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22

The interview with Moi has sent my restless mind on a new track, and I feel a residual professional pride that urges me to go a little deeper into the Fat Farang Case. There is also something about Doctor Moi herself, the most exotic criminal in Thailand, which makes it hard to focus on anyone else. I decide to postpone the second trip to Nepal for a few days.

The obvious duty call is the Americans penthouse on Soi 8. Sukum has never been to a well-appointed farang apartment building and is taken aback mostly by the vast glittering empty space on the ground floor. He is imagining how many Thai flats he could fit here. I flash my ID at reception, then collect Sukum, who is now mystically fixated on some flourishing tropical plants about twenty feet high which reach up to the diaphanous glass roof. Where he comes from they dont house plants in multimillion-dollar structures. The banks of elevators are at the back.

A woman from reception in her early thirties, accompanied by a security guard, shares the elevator and opens the door for us. It is because we are cops that she does not trust us. Neither of us is surprised that Frank Charless property is on the top floor. She and the guard have to split up to follow Sukum and me, since we take different routes around the apartment. Sukum gets the rather attractive receptionist; I get the grumpy middle-aged guard.

Sukum is most interested in the vast reception room, while I am attracted to an impressive film library in what was originally the fifth bedroom. There is a communicating door to the fourth bedroom which has been converted into a home cinema, with projector and roll-down screen about ten feet by five. I check the shelves that dominate the other walls.

However sloppy his sex life, Frank Charles was meticulous about his film collection. It is divided into tapes, of which there seem to be thousands, and smaller DVD cases, presumably representing more recent movies, and, stacked up in one corner, I see some unused cans of film. Now I find Im starting to like Frank Charles. Im pleased with him for treating his girls well and spreading his despair in small doses so it didnt hurt any one person too much; but I confess my opinion is colored by the classic movie collection which forms part of the greater tape collection. He has all of Bertolucci, Fellini, Truffaut, Altman, but best of all he has what look like much-used copies of my four favorites: La Strada, Satyricon, Les Enfants du Paradis, and La R`egle du Jeu. (In case youre wondering how a Thai pimp-cum-cop acquired such erudite taste in movies, farang, its all thanks to one of my mothers former clients, a Frenchman who happened also to be named Truffaut and who taught me many things. In his seventies, he went and had a heart attack on us, forcing us to hightail it back to Bangkok just when we were getting used to Maxims as our local cafeteria. Thanks to his tuition I later wrote film reviews for Thai Rath to help bring in a few pennies when I was starting out as a cop.) I just cant bring myself to believe that a man with that kind of taste can be all bad. Then I get to the porn. I call Sukum.

There is no time to watch every erection penetrate every orifice or every tongue explore every erogenous zone, so we fast-forward about a dozen of the DVDs, searching for clues. At least, Im searching for clues. I have the feeling that Sukum might be indulging a hobby. After a dozen lightning-fast fornications in which the naked players snap around each other like actors in a Chaplin comedy, its pretty clear that Frank Charles was just plain mainstream. To judge from the collection, he wasnt even into sodomy, which to my way of thinking makes him charmingly old-fashioned. But these are all the works of other directors. Did he not play around with a movie camera himself? I see no signs of home movies and decide to leave Sukum alone in the room. I admire the way he negotiates a change of the guard. Now the attractive receptionist is following me while the security is ensconced with Sukum and grinning like a monkey who found a banana.

I find what I am looking for in the master bedroom, next to the bed and opposite the panoramic window which looks over the whole of the northern part of the city and must be spectacular at night. Its a steel safe covered with a piece of Thai silk, and masquerading as a bedside table. The key has been left in its lock, but that is because you cant open the door without the combination; the key is superfluous. I try using Charless birth date and passport numbers to crack the combination, but that proves futile. I blow out my cheeks for want of a better idea, then my eyes alight on a small stack of DVD cases on the table on the opposite side of the bed. They are all from Nepal, perhaps bought from the same shop where I bought my collection a couple of weeks ago; they include the DVD I watched about the Tibetan resistance to the Chinese invasion in 1950, and the betrayal by the CIA. The other movies are all about Tibet, mostly the cruelty of the Chinese aggressors and the Tibetan struggle for survival under a barbaric invader, although a few are dedicated to Tantric Buddhism. I decide to check the Jacuzzi.

It is just as the girls described: gigantic and designed for orgies of the Roman type. It occupies a windowless room about thirty feet square done up in antique stone tiles with murals out of Pompeii. Some of the wall tiles bear profiles of Caesar-like men and Messalina-like women. There is also a bust on a pedestal. The bust is unmistakably that of Frank Charles. Every detail is of the highest quality. Kitsch as the idea may be, the execution takes it to a higher, and very sophisticated, level; it could almost be a bathhouse from Pompeii.

All this while the receptionist has been growing more and more irritated at the time Sukum is spending in the movie room with the security guard. It doesnt help that every now and then some of the synthetic cries and groans escape into the corridor. I knock and tell Sukum to come examine the bust of the victim in the Jacuzzi. He emerges shame-faced, rubbing his eyes, unable to look into mine. The porn seems to have done something to his head beyond the obvious. I think I can guess where his mind is going.

When Captain James Cook sailed into the harbor the British would impertinently call Sydney, the aboriginals on the shore did not see his ships, because they had no mental concept of such things. They learned the hard way. I think something of the kind has happened to Sukum. He is seeing Frank Charless condo with new eyes, and his suspicions are confirmed when I point out the likeness the bust in the Jacuzzi bears to the Americans passport photograph. What Sukum had taken for the respectable residence of an eminent man of towering talent and ability-a level in life so exalted he did not trouble even to form an opinion of it and assumed the decor was no more than standard for a billionaire tribe he knew nothing about, a top-of-the-range lifestyle, in other words, which is perhaps the only grail the West aspires to-he is now experiencing as the most elaborate and useless expression of self-indulgence he could possibly imagine.

Its all just appetite, he says, glaring at the bust. Then, like a good Buddhist, he turns his anger on himself. This is where farang are leading us, isnt it? Like me with my Toyota. If I had money I would fall into this trap, just the same. And maybe end up like him, thoroughly lost in an ego dream.

I smile because he has jumped way ahead of me. I did not directly link the Americans narcissism to the exotic manner of his dying, I have too much farang blood for that; but to Sukum, who has no overview other than Buddhism, the operation of the law of cause and effect is obvious. I think he loses all motivation to find the killer for a moment, because, after all, the perp was the victim of nothing more or less than the inexorable law of karma. And also, just for the moment, the demon of ambition has quite deserted him, leaving only disgust. Now Im seeing the penthouse with Sukums eyes. Its the detail, the extraordinary effort by talented tradesmen and interior designers, the obscenely expensive perfection of the place which represents a blasphemous waste of energy and time by all concerned.

Then his mind, stretched to the end of its elastic, flips back to his factory settings. He turns almost aggressively to the receptionist. Did the deceased own a car?

Yes, a Lexus.

What model?

The LS 460-top of the range. Clearly she, too, has the Bangkok automobile virus.

What color?

Gray with metallic finish.

Did he ever drive you in it?

Once he gave me a lift to the end of the road. It was like floating on air.

Sukum nods solemnly, takes another glance at the bust, and shakes his head. He has inspired me, though, and I start to hunt around the penthouse.

What are you looking for?

Something incongruous.

Sukum has revealed to me an inadvertent flaw in the place: it is flawless. This is not natural; there must be something that does not fit, something that reveals whatever lays behind the Americans extravagance, something driving the self-hate that resulted in his obesity. I find it surprisingly easily, in the corniest of places: under a pillow in the master bedroom. The Dark Night of the Soul, by St. John of the Cross. I hold it by the spine upside down to see which pages the deceased most favored. It opens naturally at of the Peers translation. A thick horizontal pencil mark draws attention to the last paragraph of Book I, Chapter III:

But neither from these imperfections nor from those others can the soul be perfectly purified until God brings it into the passive purgation of that dark night whereof we shall speak presently.

When I try to figure out what resonance those words have for me, I find Tietsins blade wheel lurking in the shadows of my mind. At the back of the book someone has written in pencil, This burden is very hard to bear. Curiously, there is a date: September 21, 2007. Why would anyone bother to date a cry from the soul? Because (I check his passport again) it was his birthday. He was a Virgo on the cusp of Libra and exactly sixty years old when he wrote those words, assuming it is his handwriting. In the Chinese system, he was born in the Year of the Fire Boar; Fire Boars are horny and lucky with money.

So far I have not examined the computer in the bedroom that served as an office. When I do so, I find I need an entry code. What I am most interested in is e-mail messages which might not be downloaded onto the PC but could equally well be hanging out there in cyberspace requiring another code to access them. I decide to leave the computer to the forensic boys.

Back on the ground floor, Sukum resists the temptation to go look at the Lexus, and I ask the building manager to check with the company that runs the surveillance cameras to provide video copies of everyone who entered Frank Charless apartment over the past six months.

Sukum hangs next to me, apostate, and watches the residents come and go. Most are not farang, but neither are they Thai. The majority seem to be Taiwanese and Hong Kong Chinese, with plenty of Japanese, too. For the most part the farang residents do not seem to be American, but rather wealthy Swiss and German. They all have about them the careless sangfroid of the impenetrably rich, which was perhaps the only club to which Frank Charles could possibly have belonged. I think about that and ask the building manager to also provide statements from his staff that would enable us to identify regular visitors during the entirety of his residence. The manager checks his records and informs us the farang bought the apartment about five years ago and spent about half the year here in intervals of about two months at a time. A casual questioning of his staff suggests the American had very few visitors-perhaps none at all except when he brought girls back, which he did rarely, although there was a night when he arrived drunk at the head of a convoy of three taxis carrying ten young women whom the night staff automatically classified as prostitutes because of their Isaan accents. In accordance with the buildings strict security rules, copies of their ID cards were kept and will be made available to us as soon as they have been retrieved from the archives.

Ten, I say. The number, which did not seem out of the ordinary in the Rose Garden, now strikes me as grotesque.

To go with the apartment and the Lexus, Sukum says.


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