He let her in and she sagged with relief. The man was her husband, she explained. Two days ago in Mandalay she had finally got up the courage to leave him. And now he was here in Rangoon! She had ducked into the Strand when she realized he was following her, and she didn’t know if she’d shaken him, and she was afraid to look. Could he possibly check the lobby and see if her swinish husband was there? She described the mythical husband – tall, fat, balding, with a scar on one cheek, even told how he was dressed. Could he be an angel and see if he was downstairs, or even lurking on the street outside? And could she wait in his room while he looked?
When he hesitated, she said, “But you do not know me. I could be a thief! Please, take with you anything that is valuable. Do not worry that you will hurt my feelings! And please, take this with you.” And she twisted the ring off her finger and insisted that he take it in pawn.
Once he was out the door, she swung into action. With the chain belt securing the door against a sudden return, she stripped his bed and felt along the top seam at the end of the mattress until she found where I’d cut it open, my knife making a foot-long slash running alongside the seam. She reached in and felt around and drew out the brick wrapped in foil and the smaller parcel done up in oilskin.
They went in her purse, and no harm if he asked for a look through her bag when he returned, as they were nothing he’d ever seen before. But of course he did no such thing. There was plenty of time to get the bed back as it was, plenty of time to catch her breath before he returned to tell her the coast was clear; there was no sign of her future ex-husband, not in the lobby, not in the wood-paneled bar, not in the street outside. And, speaking of that bar, it was the best place in town for a cool drink, and did she have a minute to spare?
“So I let him buy me a drink,” she said. “That was all right, wasn’t it, Evan?”
“It was only gracious of you.”
“That is what I thought. It was very elegant. There was a piano, with a Chinese man playing Cole Porter songs. He bought me a large gin and tonic and asked me to join him for dinner.”
“You must have been tempted.”
“No,” she said. “It could have been a pleasant evening, with good food and plenty to drink. And he was an attractive man, Evan. He was English.”
“With black hair,” I said, as a sinking feeling came over me. “Except at the temples, where it had turned as white as snow.”
“Why do you say that, Evan?”
“It’s true, isn’t it?”
“Not at all,” she said. “His hair was blond like mine, only a little darker. Receding in front, and thin on top.”
“What made you think-”
“Never mind,” I said. “Anyway, you found him attractive.”
“Moderately so. I could have spent a pleasant evening with him. But when I woke up I would still be in Burma.”
“You’ll still be in Burma tomorrow no matter what,” I said. “And for quite a few mornings after that.”
“But you will take me with you, my little Vanya?”
“And these will help us, this treasure from inside the mattress? What is inside these?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m afraid I can guess what’s in the brick. I don’t know about the other.”
“Aren’t you going to open them?”
I opened the brick first, and I can’t say I was surprised by what I found. It was indeed a brick, white in color, with the slightest yellowish tint to it. I scratched it with my fingernail, raising a bit of white powder. I put a few grains on my tongue.
“Bitter,” I said. “Must be Lariam.”
“You are joking.”
“I’m afraid so,” I said. “Although I may be closer to the truth than you would think. I have to assume this is heroin, but I have no idea how pure it is. Somebody may have stepped on it.”
“Stepped on it?”
“With or without shoes,” I said. “Stepping on it means cutting it. They process a lot of opium into heroin in the Golden Triangle, part of which is in northeast Burma. And they don’t cut it there because it’s simpler to ship it in pure form. But they’re not shipping it through Rangoon, so who knows what the source of this particular brick is, or how close to pure it is?”
“What does that have to do with Lariam?”
“If they cut it,” I said, “they might have used milk sugar. That’s a popular staple in the drug trade. I wonder what effect it has on a junkie who happens to be lactose-intolerant?” I shrugged. “Probably the least of his problems. The point is, they also commonly add some quinine, which is a component of Lariam. In fact, for all I know, this brick could be all milk sugar and quinine, because why waste good heroin just to frame me for drug trafficking?”
“So you don’t think it’s heroin after all?”
“No,” I said. “I think it must be. And it wouldn’t have cost anybody anything. It was probably confiscated in the first place, and they expected to get it back when they arrested me. That’s why they were so upset when they searched the room and came up empty. They weren’t getting their heroin back, and someone up above was going to want to know what happened to it.”
“You hid it well.”
“I didn’t have much time,” I said, “and I couldn’t flush it down the toilet, and I didn’t know what would happen if I threw it out the window. If nothing else, it would mean I’d never see it again. I was going to stick it under the mattress, but I figured they’d look there, and in fact they did. They stripped the bed and lifted the mattress. But they didn’t look in the mattress. I had my Swiss Army knife, and I used it, and it worked.” I frowned. “I wish I still had it. I wish I’d stuck it in the mattress, too, and I could have tucked in my cash and passport while I was at it. But there just wasn’t time. As a matter of fact, there wasn’t even time to think of it.”
“What are you going to do with the heroin?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Before we’re done, I’ll probably want to use it. For now it’s an asset, and we don’t have too many of those.”
“And this?” She pointed at the oilskin packet I’d taken off the dead man. “Another asset?”
“Could be,” I said. “Let’s see.”
The parcel was mostly wrapping. Bubble wrap under the oilskin, and cotton wool under that. And, huddled together within the cotton wool, three perfect carvings.
“Ivory,” Katya said.
They were indeed ivory, the rich cream color slightly yellowed with age. They stood just under four inches tall, each depicting an Oriental gentleman of a certain age. One held a bird on the back of his hand, one leaned on a cane, one had his hands clasped and his head bowed. Each was exquisitely detailed and impeccably executed.
“Good luck,” Katya said.
“Cheers,” I agreed absently. “What’s the significance of these, do you suppose?”
“But I am just telling you, Evan! This one is good luck, this one is long life, and the last is good health.”
“They’re good-luck charms?”
“Oh, how do you say it?” She switched to Russian. “They are not charms, like an amulet or a lucky ring. It is more that they are the personification of the three aspects of good fortune. It is a Chinese custom to have such carvings in one’s home, perhaps in a shrine devoted to one’s ancestors.” She picked up Long Life and turned him over in her hands. “But this is not Chinese.”
“How can you tell?”
“The facial features. The dress. See? He is wearing a longyi. No Chinese man would dress this way.”
“Maybe it’s a Chinese woman.”
“With a long flowing beard?”
“Maybe a Chinese drag queen,” I suggested. “A bad Chinese drag queen.”
“Just a joke,” I said, and picked up Good Health for a closer look. “I see what you mean. Burmese, not Chinese.”
“But showing the Chinese influence. And very old, I think.”
“I would think so. There is a man I know, he has a stall at the large indoor market. Every few months I sell him a ruby.”
“Where do you get the rubies?”
“I did not tell you about the rubies? It seems to me we drank the ayet piu and I told you the story of my life.”
“Not all of it. You got as far as India, and the deputy governor-general of Goa.”
“The former deputy governor-general. I never told you of my marriage? I married an Indian gem trader based in Jaipur. He made frequent trips to Burma, and he always wanted me to go with him. Are you sure I didn’t tell you this?”
“I would remember.”
“I was always unwilling to go with him, because he was smuggling stones, and I was afraid he would get caught. And finally I said yes, and we stole into Burma illegally, and one day he gave me a packet of rubies to hold because he feared his partners would betray him and rob him. And then he disappeared, and days later I heard his body had been found floating in the Irriwaddy. His throat was cut.”
“Jesus,” I said.
“I had no papers, I had no money, I had no way to get out of Burma. I went to the Indian consulate and waited for hours to see an awful little man, and he listened and nodded and made notes, and I never heard from him again. When I went back he would not even see me. I went to other consulates and they laughed at me. Evan, I am a citizen of nowhere in the world! I have lived in so many countries but belong to none of them. I have no passport. How could I have a passport? I have no nationality. I feel myself more Russian than anything else, but my family fled Russia seventy years ago. They picked the wrong side and they left.”
“You know,” I said, “this is going to sound farfetched, but there’s a decent chance of a Romanov restoration in Russia. The country’s very unstable, and there seems to be a groundswell of monarchist sentiment.”
“You think it is truly possible?”
“I think anything’s possible,” I said. “As a matter of fact, I’m associated with people who are working hard to make it happen. Our candidate for tsar is a grand duke with first-rate credentials, and I think his popular support base is growing nicely. Oh, I wouldn’t rush out and put my money in tsarist bonds, not just yet. But I think we’ve got a chance.”
“And if your grand duke becomes the tsar? Then will I be able to get a Russian passport?”
“You could probably get more than that,” I said. “You’re probably in line for a title. Your grandfather was a count or something, wasn’t he?”
“My great-grandfather,” she said. “My grandfather was a general in the Kuomintang.”
“The point is you’re descended from the Russian nobility. You can’t expect a restoration of lands and privileges, but you might wind up with a title.”