I ask Khun Kulakon’s secretary to call a cab to take us back to Krung Thep. Once we’re on the road, the obscenity of the women’s jail, and Rosie McCoy’s disintegration, weigh on both of us, though I suspect for different reasons. I pay little attention to the unusual number of times the driver looks in the rearview mirror, though I’m vaguely aware of his nervousness.
Lek, like most Thais, assumes that farang are a different order of being, like extraterrestrials, whom it is ridiculous to try to understand. Rosie’s performance has only reinforced this impression. The idea of committing a grave crime in order to have a better life and be a better person also is incomprehensible to him. In Thailand people become criminals because of bad karma from previous lifetimes; to actually choose, of your own free will, to blacken your karmic future without compelling reason seems quite Martian. I, on the other hand, understand only too well. I wonder how I would react if they told me I was to spend the next twelve years in a Thai jail?
“D’you think Zinna will kill her?”
“I don’t know. If he hears she’s lost control of her mind and her tongue, he’ll have someone slip her something to make it look like an overdose. Exactly what Vikorn would do.”
“Excuse me, I have to take a pee,” the cabdriver says, and turns off into a rest area near a clump of trees. I watch him walk toward the trees with a hand on his fly, then he starts to run. I react too slowly. The army truck that has been following us, an open-backed five-ton model used to transport troops, comes to a halt immediately in front of the cab, and suddenly we are surrounded by brawny young men in camouflage fatigues. An energetic fellow with lieutenant’s stripes walks toward us accompanied by a couple of kids-they are hardly more than that-holding assault rifles at the ready. Now they are pointing them at us on either side of the car. “Get out, please,” the lieutenant says.
I cannot help casting a glance at Lek. He and soldiers don’t mix too well. “Look,” I say, “I can guess what this is about. He doesn’t know anything. He’s just my assistant, hardly more than a cadet. Why don’t you let him take the taxi back to town?” The soldier looks closely at Lek, takes in the mascara, the long black hair, the unmistakable femininity, and leers. “Let him go,” I hiss, which only increases the leer; obviously the military mind has concluded Lek and I are lovers. They are going to have fun on the way back to base.
And so they did. By the time I’m standing outside General Zinna’s command suite in the military compound, my ears are ringing with Lek’s screams, including the unbearable: What have I done to offend you? prior to a squeal of pain. I decide to use the line on General Zinna.
He dismisses the two armed guards as soon as I’m shown into his office. He may be about five inches shorter than me and more than twenty years older, but there’s no doubt about how easily he would beat me in a fight. He possesses one of those enormous chests and outstanding musculature with which the Buddha sometimes compensates the short. I envisage him deciding what to be when he grew up and narrowing the short list down to two: army general or operatic baritone. Except he wouldn’t have considered the second. The irony of it all is his notorious lust for young men; but he belongs to that section of the gay community for whom erections are a kind of nightstick with which to beat the lover-victim, which makes it all okay, whereas Lek is all about love, hardly does sex at all, and is therefore despicable.
“What have I done to offend you?” I ask.
His hair is gray and so close cropped it is almost shaved; at his height he cannot help but strut. He stands up and walks around his desk, making the flagstones ring with his steel-tipped boots. When he is standing about an inch from me, he pokes my chest with one index finger, as if to push me over with it. Only the rage I feel on Lek’s behalf gives me the courage to grab it and turn it back. Instead of flinching he stares into my eyes, waiting to see if I will have the guts to break it-then what? Go on, his eyes say, make my day. I hurt him as much as I dare, stopping just short of breaking it, before letting go. I have to admit his pain threshold is a lot higher than mine. He looks at his hand curiously for a moment, then nods at me to sit down on a crude wood chair while he stands.
“Explain why you were at that women’s holding prison with your geek and you can go.”
“He’s not my geek. He’s my assistant, and whatever you’re up to, he has nothing to do with it. Are all your men queer? They seem to have fallen in love with him.”
The question seems to amuse him. Some laughter lines open around his eyes. “Suppose they are, is it against the law? Are you going to arrest them?”
“No,” I say, “might is right. Obviously.”
“Obviously.” He nods in agreement. “A great pity your boss Colonel Vikorn still doesn’t understand that after all these years.” He takes a couple of steps back to assess me. “I think you went to see that Australian cunt.” He pronounces the word with a contempt you can taste. “Are you the one who busted her?” When I don’t say anything he yells to his secretary on the other side of the door and a private soldier in his thirties comes in. That he is more than six feet tall and built like something made of iron is not as disturbing as the mind behind the body. This is not a mischievous young recruit; this is a killer who enjoys his work.
I cough. “Look, I think I can cut this sh-, sh-, short,” I say. “You think Colonel Vikorn busted your mule to get an edge because your ten-year agreement with him is coming to an end and you’re both maneuvering for position. Well, you’re wrong. Vikorn would never be that crude, and anyway it’s not the kind of strategy that could succeed against a man like you. Everyone knows that. There’s a third party involved here.”
I have raised a flicker of interest. “Oh, really? Who?”
“A Tibetan.” The word produces a strange effect. The General exchanges a glance with his enforcer, then draws up a chair to sit down and watch me. More than five minutes pass without anyone saying anything. Finally, Zinna says, “Name?”
“Dr. Norbu Tietsin.”
I have the most curious impression that both Zinna and his enforcer twitch at the same time. Now Zinna stands up and paces up and down for a while, hammering home his authority with every ring. Finally, he tells his enforcer to go. “Talk,” he orders, as the door closes.
“No. I’m not talking until I see my assistant in good health standing on the other side of your window.”
“Are you giving orders here?”
“You can get the answer by torturing me, but it will take a while and Vikorn will feel obliged to retaliate. It would be a much more efficient use of your precious time if you just put Lek outside the window. It would also make negotiations for the next ten-year treaty that much smoother, don’t you think?”
Zinna shrugs and picks up his phone. “Looks like true love,” he says to me with a leer before talking into the receiver. “The katoey the boys just brought in, take him into the compound where I can see him/her from my window. If there are any visible signs, someone’s going to get their ass kicked.”
During the interval, Zinna and I find ourselves incongruously reminiscing, for want of small talk. He asks me if I remember the last summit meeting between him and Vikorn, more than a decade ago, when I was only a few years out of cadet school. I surprise him with my total recall of the event; it wasn’t something anyone could easily forget.
Both men were in their fifties at the time, at the height of their power and eager to demonstrate prowess in the most extravagant pissing contest I have ever seen. The negotiations took place over the border in Burma, where Zinna had set up a yaa baa factory capable of producing a million pills per day, manned by Karen tribeswomen whom the Burmese military had enslaved and made available to Zinna for his operation-in return for a big slice of the profits, of course.
I replay the fragments I have retained while Zinna and I are talking about it. In my mind’s eye I was no more than a kid: impressionable, fascinated, excited, and totally under Vikorn’s thumb. He sent me up into the tribal area, traditionally owned not by the Karen but by the Hmong, to reconnoiter prior to his arrival by helicopter. He astonished everyone by arriving not in one black chopper but in a squadron of thirteen which he hired for the day from an arms dealer based in Cambodia. Zinna was infuriated and intimidated, but tried not to show it while the two men negotiated at a military-type table in a valley mostly given over to poppy cultivation by the Hmong. Then something went wrong, and some very angry-looking soldiers with shoulder-fired rocket launchers appeared over the brow, running toward us in what bore a close resemblance to a charge. Now we were legging it like loonies to the last chopper to remain on the ground-and there we were, swinging away while making obscene signs at them indicating their genetic proximity to buffalo, while at the same time keeping our fingers crossed that they wouldn’t be able to get their rocket launchers on their shoulders and fire while we were still in range.
“Close one,” Vikorn sang out after a beautiful corkscrewing incandescent missile (which put me in mind of a fully realized soul zooming back to nirvana and made me kind of jealous) went shooting past.
But when the chopper tilted the other way, I could see the Hmong women below collecting their little packets of opium sap in piles for other women to hump back to the village by means of a bamboo rod across their shoulders, as they had done for a thousand years.
“Never saw Vikorn move so fast in my life,” Zinna chuckles. Obviously, he believes he got the better of Vikorn in the somewhat fraught negotiations that followed, even though Vikorn worked loopholes into the agreement you could ride a buffalo cart through.
Zinna jerks his chin at the window. Two soldiers have brought Lek to stand in front of the glass. He looks thoroughly humiliated.
Now I’m so angry I’m fantasizing about kicking Zinna in the crotch; I can even feel the blow as I would deliver it with the tip of my shoe. I would enjoy him writhing on the floor, it would be worth the beating. Then something odd happens to my mind. Tietsin’s mantra starts repeating itself automatically in my brain. I experience the same sensation as in the teahouse, a kind of floating in which consciousness is withdrawn from the tyranny of the here and now. All of a sudden even Lek’s suffering is unreal. Now Zinna is staring at me.
I force my attention back into the five senses. “The day the Australian Rosie McCoy was arrested, we got a tip-off. The call came from Kathmandu in Nepal. We checked the origin of the call. Apart from the fact that it came from the Himalayas it was the standard sort of thing. Ninety-nine percent of the time it’s a trafficker stabbing a former partner in the back. When the tip-offs are specific we notify Immigration. This was very specific, so I showed up and assisted with the bust. That’s all I can tell you.”
“But you went to see her today?”
“Of course. I wanted to see if I could get any more information. I’m a cop.”
Zinna sneers. “You’re not a cop, you’re Vikorn’s poodle. You jump at your master’s voice.” He lets a beat pass for the insult to sink in. “But you knew she was one of ours, didn’t you?”
“We didn’t know anything.” I scratch my ear. “But she was carrying a lot of smack. Since she wasn’t one of ours, we did rather think she might belong to you.”
I’m waiting for Zinna to ask more about the Tibetan connection, and not at all sure how I’m going to answer.
“The informant, he actually gave you his name. A Doctor Tietsin?”
I raise my palms. “Anyone can invent a name.”
The General stares at me with unnerving intensity for more than a minute, then seems to withdraw his interest. “That’s right, anyone can invent a name. Even a name like that.”
“Maybe it’s some kind of joke in Tibetan,” I offer. To his skeptical frown, I add, “You know, like someone might say Mickey Mouse or Napol'eon Bonaparte-a joke in Tibetan culture, I mean.”
“What do you know about Tibetan culture?” he asks suddenly.
To my surprise he seems reluctant to pursue the subject. “Okay, you can go.”
When I stand up I say, “She didn’t talk, by the way.”
“The Australian, Rosie McCoy. She didn’t say a thing. I don’t think she knows anything. You run a tight operation, don’t you? There wouldn’t be anything to connect her to you or your people?”
“There wasn’t anything to connect her to your Tibetan either, until you busted her.”
“D’you want me to talk to Vikorn, see if we can persuade Immigration to drop the case-I mean as a kind of preliminary sweetener to your upcoming negotiations?”
He thinks about this, before saying, “No. This is something I want to deal with myself.” He gives a sudden phony smile. “I shan’t be troubling you.” As I’m leaving he surprises me with a final comment. “That whole thing up in Nepal, the crown prince massacring his family in June 2001, the collapse of the monarchy, the success of the Communists-you know what it was all about, don’t you?”
“Well, now you do. They’ve been moving stuff from Tibet down into Nepal for twenty years. It’s a bigger operation than anything we have in Thailand. Whoever runs the government runs the trafficking. Actually, it’s a lot bigger than Colombia, but it’s Himalayan, so nobody knows, not even the Americans. The CIA have no real intelligence about Tibet at all, except what they get from the Dalai Lama’s people in Dharamsala and a few spies in Lhasa.” He looks at me. “And they know better than to talk about the Business.”
At the door I say, “How do you know?”
“A Tibetan told me.”
“Tietsin? He was here? He called you from Kathmandu?” Zinna jerks his chin to indicate that he doesn’t answer questions. “But why move it through Tibet? Why not through Pakistan and India? Mumbai, New Delhi, and Calcutta are notorious trafficking centers.”
“That’s why. Those places are notorious. All the big Western security agencies are in India in invasion numbers, not only the CIA and the DEA, but all the French and German and Dutch, too, along with the British MI6. But when the product disappears into Tibet there are no traces. No tip-offs. And apparently there are hundreds of routes from Tibet into Nepal, routes only Tibetans, Sherpas, and Gurkhas know about. It arrives by foot without a history. Nervous buyers prefer it that way.” He gives me a quizzical look.
In the cab on the way back to Krung Thep, Lek and I are silent for most of the journey. When we finally reach the outskirts, Lek says, “You want to know if they fucked me or not, don’t you?”
“No. I don’t want to know anything you don’t want to tell me.”
“There are so many ways to fuck someone like me, aren’t there? What does it matter how they did it?”
Ten minutes later when he’s getting out of the cab, he says, “I suppose there’s nothing for it but to go home and have a good cry. I expect I’ll be all right in the morning.”