For the sake of good housekeeping, I need to follow up a little on the Fat Farang suicide. After all, records already show that I’ve interviewed Doctor Moi in connection with the file, so I really need to have her comments on the movie. Then there’s the little detail of the familiar hand holding the buzz saw, which I cannot simply ignore. Also, let’s face it, every cop loves to bust a triple-A liar.
It was Moi herself who suggested we meet at the Starbucks in the Emporium, a shopping mall on Sukhumvit, which used to be state of the art until they opened the Paragon at Silom. You can only understand the Asian passion for shopping malls when you realize you didn’t invent them, farang, we did. You added the air-conditioning and the coffee, for which we are most grateful. For the rest, it’s the local street market all over again.
Starbucks here is an Atlantic island in the middle of a Pacific Ocean of cooked-food stalls, ice-cream stands, pharmacies, cutlers, bathroom specialists, and, most important of all, vendors of electric rice cookers. Behind me is a Japanese supermarket, somewhat on the pricey side and therefore frequented mostly by HiSo Thais, Japanese, Koreans, and farang. Shopping there is a treat. All over Asia no shopper is ever required to empty their own trolley at checkout; here, though, Japanese rules apply, and you not only have your trolley lovingly discharged before your eyes, but also cop a high wai and extra-special sawatdee-krup-with-smile from the beautiful clerk, who really does convince you she’s pleased to see you. Just for the record, farang, I am not making an invidious comparison with your supermarkets (where they make you feel like a shoplifter with previous convictions who has to be watched all the time).
The caf'e is no more than a large stand with lounge chairs open to the rest of the mall, so while I’m waiting for Moi, who is late as usual, I sit at a table and watch the world for a moment. I see a TV personality who does a lot of commercials, and a senior banker with his young mistress: he rents a suite in the apartments attached to the mall; the girl is so much the exquisite light tan Barbie doll of his dreams that one cannot doubt she has enjoyed previous lifetimes as a banker’s moll.
Now here is an Isaan family: the woman battling a feeling of inferiority with brute defiance and a permanent frown, the man looking skinny and humble and nostalgic for his rice field, the kids like miniature tanks which go shooting off in every direction, fall over, come shooting back; they inherit rubber bodies in Isaan. There are plenty of Sikhs, Hindus, Moslems from the South, middle-aged farang with their local squeezes, some white women politely waiting to reclaim their men and move to another country; a couple of Thai dykes with spiky cropped green and crimson hair hold hands with exaggerated affection. There are plenty of middle-aged gay farang with obedient local slaves, too. Now here’s a Nigerian family, the mother in national costume with bright mauves and oranges with a purple turban. There is on average one humble, smiling, lazy Thai sales assistant for each shopper; when there are no customers the boys stage mock kung fu fights in the refrigerator section while the girls apply cosmestics and gossip.
I sit back in the armchair and wait. When she is more than twenty minutes late, I stand up to stroll around for five minutes and check the escalators. When I peer down onto one of the lower floors, I see Moi, her tall, slim figure with long hair tied loosely back with a silver clip; she is wearing a silk blouse the color of old gold over black leggings and seems to be involved in some kind of dispute with her maid, who is carrying some packages. I guess the Doctor has been shopping. Both women seem angry; I’m surprised at the intensity of the maid’s expression-Moi seems slightly scared, but gesticulates upward, in my direction. Finally, she shrugs, turns her back on the maid, and gets on the escalator. I rush back to my armchair, but stand to greet her when she arrives. My problem, at this moment, is that I have not yet decided whether or not to start by telling her about the DVD someone sent me from Hawaii. I had decided to play it by ear, but now I’m not at all sure how to guide the conversation. I watch while the Doctor orders a peppermint mocha at the stand, then comes to sit opposite me in one of the armchairs. She is in an unusually alert mood; her smart black eyes take in everyone in a couple of glances, then check me. I have the unnerving feeling that she knows something about the package from Hawaii, and that that was what she was arguing about with her maid. We exchange pleasantries, but when I say nothing about the case, she becomes uneasy. Finally, she says, “You wanted to see me, Detective? I am hoping you have good news for me? An intervention with the disciplinary committee would be nice.”
I nod slowly, then take from my jacket pocket my secret weapon of the morning. It is an A4-sized piece of paper with a color printout of a still from the movie. I lay it in front of her on the coffee table and stare at her staring at Frank Charles propped up in bed with a buzz saw cutting into the side of his head. The saw is held by a gloved hand. The hand is long and slim, and one can speculate that the wide band on the index finger of the right hand is silver and set with eight tiny gems.
Moi’s porcelain skin has turned still paler. I am fascinated by the elegance with which she raises both hands to her face and presses them against her cheeks. For a moment I am looking at a woman looking at a personal catastrophe; but she’s tough. She recovers immediately, looks up at me, and cocks an eyebrow: What about it? I’m not standing for any gimmicks, though, and keep my expression firm. When she tries to pick up the picture to give it back to me, I place both my hands flat on top of it, keeping it there on the coffee table like a piece of evidence so crucial it is radioactive. She takes the cue from my grim determination, then suddenly reaches for her black Gucci handbag to take out a gold pillbox. It is one of those reactions of hers, like the crooked smile, which makes you wonder if everything she’s done and said so far is somehow fake. She pops something bright crimson into her mouth and washes it down with a gulp of peppermint mocha. While she is doing so, I point to the hand holding the saw, outline its length with my finger, and come to rest on the ring. She takes a deep breath.
“There’s nothing you can prove with this,” she says, avoiding my eyes. “Nothing at all.”
I nod. “No, I agree. This proves nothing. No judge or jury would draw conclusions from this. But a cop can. A cop can use it to give direction to his investigation. A cop could ride this piece of paper all the way to a fullblown house search-and worse. I could use this as a very good reason to investigate every tiny detail of your life. Assisting suicide is a crime.” I raise my eyebrows.
She frowns hard at the photograph, looks away toward the electric rice cookers, seems to come to a conclusion, and nods. “I’ll help you, off the record. But I want immunity for myself and my maid. After all, we’re talking about a suicide.”
I acknowledge the last point with a nod. “First, I’d like to know-is this the reason you refused to show me the movie? Could this be the reason you won’t let it be shown even in private viewings? That surprised me above everything else, when I thought about it. After all, if you really wanted to honor the dead, you would want the genius of his last work to be available to the world.”
She ignores the question. “I’d like to know where you got this-do you have the whole movie, or only this still?”
I shake my head. “Don’t make me say, I’m the one who asks the questions.”
A flash of anger crosses her long face, but she smoothes it over with a casual exercise of will. She gives a theatrical sigh. “I suppose I’m in your hands, Detective.” She looks around the shopping mall. “This is hardly the best place to talk. If I’d known you were going to pull this trick, I would never have suggested meeting here.”
I follow her gaze. It all rather depends on how your sense of security works. To be sure, there are plenty of people around, and it is even possible someone could be eavesdropping; on the other hand, nobody knew we intended to meet here, so it is unlikely we are being spied on. When I catch Moi’s expression, though, I see that it is more the need for privacy that is motivating her. I do not say, How about the police station?
She fishes out a super-slim silver cell phone and presses a single button. When she speaks, it is not in Thai or English. I am not an expert, but I would bet Wall Street against a Thai mango that it is the Teochew dialect she’s using. Now she has closed the phone. “I told my maid to take a taxi home-we’ve been shopping. But then you knew that. We saw you spying on us.” She gives a grim smile. “My car and driver are in the garage downstairs.”
It is, of course, a dark blue Benz with a driver in fawn livery designed to intimidate traffic cops and anyone else prone to get in the way. The driver is gaunt, and I doubt there is a single Thai gene in him. I note how casually she exercises her authority, using the Teochew dialect; as with the maid, these two, also, go way back. But there is a sliding glass divider which enables her to shut out the driver altogether as we emerge from the garage into the gridlock on Sukhumvit. After a couple of minutes I have to admire her discretion; surely in all Bangkok there could not be a better or more secure place to hold an intensely private conversation; no one can get to us here, barricaded as we are by a filthy bus on our left, a builder’s truck on our right, private cars straight ahead, and traffic backed up behind us all the way to the river. The gridlock is so dense even motorbike taxis are at a standstill, their riders fretting, noses and mouths covered. Pollution radiates steadily and vertically.
Moi looks straight ahead into the infinite traffic. When she finally clears her throat, she begins with the immortal words, “You are half Thai, perhaps there is enough Asian blood in you to understand there is such a thing as the world of the dead?”
I think I was prepared for anything except that sentence. I give her a double take and say, “World of the dead?” But she seems not to hear me. On the contrary, she is sitting bolt upright with a grimace of concentration on some internal object. Then she starts to talk. She is leaning forward slightly, utterly absorbed in some inner vision, and her words seem to be an earnest attempt to describe what she is seeing. Unfortunately, she is speaking in Teochew, so I cannot understand a word of it. Carefully, so as not to interrupt her trance, I reopen the glass partition a couple of inches, so the driver is exposed to her words. His reaction, after a couple of minutes, is to maneuver the Benz to the inside lane, then, when the traffic finally starts to move, he turns into a side soi. Now he has picked up his cell phone and is making a call. When he closes the phone, he turns to me. “You better go. The maid will come to take care of her. She took a bright red pill when she was with you, didn’t she?”
The driver shakes his head. “It’s opium based and the worst in her collection. Every time she takes it she goes into a trance and talks to her ancestors. She’s not really here at all. You better leave, she can be quite unpleasant when the effects wear off.”
I see that for some reason he doesn’t want me to be here when the maid arrives. I say okay, get out, and start to walk back to the gridlock on Sukhumvit. After a few yards, I turn to look back. The driver is in the car again behind the wheel. He has opened the partition all the way and is listening with rapt attention to her bulletin from the Far Shore.