“A title,” she said. “I would be happy with a passport and a plane ticket. Any sort of passport, and a ticket to any place but Burma. I can’t stay here much longer, Evan. I am down to my last ruby.”
She nodded, and rubbed the tip of her forefinger against the dark red stone. “I had a little packet of them,” she said. “I know nothing about rubies. I was afraid a dealer would try to cheat me. And I knew the stones would be more valuable outside of Burma. In Amsterdam, say, or London or Paris. But even in India they would bring a higher price than here. That is why Nizam was able to make money buying rubies here and smuggling them back to Jaipur.”
“So you didn’t want to sell them all.”
“And get worthless kyat for them? No, of course not. I found a dealer who seemed to be honest, or at least more honest than the rest of them. And I sold him a stone and used the money to live on, and when it was gone I went back and sold him another stone. I thought the rubies would last forever, but nothing lasts forever. I have rent to pay and I have to feed myself, and I spend far too much money on bad whiskey. But I have nothing else, Evan, and so I buy ayet piu and drink it.”
“Isn’t there any kind of work you can do?”
“I tried giving English lessons. But so many Burmese speak English, especially the older people who remember when the British were here. And my English is not so good, anyway. There is no other work for me.” She fingered the ring. “The last ruby. I have money enough for a few more weeks, maybe a month. And then I sell the ring, and in a few months that money is gone. It is no good, Evan. I must get out of Burma.”
“It’s good the Englishman in Room 514 didn’t run off with your ring.”
“It is funny. I thought he might. And I almost hoped he would, because that would mean I would not have to sell it.” She held out her hand so I could look at the stone. “It was not in the packet,” she said. “Those were all unset stones. This was a gift, Nizam gave it to me. It is all I have left from my marriage.”
“Maybe you won’t have to sell it,” I said. “Speaking of selling, what do you suppose these are worth?”
“The carvings? I don’t know. They are Burmese, which makes them much rarer than the Chinese. And they are old, and very finely done. A few hundred each, certainly.”
“Of course. Perhaps much more than that. They could be valuable rarities, museum pieces, even. But you cannot take them out of Burma because they are antiques.”
“And you couldn’t bring them into the U.S.”
“Because they are old?”
“Because they are ivory. The importation of ivory is prohibited in order to discourage poachers from killing elephants.”
“But this elephant was killed hundreds of years ago.”
“The law doesn’t distinguish between old and new ivory.”
“And does it work? Does it stop the slaughter of elephants?”
“Maybe it slows it down a little. Anyway, we can’t take these guys out of Burma or into the United States. Maybe the best thing to do is sell them here. Except-”
“Well, the man who got killed didn’t just stick these in his pocket. He had them taped to the small of his back. He went to a lot of trouble to safeguard them.”
“Yes. I think perhaps they are stolen.”
“I was thinking the same thing.”
“From an important collection,” she said. “Perhaps from the National Museum.”
“So they might be extremely valuable.”
“And completely unsalable. We can’t take them out of Burma or into the U.S., and we can’t sell them here. In fact, if they’re important pieces and they’ve been stolen recently, it’s probably dangerous to have them in our possession.”
“That is possible,” she agreed.
“Well, I’m really glad I took them off the corpse,” I said, “and even happier that I sent you chasing after them. When they’re done hanging us for the kilo of heroin, they can string us up all over again for stealing national relics.” I shook my head. “I never should have sent you to the Strand, Katya.”
“But it was an adventure,” she said. “And a gentleman bought me a drink, and I listened to a Chinese man play Cole Porter. He played well, Evan. The music did not sound Chinese at all.”
She put her hand on mine. “And I did what you asked me to do. So now it is your turn, my Vanya. Take me out of this country.”
“Heroin, ivory, and thou,” I said. “Three things I can’t take out of Burma.”
“But you will.”
“I’ve been thinking,” I said, “and there might be a way. Do you have any money at all?”
“Just kyat, and not very much. A few thousand.”
“Let me have a couple hundred.”
“And have a look across the street every once in a while, in case I can’t slip past the clerk when I come back.”
“And hide those things, the dope and the carvings.”
Where indeed? “Lock the door,” I said, “and if the cops come, throw them out the window.”
“The statue and the carvings, I mean. Not the cops.”
“I knew what you meant, Evan. This carving is Good Luck. Touch him before you go.”
“And his buddies are Good Health and Long Life? I’ll tell you what,” I said. “I’ll touch them all.”
“Change money,” the fellow murmured. “Change money.”
He was tall and thin, with an infection leaking pus in the corner of one eye. He wore a navy blue longyi and a Reebok T-shirt and carried a canvas shoulder bag, presumably chockful of kyat to be exchanged for dollars.
“I’m looking for a money changer,” I said.
“This is good,” he said, “for I am a money changer, the best in Rangoon. Let us have a cup of tea and we shall do some business.”
“The money changer I am looking for,” I said, “is named Ku Min.”
“You do not want to do business with this man. I will give you a much better rate.”
“I already changed all my money,” I said. “I have other business with him.”
“He is a money changer. What other business could you have with him?”
“It is personal business,” I said.
“I am the man for this personal business,” he said, taking my arm. “I can get you a much better girl than Ku Min can. More younger, more cleaner.” He cupped his hands and held them to his chest. “Bigger tits,” he said. “You American, right?”
“So you like big tits. I get you girl with great tits.”
“I don’t want a girl,” I said, “or a boy or a chicken.”
“Wait,” he said. I had started to walk away, and he was walking with me. “You sure you want Ku Min? He is Shan, you know.”
“You are more better off,” he said, “doing personal business with me.”
“I have to see Ku Min,” I said. “Later, you and I can do some real business.”
“Why wait? We do business now.”
“First Ku Min, then business.”
“But he is not here! Men like me work day and night. Shan people like Ku Min stop when sun goes down. Go watch men punch each other.” He shadow-boxed, grinned. “Boom boom! Just like Rocky!”
“Boxing,” I said.
“Boxing match, yes.”
“But that was last night.”
“Last night, tonight, tomorrow night. All week long, boxing match every night.”
“How do I get there?”
“You not like it.”
“You’re probably right,” I said. “They probably stand on opposite sides of the ring and punch the air. But if Ku Min’s there, that’s where I want to go. Can you tell me how to get there?”
“You really not like it, mister.”
“That’s not the point. Look, I’ll give you a hundred kyat if you tell me how to get there.”
He looked shocked. “I show you the way,” he said. “No charge. I am businessman, not guide. Show you because we are friends.”
“That’s very decent of you.”
“But,” he said, “you not like it.”
A forty-five-kyat note got me into the arena. It was a good-sized room, with around fifteen rows of folding chairs and backless benches on all four sides of the square ring. Most of the seats were taken, and a lot of men were on their feet, smoking cheroots and cigarettes, drinking beer from the bottle, and chattering away. I didn’t see another Westerner, nor did I see any women.
Would I be able to spot Ku Min in this mob? Could I even remember what he looked like?
I was scanning the room, hoping to catch sight of him, when two fighters climbed through the ring ropes and bowed, first to various sections of the audience, then to the referee, and finally to each other. They were small and wiry – bantamweights, I suppose – and they wore shiny black pajama bottoms that stopped at mid-calf. They were bare from the waist up, and, surprisingly, they were not wearing gloves.
There was an announcement, but it was offered without a public-address system, so I couldn’t hear it, let alone understand it. Then there was a bell, and then the fight started.
It was the damnedest thing I ever saw.
They rushed at each other, throwing punches. Then one kicked the other in the stomach, and knocked him down with an elbow smash to the face.
There was no mandatory eight-count. The floored boxer jumped to his feet, sidestepped his opponent’s charge, and somehow grabbed hold of him by the ears and butted him three times in the face. The recipient of the butts fell back, blood streaming from his nose and mouth. The bell sounded, and the bleeding fighter went to his corner, where his trainer, looking only mildly agitated, wiped at the blood with a wet towel. Then he gave his fighter a shove, and the bell sounded again, and the two of them went at it some more.
It was hard to figure out what they were trying to do – aside from their obvious clear intention to kill one another. But as far as what was or wasn’t allowed, I was very much in the dark. Knockdowns signaled only a momentary halt in the action. Evidently you didn’t hit or kick your opponent while he was on the canvas, but once he was up again there seemed no limit to what you were allowed to do to him. Kicks, elbows, holding and hitting, butts, slaps – just about everything that was against the rules in the West was all part of the deal here in this gentle Buddhist land.
Marquess of Queensbury, eat your heart out…
Blood seemed to slow things down, and after one of the fighters had evidently reached the stage where he was going to need a transfusion, the referee stopped the proceedings and raised the bleeder’s opponent’s hand in victory. There was no little dance of triumph, nor did the two men hug each other. They bowed – to each other, to the ref, and to all of us – and they climbed on out of the ring.