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49

Its late morning before I get around to thinking about Moi and the Frank Charles case again. Out of curiosity, and kicking myself for not thinking of it sooner, I check out padparadscha for myself on Wikipedia:

Because of its rarity, it is frequently fabricated via synthetics in laboratory settings, or on regular pink or orange sapphires by a process of beryllium surface diffusion. This diffusion process involves heating the stone along with crushed chrysoberyl, the source of the beryllium in the treatment.

The vast majority of padparadscha sapphires (and most other colors of sapphire) are heated in varying temperatures to enrich color and improve clarity. While this may have a negative effect on the price of the stone, it is an accepted practice so long as it is disclosed to the buyer in the process of the sale.

Treating stones with surface diffusion, however, is generally frowned upon; as stones chip or are repolished/refaceted the padparadscha colored layer can be removed. (There are some diffusion-treated stones in which the color goes much deeper than the surface, however.) The problem lies in the fact that treated padparadschas are at times very difficult to detect, and they are the reason that getting a certificate from a reputable gemological lab (e.g., Gubelin, SSEF, AGTA, etc.) is recommended before investing in a padparadscha.

The rarest of all padparadschas is the totally natural variety, with no beryllium, or other treatment, and no heating. To find a stone that is certified by a reputable lab as being completely natural is extremely rare and the stone will be very expensive. High-quality unheated and untreated natural padparadscha sapphires will start off in the range of $5,000 per carat and rise by size, color, tone, cut, and clarity, to $20,000-30,000 per carat.

I decide to take a flyer and show up in a cop car at the front entrance to Mois house on the river.

Its quite a different prospect from this side. You could say the estate is almost conventional, with its long curved drive lined with tropical plants. Orchids of every shade grow like parasites in coconut husks hanging from ficus and palm trees. Scarlet poinsettias, amaryllis, and ivy poke and drape for most of the drive, with a stand of bamboo next to a large pool surrounded by tropical succulents that look as though they could bite your hand off. A large anthurium bush owns slim golden phalli that emerge from bracts exactly the same color as the backside of a red-assed baboon, and just as obscene. Finally, at drives end, a porch like a Thai temple, and, of course, the shrine in the northwest corner of the grounds garlanded with lotus. Someone has already made an offering of rice, oranges, and bananas to the household gods. I press the electric bell three aggressive times, because I intend to crash, whatever mood she is in. The maid answers, sees the marked police car behind me, and beckons me inside. She is immaculate as ever in her black-and-white servants livery, tall and elegant with her long sad moon face soaring over the frilly collar. I think it a little odd, the way she directs me across the polished teak floor of the central part of the house, and onto the terrace at back, without first alerting Moi. I can hear the Doctor yelling long before I see her. Why would the maid want me to see her mistress in the midst of one of her early-morning tantrums? Perhaps it is a statement about who is in control. To my surprise, her preferred language of scolding is not her native Teochew, nor even Thai, but finishing-school English.

And you bloody spilled cocoa on my favorite cheungsam, Moi is howling in a slightly hysterical voice, before she sees me. How much more of my life are you going to destroy before you kill me, too?

I turn instantly to catch the expression on the maids face: blank. Moi is sitting up on one of her chaise longues, braless in a large black cotton T-shirt which would be easily big enough to cover her loins if she cared. Even when she sees me she makes no effort, but sits there in a sulk for a moment, her vagina on general view, before she hitches the T-shirt over it with a grimace. What the hell is he doing here?

For answer the maid returns with a silver tray containing what I suppose is the Doctors breakfast: a collection of pills of various dimensions and colors, and a tiny medicine bottle with a pipette. The pipette, it seems, is the star of the show, for Moi carefully squeezes the rubber bulb, inserts it into the bottle, lets the rubber bulb expand, then examines the contents of the glass tube. Satisfied, she throws her head back, empties the clear liquid into her mouth, then tucks into the rest of the pills. Whatever was in the pipette, it works pretty quickly. Mois personality alters in minutes, and now she is standing and brushing the black T-shirt down over her body until it reaches the middle of her thighs, the miracle of elegance somehow retrieved. She holds out a hand for me to kiss; What a wonderful surprise, she says in a glacial tone. Wont you please sit down?

I sit near the guardrail at the edge of the balcony, next to the river. It is quite gay at this moment, with tugs pulling a big Korean container ship into midstream, a couple of snakehead boats with their great bus engines on davits at the stern roaring past, a posse of women wearing straw hats each in her own individual sampan, hauling vegetables, fish, fruit, and whatever else they can sell. I feel a little strange to see a bunch of kids from the shantytown naked, screaming, and diving off Mois jetty into the river with the fanatical repetition only the young can maintain. Moi is blinking in the merciless light. Suddenly urbane all over again, she refuses to ask me what I want. I say, I went to see your ex-husband Johnny Ng in Hong Kong.

I kept my eyes on the maid as I spoke the name, hoping that I would succeed in making her pause while she tidied up; not a chance. Moi, on the other hand, has clamped a hand over her mouth. When she removes it I cannot read her expression, not because there isnt one, but because it is too complex to interpret. Amusement? Excitement? Puerile curiosity? Anger? All of those, together with a certain delicious anticipation. I see no sign of fear. Would you like some cocoa?

No, thanks, not this time.

She moves toward me, I assume to take up her favorite chaise next to the guardrail. Before doing so, she brushes by me and-to my astonishment-caresses my face with one hand. Youre so cute. So dangerously innocent, like Lord Jim. You visited Johnny and managed to stay in one piece? Im surprised he didnt have you for dim sum. What did he tell you? If he talked it must have been because he was bored. Boredom is his only real weakness. I do hope he prefaced everything with the confession that hes Kongrao? That we own him all the way down to his DNA? Im shocked at her use of the word kongrao; but, of course, technically you could argue that the phrase might have an innocent meaning here; after all, Moi did marry him.

He didnt need to. The way he left out everything that could implicate your thing made it all too obvious. But he did tell me in a few hours what I would have discovered anyway in a week or so.

She sits down on the chaise, stretches her legs and crosses them, turns languid. And what might that have been?

I take out a gem traders magazine for the month of March 2007, open it to the page which bears the news that the famous Hollywood director Frank Charles confessed himself deeply moved to accept the position of honorary ambassador to the Thai guild of gem traders, then stand up to lay it on her black lap. She takes it in with one glance, sighs, chucks it on the floor, and stares expectantly at me.

I go back to sit on my rattan chair, lean forward toward her, and ask in a slightly plaintive voice, Why, Mimi? He was your good friend, for Buddhas sake.

She looks at me in blank incomprehension, gasps, turns to the maid, and seems to say in her mother tongue, Did you hear what this jerk just said? Or words to that effect. Now even the maid is looking at me as if I have a serious learning disability. Indeed, Moi lets out a long, slow whoop. Are you sure you dont want some enhanced cocoa? I think youre going to need something, Detective.

In a voice which is suddenly regal, she dismisses the maid, who quickly leaves the terrace. As a chemist, allow me to ask one little question. The pathologist, whoever it was, they made a list of all the chemicals found on and in his body? I nod. And was one of those substances beryllium? I nod again. Under his fingernails, perhaps? I let her have another nod. Then quite frankly, Detective, I could rest my case right there. Out of respect for your terrifying mother, however, I will tell you more.

The maid reappears with a cheroot, which she pops into Mois mouth and lights. Moi takes a long pull and exhales dense gray smoke. Padparadscha came late to the land of Nippon-koku, she begins with a half smile. You might want to bear that in mind. But lets get poor Frank out of the way first. Its his damned film, isnt it, thats knocked you quite off track? She looks at me with that form of condescending benevolence that inspires feelings of violent resentment in all sane people. But she wont let up. Thats so funny. And you a cop, too. But that was Frank, you see-the biggest charlatan of all. A real, professional, all-points-covered, state-of-the-art all-American graduate from that most celebrated academy of charlatans called Hollywood. She waves a hand. Oh, I dont mean he didnt actually do and feel all those romantic, sensitive, self-doubting, spiritual things. But they belonged to the pretend side of what he was, more like aspects of what he wanted to be. But Ill give him one thing. For a full three weeks he really did intend to die just exactly the way he dies in that movie. Thats why he forced poor Ah Ting to be in it, you see? He was really going to pay her to kill him in that way, and-umm-Ah Ting didnt mind. She hates all men, but especially the ones that get close to me, so she loved the rehearsals. And, as Im sure you realize, there is no way any Thai cop who wants to stay alive would dream of arresting Ah Ting for anything. Kongrao wouldnt let them-me you can arrest anytime, it wont make any difference in the scheme of things. You see, shes the real priestess now. She copes with the mumbo jumbo so much better than me. In fact, I think she really believes in it. After all, its made her quite magically rich, and at the end of the day she is a full-blooded, card-carrying, hyper-superstitious Chinese peasant.

So what happened? I ask. Frank Charles got himself into such a romantically suicidal state, such a lovelorn, obese, self-loathing late-life crisis that he was going to shock the world in the only way left to him-that is, by dying on-screen-thus ensuring the acclaim that had so eluded him in life. What happened?

He chickened out, of course. He was a child of cinema, of fantasy. I think he used drugs to keep his mind off what he intended to do, then when the crunch got closer, he stopped intending to do it. He was in quite a state. You see, he had no reliable addiction; even his fondness for chemicals was promiscuous. She pauses to give me a long, appraising stare, perhaps to check if Im ready for what comes next. Theres only one thing harder to handle than a would-be suicide, and thats a failed suicide. She gives a brief smile. Im afraid Ah Ting caught him in a vulnerable moment when I was out, and strictly against my instructions told him about-ah-one of the little things Kongrao gets up to overseas.

She recruited him because she needed another scapegoat? Kongrao was moving into Japan?

At the word Japan she gives a couple of blinks of acknowledgment. But, you see, it wasnt a case of moving into Japan. Here her face turns quite merry and she blows a long stream of smoke over the balcony. Wed been supplying Japan for over a century. But a terrible thing happened to Japan after they lost the war. Half their psyche turned farang. Thats why theyre so confused. They rely on science instead of Asian intuition. Its made them terribly vulnerable. Now she is spluttering, trying not to collapse in laughter. They have laboratories, dyou see? And in farangland, a fully accredited, properly staffed scientific laboratory is like the word of God. And just like God, it can be amazingly unreliable. Now she cannot stop laughing. When the maid comes onto the terrace, perhaps to check on her, she, too, permits herself the ghost of a smile. Once she has seen that her mistress is okay, she retreats again into the dark teak interior. Moi shakes her head.

Recruit him? Ah Ting recruit Frank Charles? A lawyer might frame it that way. A more accurate way of putting it would be to say she waved a carrot in front of him and he turned into a voracious donkey overnight. After shed explained the scam to him, pretending to keep it secret so I wouldnt be implicated-she protects me from all forms of reality, especially male-you couldnt have stopped him. She has become quite vigorous, even to the point of raising her body from the chaise. And this is the point, dyou see? If hed just heated up a couple of cheap Burmese sapphires now and then and taken a modest profit, the Japs would have accepted the scam as part of the game. But he had to do his American think-big thing and go to that godforsaken village in Tanzania and buy up all their sapphire junk by the kilo. Literally.

I wait and wait, but she doesnt continue. She has fallen into some kind of reverie. I say, I dont understand.

The words take about two minutes to penetrate, then she says, languidly, Why not? To understand all you need are two things: sixteen hundred degrees Centigrade, and beryllium.

You paid off the Japanese labs that check gems for the local industry?

She waves a hand. Nothing so sophisticated. Thais dont know how to bribe Japanese laboratories, assuming such a thing is possible. No, you see, the labs themselves werent up to speed. They simply didnt know, or didnt believe, Thais could be so smart, so devious, and so humble looking at the same time. And apparently their tests for beryllium were very crude and unreliable. And whats more, we never used the word padparadscha on any of the invoices-they were simply described as sapphires. The Japs thought they were being clever because they knew these gems were really the hyper-valuable padparadscha and we did not. They thought they were fooling us-just as we intended. Theyre terrible racists, you see; they havent changed since Nanking. No way they were going to think our decadent brown people would outsmart them. We never sold the product at the market price-thirty thousand dollars a carat-but about twenty-five percent cheaper. We let them think they were getting a bargain from a genuine Thai padparadscha mine, and Thai pads, when you can get them, are among the best in the world. It was only when the Japanese tried selling their Thai padparadschas-which were actually enhanced low-quality African sapphires-to America, where the labs were more up to speed, that they realized what Kongrao had done. And since there was no evidence of misrepresentation, there was nothing they could do. But it destroyed more than fifty percent of their gem merchants. You had bankruptcies from Nagasaki to Sapporo. She rubs her jaw. I suppose one shouldnt laugh.

But you killed Frank Charles. I mean, you set him up as a mascot knowing the Japanese would kill him sooner or later?

Detective, you are a terrible na"if, and this leads you to misjudge human character. You are still thinking of Frank as a victim, just because he got bumped off. Actually, it was the opposite. When farang get greedy, they have no restraint. Once he knew how the whole scam worked, he became a fanatic. Ah Ting begged him to calm down, he was selling too much, upsetting the balance. He not only ignored her, he mastered the technique himself. He started heating the gems up to sixteen hundred degrees Centigrade and adding the beryllium-he became very good at it, approached the whole process much more methodically than any of our people. He even invested in proper electric kilns and a cooking recipe that enabled him to control the timing down to the microsecond. You see, Detective, the bottom line about Frank Charles, the source of his being, you might say, was greed. A nice enough guy, and he really did want to make a halfway decent film at least once in his life, but he was thwarted by his own greed all the way. Frank Charles was just greedy, greedy, greedy. Thats why he got so fat, and why he had to have ten naked girls in his Jacuzzi on his sixtieth birthday-no fancy psychological component, just old-fashioned greed and the American predatory spirit.

Im tired of being mocked for my na"ivet'e, so I take a long while to think the whole case through. After five minutes Im still shaking my head. But the way he was killed, Mimi-the way he died?

She takes a cool toke from the cheroot and stubs it out. Have you any idea how anal-retentive Japanese jewelers are? They are like brilliant insects working at the microscopic level all their lives, shaving off a micron here, a micron there, dominating their world at a level of detail designed to induce madness. No wonder they are all men. The passion to control is off the human scale. Imagine such a man consumed by hatred and the lust for revenge?

I blink rapidly. But whoever the perp was, he would have needed a copy of the film, and would have needed to know that the film had not been released, that no one of importance knew about it-

I stop, because Moi has given a single, short glance toward the interior of the house where the maid has retreated. Obviously, she will not say another word of relevance to the case. I guess she doesnt need to. Nevertheless, I try one last question. It was in the interests of Kongrao to provide the sacrificial goat? To facilitate both the assassination and the perfect alibi-namely, that the victim killed himself on film? Thats why Witherspoon, who is Kongrao, was ordered to send me the movie? You are still trading with the Japanese? I suppose they had to be placated somehow?

Moi doesnt say anything. The interview is over. I have only one ace left: Doctor, the toxicologist found tubocurarine chloride in his blood. How would a jeweler get hold of it? How would a jeweler even know he needed it? Frank Charles was paralyzed but fully conscious when Suzuki cut into his skull, removed it, and ate his brains.

For an answer, the Doctor gives me that smile, the one where the corners of the lips crawl up the incisors.

I leave and walk through the house to the other side. There is no sign of the maid, but two of Mois outside guards are chatting to the cop who is waiting in the marked car I came in. They straighten up when they see me, but I can tell theyve been smirking over some yarn with my driver. I get in the back of the car instead of sitting in front the way I normally do. Where to? he asks. I stare out the side window at Mois magnificent house, and at the river behind it, and at the kids from the shantytown yelling as they dive naked from the jetty. Its the strangest story you ever heard, I tell the driver, still staring at the skinny kids. Once upon a time a rich man arrived here from the West. It turned out he was lost in a dream in which he foretold the manner of his own death down to the last detail.

What? Where do you want to go?

I think about that. Silom, I say. That dingy three-star hotel opposite the Hindu temple.

The temple is called Sri Mariamman, and there is the usual crowd of flower, incense, and amulet sellers hanging around outside it. I have no idea why there should be a Hindu temple in the middle of Bangkok, but its incredibly famous and holy, to judge by the amount of ochre and crimson powder people chuck all over its shrines, and the number of half-naked Indian holy men who arrive from places like Varanasi to worship here; generally they like to stay in the same three-star flophouse where Mr. Suzuki, the Japanese jeweler, committed suicide. Strictly speaking there is no forensic need to visit Suzukis former room; the evidence relating to his suicide will be in storage at a police station somewhere. But I feel a kind of animal need to be in the place where the little Japanese man-according to one of the newspaper reports he was just five foot two-worked himself up into a controlled orgasm of rage. Im not entirely surprised that the superstitious Thai manager has kept the room vacant for the moment, and even placed some lotus buds to float in a brass bowl of water outside the door. He lets me in without question once Ive flashed my ID. It is, indeed, a very small room, renting for only five hundred baht per night. The tiny window, no doubt perfectly clean on the inside, is dark with city pollution. Suzuki moved here from the five-star hotel he was staying in with the trade delegation, after his colleagues all went home. Did they appoint him as assassin? Did they know what he intended? Surely he must have needed help?

Against all logic, I prefer to think of the little guy working on his own. I dont want to believe he used a pack of yakuza thugs to carry out his plan, although police reports suggest there were a few accompanying the delegation as bodyguards. I think he somehow maneuvered Frank Charles into his room in the flophouse on Soi 4/4 all on his own through sheer force of personality; how he stuck the lumbering giant with a syringe full of tubocurarine chloride is more of a challenge than my imagination can handle, however. Once he had paralyzed the American with his venom, did he use the rooms DVD player so that he could check he was following Frank Charless own instructions for his gaudy suicide, or had he watched the movie so many times he retained perfect recall? He would have needed a rotary saw, of course, but for a master jeweler that would not have been a problem.

Suzuki, more than anyone, had been destroyed by Frank Charles and Kongraos scam-utterly wiped out, according to reports, and left with an impossible pile of debts. It seems he had seen the padparadscha trade as his chance for jewelers stardom and wagered all his savings, even mortgaged his business, in order to buy the brilliantly colored sapphires that turned out to be worth only a tiny fraction of what he paid for them. A man of honor and a passionate practitioner of the Japanese sport of kendo, I think he was also a dark introvert who told nobody what he intended to do; rather, he expected that the nobility of his last act would redeem him posthumously in the eyes of his society. I think of him working on Frank Charless drugged body plopped all over that narrow bed on Soi 4/4, carefully marking out on the Americans cranium where he had to cut in accordance with the movie. I imagine the demon of vengeance taking full possession of the little mans disciplined soul. He ate the brains right out of the skull, raw like sushi. Apparently, a few hours after he killed Frank Charles he returned here to disembowel himself while sitting on the floor cross-legged facing the dirty window.

When I find out from the station where Suzukis personal effects are being held, I go over to the storage depot and sign a form. I wait in a dusty office while a clerk brings me an unusually long metal box, which she opens in front of me. According to the rules I am supposed to put on a pair of plastic gloves; I do so in order to pick up the heavy object in one corner of the box. It is much smaller than I imagined, far smaller than the kind of rotary saws that surgeons use, but I guess it is just as powerful, if not more so. In any event, the disk is easily big enough to cut through a quarter inch of human bone, and, of course, being a tool of the jewelry trade, the disks edge is enhanced with industrial diamonds. It is also encrusted with blood. And then there is the other kind of disk, a DVD, black and wordless on the title side; I pick it up to examine it, turning it in the light so I can see where the band of data has been burned into the plastic, then replace it. The other object of interest-and the reason why the box needed to be so long-is a samurai sword; its blade, still bloodstained, is wrapped in a clear plastic sheath. Im not an expert, but I would judge from the damascene pattern and the perfect heft that it must be of the highest quality.

I am afraid there is not much to do but sigh. I could, of course, have the bloodstains on the saw tested to see if the blood belonged to Frank Charles, but I dont really have the time. Tietsin is dropping the smack tomorrow. And anyway, who cares? As far as the world is concerned, two unrelated suicides, one a diminutive Japanese jeweler, the other a fantastically outsized American movie director, happened to occur within hours of each other on the same night in Bangkok. What else is new? And thats just the way Kongrao and the Japanese gem traders want it left. But I had to solve the case, didnt I?


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