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The Scarlet Claw


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Gaew lay on her left side, staring out at the sea from under a broad straw hat and through heart-shaped pink sunglasses, her right hand pressed against her chest. She wanted a cigarette, but if she used her right hand to get it Howard would immediately pull down the top of her one-piece strapless bathing suit. Howard had been trying to pull down her suit all morning.


Gaew knew that sunburn was painful, and she considered dark skin unattractive, but more importantly, she thought that women who exposed their bodies were low class. She might wear revealing outfits when she was working in the bar, but they were always expensive copies of the clothes she saw in the European fashion magazines. When she went with a man to his hotel room she always undressed in the bathroom and came to bed wrapped in a towel. Whatever happened after that was, she felt, out of her control and thus she was not to be blamed. But while she was on the beach, her suit stayed on.


Howard stood up and stretched, his pale skin already glowing pink at the shoulders. He walked a few steps toward the ocean, flexing his muscles and prodding an infected new tattoo on his biceps. Gaew reached for her cigarettes but Howard grabbed her hand, pulling her roughly off of the towel and to her feet. "C'mon, Babe!" he said. "Let's get in the water!" He started pulling her down the slope toward the edge of an almost perfectly flat ocean.


"No Howard, p'ease! I just make my hair yestiday, and my nails, they so expensive do my nails! P'ease, Howard, we don' go in the water, okay?" But Howard was laughing and pulling her by both hands now, and Gaew was painfully aware that people were watching them. She tried one last time to stop him. She put on her best frightened expression and pleaded, "Howard, p'ease, I 'faid the jerry fitch."


Howard stopped and stared at her. By now they were knee-deep in the water, which was as warm as blood and crystal clear. "What did you say?" he asked. Gaew pulled her sunglasses down the bridge of her nose so that he could see her eyes. "Jerry fitch, Howard, jerry fitch he bite you! It hurt too mutss, Howard. No go in the water dee kwah, na?"


"Who the hell is Jerry Fitch? Don't worry, Babe. Nobody's gonna hurt ya while ol' Howie's around!" With this he swept her up in his arms, carrying her bodily toward deeper water.


He was hollering with laughter, and Gaew was still pleading for her hair and nails, when he stepped into a spot of exceptionally soft sand and toppled forward, dropping Gaew suddenly into the water and falling on top of her.


They both came up sputtering and coughing in waist-deep water. Howard seemed to think that it was all great fun, but Gaew was furious. She began to walk carefully around the spot where they fell, looking on the sandy bottom for her lost sunglasses. She was muttering darkly in Thai.


Howard stopped laughing, caught an arm and turned her to face him. "Wait a minute, Babe, I'm sorry, really I am." She looked up at him, sodden hat in one hand and pure anger in her eyes. "Look, Babe, you know how you said that you don't like staying at the Viset Guest House? Well, why don't we go back, pack our things, and come check in at the Seaside Inn? What do you say, huh? Air-con, room service, big color TV? They got a hair salon in there and I'll pay to have your hair done again, okay? Whattaya say, Babe?"


Gaew had let herself soften in his grip, and he pulled her to him and sank to his knees on the sand so that the warm water came up to his chest and her chin. He put his arms around her. "Maybe we'll go into town tomorrow, to that gold shop by the movie theatre. A guy I met in the bar last night says they've got good prices there. Maybe we'll buy you something nice, Whattaya say?"


Gaew gave up her pout to a tiny smile, and put the wet hat on her head. "Okay, Howard, I t'ink it good if we move from Viset Guess'how. But we go my friend shop, he have bes’ price in Phuket Town." She turned her face up to him and closed her eyes, meaning to let him kiss her on the mouth, something she only did when gold jewelry was on the table. Instead she felt his hands once again pulling at her bathing suit. She decided that as she was in water up to her neck, and as he'd mentioned the gold shop, she'd keep her eyes closed and let him have his way for just a moment.


She felt the top of her bathing suit being pulled down around her waist, and she felt Howard's right hand on her breast. His left hand seemed to be busy too, but she couldn't feel it anywhere on her body. She tried to relax, and made herself think about gold chains on trays lined with red velvet. Then Howard had her by both wrists, and he pulled her hands in front of him, between their bodies. "I've got someone I want you to meet, Babe," he breathed in her ear, "his name's Mr. Johnson…"


Howard screamed so loud that he drew the attention of people on the beach for half a mile in both directions. A moment later he was on his feet and lunging through the water toward the shore. "Something bit me!" he was shouting, pulling up his bathing trunks as he ran. "Jeez, I think I'm bleeding. What is it? What's in this water?"


Gaew followed him, saying "I tol' you, be careful the jerry fitch. He sah-ting you bad." As she walked delicately through the water, her bathing suit in its normal position, she was examining the bow on her straw hat. Her hair was a wreck, of course, and the bow was ruined, but the hat could be saved. And at least her fingernails were still intact.