Saturday, 17 September 2016

Episode 46: From afar

For the second day in a row John had not received a bulletin from his desk in Hanoi and he could feel his annoyance rising.  He lifted the receiver and asked his assistant to put a call through to Hanoi, moments later the phone rang in his office.  When he picked up the phone he asked to speak to Bill, the polite response was that he wasn't in.  How about Phuong?   So sorry, but he also wasn't in...   Well when do you expect them back?  The silence was deafening...  

John left a message for one of them to call him as soon as they got in before hanging up.   What are those two up to he ventured?  But just as this thought had entered his head, so did a deep feeling of unease.  These two reporters were amongst his best, and with unquestioned reliability and so began to worry.  It was most unusual that neither one of them had reported in...

Minutes later John's phone jangled again, but instead of Bill or Phuong whom he had expected on the line it was his assistant Mary.  She said that there was a Rupert Palmer from the Foreign Office to see him and it seemed quite urgent and asked if she could send him in?  

Of course, show him in immediately John said brusquely.  The only time he usually ran into Rupert was at their annual university reunion which generally ending with an enormous hangover and a promise never to do it again, which invariably they did.  God, was it that time of year again he though?   A moment later the door opened and Mary showed Rupert in, although not close friends there was a mutual warmth between them.  "What an unexpected pleasure" said John smiling and reaching to shake Rupert's hand.  Rupert seemed to be more formal than normal as they shook hands, but John put it down to the work setting and not being surrounded by all of their school mates.

Rupert was first to speak as John motioned for him to take a seat, "Have you heard from Conolly-West in Hanoi recently?" he asked directly.  Strange John immediately thought, how does Rupert know Bill.  Why, no actually... what's this all about Rupert?  Rupert cleared his throat and said that the Foreign Office had been informed that Bill was being held as a political prisoner in Hanoi.  Look I shouldn't be telling you this, and honestly shouldn't even be here, but because we know each other I thought I would do you the courtesy of coming to see you in person, using the phone was out of the question because of the sensitive nature of this situation.  What can you tell me about Conolly-West?  What was he working on out there?  When was the last time your heard from him?  Rupert questions peppered John as if they were machine gun bullets...

Stunned, John couldn't believe what Rupert had just told him and began to wrack his brain for their most recent report and stories.  

"Um, nothing really, some regional trade stuff, the focus on this years rice harvest and the upcoming government planning session in Da Lat but none of that really warrants being held as a political prisoner" he said a little too defensively.  

Rupert's demeanor didn't change and said that they had been in discussions with Hanoi and Canberra about the situation.  He went on to explain that normally he wouldn't be bothered with an issue like this as Conolly-West was Australian and that the Australian government was responsible for him and would handle it, however because he is employed by the Times the British government has no choice but to be involved.   John could tell that Rupert was far from happy about this hot potato being dropped in his lap.  

All I can tell you is that the last time I heard from Bill was Tuesday at his usual 9:00 am report time, but nothing since then.  John went on to explain that he had tried to call the Hanoi desk just minutes before Rupert had arrived, but with no luck.

Rupert stood, this conversation never happened he said seriously, we don't want this thing to get out of hand and need to resolve it quickly and quietly so would appreciate if we could keep this under wraps for the moment.  

Look as soon as hear anything else I'll let you know, shaking hands Rupert walked to the door.  As he approached the door he turned to face John, who was still in obvious shock.  "At least was he a good reporter?" asked Rupert.  John nodded heavily, "yes, exceptional - one of our best...he was our lead on the Dhaka story earlier this year".  Rupert nodded knowingly, smiled and stepped from the room closing the door firmly behind him.  

It wasn't till after Rupert had left the room that he realized what Rupert had communicated to him - "Was he a good reporter?"   Shit, past tense...John thought as his mind now raced at 100 miles per hour as to what to do next...

Episode 45: Faces in the crowd

Phuong had been a familiar yet anonymous face in the crowded Chợ Đồng Xuân for many years and knew exactly where to position himself to observe Anh and her lieutenants and their comings and goings without attracting attention.  He noted the young boy run from the stairwell within Anh's building and back into the mass of humanity, he also could see her pacing back and forth through the open balcony and sensed, even from this distance her agitation.  Later that morning Mai arrived and stepped from the car that deposited her at the entrance to Anh's building, as usual, even this heat she was immaculately dressed and positively stopped the traffic as she made her way from the car to the entrance.  

One thing he learned during the American war was to be successful was to play all sides.  At the time he'd found out that Bill was missing, he had put a call into both the Australian and British consulates to tip them off, explaining anonymously that Bill was being held as a spy and that he would be put on trial unless there were certain concessions made by this imperialist governments.  This initial call had then initiated a flurry of diplomatic calls between Canberra, London and Hanoi to untangle the situation, although with Hanoi being clueless as to what was actually going on.  

The revolutionary council began investigations immediately and through their network, of which Phuong had been one of the operatives contacted concluded that Anh was at the center of this unfortunate and ultimately embarrassing mess.  The revolutionary council had long ago ceded control of the Chợ Đồng Xuân too Anh, but in this instance she had clearly overstepped her sphere of influence.  She knew better than to kidnap foreigners, especially since Vietnam was just starting to find its feet on the international stage.  

Phuong waited expectantly for the inevitable which was about to unfold.  He was not disappointed, as within the hour he watched as the truck loads of soldiers begin streaming into the old quarter and as such the local inhabitants begin to fade into the shadows.  Within moments the loud speaker system, usually reserved for the afternoon indoctrination broadcast came to life.  Moments later he could see Anh, Mai and her entourage being led from the building and being loaded into the waiting military vehicle which clogged the streets around her residence.    

Nhu Ha was safely ensconced in an anonymous safe house only a short distance from where they held Bill, and so now all he needed to do was wait for Bill's release and he would also release Nhu Ha.

Episode 44: Trade

Anh enjoyed seeing Nhu Ha each morning as she swept into the Chợ Đồng Xuân on her scooter, her mothers broken smile beaming as she greeted her, but today as she approached it wasn't her mother that greeted her, but her distraught father.  Anh listened intently as Quang explained what he'd found when he'd returned from his first trip to the square earlier that morning.

Within minutes of hearing of her mothers disappearance she had called Trung and demanded he find her.  

Phuong knew that Anh was dangerous, especially when cornered and so proceeded carefully once he knew that Nhu Ha was safely being held.  He also knew that Anh would have Trung and his thugs out on the street scouring every corner of the city, and that her anger and venom would be total, but he also knew her reactions and thus considered her anger his ally to his cause.

Shortly after a hand written note was delivered to Anh at her apartment at the Chợ Đồng Xuân, the nervous youth who delivered it knew better than to look directly at her, but presented it and slowly backed away from the door with his head bowed before running for his life.  

Anh had snatched the note from the youth and began reading it as he fled down the stairs and out into the crowded market.  She was incredulous at the impudence of the kidnappers, didn't they know who she was?

Screaming for Trung, she seethed with anger as he breathlessly entered his presence.  

Taking a deep breath and composing herself she turned on Trung, speaking in quiet and hushed tones as her searing gaze bored into his. It was at moments like these that Trung thought that Anh was at her most dangerous, and that her sharp, black and venomous eyes were more akin to that of the Hooded Cobra than anything human.  He shuddered before averting his eyes.

Heaven help whoever had kidnapped Nhu Ha he thought, for they were surely dead...