Read Assignment Unicorn Online

Authors: Edward S. Aarons

Assignment Unicorn

BOOK: Assignment Unicorn
5.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

THE UNICORN is an exceptional beast. He has the body of a
horse, with a single long horn projecting from his forehead. He combines in
himself a love of purity and the strength of a monster. He is usually pure
white in color. As a subject of tapestries in the Middle Ages, the unicorn
represents the Scottish arms. He cats no living vegetation and never treads
upon green grass. His horn, when ground up and powdered, was believed to have
medicinal purposes as an antidote against poison.

In the sixteenth century, a gold coin equal to eighteen
shillings Scots was circulated in Scotland and was known as a unicorn.

The unicorn was never captured or killed by those who hunted
it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1

THE FUNERAL was over.

Durell stood quietly in the rain, watching the mourners in
the small Chinese cemetery. The rain was heavy and warm, one of those quick
storms out of the Malacca Straits that flooded the drains, gutters and
canals of the city. It brought no relief from the heat.

“Let’s go,” Charley Lee said.

“In a minute.”

“I’m soaked to the skin.”

“Wait”

“I don’t see anything to wait for,” Charley complained. “The
guy is dead. He’s now buried." Lee looked miserable, his white straw hat
shapeless with the soaking rain. The shoulders of his white suit spread dark
wet stains down over his round, comfortable little body. “For the burial of a
head of state, even on this miserable island, it wasn’t very much.”

“Premier Shang wanted it this way,” Durell said.

“It bothers you, Sam?”

“Yes,” Durell said. “The way he died.”

“You shouldn‘t even be here, Cajun. Exposed like this. I
think everybody knows who you are.” Charley peered through his fogged
spectacles. “You were a good friend of Shang’s, weren’t you?”

“Not good, not bad. Friends. I helped him once, a long time
ago. He was doing a good job for Palingpon.”

“Just another phony Red. Always in our pockets."

“He was a good man,” Durell said. “I liked him.”

“You seem to have a lot of friends on the other side of the
wire, Sam.”

“To hell with you, Lee,” Durell said quietly. “Quit acting
like a nursemaid."

“Well, that’s my job.”

“I don’t know about that. I don’t need it.”

“It’s my job.”

“Go find another job,” Durell said.

Charley Lee’s spectacles were round and steel-rimmed, and he
took them off now to wipe away the rain and humidity. A sudden runnel of water
poured from the fronds of a traveler’s palm that decorated one wall of the
enclosure. The water splashed on his neat little brown shoes. He looked
innocuous, but Durell knew he was a very dangerous man. He listened absently to
Lee’s sigh.

“You know I have to stick with you, Sam.”

“Go find yourself a girl in the District.”

“Not without you, Sam.”

Durell said, “I’m not Chinese. You are. Most of the girls in
the District are Chinese.”

“You prejudiced? You mind screwing Chinee gal?” Lee said.
“You’re a damned bigot, Cajun.”

Durell paid no attention.

The mourners were already filing out through the
ornate cemetery gate, leaving the aboveground white tombs, with their elaborate
plaques of enameled photographs and testimonials. The last gong from the
Chinese orchestra sounded on the road outside. The diplomats, those who had
chosen to attend the funeral, hurried away into their
beflagged
limousines. The French, the Indonesian, even the Dutch, the last still in his
ex-colonial isolation and ostracism, although the Netherlands had been officially
forgiven for their centuries of “colonial oppression” in Palingpon. The group
of yellow-robed Buddhist priests still chanted softly at Shang’s tomb. Their
shaven pates glistened with the steady tropical rain.

Durell waited, wet through, careless of the downpour. His
solid height made him tower over the Palingponese around him.

“Come on,” Lee urged softly. “We have much to do.”

“Go ahead. I’ll meet you later.”

“What else is there to see?” It was plain that Charley Lee,
the security man from the Embassy, felt very uncomfortable. This place was far
from the quiet, terrifying offices of State in Washington, D.C., from where he
derived his power. Most field agents from K Section—that troubleshooting
arm of the CIA for which Durell had worked for what seemed like too many
years—would have been annoyed by Lee’s presence. Durell did not let it bother
him. Again he paid no attention when Lee said once more, “I'm going, Cajun.”

“Good.”

But the stout Chinese did not go.

 

A small party had detached itself from the last group of
mourners still lingering at Premier Shang’s tomb. The group now made its way
toward where Durell stood so quietly in the rain, watching. A woman in a veil
led the way, attended by a very old Palingponese gentleman with a wispy beard,
a white gown, and a plaited straw hat. Respectfully, two steps behind them, was
a slim and dapper brown man who looked as if he would have been more
comfortable in a uniform decorated with medals and gold braid. The trio moved
along the round steppingstones of the path, circled the decorative fish
pond in the center of the cemetery, and came to a halt before Durell’s tall figure.
The old gentleman bowed. The woman lifted her veil slightly and gave Durell a
long, sad, comprehensive look. She was not young. A lifetime of sharing the
political fortunes and exiles of Premier Shang, her husband, had left only a
few lines on her round face; but her dark almond eyes looked ancient.

“Mr. Durell? Mr. Samuel Durell?”

“Yes, Madame Shang.”

Her English was halting. “It was good of you to come.”

“You are kind to say so.” He felt his words were inadequate.
“I’m truly very, very sorry.”

“I grieve for my husband. I grieve for your friend, or
business associate, who was slain with him.”

“They were both good friends,” Durell said.

“So unfortunate, however,” the widow said quietly. “One has
come to expect terror and violence in this world. But your friend, Mr.
Donaldson, was merely an innocent bystander. Or so I am told. Such ferocity.
Such madmen. My husband was basically a good, gentle person.”

“I was privileged to know him,” Durell said.

“Yes, he spoke of you so often. When you helped him in— But
we do not speak publicly of that.”

Durell smiled. “No.”

She put out a slim hand. “Well, goodbye, Mr. Durell. Do give
my thanks to the General, your employer, for his condolences.”

“I shall do so. Again, my regrets, Madame Shang.”

“I truly believe you,” she said.

 

The woman turned and walked away with quiet
 
dignity, assisted by the elderly gentleman
who, although well into his eighties, still performed as a gallant from Old
China. He was probably her grandfather, Durell thought. The Hakka Chinese of Palingpon
had been on the island for many generations, and some had risen from tin-mine
laborers to a merchant aristocracy among the Palingponese.

The small, dapper man remained behind with Durell and
Charley Lee. He paid no attention to Lee. His intelligent eyes reflected
no mourning. He had the high cheekbones and golden skin of the true Palingpon
native, the slightly slanted black eyes of the Malay infusion amid the island’s
population. Durell was suddenly aware that the heavy rain had stopped as
quickly as it had begun. Shafts of hot sunlight began to slant through the
trees, and he put on metal-rimmed mirrored sunglasses. He heard small birds
move in the palms and oleander bushes, saw that a small warm breeze stirred the
bougainvillea along the opposite wall of the little cemetery. The breeze made
everything drip and spatter. The heavily mirrored glasses made Durell’s harsh
face look like a mask.

“Mr. Durell. Welcome to Palingpon. Once again. But it is sad
that you arrive for such a tragic occasion.” There was nothing sad in the man’s
crisp
Oxonian
voice. “You made quick air connections
from Hong Kong."

“I was fortunate.”

“You came, of course, as much because of Mr. Donaldson’s
death as for his Excellency’s.”

“Naturally.”

“It is possible that we may be of mutual help in this
unfortunate matter. So strange. You see, Premier Shang had no real enemies,
personal or political, these days; it is my job to make certain of this, as you
must know. Madame Shang, who will be premier
pro tem
and take over the government in the interim, has kindly
ordered me to continue in office for the time being.”

“Colonel Ko, I am at your service,” Durell said.

“That makes me very happy. Your capacities and place in this
world-”

“I have no special influence,” Durell said.

“Understood. But can you possibly meet me at four
o’clock”—Colonel Ko whipped his watch into sight, a large Omega electronic
chronometer—“this afternoon?”

“At four. Yes.”

“Delighted.” Colonel Ko looked at Charley Lee once, but
otherwise did not acknowledge his presence. “Please try to he prompt, Mr.
Durell. And come alone, of course.”

“Mr. Lee is my associate.”

“I am not interested in Mr. Lee from your Embassy.

I know the public servant he is. You are the investigating
officer sent by your agency, Mr. Durell. There are—ah—other matters of business
to be discussed, aside from the late premier’s untidy, lamented and inopportune
death.”

“Yes.” Durell’s voice was dry. “I suppose there are.”

“Good. We understand each other. At four.”

“At the Presidential Palace?”

“Why, no,” Colonel Ko said. “At the mortuary.”

 

There was one other small delay, however. A messenger
carrying a large floral tribute arrived belatedly through the cemetery
gates and hurried toward the new tomb. The messenger was a middle-aged
Palingponese wearing the traditional blue trousers and turban of the working
class of the city. There was nothing special about him, but the floral
arrangement he carried was unusual.

It was an elaborate preparation, obviously done with great
craftsmanship. It consisted of hundreds of white flowers, mostly orchids,
shaped over a bamboo frame to form a horse with a great horn growing from its
forehead. There were mules on the island, but few horses.

The messenger put the arrangement down at the base of the
tomb, straightened his back with a grimace, and trotted away.

Charley Lee chuckled. “A unicorn, of all things.”

“Does it mean something to you?" Durell asked.

“I’m just a heathen Chinee. You’re a Westerner. Different
traditions about the same object. To me, a unicorn is one of the four
auspicious beasts that attended the giant P’an Ku, while P’an Ku labored for
twelve thousand years to chisel out the creation of the universe. To you, the
unicorn is a symbol of true purity. To the Chinese, he is a beast who combines
in himself all of the exceptional virtues and principles of both Yin and Yang.
But whatever is said about Shang, he was hardly pure, was he?” Charley Lee
sneezed suddenly. “Jesus, I’m catching a cold. In all this heat yet.”

 

2

A GHARRI, a fringed carriage pulled by a tired gray mule,
took them up the hill to the Palingpon International. The driver looked like
any other driver in the hot, steamy city, but he had been posted a bit too
conveniently outside the cemetery gate, and he had worked his vehicle with deliberate
rage through the press of international reporters and photographers crowded
around the entrance to the Boulevard of Mamywon Yongyak. Tall casuarina trees
bent gracefully over the median strip of the commemorative route that ran out
to the airport. Durell judged that the
gharri
driver was
one of Colonel K0’s people, and he remained appropriately silent on the labored
return to the hotel.

The city of Palingpon showed an eclectic influence
from centuries of pull and thrust from its larger surrounding neighbors. There
was an old Portuguese fort on the waterfront, built in the style of a brick
martello tower, and a cluster of Dutch buildings, like something straight out
of Amsterdam, along the fetid
klongs
. The opposite sides of the canals were lined by thatched
stilt houses of fishermen and the so-called water people. There were
mosques and Buddhist temples, and a Hindu monastery on the hillside, carefully
erected at the same level as the old Portuguese Catholic church. There was a
large enclave inhabited by the Hakka Chinese. The diplomatic area of European
villas was spread out on the hill above the
Dyak
-type
houses of the original Palingponese. Above all, atop the small green mountain
that overlooked the harbor clogged with tankers and freighters and one white
P&O cruise ship, was the Presidential Palace and the Palingpon
International, looking like every other architectural abortion of cubes and
balconies the world over. All the flags, foreign and domestic, hung
limply at half mast, in deference to the state funeral of Premier Shang. In two
years, Shang had done a good deal to pull the island into the twentieth
century, after its bloody struggles against colonial adventurers and Malay,
Filipino and Indonesian rajahs. But now Shang was dead, literally torn to pieces
by assassins.

Durell showered and changed from his rain-soaked clothing
into a drip-dry seersucker suit. While he dressed, he checked the impersonal
room. There was a microphone behind one of the Gauguin South Seas prints,
another in the telephone, a third behind the medicine cabinet in the bath. He
was not surprised. He did not touch them. He added his S&W snub-barreled
.38 to his waistband as he dressed. The air conditioning made the room feel
clammy. He was accustomed to acclimatizing himself wherever he went, and would
have preferred the old Willem Van Huyden Hotel down by the river, with its high
ceilings and big wooden fans and Victorian verandas. But the Hong Kong briefing
had included papers and a reservation at the International.

BOOK: Assignment Unicorn
5.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

The Mistletoe Mystery by Caroline Dunford
Finding Miracles by Julia Alvarez
Man Out at First by Matt Christopher, Ellen Beier
Her New Worst Enemy by Christy McKellen
Always Right by Mindy Klasky