Bill Pronzini: The Jade Figurine

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Bill Pronzini The Jade Figurine
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    The Jade Figurine
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    Криминальный детектив / на английском языке
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    Английский
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Bill Pronzini


The Jade Figurine

Chapter One

La Croix had not changed much in the three years since I had last seen him. He still resembled a young and slightly anemic Charles Boyer; his clothes-white linen suit, white Hong Kong-tailored shirt, brown-and-white wing-tip shoes-still looked as if he had slept in them for perhaps a week; his smile was still ingratiating and just a little unctuous; and he still smelled almost whorishly of red gardenia-scented cologne.

But there were some differences: deep pockets of shadow lay beneath his guileless brown eyes, as if purplish actor’s make-up had been heavily applied there. His pale face was gaunt-cheeked-and even though he was making an effort to veil it behind the smile, he had a harried, hunted look about him.

He stood in the doorway of my flat in Punyang Street, in Singapore’s Chinatown, and pumped my hand vigorously. His palms were slick with perspiration. It was just a little past eight of a midweek morning, and despite the fact that the tropical sun already lay outside my bamboo-shaded window like a burning hole in the bright eastern sky, I didn’t think it was the heat that was causing him to sweat.

He released my hand and said in a too-cheerful voice, “It is good to see you again. It has been a long time, a very long time. I may come in?”

“Sure,” I said. “Why not, La Croix.”

He came inside and stood in the middle of the bare wood floor, letting his eyes wander about the small, cluttered room. There was not much for him to see: a few pieces of antiquated and mismatched rattan furniture, a secondhand ice cooler I had purchased from a merchant in Change Alley, a two-burner kerosene stove, a wooden box with an accumulation of garbage, and a narrow, linoleum-topped all-purpose table.

He turned to face me as I shut the door. “Things are not well with you, mon ami?” he asked then. From the tone of his voice, the state of my well-being was of great concern for him; but I knew La Croix, and the only thing he had ever been greatly concerned for was his own well-being.

I said, “Things are just fine.”

“But this place…”

“There’s nothing wrong with this place.”

“Ah, but it is not the villa on Ponggol Point.”

“No, it’s not the villa on Ponggol Point.”

He laughed nervously. “Do you remember the last time we saw one another, just before I left for Macao? We spent the afternoon with the two Eurasian girls from Kota Bahru on the sun porch of your villa. We drank many gin pahits that day, did we not.”

“I suppose we did.”

“It was always my belief that when I returned to Singapore, I would find you there still-drinking many gin pahits in the company of other belles filles. Can you imagine my surprise when I discovered, upon arriving yesterday, that you were now to be found here-in Chinatown?”

“Things change, La Croix.”

“Not always for the better, I fear.”

“That depends on your outlook.”

He sighed. “I may sit down?”

“Help yourself:”

He sat heavily on the long rattan settee near the window, placing his hands flat on his knees. He looked up at me, moistening his lips with quick, snakelike movements of his tongue. “Perhaps I might have a small brandy, if it would not be an imposition.”

“Isn’t it a little early for that?”

“I have had a most difficult night.”

“I don’t keep any brandy,” I said. “Or arrack or whiskey. I can give you an iced Anchor Beer.”

“S’il vous plait, mon ami.”

I crossed to the cooler and took a beer out and opened it. He accepted it with a small grateful nod, and drank half of it before setting the bottle down on the low table in front of the settee. Breath escaped slowly between pursed lips, and his slender hands scuttled like sand crabs over his thighs. You couldn’t wind yourself up any tighter than he was right now.

I had had a pot of Lapsang Souchong tea steeping when his knock came on the door; I poured some of it into a pewter mug and took it over and sat down on the rattan armchair facing him. “Okay, La Croix,” I said, “what’s on your mind? You didn’t look me up to revive a lot of dead memories about the old days.”

“You are right, of course. That is not why I came.”

“Let’s have it, then.”

“I am in need of your assistance.”

“To do what?”

“I must leave Singapore.”

“I thought you said you’d just arrived.”

“That is true,” La Croix said. “But now I must leave again

— vitement. It is… imperative that I do not remain on the island.”

“So that’s the way it is.”

“Yes.”

“The police?”

“I do not know.”

“But there’s the chance of it”

“Yes.”

“And you want me to fly you out.”

“But of course. Tonight, if it can be arranged.”

“Where? Macao?”

“No, Thailand. An airstrip on the coast near Bangkok.”

“I see.”

“I will pay you five thousand dollars.”

“Singapore or American?”

“American.”

“Yes? That’s a lot of money.”

“A great deal of money, yes.”

I tasted my tea; it had steeped too long and had a bitter, acrid quality to it. I put the mug down and lit an American cigarette from the rumpled package in the pocket of my khaki trousers. La Croix watched me expectantly. I looked away from him and smoked my cigarette and listened to the faint humming of the Javanese fan on the little table by the bedroom door. The air in there had a stagnated feel, and the fan succeeded only in stirring it sluggishly. My bare chest was already slick with the kind of mucilaginous perspiration you seem to be constantly exuding in the tropical climate of Southeast Asia.

Outside, on Punyang Street below, a Hindu cobra charmer began to play a dirgelike melody on a flageolet. The discordant music seemed to further unnerve La Croix; his hand trembled noticeably as he took a stained handkerchief from the pocket of his white linen coat and mopped the back of his neck. He smiled tentatively, his eyes bright. “You will do it, n ’ est-ce pas?”

“No,” I said.

The smile went away, and a mixture of fear and disbelief dulled the brightness of his eyes. He leaned forward on the settee. “Is my offer not large enough? Mon Dieu, I will pay you ten thousand, then..”

“The money has nothing to do with it, La Croix.”

“But… I do not understand.”

“I’m not in the business anymore.”

The smile came back. “You are joking, of course. Ah, you were always one for the jokes. But at a time such as this-”

“I’m not laughing, am I?”

Again, the smile vanished. It was like watching one of those comedy-tragedy mask things you see in neon bar signs, blinking first one and then the other. A tic started high on his left cheekbone, jumping in a steady rhythm. He said something in rapid French in a hoarse, stricken voice, and his eyes seemed to be looking at something distant and frightening. Finally, he gave himself a small shake and looked at me and said, “Please, mon ami! You must help me, I beg of you. If I were to tell you of-”

“I don’t want to hear about it,” I said. “Listen, La Croix, I don’t fly any longer. I haven’t flown in two years and I have no intention of starting it up again. That’s all there is to it.”

“But how-?”

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