“D.O.A. BANGKOK” read the blood-red neon sign. Around midnight the sky was a grayish-white mask with slits for a few stars. D.O.A. Bangkok was the only bar with huge cages of fruit bats suspended above the counter. Creatures as large as soi dogs hanging upside down, with their black wings folded close to their long, reddish bodies. Vincent Calvino, with a gun sloping out of his holster, walked over to the bar. Red neon whores flashed smiles, mouths filled with large teeth. Mouths that promised plenty of tongue action. One, in a silk dress slit up to her thighs, had a hustler’s smile. Her long, tapered legs were hooked together at the ankles and in the middle of a conversation she stopped and stared at Calvino. He lowered himself onto a stool. He cupped his hands together, leaned over on his elbows, and looked down the bar at the girl purring like a cat in heat.
“Looking for someone, Vinee?” she said in a low, throaty voice.
“Seen Jeff Logan?” He remembered her from the African Queen bar in Patpong, where she had performed a stage act in the old days.
“Haven’t seen him in a long, long time, Vinee.” Her half-hooded moist eyes blinked, and her fine, narrow chin slowly dropped. She parted her legs, fanned her hand, splayed painted fingernails, and raised her dress. She rolled her head back in a soft moan as the ying on her left leaned over with an eel. The black skin shimmered in the red neon. Slowly, the eel slid between the whore’s spread legs.
“I thought you were outta the business?”
She wasn’t listening to him. That made him angry. He hit the bar with the heel of his hand, the red neon bouncing off his temples wet with beads of sweat.
“I haven’t seen Jeff since it happened.” Her voice shuddered, a dry, horrible rattle, breathless and shrill.
In the corner three or four middle-aged farangs—the Thai word for white foreigners—their faces obscured by the shadows thrown by the cages, drank Singha beer straight from the bottle. These ghost men appeared to be Bangkok residents who came to the bar because they had nowhere else to go, and their stomachs were full of loneliness. Guys whose guts had been eaten out by a string of failures, occasional acts of dishonor, and a lifetime of humiliation. One balding figure with burnt-out eyes and lifeless lips glanced at the whores in a deep, abiding silence that, if they listened closely enough, they could tune into a high-frequency scream.
Midnight was feeding time. Everyone in the bar waited around the cages. The owner was an ex—noodle vendor with a street stand near the Ambassador Hotel. His nickname was Fast Eddy, and he liked large bats, long-legged whores, and drunks with money. The bats ate meat. As Vinee’s second double Scotch came, Fast Eddy flipped back the white sheet from the body of a farang laid out on the bar. What kind of detective am I? thought Calvino. He had been in the bar and he hadn’t seen a body no more than five feet away. Calvino broke into a sweat. He wiped his hands down the side of his trouser leg, then reached up and touched his gun. He stood over the body.
It was Jeff Logan. He was a Canadian from Vancouver, a ski instructor at Whistler before he decided to become a freelance photojournalist. He had a swimmer’s body, curly brown hair that came down over the ears, a neatly trimmed moustache, and manicured fingernails. Jeff was in his late twenties. He was naked except for a Pentax camera and a couple of lenses resting on his chest. The black leather straps hung loose around his neck. There wasn’t a scratch on him, not a hair out of place.
Calvino shook the man. It was no use. He knew from the pale, cold skin that Jeff was gone. But he couldn’t stop himself from trying to wake him up. At the same time, Fast Eddy’s knife flashed blood-silver in the red neon light. The bats were going crazy inside the cages. The whores leaned over the bar on their elbows and watched Fast Eddy sharpen the nine-inch blade.
“Jeff, wake up, you gotta get the fuck outta here,” Calvino whispered into the dead man’s ear.
He tried to lift one shoulder. It weighed like a ton of blue ice. One of the drunks in the corner sobbed into his hands.
“He don’t know the score,” said one of the drunks. “He don’t know you did him.”
“Fuck you,” said another drunk.
“You fucked him up,” said one of the farangs from the shadows. “Fucked him up for his money.”
Calvino’s palms were dripping with sweat, his heart shunting into an irregular beat only two or three times faster than normal. Fast Eddy examined the blade and started cutting up the body on the bar.
“I’m Vincent Calvino. This guy’s my client. What the fuck is going on here? Touch him and I’ll blow your fucking brains out.”
He reached for his gun but his sweat-drenched hand kept slipping off. He tore at his holster. But he was too late.
Fast Eddy’s knife sliced off Jeff’s swollen cock and, with a single motion, opened the cage and tossed the raw meat inside. The bats dived on it at once, tearing with their claws and teeth, screeching and banging their wings against the side of the cage. Fast Eddy smiled and closed the door. He ignored Calvino, who came over the bar like a madman and made a grab for his knife hand. He flicked Calvino away as if he were a child. Calvino bounced onto the floor. As he rose up on his knees, Fast Eddy swung to one side and carved another chunk of flesh from Jeff’s thigh, which he held up like a piece of sheet music before throwing it to the bats. Calvino sat eye-level with the girl, who was half doubled over, uncoiling the eel from between her legs, one hand moving over the other like a sailor climbing a rope.
Suddenly Calvino caught his breath. He saw it coming but he couldn’t stop her. The whore kicked him away, as her laugh flew around the room, and she guided the eel down Jeff Logan’s throat.
The voice circled in the distance from him, and sounding like a half-human, half-alien beaked-mouth being crying out in the middle of night.
The sound echoed across a dreamscape. Inside his chest the machinery had gone out of control, his heart was tearing itself apart. “The drink’s working,” said one of the whores. “The drink’s working,” repeated another whore. “I am having a heart attack,” Calvino whispered, his eyes closing in agony. He clutched his chest, knocking his gun across the floor. Nothing he did could stop the earthquake deep inside his chest. The movement ripped the muscles into shreds like pieces of hot rubber flying off a car tire gone flat at sixty miles an hour.
The feeling left his arms and legs. His mouth and neck disconnected from their nerves, were numb, and a swelling of nothingness in a sheet of neon red crossed over his consciousness.
An ancient beast, all teeth and claws, swiftly moved closer in for the kill, the sound of growling and gnashing exploding inside his temples. He found his gun on the floor, rolled over, knelt in a firing position, waited one last moment, raised his .38 police special, and aimed. Two, three shots rang out as the monster’s head reared up and slowly crashed down.
“Khun Winee. You get up now. You very late. No good for you.”
Vincent Calvino opened an eye and looked up at the ceiling. It was morning. A medium-sized gecko was eating a roach. He rolled over and glanced at the alarm clock. Eight o’clock, and in the distance someone had been calling out his name. He rolled over on his side. A Thai woman in her mid-twenties, hair falling down to her waist, head cocked to one side, looking at herself in the mirror above the dresser. She puckered her lips and applied red lip gloss. She took a piece of tissue and touched the corners of her mouth, wadded it into a ball, and tossed it at the wicker wastebasket. She missed. It was then that she saw him in the mirror, watching her.
“Missed,” he said.
“Too many bad dreams,” she said, frowning. She reached down and picked up the tissue and dropped it in the basket. She yawned and stretched her arms out in the mirror. “Cannot sleep,” she said with a groan. Her blue jeans fitted skintight, revealing a firm, round ass. Calvino reached out to grab her but she moved to the left and his hand came up with nothing more solid than air.
“Missed,” she said.
Touché, he thought.
She watched him wearily as she adjusted the collar of her blouse with puffy translucent sleeves. He tried to remember her name, but could not. He tried to remember the name of her bar, but could not. He tried to remember how he had gotten home. Again, he failed. All he remembered was the eel disappearing up the thigh of a girl inside the D.O.A. Bangkok—a bar that existed only in his nightmares.
“Do I know you?” asked Calvino. He pretended to rub his eyes.
“Last night you say I very beautiful girl. You want to make love all night,” she said, glancing at him over her shoulder with a sterile, automatic-pilot smile. A hint of accusation crept into her voice, braiding and twisting her emotions into a fine quilt of rejection.
“I said that?” It was possible, he thought. He said a lot of things when he had drunk too much.
She nodded, turning away from the mirror and looking down at him lying on the bed. “I crazy girl to go with you. Same as before.”
She sighed in disbelief. “Six month ago, I go with you. Next morning you forget me. I say never mind. Last night, you want me. I say, okay. Second chance. Why not? You promise me you not forget.”
She made a face in the mirror, and flipped back her hair with the back of her hand: the classic kiss-off sign. “You not get hard. Soft, soft. No good. You drink too much. Man who drink too much no good for boom-boom.” She opened her handbag and dropped in her hairbrush, lipstick, and makeup kit. He pulled a wallet out of the dresser and tried to slip a five-hundred-baht note into her jean pocket. But the jeans were too tight and he couldn’t jam the note inside. It hung, drooping over, a kind of parody of his own performance the night before. If she was to be believed, and from the black circles under her eyes, he tended to believe her story.
Calvino contemplated the stranger in his bedroom. He had no recollection of her nakedness. He must have touched her, kissed her, held her. But not a single shred of memory of that moment was accessible as she stood towering above him, one hip thrust to the side. She walked over to the closet; his holster was slung over the half-opened door. She pointed at the butt of the gun.
“You say last night. If I forget you again, you can shoot me,” she said, drawing out his .38. She used both hands to point the gun at his chest.
“I hate Monday mornings,” he said.
She squinted one eye, looking down the barrel. As he leaned, back stiff against two pillows, he stared into the barrel of his own gun. He watched her finger slowly circle around the trigger guard, and he sighed deeply, like a man resigned to dying.
“You think I make joke?”
“I said you could shoot me?” he asked, using the lawyer’s tactic of answering a question with a question.
She nodded, her finger smoothly licking at the trigger. “I said, okay, Winee. You not remember Noi, maybe you remember gun.”
The index finger on a handgun trigger is like a child’s tongue idly licking an ice-cream cone. He looked up from her hands on the gun and found her eyes angry. That was a bad sign, he thought. “Yeah, Noi, I remember you. Of course, sweetheart. Poot len—tell a joke,” he said.
But she knew he was playing not with his words but with her.
She slowly shook her head. ‘man drink too much. No good for lovemaking. No good for shooting gun. I think I’m crazy girl because I go with you. I think you maybe trouble. You know too many lady Thailand. Kill you a waste of time,” she said, lowering his .38. She made a quarter turn and slipped the gun into the holster.
“I go now, okay?”
“Noi, I won’t forget you next time,” he whispered and with a shudder slid under the sheet, pulling it over his head like a death shroud.
“No next time, Winee,” she said, lit a cigarette, inhaled deeply, and then let herself out of the bedroom.
Eyes closed, he waited, listening as she stepped into her shoes, and a moment later the entrance door slammed shut. The only sound was his maid, Mrs. Jamthong, pottering around the kitchen and singing to herself. She would have seen the strange pair of high heels and known that Calvino had returned with a companion. It was never a subject that was directly raised or discussed. It was the nature of things: like fire, earth, wind, and water. They existed, but these building blocks of life rarely entered into a daily conversation. The same was true of sex. Sometimes it was like fire, other times like earth or water. Last night had been like air; it had been an invisible force, thought Calvino. It had left no taste, feel, smell, or sound.
“Khun Winee, breakfast ready now,” called Mrs. Jamthong.
This was her all-clear call. It was safe to leave the bedroom. He lowered the sheet and from his bed looked into the mirror, and fell back, pulling the sheet over his head again. He looked like someone who had recently stared down the barrel of a gun, trying to remember the name of the woman who wanted to kill him.
Mrs. Jamthong, fifty-three years old, born in Korat, who didn’t own her first pair of shoes until she was seventeen, leaned against the jamb of the bedroom screen door. Her large figure was outlined through a green curtain the color of rotting jungle foliage.
After nearly eight years Mrs. Jamthong, like most maids in Bangkok, had rewritten her job description; she had Calvino working according to her schedule. His life ran according to her plans, her routines, and her daily need to finish off with her chores as quickly as possible so she could open her noodle stand at the top of the soi.
Mrs. Jamthong’s use of English consonants was common. “Vinee,” Calvino had said. “Winee,” she repeated. She smiled, confident she had finally got it right. He would shake his head. She’d try again, knowing that always he would get tired of her good-natured smiles and complete inability to hear the “v” sound. He didn’t take this personally. She called a “van” a “wan,” “vandal” a “wandal,” and “vampire” a “wampire.”
About two, three years ago, it occurred to Calvino that part of her charm, the charm of many Thai people living in Bangkok, was this failure to make knife-sharp “v” sounds.
“Okay, okay,” Calvino replied, sliding out of bed.
On his way across the room, he kicked over an empty Mekhong bottle—not the pint size, the full motherlode with the gold and red label. He hopped around on one foot, fell back on his bed, his leg raised, and examined a bruised big toe. It throbbed with the same beat as the throb in his head. A moment later, he reached down and picked up the bottle.
His maid saw him emerge from the bathroom. She watched him stagger toward the breakfast table. The morning wake-up call, Calvino’s ritual walk, and her editorial comments on the state of his health were daily events.
“Khun Winee look like he sick,” said Mrs. Jamthong, as he hobbled out of his bedroom dressed in a Yankees T-shirt and cotton boxer shorts. His unlicensed .38 police special was slung from a leather shoulder holster under his left armpit. He tried to walk barefoot. This was a morning ritual. She watched each step, making an evaluation, trying to assess the damage, and calculating the odds of whether he would make it unassisted to the chair. He could feel her pulling for him, cheering him on. Come on, you can make it. Two more steps. One more step. Good boy.
Mrs. Jamthong always looked surprised to see him settle down without falling forward into his breakfast. She loved to tell him gory stories about a farang about forty or forty-one dying of a heart attack in his sleep, walking on Sukhumvit, reading the newspaper, drinking a glass of water. She figured farangs had short life expectancies and no matter how common their course of activity, the strain would be too much for their hearts. A lethal combination of heat, boredom, cheap Mekhong, and a nonstop nightlife sucked them in, chewed them up, and spit them out heart first.
“Sooner or later,” she told him, “I find Khun Winee die, too.”
Mrs. Jamthong registered her feelings in a range of fourteen pre-cast smiles, each with its own nuance. She could go days communicating with a variation of smile language and never utter a sentence. Her smile that morning translated something like: unbelievable, Calvino’s liver has survived intact for one more day.
“My head aches,” Calvino said, sitting at the table. He stared at the pineapple slices on a plate. There is a color of yellow which no one wants to see on their plate after a night of drinking.
“Khun Winee, he not so good.”
“No, he ain’t.” He tried to forget the dream about Jeff Logan. A kid from Vancouver who ended up D.O.A. at twenty-nine years old in Bangkok. His parents had paid Calvino a large retainer to find out why their son, who never smoked, drank, or did drugs, and was a ski instructor turned adventurer, had died of a heart attack. People die of heart attacks at all ages. But there were a couple of bars in Patpong where young farangs had died mysteriously. They had one thing in common. Their death certificates had “heart attack” as the cause of death.
Jeff Logan had been working on a story on the heart-attack victims. He had some evidence that the victims had averaged about forty-five milligrams of Dormicum in their blood at the time of their death. Tasteless, colorless, forty-five milligrams slipped in a glass of beer would have blown a valve out of any twenty-nine-year-old heart. Calvino had a theory. He thought Jeff had picked up the trail between a drugstore selling Dormicum and “White” Halcion, which was used in the same fashion, and some girls working the African Queen bar.
Calvino figured a whore, one Jeff had trusted, had overdosed him and stolen his credit cards, passport, and travelers’ checks. He had forgotten where he was and who he was dealing with. This wasn’t a packaged ski tour on Whistler Mountain. Three weeks after his death, about five grand of charges from Hong Kong to Singapore turned up on two of his Visa cards. That was over seven months ago. Calvino had turned up nothing but unanswered questions and returned the retainer to the Logans minus expenses. He lived his life according to a number of laws. One of them was Calvino’s law of diminishing returns: If after six months you don’t turn up the killer the chances are you never will. Except for the dreams, life had returned to normal.
Another Monday morning with his maid shouting him out of bed, referring to him in the third person, and speculating about his heart and liver. She diagnosed hangovers with the kind of expertise that was commonplace in Thailand. The worst part was her infallible memory.
“Last week Khun Winee say “Someone’s carpet-bombing inside my head.”
“That was last week’s hangover. The bomber squad’s grounded. The cavalry—” He paused with a sigh. “Now those are the guys to fear.”
He surveyed the breakfast table—fresh-squeezed orange juice, sliced banana and pineapple, and a mug of steaming hot coffee. The blurry edges of his world slowly came into focus. On the side, with the lid off, was a bottle of aspirin and a glass of water. He popped two aspirins into his hand, dropped them on his tongue, drank the water, swallowed hard, and opened the Bangkok Post to the “Outlook” section. An article from the States predicted that in twenty years people would live to be 150 years old. He reached for his juice, thinking of guys 130 years old picking up seventeen-year-old yings in Patpong and Soi Cowboy. Calvino was forty. He figured another 110 years wasn’t anything he personally wished for.
Mrs. Jamthong’s mynah bird squatted in a cage outside the door.
“Khun Winee late for his office today?”
Since the bird sounded exactly like the maid—and this was one of the bird’s favorite phrases—he was not sure who had asked the question. Not that it mattered.
His bloodshot eyes, the lids puffy, looked at his maid, then at her bird, with childlike wonder. Calvino searched his memory for the right Thai words to explain the grim reality of his office. He hadn’t worked for two months, and had little prospect of receiving work at the moment. It was a spiral. Each day he had less desire to go to an office that smelled of failure and unpaid bills. He had every intention of avoiding an appearance on Monday morning.
“Tomorrow’s an office day. Mondays I never work,” he said.
She smiled one of the fourteen smiles. It was the smile of compassion. She knew he had tried to work. She knew he had no work. She remembered he lived for his work and drank when the phone didn’t ring for days. “Ratana phone you at eight. She say it very important Khun Winee phone.” Mrs. Jamthong beamed. She liked delivering what she thought might be good news.
Ratana was the twenty-three-year-old half-Chinese secretary who occupied the small reception area in Calvino’s office. She rarely called him at home; he rarely phoned her at the office. It was a good relationship—for long periods they might forget they had any connection with one another.
Mrs. Jamthong held out the telephone and stretched the cord, which had become twisted into a thousand snarls.
He set the phone on the table, smiled, and turned to the front page of the Bangkok Post. Mrs. Jamthong sighed and dialed the number of his office. Meanwhile, Calvino stared at the paper. There was a front page black-and-white photograph of a farang slumped over his desk. A couple of uniformed cops with grainy newsprint faces smiled into the camera. Calvino had figured out Mrs. Jamthong’s smile. She handed him the telephone.
“You see the paper?” Ratana asked him.
“I’m eating my breakfast.”
“Why farang have trouble eating and looking at a picture of someone dead?”
Calvino winced. “We’re cultural misfits,” he said.
“You phone after you finish, okay?”
Calvino put down the phone. He sat up straight, looked closely at the photograph. He was back at work. And with work, he might possibly get close to a paycheck, and then everyone would be happy. The Thai cops at the murder scene had the same smile when they pulled over drug-running Nigerians at Don Muang Airport. A “gotcha” smile. The self-satisfaction of knowing that today will be a little brighter than yesterday, and since there may be no tomorrow, that is the best you can hope for.
His eyes dropped down from the photo to the caption. “Thinner Addict confesses to killing farang.” There was another photo of a young Isan kid, his chin tilted forward, some bruises around his eyes, standing between two police officers with his hands cuffed. Calvino knew the victim. He was a Brit named Ben Hoadly. He had been killed on Sunday night about 10:00 p.m. The report had the kid pumping a 9-mm slug into the back of Ben’s head. The exit wound had blown bone and brains through a ragged hole with a black-rimmed edge. The kid, a nineteen-year-old named Lek, confessed to a robbery that had gone wrong. Calvino looked at the photo of Lek in handcuffs. He looked frightened. The bruises indicated he had been beaten up. The report referred to him as a paint thinner addict. The press liked dealing in stereotypes: Thinner addict kills farang. Everyone had their role in the drama of life on Bangkok.
A couple of years ago, Calvino had drunk with Ben Hoadly and a mutual friend who ran a Patpong bar called the African Queen. Ben had been a little loaded and it was only 8:00 or 9:00 in the evening. Calvino had immediately liked the guy.
“What do you miss about America?” he asked Calvino, sipping a Kloster straight from the green bottle. “The cars,” he said, answering his own question. “Americans are bloody car-mad.”
“The kind of cars I owned gained or lost ten percent in resale depending on how much gas I had.” Calvino stroked the stuffed civet cat with dark circles around its eyes on the bar. The animal stared across the room with glass eyes and was in perfect condition except that both ears were missing. “Ever wonder how Lucky here lost her ears?” asked Calvino.
Ben smiled and whispered. “It’s a secret. I’m sworn to silence. I might be killed if I told you.” He ordered another Mekhong and soda. This was all British send-up, and he was testing to see how seriously Calvino was taking him.
“You know the most remarkable thing about a civet cat?”
Ben shook his head, fingering the tail of the stuffed cat.
“The anal scent glands,” said Calvino. “It makes a musky odor you sometimes smell on a slow night.”
“I get it,” he said. “The ghost up the ass.” He stuck his index finger into the earless hole and screwed up his face, showing his teeth in a tortured death mask of an expression. Ben was one of those guys you saw around the Strip. Calvino might not have remembered him from the dozens who looked, acted, and dressed very much like him; but the finger twisting in a rude, pulsating way in the dead civet cat’s earhole ensured that Ben wouldn’t be forgotten.
The phone rang and Calvino picked up on the second ring.
“Khun Winee, please?” asked Ratana. “You finish breakfast yet?”
The sixteen-year-old rent-a-wife who lived upstairs heard the phone ring in Calvino’s apartment. The two apartments shared a party-line, an open invitation to listen. She looked at the phone, then picked it up and began eavesdropping on Calvino’s conversation. It was her way of passing time and improving her English.
“You can talk now?” asked Ratana.
It was a natural question, given Calvino’s setup.
“What’s the emergency?” he asked her, bending forward and examining Ben’s head in the photograph. It was a helluva thing to remember a guy for, those last words in the African Queen bar: “The ghost up the ass.”
There was a long pause. The whore upstairs was screaming at Mrs. Jamthong. There was the slamming of doors. A plate smashed against the floor. Calvino hated Monday mornings.
“You see the newspaper?”
“I’m looking at it.”
“Ben Hoadly’s father called from England, and he’s calling back in thirty-seven minutes.”
It wasn’t just a photograph of the body but also the murder scene. Like most such photographs, the intent was to give a vivid image of the dead man and not to give a private investigator an easy answer to a long-distance phone call. It was impossible to assess whether there was any collateral damage or what evidence, if any, there had been of a struggle. Ben had landed with the left side of his face down on the computer keyboard. The photo was fuzzy but the angle caught Ben in what looked like a smile. Calvino thought he recognized something familiar. It was what he called “Mrs. Jamthong’s shocked smile.” The one which crossed her lips whenever someone mentioned the magic word ghosts, which in Thai sounds, to untrained ears, identical to the English word pee. To take a piss in one language is a ghost in another. One damn misunderstanding after another. Ben had definitely given up the ghost. If the kid was innocent, who pulled the trigger?