THINGS DONE: WHO ARE YOU?
The last several days have been very trying. There’s unrest between the Sinhalese and the Tamil again, which is causing everyone enormous headaches. There’s a 6 p.m. curfew in effect, meaning that we can’t head out and enjoy an evening meal in Colombo, which is something Sari and I enjoy doing a couple times a week. It gives us a chance to get out and be alone, which is not something that happens often at the house. Despite our private quarters, we are actually not alone very often, so I relish the time we are able to do that.
Rolling blackouts, normally a fact of life in calm times, are extended right now. The electricity only came on an hour ago after three days of being off. There is a backup generator here, but it will only hold for so long, and Muladharma’s computer and electric lighting are the only things for which it’s permitted to be used. It’s extraordinarily hot and humid, and the lack of air conditioning is something that really takes time to get used to. As bad as our digs were in Takoma Park, we did have air conditioning. It’s kinder to the computers--and to us. And the climate in DC is nowhere nearly as brutal. We tend to spend midday in the garden or pool, and the intense heat has warmed the pool to bathwater-like temperatures. Still, it beats the alternative. At least we have a pool. From what Langly tells me, all they’ve got is mud.
I finish swimming laps with Palin--he’s quite the little fish--and once I’m convinced that the electricity is stable for the time being, I boot up. Sari went to the market with Devi; store hours are still restricted and they have to take advantage of whenever the shops are open.
The electricity may have come back, but the backbone servers are still down. I groan inwardly. I really can’t afford to be offline for this long. Frohike is, I’m sure, quite aware of the situation, but it won’t give him any less of a conniption. I’m already preparing myself for the mother hen treatment. Langly may be less aware--news is censored in Bangladesh, and how much access he has depends on how much time he devotes to general topics, which I figure is not much. I’m still very concerned about Jimmy, both for himself and how it will impact everyone involved in this. The party seems to be getting larger all the time, and I don’t like it a bit.
I curl up in the jute hammock strung across the portico. Sari and I have spent many pleasant hours here. One would think I would be delighted to not have to be working, to finally have the generous resources of our benefactors allow us nothing but leisure. Nothing could be further from true. I am immensely grateful to Muladharma, but I also feel guilty, since I have deliberately flouted his explicit instructions. I’m accepting their hospitality and violating their house rules at the same time. It’s not a mix that’s making anyone comfortable.
The library is virtually endless here, and I’ve been able to read and enjoy a number of esoteric works since my arrival, but I’ve also discovered that both Muladharma and Devi have a passion for cheesy detective novels. I’m having a lot of trouble concentrating these days, and I settle in with a relatively brainless Sue Grafton thriller--in English. They have novels in at least half a dozen languages, but I’m so preoccupied with Jimmy and how we’re going to get out of this one that half an hour later, I discover I’m still on the same page. I toss down the book in disgust and try the computer again.
This time, I’m able to make a connection, but as to how much work I’ll get done, I’m not sure, for Sari strolls in a few minutes after I’m able to spider into the underground servers.
“Are things any better out there?” I ask her absently as I enter some keystrokes.
“You mean, in the marketplace? Yes, things are a little calmer. There’s talk of the curfew being lifted within the next few days.”
Her voice sounds abnormally taut. There’s been some tension between us the last couple of days. We’re not arguing, but she seems to not be quite herself.
I stop typing for a few minutes, stand up and walk over to her. I slip an arm around her shoulder. “How are you doing?”
I’m alarmed that she doesn’t respond to my gesture. Sari’s need for touch is well documented, both giving and getting. Her lack of response jars me.
“I’m not doing great.” Her voice retains its tightness.
“I’m sorry. It should get easier once the curfew isn’t in place.”
She turns to me. “No. It won’t.”
I feel a chill in my spine, despite the heavy, hot air. “Why do you say that?”
She looks down at her well-manicured nails. Devi’s been after her about keeping them up. I know she’ll abandon them once we’re back in the States...if we ever get there. Every day we don’t have a hold on Runtz is another day farther from returning. And every day we don’t hear from Jimmy makes everything even worse.
“What is it? Have I done something to you?”
“Not directly. Not with intent. But I have to tell you, Devi’s on to you, John. She suspects what you’re doing. And I’m sure she and Mula talk about it.”
I’m between a wolf and a cliff here. “I know you haven’t said anything to them.”
“I haven’t, but they notice something’s up. I don’t have secrets from my sister. The only time I did was when I was with Barry, and believe me, Devi noticed, even before he threatened her. I don’t like having to lie about this. It’s as if there’s this Chinese wall between my family and me.”
“I’m not discounting Muladharma’s efforts, but it seems to me they’re no closer than they were before we were struck down. It’s been three months with no progress. Don’t you want to go home? I know you worry about Jimmy, just as I do.”
“I do. But I can’t live this way.”
“Look, I’m supposed to be dead. I’m trying to protect us all, Sari.”
She shakes her head. “Do you seriously think no one knows you’re here? How many cocktail parties have we attended since we got here? How many dinners where there were dignitaries here?”
“I doubt I’m the prime attraction.”
“You may not be, but people know you’re here.”
“I believed Muladharma wanted to keep things quiet. And that’s what I’m trying to do.” I don’t like the defensiveness in my voice, but I like even less being put on the defensive, which, rightly or wrongly, I feel as if I am at the moment.
“It’s long past that point. And my sister was in all her nondiplomatic glory when she went after me today.”
“I’m not trying to create difficulties between you and Devi.” I like Devi. She’s an amazing woman. I’d never want to do anything that would bring grief upon her or her family. Surely Sari has to understand that.
“You may not be trying, but it’s happening on its own.”
“I can’t give up trying to trace Jimmy. And I want to go home. I don’t like living like a fugitive, especially when I’m not one.”
She studies her nails again. “You need to come clean on this. I’m serious.”
“As in how?”
“You need to tell Mula everything you’ve done, and what you intend to do. You need to tell him about Jimmy.”
“I can’t do that, Sari.”
“Then you’re jeopardizing the safety of my family, and I can’t let you do that.”
Never let it be said that the woman doesn’t know how to hit.
“Truly, that’s not my intention.”
“John, you’re not going after a crooked journalist or a death row inmate or even a corporation with deadly practices. This is big league stuff.”
“Sometimes the easiest way to infiltrate is to be small.”
“I saw how you were after you got tossed into Whitecorps the other night.”
“It’s not the easiest or most entertaining hack I’ve ever done.”
“You said yourself that that scared you. If they’re involved, this ain’t no e-Com.con boy.”
“I really believe there has to be a way to bring Jimmy back safely, to bring Runtz down, and to get home.” I have to believe that. “So do the guys.”
“I figured they were helping you. You need to tell Mula that.”
“He’ll see it as a slap in the face.”
She looks at me, eyes set like steel. “Mula may be pissed, but he’s likely to back burner that for now. What he’s interested in is advantage. It’s what his life is all about. On top of the danger, there’s the problem of the household being disgraced, and disgrace is not a small matter in Asia.”
“I’m aware of that.” Appearances mean everything here. And I thought it was bad on Capitol Hill.
“I’m not sure you perceive how much it counts for in this part of the world. And you have to know that. Mula’s trying to get Most Favored Nation status for trade agreements at this time. Having his family disgraced will thwart the process. Mula may be irritated with you for disobeying his instructions, but he’ll take it far worse if he loses. Mula, in case you haven’t noticed, does not like losing.”
“So I’ve seen.” I have played Go with the man a few times. Haven’t won yet, so I suppose I’m safe.
Muladharma is truly a good man, in the extreme. But I’ve also witnessed evidence of how cold he can be when the occasion warrants it. I would not want to make an enemy of him. He’d never throw me to the wolves--they consider me family, because of Sari--but I would forever be shunned were I to engage in anything that would damage his family’s reputation. I don’t think I’d like that. Not to mention that it would ruin any strategic advantages I might have.
In some ways, I’m every bit the user Muladharma can be when needed. That doesn’t make me comfortable, but it’s a truth.
“I can talk to him, if you’d prefer. I’ve known him longer and he is, after all, my sister’s husband.”
“No. I’ll do it myself.” Forgive me for sounding like Frohike or Langly here, but I’ll be damned if a woman is going to do my dirty work for me.
“He’s in the study right now,” Sari says. “The sooner you do this, the better. I’ll be happy to go with you.”
“No.” If I’m going to be crucified, I’d prefer to at least be spared additional humiliation.
Heading into the main house to see Muladharma, I feel the same trepidation I felt when I was six and was chewing gum in class. I was caught, and sent to the principal’s office. I did chew gum again. I was simply more discreet about it.
I knock hesitantly on his door, which is partially ajar.
“Come in,” he calls, not looking up. “Sit.”
It would seem, from all appearances, that he’d been expecting me, as if I’d been already penciled into his calendar. He appears unruffled, but he is, after all, a consul, and he’s been a diplomat and a spy. He also took drama classes at Oxford and was apparently successful in a number of plays there. Overall, a very good actor. I’ve yet to see Muladharma lose his cool. This might be the first time. That possibility warms my heart the way a trip to the woodshed would.
He finishes typing something into his computer. I watch him hit the send key, and, satisfied that whatever he wrote is on its way to the proper destination (something that can be uncertain in our world, but perhaps so in his as well), turns to face me.
He studies me for a few moments. I think he’s trying deliberately to make me squirm a bit. As I said, the man is a strategist by nature and by trade.
“Perhaps we should be working together, not against each other,” he says quietly.
“I honestly am not attempting to do such a thing.” I’m trying to make my tone conciliatory, but can’t keep an edge of defiance out of my voice. There are things that need to be done. “I apologize if it seems I thwarted your hospitality--”
He waves his hand dismissively. “We aren’t making the progress we’d hoped, and, quite honestly, despite my instructions, I never seriously believed you would not make your own efforts.”
“I love being here. It’s a wonderful place--”
“But you want to go home. Of course you do. Every man wants his own country.” Muladharma heads to the sideboard, produces two cups, and begins pouring from a pot of tea. “Try the tea. It’s from the North Country where the Tamils have taken hold but just because we’re at war, there’s no reason to be petty.”
He hands me a cup, steaming hot. I’ve found in this climate that sometimes a hot beverage can be just as refreshing as a cold one, and I accept. “I know that Sari is terribly homesick as well, despite her ties to this region.”
“If you never believed that I would leave the search for Runtz alone, why did you permit me to do it?” Not that he would have stopped me, but I’m wondering what his line of reasoning is.
He never misses a beat. I swear he’d rehearsed this, but he’s good enough that he could pull it off ad lib as well. “It’s always best to use official channels, of course. You’re aware of my goals. I’m disinclined to use subterfuge as a mechanism unless absolutely necessary.”
I suspect Muladharma has a broad range of what he considers ‘necessary.’ I won’t pursue that one.
“However, the unrest going on in this country isn’t helping me attain those goals. God, I so hate civil war--such a bloody pain in the arse. Makes everyone mistrust you when you can’t keep your own house in order.” I suspect he’s referring to himself at a number of levels, not the least of which is me. “I need to get Runtz and his henchmen out of business. You need to get back to the United States. Differing goals, but in order to achieve them, we have to overcome the same obstacle, yes?”
“I’d say that’s true.”
“Very well, then. I’ll require your full cooperation and all the information you’ve acquired as well. You’ll continue to work on this, along with those assigned from other countries and agencies as well. This includes data that your friends have obtained, and I’m sure they’ve been as ardent in their pursuit as you have.”
“I’d have to ask them.” Truthfully, they may really be pissed off about this. “I think they’ll cooperate,” I tell him, some hesitation in my voice.
“I’m not really giving them an option here.” Muladharma’s face is not unfriendly, but his expression is impassive, inscrutable. I nod, hoping that Frohike and Langly will understand why we have to do it this way. This is very different from what we’re accustomed to in terms of working style. Being a small organization, we’ve mostly dealt with small things. Not insignificant things, but we subscribe to the belief that even small acts can improve life for others. Even when our focus has been on a global issue, we’ve kept it small and relatively manageable. I don’t think we have that option here.
“I understand.” But no pressure.
He leans back in his chair. “The truth is, I miss my field days.”
“Oh, I’m sure you’re well aware of what form my prior employment took. Standard in our line of work.” Something akin to a barely perceptible smile passes over his lips. “My family despised it, of course.” This brings a real smile. “There was a certain excitement about it. One could say I‘m trying to obtain my professional thrills vicariously at this point.”
“Do you enjoy your work now?”
“Enjoy would probably be the wrong word. I succeed at it. I do, of course, take some pleasure in that. What I dislike are the endless meetings and conferences and mindless chatter and having to play the gracious host to a cast of, well, at least dozens, when I’d far prefer to be with some schizophrenic physicist trying to buy his defection by offering to sell me useless technology and drinking me under the table. Or at least lounging in my own den, watching glassy-eyed at football and swilling a beer.”
“Devi’s parties are legendary.”
He smiles. “Ah, yes. Devi. Mind you, I didn’t say my life wasn’t exciting. I simply said my job wasn’t.”
“She’s a wonderful lady.”
He smiles slyly. “Let’s just say that many of the things I’ve been able to accomplish wouldn’t have occurred had Devi not engineered them. You may consider me a skilled manipulator, John, but trust me, I have nothing on my wife.”
I don’t confirm or deny, but it’s not necessary. We’ve all seen Devi in action.
“You’ll contact your friends, then.” It’s not a request, even if the tone is benevolent.
“Uh...there’s another problem.”
“It’s...Jimmy. He left Australia.”
Deep annoyance crosses his features. “Oh, bloody hell. And Australia’s so pleasant this time of year.”
“It had to do with a woman.”
He shakes his head. “Doesn’t it always? Well, this mucks things up a bit.”
“We’ve been trying to locate him--”
“The name of the woman, please.” Once again, this is not a request.
“I’d rather not reveal that.”
“And I’d rather not attend yet another cocktail party this evening, although this promises to be a friendly one, one where my wife can actually get slagged as opposed to simply acting as if she is. However, I will be getting ready shortly, and you’ll need to do the same. We can expedite this if you’ll simply give me the name of the woman he’s pursuing.”
“She goes by the name of Yves Adele Harlow, or some variation on Lee Harvey Oswald.”
“A nom de guerre, no doubt.”
“A collection of them.”
“And are you aware of her real name?”
I’d love to bluff and say no, but the last thing I need right now is to lose advantage with Muladharma. He’s a good man, a good friend--and a horrible enemy, of that I’m certain. And I’m in no position to bargain at this time.
“Her name is...Lois Runtz.”
He blinks. I think there was some actual surprise registered there.
“Any relationship to Edward Runtz?”
He rolls his eyes. “Did I say something about missing excitement in my work? Because if I did, I think I’m about to regret it, starting now.”
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