I’m in a four-button, double-breasted blazer by Zegna, a spread-collar linen shirt by Givenchy, tropical wool flannel slacks, and patent leather slip-ons by Baker-Benjes, and I smell terrific as I stroll nonchalantly past the security guards on the great entrance doors to the Oriental Hotel. The guards speak out of the corner of their mouths into their lapel microphones; security is one of the hotel’s selling points. Another is the full-strength British Raj nostalgia of the Authors’ wing with its light-flooded solarium where potted bamboo soars while staff in traditional Thai silks do all they can to spoil you, especially at tea time.
Now I am seated on one of the high-backed rattan thrones under the wrought iron staircase at a woven rattan glass-topped table amid a riot of pastel shades and incredibly pretentious HiSo types, mostly of Chinese extraction, with a few English ladies who may be old enough to remember the original Raj. They have the best of it, these memsahibs, who are not only too old to care about their figures but have also given up worrying about their health, since they are days away from losing it altogether and therefore free to tuck into the clotted cream, strawberry jam, and scones with insouciant abandon, washing it all down with lashings of the best Darjeeling. I just wish I’d had the foresight to roll a joint to smoke in the men’s room, instead of hanging out here like a mouse in a trap.
Well, she has taken forty minutes, just for me, but now here she is, making her entrance at the top of the stairs in a black-and-white silk trouser suit which hangs perfectly on her emaciated body. As a connoisseur of criminal integrity, I cannot help admiring the way she is still able to pull it off, the HiSo sangfroid yes-I’m-bad-but-try-to-catch-me performance, even while her liver must be showing signs of domestic violence.
Doctor Moi is forty-three years and two months old, and although there must be organs owned by her which possess the characteristics of those double that age, nevertheless she learned enough at the Swiss finishing school to pay special attention to the parts exposed to the view of others: she looks pretty good. Her skin is Han white, as translucent as jade, and her features-a fine Chinese face with delicate, intelligent lines atop a Modigliani neck-strike one as the last word in good breeding. She is tall for a Chinese of Teochew race, almost six feet, and knows how to use her height to project elegance. Similarly, her hair: it is thick, black, and long, falling from the crown of her head in a series of sine curves and slow-motion bounces as she moves across the floor attracting all the attention she can use. A long string of large pearls loops around her neck and provides something for her to play with on her approach. And there is a black velvet choker around her neck with a precious stone of some kind in the middle, occupying the soft cavity under her Adam’s apple. The stone is orangey pink and cut with a thousand facets that reflect light. Naturally, I stand, give her the high wai that her social position deserves, then take the hand she has extended for me to kiss.
“How wonderful to see you again, Sonchai. I don’t think we’ve met since I had that silly misunderstanding with your mother.”
“You’re looking terrific,” I say.
“Am I? I suppose I am, but I’m afraid I was born about thirty years too late. You have no idea of the kind of drugs that will come online during the next decade. Any girl with the sense to start using them early in life will never age beyond twenty-two. Isn’t that amazing?”
“You mean they’ll be immortal?”
She smiles. I had forgotten how twisted her lips go when her demon reveals itself. “Better than that. I mean still looking perfect at my age. Older. There will be women who will pass themselves off as twenty-five until they die at eighty. Imagine!” She waves a hand at the orchids, the wrought iron, the balcony from which she just descended. “It’s quite splendid, I suppose, but I’m bored with it. I wish they’d hurry up and finish my renovations so I can go home. I miss my maid. I’ve sent her back to her people for a week, and I have to call her every day for help. Her ancestors come from the same village as mine in Swatow. I’ve had her all my life, and I’m only half me without her.”
“You still keep up with latest developments in pharmacology, then?”
We have ordered the full cream tea, but now that it arrives neither of us knows quite what to do with it. Moi smears the thinnest coat of cream and jam over the extreme end of a scone, nibbles at it, then sets it down. For my part, I have never developed a taste for deep dairy, I gave up on jam and other sweet things about a decade ago, and scones make me feel stuffed without contributing anything nutritious. I am not surprised that the people who invented this sedentary decadence were the biggest narcotics traffickers the world has ever known.
“Of course, I keep up,” Doctor Moi says. “If they would only give me back my license you would see what I could do.”
I knew the subject of her license would come up sooner or later. “They won’t give it back to you? After all these years?”
“No. And it’s nothing to do with either of my convictions, which are so minor nobody remembers them except the police.”
“It’s because cops like you keep telling everyone I murdered two of my husbands. This is Thai society: it’s not the law that destroys you, it’s the gossip.”
“It’s so unfair. You probably don’t understand, chemicals are the future which is already here. The great thing for any pharmacist with brains is that only a few have realized we are now in a position to take over the world.” She takes a sip of Darjeeling, and the gesture is so well executed that a couple of Thai women sitting near us immediately begin to drink their tea with fingers in the same position, imitating the Doctor’s perfect poise.
“You don’t think oil, the economic crisis, the environment, wars, fresh water, and radical Islam will hold our attention more than chemicals?”
“Chemicals are the only way we can cope with such things. That’s the point. More than fifty percent of Westerners depend on mind-altering drugs of one kind or another. We now know that everything-love, war, money, the environment, attitude, work-everything is just a question of chemicals reacting with each other. At the end of the day bliss is all about dopamine, and anger is all about an imbalance in the blood. People are already controlled by the pharmaceutical industry, have been for more than five decades, but we’re scientists, we just don’t know how to use the power which is now in our hands.” The subject has excited her. Her long skinny fingers are shaking slightly as she raises her cup. I wonder what customized chemical she is using today. “Don’t you see, the future isn’t uncertain at all, it is quite obvious, and if I had my license back I could take over. Within less than a decade the average person won’t be able to look at the evening news without taking some kind of tranquilizer. Once the general population get hold of some of the superdrugs that are coming onstream you’ll get total, one hundred percent addiction to a family of molecules over which only a tiny percentage of the population have any control. Our power will be absolute, like having a monopoly on air.”
I have a feeling she hopes to use me in some way to persuade the authorities to give her license back. I have to stare into her eyes and shrug.
“I need a senior cop to put in a word for me. All they would have to say is that I didn’t kill any of my husbands.”
“No cop is ever going to say that. All anyone can say is that there is no proof.”
“You could get Vikorn to say that in writing?”
I’m thinking, Not for the sake of clearing up a little murder inquiry that does not interest him in the least. I say, “I’ll ask him if you like.” In an attempt to distract, I add, “That’s an amazing stone,” and look directly at the large, brilliant, orangey-pink gem at her neck.
She touches it for a second with one of her long fingers, not sure if she wants to let me get away with changing the subject. “Hmm, it’s a pad.” To my blank look, she adds, “A padparadscha. A rare kind of sapphire.”
“Is it as expensive as it looks?”
“It would buy the room,” she says without emphasis, waving a languid hand to include the entire wing of the hotel. “But let’s not get into that. I wear it to amuse myself. There’s no one here worth impressing.”
I clock the gem, thinking, Buy the room! It’s true, she is far too proud to lie about such a thing, and maybe the hotel, with its army of security guards, is the one public place in town where she can safely wear it.
She lets her eyes rest on me for a moment, then looks away. “So, why did you want to see me? Your little colleague Khun Sukum seems to think I had something to do with a dead farang. I can’t think why.”
“Khun Doctor, how good a customer of yours was Frank Charles?”
She smiles faintly at the question, as if giving it seven out of ten for ingenuity. “Customer? What do you mean? I think your mother saw me walking down Soi Cowboy with him shortly before his death. What does that prove?”
“Arm in arm. You were walking with him arm in arm. You don’t let any man take your arm unless he is HiSo or important in some other way. So I assume he was a customer. Also, he had been in Soi Cowboy for a few hours, doing a tour of the bars. He seemed in a strange state of mind-perhaps despair, depression, middle-aged paranoia. He was looking for excitement, then a few hours later you were in the soi, where you had not been seen for years. I think he called you. He needed you.”
“You mean he wanted to hire my body?”
“No. You know I don’t mean that.”
“But I don’t have a license to operate as a pharmacist. How could he be a customer?”
“You have contacts in the industry. You got away with a lot for more than a decade. That means someone senior was helping you. You frequently boast you have access to state-of-the-art drugs few people know the names of. Of course, it would be possible for you to do a little dealing on the side for a HiSo friend.” I lean forward to whisper, “Khun Doctor, we don’t know the details, but we do know you use the canals and the river for transportation. Do we really have to post river police all over your patch?”
She takes another sip of tea, gives the cream and scones a cursory glance, replaces the bone-china cup on its saucer. “You’ll get Vikorn to put in writing there is no evidence I ever killed anyone? It’s the implication of an induced heart attack in the case of my third husband that has the poor little disciplinary committee so excited.”
“I’ll ask him. I can’t promise he’ll do it.”
To my surprise she seems to accept this offer and says, “Anyway, they weren’t the sort of men you’d want to keep alive if you could possibly help it.”
I shake my head. That’s the sort of comment she’s famous for; nobody knows if, at such moments, she is being outrageous, or if she’s merely telling the truth as she sees it. Or maybe she’s just nuts?
She looks away again, at a bamboo tree soaring out of a gigantic pot. “I met Frank Charles years ago. It must be almost a decade. He didn’t know Thailand so well at that time and was using contacts he made in LA to introduce him to society people over here. I met him at a ball that was part of a film festival.” She flashes me a glance. “Of course, I knew he was fantastically rich, so I spent some time with him. He was very good-looking-that was before he got so fat. We were never lovers, if that is your next question. I don’t do sex. It’s a mug’s game, if you ask me.”
“But you saw him from time to time, after that ball?”
“Yes. For a while he showed up at a lot of society events, mostly balls and dinner parties. I think that was before he decided the red-light districts were more interesting. He dropped off most radar screens pretty quickly after that.”
“But you remained friends? Let me be frank, Khun Doctor. Your conversation is intelligent, witty, educated, and charming. You also talk openly about drugs. For a farang new to Thailand who would certainly have been familiar with that kind of recreation, you would have seemed like an oasis.”
She makes a face, then her eyes sweep the room with the peculiar intensity of one who finds few of interest among our species, but who nevertheless lives in hope. “You’ll have to give me immunity if you want me to talk.”
“If you mean immunity from prosecution for sharing a few of your favorite molecules with him, yes. Nothing beyond that, though.”
She thinks about it, takes another sip of tea, shrugs. “He’d been to a lot of parties in Beverly Hills. He knew the names of a lot of chemicals. I told him I could get him anything he could get in LA, usually at about twenty percent of the price. Pharmacists over there really know how to turn a profit. I never made any money out of it at all. I let him have stuff at cost.”
I lean forward a little for emphasis. “Khun Doctor, I will approach Colonel Vikorn just as you have asked. But you know as well as anyone that there are many ways of asking a favor. If you want me to ask my Colonel to help you in a way that will have effect, if you wish me to give my plea on your behalf the urgency and importance it deserves, you will have to be more expansive. You are making this interview hard work for me, Khun Doctor.”
She looks at me curiously, as if it has been a long time since anyone pressured her about anything and she is finding the experience novel. One more sip of Darjeeling and she starts to talk.
“He was not so unusual for a farang. He was very smart, sensitive, aware, clever with money, but frustrated, disillusioned, and thoroughly self-obsessed. In his youth he had wanted to be a great artist of the big screen-perhaps even a kind of cinematic Shakespeare. He was convinced of his own talent, but he never seemed to produce anything beyond the obvious. Actually, his problem was the eternal adolescence of America -emotionally, he never got past the golden-sunset school of fucking.” She pronounces the vulgarism with perfect aplomb. “You know, as if one apocalyptic screw is going to provide the meaning of life. So, of course, he’s in a permanent mess, psychologically. The girls in the bars may have been social and economic simpletons, but they were happier than he was. He was fully smart enough to see the significance: dirt-poor Asian whores in better psychological shape than the very flower of American manhood. His incredibly expensive, constitutionally guaranteed pursuit of happiness hadn’t even gotten him into the third-world league. He needed chemicals, and I found them for him in the name of friendship.”
“There must have been something in it for you, Khun Doctor?”
“Beyond endless invitations to watch private screenings in LA, which I never went to? Yes. We were friends. Different as we were, we were both pariahs of an unusual kind. The rich and successful kind. Our talk would probably have been considered dangerous and revolutionary, if anyone had overheard. We offered each other the opportunity to be intelligent without restraint. He cried on my shoulder about his condition of chronic mental and emotional unease, I moaned about not having a license anymore to practice pharmacy and play with drugs. We sort of understood each other.”
“Khun Doctor, this sounds very much like a real friendship.”
She nods. “I hadn’t thought of it that way. He was certainly more fun to talk to than any of my women friends.”
“And so it remained until he died?”
She shakes her head and speaks slowly, thoughtfully: “No. Not really. There was never any kind of schedule, any consistency in our friendship. If he heard of some new drug he wanted to try, or if he wanted industrial-quality cocaine or LSD, I would get it for him. He was a child of the sixties: he liked acid and saw value in it. When he needed to talk, we would meet. Sometimes I felt like a kind of nurse.” She shrugs. “To be frank, there was the thought in the back of my mind that he might one day be able to put in a word for me with the Thai authorities through the U.S. ambassador, with whom he was friendly. But our meetings were intermittent. He commuted between here and LA. I was often out of the country myself. And when he stopped going to society events, we ceased to have any acquaintances in common.”
“Did he speak to you about visits to Nepal?”
A quick glance from her shrewd black eyes. “Sure. I think it was Nepal that screwed him up. I would look there for the reason for his death, if I were you.”
“He got involved with a girl up there. It sounded quite ridiculous. She was some Tibetan refugee who knew a little mystical mumbo jumbo, and because it was the Himalayas he fell for it. I lost respect for him then. He felt he couldn’t talk to me about this new mysticism of his because I would laugh at it. When I told him it was all about chemicals-with the right dopamine precursor I could introduce God to anyone-he got all passionate and evangelical and I left early. It was more than a year before he called me after that. And he’d started to get so horribly fat. It was like watching a catastrophe happen in slow motion, the way he just grew and grew-he stopped shaving, too, and I hate beards. I urged him to take some orlistat, or sibutramine, but he was weird about his obesity. It was as if it were part of his new path, his very own personal martyrdom.”
“How long ago was that?”
“It was an estrangement that happened gradually. We never fell out, we drifted apart. Since we had never been lovers there was no need for formalities-much less for murder,” she adds with a smile: one of those in which the extremes of the lips crawl slightly up the incisors.
“So you were surprised when he called you that night from Soi Cowboy?”
“Not really. I didn’t think he would be able to stay away from me forever. I supplied the two farang necessities he couldn’t shake: chemicals and intelligent conversation in English.” She takes another sip of tea and scans the room. “He was in a bit of a state, though. His Tibetan dream had gone badly wrong and he needed a pharmacist. I’m afraid I was quite merciless. I gave him some Depo-Provera to kill the sex drive, crystallized THC so he could get to God without a mandala, cocaine because that was what he was used to. And some acid.”
“How did you get LSD? I haven’t heard of it on the street for ten years. Have you been synthesizing again?” There is no need to mention Sukum in this context; she knows what I’m talking about.
For the first time she shows signs of discomfort. She pulls girlishly on a section of her long black hair and makes an apologetic face. “He begged me. And it wasn’t easy to get. I didn’t dare make it myself, so I had to go underground. It came all the way from Goa in a baby’s dirty diaper, if I recall.”
“And that was the last time you saw him?”
“I had to get the stuff, he had to pay me, we had to pretend to be friends again-there were meetings over a period of a few weeks.”
“About two months before he died?”
“Yes. About that.”
The interview is over, so she asks after my mother and the Old Man’s Club. She has not heard my son is dead and Chanya gone to a nunnery. She shows no sympathy when I give her this news, merely suggests a few chemicals to help with my grief.