Slipping on the Dog
(from “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”—BURT BACHARACH)
He didn’t so much as look up. He had a lot of problems, did Grandad. Deafness wasn’t one of them. Ignorance was. He feigned the former to achieve the latter.
He knew I was there, but I admit I’d chosen a bad time to get through to him. It was the morning rush hour in downtown Maprao and he had traffic to examine. As the fishermen traveled to or from their boats, a lot of them stopped off at Jiep’s rice porridge stall across the street. Six thirty was as busy as it would ever get. He sat beside the road in his white undervest and his Fred Flintstone shorts and he tsssked and tutted at the passing vehicles. Like an ex-matador might sit on a farm fence glaring at a bull, pondering how, in his prime he would have demeaned and disfigured the beast, so Grandad gave the evil eye to every passing truck and motorcycle sidecar. There weren’t that many, but every one of them flouted the highway code in one way or another. Grandad knew every regulation. He’d been a traffic policeman for forty years, and then for fourteen more years he’d subscribed to the Royal Thai Police Force Road Users’ Gazette to keep up with amendments. He was a living compendium of petty legislation: probably the most knowledgeable man on the subject in Chumphon province, if not the whole country. We’d often urged him to send in an application to Channel Five’s Genuine Fan, where people who’d spent their entire lives focused on something utterly useless—combative stag beetles, designer handbags, English Premiership football results and the like—had a chance to answer questions on their chosen specialty and win a refrigerator. Grandad Jah would have had a fleet of Toshiba freezers by now.
I glared at him, still hoping for a response. It was like waiting for Cro-Magnon man to evolve. I wondered what use we might have found for him if he’d invested his vast memory on nuclear physics rather than traffic regulations.
In rural Thailand it’s unlikely anyone would know the first thing about the rules of the road, especially not the police. If you were too poor to front up to the Motor Car License division with a generous bottle of whiskey and a wink (in which case your license would be expedited), you’d be asked to fill out a multiple choice quiz whose correct answers were well indented on the pad from the previous twenty applicants. You’d then drive your vehicle to a tree, beneath which the examiner sat. He or she would ask you to park. If you managed to do so without knocking over the tree or hitting the examiner, you had a license. The few people who knew the rules were at a disadvantage down here. The north–south highway, Route 41, passes through Chumphon, and it’s the most dangerous stretch of road in the country. All those righteous smart-alecs from Bangkok who learned when to signal politely and how to adjust their hands at the ten-to-two position on the steering wheel were invariably sideswiped by unlit coconut-carrying pickups coming at them at full speed in the wrong direction. Arrogance is punished in Chumphon.
So, anyway, there I was trying to get Grandad’s attention for a matter I considered to be infinitely more urgent than traffic.
“Grandad,” I called in an irritating screechy voice. “There’s a head on the beach.”
If that didn’t grab him, nothing would. He’d been glaring at a truck with conflicting plates. The one on the back was handwritten on cardboard. The number at the front was different. It was a traffic policeman’s nirvana, but I got a dab of eye contact before his attention returned to the truck.
“A head of what?” he asked quietly.
“Head of fish?”
He always spoke slowly and enunciated like a teacher at a special school. Despite the fact that I was a moderately sane thirty-four-year-old Thai woman, he often talked to me as if I was a mentally challenged youth.
“Head of dog?” he continued. “Head of cabbage?”
“Head of man,” I said, as calmly as I could under the very annoying circumstances. It’s always a bother to decide who to tell when you find a head on the beach. I mean, there is no protocol. And when I say “always” here, I may be exaggerating somewhat because I can’t say I’ve stumbled over too many heads on my morning dog walks. I’d seen body parts in morgues, of course, and accident scenes, but that Wednesday was my first detached head. It upset me that it hadn’t upset me enough.
My inner alarm clock had woken me up at six, as was its habit. It doesn’t have an inner snooze button, so I got up. This was not a habit born out of a desire to watch the sunrise or to frolic gaily along the sand with my doggy friends. It was a habit begat by the fact that there was absolutely nothing to do at night in the mulch pit we’d arrived in a year earlier. “Maprao” means coconut, and that pretty much sums the place up: thick skinned, dull as dirt, and containing nothing of substance. I’m spending too much time here on sidetracks and making a mess of what should be a tense and exciting opening to my story, so I’ll save all the gripes and family intrigues for later.
Back to the beach. We had two dogs. Or perhaps I should say the two dogs had us because there were no walls to keep them in. They arrived at mealtimes from whatever mischief they’d embroiled themselves in, and would deign to sleep at our modest seaside resort—or not. Unfortunately, whenever I opened my cabin door of a morning, there they would be; wagging. Gogo, bitch in every sense of the word, was one of my mother’s roadside rescues. No manners. No gratitude. No intestines. She ate like a horse and defecated like a cow. Our vet, Dr. Somboon, who was fortunately a livestock specialist, told us that Gogo was physically unable to digest. So we gave her a mountain of food every day in the expectation that a small hillock of it might find its way to her muscles. That had not yet happened.
Dog two: Sticky Rice, white, one enormous black eye, had been a temple pup. He was a thief. Not yet seven months of age, but no excuse. Were he a human teenager, he would be under lock and key at a juvenile correctional facility. No shoe was safe in front of the guest rooms. No bottom-shelf instant noodle pack, no drying squid, no garden vegetable. He had them all. And, cunning beast, he left no evidence because he ate everything: leaves, packets, laces. He gave a new definition to the word “consumable.” If you’ve never seen a dog chew through a breeze block and not spit out the crumbs, you’ve not met Sticky.
All right. I’m lost again. So, there we were, on the beach. The wind du jour was just starting to roll the polystyrene blocks like tumbleweeds. Plastic bags were being thrown up by the tide. There was nothing pleasurable about our amble, but my mother, Mair, insisted I walk the dogs twice a day—as if they didn’t have legs and minds of their own. It was November, so you could barely make out any sand under all the garbage. Urban dwellers who have a river passing behind their houses see it as a sort of free, convenient, garbage-disposal system. Toss a plastic bag full of diapers into it and voilà, it’s gone. Nature is truly a wonder. All that disgusting junk gets spewed out of the Lang Suan River estuary and obligingly sent to our bay via the incoming monsoon tides. The dogs love garbage days because there are obviously so many more nutrients in putrid fish and half-drunk cartons of congealed chocolate milk than there are in the extortionately expensive Pedigree Chum that Mair feeds them.
The hounds were forty meters ahead and they’d found something among the debris. They were excited. When Gogo comes across something that confuses her, she whimpers and does a sort of canine native-American war dance. When Sticky comes across the unexpected, he eats it. But it was obviously too big to eat because he was doing the forward-backward tango and barking the hell out of it. As I got closer, I thought a rubber mask had been washed up on the tide. A face stared at me with one of those frightening Hallowe’en expressions. I decided it would be a lot of fun to take it back to the resort and scare the daylights out of my little brother. I even got close enough to reach down to pick it up. And then I realized.
My “sister” and I have it in mind to one day become wealthy by writing screenplays for movies. A couple of months earlier I’d sent off treatments to our hero Clint Eastwood in Carmel, California. He has a movie company called Malpaso Productions. They unequivocally do not accept movie treatments by e-mail. This is to be expected as not only do they not have an e-mail address, they also don’t even have a Web site. How much more secure does a man have to be in his own omnipotence than to spurn the Internet? How can you not love such a man? No harassment from annoying amateurs taking up his valuable time. No groupies. Clint is an unapproachable guy unless you happen to have a former brother who’s an Internet criminal. Sissi handles the Web like a .44 magnum. Through some basic hacking exercises that I’m told any third-grader can do, Sissi found the top-secret e-mail address of Clint’s personal assistant, Liced. I’ve only ever seen that written down, so I have no idea how you’d pronounce it. I’m leaning toward Liced as in “full of lice.” But anyway, Sissi began a line of communication with Liced that initially entailed my sister saying how lucky Liced was to be working with Clint, and Liced telling her to get off her personal e-mail or she’d file a harassment suit. But as often happens in these stalking relationships, animosity turned to friendship. Their relationship was cemented when Sissi sent a kilogram of cat’s whisker herbal capsules when she learned from the lady’s private medical file that she had kidney stones. It was a birthday present. Liced was overwhelmed, and it was through this back passageway that we submitted our treatments and you’re probably wondering what the hell all this has to do with a head on the beach. Right? Well, you’d be perfectly within your rights to be irritated. Here it is.
My first reaction on seeing a decapitated head on the beach should have been “Oh, my God. [Scream optional as there was nobody around to hear it.] How awful,” etc. Whereas, in fact, the opening scene of a movie flashed into my mind.
EXT-COCONUT BEACH—EARLY MORNING
A beautiful Asian girl is jogging along a pristine white sand beach with Tin Tin her golden retriever at her side. The sweat causes her flimsy T-shirt to cling to her pert breasts offering a suggestion of nipples. Not so obvious as to alienate the censor early on, but enough to pull in half a million horny teenage boys once they’ve seen the trailer. She stumbles over a severed head on the sand …
It needed work. I mean she’d have to be blind not to notice a head on a pristine beach. Perhaps I could make Tin Tin a guide dog. But the point was … the head had set off my imagination long before it occurred to me I should have been repulsed by it. I hoped with all my tiny little heart that this was a psychological defense mechanism. That my subconscious was blanking out the horror of my discovery and replacing it with a screenplay. All being well, I’d burst into tears and be inconsolable later.
I studied him. Head. Male. Thirties. Maybe younger without the wave-buffeting and salt water puckering. Two earrings on his left ear. Long hair wrapped around him like seaweed. A “No! For God’s sake, don’t do it” expression on his waxy face. Propped against a shoe. It’s astounding, but our beach is a single-shoe repository. A lot of one-legged people come to Maprao to supplement their shoe supplies. Our head leaned against a pale green platform clog at such an angle as to suggest a possibility—a vague and distant possibility—that the rest of the body was buried at attention beneath it like a Chinese terracotta warrior. Given the number of years it had taken to inter a terracotta warrior, I rather doubted it, but a good investigative journalist didn’t leave anything to chance. I poked it with a stick.
It was a mistake on a number of levels because the head spun around to stare glassily straight into my face. The mouth dropped a fraction, as if to begin a speech, and a crab walked out. My heart took refuge behind my sternum for a brief moment. Sensing my distress, Sticky jumped in to protect me. He grabbed our head by the nose and started to shake it. It was very brave of him, and I’d like to believe he was acting as my bodyguard rather than merely starting breakfast early. But when Grandad Jah accompanied me to the beach twenty minutes later, that was the reason our head was covered with a plastic laundry basket with a rock on top of it. I called it the preservation of evidence. I removed the basket and took photographs of the head from several angles with my cell phone while Grandad sat cross-legged on the beach.
“You think he was attacked by a shark?” I asked.
I often plied Grandad with theories I already knew the answers to. It made him feel superior and got his creative juices flowing. It might seem odd that I should consult a traffic cop on matters related to head severance, but deep down Grandad had been a real policeman in the Western sense. He would probably have been a great detective if only he’d allowed himself to accept the odd bribe every now and then. Corruption was a necessary stepping stone along the pathway to promotion in the Thai police force. How could anybody have faith in an honest policeman? None of his colleagues could trust him. There’s probably some whistle-blower joke I could put in here, but I really have to keep track of the story. All I need to say is that after forty years in the force, he had reached the humble rank of corporal and, without those odd baksheesh bonuses, pretty much survived from the proceeds from our family shop in Chiang Mai. If only he’d dived into the slush I know he could have been somebody. He had a marvelous policeman’s instinct.
“No,” he said.
On the negative side, getting words out of him was like waiting for a whale to give birth.
“Unless the shark was carrying a saber”—he took time out to sigh at my ignorance—“this had nothing to do with sea creatures.”
I admit the neck wound was very neat, but I knew first impressions could be deceptive. I suppose I still had in mind the foreigner a few months earlier who’d put a plastic bag over his head, tied a rope around his neck, and jumped off a bridge. The noose had snared and the body had snapped clean off and continued down into the river. All that remained was a head in a plastic bag at the end of a rope. For weeks the police believed it was a Mafia revenge killing. But the pathologist confirmed it was all due to gravity. Heads are obviously not as well connected as we’d like to believe.
“Why’s that?” I asked.
He gave me the look.
“Think, Jimm, think. First, in spite of what the Thai cinema would have us believe, there aren’t really that many creatures in the sea that rip people apart for the hell of it. Sharks are the most feared deep-sea psychopaths, but they are actually a rather maligned creature. In fact, they would prefer to hoover up plankton rather than go to the trouble of chewing on human gristle. If we don’t bother them, they don’t eat us. Simple as that. There’s more likelihood of being hit on the head by a bullet fired into the air during a celebration than there is of being attacked by a shark. Second, the tissue and vertebrae of the neck is especially tough. A sea creature would have to shake and gnaw to get through it. There is no bruising here. This was a clean single cut performed by a skilled swordsman.”
“So how do you think our friend here wound up on the beach without his body?” I asked.
Grandad shimmied across the sand and, to my amazement, picked up the head and turned it over, like an antique dealer looking for a manufacture date.
“Sharp knife?” he said. “Machete? Sword? Don’t know. I wasn’t a forensic scientist. I directed traffic.”
I switched my cell phone to CALL mode and started to search for a number.
“Who are you calling?” he asked.
He always assumed this lemony expression whenever I mentioned the police.
“Just go and tell Headman Beung,” he said.
It turned out there was a protocol after all, and who better to deal with heads than the head man? I learned later that bodies and parts thereof washed up on the beach was not an unusual phenomenon. There were regulations about it posted on the clubhouse wall at the trawlermen’s recreation facility. A surprising number of fishermen couldn’t swim, and an even higher number imbibed stimulants of various kinds to stay awake through the night. A quart of Red Bull might just convince a man he was a dolphin. On the Gulf here, you’d need to get those images of eight-meter waves washing over the deck of pirate ships out of your mind. Three meters was our perfect storm, and you could roll over that in a rubber inner tube quite safely. We aren’t ever going to see a tidal wave on the east coast. But every now and then a man might step over the side and be lost in the shadows of the squid spotlights.
On the occasion of encountering a dead body on the beach, the discoverer shall inform the village headman. (Regulation 11b)
In our case, this was Pooyai Beung. Pooyai literally translates as “big person.” So I sarcastically call him Bigman, in English, ’cause he’s not. I’ve never had cause to put Beung on a scale, but if I ever did, I doubt he’d weigh much more than a haddock. He’s in his sixties but remarkably upright. He dyes his sticky-up hair light brown, so he reminds me of a paintbrush. He has one wife here at home in Maprao, another lesser wife in Grajom Fy near the crematorium, and a girlfriend in Lang Suan. I doubt he has the stamina to trouble any of them between the sheets, but I don’t suppose that was the point of his assembling his harem. Beung is all about show. He has a closet full of uniforms he wears at the slightest excuse: volunteer highway patrol, village security unit, coastal alert force, scout leader, village headman’s association, and many more. I’d even seen him in camouflaged army fatigues putting manure around his palm trees. I hadn’t spotted him at first. I doubt he’s ever seen military service, but it seems anyone down here can dress up any way they like. On top of his uniform fetish and his odd looks, Bigman Beung is a sleazeball. So, it was with great reluctance that I rode Mair’s shopping bicycle around the bay to his house.
“Aha! My favorite little starlet,” he said. “Just in time. I was starting to feel a bit stiff. How’s your massage skills?”
He was lounging on a wooden recliner on the balcony in front of his house. He was wearing a military cadet jacket and unrelated shorts. He had a can of Leo beer at his elbow. It was seven A.M. His major wife was a few meters away from him, plucking chickens. A woman built like an industrial washing machine. I’d never heard her speak.
“Pooyai Beung, there’s a head on the beach,” I said.
“Just here,” he continued, pulling up one leg of his shorts to reveal a cadaverous thigh. “Real knotted it is. Must of pulled a muscle. Few minutes of massage should loosen it up … if it doesn’t have the opposite effect. Hee hee.”
I doubted very much he had any muscles, and I was starting to wonder whether he had ears. Hadn’t I just told him there was a head on the beach? I tried again.
“Beung, listen. There’s a human head just down from our resort. Washed up on the beach.” I described it.
He smiled and his upper denture dropped like a guillotine. He used his tongue to push it back up.
“Got legs, has it?” he asked.
“This head of yours. Has it got legs?”
“It’s a head. If it had legs, it’d be a body and I would have said, ‘Beung, there’s a body on the beach.’ What we have is a head. Understand?”
I suppose I should have shown more respect to our headman. There were people in our village who treated him with deference—only dared make fun of him behind his back. But there are thirteen villages in Maprao—population five thousand—and Bigman Beung was the grand overlord of village thirteen. At the most, fifty houses. Not exactly the mayor of New York City. And have I mentioned he’s a sleazeball?
“If it’s got no legs,” he said, “it isn’t going anywhere, is it? Won’t be running off, will it? Still be there after the savings cooperative meeting. Not urgent, so no reason to call around to all the co-op members to cancel. Am I right?”
“Not urgent?” I was getting agitated. “It’s somebody’s head. It used to be attached to that somebody’s body. He probably has family concerned about him. He could have been the victim of a murder. The perpetrator’s walking around this very minute looking for victim number two. And all because nobody’s reported a death. Doesn’t that worry you?”
“Nong Jimm,” he said. “Nong”—little sister—inevitably the launch pad for a condescending flight. I knew what was coming.
“Nong, nong Jimm,” he repeated. He sipped at his breakfast beer and smiled with his tongue holding up his teeth to be sure they wouldn’t snap shut again. “What worries me is that such a sexy child as you is so hung up on bad things. Murder and evil-doers. Crime. Rape. The little breasts of teenaged girls being fondled. If you don’t mind me saying so, you’re well away from that world. It’s good for you to be here in our peaceful community so you can see how much love and kindness there is on the planet. We have loving for you, Jimm Juree. Right here.” His hand dropped absently to his crotch. “Cool that hot heart of yours.”
That world he was referring to was the world of crime reporting. I’d been one small kidney failure away from becoming the senior crime reporter at the Chiang Mai Mail. Over a year had passed since my cruel wrenching from the job, so I imagined the old head of crime was already at that big AA meeting in the sky. They’d have given the post to annoying Arkom—great speller, lousy journalist—and it should have been mine. Jimm Juree, Thailand’s second female senior crime reporter. That sounded so right. Respected. Admired. Interviewed in Time Asia: “Thai Woman Achieves Greatness.” And where do I end up? Cook and dishwasher at the Gulf Bay Lovely Resort and Restaurant. Nearest town, Lang Suan: a place you’d only come to if the train broke down.
“So, you aren’t going to inform the police?” I said.
“Of course I will. Of course,” he said. “It’s a terrible thing. Head on the beach. Terrible. After our nine o’clock meeting I’ll hurry down there with a representative of the Coastal Alert Force to verify that it’s actually a head.”
“You think I don’t know what a head looks like?”
“Nong. Calm down. Of course you know what a head looks like. But you are merely stage one of the protocol, an unofficial eyewitness. Regulation fifteen states that all claims have to be substantiated by an incumbent official.”
“So despite the fact it’s only five minutes’ motorcycle drive from your house and you have two hours to kill before your meeting, you’re just going to leave the head sitting there till … what time’s the meeting over?”
“Ooh, could be about eleven.”
I got it. Of course. I was being a bit slow that day. Paperwork. It was November, a month of high tides. By eleven there would be no beach. The head would have been washed away along the bay in the monsoon musical chairs that pushed all the garbage south and brought us a different batch. Every day you got a chance to experience new flotsam. The head would be somebody else’s problem by lunchtime. In my country a period of inactivity can solve almost every problem. I looked at my cell phone.
“Can you confirm that it’s seven fifteen?” I said.
He raised his splendid diver’s watch and said, “Yes.”
“Thank you,” I said and snapped his photo.
“For completing the interview,” I said.
I held up the cell phone for him to see his photograph.
“Recorded every word,” I said. “Sorry. I’d already reported the head to Thai Rat newspaper. They wanted me to go through the official channels to see how the system worked. I’ll just have to tell—”
“Wait!” he said, glaring at my phone as if it was loaded and pointed at his head. “You mean a human head?”
I had to laugh. I heard a cluck. As the chickens were dead, I assumed it had come from Beung’s wife.
“Don’t bother, Beung,” I said. “I’m not recording anymore.”
Beung looked concerned, but I’ve learned from experience that sleazeballs don’t get violent. They slime their way out of trouble.
“My sweet little Nong Jimm,” he said. “How long have we been friends?”
I was about to say “Never,” but he didn’t give me the chance.
“This is clearly a misunderstanding brought about by our different cultures,” he said. “North meets south. Language difficulties. Only to be expected.”
I was certain we’d been speaking central Thai together. He winked at me and reached for his cell-phone-on-a-string hidden among the amulets dangling from his neck. He speed-dialed and I could hear John Denver’s “Take Me Home” as he waited in a queue. Once he was connected, he said just two words,
But then again I suppose M isn’t a word. I rode Mair’s bicycle back along the beach road and smiled to myself. Clever me. I knew there were cell phones with recording functions, but I didn’t have one of those.
* * *
We were having breakfast when the head-collection service began. We hadn’t told Mair about it. It might have meant nothing to her, but she was in a delicate state. A few years earlier she’d started to be overwhelmed by numbers and names and sequences of events. There were times when details of our family fluttered back and forth like candle-charred moths. She’d call me Sissi and start talking about the operation that had turned me from male to female. She’d see our long departed, virtually unknown father in the face of Grandad Jah and begin embarrassing anecdotes we had to nip in the bud. She regularly put on odd shoes and told us it was a fashion statement, and she was convinced those little packets of preservatives they put in food were condiments. She’d eaten so many she’d likely live to 150. The fact that these lapses were rare and that for long periods she would be the normal, caring person we loved, only served to make her condition all the more frustrating. We’d forget that this other person lived inside her. We were sure it wasn’t the actual Mair that had sold our family home in Chiang Mai and relocated us to this embarrassing five-cabin bungalow. Five banana-leaf gazebo tables. One half-empty shop. Dirty beach. Warm, jellyfish-infested water. We’d left real lives, careers, dreams to come with her because we knew she’d perish by herself. I left the newspaper. Brother Arny deserted his ambition to be the bodybuilding god of Thailand. Grandad Jah … well, he didn’t leave anything, but he was just as peeved as the rest of us because peeved was his natural state. Only Sissi had overcome filial responsibility and remained behind.
November blew in annoying winds from the northeast. They kicked up sand and whipped the salt off the surf. So my little brother Arny had made walls of green plastic gauze on three sides of the restaurant gazebo. We lost our view of the ocean and the bay, of course, but the novelty of living on the coast had long since worn off. We did, however, have a splendid view of the car park while we ate.
“We have generals,” said Mair.
I looked up to see a truck parking in front of our shop and two men in military uniforms stepping out. The growl of the surf had blotted out their arrival.
“That’s Bigman Beung, Mair,” I said. “The village headman. And Pot from the bicycle repair shop.”
“But they have medals.”
“Ribbons, Mair. You buy them with the uniform. They’re stitched on. Means nothing.”
“They look so elegant.” She smiled. “I do love a man in uniform. Have I ever told you about my fling with the fighter pilot?”
“Yes,” we all said.
“He had such a peculiarly shaped—”
“YES,” we said again.
“Why are they here, do you suppose?” she asked.
“Beach inspection,” I told her. “Looking for evidence to nail the households that throw their garbage in the river. Utilities bills. Photographs. Identifiable body waste for DNA testing.”
My lie was backed up by the arrival of a dirty cream and brown truck from which stepped a police officer I’d never seen before. He was overweight and wore a toupee so obvious that it could have just been blown onto his head by the gales. It had been two months since my last official dealings with the Pak Nam police, and I knew that during that time a dozen officers would have come and gone. It was like a TV sitcom. You had your regulars who couldn’t leave: Major Mana because he had a thriving Amway direct-sales dealership here; Sergeant Phoom and constables Ma Yai and Ma Lek because they were born and grew up and raised families here and refused to leave; and my own darling Lieutenant Chompu because nobody else wanted him. But all the other actors were on their way to and from elsewhere: transfers, probationary placements, demotions, punishment. Pak Nam was one of those places to which they sent disreputable officers officially “transferred to inactive posts.” Pak Nam was the perfect location in which to be inactive. In fact, there were long periods, months even, when it was unavoidable.
A third vehicle pulled up beside the police truck and filled our car park. It was a huge black SUV with a roll bar garnished with a stack of lights. On its doors was a familiar sticker: the rear view of a heroic man in overalls with a voluptuous but unconscious woman draped in his arms. Whenever I saw that logo, I had an urge to throw up. This was the symbol of the national rescue foundations—in our case those bold men of the SRM, the Southern Rescue Mission Foundation. Supposedly a charitable organization whose duty it was to facilitate the journey of the soul to a better place. First at the scene of accidents, murders, and suicides. There are those of us who see the men of the SRM as bloodsucking, money-grubbing, cold-hearted vultures. Charity is good business in Thailand. The missions often receive large sums of money in donations, find themselves bequeathed entire estates in wills. So being the first at the scene, getting there before any other foundation is, in my mind, a financial rather than a spiritual necessity. I’d been at accidents where two foundations were going at each other with tire irons while the victims bled to death on the road. I’ve seen foundation workers checking a pulse over and over at the scene of a drug overdose. A dead body, you see, is worth more bonus points than delivering victims to a hospital. Heaven forbid they should survive. Yet so vital have these goons become to the industry of death, the police no longer find it necessary to get their hands bloody. The collection and dispatch of bodies is left entirely to the foundations.
The two dark-skinned men who climbed down from the SUV looked like Socrates and Ben, the rats from the movie Willard. They were dark and gristly. They joked with the policeman and nodded at our Coastal Alert Force. I’d told Beung that the head was to be found beneath the leaning palm, so they didn’t ask me to accompany them as they walked down to the sand together. They began picking their way through the garbage, then became a blur as they passed behind our gauze.
“They’re very diligent,” said Mair.
“Pollution, what can I say?” I told her. “Brings people together.”
No more than ten minutes later, the entourage was back at the car park. I’d rather expected them to put the head in a polystyrene box. At the very least they could have carried it in the laundry basket I’d left covering it. I hadn’t in my wildest imagination expected Socrates, the taller of the rats, to be swinging the head like a censer at the end of its long hair. He wore one large yellow rubber glove. I was further astounded to see them produce a camera and take it in turns to pose with the head, beside their truck. I felt sick. They all knew we were sitting not twenty meters away, but they didn’t care. Beung and the policeman drove off. The SRM boys put the head in the back of their truck and washed their hands at our free tap. I turned to Mair. She was sitting there nursing her Titanic smile, the meaningless grin she wore whenever everything around her was sinking beneath the icy water of the Atlantic.
“Poor man,” she said, and I knew she was referring to the head.
I was outraged. I shot to my feet and pushed my little chest ahead of me as I marched across to their big shiny hearse. My brother Arny is built like the Terminator, but he’s gentle and pathetic in the nicest sense. I knew he dreaded the thought of a confrontation, but he was my sibling and I sensed his presence just behind me when I poked the skinny Ben rat in the chest.
“What do you think you’re doing?” I asked.
Skinny looked at me, then at Arny.
“You know what I mean,” I said. “That head.”
He was eyeing me up and down. I hate that. It was one of those times I really needed Arny to be as tough as he looked. I wanted him to say, “You look at my sister like that, and I’ll crush your head like a tin can,” or something equally gratuitous. But Arny was a jumbo jet with the disposition of a pigeon.
“You a relative?” Socrates asked. I presumed he meant of the head.
“No,” I said.
“Well then, I suggest you mind your own business,” he said.
“But I found it.”
“Ain’t you clever, sweetheart.”
“And on his behalf I demand some respect.”
“You know what you can do with your respect?” He smiled. “You can stick it up your boyfriend’s back passage.”
Arny surprised me by taking a step forward, but Ben rat was suddenly holding a flick knife, thumb against his chest, blade forward. I had no idea how he got it in his hand so fast, but he had a look on his face that said he’d used it before. He glared at Arny, who’d frozen to the gravel.
“Come on, Twinkie,” he said. “Let’s see how much skin you lose before you get to me.”
He smiled. All his left side teeth were missing. His lips were sucked into the void when he spoke.
“I’m a reporter for the Chiang Mai Mail,” I said, unable to keep the tremor out of my voice.
“Ooh, that’s scary.” Socrates laughed again, and suddenly he had a knife too. What was it with these people?
“Write without fingers, can you?” he asked.
“You can’t frighten me,” I said, although by then it was quite obvious from the lack of blood in my face that he could. He stepped right up to me and leaned down so my face was bathed in his wormy breath. I was determined not to step back. I glared, half-heartedly.
“Just in case you forget,” he said, “you didn’t find anything on the beach this morning. OK?”
I’ve learned that there are very few situations where smart-arse responses don’t do wonders for the atmosphere. This was one of them.
“OK,” I said.
He looked at Arny, who was as white as Finland.
“OK?” he asked.
“OK,” said Arny in a remarkably high-pitched voice.
Before that morning, menace had always been a concept I’d had trouble defining. Here were two losers, skinny hombres, nerds with switchblades. See them shopping at the market and you’d think yourself lucky you hadn’t been reincarnated as one of them. But even then, as you passed them by, you’d feel the loose connection. Smell the burning wires. There’d be something about them that would make your skin crawl. And you’d look in their eyes, and you knew they weren’t playing. They were the real thing. They’d kill you as soon as let you have the last pumpkin (I’m still with the market analogy here). Menace, that was them. They walked a slow lap around us, prodding with the tips of their knives. I was half expecting them to piss up against our legs. They owned us.
The side window of their SUV shattered into a billion atoms of glass, accompanied by the sound of a clap of thunder. We all looked around to see what had happened. The rats saw him first. Grandad Jah was standing in front of the kitchen with this big black handgun. I have no idea where he’d got it from.
“I’m old,” he shouted, “and I only have two months to live, so I have nothing to lose. Next bullet goes into the potted hibiscus there in front of you as a marker. After that will be the tall ugly freak, followed by one to the head of the short ugly freak. Or maybe I’ll start with Shorty. Nothing wrong with my eyesight or my aim. Just my mind’s a bit out of whack. Know what I mean? It’s the medication.”
It was a monologue worthy of Clint.
He closed one eye, let the handgun swing as if he couldn’t handle the weight, then let fly. The hibiscus was blown to kingdom come. I’d just bought it the weekend before. Little shards of pot rained down on us. The rats didn’t run in panic like the villains do in the movies. They looked at each other, smiled, and walked to their vehicle with a touch of arrogance. They even paused to wipe the shattered glass off the seats before getting in and pulling away. They drove out in slow motion, both of them glaring at Grandad and nodding. Socrates rat pointed two fingers and fired them in Grandad’s direction. I got the feeling we’d just made the very worst kind of enemy.
Copyright © 2012 by Colin Cotterill