Authors: William Heffernan
This book is for Sally C. Heffernan,
whose love, friendship and support
can never be adequately acknowledged
“But how meager one's life becomes when it is reduced to its basic facts â¦ And the last, most complete, reduction is on one's tombstone; a name, two dates. This man was born, and died. And few ask why.”
The Venetian Affair
, Helen Maclnnes
Un Vrai Monsieur
The road began on the outskirts of Vientiane, then followed the Mekong River west, away from the garish lights of the city. At the edge of the bush it seemed to disappear, taken by the sudden blackness of the tropical forest. There the road changed from steaming black macadam to cracked, heat-hardened earth that left the bordering vegetation covered in thick brown-black dirt, cleansed only when the monsoon rains came in spring.
Even at night the heat along the road was oppressive. The forest rose on each side, then closed above it, keeping out the slight breeze that came off the river at sunset. The forest seemed to swallow everything. Only the incessant sounds of insects appeared undisturbed, their steady beat filtering through the dense, impenetrable growth, mixing there with the occasional scream of a dying animal.
The road continued for nine miles, following the sharply winding course of the river. Over the last three miles the road narrowed slightly, and there back in the bush sentry huts were set at regular intervals. Beside each hut, small, intense men squatted in silence, their eyes concentrating on the road, their presence undetectable to any who passed. Each man had an automatic weapon, and nearby a field telephone; the vegetation in front of them had been cut into gradually widening swaths that opened onto the road, offering a broad killing ground.
At the end of the nine miles the road ended abruptly, replaced there by two divergent paths, each wide enough for only a single vehicle. The northern path continued for a half mile to a small dirt airstrip. The southerly path ended where the jungle gave way to a broad plain. There the river dipped south, then turned back again before continuing west, leaving behind a narrow jut of land on which a dock had been built. Along the dock two motor launches rode idly in the water, partially obscured by the heavy ground mist that came each evening. There was another sentry at the end of the dock, an automatic weapon slung over his shoulder, his eyes scanning the white mist for any shadows that would reveal the movement of men.
As it always did, the mist began in the high hills above the river, moving in isolated patches through the dense vegetation to the plain below, then out across the water to the opposite shore. In the center of the plain, one hundred yards from the river, a large white house stood above the mist, its lighted windows illuminating much of the surrounding ground. The house was of a solid European design, built far back from the river to protect it from the flooding monsoon rains, and at night it seemed to float on the mist, its encircling veranda resembling the deck of some misplaced ship. On either side of the house, lone mangosteen trees rose thirty feet until level with the roof, the thick branches refracting the light from the windows, casting strange patterns on the mist.
At the rear of the house was a Japanese garden, visible now only in sections as the mist moved toward the river. A pond at the garden's center gave off flashes of light from the house as the patches of mist moved above it, and along its edges the sounds of insects played against the steady cacophony of the bush.
The garden began at the foot of a wide stairway that rose steeply to the veranda. There, another sentry stood next to a set of open French doors, an automatic rifle cradled in his arms, his flat oriental face and squat body hidden in the shadows. Beyond the doors, an old man could be seen seated behind a heavy teak desk. He was in his early seventies, but his sharp European features and thick gray hair disguised his age. On the wall behind him there was an equestrian portrait by Meissonier of Napoleon leading his troops to Montmirail, his right hand thrust into his greatcoat, his dark eyes, like the old man's, staring straight ahead.
The man seemed deep in thought, then suddenly turned his attention to an interior door across the room, as if anticipating something. There was a knock on the door and another man entered carrying a tray. He was approximately the same age as the man behind the desk, but he too seemed younger. He was dressed in a white jacket and together with the tray it made him look like a servant, but he was not, and he bore himself without a trace of servility. His name was Auguste.
“I brought you some dinner, Don Sartene,” he said. There was a deliberate humor in his voice.
The man at the desk noticed the formality of the title and raised his finger to his long curved nose and shook his head.
“You're too old to play nursemaid, Auguste,” he said.
“And you're too old to need one.”
They spoke in the Corsican dialect they always used with one another. Short staccato sentences that snapped back and forth.
Sartene waved his hand in a gesture of surrender and waited as Auguste placed the tray on the desk. His nose wrinkled at the food, but there was a faint smile on his lips.
“When are you going to learn to speak with respect, Auguste?” He was continuing the game the other man had begun, but each knew it was only a way of avoiding the subject they feared.
“I'm like you. I'm too old to learn anything new.” Auguste's hard face softened and he gestured toward the tray. “You should eat,” he added seriously. “You haven't had anything all day.”
“Has there been any word yet?” Sartene asked.
Auguste lowered his eyes. “Nothing. But he's young and strong. And he's also Corsican. He'll survive.”
Sartene's dark, vulpine eyes warmed to the man standing before him. He drew a deep breath. “Youth and strength and nationality haven't shit to do with life and death,” he said softly.
He leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling. Above him a fan turned slowly, circulating the dank, humid air. “That damned fan. It squeaks when it moves,” he said, dismissing the subject.
“It's like us. It's an old fan,” Auguste said.
Sartene smiled, revealing uneven teeth, the gift of an impoverished youth. “How long have I put up with you now?”
Auguste turned his palms upward, thinking with them. “Twenty-one years here. Before that five years in France, during the war. But I'm not sure who did the putting up.”
Sartene nodded. “We've changed, haven't we?” he said. “Now we have wealth and power and this damned foolish house that we built to remind us of home.” He grunted to himself. “At least in France we killed the Boches and anyone else who deserved killing.” He waved a self-deprecating hand in front of his face. “Look at what I'm doing now. You have me talking like an old woman. Get out of here.”
Auguste walked to the door, then turned as he opened it. His eyes hardened again, like a schoolmistress preparing to scold a child. “Eat,” he said. “Even in this godforsaken heat the food will get cold.”
He watched as Sartene waved his hand again, then stepped out and closed the door behind him. As he did, the hardness he had fought to keep on his face disappeared.
Outside Sartene's study, fine paintings hung above the ornate tables and chairs that lined the walls, making it seem more like the corridor of a museum. The hall, like the house, was empty and quiet, and Auguste's heels echoed against the hardwood floors as he walked back to the kitchen. Once there, he took a bottle of wine from the sideboard, poured a glass and seated himself at the long table that dominated the room. He grimaced, then opened his jacket and removed a large automatic pistol from his waistband and placed it on the table before him. He sipped at the wine, hoping it would quell the uneasy feeling in his stomach. It was hard for him to think of Sartene as an old man. True, he knew it as well as he knew that he too was old. He had admitted his own age to himself. But never before had he heard Sartene do so, except when he was joking. And he knew why he did it now. It was because he was afraid. A man admitted he was old only when fear forced him to.
“But not for himself.” Auguste spoke the words to his wineglass. He's afraid for Pierre, he thought. Afraid to lose the one thing that means more than life to him.
He drank the wine and poured another glass, looked at it for a moment, then pushed it aside. Remain alert, he told himself. Even though the others aren't Corsican, they're still dangerous. He stood and walked to the window, cupping his hands over his eyes as he stared out across the plain to the edge of the dense forest. He knew where each of the sentries should be, but he had to stare a long while at each place before he could see them. But that was as it should be.
He walked back to the table. Twenty-six years, he thought. A long time for two men to serve each other. Buonaparte Sartene and Auguste Pavlovi. Through so much. He smiled to himself, thinking of 1946, the beginning of their second year together in Laos. Little Pierre, only six then, watching, mystified, as the house was built, when he saw his first tiger, his first python. Auguste laughed, thinking of the trip they had taken in the old surplus jeep. Along the canopied forest path, where the squat female ape had stepped suddenly out of the bush, curious about their presence, refusing to move. The child's wide eyes and open mouth, trying to understand the “big monkey,” as he had called it.
He rubbed his hand across his forehead, then down his face, feeling the growth of beard already there. They were all gone now. Sartene's son, his daughter-in-law, even his own brother, Benito. And the other one too, the friend who had proved himself a pig. Worse than a pig.
There had been a vendetta then, but not as complete as it should have been. The North Vietnamese had not allowed it. This time it would be, no matter who objected, especially if â¦
He stood abruptly and walked to the heavy black telephone that connected the main house to the hut where the radio transmitter was kept. A voice answered in Lao.
“Have you had any word from the Meo?” Auguste asked in French.
“Je n' en ai pas,”
came the reply.
“Has there been any from the men along the road?”
the voice answered.
“Let me know as soon as you hear anything.”
He returned to the window and stared into the dark beyond the plain. Out of habit he began rubbing the scar of an old wound on his chest.
When he returned to the study an hour later, Sartene was not there. Auguste glanced at the tray of food, noting that it had not been touched, then walked out to the veranda, where Sartene stood, staring into the Japanese garden.
As he heard Auguste's quiet step behind him he turned. “Is there some word?” he asked.
“None. But there will be. The Meo have been alerted, and they're good at this sort of thing,” he answered.
Sartene turned back to the garden. The mist had cleared somewhat under a gentle breeze coming from the distant hills, and more of the garden was now visible. In the distance a Theravada Buddhist shrine could be seen across the pond, something Sartene had included in the garden out of respect for the Laotians who worked for him.
“The orientals say it takes several generations for a garden like this to be perfected.” He spoke without looking back at Auguste. His voice, as always, was near a whisper. “They always understood that a man creates for those who come after him. They're very much like the people of Corsica in that way.”
Auguste leaned against the railing beside him. “There's nothing we can do now but wait,” he said.
Sartene clasped his hands together and began flexing his thumbs. His eyes were sharp and piercing even in the darkness. He was several inches taller than Auguste; there was no stoop to his shoulders despite his age, and he had the same sense of command that his friend had first noticed years before in France.