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Killing customers just isn’t good for business.”
by John Burdett
My mother Nong’s tone reflects the disappointment we all feel when a star employee starts to go wrong. Is there nothing to be done? Will we have to let dear Chanya go? The question can only be decided by Police Colonel Vikorn, who owns most of the shares in the Old Man’s Club and who is on his way in his Bentley.
“No,” I agree. Like my mother’s, my eyes cannot stop flicking across the empty bar to the stool where Chanya’s flimsy silver dress (just enough silk to cover nipples and butt) drapes and drips. Well, the dripping was slight and is more or less finished (a rusty stain on the floor turning black as it dries), but in more than a decade as a detective in the Royal Thai Police, I have never seen a garment so blood-soaked. Chanya’s bra, also hideously splattered, lies halfway up the stairs, and her panties—her only other garment—lie abandoned on the floor outside the upstairs room where, eccentrically even for a Thai whore, she has taken refuge with an opium pipe.
“She didn’t say anything at all? Like why?”
“No, I told you. She dashed in through the door in a bit of a state holding an opium pipe, glared at me, said, ‘I’ve done him in,’ ripped off her dress, and disappeared upstairs. Fortunately, there were only a couple of farang in the bar at the time, and the girls were fantastic. They merely said, ‘Oh, Chanya, she goes like that sometimes,’ and gently ushered them out. I had to play the whole thing down, of course, and by the time I got to her room, she was already stoned.”
“What did she say again?”
“She was tripping on the opium, totally delirious. When she started talking to the Buddha, I left to call you and the Colonel. At that stage I didn’t know if she’d really done him in or was freaking out on yaa baa or something.”
But she’d snuffed him all right. I walked to the farang’s hotel, which is just a couple of streets away from Soi Cowboy, and flashed my police ID to get the key to his room. There he was, a big muscular naked American farang in his early thirties, minus a penis and a lot of blood from a huge knife wound that began in his lower gut and finished just short of his rib cage. Chanya, a basically decent and very tidy Thai, had placed his penis on the bedside table. At the other end of the table, a single rose stood in a plastic mug of water.
There was nothing for it but to secure the room for the purposes of forensic investigation, leave a hefty bribe for the hotel receptionist—who is now more or less obliged to say whatever I tell him to say (standard procedure under my Colonel Vikorn in District 8)—and await further orders. Vikorn, of course, was in one of his clubs carousing, probably surrounded by naked young women who adored him, or knew how to look as if they did, and in no mood to be dragged to the scene of a crime until I penetrated his drunken skull enough to explain that the business at hand was not an investigation per se but the infinitely more challenging forensic task so lightly spoken of as a “cover-up.” Even then he showed no inclination to shift himself until he realized it was Chanya (the perp, not the victim).
“Where the hell did she get the opium?” my mother wants to know. “There hasn’t been opium in Krung Thep since I was a teenager.”
I know from her eyes that she is thinking fondly of the Vietnam War, when she was herself a working girl in Bangkok and a lot of the GIs brought small balls of opium from the war zone (one of them being my almost-anonymous father, of whom more later). An opiated man is more or less impotent—which reduces much of the wear and tear on a professional’s assets—and not inclined to argue about fee structure. Nong and her colleagues had always shown special interest in any American serviceman who whispered that he had a little opium back in his hotel. Being devout Buddhists, of course, the girls never used the stuff themselves, but they encouraged the john to get stoned out of his tree, whereupon they would extract exactly the agreed fee from his wallet, plus a tip somewhat on the generous side to reflect the risk inherent in associating with drug abusers, plus taxi fare, and return to work. Integrity has always been a master word for Nong, which is why she is so upset about Chanya.
We both know the Colonel is arriving in his limo, because his damned signature tune “The Ride of the Valkyries” is booming from the stereo as his car approaches. I go to the entrance and watch while his driver opens the rear door and more or less pulls him out (a beautiful cashmere Zegna sports jacket, fawn colored and somewhat crumpled, pants by Eddy Monetti on the Via Condotti in Rome, and his usual Wayfarer wraparound sunglasses).
The driver staggers toward me with Vikorn’s arm over his shoulder. “It’s fucking Saturday fucking night,” the driver complains with a glare, as if it’s all my fault. (We prefer not to investigate even capital crimes on Saturday nights in District 8.) The Buddhist path can be much like the Christian in that the karma of others often seems to get dumped on your shoulders from out of nowhere.
“I know,” I tell him as I make way to let him pass, and Vikorn, sunglasses now thrust fashionably onto his hairline though slightly askew, also glares at me blearily.
There are padded benches in intimate little booths along the back wall of the club, and the driver dumps Vikorn down in one while I get some mineral water from the fridge and hand it to my Colonel, who empties the bottle in a few swigs. It is with relief that I observe the rodent cunning return to those frank, unblinking eyes. I tell him the story again, with a few commercially focused interjections from my mother (“she makes more for us in a month than all the other girls put together”), and I see that he already has a plan to maximize wriggle-room should things get difficult.
Within ten minutes he is close to sober, tells his driver to disappear with the limo (he doesn’t want to broadcast that he is here), and is staring at me. “So let’s go up and take her statement. Get an ink pad and some A4 paper.”
I find the ink pad that we use for our business stamp (“The Old Man’s Club—Rods of Iron”) and some sheets of paper from the fax machine, which Nong installed for those few of our overseas clients who don’t have e-mail (we tried for hooker.com and similar domain names, but they had all been taken, including oldman.com; whore.org had of course been taken since the dawn of cyberspace, so we had to make do with omcroi.com), and follow him across the bar. He stares at Chanya’s dress on the stool and cocks an eye at me.
“Fake or real?”
Gingerly I hold it up, hefting the weight of the blood it has absorbed. “Unclear.”
He grunts much as Maigret used to do, as if absorbing a clue too subtle for my understanding, and we continue up the stairs, passing the bra without comment. I pick up the panties on the floor outside the room (almost weightless and apparently innocent of bloodstains—they are more a cache-sex than a proper undergarment, with the rear panel no more than a bootlace that divides the buttocks). I hang them over a stray electrical cable for now. Chanya was too stoned to lock the door, and when we enter, she blesses us with a rapturous smile from that awesomely beautiful mouth, before returning to whichever of the Buddha heavens she has escaped to.
She is quite naked, stretched out on the bed with her legs akimbo, her full firm breasts pointing at the ceiling (an exquisite blue dolphin is jumping over her left nipple), her long hair shining like a fresh black brushstroke on the white pillow. She has shaved her pubic hair save for the subtlest filigree black line, which seems to point to her clitoris, perhaps as a road sign for drunk and fumbling farang. The opium pipe, a classic of about three feet of bamboo with the bowl two-thirds of the way down, lies beside her. The Colonel sniffs and smiles—as with my mother, the sweet aroma of burned poppy sap holds fond memories for him, though of a radically different order. (He used to trade it up in Laos in the golden years of the B-52s.) The room is tiny and hardly big enough for the three of us when I bring two chairs and set them on opposite sides of the bed. The sex goddess between us begins to snore while Vikorn dictates her statement:
“ ‘The farang had been drinking even before he came into my club. He called me over to join him at his table and offered to buy me a drink. I accepted a Coca-Cola while he drank’—ah, let’s see—‘nearly a full bottle of Mekong whiskey. He did not seem to be able to take alcohol very well and seemed confused and disoriented. When he offered to pay my bar fine and take me back to his hotel, I told him he was too drunk, but he insisted, and my papasan, one Sonchai Jitpleecheep, asked me as a special favor to go with the farang, who was very big and muscular and seemed likely to cause trouble if I didn’t.’ ”
“Thanks,” I say.
“ ‘He struck me as a man with many problems and talked rather abusively about women, especially American women, whom he called cunts. I think perhaps he had had a relationship that had gone badly wrong and that left him with very strong feelings of bitterness toward all women, even though he claimed to like Asian women, who he said were much kinder and gentler than farang women and more womanly. When we reached his room, I suggested to him that he was perhaps too drunk to make love and that it would be better if I went back to my club. I even offered to give him back my bar fine, but he grew angry and said he could fuck all night and pushed me into the room. He ordered me to undress, and I did so. I was now quite frightened because I had seen a large knife’—do we have the murder weapon?”
“A large knife, as a matter of fact—looks like a military thing, solid steel with about a twelve-inch blade. I left it in the hotel room for now.”
“ ‘An enormous military-type weapon lying on a bedside table. He started to tell me what he would do to my body if I didn’t gratify his desires. He stripped naked and threw me on the bed, but he seemed unable to get an erection. He started to masturbate to make himself big, then made me turn over onto my front. It was then I realized that he intended to sodomize me. I begged him not to because I never do that sort of thing, and his member now was so big I was sure he would injure me. Still he insisted, without using a condom or a lubricant, and the pain was so great I started to scream. He became very angry and grabbed a pillow to try to stifle my screams, whereupon I completely lost control of my mind because I was sure he would kill me. Luckily I was able to reach the knife, which I swung around behind me while he was still inside me. By chance I seem to have severed his penis. He went into shock at first and stood up, hardly able to believe what had happened. He kept staring at his penis, which was lying on the floor near the bed (it popped out of me and must have fallen off him when he stood up), then he let out a terrible bestial yell and jumped on top of me. I had turned over onto my back, and unfortunately I was still holding the knife in both hands in a vertical position, and it penetrated his lower abdomen when he landed. His struggles only made the wound bigger. I did what I could to save his life, but it took some time to push him off me because he was very heavy. I was too much in shock to call the police, until I realized he was dead and then it was too late. All I could do to show respect was to pick up his penis and put it on the bedside table. My dress and bra had been on the bed and were soaked in blood. I had to put them on before I could leave the room. When I got back to the bar, I stripped off my clothes and ran up to the comfort rooms, where I took a powerful tranquilizer and lost consciousness.
“ ‘This statement was taken by Police Colonel Vikorn and Detective Jitpleecheep of Royal Thai Police District 8 while I was in full possession of my faculties. It is true to the best of my knowledge and belief, in testimony of which I hereby set my right thumb print.’ ”
I open the ink pad and roll her thumb over the ink, then onto the bottom of the paper. Vikorn, a consummate professional, has neatly ended her report without the need for a second page.
“Anything I’ve left out?”
“No,” I say in awe. The statement is a masterly mosaic of several standard stories from the Game, artfully interwoven with great economy of language. Still more remarkable in a cop who carries his legal scholarship so lightly, he has laid the foundations for an impregnable defense to a charge of murder or even manslaughter: she used only such force as was necessary to save her life and did not deliver the fatal blow; when she saw how badly he was wounded, she attempted without success to save his life; and she expressed sorrow and respect by her sensitive placing of his severed member in a position of honor. The dead farang’s standard-issue hatred of the opposite sex arising from bitter personal experience of his own countrywomen provides a motive for his aggression and his sexual preferences. “I think you’ve covered everything.”
“Good. Give her a copy when she wakes up, and make sure she memorizes it. If there’s anything she wants to change, tell her she can’t.”
“D’you want to visit the scene of the crime?”
“Not really. Anyway, it wasn’t a crime, so don’t prejudice justice by calling it that. Self-defense is not illegal, especially when by a woman on a Saturday night in Krung Thep.”
“Still, I think you’d better come,” I say. He grunts irritably but stands up anyway and jerks his chin in the general direction of the street.
Excerpted from Bangkok Tattoo by John Burdett.
Copyright © 2005 by John Burdett. All rights reserved.
No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without
permission in writing from the publisher.