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18

If I know Im crazy, does that mean Im not? I ask this question because its three twenty-two a.m. This is the time I awake with a groan every night: three twenty-two exactly. And I know that the noise I just heard, the one which woke me up, although it sounded like someone moving in the yard outside, was a pure product of psychosis. Yes, my heart is thumping wildly, my head is sweating so much the pillow is wet, and Im supine with terror. Surely Im not yet insane enough to be able to hear imaginary noises in full, normal, daylight consciousness? Oh yes I am. There it goes again: not out in the yard, but inside my skull: a weird and terrifying chirping, like that of a trapped bird warning the others: Danger, dont come here. Its just like the nun said: Im breathing deep into my solar plexus in which a loose nerve is causing havoc. I look down with fascination at my heaving chest and close my eyes. Now, I tell myself, now, choose this moment to face it, whatever it is. I swallow. Okay, now, Im going to look this devil in the eye. Im going to stare it down.

Im afraid of having to see Pichais small body sliding into the oven all over again. Im afraid of the depth of grief, how far down it might take me, like a subterranean river roaring all the way to hell. How impossible will it be to return? Like a diver slipping at night into a freezing sea, I force my breathing to steady, to slowly dominate my wildly jumping mind. Okay, I say to myself, okay, now: look!

Isnt it always the way, that when you finally screw your courage to the sticking place, the phone rings? Its a real ring, not an imaginary one; I can still tell the difference. Blinking rapidly, having been jerked so violently back into the mundane, I grope for the cell phone and manage to press the green glyph as I lay it on the pillow next to my ear.

The caller does not declare himself. He has no need. Whats happening?

I let a beat pass. Where the hell have you been? Ive been trying to get hold of you forever.

When the seeker is ready, the master will come.

Have you spent a lot of time in California?

He chuckles. See, its not as bad as all that, or you wouldnt be capable of sarcasm.

I was expressing disgust. I dont need Spiritual Quest One-oh-one just now, thanks.

Another chuckle. Good, youre getting stronger. Just tell me what you were doing just now. Ill tell you what it felt like at my end. It felt like you were dressing up in a suit of armor to get ready to skewer a dragon.

I hate the way youve perfected telepathy. If it werent for that, I could dismiss you as a charlatan in a heartbeat.

You can do that if you like. Go ahead, dismiss me as a charlatan. Its a basic early step. We might have to postpone your enlightenment for this lifetime, but thats okay. Just make sure you rebirth in a decent body with the right cultural influences. Thats not so easy, of course. The best estimate is a few hundred more screwups in disastrous socioeconomic circumstances before your chance comes around again. And thats only rebirths in the human form. For the rest, I would choose mammals with short life spans. Itll save time.

Now youre really sounding like a salesman, I grumble.

I told you, I once did my best to join corporate America.

I sigh. Just tell me why you called me.

Actually, you called me. I tried to contact you on the other side, but you were all closed up with fear. Clairvoyantly, if you must know, you looked like a fetus with its eyes sewn up.

I was just about to face my deepest fear.

He clears his throat. Thats what I called about. Your courage is noted, but this is not the moment.

Why?

Youre still too weak, there are too many holes in your subtle bodies-that demon would smash you if you attacked symmetrically. Just relax, let go.

I exhale slowly. Look, while youre on the line, theres business we need to discuss. A little matter of import and export.

This isnt a business call. His voice is suddenly smooth as silk, like that of an experienced mother soothing a disturbed child. Are you still in bed? If so, turn onto your front and place the pillow across your shoulders. Have you done that?

Yes.

Okay, now Im going to repeat the mantra to you in a certain tone of voice. You will concentrate on the tone, not the words. Just relax. You may not know it, but you did well tonight. You summoned the courage to face the dragon. Thats good. Now all we need is to train you so you have a chance of winning the bout. Feeling sleepy yet?

The next time I open my eyes its late morning. When I finally get to the station, I find a new e-mail from the FBI:

I got the nerds at Quantico to run a check on your victim, Frank Charles. I was wrong about him emerging unscathed from his divorces. The first two hit him pretty hard, but he was still young and had this amazing capacity to suck money out of the Hollywood system. The third, though, took most of what he had-feminism was in top gear and it was all his fault (it was the Filipina maid while the wife was visiting her mother), so he started looking around for sources of dough. Somebody persuaded him that Nepal had been underexposed in America, and maybe some kind of feature film, or documentary, might be an idea. He went up there for a preliminary reconnoiter, liked what he saw, went up a second time, then something happened that nobody can quite explain. Now, get this. He finds funding for his film. The press releases claim the film is to be about Tibetans fleeing over high passes to Nepal, third-world suffering, dying kids, menfolk tortured in jail, women with newborns having to fend for themselves, frostbite, et cetera-but he never shows it! Its never released to the public, so it never makes any money, and strangest of all, this man who is such a show-off by nature never shows it privately, either. At least, not that Ive been able to ascertain, and Ive spoken to some real knowledgeable film buffs-you know, the kind who remember who was second grip in Gone With the Wind. Thats all for now. Next time youre gonna Skype me. I can only go for so long in Virginia without needing to look at a genuine foreigner.

Kimberley

Sukum refuses to meet me in Soi Cowboy, so I tell him to wait for me at the Asok Skytrain station. I take the train myself to save time. Its an education in the healing power of money. Eight years ago if you rode the elevated line, you saw dozens of unfinished buildings doomed to remain skeletal cadavers, uninhabited save by squatters and dogs. That was after the financial disaster of the late nineties. Now the market god has changed his mind and speculation is pushing up steel-and-glass towers again like mushrooms after rain.

Sukum is waiting at the entrance to the station, wearing his usual generic black pants, white shirt, black shoes; he has dared to leave his jacket at the office, however. We take the pedestrian subway under Asok itself and emerge a few paces away from Cowboy. It is one of the oldest red-light districts in the city and was popular with Americans on R &R from the Vietnam War. Perhaps the names of the clubs and bars say it all: Suzy Wongs, Rawhide, Country Road, Fannys, Toy Bar, Vixens, Fire House. We start at the British-looking pub on the corner with Soi 23, where an outdoor system of air-conditioning emits wonderful clouds of condensation. The mist splits the light and makes rainbows over our heads as we sit at a table on the street.

Now weve done twelve bars in Soi Cowboy, including Fire House, Vixens, Rawhide, and Suzie Wongs. In other words, Ive been studiously avoiding the Old Mans Club, my mothers bar. Its about six in the evening, which is not a bad time to be asking questions. Few of the bars are officially open and a lot of the girls have only just gotten up. They are mostly on the street in shorts and T-shirts eating takeaways from the cooked-food stalls which line the soi, all manned by mom-and-pop teams of Isaan clanspeople, frequently from the very villages the girls themselves hail from, so theres a kind of country-fair atmosphere right in the heart of Krung Thep.

Regarding the Case of the Fat Farang, weve had a few hits; in fact, Frank Charles visited all these bars in his time, some of them fairly recently, but he didnt take any of the girls out, although he paid generously for some intense groping. In the Pussy Cat he allowed himself to be felated in a quiet corner by a team of three professionals who took turns.

He was a good customer, the mamasan of the Pussy Cat said, very polite, paid well, bought me a drink-and the girls said he was a gentleman, the best kind of farang, a pleasure to work with. He paid as much for the blow job as if he had taken them upstairs.

Out in the street I see Sukum is getting hungry; hes not quite Isaan himself, hailing from the great plain north of Bangkok, but his village is far enough east for him to have a taste for somtam and sticky rice. I have to say the noodle fritters with tuna and ginger salad look pretty good, so I give in, and we order somtam, tom yam gung, green curry with pork, and five little wicker cartons of sticky rice to take back to the Old Mans Club, where Nong is presiding. Until recently my mother seemed resigned to the generous lines of skirts and jackets designed for middle-aged female executives, but after watching a biography of Tina Turner shes gone back to the tight leggings and fashion T-shirts of her working years. Shes looking pretty sexy, I have to say, although theres no denying the wrinkles as she pulls heavily on a Marlboro Red and takes out her reading glasses to look at Sukums photo of Frank Charles.

Sure, hes been in here, my mother says. I had him down as a good prospect so I put Salee on to him. She worked hard, I watched her, and she was really pulling out all the stops, but he wouldnt take her upstairs. I asked him why not-after all, they were almost doing it right here in the bar, and it wasnt as if he couldnt afford her bar fine-and he said, Shes great, but Im looking for something even wilder. Then he left, and I happened to look out onto the street a couple of hours later and who should I see him strolling down the soi arm in arm with but Mad Moi.

A stunned silence, after which Sukum and I say in unison, Doctor Mimi Moi, the chemist-cum-pharmacist?

Nong nods over a sneer of tobacco smoke. Well, he said he wanted wild, and I guess thats what he got.

Suddenly I remember that my mother knows Moi from a short and stormy acquaintance years ago, a brief and ridiculous moment when Doctor Moi decided she would try prostitution for a while-as a sort of reflex of ennui-and intimidated the hell out of the down-market johns who frequent Nongs bar, without consenting to sleep with any of them. When she wasnt too stoned to do it with the hairy red-faced middle-aged punters in walking shorts from the Northwest, she was terminally disgusted at the notion of even sitting next to them at the bar. In deference to her social position, Nong waited a whole week before she sacked her.

Now it is my turn to look at Sukum with one of those complacent, tri-umphalist grins-for Sukum, as everyone knows, has made his career on the back of Mad Moi. Over to you, Detective, I say, and slip behind the bar to grab a beer. (I have to have at least one a day, on Leks instructions.) When Ive drained the bottle, I hear a bleep on my cell phone. The message is from Manny:

Col. V. ballistic. Get over here.

Feeling the blood drain from my face, I pat Sukum on the shoulder. If you need any more help, give me a ring.

Where are you going?

I show him the message from Manny.

Congratulations, Khun Sukum, promotion is within reach, and the case is all yours.


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