Julia Rendel asks Maier to investigate the 25-year-old murder of her father, an East German cultural attaché who was killed near a fabled CIA airbase in central Laos in 1976. But before the detective can set off, his client is kidnapped right out of his arms.
The two men crossed the river road as the sun set on the other side of the Mekong, over Thailand. Hammers and sickles set against blood-red backgrounds fluttered from a row of sorry-looking poles by the water. This was the Laotian way to remind the Thais who’d won the war.
It was early November. The rains had stopped, but the river remained swollen and muddy. The revolution, a long time in coming, had come. And gone. Vientiane looked less like a national capital than a run-down suburb of Dresden with better weather. The sun, a misty, dull red fireball, sunk into the turgid current in slow motion.
Once the American infrastructure – a few office blocks and residential areas, the CIA compound at Kilometer 14, a handful of churches, bars, brothels, clinics and aid agencies – had been removed, closed down or reassigned, there was nothing left to do but to enjoy socialism. More than fifteen years of intense US involvement, political and military, overt and covert, ambitious and disastrous, had left few traces in the city. The locals lingered in hammocks or went about their business in culturally prescribed lethargy as they’d done for centuries.
Once it got dark, Laotians disenchanted with the revolution would take to modest paddle boats to flee across the water to the free world. The authorities, glad to be rid of these vaguely troublesome citizens, turned a blind eye or two. Laos was that kind of place. Not even the politburo took anything too serious. And if it did, no one ever heard about it. No one worried about the consequences of this or that so long as it didn’t make any waves in the here and now. Some workers’ utopia.
The two men walked at a healthy but innocuous pace. The German Democratic Republic’s newly appointed cultural attaché to Laos, Manfred Rendel, strode purposefully ahead, a harried expression on his face. He was the younger though hardly the fitter of the two, and sweated profusely in his polyester suit. No one would have called him handsome, not even from across the river and the free world. Rendel needed to lose weight both in body and mind. For now, it was the mind that was in the process of unburdening itself.
“I tell you, it’s serious. Thought it better we meet in the street than in my office, where half the world is likely to listen in. Especially our friends, the Viets.”
The second man, broad-shouldered and in his early fifties, his blond hair cropped short, cautiously brought up the rear. He had just arrived in town and wore an innocuous short-sleeved white shirt and grey slacks, black shoes, no tie. He kept his eyes locked to the ground and took care not to look directly at passers-by. He walked the way a predator might move through dense jungle, purposefully, quietly and acutely aware of every movement. Elegant in a way it was hard to put a finger on. A casual onlooker might have assumed him to be a rather superfluous character, a slightly ruffled subordinate of the more dynamic man up front. A very careful observer would have noted that this man achieved near invisibility without a great deal of effort.
“She asked for me, specifically?”
Rendel nodded. “Asked for your codename. Loud and clear. Was a bit of a shock. I mean, no one knows that name. Mentioned Long Cheng as well. And gold. American gold. Lots of American gold.”
Rendel’s eyes flashed greedily.
The man codenamed Weltmeister ignored the attaché’s predilection for vice and profiteering and carefully scanned both sides of the potholed river road ahead of them. Everything looked as it always did. The courtyard of the Lane Xang, the riverside’s best hotel, lay deserted but for the usual half dozen party limos that parked there for the weekend, their drivers lounging under a rickety wooden stand to the left of the building, plucking hair from their chins with steel tweezers, and playing cards.
It was Saturday evening and the country’s decision makers were most likely lying half dead in their suites, nursing their foreign liqueur hangovers, fawned over by taxi girls, exhausted from celebrating the revolution the night before or getting ready to do it all over again. Unlimited supplies of Russian vodka, local sex slaves and an entrenched feudal mindset that was immune to both the benefits and strictures of communism could do terrible things to a government, even one that had partaken in beating the world’s mightiest superpower.
For the have-nots, it was business as usual. Prior to the revolution, the same drivers had sat in the same spot, waiting for their American employers to emerge from the same kind of weekend carnage.
The traffic was light. A group of female students, dressed in white blouses and dark sarongs, cycled past and threatened to distract the attaché from the clandestine nature of his walk. But the passing girls didn’t manage to stop Manfred Rendel grinning with all the severity of a man who’d spent his entire life steadfastly refusing to develop a sense of humor, “Must have practiced pronouncing it. It rolled right off her tongue. Wouldn’t tell me anything else. Good-looking little number, too. Pale skin, Chinese features. Nice tits. Bad teeth. Savage basically. She calls herself Mona. And she said the magic word. Weltmeister.”
The older man shook his head and hung back, as if trying to distance himself from his old friend who reveled in the loss of his moral compass. But it was just a reaction on his side to hearing his code name spoken by someone else. Weltmeister didn’t suffer common afflictions such as moral dilemmas or sentimentality. He was free. Long-term unaccountability in a high-risk profession could do that to a man. He couldn’t care less what the attaché was up to so long as it didn’t interfere with his program.
“A Hmong girl perhaps. But hardly anyone knows my codename. A few Viets, maybe. And they’d never blab. Even at our embassy here, no one knows.”
His cover had been blown. Someone was on to him. Somebody knew he’d been to Long Cheng. Someone was on to the fact that he had been to the secret American base not just as a Vietnamese agent, but that he’d lived and worked there for the CIA. And whoever had made him, they were organized and they were close. But it never occurred to Weltmeister to tell his old friend the truth. The truth hadn’t propelled him to the top of his profession.
Right now, he needed more information. If the cat was out of the spook sack, he was finished. As were all those others, who had sponged off his genius years ago. If the U48 surfaced, people would be soiling their government-issue suits from Washington to Moscow, from Hanoi to Bangkok. Retirees across several continents would scramble to hide ill-gotten gains and fear for the retraction of past honors, or worse. No one would be happy. Heads would roll in the White House and the Kremlin. A small but vital aspect of twentieth-century history would have to be rewritten. The man codenamed Weltmeister shrugged. Who cared about Realpolitik? His life was on the line. The trenches he’d dug, the palisades he had carefully erected around himself were about to be overrun. He would have to check out of the program, batten down the hatches, close the loopholes and sink into the dust of history, never to reemerge. His war was coming to an end. And he would have fun ending it on his terms. “No one knows except you, Manfred.”
Rendel stopped in his tracks on the crumbling pavement and turned back to his friend, his face flushed with anger and, deeper down, beneath the layers of fat, slothdom and greed, a little fear.
“Well, I didn’t shop you. And I resent that remark. How long have we known each other? Didn’t I help you get laid at college in Leipzig all those years ago? When you acted like an introvert spy who’d come in from the cold? Semester after semester, I talked you up with the girls without ever hinting at what a truly twisted individual you really were. Didn’t I help facilitate your current position? You have changed sides more often than the oldest whore in Vientiane, and the first thing I do when your name comes up is call you. Isn’t that what trust is made of?”
The older man smiled sardonically, “You know how it is in our line of work. Take no prisoners.” But Weltmeister chuckled disarmingly, and Rendel let the threat pass. The cultural attaché was a sentimental man.
As daylight faded, the Mekong receded into the almost-silent tropical night, filled only with mosquitoes and military patrols who would have the streets cleared in a couple of hours. Only the cicadas would be singing in Vientiane tonight. Across the river in Si Chiang Mai, the nearest town on the far shore, primitive rock music throbbed from unseen speakers. This was the Thai way to remind the Laotians that the forces of evil had been beaten but not vanquished, and that the river served as one of the most important Cold War fault lines in the world.
The clandestine meeting was coming to an end. “I mean it, Manfred. Let’s play the old game. A little subterfuge. You meet her. Tell her you are Weltmeister. See what she has got for us.” It was the younger man’s turn to laugh. “First, I’ll see what she’s got for me. This girl is a honey trap if ever I’ve seen one. I might as well taste the honey before I pry the trap open.”
Weltmeister shrugged. “Just get the intel. Find out what she wants. But don’t scare her with your cock. Just be me. And if she’s Hmong, remind her that the war is over and that the good guys won. The Americans won’t be back for some time.”
Read more of the latest adventures of Detective Maier from The Man With The Golden Mind, only in The Advisor.
Or buy the paperback. or ebook.