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43

Isnt it awful when the glorious rediscovery of your innate genius and street smarts turns out to be a delusion? Thats the trouble with relentless optimism: it leads to suicide. Right now Im thinking maybe I really have lost it totally; okay, it was a reasonable hypothesis that if the movie was faked, it was to provide Frank Charles with a way of finally liberating himself from an identity which had become a burden. In Thailand it is not unusual for someone with the means to buy a new persona in some other province, or, as often as not, across the border in Cambodia, where the bribes are lower and enforcement rarer-but in the case of a rich farang, his refuge could have been just about anywhere in Southeast Asia. I had visions of turning up uninvited and unexpected on some five-star beach, maybe in the Philippines, or Malaysia, or Vietnam, or-my first bet-Sihanoukville, Cambodia, with the bad news that I had come to arrest the fat bearded guy who had only recently bought a beach property in an obscure spot where he had planned on living out the rest of his days in peace and anonymity. Wrong.

Supatra just called with the astonishing news that the deceased really is-was-Frank Charles: his DNA matches perfectly the DNA chart the FBI provided from the paternity action in California. Now Im scratching my head. Have you ever heard of such a thing yourself, farang? A guy takes the trouble to record his suicide message about a year before the event, goes through with it all on film to the last gory detail-except he fakes it. Then, next thing you know, he turns up dead in the same sordid flophouse where he filmed his fake suicide, and not only that, he dies in exactly the way he pretended to die in the movie? Amazing. Maybe youve worked it out already, farang, after all, you have the full genetic complement necessary for this conundrum. Myself, Im only half Western, and I just dont get it.

For the moment, Im working on the psychologically sound hypothesis that he chickened out the first time, then brooded and dared and cursed himself to the sticking point where he was actually able to go through with it; thats why we have a fake suicide followed by a real one. This is by no means unusual in the self-annihilation community: so often someone is talked down off a high ledge where they were coyly waiting for attention, only to jump under a train a month later. You cant stop human will. Im uneasy, though; this case has levels all the way down to caverns measureless to man, and my doubting mind is already finding holes in my new hypothesis. If he finally decided to do himself in, why imitate the movie? Why go to that ridiculous amount of trouble when a simple overdose would have done it? There was a case in Soi 11 of a Belgian john who paid the owner of the Twenty-Four Bar for nonstop servicing by not less than two girls at a time for a twenty-four-hour period while he worked his way through a box of Viagra and a bottle of vodka. In his sixties, he died of a heart attack a few days later-its the kind of ending I would have expected of Frank Charles. Yep, uneasy fairly describes my state of mind. I seek relief in doodling on a Post-it sticker, then, feeling somewhat primitive, I decide instead to avail myself of the Internet for its infinite distractions. How about keying in a few names and playing chase-the-clues-across-the-planet? One name holds a particular sonority.

In less than five minutes I have the webpage of one Robert Witherspoon, a Hawaii-based gemologist. Its a professional sort of page, uncluttered, elegant, with no extraneous advertising and a CONTACT ME panel small enough to ignore. There is no way to order his products online. You get the feeling this is not a beginner who recently graduated from gem school after giving up day trading in pork bellies. Either Witherspoon does not need an army of Internet customers, or he figures discretion is the best marketing device for the global 2 percent he wants to attract. There are no pictures of his stones set in flattering filigree silver or gold. In fact, there is only one picture on the whole page: a beautiful gem cut perfectly with facets to catch and break light from all directions. It dominates the monitor like a beacon and is only half explained by the caption, which reads, A perfect Padparadscha Sapphire will be orangey pink in color.

Properly understood, its a tap-your-desk-and-wait-for-the-brain-to-catch-up moment, but I seem to be doing a lot of that these days. Im actually sort of freaked out by the sight of the big orangey-pink sapphire in the middle of my screen. I mean, my intuition is screaming that this is a case solver of a break, but I just dont know why or how. Anyway, its lunchtime and Lek feels rejected if I dont take him across the road at least three times a week.

Now Im at the braised-pig-knuckle food stall opposite the station with Lek, who still watches me anxiously for signs of psychosis. Normally he doesnt eat pork except to keep me company, but we both know that if you reach the stall early enough you can have the pick of the choicest pieces of meat braised to an exquisite tenderness so that it melts in your mouth, and even a 90-percent veggie like Lek cannot resist. We order a couple of iced lemon teas to finish, then lean back in our plastic seats.

Padparadscha, I say with an insane smile.

Thats the fourth time youve said that, Lek complains. At least tell me what it means.

I dont know, I reply. Thats why I have to keep saying it.

Lek sighs and sucks neurotically on his straw in an expression of distress which empties the glass. When were finished I realize the need for some more Internet surfing; I return to my desk, and key in the name Johnny Ng.

Well, you cant expect your luck to hold all day long. In Hong Kong, it seems, there are about a million people with the surname Ng, and about half of those own webpages. Thats what happens in societies with too much money and too few brothels: citizens are forced to play with themselves in cyberspace. Ng: I still dont know how to pronounce it. Wheres the vowel?

I pause to open my mind to the cosmos. For some reason this cannot be done in the police station, so I take a stroll. Its around three in the afternoon, which is to say between meals and therefore snack time. Most of the cooked-food stalls have closed for an afternoon break, but a nifty new gang of entrepreneurs on wheels have shown up with snacks on a stick. Sausages, fishballs, eggs, shrimp, chicken, whole fish, ice cream, frozen coconut, dim sum, satay, dough balls, watermelon, and dried squid can all be eaten off a bamboo spike: watch. Now Im tucking into a well-stuffed Isaan sausage and feeling a little better, not so much because I was hungry but because Im claiming back my city soul. Nobody who wasnt reared in Krung Thep can saunter down the street with a gun stuck down the small of his back, gnawing at sausage, nodding to acquaintances, grabbing an iced lemon tea from the iced lemon tea lady on the corner, and generally walking the walk with the kind of panache Im exhibiting at this moment; it might not be much, but its making me feel like the man. Its good for inspiration, too.

Now Im back at my desk frantically surfing the Net again, with an idea so whacky Im embarrassed to be following it up, and Im not going to tell you about it, farang, unless it yields results.

Well, it has. How about this: I used a search engine to find people named Ng in the Hong Kong gem trade, and guess what? One Johnny Ng is quite well known and successful in that field. I even have his office telephone number and his Internet address. My instinct, though, is not to give him any room to maneuver: Im thinking of getting on a plane. But before I do that, I need help. Detective Sukum is out of the station on some minor case at the moment, so I decide to hit him with a question designed to jangle his nerves. I call him on his cell phone, and as soon as he has said hello I say, What is it about gemologists that Doctor Moi is attracted to?

Huh?

Witherspoon and Johnny Ng-both jewelers and gem traders. I havent checked on the two dead husbands-named Thompson and Legrand, I believe-maybe you can save me the trouble? After all, you were the one who sent me that article about padparadscha. You also sent me the Suzuki case. The pause is so long I think weve been cut off-then he lets me have a long sigh. Get off the phone.


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