It is 1951 and Ho Chi Minh’s communists are determined to end France’s colonial rule in Vietnam.
Our French allies need all the help they can get - and it arrives in the shape of Captain Fletcher, RAF pilot and unwilling member of the Secret Intelligence Service.
Waylaid by a string of beautiful women, including the double-agent Claudine Boissinot, can Fletcher keep his mind on the task at hand?
Also by Ken Donald on Obooko:
“I understand that you’re a pilot, Captain Fletcher. Do you think it might be possible for you to give me a ride to Hong Kong?”
I sat there open-mouthed with my cigarette dangling precariously from my lower lip, unable to answer. Eventually I managed to come to terms with the fact that one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen was actually standing in our grubby little backstreet room in downtown Tokyo, which the Service laughingly called an office.
I’ll allow that where women are concerned the last one always tends to be the most beautiful, but I’m not altogether exaggerating when I describe my new visitor to our little hovel. She was a superb piece of giblet pie and no mistake. No doubt the fact that she was French and had a soft, husky voice that belonged in the bedroom didn’t hurt any. Against all the odds, I suppressed the urge to suggest a ride for a ride and formulated a coherent answer.
“I’m sure it could be arranged, Miss …?”
“Mademoiselle Claudine Boissinot.”
She informed me of her name so prettily that she almost had me swooning.
“Well … Claudine, how on earth did you know I was a pilot?”
“Monsieur Biggins explained that you are still officially in the Royal Air Force, even if your present surroundings would seem to indicate otherwise.”
As she spoke, she raised a delicate hand to indicate the bare, grey walls of my palace.
“Why do you want to go to Hong Kong?” I asked.
I stared into her eyes and did my best not to ogle her wonderful dumplings - which she had obligingly decided to put on show for all to see.
“I need to pick up a substantial quantity of gold for my employers and deliver it to Saigon.”
This time I actually paid attention to what she was saying, and I looked away from her pouting lips long enough to allow her latest revelation to sink in.
I was frightfully torn, as you can imagine. My eyes must have visibly lit up at the mention of the precious metal that can set a man up for life. But the passing reference to the Vietnamese city set the alarm bells ringing. You see, everyone knew that the French were having the devil of a time holding on to their old colony in Indochina. Having only just come through the nightmare in Korea, I had no wish to end up anywhere near another Far Eastern backwater which promised more of the same.
“Who is your employer?” I asked, determined to find out more.
“Why, the French government, of course,” she explained condescendingly. “The funds are needed to help us contain the communist insurgents. Once my task is complete, I was hoping we might be able to get better acquainted.”
She leant forward and rested her dainty hands on my desk, while I lost the struggle to avert my gaze from her inviting upholstery. I did my best not to salivate on the spot and my mind went into overdrive.
Saigon wasn’t under threat from the communists, I reasoned, and any fighting was taking place miles away in the north of the country. Still, why take the chance of going anywhere near the blasted place when I was nicely tucked away safe and sound in Japan, I hear you ask?
As if to provide the answer, my French temptress licked her full, red lips and sat on the edge of the desk, causing her aforementioned pap feeders to tremble. Being a lusty Lawrence, my next words left my lips uninvited.
“When do we leave?”
* * *
You may well be wondering how your gallant hero suddenly found himself at the mercy of a French beauty, when he was supposed to be spending his time sifting through what pathetic morsels of intelligence our agents in North Korea had been able to provide. So allow me to take this opportunity to enlighten you.
You see, unknown to your hapless correspondent, my ‘senior’ colleague in our intelligence department, one Henry Biggins, decided to have another of his appalling plans take shape in what I imagined he called a brain, with the inevitable result that yours truly was destined to end up in harm’s way.
Of course he knew he couldn’t just ask me to go on some inane mission half-cocked, because he was well aware that he would have got a fist in the face for his trouble or, as is more likely, I would have disappeared into the Japanese landscape - never to be seen again.
So the sneaky little cacafuego had employed the talents of my irresistible French agent to waylay your ignorant champion who, quite frankly, should have known better. The upshot was that two days later the three of us were on board a Dakota, courtesy of the CIA, heading south for our last remaining outpost in China.
Biggins had made some excuse at the time about simply wanting to take a dekko at how our French allies were coping. Absolute nonsense, of course, but being entirely besotted with my French gill-flirt, I fell for it like a Tom Tug.
Unfortunately Hong Kong airport represented the only few acres of the thriving metropolis I was destined to lay eyes on. As soon as our femme fatalehad supervised the loading of the finest gold bullion, we were preparing to take to the skies once more before we continued our journey into yet another confounded war zone.
Naturally I was eager to land and demonstrate to Claudine what a wonderful decision she’d made in her choice of escort, but we were left circling in the monsoon clouds over Saigon for another two hours.
If the miserable weather hadn’t been enough of a disconcerting introduction to the joys of Vietnam, the sight of twenty enormous military transport planes wending their way into the airfield, packed with French troops, was enough to finish the job – and to give me a case of the threepenny bits into the bargain.
Much to our surprise, Claudine appeared to command sufficient clout for us to shoot through passport control like a dose of salts. As we climbed into a taxi, sweltering in the ninety degree heat, we watched as a column of Legionnaires made their determined way through the streets. It was only then that I paused to wonder, for the first time, what I’d actually let myself in for.
So perhaps now would be the time to apprise you of what ills were befalling this eastern stretch of Asia in the early 1950’s, and the twists and turns that led to what became known as the First War of Indochina.
The inhabitants of the Indochinese peninsula hail from various parts of the globe. The Khmer, as the Cambodians call themselves, probably made their way from western India, while the Lao and the Vietnamese rolled down from the highlands of China’s Yunnan province. Eventually Indochina, as its name suggests, became the focus of a clash between two vast civilizations – India and China.
Then it was the turn of the European missionaries to poke their pious noses in where they didn’t belong, and soon French colonists were grabbing their piece of the Asian pie, before the British had a chance to colour every corner of the world map in imperial crimson.
Of course World War Two rather spoilt things for our Gallic allies. In 1940 the Japs swept down from China, and while France was being given a damn good thrashing by the Germans, they crushed the French administration in Vietnam.
Naturally once the war was over the Frogs were eager to make up for their losses in Europe and carry on where they’d left off. But there were one or two home-grown nationalists who saw things rather differently. Led by the Vietnam Independence League (or the Vietminh), the communists from the north tried to persuade patriots all over the country to make a stand.
So without anybody really making a decision, France was drawn into a war. Unfortunately yours truly was to end up in the thick of it soon enough - and all because of a seductive and designing Maid Marian from over the Channel. To top it all, I was merely a pawn at the mercy of a devious and calculating mind. If I’d known who was behind my surreptitious invitation to the jungle-infested country, I would have kept on flying all the way to Australia.
You see, I was soon to discover that my unseen chess master was none other than the charismatic communist leader himself – Ho Chi Minh.