There’s no reason to connect the dead American with Tietsin just because he visited Nepal a few times. You need to be qualified in the finer nuances of superstition to understand my frame of mind when we leave the Rose Garden and head for the flophouse on Soi 4/4. What the circumstantial evidence is pointing at, you see, is my personal connection with Nepal. The cosmos is telling me there’s no way out; I’m stuck with Tietsin and his mantra whether I like it or not. Anyway, I lead Sukum out of the bar and down a narrow alley filled with cooked-food stalls, which cater to the girls who work the bars. There are a few sitting at the tables who eye us as prospects when we pass. One, a new girl I’ve never seen before, tells me she loves me. Sincerity is the first casualty of capitalism.
We emerge out of the alley into Soi 5, which is famous for the Food-land supermarket, which also offers a small eatery, open 24/7 except on Buddhist holidays. (If ever you want to meet a girl when the bars are closed, farang, you know where to go, thanks to Jitpleecheep Personal Tours.) We now emerge into Sukhumvit, turn right past Starbucks with the girls hanging around outside-it’s a favorite farang haunt, after all-keep the bookshop on our right and the martial-arts/porn stalls on our left, then find ourselves waiting at the famous intersection with Soi 4. All trades around here-the bars, the bookstalls, the hairdressers, the food stalls, the clothing stalls, the DVD stalls, the hotels, and the cops-thrive thanks to the cornucopia of business opportunities created by the most ancient profession. The girls on these streets might be despised in the larger society, but you’ll find most locals being polite to them. Looking a gift horse in the mouth is a definite no-no for anyone sensitive to the nuances.
We manage to cross the road at considerable risk to our lives, say hello to our brother cops manning the traffic-control box on the other side of the Suk, then pass the bars and cooked-food stalls of Soi 4 before we finally turn into Subsoi 4. At the flophouse we find two bored security guards sitting outside at a tubular steel table playing Thai checkers with bottle tops. They don’t challenge us, so we pass on into the reception area, which uses a minimum of space on the ground floor. The katoey behind the desk is tall, maybe six feet, seriously overweight (long hair tied back in a ponytail; mascara and rouge), and of the kind whose personality did not improve after he had his goolies cut off. He is also smart, sees we are cops before we open our mouths, and decides not to help.
“We’re investigating the murder of the farang Frank Charles.”
The katoey rolls his eyes. “Not again. I thought that was all over?”
“It’s not over. We’d like to ask you how often he visited here.”
“I’ve been told by my management that all inquiries must go through legal channels.”
“We are your legal channel,” Sukum explains.
“Lawyers,” the katoey says with a sneer. “Talk to the lawyers.”
Sukum may be shy when it comes to dealing with farang bars and the girls who service them, but here he recognizes a type he knows well. “Do you really want to make us angry?” he asks in a voice of polite intimidation. This has raised the katoey’s hackles and now we have a standoff waiting to happen. I touch Sukum’s arm. “Later,” I tell him. To the katoey I say, “Give us the keys to the room,” in the kind of voice all cops know how to use. He hands them over with a sulky shrug and we make for the lifts.
There is a romantic couple behind us at the reception desk: a farang in his late fifties with a Thai girl in her early twenties. The farang rents a room for two hours and pays in advance while we’re waiting. They join us in the tiny elevator, and the entire journey from ground to fourth is spent in a tense, precoital silence. There is something fascinating about two strangers who have decided to have sex together within perhaps five minutes of the first encounter. When they get out at the same floor as ours, I cannot help watching them at the door of their room, the man fumbling with the keys, the girl staring at the floor.
“Come on,” Sukum says.
While we are walking down the corridor, I fish out my cell phone to call Lek and tell him to get over here and talk to the katoey on reception. Now Sukum is jealous because he doesn’t have a local katoey scout of his own.
In the room where the fat farang died they have cleaned up the blood lake and taken the corpse away, but they left just about everything else. No rotary saw or other instruments were found by the forensic team. I automatically make for the bookshelves. The books and screenplays are all still there, although they have been dusted for prints. According to the forensic boys, there were no prints on the books other than the victim’s. As for the rest of the room: sure, prints everywhere, from a thousand different sets of fingers. What do you expect? It’s a flophouse.
It’s the books, of course, which intrigue, fascinate, and baffle me. If not for them, the case might be classified as some bizarre Oriental copycat murder based on a rather literal third-world interpretation of the Western noir tradition. The books make no such assumption possible. I’m afraid they make the whole crime incomprehensible the minute you attempt to profile the perpetrator. On the one hand, we have here as extreme a murder as you could possibly imagine; on the other, there’s not a sign of ungoverned rage, the decision to mutilate the human form apparently sustained with surgical discipline. The victim was disemboweled with a single careful incision from solar plexus to lower abdomen; his guts flopped out because he was so obese. Similarly, the whole of his upper cranium had been removed, but the surgery was carried out with considerable care and skill-the pathologist has explained that it is not easy to keep the saw steady without practice. Most telling of all, there are no irrational slashings or stabbings, which may have indicated a psychopathic disorder in the killer. All of this might have been explained away on the grounds that we simply do not have enough information about the perp; but we do: we have the books s/he used as a blueprint. But why? Surely not as a manual? Someone, obviously, is trying to tell us something. And then, of course, there is the small matter of cannibalism.
Now that they have been dusted I am able to pick up the books one by one: The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, an Edgar Allan Poe short-story collection, including “The Pit and the Pendulum,” and-what a coincidence!-The Godfather, by Mario Puzo.
I’m shaking my head at the impenetrable mystery, at the same time wishing there were a window to look out of. “No window,” I say to Sukum.
“Didn’t you look at the room rates? A room with a window is double the cost of one without.”
“But we’re dealing with a successful Hollywood director, the most spoiled subspecies of human being that exists on earth. How could he possibly make a decision based on a five-hundred-baht difference?”
Sukum scratches his head and shrugs: a farang issue on which he is not qualified to speak. “Maybe he didn’t want windows.”
“He wanted a bathroom, though. Rooms without bathrooms are even cheaper.”
Sukum and I check out the bathroom: tiny, with a flush toilet crammed next to a shower stall with a torn curtain. There are no clues here. Indeed, that is another paradox. In a case involving extreme violence, you don’t normally find the perpetrator’s mind organized enough for such a thorough cleanup. Apart from the blood on the floor, there was no circumstantial evidence to follow up on at all. It almost has the mark of a professional slaying; but professionals do not indulge in such a baroque style. Nor do they eat their victims’ brains: it would ruin their reputation, and they’d never get any more work.
Stumped! I’ve never come across anything like it. Violence, you see, is a form of lust, a primitive kind of consumerism: early capitalism, you might say. Just as it is impossible for you to buy a dream house without first fantasizing about it, so with the love objects of killers. They are driven by compelling images just as irresistible to them as dog-snoring-in-front-of-fireplace-while-cute-kids-play-safely-on-lawn may be to you, farang-lacking your discretion, however, they tend to end up with an ugly piece of meat, whereas you merely get stuck with a subprime mortgage. Rage turns to ashes: panic. But I see none of that here; nor do I feel it. For the perpetrator to saw open the victim’s skull, they would have had to concentrate for as much as ten minutes, being careful not to cut into the delicate, spectacular, crimson spider web of the arachnoid mater-the inner membrane which protects the brain. But why would you worry about the arachnoid mater of someone you were about to kill, especially when you intend to dig into it for supper? After the perp finished they must have carefully put away the rotary saw and the knife they used to cut him open, neither of which have been found, and coolly departed the premises. I’m not entirely displeased that it’s Sukum’s case, not mine. Dead end: we stare at each other and shrug.
Downstairs, Lek does not seem to be faring well with the desk clerk. When Sukum and I exit the elevator we walk into a katoey shouting match. In Thailand people rarely express their feelings in public; but this is Nana and these are transsexuals, and they both hail from the Northeast, so they are yelling in their own dialect of Lao, which neither I nor Sukum understand. Finally Lek, who, much as he loathes physical violence has no problem with a really good mouth fight on the fishwife model, says something to make the other katoey start to walk around his desk. He is big and fat, so Sukum and I quickly come between them. When I get Lek outside he is still cursing the other while repeatedly pushing his long black hair back with both hands; but he quickly recovers. “The victim, the American, he used this place all the time-at least five times a week,” Lek explains. “He had an arrangement with the management. He kept the key to the room and rented it on a monthly basis. He got them to agree to change the lock so that only senior management had a key, which they kept in a private safe off the premises. He usually brought girls here in twos, sometimes threes. The sessions never lasted more than a couple of hours. On the other hand, sometimes he would have as many as three sessions in one day.”
“So what were you arguing with that katoey about?”
Lek pushes his hair back again and shakes himself. “Somtam salad. What else? We’re Isaan.”