DAY ONE

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CHAPTER 1

I knew from the minute the foxy blond in the blue shorts sat down she was a tease. Young--maybe 22, 23. Blond--maybe bleached. Face and figure--no maybe’s there. Absolutely stunning. And she knew it.

I hadn’t seen her approach because the open-air beer bar was sheltered from Bangkok’s traffic by a semi-circle of dust-covered, shoulder-high potted plants. Customers were protected from the sun and rain by a thatch-and-wood roof from which a few Halloween balloons and tiny plastic witches added color and annoyance to anyone trying to chug his beer. She sat where a few balloons nestled beside a tiny Buddhist shrine, and several others encircled a beribboned bell customers could ring should they feel happy enough to buy everyone a drink.

The Thai women working behind the bar hadn’t noticed the blond yet; too busy admiring Goong’s latest shoes--expensive leather footwear from Italy paid for by her lovesick sweetheart in France so that (unknown to him) she could wear them to discos with her Thai boyfriend. I knew this because I knew Goong, and I also knew her cop boyfriend who owned the open-air bar I was drinking at.

But most of the customers around the oval-shaped counter had already stopped talking and were quietly appraising the blond. Which in itself said a lot about her looks. Because in Bangkok beautiful women are the norm, and most foreign men who end up in the Big Mango prefer Thai women. Especially the jaded local expats and weather-beaten foreign offshore oil riggers who drink at the open-air bars off Sukhumvith Road. I had seldom seen them cast a farang, or foreign, woman a second glance. Certainly not in approval. But they did now. Now they threw back their Singha beer and Mekhong whiskey as before, but behind their attempts at nonchalance each was as attentive and alert as a grammar school student on his first day of school. It was as if a solar flare had sent a spectacular light show crashing through Bangkok’s murky, malevolent October night sky, disrupting communications.

I motioned to Goong’s younger sister, Lek, and she suddenly noticed the blond. She quickly approached her, gave her a big Thai smile and a “Hello, what you like?” The evening traffic noises were as clamorous as ever and beside me an inebriated Greg Winston–“Winny” to his friends--was talking, still unaware that he was the only one doing so, but I heard the blond order a rum-and-coke.

At first, she never glanced my way, but I could tell she was aware of the tension her presence had caused. I had seen sexually charged particles wreak havoc with a bar’s magnetic field before. But none as alluring as this one. The fine sun-kissed blond tresses, the big blue eyes, the cute upturned nose, the sensual, heart-shaped lips, the irresistible charm of youth–this one had it all.

Something about the innocent yet provocative way she perched on the bar stool, the way she tossed back her short, stylish, slightly tomboyish haircut, the way she ran her hand over the smooth expanse of flesh visible between where her short-sleeved powder blue top ended well above the belt-line of her hip-hugging, powder blue shorts. The way she tilted her head down to take a drink then looked up at me from under her full bangs and mouthed a “thank you” for getting Lek’s attention for her. No doubt about it. The lady was a tease.

I raised my bottle of Singha Gold and nodded in acknowledgment.

“I am telling you, Scott, whatever country I’ve been in it has been my experience that one out of every 11.5 women prefers older men. That is a statistical fact. A factual statistic! You just have to get through the first 10.5 to get to the right one. The one who recognizes the charms of-“ In mid-sentence Winny finally stopped droning on about his latest woman theory and caught onto the new situation at the bar. He placed his huge fists on the counter and leaned his thick neck forward to look past me. He was entering his late fifties and was spending far too much time sitting at bar counters but most of his muscle had yet to turn to fat. “Well, well, what have we here?”

I lowered my voice. “What we have here, old friend, is known as a tease with a capital T.”

“You see ‘tease’; I see ‘t’s as in opportunity.”

“So go for her.”

“Not me, lad, I’m too long in the tooth for that. I think you should go for her.”

“Haven’t you always warned me about-“

”This one is off the charts. Besides, I could be her grandfather. She’s yours.”

I looked over at the blond. She was cute all right. Despite high cheekbones, her lovely face was almost perfectly oval ending in a slightly narrow chin which she had cleverly de-emphasized with her wide, pageboy-style hairdo. I watched her glance up at me then quickly down again, as if she was interested but just a bit too shy to reveal her interest overtly. The act looked guileless enough. But it was an act; and a well practiced one. I’d made more than my share of mistakes along the way but I hadn’t reached my mid-thirties a complete naif. “I think I’ll give this miss a miss.”

Winny raised his thick salt-and-pepper eyebrows. “And have it spread throughout the Big Mango that Scott Sterling was afraid to approach a round-eyed female?”

Political correctness was not one of Winny’s strong points. “Look, Winny-“

I felt one of his meaty hands clamp down on my arm. “Look at her. She is sitting there pining away because no one will pay the slightest bit of attention to her. A shy, lonely young thing on her first trip outside the States. A demure, skittish, virginal waif totally confused by all the contradictory images bombarding her in the Land of Smiles: Devout Buddhist monks, naked go-go dancers, food too spicy to eat, water too filthy to drink, heat and humidity beyond belief. She’s all alone and completely lost in the city of broken hearts and broken pavement. For God’s sakes, man, give her something to remember when she’s back in her nondescript little village wedged into the snow-covered hills of North Dakota working over a hot stove, cooking food for an unfaithful, ungrateful, unemployed, physically violent man she no longer loves. Give her something to cling to.” Here his voice dropped to an earnest but histrionic whisper: “Give her the memory of you!”

Winny was the night manager of the bar I had been living over for over a year, the Boots and Saddle Saloon, one of the most popular of the watering holes favored by expats. But before he had chucked in his previous existence and moved to the Big Mango, he had been an actor and sometimes director in the Big Apple. A battle-scarred veteran of the Vietnam War as well as a bottle-scarred veteran of various skirmishes with egotistical producers, arrogant directors and demanding actors in New York’s Off-Broadway, he was now without doubt, a perfectly contented expat, but his thespian background surfaced abruptly whenever he started on his fourth glass of Mekhong whiskey or whenever he was under pressure.

I held my ground. “I’m telling you, Winny, I’ve seen the type before--she’s a tease.”

He released my arm and rolled his beer bottle between his palms as a potter might roll clay. “Only one way to be absolutely certain though, isn’t there?”

I glanced around the bar and saw others waiting to see if I would move in on the blond. Scenes from National Geographic TV specials from my boyhood flooded back to me–‘Look, boys and girls: watch the way the males of the herd observe its leader as he tries to impress the new female of the herd. If he fails, the herd will tear him limb from limb, devour him, leave his bones to bleach in the sun, and shortly after another leader will emerge.’

I looked again at the woman. As a diver, I often reflected upon similar character traits in the life forms walking above ground and those swimming in the sea. And this one reminded me of one of the most beautiful creatures I had encountered on Thailand’s reefs: the lionfish; the fish with the resplendent, plume-like dorsal and pectoral fins. As gorgeous as the fish is, the one thing you don’t want to do is to agitate it in any way. Because along those beautiful fins is enough poison to make curious swimmers who venture too close wish they hadn’t been mesmerized by its beauty in the first place.

Maybe I’d had too much Singha or maybe I’d been a bit depressed lately or maybe it was just a juvenile reaction to a schoolboy’s dare, but I felt myself getting up. I picked up my bottle of beer and walked toward her. I could feel all eyes boring into me. The blond kept emitting her shy smile like a homing beacon. A delightfully winsome smile--all for me. But something about that smile made me feel as if a red lasar dot from a 9 millimeter semiautomatic was being trained on my forehead.

I stopped beside her and leaned against the bar. I was immediately enveloped in the pungent odor of her musky perfume. “Excuse me, but the man you were supposed to meet this evening called to say he couldn’t make it. And he asked me to escort you in his place.”

The smile changed. It segued from diffidence and timidity into an arrogant smirk of victory. A sneer of contempt. I knew I’d been had. The lionfish was about to strike. Her voice was all feminine softness. And hard as nails. “Nice try, Romeo, but the person I’m waiting for is a woman.” She turned in her seat to look past me. “And here she comes now.”

A sexily dressed Thai woman in her 20's strode quickly past the outside tables and purposefully up to the bar. The outline of her nipples appeared plain as day as they pushed into her canary yellow blouse, and her curvaceous legs made impossible demands on her short cream-colored skirt. I couldn’t be sure, but she seemed to be a kind of high class call girl. And her face lacked a certain softness -– the kind of face a Thai woman might have after spending years abroad; or years with men who have come from abroad.

As she approached, the blond stood up and held out her arms. The Thai woman walked into them and they held each other as lovers, kissing full on the lips. A lingering kiss, neither being in a hurry to break it off. I heard a few subdued exclamations around the bar. I gripped my beer bottle and tried not to feel like a horse’s ass. I pretended to take a sudden interest in the red, white and blue bars of the drooping Thai flag above the faded beer advertisements. The city’s notorious pollution had transformed the white of the bars into a deep gray.

I looked up at the tiny blinking lights of various colors draped about the bar and then down at the bar’s ailing dog tossing in its sleep. But two attractive young women passionately kissing one another was enough of a spectacle to turn a boisterous bar into a silent movie.

The blond released the woman and sat back on the stool. She reached up and took her companion’s hand. “I’m glad you got here early.” She glanced in my direction. “This middle-aged Romeo was hitting on me.”

The Thai woman made a face as if she’d smelled something slightly off. “I think Patpong girls are more his type.” She looked me over. “Kangaroo Bar would be perfect for him.”

I smiled. “The night market has screwed Patpong up. And the touts are too aggressive. I don’t go there much anymore.”

“Maybe you should.”

“And which bar will I find you working in?”

Her face became a malevolent mask. “I suggest you fuck off. Now.”

Two rules I had learned in Bangkok long before I left my CIA section at the American embassy: Never argue with a woman in love and especially never argue with a woman in love with a woman. I nodded and smiled pleasantly. “My mistake.” I made the long walk back to my stool and sat down. Conversations slowly resumed. I may have just imagined hearing chortles and chuckles at my expense.

Winny slapped me on the back. “Lek, get this middle-aged Romeo a beer. On me.”

The blond finished her drink, paid her bill and, holding hands with her significant other, walked off in the direction of Sukhumvith Road. I drained the bottle in front of me before speaking. “Am I going to tell you I told you so or am I going to resist telling you I told you so?”

“I think you are man enough to resist. Besides, that was a lovely pick-up line you used on her. Does it really work?”

“I tried it on my ex-wife the first time I saw her.”

“And it worked?”

“Only too well.”

Lek placed the beer down in front of me. Lek had opaque brown eyes, the same shade as fish sauce left a bit too long out in the steamy Thai climate during the hot season. But in the rays of the setting sun, her eyes appeared a murky, reddish brown, the exact hue of vinegared ground chili. Her skin was a coconut-husk brown and her nail color was the same odd pink as shrimp paste. Her blouse was a gingko-nut-soup yellow. Just looking at her made me hungry. Above her head, strings of tiny bar lights flickered on and off like aroused fireflies. “What mean, ‘Lomeo’?”

Winny reached out to gently stroke Lek’s delicate chin. “’Lomeo’, my incomparable Siamese beauty, is a man who is irresistible to women. All women want him.”

Lek brushed his hand away and laughed, revealing both her protruding upper teeth and her lovely dimples. “All girl want man with money; Scott no have money; he number ten Lomeo.” And with that she went back to share the joke with the other Thai women behind the bar.

I peeled back bits of gold paper from the mouth of the bottle and took a long hit on my beer. Now I had been ridiculed by women of East and West: a fine ending to a fine day.

We were nearing the end of the rainy season, but when the Thai flag began flapping about like a just-landed marlin and the sky directly overhead darkened I knew that in less than fifteen minutes the day’s downpour would begin. I could make it back to my apartment over the Boots and Saddle if I left now; or I could finish my beer and ride out the storm. Call me Storm-rider.

I swiveled my stool to watch bargirls on their way to work emerge from a samlor, and others sitting sidesaddle cling tightly to the back of motorcycle taxis, when something made me take a last look at the blond.

She and her friend were getting into another samlor. She turned back to me and favored me with a coquettish smile. No question about it: whether she was straight or a lesbian or a bisexual or an alien, she was gorgeous. I didn’t know then that I would soon see her again. And I had no way of knowing the danger that would involve me in.

 

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Chapter 2

Living above a Bangkok bar has its advantages. At least above a bar like the Boots and Saddle. For one thing it’s located off Sukhumvith Road at soi (lane) 22 and it isn’t the kind of Bangkok establishment frequented by tourists. Tourists seldom make it out that far. Unlike the bars of Bangkok’s infamous nightlife areas such as Patpong Road, Soi Cowboy and Nana Plaza, there are no go go dancers, no lesbian shows, no shower shows, no dildo shows, no bottle shows, no dart shows, and the music in the B&S is all Country Western. And if you don’t fancy Country Western you might be wise to keep that fact to yourself. Or you might just mosey over to one of the other bars around Washington Square: the Silver Dollar, The Texas Lone Staar, Wild Country, Cat’s Meow, Prince of Wales, Bourbon Street, Happy Pub, Crystal Bar and the New Square One.

There are young (and not so young) Thai women present in each of these establishments, and the Boots and Saddle has over a dozen of them on each of two shifts, working the bar, lounging about in booths, beating one another at darts or winning drinks from customers on one of the two pool tables at the back. And occasionally they score ladies’ drinks. Just don’t ask them to put on any shows for you unless you like to see women angry.

They wear normal outfits, usually blouse and skirt, but with the addition of a cowgirl hat and boots, supplied by the bar, and sit beside whoever buys them the drink, and more-or-less listen to oil riggers or ex-military types or ex-spooks with receding white hairlines and burgeoning beer bellies talk about the old days. And sometimes I buy them drinks and they listen to me. Of course they might just be staring at the various pictures of Country singers, cowboys in ten-gallon hats and scenes from the old West lining the walls, and wondering if they made a mistake by leaving the ricefields of northeastern Thailand to work in a Bangkok bar frequented by foreign men old enough to be their fathers.

The bar is one of the more spacious in the square, and besides the music, I like the incongruous combination of western décor and Traditional Thai symbols. A Buddhist wall shrine perched above a plaque describing the venerable Judge Roy Bean, colorful garlands hung from cattle horns, and a statue of nang kwat, a Thai maiden beckoning all to enter and spend money, had been fixed up in such a way that it now rode a small plastic horse.

By the time we made it to the bar, Winny and I were soaked. I decided to check the mail then get on upstairs and change. As always, the lighting was low almost to the point of depressing, and a good-old-boy on the CD was singing of how he lost his true love to a fast-talking, cattle-roping, Brahma-bull riding, rodeo cowboy. Rodeo cowboys not making much money these days, I would have thought true loves went to portly stock brokers with portly portfolios, but I was too wet to give it much thought.

While Winny went to deal with some problem in the kitchen, I stepped behind the bar and opened the leather sack marked “Pinkerton – Sante Fe Payroll” and checked the mail. My name was on the usual bills and typed incorrectly on various pleas to give generously to everything from orphanage children in Bangkok slums to down-and-out mahouts whose elephants were running out of bananas.

The one letter with no return address and a New York postmark I figured would be from my brother, Larry. A Manhattan cop, he seldom wrote and when he did it was usually just a few sentences on e-mail. I sat down, and quickly glanced over the letter. His note was just a brief summation relating to the affairs of our late father; affairs he had to continue taking care of because he was there and I was here. Dad had been a decorated detective and a legend at One Police Plaza known as Jimmy “The Tiger” Sterling. Larry, on the other hand, was stuck in License Division, and, from all appearances, might not be moving up and out any time soon.

But he included a newspaper clipping of my ex-wife marrying a high school classmate of mine who had become a partner in a stock brokerage house. I figured she got it right the second time around. And I figured I had it right about whom true loves go to.

Noy, the mamasan of the bar, stormed over to complain that I had screwed up the order of the mail again and had dripped water all over the bar receipts. Noy was somewhere in her late forties, and had managed to keep the face and figure of a much younger woman, possibly because she drank only when others were buying.

She had been married only once, to a 21-year-old American GI, an M-60 machine-gunner with the 17th Assault Helicopter Company. On her eighteenth birthday she received word that her husband had been aboard a Bell UH-1D “slick” which had been sent into a hot extraction of a LRRP team and slammed into a mountain somewhere in the A Shau Valley. Search teams hadn’t recovered enough to make use of a body bag but his dog tags had been recovered. Noy wore them around her neck along with her locket containing a faded color picture of the two of them together. Noy’s moods varied from playful to morose and over the years some of the girls had left because of clashes with her. A Vietnam vet himself, Winny kept her on long after another bar owner might have let her go.

When she finished complaining she asked if I wanted a beer. I put two fifty-baht bills on the counter, about US$2.50, and told her to buy herself a ladies drink and I’d be back later. In gratitude she placed her palms together and waiied me. Then she handed me my rent bill for the month. Noy was smart enough to know that if she’d given me the bill first, I might not have been in the mood to buy her a drink.

Howzitgoan?”

I turned to see one of the bar regulars perched on his usual barstool in an area of shadow. Five-minute Jack was an American from Delaware in his early 50’s with thinning brown hair, watery grey eyes, a pencil-thin mustache and nut-brown skin. He was thin almost to the point of emaciation. He sat facing sideways from the bar with one elbow propped on the counter. He wore a flowery Aloha shirt a few sizes too large for him, baggy blue shorts and below-the-knee length blue socks in open-toed sandals. As usual, a cigarette dangled from his small slash of a mouth (the Boots and Saddle blithely ignoring anti-smoking laws involving places serving food). One of his bony hands constantly stroked his glass of Mekhong whiskey as if someone might try to take it from him; the other roosted on his lap like a nervous Chihuahua. His cheekbones were high, his cheeks were gaunt and his attitude was that of a man for whom paranoia was a natural state. His thin, spindly legs were crossed and as he leaned forward his grey eyes roamed suspiciously about the bar from under dark, bushy eyebrows. Then they focused on me.

“Just collecting my bills, Jack, how you doin?”

He picked up his glass and used it to gesture toward the world said to exist outside the Boots and Saddle. “You know that guy sells the coconut pudding other end of the square? The fat guy with the cart?”

“Uh, yeah, I think I’ve-“

“Son-of-a-bitch switched from charcoal stove to gas stove.”

Jack’s almost permanent presence inside Washington Square bars gave rise to the saying that whatever bar you were in, if you would just wait five minutes, Jack would show up. Others said he was given the nickname because he had more than once chugged down one shot of Jack Daniels every five minutes for over an hour. Although generally lethargic, when riled, he had the stereotypical Irishman’s temper. Jack and I had never had a problem but dealing with a potentially abusive drunkard is actually hard work and I wasn’t in the mood. “That a fact?”

He ran his free hand over his chin stubble as if checking to ensure it was still there. “Yeah. That’s a fuckin’ fact! I love that coconut shit but it don’t taste the same without the charcoal.”

“Did you mention it to him?”

“Of course I fuckin’ mentioned it to him! All he did was smile!” He angrily tapped out another cigarette from his pack on the bar counter, flicked open a three-inch lighter flame and lit up. “Fuck Thais ever do when a farang says something to them except smile?”

I nodded. “Well, I gotta be somewhere else. Take care, Jack.”

“I wrote to Trink but all he cares about is bars and hookers.”

Bernard Trink’s “Night Owl” column appeared in the Bangkok Post every Friday and Five-minute Jack seemed to have it in for the columnist. Most likely because Trink never published anything Jack sent him. “Well, it is a nightlife column, Jack.”

“You sayin’ hookers don’t eat coconut pudding? They’re just whores so they’re not part of the equation, right?”

Jack was a master of the lonely drunkard’s technique of suckering someone into a discussion, by blandishment or accusation. I wasn’t biting. “Catch you later, Jack.”

He drained his glass and motioned to Noy for another. “This country is getting’ fucked up is what it is.”

The stairs to the apartments were reached by an outside door so I exited the bar and opened the door to upstairs. As I did, one of the bargirls who lived in a room near mine was coming down. Her flopping sandals created a faint and slightly sinister echo. The wrinkles in her tired face seemed even deeper in the semi-darkness. Her crimson lipstick matched her tight skirt. She smiled lasciviously and said, “So-cott! I come see you soon. You like?” As she spoke, a strong scent of some incredibly spicy, malodorous salad – the type favored by girls from northeast Thailand -- enveloped me. I smiled and assured her that I would greatly look forward to her visit as soon as I returned from an indefinite stay in Cambodia. She laughed, slapped my shoulder, and continued on.

Her offer to pay me a visit had become a kind of in-joke between us. Several of the bar girls lived in the rooms above the bars and thus far I had been bright enough not to begin anything I couldn’t easily end.

As usual, the stairs were lined with and partly blocked by beer cases full of empties, scrub buckets and brooms, large plastic water jugs, shoes and sandals belonging to women who worked in the bar, and an overlooked bra or two a maid or bargirl had dropped from her laundry. A narrow, dark hallway off the second floor landing led to a small, ill-ventilated kitchen and beyond that to Winny’s windowless bedroom. I climbed the stairs to the top floor, jiggled the key in the lock and entered the apartment, the only apartment at roof-level, and the only one which had Winny’s raucous macaws and mynah birds as neighbors.

I listened to the message machine while relieving myself of much of the beer I had unwisely consumed. “Hi, Scott, George here. Expecting you at the Halloween party. Don’t forget! Most people are bringing bottles but if you bring Winny you don’t have to bring a bottle. About eight. Ciao!”

Halloween was actually still several days off, and I’d forgotten about the party, so it was good that I didn’t have to bring a bottle. George was one of the Washington Square regulars who hung out in the Boots and Saddle. He also owned Len’s Diving shops in Bangkok and Pattaya Beach where I freelanced my services, teaching students to dive.

He was somewhere in his early 50’s although he looked older. He had turned prematurely bald long ago, his large and somewhat bulbous nose was reddening, his belly was thickening. He had a small mouth, large, projecting ears and no one he wasn’t buying drinks for would ever describe him as handsome.

George had failed at a lot of things in life except the important one of having had very successful, very loving parents. He’d apparently been left a lot of money by his real estate father and he’d married into a prominent Chinese-Thai family down on its luck.

According to George, the family had a long and prestigious pedigree but had lost a fortune in Bangkok’s economic crash and was using its beautiful daughters to recoup as best it could. One of the daughters had become a mia noi (minor wife) of a politician and it was an open secret that at least two of the other daughters were available for an evening’s entertainment at a gentlemen’s club to anyone well-heeled enough to afford them. Or, as George liked to say, they “sold the family ass to save the family face.” They apparently lost still more face by allowing a foreign-devil to marry one of their daughters but at least managed to stay afloat with the money George had paid for the privilege of doing so.

The only thing that puzzled me was why George was inviting me at all, let alone calling to make sure I’d be there. Although a friend of Winny’s, and the owner of a dive shop which threw some business my way, for various reasons, George was not one of my favorite people, and we were not exactly drinking companions.

His apartment was in a relatively quiet and clean section of Bangkok off Wireless Road. But at least three times a week, he’d be ensconced inside the Boots and Saddle debating or commiserating with Winny, on everything from Vietnam War tactics to the sad demise of the pasin, the Thai-style sarong, which was rapidly going the way of the Chinese cheongsam. Whenever someone teased George about what his Chinese-Thai wife thought about his nights away from her, he’d laugh and say he’d bought his freedom just like a slave. According to him he’d showered her with enough gold chains so she didn’t need to keep him on a chain as well. George also bought the girls lots of ladies drinks. As Winny liked to say, “I don’t need a bar full of customers; just give me one free spender.” George filled the bill perfectly.

I showered, shaved, put on a clean pair of slacks and short sleeve shirt and went back downstairs. This time I passed nobody except Maew, one of the cats that made their home on the series of rubbish-strewn landings outside. Maew used to rub against my leg, look up at me expectantly and give me a cute meow. When she got nothing substantial in return, she stopped. Maew knew how the game was played as well as the girls in the bars.

The rain had lessened to nothing more than a fine drizzle which was good because the only umbrella I had was in a Thai lady’s apartment across town. Winny had wandered off to the Silver Dollar for a quick Singha, then to the Prince of Wales for another quick Singha, and by the time I had found which bar he was in he was in the middle of a pool game. So I ordered a quick one while watching him lose to one of the bargirls and he ordered another quick one while waiting for me to finish my quick one and a ladies drink for the girl because she had beaten him and in gratitude she bought us both beers. To make a long story short, we arrived at the party late. And none too sober.

Click here for Chapters 3 and 4

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