It was hot enough to grow orchids in a tranny’s tuck, the day Union Hill shot Dana at Thermae. I was covering the Nana Plaza beat for Mangled Corpse Magazine and got the call from Sergeant Meechai “Squinty” McBoontong. He owed me a favor from my days on the force. Yeah, I used to be a flatfoot. A shamus. John Law. Five-oh. Tom Loo-aht. But they don’t let you keep your badge and gun after you accidentally shoot a tourist. And then stab him. Not in Bangkok they don’t. So now I carry a pen and a notepad. I still chase the bad guys, but I do it for three baht per word. That and the free pens.
When Squinty called me I was just leaving the apartment of a pretty little waitress I’d met the night before. Cute gal. Legs all the way up to her earlobes. I enjoyed watching her pleasure herself with a carrot but she thought our night together meant something more than it did. They always do. Like they scream, “Why are you hiding in my closet? Who let you in? I’ll call a cop!” Stuff like that. Dames. Always looking for the drama. So I was glad for Squinty’s call; it gave me an excuse to leave in a hurry. That and the wok she threw at my head.
I hopped a tuk-tuk over to the Skytrain. I rode to Sukhumvit and climbed into a meter taxi that took me downtown to Ploenchit. To make sure I wasn’t being followed I dodged down a couple back alleys and caught a passing elephant at Phrom Thep Cape. The moon was just rising over Doi Suthep when I climbed down off the elephant at the gates of the Klai Kangwon Palace. I turned left in the shadow of the Big Buddha on Walking Street and jumped in a samlaw for the last hundred yards to Thermae. I know, it’s a cliché, but supposedly it has atmosphere and everybody knows the name so whatever.
I kept one eye closed for thirty seconds before I went in so that eye would be accustomed to the dark. It’s an old coal miner’s trick, something my Dad taught me before he was killed in the Boer War. He said that’s why pirates wore eye patches; if you were going to chase a man below decks with a cutlass you wanted to be able to see down there. Dad worked the coal mines of lower Manhattan for thirty years, before the black lung killed him. In the Boer War.
As I walked through the sweating, greasy door I closed my outside eye and opened my inner eye. The scene that greeted me resembled a stag party Caligula might throw for a lodge brother. At least a hundred women, some actually women, and some of those sober, and at least two of those attractive, milled around the room aimlessly, bumming smokes off the punters and calling each other giant lizards. Some were dressed like school girls, some like secretaries, some like rock stars, some like cowboys and some barely at all. No matter how they were dressed every girl in the joint carried herself like she was a queen. That’s right, they all walked like they were Ru Paul.
There were a few men in the room, their faces obscured by cigarette smoke, dim tavern lighting and a universal expression of senior citizen ennui. It was the nightly convention of the World-Weary, this particular night hosting their friends the Hopelessly Jaded. Every man in the room wore shabby, sun-faded clothes and some kind of footwear that exposed toenails that had gone too long untrimmed. Each cheek was pasty, every jowl was damp, eyes were downcast or darted nervously around the room. It was common to see a man nervously reach behind him to make sure his wallet was still there. Some were alone, eyes on the door, obviously in that “I’ll give her five more minutes” place. Some were in groups of other men, all of them leaning in to the center of the table to be heard and shouting above the din of juke box ballads and “Eeeeeeeeeeh, man hia!” Some of the men were circling the room, trying to catch a woman from a good angle. One couple in a corner were violently arguing, pushing each other back and forth and thirty seconds away from the first punch with even money on which of them would throw it. In the opposite corner a man and woman were in a tight clinch, one of her hands propping them against a wall, only one of his feet supporting them on the floor. Every one of the men in that room was obviously miserable, every one of them carrying some personal burden of guilt or pain that weighed them down like leaden Buddha amulets, but ask any one of them and he’d tell you he’s there because it’s fun. These are men who had given up wives and children and families and careers and reputations to be here. They were men who would rob a bank to stay here. Or kill.
Of course, Dana might have been killed for a million reasons. The man had enemies. Only person could tell you why it happened was Union Hill, and nobody could find him to ask. That was my job. Now that Squinty McBoontong had dropped this in my lap the Bangkok P.D. would be sitting back, waiting for me to solve the case. They’d relax, iron the pleats in their uniform pants, place a few boxing bets, watch a little “CSI Miami.” They love that show. White women are so tall, and kind of scary. It was a feeling shared by every man in Thermae.
My hunt for Union Hill began with the bartender. To be honest, if I’m looking for my socks in the morning, the hunt begins with the bartender. The bartender at Thermae is a half-Thai half-Chinese bull dyke named Joo Si Fahnee. I call her Juice.
“Hey, Juice,” I said, introducing some suitably gritty dialogue into the narrative.
“Herro, saxy man. Whatchoo want dink?”
“Why are you talking that way?”
“I thought it would be more atmospheric if I spoke in some exaggerated, bordering on comical, pigeon English.”
“Well stop it, Juice. You’re creeping me out.”
“Okay. Sorry. Just trying to help.” She wiped a desultory bar rag across a stoic bar. “What are you drinking?”
“Nam soda manow.” I moved to the end of the bar while Juice sliced a lime. I took a stool that let me keep my back to the wall. I settled my pen more comfortably in its shoulder holster. I let my eyes run around the room on curious little cat paws. Nobody here looked like they could tell me where Union Hill had run off to. To where Union Hill had run off. Where to…
Anyway, when Juice brought my drink I figured she would be my best shot at finding out anything. She slid the sweating bottle, its neck choking on lime wedges, over to me and I slid back a hundred baht note. “I’ll be right back with your change,” she said.
“Don’t bother. It’s yours if you tell me something useful,” I responded. I was becoming impatient, having worked an already thin premise to an extreme. I took a sip of my soda and made significant eye contact with Juice. “What do you know about the man who shot Dana in here tonight?”
Juice’s face became hard as a blob of Darlie toothpaste caked on the edge of a Nana Hotel sink. She looked around to see who might be listening. When she decided we weren’t being overheard she hissed at me, “Fuck you. Get out of my bar.”
I wasn’t offended. This is a bar in Bangkok, and not one of your classy Soi Cowboy bars. This was Thermae, the place where violence and rage went to cheat on their wives, where a punch in the jaw meant “It’s yer round, mate.” The mood of the mood lighting was “paranoia.” The vinyl upholstery of the booths provoked a rash on the backs of the naked thighs of any lost soul foolish enough to wear shorts into the place. Dana had been shot in here tonight, and so had the three trannie hookers that were under his table. (That includes the two he came in with and the one that’s just always under every table at Thermae.) My point is Dana had been shot in here tonight and the only person who was expressing any interest in finding his killer was me, a punch-drunk ex-con, ex-prizefighter, ex-cop, ex-talk show host, ex-President of Liberia.
But still Juice and I went back a long way. All the way back to the Boer War. It was unusual for her to fix me with a steely glare and hiss a profanity in my face. “Whoa, there, big fella,” I said. “Why are you acting like a woman all of a sudden?”
“You fucking writers make me sick,” she said. “You’ve sucked all the syrup out of the Bangkok sex scene snow cone, so now you’re trying to market it by making a connection to a legit genre, a connection that’s tenuous at best. Commercial sex is tawdry and dirty and tragic, and it’s almost ice hockey in its mindless two-dimensionality. It has nothing in common with a genre that explored with irony the deepest themes of Man’s existence through a framework of well worn detective tropes.”
“Can we go back to the pigeon English?”
“Forget it, man. Look, why can’t all you Bangkok writers just face it? It’s. Been. Done. Okay?” Juice suddenly realized there had been a lot of dialogue without any physical description, so she threw her bar rag down on the counter angrily.
“As much as can be said about Bangkok prostitution has been said. Okay? And now that every yabbo with a word processor and a free weekend can publish a novel, it’s been said over and over and over and over. Badly. So give it up. Stop trying to re-brand a condom as a sheep’s bladder. And stop tarnishing the memories of Raymond Chandler and Humphrey Bogart.”
I was astonished. I had never thought of Bogey as noir, but of course, it all fit. I put another hundred baht on the bar. “Look, I’m just trying to find the guy who shot Dana. I just want to shake his hand. Can you help me or not?”
Juice sighed. “Okay. Go down to the waterfront. Big godown with gold-painted doors. Find the Chinaman. Yadda-yadda-yadda, don’t tell him I sent you, blah blah blah. That’s all I’m sayin’.” With that she scooped up the money and turned her broad muscular back on me. It was okay, though, because I had a lead. My first solid lead of the case. I picked up my fedora off the bar and set it on my head at a rakish angle. Yeah, I had a hat when I came in. Didn’t I say so? Oh, well, I had this hat and I put it on, careful to dip the brim down over one eye. I left Thermae by the back door and moved from shadow to shadow, down the rain-slicked alleyway, making no sound in my gum-soled flip-flops.
End of Chapter One