I did not know if Inspector O would show up, and so was greatly relieved when I spotted him edging along the wall. He paused a moment at a side door marked “No Exit” then sat down across from me, in a chair facing away from the other tables.
“What, Church?” He spoke softly, barely above a whisper, his lips seeming not to move. “What is this about? You said it was urgent. It better be. I had to change planes three times. Coach class the whole way.” He looked slightly hunched over.
“My friend,” I said expansively, “I called you because it is urgent, as an idea newly born is urgent, as a new star in the heavens commands urgent attention from the vastness.” I threw in a few broad hand gestures to underline the point.
O gave me a baleful stare. “Can we order drinks, or do I have to listen to more of this first?”
“The best,” I replied and quickly motioned a waiter over. “For my friend,” I inclined my head toward Inspector O, “I want the best you have. Perhaps some Yamazaki whiskey? 12-year old, single malt. In fact, bring a bottle, my good man. And ice.”
The baleful look had slightly thawed on O’s features, though I sensed still a wall of suspicion, with the barbed wire of frustration coiled atop somewhere in his soul. “Relax, O,” I said. “Just listen. I think you will be interested.”
“No, no, no you don’t, Church. This is going to get me in trouble, I already can see that.” He looked at his watch, Swiss, very handsome, much better than my own. “I’ll give you 20, make that 15 minutes.”
Fortunately, at that moment the Yamazaki appeared. “Brilliant,” I said. “Let’s toast to the New Year and to events yet to unfold.” The waiter put the glasses in front of us. He lingered. I put a large bill on his tray, and he withdrew.
O was silent, as still as an elm tree resting in the summer’s dawn, then in the next instant had nearly drained his glass. “OK,” he said, taking a deep breath. “I am fortified. With another belt of this, I may not be able to hear you at all. Do you mind?” He topped off his glass and poured a few drops into mine.
“You’re probably wondering why I’ve called you to Hanoi,” I began.
“No throat-clearing introduction. The point. What the hell is it?”
“I’ve been thinking…”
O drained his glass again. His cheeks reddened. He smiled. “Pray, go on brother Church.”
“…about your supreme leader.”
The wisp of a frown passed over the Inspector’s features as he poured yet another full round for himself. He looked blearily at his watch. “Eleven minutes,” he said.
“It’s this. This leader of yours is a cat of a different cut, a new man for a new age, am I right?”
O nodded, or his head lolled, I could not be sure which. “So it may be said,” his eyes were closed. “So say we all.”
“Well, then. Listen closely. I believe if one looks carefully, one detects in him an impatience with the present, and a sense of the imperative in shaking off the past.”
I waited for O’s assent, but there was none. His eyes, however, had opened, and I could see he was clearly not drunk. Not even a bit. I smiled inwardly. I wanted him stone sober for what was next. “The past is a dead hand, and what your country, your people, your nation needs is to be freed from it.”
Slowly, O sat up and with great care turned to survey the room. When he had studied each and every face, he turned back to me. “And?”
I reached for my drink, but O stayed my hand. “No, Church. If you have something to say, then say it.”
“De-Stalinization.” The word slipped out. Three letters danced across my consciousness—OMG. I had planned the delivery with great care, but the word just popped out on its own, totally out of sequence. There was no way to take it back and put everything in the right place. Now all was balanced perilously, the merest puff of wind could send it over the cliff.
“I didn’t hear you.” O cocked an eyebrow. “I think you said, ‘desalination,’ which would, of course, solve the problems of individual farmers on the coast.” He pushed my glass toward me. “Take a sip?”
The Yamazaki steadied me. “Well, no. What I said was ‘de-Stalinization.’” I felt the engine racing and knew I was going for broke. “I mean, I use that term in the nicest way. Think about it, O. How else to move ahead without freeing oneself from the past? No need to go all the way, no need to trash the past totally.” Watching his eyes narrow slightly, I pulled back a tick. “I mean, we all have ancestors, right?” I was babbling, I realized. “One could easily say one’s ancestors did the best they could for the times.”
O gave me an encouraging smile, though it was tinged with frost. His voice managed to convey the cold of an arctic night across the table. “One might even say they were right for the times, yes? Something like, the trains ran on time.”
“I suppose one could say that.” I felt the chill but decided I had gone too far to back away. “And yet, that would be dodging the issue, wouldn’t it? If the past is to be shaken off, if the caterpillar is to become the butterfly, it has to transform itself.” I was reaching. Butterflies are not my forte. “The question is, can it? Can it cling to the old order, to the cumbersome shape, to the plodding connection along the full articulation of its former self?” Multisyllabic words were being drawn from some unknown reservoir. “Or will it fly? Will it abandon what it was and accept transformation to something new?” I paused. The sweat was pouring down my back. I actually wasn’t sure how O would react.
He pursed his lips, a familiar mien that spoke of inner calm. He gently twirled his glass of whiskey, tipped it this way and that in the light, stared into the liquor as it moved from side to side, studied as it came to the very top of the glass and then fell back again. “And how,” he said at last, “how could anything survive this? This butterfly transformation. More to the point how would one know—a casual observer, shall we say—how could an observer know that it’s not just a serpent shedding its skin, coming out fresh, all the more deadly for its glistening new scales? Would you know the difference, Church? Really? Would you?”
“Surely…” I began.
O held up his hand to stop me. “No, not surely. Those who are ‘sure’ end up dead in these matters. Bullet in the head and so forth. Sitting here in Hanoi, or anywhere else, don’t be so sure. You may imagine you would know the difference. I can read what you are thinking; you are saying to yourself, ‘Oh come on, after all! A snake or a butterfly, even a fool could see the difference.’” O leaned toward me. “But I am not a fool, Church. I might pray for that transformation as you call it. I might watch for it, work for it, whisper its name in the night. But I would never, ever believe it to be true without some dazzling proof, and you cannot be sure what that will be. Do you know the ‘Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom’ campaign in China, Church? You ran across it, perhaps, in your youthful studies? We all know it, backwards and forwards, believe me. So please understand you don’t even begin to understand the danger of what you just said. If you are right, if this ‘cat’ as you put it is really new, then maybe there is more that will happen. I suggest you sit and watch from your safe perch. I have no such luxury.”
I realized silence was best at that point. O sat up straight. He looked fine, his suit was not wrinkled, his tie was silk and knotted perfectly, he even had a new vest that I really hadn’t noticed before. He looked at his watch. “Time to go,” he said. “I’m not sure I’ll see you again, but then, we never know, do we?” He stood. “There is a Latin phrase for this moment,” he said. “‘Rome wasn’t built in the hay.’”
“In a day,” I called after him, but he had already disappeared through the side door.