Skytrain to Murder
The rest of the day -- at least until an hour to midnight -- was less exciting. I had spent it checking my e-mail, shopping, napping, reading and chasing after the maid for my missing underwear.
I had thought I would just stop into the Boots and Saddle for a quick beer before heading off to the blonde’s apartment. But as soon as I entered, my sixth sense told me the air was already thick with drunken anger. Not to mention the fact that several of Washington Square’s most disagreeable characters were in the bar at the same time: Death Wish Don, Son-of-Loser Paul, Five-minute Jack and Bolshevik Bob. Although, with the exception of Bolshevik Bob, all were perfect gentlemen until they got drunk. Unfortunately, most of the time they were drunk.
I nodded a hello to West Texas Andy who was on his way out. Andy was in his early fifties with a wrinkled, open face framed by a full head of salt-and-pepper hair. He was heavyset, close to my height and known for his capacity for Thai whiskey. Until he’d hurt his arm in an accident he’d been an oil rig manager in the Bay of Bengal. Now he held his arm bent in front of him, a bit like Chou En-lai used to do. His Texas drawl was lazy and slow and almost impossible for the Thais to understand.
As he headed for the door, a never-say-die bargirl with streaks of red in her waist-length hair threw her arms around him and clung to him as a drowning person might squeeze a life preserver. They conducted their conversation as West Texas Andy gradually but inexorably pushed her in the direction of the door.
“Andy, you no go!”
“Sorry, sweetheart, got to.”
“I love you too much! You buy me dlink?”
“Sorry, honey, but I really gotta go.”
“Where you go?”
“Can I go there with you?”
“Honey, I hate to tell you, but wherever you are is already most likely there.”
“What you say?”
“Never mind, sweetheart, see you next time.”
I nodded to Winny who was busy chatting with two oil riggers in a booth, and sat at the bar. I faced a teakwood pole behind the bar upon which were photographs of various bargirls’ birthday parties and, above them, a grainy photograph of an angry chicken. The slogan beneath it was: “If you want to get laid, crawl up a chicken’s ass and wait.”
Noy gave me a Singha Gold without my asking and I looked about the room. Men were sitting in booths either talking with bargirls they were buying drinks for or else talking with one another and ignoring the girls they were buying drinks for. At the far end of the bar near the pool tables several girls were crowded around Death Wish Don, massaging his shoulders and arms, laughing at whatever jokes he told, whether they understood them or not, and happily accepting the drinks he bought them.
Death Wish Don was of medium build, stoop-shouldered and would have been of nondescript appearance except for his striking emerald green eyes beneath a full head of wavy white hair, locks of which covered most of his forehead wrinkles and nearly touched his snow white eyebrows.
His dress seldom varied. He was seen daily in an inexpensive checkered shirt tucked into well worn jeans which in turn were tucked into hand-tooled boots. His silver eagle belt buckle was large and shiny and around his neck he wore a red bandana which did a fine job of hiding a small dewlap which indiscreet bargirls described as larger and far more active than his manhood. A set of keys hung from his belt although no one seemed to know what the keys were for.
I was never certain what image Death Wish Don was trying to project. The image I conjured up was that of an engineer in an old movie western steam locomotive frantically pulling the whistle just before getting shot by train robbers. Although the way he shuffled about jangling the keys sometimes made me think of an affable jailer presiding over some small town lockup. Death Wish Don got his name because he often took different girls out of the same bar, which, indeed, was not the smartest of moves.
As far as I was concerned, he had only one annoying habit and that was his need to emphasize his point of view by poking the leg or arm of whoever happened to be sitting near him while he expounded his theories on every aspect of Bangkok nightlife. If you were new to the Boots and Saddle you would be certain to hear some of his favorite expressions: “You can take the bargirl out of the bar; but you can’t take the bar out of the bargirl”; “barfining a girl out of a bar is cheaper than alimony.”
Many of the girls who worked at the Boots and Saddle came from the northeast of Thailand, spoke fluent Lao, and almost all came from the impoverished countryside. While only a few could be described as attractive, most would, when plied with enough ladies drinks, sing along with the latest western songs, at which time they would throw themselves wholeheartedly, with exaggerated melancholy, into the singers’ sad tales of woe. The quality of their singing had often been compared with the sound of an oil rig explosion or to the noise a flushing toilet makes on board a Boeing 747 at thirty thousand feet. Very often ladies drinks would be bought for them if they would not sing.
One might never suspect that these were girls who no more than a few years before had never met a foreigner, let alone had in their worst nightmares imagined serving foreign men in a Bangkok bar.
During slow periods Winny and I would sit with the girls and listen to how they had helped their families with very different skills: expertly pounding fruit together to create natural dyes for cotton, planting and harvesting rice, weaving baskets and mats, gathering bamboo shoots and wild mushrooms, making charcoal and mixing cement and carrying bricks at construction sites. Over the years, many of the waitresses and cashiers had passed through the Boots and Saddle and gone on to fulfill their destinies.
Some had returned to their villages or small towns in the northeast where they had opened hairdressing shops or small stores; one had become the minor wife of a government official until the official had decided to have a sex change operation and ordered her out; another had opened a dressmaking shop in Bangkok which had burned down when a fireworks display landed on its roof; another had died accidentally or otherwise when her motorcycle had been hit by a ten-wheel truck driven by her husband; others had married and become picture perfect housewives; and three beautiful sisters had married foreigners and were now living abroad in Frankfurt, Phoenix and Aix-en-Provence making those cities — unknown to their burgermeister, mayor and maire — “sister cities.”
Almost all of the oil riggers, retired military, spooks and ex-spooks and the few journalists who frequented the Boots and Saddle, enjoyed watching some of the waitresses in action; those who would use their charms to cadge drinks from men too drunk to sit up. Winny would occasionally put a stop to it but basically if you were too drunk to know you were buying your 20th lady’s drink you were on your own.
The most talented at this was Dang, a 30-year-old from Nakorn Phanom, whose technique in cadging drinks had earned her the nickname, “Exocet.” The fast, accurate and deadly missile, fired from well beyond visual range, skims low over the water to seek out ships, and, failing to connect with one target, proceeds merrily on to attack another.
So, too, on the bar’s most crowded nights, did Dang lurk in the murky, smoke-filled, darkness at the rear of the bar, where, in true blitzkrieg fashion, she would suddenly, without warning, streak from booth to booth, from stool to stool, from customer to customer, seldom failing to elicit an offer of a lady’s drink, after which, with one ritualistic “good luck to you” toast and one small sip of her drink, she would huskily whisper, “I be right back, darling,” and zip off to the next customer-cluster for a repeat performance.
It wasn’t long before Dang spotted Son-of-Loser Paul at the end of the bar near the kitchen staring intently into his Heineken and mumbling to himself. Beside his beer bottle was a small cylindrical wooden cup stuffed with his bill plus the slips of myriad ladies drinks he’d bought since he had arrived several hours before.
He was a broad-shouldered, well-built man closing in on sixty but he still had a full head of hair, now mostly silver and gray. His mood swings were well known inside the bar but if a bargirl was lucky he might ring the bell to buy drinks for one and all. If she was unlucky, she was told to piss off, go back to Nakorn Nowhere and go down on her water buffalo.
Son-of-Loser Paul’s real name was also Paul, and he had been assigned the appellation because of his father’s unfortunate experience with an ex-go go dancer who had worked on Patpong Road. In his late fifties, Paul Sr. believed he had found his soulmate and had put the admittedly striking 21-year-old through college, and then put his life savings into a Bangkok condominium and an SUV, both in her name. He had married her and they had moved into the condo. Then one night when he returned to Thailand from a trip abroad, she picked him up at the airport in a taxi rather than in their SUV. Paul Sr. had thought it also strange when she took him to a hotel, rather than to their condo. She had in fact sold the condo and the SUV and was letting him know she was moving in with a Thai boyfriend. Paul Sr. was left penniless.
When Dang unwisely approached Paul Jr. to cadge a drink, without looking up, he swung out his right arm and knocked her back into a booth, startling the girls sitting there and spilling Five-Minute Jack’s Jack Daniels-on-the-rocks onto his mauve Hawaiian shirt and tawny trousers.
In a flash, an incensed Five-minute Jack began shoving screaming bargirls out of the booth so he could get at Son-of-Loser Paul who was already off his stool and spoiling for a fight with the much smaller man. Along with Winny and a few other regulars, I jumped up to prevent yet another bar brawl. Unlike Winny and a few other regulars, I somehow got in between the two would-be combatants. And while Five-Minute Jack was being pulled in one direction I found myself alone trying to talk some sense into a drink-enraged, red-faced, wide-eyed Son-of-Loser Paul. Not caring who was actually in front of him, he clenched his large fist and prepared to throw a wild punch in my direction.
Anyone with experience in fighting knows that attempting to throw a roundhouse right is almost suicidal. In John Wayne westerns, the combatants may be dumb enough to simply trade punches without ducking or countering, but not in real life. Nevertheless, I could see Son-of-Loser Paul was actually drawing back his arm to throw such a punch.
There are any number of ways to counter such a stupid move: Akido, jujitsu, karate, muay Thai, Western boxing -- they all had their techniques; and I knew several. Unfortunately, it is very hard to counter such a blow while one is lying on his back on the floor. Which is where I was at the moment. Because I had chosen simply to move my head out of the way and try once again to talk Son-of-Loser Paul out of fighting. But while attempting to run past me, a frightened Dang had bumped into me and my head had ricocheted off the crown of her cowgirl hat, keeping it (my head) in place, positioned perfectly for Son-of-Loser Paul’s “stupid” move. And a roundhouse right that actually connects –- which this one did -- is a good move indeed.
Unless someone had suddenly started ringing the bell to buy everybody drinks, my hearing was affected; and for a few moments, it was a bit like being underwater – I couldn’t tell which direction sounds were coming from. But my sight was fine. I could see Son-of-Loser Paul take a step closer to me. Possibly because he couldn’t believe his good fortune, or possibly because he was off balance or possibly to see who it was he had knocked down or possibly to finish me off.
Whatever the reason, it gave me the opportunity to place the instep of one foot behind his heel and the sole of my other foot firmly against his knee. With his foot locked into position, I thrust my leg out hard against his knee and over he went. Backward. Down. Hard. I sat up. He groaned.
Fight over. I had a black eye. He would have a big bump on his head. I was awake. He was semi-conscious. I could stand up. It would be a few minutes before he could. I guess all that meant I had won. But as some of the bargirls ran to get some ice for my eye, I didn’t feel like a winner. I felt stupid. Stupid for being in a bar fight and stupid for getting nailed with a roundhouse right by Son-of-Loser Paul.
To be honest, I wasn’t quite certain why I was taking up Lisa Avery’s invitation. And I felt a tinge of guilt at doing so. Nothing in Thailand is ever black and white, so, although I didn’t exactly have a girlfriend, in a way I did. Thitagan, nicknamed Dao (“star”), was everything a man could desire: if a man desired a beautiful 26-year-old Muay Thai boxer from Korat who could probably deck him with one thrust of her curvaceous leg. But our unspoken agreement was that she could do as she liked with other men and I could do as I liked with other women. Although I hadn’t failed to notice that whenever she thought I had in fact been with another woman her mood changed and our bedroom scenes resembled more of a boxing match than a love match. Which led me to sometimes wonder if unknown to me we had a second unspoken agreement that neither of us would actually act on our first unspoken agreement.
Maybe the blond was right: maybe I just wanted a change of pace. But although I might be imagining it, I thought I had seen something beyond the cool, cavalier, flippant nature of her invitation; something intangible just beneath the surface that suggested she might need help. It was either a kind of sixth sense I had developed for people in trouble or else just a hopelessly out-of-fashion notion that most women still needed to rely on big strong men. Whichever, I was about to find out.
She lived in a five-story building off Sukhumvith Road on soi 31. It was actually no more than a 20-minute walk from my apartment but I was running late, my eye ached, and even a short walk in Bangkok usually resulted in a shirt soaked with perspiration, so I hopped on the back of a motorcycle taxi at the Sukhumvith entrance to Washington Square. The strong smell of whiskey on the driver’s breath wafted back at me and as he made his near-suicidal, against-the-light run across busy Sukhumvith Road I remembered I had forgotten to wear my Buddha amulet.
Lisa’s building was on the corner of soi 31 and what was called the “Green Route,” a series of back roads running between Petchaburi Road and Sukhumvith Road, which, in theory, offered drivers an alternative to the constant traffic jams on both. Like most theories, it was fine so long as it wasn’t tested.
I had visited the apartment building once before at a friend’s urgent request. His Thai wife had found a receipt for an expensive lady’s watch, a gift she had never received, and had refused to let him in. I had met her a few times and we seemed to have hit it off, so he had asked me to use my Thai and whatever persuasive powers I might have in an attempt to calm her down. I had stood in the hallway of the fourth floor, pleading his case to his wife from behind a firmly closed and locked door. Although I remember thinking that if I were her, I probably wouldn’t let him in either. She did eventually relent and grudgingly opened the door, but the marriage ended less than a year later.
It was one of those not untypical Thai buildings which served various purposes. On the ground floor was the office of an equipment supplier for swimming pools, fountains and spas, a Thai restaurant and a Western restaurant, and the floors above had apartments with the occasional small workshop or storage room wedged in here and there. Whether it was more residential than commercial was something no Thai zoning official would ever worry about. Everyone in Bangkok knew that a zoned city was a Western concept bearing little relevance for Asian town planners.
The restaurants faced the stylized yin-yang symbol of a brightly lit Korean restaurant and karaoke across the street, but the door to the apartments was at the side entrance facing the more sedate Euro Inn, a small hotel favored by Japanese businessmen. A sign near the road, as well as the address Lisa had jotted down, said the apartments were the “Leman Apartelle,” but words painted beside the doorway informed me that the apartment building I was entering was the “Gaiete Inn.” Six of one, half a dozen of the other.
I walked through a dark, gloomy hallway, turned left to avoid entering the Thai restaurant, and walked up the stairs to the third floor. The pungent odors of spicy Thai soup followed me all the way up. From somewhere in the outside darkness off a third floor balcony, a Gecko lizard made its presence heard. I found apartment 302 just beside the lift. There was no sound within. I knocked.
Within seconds she opened the door. I wasn’t certain what the short, sheer, diaphanous bluish-white dress she had on was made of, but from its translucent nature, it was clear that foundation garments were not something she felt essential. Her hairstyle gave her the same tomboyish appeal as before and when she smiled there was in her blue eyes that same indefinable expression, balanced somewhere between mischief and malice. She seemed to have applied a minimum of makeup but a scent of flowery perfume assailed my nostrils. “Right on time.”
It was a one-bedroom apartment with low ceilings and only a sliding, corrugated, metal divider served as a door between rooms. I got a quick glimpse of a bedside table on which were framed personal photographs taken where snow falls, and a copy of a book with the word “detective” in the title. The screensaver on the living room computer displayed a forest of pine trees partly covered with snow, and a swirling ceiling fan gave off a loud click with each revolution. Through the partly drawn curtains I could see the lights of the Korean restaurant across the street.
The apartment was clean, neat and certainly spacious enough for one person, but I had expected something a bit more flashy, or at least less practical; something that matched the unconventional if not outright outre personality of the girl. Or at least the personality I had perceived at the Halloween party. I half wondered if this was really her apartment. In my experience, people usually fit their apartments; this one didn’t. There was also a surprising temporary quality to it. Folding tables and wickerware. Almost everything that could be sold quickly or else simply left behind.
She led me through the living room and out to a balcony. We sat in chairs on the balcony behind a rail covered with pink bougainvillea still glistening from rain. “I love it out here late at night.”
Her statement conjured up a Manhattan taxi driver’s almost exact words when he was driving me down a nearly deserted Fifth Avenue about 2 a.m. I had just seen my father take his last breath but the taxi driver’s enthusiasm for the Big Apple at two in the morning had helped me remember that life is worth living. But the Bangkok street below Lisa’s balcony was far from deserted.
I took the cold Singha beer she handed me and thanked her. I gestured toward the book on the table beside the chair. The title was Crazy Cock. I could see from where the bookmark jutted out that she was near the end. “I see you read Henry Miller.”
“I love him. Have you read him?”
“The Tropic’s; not that one.”
“Did you know when he lived in New York his wife seduced a wealthy old man and used to show the old guy what she said was her writing? So the old guy gave her money as long as she kept writing.”
I took a long hit on my beer. “I didn’t know that.”
“But it was Henry’s writing.” Her voice took on a conspiratorial tone. “She was sleeping with the old guy for him and pretending it was her work to make money for both of them.”
“Sounds like Henry. Underneath it all, a romantic at heart.”
“It was romantic. Until she ran off to Paris with a lesbian.”
“That must have been a blow to Henry.”
“It was.” Her lips curled into a sardonic smile. “Some men don’t have the capacity to understand how a woman can love someone from either sex.”
I noticed that here on the balcony her royal blue eyes had enough shade of red to be described as violet. If Lisa Avery had a flaw in her appearance, I certainly couldn’t spot it. She could accurately be described as adorably cute and undeniably sexy. “Wouldn’t surprise me if some of those men are right here in Bangkok.”
Her smile briefly evaporated and her eyes narrowed. She seemed about to respond but instead favored me with a coquettish smile. “So, was it about me?”
“Was what about you?”
She nodded toward my eye. “The fight.”
“It wasn’t actually about much of anything,” I said. Like most bar fights, I thought.
“Would you like me to put some ice on that?”
“Someone already did, thanks.”
“I don’t think it did much good.”
“I didn’t think it would. But it made a few bargirls happy to play nurse for awhile.”
“You didn’t strike me as the Patpong type.”
“I thought those bars were reserved for men over one hundred.”
“They are. Sometimes they let a few of us younger lads in. But you have to know somebody.”
On the street below, a motorcycle roared through one of several large puddles, sending a spray of water onto a seller of late-night Thai snacks. The vendor never glanced at the motorcycle and continued to wheel his dimly-lit cart unhurriedly along the wet street.
“So Frank Webber says you’re a genuine New Yorker.”
“That I am.”
“How long have you been in Asia?”
“Five years in Beijing. With the embassy. Five here with the embassy. Over one year on my own.”
“You speak Chinese?”
I nodded. “Mandarin.”
She leaned back and stared at me, then her lovely lips curled into a playful smile. “Divorced?”
I nodded again.
She grew thoughtful. Knitted brows. Slight pout. I had no doubt she knew how cute she looked with knitted brows and a slight pout. “So your job with the embassy ended over a year ago. But you’re still here. What do you do really?”
“A bit of this and a bit of that.”
She gave me a knowing smile. “Quicksand.”
“The kind of guy who gets sucked into Bangkok and can’t get out. The Thai Tar Baby’s got you and she won’t let go.”
In the windows above the Korean restaurant, Karaoke girls stood before mirrors intently reapplying their makeup. Red and blue neon advertising the restaurant reflected in the street’s scattered puddles lending the scene the fractured texture of a disturbing dream.
I had the feeling that finding what made Lisa tick might not be that easy. And I sensed she was in a very different mood than the night before. I was about to learn how right I was. I decided on a direct approach: “Enough about me. Tell me about yourself.”
“There isn’t much to tell. And, to be perfectly honest, I don’t believe I need you now; yesterday I did.”
“Need me in what way?”
“I’ve been looking for a way to…deal with someone. For a long time. But something happened.”
Her voice hardened. “And now I think I am about to find out all I need to know to make that someone pay for what he did.”
“And whatever happened happened after you saw me at the party.”
“Right! And in just a couple of hours, I should know all I need to know.” She tilted her head and looked at me with concern. “Oh, but don’t worry.” She glanced at her slim gold watch on her slim white wrist. “That doesn’t mean we can’t go to bed for a bit.”
I took a swig of beer. “That’s a relief.”
For just a moment she grew serious. “You don’t like me much, do you?”
“You don’t reveal enough of yourself for me to decide.” She stared at another vendor appearing and disappearing as he peddled his food cart through the street’s lights and shadows and remained silent. A small dark boy in a large shiny rain hat sat crouched in the front of the cart looking up at us without expression. “What made you think I could help you find someone?”
She smiled enigmatically. “A friend of yours.”
“No. In New York. A fellow named Chinaman.”
I couldn’t help but react to that one. Chinaman, or rather, Liu Chiang-hsin, which translated as ‘a mind as sharp as a sword.’ And it was. I had first met him as a kid when Dad adopted him. Even though we grew up together, he was never outgoing; given his experiences as a child, I couldn’t blame him for keeping his feelings to himself. In Mao’s China, he had learned at an early age that expressed opinions can be dangerous. “Did he say you could call him ‘Chinaman’?”
She nodded. “He did.”
“Then he must have liked you, because only his friends call him that.”
“He said I was lucky you were out here.”
“The Manhattan yellow pages are full of detectives. How did you get onto him?”
“Well, the first one I called had just gone out of business due to some technicality over an illegal search, the second was too expensive, the third only specialized in seducing somebody’s spouse or fiance to see if they were faithful and the fourth I met in an East Village coffee shop. He was a lot cheaper than the second but he spent the whole time talking not to me but to my tits.”
I made certain my eyes were fastened to hers and tried to convince myself that nothing existed below the lady’s chin.
“And Chinaman was my fifth and lucky try.”
“I take it he talked to you, not to your tits.”
At that, she grew serious. “That man looked right through my eyes and into me like no one else ever did.”
“What do you know about him?”
“He’s my brother.”
Her lovely blue eyes widened. I decided they were a moonstone blue; the shade of blue a man could become lost in forever and be happy about it. The shade of blue a man could desert his wife and kids and job and friends and self-respect for.
“I mean my father adopted him when he was a boy. He’s descended from a scholar family. His father had loved Chinese tradition and culture, and that hadn’t set too well with the Red Guards so they killed his father and drove his mother mad during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Chinaman had been a child at the time. He was smuggled out of Beijing into Hong Kong and eventually into New York. By a friend of dad’s.
“And he became a private detective in New York City.”
“A creative writing teacher then a detective.” I stared into her eyes. “So that chance meeting we had at the bar?”
“Ummm, not exactly a chance meeting. I wanted to look you over. Chinaman described you pretty well and gave me your address. Not many foreigners your age and build living over the Boots and Saddle. A girl burning incense just outside the bar told me you and your portly friend had gone to the open-air bar down the street.”
“And you took it for granted that your womanly charms would cause me to hit on you.”
“With a bit of encouragement from my portly friend.”
“I must remember to thank him.”
“So why did you brush me off?”
“I told you: You seemed a little too sure of yourself.”
Actually, I had the impression she was about to loosen up just when Da arrived—“early,” as she had said at the time--but I decided to drop it. Despite her surface confidence, there was something fragile about Lisa Avery. And I didn’t get the feeling she understood Thailand and the Thais all that well: people deservedly known for their beautiful smiles and graceful charm and yet people with the highest murder rate in the world. Sometimes it took years of living in the kingdom before one learned a very simple truth: Thais are the nicest people in the world – until they’re not. But I had learned early in life that you can’t force protection on people who don’t want it, so I decided if she didn’t need anything I would get back to my own life.
“Speaking of friends, how’s yours?” When she didn’t seem to understand, I added: “The lady at the bar.”
“Oh, Da. She’s fine. She’s been showing me the ropes here.”
She reached over to pour more white wine into her glass. I did my humanly best to ignore the outline of her breasts beneath her dress. I was already ignoring the curves of her legs. More or less. At least by Bangkok standards, I was doing an amazing amount of ignoring. “What does she do?”
She smiled. “Let’s just say Da is a party animal.”
“How long have you been out here?”
“A bit over three months.”
“You waited a long time before you contacted me.”
“I thought I’d see what I could do on my own.”
My eye was beginning to pound more than it had before and my head ached and – I suppose a good sign – I had feeling in my finger just enough to know that it also ached. And neither the beer nor the humidity was helping my condition. “So you were willing to go to bed with me when you thought you might need my help. Now you don’t need my help.”
“But we can still go to bed.” Something about the way she said the line made me feel as if she were offering alms to a beggar; I could have a handout whether I deserved it or not. She must have noticed my reaction because she added: “If you like.”
I let that sit for several seconds. “Did you go to bed with Chinaman?”
“Hey! A lady never tells.”
Actually, something else was bothering me about Lisa Avery’s “You-can-still-have-it-anyway” attitude. In Pattaya, I had recently visited a friend, a former diving student and now the general manager of a hotel. While we talked beside the swimming pool, I had noticed a barefoot, bikini-clad Thai girl enter the stairway to a wing of the hotel. Her thin, elderly escort was saying something in broken English with a heavy German accent that made her throw her head back in loud ribald laughter. The laughter could be heard even when they disappeared briefly then reappeared on the second-floor landing and entered the room.
One of thousands of excited and contented male tourists from Europe, America and Australia spending their two- or three-week vacations with newly acquired Thai girlfriends in a luxurious Pattaya beach hotel room behind a door secured with a magnetic-mechanical variable code lock; a lock capable of being magnetically recoded in a few seconds with any of up to four billion codes. German steel workers, Italian businessmen, American servicemen, Japanese farmers — like the keys themselves, completely interchangeable instruments with the correct financial code to feminine locks also capable of infinite recoding. Magnetic-mechanical unions of two- or three-week duration after which the recoding of the keys, locks and people could begin again. I couldn’t help but get the impression that to Lisa Avery I was just one of these interchangeable instruments. I had nothing against the Pattaya scene – it was what it was; I just didn’t feel like indulging in a magnetic-mechanical union with someone who acted as if she was doing me a favor.
I saw that the rain had stopped. I finished the beer and stood up. I dug a namecard out of my wallet and handed it to her. “This being the rainy season, I think I’ll take a rain check.”
Wrinkles of puzzlement lined her smooth brow. “You sound like you’re insulted.”
I allowed my eyes the brief luxury of roaming over her short, sheer dress. “I’m beginning to suspect you specialize in humiliating men. Or is it just me?”
For just a second, her eyes narrowed but then she must have decided a playful response was best. “You’re saying I’m a dick-tease? A man-hating lesbian?” Her smile widened as she gestured toward the book. “Or that I’m cock crazy?”
“I’m not sure what you are. But I think you’re very pretty and I think you know that. What I think you don’t know is that you may be far more naïve than you realize, and Bangkok can be a tricky place for pretty, naive American blondes on the hustle. Remember Kipling’s warning about what happens to those who try to ‘hustle the East.’”
Lisa stood up. “Remind me.”
“Never mind. My eye hurts. I’m going home and go to bed.”
I walked just ahead of her to the door. She opened it for me. “Thanks for the beer.”
“Anytime. Thanks for the advice. Maybe we’ll meet again?”
“Until then, I’ll try not to hustle the East.”
I waited in the street for a motorcycle taxi in a fine drizzle lost in thought. Something bothered me about Lisa Avery. So did the picture of a younger Lisa Avery on her table by her living room door. She stood hugging a woman who could have been her sister, her girlfriend, her anything. I knew I had to let it go: she was a big girl and could take care of herself. But why did I have the feeling she was far more vulnerable than she made out to be?
I glanced up to her balcony but it was empty. Clusters of bougainvillea still clung to the rail as if unable to decide whether or not to swing up and over or to give it up and let go. Immature chauvinist that I am, I couldn’t help wondering if Chinaman did go to bed with her.
I looked up into the night sky and watched glistening beads of rain flow gracefully along electric wires like exquisite jewels and then – one by one --plunge abruptly into the darkness. And I thought of Lisa. And I thought of Kipling.
…And the end of the flight
Is a tombstone white
With the name of the late deceased,
And the epitaph drear: A fool lies here
Who tried to hustle the East
Benjasiri Park fronts Sukhumvith Road and serves as a small but welcome green oasis not quite overwhelmed by the pollution of the area. Its northern boundary runs beside the Emporium, one of Bangkok’s classier shopping malls, and one especially favored by young Thai women out shopping with their elderly foreign boyfriends.
Three times a week I roust myself out of bed about 7 a.m., throw on some old jogging clothes and Adidas sneakers and make the five-minute walk to the park. A paved road curves around the park and here I join other joggers -– some local, some foreign, and some hotel guests of the Imperial Queen’s Park – and jog. I try to make at least a mile or two in decent time but the idea isn’t to go for distance; simply to sweat off as much beer as I can.
I had just finished my run and sat on a narrow concrete ledge near the park’s small lake. Billowy white clouds scudded leisurely across a light blue sky. Pigeons hopped anxiously about, ready to brawl over scraps of food. A few dozen followers of Falun Gung were in the midst of cultivating their moral qualities through various sets of exercises. Beyond the white blossoms and dark green leaves of frangipani trees I could glimpse joggers as they passed.
I was still puffing hard and wiping sweat from my face with a towel when I heard someone approach from behind. I turned to see a thin young Caucasian in his late 20’s dressed in short-sleeved white shirt, blue-and-red paisley tie, tan slacks and loafers. He stopped just a few feet away from me.
He had wavy blond hair, bright blue eyes, a pointed nose and a pointed chin. His skin appeared pasty and reddened, as that sometimes seen on foreigners in Thailand whose complexions never quite adjust to the Asian sun. He was sweating more than I was and his posture suggested he was about to wilt in the heat. He had the look of a young missionary as described in the travel writing of Somerset Maugham: resigned to his situation even though it wasn’t what he thought it would be. It never was.
His voice was high-pitched. His accent was middle-class British. “Mr. Sterling?”
The young man looked vaguely familiar. I nodded.
“Father Mike told me where I could find you about now. My name is Kenneth Wade. We met once in the slums.”
Then I did remember him. It was at some kind of Catholic charity benefit for slum children. I had helped Father Mike, an eccentric Catholic priest, locate a man who had a penchant for chatting up very young female flower sellers at intersections and luring them into his van for sexual purposes. Only one family had been brave enough to press charges. I had tracked down the man and got a measure of satisfaction when he thought he could fight his way past me but he had the last laugh as his ties to corrupt, high-ranking police had eventually won the day. Father Mike had the girl sent far from Bangkok to avoid repercussions.
I stood up and reached my hand out. “Yes, of course. I remember you. From Manchester, right?”
“Yes.” His hand was moist and smooth; his grip weak. “May I sit down?”
I sat down again and motioned for him to do so.
“Father Mike has a problem he thinks you might be able to help him with.” He
paused as if waiting for a reaction from me, then, getting none, continued on.
“You may know about the loan shark situation in our slum area, I think.”
I nodded. “I know they’re more dangerous than sharks in the water.”
“Yes. Well, even in slum dwellings, people have rents to pay. Sometimes they simply don’t have the money so they are forced to borrow.”
I wiped my neck and placed the towel over my shoulders. “At extremely high rates of interest.”
“Yes. Then they owe still more money. So the loan sharks threaten them and sometimes beat them. Then they have no choice but to sell whatever they have of value. The loan sharks also demand a guarantor of the loan, usually a friend or neighbor in the slums.”
He paused here almost lost in thought. It couldn’t have been more than six months since I had seen him but he seemed to have aged six years. Perhaps he had been affected by the depressing nature of his job. One can only see destitute slum dwellers having their lives ruined by gangs of thugs protected by the rich and powerful for so long before being affected by it.
“So now we have a case where an elderly woman borrowed nothing herself but signed as a guarantor for a friend. The friend couldn’t pay and fled Bangkok.” He put his hand to his neck and made an unsuccessful attempt to pull his tie away from his prominent Adam’s apple. “Now the loan sharks are after the guarantor. She sold her radio, kitchen utensils and even her Buddha amulets but each day she’s deeper in debt. She says she is old and doesn’t care about herself but she has a twelve-year-old granddaughter.” A brief flicker of anger clouded his bright blue eyes. “The men have been making noises about taking the granddaughter and using her to recoup the debt.”
“And what is it Father Mike wants from me?”
Kenneth Wade seemed apprehensive as dozens of unruly pigeons swirled about and edged closer to the ledge. “The girl doesn’t want to go to another province. She won’t leave her grandmother. Not for long, anyway. Father Mike said you might be able to hide the girl for a short period of time; while he and I try to work out something with the loan sharks.”
“Have you dealt with them before?”
I knew how tough Father Mike was beneath his affable façade; he had to be; protecting the poor in a country where corruption flourishes was a tough business. But at least on the surface Kenneth Wade appeared ill-equipped to deal with the Bangkok heat let alone the intricacies and pervasiveness of bribery and intimidation. Still, people often had resources that surprised me. “And they’re open to reason?”
“Sometimes. Or sometimes they are a gang protected by senior police officers. We make an appointment with the police officers and explain our problem, never suggesting for a moment, of course, that the officer himself is involved. That technique we can use only a few times.” He ran his hand slowly along the back of his neck as if the sun were burning him. I decided he had a bad case of seborrheic dermatitis, reddened skin foreigners in Thailand get thanks to pollution. I knew what it was because I’d had a touch of it a few months after I arrived. I had made the mistake of washing it well with soap. I wanted to warn him not to use soap as it would make it worse but I decided another man’s rashes were none of my business.
I could tell he was trying to think of the best way to ask something else. “One other thing. We think we are being watched by the gang. We know the grandmother is. They don’t want the girl to disappear. That’s their leverage.” He hesitated, as if embarrassed to ask more, then continued. “Father Mike wonders if you will come and take the girl.”
“What about the grandmother?”
“She said she won’t leave her home and doesn’t care what they do to her.”
I didn’t respond right away. I looked over at the growing horde of pigeons scrambling brazenly about for crumbs and then looked up to watch a skytrain pass. Large letters advertising a phone network were on the cars of the train: “A Beautiful Life – A Beautiful Orange.” It wasn’t that I didn’t want to help; I just try never to promise anyone more than I can deliver. “I might be able to help. I should know in a day or two. Give me a number where I can reach you or Father Mike.”
Kenneth Wade handed me his namecard with his new mobile phone number printed on the back. He stood up, shook my hand, thanked me for my time and said he had to get back to work.
I watched him carefully avoid the pigeons scampering for food as well as the Falun Gong practitioners meditating on the grass, and walk off in the direction of Sukhumvith Road. A young man with a pasty complexion, a bad case of dermatitis, a high-pitched, reedy voice, a birdlike nose, and a lot of guts.