Read an Excerpt
August 1968—The Prologue
You know? Being shut up in a cage with a live bear was a piece of cake compared to being drunk and high in charge of half-amillion dollars’ worth of flying metal. The full moon beckoned,
hanging there like an ivory wok in a vast steel-gray sky. It spread the landscape with an eerie monochrome like daytime to a dog.
Medium-gray jungle against dark-gray mountains. Patches of charcoal and slivers of silver off the rivers. Boyd could make out every leaf, every rock, as clear as creation day. He was a god. Oh, yeah.
A deity on a mission. The almighty protagonist in the movies they made before they could afford colour: starring Boyd Bowry in his never-ending quest for . . . cheese.
“Cheese, little buddy,” he’d told Marcos. “I’ll bring you back a hunk of moon cheese. They let you scoop it right out. You want fries or something with it?”
“Man, you shouldn’t leave me here with that,” was all Marcos could come back with. Boyd remembered being at the door of the cage then. He’d stopped, looked back at the bear: drunk,
snoring, farting, head in her feed trough.
“She’ll be cool, man. Fix her a cup of coffee in the morning.
Tell her it was great. Leave your phone number.”
Marcos had done one of those non-military salutes. That’s why that finger’s so long, you know? Gets all the exercise. That was . . .
what? An hour ago? Half an hour? Time lost all its credibility at ten thousand feet with no colour in the world. Someone oughta write a PhD about that. The relationship between . . . between hue and chronology. The colour of minutes. He’d heard Marcos yelling some Filipino double Dutch at him as he walked away. The little guy was mad. Smiled a lot, but. . . .
No, wait. Marcos? That’s not right. Marcos is the goddamned president. The guy’s about to be eaten by a bear. The least I can do is remember his name. I’ve known him for. . . .
OK, don’t be distracted now.
Ignition and all that instrumental hoo-ha had been instinctive and that was just as well ’cause he couldn’t recall doing any of it.
He’d cranked her up, left the ground, and here he was heading off to the heavenly moon deli service. A Sikorsky was a hell of a lot safer than a Chevy in so many respects. Never drove a Sikorsky into a fire hydrant, for one. And if you did, the cops would never catch up with you, for two. And, what else? A Chevy never surfed moon rays like a Sikorsky H34.
What a trip. What a goddamned trip. Just hanging in the gray,
looking at the moon. It was cosmic. What happened to nights like this? What happened to love and harmony, man? No peace and quiet for those monkeys down there in the trees. For those big lizards on the rocks. “Sorry guys.” At least he didn’t have to listen to his own engine growl. He had his headphones connected direct to the cassette player. The Who: Brits, but complex, man. Percussion like the punch of anti-aircraft flak.
And even though the music went straight into his brain and deadended there, he got it into his head that the words were being broadcast all over Nam to the east and Thailand in the west and some karmic interpretation service was sending the message to farmers in their bamboo beds. He shouted over the music, “You were deceived, brothers, but you can see what we’ve done, right?
You’ve got the magic eyes? You know we’ll get ours in some other life. You’ve got that damned right. What do we know?”
And that was when it happened; the actual date and time when the sky fell on Chicken Little. There was a thump first, then an odd lack of vibration. One second the scenery was holding him up, the next a trapdoor opened in the universe and he fell through it. Gravity. What a concept! The fuel light was flashing like
Christmas. There were “procedures.” He could probably send out a mayday. That was on the list. But who in their right mind would be up at 2:00 A.M. waiting for some dopehead on a magical mystery tour to call in? And timing, man. He was in fourteen thousand pounds of metal heading down to earth with twenty canisters of volatile substance on board. Some rescue that would be. He disengaged the rotors, waited for stability, unclamped his belt and rose from his seat. He smiled at the briefcase sitting in the copilot’s seat but he didn’t have time to take it with him. He had barely thirty seconds of the rest of his life to look forward to. To sort it all out.
“Use your time wisely, man.”
Who should he think of? Who to pledge his love to? Who to hate? No, that last one was easy. That son-of-a-bitch was one day away from getting his. And now, look at this. Goddamn it. A oneway express ticket to some big old Boyd barbecue. All in the timing.
He worked his way down the crawl space to the cabin and staggered around in there. He’d seen men die in all kinds of ways. He knew what St. Peter’s first question would be.
“How did you go down, son? Were you calm about it? We don’t want no screaming girl scouts up here, boy.”
So Boyd opted for cool. When you’re cool, death doesn’t seem that final.
There was a village and all were asleep save two. They saw the chopper come down, not like a rock, not plumb straight, more the way a slab of slate might slice through water. They both saw the wheel hit the tree tops then a spark and the big bird exploded—
spewed out a whole galaxy. One of the insomniacs smiled and clapped his hands but he could never tell anyone what he’d seen.
The other was so shocked she fell out of a tree, hit her head on the way down and knocked herself blind. But the last image that projected itself in her mind was as certain as the earth. She’d seen it. A dragon had collided with the moon. It had burst into a million shards and the pieces cascaded across the jungle and there would never be lightness again at night.
Another Fine Mess
Dr. Siri and Madame Daeng sat on the edge of the smelly bed and looked at the body hanging from the door handle opposite.
They were a couple not renowned for silence but this one lent itself most splendidly to speechlessness. They took in the too-red lipstick and the too-tight underwear. They breathed the whiskey fumes and the scent of vomit diluted with disinfectant. They’d both seen their share of death, perhaps more than a fair share.
But neither had experienced anything like this.
“Well,” said Daeng at last, uncomfortable in the early morning quiet. The foggy mist rolled in through the window and rasped the inside of her throat.
“Well, indeed,” agreed her husband.
“This is another fine mess you’ve gotten us into, Dr. Siri.”
“Me? I didn’t do it.”
“No. Not it exactly. It you didn’t do, I grant you. But the consequences that led to it. They’ve got your fingerprints all over them.”
“Madam, judging from the evidence in front of us, I’d say this would have occurred whether we were here or not. And it didn’t even have to have happened here. This was a tragedy begging to be let out of the bag.”
“Again, you’re right. But if you hadn’t volunteered yourself,
volunteered us all, we’d be at home now beside the Mekhong eating noodles in relative peace. We wouldn’t be in this room with this particular body, about to be embroiled in an international scandal. This would be someone else’s problem. Someone in good health capable of handling it. But oh no. One last adventure before
I retire, you say. What can go wrong? you say. Everything’s perfectly safe, you say. And look at us now. Five weeks ago we were perfectly content and now we’re up to our necks in dung.”
“Come on, Daeng. Be fair. What could I have done to avoid it?”
“What could you have done?”
‘Torn up the note.”
Five Weeks Earlier
It was true, just five weeks before, things had been normal. Well,
normal for Vientiane. But first there was the haunting, then the note, then the Americans. And somewhere between the three life had become complicated again. That was Laos in the late seventies though, wasn’t it? What can you say? The place had always been mysterious, always been a victim of its politics and its confused beliefs and its weather. While the north ex perienced a premature dry season, the southern provinces were being flooded by Typhoon
Joe. Worst hit was Champasak, the show province where almost half the country’s farming cooperatives had been established. All of them had been rained into submission and, once again, the locals were convinced that Lady Kosob, the goddess of the rice harvests, was displeased with government policy. The collectives program was doomed. This came as a blow to the ministry of agriculture who’d nationalized all the old royalist estates in preparation for this great socialist plan.
If the weather wasn’t bad enough, the country’s close proximity to Kampuchea, once a cultural and commercial partnership,
had become a liability. Refugees fleeing the Khmer Rouge were flooding into Thailand and southern Laos. The Lao government had issued twenty official statements denying KR claims that they were allowing Vietnamese troops to cross Lao territory. They absolutely weren’t amassing at the border in preparation for an invasion, which, of course, they were. But as there were still no actual laws, the Politburo could logically argue that they weren’t breaking any. The forty-six-member Supreme Council had been working on a national constitution for eight years and had barely made it beyond the design of the front cover. This general disorder,
plus the fact that money was harder to come by than a cold beer,
resulted in an estimated 150 citizens crossing the river to Thailand every day—120 successfully. An editorial in Pasason Lao newssheet informed the 40 per cent of the country who could read and the 2 per cent of those who could be bothered, that the
People’s Democratic Republic of Laos had never had it so good.
During the month of July in 1978, people did the morgue at
Mahosot Hospital a great favor by not dying mysteriously. They merely passed away as people do and no questions were asked.
No motives sought. It was almost as if they sensed that Dr. Siri
Paiboun, the country’s only coroner, was reaching the end of his unasked-for tenure and they didn’t care to trouble him. The good doctor had been putting in his notice every month since the Party first manhandled him into the job three years earlier. His boss,
Judge Haeng, little in so many ways, had ignored the requests. “A
good communist,” the man had said, “does not let go of the plough halfway across the paddy and leave the buffalo to find its own direction. He eats with her, tends to her injuries, and sleeps with her until the job is done.” Siri had resisted the temptation to spread the word that the Party was advocating bestiality. He’d known his time would come. But when it did, he’d been only a heartbeat away from occupying his own slab. He’d met the departing spirits eyeball to eyeball, and they were waiting for him.
After the horrific events of May that year, he was still deaf in one ear and could barely feel his right hand. His few hours of sleep were plagued with nightmares. Everyone agreed that after his runin with the Khmer Rouge, Dr. Siri had earned his retirement.
If he could stay out of trouble, Siri had under two months left on the job. Then, the leisurely life he’d dreamed of through decade after decade in the jungles of Vietnam and northern
Laos would be his; coffee mornings overlooking the Mekhong,
leisurely noodle lunches at his wife Daeng’s shop, long evenings of talking rice whiskey nonsense with ex-Politburo man Civilai,
and nights stretched out against a triangular pillow in his illicit backroom library reading French literature and philosophy.
Dallying through to the early morning with comrades Sartre and Hugo and Voltaire. Really. All he had to do was stay out of trouble. For anyone else this might not have been much to ask.
But this was no simple man. This was Dr. Siri Paiboun: seventyfour years of age, forty-eight years an unconvincing member of the Communist Party, host to a thousand-year-old Hmong shaman spirit, culturally tainted beyond redemption by ten years in Paris. Emotionally numbed to the horrors of injury and death by years of battlefront surgery, Dr. Siri felt he had earned himself the right to be an ornery old geezer. And, no. Staying out of trouble for two months was no easy task for such a complicated man.
He’d had just the one case since his retirement notice was accepted. Compared to some of his adventures, it was barely worth mentioning as a case at all. The children at Thong Pong middle school had become unhinged. A number of them had started to vibrate uncontrollably and speak in languages none of them knew.
The local medical intern had seen nothing like it and requested assistance from the Ministry of Health. Stories in Vientiane spread like atomic bomb fallout and word very quickly found its way to the morgue where Dr. Siri and his staff had been sitting lifeless for several weeks. Almost immediately, Siri had set off to visit the school on his Triumph motorcycle with his faithful nurse Dtui and lab assistant Geung squashed together behind him. As religion and superstition had no place in the new regime, nobody voiced what everyone suspected: that the school was haunted.
Both doctor and nurse feigned indifference when they arrived,
even though both were keen to discover a supernatural source for the peculiar epidemic. Dtui was one of only a half-dozen people who knew of Siri’s dalliance with the beyond and she had no doubt in her mind that there was a malevolent ghost at play in the school.
According to the head teacher, every day after morning assembly,
up to forty children would become zombie-like, ranting and drooling and shaking without control. At first she’d considered that this was merely a student prank to get out of studying Marxist-
Leninist theory during the first period. A number of other ruses had been uncovered by the embedded political spies from the youth league. But this was too elaborate. Some of the children had even begun to utter obscenities in voices that, without question,
did not belong to twelve- and thirteen-year-old children. To
Siri it sounded very much like some mass shamanic hysteria. For some reason, the pliable minds of the children were being hijacked by wayward spirits. But there had to be some unseen intermediary to channel the demons.
“Tell me,” he said to the head teacher. “What normally happens during your morning assembly?”
“The usual ceremony, Doctor,” she replied. “The children line up in their grades, I make announcements, the flag is raised and the school band plays the new national anthem.”
The new socialist national anthem, coincidentally, had the same tune as the old royalist national anthem. Only the words were different. Although badly metered and slightly misleading, as far as Siri could ascertain there was nothing inherently evil hidden in the new lyrics. So he asked to look at the musical instruments.
The head teacher unlocked the music department footlocker and it was there that Siri found the culprit. He pulled out the exorcism tambourine with its tassels and bottle cap rattles and smiled at Nurse Dtui.
“Do you know what this is?” he asked the principal.
“A tambourine?” she guessed.
“A shamanic tambourine, Comrade, used in séances,” he said.
“And fully loaded, I’d say. Any idea how it fell into your possession?”
“Someone from the regional education office brought it,” she recalled. “Said it had been confiscated from some royalist. Why?”
“I’d wager this is what’s been causing the hysteria,” he told her.
“But . . . but it’s just a musical instrument,” she protested.
Siri smiled at the Mao-shirted woman. She was a cadre from the northeast with a black and white upbringing and no tolerance for dimensions beyond the usual three. And so it was that in both Siri’s report and that of the head teacher, the problem had been attributed to tainted sweets sold by a rogue vendor outside the school gates. Yet, once the tambourine had been removed there was no repeat of the insanity.
The instrument now sat on Siri’s desk at the morgue and he flicked the little bells from time to time just for the hell of it.
Nurse Dtui and Mr. Geung would look up from their unimportant tasks and sigh. Siri would apologize then ring it again. His only other annoying habit had been pulled out from under him.
Dtui had removed the clock from over their office door because the doctor had begun to count down the minutes to his retirement in reverse order.
“Only seventy thousand five hundred and forty-five minutes to go,” he’d sing. Dtui knew that the effects of this after a day or two would have driven them all into the same moronic stupor as the pupils at Thong Hong. So she’d come in early one day and had the hospital handyman take down the clock. She’d told Siri it was off being serviced. As she never lied, he didn’t question her.
At her desk, Nurse Dtui had her Thai fanzine open in front of her. To anyone walking unexpectedly into the office it would appear she was merely fantasizing her size fourteen frame into a size seven swimsuit as worn by the Bangkok television starlets on photo shoots. But hidden between the pages of her magazine were her Med. 1 Gynaecology notes in Russian. Despite a sudden unexpected pregnancy and the arrival of Malee, now five months old, Dtui had yet to give up her hopes of studying in the Soviet bloc. Unsolicited initiative was considered by the hospital administration to be a suspicious characteristic, a sign that you were not satisfied with your role in the new republic.
So she studied surreptitiously. Even though she had no intention of abandoning her baby or her husband and running off to Moscow, she continued to prepare herself for that far-off day when she might take over the morgue. When times were hard,
it always helped to have a dream. And times in Vientiane were certainly hard.
But not for some, it seemed. In the corner of the office, behind a desk and a chair he rarely used, Mr. Geung stood rocking gently back and forth in a blissful Down’s syndrome trance. His condition had one of two effects on onlookers. Some were appalled that a moron should be allowed to work at a hospital. Others, like his many fans around Mahosot, were envious of the apparent lack of complication in his life. Devoted to his work. Loyal to a fault. Friendly and honest. Mr. Geung seemed perfectly happy with a no-frills, budget lifestyle. But they all wondered what was going on in his head. How could a middle-aged man with such a terrible affliction seem so at peace? And recently his serenity had risen to a cloud way beyond that elusive number nine. Only Siri and Dtui knew the reason for the elevation. Although Mr. Geung himself was not letting on, his morgue mates could tell. It was romance. Birds did it. Bees did it.
And, clearly, Mr. Geung did it too.
Others might have interpreted the marks on their friend’s neck as an allergic reaction to the washing powder in his shirt collar.
But Siri and Dtui worked in the morgue. They knew teeth marks when they saw them. They didn’t exactly condone the practice.
“One step away from vampirism,” Siri had called it. But neither begrudged Mr. Geung his first taste of romance, albeit in bitten form. Tukda’s arrival at the staff canteen had at first enraged
“She’s Down . . . Down’s syndrome,” he’d said, with the same condescending tone he’d heard all his life. “Sh . . . she shouldn’t be working here.”
But there was no mistaking the fact that Comrade Tukda was a pretty young lady and sweet natured. None of Mr. Geung’s protestations persuaded his coworkers that he didn’t find her attractive. And Geung and Tukda, through those mysterious corridors and hidden passageways of the syndrome, found each other.
What they did and where and how and if, nobody knew. Only the washing powder allergy on Geung’s neck, and the sappy grins when they mentioned her name, gave anything away. He answered no questions on the subject. Denied all accusations. It was his . . . their secret. But there was no doubting the fact that Mr. Geung was a very happy man.
And this was how the members of the morgue team filled their days. Siri counting minutes. Dtui conjugating. Geung rocking.
Then, all of a sudden, on one hot July morning, a note arrived.
That such a flimsy slip of paper could have the effect it did would have been hard to imagine.