Thirteen Mountain Chapter 1

Thirteen Mountain

Chapter One

Singapore

The guard kiosk outside the U.S. Embassy annex was sweltering by eight a.m.  The Marine on guard, sweating and bored, was watching a lizard on the tall iron fence outside.  A spurt of movement followed by a frozen, listening stance.  How large an object, the guard wondered, would it take to set off the motion sensors hidden in the foliage?  He slapped the glass with the flat of his hand and the lizard disappeared.

The sergeant came to attention as a man in amber-tinted glasses approached, walking rapidly down the front steps.  The glasses hid his most distinctive feature, the pale grey eyes.  The Marine signed him nearly every day, rarely getting more than a nod in return.  Where did he go with that leather portfolio under his arm? His name was Gadsden.  He worked in the cultural liaison section on the second floor.

Gadsden seemed even more distant than usual this morning.  Wouldn’t hurt the bastard to smile.

The guard watched as he signed the roster, wondering at the scar tissue across his knuckles, the thick tendons that moved beneath the skin of his wrist.  You didn’t get hands like that doing cultural liaison.  Maybe sometime, if he got the nerve, he would ask Gadsden point blank if he was Agency.  He looked up to realize that the eyes behind the amber glasses were studying him. Maybe he would ask another time.  “Enjoy your day, sir.”

Gadsden nodded without speaking.

Down the block, three men in a white van watched the gate.  The driver was afraid, but he held himself rigidly in check, determined not to show it to the two men he had hired.  He watched the tall man in the amber glasses walk out of the Embassy annex.  It was the man he had been ordered to kill. He motioned to the two Malay men in the rear of the van.  The door slid open and they melted into the morning crowd on St. Andrews, taking up positions on each side of the street behind their target.  The van moved slowly along the curb behind them.  It was not an expert tail, but the tall man never looked back.

Gadsden pushed his way through the crowd of government workers and tourists along St. Andrews Street, glancing idly at the traffic facing him on the one-way street.  A light changed and cars jockeyed for position, everyone in a hurry.  He slowed his pace even more.  Perhaps he would spend the day walking along the waterfront, enjoying the smell of oil and salt water, listening to the creak of the hawsers, the lap of waves against the pier.  Watching the big hulls move slowly out to sea.

Peter Hayes, the Singapore chief-of-station, was using him as an errand boy again today.  He didn’t even have the energy to get angry.

The shrinks at Bethesda had put him back on duty, but he still felt the cold uneasiness of not being in control, not being able to trust himself, his own actions.  And it wasn’t getting any better.  The decision formed itself in his mind as he walked: The time had come to put the Agency behind him.

This could be his last day, he realized. He could simply go home and write out his resignation.  Hayes and those bastards at the Embassy wouldn’t have to waste their time whispering behind his back.

Would Lou let him get away with it?

Gadsden walked south toward the SingaporeRiver.  Halfway across the bridge he stopped to look down at the rows of house boats bobbing on the slow current.  The boats lined both banks, hulls touching, roofs forming a patchwork of tin and faded wood.  Children chased each other from boat to boat in formless games of tag.  Their laughter pierced the rumble of traffic behind him on the bridge.  A woman dipped clothes in the river, making small splashes on the deck as she wrung them out.  Three old men sat smoking long, thin pipes.

Gadsden paid little attention to the two men who strolled idly past him.  They stopped nearby, leaning on the railing.

As a child, he dreamed of living on such a boat and had begged his father, then posted to Kuala Lumpur, to allow him to visit one.  His mother, of course, had forbidden it.  Who knew what kind of people inhabited those filthy cribs? His father had deferred to her wishes.

He had celebrated his ninth and tenth birthdays in Malaysia.  Today, he would travel back up the peninsula to K L, where he had once lived.  A happy time, he remembered; a time of innocence.

His duties for the day were not pressing.  Any time after midnight, Hayes had told him, he could clear the dead drop in the alley behind the Hotel Merlin on Jalan Sultan Ismail.  A simple job. Pick up and deliver.  The Malaysian city was a five or six hour drive to the north; there was no hurry.

Across the river on South   Bridge Road, he found himself in the middle of Chinatown.  The street was a jumble of merchants and idlers, trishaws filled with well-dressed Americans and Europeans.  For Gadsden, the area never lost its fascination.  The shop-houses pressed close together along the narrow streets offering anything from ginseng root to jade and porcelain antiques.  But this morning, he pushed his way through the market, ignoring the hawkers and their mounds of fruit and vegetables, the smoking hibachis offering turtle, snake and flying fox.  His thoughts were fixed on the decision he had made.

Gadsden chose a sidewalk cafe where a few rickety tables were scattered beneath an awning.  The waiter pulled back a wicker chair. “Two beers,” Gadsden said.

The waiter, surprised at his speaking Chinese, smiled and hurried into the smokey interior of the cafe.

The beer was ice cold, served in long-necked bottles.  Gadsden drained the first straight down.  He touched the second bottle to his temple, and closed his eyes, holding the empty out to the waiter.  He drank several more beers in the late morning shade, and gradually felt himself relax.  He was drinking too much, he knew.  The doctors had warned him about it at BethesdaHospital. His father had been an alcoholic; he was at risk of following the same path.

But he had failed, and his best friend had died because of it.

The waiter brought two more beers and stood nearby looking worried.         Gadsden pulled a gold pen from his pocket and tore off a sheet of computer paper: “I hereby tender my resignation . . . ”

Get out before Hayes shipped him home.  The sadistic bastard had pointedly shown him the psychiatric report in his file: Not recommended for sensitive assignment.

Only that’s what it was all about.  Being on the inside. Doing things other people couldn’t dream of.  That was the thrill of it–the challenge of depending solely on your wits, your training.  For eighteen years he had done it, been damn good at it, they’d told him.  Vietnam, Thailand, Angola, and eventually the deep cover assignment in Guatemala.

It had been on that assignment, when he had met Pamela Stennis, that things began to change.

As he grew more attracted to her, thoughts and contradictions tumbled in his head, mocking his efforts to make sense of them.  He found himself wanting to let her into his life, to make room for new feelings growing inside him.

He felt at peace the first night they made love, and lay afterward watching the stars, trying to imagine the turning of the earth.  She pointed out the constellations, her voice flowing over him, soothing and sensual.  They shared a bottle of wine from her knapsack, talked and watched the sun rise together.  He told her about his fears, so bad sometimes he could scarcely get his breath as he moved into the jungle patrol.  She understood.  She held him close and told him it was all right, that she was afraid, too.

She came to see him once in Bethesda, but in his shame he had driven her away.  She wrote him several times in Singapore, careful letters, full of anecdotes about her life in Washington.  Asked how he was.  He hadn’t known how to reply.  After a while, the letters had stopped.

The beer was having its effect.  He ordered another, laying a handful of Singapore dollars on the plastic table.

He raised his bottle to the crowd moving by on the sidewalk.  To Woody.  He wiped at the tears in his eyes.  Had they buried him in Arlington? Or taken him home to Tennessee?  He rose, steadying himself on the back of the chair.  It was nearly noon.  Time to go home.

Two men sitting at a back table exchanged glances.

Gadsden had inherited the three-room flat on Sago Street, along with the worn out Rover, from his predecessor.  He was grateful to get it; apartments downtown were hard to find.  He unlocked the door and laid his market purchases on the kitchen counter; bok choy, celery and some pork for stir fry.  A six-pack of Heiniken went into the refrigerator.

The kitchen and living room were one large open space, divided by a teak dining table.  Four place mats were arranged neatly around a centerpiece of blue and white flowers, his housekeeper’s touch. The potted palm in the kitchen window was beginning to droop.  He sat it in the sink and ran the tap.

The window air conditioner chugged to life and resumed it’s battle against the heat.  Loosening his tie, he cleared away the clutter of papers and hoisted his typewriter onto the table: “I hereby tender . . . ”

He sealed the single sheet in an envelope and slid it into his jacket pocket.  Slouched on the sofa, he poked at the television’s remote control unit.  There were three channels in Singapore, all of them boring.  Channel 5 carried English and Malay programs, Channel 8 carried Mandarin and Tamil programs and Channel 12 was dedicated to the arts, and as the program guide said, “promotion of intellectual thought.” The last thing he needed this afternoon.

No thought at all–that was what he needed.

A different guard let him in the Embassy annex gate, and he headed directly for the parking lot.  His Rover was dark blue, of middle seventies vintage.  His predecessor, with more of an eye for practicality than beauty, had painted the roof and the hood a runny, translucent white with spray cans.  He had explained to Jim that the lighter color helped reflect heat, a vital necessity since there seemed to be no way to turn off the heater.  The heat vent on the driver’s side was plugged with what looked like a lady’s slip. Gadsden had left it in place.

It was sweltering inside the Rover. Gadsden slid into the driver’s seat and rolled down both front windows. He reached for the ignition, and then let his hand drop. His letter of resignation was still tucked in his jacket pocket. Why not take it upstairs to Hayes now and have it done with? Tomorrow morning would be soon enough, he thought. Face the bastard sober.

He slipped the Rover in gear and eased into the traffic flowing past the Embassy Annex.

It was a half-hour drive to Johor Baharu where a long causeway across the narrows separated the Republic of Singapore from Malaysia.  Usually, the passage through customs was a quick affair, with only a cursory glance inside the vehicle as the drivers presented their papers.  Gadsden was second in line behind a green fiat whose three women occupants all seemed to be asking the customs officer directions at the same time.  As the Rover idled, the heater fan chattering softly, Gadsden studied the cars around him: A Toyota station wagon behind him, with the Indian family inside talking animatedly; behind that, a white van in which two men, a European and a Malay, sat staring straight ahead.  For a moment, Gadsden imagined they were staring at him.  Finally, the Fiat moved forward, and he eased the Rover toward the checkpoint, diplomatic credentials open in his hand.  The officer waved him through.

The resort town of Melaka was the half-way point on the trip to Kuala   Lumpur.  It was mid afternoon when Gadsden stopped the Rover at a small hotel near the beach.  He parked the car behind the hotel, purchased a woven reed mat from a Malay woman on the beach, and carried it, along with some magazines he had picked up in the hotel, down to the sand.  The sea breeze dried the sweat on his skin as he stripped off his shirt and folded it on the mat.

He leafed through stories about the latest musical groups, the hot new movies, recognizing none of them.  It had been ten years, he realized, since he had spent more than a few days in the United States, outside of the hospital.  It seemed almost like a foreign country now.  Could he–did he even want to–adjust?

He scanned an article on careers in computers, another on real estate investments.  He threw the magazines aside.  Nowhere in the world of technology and high finance did he see a place for Jim Gadsden.  He pillowed his head in his hands and closed his eyes, thinking of the resignation he had written.  The sun warmed his skin and he listened to the gentle rush of the surf.  A slight breeze was picking up.  Clouds had gathered on the horizon. Rain later in the day, he thought.  Then he was asleep.

The rain on his face was cool.  He opened his eyes.  The sun had gone down; the lights from the hotel slanted down onto the beach.  His magazines lay scattered around like soggy clumps of seaweed.  Pulling the mat over his head, he gathered up his shirt and ran back toward the parking lot.  The rain had become torrential by the time he reached the Rover.

As Gadsden fumbled in his pocket for the keys, he glanced around him.

The lot was nearly empty.  A white van was parked in a far corner, motor idling.  A short man, a Malay, walked toward him, smiling broadly.  Rain was streaming off his hat.  “Excuse me,” he said in English.  “Could you help me?”

Gadsden’s senses came alert.  The man jerked a knife from his pocket, opening it with a flick of this thumb.  He lunged forward, holding the knife low, but Gadsden sensed he was too eager for the kill.  Gadsden feinted with his left hand and the man raised the knife to parry.  Gadsden’s kick slammed     into the man’s ribs, doubling him over.  The knife clattered onto the pavement.  The man kicked at Gadsden’s groin, but he twisted away from the blow and drove his stiffened fingers into the man’s throat.  A strangled grunt of pain.  The man’s hat flew off and he sprawled on the ground.  Gadsden grabbed the collar of his shirt.   A second too late, he heard the scratch of shoe leather on the pavement behind him.

The blow landed on the side of his neck.  He fell against the Rover’s fender, tried to hang on, but crumpled onto to the pavement.  He heard a shout and the sound of running footsteps, the  revving of the van’s engine.  He crawled to his feet as it bounced over the curb and into the street.  It was headed north along the beach road.

The waiter who had interrupted the attack, probably saving his life, called from the porch, “You want the police?”

Gadsden waved him away. “No–no police, it’s all right.”  His arm and shoulder were numb; the pain would come later. He climbed into the Rover and started the engine.

The van was several blocks ahead, water spraying off it’s fenders as it raced along the narrow paved road.  It had been two against one, but now, Gadsden thought, the advantage was his.  He had explored the side streets of Melaka often during his trips up the peninsula.  This beach road ended in less than a mile, becoming a wandering dirt track through a banana plantation.  It would be a sea of mud tonight.  The driver of the van did not realize he was heading into a dead end.  But the van was gaining distance over the old Rover and Gadsden watched as the taillights disappeared around a corner.  The Rover, near its maximum speed, slid around the sharp corner, fishtailing on the wet pavement.  A long straight stretch ahead was dark, no taillights.  But, as he raced past a side road nearly hidden by foliage, he caught a flash of white in the corner of his eye.  Immediately the van’s lights came on bright and the vehicle swung out on the road behind him.  The driver’s intentions were obvious as the speeding vehicle inched closer to Gadsden’s bumper.  Gadsden held the pedal to the floor, cursing the manufacturers of the Rover.  His advantage had suddenly been reduced to zero.

A rusty tin building went by on the right side of the road.  The plantation warehouse.  The pavement would end in a few hundred yards as the road angled sharply to the right and became a winding ribbon of mud.  Gadsden touched his brakes and felt the car bounce to the side as the van’s bumper slammed into him.

The end of the pavement was coming up.  He had one chance, but the timing would have to be perfect.

He slammed on the brakes.  The Rover’s tires screamed in protest as the two bumpers locked and the van drove the car forward.  Gradually, both vehicles slowed down.  Gadsden downshifted suddenly and floored the gas pedal.  The Rover jumped forward, disengaging itself from the van.  Gadsden gained several car lengths before the van’s driver could react, and was able to throw the car into a skid onto the muddy plantation road, yanking on the emergency brake.  The car was sliding to a stop as the van’s headlights filled the rear view mirror.  Gadsden threw himself out the door and rolled toward the ditch.  The van struck the Rover broadside, pushing it along the muddy surface.  The Rover smashed against the heavy trunk of a banana tree and stopped abruptly.  The rear of the van rose slowly until it toppled upside down onto the Rover’s roof.  There was a grinding crash of metal and the Rover’s tank exploded.  Flames erupted instantly from the undercarriage.

Gadsden lay on his back for a moment, gasping for breath as the rain beat down in his face.

Black smoke boiled up around the wreckage, while several yards away one of the assailants lay face up in the road, his clothing scorched and smoking.  Gadsden watched him rise shakily to his knees and start to crawl, dragging his torn pant leg in the mud.  He looked blankly back at the flames, then collapsed out of sight into the ditch.  Gadsden could see a figure in the passenger’s seat, hanging upside down in the shoulder belt, writhing in the flames.

The fire enveloped both vehicles and was starting up the trunk of the banana tree.  The flames spit at the rain as they gained intensity.  Gadsden’s eyes were drawn to a patch of white lying at the edge of the rough circle of light.  A third man, the driver, lay sprawled on the roadway.  His legs twitched and his fingers clutched at the red mud in the roadway.  Gadsden approached warily.  The man’s eyes were closed, his hair matted with blood and dirt.  He moaned softly and his right hand quivered.  Gadsden knelt beside him in the dim orange light.

The man’s eyes blinked open.  A faint whisper as he clutched at Gadsden’s hand: “Sorry . . . Forgive me. Tell Grisha . . . please.” Gadsden bent closer and gripped his hand.  The words meant nothing to Gadsden. He stared down at the battered, swollen face.  The man’s hand tightened around Gadsden’s fingers, then fell away limply.  The rain was beginning to wash the blood from the man’s face, making it a pale, glistening mask.  Gadsden choked back the nausea rising in his throat.  There was still the driver to deal with.

As Gadsden walked stiffly back toward the wreckage, he could feel the heat of the fire through his soaked clothing.  His shoulder had begun to throb painfully.  Through the fringes of weeds beside the road, he saw the driver staring at him over the sights of an automatic pistol clutched weakly in his left hand.  Gadsden’s eyes widened and he tensed for the shock of the bullet.

In the frozen moment before death he was conscious of the hiss and crackle of the flames, the splatter of rain around him, and, beyond the wall of jungle, the faint rush of the surf.

Then the man grunted softly and his shoulders sagged.  The gun made a dry, coughing sound and the bullet spattered mud at Gadsden’s feet.  The gun slid from the man’s hand as he slumped into the grass.

The flames had begun to climb the stalk of the banana tree.  In moments the smoke would bring someone.  Fighting the urge to run, Gadsden rolled the man over and searched his pockets.  No identification, only a few Malay coins and a penknife.  He was as dead as the man in the road.  The two cars were a mass of red hot metal.  Gadsden could no longer see the figure hanging in the passenger’s seat.

A siren coming fast along the beach road.

Gadsden slid the pistol in his pocket and ran for the dark wall of the jungle.

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