Somewhere between the airport and downtown, in the steamy, sinking warren of Bangkok’s broken streets and stinking canals, my taxi driver began complaining. Loudly. Four hundred baht had seemed a fine fare when I slumped into his dented Toyota sedan after midnight, but now he found the thirteen-dollar amount wanting. He thought seven hundred baht a better price for a foreigner to pay. Farang
always paid more. Why wouldn’t I pay more? So he had left the airport expressway, haggling while he sped along a secondary road, scattering stray dogs that had come to forage on heaps of trash beneath the faint street lighting. The Grand Babylon Hotel was nowhere in sight. Around me the night stretched away, black and molten. The moonlit reflection of rice paddies, perhaps. I had no idea where I was or where we were headed. Cambodia or Burma didn’t seem out of the question.
“First we go to Patpong,” he insisted. “Buy beer. Buy Thai lady massage.” He pumped his fist, cackling. “Good lady make you forget bad airplane. Then we go to hotel.”
He pounded the steering wheel and, without slowing the car, turned to judge my reaction. His grin was an uneven stream of silver fillings, his eyes just dark, speed-dilated pools.
“For you,” he said, “six hundred baht. Special price.”
Now we were getting somewhere.
“Four hundred,” I said evenly.
He moaned; the cab accelerated. We vaulted a short, arched bridge over a dank creek. Then we abandoned paved roads for a muddy lane through a slum of lean-to shanties.
“Patpong,” he insisted. “We go Patpong. For you, six hundred baht.”
I quietly unlocked the back doors, checked my pockets. Wallet. Passport. Tickets. Thai phrase book. Swiss Army knife? Inside my suitcase, which was rattling around inside the trunk of the taxi. Not good. I scanned the brooding night for clues of my whereabouts. Less than an hour after landing in Thailand, it looked like I might get rolled in the middle of nowhere.
“Forget Patpong,” I said. “Take me to the Grand Babylon. Sukhumvit Road. I’ll pay you five hundred baht. No more.”
Exhaustion gnawed at the edges of my patience. I hadn’t slept the entire flight. I felt dulled, devoid of ideas, with a screaming headache—the consequence of a recent on-the-job injury—scouring my skull. Hardly the condition required to nail this case. I had less than a week to find my subject—if she was still in Thailand. If she was still alive. I needed to get to the hotel and then check in with my client. It was after midnight local time, so it had to be around lunchtime back in Boston. A lot can happen in the thirty hours it takes to fly from Boston to Chicago to Tokyo to Bangkok. Given its current meltdown, the Thai baht had probably plummeted another 10 percent against the dollar. I owed another day’s compounded interest on my mounting bills. And my subject had more precious time to deepen the mystery of her whereabouts.
The driver clucked and unleashed a stream of Thai invective, no doubt agitated by the kingdom’s economic predicament and the cheap-bastard American customer sprawled across his backseat. He pulled a few g-force turns on rutted tracks, accelerating to scatter mud, trash, and chickens until we finally emerged onto a divided six-lane thoroughfare still crowded with traffic at … who knew what hour it was? I had forgotten to set my watch to local time. But it now had to be after one o’clock in the morning. My disoriented system craved a turkey club sandwich.
“Sukhumvit,” he pronounced.
I rolled down a back window and drank in the stew of internal combustion and infernal temperatures. In the distance, thunder groaned like a hospice patient. Thailand didn’t waste time. As soon as you arrived, it plunged you into its labyrinth of heat and intrigue, scents and secrets, traffic and lies. Hard to believe that just a day ago I had held all the trump cards. I knew the streets. I spoke the language. Best of all, I understood the people. I sensed their motivations, mined their frailties, capitalized on their vanities. I’d had the knack as a reporter; the talent now also served me as a private investigator. I had always enjoyed the chase: the paper trails, the clandestine stakeouts, even the cold-call inquisitions. I had pulled surveillance in darkened cars and smoky bars, nursed cold coffee and warm beer for hours, watched and waited while crooked businessmen and cheating husbands discarded their careers and discounted their marriages. Once, I had done it for the story. And now, since the news business had betrayed me, I did it for the money.
The promise of the first decent check in months had brought me to Bangkok to chase Linda Watts. With any luck the case might also put my new career on the fast track, above the usual PI drudgery of matrimonial investigations and workmen’s-comp claims. Had I known my subject when I was writing for the Ridgefield Beacon,
I might have given Watts’s life the long, heartwarming feature treatment. She had been born in an uncharted village in Laos, a country few Americans could even find on a map. What notoriety Laos had achieved came from the dubious distinction of being the most heavily bombed country in the history of warfare—this despite the fact that it was officially neutral during the conflict in neighboring Vietnam. Linda had fled this carnage not long after the Communist victory in 1975 and spent half a decade in a grim Thai refugee camp. She had come to America with her uncle, her sole surviving relative, in 1980. In the States, hers was the quintessential immigrant success story: a welfare childhood in California, Minnesota, and finally Rhode Island, accented by academic excellence. That performance had earned Linda Watts a full scholarship to Boston College, where she had graduated cum laude in finance. She had then taken a job with BankBoston and begun a steady rise through the ranks—loan officer, assistant vice president—ascending a year ago to the position of vice president in the firm’s small-business-lending area.
But her life had recently gone off-track in perplexing ways, which explained why I was riding through Bangkok’s darkest, outermost limits in a taxi driven by a methamphetamine-addled maniac. In April, just three months earlier, Linda Watts had broken off her engagement. A month later she had gone to Thailand on vacation. Then, in mid-June, her body had been found in a cheap guest house in a gritty part of Bangkok favored by backpackers and budget travelers. The official cause of death: a massive heroin overdose. She was just twenty-eight years old, according to her records, which seemed part of the mystery as well. Her age was just an estimate. No one kept vital statistics in the distant reaches of the Annamite Mountains, where Linda Watts had been delivered into a violent, primeval world.
A Bangkok OD had not been the news anyone expected; it certainly wasn’t what my client wanted to hear. The Cotton Mather Mutual Life Insurance Company stood to lose several hundred thousand dollars settling Watts’s life-insurance policy and the claims-department manager was having none of it. She had told me as much: the timing and circumstances of Linda Watts’s death were highly suspicious. The two-year contestable period on Watts’s original policy—$250,000 face, $500,000 with the double indemnity—had barely passed. Then there was the conflicting association of traits: bankers, especially achievement-oriented immigrant bankers, were sober, cautious people, she argued, not mainlining junkies.
Linda Watts was not dead, my client said flatly.
But where was she, then? Mather Mutual had paid me to find out, and quickly. I had the company’s thin case file as guidance: a few Thai documents, her original life-insurance application form, an old photograph. I could make little sense of the Thai-language papers; I had yet to tire of looking at her picture. Linda Watts was striking, even within the confines of a college-graduation portrait: copper skin and high cheekbones, wide mouth and pillowed lips, startling blue-gray eyes and auburn hair tumbling over her shoulders in thick waves. She looked more Native American—Apache perhaps—than Asian, which only added to her mystery. More than her appearance, however, something about her solemn attitude haunted me. That college photograph should have reflected one of the greatest achievements of her remarkable life, yet she looked as if she had just been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Was she out there, a wan face in a land of smiles, daring me to find her? Knowing I didn’t have much time?
We drove in silence for a few miles, then the taxi driver resumed complaining.
“Please, sir. Five hundred baht, no profit. Why not more? Why not six hundred?”
He shifted to a curbside lane, as if to exit and make another off-road sales pitch.
“Six hundred,” I said wearily. “Now shut up and drive. But to my hotel. No Patpong.”
What was another few dollars to a client like Mather Mutual? I didn’t know it then, but I had lost the first of many rounds with Thailand.
I lay back on the overpadded rear seat and fought the urge to sleep, to surrender to an emptiness beyond dreams. The driver hummed happily as we moved along Sukhumvit Road, a major thoroughfare lined by a bulwark of small office buildings, retail shops, and hotels that stretched into the night for miles. I struggled to formulate a plan of action for the coming day—U.S. embassy, Bangkok medical examiner, Thai immigration—but kept dozing off. The driver finally turned onto a narrow lane between two office blocks, swung around a dry, shattered fountain that had claimed less-alert hacks, and skidded to a stop in front of the Grand Babylon Hotel. I counted out his precious six hundred baht and lurched into the spacious, silent lobby. My artless entrance roused the slumbering night manager at the reception desk, but not the hotel’s overnight security—a uniformed Royal Thai Police patrolman—dozing blissfully on a teakwood bench next to the elevator.
After the manager slowly copied out the details of my passport, a drowsy bellboy appeared from a back room. We rode a cramped elevator that smelled of ammonia to my third-floor room, where he demonstrated the disappointing amenities: harsh lighting, basic-cable television, plastic telephone, tiny minibar. So much for the veracity of the guidebook I’d relied on to select this “business friendly” hotel. With a tip-hungry flourish, he opened a sliding glass door to a narrow balcony. I stood at the threshold, felt the greasy night seep into the cool room. The boy pointed across the traffic circle to a building identical to the Grand Babylon but for a flocking of black mold on its walls and Crayola-colored lingerie fluttering like erotic semaphore signals from scores of balconies.
“Maybe you like lady massage?” the bellhop asked. He grinned, the expectant pimp.
I felt like a long-distance runner who had begun his finishing kick far too soon and now staggered painfully down the last, interminable stretch to the finish line. Waves of fatigue pummeled my body, eroded my thoughts. Mather Mutual, Linda Watts, Thai ladies—they all would have to wait. I gave the boy a crisp, new fifty-baht note and called it a night.
Copyright © 2013 by Christopher R. Cox
An award-winning journalist, CHRISTOPHER R. COX has written on and traveled extensively through Southeast Asia for more than 20 years. His work has appeared in The Boston Herald, Reader’s Digest, Conde Nast Traveler, Audubon, Men’s Journal and ESPN: The Magazine.