As the members of the high council make their bows and prepare to leave, the Emperor gestures slightly to indicate that Colonel Olrik should stay behind. Ignoring the curious (and envious) glances from his colleagues, the only westerner among them maintains a stoic, relaxed demeanour. He will not be surprised by anything Basam Damdu says, be it praise, reprimand, or last minute orders.
When it’s just the two of them, plus the security retinue, which doesn’t count, the Emperor turns his glance to a corner table. It holds a small bundle wrapped in a white cloth. Ah, a gift then. He’s heard of this. Sometimes the emperor bestows a small token to an ally or advisor, usually something of religious significance. Olrik picks up the item in both hands and turns back to the ruler of all Tibet who is smoking a pungent black cigarette, feet up, a look that could be insolence or amusement on his face. If Olrik were to attempt the same, he would be dead before he struck a match.
“To show my appreciation and for good luck in the task you are about to undertake.”
Olrik bows slightly and carefully opens the bundle, prepared to display enthusiasm over a rosary or perhaps a gawu amulet. He is, of course, well-informed on the tenets and rituals of Tibetan Buddhism, but that doesn’t mean he shares the faith or even fully appreciates the aesthetic. Olrik removes the ceremonial wrapper to find a black leather case. This, in turn, opens to reveal, of all things, a pen.
“Mont blanc. I have several dozen myself,” Damdu says. “This one is a simple instrument, of course, appropriate for a soldier. We are practical men, are we not?”
“Indeed, your excellency. It’s beautiful.” It really is. The pen has a hefty tortoiseshell barrel and gold hardware, real gold without a doubt, which means is predates the most recent European war. Olrik makes a brief, appropriate speech of thanks, just a little too formal, but dignified. It’s better for the Emperor and his council to note the imperfections in his Tibetan rather than the speed at which he became completely fluent.
Damdu waves his hand in dismissal, and Olrik leaves instantly.
What on earth was that about? Why would the emperor give him any kind of gift at this stage? Why a pen, especially one of European manufacture? He will have to tell Lily Sing all about this. He’ll also need a very secure pocket case with a strong clip. It wouldn’t do to lose this pen like some workaday biro. His coming mission is both distant and dangerous. He might come back with less blood than he left with, but if he doesn’t return with the damned pen, there will be hell to pay.
“Is everything to your satisfaction, Mr. Kamau?
“Certainly, colonel. Indeed, you appear to have more than fulfilled the contract.”Olrik shrugs graciously. Throwing in a few extra guns or grenades doesn’t take much of a nibble out of his profits, and it puts the client at ease. Besides, he has a feeling that Kamau’s particular fight will be a cash cow for years to come.
“You’ll find the weapons are all in perfect condition. Use them in good health.” Kamau nods and orders his men to load the crates. Olrik has no idea if Kamau takes part in armed combat personally, but he knows of eight men who have met their ends trying to hijack the supply officer.
Kamau smiles widely, a rare and slightly unnerving sight. “I also have a little something extra for you. A token of appreciation from the field marshal.”
Olrik stiffens slightly, ready to sprint. He’s been on the receiving end of too many tokens of appreciation from fickle bosses.
A short, baby-faced soldier runs up with a wooden crate in his hands. Perhaps sensing Olrik’s tension, Kamau opens the box himself. Inside there are eight hefty books, bound in leather.
“The complete works of Nikolai Gogol. In the original Russian, naturally.”
“Naturally,” Olrik says, making an effort to keep the amusement out of his voice.
“Something to while away the hours around a campfire. Read them in good health.”
“Of course. Please pass on my sincere thanks.”
Kamau nods and slaps Olrik on the shoulder, one military man to another. In a moment he’s off with his entourage and Olrik is left alone with his money, his bodyguards, and this heavy box of books. He considers what kind of library he’ll amass if the fight for a free Kenya is successful. God forbid the client just throw in a bit of extra cash.
The man with the silver hair touches the painting reverently, as if it were the face of his first-born child. He’s actually holding his breath, and there’s a suspicious glimmer in his eyes. With a muffled sob, he clears away the last of the packing material and sets the painting on the mahogany side table.
“I apologize for losing my composure, sir. To see such a thing of beauty in its rightful place once more. Well…”
Colonel Olrik inclines his head, feigning a sympathy he does not feel in the least. The painting is valuable, certainly, but its market price is barely double his “finder’s fee.” As for “thing of beauty,” well, he doesn’t see it. The painting is dark and smudgy, and surprisingly small, about a foot square. It’s supposed to be the holy virgin and child, but the lady in question is strongly reminiscent of a Flemish hotelier of his acquaintance, and the child looks mildly annoyed.
“It must be a great relief to have it back with your family, where it belongs,” he ventures, keeping his tone neutral. While preparing for this little bagatelle he’d done some research, and knows full well that “where it belongs” is an open question between several families and two governments.
“Can you believe they allowed such a thing to be set out naked for the public? Out there in the open for any fool to gawk at?”
“Shameful.” Olrik wonders how long it will take one of this man’s eight children to sell the thing back to a museum once he’s in the ground.
That earns him a squeeze on his forearm. Really, he needs to be going. There are bigger, more profitable jobs waiting.
“My wife is resting. She wanted to thank you herself but this has all been too much for her. There is something, in addition to your payment…” The man rings a bell. In a moment two servants appear with a large, obviously heavy box. Oh, good lord.
“Really, sir, this is so unnecessary.” That is a tremendous understatement, because if the label is to be believed this is a full set of china by a world-renown French company. Service for sixteen. Why do clients find so many ways to be crazy?
“It’s for when you have your own home and family, something every man should have.” He grasps Olrik by the arm for emphasis. “My wife chose the pattern herself. It’s similar to the one you admired at our first meeting.”
What is the man talking about? They had discussed the terms over dinner, yes, but he doesn’t recall saying anything beyond the limits of common politeness. Had he made an impression on the trembling creature that is the lady of this madhouse?
Enough already. Olrik crisply repeats his thanks and reiterates his need to be off, asking only that the crate be loaded into his car. He’ll have it shipped to his agent in London; let Delaney puzzle over the damned thing and store it wherever he’s keeping all the less useful souvenirs of Olrik’s increasingly bizarre career.
Visiting this tavern on a Friday afternoon has become a ritual, a way to build his cover story and blend into the community. Usually it’s a peaceful respite, but as soon as he spots a plaid hat towering over the other patrons Olrik knows he’s in for it.
“Allingham! Good to see you, brother.” The big man sits down at the table without being asked and takes a long pull of his pint. “Knew I’d find you here. Here’s the thing, I’ve been wracking my brains trying to find a way to thank you, and now I have it.”
“No thanks is necessary, Mr. Needham. It was a group effort.”
Which is quite true. Needham’s grandson had gone missing while hiking that summer and everyone who could had joined in the search. He had found the boy with a few passes over the hillside in his little Skyhawk, and the kid had been rescued shortly afterward, dehydrated and exhausted, but otherwise fine. It had been a minor adventure, but the Needham family had made a huge fuss over it, and now Henry Allingham, hero, is as much a part of his temporary persona as Henry Allingham, semi-retired exporter of hydrological equipment. It’s an identity the colonel has used before, but never for so long. He’ll be glad when his tenure with the CIA is done and he can reinvent himself yet again. Small town life is so… sticky.
“No thanks is necessary? Listen to this guy!” Needham has the odd habit of addressing everyone within hearing range, as if they’re all invested in their conversation. “Listen, mister, you saved our Bobby, and that’s not something we’re going to forget. You gotta come out to the car with me for a second.”
Needham puts his arm around Olrik’s shoulder as they go. For the hundredth time Olrik finds himself wondering if he should have found refuge in a country with a more formal culture, somewhere more respectful of personal space. Would Australia have been any better than the United States? Probably not, and there wouldn’t have been as much money. Needham is half-dragging Olrik over to his battered station wagon, the car he uses for farm errands. Olrik happens to know that the Needhams could afford a fleet of new cars, but they affect to live like “plain folks.”
Needham reaches inside the right rear door and leads out a brownish red dog with long ears, a medium-sized sort of dog with dark eyes and a long muzzle. Oh, no. Absolutely no.
“Meet Redhawk Kennel’s Lady of the Lake, Bella if she’s your friend.”
“Mr. Needham. Frank. Please. I am not in the market for a dog.”
“That’s what you think. This is not just a dog. You won’t find a bitch like this for a thousand miles around. Look at this face.”
The dog has a very pretty face, which is not the issue. He should tell Needham to walk to the coast and keep going, but his position in town, and Needham’s, calls for diplomacy, if he can get a word in while Needham runs on. Apparently Bella is a Redbone coonhound, the perfect hunting dog (or so he says), a miracle of temperament, athleticism, and intelligence. This particular dog is ten months old, fully trained, quiet for her breed (whatever that means) and well past the destructive puppy phase. She’s a prime prospect for both hunting and breeding, and a fine companion.
A small crowd from the bar gathers to watch Needham put the dog through her paces. She certainly is well trained, and very friendly. Olrik knows from town gossip that Needham’s dogs are highly regarded, and that people wait years for a puppy to become available. Now Needham is enlisting the other patrons in praising the dog. He’s already cleared it with the housekeeper, he announces to one and all. Don’t they all agree that every man should have a dog? Don’t they all agree that this is the prettiest thing they’ve ever seen? Perhaps it’s the mellowing effects of the gin and tonic, but Olrik is starting to find this pantomime more amusing than irritating.
Bella, for her part, ignores the distractions and smells, content to pose like she’s being immortalized by Landseer. Olrik extend his hand to her muzzle and is greeted with a brief, dignified lick. Then she spoils the effect by leaning hard into his hand and frantically wagging her tail. Her dark eyes are adoring, disproving the myth that dogs are excellent judges of character. Olrik squats down to give her a proper rub, and as she wriggles between his hands it occurs to him that an extra layer of security wouldn’t hurt, and that he could use an incentive to go for walks even when the weather is bad. She’d be quite the picture snoozing at his fireside, and he has people to take care of the messier aspects of dog ownership. Of course Needham’s red dog will end up being a white elephant, but he can afford a white elephant. He has the money and the time. Olrik sighs. Why not?
“Can you bring her by tomorrow? Say 10 a.m.?”
There’s a cheer from the spectators and Needham promises he will. He’ll be there with all of Bella’s gear, and they can go over commands and care. Of course he’ll stay for lunch. Now that “Allingham” is part of the fraternity of hunting dog owners, they’ll be spending more time together. Having a dog is a lifetime commitment, after all.