Bangkok – Thursday, Feb. 27, 9 a.m. (9:00 p.m. EST on Wednesday, Feb. 26)
The driver opened the rear door of the German luxury sedan, and Ko stretched his long legs out onto the red carpet. He paused before the main entrance of the Honor Park Embassy, brushed off his suit and straightened his tie. A tropical downpour—strangely early this year—had just ended. The air smelled fresh, and the trees and plants lining the semicircular drive glistened as they dripped dry. Patches of steam floated upward, like tiny clouds.
Two life-size stone elephants lurked among the banana trees on either side. Typical pandering to the tourists, Ko thought. Holding his head high, he strolled past the bellhops into the lobby.
The hotel manager immediately spotted him. Placing his hands in the traditional prayer pose, he approached with a wai. “This way, please, Mr. Mai. Your associates are waiting in conference room number three.” Ko nodded and followed. The man smiled and offered another wai as he signaled which door. Ko grabbed the handle and went in.
Jesse and Joanna Martin and Charles de Jeanbourg were chatting as if they were at a cocktail party. Bottles of mineral water and an array of hors d’oeuvres were arranged in the middle of the table. The two men nodded and chewed, while Joanna held a champagne flute.
“You have been enjoying yourselves,” Ko said.
Jesse barreled toward Ko and delivered a bear hug, which Ko accepted stiffly.
“Brother,” Jesse said. “It is fantastic to see you again so soon,” he said, patting him on the back. “But I am sorry to hear about your cousin. Please accept my condolences.”
“Thank you,” Ko replied flatly.
“It was a mixed blessing, though, wasn’t it?” added Jesse, chortling.
Ko looked at him with a sparkle in his eye.
“Whoo-eee!” Jesse said, laughing. “My mother always said you would amount to something!”
“Keng reached the end of the line, my brother,” Jesse said, nodding. “The cycle churns.”
Grinning, Ko approached Joanna.
She tilted her head. Her lips turned up at the corners.
“Thank you,” Ko said, offering his hand and nodding. “I understand now that you have been advocating my position all along. I owe you an apology. I didn’t realize.”
“Apology accepted,” she said, shaking his hand. “Working with you is the logical choice. I only wish they had listened to me before, and you had been in position sooner.”
Jesse slapped Ko on the back. “She is a sly one, Ko. I told you!” Jesse said.
“Anyway,” de Jeanbourg interjected. “Mr. Ko Maung Mai! It is my pleasure to meet you, finally.”
Ko nodded and shook de Jeanbourg’s hand.
“I trust you have been well, Mr. Mai?” de Jeanbourg asked. “Indeed. This land is my home, after all. It is good to be back. Your support has been appreciated,” Ko replied.
“Your colleagues at the World Bank don’t know what to make of your disappearance. Some even say you are in hiding in a ‘rat hole’,” de Jeanbourg said.
“Economist in a rat hole. Imagine that,” Jesse said.
De Jeanbourg chortled. “Now, let me see. I have this little pouch here for our devices. Metal threads, special fabric—it blocks the signals. The Martins and I have already put ours inside. Would you be so kind as to join us, Mr. Mai? We must ensure our conversation is private.”
Ko put his phone into the pouch.
“And, excuse the bother, but a few swipes with this, and I can confirm you have not forgotten anything,” de Jeanbourg added, holding up a wand.
“Fine,” said Ko, lifting his arms, while de Jeanbourg waved his detector up and down.
“Excellent. Excellent,” de Jeanbourg said. “Nice to know you’re not carrying additional devices. By the way, we also checked this meeting room beforehand. Just to be sure.”
“Just to be sure,” Ko said. “What about you, de Jeanbourg? How do I know you are not recording this meeting? What about your devices?”
“Do you want to do a sweep too?” de Jeanbourg replied, cackling.
“Wouldn’t you do the same?” Ko asked.
“Shit!” Jesse bellowed. “You get him, Ko!”
De Jeanbourg hesitated. Then he held out the wand. “By all means. Take it.”
Ko accepted it and scanned his interlocutors. “Touché,” he said when he was done, and handed it back over to de Jeanbourg.
The four of them sat down.
“Let’s get right to it, shall we?” de Jeanbourg said. “Your cousin, Keng Maung Mai, was a legend, a warrior, a giant among men. However. He was also undisciplined and unsophisticated—a loose cannon, a bull in a China shop, a peasant. As such, we had difficulties working with him. Now, we have a new ‘landscape’,” said de Jeanbourg, using air quotes. “And, given that, the agency is rebalancing its strategy in this theater. Thus, a chance arises for you, my friend. It is my understanding that you, Mr. Mai, would be a steady and reliable partner, one whose aims are in line with ours.”
“Unlike Keng’s, he means,” Jesse added.
“I understand,” Ko said.
“It will still have to be cloak and dagger,” Jesse said. “But with your deluded nut case of a cousin out of the way, everything about these shipments from me and our CIA friends here to you and your rebels up north will be much easier.”
“It isn’t the Thai style to do so, but I too shall be blunt,” Ko said. “Keng made some mistakes. He doubted me, his own family. He trusted Sasha—whom he never realized had been cut loose. And he went too far. His ‘inclusion’ plan was lunacy, pure fantasy. An independent NNT is possible. Yes, secession can work. But the NNT should not merge with Thailand,” he said, pausing. “We are all better off with Thailand as a good neighbor, a bystander.”
“Excellent,” De Jeanbourg said, nodding. “Our view precisely. Simple secession. And our people determined the factions would stand behind you. Despite his delusions, your cousin had named you as his successor in the event of a crisis. That was an advantage he left you.”
“The local leaders know me well. That is correct. I am familiar with the terrain. I know the strategy,” Ko said. “Much of what we need is in place. However, some shipments remain undelivered.”
“I have been in contact with Mr. Lin about that,” de Jeanbourg said. “Apparently, he kicked Mr. Torenmaas out. Mr. Lin is lining up another cargo consultant. It is a lucrative contract, and he has someone in mind. It will not take long. Wouldn’t you say, Mr. Martin?”
“God knows there is a lot to be gained, yes siree,” Jesse said. “We can’t be too careful locating a cargo man, but Lin is clear on that.”
“I also need cash,” Ko said. “It has to keep flowing in the villages. Otherwise, the local leaders will turn toward the East. The alliance is strong, but there is only so far we can go.” “Not to worry. The agency sees the need. The director is negotiating. I hear talk of a new ‘loophole’ in the black budget,” de Jeanbourg said, again using air quotes. “You’ll get your money.”
Jesse leaned forward on the table. “Now, Ko, what about your family on the other side of the Thai border? That’s one thing Keng got right—the arbitrary nature of that line.”
“Yes. My great regret. Many of the ethnic groups have spread out, live across more than one national boundary—even in China,” he said, looking down for a moment as if in prayer, then quickly up to face them squarely. “We can’t untangle that now. All we can do is create a new space. An independent and united NNT in control of its resources would give our people freedom. With the violence and repression in the past, we could clean up the landmines, end the checkpoints, build schools and clinics, more forward with economic development. Over time, the expatriated could move back.”
“That’s a pretty picture, brother,” Jesse said.
Joanna added, “Mm-hmm, God helps the downtrodden to rise.”
“Yes, He does. My father used to preach about that too. You remember that, Ko?” Jesse said, wide-eyed. “It sure has been long in coming. But your time is now, Ko. Clear skies ahead. God is smiling upon you. I can feel it. You’re being smart about it. And you picked the right partners.”
“Yes, Mr. Mai, with our help, you will prevail,” de Jeanbourg said. “And not to worry. We’re in it for the long haul.”
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