Colonel Vikorn is standing again, but not at the window; he is pressing his back rhythmically and insanely against a wall. He is white as a sheet and suffering from periodic shudders, which in him are a sure sign of homicidal rage.
“That midget general, that toy soldier, that sodomizing fucked-up dinosaur, that spiteful little creep-d’you know what he’s done?”
Shuddering so hard he can barely speak, he says, “He’s busted one of ours. Get the fuck over to Immigration at the airport, do something about it. It’s someone called Mary Smith. What the fuck do I pay you a quarter-million baht a fucking month for? You’re supposed to deal with this, not waste your time on some dumb murder you’ve already declined to investigate. Didn’t you explain to Zinna it wasn’t us who busted that Australian woman? Where the hell have you been all morning? I tried to get you on your cell phone, but it’s turned off. Consiglieres do not turn off cell phones-it’s in the movie.”
I do not remind him that cell phones were not invented when Brando and Pacino got together with Coppola thirty years ago. Instead I say, “Yes, sir,” and stride for the door, silently promising myself that whatever the state of the traffic I’m not taking a motorbike all the way to the airport. As I descend the stairs I marvel at the way Vikorn’s rage has displaced the Frank Charles case in my mind. My master’s anger is my business now. When the Old Man gets into one of his psychotic states, the whole station takes on an unhealthy green glow and everyone feels it. Look at it this way:
You are chairman and CEO of an exceptionally profitable commodities business which you have built up from scratch using such talents and opportunities as life offered to improve the hand you were dealt with (apart from an elder brother who is an abbot, every other male member of your family is either an alcoholic or a rice farmer; most are both); you officially left school at fourteen, but in fact you looked after the water buffalo and your younger siblings after the age of eight. Nevertheless, you felt greatness beckon, and your big break came, naturally, via America, in the form of the Indo-Chinese war, particularly in northern Laos, where a certain commodity-named fin in the local tongue, but called opium by your new colleagues-was trading at roughly double the price of gold, thanks to unceasing support from Air America.
Using your war profits as a base, you parlay your way into a commission in the Royal Thai Police and conscientiously build up your business while selflessly serving the public. The way has been long and hard; during tough times many have had to be laid off in circumstances that made survival unlikely; you have to constantly keep your eye on the competition. Nevertheless, your efforts are heroic, inspired, and unceasing: truly a great example of capitalist courage and imagination. By dint of iron control of every aspect of your organization you finally achieve, in late middle age, the kind of dominance over your market and your environment which you so totally lacked in the circumstances of your birth. Your rivals fear you, your people respect you for your benevolence, and there is nothing between you and a yearly doubling of profits for the duration… except that someone has told your bitterest enemy your most important trade secret, which tiny flaw will sink your whole operation and land you in jail for the rest of your life if you don’t do something about it. Someone knows who the mules are.
I am so much a part of the Colonel’s unique rags-to-riches fairy tale that I experience his rage, urgency, and paranoia as if they were mine. It only remains to dash downstairs to pick up Lek, who happens to be standing at my desk with a frown of his own. Before I can tell him we’re off to the airport, he blurts out the source of his anger: “D’you know what Sukum just did? I saw him do it.”
I suppress impatience, for Lek can be stubborn in indignation. “What?”
“He just flipped a case over to you, as if he’s already been promoted and you’re now his slave.” He nods at the monitor on my desk. Sure enough, a file bearing Sukum’s initials has appeared on my own list. Lek is consumed with resentment on my behalf; I calculate it will save time if we do a quick check of the new file, so I double-click on the attachment, which is hardly enlightening.
The report is very brief. It seems that a member of a Japanese trade delegation to Thailand decided to commit suicide in the time-honored Samurai fashion by slitting his guts with a sword, in a three-star hotel on Silom, opposite the Hindu temple. The case summary reports little else, except that the trade delegation in question was comprised of senior members of the Japanese gem industry. Mr. Suzuki was in his early fifties and had recently been wiped out financially by some fraud or swindle, which was one of the subjects on the agenda when the members of the delegation met with medium-level Thai government officials. After the meeting, the delegation returned to Japan -except for the deceased. It seems Mr. Suzuki chose to take his life in Bangkok because he blamed Thailand as the prime cause of his bankruptcy. No further explanation is given.
I shrug. On the one hand, Sukum is clearly in serious breach of protocol in flicking the file over to me without authority; on the other, it is a very minor case which was going to end up untouched at the bottom of someone’s electronic in-box in any event. Does it really matter if it languishes in mine rather than Sukum’s? “He’s just making a point, Lek,” I explain. “He feels eclipsed, upstaged. Let it ride, okay?”
So we’re stuck in a cab, Lek and I, in a traffic jam near the entrance to the highway. There are about a dozen vehicles in front of us and there’s nothing to do but watch the human form reduced to automaton as each driver sticks out a hand with a banknote, the tollbooth clerk in her mask hands back the change, the car moves on. I’m thinking about Tietsin’s termite nest and about being worker number one million and twelve acting out my sub-Orwellian karma and thinking, He’s right, my mind master, this is exactly the continuum we’re stuck with, and for ninety percent of us there really is no way out. Hold that thought for long and you develop a revulsion toward insecticide; I’ll never squash another mosquito.
In my extreme boredom I note that my katoey assistant has brought an iced drink with him into the cab; it is based on modified soybeans which glow with a Chernobyl-green hue and are the fuel rods for the experiment in the transparent plastic bag with its rapidly melting ice cubes. Buddha knows what will happen when the thing reaches room temperature. Lek pulls on an extra-large-caliber straw-designed not to block when you suck in the fuel rods-which is transparent save for an orange spiral, so you can see the glowing green beans shoot up the tube into his mouth. When an ice cube blocks his miniature reactor, he switches to blowing instead of sucking, keeping his fist around the top of the bag to save himself from nuclear blowback.
Lek fits precisely with the run-down cab and the kid-not the same one as last week-who arrives with his broken windshield wiper to make a desultory pass across the window, which gesture would certainly morph into a great show of industry and alacrity should any of us in the vehicle look like we’re ready to spring for twenty baht. But we don’t, and it’s four-o’clock hot, which is by no means the same as midday hot, even though the temperature is roughly the same as it was four hours ago. The day itself has curled up with a yawn; it is exhausted, worn-out, dried, clogged with untold tons of carbon monoxide and human frustration, so the kid doesn’t try for more than thirty seconds before retreating into the shade of a pillar on the corner, not even attempting to extract money from any of the other thousands of stationary metal boxes pumping out pollution. It’s just too hot to be hungry.
“Why the airport?” Lek wants to know. He’s finished his drink and is looking around for somewhere to dump the empty bag. He settles for a flat space on top of the driveshaft casing.
I tell him, “One of our mules got busted by General Zinna,” but I don’t mention the Tibetan connection.
Lek whistles. There’s a lot about Colonel Vikorn’s operation he doesn’t know, but there is one rule everyone knows: don’t mess with the mules. Over the years, Vikorn has managed to attract the best kind of carriers: middle-ranking business executives in need of a small pile to regulate a tax problem, respectable farang housewives with kids who see a way to get funding for a house improvement they’ve been longing for (that new veranda-or do you call them patios?-could be yours for just twelve hours of heart-stopping excitement beginning at an international airport near you); and, best of all, business travelers in their sixties or older (successful aging hippies, for the most part) who always fly first-class and are never searched and who carry junk just for the thrill and greed of it. And the reason the Colonel has been able to attract such quality is the same reason other successful enterprises are able to attract the finest in human resources: reliability and high pay. Sure, the sales force is augmented by lower-quality foot soldiers, but they are kept at arm’s length, and even then they are given protection and security way above anything Vikorn’s rivals provide. For that reason the busting of Smith is an image-control emergency as well as a deep wound inflicted by Zinna, and it will have to be avenged sooner or later.
Except that Vikorn and Zinna might have to form a temporary partnership if they want the Tibetan off their backs. Sooner or later it must occur to their lordships, as it has occurred to me, that there are plenty of other potential buyers in Southeast Asia, including someone in Phnom Penh said to be very close to the chief of police, who might jump into the vacuum and buy up the whole of Tietsin’s stock. But can these two old barons suspend their feud for long enough to protect Thailand from a hostile takeover by a Khmer upstart? Do sharks share lunch boxes?
“We just have to make sure she doesn’t know anything,” I explain. “Apparently she keeps shooting her mouth off about cops being behind her, but she doesn’t seem to have any names or contact numbers.”
“Who was her contact here?”
“Some farang in Kaosan Road. He’s just a low-level platoon manager-he never has more than five mules working for him at any one time, and he doesn’t know anyone above his manager, who is another farang who doesn’t speak Thai.”
“So how did she get busted at all?” Lek wants to know.
“Exactly. Someone’s infiltrated our organization at an overseas outpost.”
“Vikorn has people in Kathmandu?”
“Not exactly. They are remote subcontractors, but they do supply quite a lot of low-level mules, like Mary Smith.”
“So why not just go to the subcontractors in Kathmandu?”
I scratch my ear. “You ever have anything to do with Hindus? They have such huge extended families. You start out thinking you’re with the eldest son, then it turns out he’s fronting for an uncle, who is fronting for one of his cousins, who’s fronting for the patriarch on the mother’s side, and so on.” I raise my palms to the Buddha: “We don’t really know who they are.”
“You don’t have names?”
“Sure. Narayan or Shah. Same as fifty percent of the phone book.”
I cough. “That’s what we’re trying to get. The address of our subcontractors in Nepal. Our firewalls are so good, only the mules seem to know.”
When my phone explodes with Must be some way out of here, I see that it is Sukum calling, and share a wink with Lek. I’ve already told him that the Fat Farang Case has taken a bizarre twist which may have Sukum and Mad Moi working together again.
“She’s gone,” Sukum says in an excited voice. “Fled. I checked with her probation officer. I even called her sister, the one who talks to me, and the pharmacy where she usually gets her prescription drugs for her mental problems. None of them has seen her in more than five weeks.”
“Five weeks? That’s a long time before he was killed. Doesn’t sound like proof of murder to me.”
“Five weeks, three weeks, two days, what’s the diff? I’m being intuitive here, cutting out unnecessary paperwork, like you. The point is, she hasn’t been near her probation officer, so she’s risking jail time. So it’s drastic. She’s on the run. Look, do I know her or not?”
“Nobody knows Doctor Moi like you, Khun Sukum,” I say, sharing a grin with Lek, who has gone into a devastating mime of Sukum, including his compulsive teeth cleaning and his zippy little farts. This colors the tone of my voice, which causes Sukum to suspect flippancy. Sukum loathes flippancy because he doesn’t understand it, even though he’s been trying all his life.
“You’re being flippant?” he wants to know.
“No. Not at all.”
“You’re putting two and two together, yes? Just before the murder she disappeared?”
“Okay, Detective Sukum, okay, I accept your expert advice. But we do need to know exactly why she disappeared, d’you see? A suspect who disappears five minutes after the criminal act is not at all the same as a suspect who makes themselves scarce a month before the event.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Assuming guilt in both cases, the second will have a cast-iron alibi.”
“I’ll check,” Sukum says without nuance, and closes his phone.
What with the day going to sleep on us, and the traffic hardly shifting-even though we have made the crucial turn from Asok onto Sukhumvit, we are now stuck behind a builder’s truck in the gridlocked outside lane, which we need in order to access the turnoff for the highway, so it looks like we’re in for the long haul-Lek and I cannot resist running through some of the old Sukum and Moi stories, and the way she always seems to get the better of him.
After a low-speed chase that lasted for most of Sukum’s career as a detective, he was only able to bust her on cannabis cultivation and tax evasion, even though everyone knows she arranged for the deaths of two of her four ex-husbands and ran her own yaa baa production unit as a cottage industry for more than ten years. She took revenge on Sukum by paying a tea lady to slip LSD into the detective’s morning iced lemon tea; Lek mimes Sukum on a paranoid acid trip to a disturbing level of accuracy: Sukum crawled under his desk, curled up in fetal position, and shivered there for almost an hour, periodically yelling for his Toyota, before we called the medics to give him a tranquilizer and take him away. The LSD had to come from Moi-this was the midnineties, when acid had disappeared more or less completely from world markets and nobody except a trained chemist like the Doctor herself could have synthesized it.
When the cab finally passes the tollbooth and we’re speeding toward Suvarnabhum we’re entertaining each other with speculations of how Doctor Moi will stitch Sukum up this time. I have to say, it’s fun sometimes to watch Lek’s darker side. As he points out, We’re all dual, darling.
“But what’s so amazing about her is the way she always manages to look so good in those HiSo magazines. How does she even get invited to those fantastic parties, that’s what I would like to know.”
“She’s old money,” I explain. “Teochew-her people originally hailed from Swatow about a hundred and fifty years ago, where they were members of one of the triad societies. Apparently her family is quite senior in one of them. While she was growing up her grandfather maintained mob connections and ran the triad’s secret banking system in Bangkok, which has tentacles all over the Pacific Rim. Most of the capital came from opium in the thirties, so she and her sisters were brought up like princesses. Her father encouraged her to follow her interest in pharmacy right up to the doctorate level. He thought she was going to start a retail chain, financed by his money. He didn’t know she’d fallen in love with drugs for their own sake in her midteens. She was one of those people who see life in terms of chemicals at an early age, and there’s nothing you can do about it. She started one corner shop on Soi Twenty-three, which was closed most of the time while she experimented with her stock. After being patient for nearly a decade, the respectable drug companies wouldn’t supply her anymore, and she let the business go bankrupt, even though she’s fantastically rich. Her family have not disowned her-after all, she’s only got convictions for minor offenses, and it’s not certain she killed two of her husbands.”
“Each of them died tragically in mysterious circumstances.”
“Right. While she was out of the country. But HiSo is HiSo. As long as she plays the game and turns up in those amazing ball gowns at those society events, they’ll protect her. They may even be proud of her. How can you tell with the Chinese?”
Lek and I fall to pondering in the taxi, which is speeding now on the highway to the airport. “When you think about the Fat Farang Case, though, and then you put Moi in it as a suspect, it does all seem to fall into place,” Lek opines with a yawn.
“It does. I’ve been racking my brains trying to think of anyone in Thailand who could possibly have done it, and Mad Moi simply didn’t occur to me. Now that Sukum’s onto her, though, I’m wondering why I never thought of her.”
“He’s going to claim all the credit, you do know that? Even though it was Nong who first mentioned Doctor Moi-if it weren’t for you, he wouldn’t even be thinking along those lines.”
I sigh. “It doesn’t matter, Lek, it really doesn’t. I don’t want promotion anyway. I’d feel even more of a fraud than I feel now.”
“Don’t talk like a fool, darling. The minute he gets his promotion they’ll start to put pressure on him to take money. White turns to gray at that level, and soon after that you get to black. They’ve only let him keep his innocence because he’s so junior. You watch, he’ll turn up to work one day in a Lexus, and you’ll know that’s another soul sold to the devil.”
While we are leisurely discussing Sukum and his imminent forensic triumph, he calls on my cell phone: his name is flashing on and off to Dylan’s heartfelt There is too much confusion, I can’t get no relief. I wink at Lek.
“I’ve traced her,” Sukum says.
“Well done, Detective.”
“She’s staying at the Somerset Maugham Suite at the Oriental.”
“Ah! Old money! Don’t you love it? They always know how to hide in full view. When are you going to take her in?”
“When are you free? They told me you’re on your way to the airport doing something dirty for Vikorn.”
I frown at the phone. “Why do you need me, Detective? Call the media, do what Vikorn does, make a career-building event of it.”
“Suppose she denies all involvement?”
I cough. “Detective, you will have to do some work. She might fight against the prospect of death row-some do, you know.”
“I know that,” he snaps. “I’m talking about how clever she is. She’s educated and thinks like a farang. I might not understand what she’s talking about. I want you to be there.”
“Is it the LSD from last time that’s got you all nervous, Khun Sukum?”
“You’re not kidding. Have you ever had someone slip you some acid and you think you’ve lost your mind for the rest of your life? And suppose she’s HIV-positive and she’s got spikes hidden in her hair like in that movie you made me watch.”
“ Hannibal? There were hair spikes laced with the AIDS virus?”
“I’ve watched it five times now. She was a black American named Evelda Drumgo. That’s put me right off, I can tell you. I’m just not qualified to deal with sophisticated foreign women, I don’t have the exposure. I only know Thai housewives and factory workers, the other kinds are more your field.”
I’m puzzled by his reluctance, given the decade he spent on the Mad Moi files. I shrug at Lek. “I might be a while. We’re not at the airport yet, and the traffic’s going to be pretty bad on the way back, I can tell from the way the cars are all slowing on the other side of the highway.”
“Suppose she makes a run for it?”
“Then I can arrest her, can’t I? But she’s so cunning, I bet she won’t commit a single crime while I’m watching.”
Lek can’t believe he said that and is repeating the phrase over and over and shaking his head while we arrive at the airport’s taxi drop-off.