Nick the Spook
I had just had my breakfast at the Old German Beerhouse, the American breakfast with extra bacon and a diet coke on the side, and now I was walking up Soi 11 towards Sukhumvit Road. Although I had just had breakfast it was actually early afternoon because I’d had the company of a sweet little thing the night before and she’d kept me up late. So it was in a sweltering early afternoon heat that I walked.
About midway up the Soi I took a right turn into a “sneak-Soi” that I know of which connects Soi 11 with Soi 7. I was not going anywhere in particular this day but I thought I’d stay in the Sukhumvit area and just hang out. I was on vacation and with most mandatory Bangkok sightseeing already done on previous visits I thought I could afford to waste the day away and just relax and go with the flow.
The sneak-Soi ends in the parking lot of a big hotel that has, and I have this on good authority, a ghost inside of it. I once stayed there when my regular hotel was full and I wanted to bring my love for the night back home with me, but she froze when she saw my hotel and started whining about “pee”. I first thought she needed to use the toilet urgently and then that she meant my hotel smelled of piss until, after some additional confusion, I realised that she meant “phii” – ghost. Yep, my hotel had a scary ghost inside, from a woman who got killed or killed herself in there some time before, and there was no way in hell my lady was going in there. In the end had to pay for a short-time room because of that damned ghost.
Anyway, this day I walked past the haunted hotel and onto Soi 7 and just across the street from me was the Biergarten. I thought about it and came to sort of a spontaneous “why not” conclusion. I don’t normally drink in the daytime but it was a hot day and a few cold ones couldn’t hurt me too badly. So I went across the street and entered the notorious Bangkok landmark that is the Biergarten on Soi 7.
Inside the cavernous main bar area the light was dim. I’d been there before but not much and one thing that’s struck me was that the Biergarten seems brighter in the evening than during the day for some reason. During the day it can only be described as gloomy. At this time it was really quiet too. The ladies who ply their trade here were not yet out in numbers. A few were around and they hung around the smaller bars to the right side as you enter. Some sought contact with me but not aggressively so and I smiled my most non-committal smile and walked towards the main bar. The main bar is to the left as you enter, a big oval bar with three or four barmaids serving mainly beer to the mostly male, mostly above middle age, patrons. Along the sides of the hall there are tables and chairs where you can sit and eat, but few of these seats were occupied so early. The odd German with a copy of Bild Magazine, lunching on a plate of sausages with sauerkraut, other than that the tables were empty.
I sat down on a stool at the bar and ordered a Heineken. Across the bar a few elderly farang sat spread out thin. There were even-spaced gaps between them as if by some mutual agreement they had decided to share the space to maximise the distance from each other. One-two-three-four empty chairs then a farang; one-two-three-four more empty chairs then the next farang, and so on. Only one had a lady companion sitting with him and the rest sat alone, nursing their drinks. The matchmaking for the day’s afternoon delight had clearly not yet begun. Or perhaps a cold beer in solitude was the afternoon delight. Or it was just a slow day.
On my left, only one barstool separating us, sat a man. His face suggested he might be about sixty years old but for some reason I guessed he was at the most fifty but had lived a hard life. Still, he was in better shape than many of the other men in the place, except for me but I was half the age of most men in there. This man was rather small framed but with that tough sinewy body that some people have, those that never gain much weight no matter what they eat or drink. He was more than a foot shorter than me but then I’m pretty tall so I guess he was of medium height. He was comparatively well dressed in grey slacks, black dress shoes and a bright red short-sleeved shirt with the pattern of a Chinese dragon in grey on the back. He didn’t wear his shirt tucked in and it had a few buttons open at the neck, showing a thick necklace in Thai gold. On the left arm he wore a gold watch and on the right hand a gold signet ring. In front of him he had a beer Chang in a Styrofoam cooler and a pack of cigarettes of a brand I had never seen before.
Sort of like sensing I was checking him out he turned towards me, picked a cigarette from his pack and said: “Hey buddy, you got a light?”
“No, sorry, I don’t”, I answered.
“Not a smoker, huh?” His voice was clearly that of a long time smoker’s. And his accent told me he was an American. Where from in America I couldn’t say but an American for sure.
“Nah, not really, sometimes when I drink”, I replied.
“You drink now”, he said with a crooked smile, pointing at my bottle of Heineken.
“I guess. But I hadn’t planned to. I didn’t bring cigarettes so no lighter, sorry”
“Never mind”, he said and turned to the barmaid and asked to buy a lighter. She gave him one and put the bill for it in his check-bin where only one bill rested, that of his beer Chang I assumed.
He lit his cigarette and breathed in the smoke and leaned his head backwards and exhaled the smoke straight up towards the ceiling and sighed with pleasure. I got the feeling he was putting on a show for me and I felt he wished for me to strike up a conversation but I also felt that if I kept quiet he would soon approach me again. About a minute later: “You’ve been to Bangkok much?”
“No, not really. This is my first time and I’ve only been here for two days”, I lied.
“Ah… new meat for the grinder. Got a name?”
“Mac, my name is Mac. Nice to meet you”, I extended my hand.
“Sure thing, buddy”, he shook it.
“And you? What’s your name?”
A brief pause.
“You can call me Nick”
He said it in a way as if to tell me that his name wasn’t Nick at all, but that his real name was off limits. Like he might have just as well said “I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you”. But he was going somewhere with this I was sure. He was in character, not necessarily in his own character but in character. I decided to humour him.
“Nice to meet you Nick. Are you visiting too or do you live here in Bangkok?”
“You can say I live here. You can say that”
“So, you work here then?”
Pause. He looked to the right, beyond me, and then to the left over his shoulder and at the exit and then straight at me and into my eyes and said: “I can’t really talk about what I do”
“Look pal. I think you’re OK, right? I think you’d check out fine. But in my business it pays to know, not to think. Alright?”
“I understand. You know, I’m just a tourist here. I didn’t mean to pry”
He looked at me like he was evaluating me, like he was putting me to the test.
“OK, kid. I see you’re a newbie but you seem all right. I can tell about people. You wanna know what I do?”, he leaned over, then in a low voice he continued: “I’m with the company”
“The agency”, he said, even lower.
“Shhhh, keep it down. Yeah, the CIA, and don’t you tell a livin’ soul”
“I promise. Wow, that’s… wow. What do you do for the… agency?”
“I’m an operator. I’m one of the guys who fly solo. You might call it being a spook. I can’t really go into exactly what I do. You do understand that right?”
“Sure. I mean, wow! That sounds… exiting”
“It can be kid. It sure as hell can be. Sometimes a bit too exciting“
He finished his beer in a few big gulps and then stubbed out his cigarette. He then sat looking down at the bar as if remembering hardships past. I was curious as to where this would lead. This guy was no more a CIA-agent than I’m a mermaid but I had time to kill and I sensed this could be entertaining. He’d want one or both out of two things I figured. The first would be someone to talk to who seemed impressed with him and the second would be someone to fleece out of some money or at least to squeeze a few drinks out of. He looked like he had reached a conclusion and he got up and moved to the stool right next to me and in a hushed voice he continued: “You know, there’s a lot going on right here that we need to be on top of. Even since before 9/11 Bangkok’s been a hotspot for Al Qaeda”
“Really? I’ve never heard of that”
“Sure. Major hotspot. And there are other networks here too”
“Yeah. Other terrorist groups. Insurgents. Drug-lords with private armies. Smuggling rings. Vicious street gangs. Hitmen. You name it”
“Wow. It sounds quite dangerous. I’d better be careful”
“It’s not really a big deal for tourists. You keep out of their business you should be alright. Al Qaeda is the main threat though, if they ever decide to try to pull off a local operation, but they haven’t, so far”
“Why is that?”
“Well, in Bangkok it’s their operators against our operators and no side wants it to be public knowledge. You know, Qaeda needs Thailand as a base. They use it for R&R is what they do. And planning. Big time planning. We’re basically tryin’ to sniff em’ up and take em’ out here before they go operational somewhere else”
“Take them out?”
“Yeah. Either snuff em’ right away or catch em’ and wire em’ up to an electric generator and crank up the juice. Then ask away, get em’ talkin’ and then snuff em’ once they’re done”
“Jesus. Are you serious?”
“As a heart attack. Hey, it’s a hard world kid. What’d ya think they’d do if they caught one of us? It wouldn’t be pretty, I’ll tell ya that”
“And they’re here? In Bangkok?”
“Sure are. Lot’s of em’ too”
“I had no idea”, I gasped.
“Nah, most people don’t. But don’t worry; I can give you the heads up on what you need to know. I can tell you everything about this place. You mind buying me a beer while we chat? We’ll look like buddies catching up instead of two strangers talking. Way better appearance in case someone’s watching”
“Oh… sure I’ll buy the beer. But, do you mean we might be watched?”
“Nah, we’re not watched right now. I’d have known. It’s just operational security. It’s the little things that matter. Two buddies drinking together draw less attention, that’s all”
“I guess. I didn’t think about that”
“It’s part of my training to think about the little things. I don’t even really think about thinking about them. Lemme get some beers for us”
He got the barmaid over and spoke to her and she looked for my approval before adding the content of his check-bin into mine and bringing us two more beers. I figured I could spend a few hundred baht on this guy to get to see where this was going. Nick switched to Heineken in the process and said it looked better to not appear too local by drinking Chang. Right.
“OK, son. This is how it is. Bangkok is pretty much divided between us and them and the main battleground is right here on Sukhumvit. The Arabs have their areas around Soi 3 and the farangs have their areas across the street on Soi 4. Qaeda operators hide out among the Arabs and we agency men blend with the other farangs here.”
“That’s Thai. That’s what the Thais call us white folks”
“So you speak Thai?”
“Yeah, I’m pretty fluent, but I don’t use it much or I might blow my cover”
“What’s that? Your cover?”
Tryin’ to look like one of those farangs who just hang around here for the cheap booze and pussy. Lot’s of those around. I live down Soi 4 myself, in a small apartment I rent. But that’s only as part of my cover. I’ve got a penthouse over by Silom too”
“Silom, that’s pretty upscale right?”
“Yeah. Nice place. 50 Million baht it cost. It’s my base camp. But this right here on Sukhumvit is where I operate the most”
“Because this is where the action is at?”
“Got that right. There’s a lot going o… hang on a minute… shhh”, he said in a low, dramatic voice.
“We might be watched. The guy that just went to the bathroom, I have to check him out”
“But that looked like a German. For sure it was no Arab, right?”
“Hey, I take no chances. I know Qaeda and I’ve been in the game since you were in diapers. Leave this to me. It’s probably nothing, but I’ll go check out to make sure”
With that Nick took off towards the bathroom area, probably just to take a leak, with a conspicuously inconspicuous walk. He walked with slumping shoulders, kept his hands to his sides and glanced this way and that but without turning his head much. He reminded me of a weasel.
If you’ve been to the Biergarten you know the toilets are at the far end of the hall. I had seen the German guy, and if he wasn’t German then at least western, walk towards the toilets and apparently so had Nick. My interpretation of his reaction was that he was trying to put on a show for me, to get me excited and nervous; and for me to be impressed with him. Soon the German came back and got back to his seat; and soon Nick got back too.
“He seems OK, but I’m gonna keep an eye on him”, Nick said, casting a hard glance towards the unwitting German, “Where were we?”
“You had told me that you operate against Al Q…”
“Listen kid. I’ll fill you in. But you gotta keep a low profile, OK?”
“Sure. I’ll keep quiet. Please go ahead”
Nick then launched into a storyline that jumped here and there. I prodded him along with leading questions and comments like “I heard that Burma is pretty messed up, does that play into this somehow?” and “Cambodia, those Khmer Rouge were nasty, they were still there in the jungle until just a few years ago. Man, I’m glad they’re gone” and “You can’t really have a family or a steady woman in your line of work, can you?”
Whenever I made new comments he steered off in another direction with his stories. There were “OP:s” he’d led against Burmese warlords. There were Khmer Rouge assassins on black motorcycles roaming the streets of Phnom Pehn, and sometimes they even came to Bangkok! There were women he had saved and women who had saved him all of whom had then turned into passionate love affairs. Always young Thai women and for some reason they always had some connection to Nana Plaza or Soi Cowboy.
There were safe-houses and secret stashes with millions of dollars in cash and with guns and drugs and jade and false papers. There were secret tunnels connecting various parts of the Sukhumvit area. Informants and agents and thugs of every sort roamed every wide street and every narrow soi. Crooked cops and military officers and sleazy politicians with dubious loyalties were the norm. And in the middle of it all was the lone-wolf CIA-agent Nick. Nick the spook!
After an hour or so his story became even more blurry and got impossible to follow. I stopped listening and just nodded my head sometimes but really I turned my attention elsewhere. I was surprised to find that he got falling down drunk so quickly. But he had been drinking twice as fast as me and his liver had probably seen better days. Still it seemed it was all he could do to keep from sucking the labels off the bottles of beer the way he downed them one after another. As if as long as I was there paying he intended to make sure he poured as many as he possibly could down his throat.
What did I make of Nick and why did I sit with him? Well, first of all I knew almost instantly that he wanted something from me. What? Like I said I think he either wanted someone to take an interest in him and be suitably impressed. Make him feel important. Perhaps ease his loneliness. A newbie to Bangkok would be a perfect admirer of him, the old timer with the exciting life. And to get me to buy his beer of course, that would also have been a goal. Possibly it could have been meant as an introduction to some kind of scam too.
Why I stayed there? I was entertained. That was it. I had nowhere I needed to be and nothing I needed to do. I didn’t mind paying for a few extra beers and I was in a place where sitting and listening to a guy like Nick wasn’t at all embarrassing. And I had no intention of getting to know him better or to make plans with him. I had wandered away after having had breakfast with nothing planned and I stumbled on Nick and the story he told me. That’s one thing that’s great with Thailand, you stumble on things. You never really know what’s around the next corner and when you go into a place you never know who you’ll meet and how long you’ll stay.
After I guess about 3 hours I said farewell to Nick. I told him thanks for all the great info and that it was really important to me and that I’d make sure to be really careful. He slurred out some last advice and asked for a final beer, and I ordered it for him and then settled the checkbin. I then walked out of the Biergarten and chuckled to myself as I turned back towards my hotel and the swimming pool there. “I didn’t get far today”, I thought.
* * *
Two years later I was yet again in Bangkok for the third time since the day I met Nick the spook. I stayed at my regular hotel on Soi 11 and on the day of my arrival I went out for a walk. I was just going to get a bite to eat and then head over to Vasu Travel on the corner of Soi 9 and Sukhumvit Road to change some farang-cash to baht. So I took my old sneak-Soi, went past the haunted hotel, and ended up on Soi 7 just across from the Biergarten. I got that “why not” feeling again. I had been on a twelve hour flight to Thailand so a cold beer and a trip down memory lane would do me good, I thought.
I walked in and it’s the scent that first brings you back, before the sight and sound does. The scent was just exactly the same. I looked over at the bar and I was struck with a powerful feeling of déjà vu when I saw, sitting with his back to me, a man in a red shirt with the pattern of a Chinese dragon in grey on the back. In the very same place he had been sitting two years ago I saw him. I felt like time has stood still in here. I walked over and sat next to him. I had to.
At a distance he had looked exactly the same as he did the last time I saw him but up close I noticed some changes. His shoulders seemed narrower so his shirt appeared oversized; his hair had turned from brown with grey streaks to grey with white streaks. His face had a gaunter look to it. A tooth in the corner of his mouth was missing. And he had no gold watch or thick gold necklace now.
But much was the same. The shirt was the very same one or one just like it. He wore grey slacks and black dress shoes, although the shoes looked worn. He had a beer Chang in front of him and a packet of cigarettes and only the one bill in his check-bin. I had to wonder if it was a freak coincidence that we happened to be in the same place at the same time once again or if he was here all the time, perhaps every day. It had been two years since I had sat foot in this place; it’s not one of my usual hangouts. And when I do come back I find the same guy here I met the last time, sitting in the same place. Was this his life? Was his life all about sitting in the Biergarten and telling made up stories to strangers and hope to get drunk on the cheap? He glanced sideways at me, pulled a cigarette from his pack and said:
“Hey buddy, you got a light?”
“Sure thing”, I said and reached for my lighter and then lit his cigarette for him.
“Thanks pal, got a name?” He obviously didn’t recognize me.
“Mac. My name’s Mac. And you?”
A brief pause.
“You can call me Nick”
Very nice indeed! I wonder if Nick the spook has chatted with any other Sticky readers?!