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23

Forget men with long magic fingers who listen to the subtle sounds of locking mechanisms with mystic concentration; forget explosives, too. Theres only one sane way to bust open a safe in someones home: oxyacetylene. And for that you need steel bottles-one for the oxygen and one for the acetylene-some sheet steel to protect the floor, a guy in leathers with a giant cutting torch and a full face mask-and you need to move all the furniture out of the way.

Half of reception have come up to watch, and I couldnt very well exclude Sukum and Lek. Women squeal while men grunt at the great cascade of sparks as the oxygen eats the iron. The cutter is making a circle around the safes lock, which glows dull red. The safe is of the kind you can buy on the main street, and not particularly strong. Even so, hardened steel plate doesnt yield that easily, and Im wondering if there is going to be anything left inside not charred to a cinder, when the door finally swings open a couple of inches and we are left standing in the particle-charged air with that peculiar stench of burnt iron. Now everyone is looking at me. The cutter hands me a thick wad of leather to use to open the red-hot door. The heat is pretty intense, but localized. What Im most interested in is a DVD case in the bottom right corner. I gingerly put my hand into the oven, pull the case out. Its only slightly molten, but when I open it, I see the DVD inside has curled with the heat. No way its going to even fit into a DVD player, and the microscopic laser etchings on the plastic will have been destroyed. There is no label on the disc, but someone has written on it in felt-tip pen: Nepal/Tibet 2001/2. There is nothing else in the body of the safe except for a sheet of paper that looks as if it had personal identity codes written in hand, but is now too burnt and brown to decipher.

When I show the disc to the forensic boys, they shake their heads. DVDs are not like computer hard drives; you cant reconstitute them. I say, Okay, at least check out the computer, see if we can get into that and onto the Net.

So now were in the farangs office with the generic tower PC and seventeen-inch monitor; one of the forensic boys has brought a laptop with code-busting software, which hes all excited about; hes never used it before on a real case. We all watch while he attaches a cable from the laptop to the PC, switches on the PC, and red and green lights on the laptop start to pop on and off at an amazing rate. Then the Windows XP screen appears.

We all koo dutifully as the kid with the laptop grins. Trouble is, we dont know the code for Internet access, and although we know Frank Charles used Gmail, Yahoo!, and a couple of other engines, we dont know which one he favored for personal matters, or what the log-on code might be. The kid says his software wont work on Internet access, the security is too good. I keep quiet, but make a private note to ask Kimberley to help; she has a whole raft of nerds at her command in Virginia, and since the deceased was American, I guess there is a good enough excuse to bust his privacy rights, which he wont be needing anymore. While Im thinking, the kid checks out the Windows address book. Look, he says to me, and points. I stare. There I am: name, title, address-

Sonchai Jitpleecheep, Detective in Royal Thai Police, District 8-

with my cell phone number and e-mail address.

Everyone looks at me, and I know that Sukum and Lek are both thinking this has to do with the private position I hold in Vikorns organization. I myself am merely dumfounded.

Im also stung. Embarrassment and fear spur me into action. (If he knew my name and address, what else did he know?) There are things you pick up in ten years of detection that lie in the back of your mind, little techniques youve forgotten twenty times already, but which come back when youve convinced yourself the case is worth the extra effort. Its true, Id not been treating the Fat Farang murder as if it were my own case-until now. I stride back into the bedroom and grab the leather wad to open the safe door again. It has cooled a lot, although it is still too hot to touch. I use the leather to spring open a semisecret tray in the top of the safe, then use one of my own keys to flick out a small metal box, which lands on the protective iron cover the welder has laid on the floor and bursts open. Naturally, we all stare. The contents of the box appear to be small rough stones of a grayish hue. One of the women from reception has gone to the bathroom and returned with a glass of water, which I pore gently over the stones. To the touch they are surprisingly hard, but small and unattractive, the translucent gray of shrimp before they are boiled. I shrug. It is difficult to see what connection they could have with the spectacular murder of Frank Charles. The stones strike me more like something you might pick up on a beach during a seaside vacation, put in your safe, and forget about. They are too small, ugly, and colorless to be precious.

I shake my head and tell Sukum Ive seen as much as I wanted.

Where are you going?

First the Rose Garden, then Kathmandu, I say, sparing a brief glance at Lek as I leave the condo.

From Soi 8 its only a half-mile walk to the Rose Garden on Soi 7; I call my travel agent as Im walking. Im also thinking that Frank Charles walked this way himself, probably every day, for theres nowhere to park a Lexus at the Rose Garden-or did his weight force him to take a cab? By the time I reach the bar I have a ticket to Kathmandu for that afternoon.

Its ten-thirty in the morning, which is early in this part of Bangkok. There are a couple of girls sitting at the bar, both of them reading Thai newspapers and taking a quiet moment for themselves before getting in the mood for action. A lot of the women here make a point of putting in a full days work, arriving at ten and going home at six, whether they have had a successful shift or not. I order a beer and watch the entrance while Im waiting.

The Chinese-looking girl, who goes straight to the Buddha shrine under the bohdi tree, lights her incense, wais, bows, takes a seat at the bar, and orders a coffee. She is not from Isaan but from Phuket, where her family owns a mini-market. She got bored with filling shelves and working the checkout register and finds prostitution more exciting. The girl behind her, very dark, almost Indian in her features, is from Nong Kai, on the Mekong and next to the border with Laos. She used to be married to an Englishman, who dumped her for another whore six years younger. She nods to me in recognition; when she smiles she reveals her diamond-studded braces. Now here is Sarlee: her whole family, including herself and her two kids, lived off her brother, a fanatically hardworking entrepreneur on a motorbike, until he got killed in an accident. Without any kind of life insurance to claim, the family agreed Sarlee would have to sell her body. Good-natured Sarlee didnt object; she had been working in a clothing factory wondering why the Buddha had made her beautiful and itching for an excuse to do something more interesting-but prostitution was forbidden until karma and despair beckoned. If her father doesnt get his heart drugs regularly, he will be unable to work the rice fields, and if that happens not even Sarlees body will save the family from hunger.

Now here, striding across the threshold, is a tall, skinny Indian man in his late thirties; I happen to know from eyewitnesses that he is exceptionally well endowed, and only a few of the girls (proud, in turn, of their own prowess) are prepared to repeat the martyrdom-by-member after the first tryst. This does nothing to suppress his bright-eyed, oat-driven eagerness as he looks around the bar for his eleven-oclock lay. He is followed by a youngish, heavyish Englishman, who is so overpaid in the profession of boilermaker in Essex that he spends three months of the year here, which sojourn is easily recompensed in tax rebates. His vacations begin with modest lechery and end in unrestrained alcohol abuse. I deduce from the signs that he is at the beginning of this one; when he reaches the bar he takes out a copy of the Daily Mirror and casts shy glances at the entrance from time to time. Now, finally, comes Pong, then behind her, Nik, Tonni, and O.

I take Pong to a side table, buy her a drink. That time the farang Frank Charles took ten of you back to his condo, do you remember when it was?

She frowns. Not sure. It was during Khao Phansa; I remember because my brother is a monk and we always visit him for a day during the rainy season. Her face brightens. But you can check with his passport. It was his birthday, Ive just remembered. That was his excuse for having ten of us in that tub at the same time.

What kind of mood was he in?

Oh, he was really lapping it up, fondling and kissing and telling us how happy he was and that we were his only family and could it get any better than this, that a man could have ten beautiful lovers as close family? Then, later on, the Viagra wore off and he burst into tears and we all left. He didnt seem to react to alcohol very well, and hed drunk almost a whole bottle of champagne because none of us liked it. He said it was the most expensive champagne in Bangkok and it cost more than three hundred dollars and he had a refrigerator full of it for the party, but to me it tasted awful, like drinking perfume or something, and none of the other girls drink alcohol either.

Did he suffer from mood shifts generally?

Pong thinks about that, then shrugs. How can I know?

You slept with him regularly? More than the others?

She nods. Yes. At least, I was his favorite at that time. He went through phases, as if he was looking for a wife but got addicted to the search.

After sex, was he melancholy?

Now Pong is concentrating. I think she wants to make sure shes got the right farang when she says, Ive worked here five years and Ive never met a farang who was at peace. I suppose its because theyre not Buddhist like us? Sometimes I wondered

What? If he was gay?

No, no, nothing like that. I wondered if he was looking for a mother. She flashes me a self-conscious look: amateur psychology is not popular with our working girls. He talked about a film, once. One he was making. I think he said it was in the Himalayas. He told me it was the most important thing in his life. But he couldnt complete it. He told me he kept a copy of a half-finished version in his safe and watched it every day hoping for inspiration. He said if he ever did finish it, he would feel whole again and would probably find a Thai wife to live with. I think he wanted me to believe there was hope for me. But when I talked to other girls who had been his favorite, they said he spoke to them in the same way. So I suppose it all depended if you were the flavor of the month or not. I guess the film really was the most important thing in his life. But sometimes he would let slip something about a woman in Nepal. She shrugs. It was all so vague, though. After sex men go vague, if they dont fall asleep.

I ask if Frank Charles ever mentioned me, or asked for the name of a Thai cop-or if, generally, she knew of any connection at all between him and me. She shakes her head with the right element of confusion-why would he have anything to do with me?-so I get her to run through all the girls who attended the Americans sixtieth birthday party, and any others who she knows to have gone with Frank Charles. Then, one by one, I call the girls over, slip them a hundred baht, and ask the same questions. The exercise takes up the whole morning with zero results: none of the girls is aware of any connection between the dead man and me, and they certainly would have remembered if the American had ever used my name. I am experiencing guilt by association, as if I have been fingered as a suspect. I need to speak again to Doctor Mimi Moi. I call the travel agent to cancel the Nepal trip.


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