Skytrain to Murder
The Skytrain, an elevated electric public transport system, ran above Sukhumvith Road and would have gotten us close to where George lived but we decided that traffic on a weekday would not be so bad so we hailed a taxi. We were wrong. But we both knew we had taken the cab because we were too lazy to walk up to the nearest Skytrain station.
George’s apartment was on the ground floor of a modern and well guarded building. For the money he paid — which I knew for a luxurious Bangkok apartment even after the crash was still considerable -- he got the garden as well. Someone in a demon mask opened the door and was almost immediately pulled back into a conversation.
We slid our shoes off and slipped our feet into the leather sandals provided for guests. It took a while but I found a pair that almost fit. A woman wearing a witch mask pushed her way through the crowded room, handed us each a demon mask, and told us in Thai to put them on. Then she kind of kissed us on the cheek, mask to mask, and pointed toward the bar.
I grabbed two Singhas off a waiter’s silver tray, handed one to Winny, and looked about the room. About two dozen people were conversing and laughing in that familiar way that suggested they’d started their drinking early. Beautifully arranged azaleas covered teakwood tables, hardbound books covered teakwood shelves, and an expensive looking carpet with colorful swirls and spirals covered the floor.
Winny got buttonholed by a couple of Vietnam vet acquaintances, so I headed toward the garden. Whereas the living room’s Tiffany-style lamps provided an elegant stained glass effect, Japanese lanterns had transformed the garden into areas of light and shadow; a partly sheltered retreat from Bangkok’s noise and pollution populated by pairs and groups with still more Halloween masks. Many had removed their masks while drinking or smoking but I nodded politely to ghosts, phantoms, devils, imps, vampires, ghouls, deformed monsters and Count Dracula. Split-leaf Philodendron were silhouetted against a white wall by strategically placed spotlights, creating ominous shapes and sinister shadows, a perfect Halloween effect.
The mask was interfering with my drinking so I simply moved it about to the back of my head. As others had already done the same, in the darkness it appeared as if ghosts and goblins and witches were floating backward. I passed through a short path lined with Chinese Fan Palms sprouting from large porcelain cats and started to turn. And then I saw her. She was dressed in a dark blue-and-white blouse and dark blue slacks. The contrast of the blue with the yellow of her hair was every bit as striking as she no doubt thought it was. Even when she wasn’t kissing another woman on the mouth, she was a cynosure of attention.
She was standing with two others, and all three had removed their masks and held them in the hand which wasn’t holding the drink. I spotted her girlfriend from the beer bar, and a large man with a red face and beady eyes named Frank Webber. Frank and I had worked at the embassy together. Frank and I had sometimes gone drinking together. Frank and I had had a falling out. The kind of falling out so fallen out that my painful death would have pleased Frank greatly.
In many ways, Bangkok’s expatriates move within a small world of their own and seeing someone twice on the same day in a different part of town had happened to me before. But sometimes there is that inner voice that tells me there may be more than meets the eye.
I stood with my beer in my hand and stared at the blond. She turned toward me and stared. Webber said something to her. I knew it wouldn’t be anything flattering to me, but, whatever it was, it didn’t prevent her from striding right up to me. She stood in front of me and glanced back at her girlfriend and Webber as if to emphasize her defiance, then turned back to face me.
“I’d say he doesn’t like you much.”
“An unfortunate misunderstanding.”
“Involving a woman?”
“You hit on his wife?”
Her question conveyed no sense of shock; only curiosity. “She hit on me. I resisted.”
With her lovely indigo morning glory eyes fixed on mine, she took a sip of what looked like rum and coke. “Until you didn’t.”
Again no suggestion that she was judging; just a fact-gatherer. “Something like that.” I waited until several people laughing boisterously at someone’s joke passed by. “Anyway, I got the impression you didn’t like me much either.”
“You just looked a little too sure of yourself.”
“So did you.”
“So why’d you make the approach?”
“Ask the moth that question as he approaches the candle flame.”
She shaded her eyes with her mask as if protecting herself from some imaginary glare of sunlight and looked me over. “What do you do? No, let me guess. Over six feet. In shape despite the fact that you seem to have been born with a beer bottle in your hand. You look like a cop.”
“My brother’s a cop. My father was a cop. I was working at the embassy.”
“Not the visa section, I’ll bet. ”
“So you quit?”
I could hear the sound of a glass smashing onto the walkway. People at the party were obviously having a great time. And making it obvious. In the doorway of the house, I could make out George engrossed in a conversation with Winny. “Kind of a mutual feeling that my leaving would be best for all concerned.”
“Da says Frank’s getting a divorce. Some kind of scandal. You wouldn’t be the heavy in that story, would you?”
So her girlfriend’s nickname was Da. “As we Americans love to say, I’m the victim here. But what about you? What do you do? Besides lead men on siren-like and then dash their hopes on the rocks, I mean.”
She waited for a well-dressed couple with ghoul masks to pass. “I was working in a New York publishing house as an editorial assistant then I discovered that a woman out here with a bit of style and attitude can earn a lot more than she can as an editorial assistant in a New York publishing house.” She reached out and flecked something invisible off my shirt. She brushed her hand against mine then took a step back. “And have more fun.”
We turned as Da called her name: “Lisa!” Da and Webber were still standing in the doorway. Da’s stern expression almost matched that of her mask. “Come on, we’re leaving.”
“Why is it men assume every time a woman kisses another woman with a bit of passion they must be lesbians?”
“Yeah, why is that?” I glanced at Da but it was impossible to guess from her expression if they were really lovers; she might simply have been impatient to get out of a noisy party full of inebriated people. Actually, so was I. I turned back to Lisa. The lights of nearby lanterns intensified the lustrous blue of her eyes and transformed her blond hair into the golden shade of an expensive champagne. She made no move to leave. “You want me to ask you out?”
“Getting bored with Thai women and need a change of pace? Or just want to see if you can get me into bed?”
“I was actually offering you a change of pace: a chance to go to bed with a man who doesn’t pay you for it.”
“I’d slap your face for that but you’re probably the type of man who would enjoy it.”
While she reached into her purse I tried to think of a clever retort. I had only had my face slapped once by a beautiful woman and although I can’t say I enjoyed it, it wasn’t so bad actually. When a woman feels so strongly toward a man that she wants to cause him pain, it seems to me they’ve already ventured close to some kind of sexual passion. And sure enough in my case that is precisely what happened shortly after I’d been slapped. Unfortunately, the slap that had led to the sexual passion had eventually led to marriage which had in turn led to divorce.
She took out a pen and scrap of paper. She spoke as she wrote: “Name…address… phone number. You can tell your overweight friend you scored big time.” She handed me the paper. “I’ll expect you tomorrow night around ten. Call only if you’ve got a better deal and can’t make it. Or if you can’t find your Viagra.”
And with that she strode off to rejoin her friends; neither one of whom seemed pleased that she had spent time with me.
Winny ambled over and stood beside me, watching the three of them disappear into the apartment. “That wouldn’t have been a phone number she was giving you?”
“It was. She said to tell my overweight friend that I scored big time.”
“The lady is obviously too young to appreciate the difference between a man who is ‘overweight’ and a craftsman who is painstakingly cultivating a beer belly.”
“She also said at one point that she would have slapped my face but that I was probably the kind of man who would enjoy it.”
“Yes, well, I believe it was Schopenhauer who remarked that ‘life is the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain.’ But for some the pain is the pleasure.”
“So it would seem.“
“Yes. The problem is once you’ve lived in Bangkok long enough you tend to lose track of which is which.“
When the phone rang at five the following morning, I had a massive hangover; had I been a bit more awake, I would have had enough sense not to answer it. It was George. He had forgotten to tell me last night that he had two couples in Pattaya who wanted to dive. Four was about the most I wanted to take out at a time so that was fine with me. These were “open water beginners,” so at least I didn’t have to carry any wetsuits except my own, and Len’s Dive Shop branch in Pattaya had arranged for a boat. I knew tanks and weight belts would be on the boat but I still had to bring fins, masks, BCDs and regulators with me. A five o’clock call was necessary because the boat would go out at 8:30 in the morning.
I didn’t mind the early hour; the city would still be quiet, traffic would be light and the sky would be dark. And I enjoyed glimpses of saffron-robed monks making their early morning rounds. What I minded was the pounding in my head every time I moved and other painful but familiar effects of a hangover. I fixed myself a quick coffee and a bowl of cereal. On what George paid me I knew I would sooner or later starve to death, but diving was what I did and I most likely would have done it for free; and George knew that. I also needed a job of sorts to keep my work visa. And George knew that too.
The only thing keeping me going financially had been the settlement with the Company, mainly just getting back what I had put into the retirement fund. And most of that had gone toward paying off my late aunt’s hospital and nursing home bills. My father’s health insurance had been covered by the police department but he had paid his invalid sister’s premiums regularly for years and then watched in disbelief as insurance companies refused to pay for the type of cancer treatment she needed. “Experimental,” they had called it. As she grew steadily worse, he argued in vain and spent still more money on lawyers. It was all my brother and I could do to keep her comfortable in a decent and high-priced “assisted living center” until she died. Dying with dignity in America is no different than acquiring any other privilege in America: it takes money.
The regulars at the Boots and Saddle knew something of my Intelligence background and thought of me as a detective first, diver second. But most of my post-CIA detective work consisted of low-key and poorly paid searches for Thai women, usually bargirls or ex-bargirls, who had taken off with some love-struck foreigner’s money; or else I was hired by suspicious Western women checking up on their husbands’ activities in Thailand. Thai bargirls who assured their farang lovers in mushy letter after mushy letter that they had quit the bar scene and had gone back to their village were nine out of ten times liars. Western men who assured their wives that, even though stopping in Bangkok several times a year on business they remained faithful, were ten out of ten times liars.
I took a quick shower and checked the refrigerator to see what I was out of. Just about everything. As I slammed the refrigerator door, I heard a man’s voice say, “Who’s your daddy?” I waited a few seconds to see if the mynah would continue on with his usual follow up. I wasn’t disappointed. “You need a spanking!”
I could hear the low-key chattering, loud shrieks, shrill whistles, obscene rants and almost constant rustling of Winny’s prized birds on the other side of the curtained kitchen window. If I could hear them, it probably meant the maid was about to feed them or else someone was on the roof they weren’t familiar with. It was only during storms that they became seriously agitated. Flashes of lightning would send them scurrying madly into the small shelter on the other side of my kitchen window. And then I would be privileged to hear their rapid-fire body slams against the glass, their frightened squawks and raucous shrieks, and all the obscenities various owners had taught them in various languages. Winny had been promising to double-pane the glass in the window but I knew if I brought up the subject with him now, he would point out that the rainy season was about over. Still, I thought I’d give it one more try.
I walked down the steep set of stairs which managed to remain quite dark even though facing painfully bright fluorescent lights from a traditional “Wat Po-style” massage parlor sign opposite which the girls, as usual, had forgotten to turn off. The familiar odors of spicy Thai food mingled with the smell of old corn cobs and whatever else Winny fed to his birds.
I managed to step over yet another intimate item of female clothing that had most likely fallen from a laundry basket and pushed open the door. Against the eerie early morning glare of the massage parlor lights, I kept my eyes more closed than open, and returned a wave to someone vaguely familiar heading for the Boots and Saddle. I couldn’t quite remember his name, but he was one of the ones who showed up a few times a month with his Thai girlfriend. He was about sixty; she was about twenty-five. But they had a saying at the Boots and Saddle: “You’re only as old as your girlfriend.” By that standard, it was quite natural that Washington Square was full of Gulf War vets, Vietnam War vets and even Korean War vets, all in their 20’s and early 30’s.
People on early morning bus rides – even sexily dressed Thai bargirls and their foreign boyfriends – are generally sleepy and quiet and well behaved. I liked it that way. Especially when I was working off a hangover.
In Pattaya, I grabbed a taxi to the Lido Hotel, right across from the pier where we would catch the boat. The four of them were waiting at the outside coffee shop: A British businessman and his British wife and an American businessman and his Thai girlfriend-of-the-week.
While I shared a quick coffee with them, I explained that my idea of a good dive is to get outside the polluted area of Pattaya and gave them a quick geography lesson on the diving areas around Pattaya’s Near and Far Islands. My plan was to do one dive with them, then break for a lunch of Thai food, maybe do a solo dive, then after a while, do a second dive with the couples. They could visit an island if they wanted to, but I would as usual stay on the boat, only rarely would I bother to go onto an island. If all went according to plan, we would be back in Pattaya about four in the afternoon. Eight bleary eyes. Four early morning yawns. No questions.
They grabbed their equipment and we walked along the pier to the boat. The day was overcast and layers of grey clouds hovered overhead. Raindrops began pelting the water which just as quickly spat them back out.
The boat captain was a jolly, pudgy, middle-aged Thai from Chonburi. I’d been out with him many times before and enjoyed his company. When he saw my female Caucasian student he smiled broadly. He loved to see Caucasian women coming on board for an outing because he knew they often took their tops off while sunbathing. While one of the Thai crewmembers filled tanks with air the other grabbed some of our equipment and helped the women onto the boat.
I had seen the dive master before also, an American named Rick Thompson who represented the boat owner. He was barrel-chested, well tanned, much-tattooed and muscular. I pointed Rick out to my students and explained that a dive master is always on the boat when we go out. He’s the man responsible for all operations on board, in charge of logistics, and he makes the choices – which dive site to head for and where to anchor, so in theory I only had to care about teaching my students. What I didn’t explain was that sometimes there is bad blood between the dive master and the scuba instructors; as there was between Thompson and me.
I had found him to be penny-pinching, careless with equipment and occasionally rude to my students. Even with three or four instructors and their students on the boat, Thompson would usually refuse to go to the Far Islands, because it’s cheaper to go to the Near Islands. His only care was for profit. Whenever I felt like taking a deeper dive, we had argued about where to anchor and over how long to dive, because he often wanted to be back in Pattaya by three, an hour before our usual finish.
I was also very vocal if I saw what I regarded as unsafe practice on a boat and this did not endear me to dive masters like Thompson. One of his buddies was a certified diver who had been diving for ten years, the type who thinks he knows everything. On one outing, he showed up so drunk he couldn’t climb up into the boat. I made sure his students understood the dangers and they left. It didn’t quite come to blows. Not quite.
I gave my students a short boat briefing and then the boat left for the Near Islands. I nodded to one other instructor who had three Japanese women students, and said hello to a couple getting their equipment together. The man said, “Bonjour.” When I saw the instructor in charge of the French couple I recognized him as a dive master in training, a friend of Thompson’s.
I took Thompson aside immediately. “Your friend isn’t qualified to instruct.”
Thompson wore a T-shirt with a diving logo. His right forearm had what looked like several poorly healed red streaks of jellyfish stings. His bulging right biceps had the tattoo of a frolicking mermaid. The jellyfish hadn’t spared her either. He glared at me with his flat, lifeless and glassy bottle green eyes, and when he narrowed them, as he did now, they were even more fish-like.
He seemed about to poke my chest, then thought better of it. “How would that be your business?”
“It’s my business to see that tourists aren’t placed in danger by being-“
“He’s a qualified dive master, OK?”
“He’s a dive master but he’s not a certified instructor! He’s qualified to swim around and look at the pretty fish, not to instruct others.”
As he spoke, the pudgy forefinger of his right hand poked the open palm of his left. “I’m dive master of this boat and I’ll take care of my people, not you.”
He made his hands into fists, turned and walked off. I shouted to his back. “As a diver, he’s probably about on the level of his students.”
It was clear Thompson hated my guts. Which was too bad because, if he wanted revenge on me a dive master had his ways. Doing something to my air supply was probably at the top of the list. He might get me a tank with a higher content of oxygen than proper, so if I was doing a deep dive, I might go into convulsions. Or if he were filling my tank up, it would be real easy to contaminate a scuba tank. The compressor, a huge machine that pumps air, is on the boat. The dive master or his crew could try to screw up my tank and make my death by drowning look like an accident.
A few minutes later, I spotted “Enriched air: Nitrox” tanks with their green and yellow bands, and I knew I would have to have yet another word with Thompson. Nitrox increases the amount of oxygen in the tank, therefore lowering the amount of nitrogen. So you can extend your bottom time, but because of the increased amount of oxygen content, you cannot go as deep. It is a completely separate area and divers need to be trained and certified in it.
Some boats use Nitrox tanks and people in charge tell students it’s OK, they just have air in them, and they probably do, but I never allow my students to use those tanks. If you take a tank you thought was just air but it has Nitrox and you go deep you will get what is called oxygen toxicity. And if you’re breathing the wrong mix at the wrong depth, it can kill you.
Thompson was by the starboard rail putting moves on one of the Japanese students.
I walked up to him from behind. “Thompson!”
He turned around and looked at me, then shook his head in disgust. “Now what?”
“My students use only the regular air tanks.”
“They all got regular air, man.”
“So you say. But my students don’t use the Nitrox tanks.”
He glared at me with pure hatred. “You heard me say all the tanks got regular air, right?”
“And you heard me say my students don’t wear the Nitrox tanks.”
He saw a few faces turn his way, hesitated, then sighed and turned back to his Japanese conquest. “Yeah, yeah, OK.”
Forty-five minutes later, we arrived at the dive site and began putting on our equipment. The Japanese student Thompson was interested in had trouble making sure her BCD strap was tight enough and her tank fell off, but as it was still attached to the low pressure hose it simply dangled behind her. The manner in which Thompson helped with her tank problem seemed to me close to molestation, but the girl didn’t seem to mind.
Despite my misgivings, the morning dive went well. It felt good being back underwater, seeing the familiar black fins and yellow tanks and, behind their masks, wide-eyed, eager-to-learn, students. Most of Pattaya’s marine life is in the top five to fifteen meters and most of the diving is pretty shallow. The fish colors were as impressive as always but the deeper we went the more colors were lost. Because of the way the light hits the water, the colors disappeared in order. Red was the first color to go, then orange, yellow, green, blue.
The day was overcast and by the time we got down to the 18-meter maximum for open water students, everything was murky brown. I took out my pocket flashlight and shone the light on a brown slug so the students could see it was actually a brilliant bright red and orange.
I never tired of showing appreciative students my kingdom beneath the sea – people who shared my joy and wonder in the spectacular beauty and peaceful tranquillity that the world of diving offered.
After everyone returned to the boat, the sun muscled its way through a bank of clouds, and people began helping themselves to a small buffet of Thai food. And becoming more friendly. The trouble began when I emerged from my short solo dive during the lunch break. The Frenchman was drinking a bottle of Singha on the top deck. His wife was lying on her back beside him with the top of her bikini off. I did my best to ignore her and approached him. “Excuse me, are you planning to dive this afternoon?”
He looked at me from under the visor of his cap and nodded. “The rule is: ‘If you have a beer, you don’t dive again.’”
He shrugged, leaned back, and closed his eyes. I looked around for his instructor. Two Japanese girls were also sunbathing topless but lying on their stomachs. Their instructor was talking with the captain. Thai crewmembers were spending a lot of time walking near the foreign women. I didn’t like the tension in the air. Diving is still mainly a male sport, and with many couples the man is the diver and the woman is just a passenger. I had seen topless sunbathing bring out jealousy between women and lead to fights between their men.
I shaded my eyes and looked around. My students were accounted for. Neither of the women were topless. I had a feeling I knew where the third Japanese woman had gone. She and Thompson had most likely disappeared into the below forward cabin.
I decided the hell with it. The Frenchman was endangering himself not others and if the dive master was going to run a shabby operation, so long as it didn’t affect my students, I would leave it alone.
But events on the boat had made me edgy. Transferring a foul mood from above water to underwater is never a wise thing, and, sure enough, during our afternoon dive, things went from bad to worse. First I got frisky; then careless. I chased some schools of damselfish which had been simply minding their own business; annoyed dozens of blue-green parrotfish while they used their parrot-like beaks to bite off lumps of coral; cavorted with well camouflaged seahorses among the seagrass and coral; stared down a perplexed pipefish, and tried to tackle a skittish pair of blue-ringed angelfish. When I saw a sea snake just visible on the bottom, I grabbed it just behind the head and held it out to show the others. The snake was about two feet long and its color pattern alternated in blue and grey stripes. I allowed it to wrap itself about my arm and then gently released it after which it then gently released me.
I led my students in a brief swim and, still in shallow water, I let myself float downward to the top of a reef. I landed butt-first and put out my ungloved hand to steady myself. I could see the whitish-grey area of the reef to the left, completely dead, and the beautiful colors of the reef to my right. In the center were crown-of-thorns starfish voraciously eating away, destroying yet another marine habitat.
They generally prefer deep water away from currents on the surfaces of reefs, but of course there is always that two per cent that doesn’t get the word about where they prefer to be or that simply has to be different. As they can regenerate themselves, cutting them up and throwing them back in could actually result in creating more starfish. My technique was simply to slide my hand underneath and pick them up carefully, avoiding the covering of long spines, and swim them out to a sandy area and drop them off.
I wear a glove on one hand, and a computer watch higher up on my wrist. But part of the beauty of the underwater experience for me is the tactile sensation so whether playing with sea snakes or handling crown-of-thorns starfish, I usually and no doubt unwisely use my ungloved hand. But I also do it to make sure I can feel accurately, so that I won’t hurt something by using too much pressure when touching it or picking it up.
The first one I grabbed was a beautiful greenish-purple with red-tipped spines. A bit over a foot in diameter, the starfish had about a dozen arms. It looked like a lethargic but sinister porcupine that had got run over by an 18-wheeler. Just as I started to turn him over to drop him in a sandy area below, a few slender suckerfish swiftly moved in to fasten themselves to my arm and wetsuit. Suckerfish ride about the sea by attaching their oval-shaped sucking disks to very large fish such as sharks and rays. These must have recently lost their ride and were hoping to use me. They were never dangerous but could be annoyingly persistent, so I used my gloved hand to shoo one away, causing me to misjudge the position of the starfish I was releasing.
The forefinger of my bare hand hit the sharp, venomous spines. I felt the pain immediately. My blood appeared a filmy brown in the water. I knew the skin over its spines was filled with venomous glands and I also knew that the toxin of a crown-of-thorns starfish can cause discomfort, pain, nausea, vomiting and other not-so-pleasant things. I also knew I had to get back to the hotel and begin soaking the finger in water as hot as I could stand. I checked my watch and realized time was almost up anyway, so I got the group’s attention by banging on my tank with the butt of my knife and, with an animated thumb’s up signal, motioned for the group to head to the surface. On the boat, I said nothing about the bite, as there was little to be done until I reached the hotel. For once, I was pleased Thompson opted to head back a bit early.
By the time I reached the hotel room, the pain was less but that was because the finger was becoming numb. That meant I would have to test the water I used for soaking with a finger that was sensitive to heat in order not to scald the finger that wasn’t. I could see that a very small part of one of the spines was still in the finger a bit below the nail. I used a pair of tweezers to gently pull it out.
For just over an hour, I kept my finger in near scalding water and watched a Thai soap opera on TV. After I had finished scrubbing the wound, I applied antibiotic ointment and popped two Aleve and a tetracycline tablet. Prescriptions seldom being required for anything in a Thai pharmacy, on the way to the bus, I stopped in a pharmacy and bought more tetracycline. By the time I was on the bus heading back to Bangkok, the finger had swollen but I had no feeling in it whatever. I could have closed the bus door on it and never known.
Click here for Chapters 5 through 7