I need the vastness of dharma, so I’m sitting on the back of a motorbike taxi on the way to Wat Rachananda.
At the wat I pay twenty baht for a set of the following: one candle, one lotus bud, four squares of gold foil, and a bunch of incense-and I switch off my cell phone. Lighting the incense is always a chore because it takes a while to catch fire, but Wat Rachananda has an oil lamp permanently burning for that purpose. I stand in line behind a couple of middle-aged women and a young man to light up, slip off my shoes, enter the wat, hold the incense in a high wai at forehead level, bow three times to the enigmatic gold Buddha on the dais, stick the incense into the sand pit at the back of the temple, place the lotus bud on the silver platter, walk toward the Buddha, and prostrate three times. The ritual over, I turn to the more demanding business of meditation and go sit in a semilotus against one of the pillars at the back.
Before I met Tietsin and his blade wheel it would take me a good half hour, sometimes double that, before my mind would still itself to the point where any real meditation could happen. Now, though, it takes less than ten minutes. Even while my mind is still zinging with the events of the day I can sense an appetite just under the surface-nay, a desperate, rabid lust-for some way out of here. Just before the attack from the blade wheel, I’m thinking about the fat man, Frank Charles; and Tara; and Pichai; and a dozen small, petty things-then it’s suddenly as if I am faced with the prospect of death. Nothing is important except that elusive thing the Buddha advised us not to even try to define; the terror of death does not compete with the terror of surviving death, once you’re convinced. The reality of the transcendent, in its infinite and crushing variety, causes synapses to short, hearts to groan, brains to fry. In other words, the blade wheel is here. It can appear as a gigantic terrifying rotary engine with scythelike blades or it can camouflage itself as a microscopic insect that turns metallic when it enters your bloodstream. And it can multiply itself arithmetically, which is what it does right now. With my eyes closed I experience the whole wat as filled with Tietsin’s blade wheels, all inexorably flying toward me. Like a madman I am muttering, Yes, yes, rip away, whatever the price get me out of this quicksand only an idiot would describe as life. And: Pichai, where are you? The experience is almost epileptic, the way my nerve-tormented body writhes where I sit in a kind of orgasm, until the grasping which has dominated this continuum for a thousand years melts under the power of the Buddha and I experience a few seconds of peace.
Purged, emotionally drained, but high as a kite, I’m on the back of a bike again. At a traffic light I remember to switch on my cell phone. Instantly there is a succession of bleeps, which chide me for my radio silence. The text message reads,
Using skills honed over the years, I manage to text back, using one hand:
“It’s a fake,” the FBI says. I have her on my monitor at home, although the picture is kind of blurred and jerky and the colors don’t really do her justice. Most of the time she’s a feisty redhead these days, although all that exercise they put people through over there has drawn her cheeks; she looks like a super-fit sergeant at boot camp, except that her left arm is in a cast. She is hunched over her monitor and moving from side to side as if avoiding punches. I say, “What is?”
“The end of the movie.”
I stare at her for a moment, wondering if I’ve got the wrong conversation. “Huh?”
“I’m talking about the film you sent me. The movie allegedly recording the suicide of one Frank Charles, famous Hollywood director. The ending is faked.”
I have to let quite a few beats pass while my brain unscrambles. “Faked? You have ways of telling that from a digital copy? Your nerds have confirmed?”
“Actually, yes, they confirmed, but it didn’t need nerds. All it needed was a machine that would play each frame extra slow. You could even try it on your own DVD player. When you play it real slow, you see the saw is touching off concealed strips of skin-colored plastic tubing under the hair-the saw just has to touch it for the ketchup to burst out, so it looks like a real medical operation, but if the saw were really cutting into bone the action would take a lot longer. I spoke to someone who does special effects for the film industry. She watched the movie and said it was a dangerous and unorthodox procedure-the saw could easily have broken the skin and then there would have been a massive civil claim, and maybe even a criminal one. They would never do it that way over here. But it’s very clever-it makes for great cinema.”
“And the other stuff-we see the whole of the inside of his skull?”
“Apparently, that was the easy part. Just a question of trick photography and a lot of work with plastic models.”
“But”-I’m spluttering-“we have the body-that’s how he died-the skull was completely detached, parts of the brain had been eaten-there was real blood everywhere-someone ripped his guts out-the murder wasn’t faked.”
“I didn’t say the murder was faked, honey, only the movie.”
We both hang there in silence for a long moment. I say, “Wow.”
“I agree. Wow! I’m jealous-what a great case! Is it the only one you’re working on?”
“No,” I say, swallowing guilt like something sour in my mouth. “I’m doing something special for Vikorn at the same time.”
She’s smart enough to take the hint. There is sorrow in her tone when she says, “Ah!”
I am realizing how compromised I am, how my freedom of action has been destroyed by the chains on my spirit. For all her faults and her restless need for love and change, the FBI still has integrity; I doubt she’s ever broken the law in her life, or even slightly bent the ethics of her profession. For all her experience, she’s less worldly than I am these days. I envy her the unobstructed speed of her brain when she says, “I don’t want to tell you how to run the case, Sonchai, but if I were you-”
“I know,” I interrupt, anxious, I suppose, to show I still know how to investigate a murder. “The surviving husbands.”
As soon as I’ve closed Skype I find Frank Charles’s movie and slide it into the DVD drive. I fast-forward to the ending, then play around with the controls until I’ve got extra slow-mo. I stare in disbelief. The FBI is right. At this speed it is possible to see the edge of the saw’s circular blade touch on the hair, which is covering some kind of skin-colored strip that bulges slightly in the center, and as soon as it does so the strip bursts, shedding “blood.” I manage to catch a still and magnify it: tiny shreds from the plastic strip are clearly mixed with the spray of gore. You wouldn’t normally notice them, because they look like bone fragments. I’m shaking my head. I need Einstein. I have Sukum.