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Chapter Twenty-four


The Tattooed Station Master


The mayhem subsided when the train began climbing the Himalayan Mountains. Thomas enjoyed the freedom of his view through the window, letting his arm dangle over the windowsill and savoring the breeze that pushed the hair off his forehead. The train stopped in an endless parade of stops, and at every station, the General's deputy, a young uniformed apprentice, stepped out to talk to every stationmaster. From what he could tell watching him, he was a natural. The deputy had what it took to shoot the breeze with all personality types and still appear to be having fun. Smiling and with the gift of the gab, he had excellent rapport with each stationmaster he met. He was a good choice as the General's mouthpiece and PR man.

But with the journey hardly underway, Thomas was already uncomfortable. A dominating aspect in steerage was the dazed, vacant staring he got from passengers. With his back against the very corner of the car, he felt as though he was on display for all the Burmese who had never seen a foreigner before. But more than this, the rock-hard wooden seats seriously lacking any ingredient of feng sui cause him the most grief. Finding a comfortable position was impossible. Trying to convince himself that this was a sacrifice so he could get an inside glimpse of the inner sanctum of a difficult-to-access country in the third world and find the sacred stone that had been hidden in this country waiting for an identical twin to discover, Thomas feared he was actually participating in a domestic black op with a General who had befriended him. He popped another betel nut and moved uncomfortably on the wooden seat, unable to alleviate the pain in his ass.

At each stop, kids swarmed the cars scavenging for food passengers have left behind, no matter how small. Aggressive, loud, and high on betel juice, they were the opposite of meek.

Then, after a few hours along the milk run, the train stopped and a stationmaster entered the car to inspect and to ask for tickets. His forearms were completely tattooed with black markings and symbols, as was his chest that Thomas could see under his open shirt. When he saw the bags of coal, he pointed at them demanding an answer. The General explained about the coal but the stationmaster exercised his seniority over the General and shook his head, not accepting the line the General fed him. When the General spoke again, the stationmaster raised his voice, gesturing at the hidden booty under the seats. His anger showed. That was when Sergeant Betel Nut spoke up, offering another explanation to quell the standoff, but this time the stationmaster reacted angrily by raising his voice another octave and jumping on top of the bags that obstructed the aisle. He took his pad and paper and jotted down notes, showing a fair dose of courage and causing the General to sink low in his seat and remain quiet. Clearly, the shipment of coal was illegal.

At this point all the passengers in the car fell silent. Then, just as the stationmaster was finishing his tirade, the General had his most classic moment. Clear as day in his booming voice, the General's two-word comment caused almost everyone in the boxcar to laugh. The tension, which had been so thick only a second before, dissipated in an instant. For an intense moment the tattooed stationmaster didn't stand down but it was clear that whatever he said now, nothing could be done. Any authority he thought he had was nothing in the face of the General and his uniformed posse. Realizing he was facing a larger and more powerful adversary, he bowed down and left the train. The boys beamed at their Lord and Master, who had the power and backbone to overcome and defeat this pencil-neck administrator so they could complete their task.

Soon the boys were back in a frenzy, preparing to unload their stolen plunder. Now in the flush of night the betel-chewing fraternity of young men, Thomas included, hit their frenzied peak. There was an unmistakable bluster of testosterone-fuelled Burmese soldiers spitting betel juice as they swaggered over the bags of coal. Laughter heightened to a feverish pitch, there was an element of maudlin that revealed cracks of immaturity. With teeth stained as red as theirs, Thomas thought of helping them with the bags, but the hysterical moments in the ebb and flow of semi-rational men-boys made him think twice about putting himself in harm's way.

That being said, with no lights in steerage and with it way after dark, it was Thomas who held candles as his teammates piled the bags up by the door so they could push the coal out quickly and undetected at the next step. Holding up two candles in the pitch-dark so they could see was the least he could do for the boys and the General to accomplish their illegal operation and be paid their rightful share. They were the sons of military commanders in a country run by the military and where law didn't really exist, at least to this roaming tribe of soldiers. At that moment he felt safe and secure knowing the General had his back. The irony wasn't lost on him that he was safer breaking the law being an accomplice in the coal heist than to not be, in this land where the military was the law.

Besides, standing there with the candles in his hands sure beat sitting on the wooden seat.

The train station they approached was on the Irrawaddy River, a strategic location because it was the only place where the railway crossed the river in the north. With separatist insurgencies still armed and active in the area, the Than Regime protected this bridge as if gold. It was the outer boundary of Burma proper over 1000km from Rangoon before crossing into the unsettled and hostile north. With such agitation in play, the long-stretching bridge was heavily guarded with lookout towers on both sides of the river, pillboxes poised on both flanks of the bridge.

Arriving at Moguaung train station, a great fury of unloading commenced despite the fact that the other half the car was trying to sleep. Being part of the team, Thomas remained on candle duty. The General stepped off the train with his deputy and disappeared into a darkened café adjoining the station, as a flurry of movement in the dark loaded the unaccounted-for bags of coal off the train on the other side of the tracks. Standing there with candles in his hands giving his team members the light they needed to get the job done, the military presence was palpable in Moguaung. Sergeant Betel Nut in his element, they didn't have the same amount of time at this stop as they did when they first loaded the bags, so the voices were louder and the commands crisper. Very quickly the bags piled up right outside the entrance of the compartment but it didn't seem to matter; they just wanted the bags off the car regardless of how neat the pile was.

A few minutes later, the General appeared just under his window where Thomas saw the General take out a large wad of bills and give a fair slice of the profit to his uniformed deputy. With the bags now out of the car, Sergeant Betel Nut lit a cigarette and talked briefly to the General, who handed his sergeant an even bigger wad of bills. When they separated, the General retired quietly to his seat, literally merging into the darkness.

But just as the train was about to depart, a large man with a drunken gait walked out of the café where the General had been and yelled out with authority towards the General's seat. Because he was hunched down and now incognito, the General didn't answer. The uniformed deputy appeared beside him and said something to the drunken man to quell his anger but it was met with another ejaculation of words. He stubbornly pressed for a reply but was met with the same silence. The deputy then said the right thing that caused the drunken man to turn his attention away from the General altogether and accept a cigarette from the deputy. Being right there, it had all the makings of something ugly. The General had chosen his uniformed deputy well.

Not all the passengers had closed their windows so the night air of the Himalayas made the steerage compartment as cold as a refridgerator as the train climbed farther north. Despite the severe pain of his ass from sitting, Thomas dozed off. When he awoke he was frozen to the bone, with his neighbor fully sprawled on his shoulder and legs asleep. They arrived at the end of the line at the wee hours of the morning.


Part One - Canada
1.      The Twin From the East Returns  
2.      The Sundancer  
3.      Waxing Gibbous 
4.      The Second Coming of the Messiah 
5.      The Sacred Twin Story 
6.      The Sign of the Pahana 
7.      Palongawhoya and Poqanghoya 
8.      Rainbow Thunderbird and Red Phoenix 
9.      The True White Brother 
10.    The Lost Louis Riel Notebooks 
Part Two - Hong Kong
11.    A Mixture of Revulsion and Pity 
12.    A Classroom of Scallywags 
13.    Illegitimati non Carborundum 
14.    The Distant Fire of Empyrean
Part Three - Burma
15.    The Monastery of Sacred Tablets 
16.    The Outpost of Tyranny 
17.    When the 12th Moon Comes 
18.    The Pigeon Left & the Crow Took His Place 
19.    Go North and Find Your People 
20.    Finding Orwell 
21.    Though the Monkey is in a Hurry, the Tree Branch is Not 
22.    The Castle at God's Toes 
23.    The General and Sergeant Betel Nut 
24.    The Tattooed Station Master 
25.    Reverend Crow's Life's Work 
26.    Yield Not to Adversity, But Press on More Bravely 
27.    A Bitter Cuppa Tea 
28.    The Thirteenth Tribe 
29.    When a Lamp is Lit You Must Expect Insects 
30.    John the Christian 
31.    A Guardian Angel Named Hanna 
32.    The Bar Car & Betel Nut 
33.    The Son of Light 
34.    Slipping the Karmic Knot
Part Four - Hong Kong
35.    The Tonsure Warning 
36.    The Phoenix Reborn 
37.    Touching the Empyrean 
38.    Joshua the Gatekeeper 
Part Five - Canada
39.    Lapsit Exillis 
40.    Thunderstones 
41.    The Time of Great Purification  


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