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39

We are waiting under the bridge at Klong Toey. Sukum has not shaved today and is wearing baggy army-surplus shorts, an old black T-shirt, and flip-flops. He is doing river peasant, in other words, and flatly refuses to say where we are going. On the other hand, he has made it clear that he is risking life and limb by taking me to wherever he is taking me; he will not confirm or deny that Mad Mois house is our destination.

The ferryman, when he arrives, is stunningly ugly. His canoe is old and a couple of the seats are smashed, as if it has been rescued from a wreck; his bare arms and chest are covered in prison tattoos and there are vicious facial scars which spell knife fight to a cops eyes. He doesnt speak when we climb into his boat, and starts the tinny little outboard with a vicious pull on the starter cord. We cross the broad black river in silence except for the motor, which the boatman cuts when we are about a hundred yards from Mois jetty. Now there are only the faintest river sounds: the diminutive wash of the boats bows, a fish or water rat breaking the surface, voices from the opposite shore faintly carrying across the river. Mois house is in darkness. Instead of aiming for the jetty with the motor cut, however, the ferryman takes out an oar and maneuvers us silently around a headland so that we end up tied to a stump of tree, facing Mois place across the water. I watch in disbelief as Sukum reaches into a bag he has brought and shows me a pair of night-vision binoculars. He raises them to his eyes, makes a few adjustments, and hands them to me.

As my eyes adjust to the green tincture, I see nine monks sitting in a semicircle on Mois terrace, with their backs to the house, facing the river. They seem to be chanting, but in such low voices they are inaudible even across the water. But they are not monks. I made that assumption because they are sitting the way monks sit and wearing robes. But those are not monks robes, I now realize. They are black gowns with hoods which obscure the faces of the chanting men. Sukum urges me to scan the rest of Mois property. When I do so I see that the path from the jetty to the house has been modified so that there are now three makeshift bamboo arches, which you would have to pass under if you were planning to reach the house from the river. Im frowning at Sukum to ask for some kind of explanation, when the first of the boats arrives. It is a snakehead boat about sixty feet long, and seems quite full of people, who get out at the jetty and stand around, waiting. Now another boat appears, a rowboat, with only three people in it. One of the people-they seem all to be men-is blindfolded and has to be helped from the boat to the jetty, and then led carefully along the jetty to the land. One of the prisoners minders pulls off the blindfold, causing me to gasp. It is a member of parliament who recently changed political parties. I turn to Sukum, but he shakes his head vigorously and urges me to keep watching. I stare as one of the officials of the ceremony, who seems to act as a kind of hierophant, shows the new initiate a piece of bamboo; it must have words written on it, for the neophyte is reading from it, after which he makes a humble wai three times in the direction of Mois house, then takes off his shoes, socks, and upper garment. Bare-chested now, he is taken under the three arches, at each of which he stops and recites a few words, apparently repeating each phrase three times. Eventually he reaches the terrace of the house, which has been modified for the occasion. Mois ancestor portraits are now hanging there over the blackwood shrine, which has been brought out from the interior. Moi and her maid are sitting in large rattan chairs with peacock backs that look like thrones. The ones in black gowns continue to chant. There is a pile of something on the blackwood shrine which glitters greenly in the night-vision glasses. The balcony is full of people sitting on the floor, all of whom seem to be men except for Moi and her maid.

All of a sudden our ferryboat man is restless, and Sukum, too, has decided it is time to leave. When we reach the shore, Sukum hands the nervous boatman a large amount of cash, far more than the value of a river crossing, and the boatman races away into the night. Sukum doesnt look at me. We dont talk until we have reached the road and found a cab.

In the backseat, Sukum looks away at the deserted streets, and murmurs, Dyou get it now?

I think so, I say. The one they were initiating, he was who I think he was?

Yes. Of course. Didnt you get a view of any of the others?

A couple.

So? Can we just forget about the case now? This is the moment to stop, when you have a clear and corroborated suicide-you dont need to pester Moi or her maid anymore. You dont need to die; you could say shes let you off.

There is something strange about the way he says suicide which is hard to pin down; but Sukum is confident that what I have seen tonight is enough to stop any Thai cop in his tracks, even me. He does not understand that all of a sudden the Fat Farang Case is my last hold on integrity. I dont care that its a suicide. I want to know everything that led up to the Americans death. I want to prove Im still a cop.

No, I say.

When I look at him I remember the detective he used to be, before Moi ruined him. I imagine him staked out on the river somewhere, night after night, brave, enthusiastic, confident that in his case, at least, the system would allow him to grow into full manhood. I remember his breakdown at the end. After she slipped him the acid he was off work for three months.

He turns to stare at me in disbelief. Half the Thai-Chinese movers and shakers in Bangkok were at that initiation. I risked everything to show you, including my life. Dont expect any more help from me. Ive done enough. Ive done a lot more than any other cop in my position would have. Ive done a lot more than you would do-after all, youre Vikorns consigliere, arent you?

Im shocked and saddened that the word has entered his vocabulary. It means the whole station must know what I am. I say, Why didnt you tell me before?

Terror, he explains. For some stupid reason I dont even understand myself, I seem to want to stay alive. Dont you see, if any of those people tonight find out that two humble cops know more than we should, theyll waste us in a heartbeat? Drop it, Detective, drop the whole thing. Whatever that fat farang was really doing in that movie, it wasnt what he claimed-or maybe even he didnt know why he was doing what he was doing. You can see the power of her magic from the kind of people who attended her gathering tonight. Whats the matter, is your farang blood telling you to play the hero? Not in Thailand, Detective. You know that.

I allow a period of silence to do justice to his vehemence before changing the subject. I didnt know those kinds of societies use women in their rituals.

They dont-at least, not anymore. Were talking about a Thai version and you know how conservative we are about rituals. It seems at the beginning, long before the Shaolin Monastery stuff the movies talk about, these were initiation rites into an ancient mystery dating back to the Warring States period. Before Buddha, before even Confucius, women were used as priestesses and had a lot of power. Naturally, thats something Mois family insists upon, seeing as she doesnt have any brothers. Her family members have been the Dragon Heads, Incense Masters, and White Paper Fans for more than a hundred years. Unlike in Hong Kong, in Thailand these are not elected offices, they are inherited.

I let a few minutes pass. Im finally seeing the world according to Sukum. Look, Detective, you dont have to help anymore. I understand. You took a big risk tonight and I appreciate it and I have no right to ask more of you. But I have to work this case. I just have to. But answer one question. That other suicide, the Japanese jeweler named Suzuki-its connected, isnt it?

He stares at me resentfully, then opens his window and turns to howl softly at the night, like a wolf.


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