Dead Farang Removal Service
“Good grief, looks like he’s dead!” Tom exclaimed.
“Oh, he is,” replied Pichet hardly glancing at the large white mound of a body sprawled flat on its back, arms askew, glass eyes open, on the stairs to a shop on lower Sukhumvit, just after the Soi 7 crossing. “Probably upended a pitcher of Singha at the Biergarten and then the excitement of all those hookers fondling his privates saying how much they “want to go with you, hamsum man” proved a bit much. Farangs, especially fat old ones, should lead a quieter life, staying home in the afternoons. Even we Thais don’t like to be out in the April sun.”
Tom was taken aback by his companion’s contemptuous tone. The guy was dead for crying out loud! But it certainly was plausible what Pichet said. The dead man was short and thick, hardly more than five-foot six, beer belly stretching his Bermudas and tank top. Tom put his age in the mid-fifties. His limbs, matted with blonde hair, were of a chalky untanned color indicating a recent arrival. Large coarse hands suggested a blue-collar existence. The man had probably saved for years for a fling in the LOS thought Tom and, Christ, what a way for it to end!
Flies had started to alight on the dead man’s face which even animated could never have been much to look at – the face of one of life’s bit players on whom the sun never quite shines despite their endless toil. But now, of course, even those beady sightless eyes, bulbous nose spotted with red pimples and thin lips dribbling white spittle, stiffened in death, would be etched for a long time into the memory of the onlookers.
The small murmuring crowd gathered was mostly locals who had come running from stalls nearby. An attractive mini-skirted young Thai woman giggled as she held a cell phone camera above her head snapping away. The few tourists passing by in that torrid height of a summer afternoon gasped at the sight and hurried on. A couple of street kids played further down the stairs seemingly oblivious of the body sprawled a few feet from them.
Tom wiped sweat from his temple with a handkerchief, musing about his fellow Westerner’s life – perhaps not too different from his own till its abrupt end.
Tom had two luckless marriages to his name. Fortunately, both had ended childless, a crafty attorney, worth the last penny of his hefty hourly, defying the legal odds stacked against a divorcing man in the US to rescue Tom’s assets nearly intact – a large chunk of which he was now preparing to invest in Thailand in a business venture he hoped would let him settle here and begin life anew.
It was not that nervous excitement at the prospect of relocating to a strange new horizon was not mixed with wistfulness at leaving Toledo permanently. His printing business downtown, which he planned to sell to one of his three employees, was small but flourishing. Tom prided himself on having weathered the recession almost unscathed owing to a reputation for reliability and quality built over fifteen hard-working years. But work could never make up for an empty home.
It really pained Tom to return each evening to a house with nobody in it – with no signs of life except for a couple of goldfish – because he had been used to the very opposite. He, an older brother and a kid sister had been raised in a little redbrick by a working-class dad and stay-at-home mom. It was a house whose front gate was always swinging gently from people coming and going; whoever stuck their head in was greeted with welcome hollering and, more than likely, pancakes.
Dad himself used to be a quiet sort who liked to settle down to a beer and TV as soon as he got home from his shift. Mom, on the other hand, was the dynamo who lit up the home, her constant chatter punctuated with whoops of laughter. She was tiny but she was here, there and everywhere. Though she had never graduated from high school, Tom thought his mom was the smartest person he knew. The siblings adored her. You could be down and out moping in your room but mom would pick you up in an instant yelling from the bottom of the stairs, “The world’s going to be ending in twenty minutes so come get your salami sandwich now! You do not want to be hungry as you watch your life flash by!”
Once his business took off Tom knew he wanted a wife and kids to make for them a home like the one he had known. He married a woman who seemed perfect. She was smart, cute, with a secure job in accounting, which meant her steady income could offset bad patches in his business and – best of all – loved kids, declaring she wanted at least two of her own. But, it turned out she wanted them, as she put it, “synced” with her career, which, after a quick promotion and more responsibility meant it seemed a firstborn willing to pop out of the womb after at most a month’s gestation, ready to fend for itself. After four years of yearning and frustration Tom asked for a divorce.
His second marriage was a mistake which Tom freely admitted was a result of the desperate loneliness which set in from waking to the sudden and overbearing silence of a newly empty home. Two miserable years ended in a bitter separation. Never a relationship again, thought Tom to himself, settling down to a resolutely single man’s routine – work, yet more work, a fanatical attention to fitness and diet, a 52-inch TV for nightly companionship, and the occasional visit to an escort to prove himself.
Until, that is, his buddy Steve insisted Tom accompany him on a weeklong trip to South-east Asia. Tom who had never been farther than Mexico was reluctant.
“First stop Singapore which will stagger you right from the airport with its orderliness, but which will totally begin to repel you in the two days we need to be there for me to take care of a client,” said Steve. “Then it’s on to Bangkok which won’t take even that long for you to totally despise, but whose very air is the drug we need to snap you back to the land of the living, my unhappy friend.” He only agreed when Steve promised to introduce him to the director of an American business based in Singapore – at least if he could bag an order or two the week wouldn’t be wasted.
“The flies know and the beggars know when a farang’s dead. The flies can pick on him unhassled – nice beery sweat to feast on. For the beggars sadly there’s nothing to be had from a corpse. Ah, I see that shopkeeper’s calling the DFRS. They’re efficient. They’ll be here in minutes and have it all cleaned up.”
“What is the DFRS?”
“Dead Farang – Foreigner actually – Removal Service.”
“What? What the hell are you talking about?”
“Ah, you wouldn’t know! Most foreigners don’t. A few who get around do though. The DFRS is a group formed by the TAT – the Tourism Authority of Thailand – to keep the country’s image clean when foreigners do stupid things. You know how important tourism is for Thailand?”
“Ok, so while we wait for the boys in white and orange to show up – it’s worth it, they’re fun to watch I promise – let me tell you a bit the history. Well, it all started back in ’07 with the murder of two Russian women tourists in Pattaya. The pair was found one day early morning side by side on beach chairs with bullet holes in their heads. Gruesome pictures found their way back to Russia to be plastered all over their media with headlines like “Pattaya: Sun, Sand and Bullets!”, “Russians Targeted!”, and “Beware the Pattaya Mafia!” It was a disaster! Tourist traffic dropped by almost half the next season which, as you might guess, was a huge blow because Pattaya is usually such a favorite playground of Eastern Europeans.”
“I can imagine!”
“And the worst part of it was that the murders had nothing – absolutely nothing – to do with Thais! The two were drug mules who had stolen from a gang operating out of Chechnya which supplies Russian dealers in Pattaya and Africans in Bangkok, who in turn push to tourists. But guess who paid the price for their internecine violence? Why, poor Thais who lost their honest jobs in bars, hotels and restaurants because there was not enough business in the aftermath.”
“So, the TAT decided to form a cell, the DFRS, to intervene rapidly in such situations. See, the Russian deaths were really not the problem! Who cares about a couple of drug-running whores anyway?! It was the pictures and the ensuing media frenzy. If the bodies had been removed quickly and deaths hushed up, no damage would have been done!”
Tom looked at Pichet uncomfortably.
“Hushing up murders? I don’t think that is a good idea at all! Sounds like a slippery slope…”
“No, no!” Pichet interrupted. He clearly felt strongly. “I know where you are headed. That’s all very fine! I don’t mean hush up completely. I mean to not allow distortion – to let the truth out in a proper manner! For example, let’s say there was a DFRS then. They would have been the first to the scene, claimed the corpses before any reporter found his nosy way there, and, then, alerted the girls’ families – who I am sure would have been grateful for their daughters’ criminality kept quiet – and repatriated the bodies. End of story! You see what I mean? No one would have got hurt!”
“Fine!” exclaimed Tom, “Except for one little thing – a cartel, or whatever it was, would have gotten away with murder! It doesn’t matter what kind of women they were…”
“Of course, of course!” Pichet interjected vehemently. “The police wouldn’t be kept out of it altogether. They would come into the picture – eventually!”
He looked up at his much taller American companion with a slightly embarrassed smile as they stood together some way up the sidewalk, still within sight of the crowd, “Thai police are not all honest. Their pay is so poor they can’t always be relied on to do the right thing. Sometimes policemen themselves sell sensational pictures of a crime scene. Sometimes they will distort the evidence, even plant some, if they think there is money to be made. It’s really terrible! I am sure your boys in brown – or is it blue – in the US are more trustworthy. But Thais are indeed proud of the DFRS who are quite different from the police. They are a well-trained group dedicated to protecting the country’s image.”
“Ah, here they come!” cried Pichet looking past Tom. “You will see with your own eyes now how good they are!”
A white Toyota SUV with darkened windows had just come to a screeching stop with one wheel nearly riding the kerb. Three men in white lab coats and oddly vivid orange masks covering their mouth and nose poured out. Two went up to the body and knelt over it while the third pushed his way into the crowd. This third man first accosted the mini-skirted woman who, looking scared, handed him her cell phone, which the man then proceeded to expertly manipulate, presumably deleting the pictures she had taken. Done, he barked words at the crowd which resulted in two more phones being proffered for identical treatment.
“Nice! He sanitized the crowd in no time flat!” Pichet exclaimed excitedly. “You really don’t want those first pictures getting out. Let’s see what they do next!”
The third man, obviously the leader, next bounded up the stairs to the body his companions were examining. They looked up at him and said something upon which he fished a walkie talkie from his coat pocket. No sooner was he done speaking than the door to the SUV opened for a tall, willowy and impossibly pretty young woman in torn shorts and a sheer halter top draped over breasts unusually plump for a Thai to step out clutching a half-empty whisky bottle in one hand and a lady’s purse in the other. Teetering for a moment on the kerb on her stilettoed long legs blinking into the sunlight, she looked like a dissolute heiress after a long night. One expected a handsome male companion to stumble out bleary-eyed next, but none did.
The woman sashayed up the stairs for a scene to be quickly set. The bottle was placed in the dead man’s hand as she knelt over him wrapping her arms around the man’s chest. Grimacing with distaste at first, as soon as the team leader pulled out a camera, her mascara-laden eyes drooped and red lips pouted expertly into a pose sorrowful as well as disturbingly sensual. Several snaps later the first two men ran back to the SUV, brought back a stretcher, loaded the corpse and then they were all gone in a dusty roar, but not before the leader shouted at the crowd, which promptly dissipated. It was hard to believe watching the normal routine of a busy sidewalk spring back that not moments ago lay there a corpse surrounded by a crowd.
“Did you see that?” Pichet was almost whooping with pride. “Are they brilliant or what?!”
Tom looked utterly bewildered.
“Don’t you understand?” explained Pichet, “Now those pictures, already on their way to the media, tell a benign story. An elderly farang drank himself to death, though tended to the very end by his loving, and lovely, Thai companion. This accounting will make everyone happy – except maybe for the man’s wife if he had one. And, most importantly, the tourism industry takes no hit.”
“In fact,” Pichet continued with a chortle and a light punch on Tom’s shoulder, “that gorgeous model is going to be noticed a lot more than the sorry dead guy, which won’t hurt the sex tourist traffic one bit.”
Tom’s head was spinning. This was all a bit much. He certainly was not naïve to the ways of the Orient. After the first trip with Steve he had been back to Thailand on his own a few times, once even for a month, a trip extended from the initially planned one week after he met Noi, a saleswoman at a Robinson department store.
Noi was petite, copper-toned, with jet-black hair curling around the slightly pugnacious jaw of the north-east of the country, and a button-like nose perched almost incongruently above lush lips painted permanently into a red pout. Steve could not believe his luck when his awkward advances as she folded his purchase of Wranglers were met with an impish grin and questions about where he was from and what he was doing in Thailand. Tom asked her out and so ensued a whirlwind week of eating out each night after she was done with work, club-hopping and late-night explorations of Bangkok, Noi having a cab drop them off at some distant corner of the city, whence they would walk hand-in-hand, she delightedly commentating the route back to his hotel. Soon, Tom rented an apartment and Noi moved in with him.
Tom learned a lot of Thai ways from Noi. His ability to speak the language improved too from phrases gleaned from the internet to where he could hold his own with waiters, shopkeepers and even, to his delight, in one fairly complicated match-up with a rather officious Immigration bureaucrat. A reason was that Noi didn’t much care for English, preferring to jabber away in her own language, often leaving Tom clicking desperately at an electronic dictionary in an effort to keep up.
Tom embraced the differences – some as large as a stop sign on a narrow road while others more subtle – from the ways of the world in which he had been reared. He understood now that they were what made Thailand an annual pilgrimage for millions of Westerners, many like him finally packing up to settle permanently in the land of smiles. They were what threw into stark relief lives in allegedly developed countries spent entirely inside a hamster-wheel – lives in a pain so constant that it was felt only in relief.
Tom realized, too, from evenings with his buddies at the Tappy Corner, his favorite Toledo watering hole, that telling stories of Thailand to those hadn’t been there was as pointless as trying to describe a safari in the Masai Mara to an untraveled Eskimo. Tom himself had spent hours on the internet before his first trip with Steve. In fact, nothing he saw then – possibilities of cheap and plentiful sex included – seemed particularly enamoring. Only after a couple of days imbibing the air of Bangkok – a drug Steve had warned – did Tom start to feel disoriented. It seemed his very DNA had been usurped and reprogrammed by this siren of a country. The printing shop and making his first million, giant totem poles around which his ambitions danced, faded to matchsticks. There was much more to life, so much more. His eyes opened blinking as if from a long sleep.
A week at Noi’s village upcountry was particularly cathartic. Tom thought he had alighted on another planet. Everyone wanted a piece of him. Of all the meals he had while there, not more than probably a couple were at Noi’s home. The very first afternoon, even as Noi was playing translator between Tom and her parents, one neighbor after another came in smiling and wai-ing, in that gentle prayer-like manner Thais have, to ask the couple over. Noi accepted all the invitations, yet told Tom that they wouldn’t keep two – one where a son of the family had propositioned her once and another at a house she believed inhabited by the spirit of a child who had been hit by a car.
“The restless unfulfilled spirit of a child,” Noi explained, “may resent attention being paid to a strange-looking man with a big nose.”
“In fact,” she added, playfully pinching Tom’s nose, “I myself might resent the attention the man with the big nose gets, especially from some of my flirtatious young village sisters.”
Tom knew better than to question a Thai’s, especially a woman’s, apprehension of the ethereal. “Still, you accepted all of the invitations,” Tom protested. “So, how do we back out now? We can’t just stand them up.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” Noi replied laughing, “Leave it to me. I’ll find a face-saving way out.”
Tom had no doubt she would. He had already learned how important harmony is for Thais in social interaction. Thais think it inconsiderate to not make the effort to find a subtle route to one’s way, one that avoids even a semblance of confrontation.
And, as they mingled, Tom learned that in Thailand personal space is for sharing, not guarding. He was asked his age, what he did for a living, if he had been married, and on and on, with genuine curiosity. At the same time, overwhelming was the warmth he met every time he stepped out into the village. There was nothing fake in the smiles of those he came across, their shy attempts to communicate, the freshly prepared food they would press on him, or the playful way some of the younger ones would grab him by the arm and try to lead him to their home.
And it was in the village that he met Pichet, one of a group of young men yakking over bottles of Leo beer set in a bucket of ice atop a plastic table behind the village store which Tom frequented in order to replenish his own stock of beverages. They were all friendly and even though Pichet was the only one with more than a bit of English – in fact, he spoke the language wonderfully well – the locals seemed delighted with Western company. Conversation flowed almost as freely as the beer, broken Thai stumbling hand in hand with broken English, Pichet stepping in now and then as someone at a loss for words looked to him for help.
“I don’t trust him one bit and recommend you don’t either,” declared Noi when she heard of Tom’s growing friendship with Pichet.
“What’s the problem?” asked Tom. “Tell me what you know of him.”
“That is the problem that we – not just me, but no one else in the village – knows much about him.”
Tom inwardly rolled his eyes. “So you don’t trust him because he chooses not to spill his guts to the village gossips?”
“Tom! Please listen to me. I know you are smart and successful. But Thais know Thais better than farangs and I don’t want you in any kind of trouble!”
Noi’s anger turned to resignation as she saw her boyfriend’s lips pursing stubbornly. Sighing she continued.
“Ok, then, let me say what we do know of Pichet and why the village is wary of him. True, a lot of it is whispered but that does not mean it didn’t happen.”
“He had a very rough childhood. His mother died young leaving him to an alcoholic and abusive father. As he grew older, he began to retaliate, one day beating his dad bloody and senseless. He disappeared on the bus to Bangkok before the provincial police could catch him. We thought he was gone for good.”
“Word came, though, months after that he had become the leader of a gang of drug dealers targeting tourists in Bangkok. We were not surprised. He had always been a quick-witted boy – his teachers at the village school used to say that he was a genius in math and languages, a bright future his if only he were motivated.”
“Then, a year or two later, we heard that most of his gang had been killed, Pichet barely escaping with his life, in the anti-drug crusade of the new Thaksin government. He was given a long jail sentence but, apparently, managed to win freedom early by betraying to the police members of his gang still at large.”
“As Bangkok was too dangerous, he took off next to some northern province. We don’t know what he was up to, but surely he made good use of those silky verbal skills which so impresses foreigners such as you, my darling. He apparently managed to stay out of trouble though. Then, soon after the Thaksin fell to the coup, he returned to the village. His father had died by then and he moved into their house, living there alone since. He seems to have no discernible means of employment, though he does take off every now and then to Bangkok, sometimes for weeks on end, never seeming short of folding money.”
“Even his drinking buddies, so appreciative of his generosity, don’t know where his cash flow is from. But, they do know better than to ask. In fact, word is that when one of them got a bit nosy, Pichet blew a gasket and gave the guy a hiding with a piece of pipe. When he’s nice, which fortunately is much of the time, he’s the most pleasant company one could ask for they say. But it doesn’t take a whole lot for the mean streak, always there, to rear up. So, darling, it’s up to you if you want to hang out with him but I would advise against it,” concluded Noi, checking herself in the mirror one last time before they left for dinner at a neighbor’s.
Whatever she thought of Pichet, it was the latter who had been good enough to investigate following a frantic call from Tom asking why Noi had seemingly broken off their relationship suddenly, neither returning calls nor replying to email, not a month after Tom’s return to the States. A Turkish-German – a distant long-forgotten ex who had come up briefly when Tom and Noi were in the phase of pouring their hearts out to one another – had apparently returned to reclaim the only woman he had ever loved with a proposal of marriage and a promise of life together in Munich. Noi had accepted and was in the process of wrapping up her life in Thailand. She had, Pichet learned from a mutual acquaintance, changed her number, deleted her email accounts, and was taking German lessons. Noi had one thought nowadays it seems and one only – of a grand new start.
Through days of distraught, when he was repeatedly assailed by guilt that he had not dared to make a commitment to Noi whilst he was her man, had the chance and, maybe, was even silently even eagerly expected to do so, Tom rationalized that he had only been fair in not selfishly seizing Noi simply to repair his loneliness. Still, no matter how he tried to steel his mind, the doubts would pop up like a hideous jack-in-the-box, especially when he was alone. One moment he was mentally moving forward with a Chaplin-like spring into the air, heels clicking, next he was curled foetally in despair. Sleep came only after knocking himself out with alcohol. And the toll begin to show in the frequent dazed reveries out of which he could only be startled, dark bags growing under his eyes, clothes which once draped a honed physique hanging loose, and quizzical looks from those he met.
It was halfway through the second session with the therapist whose card Roscoe, the big bearded bartender at the Tappy Corner, had eased into his hand one night as he sat staring into his fifth whisky and soda, that Tom had his life-altering epiphany: he must pack up and move to Thailand. Only in the land from which the woman came who broke his heart would he find the means to mend it. Tom jumped off the couch, thanked the startled psychologist, and strode purposefully out of the clinic into the sunlight.
The more Tom thought about it the more sense it made. He knew that such was his usual mindset of caution, bordering on paranoia, while in the US, that he would never have fallen so easily, even for a woman as attractive as Noi. In Thailand it was that the ambience had disarmed him for a woman to break his guard and so completely steal his affections. Surely, then, it was Thailand which would provide the cure, maybe even in the form of another woman to heal the ache.
The darkness lifted as Tom’s can-do Yankee pragmatism quickly reasserted itself – here then was a clearly-defined problem to solve. He researched the internet for job and business opportunities in Bangkok, hired a Thai exchange student to resume study of the language, and consulted with a financial advisor the income he might expect from investing the proceeds from selling his home and business. When it turned out this amount might actually be enough to support the life he envisaged living in Bangkok, the turnaround in Tom’s spirits was complete. He was whole again and raring to go.
However, Tom knew himself well enough to realize that without something purposeful to occupy his waking hours he would soon be climbing the walls, no matter where. Given that income wasn’t crucial, he tossed various options around in his mind, from teaching English to freelancing as a tax consultant for American expats. Even volunteer work was a possibility if he found a niche in which to apply his skills.
It was around this time that he got a note from Pichet about a paper importing business in Bangkok up for sale by its elderly Italian owner who wanted to move back to Milan. Tom had insistently kept in touch with Pichet even after the news about Noi for really no good reason other than a hope deep inside – one he was loathe to admit even to himself – that one morning he would receive an email from Pichet saying that Noi had broken up with the German and was out of her mind in despair (of course, in that case he privately resolved to fly off instantly to be at her side).
The sale of the paper business was to be brokered by a woman also called Noi. It was a common nickname and Thais prefer nicknames once the formalities of an introduction are done with. Khun Noi, as Tom addressed her in their emails back and forth, using the Thai honorific for either gender, seemed very competent and her English as good as Pichet’s. The Tardelli Paper Company website was informative too, indicating a thriving business with a clientele base spanning Thailand and Malaysia.
Enquiries Tom sent to the email address for the company, hoping to reach Mr. Tardelli directly, however, brought only terse replies referring to K. Noi as the sole contact point for interested buyers. Phone calls, too, reached only sales persons and not management. K. Noi told him that Paulo Tardelli had lost all interest in the business and obsessed with leaving as soon as possible to be reunited with his only son. Through his own contacts though Tom was able to find an American pulp and paper technologist, Sue Draper, employed in a printing business located just north of Bangkok, who was familiar with the man and his company.
“They’re good,” said Sue. “We’ve ordered tons of stuff from them over the years. Totally reliable people! Even through all the red-yellow political troubles and the airport shutdown they weren’t a day late with a delivery. We haven’t seen old Paulo in months though. He used to be up here at least once a week really early – 7ish – after a round of golf at Pinehurst. Great guy, always with a twinkle in his eye and a way with the ladies!”
“I am dee last of dee great Italian playboys, he would say,” she laughed mimicking an Italian accent, “and take the hand of one of the gals in reception and twirl her around. They would go nuts when Paulo showed up. Too bad he’s leaving – we’ll miss the feisty old codger – but it adds up. He was heartbroken when Tui, his wife, died last year. He tried hard not to show it but it did knock the wind out of him. We were kind of hoping Paulo would find someone new. Laura, our Filipina secretary, even baked a cake for him with “Marry me!” spelled on top which had Paulo all choked up. Come to think of it, that day was the last we saw him. So, he’s going back to the old country to be with Antoni? They never were close father and son from what we heard, but family’s family I guess.”
“Well, in any case, congratulations! You’re getting a lovely business which should be easy to run for a man who understands paper. We’ll look forward to welcoming you up here. Don’t mind, though, if the staff are a bit cold at first. They all adored Paulo but you’ll end up doing just fine.”
As Tom regained his composure somewhat, a thought struck him of a piece of news which had been in the headlines for several days earlier in the year on the expat sites he followed.
“Okay, so if the DFRS are that good what happened then in Chiang Mai at the hotel where six tourists died in February?” he asked Pichet. “That was all over the media. How come they couldn’t hide those?”
Pichet chuckled. “You have been keeping up with events here haven’t you? And you know what? That was the DFRS!”
“What do you mean?”
“Let’s cross the street here. Noi’s office is down Soi 12. We should be there in minutes.”
“A rogue DFRS team!” Pichet continued. “They were in cahoots with a crooked maid at the Downtown Inn who poisoned complimentary water bottles of guests she thought were carrying plenty of cash. The team would move in instantly after a guest died to cart off the body and valuables. But, they were stupid! One-off deaths at a hotel here and another there, especially weeks apart, would have stayed below the media radar, but the greedy fools made a pattern of it at one place, killing one after another, which, of course, raised the mother of all stinks.”
“I had no idea!” Tom was stunned. “Papers had it that it was some kind of pesticide used to spray the rooms which turned out deadly.”
“They didn’t know a damn thing!” Pichet snorted. “The media simply parroted the line they were fed. The Downtown Inn took the fall but there really was no other way without blowing the cover off the DFRS. In any case, the matter’s all been taken care of now by DFRS Internal Affairs. And the Inn’s been compensated to the extent they can afford to tear the place down and build anew.”
“Well, you do seem to know a lot!”
“I am Thai!” exclaimed Pichet. “Besides, I know people who used to work for the DFRS.”
Tom looked askance at his companion, Noi’s words ringing in his mind. The fellow certainly had an unsavory side to him which had hardly been in evidence when they were drinking buddies in the village. Tom thought he would be glad to get the deal done and on with running the business. Not that he wasn’t grateful to Pichet for putting him on to it, but decided he did not care much anymore for the man’s company.
The thought of Noi caused a sharp twinge. Tom suddenly wished she were walking with him on this the first day of his new life. How wonderful it would be if she were by his side as he signed papers handing him claim to a tiny part of the fabric of the land which was her home and, now, to be his. Tom quickly shrugged his shoulders as if to physically toss off such melancholic thoughts. He had avoided asking Pichet about Noi, but Pichet had volunteered that he had heard that a fortuneteller had advised Noi to fly on the night of the coming new moon. The temptation to drop by Noi’s Robinson had been even harder to resist after that, but resist Tom had – after all she had done everything to make him happy when they were together, so now it was his turn, even if it meant letting go.
Due diligence had been remarkably painless even from halfway around the globe, Noi speedily faxing or emailing copies of every document Tom asked for. Some of the sales data he even managed to crosscheck with Sue. There being no red flags, within weeks he felt assured that Tardelli Paper was every bit the business it was claimed to be, the price quoted fair as well.
Tom had checked into the Landmark on Sukhumvit after flying in late the night before to the new Suvarnabhumi airport at the eastern end of Bangkok. Time difference having turned night into day, sleep had been fitful, but a Provigil after breakfast soon put the zip back into him. He called Noi. She sounded delighted that he had arrived.
“Are you rested? Jet lag can be such a drag I know. If you are not up for business right away…”
“Thanks, I feel fine actually! In fact, I was hoping we could get moving today if it’s convenient for you at all.”
“Of course it is! The papers are ready. If you come to my office, you can look them over, sign and make a down payment. Then we’ll fax them to Mr. Tardelli for his signature.”
“Oh, Tardelli’s not here? I was hoping to meet him.”
“No, Paulo left for Italy last month. But he’s easy to get a hold of and as eager to close the deal as you and I are,” said Noi laughing. “So, don’t worry. His not being in Bangkok is not going to affect the deal.”
“Sounds good! How do I find your office and when do you want me to go?”
“Post-lunch is best. The time difference will mean it’s morning in Italy and we might even be able to get the return fax from Paulo and pretty much wrap it all up. Pichet’s in town so I’ll ask him to pick you up at 14:00 and bring you over. Did you say you were at the Landmark?”
“Yes, in Room 1617.”
“I’ll tell Pichet then. You’re actually just a short walk from my office. Well, it’ll be a pleasure to finally meet up with you in person, though I do feel I know you rather well already!” Noi’s voice was low, husky and warm. Tom idly wandered if she looked anything like she sounded. Immediately, he scolded himself for taking his eyes off the ball. Time enough for that afterwards, he thought.
“Thank you, I look forward to meeting you too!”
“Oh, and don’t forget your check book to make the down payment. Paulo won’t sign anything until he sees a fax of the check.”
“It’ll be with me. See you in a few hours.”
They were a couple of hundred meters down Soi 12 when Pichet turned right into what seemed a dead-end lane.
“Noi’s over there,” he said pointing to a single-storied white building with a red-tiled roof, barely visible behind a high wall and a cluster of trees emerging from an evidently large lawn.
Tom was parched from the trek in the sun. “Do you mind if I grab a Coke first from that 7-11?” he asked pointing across the soi.
“Don’t bother. Save your thirst for Noi. We’ll be with her in moments. She’ll have beverages ready to drink in air-conditioned comfort. I could do with a beer myself.”
Pichet pushed the garden gate open to reveal a house dwarfed by a sprawling car porch separated by a hedge shaped like a single-file procession of elephants from an equally large lawn populated with flowering plants growing in the shade of leafy trees. Several vehicles, almost all luxury or sports, and even a white SUV like the one they had seen earlier – to ferry the Burmese maids on grocery runs thought Tom wryly – stood at the ready. He wondered if Noi in person would exude the hauteur so many hi-so Thai women do; she had seemed down-to-earth and personable, though, especially on the phone.
Noi herself opened the front door before Pichet could reach for the bell. Tom fell slack-jawed at the tall beauty who stood before him, a glowing apparition in the quietly-lit foyer. Almost matching his six-feet, Noi’s porcelain white skin, high cheek bones and long angular eyes bespoke a Chinese ancestry. Her lightly-painted lips, smiling as she wai-ed and welcomed Tom, were thin, more Western than Thai. Noi was dressed in casual business, a cotton cobalt-blue jacket over a silken blouse, ending short of a knee-length pink skirt. As she turned to lead them in, her thin waist, broad shoulders and strong legs swaying fluidly with an athlete’s grace, Tom thought she belonged to a Bond movie – the gal who maneuvers her Porsche with one hand, fishing for a gun in her handbag with the other, 007 by her side, as she races down a coastal highway just ahead of the bad guys.
The house was larger than it seemed from outside, the trio passing a few closed doors as they made their way down a hall lined with flower vases and paintings in ornate frames. Turning into what was a small sparsely-furnished office, Noi invited Tom to seat himself across from her, a dark-wood glass-topped desk with only an open Samsung ultrabook on it, between them.
“Welcome! To Thailand, to a new business, a new life!” Noi’s smile was a bit crooked, almost mischievous, her eyes twinkling as she held Tom’s gaze in her own. Tom was a more than a bit unnerved by Noi’s looks and the directness of her manner. Thai women tended to be more demure in his experience.
“Thank you! It’s good to be here. And I can’t say how grateful I am to you for helping put this deal together.”
“My pleasure. And Paulo will be pleased no end that his business is going to someone who’ll put his heart into it.”
“He certainly hired the right broker to find one,” grinned Tom.
Noi suddenly looked serious. “I was actually supposed to be his business partner. After his wife died he wanted help running the business – he especially didn’t want to be travelling as much to meet clients. I know you are thinking if I am a paper person myself. No, I am not. Let me tell you a bit about myself.”
“First, though, I hope you don’t mind my saying so,” she continued in her warm smoky voice, “but you seem different. Most Western guys I meet through work are so intense. You seem a lot more mellow and easy to talk to.”
“And, I don’t want to embarrass you but it doesn’t hurt too that you could pass for Kevin Costner’s twin, which I am sure women tell you all the time,” Noi paused, leaning dramatically on the chair’s armrest, chin cupped in one hand, to contemplate Tom with a hint of smile. Heart beating loudly, Tom felt the heat rise to his face. He became acutely aware that he was alone in a room – Pichet seemed to have disappeared – with a strikingly attractive woman who was, possibly, flirting with him. Swallowing, Tom consciously looked away, checking himself one more time to keep his eyes on the ball.
Noi leaned forward, her demeanor suddenly becoming serious once again. Tom could not help being struck by the expressiveness of her face – one moment playful, the next as concentrated as that of a mother attending a child. She had definitely missed a calling in the movies he thought.
“Ok, back to me. I was fortunate – or, maybe, not – to be born into a rather wealthy family. My father emigrated from Hunan to Thailand soon after the Second World War as a young man with not much more than the clothes on his back and a pocketful of dreams. Driven by a Chinese flair for business and appetite for toil, he transformed a bicycle repair shop into a factory making tuk-tuks. This grew to machining parts for the Japanese car manufacturers who started setting up plants in Thailand in the sixties. Now, my father is one of the richest men in the country with myriad companies to his name. They are run mostly by my two older brothers, my father preferring to spend time visiting temples with my mother and dabbling in politics, now that he has the lost the passion for wealth of his youth.”
“Being his youngest child, almost twenty years younger than my brothers, you can imagine how special I was to my father,” continued Noi with a wry smile. “I was educated in London and Zurich, always set up in my own flat with a nice car and servants. Truth to tell I would have traded all those trappings for a bit of freedom and a boyfriend, but that was not to be.”
“I can imagine how protective a man such as your father must have been of his only daughter – probably had your life mapped all the way to some blue-blooded boy he’d picked to be your groom – if you don’t mind my saying so,” Tom sympathized.
A look of annoyance flashed across Noi’s face. Ah, the hi-so hauteur thought Tom, but the moment passed quickly. Noi laughed, shrugged her shoulders and threw up her hands.
“I was born this way – with a mind of my own. I wanted to be a tycoon, not a tycoon’s wife. So, sadly without my father’s blessings, I went into business on my own. Well, to cut a long story short – I know you are eager to get to the papers – after a few failures at first, I began to make money. Unfortunately, I did not inherit my father’s singlemindedness; I am easily bored. Once a company took off I would sell it and look for another. In fact, I am always looking for a new toy,” she said with a happy laugh, showing off lines of perfect sparkling teeth.
“However, I do have one constant of which I never tire – golf! That is how I met Paulo. He, his wife and I soon became good friends. When Tui sadly passed away, Paulo made me an offer of a 50-50 partnership, but even before I could make up my mind he changed his, deciding to cash in and move back to Italy, likely at the prodding of his son.”
“So, that’s the story of how I became broker instead of partner! Anyway, enough, I shan’t waste your time anymore,” said Noi pulling papers from a plastic case and placing them in front of Tom. “These are the same I mailed you last week. Hopefully, you’ve had a chance to go over them with your attorney. All we need are your signatures and a check for the down payment. Then, it’s over to Paulo.”
Tom had been flipping through the documents even as Noi spoke. They were indeed the ones he and his attorney, Ben McNally, had already examined. He was ready to sign. He pulled a pen and a checkbook from his shirt pocket.
“The docs look familiar so I am all set,” said Tom. “Tell me the name of the escrow account to make out the check.”
“Would you mind if I held the amount for the couple of days it will take for the deal to close?”
“Make out a personal check to you? Er, I was under the impression the down payment would be held in escrow by a neutral party, like a bank.”
“I apologize for not telling you this on the phone: we did try to set up an escrow account at the Kasikorn Bank before you came. But it seems Thai banks need special documents to set a US citizen up as a signatory, including a notarized statement from your bank in the US, a certificate from the embassy and police clearance from your local station.”
Tom looked bewildered.
“Don’t worry, we can get all this done with a bit of help from your attorney. Peace of mind is worth a delay of a week or two. I am sure Paulo won’t mind in the least. Why don’t you go with Pichet down to the Kasikornbank branch at Sukhumvit and Nana and find out exactly what’s needed? You can take it from there with your people in the US then.”
Tom looked at his watch. It was the middle of the night in the US. Calling Ben was out of the question. He glanced up at Noi. She was looking pensively at him, the front of her jacket open, mounds of her pear-shaped breasts and the points of their nipples perceptible through her sheer blouse. She seemed not to be wearing a bra. Tom agonized over what to do. He knew he should get Ben in on this. But, then he thought, it was a check for $500,000, not cash, he was going to give her – there would be an electronic trail from his bank to hers. True, Thailand was not the US, but he had enough faith in the laws here that if something went wrong he would get redress. And, really, what was there to go wrong?
“Let’s do it,” he said looking up. “Tell me how to write your real name.”
“Thank you, here it is,” she said handing him a card with a smile. “This is quicker and – trust me – there’s nothing at all to lose sleep over. In fact, once you’re done, we’ll fax the papers right away to Paulo to sign and get back to us, even while you are here maybe.”
Tom wrote the check, signed the papers and handed them to Noi with a grin and a flourish. Putting them carefully together, Noi extended her hand for Tom to clasp. A tingle went up his spine as he felt the hot grip of her long thin fingers.
“Let’s celebrate. My father wouldn’t approve if he knew though,” she said giggling,
“But I don’t mind,” she added reaching for a mini-fridge seated on a rack behind her desk. “I do it my way nowadays.”
“Chablis from 1995! Would you mind?” Noi said handing Tom a bottle of the white wine and a corkscrew opener. Tom filled the two chilled glasses she gave him and set them on the desk.
“Success!” exclaimed Noi raising her glass.
“Success!” responded Tom raising his.
They clinked and sipped. Suddenly, with glass still hand, Noi grabbed the papers and check, rose from the chair and marched over to the fax machine.
“Let me get these to Paulo before I get tipsy,” she said setting her glass on top of the machine. As the first document began to slide noisily in, Noi tossed off her jacket. There was no doubt she had chosen to go braless.
“We can finish up the bottle while we wait for him. Wine gets to me more than beer or whisky but I like it. Let’s head out tonight to celebrate if you are up for it. Oh, I know where we can go – the CM2 in the Novotel in Siam Square has a great new band I hear. How about checking it out? I hope you don’t mind a mildly drunk gal on your arm,” Noi intoned flicking her waist-length hair. Fixing a sultry gaze on Tom, she picked up the glass to silently toast him.
Heart pounding so loudly he feared it could be heard above the whirring machine, Tom’s thirst, which he had completely forgotten on meeting Noi, reasserted itself. His mouth was so dry he could hardly speak. Hand shaking he took a deep draught of the Chablis. Noi smiled whimsically, almond eyes full of promise. Tom upended the glass before setting it down. It was good wine – the buzz came quickly but didn’t knock him out. He felt ten feet tall contemplating the new life that lay before him. And this gorgeous Noi for the old was icing on the cake.
A dull ache struck his temple causing Tom to squint to bring Noi, who was still staring at him, into focus. He felt light as if he would float off the chair. The papered walls of the office seemed to recede into the distance, the shuttered windows growing smaller, a framed panoramic image of snow-capped peaks and a wall mirror almost disappearing.
Tom’s reverie broke when Noi came into view. She chucked her nearly full glass into a trash can. With hardly a glance at him, picking up the bottle she did the same, causing a loud thud. Odd, thought Tom – his mind laboring like a man wading through waist-deep water – maybe I should toss my glass too. But his right hand appeared too far away to command, remaining a motionless white patch on the table.
“Come in!” Noi cried loudly. “It’s done!”
Tom heard the door behind him open and three figures strode into his field of view. They were clad in white lab coats, orange masks over their faces. They stood watching him for several moments as if to ascertain his state. Tom understood he had been immobilized by a poison in the Chablis. But such was his drugged state of mind he almost didn’t care. Nothing really matters, he thought, dreamily contemplating his own body as if from a distance.
One of the men pulled of his mask and picked the check up from the desk. It was Pichet.
“Good work! Honestly, I never expected him to sign it over to you without a fight.”
“Thai skin,” responded Noi crisply, “rarely fails to undermine Western men.”
“So, he never figured out you’re a man too?” grinned Pichet.
Noi glared at Pichet. Tom thought she was charismatic, but in a scary way, not sexy at all like before.
“I am not a man. I am post-op transsexual as much a woman as those Japanese porn actresses you like to whack off to, you little snake.”
The two other men, who had stripped off their masks too, smirked.
“Ok, there’ll be time enough for fun and games later,” commanded Noi. “Pichet and Pob fetch Paulo from his cell. Tang and I will carry this guy. Make sure first there’s enough gas in the van to get us to Hua Hin – we don’t want to stop on the way. Before you go, Pichet, take the two guns from the drawer – the middle one.”
“What’s the script?”
“Intending buyer, drunk, visits seller at his villa with cash. Seller tries to pull a fast one. Buyer shoots seller. Seller’s distraught girlfriend shoots buyer. Cash and documents corroborate her story.”
Clever, thought Tom, appreciatively.
“Now let’s get moving. We need to get this all wrapped up and back before the weekend. Sunday I have to pick up from Suvarnabhumi the two Canadian sisters looking for island property.”
Nicely put together.
* Just in case anyone is wondering, this is fiction!