Doctor Moi has vacated the Oriental and returned to her place by the river. (Sukum has reluctantly admitted she was probably not on the run after all, merely playing one of her elaborate games with him-or maybe she really was having her house refurbished?) I could make an appointment to see her, but her capacity to elude is legendary and I have a feeling she was not planning to grant me a second interview. Everyone knows that witches are best approached by water at night without prior warning, right?
Which, in the case of Doctor Mimi Moi, just happens to be possible. I know the address because I once had to spend a few days at a crime scene over in Thonburi, not far from her house. After she collected on the deaths of the two husbands she denies murdering, she broke yet another taboo of her class by buying a piece of land on the unfashionable side of the river right next to a klong, a canal, along which a large shantytown had grown up. Mad Moi’s land abuts the shantytown: rickety wooden huts on stilts, filthy kids, and subsistence car-repair businesses, which spread inland for at least one square mile. Little by little she has built up a position of godmother to the locals. She is known to provide free medicine for the needy, communal feasts on holidays, and even legal advice for those who have fallen foul of the cops. Everyone owes her, everyone worships her, and no one is going to betray her if they intend to go on living in the shantytown. Nobody knows how many packages containing what chemical exoticum are carried to and from her house by little old ladies paddling sampans across the river and up the klong.
I take a cab to Klong Toey, to a point on the river, then walk down a path by the side of a bridge that brings me out on the riverbank where a couple of motorized canoes are waiting. I agree on a price with the ferryboat man-an emaciated alcoholic in his late sixties who has not shaved for three days-and he starts the tinny little motor with a pull on a cord. Now we are turning upstream in order to take account of the current, with the high black bows of cargo ships, mostly Chinese and Korean, looming up at us as we pass the docks.
Although the Doctor’s land abuts the Chao Phraya River, it sits on a loop which forms a kind of bay and protects her from the wash of heavy ships. As we navigate the river, slowing to allow a loud and brightly lit restaurant boat to pass on its way to the Grand Palace, we head for a specific patch of dark emptiness on the other side, then slow the motor to a tick as we slip across what could be a black lagoon.
When we turn toward the bank, I see the house. Although constructed of modern materials, it is strictly in the old style, sitting on high stilts with a riverfront terrace about twenty feet deep which runs the length of the building and gables that look like garudas’ beaks. As we approach it is obvious that Doctor Moi’s fine eye has produced a kind of perfection of form: a soft golden light illuminates a generous window through a gauze curtain; classic Chinese furniture in blackwood can be glimpsed from moment to moment, along with chaise longues with pastel upholstery. There is a vast abundance of hanging plants on the balcony, mostly orchids, which gives a forest atmosphere, and a maid in full livery appears for a second to serve a beverage to the figure in a rocking chair, a bare-shouldered form in white jacquard silk cheongsam (high collar, pearl dragons writhing), smoking a cheroot and reading a magazine. When she hears our motor she looks up languidly. It is not until we have docked at her jetty that she sees it is me, but she shows no sign of surprise. Indeed, she even sends the maid down to the jetty to greet me and bring me to the house. Little Red Riding Hood must have felt the way I do now.
The maid is about ten years older than her mistress, which is to say in her fifties, quite tall and slim like Moi, silent-she does not speak to me-and very Chinese; I doubt there is a single Thai gene in her porcelain flesh. She wears the white cap, white blouse, black skirt, and white apron of domestic service, as if she works for an English duchess.
Doctor Moi gets up to welcome me as I climb the stairs onto the balcony, and I give her a high wai. She does not seem put out by my visit; on the contrary, a faint smile hovers around her thin lips. Nevertheless, she says, “What a surprise, Detective.” She is way too cool to ask why I didn’t telephone first. “Won’t you sit down to join me? I’ve just told the maid to bring a pot of cocoa with cognac.”
“Thanks. I thought you didn’t drink.”
“My British husband got me addicted to cognac in cocoa before he tragically died. Something about brandy makes one feel rich.”
I sit down on a wicker chair with a silk cushion in exactly the right place to support the lower back; the sense of instant relaxation is increased by the silence. A gibbous moon hangs over the black river, the rest is emptiness; I can see why Moi likes it here. When the maid comes back, a ginger tomcat emerges with her and jumps heavily into the Doctor’s lap. I mumble, “I was expecting a Persian female,” because I can’t think of anything else to say. While the maid is pouring the cocoa-her hand is long, pale, with skinny fingers; there is a curious ring on the index finger of her right hand, a band of silver in which eight tiny orangey-pink gems have been set-Moi clears her throat. “I haven’t even had him neutered. He’s the happiest tom in Thailand. He goes slumming and gets laid twenty times a night, but comes back here for silk sheets and gourmet fish.”
“What’s his name?”
“Hofmann, after the chemist who first synthesized LSD. But Hofmann prefers smack, don’t you sweetheart?”
Right on cue, Hofmann growls and buries his head under her arm. I let a few beats pass. When she makes no attempt to speak, I say, “Doctor, I have a document here signed by Colonel Vikorn-”
To my surprise she holds up a hand. “Please, let’s not do business yet. So few distinguished visitors come by river, I feel a need to show you around. And it’s such a beautiful moment in the evening.” A gracious smile without a hint of irony.
So we just hang there for a while, the Doctor and I, suspended in the night as if we were swinging on hammocks slung between stars, drinking our cocoa. Moi seems in a kind of trance, unwilling to face the practical challenge of standing up again. It occurs to me that by this time in the evening she might have taken something stronger than cocoa with cognac. I insert my first forensic question as gently as I can, hoping to reach a mind which has dropped its defenses.
“Did Frank Charles often join you here?”
“Mmm.” The murmur is so low it is almost inaudible. “Lots. He loved it here. He even tried to buy me out. I said no. Anyway, he could never have survived next to the shantytown-they would have eaten him alive. He was a bourgeois, he didn’t know how to deal with slaves. He would have been too nice.” She lets a beat pass. “He used to smoke cannabis here that I got for him from Humboldt County. He would smoke dope, get despondent-his love problem kept cropping up-and then, of course, the whole beautiful evening was forgotten. One would have to watch his mind shrink all the way back into his testicles-which, being a farang, he mistook for his heart.” A grimace. “You know, I would never consent to be a man. I’d simply have it all cut off and become a katoey.”
“You’ve never wanted children, Doctor?”
She shudders by way of answer. “Pets die. Children are a pain in the ass for the duration.”
She seems unwilling to leave the balcony or to waste time on talk, and I feel pretty much the same way. I try to intuit my way into the skin of Frank Charles: how exotic it must have seemed to him at first, to hang out under a tropical moon with an authentic Chinese murderess-and a beauty, in her austere way-who spoke better English than he and whose conversation was wittier than his. And a pharmacist, too! Surely he would have wanted to develop the relationship further? Not sexually, of course-Moi was not joking when she said she despised carnal love-but I think he sought one of those kinds of friendships farang nowadays dream of: more reliable than family, and a lot more fun. “Did he talk much about his film?” I mumble, hardly audible even to myself, but I’ve noticed how good Moi’s hearing is.
“You know the one I mean, Doctor?”
“What did he say about it?”
“I can’t remember. Mostly it was the artistic self-pity thing with him. How much he’d put into it in money and effort. How it consumed him but he never got it finished. He liked to make sure I realized it was not a schmaltz production like the others, it was serious, he was giving it his best shot, every detail had to be perfect.”
She takes a toke of her cheroot and exhales so slowly I’ve given up hope of more information, when she adds, “He couldn’t seem to get the ending right.”
Maybe she feels she’s said too much, for she stands slowly and invites me into the house. We cross the great polished teak balcony together and she steps inside to formally welcome me with a wai.
A finely carved Taoist temple table in blackwood: incense writhes upward and curls around two portraits of a man and woman in Qing dynasty costume, with their hair pulled back in queues, staring at us out of the past. I cast an eye at Doctor Moi.
“My great-grandfather on my father’s side, with his third wife, my grandfather’s mother. If not for Mao and the revolution I probably would have been brought up on the family estate in Swatow, with ornamental gardens and pavilions where one spent the summer. I might have had my feet bound, and I would certainly have been an opium addict.” She looks at me. “I long for that lost elegance. After all, I love opium and I never walk anywhere.”
She has taken the cheroot out of her mouth and straightened her back, as if the portraits are realer to her than the living and more deserving of respect, while I take in the rest of the room. There’s an underlying masculinity in the discipline, but the colors are subtle and fine. I say, “I’m looking for a teddy bear.”
She nods thoughtfully, as if in agreement. “I know. For the past twenty years I’ve kept him in a syringe.”
She takes me to a small and cozy library and even offers me a peek at the main bedroom. I’m wondering why she is being so hospitable, when I feel a sudden lift in the area of my brow. I turn to her in surprise.
“That wasn’t cognac in the cocoa, Doctor.”
“Did I say cognac? I must have had a blonde moment. Don’t worry, you didn’t drink anything I didn’t also drink.” She snorts. “And anyway, we’re not married, so there’s no need to kill you.”
“Can I at least know what it is?”
“No, it’s too rare and exciting, and the name wouldn’t mean anything to you.”
“What’s it going to do?”
“It’s going to solve the case for you. Isn’t that what you want?”
I don’t know if the reason I can’t concentrate is because the drug has started to work on me or because I’m afraid it has started to work on me. “Can we go back out on the balcony?”
As soon as we get there I slip with a sigh into the wicker chair and become mesmerized by the moon. Now I’m beginning to understand the mood she was in when I arrived. “You were already on this stuff when I showed up, weren’t you?”
“Mmm. How do you like it?”
“It’s too good. You’re a witch.”
“Mmm. Now, what was it you were saying about a letter from Colonel Vikorn?”
“It’s not going to work, Doctor, I’m not giving it to you until you’ve done a lot of explaining. That’s what I came to tell you.”
“A pot of cocoa for the letter?”
She lets a few beats pass. “Do you realize that without my help you will never in your entire life feel as good as this again?”
I groan. “Yes.”
“But unlike earlier versions of this family of molecules, with this one you remember every ecstatic minute the next day, in glorious color, but without the ecstasy, which is replaced by an unendurable nostalgia for the lost high that will have you crawling up the wall.”
“But the worst of it is, you are only at the beginning of the trip. It’s going to get better and better and better-so good you won’t believe it. And then it will end. Unless I give you some more cocoa.”
“I got the picture, Doctor Moi.”
“And don’t even think of trying to bust me. That stuff is prescribed by my personal physician in Amsterdam, and it’s not my fault you came here uninvited and drank my cocoa before I could warn you what was in it.”
“I already know what your defense will be.”
“You have unusual resistance,” she says with a touch of chagrin.
“Whatever this is, it can’t compare to the blade wheel.”
“Blade wheel?” She repeats the phrase as if she has heard it before and tuts irritably.
“It cuts through everything. Even your chemicals.”
After a long, languid pause. “I see. Well, what was it you wanted to know?”
I find I am unable to answer, not because my mind has gone blank but because it has acquired such a crystalline clarity, such a sharpness of definition in both thought and sense, that I don’t want to waste the moment on work. Especially when I can read the file in the night sky. Time passes, but I have lost the measure of it.
“Solved everything yet?” Doctor Moi inquires.
“There never was a problem, was there?”
“Detective, I believe that letter is addressed to me.”
“It’s addressed ‘To Whom It May Concern,’ and whether you get it or not is entirely up to me.”
We hang there like that for fully two hours. It really is good stuff. Finally, Moi says, “Just tell me exactly what you want from me.”
“A sign, Doctor, a word, anything that will confirm that what I’ve just read in the sky is all true. That it isn’t just chemicals screwing my head up.”
When I raise my head as a follow-up to my words, I see she is thinking profoundly. She picks up a little bell to ring for the maid, who brings a new cheroot and helps her light it, then goes back into the house without a word. Moi stands up to look at the river, which is black and shiny as an oil slick under the climbing moon. All I have of her is a three-quarter back shot with her long black hair trapped loosely in a tortoiseshell clip with silver inlay, the white silk of her cheungsam catching the moonlight thread by thread.
“The life of a pariah is not easy, Detective, even if you are lucky enough to be a rich one. He and I understood one another. We even talked about it. He told me that when he made his films-not the one good one, but the two dozen schmaltzy ones-he always kept a typical member of the public in mind. That person, for him, was a middle-aged librarian he met just once in Arkansas when he was running around the country promoting his first movie. She was a woman with a college degree whose taste remained mainstream and somewhat redneck, a product of a tribe and culture so complacent, so certain of her own goodness-because everyone in her vicinity agreed she was good-that he was able to identify her as a perfect ersatz muse. Although she didn’t know it, she was the golden one for whom he made the films. And she, in her unlimited mediocrity, is the one who made him rich.”
Moi turns to me for a moment to show the mirth on her face.
“When he first told me that I thought it was so funny-and so clever of him-I couldn’t stop laughing. He didn’t see it that way, though. He told me that this middle-aged librarian in Arkansas had come to dominate his whole life. He had thought that after his first ten million he wouldn’t give a damn about anyone in the audience anymore, but somehow it didn’t work out like that. This librarian had avatars everywhere, especially inside his head and among the matriarchs of Hollywood. He’d done a deal with the devil, you see? That’s who she was, that perfect, good, clean-living, no-nonsense, mainstream, somewhat-redneck librarian from Arkansas. For any pariah, especially an artist, she was the opposition. Poor Frank had done a deal, and the devil had kept her part of the bargain. Frank Charles was very rich. And very lost. There was no way he could get back to that other Frank Charles, the young one who was going to shock and delight the world with his originality and genius. That was all gone. Sold.”
“No way out?”
Doctor Moi nods slowly and profoundly. “He begged me, you know, over and over again. He kept begging me to help until I finally gave in.”
“Yes,” I say, “I can see that.” And so I can. Moi’s mood of sorrow penetrates me as if her aura has quite eclipsed my own. I do not analyze what she might mean by “help;” I feel it with such intensity that no analysis is necessary-or possible. I can actually see Frank Charles here on this balcony in a morose mood, begging Moi, and Moi, elegant and gracious to a fault, doing all she can to help; it’s like watching a scene from a play, with the balcony as stage, but instead of dialogue there is a visible exchange of emotion. I experience her “help” more as a kind of mood of infinite abundance than as anything with practical application. It occurs to me that the drug may be compromising my mind, but then instantly discard the idea as too ridiculous for words. I say, “Are you really telling me the truth, Doctor?” while at the same time asking myself if she has actually “said” anything. But as I speak I’m holding Vikorn’s letter over her shoulder. “Just nod, Doctor, just nod once. You’re far too stoned to lie.” She nods, but I take back the letter. “Just tell me one real thing, Doctor. One real thing.”
She stares at me. I think she is a little annoyed that I still retain some resistance. “There is a film,” she says, as if the statement has cost her dearly. “He finished it in the end. I have a copy.”
As I hand over the letter, I say, “What will you do with it?”
She bites her lip. “Watch it a few more times, then destroy it. I have the only copy in the world. It’s not the sort of thing that could ever go on general release. Even though it’s a masterpiece. He trusted me to destroy it-but he had to have at least one viewer, do you see?”
“For this film, you were the ideal viewer?”
“Exactly. I was the devil he had to deal with for this very special work. I was his authentic muse. You could say he made it just for me. The first time I watched it, I couldn’t believe that any man could portray life so accurately.” She turns back to speak to the moon. “He escaped, you see? In his way, he finally escaped. You may not believe me, but that was the real reason I helped him. If I’d wanted his money, I could have married him, couldn’t I?” She lets a long beat pass. “It was a kind of love we had. Not sexual, much better than that. Artistic, you might say.”
“Doctor, please, may I see the film?”
“No. Never. I promised him. I don’t break promises to the dead.”
I make as if I’m about to leave when I ask, “Khun Doctor, why did you give Frank Charles my name?” The question has startled her, and now she is blinking rapidly. “Of course, I am not certain it was you, but there really is no one else I can think of who might have supplied him with my name and address. No one at all.” Now she is looking at me as if I am slightly crazy. “My name, private telephone number, and home address were found in the Microsoft address book on his computer.”
She turns her head to one side with a frown, then smiles. “Ah! Detective, you are a little too smart for your own good. I remember now. No, it was not me who brought your name to his attention, it was you. You used to be a film buff, no? I think a long time ago you wrote a review of the only film he was proud of-his first one. What was the name? Black Wednesday, no? I think you accused him of plagiarism.”
“Ages ago. You must have hardly been out of the academy.”
It’s coming back to me. It is years since I made a point of remembering the names of directors, or the plots of old movies. I sort of remember an American noir entry at a film festival. It’s very vague, though. If I remember correctly, it was well put together but disappointing in that it seemed to imitate other films. Not very original. Did I really say “plagiarism”? I was one of those passionate young men who mistook the movies for a form of religion.
Moi nods. “When we were on cocaine together one evening he told me about it. He was sort of laughing at his own chagrin, that a third-world Eurasian cop would have the effrontery, et cetera-all quite ironic. Don’t ask me where he got your details from, I’m sure it was nothing sinister. More likely he intended to ask you out for a drink one day and never got around to it. He was very civilized, you know, an urbane bon viveur when his chemicals were properly balanced. If only puppy love hadn’t screwed him up.”
I take my leave, but instead of asking her to call a cab, I decide to go back by river the way I came. She calls a ferryman to take me across. When I’m home and preparing for bed, I remember her threat, that the drug would haunt me the next day with its memory of a lost nirvana. When I wake up in the morning, I experience no symptoms at all. As a matter of fact, I feel terrific. It occurs to me she was lying. Not only about the drug, but also about everything else she said last night. Did Frank Charles really make that film? Does she really have a copy?