Calvino’s last sports jacket was ruined when Nicky “the Toad” Marras’s blood splattered over the lapel and down the pocket. A couple of things to bear in mind about Nicky the Toad: he didn’t die, as Calvino only punched him in the nose after the Toad had reached a knife hidden inside his boot. One of those fake Gurka knives sold by street-side vendors. The Toad had an affinity for blades. He pulled it when he got drunk and argumentative, or started getting mad over some contested World Series statistic. The year Joe DiMaggio was eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame and half a bottle of whiskey had set him off. It was the kind of thing the Toad could kill someone over.
Calvino’s maid had sent the bloodied Gucci knockoff to the dry cleaner, and the dry cleaner had sent it back with a note. It seemed that Nicky the Toad’s blood was as obstinate and mean as the man himself. Nothing could be done to remove the stain.
They could sew on some patches, but it wouldn’t look like an original Gucci anymore but more like a counterfeit tailored inside a Bangkok sweatshop. And that blurring of the distinction between an original and a counterfeit pretty much summed up Nicky the Toad, who’d watched too many gangster movies.
Calvino had moved on from that night in Bangkok, as had Nicky, back in New York. Calvino’s law: After thirty years without any contact, an old school friend surprises you with a trip to Bangkok, gets loaded, starts coughing up old grievances, and reaches for a gun to settle scores; you may have to hit him hard and sacrifice a perfectly good sports jacket. Life was a series of blowbacks but blood is one that sticks to the clothes and to the memory.
A light drizzle outside cast a mid-afternoon gloom over the interior of Venice Tailors, a hole-in-the-wall Sukhumvit shop house tucked underneath the broad concrete arch of the Skytrain. Everyone said it was climate change that had made the weather weird, out of sync. Vincent Calvino stood in front of a floor-to-ceiling mirror at the far end of the shop. He was the only customer. With an election up in the air, no one had been spending. People held tight to their money, planning to use it for an emergency escape—except for Calvino, who had nowhere to escape to. Arms stretched out, eyes closed, he meditated and let his mind float. Circling around him was Tony, the Thai-Chinese tailor, a measuring tape draped around his neck, a piece of blue chalk in one hand. Slowly Tony removed the jacket from the wooden hanger, pulled it onto Calvino’s left arm, swung it around, and then threaded Calvino’s right arm inside. Grinning and bobbing his head, he admired the final work in the mirror. Only the name of the shop and the Italian posters had any real connection to Italy. Customers played along, pretending that Tony was actually a Tony and that he channeled a line of Italian tailors back to Leonardo Da Vinci.
Tony’s assistant, an elderly Thai called Uncle, sat at the cutting table on a high stool, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette. Uncle had liver spots sprayed on his neck and hands like he’d been hit by a double-barrel blast of buckshot. He drank green tea for energy and flashed nicotine-stained teeth. In front of Uncle were stacks of well-thumbed fashion magazines bought secondhand from service staff at five-star hotels. Zegna, Brioni, Kiton, and about every other high-end brand were in the glossy ads and editorial features. Tony studied these images the way a counterfeiter examined a hundred-dollar bill. Sadly, imitation was dismissed as second-rate. Tony had turned it into high art.
Tony signaled his assistant to switch on the lights. The overhead neon fixtures flickered, the light danced off the faded posters of Grand Canal, the Coliseum, and Palazzo Vecchio. Tony had never been to Italy, but that didn’t matter much. He was a brilliant copyist. He’d mastered the ability to copy the fine detail from the silhouettes, using similar fabrics, and that was enough to come up with a replica that would have fooled the hardcore fashion-conscious New Yorker. Tony’s reputation had drawn many customers.
“Don’t look, boss,” said Tony, who had slicked-back hair and a diamond pinky ring. Tony adjusted the shoulders and buttoned the middle button of the jacket. In the back of the shop Tony’s wife sat on the floor with a couple of kids, watching a game show on TV.
Calvino opened his eyes and looked in the mirror. It had been Colonel Pratt who’d suggested it was time to up his game. Calvino was half-Italian, and convincing him to buy a stylish sports coat had taken no arm-twisting. Tony had made a perfect Brioni knock-off. It looked like a five-grand jacket—powdery blue with cream windowpane, a cashmere-and-silk blend, with dual back vents and hand stitching. Tony had worked his magic.
“Do you like?” asked Tony.
Calvino raised his arm, watching the sleeve rise slightly. “I fixed the sleeve from last time,” said Tony. This had been the third fitting.
Tony yanked down on the back and the jacket tapered at the waist.
The assistant made a grunting laugh and gave the thumbs-up sign. “Very beautiful, Khun Winee.” Then the wife looked around the corner, tearing herself away from the game show to pipe in with her two cents: “You look like young man, very handsome. You now high-society man. Women like you too, too much.”
Calvino unbuttoned the jacket and shot her a look in the mirror. The last thing Calvino wanted to hear was that he looked like some overdressed Chinese merchant who couldn’t tell a merlot from a shiraz. He liked the jacket. It had exceeded his expectations and his budget. Even unbuttoned, there was no sign that he was holstering a handgun.
“Tony, it’s good work.”
For a second he thought Tony was going to hug him and kiss him on each cheek. But there were limits to how far down the Italian turnpike Tony was prepared to go. Instead he put his fingers together in a wai and gave a little bow toward Calvino. All that Tony knew about Italians came from fashion magazines and American gangster films. He understood the essence of tailoring: a man’s jacket made a statement about him. The perfect man’s sports jacket occupied a middle zone between “back off” and “fuck off,” and Brioni had figured out the dress formula for a man who walked in that no man’s land.
Tony had a special feel for fabrics and a gift with needle and thread, and he took pride in recreating the best of Italy. High style on a backpacker’s budget had always been one of Bangkok’s draws for visitors. A bit of self-delusion was all that was required; the rest could be pure Thai. Tony understood suits could be a problem in Bangkok temperatures. The heat, searing and raw, gave the impression that the universe was dragging you through a vapor trail of a supernova. Calvino had said, “I gotta be able to breathe.” Walking around the city in a jacket could be like wheeling around in a portable sauna. So Tony had gone inventive making a jacket without lining in the body except for a few secret pockets. He read that farangs liked creativity, so he got creative.
Calvino turned to look at himself in profile. Semi-badass, he thought. Tony had taken extra care to tailor the jacket so his leather holster and .38 police special wouldn’t bulge. A real badass didn’t need to advertise that he was packing. He glanced at the large clock on the wall. He had an appointment with a new client, General Yosaporn. The General had been retired for many years, and Vincent Calvino had been the first private eye he’d ever hired. The General had been glad to pay the fee. And Colonel Pratt, a member in good standing of the Royal Thai police, who had introduced Calvino to the General, had suggested using part of the money for the new jacket. It was a jacket for impressing a new client. On the job, the upscale tailoring might draw too much attention. “Time to go, Tony.”
Calvino paid the freight and stepped outside onto Sukhumvit Road. He opened his umbrella and walked to the crosswalk. The new jacket made him feel good. He had put on a light blue shirt and a yellow necktie with gray stripes. They matched his soft black leather Italian shoes. Walking down the street, he told himself the rain didn’t matter. The rain adds something—a pinch of mystery, a teaspoon of intrigue, he thought. My wet hair gives off a noir posture—or I could be just another guy fresh from the gym.
In a lot of big cities, a good pair of brass knuckles was worth more than a bucketful of gold rings. As he walked along, he thought about the pocket Tony had made for a pair of brass knuckles. “That was thoughtful of him,” Calvino said to himself. He’d reached the crosswalk, what the English called a zebra crossing, a term that fit well in Bangkok. Only a wild animal would cross at the designated place. Drivers of cars, motorcycles, taxis, trucks, and buses saw a crosswalk and stepped on the gas. He watched the traffic. Colonel Pratt had told him that gold was all anyone needed in Bangkok. That’s why skinny, brainy men went for the gold. They could buy muscle. A bus rumbled past, blowing out a glacier-melting belch of black fumes. Calvino, hands in his pockets, feeling on top of the world, asked himself, So what came first? The chicken or the egg? The brass knuckles or the gold rings? It was the kind of dilemma his mother had loved. What do you want with knowledge? It only drives you to know how little you can ever know. What’s the point of that?
A clearing appeared in the traffic. Calvino edged onto the crosswalk and was halfway into Sukhumvit Road when a gray Benz—one of the upper-end models with tinted windows that cost the same as a village upcountry—came straight at him. He saw the driver inside, a woman on a cell phone eating satay chicken (it might have been pork), but she didn’t see him. The car brushed his side—a grazing blow that felt like the bare tip of a bull’s horn passing just inside the bullfighter’s red cape. It spun him around and he lost his balance, falling on one hand in the street. A group of schoolgirls who might have taken him for an aging NBA star started laughing. Falling down, better yet coming up bloody, was always good for bystander laughter. Slowly he rose to his feet. The Benz was long gone. He wiped his hands together and found his umbrella. It had been run over and ruined. Clutching the naked spines, he nodded his head, eyes half-closed, and meditated for a moment, trying to find that quiet space within. Not finding it, he opened his eyes and saw the schoolgirls waiting for his next move.
He stopped in front of the 7-Eleven at the top of Soi 33 and examined his jacket and tie in the window. Finding himself in one piece, he figured he’d won. One more time he’d crossed Sukhumvit Road on foot, leaving him wide-eyed, with his heart racing—all the necessary elements for post-traumatic flashbacks. Colonel Pratt would like the story. Calvino walked tall, head up, shoulders back, as he turned into Soi 33. The General had had two influences on him. He’d provided the cash for the jacket. And he had introduced Calvino to meditation. Inside Venice Tailors, he had practiced his meditation as Tony hovered around him. It had cleared his mind, opened it to every possibility as Tony had asked him what he thought. He’d had no thoughts.
Calvino stopped beside a street vendor who was cooking a long, tight coil of dead-liver-colored sausages over a charcoal fire in a large clay pot. Closing his eyes, he told himself that he wanted to see the soi as if for the first time, as if looking through the eyes of someone straight off the plane. It had been Colonel Pratt who had warned him that, after so many years inside the country, he would forget what had startled him at first.
He considered the possibility. After thousands of days, Calvino didn’t really see the street anymore. That had been Colonel Pratt’s point, and the General had agreed. They’d suggested that he try looking at things as if they were fresh, new, and of another time and place.
I’ve just arrived, and this is the first street in Asia I’ve ever seen. A smile crossed Calvino’s face as he moved down the soi. Each step was a foot deeper into the freak show, starting with the huge banyan tree. Its large, twisted trunk wrapped with dozens of thin, colored nylon scarves, the tree had long, stringy veins that hung like gnarled tentacles over the soi. A dwarf stood on the broken sidewalk in front of a bar, dressed in a vest, a white shirt, and a bow tie. Holding up a sign for happy hour beer, he tagged along after each passing tourist for a few steps. Then, exhausted, he’d stop and retrace his steps to the bar and wait to strike again. “Come inside!” he shouted. “Many pretty girls!” The dwarf was right. There were dozens of girls in their late teens wearing too much makeup, decked out in short skirts, smoking, flirting, eyeing customers, throwing them smiles, then frowns, then another frown. It was early afternoon and there were few customers.
A tuk-tuk, the high pitch of its engine pushed to the limit, made Calvino step back on the sidewalk. A couple of drunken farang tourists sat in the back seat, laughing and screaming, rocking and rolling, as if their future had arrived and they liked what they saw. Calvino waved as they passed. He stopped in front of another street vendor’s cart bearing fried grasshoppers, scorpions, and water bugs in separate trays, stacked high under a fluorescent light. The vendor was set up in the street in front of a Japanese karaoke place with a sign that said no non-Japanese allowed. The sign was in Thai. A couple of yings dressed like Japanese geisha called out to him. They liked his jacket. They smelled money.
“I’m not Japanese. I can’t go inside,” he called back in Thai.
“No problem. You not come in. We go out. Sure.”
If he had just arrived in the country, he’d have gawked at the lifeless carcasses of the bug massacre, so he stopped now to take a look. The vendor asked, “You try. You like, buy. You no like, no problem.”
The bug vendor held out a water bug and Calvino took it. She made a point of showing the yings. They applauded. A bug-eating farang was about as close to heaven as they’d get on a rainy Tuesday afternoon on the soi with the dead artists bars. While the city was short on museums, Calvino’s soi was rich with bars named Renoir, Degas, Monet, or Cezanne, filled with people who had no idea who those painters were.
There was an attitude in the thick, grayish air—of the vendor and of the yings—that Calvino liked. He looked at the water bug in the palm of his hand as though it was a multivitamin and popped it in his mouth. His teeth got traction on the soft outer shell. As he chewed, he saw the General’s car approach on the wet pavement, slowing as it reached a space in front of Mona Lisa. Calvino stood beside the vendor’s cart, watching the general park his car. He was a kind old man who’d been the perfect client: he’d paid for Calvino’s services, and he’d used the payment for his new jacket. It was an awkward social moment, an old man holding out money. Calvino had asked the General to keep the money and to accept his services as a favor. That was the Thai way, but the General shook his head and insisted that he pay. When the General had phoned Calvino and asked to meet him mid-afternoon for a coffee, he’d decided to look presentable. The new jacket would send a message of proper respect to the General. The lunchtime trade had gone back to the offices, shops, and apartments until dinnertime. It was as quiet as it ever got on Soi 33 this side of mid-afternoon.
A short distance behind the General’s black Camry a motorcycle had been tailing the car. It slowed as the General’s car slowed, and the rider flashed a red laser penlight on the General’s car. The General had come to a stop between Goya and Papa’s. Calvino looked over his shoulder and saw a second motorcycle, a blue and silver Honda, with a driver and a passenger turn into the soi from Sukhumvit. Both riders on the Honda wore wraparound sunglasses and black clothes. The rear passenger’s face was covered with a ski mask. This wasn’t the time to act like a newbie fresh from the airport, seeing things for the first time. The hand of the fast-approaching rider had reached inside a nylon jacket and emerged holding a handgun. The gun, the laser: it added up to a certainty that the motorcycle riders were working together. The laser beam pinpointed the man inside.
The time from the moment a gun is drawn to when it’s used is calibrated in seconds. Glancing up and down the street, Calvino counted one, and before he got to two, pushed the deep-fried insect vendor to the side, and using his body, shoved her cart into the path of the oncoming motorcycle. Both driver and passenger had been concentrating on the target and hadn’t seen the cart coming. When it hit the motorcycle’s midsection, it knocked the driver off balance, and he had no chance to recover. Rider, passenger, and bike skidded hard, tipping over on the rain-slick road. The Thai driver had tried to brake at the last second but lost control. His machine spiraled, shooting out a trail of sparks as it struck from behind, engine still running, a parked motorbike that had four torpedo-shaped metal cylinders strapped to the back. Rider and passenger held on, thinking that against the odds they’d somehow come out of the spill, shoot the General, and escape down Soi 33. If they’d seen the soi the way a foreigner saw it for the first time, they wouldn’t have made that mistake. The gas delivery boy, who did a nice business selling gas cylinder refills to the roadside vendors, stood in the street a few feet away, rolling away an empty and attaching a new one in its place. Wiping the sweat from his brow when he heard the crash, he looked up and saw the bike spinning toward his bike where it was parked in front of the banyan tree.
The impact of the two bikes occurred with maximum force. In the collision, the first cylinder exploded, setting off a chain reaction that burst the other three, each adding more fuel to the large orange ball of flame shooting up the banyan tree. The vendor looked at what remained of her cart, bugs strewed over the road, and then at the fire leaping up the banyan tree, catching the dry and brittle veins on fire until the umbrella of branches and veins ignited a virtual New Year’s fireworks display. The wrecked bikes and riders were enveloped in the ball of flames. The helmeted head of the driver shattered, sending fragments of plastic and skull across the road, splattering the dwarf and the tree, and coated the legs of half a dozen girls.
The yings from the Japanese karaoke place backed away in horror and fear. The vendor stared, hands clutched into a ball. There were tears in her eyes. Her livelihood had just been destroyed. Calvino reached inside his new jacket, unholstered his .38 caliber police service revolver, and ran down the street. Sidestepping the flames, he came up level to the General’s car. The General waved at him. But Calvino was looking past the General at the motorcycle rider who had tagged the old man using a laser light. He had managed to stop a short distance behind the General’s car and remained a threat. With the point bike out of action, was the hit still in play? Calvino had no way of knowing. It was possible that the rider of the second bike was also armed, but he showed no sign of pulling a weapon. When the biker saw Calvino running at him then kneeling with a handgun pointed at his head, he wheeled his bike around and fled in the direction from which he had come. Calvino holstered his .38 and opened the General’s door.
“Did you see that accident?” asked the General.
Half out of breath, Calvino nodded. “Yeah that was something.”
“Doesn’t look like they survived. What a tragedy!”
“General, let me buy you a cup of tea.”
The General stood beside his car, looking out at the burning remains.
“We should phone the police.”
Calvino took out his cell phone and called Colonel Pratt.
“The General’s had a problem,” he said. “He’s parked on Soi 33 outside Goya.”
“Crazy driver,” said the General.
Calvino ended his call with Colonel Pratt. He knew that it would take Pratt a while to arrive at the scene in front of the dead artists bars. Meanwhile, it was just the two of them, the General and Calvino, standing downwind, waiting as they watched the smoke and flames shooting out of the wreckage. There was the pop of ammo exploding. Calvino figured it must have been spare rounds one of the men had squirreled away for a rainy day that would never come.
“Driver’s training,” the General continued. “That’s what we could use.”
The fire brigade drove up at about the same time as the police. They sprayed foam on the wreck, and the body snatchers (they were one of the voluntary Chinese benevolent societies who raced to crash sites and collected the dead and injured) arrived to sort through the remains—bone in this container, metal in that container. “Colonel Pratt will be joining us,” Calvino said, walking the General toward a restaurant between the closed bars and nightclubs.
“I didn’t want to bother him,” said the General.
“He’s in the area.”
“Well, in that case, that’s my good fortune.”
“‘Good fortune’ is one way of putting it,” thought Calvino.
The General pointed his remote at his car and it automatically locked. He hadn’t seen the second black motorcycle, or the guys with their heads covered coming at him at high speed.
Calvino walked back to the vendor and gave her five thousand baht. “Buy a new cart,” he said.
“You bad man, you kill those boys,” she said, taking the money.
A witness to the slaughter, he thought. Not the line he wanted her taking before the police, at least not until Colonel Pratt arrived. The ball of orange flame had climbed down the side of the banyan tree, burning through the dozens of old nylon ribbons. That should piss off the spirit, thought Calvino.
He found the General again, open-mouthed, standing beside his car. “We’ll need to make a statement,” said the General.
Calvino’s new jacket had a slight tear near the front pocket. He sighed, pissed off, as this meant a return trip to Venice Tailors and Tony shaking his head in disapproval over the damage to the masterpiece. Walking toward the burning bike, Calvino knelt down and picked up a nine-millimeter gun from the street and showed it to the General. “Driving and shooting should be against the law.” Calvino slipped the gun into his jacket pocket.
“I could use a cup of tea,” said the General.
Calvino had the feeling the General said that every time he saw something blow up.
Thais, in the presence of a stranger or someone with authority over them, fall into a default of stone silence. They clam up. What few words they muster fall into the category of nondescript pleasantries. Have you eaten? Where are you going? These two questions are the staples of a Thai inquiry. A stranger could be forgiven for thinking that given the long silences in these official circumstances that words were exchanged with the same reluctance as a woman pawning her mother’s gold necklace. But the reality is that they’ve figured out it’s usually better to smile and say nothing of substance.
As the police, the body snatchers, and the fire brigade appeared at the scene of the wreck, Calvino reached down and picked up a piece of chrome. Colonel had arrived and circled the crash as General stood in the shade. It had been decided, after consultation with Colonel Pratt, the ranking officer at the scene, to rule what had happened a tragic accident. Only a miracle had prevented a larger loss of life. And no one said a word about an attempted hit on the General.
“That’s it? What about the gun?” Calvino found himself asking awkward questions about evidence that didn’t fit Colonel Pratt’s report.
Colonel Pratt smiled at his American friend, nodding. Sometimes a farang friend could be amusing at the strangest of times. “It’s been bagged and will go to the lab.”
Such a statement might have on the surface suggested that the police investigation would focus on the ownership of the gun and the identities of the two men who’d been burnt beyond recognition.
As the three of them walked to Calvino’s office, Calvino asked the Colonel about the carefulness of Thais when drawn into a conversation. The Colonel thought long and hard and then simply smiled at the General.
Ratana, who hadn’t expected Calvino to be back so soon from his appointment with the General, was at the park across the street with her baby. Calvino led the General and the Colonel upstairs to his office. Once inside, the three men sat down. It was the first chance they’d had to talk openly, without others around.
“I saw the guy riding pillion pull a gun. The rider on a second motorcycle coming from the opposite direction had pointed the laser beam at the General.”
The old man with his short bristle of white hair raised his hand.
“There’s a Thai saying, Pla moh taay praw pak,” said the General, a veteran of the Department of Special Investigations.
“The fish is dead because of its own mouth,” said Calvino.
“He knows this one, General,” said Colonel Pratt.
A few months ago Calvino hadn’t fully understood the proverb. On that occasion, the Colonel had sketched a sea bass for him with a large mouth and bulging eyes. The mouth of the fish brushed against the surface of the water. Colonel Pratt, an artist at heart who had secretly studied art in New York, had taken pleasure in his drawing. It wasn’t an elegant rendition, but that hadn’t stopped Calvino from having it framed and hung on his office wall. But the line of bubbles that rose from the open mouth of the fish served now to illustrate the General’s point.
The General looked at the drawing.
“Pratt drew that one,” said Calvino.
Pratt had signed his name at the bottom and given the sketch to Calvino. It wasn’t a Picasso—more like Warhol: Marilyn Monroe as a fish.
“And you framed it and put it on your wall,” said the General, as if not believing his eyes.
Pratt’s drawing stared down from the wall, reminding Calvino that a man who was careless about what he said sooner or later got himself hooked, pulled out of the water, gutted, and cooked. That was a Thai way of referring to trouble. Two men had been gas-fried in the street, and pieces of a vendor’s cart and a small forest’s worth of dead bugs had been strewed about the wreckage, but the General didn’t want to talk about what had happened on the street. Colonel Pratt sat back in his chair, arms folded, asking no questions of the General or Calvino. The three men sat in silence.
Calvino found himself studying the sketch. People had this fishlike nature. They couldn’t help but float to the surface and blow bubbles, even though it gave away their position to the fisherman on the riverbank, and put them one step away from a dinner plate.
Calvino turned his attention to the large box wrapped in silver foil paper with red ribbon. It had been delivered that morning. General Yosaporn had signed the card in classic, refined handwriting, curls and swirls that only a fountain pen could make. It was a thank-you note. Before he’d gone to Venice Tailors, Calvino had read and reread the card and stared at the bottles in the open box. The General beamed with pride as he watched Calvino pull out a bottle of whiskey. Calvino asked himself what to do with the windfall. Altogether there were a dozen bottles of single-malt whiskey, the upscale stuff that sold for two hundred dollars a bottle at the airport duty-free.
“I hope you like whiskey,” said the General.
Calvino thought the single malt went well with his new jacket. “One bottle would have been enough,” he said.
“Share it with your friends,” said the General, glancing over at Colonel Pratt.
“Vincent, you did the right thing,” said Colonel Pratt. It was the first time he’d acknowledged what had happened earlier in the soi.
“I almost shot him,” said Calvino. “It crossed my mind. But they were moving fast and I didn’t have time.”
“That was a good thing, Vincent. It avoided a problem.”
Someone being cooked to a dark leathery brown like a rice-field rat in a bonfire could be explained as another example of reckless driving. A gunshot could not be ruled out as the dead artists bars had been known to draw armed patrons.
Calvino nodded. A crooked smile flashed across his face as he handed the Colonel a bottle of whiskey. “Now that’s doing the right thing,” he said. “Isn’t that right, General?”
The General agreed. Colonel Pratt accepted the bottle, turned it around, read the label, and nodded to the General. The two had spent a few minutes alone before they walked over to Calvino’s office. Whatever they’d said to each other, Calvino hadn’t been briefed on. It stayed between the General and the Colonel; they’d closed ranks for whatever reason. Cautious, security-minded men, they were distrustful of anyone not on the inside. This wasn’t like Colonel Pratt. It took some getting used to—Pratt’s show of total deference to the General. In addition to the case of single-malt whiskey, the General had also sent a large stuffed bear for Ratana’s baby and a dozen long-stemmed red roses for the mother. All bases in the gratitude department had been neatly covered. Like Pratt, Ratana had shown more than the usual respect to the old man.
“It was Apichart,” said Calvino out of the blue.
Calvino guessed that this was what the General and Colonel had been talking about. Coldness crossed the General’s face as swiftly as an arctic wind. His upper teeth bit gently down on his lower lip as he caught himself stooping in his chair. He sat erect like a soldier at a mission briefing. “That business is finished.”
“In New York,” said Calvino, “there’s an old lesson that business is never finished with a wise guy. And that’s how I make Apichart. He put a hit on you. We’re alone. We can say it the way it is. You’ll run a check on the two dead punks, find the link, and then what?”
“Not another empty coffin,” said Colonel Pratt.
The General’s translucent paper-thin skin revealed hundreds of veins snaking up his wrists to his forearms and disappearing inside his shirt. Of medium height with slightly stooped shoulders, he was an unassuming white-haired man in his seventies who could have been someone’s grandfather. Years before, the General had been Pratt’s mentor in the police force; that was the personal connection that had brought the General into Calvino’s life.
The General had recently had a problem with a tenant named Apichart, the owner of an advertising agency, who had an office on the ground floor of a building the General owned on Sathorn Road. The office was in an excellent location but Apichart had neglected to pay rent and refused to leave the premises. Colonel Pratt had sent General Yosaporn to Calvino’s office. That was, of course, not the usual way of handling things. Five minutes into the case, Calvino was convinced that Apichart was an asshole, and there were Thai ways of dealing with assholes. Going to a private eye wasn’t usually one of them. The General, given his rank and social status, was quite capable of taking all necessary measures to recover his rent. But at the same time, he was a good Buddhist who followed the five precepts, including the ban on cheating and lying. Of course, not killing was on that list, too. He’d spent twenty minutes talking about meditation that day and had even gotten Calvino to try out the technique, showing him how to sit, where to put his hands, how to breathe, and most importantly, how to clear the mind.
Calvino had said he’d clear his mind properly after he’d collected the rent from the General’s tenant. Five days later, Apichart, a Chinese-Thai who always traveled with two bodyguards, had seen the light and did what he was forced to do. But seeing the light had given Apichart some dark thoughts. As a man who made a living hawking skin-whitening cream, instant noodles, cheap flights on a budget airline with a terrible safety record, and shampoo that promised every ying the attention of men, Apichart had no trouble creating a cruel, damaging campaign.
Apichart could’ve learned something from Colonel Pratt’s drawing of the fish. But he’d gotten rich with easy money and thought he had nothing more to learn. It had come as no surprise when he opened his mouth and blew out one large bubble after another. Apichart had told everyone in the building that General Yosaporn owed him money and that he was withholding the rent to offset the debt. It was cheaper than taking the General to court, he’d told anyone who would listen. Sheepishly, the General had admitted to Calvino that he had once received money from Apichart but had assumed it was a donation to his meditation center. They had constructed a pavilion using Apichart’s money. Whether the money was a loan or a donation was a matter of who was telling the story. In any event, the General had no way to repay Apichart. And it wasn’t the debt but the interest that had been murderous. Apichart had pulled the figure of twenty percent a month out of the air, and at that rate it wouldn’t be long until Apichart owned the building.
Calvino had told the old general he’d do what he could.
On that morning a couple of months ago, Calvino had waited until the General had left and found a crawl space between the baby crib and the toys, diapers, formula, and baby bottles. Ratana sat behind her desk reading an online article about infant nutrition. There had been a lull in the baby’s crying, an expanse of time that threatened to exceed the previous record of twenty-eight minutes. It was like a cease-fire as both sides reloaded and cleaned up the wounded. Calvino cleared his throat and, getting no reaction, leaned over her desk and tapped Ratana on the shoulder. Jumping as if from a bolt of electricity, she looked up with startled eyes.
“Order a Chinese coffin,” he whispered. “I want one that’s cheesy.”
“Cheesy?” She tilted her head, trying to figure out how cheese could factor into coffin buying.
He saw her confusion. “A tacky coffin that is butt ugly, a disgrace. One that no self-respecting Chinese family would buy. I want the coffin that the coffin maker’s wife predicted wouldn’t sell until the late afternoon of his next life.”
She understood “next life, late afternoon.” In Thailand, that meant something that would likely never occur. He’d caught her attention. It wasn’t every day her boss asked for a coffin. “Who died?”
“No one died,” said Calvino. He handed her a slip of paper on which he had drawn the floor plan of General Yosaporn’s building.
“Why do you want a coffin?”
“For a deadbeat.”
“You said no one died.”
The conversation had turned into a cross-cultural nightmare.
“Have the coffin delivered to this address. Tell them to put the coffin exactly where I’ve marked with an X. Then I want you to arrange for three monks to go to the building for the next three days. Tell them to chant beside the coffin.”
Ratana’s eyes grew large as she looked at the paper and then up at her boss. Working for a farang was always a bundle of surprises. She had told her mother and her friends that after a few years, though, you became shockproof. Nothing ever surprises you about a farang. Now she told herself that she’d been wrong.
“That’s the General’s building,” she said.
Calvino nodded, thinking what a relief to actually get his message through.
“I think this is a mistake. You shouldn’t do this.”
“Better yet, see if we could just rent the coffin for a few days. Buying it isn’t necessary,” he said.
She had never heard of anyone renting a coffin. “Khun Vinny, have you talked to the General about this?”
“Okay, if they won’t rent a coffin, then order the cheapest, most stripped-down basic model. And I’d like it delivered tomorrow. Monks tomorrow would be good, too.”
After he explained the purpose of the coffin, Ratana shivered. “You don’t understand the problems this could cause.”
Sometimes he forgot that his secretary was half-Chinese.
“It’s a superstition that you should never walk past a coffin, right?”
“It’s bad luck.”
“When reason fails, then superstition is a good backup.”
Accepting that this was a battle she couldn’t win, Ratana phoned several shops. There was a long pause each time after she asked about renting a coffin. In the end, she found a shop past Soi 101 on Sukhumvit Road that seemed to be going through a slow period. The owner agreed to sell a coffin for five thousand baht and to refund one thousand if it was returned undamaged. Even in the coffin trade, there was a middle path to doing business.
Later that day, a coffin was delivered to the location Calvino had marked: a space in the corridor outside Apichart’s office. The wooden coffin was painted white. Red and orange rosettes festooned the sides and the lid. Squinting hard at a distance, one might take the rosettes for a drug-addled artist’s idea of exotic aboriginal flowers. Closer examination suggested they might pass for blood clots or lepers’ boils. People walking down the corridor averted their eyes. The coffin maker also brought a small shrine to hold candles and incense and set it at the head of the coffin. Three monks arrived the following day and chanted for twenty minutes. The coffin, the shrine, and the monks provoked a considerable amount of attention—not the good kind, but horrified stares like those of passersby who stopped to look at the carnage of a car accident.
Bangkok is a large Chinese city. As Colonel Pratt had once said, the whole population has Chinese DNA. The borderline between Chinese and Thai-Chinese is a matter for debate, but eventually most people become plain, unadorned Thais without a Chinese modifier. Their Chinese blood is like that of minor royalty—diluted over the generations to the point where it has been drained of most meaning.
Calvino figured General Yosaporn’s tenant, who was second-generation Thai on his mother’s side, had enough residual Chinese identity to register the shock of seeing a coffin beside his office. As Ratana had pointed out, coffins are not just a symbol of death but also bad luck for the living. The Chinese will walk two blocks out of their way not to pass a coffin. Office workers who used the corridor of the General’s building had no choice but to pass it. Customers and clients, though, who were mainly Chinese, did have a choice.
From the day the coffin appeared outside Apichart’s office, his business went into a stall, then a nosedive. If his business had been free peanuts, there wouldn’t have been a single monkey willing to take one.
Apichart begged, threatened, shed tears—tears of rage, tears of shame, and most improbably of all, tears of helplessness. The General said the situation was out of his hands, meaning Apichart had had his chance and having crossed the threshold of socially acceptable behavior, he’d lost his right to appeal to the General for help. Apichart was all alone staring down the farang over a coffin that wouldn’t be moved. A couple of days later, one of Apichart’s bodyguards delivered the back rent and a year’s payment in advance. All in cash. He also signed a document saying the earlier money given to the General had been a donation and not a loan. The company that had delivered the coffin had it removed that day. They returned one thousand baht to Ratana, who gave them a tax receipt. She was informed that any time her farang boss or his friends wished to rent a coffin, they’d be happy to throw in free delivery and give her a 10 percent commission.
Once Colonel Pratt had news of Calvino’s success in collecting the rent, the Colonel phoned to thank him. Calvino’s scheme had been crazy but it had worked. Thais rarely fought against anything that proved effective. The General’s influence had gradually dissolved over the years except among the community of devout meditators, where his star had never been higher. Like the unwritten rules that governed who was Chinese and who was Thai, each year past retirement at age sixty had washed away another level of power and influence. By age seventy-five, for General Yosaporn, only Colonel Pratt remained his steadfast friend. There were one or two other old-timers, but most of the powerful people he knew were dead. Newspapers sometimes profiled his meditation work. The reality was he was a relic from a time when decency and compassion had value.
As Colonel Pratt sat in Calvino’s office, holding the bottle of single-malt whiskey, he turned to his old mentor. “I would recommend that Vincent leave town for a few days.”
The General nodded. “My good friend has a hotel in Pattaya. He can stay there.”
“Hold on,” said Calvino. “I’m being exiled to Pattaya?”
“It will take a few days to clear up the problem,” said Colonel Pratt. “Look at it as a vacation, Vincent. You deserve some time away from the office. Kids, clients—”
“Two fried thugs.”
“Repeat to yourself: I am going on a holiday.”
“Do I have a choice?”
Calvino looked at Colonel Pratt and then at General Yosaporn and saw that he didn’t have any choice. Every one had already agreed he had to go away. The problem was that Calvino had been too successful. He hadn’t just won the battle with Apichart; he had vanquished him, left him naked and humiliated. Apichart had paid the rent money and signed the letter, but with such a loss of face that some blood would have to be spilled to get it back again. Apichart’s clients were laughing at him. That was intolerable for a Thai-Chinese. The coffin story had become legendary, whispered between the wives among his circle of friends.
“I could use a holiday,” said Calvino. “A few days away from Bangkok might be a good thing.”
A faint smile crossed the General’s lips. “We hope it will be only a few days.”
Calvino rolled his eyes. “It could be longer? I’ve got ongoing cases to handle.”
“Remember what I taught you about meditation,” said General Yosaporn.
“Let go, don’t get attached,” Calvino replied. “And I can do that until I start thinking about how I’m going to cover the rent and Ratana’s salary.”
The General was on his feet and Colonel Pratt rose and followed him out. There hadn’t been anything else to say. Colonel Pratt would settle the problem with Apichart—doing what had to be done in order to repair the damage. With guys like Apichart, the five precepts were never a good place to start.
After they’d left, Calvino sat alone in his office, thinking about a client named Casey. He owed Calvino money. He made a note to have Ratana phone him and let him know that he’d been called away by a client in Pattaya.
He pulled out another bottle of the single-malt and studied the label. He knew a bar owner in Pattaya who might buy it from him. He smiled and glanced a final time at Colonel Pratt’s drawing, lifted the whiskey from his desk, and walked out to his car. He convinced himself this wasn’t an exile; he was instead doing something he’d not done for a long time: he was taking a vacation. The whiskey was his passport, a way to escape from Bangkok for a week and to kick back and relax by the sea. Calvino drummed his fingers on the box, a smile on his lips. Passing the baby crib and holding his breath against the smell of freshly soiled diapers, he said his goodbyes to Ratana and little John-John, and to the tiny limbs of the other infants in the crib with John-John, whose names he couldn’t remember.