The fun and games in Singapore begin at the Raffles Hotel.
Roy Mancini goes undercover.
ITUNES: Search for China Sea by Stanton Swafford on your iPad or iPhone.
I left the embassy before noon, and recalling the adage about Englishmen and mad dogs walking in the noonday sun, I hailed a taxi.
We drove past the Cricket Club where I had learned to play tennis on the pristine grass courts as a kid. And nearby there was the old Parliament building which looked as though it could have been transplanted from London. On our right we passed the large Padang, the massive well-tended grassy field that these former British colonial cities maintain in the center of town. The traffic that hummed along on Saint Andrews Road was orderly, one might even say polite, every vehicle traveling within the speed limit. My overall impression of Singapore so far, above all else, was that it is a city-state defined by its orderliness.
A few minutes before the scheduled meeting at five-thirty I took the stairs down to the lobby. As I walked down two floors I could hear the hushed voices and the occasional men’s laughter from the Long Bar which was off to the side.
I conducted a brief, imaginary dialogue with myself as I descended.
“An entrepreneur. That’s what you are now Roy, a globetrotting Arabica bean merchant. Live your life well as a young American trader, out to make his fortune in Asia. You can forget the rest of the spook business for a minute. But never lose track of your coffee trading legend. Never lose that focus. If you can live your Arabica coffee bean cover, the rest of it, the undercover intelligence work, will fall into place.”
“A soldier of fortune, is that what you think you are now?” The sarcastic voice of my father exclaimed as I continued down the stairs.
“No, Dad. But close. I am out to make a success buying and selling coffee beans. At the same time I’m engaged in something I’m good at but not allowed to tell you much about. I think you’d be proud of me.”
“Well then, son. A warning. Don’t fuck up. Don’t get sent home with a blown cover.”
I broke off this whimsical conversation as I reached the bottom stair. A quick glance at the reception desk and I saw the same pretty Chinese lady who had checked me in the night before was on duty. We smiled at each other and I gave her a brief wave. The two uniformed bellmen, standing at ease, greeted me with slight bows of their heads as I made a right turn into the Long Bar.
McCoy was standing at the far end of the bar. The room had been appropriately named, it might well have had the longest solid African mahogany bar in existence. There were no stools. There was a brass rail that ran along the floor, the length of the bar. A customer was expected to stand with a foot on the rail. There were rattan table settings beneath rotating ceiling fans for those who chose to sit and drink. A long mirror extended across the entire wall behind the bartenders. The mirror was convenient for a patron who was standing at the bar and wanted to see who was walking up, or seated, behind him.
There were six men at the other end of the bar, talking with posh London accents. The Englishmen wore suits and ties despite the heat and humidity. Steve and I nodded to each other, and I walked over to him.
“Greetings. And welcome to Singapore’s oldest and finest drinking establishment.” Steve turned to me. He had changed into civilian clothes. He wore a batik short-sleeved shirt and loose-fitting white tropical pants.
“I see you’re drinking a Tiger Beer. What, no Singapore Sling?” I commented.
“Too sweet. All that cherry brandy. It’s for tourists. What can I get you?”
“The same. Make it a Tiger.” Steve motioned to the bartender standing in front of us to bring another bottle.
A party of four matronly western women entered the bar together, talking audibly and fanning themselves. I could see them in the mirror in front of me. They took their seats on the rattan dining chairs at a table beneath a ceiling fan. A white-jacketed Chinese waiter rushed to their table to take drinks orders.
“Did you hear the story about the live tiger that entered this bar?” Steve asked me as he too stared at the chattering women in the mirror.
I laughed. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
“True story. One day these British rubber planters were having lunch here. Or it may have been in the Tiffin Room next door.” He pointed to the hotel’s cool white restaurant beside the bar. “And in strolled a real live, honest to goodness, tiger. Escaped from a zoo or the jungle. I think one of the planters got up and nailed it with his shotgun.”
“Those were the days.” I took a long delicious swallow of the cold Tiger beer.
“So let’s discuss Hong Kong,” he said in a lowered voice, glancing at the six men further down the bar.
I looked at the mirror in front of me to make sure we were not within earshot of anyone.
He continued in a quiet voice, “We need to come up with a name don’t we?” His use of the plural did not escape me.
“Yes, we do.”
“Well, as I was standing here, before you arrived, I came up with an idea. You see all of those bottles beneath the mirror. Must be a hundred of them.”
There were indeed. Every brand of spirit – scotch, gin, brandy, vodka, liqueurs… even the odd bourbon.
“This is going to be fun. But first, let me order you another beer. It will take some creativity on our part.” He signaled for another beer and pointed to me. The bartender removed my empty bottle and placed a fresh cold one in front of me. He walked away from us speaking Hainanese to his colleague at the other end of the bar. I recognized the dialect. Our family’s chauffeur and cook had spoken it with each other.
“Let’s pick a name from those bottles. And we’ll come up with a name for the new company. Do you follow me?”
It occurred to me that McCoy and Sommers, both officers of comparable rank, could not have been more different in their approaches to clandestine intelligence collection. Steve was starting to impress me. We had been cut from the same cloth. I appreciated a fellow wit who liked to improvise, who can be spontaneous, and not take himself too seriously.
“All right. Let’s name the company.”
“You go first,” he said.
I scanned the bottles that were lined up in front of us.
“I like the scotch bottles. The names have a certain eminence,” I commented. “They convey tradition.” I looked Steve in the eye. “Although this can’t appear to be a name that we created in some barroom. No need to inform Springfield how we came up with this, is there?”
“Nope. And, yes, one of those scotch brands might appear like some old-school firm that goes back generations. So I second the motion. Scotch it is.”
I focused then on the several brands of scotch whiskey along the bar below the mirror.
“I like Haig and Haig, sounds like a proper family business,” I said. “On the other hand, that might sound too obviously like a brand of whiskey. We’d better compress it to Haig & Company. That’s it, Haig & Company Limited. International maritime consultants.”
And thus the name of the Hong Kong firm was born at the Long Bar of the Raffles Hotel.
“Well, lo and behold. The CIA station chief just entered the room.” Steve was looking at the large mirror in front of us. I followed his gaze and saw three men walk into the room and sit down at a corner table. “That’s Hunter Lenihan. He’s the one wearing the tropical white suit, bow tie and the Panama hat. Looks like he’s auditioning for a part in Casablanca. A good man. Tells me he worked with Tom Hiatt in Beirut ten years ago.”
“Does he know about me? That I’m here?”
“No. there’s no reason he should…yet. When you come back here to recruit or debrief an agent I’ll have to clue him in. But right now, he doesn’t have a need-to-know.” I saw Lenihan and McCoy make eye contact in the mirror.
“Who’s the guy sitting beside Lenihan? The tough looking hood in the brown shirt?”
Steve glanced at the mirror before answering. “His back is to us. I can’t tell.”
“I saw him walk in just before they sat down. He was on my flight yesterday. I’m sure of it.”
“Interesting coincidence. He’s Agency from the looks of it. I recognize the older guy with Hunter. Oscar, one of his case officers. I don’t know the one in the brown shirt.”
I stared for another moment at the mirror. The man kept his back to us.
“During the flight from L.A. to Tokyo I’d needed to go to the head. The lavatory door was locked, so I waited. Finally the door opened and this guy, the heavy-set dark-haired one sitting there with Lenihan, walked out, zipping up his fly. I remember he stared at me. I didn’t think anything of it until now. I forget names. I don’t forget a face.”
“Like I said, a coincidence.”
“You know, Roy, this is a peculiar relationship we have with the Agency. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who we report to in the chain of command, is higher up the White House totem pole than the Director of the CIA. I think if push came to shove over a clandestine collection issue that affects the military, the Chairman might prevail. But at our micro level, the CIA sets the rules. We need to keep them informed and receive their blessing for a lot of what we do. What I’m saying is, it behooves me to keep on the good side of Hunter Lenihan.”
McCoy motioned for the bartender to bring him the check.
“Let’s have dinner. I’ll introduce you to the American Club up on Scotts Road.” We finished our beers. McCoy paid with cash. No tip was left on the bar. I took one last look at the pock-marked face of the man on the plane.
i goes undercover.