His thick fingers shake with nerves and are damp with sweat. It takes the shorter man two attempts to pry open the tiny tin lid. The three of them peer in at the contents. The pills seem too small. Are they supposed to be that small? Rick wonders idly. There are three in the tin, one for each of them. He scratches his brow.
They stand in a loose circle in the center of the grass hut. It’s not even 9:00 AM, and the humidity is already a punishing 84%. They wear cargo shorts and T-shirts.
The sounds of the jungle slither into the Bohío. The taller man, Rick, turns his good ear towards the front door of the hut; he used to argue that one could tell the precise time of day by the jungle sounds. He smiles at the memory. It had been a good assignment here until operation Red Kitty. That was when things went south with Rune.
The dense jungle was a restless sea of noises. In the mornings, the macaque and gibbons’ harsh sounds were dominant. They were the early risers, the “morning people” of the neighborhood.
By late morning, the sun bears would wake and growl as they cast about for something to eat. Around noon, the elephants, leopards, and tigers would join the party in that order.
It usually rained late in the afternoon. Just before the rain came, the monkeys would howl. In the evenings, usually no later than 7:00 PM, there was almost always a 30-minute period where the jungle grew silent. It was a phenomenon that no one could ever explain to Rick.
During the night, you might hear almost anything coming from the densest parts of the jungle. The wise animals knew to keep quiet at night.
The concrete slab in the corner of the hut still hasn’t dried.
It’s the humidity, Rick thinks. He had hoped to leave this humid environment for good, but that didn’t appear to be in his cards.
What they buried would ruin the United States and at least two of its three-letter intelligence agencies; the lives of field agents, ambassadors, and diplomats around the world would be in jeopardy. Huge corporations would fold overnight. There would be no way to spin the facts they buried. None. This was the only way.
It’s the only way, Marshall thinks. He’s both ashamed and proud of what he’s about to do. After what his brother Kenny did, Marshall promised his mother that he would never. He remembers how that had nearly destroyed her. He turns away from the memories before he grows emotional.
Of the three of them, Lawana is the most stoic. She regrets that she and Rick never acted on their attraction to each other. It was too late for that now.
Rick considers the bare slab again. He will cover it with sand. By tomorrow it should be dry enough.
It is curious though. Neither of them had asked about it. Wouldn’t people wonder about it after? A bare concrete slab in the middle of a grass hut was unusual.
He probably should’ve probed the question further. In their business, it was usually a costly mistake to think the other was dumb.
Marshall and Lawana had misjudged Rick. But even for an analyst turned field agent, he was freakishly smart.
At night when Rick closes his eyes, he can still see the girl’s rainy, tear-stained face. He turns away from the guilt. Of course, he had let her mother down. But his two partners knew nothing of that. That was before, and Rick had hidden those secrets as deep as the physical evidence they had buried in the hut floor.
Marshall extends the tin to Lawana. She pinches a pill and sets it on her palm. Her skin is a golden brown from decades spent in the hot Thai sun.
Rick takes a pill and positions it in the center of his hand.
Marshall dumps the last pill into his left hand and tosses the empty tin away. It smacks the sand near the concrete slab with a tiny hiss.
Their secret lies buried in a wrecked vault that will never be opened without a team of machinists and a lot of time. The slab is nearly three feet thick. What sits in the vault: the girl’s story (its sad outcome mirroring the tragedy that befell her mother), the classified information the three of them had removed from headquarters in Bangkok. If any of it were to come to light, it would wreak havoc around the world, and destroy what was left of the girl’s family.
The three are in accord here. They are here, in this hut, by their choice. No one was coerced here.
Of course, this must be done together. This pact must play out with the appearance of fairness.
He can still see her wet little face. Achara. Her name meant “pretty angel.” She had the saddest expressions of anyone he’d known. How sad she had looked at the end. In her eyes, he saw the resignation and acceptance that Rick had let her down, just as he had her mother. There was no blame on her face, only a sad, too-adult recognition that her life had come to its end. She was twelve. Rick’s face had burned with shame when he searched her pockets for anything that might tie her to him or his two partners. That shame doubled when he stood up and left her lying there, dead in the rainy gutter on the mean streets of Bangkok.
The three of them nod to each other, lift their hands, and swallow their pills. Marshall starts foaming at the mouth and collapses onto the dirt floor.
Rick had a street candy vendor in Ratchaburi make up a little mint. It was a bit of Alka-Seltzer with a candy coating. He had secured it in his mouth after they finished paying the contractor who poured the concrete. Rick made a big deal out of the generous tip he gave them. He almost felt bad that he didn’t feel bad for the deception. Everyone on the team would be dead by tomorrow.
I’m so sorry, Achara. Please forgive me, Rune. I failed you and…, her.
Rick swallows the switched harmless white pill, then bites into the mint hidden between his gum and cheek. The foaming wasn’t as pronounced as he had hoped it would be.
Lawana is healthy, and her death takes a long time. She looks at him, her eyes filling with suspicion of betrayal.
He hates this.
“I’m so sorry, Lawana,” he says, butchering the pronunciation as always.
“Three people can keep a secret,” he says with genuine regret for his theater, leaning into the can, “But only if two of them are dead.”
Had she deceived him as well, affected a switch of her own? They were all trained spies, after all.
Flecks of blood dot join the foam on the floor in front of Marshall’s body. He is dead. Rick would stake his reputation as an agent and analyst on that.
He looks at her again, and his tears flow.
“Bit of sleight of hand, I’m afraid.”
She deserves to know; she was a friend. One he came very close to loving.
Outwardly, it looked like the classic suicide pact they read about in their youth. The pills Marshall procured were arsenic. Rick had implicitly insisted everyone show the fronts of the hands empty.
But not the backs.
Neither of them had seen him switch his out for a harmless mint tucked nearly under a fingernail.
He shows her the nail and understanding arrives with her last breath.
Rick would dedicate the rest of his life to cleaning up this mess, guarding this secret. Achara was his daughter. He’d fathered her after arriving in Bangkok, thirteen years ago. He’d loved Rune, the mother, but then that all went sideways. He remembers walking away from her body. The similarity of walking away from her body, also in the rain, against that brick wall between the two dumpsters, foreshadowing how the daughter would die, is an image he will live with for the rest of his life.
Rick cared deeply about his work in the intelligence community, but he cared more about protecting the two Thai he had loved the most: a troubled woman he knew briefly and the daughter they had created.
He kneels by Lawana and brushes his hand against her face, closing her eyes. The knowledge that he can never afford to get this close to another settles in as he cleans the scene.
The three partners and two contractors had poured the concrete slab over a fake. Rick had switched out everything weeks ago. The actual vault was miles away, wedged under a pile of rocks on the ocean floor. But three agents “disappeared” today. He had to create the red herrings that would describe a version of what happened. He had constructed a fake story. One that he would prop up from behind the scenes. He didn’t die today, but his identity had. He already had new passports and a new identity in place.
For the rest of his life, Rick’s entire mission will be propping up this deception, ensuring that the truth remains buried.