October 5, 2004
Pattaya Beach, Thailand
Much later, when the glass had stopped flying and the screams of pain and fear had died to moans and whimpers and the hoarse rattles of death, when the bodies had been taken to the morgue and the injured to the hospitals, when the television cameras had gone and workers had begun to clear the rubble and business along Central Street began to return to a shaken sort of normal, very few people remembered the two men who had been standing on the corner of Soi Cowboy when the bomb went off.
They were definitely Asian, or so said a vigorous, middle-aged woman who owned a pornographic comic book store nearby. Slim, short, narrow eyes, sallow skin, neatly clipped straight black hair, she remembered them clad in identical short-sleeved shirts and light cotton slacks in nondescript colors. A hundred like them sidled into her tiny shop every day to thumb through her merchandise, avoiding eye contact as they made their purchases.
A young man, the proud owner of his own car who specialized in delivering takeout to the pleasure palaces on Soi Cowboy and whose car had been parked twenty feet from the Fun House when the explosion occurred, had been blown backward the entire length of the block. He had landed hard on his back at the feet of the two Asian men, splattered with nine orders of pad thai and the brains of a twenty-year-old American marine on leave from Camp Butler on Okinawa. As he looked up at them, a man’s leg hit the side of the Pattaya Inn just above their heads, and what the delivery man found most odd was that the two men hadn’t looked at the leg, or even at him, instead focusing their attention on the chaos that followed the blast.
An elderly Japanese tourist, seeking relief from his shrew of a wife in Nagasaki in the fleshpots of a resort known for its willingness to provide pretty much anything animal, vegetable, or mineral in the way of entertainment, was sure the two men he had hobbled hurriedly by were Korean, because he’d killed his share in World War II and he ought to know.
At the end of the day the body count had climbed to one hundred and fourteen dead and another two hundred injured. At least half of these were Thai nationals, many of them dancers and prostitutes, sex shop owners, and bartenders. They merited little beyond the standard obligatory protestations of outrage and vows of retaliation from the nation’s capital, quickly spoken and as quickly forgotten.
The other half was another matter. Seventeen American servicemen were dead, twenty-two more injured. Eleven Australians, four New Zealanders, nine Germans, and one Frenchman would never see home again. It was the Japanese tourists who were hit hardest, although it would take a month before all the body parts had been assembled, DNA matches made. The count would stop at thirty-one.
In the following days the world waited for someone to take responsibility for the bomb. After all, that’s why these things happened, one man’s terrorist or another man’s revolutionary set off a bomb on a bus in Jerusalem or on a U.S. destroyer in Aden or outside a federal building in Oklahoma City because he wanted attention, the bright lights of the television camera aimed squarely at his cause. Yasir Arafat would have been just another old man in a galabia spouting anti-Israeli rhetoric without the photogenic properties of the suicide bombers and their residue in Gaza and on the West Bank. So the world waited, for al-Qaida or Hizballah or the IRA or FARC or the Basque Fatherland to step up and declare another victory in the war against first world aggression, Western decadence, and the free-market economy. Or perhaps the hostility was directed against the insidious creep of the Big Mac or the pervasiveness of Steven Seagal movies, either of which a lot of Westerners would have found more logical than the first three as a cause worthy of riot in the streets.
None of these organizations had set the bomb, however, or at least none of them took credit for it. A guy did go into Roy’s Bar in Wallace, Idaho, ten days after the event and started bragging about how he’d just come back from putting a bunch of gooks into body bags. It turned out that he was the founder of White World, which couldn’t exactly be called a white supremacist group as he was the sole member, and the closest he’d ever been to Thailand was the International District bus stop in Seattle on his way to an Aryan Nations meeting in Aurora. The bar patrons hadn’t left a lot for the police to scrape up off the floor anyway. Not that they’d hurried to the scene when they got the call.
But in Pattaya, the comic shop woman and the delivery boy and the Japanese tourist remembered the two men standing so calmly in the middle of so much death and destruction, and wondered.
They would have wondered even more if they’d seen the two men turn and walk away, down Central Street, maintaining an even, unhurried pace, ignoring the wailing sirens and the flashing lights streaking past them toward the steadily mounting rumble of disbelief and horror.
A middle-aged woman, plump and improbably blond, did see them go. She wiped at the trickle of blood on her forehead where a piece of the left taillight from the delivery boy’s car had sliced open her skin, replaced her digital camera in a capacious shoulder bag, and steadied her shaking legs to follow.
The two men walked a little over half a mile and turned down a lane that led to the beach. Here all was peace and order, no storefronts destroyed, no blood pooling in the street, no ambulance doors slamming on the dead and the dying. A causeway led to an outdoor cafe on a platform on pilings over the beach and a table in the shade of a large marquee. They ordered chai tea in North American English, but the waiter, an elderly French expatriate who had fled to Thailand after the fall of Saigon, didn’t think they were American or Canadian. They looked too much at home, unlike the average Western tourist, who was apt to stare around incredulously as if he’d never seen a third-world country before. These men drank their chai tea without first scrutinizing the rim of the glass for germs. If they hadn’t spoken such good English he would have thought they were Korean, the height and broadness of the cheekbones, perhaps. He also thought they might be brothers, but when questioned later he couldn’t say why. Did they look alike? Not particularly. One seemed a little older than the other. It was just a feeling he had. One developed certain instincts after thirty years of serving patrons in a Pattaya bar, where sooner or later all the world came to drink.
“A terrible thing, this bombing,” he told the two men in a placid voice as he set their drinks on the table. “One lives and works one’s whole life expecting these things to happen elsewhere, and then—” He shrugged. “No place is safe nowadays, what with all these terrorists fleeing the American invasion of the Middle East to set their bombs in poor countries like Thailand.”
“A terrible thing,” the older man said without inflection.
The waiter looked up to see a woman hovering in the doorway with a smear of blood on her forehead, and he bustled forward solicitously. Her weight alone was indication enough of her nationality, and when she ordered a Budweiser it was confirmed beyond all reasonable doubt, but her voice was low and pleasant, a relief. He seated her a table away from the two men, or no, the two had been joined by a third. He would have returned to take the third man’s order, but a group of German tourists chose that moment to arrive and push all the tables into one corner together so they wouldn’t have to suffer the horror of sitting separately. They chattered excitedly about the bomb, exclaiming how lucky they’d been to have escaped, and peppered the waiter with questions about who could have done such a thing and was Thailand plagued with terrorists, too, and the waiter took innumerable orders for Oolong-Tea-nis and Monkey Faces. Nobody ordered scotch anymore.
By the time he finished serving the Germans, the three men had been joined by a fourth, and he squared Gallic shoulders and marched back to take their orders. His murmured apology for the wait was waved away with a magnanimous hand by one of the newcomers, a younger man clearly of mixed Eastern and Western blood who carried himself with the assurance of one who had been born free in an Asian nation, which meant either Singapore or Hong Kong before the handover. There was some Norwegian or possibly some German mixed into his genetic pot, too. Something Teutonic, at any rate. He wore very good clothes, a loose-weave jacket over a T-shirt and casual slacks. The huaraches were hand-stitched leather and the bright red handkerchief peeping out of his jacket pocket was raw silk, probably also hand-stitched. The man smiled at him, a charming, slightly crooked smile, reminding the waiter of a photograph he had seen of a young Elvis Presley. He sighed a little.
The fourth man was Chinese, older, and there was nothing to sigh over about him. His skin was burned a dark reddish brown from years in the sun, his narrow eyes made narrower by folds of enveloping wrinkles, his hands calloused and hard, his arms roped with muscle. He looked like a street fighter, an impression underlined by the scar that bisected his left eyebrow and a nose that had been either so thoroughly or so repeatedly broken that its bridge was almost flat against his cheekbones. A puckered scar showed briefly beneath the short sleeve of his shirt. A puncture wound of some kind, a knife perhaps? A bullet, more likely.
The Chinese saw the waiter looking and returned a flat, unblinking stare. There was something reptilian in that stare, without fear or feeling. For all his experience and sangfroid, the waiter had to make a conscious effort not to take a step back. He had to clear his throat before he could summon enough voice to ask them what they wanted. The younger man ordered Tiger Beer. The Chinese ordered green tea. The waiter left, more quickly than he had arrived, and regained his manhood by bullying a British couple into a table in a high-traffic area right next to the bar, and forcing them to order the bamboo martinis instead of the lager they had come in for.
The Singaporean pulled out a cell phone and placed it in the center of the table. The Chinese lit a cigarette from the end of the one he already had going.
The phone rang. The older Korean picked it up.
A pleasant voice speaking fluent English with a thick East European accent said, “Mr. Smith?”
“Your Chinese guest is Mr. Fang. He holds a master’s certificate, has thirty years’ experience at sea, and will be responsible for putting together the crew and acquiring and operating the vessel. We have the highest confidence in his abilities.”
“Yes,” Mr. Smith said.
“The Singaporean is Mr. Noortman. In your initial contact with us, you stressed the need for someone who specialized in cargo.”
“Mr. Noortman is, quite simply, a genius with international maritime shipping. He is also a full partner in Mr. Fang’s concern.”
“Your fee was posted to our account in Geneva this morning. I believe this concludes our transaction. It has been a pleasure doing business with you. If you need help in finding the appropriate personnel for future ventures, please don’t hesitate to contact us.”
“Thank you.” The older Korean disconnected and put the phone in his pocket. “English?” he said, looking at Fang.
Fang inclined his head, as did Noortman.
The older Korean’s smile was noticeably lacking in either friendliness or humor. “My name is Smith.” He indicated the younger Korean. “This is Jones.”
Fang said, “I am told you need a ship.”
“Yes,” Smith said. “A ship of a specific kind.”
Fang suppressed a yawn. “How big?”
Smith slid a piece of paper across the table.
Fang read it and looked less bored. “This is . . . an unusual request.”
Smith said nothing.
Fang passed the slip of paper to Noortman. Noortman’s eyebrows went up and he exchanged a glance with Fang. Fang said, “Did you have a particular port in mind?”
Fang was impressed, and not favorably. “It will be expensive,” he said at last.
“The monies were deposited to your account this morning.”
“You seem to be extraordinarily well funded.”
Smith smiled again. “There is always money available to pursue the cause of righteousness.”
Fang meditated on this for a moment. The money was already in their account. And it was a large sum, enough, he decided, to quash his misgivings. “A crew of fifteen should be adequate.”
“We will not be boarding in the usual fashion. A crew of five, enough to operate the ship, will do. I and my men will provide any additional help that will be required.”
Fang shoved his glass to one side and leaned forward. “I don’t work with amateurs.”
A siren wailed in the distance and set the German table buzzing again with exclamations and murmurs. The plump woman produced a tiny digital camera from her handbag and asked the waiter to take her photograph, and then several more, just to be sure. With an air of infinite patience he complied and then at her request brought her another Budweiser.
“We’re not amateurs,” Jones said, speaking for the first time.
Fang’s lips tightened. “How are we boarding?”
Smith looked at Noortman. “I’m told you’re a genius in international maritime shipping.”
Noortman displayed no false modesty. “Yes.”
“You’ll need to be.” Smith told him why.
Beyond a slight widening of the eyes Noortman did not seem overly intimidated. Fang looked as if he wanted to leave the table, but he thought of the deposit and stayed where he was. “How long will we have to be inside?”
“That depends on how good your colleague really is.”
“And after your cargo has been delivered?” Fang said, hesitating only slightly between the last two words.
“Provision has been made for the crew to leave the scene in a safe and timely fashion.” Smith’s smile was brief and thin. “The plans will of course be ready for you to preview prior to our departure.”
Noortman, if anything, might have been excited by the challenge presented to him. “I will find you a ship that best suits your purposes, Mr. Smith, and determine how and where it stows its cargo. There is also the port. I’ll need to study ship traffic and to monitor cargo movement onshore and off.” He paused. “If all goes well, I should have a candidate and a plan of action for you to approve in two or three months. Possibly less. Possibly more. One must always allow for weather.”
“Three months,” Smith said. His face was so expressionless that it was difficult to tell if he was happy with Noortman’s estimate.
“And,” Noortman said, “it will, as Mr. Fang has told you, be very expensive indeed.”
“But it can be done.”
Noortman smiled widely. A gold tooth flashed from the right side of his mouth, and it was altogether a very different smile than Smith’s. “If you have enough money there is nothing and nowhere I can’t ship any cargo you care to name.”
Smith nodded. “I see. Very well. We are agreed. Mr. Jones and I have an appointment elsewhere.” He rose to his feet, Jones rising with him.
“Did you have a date of departure in mind?” Fang said.
Smith’s stare reproved Fang’s sarcasm. “Proceed with your preparations immediately. I wish to be operational by the fifteenth of January.”
“You’re not giving us a lot of time,” Fang said.
“But we are paying you a great deal of money,” Smith said gently. He saw no need to explain that the longer it took to put an action like this one in motion, the more susceptible it was of discovery by the authorities. Even the most inept government agent was liable to stumble across one of the many threads that would go into making the rope by which Smith meant to hang his target out to dry.
Fang looked at Noortman, whose dark eyes were snapping with excitement. “All right,” Fang said at last. “We’re in.”
“I will need a contact number,” Noortman said.
“We will call you,” Smith said.
Noortman spread his hands. “If there are difficulties—”
“Solve them,” Smith said.
Noortman inclined his head. “As you wish.”
Outside the cafe Smith slammed the cell phone against a cement wall and tossed the resulting pieces into a series of trash cans they passed on their way to the street. They hailed a motorcycle taxi, whose driver chattered enthusiastically about the bombing and offered to drive them right up to the front of the Fun House, or what was left of it. Smith and Jones declined. Aggrieved but resigned at this lack of interest, the driver picked a slow but steady path through the emergency vehicles and the rubble and delivered them to the Pattaya AirCon Bus Station on North Pattaya Road.
The bus to Bangkok took three hours. In Bangkok, they bought round-trip coach tickets on a British Airways flight for London that left at twenty minutes past midnight, from a small travel agent on a side street using credit cards under the names of Smith and Jones. The agent was grateful for the revenue and took no notice of the shiny new cards or the incongruous names.
In a department store large enough to provide anonymity they purchased a small suitcase for each of them with cash, and filled the suitcases with a few garments from a different store and toiletries from a drugstore two blocks away, because people traveling with no luggage aroused suspicion in this untrusting age. They checked in, correctly for an international flight, three hours before departure, attired in neat suits and ties and shoes polished to a high gleam, and suffered through the minor indignities inflicted upon them by the security and customs personnel. They were passed through without incident.
The plane departed the gate precisely on schedule. As they lifted off the end of the runway, Jones turned to Smith and said, “Why?”
“Because we were there,” Smith said. “And because we could.”
Copyright © 2006 by Dana Stabenow. All rights reserved. Dana Stabenow, award-winning author of fourteen Kate Shugak mysteries, three Liam Campbell mysteries, and three science fiction novels, also writes an acclaimed column for Alaska magazine. She lives in Alaska, where she was born and raised. Visit her Web site at www.stabenow.com.