The Oriental Hotel in the heart of Bangkok is a name to conjure history. It recalls a time when tourists were travelers, when steamer trunks came by long-tail boat up the Chao Phraya, the River of Kings; when stoic male writers and legends of the Asian bush crawled out of the jungle to swap stories in the Bamboo Bar. Somerset Maugham almost died of fever there, in the 1920s, and Joseph Conrad tossed sleepless on a sweat-soaked cot; Hemingway ought to have seduced a legion of hard-drinking women behind the swinging shuttered doors, but apparently never did. During the Second World War the natives of Bangkok edged warily around the hotel, which had become an object of fear under the Japanese; and when Thailand capitulated to the Allies in September 1945, the Oriental turned hostel for U.S. and British officers.
They must have felt right at home, those Allied soldiers, between the French doors and the lawns running down to the swollen brown river. Orchids bloomed as profusely as English violets at the foot of the towering palms, and the whistles of the boatmen flew over the water like lark song. Under the drift of electric fans the officers drank deep of gin and Pimms, composing letters to women they hadn’t seen in years. They imagined themselves conquerors, without having fired a shot.
This is the sorcery of Thailand, and of the Oriental Hotel: to make a guest feel at home without ever implying he is anything but a guest. But like all great hotels, the Oriental is a stage for public drama: it demands a decent performance from the people who walk through its doors. The right to enter history comes at considerable cost, and style is the preferred form of currency. Shorts and backpacks-those hallmarks of the indigent tourist desperate for an hour of quiet and air conditioning-are strictly forbidden in the Oriental’s main lobby.
Stefani Fogg had stayed at the hotel before. She had read the dress-code notice etched politely near the revolving front door. But she was a woman who rarely apologized, particularly to the hired help. And so this morning she hitched her backpack higher on her shoulder and swung her long, bare legs out of the taxi.
“Welcome back to the Oriental, Ms. Fogg,” the doorman said, and bowed low over his steepled hands.
She took the spray of jasmine he offered her and raised it to her face. The scent was elusive-the essence of untimely death. She nodded to the doorman, paid off the taxi, and stalked inside.
She may have been conscious of the eyes that followed her as she crossed the spotless carpet. If so, she ignored them. She ignored, too, the soaring windows, the chairs swathed in silk, the towering arrangements of lilies, the four employees who bowed in succession as she passed. She ignored the powerfully built man with the gleaming black hair, who sedulously scanned his newspaper at a desk opposite the magazine kiosk, although he was the only person in the room pretending to ignore her and thus ought to have been alarming. Stefani was too tired to care. The rigid set of her shoulders and the thin line of her mouth screamed exhaustion. During the past week she had slept badly and in the previous twenty-seven hours, not at all.
“Mr. Rewadee,” she said by way of greeting to the Manager of Customer Relations. Her voice was as frayed as a hank of old rope. The backpack slid from her shoulder to the plush carpet at her feet.
“Ms. Fogg! Welcome back to the Oriental!”
This phrase-or variations on the theme-was a gamut she was forced to run every time she reappeared on the banks of the Chao Phraya. But she liked Rewadee, with his correct navy suit and his beautiful silk tie, his smooth, tapering fingers; so she stifled her annoyance and forced a smile, as though her clothes did not stink of mildew or her feet require washing.
The manager’s plum-brown eyes crinkled and he waggled a finger at her. “You’re three days past the date of your reservation. We’d almost despaired of you. We even went so far as to talk of calling New York.”
“I’m sorry. I was trapped in Vietnam. A flood.”
“I had no idea there was a problem. Typhoon?”
“Yes,” she said abruptly. “You still have my room?”
“Of course. For you-”
Rewadee waved vaguely in the air as though to dispel doubt, or perhaps the odor of damp and decay that clung to her clothing. “I shall escort you to the Garden Wing myself.”
He came from behind the counter, reached delicately for her backpack, and hoisted it waist-high like a fish unaccountably snagged on his line. Stefani did not protest. The tension holding her upright had begun to dissolve in the jasmine-scented air, the hushed quiet of deep carpets. She followed Rewadee without a backward glance.
The powerfully built man at the writing desk folded his newspaper carefully as he watched them go.
The rain had started during her eighth day in Vietnam, after she left the Mekong Delta behind and headed north along the coast. Before Saigon there had been Vientiane, the backcountry of Laos, and the ancient trade routes that once ran between Burma and Angkor Wat and were being painfully reclaimed for capitalism from the guerillas and the drug lords. It had been seven weeks exactly since her last stop in Bangkok, seven weeks of monsoon, not the best time of year to travel. Vietnam and Laos have no national weather services. Predictions are made on the basis of hope, not science. Stefani learned to judge the feel of the air against her cheek, the color of clouds in the sky, and to guess the degree of wetness coming, as people have done for millennia. She was alternately sweating under a humid sun or pounded by cloudburst.
The rain fell in torrents just south of Hoi An. She stared out the car window at the endless fields of rice, rainwater lapping the dykes where the local peasants buried their dead, the stone monuments solid and square among the feathery tips of green. Only one highway ran along the coast of Vietnam, a strip of macadam that uncoiled as innocently as a snare through the sudden peaks and dipping plains of the Truong Son Range. The South China Sea was creeping over the white strip of beach and encroaching upon the road; seawater licked at the hubcaps of her hired Mercedes. The car hood thrust through the small fry of pedal bikes and motor scooters like a blunt-nosed shark; enraged cyclists slammed their fists against the windows as she passed.
They pushed on from Da Nang, Stefani and her Vietnamese driver, through the water that flooded the coast road until it fanned from their fenders like a ceremonial fountain and the emerald rice paddies were entirely submerged. By the time they struggled over the Hai Van pass and descended into Huo the ancient Vietnamese capital, it was pitch dark and the driver was swearing.
A sluggish current streamed before the reception desk at the Morin Hotel, then at the Century the entire ground floor was under water; and while she stood there on the soggy carpet, watching the rain drip from the ceiling tiles and gush down the banisters of the grand staircase, the first refugees arrived by boat.
After that, Stefani abandoned the banks of the Perfume River and sought out the private home of a man she knew, a surgeon in the hospital in Huo who lived on higher ground. Though it was nearly midnight, Pho was standing outside his house as she approached, his wife and four children busy on the flat roof of the single-story dwelling. They had managed to rig a tarpaulin (old U.S. Army combat green), and most of their belongings were already piled under it. Stefani got out of the car and helped haul a basket of trussed chickens up to the roof.
Her driver dropped her pack on a plastic deck chair and wallowed down the hill in his flooded Mercedes, never to be heard from again.
“You will eat rice with us?” Pho’s English was halting but thorough; at thirteen, he’d carried a gun for the South Vietnamese Army.
“I would be honored,” Stefani replied.
Pho’s wife boiled rainwater over a kerosene burner, and rice is what they ate for the next five days-rice and the few eggs produced by the querulous chickens, while the Perfume River engulfed the Imperial City. They were cut off on a shallow island without a boat, and the river kept rising.
That first night no one slept. Pho’s wife strapped her youngest child tightly against the wet skin of her breast and rocked without ceasing as she hunkered under the tarp. Stefani paced off the roofline and found that the world had dwindled to eighty square feet. By day, they watched the houses of less fortunate lowlanders sweep by on the current. Boxes, rubbish, a flotilla of dead cats. Pho’s neighbors called shrilly from other rooftops, traded rumors and news and what food they had. The children squabbled and fished ineffectually for the cats. Stefani tried to make a cellular phone call and found her battery was dead. By late afternoon, boats swamped with the homeless were poling through the flooded trees.
She scanned the skies for helicopters and saw nothing but layers of cloud. The sound of rain pattering on the tin roof under her feet was slowly driving her mad. No helicopters appeared. The surging current was only eighteen inches below the roofline. The rain went on. She fought the impulse to dive like a rat over the side of the sinking house.
A palm tree in Pho’s front yard served as her high-water marker. When the flood began, two feet of trunk were submerged. At 2:53 a.m. on the third day, at the height of the typhoon, she shone a fitful flashlight on the swaying palm and guessed that eight more feet had vanished. Thirty-one hours later, when the river was within five inches of Pho’s roof, the rain turned to drizzle; the water began to recede. Stefani thought of arks and of doves and of eating something other than rice boiled in rainwater. When the house’s ground floor appeared thirteen hours later, she helped Pho sweep the stinking mud and three drowned chickens from his house while his wife burned incense to the river god.
That afternoon, Pho waded down to the open-air market and bought vegetables and more kerosene. Stefani went with him, sloshing through water that surged to her thighs and trying not to think of snakes. She watched shoe salesmen hose the mud out of ladies’ pumps and men’s sneakers; she watched hawkers sell plastic ponchos and tourists film the wreckage with baggies strapped over their video lenses. The corpses of the drowned were beginning to surface. Children sold chewing gum and the more enterprising cyclo drivers charged journalists ten bucks apiece to view the dead bodies.
Later, she pressed two hundred and six dollars-all the hard currency she had-into Pho’s palm and pulled her backpack onto her shoulders.
She fought her way onto a public bus and traveled south at a snail’s pace, back to Da Nang, the only airport within reach that possessed a jet-length runway and a connecting flight to Bangkok. The trip usually took three hours; she stifled in the bus for ten. The narrow highway was still drowned under a yard of water. To the right she spied the railway line, whole sections of track torn off and dangling. There were rumors of passengers stranded for days in the packed train cars.
“Not your usual suite,” Mr. Rewadee said now as he threw open the door, “but exactly like it in every particular. I’ve placed a bottle of Bombay Sapphire and several of tonic at the bar, along with some limes.”
There were four rooms on two levels: a breakfast area near the pale green sofa, the bedroom and teak-lined bath up a short flight of stairs. Kumquats flushed orange in a porcelain bowl. She knew, now, that seven people could survive for days in a space eighty feet square. Maybe she should invite all of Bangkok in for a party.
“Mr. Krane has called several times,” Rewadee observed delicately. “I would be happy to inform New York that you have arrived-”
“I left two suitcases with the bellman over a month ago.”
Mr. Rewadee bowed.
“I’d like them brought up right away. Also a cheeseburger and a beer. And could you book me a massage for this afternoon?”
One entire wall of the room was glass. Stefani tugged open the raw silk curtains, saw the long-tailed boats churning across the River of Kings-and leaned her forehead against the window. Just what she needed. A view of the water.
“Welcome back to the Oriental, Ms. Fogg.” Her personal butler held out a silver tray with a glass of orange juice and a copy of The New York Times.
Stefani Fogg was thirty-nine years old. She had a slight frame that encouraged most people to think she was frail. She was a pretty woman with the face of a pixie: like her body, it was a face calculated to deceive. Under the fringe of jet-black curls her brown eyes were assessing and shrewd.
“Wharton School,” Oliver Krane had murmured over lunch at his corporate headquarters in Manhattan seven months before; “and prior to that, Stanford. I can see you in California, Stef-but Philadelphia?” He consulted no resume; it was his habit to remember everything. The most secure intelligence network in the world, Oliver Krane liked to say, was the human brain-provided it was properly handled. “Iconoclast. You did the Lauder Program instead of a Harvard MBA. I like that about you; you never quite run to form. You speak German, I understand? Although you’re said to prefer Italian.”
She shrugged. “Better wine.”
“Pity you didn’t work up some Russian. Or Chinese.”
“But then I wouldn’t be just another pretty face, Oliver.”
“Balls,” he’d retorted sharply. “You don’t run a fund for a major investment house-and get a seventy-eight percent return over five years-with just another pretty face.”
He peered at her forbiddingly through his tortoise-shell glasses.
“I want you for Krane’s, Stefani, and I’m willing to bet I’ve an offer you won’t refuse.”
“That’s your job, isn’t it?-predicting the level of risk?”
Oliver had done his homework, of course; he knew the precise extent of Stefani’s personal holdings. Something under eleven million dollars in various funds; an eight-room co-op on Central Park; a summer place in Edgartown; a ski condo in Deer Valley. He would know that mere money wasn’t enough to scuttle her present job. She’d had money for years: she found it boring.
The walls of the small dining room were lined with cobalt blue velvet. Only one table-theirs-was placed in the center of the maple floor. The view from the fifty-fourth story was blocked by sheer silk curtains that shifted under the eye like seawater; a screen, no doubt, for Oliver’s varied electronics.
He had given her sushi, tempura prepared at the table, a fan of fresh vegetables and a glass of Screaming Eagle. When she had refused a passion-fruit flan, the head of the firm leaned across the table and ticked off his points in a voice that sounded pure BBC, though it was probably born in Brixton.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Secret Agent by Francine Mathews. Copyright © 2002 by Francine Mathews. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.