back of the seat and took out a packet of Gitanes. He lit one and let it hang insolently from his lower lip. He groaned.

“Are you all right?' Noelle asked him.

“A little headache, that is all.” He looked at her and grinned, his teeth powder-white in the dashboard light. “Do you like how I seduce women? I have them fight for me then offer to take me home.”

“This is not seduction,” Noelle said. “Where to?'

“The Bungalow.”

She knew it. It was a hotel just down the street, it's real name was the Settha Palace. “You could have walked. Why didn't you tell me?'

“I'm drunk but I'm not crazy.” As she turned the car around in the street, he took a silk handkerchief from his jacket pocket and dabbed gingerly at his lip. “Will you sleep with me tonight?'

She felt herself flush to the roots of her hair. “If you weren't already beaten up, I'd break your nose!' she hissed. She took one hand off the wheel and cuffed him across the face anyway. “What do you think I am? Some kind of whore?'

“No, I think you are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.”

“What's your name?' she said.

“Baptiste. Baptiste Crocé ‚.”

“Well, Monsieur Crocé ‚, you are going to wake up in the morning with a massive hangover and the police banging down your door.”

“You think so?'

“Do you know how much damage you did to the Constellation? They'' probably lock you up. What were you thinking? Do you always drive that way?'

“Only when I'm very drunk.” He reached out and stroked her arm, with the back of his hand.

“Don't do that!'

“I can't help it. Your skin is like velvet. If you won't sleep with me, will you marry me?'

The Settha Palace was no palace; it was actually an old colonial guest house long fallen into decay. Noelle drove to the front steps. Several of the guests, mostly junior foreign diplomats, came out onto the porte cochère to stare at them. How starved we all are of entertainment in Vientiane, she thought. A man with a bleeding lip and a woman driving a battered American car will be the main talking point at tomorrow's breakfast.

“Tell me, monsieur Crocé ‚, what are you? Some sort of diplomat?'

“Do I act like a diplomat?'

“Frankly, no.”

“I'm a pilot. '

“A pilot?'

“I was the French air force's greatest hero during the war with the Viet Minh. Now I have my own airline. Wattay Air. Perhaps you have heard of it?'

“No, I haven't. And I'm amazed you can persuade anyone to get into an aeroplane with you. How do you land? Do you just crash through the terminal doors?'

“It depends if I'm drunk or not.”

Noelle allowed herself a smile. “Goodnight,” she said. She got out of the car and walked towards a
siclo
parked on the other side of the courtyard. The driver was asleep on the cracked leather seat of his machine. She kicked the tyre to wake him. He sat up with a start. He rubbed his face and climbed onto the seat of the bicycle.

Baptiste‚ stumbled out of his car and ran over. “Wait! You can't go. I don't even know your name!'

"Bardot. Brigitte Bardot. And next time you wish to make love to me, monsieur, make sure you are sober. All right?

 

***

 

Baptiste watched the
siclo
disappear into the darkness. He grinned. Well, he thought, I won that round.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 2

 

R
OCCO Bonaventure sat on the balcony of his villa enjoying his breakfast, eggs and fried rice. He was in his fifties, with a mane of silver grey hair pushed back from a high, tanned forehead. It trailed over his collar at the back of his neck. But what people noticed about him first was his hands; they were a wrestler's hands, huge and large-knuckled, and covered with a thick matt of hair. He wore chunky gold rings on each finger.

He affected a sculptured stillness as he watched the local women hurrying along the green arcade of the road, their babies in shawls on their backs, rattan baskets of vegetables balanced on their heads. A flock of herons flew out of the mist, and settled in the rice paddy that bordered the road.

He thought about Noelle.

Rivelini had told him all about her behaviour the previous evening. His hands shook as he picked up his coffee cup. Daughters were a curse. They weren't good for anything but causing trouble, and Noelle caused more trouble than most. The nuns at the
Les Oiseaux
Convent in Saigon had charmingly described her as wilful.

He sipped his coffee, and grimaced. This impossible country; you couldn't get fresh milk for your morning
café au lait
, and you couldn't keep your daughter away from adventurers and idiots.

How could she embarrass him this way? Marcel Rivelini was the nephew of a man he was pleased to call his friend. She had humiliated him in front of a room full of foreign journalists, then caused him significant personal injury. His knee had swollen up like a melon and he was unable to rise from his bed this morning.

As if he didn't have enough troubles to contend with.

The United States had withdrawn economic aid and forced the leftist government to resign, then put their own man in power, as they had done with Diem in Saigon four years before. Well someone had to stop the communists and it might as well be Eisenhower. But there were reports of fresh fighting along the border at Sam Neua.

He didn't like instability. It was bad for business and until now business had been very good.

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