Vientiane, People's Democratic Republic of Laos, March 1977
The neon hammer and sickle buzzed and flickered into life over the night club of the Lan Xang Hotel. The sun had plummeted mauvely into Thailand across the Mekhong River, and the hotel waitresses were lighting the little lamps that turned the simple sky-blue room into a mysterious nighttime cavern.
In an hour, a large Vietnamese delegation would be offered diversion there by members of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party Politburo. They'd be made to watch poor country boys in fur hats do a Lao falling-over version of cossack dancing. They'd be forced to suck semi-fermented rice whiskey from large tubs through long straws until they were dizzy. They'd finally be coerced into embarrassing dances with solid girls in ankle-length skirts and crusty makeup.
And, assuming they survived these delights, they'd be allowed to return to their rooms to sleep. Next day, with heads heavy as pressed rubber, they'd sign their names to documents laying the foundations for the forthcoming Lao/Vietnam Treaty of Friendship, and they probably wouldn't remember very much about it.
But that was all to come. The understaffed hotel day shift had been replaced by an understaffed night crew. The sweating receptionist was ironing a shirt in the glass office behind her desk. The chambermaid was running a bowl of rice porridge up to a sick guest on the third floor.
Outside, an old guard, in a jacket so large it reached his knees, was locking the back gate that opened onto Sethathirat Road. At night, the gate kept out dogs and the occasional traveler tempted to come into the garden in search of respite from the cruel hot-season nights. An eight-foot wall protected the place as if it were something more special than it was.
Leaves floated in a greasy swimming pool. Obedient flowers stood in well-spaced regiments, better watered than any of the households outside along the street. And then there were the cages. They were solid concrete, so squat that a tall man would have to stoop to see inside. Two were empty. They housed only the spirits of animals temporarily imprisoned there: a monkey replaced by a deer, a peacock taking over the sentence of a wild dog.
But in the grim shadows of the third cage, something wheezed. It moved seldom, only to scratch lethargically at its dry skin. The unchristened black mountain bear was hosed down along with the bougainvilleas and given scraps from the kitchen from time to time. Its fur was patchy and dull, like a carpet in a well-trodden passage. Buddha only knew how the creature had survived for so long in its cramped jail, and the Lord had been banished from the socialist republic some fifteen months hence.
People came in the early evening and at weekends to stand in front of the cage and stare at her. She stared back, although her glazed bloodshot eyes could no longer make out details of the mocking faces. Children laughed and pointed. Brave fathers poked sticks in through the bars, but the black mountain bear no longer appeared to give a damn.
They naturally blamed the old guard the next day. "Too much rice whiskey," they said. "Slack," they said. The guard denied it, of course. He swore he'd relocked the cage door. He'd thrown the leftovers from the Vietnamese banquet into the animal's bowl and locked the cage. He was sure of it. He swore the beast was still in there when he did his rounds at four. He swore he had no idea how it could have gotten out, or where it could have gone. But they sacked him anyway.
After a panicked search of the grounds and the hotel buildings, the manager declared to his staff that the place was safe and it was a problem now for the police. In fact, he didn't think it would be wise to mention the escape to his guests at all. As far as he was concerned, the problem was over.
But for Vientiane, it had barely started.