In the dusk, the emerald green rice fields below the two UH-1D helicopters seemed overlaid with a bluish hue, and appeared almost suspended in the heat and humidity. The second helicopter had a crew of four Americans and ten passengers: Three Americans and seven Montagnards, their faces and hands camouflaged with green and black paint; and they carried weapons of their choice as well as maps and radios. They were a "sterile" team - no documents, no ranks, untraceable uniforms and weapons. They were one of the teams of MACV-SOG, Military Assistance Command Vietnam-Studies and Observation Group, a cover name for Special Forces carrying out covert operations. Their mission was to check on an NVA camp just inside Cambodia possibly holding an American prisoner. If the intelligence report was confirmed they were to attempt rescue, otherwise were instructed to avoid contact with the enemy and radio for extraction.
Both doors of the chopper were open and cool, humid air rushed through the ship past the silent men. The door gunner leaned back just as the sun briefly broke through clouds and his ammunition belt seemed to glow. As the rice fields gave way to jungle-covered foothills, Staff Sergeant Adam Bates felt good to have passed safely over the rice fields; as if flying over elephant grass, steep ridges and triple-canopy jungle meant the greatest danger was over. Logically, he knew better, but if they ran into problems the jungle offered a much better chance of escape than rice fields. He remembered the adrenalin and the fear the last time his team had been ambushed by the North Vietnamese in what had seemed a deserted village surrounded by abandoned rice fields.
The Huey was a fine bird but he wished they'd still had the H-34 Kingbees. He liked the Kingbee for its toughness and its ability to hover close to hillsides. But the regular American military forces were leaving Vietnam, covert operations were being cut back, and Kingbees were in short supply. Even the UH-1D normally flew as a gunship but had been pressed into service as a troop carrier for SOG special missions.
They were almost to the landing zone when he heard a sudden high-pitched whine in the turbine and felt the chopper vibrate erratically. He heard the pilot's voice through the intercom system saying something about warning lights and putting down immediately.
The chopper ahead of them continued on and flared gracefully into the waist-high grass of the assigned landing zone; and was immediately torn apart with cleverly concealed .51 caliber machine guns which surrounded the LZ. The inch long bullets ripped into the helpless chopper and the Plexiglas cockpit exploded in a red-orange fireball. The whirling rotor blades shot off and upward and spun wildly outward slicing through jungle vines, canes of bamboo and the fronds of coconut palms.
The chopper Bates was on crabbed sideways, shuddered violently, and then the heel of one skid hit the ground, tilting the chopper, and then the other skid hit the ground hard. A Cobra and an AC-130 spooky (aerial gunship) immediately went into action attempting to keep the North Vietnamese away from the crippled chopper. He could see his team was uninjured but the chopper pilot had taken a heavy round right through his chicken plate. The overpowering stench of engine exhaust fumes permeated the humid jungle air.
The rest of the team scrambled out and fought their way to the tree line where they quickly fanned out into a defensive perimeter. The NVA were no more than fifty yards south of the team and if they could get close enough the spooky couldn't risk hosing down the area with its enormous firepower. Just above his head, leaves snapped and branches disintegrated as the enemy sprayed the area.
As he low-crawled into thick, damp foliage, Bates tried to breathe through his mouth to avoid detection. He and his team members had eaten only Vietnamese nuoc mam - fermented fish and vegetables - for ten days before the mission - the NVA could smell Western beef almost as well as they could smell American aftershave and insect repellent. And now the NVA mistakenly believed he and his men had moved well south of the landing zone; which gave them their opportunity to disappear into the thick jungle.
They spent the night evading the enemy. At times they could see the enemy's pith helmets and hear their voices and the team narrowly escaped detection. But there were several platoons of NVA searching for them and avoiding contact completely was impossible. Sometime after midnight, several enemy soldiers passing nearest to his position whispered too loudly and walked too carelessly along a jungle path.
He was more than willing to let them pass by but then he heard a clicking sound. And another. The Vietnamese were taking their safeties off their AK-47's. It was a sound he would never forget. It meant they had spotted something suspicious.
If there had been one or two he would have crept behind them and used the V-42 stiletto strapped to his ankle. But there were too many for a silent kill. He jumped up immediately and let loose with his Belgian-made Browning 9mm pistol and killed them both. His men killed the remaining four with their suppressed 9mm Swedish K submachine guns and CAR-15's.
The sounds had given away their position and he had only seconds to check the bodies for documents. There was nothing but red blood soaking black cloth and oozing through his frantically searching fingers. In death, the NVA looked impossibly young. Two of the youngest had green sisal ropes tied around their necks so that if they were killed it would be easier to drag them away. No body count for the American brass to brag about. He wondered if they were sappers and if so what base they were trying to infiltrate.
In an attempt to flush them out, the Vietnamese fired into the jungle darkness with their AK-47's sending streams of green tracers only a few feet over their heads. At one point the team had narrowly missed being blown apart by rocket-propelled grenades. Shrapnel cut deep into Bates's arms and legs and across his left cheek making it necessary to cover any blood trails carefully. They entered shoulder-high Elephant grass which provided cover but also provided the NVA with an easily discernible trail. And in the darkness it sliced into them as sharply as knives.
They crossed a creek bed and entered an area of jungle growth and twisted vines which offered a much better chance of escape. They settled for the night but could still hear bursts of gunfire as the NVA carried out "reconnaissance by fire," in an attempt to panic them into giving away their position. But the men held their ground and the sounds of gunfire gradually moved away from their position and died out.
Several hours later, they were confident they had at least temporarily evaded their enemy and radioed for a first-light extraction. Within an hour, to their south and north, UH-1C helicopters faked insertions and extractions in nearby LZ's to draw the enemy away from the team. Heavy grey clouds were moving in, threatening to make an extraction impossible.
Minutes before their extraction time, they used their C-4 explosives to carve out enough of a landing zone for a chopper extract, put out their signal panels and got on the radio. And waited. The rescue helicopter knew where they were but thanks to the sounds of the explosives so did the NVA. The NVA or else a rescue helicopter: one or the other would arrive first.
Just as they had decided they would die fighting, they heard the welcome whop, whop, whop of a chopper. As it hovered just above the clearing the men scrambled aboard. Except for intermittent sniper fire the extraction went smoothly. The chopper rose upward with the sounds of bullets pinging off its exterior while the door gunner frantically sprayed the area with his M-60.
Some of his closest comrades - one a Silver Star recipient - had died in the first helicopter along with some very brave 'Yards. Bates and his team had avoided death because of a warning light and malfunction. But the disastrous mission - only the latest of several failed missions - had been a setup, and it confirmed what he had already suspected. There was a spy among them.
They all knew there were communist moles among the Vietnamese working with them. They had even intercepted North Vietnamese communications giving coordinates and times of planned interceptions and in some cases even the names of team members. After all, SOG's Vietnamese counterparts were in fact recruited and cleared by the Vietnamese only. Operational planning details of missions were supposed to be passed on to SOG's mole-ridden Vietnamese counterpart, the STD (Strategic Technical Directorate).
But this mission had been planned without notification to the South Vietnamese, especially not to the STD, and Bates and his team understood all too well: there was a spy inside SOG headquarters itself. And it had to be someone with access to the precise coordinates of the planned insertion, time of insertion, aerial photographs and the situation map of the target area.
Which meant it had to be an American. An American who had either helped plan the mission or been privy to the details; and who had thought no one on either helicopter would return alive.
Bangkok - Present
When my cell phone rang I was watching the northbound night train rattle its way out of Bangkok’s Hualumpong Station. It was November so Dao, my Thai girlfriend, was on her way to Korat to see various aunts and uncles and to help with the rice harvesting.
It’s an old cell phone: no internet connection, no high resolution camera, no MP3 function, no touch-screen controls, no G.P.S., and a very limited choice of ring tones. I had chosen Waltzing Matilda as the least offensive. I was no expert in cell phone technology, but I knew the phones and the latest gadgets they came with gave off radio waves which given the advances in SIGINT (Signal Intelligence) made them extremely vulnerable on or off so, rightly or wrongly, I figured the fewer devices I had on my phone the better.
The name displayed was Matz, a friend of mine from Sweden who owned a few of the more well-known go go bars in the city. I hadn’t seen him for quite a while because he tended to other business and seldom appeared in his bars.
Matz had done time for bank robbery in Sweden and had had a few other scrapes in the Philippines and elsewhere but he and his Thai bouncers had once been at the right time and in the right place to help me out of what would have been an ugly situation. I was still with the Agency at that time and had apparently asked the wrong people the wrong questions. Matz had made it clear that an attack on me was the same as an attack on him which had been the only reason I hadn’t had my head handed to me on a plate. So as far as I was concerned Matz could do little wrong.
As I talked with him, I maneuvered past several groups of Thais and foreigners sitting in circles on the floor of the crowded station, some sprawled out and half asleep, some bleary-eyed and bored, some eating Thai snacks and laughing. Backpackers with dirty blond hair, thin faces and hairy armpits crowded around a young Thai woman intently studying a map of Thailand. The backpackers looked as if they hadn’t slept in days. Or else they were coming down from a glorious high.
One of the backpackers stared at me as I passed by and nudged his friend. He said something and they both looked at me and chuckled. I assumed the joke was on me and their smug grins bothered me just a bit. But of all the martial arts techniques I had learned over the years the best teachers all regarded the same one as the most important; the one I had had drummed into my head in New York in English, Beijing in Mandarin and Thai in Bangkok: Avoiding a fight is a technique. If it is only your ego at stake, walk away. It was wonderful advice, especially in Thailand where police involvement often meant that win, lose or draw a payment of money might be needed to make the problem go away.
I continued on toward the Hualumpong subway station, avoiding a few out-of-season raindrops as I went. “Hi, Matz. Long time.”
He had a flat, gravelly voice and he spoke slowly; and without a trace of the singsong emphasis we associate with Swedes when they speak. “Scott. Everything OK with you?”
Matz knew about my tryst with a colleague’s wife and how it had got me thrown out of the Agency. And he knew that rather than leave the City of Angels, I had printed up cards and called myself a private detective. The kind of detective with so few cases he has to teach scuba diving to make ends meet.
“Everything is just fine with me. Let me guess: you’re finally taking me up on my offer to give you scuba lessons.”
I heard a noise somewhere between a laugh and a grunt. “Not just yet.” After a few seconds of silence he continued. His tone had changed. Pleasantries were over. “Scotty, I have a situation here. I’d appreciate it if you’d drop around.”
I raised my voice to be heard over an announcement about an arriving train. “Not a problem. I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
“Thanks. But I didn’t tell you where I am yet.”
“You’re at Soi Cowboy at Secrets a go go.”
“How the hell did you know that?”
“The background music.”
“Yeah. But I could have been at any of the bars.”
“Sure you could. But the girls at Secrets love to dance to the Cranberries’s Zombie. And they love it loud. That’s what I’m hearing.”
This time his laugh was genuine. “Christ, you may actually be a detective.”
“Sure I am; I took all the computer courses. And I’ve got the real Maltese Falcon stashed under my bed.”
“Just get here will you?”
“On my way.”
Twenty minutes later I emerged from the subway at the foot of Soi Cowboy. The lane, or soi, had been named after a black American who had opened the first bar there decades before. In those days, Patpong Road had been the place to go and Soi Cowboy was a quiet, dark, non-descript lane with a few bars frequented by locals. Now Patpong Road had been turned into a congested circus for tourists crammed with T-shirt vendors and X-rated DVD stalls, and most locals preferred Soi Cowboy, a lane lined with bright neon lights of go go bars beneath which scantily dressed young hostesses urged customers inside.
For not very much money a man could have a very good time on Soi Cowboy and after spending a bit more he might find himself surrounded by so many adoring young women he might feel he had been mistaken for Brad Pitt or David Beckham. Until his money ran out.
But even then he would be treated with respect; especially if he spoke some Thai and smiled a lot. If, on the other hand, he was a mean drunk who thought it would be fun to jump up on stage, elbow dancers aside, and start gyrating wildly he might quickly find that bars had bouncers – usually ex-muay Thai fighters.
I had actually been here dozens of times, a few times on business, but mostly with Dao. Several months before a close friend of hers from Korat had traveled to Bangkok to become a dancer at Secrets a go go and Dao had promised the girl’s mother she would look after her. The hostesses and dancers in Secrets knew Dao was the lady in my life and they also knew she was one of Thailand’s best female Muay-Thai fighters. So I hadn’t expected any of the dancers to be especially flirtatious but they were usually full of fun; yet when I entered the bar I found them inexplicably subdued and, despite the loud music, the atmosphere strained.
The bikini-clad dancers on stage were listlessly shuffling through Hotel California and there were few customers. The mama-san stopped scolding one of the dancers long enough to gesture for me to continue on into the back room. I heard just enough of her diatribe as I passed by to learn that the dancer had committed the sin of going after another dancer’s regular customer. Not smart.
I passed the unisex bathroom and the curtain behind which the girls changed outfits between dances and made my way farther along the hallway at the end of which was a wooden door with a “Private: Do Not Enter” sign. I knocked, opened the door, stepped inside a fairly large L-shaped room and shut the door. The music volume was a lot lower but the rumbling of the base had no problem making its way through the walls.
The room was windowless; musty would have been too kind a word to describe the stale atmosphere and smell of mould. The section near the back door was dimly lit by a few wall lamps with badly torn shades. There was a black leather couch along the back wall, an office desk, a battered credenza with opened bottles of liquor partly hiding family portraits in gold frames, a swivel chair and a few rattan chairs along another wall. Crates of Singha, Tiger, Leo and Chang beer were stacked near the door and to my left several bikinis hung on hooks above crates of Bacardi Breezers. The logos on the beer crates – lion, tiger, elephants and bat – reminded me that I had never kept my promise to take Dao to the zoo. The only attempt at decoration in the room was a clichéd painting of a buxom Asian female lying back seductively on a canopied bed. She was the only one in the room with a smile on her face.
There were four men in the room. The three who were standing served as bodyguards for Matz and as bouncers in the bars he owned. The one who had trained at Dao’s father’s muay-Thai camp recognized me, placed his palms together and gave me a wai. I waaied him back. The others just stood with muscular, tattooed arms folded, staring over flattened noses at the fourth man in the room: a Westerner I had never seen before.
He sat slouched in the far corner of the couch, hunkered down as best he could with his hands in his lap, his legs crossed, virgin-style, staring at the linoleum floor’s dirty urine-yellow square tiles. He wore a polo shirt with a couple of playful bears on the front, dirty sage green cargo pants and badly scuffed sneakers with what appeared to be smudges of blood on them. I guessed his age to be somewhere between 35 and 40. He had a full head of black, badly disheveled, hair but his face was aged. A kind of sickly pallor. Or maybe it was just the poor lighting. Or maybe it was just the terror in the dark eyes beneath his thick eyebrows that made him appear so aged. He had a dark complexion, almost Aquiline nose and thin lips. If I had had to guess I would have guessed Italian or Italian-American. Or Greek. Or French. Or something. He glanced up at me for just a few seconds before lowering his head again and I could see a badly bruised cheek and a cut on his chin. The thought ran through my mind that I had seldom if ever seen a person look quite this petrified.
The mama-san must have told Matz I was here because the door opened and in he walked, cigarette in hand. A bit shorter than me, but stockier. Bullnecked with close-cropped hair. A leathery complexion, thin lips and a bulbous nose that had been broken more than once. The kind of stare that, at its most pleasant, could be described as unnerving; at its worst, murderous. The walking cliché of the type of man you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. He was nearly ten years older than me but he worked out in gyms, sparred in karate classes and jogged early in the morning. Following that kind of exercise routine was something I had managed to do when I’d been stationed with the Agency in Beijing. Since I’d moved to Thailand, my gym workouts, jogging sessions and sparring matches had tapered off to the point where I felt sluggish and lethargic. Clients or no clients, I still scuba dived regularly but that was more to relieve mental stress than to condition my body.
He nodded to me and then gestured with the cigarette to the frightened, thin man on the sofa. As he spoke his hazel eyes stared directly at him. “Two nights ago, one of our girls got barfined and taken to a hotel. The asshole who barfined her liked to play games. He started by shoving a bottle up her cunt. The more she cried in pain the more the scumbag liked it. Then he started hitting her. Had some fun slapping her around. Made her do a few things she didn’t want to do. Fist-fucked her up the ass while he pulled her hair and tried a few other neat tricks.”
He took a long drag on his cigarette. The uneven lighting in the room cast curls and whorls of his exhaled smoke in sharp detail. “She’s still in the hospital. Before the asshole had his fun with her he’d been drinking in the bar. The girls knew what he looked like. So I spread them out sitting in front of bars along the soi, and I put out the word that if the asshole was stupid enough to show up around here again, they should let me know.”
He took another deep drag on his cigarette and glanced back up at me. Something far deeper than mere anger clouded his face. “As you can see the asshole was stupid enough.” For several seconds there was no sound in the room but the muffled music. Matz brushed cigarette ash off his tailor-made, long-sleeved shirt then continued. “So my boys are taking him for a little ride. I’d like you to go with them.”
When I stared at him he shook his head. “No, I asked them not to kill him. Just to give him a reminder of how to treat a lady. A permanent reminder. Your part is finished after that. Then they’ll take him to his hotel room, collect his shit, and off he goes to the airport. Never to return.” Matz took a step toward the man on the sofa. “Never to return. Isn’t that right, asshole?”
The man was clearly on the verge of tears. “Jesus, man, I-”
Matz backhanded him so hard across the face the man’s head jerked back and then forward like a broken toy. He leaned forward, covered his forehead with one hand and started crying. A kind of soft sobbing interrupted by sniffling.
“You sure you need me for this?”
He lowered his voice. “Yeah, Scotty, thing is, I said I asked them not to kill him. The way they feel about this scumbag I’m not so sure they’re hearing me right. I’d like you to go along for the ride. With you there there’s less chance of my having to bury this sucker in a swamp somewhere. That wouldn’t bother me much but I’d have to pay off the boys in brown to keep it quiet. That would bother me.”
I wondered if even my presence would make the slightest difference to this man’s fate. I also wondered why Matz couldn’t go with them himself but the thought occurred to me he might have reached his monthly quota of personally trying to prevent his security force from murdering misbehaving customers. In any case, when you owe a friend a favor and you get a chance to repay it you repay it. I nodded. “I’ll go along for the ride.”
“I’d appreciate it.” He reached into his back pocket, opened a wallet and glanced at it. Then he threw it at the man on the couch. “OK, Chuck Johnson of Gainesville, Florida. You put that away. And you have a pleasant evening.”
Matz nodded and two of his men roughly seized Chuck and shoved him toward the door. Matz grabbed him by the ear as he passed and spun him around. “One thing, asshole. My wife loves that Escalade. You bleed you make goddamn sure you don’t bleed in that car, you got that? Or she will kill you.”
The man nodded and uttered some sort of strained almost human sound which Matz took for agreement.
As we walked back through the bar, the barefoot dancers were into a topless routine, sliding upside-down on poles, their long jet-black hair and any breasts that weren’t silicone-encumbered, hanging down. They stopped abruptly and, with admirable agility, spun themselves in the air, and jumped back down to the stage. I was relieved to see that Dao’s friend was there so whichever girl had been victimized it wasn’t her.
Every girl in the bar glared at the transgressor; it was easy to imagine what would happen to Chuck if they got hold of him. But he kept his head down, his arms motionless at his sides, and continued walking in the center of our group and out the door. We walked slowly, almost with the solemnity of pallbearers. And I wondered again if my presence would in any way alter the fate of the lowlife we were escorting to what would no doubt be considered by his handlers to be an appropriate punishment.
On Soi Cowboy, we moved quickly past several bargirls from other bars calling to customers. Some obviously knew what had happened and stopped to glare at the perpetrator. If looks could kill…
Bikini-clad dancers crowded about a vendor, eagerly eying his huge pile of grasshoppers deep-fried in pepper oil beside trays of mangda beetles and bamboo worms. A shifty-eyed mahout in camouflage jacket and matching trousers sold bananas to hesitant tourists so they could feed his young elephant; a fresh-faced foreign missionary held up his Bible and screamed stridently about the fate that awaited sinners who frequent such Sodom and Gomorrah places as Soi Cowboy; and a beady-eyed, overly made-up, ladyboy stood in the shadows, observant as a wall lizard, hoping to pick up a tourist who couldn’t tell the difference – or else who could.
We headed up to soi 23 and walked in silence to the Queen Victoria Pub, where Matz had parked his Cadillac Escalade. Light from the pub reflected off the car’s body and jumbo-chromed aluminum rims, a metallic golden glow that, along with its 22-inch wheels, lent the car the appearance of floating above the darkness surrounding it. I knew Matz had wanted the stealth gray but Oi (Sugarcane), his Thai wife of many years, had wanted the gold mist. He had insisted, she had insisted, so of course in the end he had bought the gold mist.
No one spoke as we climbed into the cavernous interior of the Escalade. I took this to mean that the boys knew exactly where they were going. I sat in the middle row with one of the bodyguards while two of them sat with Chuck in the back. We rode in the direction of a klong (canal) then down several sois and subsois in silence. I noticed the driver shuffling through a pile of disks and soon the 10-speaker Bose 5.1 Dolby digital surround system blared out a saccharine Thai love song which, to my mind, seemed a bit inappropriate for the occasion; especially as the smell of expensive leather was soon overpowered by the malodorous shit-fear emanating from the backseat.
The all-wheel-drive symbol of excess rode beautifully even over the worst of the traffic bumps and potholes, and I couldn’t help but wonder how much it would cost to remove blood-stains from the dark leather seats and carpets. I wondered if the man about to receive a lesson in manners appreciated the fact that in addition to being protected by Thai bouncers on either side of him, he was also protected by roof-mounted side-curtain air bags. Nothing bad could happen to him. At least not until the ride was over. I glanced back only once but the darkness had swallowed his facial features. Only the terror in his eyes was visible.
We sped directly through the entrance to a large apartment complex under construction and then into a rear area with sheds, cranes, bags of cement and drilling equipment, an area that stretched a long way before stopping abruptly at several long rows of banana trees silhouetted against the night sky. The driver pulled up sharply behind a pile of shutter boards and bricks and spat out words in Thai to the effect that the “dogmouth motherfucker” should be taken out and marched over to the trees.
In my imagination I had expected a long ride to end somewhere near the river but the ride had taken little more than ten minutes. It was a much shorter ride than I had thought it would be but for Chuck it must have seemed like an eternity. And we were nowhere near the river. Except for the driver, we all exited the SUV and walked toward the trees. There was a deep excavation area about as long and wide as the Secrets a Go Go where digging had stopped for the night and I wondered if Chuck thought he was about to be thrown into it.
They had chosen the spot well. A high timber fence ringed three sides of the site and a seven-foot high razor-wire fence had been strung out in front of the banana trees. Beyond the trees I could hear the surging motor of a passenger boat on the canal making its way downstream. I had a brief glimpse of its red and green port and starboard lights and stern light and then it was gone. But no one in any direction from where we stood was likely to hear any screams.
A burly Thai guard hurriedly approached from the front area, strode beneath a badly weathered “hardhat area only – restricted site” sign and quickly made his way into the section where we were assembled. His right hand held some kind of club. As he got closer, the look on his face transformed from anger to perplexity. But he took no more than five seconds to make up his mind: We were not there to steal anything and whatever we were there for was therefore no concern of his. He walked back the way he came – at a slightly faster pace.
Huge green curtains and sheets of canvas lined the nearby building under construction protecting anyone below from fallen debris. But debris had managed to fall nevertheless. Above us at various levels of the building white fluorescent bulbs lit sections of the site but much of the area we were in was cast in shadow. The Thais gave Chuck a shove and marched him past a mortar trough and a concrete mixer and halted him near a cement silo.
One of them approached him while reaching under his shirt. It was the action of someone drawing a weapon; as far as I could make out in the darkness it was some kind of silver pistol. And I was about to make a move to try to stop him. Not because I thought I could but at least I could tell Matz in good faith that I had made an effort to prevent a murder. But as I got closer I realized the man had taken out a roll of silver vinyl duct tape. By the time I reached them he was using the tape to tightly bind Chuck’s right hand into a shallow fist. Chuck looked at me the way a drowning man might look at a life raft drifting slowly out of reach. Despite the pleasant evening his face was bathed in sweat. “Please, mister, don’t let them kill me.”
I spoke with more conviction than I felt. “They’re not going to kill you. Just take your punishment like a man then get the hell out of Thailand. And never come back.”
He seemed about to sob again but the Thai grabbed his shoulders and spun him around so that his chin was a perfect target for his friend’s sudden muay-Thai kick. Chuck went down hard but managed to shakily make it up to his knees only to shudder at the impact of another kick, the side of the man’s shoe striking him solidly on the jaw. He sprawled face down on the concrete, not quite unconscious. One of the men sat on his lower back holding his left arm out while another held his legs in place.
The parking lights of the Escalade blinked on. The driver suddenly gunned the car and sent it on its course, straight toward us. The bouncer who had been standing beside me elbowed me hard and the two of us quickly backed away. The Escalade’s left steel belted radial tires sped the 6800 pounds of automobile over Chuck’s taped hand, front left wheel and rear left wheel crushing their target a split second apart. The driver braked abruptly. The Thais quickly released Chuck and stood up. And for just three or four seconds all was quiet.
And then it began. Chuck’s scream was of the slowly building, blood-curdling variety; the type which accompanies the greatest amount of pain a man can stand and still stay conscious. He made no effort to rise but he writhed on the ground and his ruined hand moved wildly in the darkness, almost as something separate from the rest of his body, the silver duct tape appearing as a just-landed fish flopping in the night.
The Thais quickly grabbed him under his arms and jerked him to his feet. One of them caught a roll of bandages from the driver and while his friends held Chuck on his feet ignoring his moans and cries he ripped off the tape and began wrapping his hand. Although there would be weeks of pain, badly broken bones and some blood, I wasn’t certain if his hand was now ruined permanently or not - but it was clear he wouldn’t be playing the piano for a very long time.
We climbed back into the Escalade and took the same places as before. True to their boss’s word they headed for Washington Square and the Boots and Saddle to drop me off. I turned to look at Chuck but he was moaning and sobbing with his head down in his lap. I wasn’t sure if I should say something to him or not and if so what. Whatever pity I felt for him was tempered by what he had done to the girl. And the thought that this was most likely not the first time he had done something like this to women. Only the first time he’d been caught. And as the Thais say, som nam na! (“serves you right”). So I said nothing.
We entered the Square through the Sukhumvit entrance, carefully making our way past special tourist busses waiting for the Japanese who had come to see the Mambo ladyboy show. I knew the show was finished because the excited Japanese were crowded about the expertly made up, beautifully gowned and perfectly coifed Thai ladyboys and having their pictures taken with them at 20 baht a pop.
We turned left and passed the Silver Dollar Bar, turned right past the Texas Lone Star Saloon and stopped near the front door of the Boots and Saddle. As I stepped out I turned back to look at the driver. A look which I hoped conveyed a reminder that his boss had stated explicitly that he did not want Chuck dead. What I received in return was one of several varieties of inscrutable Thai smiles, none of which during my years in Thailand had ever told me a damn thing; and then the Escalade sped past some of the other bars in the square, turned a corner and was gone.
I lived in a tiny apartment over the Boots and Saddle and for just a few seconds was convinced that a cold beer before heading up the outside stairs to my room would be the right move. But I kept hearing Chuck’s guttural screams and decided maybe a few beers alone in my room watching a pirated DVD would take my mind off the evening’s events.
As I climbed the dimly lit stairs, avoiding the usual clutter of beer crates and dropped feminine laundry, I ran into Dai (“rabbit,” from kradai), one of the women working in the Boots and Saddle. She was walking down arm in arm with a muscular farang in his 50’s. I had seen him a few times around the square whenever he was on leave from oil rigging in Saudi Arabia. Dai was dressed in T-shirt and short-shorts and flat-soled shoes. Her shirt had a picture of a broken heart and the words “If You Break It, You Buy It.”
I suddenly remembered his name and that he had bought me several beers one night although the next day he had been too drunk to remember. So instead of just nodding a hello I pointed to Dai’s shirt and said: “Did you break it, Hank?”
His laugh was genuine and loud. “Sheeet! Ah cain’t break what she ain’t got.” He laughed some more and as they passed Dai turned to give me a smile. Only this smile was less inscrutable than the driver’s had been. This one said: “When this guy is in town he has lots of money to spend and you would not want in any way to fuck that up for me, would you, Scotty?”
Certain Thai smiles even I had learned to decipher.