The Art Of War The Art Of Love
Rain. It’s 5:00 in the afternoon and I’m sitting on a terrace overlooking an unkempt, but delightful garden listening to the rivet gun hammer of rain on the roof and the dull roar of Bangkok’s evening traffic beyond the high perimeter wall. It’s raining hard.
I like rain, especially the seasonal monsoon rain of the tropics. It cools things down, clears the air, freshens things and brings out the rich scent of vegetation and the smell of earth. And it makes a welcome change from constant skies of blue.
The slap of sandals on tiles announces the maid’s approach, bringing my sundowner; a late afternoon ritual of mine. A Burmese lady, Nan is sturdy with the spread of middle age, her skin the color of dark copper. She places the pitcher and a glass on the table beside me.
“Thank you, Nan,” I tell her. “Khop khun khrap.”
“Kha,” she whispers, softly. She fills my glass, bows, and leaves. I raise the glass and take a long pull and savour the cold mellow tang of the peach daiquiri.
I top up the glass and reach for the book on the table: Sun Tzu’s timeless classic: The Art of War. It was my father’s book. It’s old and dog eared now, its pages loose and full of tiny scribbled notes and comments written by him.
Many historians believe that Napoleon Bonaparte used Sun Tzu which explains the dashing brilliance of his early campaigns. His later abandonment of the master led to his defeat at Waterloo. As the work was translated into French in 1772 it was certainly available to the Emperor, but if he did posses and use it, he carried the secret to his grave. On the other hand, the Vietnamese General Võ Nguyên Giáp, who defeated both the French and Americans in Vietnam made no secret of his study and use of Sun Tzu’s work.
Throughout my youth, my father had pushed me to read, digest and apply Sun Tzu. But I took the view that as it was a treatise on warfare and I was headed for a career in journalism and not the profession of arms it would be of little use to me; I wasn’t going to war. But events have changed matters. And now I am engaged in a war, though a war of a different kind.
My father was a British professional soldier. As a teenager, he served in the Burma campaign in the war against Japan and fought in the decisive battles of Imphal and Kohima. He returned to South East Asia in 1948 for the Malayan Emergency, Britain’s victorious twelve year campaign to defeat communist insurgency in what is now Malaysia. And it was there that he came into contact with Sun Tzu’s masterpiece; the very book I now hold. It was an encounter that altered the course of his life; and mine it turned out, as it was directly influential in bringing me to Thailand.
The final years of my father’s military career were spent in what he called the “backwater” of NATO, a military organism he learned to despise as an expensive tax free social club for well connected military and civilian elites. He referred to it as “America’s Foreign Legion.” And his experiences there led him to firmly believe that in a confrontation with the armies of the Warsaw Pact, NATO forces would have been swept aside like a flimsy cobweb.
Throughout his career, my father made no secret of his belief that Sun Tzu should be on the curriculums of all military colleges and even schools and universities and that all military promotion should be contingent on a high passing grade in knowledge of Sun Tzu. Unfortunately, as Sun Tzu was obligatory in the political and military organisms in the Soviet Union and of course China, it was considered part of the philosophy of the Warsaw Pact. And I believe my father’s open advocacy of him cost him dearly in terms of promotion.
Visiting him was, for me, always a pleasure in itself. But it was especially enhanced by the many delightful and lovely ladies who shared his life. My mother died when I was young, a schoolboy, and my father never remarried. Yet he had an endless coterie of lovely girlfriends. I was always puzzled since my father, while charming and intelligent, was no film star. Nor was he, strictly speaking, a ladies’ man. But he was a very successful lover. And his greatest conquest was Tam.
Tam was Eurasian, born in Bangkok to a Thai mother of elite status and a Danish diplomat father. A lawyer with a Masters Degree from Oxford, Tam specialized in international law and worked in SHAPE, the headquarters of NATO’s Allied Command Operations in the Belgian town of Mons. She was employed in the civilian section of NATO, and it was there that my father, working in military intelligence, met her. A woman of exquisite beauty, she was highly educated and of independent means. A linguist, she was in fluent command of Thai, Danish, Vietnamese, French, German and English. She was working on Flemish (Dutch), when I first met her, in Brussels when I was twenty. I was enthralled by her beauty. At forty two, she looked at least ten years younger. Standing at five foot one and no more than one hundred pounds she moved with a fluid grace I’d rarely encountered. And for a while I was jealous. I wondered how dad was able to woo such a lovely, young woman; a speculation that would only be answered after his death.
A few years after she met my father, Tam’s mother became terminally ill in Thailand and Tam resigned her work and returned home to be with her. My father, now retired, locked up his small cottage in the English Lake District, and moved there with her. They lived together in her mother’s mansion in a fashionable quarter of the Thai capital. They were very happy. And, as a journalist working as a BBC war correspondent, I got to visit them from time to time when I passed through Bangkok.
Then, in June 2003, tragedy happened. On a trip to England to do some North Country fell walking with some old army friends, my father took a heavy fall into a ravine and broke a hip putting him in hospital. I was in Iraq, covering, the US led invasion when I got the news. As father was nearly seventy nine, I immediately headed home. I called Tam with the news and she immediately flew out from Bangkok to be with him, but he contacted severe pneumonia and died suddenly and she missed seeing him by several hours.
After his wake she invited me to visit her in Bangkok. I vaguely accepted and she left for Thailand. And, as my father’s only offspring, I got down to the business of winding up his estate and affairs.
I had known since childhood that he kept daily journals, but only after his death did I come to know how copious a diarist he had been. Shortly after moving in to his cottage, I began to steep myself in the volumes of neat handwritten records that filled his library shelves. And it became clear that, for my father, The Art of War was more than just a military text. For him it was about an overall life strategy for overcoming obstacles, a tool to attain specific goals. Consequently he applied it to most aspects of his life. And this included matters of the heart.
In his diaries my father wrote frankly on the methods used to win the ladies who attracted him. He was not always successful as sometimes the ladies were simply not interested, and not even Sun Tzu could overcome that. But in the cases where he had a glimmer of a chance, but where the conditions were difficult or unfavourable, the application of the Sun Tzu’s 13 Rules usually won the day. This was especially true in the case of Tam.
As they moved in very different circles and worked in different areas, he saw her rarely and then usually in dry, stuffy meetings in the company of others. She had a luxurious home in Brussels in the exclusive suburb of Uccle, while Dad rented a simple Mons flat. But whenever he encountered her alone as he occasionally did, such as in the office cafeteria, she offered a ready smile and he made a point of joining her. Sensing he had a chance, he moved quickly. Above all else, he needed to know as much about her as he possibly could.
Sun Tzu, said: “All warfare is based on deception.” With this in mind my father used spies in the form of an expensive and very discreet private detective agency and set them to task. And they were more than thorough. Apart from their normal surveillance they penetrated Tam’s citadel by replacing her cleaning lady for a single visit and that was enough. They handed my father everything he needed. He now knew her tastes in music, literature and art as well as her favourite foods and sports; she was an accomplished and keen sailor and sea kayaker. A fine pianist herself, she loved classical music and was especially fond of Elgar as well as being a jazz buff and a Stan Getz fan. He knew where she shopped for clothes and even the brand name of her underwear.
With photocopies of her diary in his hands, dad had her social itinerary for several months ahead. He also now knew something about the men in her life; his adversaries and how formidable they were.
Tam had many men friends and, it appeared, four serious suitors: an American Major–General in NATO, a senior French Diplomat with the French Embassy in Brussels and a successful Belgian artist, a painter of impressive quality, some of whose works hung in her home. The fourth was a rich Swiss socialite. My father’s next step was to know more about them, specifically about their foibles, weak points and vulnerable areas. He was well aware of his own particularly with reference to the ground where the contest would unfold.
In the battle for Tam, Dad began laying plans. He steeped himself and became erudite in her interests. He developed a taste for jazz and the Big Bands of the 1940s; he learned to appreciate Miles Davis and enjoy Stan Getz. He attended a sea kayaking symposium in England and took courses in the sport. And having knowledge of Tam’s social itinerary, he was able to surprise her and appear when he was not expected; such as at music concerts. Often he would bring another lady, but just as often he would appear alone. It was at one such “surprise” encounter, a Mozart concert that he hit her for a date for dinner and an evening of jazz in a Brussels club the following week, and she accepted. His foot was in the door. He was in her network. He’d joined her club.
My father was entirely objective and quite pitiless in the handling of his adversaries. The French Diplomat was a handsome, charming, smooth tongued roguish character. My father found him, very likable. He also discovered that he was a roué with a secret vice; a penchant for occasional sex with low class underage hookers in a rough Brussels immigrant quarter whorehouse. Not long after, a French police raid found him with two of them one well under age. Faced with arrest he tried bribery; it failed forcing him to use diplomatic immunity. This worked, but resulted in publicity, embarrassment and his fast recall to Paris. Of course, the news did not pass Tam by and he was out of her life.
Shortly after the demise of the Frenchman, Tam celebrated her thirty seventh birthday. Dad gave her a boxed set of CD’s, Stan Getz: The Bosa Nova Years – and a nice bound copy of Sun Tzu. She threw a party in the garden behind her home. According to my father’s diary entry, it was an impressive event which included an excellent jazz trio, a great buffet prepared by Tam and superb wines. And, it was there he began his campaign to dismantle and discredit the American General in Tam’s eyes. Dad engaged him on the American’s hobby horse – the Vietnam War. Influenced by drink the General became excited. And then he became unpleasant and offensive to dad over Britain’s failure to enter that war as a US ally. Tam diplomatically suggested that he apologize which he did, and he then left the party early.
My father learned later that despite his high tax free salary, the General had a gambling problem and considerable debts, in consequence of which he had engaged in serious black market dealings with a Belgian group based in Liege. The Financial Police received an anonymous tip off and a raid on a warehouse revealed the General’s connection. To save face, not to mention his pension, and because of his profile, he was allowed to resign his NATO post ahead of his time and quietly moved back to America.
It turned out the Belgian painter was no threat at all, Dad discovered; he was never more than a good friend of Tam’s. My father met him, liked him and bought a small painting from him.
The Swiss playboy was another matter entirely. Tam and Hans were old lovers and my father could see why. In his early forties, he had everything; a friendly outgoing personality, an infectious smile, good looks, a great athletic physique and money to burn. He’d never worked or had employment of any kind. He played fine tennis and often coached Tam with her game. But his big passion was motor racing and he drove well and with panache, winning many races. He’d wanted to be a world class professional driver, but lacked the required discipline and commitment. And it was at a race meeting at the Spa Franco-Champs circuit that my father met him. Tam took him to watch Hans race a Porsche in a sports car event. Unfortunately Hans crashed out of the race at the complex and demanding Eau Rouge corner while in contention for the lead and ended up in hospital with broken ribs and concussion.
My father had no wish to share his women and Tam was no exception. He liked Hans and wished him no ill, but he needed to move him from all proximity to Tam’s bed. He was working on that problem when fate took a hand. Hans suddenly announced from Zurich that he was going to be married for the first time. The lady was a lovely young French fashion model of 21 years. He sent out invites to all his friends including Tam and my father. Tam declined. Instead, she sent him a card tendering best wishes signed by her and dad. His foes vanquished, my father was firmly in place as Tam’s boyfriend.
So, now I knew how my father had wooed his women. He’d applied Sun Tzu. The treatise, The Art of War has been used in many applications, business and politics immediately spring to mind. But, at least to my knowledge, my father is the only one to use it in romantic endeavour.
After winding up my father’s estate, I was swept up in the vortex of a power struggle in the BBC. In this conflict, my boss, friend and mentor of many years, was replaced by a man I just couldn’t get along with. That he was also younger than me told me all I needed to know. Seeing the writing on the wall, I resigned. I was thirty five and for the first time in my life, out of work.
Using my dad’s old cottage as my base, I contemplated my future. I could try freelancing. But it didn’t really appeal. Journalism was chock full of freelancers; they were ten a penny, full of cut throat ambition and eager to make a name. I could write my memoirs; but I was too young. And in any case, who would publish them? And for that matter, who would read them? I could start the novel, the thriller based on my experiences that I’d been carrying around in my head for so long. I was mentally debating all this one evening when my cell phone rang; it was Tam. She was wondering when I was going to pay her the long promised visit. I apologized and explained my predicament.
“That’s the hand of fate,” she said. “And all the more reason for you to come, Mike.” As I share the same Christian name as my father, Tam, always, called me “Mike”; with Dad it was always “Michael”.
“I suppose I could,” I replied.
“Mike, come to Bangkok. Base yourself here. You’re welcome to stay as long as you wish and write your novel. I’d love to see you again.”
Damn it, I thought. She’s right; and what a terrific offer. “OK, Tam. I’m on my way,” I said. “I’ll get a ticket tomorrow. I’ll need a visa.”
“Get a long one. Ask them at the embassy for a one year, multiple entry, visa. It’s the best.”
“I will,” I said.
I got my ticketing arranged for the following week with no problem, but the visa was another matter. My application was rejected and in an offhand manner. The best I could expect, I was told, was two back to back tourist visas of sixty days each. I phoned Tam.
She sighed. “Leave it with me,” she said. “I’ll send you a letter to give to them. Do nothing till you hear from me.”
Tam’s mail arrived a week later. It contained a brief note telling me to re-apply for the visa and another envelope for embassy, addressed in Thai. I went back to the Thai Embassy and reapplied handing in the letter. The result was amazing. Within an hour, while enjoying a morning stroll in Regent’s Park, I received a call on my cell phone asking me to return to the embassy. I did so and was greeted by a charming young Thai lady, taken to a side room, treated to a coffee and biscuits and handed my passport duly franked with the long term multiple entry visa.
The following week, carrying my father’s ashes in a small urn, I flew to Bangkok. Tam met me at the airport in a chauffeured, limousine she’d hired for the occasion. We drank cold champagne as we rolled slowly through the city’s dense traffic in air conditioned comfort. And as we did, I examined Tam closely. She’d changed little. Still beautiful and shapely and at fifty seven she barely looked forty.
In her magnificent home, a superb supper of delightful dishes awaited us. As we dined, we talked of many things; my father, my career as a war correspondent, my ambitions, my future. I turned the discussion around to know more of her. She spoke of her childhood, her wonderful father, her privileged education and her constant desire to learn new things.
Long a lover of the visual arts, she’d taken up painting, and was attending art classes. She’d set up a studio in one of the mansion’s many rooms. The room faced south and she’d had a large sliding window installed to capture more natural light.
She also had a busy social schedule coming up starting with the wedding of her cousin’s daughter in a week’s time; and I was to be her escort on these occasions, she informed me with a smile.
“So, that’s the real reason you lured me to Bangkok?” I teased her.
She laughed, shaking her head. It seemed my father was never one for high society shindigs. I, on the other hand, would only be too pleased to accompany her and I told her so. “But I do need some clothes,” I said.
“We’ll go shopping,” she said. “tomorrow.”
After the repast, we placed the urn containing Dad’s ashes on an altar in a room devoted to the Buddha. “It is here that I meditate,” Tam said. She lit six joss sticks, handed three to me and knelt down before the altar. I knelt beside her and she whispered Thai ritual prayers for him.
After the small ceremony, she led me to my quarters; a superb bedroom, beautifully furnished in teak and mahogany, and adjoined by a small compact library.
“I call this ‘Michael’s Den’,” Tam said. “He spent a lot of time here, reading and writing. It’s the perfect place for the aspiring writer.”
Sitting in his chair at his desk, gazing at the bookshelves, I had to agree. If I couldn’t write here, I’d throw away my pen.
As it turned out I got down to writing with no problems. My years in journalism, with its tight deadlines and schedules had instilled in me a strict work ethic. I was well disciplined and able to get down to it.
My first effort was a collection of twelve short factual pieces I culled from my diaries and memory. And like a lot of people nowadays, I self-published it on Amazon.
The book received good reviews and sold fairly well in digital form. Then a friend sent a copy to an editor friend in a London publishing house. He liked it and this led to a publishing contract. The experience filed me with confidence and I commenced to write my novel.
I abandoned my original story in favour of a thriller set in Thailand, Vietnam and other parts of South East Asia. Entitled A Bangkok Interlude, the plot covers a thirty year period and involves my protagonist, Mike Villiers, seeking to find the killers of his father, and finding himself tracking looted government money, going deep into the drugs trade and coming up against Chinese Triads and corrupt police.
I wrote it in three months flat including serious editing. The book was well received, got fine reviews and sold well. And the feedback was good. Readers commented how much they liked Mike Villiers and wanted more of him. This was the spur I needed. And my second Mike Villiers novel, Bangkok Wanton is well on its way.
I was also enjoying myself in my other role, as Tam’s companion-friend, escorting her to various social events and family gatherings. She also held parties and receptions in her home. Apart from her family, I met many other Thais and foreigners, expat artists and writers and a lot of Bangkok’s political and social elites. And being fully fluent in French, German and Dutch as being well educated and well travelled; I easily held my own with them. But the experience began to disturb me.
I had always considered Tam to be my father’s woman. I never saw her as a mother surrogate; just my father’s lady. But sharing her home with her changed matters, somewhat; I developed an increasingly powerful desire for her. Especially when she was dressed in the old peasant clothes she usually wore while painting and working around the house. She was dressed like that one Friday afternoon, around 5:00 when she came for me.
I was in my father’s den reading when she tapped on the door, opened it and came in. “Sundowner?” she asked.
Standing bare foot in the doorway, in white, paint streaked, Bedouin pantaloons, ripped at the knees, a torn tee-shirt, straw hat in hand, shoulder length hair loose and unkempt and her smiling face shiny with perspiration, she looked like she was about to go to work in a rice paddy. She also roused me to my limits. “Are you joining me?” I asked.
“No. You’re joining me.”
“Well, why not?” I said, closing the book. She pushed the door wide and I followed her out.
She led the way to her studio. There were canvasses everywhere, on easels or stacked against the walls, some finished and signed, others appeared to be abandoned many sitting on easels unfinished. The air was filled with the heavy scent of oil paint and cleaning fluids. Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata played on the stereo. We went onto the veranda. “We’re having sherry,” she said.
“A nice change,” I said.
She filed two glasses and handed me one. I took a sip; it was medium dry, cold and tangy. She took my hand and led me back into the studio and stopped before a covered painting on an easel. She removed the cover to reveal a beautiful, life size, oil portrait of my father in military uniform. She handed me the photograph she’d used to make the painting; a monochrome photograph of him taken in his Malayan days. A young lieutenant, he was seated on a pile of sandbags looking tired, stained and a little undernourished. I examined the photograph, then the art work. The painting was cropped, showing just his head and shoulders and held a dark and powerful sepia quality that impressed me.
“I finished it today,” she said.
“It’s a very fine piece of work, Tam,” I said. “Dad would have loved it.”
“I like to think so,” she said. “I shall examine it again tomorrow to see if it needs anything. If I’m still satisfied, I’ll sign it.”
“Where will you place it?”
“In Michael’s Den. It’s the most appropriate place.” She replaced the cover and picked up her glass. We touched glasses and drank.
She stared at me over her glass rim, a soft smile on her face. I returned her gaze. “What are you thinking?” she asked.
I shrugged “I’m thinking of you; us, here in this mansion.” I said.
She made no reply, but her smile remained. On a whim, I took her glass from her hand and put it down along with my own. Then I took her shoulders and pulled her close. Taking her head in my hands, I kissed her firmly on the mouth and held the clinch for a good minute, my tongue beneath hers, tasting the sherry on her lips. As I eased back, she looked at me with a faintly disturbed and puzzled expression. Feeling chastened and fearing admonishment, I was about to apologize, when she smiled, picked up her drink and finished it quickly. Feeling that it was expected of me, I picked up my glass and did the same, draining the glass in single draught. She took my hand and led me out of the studio.
We took a small, elevator I didn’t know existed. With barely enough room for three, panelled in carved, ornate wood, with brass lamps, the little cage swayed on its slow, upward journey.
“You didn’t know of this little gadget, did you?” she said, leaning against the wood panelling.
“I confess not.”
“My father brought it from France. It came from a small, country guesthouse that was being renovated. It was old then. It runs four floors; from the basement wine cellar to my quarters on the third floor. I used to play in it as a child.”
“It is like a toy,” I said.
Tam’s quarters, as she calls them, occupy the entire third floor of the house. She led me into her bedroom. It was small and square with teak floors and panelled in rose wood. A high, wide window looked out over the front garden, the gate and the narrow soi beyond. A brass bed with side tables faced the window. There was no other furniture.
Tam turned on a wooden bladed ceiling fan and faced me across the bed’s width. “Would you like to make love to me, Mike?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
With the ghost of a smile, she pulled loose the draw string dropping her pantaloons to the floor, revealing firm thighs the color of milk chocolate. The tee-shirt was next, peeled off smoothly; she wore no underwear. She stood nude before me, smiling, slender and girlish, beautifully muscled and so very shapely. She turned and I watched her cross the floor to the bathroom door and pass through. Then, I stripped off my clothes and followed.
Becoming Tam’s lover opened many doors for me; and revealed so many secrets. Tam confided in me and I became privy to private family matters; such as their intense pride in their good breeding. They practiced a policy of marrying in and created a barrier to filter out other, inferior, Thais. They also developed a deep distrust of all foreigners.
The extended family was big, consisting of several clan type factions linked by marriage and business affiliation. Inevitably, there were also internecine power struggles from time to time.
Tam’s mother had been expected to marry her third cousin, an act that would have helped heal an old family schism. Her refusal to do so and her elopement and marriage to the Dane broke the rules and caused great family upheaval, exacerbated by the birth of Tam, a despised luk kreung child.
“For a long time, my very existence offended them,” Tam expanded over breakfast one Saturday morning. “Not all, of course. Many Thais love and even desire luk kreung children and some in my family felt the same. But to most, the power brokers, I represented problems.
“And then, as a teenager, I was offered a slim chance at redemption by going into an arranged marriage. I naturally refused. I’m so glad I was educated in Europe. I’m so glad I travelled.”
“But then you came back home with my father; what did they think of that?”
“They were outraged. First, that he was farang, and secondly because he was so much older than I. But I laughed and ignored them. They are such hypocrites. All the men have their mistresses, their mia nois. And they have their illegitimate offspring. But everything is hidden, paid for and covered up. Even when they break the law their power and influence protects them. But they are not all like that; just enough of them to cause trouble.”
“What did my father think?”
“He was amused by them.”
“That would be my father,” I said, smiling. “What do they think of me? Or should I say you and I?”
“They’re horrified, as you can imagine with you being young enough to be my son.”
“Dad would be even more amused.”
“Perhaps; but he was not amused when they had him barred from Thailand.”
I frowned and leaned over the table. “Had him barred. They did this; who? How?”
“The family power brokers were behind it. Michael was arrested in a police raid on a house where he was in a poker game, here in Bangkok; gambling is illegal in Thailand. He was soon released and the whole thing blew over; so we thought.
“We went to Singapore, as we usually did when it was time for his visa renewal. We both liked Singapore as it’s so different from Bangkok and it makes an interesting change. Just before leaving he went to the Thai Embassy for his one year visa and was, surprisingly, declined. We flew up to Penang and he was again refused; they offered him a single sixty day tourist visa. Annoyed, he decided he’d go home to Britain and do it there. He flew to London and I flew back to Bangkok.
“Two days later Michael called me from England. He had been refused any type of visa at the London Thai Embassy for the reason he was persona non grata in Thailand. I could not believe it. I started an immediate investigation and found that it was because of his arrest for gambling; a mark had been placed against his name. I set about having it cleared up. And that was when I found out that the whole thing had been a set up. Michael had been lured into the game and then the raid had been staged.”
I was amazed. “I can hardly believe this shit,” I said.
“It is hard to believe. It took me two weeks to set things right. I then telephoned your father and told him that the coast was clear to get his visa. But he’d already made arrangements to go hill trekking with his friends. He said he would get his visa on his return. Then, of course, he had his accident.”
“Did you discover who actually set it up?”
Yam nodded. “That took a little longer and I had to pay. I did a little greasing of palms. Money talks in Thailand.”
“You got the name?”
“Oh, yes. It was the policeman, Pom Kwanma who set it up.”
“Who is he?”
“You know him. You met him at Sonkran and again at Panyisa’s wedding; the big man with the silver hair.”
“He’s the guy with the deep gravelly voice; always laughing?”
“Yes, I remember him. How is he related to you?”
“By marriage; he married a cousin. She died of cancer a few years ago. Pom was a Lieutenant General; very senior police. He did a lot of dirty work for the family; cover-ups for family members in breach of the law. And, of course, he was well rewarded.”
I smiled, grimly. “And he set my father up?”
“Yes, he did. And the irony is that he himself is a very serious gambler. He’s such a hypocrite. He’s not a nice man, Mike. He’s a brute. Have as little to do with him as you can. ”
“You say he’s a gambler, Tam?”
“Oh, yes he is; a big one. He plays poker. He arranges high stake games for important people. He uses a boat he owns on the river, a converted ferry boat. It’s very beautiful.”
“Does he now,” I grinned. “That’s interesting.”
That night I had difficulty sleeping. I got up just after midnight and made a cup of tea and stood by the window, looking out at the lights of Bangkok. It had all began to sink in. Had my father got his visa in Singapore as normal, he would not have flown to England. He would not have gone hiking and fallen into that ravine. He would still be alive and living here in Bangkok. I suddenly throbbed with anger. My father had made enemies merely by his presence. To them, he was nothing more than a foreign interloper who needed removing. And that is what they had done, and, indirectly, they’d killed him. And no doubt they felt the same way about me. In which case I had to assume they wouldn’t leave me be. I needed to act.
I recalled an incident from my youth. I was around sixteen at the time on school holidays and staying with dad. My father was in the bathroom, shaving before his mirror. I was telling him of some problem I had and he turned to me. “Mike, read your Sun Tzu. He’s the man to listen to in conflict resolution. Sun Tzu said, ‘If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.’ But first I suggest you know yourself.” He then went on to quote the Polish writer, Witold Gombrowicz. “Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act. Action will delineate and define you.” Good advice which I didn’t follow at the time. Though I felt that by now I knew myself fairly well, I had yet to know the enemy. I needed to work on that; especially with regards to the retired cop, Pom Kwanma.
ButhHow interesting it was to know Pom was a gambler, a poker player, since cards, and especially poker, have been a passion of mine since childhood when I was given a deck as a gift from my uncle on my eighth birthday. Uncle Peter taught me some sweet card tricks and I became fascinated. At nineteen, I regularly partnered my father in his bridge games. I’d also become an adept and successful poker player. By my twenty first year, I’d learned advanced card counting skills and had profited nicely at the blackjack tables of European casinos. Filled with ambition and accompanied by two, likeminded, card counting friends, I headed for America, the land of opportunity.
We spent a week in Atlantic City and did well in the casinos, winning steadily and pocketing around five thousand greenbacks apiece before heading west for Nevada, America’s great gambling state.
After the easy pickings in Atlantic City, we were confident and cocky. We hit Reno first and worked the blackjack tables and beat the house, steadily. In four days, I’d made twelve thousand dollars. We left town laughing; Las Vegas here we come.
We were well aware that card counting was frowned upon in America’s casinos. It had been judged legal in several court challenges and therefore wasn’t cheating, but it gave a player a serious advantage the casinos didn’t like. We were therefore on our guard.
“If we’re careful, we’ll make a fortune here, boys,” I said as we rolled in to Vegas in our rented Pontiac. “We’ll bust this town wide open.”
We booked into a small hotel, taking separate rooms. And, as in Reno, we separated to work the various casinos as individuals. We dressed conservatively, and never ever sat at the same blackjack table. We followed a low profile and everything went to plan. In three days I was well ahead and my little pile had reached eighteen thousand dollars, a small fortune in those days. The accommodation was top notch, we were eating well and the cocktails and shows were free. It seemed we’d found the keys to Aladdin’s Cave. We could forget about our day jobs; this was easier and far more fun than journalism. We had found our Holy Grail. So we thought.
In Caesar’s Palace, on the evening of the fourth day, around 7:30, I’d just won another fifty dollars when I noticed the odd smile on the lips and sharp glint in the eyes of the lovely croupier as she slid the chips over the table to me; and then the hand gently touched my shoulder and I turned. Superbly tailored in a well fitted tuxedo, he had the look and build of a middleweight prizefighter. He smiled and indicated I follow him. He led the way out of the gambling arena, along a corridor and up a carpeted stair, in to a spacious office.
The man behind the desk was immaculately tailored in a dark blue blazer, a white cotton shirt and a dark red tie that looked like silk. Around thirty five, dark auburn hair slicked back, bright eyed, and good looking, he could have been Andy Garcia’s twin. He smiled in greeting. ”Sit down, Mike,” he said and indicated a chair opposite him.
“Thank you,” I said and took the seat and returned his smile. How did he know my name?
“I’m Jack Olson, the casino manager,” he said. “And this gentleman is Lewis,” he indicated the man who’d brought me. “He’s the blackjack pit boss.”
I nodded, but said nothing.
“Let’s have drinks, Lewis. A Jack Daniels on the rocks for me and Mike would like a mojito I believe.” He even knew my drink. Lewis went over to a small bar and commenced work.
“Mike, it pleases me to see a customer win at the tables as you are doing. Seeing fellow players win makes our customers happy. They like to see winners because it tells them that they can also win. I like to see them win. If they win they come back. They bring their friends. It’s good for business. And that’s what a casino is, Mike; a business.”, He sat hunched forward, his hands flat to the desk as if he might pounce, and spoke clearly with a strong sibilance, hitting the consonants hard, his eyes locked on mine.
“Last week we had a guy pull down twenty five hundred dollars at the slots in three minutes,” he said. “Three minutes, a half dozen pulls and he hits a jackpot. I like that. It’s the same with the tables; faro, chemin de fer, baccarat, poker and, of course, blackjack. We often have customers beat the house and leave the table with a fist full. Of course the house always wins; it has the percentage edge. The house has to make money. But that doesn’t stop Joe Blow from Hoboken coming in off the street and scoring big time; and it happens.”
Jack stopped as Lewis delivered the drinks to the desk and took a seat somewhere to my left. Wondering where all this was headed, I picked up my mojito and took a taste; it was strong and good.
“How’s your drink, Mike,” Jack smiled.
I took a longer sip. “It’s probably the best mojito I’ve ever had,” I said, attempting a smile.
“It should be. Lewis was a cocktail barman in a previous life; one of the best.” Jack lifted his glass and took a sip of his whisky. “As I was saying we like to see winners; as long as they’re not cheating.
“It was Katia, the beautiful croupier who first noticed your card skills. She told Lewis who brought it to my attention. I had a dedicated camera placed on you, in the ceiling above, and watched the film over drinks with Lewis.”
“And you saw that I wasn’t cheating,” I said.
Jack took a pull on his drink and gave me a long stare. “How long have you been counting cards, Mike?”
So that was it. “About five years,” I said. I took a sip of the cocktail.
Jack pursed his lips, his head nodding. “You’re pretty good. But it’s the betting pattern that shows up the counter. You also only drink water at the table; it keeps the mind sharp, right? But we don’t allow card counters at Caesar’s Place, Mike.” He raised a hand, palm facing me. “I know, I know it’s not cheating and it’s legal. And I’ve heard all the arguments that say counters, being so few, are good for business just like other winners. Leave them alone. They win; others see it and are encouraged. I tend to agree. But my employers, who own this place, don’t. And they make the rules. And since they pay me very handsomely to enforce them, I do so, vigorously. I like my job, Mike.” How vigorously, I thought as Lewis came to his feet.
Jack slugged back his whiskey and faced me, hands flat on the desk top. He said. “Finish your drink, Mike. Then go downstairs with Lewis and cash your chips. And then Lewis will escort you out of the casino.” He wasn’t smiling anymore. Obediently, I reached for my drink.
I met Tom and Mark for supper to find they’d also been stopped and shown the door around the same time as I was; Tom, in The Sands and Mark in The Desert Inn. Our little dream of desert riches had been nipped in the bud. But they had let us keep our winnings and it had been great fun. We left Las Vegas the next morning for San Francisco and the West Coast where we blew most of our loot.
I smiled at the memory. Tom Edwards went on to become a war photographer and was later killed in Beirut, a collateral victim of a suicide bomber. Mark Jones still works as a correspondent and I hear from him from time to time and we meet up when we can.
My thoughts returned to Pom Kwanma. He was handsome in an arrogant, supercilious way. In my mind I saw his grinning face and remembered an incident in his company. If I recall correctly, it was at a family wedding reception. There were six of us, including Tam and Pom, around a table, drinking and chatting. As I was the only non-Thai, the conversation was in English for my benefit; until Pom, demonstrating bad manners, abruptly took it into Thai leaving me stranded. I quickly countered by addressing Tam in French. Tam, seeing my intent replied and we engaged in French for a couple of minutes before going back into English. Pom’s expression was thunderous. Though I was amused, I took an instant dislike to him then. Now, after the business with my father, I hated him. I wanted to destroy him; and to do that I realized I needed to speak and understand Thai. I finished my tea and went back to bed.
At the breakfast table the following morning I mentioned it to Tam. “I want to learn Thai. I want to learn to speak and understand it to a very high standard. I want to become fluent.”
“Good,” Tam said, replenishing our coffee. “I’m very pleased. But to do that you will need a good teacher and total immersion. I will call my friend, Mint. She’s a retired school teacher. She had her own school. She is very good. I will get her to come every day. I will also help you.”
“I have only one proviso,” I said. “I want it to be a secret. I want no one in your family to know that I am able to speak Thai.”
Tam gave me a curious look. “Why is that?”
“Not knowing Thai leaves me at a disadvantage. Becoming fluent in Thai puts me on equal footing. Being secretly fluent in Thai gives me a serious advantage.”
Tam laughed. “Alright. But it’s a secret that will eventually come out; you must know that.”
I shrugged. “Perhaps. But by then it won’t matter,” I said.
“When do you want to start?”
“Now; tomorrow if we can.”
Tam chuckled. “OK. I will call Mint after breakfast. You will be speaking Thai in no time.”
The rain has intensified. I re-fill my glass and take a long drink of daiquiri. Tam was correct; I now speak decent Thai. Though not yet perfect, I have to say I have come on so well, that both Mint and Tam are amazed. Mint is a hard driving teacher. From the moment she arrives in the morning, it’s all Thai; no English allowed. And not for her the stuffy teaching methods, heavy with grammar, taught indoors. Once I’d got the basics, Bangkok streets became her classroom. Along with Tam, we go to restaurants, shop in markets, speaking and listening to the Thai language of the streets. I have come to know and use Thai idioms and slang. Like French, and indeed all other languages, Thai has its patois. And I am getting to know it well.
I am also getting deep into Sun Tzu as my father had always wanted. I read him daily along with my father’s interpretation of Sun Tzu’s meaning in his notes.
As for my enemies, I am aware that in order to engage and defeat them, I must first get to know them; and I’m working on that. But I want a peaceful solution to this conflict. I want to win hearts and minds and convince them I am no threat. I want to win the war without firing a shot. I want peace with one exception; Pom Kwanma. Him I wish to destroy. Exactly how I’m not sure. I need to know him. I need to know his weaknesses and exploit them. And to that end I have sought him out at family functions and engaged him in small talk. I joke with him; in English of course. We’re getting on very well. I asked him about his poker games. He told me of his boat on the river
“Do you play poker, Mike?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “The last time I played was in Baghdad. I played with a bunch of American soldiers. I’m a little out of practice.”
“You must come out to the boat and play with us one evening.”
“I would like that very much, Pom,” I told him. I smile now at the recollection.
It’s almost 6:00pm. My sun downer is over. I drain my glass and go back to my father’s den. I sit down at the card table I’d had brought in and pick up a deck of playing cards. I sit up straight, my hands just above the table surface, and look directly at the life size photograph of Pom Kwanma that I have placed above the chair back facing me. I smile at him as I practice the various shuffles. I finish with the professional Riffle Shuffle in the Hands. The cards obey me, sounding sharply crisp on the riffle and descending with a soft rustling whisper on the cascade. I do it many times. I hold the deck in the mechanics grip, but with a variance that hides it. Then I deal out hands to four imaginary players. I deal from the top, bottom and middle of the deck, and then deal the second from the top, the second from the bottom, but I do it faster than the eye can detect. I practice all the card cheating tricks I’ve learned over the years. My fingers are loose and supple and don’t tire. After an hour I quit. I open my notebook and study my notes on poker odds, percentages and probabilities and my notes on serious card cheating. All this combined with my card counting fills me with total confidence.
At seven tomorrow night I’ll step on board Pom Kwanma’s boat on the river to engage in high stakes poker. This will be my sixth invite. I lost the first two encounters, allowing Pom and his police friends to win easily. The third encounter went my way, slightly. The fourth match was even with no real winners. The fifth saw me take it all. In the final game Pom held four jacks and it must have seemed to him an unbeatable hand and he backed it heavily, but I had better; a queen high straight flush. Pom was stunned and seriously hurt as were two of his ex cop pals. He’s now down over a million baht; a lot of money even for him. So the limits tomorrow night will be high. It could even be that the arrogant bastard will be rash enough to suggest no limits; very dangerous. I shall be reticent, even fearful. But I shall continue against my better judgment. His friends will be forced out leaving only me and him at the table. Pom Kwanma wants his money back; and his pride. I want to take him for more. I want to clean him out and humiliate him before his friends. But whipping him at the poker table is just the beginning.
Being a corrupt cop and rising so fast through the police ranks, he must have stepped on many people and so garnered enemies. He will also have other vices; for such a man they come with the territory. Tam has heard he visits exclusive brothels and enjoys young prostitutes. She also believes that in his time, as a policeman, he was heavily involved in drug trafficking; heroin. Maybe he still is. The opportunities look good; but one thing at a time. First I shall cripple him financially at the poker table. Then…….I check my watch; it’s 7:45 and time to quit, shower and change. Tam is taking me out for supper to a new restaurant she’s discovered. We’re to celebrate the sale of a commissioned painting she has just completed. Tam is unaware of my dealings with Pom. She doesn’t know I play poker with him. She has no idea I plan to step on him and crush him like a cockroach. But one fine day she will know everything.